Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Feeling Small


Used to be the lawn didn’t grow much in August, but this year is different. There’s so much water in the ground that it still needs mowing every week. The field below it has to be mowed once a year and that requires an industrial-strength mower called a bush hog. Last week, I rented one that you sometimes see advertised on TV. It’s a walk-behind unit, not the kind that is attached to the back of a farm tractor. It’s self-propelled, sort of, but it doesn’t have a steering wheel. Turning the thing around at the end of a pass again and again requires more strength and endurance than is left in my 55-year-old body. It’s a two-acre field on the side of Christian Hill and it’s too steep to go side to side, so I had to walk up and down a hundred times behind the machine and hold on to it as it climbed over and chopped up various plants which had grown as tall as I am. Even with numerous breaks to catch my breath, it took a month off the end of my life to finish.

It’s the field’s second incarnation. A farmer named McDaniels created it a century and a half ago. He cleared it and rolled stones down the hill into a wall. Some were too big, so he drilled and split them into smaller, irregularly-shaped pieces that he maneuvered into place on the wall. He must have run out of energy too because he left two big rocks only partially split. Then he planted apple trees. I don’t know how long he worked the apple orchard but eventually he or someone else abandoned it to the forest. By the time I purchased the property it was all woods again. Among the oaks, ashes maples, and birches a few skeletons of long-dead apple trees remained between the stone walls. It took me about a decade to clear it again, cutting trees and burning brush. Many times I sat on one of the walls McDaniels made and wiped sweat from my face as I looked over my work. I imagined that he must have sat there and done the same generations ago. Eventually I hired someone to stump it with an excavator and replant it into a field.

As it would have for McDaniels, the field provides me a marvelous view to the west and I never tire of watching sunsets over Kearsarge in the spring and Baldface in the summer. On clear days, I can see smoke from the cog railway on Mount Washington. Having trekked up and down those mountains I know how massive they are, but when I’m over there and looking back east toward my property on Christian Hill, I can barely make out the hill, much less my field or my house. It helps me realize that my years of hard work are nearly invisible in the grand scheme of things. The hills and mountains are hundreds of millions of years old and my time on them is not much more than the brief, dim glow from a firefly’s butt. Humility is a good thing and I have much to be humble about. If I should forget, someone or something will usually remind me. It might be my wife. It might be a letter to the editor.

All that remained of McDaniels’ work were a few stone walls hidden by woods. I cleared the trees just as he did and constructed a few smaller walls with the help of a friend. Hopefully, they’ll last as long as his. McDaniels also carved his initials on a granite boundary marker nearby. On the other side of Christian Hill, there may someday be a stone with my name engraved in the Number Four Cemetery and somebody else will probably mow around it, for a while anyway.

Though I can see a long way toward large mountains in New Hampshire, I remind myself that what appears a panorama to me is but a tiny sliver of earth’s surface and earth is a tiny speck in the universe. When George Bailey had similarly insignificant feelings about his place and time here in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an angel visited to convince him otherwise. I haven’t seen any angels lately and I’m mostly glad I have so little influence on events around me. If it were otherwise, I’d have to take more responsibility for what happens on this planet.

Matthew’s gospel says God knows when a sparrow falls. I’m also aware that He created the hawk and house cat which can hasten the sparrow’s demise. The passage goes on to say that God counts the hairs on my head. It’s also true that He’s making His job easier lately by expanding my bald spot.

Then there’s my philosopher friend, Kevin, who tells me: “Always remember Tom, that you’re unique - just like everyone else.”

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Confused and Divided

This is a confusing war. Few of us are sure who or what we’re fighting. Are we at war with terror? Terror is a thing - an extreme fear - and that’s what our leaders say we’re fighting. I suppose we humans are always fighting fear of one kind or another, but an organized war against a thing? Our Constitution says Congress has sole power to declare war and the president sole power to carry it out as commander-in-chief. Did Congress declare war on a thing?

Maybe some Americans believe we’re fighting a thing but I doubt it. If they think about it, they must consider who is using terror against us. We’re divided according to how we answer three essential questions: Who are the terrorists? Why are they attacking us? How should we respond?

First, who is attacking us? Some say it’s al Qaida because they’re the only ones who attacked us on September 11th. Others say it’s not just them but other Arab Muslim terrorist organizations as well such as Hezbollah, who have killed hundreds of Americans and were most recently at war with Israel. Still others say it’s not just Arab Muslim terrorists, but all Muslim terrorists including Iranians (who are not Arab but Persian), Indonesians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and several other kinds of Muslims as well. The only commonality is that they’re all Muslims, which means that they’re all followers of Islam. These Americans believe we’re fighting a newly-resurgent form of Radical Islam followed by many Muslims from all ethnic groups. Not all Muslims are terrorists, they say, but all terrorists are Muslims.

Secondly, why are they attacking us? Some Americans think it’s because we deserve it. Former University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill commented on September 11th, saying: “Why did it take Arabs to do what we here should have done a long time ago?” He called September 11th victims “little Eichmans,” as if were they who want to kill Jews and not the Muslims who attacked us - who compare Jews to dogs and pigs. Other professors said similarly outrageous things and were defended by still other professors who claimed they were not traitors, but only exercising academic freedom.

Other Americans think we didn’t deserve September 11th, but think we oppress Muslims, steal their oil, support Israel, and all this angers them enough to attack us. They think America is controlled by big corporations who steal natural resources from third-world nations everywhere and the world hates us for it.

Other Americans were shocked by the 9-11 attack and have been trying since to figure out why Muslims hate us, but they aren’t sure yet.

Still others think Radical Muslims hate us and want to kill us because we’re not Muslims, because we don’t want to convert to Islam, and because we’re their biggest obstacle to taking over the world and making it Muslim. After the conquest, they think, ruling caliphs would impose Islamic law called Sharia, make men grow beards, make women wear burkhas, then kill fornicators and homosexuals. They think we’re evil, the Great Satan.

Finally, how should we respond? Those who think we deserved to be attacked suggest that we cooperate in our own demise. They’d like to see America as we know it collapse. Others who think we didn’t deserve such a harsh attack believe a measured response is warranted, and we should have limited our counterattack to Afghanistan. They see the Iraq war as going too far and making Muslims even more angry at us. They think we should put it all behind us now, pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan and move on.

Others of us think we’re not going far enough - that our limited war and measured responses give our enemies the impression that we’re not willing to do whatever it takes to win - that this strategy encourages our enemies who will hold out against us for now, then step up their attacks as our resolve weakens. These Americans think we should go all out - destroy Radical Islam by hunting down and killing terrorists while taking out the governments of any countries that supports terrorists, such as Syria and Iraq. They believe in the Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes even though Bush himself seems to have abandoned it. Many have relatives on the front lines and display yellow ribbons on their vehicles.

Fewer than half of eligible Americans will actually vote in ten weeks. Meanwhile, senators and congressmen travel around their districts appealing to as many groups as possible. As Senator Lieberman discovered, this war, however we understand it, is issue number one. Most of us will still be confused about it after the election - unless we’re attacked again. That would focus our minds.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

News Control is Mind Control

There are parallels between the Vietnam War and our war with Islamofascists today, but not the ones our mainstream media look for. The first is media’s willingness to be manipulated by our enemies. The other is the fallacy of fighting a limited, prolonged conflict. When we don’t go all out, we’re at the mercy of the pampered, blame-America-first types who dominated our press corps then, as now, and who report only quagmire from their hotel rooms.

Teaching Vietnam as part of my 20th century US History course, I use PBS’s “Vietnam: A Television History,” a ten-hour series produced by Stanley Karnow in 1983. Karnow interviewed Viet Cong veterans after the war who boasted about setting mines and booby traps around villages, about shooting at US soldiers from civilian homes, then escaping through tunnels into surrounding jungle. They considered themselves heroes for hiding behind civilians and then sneaking away to let villagers suffer the retaliation they deserved. Karnow played television footage of burning villages and peasant wailing, the footage Americans back home watched almost every night on the evening news.

Reports from the Middle East today are similar. Al Qaida terrorists use Iraqi and Afghan homes and villages as bases to attack American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, then hide out in populated areas. American viewers see wrecked homes and women and children crying. Hezbollah terrorists shoot rockets into Israel from civilian homes in Lebanon, then let civilians suffer retaliation. Our media films the suffering while ignoring the cowardly tactics causing it. Reuters uses doctored photographs exaggerating civilian damage and deaths until US bloggers expose them. Vietnam is a blueprint for media coverage in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Lebanon: Exaggerate whatever suggests quagmire and ignore what may indicate progress.

After an all-out attack on American bases during the Tet “truce” in 1968, the Viet Cong and NVA were soundly defeated. Their defeat, however, was portrayed as a victory by our media. An account in Wikipedia describes it well: “Following [CBS anchor Walter] Cronkite’s editorial report during the Tet Offensive that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.’ Soon after Cronkite’s report, Johnson dropped out of the 1968 presidential race.”

When Vietnamese village leaders resisted communism, the Viet Cong tied them up and cut off their heads in front of villagers. Radical Islamic terrorists kidnap Americans and Iraqis who cooperate with the US-backed government and behead them on videotape for internet broadcast. American reporter Daniel Pearl got his head cut off because he was Jewish and wrote for the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Mainstream media is unscathed so far. CNN voluntarily censored its broadcasts from Iraq under Saddam so they could remain in Baghdad. Walter Cronkite’s CBS successor Dan Rather fawningly interviewed Saddam Hussein. CBS’s allegedly tough journalist Mike Wallace obsequiously interviewed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Earlier this week, however, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped a reporter and a cameraman for conservative Fox News. Will they be decapitated too?

How many times have American TV cameras filmed Muslims burning American flags and stomping on them? Dozens? Hundreds? Are they staged for the cameras? Why are the signs in English? The role media played in Vietnam is well understood by Radical Muslim terrorists today. They know their enemy but we don’t know ours. They play our media like a fiddle.

News control is mind control. It’s power. Whoever wields it decides what people see or don’t see, what they hear or don’t hear - what they think. In a democracy, people vote accordingly. Perception is reality and media controls perception in war. Limited, protracted wars like those in Vietnam and the Middle East are most vulnerable to media influence. If we’re going to fight, go all out or don’t go at all.

Former students who became soldiers are appalled by mainstream media coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. “All they show are the negatives. They ignore good things we do,” is a typical comment. By “mainstream media,” I mean the big-city broadsheets like the New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. I also mean the “Alphabet Networks” like ABC, CBS and NBC as well as newsmagazines such as Time and Newsweek. Although their power is diminishing with competition from talk radio, weblogs and cable news like Fox, the mainstream media still have control over what most Americans know.

MSM journalists believe they were responsible for US forces leaving Vietnam and they’re right. However, they don’t believe they’re responsible for the consequences - millions of Vietnamese boat people and millions of dead Cambodians in the killing fields. If history is any guide, MSM coverage of today’s war may result in the premature pullout of American forces from the Middle East just as it did in Vietnam. Consequences for that will be more September 11s - or worse. The Viet Cong didn’t follow us home. Islamofascists will. They’re already here.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Backcountry History


People don’t like to see ATVs coming. The very first time I climbed onto one - my brother’s - an angry land owner waved me down before I’d gone a mile. His wife and daughter came out too and explained how 4-wheelers had raced by his house and trespassed on his property. After he recognized me as the guy in the newspaper who likes to explore old roads, cellar holes and cemeteries, he let me through, but I learned that ATV riders before me had given the machines a bad reputation.

Last spring I bought my own 4-wheeler and I’ve explored much more country than I ever could on foot or in my truck. I’m discovering a lot of old roads, cemeteries, neighborhoods, mines and gravel pits. This probably doesn’t sound like fun for most people, but I’m a history geek and this is how I get my jollies when I’m not teaching.

Before venturing into an area, I study maps, starting with the most recent - usually the DeLorme Street Atlas. From that, I go to USGS (United States Geological Survey) maps, which are the most detailed. These can be purchased from the State of Maine for $5 per quadrangle. Some are updated within the past ten years and others - like the one for my own town of Lovell - go back to 1962. They depict topographic features like elevation, swamps, ponds and lakes, but also fields, woods, orchards, and even buildings. The University of New Hampshire has historic USGS maps available online from the early 20th century for all of New England and New York state. Most towns are depicted in the 1940s and some in the first decade of the 20th century. From Saco Valley Printing in Fryeburg, I’ve purchased mid-19th century maps of every town in Maine and New Hampshire arranged by county. Most recently, I purchased maps of the towns within a 30-mile radius from the Oxford County Atlas of 1880. All these early maps show family surnames of people who lived in every area of town, as well as churches, schoolhouses, saw mills, grist mills, fulling mills, stave mills and cemeteries. From these, I can determine what areas of a given town were once settled and are now abandoned. Studying a succession of USGS maps I can determine when the old settlements were reforested after the descendants of early settlers stopped farming them and moved westward after the Civil War.

Most of the old roads still exist as rugged trails and, if they’re not closed off by the present owners, I can explore them. Some have wires across and others are barred by elaborate gates. Many will have “keep out” signs specifically aimed at 4-wheelers. They let in snowmobilers, but not ATVs and I guess that’s because so many inconsiderate riders have dug up the ground by spinning tires or other reckless behavior. I’ll see a lot of this in gravel pits which interest me because I like to examine layers of sand, clay, gravel and stones deposited by glaciers from 10,000 to 1.5 million years ago. During that time span glaciers came and went at least four times. Maps of glacial activity are available from The Maine Geological Survey in Augusta and I’ve purchased several (called “Surficial Geology” maps) for only $5 apiece. Conveniently, they correspond to USGS quadrangle maps. More detailed geological descriptions are available on each quadrangle for an additional $5. Going back even further in history is a bedrock geology map of the whole state depicting what kinds of rocks and fault lines underlie the glacial sediment we all walk on. Bedrock is exposed in several places like cliff faces, hill tops, mines and road cuts. When I pull over and study these, I’m looking hundreds of millions of years into the past when Maine was attached to northwest Africa - long before there were any humans on earth.

Last weekend, I spent an entire day exploring in Greenwood, Maine. The western half of the town is bisected north to south by an abandoned road that is open to ATVs. There are numerous mines to see as well as settlements. Few parts of west Greenwood ever had electricity and there are very few buildings left standing - mostly hunting camps and a scattering of original homes now used seasonally. I found cemeteries miles from any paved roads and containing veterans of the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. These guys cut roads into steep hillsides, built homes and barns with elaborate foundations, cleared land, and died. Their descendants buried them and then moved on to do similar things in America’s west.

Lately I’m realizing that even with my new 4-wheeler, I won’t likely have time to explore all the abandoned places in just my part of Maine before I’m buried under one of those stones myself, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

It's Our War Too

On a tour of Israel in May of 2000, my wife called me from the northern city of Tiberias. Minutes before, I watched reports on the “Newshour” of Hezbollah rocket attacks and I asked her if she’d seen anything. “No,” she said, “but I can hear explosions in the distance.” We have reservations for another trip in October but it’s been postponed to May - too many rockets hitting along the itinerary.

Cowardly Hezbollah terrorists hide rocket launchers among civilians. They don’t wear uniforms and blend into the civilian population as Israel counterattacks. When Israel was attacked openly, it finished off invading armies in short order. In 1967 it took six days. Muslim Arab countries staged four open attacks on Israel - 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. Each time, their forces were annihilated by tiny Israel. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Yemen - various combinations of which attacked in each of the four wars - were humiliated. After the fourth consecutive rout they learned Israel would not be defeated in open combat, so they resorted to terrorism and economic blackmail.

Following the 1973 war, the Arab oil embargo caused major damage to our economy. People my age remember gas lines, inflation, and skyrocketing interest rates. Then terrorism increased. Even before Israel became a country in 1948, Jews endured decades of vile attacks on civilian settlements in Palestine. Between the wars, Israel was continuously hit by artillery and rockets from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt and they continued after 1973. During Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles into Israel and financed Palestinian suicide attacks for years after, sending $25,000 to the family of each jihadist suicide bomber.

Hatred of Israel is a unifying force for Muslims. Shiites and Sunnis who have been killing each other for centuries will work together to attack Jews. With the rise of Radical Islam they work together to kill Americans as well.

Radical Islam comes in two basic forms:

The Shiite version dates from the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s and continues in Iran under the mullahs. To them, we are “The Great Satan.” With their petrodollars, Shiite Iran created Hezbollah in Lebanon and in other countries around the world. They’ve murdered hundreds of Americans as well as Israelis.

The Sunni version takes the form of Wahhabism which originated in Arabia in the mid-1700s and got stronger by its association with the House of Saud and the oil revenues of Saudi Arabia. The Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda are incarnations of Radical Sunni Islam. Shiite and Sunni radicals cooperate in attacks on Israel and the United States, as well as India, Britain, Spain, Indonesia, etc.

Though some of us knew it already, all Americans learned they were targets of Radical Islam on September 11th. Since then, however, the Democrat Party and their mainstream media mouthpieces have persuaded many that only al Qaeda is our enemy - not Hezbollah, not Saddam Hussein, not Iran, not Syria. They couldn’t be more wrong. A parade in Tehran, Iran September 22, 2003 displayed missiles draped with banners proclaiming: “Israel should be wiped off the map” and “We will trample America under our feet,” “Death to America,” and “Death to Israel.”

At a rally last year, Sheik Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, shouted, “Our motto, which we are not afraid to repeat year after year, is: ‘Death to America!’” Tens of thousands of his followers shouted, “Death to America! Death to America! Death to America! Death to America!”

Osama Bin Laden’s second-in-command appeared on al Jazeera last Saturday. Ayman al-Zawahiri said al Qaeda will not stand idle while Israelis “burn the Muslim brothers in Gaza and in Lebanon.” With a poster of the burning World Trade Center behind him, he continued saying “All the world is a battlefield open in front of us.”

Last week, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked if President Bush believes current fighting between Israel and Lebanon “is as much the United States’ war as it is Israel’s war.”

“No,” he said and my heart sank.

President Bush is going wobbly on us. Immediately following September 11th, he said the United States would go after terrorists and the countries supporting them. Now, Iran and Syria are calling his bluff and he’s folding. Instead of pressing for a cease fire he should let Israel destroy Hezbollah, then give them bunker busters to drop on Assad’s palace in Damascus. If Iran responds openly to that as they threaten to, bring it on. Get it out in the open again.

As the reporter suggested in his question to Snow, it’s as much our war as it is Israel’s. Our only choices are: 1. We fight it over there or over here. 2. We fight a non-nuclear Iran now or a nuclear Iran later.

We can postpone our trip again if necessary, but if I were a young man with a determined commander-in-chief, I’d go there in a uniform with a weapon.

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