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, December 27, 2006

Chicken Little Lives

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. As I learn new things, I’m aware of how ignorant I am. After more than thirty years of teaching, I find myself qualifying what I claim to be true with phrases like, “The best analysis indicates . . .” or “We don’t know for sure, but we think . . .” I believe there is an objective reality out there, but the brightest among us perceive it imperfectly at best. As a history teacher, I know how much disagreement exists about past events - even those to which we were eyewitnesses. As my wife often points out, I’m not always aware of what’s happening around me in the present. As for the future, we can know very little beyond what Little Orphan Annie told us: “The sun will come up tomorrow.” Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Thus, I’m acutely aware when Chicken Littles like our former vice president (and almost president) tell me the sky is falling and we must run and tell the king. We’re seldom able to predict the weather accurately beyond three or four days, yet Mr. Gore claims an ability to predict it decades and centuries into the future. That would be okay, except that he wants to institute some drastic changes that would affect what I do every day and people who think like him have taken control of Congress. They think humans can reverse climate change by limiting carbon emissions. What hubris.

As a history-loving boy, I was fascinated by pre-Columbian discoveries of America, especially those close to my region of the continent. I read about Vikings going to and from Greenland and veering off course. A thousand years ago, Greenland was able to sustain a colony of 1500 people agriculturally, something that wouldn’t be possible today. Off-course Vikings described coastlines encountered with great detail and their descriptions were recorded in “Icelandic sagas” subsequent to their wanderings. Historians in Iceland tried to match Viking descriptions with existing coastlines of eastern Canada and New England, looking for places described as, for instance, “a broad, shallow bay bordered by a spit of land on the southwest,” and so forth, but without success.

However, when they considered the coastlines with a rise in sea level, as would have been the case a thousand years ago in what climatologists called at the time a “little climatic optimum” or what today is called the “medieval warming period,” historians discovered that what had been described as a broad, shallow bay would today be a salt marsh. With such modifications they noticed striking similarities between Viking coastal descriptions and what’s visible today. Some of the studies I’ve seen purposely overlook this warming period in charts that show temperatures over millennia. They make dire predictions of flooded cities, droughts and hurricanes with data that describe conditions which seem no more worrisome than those prevalent a thousand years ago.

Clearly, Mr. Gore wants attention. It must be hard to have lost the White House after winning the popular vote and see the guy who beat you in the spotlight endlessly. I seldom think of Al Gore inventing the internet when I go on line every day, but I do think of him after I flush my toilet. Thanks to his support of the National Energy Policy Act, toilets manufactured after 1994 must have a maximum capacity of 1.6 gallons of flushing power. I bought my toilets in 1987, but I’ve replaced the flush valve and ball cock in the one I use most and now it doesn’t flush very well. There’s something still floating around afterward because Gore’s 1.6 gallons don’t get rid of everything. It’s that brown-stained toilet paper or that little piece of turd that remind me of the former vice president. Gore thinks I need government to tell me how much of my own water I’m allowed to use to flush my own toilet.

He warned us we were running out of water and now he’s doing his Chicken Little act about carbon emissions. He’s pumping up Turkey Lurkey environmentalists who claim a lawn mower running for an hour on Saturday pollutes the atmosphere as much as an automobile on a 100 mile drive. So, in 2007 we’ll have emission standards for lawn mowers. What’s next? An inspection sticker for my snowblower? My weed whacker? My chainsaw?

As I get less certain about what the future holds, Gore gets more certain. He knows what’s best for me and for everybody else in the world whether we like it or not.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Interview with Captain Charlie Benbow USMC

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a soldier working for CENTCOM in Tampa, Florida. He found my blog and asked if I’d be willing to interview a soldier with experience in the Middle East and post it. I said, “Of course,” and submitted fifteen questions. The other day, I got the answers posted below. It was my pleasure to exchange words with Marine Captain Charlie Benbow, Firepower Control Team Leader, 2nd Air / Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, II Marine Expeditionary Unit. He’s a veteran of four deployments in and around Afghanistan and Iraq. Right now, he’s stationed in Camp Lejuene, North Carolina.

Hi Captain,
As you probably know, I got your name from Spc. Chris Erickson in Tampa. I’d like to first thank you for your service to our country - which seems to be more than most, based on what Chris told me. My questions are:

What does a Firepower Control Team Leader do? Coordinate airstrikes? Artillery from ships?

Captain Benbow:
“The Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) mission is to plan, coordinate, and conduct terminal control of fires in support of allied and coalition forces. By fires, we mean the entire spectrum of fire support, from close air support to artillery and naval gunfire. The Firepower Control Team (FCT) is where the rubber meets the road in ANGLICO. We walk the ground with those allied forces (in this case, Iraqi Army) and provide access to Coalition fire support, mostly U.S. air support and artillery, for the supported unit. I am also a qualified Joint Terminal Attack Controller, which means that I am qualified to control aircraft engaged in close air support. My primary role on the last deployment was to control aircraft in support of an Iraqi Army battalion near Habbaniyah.”

How long were your tours in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Captain Benbow:
“My first tour in Iraq lasted for six months, but only two of those were actually in Iraq. We spent a month and a half in transit to Kuwait aboard amphibious shipping, then another month in Kuwait during the buildup to the invasion, and finally another month and a half in transit back to the U.S. My tour in Afghanistan lasted for six months. My third deployment was as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), that one lasted for six months as well. I did not actually set foot in Iraq on that deployment; we trained in Kuwait, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Djibouti, but only sent a partial detachment into southeastern Iraq to work underneath a British task force. My last deployment only lasted for four and a half months, all of it spent in Al Anbar province.”

How old are you?

Captain Benbow:
“27”

Do you have a family? If so, how have they dealt with your deployments?

Captain Benbow:
“I am not married, yet. My immediate family (parents, brother, and sister) had a difficult time with the first deployment, particularly when my battalion was involved in the Battle of An Nasiriyah. The second deployment was much easier for them, as they initially had an impression that Afghanistan would be safer. Ironically I was wounded less than a month into that deployment, after coming through the invasion of Iraq without a scratch or even a close call. On the last deployment, they were a bit more anxious since I was going into the heart of Al Anbar province to work with the Iraqi Army. Also, for the first time I had a serious girlfriend. She knew early on in our relationship that I was expecting to leave for Iraq just two months after we met, but dealt with it fairly well. She had a couple of rough spots, like one night after visiting with some friends in Richmond, VA. My friend returned from Hadithah, Iraq about the same time that I got back from the MEU deployment, and when I told him that I would be working with the Iraqi Army, he cringed. Although she didn’t tell me until much later, his reaction deeply troubled Stephanie. However, she was very supportive, and my family was very supportive of her throughout.”

How long is a deployment?

Captain Benbow:
“Most of my deployments have been 6 months, but the typical rotation for a Marine unit in Iraq is 7 months. I will be returning to Iraq in the fall for the full 7 months.”

Having volunteered for four tours, you have a long view of America’s response to the terrorists who attacked us. Were you commander-in-chief, how would you handle things now?

Captain Benbow:
“Tough question, and I’m hesitant to go ‘outside of my lane,’ but here goes nothing. Iraq is obviously the center of gravity in the current War on Terrorism (on an aside, a great quote I heard from a professor from Sandhurst: 'Never declare war on an abstract noun.'), so it is where we need to focus our efforts on defeating the Islamic extremists. Al Qaeda and their associated movements apparently see Iraq as a center of gravity as well, as they have devoted extensive resources to fighting our troops there. I would direct the military to focus efforts on supporting the Iraqi Army with training and fire support. More boots on the ground is crucial, but we have reached the point where drastic increases in U.S. troop strength are nearly unsupportable. The most effective means would be continuing to increase the number of Iraqi troops and provide them with the necessary support to establish footholds in and around the major population centers. On a global level, keep the pressure on international terrorist organizations through the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

How is the morale of the Marines you serve with? Do they feel the support of their country?

Captain Benbow:
“The morale is very high, but the Marines are starting to wonder what the changes in Congress and the Secretary of Defense will mean for the war effort. Most of us feel the support of the average American, but are very skeptical of the media and the political leadership. There is almost a sense that the latter two are working against us.”

When so many say, “We oppose the war, but we support the troops,” how does that make you feel?

Captain Benbow:
“I think it’s a superficial gesture, designed to make the so-called supporter feel better about themselves. If you really support us, just let us win this damned thing. Whether you agreed with President Bush’s justifications in 2003 or not, we are committed to this war and we need to win it. Congress has passed several bills that support the troops, yet many of them are calling for withdrawal. Again, if they really supported us they would give us what we need to win the war, and accept nothing less than victory. Instead, many of them want to forsake the sacrifice of our dead comrades and withdraw without finishing what we started.”

Why did you become a marine?

Captain Benbow:
“Originally because I wanted to fly fighter jets. I changed my mind a little over halfway through college and decided that I wanted to lead Marines on the ground. I’ve stuck around because I truly enjoy being around the guys I serve with.

What do you think of the Iraq Study Group report?

Captain Benbow:
“I have not read the report yet, I have only heard discussions on TV and read more discussions in the blogosphere. However, my impression so far is that it is worthless, as they apparently discarded the advice they got from their military advisors. I do think it makes some good recommendations with respect to the military advisor teams in Iraq, but the overall strategy (majority of combat brigades out by 2008) is inherently flawed. It is not a strategy for victory, it is a strategy for capitulation and submission.”

Do your fellow soldiers discuss the report? If so, is there a consensus about it?

Captain Benbow:
“There has been some discussion at work, but most of the opinions reflect what I wrote above. Mostly, we are just watching and waiting to see what the Democratic Congress will do.”

How would you define victory in Iraq?

Captain Benbow:
“When the Iraqis have a stable, functioning government and military that can operate without a large U.S. presence to back them up. They do not currently have that.”

Is this war like any others America has waged? If so, which ones?

Captain Benbow:
“There are similarities with many of the wars in our history, but none so closely that they can be used as a model for strategy or tactics in Iraq. The parallel with Vietnam that most concerns me is the erosion of our national will to continue this war. We are continuing to validate the strategy of engaging us with protracted, low-intensity conflict.”

What do you think about talk of renewing the draft?

Captain Benbow:
“Complete and utter nonsense. Why force us to accept people who do not want to do this job? The drivel about lower economic classes being overrepresented is just that, when you take a look at actual combat forces the socioeconomic breakdown is very similar to civilian society. There are quite a few children of the middle and upper classes that join the military looking for adventure, and when they do they typically sign up for combat arms.”

What can ordinary citizens like me do to help guys like you?

Captain Benbow:
“Convince your elected representatives that you will not accept anything less than victory in Iraq, and do not allow the politicians to redefine victory into some sort of easy exit strategy. Care packages are great too, but what I really want for Christmas is for Americans to wake up and realized that we are committed to this war and can not afford to quit now.”

Clearly, we’re fortunate to have such brave, intelligent young men in our armed forces. People like Charlie Benbow give the lie to Senator Kerry’s remarks about those who don’t do well in school being “stuck in Iraq,” or Congressmen Rangel’s about poor Americans in the military because it’s their only choice. These men make me proud to be an American.

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Time To Be Trampled?

They struck us September 11th because they sensed we were weak. Maybe they were right. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse,” said their leader, “they will like the strong horse.” He wasn’t referring to the United States as the strong horse. He was referring to Radical Islamists like himself who dared attack us because we were a “paper tiger,” a country with a powerful military, but without strong enough belief in itself to sustain a fight. Maybe they were right. Perhaps they know us better than we know ourselves.

They watched as “progressives” among us rooted religion out of our culture while the rest of us stood around and allowed it. Radical Islam’s aim was to impose their religion on every person in the world or kill them. They listened as our university professors blamed the evils of the world on Western Civilization and that was one thing Radical Islamists agreed with. They watched and listened as our intellectual and media elites bewailed selected victim groups among us and they learned that if they portrayed themselves as victims, they would get sympathetic coverage in our media.

It’s enlightening to look at ourselves as our enemies see us. They’ve observed us as we blame capitalist, white-guy leaders of Western Civilization - not only for the miseries of victim groups in the US and the Third World - but also for destroying the planet itself with pollution, extinction and global warming.

As our liberal leaders in universities and the courts do all this - purge religion from the public square, lament the miseries of victim groups, and condemn the depredations of capitalist warmongers - they overlook glaring contradictions in their own rhetoric. What about the old idea that we were created by God to have dominion over the earth? No, they say. Only fundamentalist simpletons believe that. We evolved just as any other species in nature did, and we’re no more special than they are. But if it’s true that we’re just another ordinary part of nature, why do we blame ourselves for killing trees or wiping out passenger pigeons? Wouldn’t that be nature acting through us? Beavers are part of nature when they flood an area and kill off trees, right? Aren’t we being our natural selves when we cut down mahogany trees in the rain forest? If a threatened species can’t make it, shouldn’t it disappear to make way for more adaptive species? That’s what Darwin taught us, isn’t it?

The guy we nearly elected president six years ago travels our country preaching “The End Is Near” in the form of an impending global-warming catastrophe. Some of us listen and ask ourselves: Who caused the global warming that melted glaciers of the last ice age ten thousand years ago? Was it those evil cave men making their campfires too big? And what about the first three ice ages when evil white guys hadn’t evolved yet? Who caused the global warming back then?

Though 99% of all species that ever existed are now extinct, whichever ones disappear while we’re around must be our fault. If we look deeply enough, we’re sure we’ll discover that Dick Cheney and Halliburton were somehow involved but have covered it up.

It’s pretty obvious we have forgotten who we are and what we’re about. We don’t know where we came from and we don’t know where we’re going. Meanwhile millions or Radical Jihadists around the world are willing to die to kill us. They’ve declared war and attacked us in the most dramatic fashion - and we don’t seem to realize what’s going on. They gather by the thousands chanting “Death To America!” and “Death To Israel!” They’ve infiltrated Europe, Canada and the United States. They’re blowing themselves up to kill us and plotting to do it on a bigger scale with nuclear weapons.

How do we respond? Do we concentrate on defeating them and saving our civilization? No. We look in the mirror and wring our hands. “Why do they hate us?” we ask. “It must be something we’ve done!” Instead of figuring out how to defeat them, we’re worried we might discriminate against them.

They call us the Great Satan. Their goal is to convert us to Islam or kill us. Meanwhile, what’s our goal? It looks like we’re trying to figure out a way to surrender without it looking like surrender. It looks like our enemies know us well. We can’t sustain a fight. We wimped out in Iran in 1980. We pulled out of Lebanon in ’83 and Somalia in ’93. Now we’re getting ready to pull out of Iraq. The country that defeated fascism and communism in the last century hasn’t got what it takes any more.

As Martin Luther King said, “If a man has nothing he would die for, he isn’t fit to live.” Maybe it’s time to lay down and let the strong horse trample us.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Last Month

Things freeze deeply in December. The earth hardens. This last month of the year has a sharp smell - not unpleasant, just not soft like organic smells that travel on a medium of warm, moist air in seasons just passed. Warm-blooded creatures know profoundly that we’re vulnerable to northern elements in winter and must take precautions to survive. When we venture out, that knowledge makes us keener. If we’re incautious we freeze, perhaps to death. When we brave the cold in New England, it gives us a certain state of mind. We’re vigilant when we’re outside. When we’re dressed right, with the proper socks, boots, gloves, and jacket, we’re confident, secure. It’s the security we feel indoors when the stove is burning and we know the woodshed is full.

There’s little light this month when the shortest day of the whole year comes three weeks in, but what light there is reaches us through bare hardwoods and reflects off smooth-barked trees like beeches, birches and some maples. When snow comes, the angle of the sun is so low, the white surface reflects bright beams right into our eyes whenever we look south. But even the glare feels good. There may be little duration to December sun but we’re very aware of it at more than a conscious level. We know why the ancients marked winter solstice, building elaborate stone monuments to pinpoint and mark it. It’s a northern thing.

December is quiet, but the slightest sound can carry a good distance. Cold things move sluggishly. Some animals go down underground and curl up on themselves in hibernation and dream the dreams of their species in that dormant state. Others burrow around under the snow looking for seeds, and still others prowl above the snow listening for that burrowing sound to pounce on and eat whatever is stirring. Coyotes below Christian Hill seem to howl more in December. Was it the full moon recently passed? Have they done it every year but I was too sleepy to awaken? When I hear their high-pitched yipping, I picture a pack of them chasing deer wounded during the just-ended hunting season. Or, perhaps it’s just the coyotes’ nature to howl at night - announcing to all that they exist, that they’re making their way in the world just as the rest of us struggle to, each in our own realm.

Though it hasn’t yet, the thermometer can really plummet this month. The coldest temperature I ever witnessed occurred early during week one of my first December in Maine. My third daughter was born December 2nd and I returned alone from the hospital while my other children stayed with in-laws. Before my eyes opened the next morning, I smelled cold. The stove had nearly gone out, but there were a few tiny embers left to get it going again. I refilled it, got it cranking, and tried to turn on the faucet in the old dogleg tub for a bath, but nothing happened. I got dressed and went out to warm up the car but it wouldn’t turn over. The thermometer read almost forty below zero. I’ve never seen it that cold since but it was good basic training for this newcomer to Maine’s winter.

The lakes and ponds ice over this month. Lazy loons will linger while open water remains, but they have to vacate in December. When the entire surface freeze over and it gets really cold, loon cries are replaced by the echoing booms of thickening ice. I have childhood memories of skating around ice fishermen as a red would flag go up and, hand-over-hand, a fisherman would pull up a struggling pickerel or eel that had its own life way down beneath the cold, thick ice I was standing on. How different those cold-blooded creatures were from us mammals on the surface in our thick clothing and boots. If we assumed their temperature, we’d be dead, as each of our bodies would be sooner or later, cold and lying horizontal beneath the hard ground when our struggles were over. Another part of us, however, would transcend it all and abide somewhere else.

That’s why Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Christ at the end of this cold, dark month, I think. That birth gave hope to us creatures His Father created in His image and likeness - the hope that we could indeed win our great struggle in the end. In that Spirit, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Who Are Those Guys?

News that six Sunnis were doused with kerosene and burned alive sickened me before I learned from conservative bloggers that it probably didn’t happen. There’s no evidence and only one questionable source. The Associated Press stands by its story, but given what’s becoming commonplace in mainstream wire services, I would bet a week’s pay it’s false.

The AP claims its source is “Captain Jamil Hussein” of the Baghdad Police and they’ve published several stories since last April based his information alone, each an alleged incident of Shiite violence against Sunnis. Trouble is, nobody but the AP seems to know who this guy is. The Baghdad Police don’t. The US government doesn’t. The Iraqi government doesn’t. Does the Associated Press itself know? Conservative bloggers have challenged the AP to produce him, but so far nobody’s been able to actually see “Captain Jamil Hussein.” The mainstream media - big-city broadsheets, network news and big weekly newsmagazines - are ignoring the story or suggesting that it’s “agenda-driven” by the “right-wing blogosphere.” What could bloggers possibly know? They don’t attend cocktail parties with Katy or Matt so why should anyone take them seriously? CENTCOM has officially asked the AP for a retraction.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about two Lebanese ambulances allegedly rocketed by Israeli warplanes. That probably didn’t happen either. The story was initially released by the Lebanese Red Cross, then spread by the Associated Press. After more than four months, the AP still hasn’t admitted its mistake, if it was a mistake. I’m beginning to have doubts about that. I suspect the AP knows its stringers come from the other side.

Why doesn’t the AP just produce “Captain Jamil Hussein” and let him be vetted? That would clear it all up, wouldn’t it? Maybe it’s afraid of scrutiny since one of its cameramen - a man named Bilal Hussein - was arrested by the US military inside an Al Qaeda bomb factory a few months ago. Old Bilal was producing remarkable photos he couldn’t possibly get without very close access to Al Qaeda terrorists. He took close-ups of “insurgents” firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, presumably at American soldiers, and also took staged shots of terrorists standing over the just-executed body of kidnapped Italian hostage Salvatore Santoro. When old Bilal was finally arrested in that IED factory, he had bomb residue on his hands. The AP is indignantly trying to get him released, even using Democrat Congresswoman Louise Slaughter to carry AP water on the floor of the US House.

When I say I have my doubts that all these shoddy AP stories are mistakes, am I implying that the Associated Press intentionally publishes enemy propaganda? That would be a serious charge. Al Qaeda’s former head guy in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (he’s in Paradise with his virgins now thanks to the US Air Force), said his number-one goal was to foment civil war between Sunnis and the Shiite majority as the best way to destabilize Iraq and force Americans out. Considering we’re at war, do AP stories and photos “provide aid and comfort to the enemy”? That would be treason, wouldn’t it?

Over the weekend of November 25-27, NBC’s Matt Lauer decided to start calling the Iraq theater of our war against Islamofascism a “civil war” and cited the “six Sunnis burned alive” story as a tipping point in his decision. Soon, other media followed his lead. On Monday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan did too. Is the “burned-alive Sunnis” story true? Very doubtful. Is it influential? Most assuredly. Is that a problem? You bet it is.

As columnist and author Michael Novak wrote in “National Review Online” two weeks ago: “Today, the purpose of war is sharply political, not military; psychological, not physical. The main purpose of war is to dominate the way the enemy imagines and thinks about the war. Warfare is not, these days, won on a grand field of battle. Nor is it won by the force that wins series after series of military victories. Nor is triumph assured by killing far higher numbers of the enemy. The physical side of warfare no longer holds precedence. The primary battlefield today lies in the minds of opposing publics.”

Our military has made mistakes. So has our Commander-in-Chief. So has every military and every commander in every war ever fought in the history of the world. The biggest problem we face is that our mainstream media, which is more powerful that it’s ever been, focuses on nothing but the mistakes as if they want us to lose. When not doing that, they’re illegally publishing classified information that hurts us and helps our enemies. Thanks to our media, America is losing on the most important front - the propaganda war. Our enemy couldn’t possible beat us on the battlefield, but they’re beating us in our own media with the willing assistance of the Associated Press, Reuters, the New York Times, NBC News, etc. If Novak is right that “The primary battlefield today lies in the minds of opposing publics,” and I believe he is, we have to ask ourselves: Is our mainstream media trying to persuade our public mind that we’re losing? I strongly suspect they are, and that’s the great tragedy.

Americans must demand the Associated Press produce “Captain Jamil Hussein” and let the vetting begin.

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