Tag Archives: military

480. Mairi at Culloden

272 years ago today, the last battle took place on British soil. Followers of Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) met British forces under the Duke of Cumberland on Culloden moor. Like all battles, it was a confusing, bloody mess, but it had the virtue of being decisive. The reprisals which followed brought highland culture largely to an end.

The mists of nostalgia roll over the Battle of Culloden, casting it in a romantic light as the last day of Scottish independence from the English. Sorry, but it was nothing like that. There were Scots on both sides of the fight. The “champion of the Scots” was the grandson of a deposed British king, born in Rome and raised in France, now fighting to regain his grandfather’s throne in London. The highlanders who followed him were despised by the lowland Scots who fought on Cumberland’s side — but the lowlanders’ descendants now claim clan membership and wear kilts — even though kilts hadn’t been invented yet in 1756.

I would have sworn that I would never write about Culloden, until I saw a brief note in an article about the history of oats in Scotland which described the actions of a Scotswoman who sat down beside the road leading from Culloden and cooked oat cakes for the soldiers, knowing they would need food to survive. Her simple and humane reaction to the conflict moved me to write this poem.

Mairi sat down by the side of the road

The night was filled with the sound of men
And the moan of wind in the heather,
As Mairi’s kinsmen went south toward the field,
That Charlie had set for the meeting.

Three sons of Mairi came out of her hut
And kissed her cheek as they left her
With Ross the youngest trailing along
To see what the battle would bring.

Mairi took oats from the pantry shelf,
There was not enough to please her,
So she dragged in a sack from the loft of the ben,
Took peats, and salt, and her griddle.

Then Mairi went down to the side of the road,
Built a peat fire and kneaded the grain,
Heated her griddle and cooked fat cakes,
To stack for the coming of day.

“They will come,” she said, “in the morning,
And all through the rest of the day,
Strutting proud or running scared,
Theyʼll be hungry either way.”

The oat cakes sizzled; the smell was fine;
She flipped them and stacked them and listened
To the musket fire from Cumberlandʼs men
And the deeper roar of his cannons.

The cries that went up as the claymores flashed
Were too distant for Mairi to hear,
But Ross would come back from where he watched
To tell how the Scotsmen had fared.

Then a sudden wind, and the fire flared up,
She shivered as pain rushed through her.
Three quick shocks in her empty womb,
And her heart in her breast went numb.

Her hands dug deeper into the oats,
And flew at the task of the kneading,
The stack of bannocks at her side grew tall
For she knew now that they would be needed.

Then Ross came running from the battlefield
He could only come out with a groan.
But Mairi knew without any words
That his brothers would not return.

******

The first man she saw was limping hard
With his leg bound up in a rag.
A highland face, with matted red hair,
He was lean as an iron bar.

A hungry man with a strangerʼs face;
Mairi gestured to the cakes.
He picked one up, took a bite, and sighed.
“God Bless you,” he said, and moved on.

The second man was a stranger, too,
He said, “Mother, it was awful.”
“Eat,” she said, “and move along,
I’ll pray that you find safety.”

The third was young, more a boy than a man,
With face flat and eyes that were dry.
Half held up by a second youth
Who coughed along along at his side.

“Take cakes and eat,” Mairi started to say.
But the coughing youth shook his head.
“I thank you, Mother, but let them go
To living men instead.

My friendʼs bled dry; thereʼs a ball in my lung;
Weʼre as dead as the ones behind.
Just show us a hidden place to crawl in,
And a quiet place to die.”

Mairi worked on, with a clenched up heart
While Ross fed peats to the fire,
Saving the lives of the fleeing men,
For hungry men soon tire.

All through the morning and the afternoon,
Those who lived to flee streamed by them,
Mairi rolled dough in her aged hands
As she mourned for the dead and the living.

For even these battered and tattered men,
Who would leave the field still living
Had lost more than battle, kinsmen, and sons.
A whole way of life had died with them.

And Mairi knew, with foresight clear,
That the winners would fare no better.
That the losers had lost, and the winners would lose,
All except for the rich and the English.

Then the last cake was gone, and Ross was gone,
Sent on with the last survivor.
Up past the river and into the hills.
To hide for a while in the heather.

Down the road she saw them, a mile away,
The Redcoats at last were coming,
Marching proud with bloody swords.
                Mairi stood up and put out the fire.

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477. They Never Flew (2)

 

NASP

Continuing from 472. Teaching Space and 474. They Never Flew (1), this post will discuss three manned space programs that never happened.

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were the presidents who took us into space. Whatever you think of any of them, they will always have that marked down on the positive side of their ledger.

Other presidents aspired to join them. How much of their thinking was patriotic for America, patriotic for all of mankind, or pure political calculation, is way outside the realm of my knowledge. I’m going to give them all benefit of the doubt and just talk about the programs themselves. You can spin motives any way that suits you.

Regan proposed NASP, the National AeroSpace Plane, also called the X-30. In his 1986 State of the Union, he said that we should produce a vehicle which would be “a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to twenty-five times the speed of sound, attaining low earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.” It was an exciting idea, coming out of DARPA where it had begun as a black project.

NASP was supposed to produce two prototype planes, but neither was ever built. That doesn’t mean that it was a political scam. The technological difficulties of the project were staggering.

In detail, NASP was cutting edge. As an idea, the horizontal launch of a spacecraft was old in science fiction. There it was usually accomplished by electromagnetic technology, with ground based and powered launchers and only maneuvering fuel on the vehicle itself. See many early Heinleins, especially Starman Jones and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

One reason rockets take off vertically is to get mostly out of the atmosphere before achieving speed. That way, massive friction is only a reentry issue, when it can be used to advantage.

NASP was a jet, not a rocket. It had to operate primarily inside the atmosphere. This has the advantage of avoiding carrying oxidizer, but has a series of disadvantages. Friction heating is an obvious one. In addition, its engine would have to operate in three modes — as a relatively conventional jet at takeoff, as a ramjet once sufficient speed had been achieved, then as a scramjet (supersonic ramjet) once it passed the speed of sound.

At that time, no one had successfully built a scramjet, and NASP didn’t make it happen. The first scramjet, the X-43, made a brief flight in 2001, eight years after NASP was cancelled.

No one has successfully built a skin that can withstand reentry level heating on a continuous basis, either. NASP was too far ahead of its time. I spent a few years explaining to my kids how it was supposed to work — before it didn’t work, and silently crept away.

Then came Venturestar, which, if it had been successfully completed, would have done what the Space Shuttle was originally designed to do. It was to be a vertically launched, completely reusable, single stage to orbit vehicle with a wider and more efficient lifting body that would have allowed it to land, in emergencies, on shorter runways than the Space Shuttle.

To do all this, it would require new and untested technologies, including composite material LH tanks, a new tile-free heat resistant skin, and an aerospike engine. The project was divided into two parts. To demonstrate the feasibility of the new technologies, a one-third size, unmanned model of the VentureStar, called the X-33 was to be built and tested, and only then was a full sized VentureStar to be constructed.

Things did not go well. When the X-33 was partially completed a version of its composite LH tank was tested and failed to hold pressure. Alternatives existed, but the decision was made to cancel the project. The funding for the X-33 was a complex mixture of commercial and governmental funds, and continuation depended on all parties agreeing. That didn’t happen. The Air Force was still part of the mix, as with MISS and the Dyna-Soar, as with the black missions by the Space Shuttle, but their request for continued funding was denied. The Air Force eventually got the X-37b instead. The X-33, and with it the VentureStar, disappeared. For a view that the cancellation should not have happened, click this link.

From the perspective of a science teacher, VentureStar had been a godsend, full of all the excitement the Shuttle and NASP had lacked. Once it failed, my kids had no future in space that they could personally dream about.

Then came Project Constellation. By that time, my days as a teacher were coming to a close, so I did not have to face the daunting task of generating enthusiasm for a cobbled up rerun. Ares I, the small booster, was built out of Space Shuttle leftovers and Ares V, the large booster looked suspiciously like a Saturn V reboot. The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle was an oversized Apollo capsule and the Altair moon lander was a LEM on steroids. Not only was Project Constellation going to do again what had been done forty years earlier, it was going to use essentially the same hardware.

I didn’t buy it. I didn’t try to sell it to my kids. It died four years after it was floated.

The future isn’t dead. The Space Launch System continues where Constellation failed and private enterprise has more strongly entered the mix. Today’s science teachers should be able to say, “You might be the first person on Mars,” with a straight face. I continue to hope.

440. Pearl Harbor Day is Tomorrow

Pearl Harbor Day is tomorrow and for the third time, I am not going to write about it directly.

In 2015, I used Pearl Harbor Day as a jumping off place to discuss the decision to go to war in Iraq.

In 2016, I used Pearl Harbor Day as a jumping off place to discuss Japanese Internment.

In 2017, I am even less able to salute and shout hallelujah than I was on the last two times Pearl Harbor Day rolled around. Things are even worse than they were then.

Do I think we were shouldn’t have retaliated to the Pearl Harbor attack? Don’t be absurd.

Do I support disarmament? I wish I could, but it would be national suicide.

Am I a veteran? Yes; and I would love to be the last veteran.

Am I a pacifist? Don’t I wish. I would love to live long enough to be able to say yes to that, but I won’t. Neither will you, and you are younger than I am.

There are times when we have to fight and Pearl Harbor signaled one of those times, but our national default setting should not be attack. We should fight rarely, and only when necessary. For many years now, we have been doing a terrible job of deciding when to fight, so I find it hard to wave the flag. Someone might think that means I’m ready to start shooting.

Tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day. It is also the forty-fifth anniversary of the last manned moon launch. I think I’ll write about that.

434. S. L. in Occupation

Last post was about my father in the closing days of WWII. After his wounds had healed, he was returned to his unit, now in occupied Bavaria.

How he felt about the German soldiers he fought, he never did say. In his stories, he never shot them — just scared them a bit. Somewhere along the line he had ditched his M1 Garand for a Thompson sub-machine gun with a broken stock. He carried it (he said) one handed by the pistol grip; in combat he pulled the trigger and recoil sent the muzzle swinging up and to the left, with a spray of bullets that sent the enemy sprinting for cover.

It was a good, clean story for the wife and kid, but once he almost slipped in the middle of telling it. Comfort and humor almost got swamped by blood and truth. He changed the subject. There is no doubt in my mind that, like a million other WWII veterans, he only told what his audience could bear to hear.

His feelings about German civilians were quite clear; these were his kind of people. Bavaria was a long way from the seats of power, and these were farmers and poor shopkeepers. He hated Nazis, and German generals, and politicians, but he liked the local people and they liked him. So did their daughters.

My father was handsome young man, full of life, full of fun, and he had money. The young German men were gone. They had gone to war and were now dead or in Allied POW camps. The German civilians were hungry. As I read between the lines of his stories, my father kept several families fed, in exactly the same way my grandfather kept several families of out of work townsmen fed with produce from his farm during the depression.

My father’s feelings for his Bavarian Germans were conditioned by his childhood. These were working people, like his own family and friends, and like the German settlers that lived around Owasso, Oklahoma where he was raised.

He fell in love with a German girl and they planned marriage, but he discovered that to marry her, he would have to reenlist and remain in Germany two more years. He was a homesick farm boy, ready to feel the Oklahoma dirt beneath his feet again, so he left his German girlfriend and came home. A year later he married. A year after that, I was born.

433. S. L. Goes to War

I served but did not see combat. The Syd Logsdon in this title is my father.

World War Two was a presence in our home when I was young. My dad served, was wounded, and returned. It was the biggest and most concentrated experience of his life.

My dad was a storyteller, but all his war stores were humorous tales of incidents along the way, or descriptions of enduring exhaustion and cold, or brief, dry, cool descriptions of the techniques used to clear a town or take a pillbox. He went through some of the worst fighting in the war, but his stories were essentially bloodless.

These were not the kind of gung-ho stories that would lead to hero worship. He didn’t consider himself a hero, anyway. He was just one of millions who went where he was sent and did what he was given to do; that was enough.

I can see him in memory, telling his stories. Even as a child, I could see the pain in his face. He had to tell the stories — he couldn’t keep them in — but he kept the horrors shut up behind his eyes. I don’t know how much he told my mother when they were alone, but I do know how often her nights were disrupted by the terrors that came to my father in his dreams. PTSD they would call it now. Then, it was just the way men were, when they came back from war.

He joined the First Infantry Division as a replacement after D-day and fought his way across northern France. His view was a soldier’s view — a road here, a village there, this particular house, that particular pillbox. I don’t think he ever had a global picture of where he was. He left combat in an ambulance before the assault on the Rhine. He always said that wound kept him alive. He had an almost superstitious belief that he would have died on the Rhine.

He was there for the entire Battle of the Bulge. Roughly two hundred thousand American and German troops died in a small corner of the Ardennes forest. You can see windrows of the dead, in history books, in grainy black and white photographs. He never talked about that, although he was eloquent about the cold and the exhaustion.

The wound that sent him out of combat came under incongruous circumstances. After the Battle of the Bulge was over, his group had captured a stash of German weapons. The lieutenant in charge wanted to try them, so he, my father, and some other privates took a panzerfaust — a German antitank weapon — out to an open field. My father put it on his shoulder and pulled the trigger.

My father always speculated that some Jewish prisoner in a munitions factory had sabotaged the weapon, in hopes of taking out a German soldier. No one will ever know. The weapon exploded an inch from his head, and he spent the remaining months of the war in a hospital in Paris. more tomorrow

432. The Making of a Navyman

I am writing a steampunk novel called The Cost of Empire. Here is a quote:

        He was a patriot. Unit A should have seen that. Patriots are not to be trusted; they act by their own lights, and they don’t always follow orders.
        Too bad for Unit A. Too bad for Daniel.

Actually, I’ve said that before, a year and a half ago. Here is a repost:

====================

The military has no use for patriots, because patriots think for themselves. In combat, a soldier who shouts, “We must not do this,” is likely to get himself and his teammates killed. He has to go on, following orders.

So how do we turn patriots into yes-men? Boot camp. That’s what it’s there for.

Boot camp is not seen as something important, or morally debilitating. And, I suppose, compared the things that happen later in the field, it isn’t that important. But . . . without boot camp to turn patriots into soldiers, those later events could never happen.

This isn’t about me. I went through boot camp in neutral mode, observing, remembering, and trying not to feel. I wan’t always successful, but I was successful enough to survive intact. I was changed, of course, but by my own experiences, not by pre-programmed manipulations.

This also isn’t about the eighteen year old children who made up most of the recruits, who were eager to follow the path their elders had set, and ready to go over and kick some commie ass. (It was 1971) This is about one young man, and those he represents. He came into boot camp a patriot, ready to serve his country, full of love and compassion, but ready to do his duty. They broke him. I can still see him standing in the barracks before lights out, talking to his friends, saying, “This isn’t right. I joined up to fight for my country. Why are they treating us like this?” His friends laughed at him and told him that this was nothing, it was just getting him ready for what was to come.

It wasn’t nothing, but it was getting ready for his life to come. That was the point.

I never talked to him. There was nothing I could say. He was learning in front of my eyes what I had learned years before, at other hands, under other circumstances. But I never forgot him.

Boot camp is what in Anthropology we call a liminal experience, one that tears down an old identity in order to build a new one. The folks at boot camp are really good at this, even in mild boot camps like the one I experienced at the San Diego Naval Training Center. We could see the real thing across the fence at the Marine boot camp, and we thanked God every day that we weren’t Marines. While I was there, a Marine recruit who could no longer take the daily abuse, ran off and stowed away on a jet liner at the civilian airport just over the fence. Hours later the jet landed at his home town on the east coast and he fell out of the wheel well, frozen, asphyxiated, and dead. The Marines said good riddance. We worms (as Navy recruits are called) laughed. Learning to laugh at the death of others is part of the boot camp experience.

It was all choreographed indignation, play-acting inflicted onto a captive audience. They said that if we didn’t keep our barracks clean enough or our socks rolled tightly enough, the Trouble Shooters would come.

“You worms have been given socks to roll! That’s all we trust you with now! How can we trust you with nuclear bombs once you’re on an aircraft carrier if you can’t roll socks now!”  Every word was delivered at a shout.

Of course, the Trouble Shooters came. They always do. They came in the night, screaming in manufactured rage and tearing the barracks apart while we stood at attention in our shorts at the foot of each bed.

Near-naked, helpless, frightened into immobility, knowing that the only way to survive was to  let the insanity happen. Civilian identities dying; new, military identities growing.

The making of a Navyman. You could put it on a poster.

431. The Other Veterans

This is an update of a post I wrote for Veteran’s Day 2015. Not many were reading yet, so I could simply repost, but a lot of things have changed since then. The new writing is indented.

I am an American; I vote. During my nearly thirty year career as a school teacher, I always went to the polls early and wore my ”I have voted, have you?” sticker throughout the day. Children would ask me, “Who did you vote for?” I never told them. Sometimes they would ask me, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” I never told them.

Teachers have a responsibility to be involved and have political opinions, because they are citizens. But they also have a responsibility to avoid shoving those opinions down the throats of their captive audience.

You are not a captive audience. You get both barrels.

I am one of the other veterans, the ones who went, did their job, and moved on. I don’t march in parades. I love America, but I still have a love/hate relationship with the flag. It stands for aspirations toward universal freedom, and when I think of it like that, I love it. But it also stands for the darkest of horrors.

For twenty-seven years, I had to endure the flag salute five days a week in my classroom. Understand, there were days when I said it with my whole heart. There were also days when I could only remember the dead on both sides in that useless war in Viet Nam; on those days, I said the words through clenched teeth.

But I said them. I could have refused. I might have been fired, or I might have won my case on first amendment grounds. Either way, the children I was there to teach would have had their education disrupted. It was my problem, not theirs, so I gritted my teeth and said the words.

Even the words “under God”, notwithstanding that I stopped believing in God when I was fifteen. But every time I said them, I thought of the children who have to pray five times a day facing Mecca.

NFL players, I get it. I support your right to protest. I agree that the situation you are protesting is unacceptable. Nevertheless, I think you are making a mistake. The people who see you kneeling can’t get past the flag. You are alienating the people you need to convince.

My draft number was 41.

Heinlein said slavery is not made more appealing by calling it Selective Service. I agree, mostly; however conscription levels the field. Without conscription, the white and the rich would not have protested so loudly as they (we) did, and the Viet Nam war would have gone on much longer.

When I got to boot camp, I was surrounded by whites, blacks and variations. There were only two who stood out — me, and one other guy. I was 24, mature, married, and with enough life experience to resist brainwashing. The others were all malleable, except for one recruit. I’ll tell you his story on Monday.

During my last year in college I signed up for a term in the Peace Corps. Then Nixon did away with the Peace Corps deferment. The Marines were drafting, so I joined the Navy.

I wasn’t trying to avoid death; I was young enough to foolishly assume I wouldn’t get killed. I just didn’t want to shoot anyone who was defending his homeland.

Four years later I was a civilian again, the Viet Nam war was over, and the general opinion had shifted. Most Americans had come to believe that the war was a mistake.

Thirty years later Bush Two sent troops in to find weapons of mass destruction that never existed, as if we had learned nothing.

I am a veteran; I believe in defending my country against real enemies. But I’m also a retired teacher. When I see starry eyed children who can’t wait for their chance to plunge into battle –- well, pardon my lack of enthusiasm.

There will be three more veterans’ posts next week.