November 14, 2013


A friend posted this on Facebook. It’s a sweet little travel article dealing with the problem of expectations. It poses the hypothesis that if we travel with “no expectations”, especially when we travel to places widely felt to be “dull”, we will often be surprised by joyful little discoveries. So, be open-minded and make the most of your travel destination, wherever it might be. Sounds good.
So guess which state they feature not only in their opening visual, but all through the article, as apparently the worst-possible travel destination: Nebraska.
Ohhh, NeBRASka. Ha ha ha. Of COURSE. How many people have I spoken with over the decades who moan about how long it seems to take to drive across the endless expanse of that wasteland. “Thank GOD we FLEW to Denver.” Etc. etc. etc.
This may seem like a change of subject, but let me just say that we don’t allow Anna to use the word “boring” in our home. Being bored is a decision, not a fait accompli. And in the case of Nebraska, every time I hear someone say how booooring it is, I think they’re advertising their ignorance. Here’s why.

With a cabin in Colorado, we travel back and forth across Nebraska by car sometimes up to three times a year, and I’ve made the trip for more than forty years now.

Nebraska Road Map

Nebraska Road Map (click twice on this map for larger version)

In the early 1980s, well before I began my career as a history teacher, for whatever reason I became intrigued with the Oregon Trail (well before the video game).


I was fascinated primarily by what motivated American men (the primary decision-makers of that era) to be so dissatisfied with their existing life that they would risk their lives and the lives of their families to leave all behind and travel the better part of 1500 miles for three months in a covered wagon across desolate and dangerous terrain to get to a place they at best had heard about from a travel brochure. After a lot of reading on the subject, I’m still not sure I know.

I was equally intrigued by the journey itself, and found myself joining the fledgling Oregon-California Trails Association, and reading Oregon Trail journals (there are many of them – these pioneers had the time to write, and they were recording the greatest adventure of their lives).

Main route of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska

Main route of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska

The best book on the subject (at least at the time) was The Oregon Trail Revisited, by Gregory Franzwa, probably THE best OT (Oregon Trail) historian at the time. I fell in love with this book, as it told the history of the trail in the first part of the book (back to the first mountain men to learn from the Natives that there was a way to get across the Rockies without climbing the Rockies, to Marcus and Narcissus Whitman, and so on) and in the second part laid out state-by-state, county-by-county, and turn-by-turn directions of how to find the trail today. I was hooked. This book led me to read other books about our great westward migration. I would single out Bernard DeVoto’s fabulous, Across the Wide Missouri as perhaps the most entertaining and informative of them all. Merrill Mattes’ The Great Platte River Road, and Irene Paden’s In the Wake of the Prairie Schooner are also excellent. Ms. Paden and her family re-traced every mile of the trail in the 1940s. I’ll never forget her description of being at Register Cliff in eastern Wyoming near Guernsey, a sandstone wall covered with the carved names of pioneers and the date of their passing by.

Register Cliff

Register Cliff

As she was kneeling in the weeds to read names near the bottom of the wall, she came across a metal rod, quickly realizing that its “scraper end” fit the exact width of the graffiti carved above it in the 1850s. There lay the very tool used 90 years before, left for others who followed to use… and eventually, for Ms. Paden to find.
I purchased (and still own) every Nebraska county survey map that the trail goes through. When Interstate 80 crosses the Blue River in eastern Nebraska, I know that’s the river that pioneers “jumping off” from Kansas City (Westport) followed up to its confluence with the Platte. It’s really just a ditch, but there is a tiny sign that says “Blue River”. I look for it every time. I’m not kidding – every time.

In the 1980s, Rose and I and the girls began exploring the trail (okay, so maybe the primary decision was still made by the man) as we worked our way west on summer vacations. We camped a number of times on Mormon Island near Grand Island, pitching our tent on the bank of the Platte, listening to the June breeze in the cottonwoods overhead, cottonwoods that lined that river in the 1850s. It didn’t take much imagination, especially after dark, for us to see our tent in the middle of a group of pioneer tents, wagons just over to the side there, oxen tearing off grass and chewing their cud. We took a picture of Ruth and Alyce standing on dried cow patties on Ivor Dilke’s ranch in Brule, Nebraska, where ruts are still visible as the wagons for the first time forded the North Platte River to climb over California Hill and lumber on toward Scott’s Bluff, Ft. Laramie and South Pass. I’ve sat on the south bank of the river there in Brule and dangled my legs in the water at the spot where the wagons would have by necessity forded that stream. I chose not to try to ford it myself because I didn’t know where sand turned to quicksand, and where six inches changed to six feet. Imagine the risk in 1850 – no AAA to speed-dial on your cell phone.

I-80 crosses the Platte between Omaha and Lincoln. But it’s not until Grand Island that the “Great Platte River Road” really begins. This is where the streams of Mormons on the north bank headed to Salt Lake and streams of “Gentiles” on the south bank headed to Oregon or California merged (just after the Blue joins the Platte, see) and began to travel in earnest by the thousands. Ft. Kearny is understood in light of the protection from Indians those travelers needed (or thought they needed), as is Cozad, which straddles the 100th meridian, “where the East meets the West”. Its founder, John Cozad, thought that location would make it a significant attraction. He was wrong. But west of Cozad, the climate changes, primarily due to the subtle elevation change as you begin to climb the million-year erosion field of the eastern slope of the Rockies. I love Cozad – it’s where The West begins.

Nebraska gains in elevation as you move west. In the east is corn and soy country. By the time you cross the state you're in dry ranch country.

Nebraska gains in elevation as you move west. In the east is corn and soy country. By the time you cross the state you’re in dry ranch country.

Gothenberg boasts a real Pony Express station in the heart of town. And it is real, just not on its original location. For that you have to go west of town a ways to find the tumble-down ruins of a station still on its original foundation. Gothenberg doesn’t advertise that one because it wouldn’t bring people into town, would it?
There’s more. Larry McMurtry’s heralded Lonesome Dove explained the immense importance of the city of Ogallala, Nebraska to the cowboy era. Every time we approach that city from the east I “look” for Clara’s little ranch.

The Lincoln Highway, America’s first coast-to-coast paved roadway, runs right along the railroad tracks. Here’s a few pictures I took this summer of a restored Lincoln Highway motel, albeit in Wyoming, from the early days of automotive travel.

Black and Orange Cabins You park your car in the garage next to your room

Black and Orange Cabins
You park your car in the garage next to your room

Your room, sir.

Your room, sir.

Lincoln Highway milepost

Lincoln Highway milepost

Every time you see a long freight train stretched out with you on the north side of I-80 you’re looking at the mainline of the original transcontinental railroad. Stephen Ambrose’s lousy (sorry, but it was) book on the birth of this railroad, Nothing Like it in the World, was hard to plow through, but ultimately explained a lot. His much-better book, Undaunted Courage, describes in amazing detail the Lewis and Clark expedition, which of course went up and then back down the Missouri River which forms Nebraska’s eastern border. So every time we “cross the wide Missouri” from Iowa into Missouri I look down at that water and squint to see the Corps of Discovery poling upstream along the banks. (The squinting helps eliminate the casinos that line the banks now.)

Lewis and Clark would weep

Lewis and Clark would weep

For the Oregon Trail pioneers, crossing that river was known as “jumping off”, because that’s what you were doing: leaving the United States of America fo

You'll find Harrah's right around that next bend there.

You’ll find Harrah’s right around that next bend there.

r the great unknown of the American West. As soon as you cross that river you are greeted by the shadows of the two huge locomotives in Kenefick Park that remind you you’re at the start point of the transcontinental railroad.

Kenefick Park, Omaha

Kenefick Park, Omaha

One of those locomotives is a Big Boy and the other is a UP “Centennial” (The Centennial was made at the GE Electromotive Works on 47th St. in McCook, Il. I recognize the building in some of the background shots on the video link. Electromotive has been gone for a good twenty years.) Both are the most powerful locomotives of their generation and when you stand next to them you get just how big and powerful and important this industry was to the nation. You also get a sense of just how much time, energy and money can go into something, and how very quickly it can become history.

So think about this. The Platte River, the Pony Express, the first telegraph lines, the transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway and I-80 interweave themselves virtually all the way across the state of Nebraska. You’re not just traveling on an interstate; you’re traveling on a highway system that’s been in place for human migration and communication for thousands of years. And you’re traveling the history of our nation. In Nebraska.

I know. Boooorrriiinggg.

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Why We Need Civics


This is the text of something I submitted to my district several years before I retired in 2010. Civics is no closer to being required in our district now than it was then.

Why We Need a Civics Requirement in District 99

In his 7th State of the Union letter, December 7, 1796, George Washington proposed the establishment of a national university. He didn’t see that happen, although his statement below as to one objective of that university is compelling in its urgency:

“A primary object…should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country.” –George Washington, 1787

But today, more and more universities are demanding less and less of college students in the area of Social Studies, let alone Civic understanding; thus we find that each year fewer and fewer college graduates possess knowledge of the increasingly-savvy machinations of those who hold and want to maintain power in our nation. They increasingly possess either overly-naïve or overly-cynical views about their government, but what they don’t possess is the democratic equivalent of Christianity’s “whole armor of God” with which to battle for their Republic. Washington would be mortified.

The Founding Fathers understood “the power of the ring” and made a point of separating those powers. In a “post-modern democracy”, politicians are much more sophisticated in their attempts to grasp that power. It is no longer sufficient to teach young Americans the surface areas, the Civics of Old: today’s Civics class must be much more sophisticated – as sophisticated as our politicians. In much the same way as the police must continue to upgrade their weapons as street gang weaponry becomes more deadly, so must we be upgrading our civic awareness. But is this happening? At the very moment that the crooks are entering the vault, we are laying off the guards.

In District 99, despite the faculty protestations otherwise, we hit only the surface areas of Civics, if that, in our required U.S. History, Constitution and other Social Studies courses, and our elective offering in this area hits less than 2% of our annual student population.

Why? Because that’s what everybody else around us is doing. There is not a single significant-sized high school district in the western suburbs that requires Civics any longer. (A possible reason: the de-emphasis of Social Studies on standardized tests.)

And off they go to college, where they don’t get anything remotely like Civics lessons.

Result? Millions of “educated” college graduates per year who know nothing about how their citizenship rights are being eroded by an oligarchy that has a much deeper understanding of both human psychology and the uses of media than the citizenry, and has become much more efficient in collecting power than at any previous time in our history. In fact, the very concept of Republic is in as much danger now as it was at the end of the RomanRepublic (which by the way is the message of movie, Gladiator).

The risk to our nation is greater than at any previous time in its history.

This would be acceptable…. IF We the People were choosing it of our own free will. In fact, we are not, and we as educators, particularly those of us in the Social Studies, should be fighting Washington’s good fight, not enabling those who would facilitate the end of the Republic.

W.E.B. DuBois spoke to the issue of what education should (and shouldn’t) be in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretence and ostentation. For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged, – wealth to raise the “cracker” Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim pf politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.” (emphasis mine)

And what does “the fatal might of this idea” lead to? Barack Obama, April 2, 2008: “Our (national) problems always occur when people aren’t paying attention.”

But how CAN one pay attention when they don’t even know what they’re missing? Read this article and weep:

College students struggle on history test

September 17, 2007

By Tracey Wong Briggs, USA TODAY

“Students don’t know much about history, and colleges aren’t adding enough to their civic literacy, says a report out today. (emphasis mine)

The study from the non-profit Intercollegiate Studies Institute shows that less than half of college seniors knew that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution or that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion. Overall, freshmen averaged 50.4% on a wide-ranging civic literacy test; seniors averaged 54.2%, both failing scores if translated to grades. (I missed the last question on taxes and government spending: 97% overall.)

“One of the things our research demonstrates conclusively is that an increase in what we call civic knowledge almost invariably leads to a use of that knowledge in a beneficial way,” says Josiah Bunting, chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. “This is useful knowledge we are talking about.”

Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions analyzes scores of a test given to 14,419 freshmen and seniors at 50 U.S. colleges last fall on American history, government, international relations and market economy. Freshman and senior scores at the schools, 25 selective and 25 randomly chosen, were compared to gauge civic learning.

The report generally echoes the results of a similar study done last fall by the ISI, which promotes civics in higher education. This year:

•Average scores for the 25 selective colleges — chosen for type, geographic location and U.S. News & World Report ranking — were much higher than the 25 randomly selected schools for both freshmen (56.6% vs. 43.7%) and seniors (59.4% vs. 48.4%), but the elite schools didn’t add as much civic knowledge between the freshman and senior years. At elite schools, the seniors averaged 2.8 points higher than the freshmen vs. 4.7 points for the randomly selected schools.

•Harvard seniors had the highest average at 69.6%, 5.97 points higher than its freshmen but still a D+. A Harvard senior posted the only perfect score.”

Get that? Harvard seniors with highest average at 70%?? ONE perfect score?? Really???

So why is Civics no longer taught in our high schools? Among other reasons, because Civics as it was taught to an earlier generation was a stagnant course, usually taught by ex-Marine jingoes who used it to boast of the perfection of the American system. By the 1980s, this kind of Civics class was being seen for what it was: an empty shell that was no longer (and never was) serving the commonweal.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that Social Studies simply doesn’t matter anymore because it does not appear on the standardized tests. Why, you ask? Because those who design those tests (the business community) see no need for any knowledge outside of reading, math and science. Sadly, our own government is encouraging this (which brings us back to understanding why they would).

The following is an incomplete list of Government/Civics concepts I have compiled that it benefits our young citizens to understand in order to be equipped to deal with those who are advantaged by our ignorance of them. It is by no means complete, and I don’t mean it to be a standard: I am simply hoping to demonstrate how difficult the job of citizenship is in the 21st century, and therefore demonstrate that at the very time we need to be “girding our loins” and singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, we are in fact, abandoning our soldiers in the field and leaving them defenseless.

With how many of these concepts are you familiar?

1. Redistricting/Gerrymandering – its use by both parties to guarantee ‘permanent’ power – its history (Elbridge Gerry) and its mastery by the Republicans of the Tom DeLay era

2. 2-party domination of our democracy – comparison/contrast with European-style democracies – the difficulty of gaining power as a 3rd party candidate at any political level

3. Control of Congressional Committees by the party in power – ramifications for democracy

4. Media literacy (a broad topic in its own right)

a. Spin (We use the phrase so glibly now we’ve lost sight of the real damage it does)

b. VNRs (Video News Releases), Slates, A-Roll, B-Roll, Branded journalism

c. Satellite media tour

d. “Floating” a story

5. Protection from credit card companies for college students – a solvent citizen is a better citizen

6. “Beer & Circus” –  Professor Murray Sperber’s concept of how big-time athletics and alcohol in tandem are undermining our system of higher education in dangerous ways to the nation

7. Recognition of “Political Speak” – the ‘non-denial denial’ and other ways to dupe the naïve

8. The Environment and Politics – global warming and the host of other environmental issues explained by the politics that drive them.

9. Political advertising literacy – how “My opponent voted against supporting our troops in Iraq” might be just as misleading as “My opponent voted to kill puppies”

10. Omnibus bills and the Line-Item veto -as above, how they put politicians in difficult positions

11. Pork/Earmarks

12. Lobbying

13. PACs/527s

14. Unitary Executive Theory and “Signing Statements” – misunderstood or unknown to virtually every American

15. The National Debt – ramifications for the future

16. Scandals

– awareness of them in our history (from Credit Mobilier to Teapot to the vicuna coat to Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica to Abramoff to….

– dissecting which ones are personal tragedies as opposed to truly dangerous to the Republic

17. “Legislating” by the federal courts

18. Founding fathers protected against abuses of political power; how has the Constitution handled abuses of corporate power?

19. The Supreme Court ruling on Eminent Domain

20. The ramifications of the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act

21. The power of the Citizen to change history – a virtually neglected topic in our history texts which tend to concentrate on politicians, warriors, geniuses or other “great men”, and lead our future citizens to a subliminal assumption that history is something that is out of their hands and cannot be changed by ordinary citizens.

22. NGOs and dozens of other ways to help human beings.

23. The impact of privatization (neoconservatism) – the dismantling of publicly-owned structures (including our military)

24. The significant differences between philosophies that espouse power in the hands of   government, as opposed to power in the hands of the individual.

25. History of our political parties – can be of great value in understanding present party philosophy

26. The struggle for power between the three branches of gov’t. throughout our history

27. Use of Fear to control the populace

28. “Official” Propaganda (it wasn’t just a Hitler thing) (see George Creel)

29. What it means when a public official begins a statement with, “I don’t recall…”

30. U.S. involvement in and ramifications of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO

31. Government’s role in the life of its citizens: Liberal v Conservative approaches. What is a Neo-conservative? Neo-liberal? Libertarian?

32. Ramifications of Executive Order 13233 – limiting access to presidential materials,      enacted Nov. 1, 2001, drafted by Alberto Gonzalez

33. Ramifications of National Security Presidential Directive 51 – May, 2007 – allows      the president the power to run the entire federal government (all three branches) in case of a national emergency… that is declared by the president.

34. The concept of privatization as interpreted by neo-conservatives (de-construction of    every publicly-run structure (including the military – see Blackwater and           Halliburton)

35. What the loss of the draft and the establishment of the all-volunteer military means(We the People won’t fight an immoral war or a war for empire… but a private army will)

36. warrantless wiretaps

37. Guantanamo

38. Patriot Acts I and II

39. Originalism (Scalia doctrine that the SC cannot interpret the Constitution in any other way than the Founding Fathers intended)

40. Citizens United

41. Black Sites

42. “Enhanced interrogation”

43. Push polling

44. Stop-loss

45. The evolution of the filibuster (filibuster reform)

This list could certainly be longer (please feel free to make suggestions), but it’s hopefully long enough to demonstrate how badly our children need to be armed against what is being thrown at them.

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Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer
Kinzer describes the machinations behind the overthrowing of the 14 national leaders deposed over time by the U.S., acting in its own national interest.

This is not a book review per se, but more an inquiry. Pertinent questions:

How many U.S. citizens know that the United States has done this?

How many U.S. college students are taught that the U.S. has done this?

How many U.S. high school students are taught that the U.S. has overthrown 14 international leaders?

I think these are valid questions, and I think it speaks volumes about the jingoism that permeates American public education and consequently American life. It is one reason why I have been a crusader (politically incorrect word these days) for the return of Civics as a required course for every American high school senior. This of course would have to be a REAL Civics class, one that emphsizes the brilliance and wonders of the American system of government, but also does not ignore its deficiencies. As I always told my students, “Do you know any human being who is perfect? Of course not, so why would we expect any nation to be perfect? We strive, hopefully, to be our best, but as humans we must acknowledge our mistakes and sins if we hope to improve ourselves. Why is it considered treasonous these days to ask for the same kind of national self-examination?”

Keep in mind that Kinzer’s book deals only with leaders we have actually overthrown; it does not include the much longer list of nations – 234 of them between 1798 and 1993 alone – where we have intervened militarily, as outlined here by the Department of the Navy*. (More recently, how many ways have we intervened in the politics of other countries in non-military ways?)

So, here is the list. Here are a few questions to ask as you read it:

1. Have you ever heard of this person? If so, do you know where and when you heard of him/her? (I’m betting it wasn’t in high school. Maybe college, at best, and probably not until your later adult life.)

2. Do you know why the United States disposed of them?

3. Was the removal justified, either practically at the moment, morally, or in light of later history?

4. Did this removal enhance the international standing of the United States? (This may depend on your definition of the word ‘enhance’.)

Expansionist era
1893 – Queen Liliokalani, Hawaii
1898 – Cuba
1898 – Puerto Rico
1898 – Emilio Aguinaldo, Philippines
1908 – Jose Santos Zelaya, Nicaragua
1908 – Honduras

Anti-Communist era
1952 – Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran
1954 – Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala
1963 – Ngo Dinh Diem, Vietnam
1972 – Salvador Allende, Chile

Invasion era
1986 – Eric Gairy, Grenada
1989 – Manuel Noriega, Panama
2001 – Mullah Omar and the Taliban, Afghanistan
2003 – Sadaam Hussein, Iraq

If you are intriqued by this list, then read Kinzer’s book. It is well-written, well-balanced, and well-documented.

*In a future post, I may address this list.

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Major General Smedley Butler – “War Is A Racket”

Yes, I smirked when I heard his name the first time, too. And then I thought the letter must be a fake (like the famous Chief Seattle letter) because no twice-Medal-of-Honor-winner Marine Corps Major General would EVER write an indictment of such magnitude. And yet, here it is, written in the 1930s in his retirement years as he looked back on what it was he had really supported with his career. Note that Butler wrote this at the same time the Senate’s Nye Committee was meeting. This committee concluded its findings by 1936: the United States entered WWI primarily due to the influence of a combination of the American munitions and banking industries. These findings and Butler’s book had a great deal to do with America’s strong neutrality movement of the late 1930s that made it difficult for FDR to engage America in the 2nd World War. (FDR would resort to trickery, with his own “Tonkin Gulf Incident”, but more on that in a later post.) Isn’t it wonderful how well we learn the lessons of our history?


War Is A Racket
Major General Smedley Butler
(excerpted from his 1935 booklet and speech)

“WAR is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. (Ed. Note: This was written prior to the proliferation of the huge multi-national corporation.) It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.

Again they are choosing sides. France and Russia met and agreed to stand side by side. Italy and Austria hurried to make a similar agreement. Poland and Germany cast sheep’s eyes at each other, forgetting for the nonce [one unique occasion], their dispute over the Polish Corridor.

The assassination of King Alexander of Jugoslavia [Yugoslavia] complicated matters. Jugoslavia and Hungary, long bitter enemies, were almost at each other’s throats. Italy was ready to jump in. But France was waiting. So was Czechoslovakia. All of them are looking ahead to war. Not the people — not those who fight and pay and die — only those who foment wars and remain safely at home to profit.

There are 40,000,000 men under arms in the world today, and our statesmen and diplomats have the temerity to say that war is not in the making.

Hell’s bells! Are these 40,000,000 men being trained to be dancers?

Not in Italy, to be sure. Premier Mussolini knows what they are being trained for. He, at least, is frank enough to speak out. Only the other day, Il Duce in “International Conciliation,” the publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said:

“And above all, Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. . . . War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the people who have the courage to meet it.”

Undoubtedly Mussolini means exactly what he says. His well-trained army, his great fleet of planes, and even his navy are ready for war — anxious for it, apparently. His recent stand at the side of Hungary in the latter’s dispute with Jugoslavia showed that. And the hurried mobilization of his troops on the Austrian border after the assassination of Dollfuss showed it too. There are others in Europe too whose sabre rattling presages war, sooner or later.

Herr Hitler, with his rearming Germany and his constant demands for more and more arms, is an equal if not greater menace to peace. France only recently increased the term of military service for its youth from a year to eighteen months.

Yes, all over, nations are camping in their arms. The mad dogs of Europe are on the loose. In the Orient the maneuvering is more adroit. Back in 1904, when Russia and Japan fought, we kicked out our old friends the Russians and backed Japan. Then our very generous international bankers were financing Japan. Now the trend is to poison us against the Japanese. What does the “open door” policy to China mean to us? Our trade with China is about $90,000,000 a year. Or the Philippine Islands? We have spent about $600,000,000 in the Philippines in thirty-five years and we (our bankers and industrialists and speculators) have private investments there of less than $200,000,000.

Then, to save that China trade of about $90,000,000, or to protect these private investments of less than $200,000,000 in the Philippines, we would be all stirred up to hate Japan and go to war — a war that might well cost us tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of lives of Americans, and many more hundreds of thousands of physically maimed and mentally unbalanced men.

Of course, for this loss, there would be a compensating profit — fortunes would be made. Millions and billions of dollars would be piled up. By a few. Munitions makers. Bankers. Ship builders. Manufacturers. Meat packers. Speculators. They would fare well.

Yes, they are getting ready for another war. Why shouldn’t they? It pays high dividends.

But what does it profit the men who are killed? What does it profit their mothers and sisters, their wives and their sweethearts? What does it profit their children?

What does it profit anyone except the very few to whom war means huge profits?

Yes, and what does it profit the nation?

Take our own case. Until 1898 we didn’t own a bit of territory outside the mainland of North America. At that time our national debt was a little more than $1,000,000,000. Then we became “internationally minded.” We forgot, or shunted aside, the advice of the Father of our country. We forgot George Washington’s warning about “entangling alliances.” We went to war. We acquired outside territory. At the end of the World War period, as a direct result of our fiddling in international affairs, our national debt had jumped to over $25,000,000,000. Our total favorable trade balance during the twenty-five-year period was about $24,000,000,000. Therefore, on a purely bookkeeping basis, we ran a little behind year for year, and that foreign trade might well have been ours without the wars.

It would have been far cheaper (not to say safer) for the average American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements. For a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always transferred to the people — who do not profit.”

So there it is. 1935. And here we sit. 2013. Is there anyone today who doesn’t know why America engages in its wars? Yet we cynically line up and salute the flag every time a president gives us the latest version of the “keeping the world safe for democracy” speech. We’re presiding today over the moral disintegration of our military, as suicide and rape statistics dominate the headlines. Is it because the moral underpinnings of most of our wars have been a sham? We’re also presiding over the moral disintegration of Congress: is it because the moral underpinnings of our nation have become a sham?

It’s fitting to conclude with the lyrics from Bob Dylan’s 1963 masterpiece, Masters of War:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

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The theme is war. Over the next week or so I’m going to post some things I’ve written on the subject over the past couple of years. Here’s today’s post, prompted by an article in the Atlantic.

From the Nov. 2012 Atlantic, in an article by Thomas Ricks titled General Failure, about the sad decline in military leadership: “’The troops were good at what they were told to do, from day one,’ observed retired Army Colonel Robert Killebrew, a longtime student of strategy and leadership, in a correspondence we had about Iraq. ‘Had counter-insurgency been invoked on day two, [the soldiers] would have adapted.’ …. The problem…was not the troops but the senior leaders, who were unable to tell their soldiers how to counter an insurgency. ‘As is often the case in war, the question is not whether the troops can adapt, but whether the leaders can. The troops, as always, paid the price of educating their leaders.’ In Iraq, it took more than three years for Army leaders simply to begin listening to units on the subject of what wasn’t working – (emphasis mine) that is, about as much time as the U.S. military spent fighting World War II.”
How many lives were wasted for reasons of stupidity in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan? You never hear about it, because that kind of stupidity is not held accountable the way it should be.

And this is exactly why I personally never wanted any part of war. My recurring nightmare about being drafted into the Vietnam War was not dying – it was dying because of the stupidity or stubbornness of someone above me in rank who sent me to my death and wasted my life.
I had a recurring dream from the time I was maybe 9 or 10 years old that I was lying on a road with a huge military truck bearing down on me (I can still hear the roar of the engine). Of course, I could make none of my muscles work. I would wake up terrified just as the front grill of the truck was above me. As I got older and the Vietnam War mushroomed around my life, I was almost philosophical in my belief that I would somehow end up there and be killed (although not necessarily by being run over by a truck).
The luckiest day of my life was December 1, 1969, draft lottery day, when I drew #315, ensuring I would never be called into the Vietnam War against my will.

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Remember him? That was the nickname the CIA gave to Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, on whose word we “knew” that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Below is something I wrote in response to his 2012 confession to The Independent.

April 2, 2012

This is a story about the Iraqi whose fabricated story about those “mobile chemical factories” was used by the CIA and Secretary of State Colin Powell to sell the American people on the war. He tells BBC it was a lie to try to get the U.S. into Iraq to get rid of Saddam. Thanks for your trouble, USA. Mission Accomplished.

I’m sure this will be a huge story on Fox today (sarcasm intended).

I taped Powell’s February 5, 2003 speech to the UN so I’d be able to re-examine it. Remember that day? It was huge in our recent history. I had been against the build-up to war to that point, but I trusted Powell and really wanted his speech to provide the incontrovertible evidence I needed to turn me in the other direction. When the speech was over, I just felt used. I didn’t feel like anything Powell said was really convincing; there was a phoniness to the presentation. And I LIKED Powell! More than anything else, I was left with images of the Gulf of Tonkin, foisted on us (and Congress) in a more innocent era. Surely America wouldn’t fall for this claptrap in the 21st century! Fool me once, shame on me.

If anything, at that point, I became even more vocal in my opposition to the war. And now I know why. If we don’t learn something from this, I’ll be pissed. But then, we apparently learned nothing from Gulf of Tonkin either.

Which brings me back to media coverage of these kinds of things. I’m guessing almost all the mainstream American media will virtually ignore this story* which should be the lead story in not only every newspaper and television station, but every U.S. History classroom in America.

*Just checked the NYT headlines. No mention of this story, but their quote of the day is this one: On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany, saying, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

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John Henry 2009

I wrote this sometime in late 2009, after Lance Armstrong won the Leadville 100 on his second attempt. I thought in light of his recent fall from grace (and what a fall it was) that the piece can be read perhaps in a new light. There are many in the Leadville 100 community who say that Lance should be stripped of that title and it should be given to the second-place finisher, Leadville legend Dave Wiens. But Leadville is an unsanctioned race, with no prize money at stake (although I do wonder what the “arrangement” was for him to participate), and I’m guessing nothing will be done.

All the pictures were taken by me.

John Henry 2009

As I positioned myself for the best possible picture on a section of single track at about the 65-mile mark of the 2009 Leadville 100 mountain bike race, I had already heard the scuttlebutt: Lance Armstrong had pulled away from Dave Wiens at the 50-mile turnaround point on Columbine Pass above Twin Lakes. The rumor was that he had about a ten-minute lead over Dave, our 44-year-old never-aging “wunderkind” and father of three from nearby Gunnison who had won the last six 100s, including victories over Floyd Landis two years before and then 2008’s 6 hour 45 minute record-breaking victory over Lance, who was making his first appearance that year.

Leadville, recovering nicely from its annual Boom Days celebration the week before, was abuzz over what was being called the “Lance Effect”- businesses reporting five times their revenue over previous 100s, and so on. The 100-mile mountain ultra bike and running races were instituted by Leadville’s State Rep. Ken Chlouber about fifteen years ago, as Leadville was sinking into a deep depression, emotional and economic, after the closing of the Climax Molybdenum mine, just up the road. The idea was that maybe extreme athletes would want to compete at extreme events starting in the highest incorporated city in America. A crazy idea, maybe, but anything to get some people into town. And now, it seemed, gold had been struck.

Climax was Leadville’s last significant major mine of any sort, and Leadville, from its beginnings, was a mining town. And not just any mining town. More silver and gold was pulled out of the earth around Leadville, primarily from California and Evans Gulches, than any other similar square mileage on earth. That was the 1880s, of course, but American skyscrapers and bridges needed stronger steel, and World Wars I and II required the molybdenum that turned steel into armor, and that’s what Climax was all about. But Vietnam was apparently the last war that needed quantities of moly, and Climax finally shut down in 1989.

The main attraction at Boom Days is the competitive mining events, where manly men wearing really dirty t-shirts (or no t-shirts at all) shovel muck into ore cars, drive steel bits into a block of granite, and hammer nails into faux mine shaft “beams”. The highlight for me is the double-jacking event on Sunday, when they operate in teams of two, one man holding the steel while the other drives it deep into the granite with a sledge-hammer. John Henry always comes to mind.

Singles hand-steeling

Singles hand-steeling

Conversely, the event that holds the least interest for me is the steam drill event. Not that it’s easy to manhandle a 300-pound drill and it’s 8-foot bit to collar a hole in a block of granite, but it’s just not the same as watching men wield the traditional tools of the trade using only their own power. There’s a real sense of history as you watch these events, and they are particularly poignant in light of Leadville’s recent decline. In 2008, however, the Mining Events official t-shirt proudly boasted “Celebrating the Rebirth of Moly”. A Chinese company had bought the rights to Climax and was readying it for its grand re-opening in 2009. Over 400 locals had already been hired in the lead-up, and it was a very good summer for Leadville. Lance only helped make it a better one. The really big news in Leadville in 2008 was Climax, not Lance.

But as we all know, some little thing happened with the economy that year, and by December, the announcement came: the mine would in fact not re-open. It was singularly cruel for Leadville: most people in town wished their hopes had never been raised in the first place. A lot of folks had the attitude, “Just our luck. Seems like nothing ever goes our way anymore.” Leadville trudged through the long winter, a saddened place. The 2009 t-shirt made no boasts as there were none to make.

In 2008, Lance was virtually a last-minute entry in the 100 (was he REALLY going to show?) and the crowds weren’t as big as they could have been. But the close finish (Lance and Dave were neck-and- until the 90th mile) set the stage for this year’s drama. Apparently, Lance had just run out of gas after Mile 90. In perhaps a historic first, he told Dave the race was his, he was done, but Dave was looking over his shoulder all the way to the finish line. Lance doesn’t like to lose, they said. He’ll be back with a vengeance, they said.

So driving through town on the early August Friday evening before race day 2009 there was a palpable aura: something big was about to happen. It was like the Old West, the whole town waiting for the shootout at high noon the next day. While stopped at the light at 6th and Harrison, I watched them installing the gates around the finish line. The next day, some kind of history would be made right there on that little patch of blacktop with the red carpet spread for 20 feet in front of the finish line. Could Wiens do it again?

But the next day, as I stood among the tumbleweeds on the single-track at Mile 65 waiting to catch my perfect picture, I was disquieted. Something was bothering me.

And then… a lone cyclist crested the hill to the south and came barreling down the road. It was definitely Lance, with no sign of Dave for the half-mile we could see beyond.

Mile 65

Mile 65

I got my perfect pictures from point-blank range as Lance blew past, churning up the 7% grade at about 15 mph. He was on a mission. Sixty-five miles into a race that had started at 6:30 a.m., at 41 degrees fahrenheit, in a bitterly cold rain for the first hour, then heavy sleet two hours later at 12,500 ft. Columbine Pass, Lance looked, well, like Lance always looks. Same composed expression, same determined look, same set of the mouth. I assumed that under his helmet there wasn’t a hair out of place. He was about the furthest thing possible from the name on the nifty black jersey he sported for this ride, Mellow Johnny’s. Maybe Focused Johnny’s or Dead-Serious Johnnys, or Machine-like Johnny’s. But Mellow? Lance? No.

A machine

A machine

Machine-like. As I watched Lance pedal on up a mile of switch-backs at a pace that never varied, I had time to think while I waited for Dave.

Up the single-track, 15 minutes ahead of Dave

Up the single-track, 15 minutes ahead of Dave

Machine-like. And then I knew what was bothering me. I was watching the steam drill beat John Henry. I’m not saying Lance isn’t human. It’s just that he’s, well, not human. The Denver Post announced that Lance would be riding a “tricked-out new mountain bike he believes could be capable of finishing the ultra in less than six hours, with a team effort”. (emphasis mine). So Lance was bringing a team of riders with him? As it turns out, yes. I stood next to the mother of one of these riders, Matt Shriver, who told me that Matt’s job was to get Lance to the 50-mile turn-around, at which point Lance would take it on his own.

Our John Henry didn’t stand a chance against the new improved steam drill (and his team). Lance won going away, set a new course record, finishing in 6 hours, 28 minutes. Dave crossed the line in second almost thirty minutes later.

But that’s not how the legend is supposed to end, right? Dave should have been able to dig deep those last forty miles and say to himself, “A man ain’t nothin’ but a man, and before I let Lance beat me, I’ll DIE with these Ergon grips in my hands, I’ll DIE with these Ergon grips in my hands”. Or something like that.

I drove to the hill before the finish line to watch the inevitable. Lance rode the final 10 miles or so on a flat tire. If he noticed, it didn’t show. He seemed to be riding at the same speed I saw at the 60-mile mark.

That back tire is flatted!

That back tire is flatted!

1/2 mile from the finish line

1/2 mile from the finish line

Machine-like (although he was sweating!!). The crowd was flat when he crossed the finish line. Some blamed the P.A. announcer who did little to whip them up. People cheered, yes. I mean, come on, he’s the world’s greatest cycling champ. Ever. But how do you cheer for a machine? Lance said a few perfunctorily nice words to the press, and quickly disappeared, assumedly back to his new home in Aspen, 50 miles and a world away from Leadville.

But nobody else left the finish line. When Dave finally hove into sight almost thirty minutes later, the roof lifted off the place. A champion was being hailed. He stepped from his bike with a genuine smile, hugged his boys and his mother, grabbed a crate, turned it upside down and sat, talking with anybody and everybody who had a question. A human being.

John Henry being hailed by the crowd at the finish line

John Henry being hailed by the crowd at the finish line (that’s his mother to his left and his two sons in the foreground)

Three hours later, twenty members of his extended family had dinner together along with a dining room full of hungry locals at arguably Leadville’s, if not the world’s, best Mexican restaurant, The Grill.

Dave, at far right, eating dinner with his family

Dave, at far right, eating dinner with his family

His demeanor was not of a man who had just lost the biggest race of his career. He was a man who clearly had his greatest treasure around him in the restaurant, and who will go back to work Monday in Gunnison. The patrons in the restaurant gave him a rousing three cheers.

Dave chatting with my friends at the Grill

Dave chatting with my friends at the Grill (Where was Lance eating tonight?)

So like the steam drill, Lance won but didn’t. Of course, nobody drives steel by hand anymore, except in mining competitons, so like the steam drill perhaps it will be the Lances of this world who dominate the Leadville 100 from this time forward. In any event, an era ended in 2009, and another was begun. Like Leadville the town, the 100, for better or worse, isn’t the same. It’s even acquired a fancy new corporate “owner”, Lifetime Fitness. Race co-founders Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin  sold the race to them for a purported $3 million and they seem to be making all kinds of “corporate” changes.

By the way, when Climax does open, if it ever does, you won’t see steel-drivin’ men crawling around the pile with sledge hammers and steel bits, chanting rhythmically as they whop that steel on down. Huge machines run by computers will claw open and finish removing an entire mountain, extracting the precious moly and sending a slushy slag through enormous pipelines to fill up the valley on the other side of the road, a Mordor-esque scenario. But Leadville will be a happy place. It will be doing once again what it was made to do: dig ore out of the earth.

Oh, and Lance will be back one of these days. His new opponent isn’t human:

He didn’t break six hours.

Bob Graham is a retired teacher and sometime writer living in Twin Lakes. After being inspired by the athletes of all stripes in previous 100s, the 2011 Leadville 100 was his first. He’s going back in 2013 to do it again.

2013 postscript

Well, Lance hasn’t been back to Leadville and most likely never will, although he did deliver a rousing pep talk at the pre-race meeting in August, 2012, just weeks before his highly-publicized outing as a crappy human being.

Re: Lifetime Fitness, the Leadville 100 mountain bike race has now been folded into a larger series of races, all of which are called the “Lifetime Race Series”. It’s now a faux pas to refer to the “Leadville 100 mountain bike race”, and no one affiliated with the race does so. Because of the Lance Effect, and two movies that were made about the race, the registration numbers are so high and the chances for entry so slim that Lifetime has started a series of qualifying races at various times and places across the country, where for a significant fee one has the chance of meeting a qualifying time in order to gain entry to the race in that manner. This means that the number of highly-competitive mountain bikers in the race will continue to increase, and the number of average joes like me will decrease. (One can also gain entry by paying $2000 to attend a special summer Leadville Race Series training camp during the summer. Who leads this camp? None other than John Henry himself, Dave Wiens.)

And speaking of Dave Wiens, 2010 was his last Leadville 100. He finished in 4th place with his best time ever, but I believe he saw the handwriting on the wall in terms of the future. The day of the steam drill had arrived.

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