Saturday, June 11, 2016

Navy Reads 'Grunt'

Aboard USS Tennessee (SSBN  734) Photo by MC1 Rex Nelson
Review by Bill Doughty

Mary Roach's interest in writing "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016) is not in the killing "but in the keeping alive."

Mary said "Grunt" is "probably the most interesting book I've written." (My interview with Mary was posted earlier this week.)

One of the most popular and best science writers in our time, Mary Roach is attracted to the offbeat and weird. She brought us the science of sex in "Bonk," of death in "Stiff," of the possible afterlife in "Spook," of digestion in "Gulp," of space in "Packing for Mars," and of all kinds of curious, cool stuff as editor of "Best American Science and Nature Writing (2011)."

In "Grunt" she explores foxholes and body armor, flies and medicinal maggots, heat and sweat, beaded curtains and unrefrigerated goat meat, camouflage and MRAPS, IEDs and earplugs, and diarrhea and sharks.
  • In Groton, Connecticut she takes us into a wet trainer, aka, "one of the reasons Sailors swear." Here's Mary: "A blast of pressurized air empties the submarine's ballast tanks like a Heimlich maneuver on a purpling guest."
  • At the Monell Chemical Senses Center she donates her own underarm gases to stink researchers who evaluate and provide a grade.
  • At Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, Africa she examines the insufficient size of toilet paper provided in MREs and hears that "Navy guys pack baby wipes" while "Marines just cut off a piece of their t-shirt. Which possibly sums up the whole Marine Corps-Navy relationship."
    Getting a tour of a Stryker. (Photo courtesy of Mary Roach)
  • At Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton's paintball range she asked to be shot to see what it feels like. Forty Marines volunteered, for which Mary seemed to have mixed feelings.
But there's a serious side to Roach's investigations and reports.

At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center she makes a poignant connection with wounded warriors who share their mental toughness and grit. They joke even when severely wounded. Their first thoughts are about their fellow troops rather than about themselves.
"This is some kind of blinding selflessness, the sort of instinct that sends parents running into burning buildings. The bonding of combat, the uncalculating instinct of duty to one's charges and fellow fighters, these are things that I, as an outsider, can never really understand ... My world is full of people, and that includes me, who never have to put their lives and bodies on the line for other human beings or for things they believe in. 'Hero' has always been a movie word, a swelling orchestral soundtrack word. A Walter Reed hallway word. Now it has something under it."
Mary Roach focuses on the sacrifice and resilience of wounded troops who return from war: young people changed but committed with their families to getting back on track.

But there's always insatiable curiosity and Mary's willingness to, in the words of David Bowie, turn and face the strange.

"Grunt" brings us research about maggots in wound care and explores whether sharks are really as dangerous to live humans as their reputation is made out to be. By the way, according to the scientists, "human urine does not attract sharks." A typical Mary Roachism: How do sharks acknowledge pee in the pool when they have "no eyebrows to raise or shoulders to shrug."

Photo from Navy Medicine, DoD NavyLive Blog.
Regarding sharks, she references a former Chief of Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, reveals studies from the Office of Naval Research, and quotes from a paper by Navy Captain H. David Baldridge Jr.: "Analytic Indications of the Impracticality of Incapacitating an Attacking Shark by Exposure to Waterborne Drugs."

Sharks eschew what's alive and chew what's dead, preferring, in Mary's words, to "take no risks and go after a meal that's not going to put up a fight. Injured is good. Dead is better."
"As with fish, so with humans. Over and over, in the shark attack reports of World War II, corpses took the hit. A floating sailor could dispatch a curious shark by hitting it or churning the water with his legs. (Baldridge observed that even a kick to a shark's nose from the rear leg of a swimming rat was enough to cause a 'startled response and rapid departure from the vicinity.') 'The sharks were going after dead men,' said a survivor quoted in a popular book about the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, an event that often comes up in discussions of military shark attacks. 'Honestly, in the entire 110 hours I was in the water,' recalls Navy Captain Lewis L. Haynes, in an oral history conducted by the US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, 'I did not see a man attacked by a shark ...' They seemed to have been, he said, 'satisfied with the dead.' Haynes says fifty-six mutilated bodies were recovered, but there's nothing to suggest that any more than a few of them were bitten into while alive."
Mary asked a Naval Special Warfare Command representative about sharks attacking Navy SEALs. His reply: "The question is not, Do Navy SEALs need shark repellent? The question is, Do sharks need Navy SEAL repellent?"

Mary Roach and notebook aboard USS Tennessee (SSBN 734). Photo by MC1 Rex Nelson
Mary explores curious military science aboard a boomer, Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee (SSBN 734), where "extreme caution is ever the mindset," and where she learns more about "crush depth," "the galley," "Momsen's lungs," and "Trident II launch tubes," among other things – including the importance of sleep in a world with no circadian rhythm. Despite the "long hours and grueling tedium" the crew remains focused and friendly:
"Almost everyone I've met down here has been easygoing and upbeat, especially given how tired they must be. I am, to quote the Dole banana carton in the galley pantry, 'hanging with a cool bunch.' If everyone in the world did a stint in the Navy, we wouldn't need a Navy."
As usual, some of the biggest smiles come from reading the footnotes. For example: Did Julia Childs really cooked up a shark repellent – or just a good story?; Did Brian Williams really like a caffeinated meat stick he sampled at Army's Soldier Systems Center, Natick?; Did you know that when diarrhea researchers are named Riddle and Tribble there's a 94 percent chance of mistakenly calling them "Dribble"?

Mary says that reading science books makes you smarter and more likely to attain attractive dinner partners. But some of her chosen subject matter may make you lose your appetite. In a good way.

"Grunt" ends with a perspective on getting perspective about death in war – important thoughts after her story about "quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks."

Ultimately, Roach writes, "This book is a salute to the scientists and the surgeons, running along in the wake of combat, lab coats flapping," studying "the curious science of humans at war."

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Mary Roach Interview 2016 'Curious Science'

By Bill Doughty

Mary Roach's latest work, "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War" hits bookstores today.

I interviewed Mary recently. As usual she was open, insightful and funny, never taking herself completely seriously.

Mary Roach deals with serious subjects – even war and death – in the same way many women and men in uniform do: with a fearless swagger but reflecting a sometimes sick, macabre humor. Shamelessly human and real.

In this interview: Who's a hero? Which branch of the service would Mary choose? What does she think of the World War II generation? Why read books?

What was physically toughest thing you did during research and writing of this book? What was mentally toughest?
​"I carried a 30-pound ruck inside the USUHS (Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences) "cook box," as part of a heat injury study. Thirty pounds is about a third of what soldiers regularly carry in heat like that.  And I lasted seven minutes, I think.  Put me on a boat, man."Mentally toughest: trying to strike the right tone in my writing.  Needing to be the irreverent, flip goofball my readers have come to expect, but at the same time wanting to be respectful of  men and women in the armed forces and cognizant of the hard work and risks that they undertake on behalf of all Americans."  
From your "Grunt" interviews and interaction, is there someone who is impossible to get out of your mind?
​"The young combat engineer I interviewed after his surgery at Walter Reed.  He had stepped on an IED​, lost all of one leg and part of another and his pelvis was broken, and his first concern, when he comes to, was his men.  He was their commander and he kept trying to get up to see who was hit, who needed help.   As I said in the book, the word "hero" never used to mean much to me.  Sort of a movie word, a swelling-orchestral-soundtrack word.  Now there's something behind it."
Aboard USS Tennessee (SSBN  734) Photo by MC1 Rex Nelson
Now that you've experienced life with different branches of the service, if you had to sign up tomorrow, which would you choose?
​"Why, Navy, of course, Bill!  What a silly question." ​
In "Grunt," you said, "If everyone in the world did a stint in the Navy, we wouldn't need a Navy." Would you mind elaborating a bit?
"I wrote that in my notebook when I was out at sea on an SSBN, the USS Tennessee.  Those guys were working and concentrating for hours on end on very little sleep, and I didn't hear anyone complain.  I never even saw a yawn.   Everyone was upbeat, flexible, and professional, with sense of  humor intact.  For weeks after I got home, I tried to conduct myself more like them.  Then I gave up and went back to being my usual whiney, bratty self." 
What was the biggest insight about the military? Any surprises to original surmises?
"I originally thought that access would be a problem.  I expected double-talk, obfuscation, delays. Got none of that.  PAOs, Navy especially, were more helpful and more forthcoming than most civilian PAOs.  Unless something was classified, the PAO would do what he or she could to address my request.  (Though, granted, I was not writing 'Zero Dark Thirty'!)"
You conclude "Grunt" with a perspective on thinking about war. Is war ever justified?
Mary climbs out of a Stryker. (photo courtesy Mary Roach)
​"The book ends at AFMES (Armed Forces Medical Examiner System), at a Combat Mortality Conference.  In that particular setting, it was hard to have the kind of perspective one needs to see the justification for the lives lost:  so many, so young.  But unfortunately there are situations in which it is justified."
In "Grunt" you mention previous wars, especially the Second World War. This December we'll commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Any words about "the Greatest Generation" and the legacy of that war?
​"They put us Baby Boomers and Millennials to shame. We're spoiled and self-centered. We  have no idea how easy we have it."
In general, what can young people get from reading books (especially science books)?
​"A deeper knowledge and understanding of history and the world around them.  The ability to sound smarter than they actually are, and thereby attain fame, riches, and attractive dinner companions."
What are you reading now?
​"I just finished 'Dead Wake,' Erik Larson's terrific book about the last crossing of the Lusitania.  I had not read much set in WWI, so it was doubly interesting for me.  My father came over to the US on the Lusitania in 1913, a couple years before she went down, so I was curious to learn about more about it.  My dad (he was 65 when I was born) traveled in steerage class, though, and there wasn't anything about that part of the ship in Larson's book. Probably because most survivors who went on to write memoirs were first-class."

Mary Roach's "Grunt" tour began this week at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, New York. My review of "Grunt" will be posted later in the week. See some other Navy Reads posts related to Mary Roach, including her previous recommended reading list here.

Friday, June 3, 2016

World Oceans Day and Rachel Carson

Review by Bill Doughty

Prose is poetry for Rachel Carson, whose "Silent Spring," published in 1962, awakened the ecology/environment movement in the United States. In "The Sea Around Us" (1951, Oxford University Press), she explains the oceans' relationship with the earth and our ties to the sea.

Perfect for World Oceans Day, June 8.

"The Sea Around Us" is a work of art. Carson's imagery is as fresh as when it was created mid-20th century. She shows how the earth and oceans formed and how life crawled from the sea, always dependent on "mother sea," but she presciently warns of a warming planet and rising seas.

Want to understand the science of the creation, tides, seasons and inhabitants of the oceans or how we are all connected by the oceans? Read Rachel Carson. 

Eventually after millions of years of evolution, "man, too, found his way back ..."
"And yet he has returned to his mother sea only on her own terms. He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents. in the artificial world of his cities and towns, he often forgets the true nature of his planet and the long vistas of its history, in which the existence of the race of men has occupied a mere moment of time. The sense of all these things comes to him most clearly in the course of a long ocean voyage, when he watches day after day the receding rim of the horizon, ridged and furrowed by waves; when at night he becomes aware of the earth's rotation as the stars pass overhead; or when, alone in this world of water and sky, he feels the loneliness of his earth in space. And then, as never on land, he knows the truth that his world is a water world, a planet dominated by its covering mantle of ocean, in which the continents are but transient intrusions of land above the surface of the all-encircling sea."
Carson predicts global warming based on natural phenomenon and cycles she observed and studied in the last century. In the 1950s and 60s she wrote about erosion, pesticides and pollution, invasive species, endangered species, and ocean dumping. What would she say about our impact on the climate and our effect on the planet today?

"Unquestionably, there are other agents at work in bringing about the climatic changes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions," she writes in the mid-1950s. "We have therefore begun to move strongly into a period of warmer, milder weather. There will be fluctuations, as earth and sun and moon move through space and the tidal power waxes and wanes. But the long trend is toward a warmer earth; the pendulum is swinging."

She acknowledges the challenges of exploring the seas for fossil fuels and other resources.
"So our search for mineral wealth often leads us back to the seas of ancient times – to the oil pressed from the bodies of fishes, seaweeds, and other forms of plant and animal life and then stored away in ancient rocks; to the rich brines hidden in subterranean pools where the fossil water of old seas still remains; to the layers of salts that are the mineral substances of those old seas laid down as a covering mantle over the continents."
According to biographer William Souder, author of "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson," among Carson's admirers was Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. (Both Nimitz and Carson were featured in the Great Americans series of stamps provided by the U.S. Postal Service in the 80s and 90s.)

Carson reminds us of the U.S. Navy's role in mapping and studying the oceans, especially by seafaring scientist Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury in the 19th century, prior to the Civil War. She writes of USS Ramapo's encounter with a 112-foot wave in 1933 while sailing from Manila, Philippines to San Diego. Carson shares discoveries in the Pacific by the U.S. Navy aboard USS Jasper, USS Henderson and USS Nereus in the Pacific during and just after World War II.

The ancients, she says, revered and respected the deep mysteries of the oceans.
"For the sea lies all about us. The commerce of all lands must cross it. The very winds that move over the lands have been cradled on its broad expanse and seek ever to return to it. The continents themselves dissolve and pass to the sea, in grain after grain of eroded land. So the rains that rose from it return again in rivers. In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutation, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea – to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end."
Curiosity about navigating the oceans began thousands of years ago. "Of the methods of those secretive master mariners, the Phoenicians, we cannot even guess. We have more basis for conjecture about the Polynesians, for we can study their descendants today, and those who have done so find hits of the methods that led ancient colonizers of the Pacific on their course from island to island."

Ancient voyagers sailed by the stars, understood "the varying color of the water," read the clouds, felt the winds, interpreted the currents and followed the migration of birds to lead them to different lands.

Aboard the Hōkūle'a canoe, the Polynesian Voyaging Society's Malama Honua  voyagers are in New York this week during World Oceans Day, sharing their vision for a sustainable earth. No doubt the spirit of Rachel Carson sails aboard Hōkūle'a.

Rachel Carson with a feline friend and her 1951 book, “The Sea Around Us.” (A. Aubrey Bodine, Baltimore Sun file photo, 1954)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Hubris, Hiroshima / Memorial Day, Midway

Review by Bill Doughty

During the Cold War U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon claimed that the United States had to fight Communism because of the Domino Theory, a principle that said if a country (say, Vietnam) fell to the Communists, other Asian nations would topple, including eventually even Japan and India.

President Obama's visit to Vietnam and Japan this week was a tangible display of American's rebalance to Indo-Asia-Pacific and, some would say, a repudiation of the Domino Theory as it applies to the spread of Communism.

But what if the theory is accurate for some of those nations in a different context.

In Alistair Horne's "Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century" (HarperCollins, 2015), the venerated historian challenges readers to think of the cause and effect and consequences of unbridled pride – as war begets war.

Perhaps we can see the dominoes not as countries but as battles and wars themselves, one leading to another: Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. The dominoes are toppled by a type of human behavior identified and named by Aristotle in ancient Greece: hubris.

Horne begins his flowing, connected history in Japan more than a century ago. The U.S. Navy and Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened the country to Western influence and trade in 1853. Drawn to emulate modern nations, the Emperor Meiji committed his people to curiosity, learning and growth.
"A new, compulsory education scheme would create fifty-four thousand primary schools – or one for roughly every six hundred inhabitants; this would eventually lead to the Japanese becoming the most highly literate people in Asia. Within one generation, Japan subjected itself to an astonishing industrial revolution, one designed to catch up with two centuries of Western progress. The mantra for Japanese industry and learning became henceforth, unashamedly, and in general successfully, 'copy, improve, and innovate.'"
An expansionist Japan, modeling England and other imperialist powers, set its sights on Manchuria and took on the Russian Empire, even though, "As of the turn of the century, tsarist Russia was both the largest and the most aggressively imperialist nation on the globe."

Victory by imperialist Japan, Horne argues, led to hubris and more war.

Horne takes us with Admiral Heihachiro Togo aboard the flagship of Japan's Combined Fleet, Mikasa – last of the pre-Dreadnought-era battleships (now a museum at Yokosuka's Peace Park adjacent to the U.S. naval base).

Using geography, personalities, strategies and tactics, Horne contextualizes history. Readers go with the coal-burning Russian fleet into the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Cam Rahn Bay in 1905. From Port Arthur and Tsushima readers are taken into North Korea, back into Manchuria and down to Vietnam, still at the beginning of the 20th century.

President Theodore "T.R." Roosevelt, author of "The Naval War of 1812" and father of the "Great White Fleet," played a pivotal role in bringing about, through the Portsmouth Treaty in New Hampshire, what would be temporary peace in the Asia-Pacific region.

In Horne's view, the First World War "began, and was caused by, various sublime practitioners of hubris in conflict with one another." He purposefully refocuses on the Pacific.

When Togo retired from official duties in 1926 he admonished his nation to remember an ancient Japanese saying, "Tighten your helmet strip in the hour of victory." His contemporary, General Maresuke Nogi, committed ritual suicide, seppuku, to atone for his shame at the death of so many Japanese troops in Manchuria. 

Togo's life and Nogi's death further glorified and galvanized a "suicidally dangerous mythology" of a "divine Japan."

Horne writes, "The myth of Japanese invincibility, which had grown up around him, would lie at the heart of the spiraling new militarism."

American codebreakers in Pearl Harbor help turn the tide at Midway.
The Battle of Nomonhan (also known as Khalkhin Gol) in 1939 became a far-reaching domino as General Georgy Zhukov, hardened on the Mongolian battlefield, returned to successfully defend Moscow from Hitler's invading force in December 1941. "As one who would mete out the punishment prescribed by hubris, Zhukov ... would then go on, through the triumph of Stalingrad, to inflict the ultimate destruction of the Führer's evil dreams in the ruins of Berlin."

Meanwhile, hubris led Imperial Japan to move toward Southeast Asia and Indochina for oil and other raw materials, leading to international condemnation, U.S.sanctions and war. Within six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. bases on Oahu, Admiral Chester Nimitz and planners in Hawaii launched an ambush against Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto and the Japanese fleet at Midway.
"In terms of the history of naval warfare, June 4, 1942, was a stunning vindication of the pioneers' belief in the carrier and its aircraft as the future queen of the oceans. Midway saw the eclipse of the mighty Dreadnought class as the capital ship of navies; both the super-battleships Musashi and Yamato would be sunk by carrier planes, having scarcely fired a shot from their gigantic guns. From Midway on, the line would run directly to Hiroshima in 1945 – and beyond that to the establishment of the United States as the world's naval superpower."
Nimitz inspects the damage after the Battle of Midway.
Nimitz is profiled as combining "the attributes of both boldness and caution" "who listened to his advisors, delegated authority and was immune to panic." Nimitz trusted his codebreakers and other intelligence personnel. And he respected the chain of command, including civilian oversight of the military. He stands in sharp contrast to "The American Caesar," Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who "preferred his own counsel" as a "vainglorious ... actor and egoist," according to Horne. 

Truman's MacArthur was Lincoln's McClelland. When the two met for the first time it was on MacArthur's terms and was "a true dialog of the deaf," one eventually leading to MacArthur's open defiance, hubris, and more toppling of prideful dominoes.
"Few acts of hubris in the twentieth century were punished more savagely or more swiftly than MacArthur's, after that remarkable triumph at Inchon went so catastrophically to his head. Thrusting on to the Yalu in pursuit of total victory was a huge risk, which proved to be a frontier too far, a risk that was unjustified, the costs to world equilibrium unwarranted. Its consequences were legion, casting long shadows beyond the actual conflict of the Korean War. Korea was the first war fought by the United States that did not end in a clear-cut American victory. As far as it had involved a United Nations commitment, this proved an experience unlikely to be repeated. When it came to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the British prime minister Harold Wilson swiftly made it clear that British troops were not going to help out this time. Rather, and similar to President Johnson in 1968, as a consequence of the unpopularity that the war, and specifically the sacking of MacArthur had brought him, Truman declined to run for the White House again. He would be succeeded by another great Second Word War warlord, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. 
"Henceforth, at least until Iraq and Afghanistan came along, the United States would confine itself to waging wars with limited objectives only. As the First Gulf War of 1991 would demonstrate, its leaders would pay fastidious attention to not transgressing national borders. There would be no pursuit of the Iraqi Republican Guard over the Kuwaiti border. Probably the unyielding ferocity with which the Korean War was waged led to a hardening and a prolongation of the Cold War; to a worsening of the split with China, which would not begin to heal until the Nixon-Kissinger initiative of the early 1970s; and to a consolidation of Maoism and all its attendant evils. the spectacle of a modern Western army fleeing before Mao's cotton-clad divisions was not likely to be forgotten in East Asia, no more than had been that of the destruction of tsarist forces in 1905 Manchuria. in the eyes of much of the world, it was Korea 1951 that made a great power of Mao's China."
Horne says it remains a question as to whether a more satisfying outcome could have been achieved leading to a "peacefully reunited Korea, if MacArthur had stopped on the Thirty-Eighth Parallel."

The author takes us into Vietnam via France and writes of the "incredible heroism" of the French and Foreign Legion at Dien Bien Phu in the mid 1950s, noting the defeat at the siege there "cost France not only Indo-China but the rest of its empire as well." He contends, "The imbalance left behind in Vietnam was to lead directly to the American intervention."

Horne's book ends on the cusp of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but he brings up other examples of domino hubris in his epilogue, including "various Middle Eastern flareups" such as the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Can the human condition of vainglorious pride be recognized and controlled without more dominoes toppling?
"If hubris is part of the human condition – deep-seated, lingering, pervasive, and potentially lethal – what can we do to avoid it? If, as these chapters have shown, it is not just our leaders who ignore history and their own experience, we might conclude that we all have something to learn."
Battleship Mikasa Museum in the Peace Park next to Fleet Activities Yokosuka.
In Hiroshima this week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in translated remarks, said:

"Last year, at the 70th anniversary of the end of war, I visited the United States and made a speech as Prime Minister of Japan at a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.  That war deprived many American youngsters of their dreams and futures. Reflecting upon such harsh history, I offered my eternal condolences to all the American souls that were lost during World War II. I expressed gratitude and respect for all the people in both Japan and the United States who have been committed to reconciliation for the past 70 years. Seventy years later, enemies who fought each other so fiercely have become friends, bonded in spirit, and have become allies, bound in trust and friendship, deep between us. The Japan-U.S. alliance, which came into the world this way, has to be an alliance of hope for the world..."

President Obama asks all of us to think about the deep roots of war and peace, common humanity and shared hopes for the future. The Commander In Chief 
concluded his remarks in Hiroshima this way: 

"The world was forever changed here.  But today, the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is the future we can choose -– a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening."

Obama hugs Hiroshima survivor Shigeaki Mori this week. Mori was 8 when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, leading to the end of the Pacific War.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Happy Birthday Arnold Lobel, Fabulist

by Bill Doughty

Aesop. La Fontaine. "Uncle Remus." Hans Christian Anderson. Thurber. Orwell. Among the great fabulists – fable writers – we can add Arnold Lobel's name.

Author of the "Frog and Toad" series, "Ming Lo Moves the Mountain," "Owl at Home," and Caldecott Medal-winning "Fables," Lobel (May 22, 1933 – Dec. 4, 1987) was an artist and writer, who said writing was difficult because he was such a visual thinker.

His simple stories for various "I Can Read Books" held profound timeless ideas about ethics and morality.

In fact, he is interpreted as channeling the Buddhist dharma in a fascinating essay by Kathyryn Jeser-Morton. Christians and Jews can see his stories consistently reinforcing the Golden Rule; protagonists in Lobel's story frequently turn the other cheek, do unto others or practice "an eye for an eye" while young readers can appreciate the paradoxes. Lobel also inspired at least one "green Muslim" in the garden. 

Lobel's fables are universal for believers or nonbelievers. A writer who believes in the power of fabulist philosopher Lobel as "my hero" is Julia Donaldson, who writes in "The Guardian" that "the stories have a quality of joyful optimism celebrating things such as the spring and friendship in a fresh, unsentimental way."

Such is true in "Mouse Soup" (HarperCollins, 1977) a "Level 2" I Can Read Book for first through third graders. The story is filled with potential danger and creative innovative solutions. Spoiler alert: The quick-thinking mouse uses his wits – and some natural "weapons" – to outsmart and escape from a predatory weasel intent on making mouse soup.

Lobel's books are a great way to teach reading to children. In some cases military service members on deployment can get two copies of children's books and read to their sons and daughters as they read along, connected electronically. United Through Reading helps military families through a feedback loop of reading and recording reactions, bringing sponsors and children closer over time and distance.

From the UTR website: "One of the most difficult things a child can experience is having a parent separated from them for an indeterminate period of time. United Through Reading helps ease the stress of separation for military families by having service members who are separated from the children they love read children’s books aloud on video for the child to watch at home."

UTR provides information on how and where to participate. Also offered: lists of books as suggested reading at various reading levels. Titles include "Amelia Bedelia," "No, David," "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed," "Charlotte's Web," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," and "Beyond Basketball: Coach K’s Keywords for Success," among dozens of others. 

Of course, families can choose their own favorite story book, nonfiction book, or book of fables.

Arnold Lobel's "Mouse Soup" is a fun choice and a good starting point for more discussion for military families about how to be cautious in a sometimes dangerous world.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

'United States of Jihad' & Homegrown Terrorists

Review by Bill Doughty

San Bernardino terrorists Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook at airport security.
The journalist who interviewed Osama bin Laden nearly twenty years ago in 1997, four years before 9/11 – and who accurately predicted the location of bin Laden's hideaway more than a decade later – assesses the level of danger of neighborhood jihadists in his latest work, "United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists" (2016, Crown Publishers).

Peter Bergen's conclusion may surprise some Americans.

Bergen's work – which includes insights into the Boston Marathon attack by the Tsarnaev brothers, the killing of Omar Hammami, the hunt for and death of Anwar al-Awlaki, and the Malik/Farook attack in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015 – grips the reader with its sense of immediacy and Bergen's mastery at nonfiction storytelling. 

The book opens with "Americans for ISIS," describing teenager Mohammed Hamzah Khan's attempt to join the Islamist "caliphate" with his younger siblings. Other highlights include behind-the-scenes insights into deranged characters Major Nidal Hassan, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and David Headley.

Bergen examines the phenomenon of "lone wolves" as well as leader-led jihadists.

The roles of Navy SEAL Team 6 and CIA come up several times in the war against what Bergen calls "Binladenism." Bergen documents the success in tracking down and exterminating overseas terrorists. But, here comes the surprise: radical islamists were not the greatest threat to Americans on U.S. soil in 2015, he reports.
"Americans have also long tended to overestimate the threats posed by jihadists while underestimating the sources of other forms of terrorism, generally defined as any act of violence against civilians motivated by ideology. Since 9/11, extremists affiliated with a variety of far-right-wing credos, including white supremacists, antiabortion extremists, and antigovernment militants, have killed around the same number of people in the United States as have extremists motivated by al-Qaeda's ideology. As we have seen, by the end of 2015, forty-five people had been killed in jihadist terrorist attacks in the United States, while right-wing racists and antigovernment militants had killed forty-eight."
As an example, Bergen relates terrorist attack by Dylann Roof last year at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which Roof killed nine African Americans vainly hoping "to start a race war." He reminds us of the historical terrorism in our country, including "an astonishing 112 hijackings in the States during the 1970s."

Yet, the fear of ISIS for some is all-consuming, even impinging on some Americans' "pursuit of happiness." The influential philosopher Epicurus (Thomas Jefferson called himself Epicurean) reasoned that people's greatest desire should be the pursuit of a life of happiness, and that the greatest barrier to that pursuit was fear.

So what about our fears? Bergen writes:
"Americans' persistent fear of terrorism can be explained partly by the disparity between expert and lay evaluations of risk. In the words of Clinton Jenkin, a psychologist writing in the peer-reviewed journal Homeland Security Affairs, 'Experts view risk as the likelihood of actual harm based on mortality estimates, whereas lay perceptions of risk are based on a number of qualitative (and subjective) characteristics.' The average person's perception of risk, he explains, is influenced by 'the voluntariness of exposure,' how much control we feel we have, how great we judge the potential damage, how unpredictable the situation seems, and so on. Since terrorists can strike anyone, anywhere, in a random and dreadful manner, we tend to fear them more than we fear far more common and predictable causes of death. In any year since 9/11, Americans were twelve thousand times more likely to die in a car accident, for instance, than in a domestic terrorist incident."
Bergen continues to put fear and Americans' actual risk in perspective:
"The extent to which our government and the media participate in this endemic paranoia is damaging in that, apart from doing the terrorists' job for them, which is to terrorize, it helps to crowd out the far more serious issues the planet faces. Climate change is far less telegenic than ISIS. More to the point, homicide is the fifteenth leading cause of death for Americans. The scale of this death toll resembles both a national security problem and a public health issue. Around 70 percent of American homicides are accomplished with firearms, according to an authoritative study by the United Nations; some eighty-eight thousand Americans died in gun violence between 2003 and 2010. This means that in the years after 9/11, an American residing in the United States was around five thousand times more likely to be killed by a fellow citizen armed with a gun than by a terrorist inspired by the ideology of Osama bin Laden. It's probably more or less inevitable that most Americans will die of cancer or a heart attack, but why is it even plausible that Americans in high schools, colleges, movie theaters, and churches should die at the hands of young armed men?"
Kerry Cahill and Nader Hasan
He concludes his book with a hopeful profile of Kerry Cahill (whose father, Michael, was killed by Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood) and her bond of friendship with Nader Hasan, cousin of the terrorist assassin, who reached out to her. 

Nader Hassan's Nawal Foundation is dedicated to American Muslims speaking out against terrorists and terrorism. Kerry joined the foundation after bonding with Nader over homemade baklava and a children's book ("Mouse Soup" by Arnold Lobel, author of "Frog and Toad"). "Mouse Soup," Bergen writes, "had been Michael Cahill's favorite book to read to them as kids."

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Worst and the Best – of the Pacific

Review by Bill Doughty

Tragedy and triumph. "Collision" and cooperation. War and Peace. 

Simon Winchester, author of "Atlantic," explores the yin and yang of the world's biggest ocean in "Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers" (2015, HarperCollins). "Pacific" is a great read for Earth Day.

Winchester's clear-eyed assessment ranges from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, garbage gyres, el Niño and the "Ring of Fire" to the joys of surfing in a book he calls "a description of the modern Pacific Ocean" that begins at the end of the Second World War.

Japan rose from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to become an innovative and inventive world power, creating the transistor and transforming business. The Japanese people rejected an authoritarian military-controlled government to "display a mettle quite unimaginable in its scope, heft, and range" in the Pacific theater:
"In those first months after the surrender, the country was gripped by a spasm of self-repair, of make-do and mending, of precipitous institutional about-faces and adaptations. Factories that had weeks before been making war materials switched their production lines to start making items needed not by generals and admirals, but by the bone-tired civilians and by the ragged menfolk returning from the battlefields. So bomb casings became charcoal burners, sitting neatly upright on their tail fins and helping households get through that first bitter winter. Large-caliber brass shell cases were modified as rice containers, while tea caddies were fashioned from their smaller shiny cousins. A searchlight mirror maker turned out flat glass panes to repair thousands of smashed Tokyo windows; and for country dwellers, a fighter plane engine piston maker turned his factory to building water pumps. A piston ring fabricator named Soichiro Honda took small engines used during the war as radio generators and strapped them onto the frames of Tokyo's bicycles – the resulting Bata-Bata motorcycles, the name being onomatopoeic, later evolved into a brand of bike still famed from 1950s Japan as the Dream. Its popularity and commercial success heralded the birth of today's automobile giant, the Honda Motor Company."
Supercyclone Tracy bears down on Darwin, Australia in 1974.
The end of empires casts a long shadow in this book: Imperial Japan and especially the British Empire – and how the monarchy's influence faded in Hong Kong and Australia.

Darwin, Australia becomes a focal point in a discussion about Pacific storms and the effects of global climate change. "During the war, more Japanese bombs rained down on Darwin than on Pearl Harbor," Winchester writes. But when Supercyclone Tracy turned from the sea toward Darwin on Dec. 25, 1974, it destroyed 80 percent of the city. "There has never been a more dreadful and destructive event in recorded Australian history."

Winchester mentions how the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii tracks storms in the Pacific, including Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which "devastated much of the Leyte Gulf region of the southwestern Philippines." 

Northern Lights seen in ICEX 2016. Photo by Aerographer's Mate 2nd Class Zachary Yanez
He quotes former U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear III, who, three months before Haiyan, said changes in the climate were causing increased typhoon activity. "Significant upheaval related to the warming planet is probably the thing most likely to happen ... and that will cripple the security environment," Locklear said. "Probably that will be more likely than the other scenarios we often talk about."

Winchester discusses coral bleaching, first seen on the Great Barrier Reef in late 1981, "under threat from a rise in sea temperature and acidity." He also describes the Pacific garbage patch, effects of plastic pollution on birds, efforts to stop overfishing, and rising sea levels in Kiribati.

Staff Sgt. Skinowski from the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing watches Mt. Pinatubo eruption, June 1991.
The explosion of Mt. Pinatubo, accompanied by a devastating typhoon in 1991, is described as a pivotal moment in the history of the region. Winchester reports how the USS Midway (CV 41) and USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) were diverted to the Philippines to help with evacuation and recovery (Operation Fiery Vigil) and of the vacuum created by the loss of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base.

The U.S. Navy figures prominently in "Pacific," from the USS Pueblo incident with North Korea in 1968 at the height of the war in Vietnam and during the Cold War to deployment of littoral combat ships today to Singapore. 

Winchester shows how the border for North Korea was created by a grease pencil on a National Geographic map early in the Cold War and what that meant for those affected by the "wretched annoyance" of the "pariah state."

Exploring with science and helping try to understand the origins of life: HOV Alvin.
The author takes us aboard the Navy-commissioned, civilian-operated Human-Occupied Vehicle HOV Alvin, a submersible that made a startling discovery 39 years ago.
"On a Thursday morning in mid-February 1977, this doughty miniature research submarine, so precisely engineered and so heavily armored as to allow three explorers to be brought down into the ocean deeps and then drive safely back to the surface, was lowered into the warm blue waters of the eastern Pacific for the 713th logged dive of her career. What she would find later that day, in the abyssal gloom almost two miles down, would laser-etch her name into oceanography's history books as having made perhaps the greatest maritime discovery of all scientific time. For she discovered down in the dark a whole new undersea universe, a previously unimagined dystopia of crushing pressures and scalding temperatures, of curious topography and even more curious life-forms, all gathered around a family of hitherto unknown phenomena that were immediately named for the gaseous torrents that they spewed ceaselessly out into the sea. Alvin, on that midwinter's day in 1977, first discovered the existence of what were to be called deep-ocean hydrothermal vents, gushings of gas and superheated water in places where all was believed to be cold and dark and dead."
The Navy, with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution aboard Alvin, had discovered new forms of life that existed through chemosynthesis, providing "information about the origins of life itself."

While he focuses primarily on the United States, Japan and Australia, Winchester presents an enlightening discussion about China and it's "new Great Wall" at sea, saying the founding of the People's Republic "would eventually turn the Pacific into a cauldron of contention," challenging ships in international waters with claims of sovereignty.
"And still the contagion spreads, and becomes ever broader. In recent years, China's dominance of the South China Sea has been followed by attempts to impose similar hegemonic control over the East China Sea. A long-standing claim made by the Chinese to the disputed Diaoyu Islands, an uninhabited cluster northeast of Taiwan that the Japanese have long called the Senkaku Islands, was suddenly backed up in 2013 when the Beijing government declared the airspace overhead a restricted area, and demanded that all aircraft, civilian and military, report and seek permission before entering it."
Past and future. Destruction and renewal. Fear and hope. Symbolism and stark reality. The yin and yang of "Pacific" rides on warships and surfboards.

Through the words of Jack London and Mark Twain and his own storytelling, Winchester introduces us to surfing icons George Freeth, Hobie Alter and Duke Kahanamoku – "a swimmer to beat all and a surfer to crown all, and if not the father of surfing ... its greatest of ambassadors, to America and beyond." His writing about the sport comes alive:
"The Pacific is a liquid place, and on most of its inhabited coastlines this liquid is warm and ultramarine and inviting. It is also by its very nature ceaselessly in motion. For centuries native peoples who lived on many of the islands of the ocean's tropical interior have made great use of all this motion in ways that provided them with the purest joy imaginable. they rode out on long wooden boards through the beachside surf and spume and waited, floating, for a wave to lumber in from the ocean, and then stood up on the boards, toes gripping the leading edge, and from the wave's summit crest, rode the boards down its steep green face, all the way back into shore."
The love for the sea becomes transcendent and expansive in "Pacific's" epilogue, "The Call of the Running Tide," as he describes the "duty of humanity" for Malama Honua, "to care for our island Earth." Malama Honua. That's the name of the three-year worldwide voyage of traditional waʻa, or sailing canoe, Hōkūleʻa, sailing with, as Winchester points out, "No compass. No extant. No radar. No radio. And certainly no GPS."
"They have left the Pacific behind. The crew have now to divine their way across seas – the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea – that are very different from their home waters. They will pass beneath skies and patterns of stars quite strange to them. Whether or not they succeed, those aboard all keenly believe that their simple attempt will serve as a powerful reminder of the sea's singular importance. That is what all on the boat and back in Hawaii believe lies at the heart of their venture. Malama Honua: that all should be urged to care for a body of water that nourishes every living thing on earth, that gave it life in the first place, and yet that is now wearily compelled to absorb all the excesses of the humans who live beside and around it."
Winchester concludes:
"It seems to me there is even more potent symbolism to the Hōkūleʻa's journey, symbolism that relates quite specifically to the ocean where the boat was born, where her crew members revived and then learned their skills, and from where she came to venture out to the rest of the planet. The Pacific occupies a unique position among the world's seas; the Hōkūleʻa's journey has served as a reminder of why."
At the end of this insightful book about the modern history of the Pacific, readers can be excused for wanting more stories from the author. But as one considers China, North Korea, global climate change – and the hopefulness of Malama Honua – history is still being written.

From today:  "After arriving in Newport News on Friday, April 22, Hōkūleʻa will (be) celebrating Earth Day with the Mariners’ Museum at the James River Fishing Pier on Saturday April 23rd. Canoe tours will be available to the public from 10 am to 2 pm. Enjoy fun and engaging educational activities for families, learn about traditional Polynesian voyaging and wayfinding, and meet the crew of Hōkūleʻa."