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[I hesitated writing this essay. When I finally did write it, I sat on it for months. Then I edited it, and I still hated it, so I sat on it for more months. I’ve then edited it again, sat on it again, and now that it’s horribly dated, I’m finally publishing it. I still hate it. I still hate what it says about me. But I have to say it, nonetheless.]

From Kennesaw …

Kennesaw Mountain was a major engagement in the American Civil War. It was a tactical defeat but a strategic win for the Union army, for it opened up the preeminent Confederate city, Atlanta, to occupation by Union forces. This had the side effect of rallying the North to the side of Abraham Lincoln, thereby guaranteeing his second term as President of the United States. After Kennesaw, General William T. Sherman conducted his infamous March to the Sea, wrecking industries, farms, roads and the lives of thousands of civilians, as he made his way to Savannah on the coast. It was, as some historians have noted, the dawn of “total war”. Sherman wanted to break the back of the confederacy, and he felt the only way to do that was by destroying all its institutions, and putting the people in direct harm’s way, thereby forcing the surrender of the Confederate leaders and its armies.

Mort Kunstler’s “War is Hell”

Brutal, brutal stuff. To this day, Civil War buffs don’t like to talk about the March to the Sea. People love talking about Gettysburg and Antietam and Bull Run and Vicksburg, but not the topic of Atlanta and the March too often. It inevitably leads to accusations of Northern atrocities, few of which can be refuted. It typically ends in argument, and is a topic best left avoided.

As they say: war is hell.

… To Iraq and Afghanistan

Let’s advance the clock 125 years. America has become an industrial juggernaut, a major player in global politics, and (seeing as how we delightfully ignored Eisenhower’s warning), the strongest military power the world has ever seen. We are masters of destruction, harnessing the Sig P320, the power of the atom, and everything in between. It’s what we do, it’s who we are. We blow shit up and kill people.

In August of 1990, the Iraqi Republic invaded the State of Kuwait in a clear case of overt aggression. The Iraqi president, the tyrant Saddam Hussein, in quite possibly the biggest blunder in the second half of the 20th Century, invaded an oil-rich country, and expected an oil-hungry world to simply let it happen. Of course, the world, and the United States, had other ideas. President George H. W. Bush and his team brilliantly assembled a coalition of nations, and after a buildup of some months, proceeded with a superbly executed “100 day offensive”, shattering the Iraqi military, freeing the nation of Kuwait, and securing significant oil fields in the region. Gen. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf’s “Hail Mary” play was a rousing success, and the briefings and maps filled CNN’s schedule for days, weeks and months. The Gulf War met its objectives, and the Western World was pleased.

Full of Grace

And that was it. We were done. Well, we did enforce no-fly zones for years afterward, but other than that, we withdrew from Iraq. Entirely. All our troops, and the troops of the coalition. Bush famously asked the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam, and then we went home. That was it, we were done. And the first, and wisest, President Bush took an endless load of crap for that. “We should have marched to Baghdad”, the war hawks cried. Certainly, they fabricated their own chance to do so twelve years later, but in the moment, the President gave the order, and the military obeyed. We had an objective, we met the objective, and went home. “You break it, you buy it” was the lesson of the day, and for that moment in time, we decided not to break it.

Flash forward another ten years, and we have the horrors of 9/11, which I won’t recount here. Afghanistan harbored Osama bin Laden and his militant band for years prior, giving them sanctuary so they could plot terrorist attacks around the world. The lesser President Bush demanded that the Taliban turn over bin Laden and dismantle al Qaeda, and Mullah Omar declined. It was clear the Taliban government was an enemy of the U.S. and other Western democracies, and a direct supporter of international terrorism. NATO invoked Article 5, and again, war was on. The U.S. and her allies officially invaded on October 7, 2001, and … we were there nearly 20 years.

Whoops.

War Is Hell

This is where this essay gets ugly. This is where I begrudgingly put to page the thoughts I’ve begrudgingly held for a couple of decades now.

It has been said that war is a failure of diplomacy. I would go one further and say that war is a failure of everything. It’s the failure of respect, the failure of decency, the failure of civility. It is the failure of economics, of reason, of leadership, of sanity.

Unfortunately, it is also, occasionally, necessary.

Sherman wasn’t a man to fsck around. He knew what he was dealing with. He also knew what his job was, and that job was to win, and end, a war. He didn’t start it, he might not have wanted it, but once he was in it, he was going to fight. And win. But fighting, and winning, comes at a price. A terrible, terrible price. The Atlanta campaigns and the subsequent March to the Sea caused about 70,000 casualties and over $1B in damages in today’s dollars. It was brutal and miserable, and real people suffered.

And the war ended within 6 months. Sherman went home. Grant went home. War was over (I won’t go over Reconstruction here, that’s a topic for another day).

So what does this teach us? It teaches us that war only has one purpose, and that purpose is achieving a specific political goal through acts of violence when no other approach will work. But what did we set out to do in Afghanistan? In the words of George W. Bush, we set out on a “daring and ambitious mission” to “rebuild Afghanistan” with the “transformational power of liberty”. What does that even mean? Those were nebulous, fanciful objectives, none of which should ever be the goal of warfare. Yet the liberals in Congress ate it up. One representative dressed up in a burqa and pleaded with the House to support the invasion of Afghanistan, and praised Bush for dropping “both food and bombs.” [link] We waged war against an enemy state and justified it with touchy-feely platitudes, with supermajority Congressional OK and highest-ever presidential approval ratings.

That was totally, and completely, the wrong approach. War isn’t a touchy-feely exercise. It is destructive and deadly. Take any other approach, and you’re lying to yourself, and setting yourself up for failure.

I’ll tell you how we *should* have responded. We should have gone in and decimated the Taliban, Mullah Omar, and al Qaeda. And then gotten the hell out, leaving a power vacuum if need be. The world would have been left with a message: “if you support domestic terrorism, we will end you, and leave your country a rudderless mess”.

Link with photo credit

The level of cruelty in the last paragraph astounds me, and I’m the guy who wrote it. But look what happened: we sat there, spending billions of dollars and risking thousands of lives, trying to rebuild a country. We left ourselves open to terrorist attacks, IEDs, and suicide bombers. And then we had enough and left, in the sloppiest exit since Saigon. We gave the Taliban a victory, a victory over the deadliest military force the world has ever seen. They’ve since used that victory to seize power for themselves. That country is now in a state as sorry as it’s ever been.

... To the Future (and maybe Ukraine)

So now where do we stand? Yes, we’re out of Afghanistan, but what about us as a military power? Well, we’ve shown that we’re a military power that can be defeated by our own goody-two-shoes mentality, a military power whose tactical, strategic, and political thinking can be skewed by sympathy and Twitter polls. We are not a military power who wages war, we’re a military power that wants to build orphanages. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not what military power is for, and not what it should do. That is the activity of other institutions. At best, the military can keep the peace so other actions can occur, but even that is dubious and should be short lived. It’s best to get in, kick the everloving shit out of the belligerents, and get out, leaving a clear and stern message that actions have consequences.

It’s hard to create direct corollaries between historical events. It would be unfair of me to wholly trace our failures in Afghanistan (and in the second war with Iraq, a debacle way beyond the pale) to today’s situation in Ukraine. You do have to wonder if Putin would be in a different mindset if he knew America was a true, not-fscking-around military power, instead of a bunch of orphanage builders.

Closing Thoughts

I said in the beginning of this essay that I’m not proud of my thoughts in this area. This whole topic makes me angry, and angry people don’t think with reason. I’m also not a trained solder, I haven’t served in the Armed Forces, haven’t attended basic training, much less a military academy. I’m definitely not a historian either, I’m just a hobbyist who reads books and thinks about this stuff when he has a bout of insomnia. I strongly welcome any and all criticism on this post. Perhaps someone can put some sanity into the conversation and talk me off the ledge. Or perhaps convince me to jump. So chime in, leave a comment, and feel free to tell me exactly how wrong I am.


https://www.nps.gov/kemo/index.htm

Google map to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

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Visiting vs Experiencing

There are three categories of National Park tourists.

The first is the worst: the tourist. The tourist blunders in with their fancy RV, stumbles off some cruise ship, or barrels in on a pair of Harleys. They make a bunch of noise in the visitor’s center, take a high-speed trip through the scenic drive, perhaps (at best) reading 2-3 roadside signs before giving up and barreling off to some picnic area to uncork a bottle of wine, unscrew a bottle of cheap whiskey, or unpack a fistful of juice pops before nearly burning down a campground via an over-butaned charcoal grill.

The second is the polar opposite: the wildlander. These are the folks who truly revel in the hard-core activities: spending days backpacking or river rafting across varied terrains; performing a multi-hour rock traversals up the cliff face; or otherwise reveling in the true wonders of the park: the wilderness. I have full respect for these intrepid travelers, but because I like traveling alone, it would be incredibly dangerous for me. Plus I’m an immense coward.

So I nestle inside the middle group.

Mountains A La Mode

Parks are to be experienced. If you’re in Acadia, you bike the carriage trails. If you go to Key Biscayne, you snorkel the reefs. And if you go to Kenai Fjord, you hike the glaciers* and you kayak the fjords. That’s the Middle Group: find activities that let you experience the park in the few days you have to spend, and enjoy the sh*t out of them.

*Well, you don’t hike *on* the glaciers, that’s dangerous AF. You hike *to* the glaciers. Play safe, everyone.

The kayaking I did at Kenai was one of the best times I ever spent in a park, and I’ve been to well over 200 of them. First, it was a gorgeous day. The sky was so blue, the wind was light, the air was the perfect temperature. Second, the people were fantastic. I typically avoid commercialized park tours, they tend to be too expensive and too lame, but these tour operators were awesome. They were friendly, and helpful, and gave good information, but also knew how to shut up so folks could just enjoy sitting on the water and watch the puffins dive.

Beautiful Day

My fellow kayakers were really cool, too. There were seven of us in all, three couples and myself, and we didn’t know each other (well, hopefully the people in the couples knew each other, but hey, who am I to judge). But everyone was so chill and so interesting and so much fun to be around. It was just us and the puffins and the eagles and the sea lions: the perfect trip.

After the kayaking, we went back to Fox Island. There was supposed to just be some standard lunch, but instead there was some special end-of-season event going on, so we got the full grilled salmon treatment. I rarely remember what I ate on my trips, but that was so memorable. It was all fresh and cooked to perfection and there was no spoiling that day. I was even on-point with my photography that day (a super-rarity).

Photogenic Jay

After lunch, we hopped on a cruise boat for the standard, tourist trip through the fjords. That was … lame, but also hysterical. It’s kinda hard to get excited about tufted puffins or sea lions from 20′ up the side of a boat, when a couple of hours ago you were paddling right alongside them. So the group of us sat in the middle of the deck and chatted for the duration.

My trip to Alaska was, by far, the highlight of all my park trips. I need to go back, visit the panhandle, Aniakchak, and more. It’s a big state with a lot of parks, and I only hit the few with the most … tourists.

Tourists Marvel at the Wonders of Bird Shit Rock

[The photos on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly].


Links:

Kenai Fjords National Park

Google Maps

Fox Island Kayaking

My Kenai Fjords Photos

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Enchantment Under the Sun

I stumbled into my first trip to the desert. I was in southern California on business, and decided to stay an extra couple of days. After work was done, I took the four-hour drive east on I-10, through the San Fernando Valley and San Bernardino (traffic was surprisingly light), and past hundreds of hypnotizing wind turbines, each of which seemingly beckons you to drive off the shoulder and take a nap (hopefully in that order).

I had not planned to visit the park, it was almost a spot decision. I managed to throw my hiking shoes and day pack into my luggage, so I wasn’t totally unprepared, but I did not do any meticulous planning nor any research into sites to see. Fortunately, it didn’t matter: Joshua Tree is a beautiful park, a perfect way to start touring desert terrains, and is basically an open book. There are no “secret spots”, they’re all out there, easy to find. I fell in love with it almost immediately, touring the Cholla Cactus Garden, driving up to the Keys View vista, and making the trek out to the Lost Palms Oasis. Joshua Tree NP a beautiful place to visit: if you find yourself in Southern California, it’s definitely worth a day trip, even if all you do is a drive through.

At least, I’m hoping it’s still worth a day trip. I was heartbroken to hear the park suffered extensive damage by dirtbag vandals during the 2019 government shutdown. Then there’s the possibility that Joshua trees are going to be extinct before too long. Like everything else that’s beautiful in this country, it’s in danger because we can’t act like responsible adults.

Iconic Place, Iconic Art

The Joshua trees themselves are surreal. There are some stellar photographs of the park out there on the web, it’s remarkably photogenic. Sunsets in particular are fantastic, probably because of Southern California air pollution. I didn’t have a camera when I toured there, but I did buy the photograph shown above from the visitor’s center. I couldn’t find the artist on-line anywhere to give proper credit, and it’s so similar to stock images, I may have been duped. It doesn’t matter: it’s a great photo and I love having it on my wall.

I’m not the only one who found the place to be so fascinating. The most obvious example of art inspired by the park is the 1987 album by U2. Interviews with the band confirm that the harshness, blankness, and mystery of the desert provided inspiration for songs on that album, one that would propel them into megastardom. It’s a great album from a great band with a great motif.

The Joshua Tree wasn’t the only work inspired by the park. The cover of the Eagles debut album contains a photo of Joshua Tree. The delightfully twisted film Seven Psychopaths was partly filmed there. John Lennon recorded The Joshua Tree Tapes nearby. Jim Morrison apparently did acid trips with friends either in J.P. or in the nearby Mojave Desert. That story may be apocryphal, but if you want to read a sadly bizarre true story, read about the funeral of Graham Parsons. Plus hey, you can get some cornball wedding photographs taken there!

It’s so obvious, upon visiting, why deserts are so enchanting and inspiring. The desolation, the parched landscape, and the unbroken vistas makes one think about the vastness of it all. The presence of life, even in such harsh settings, reminds you that damned near anything is possible. Or it may be the heat making you a tad loopy. Either way, it’s a great place to sit and think and get inspired (just bring enough water and remember where you parked).

Bottom line: 5 stars out of 5. Plan to see it if you’re ever in southern California. Like nearly everything else, see it before it’s gone.

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Smaller than Larger than Life

Visiting John Muir’s house is a bit of a shock to National Park travelers. Nearly every western park you visit has mention of John Muir: how he explored it, how he mapped it, how he lobbied for its entry into the National Park or Forest Service. Over and over again, you’ll see his weather-worn visage, like this:

800px-john_muir_cane

Clearly this was a larger-than-life figure, a man who walked the earth, one of the few who saw wonders and marvels in their natural state, long before the paved roads leading to well-marked vistas. He was clearly a man of the backwoods, in an era when that really meant something.

Then you go to his home in Martinez, California, and you see this.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Um, what?

Well, turns out that John Muir was (surprise surprise) a human being.

John Muir basically grew old. At 42, after some convincing by his friends, he found he could no longer tromp through the wilderness as he once had. John Muir, like most men, wanted a family. He married Louisa Strentzel, settled down, and fathered two daughters. John Muir then wanted to provide for that family. He proved to be a successful orchardist and businessman, apparently earning enough in five years to provide for his family for the rest of his lifetime (even in the 1880s, that was a remarkable feat). Finally, John Muir needed a place to write and to organize. From his headquarters, he lobbied for the creation of the National Park Service; organized the founding of the Sierra Club; fought the establishment of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir; and published multiple magazine articles and books.

Far too often, folks look at historical figures as being larger than life: omnipotent and perfect individuals, single-minded, focused, driven to their one and only goal. But reality is actually quite different than all of that. John Muir put all his environmental travels on hold and became … a husband, a father, a farmer and businessman. And, apparently, a thumping good one. He lived in a very nice house, in fairly decent comfort, and enjoyed his life. He was not, as his grizzled visage would suggest, purely a “man of the woods”. He was a real human being, appropriate for his time.

Every great person in history, regardless of the pedestals we put them on, was really just a person.

John Muir and Cancel Culture

I recently read Nature Writings, a collection of John Muir’s essays. Muir waxes rhapsodic about everything, from the length of pine needles to the detritus comprising glacial moraines. This is a man who loved the natural world, spending significant amounts of time in the wild lands, sketching flowers and mountaintops and creek beds. His devotion became conservationist zealotry, and his efforts resulted in protecting thousands of square miles from scarring development.

And, apparently, he was also friends with some unsavory characters, including at least one avowed eugenicist. He also said some lousy things about native tribes, slaves, and freedmen. The organization he helped found, the Sierra Club, had a decidedly upper-class, whites-only mentality. The group has enough of a tarnished past, the current directors released a statement at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Conservative commentators across the country gleefully declared “John Muir is canceled!“, triumphant in the fact that the “the radical left” has as much ugliness in their past as they themselves do. Of course, this tarnishes yet another “noble tradition” of this country.

I’m not going to argue whether or not Muir was a solid racist. Frankly, I don’t think I’m qualified. I do think he disliked a lot of people, preferring to walk the woods and the mountains instead of towns and cities. Individuals such as Muir do that because they don’t like people in general. Still, the evidence against him is pretty strong, and the condemnation justified. None of that lessens his contributions to the country, to conservation, to the creation of the National Parks. It just means that he was a flawed man, that he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal as any paragon of virtue, and that his unsavory opinions should be discussed alongside the magnitude of his accomplishments. Those who carry on his work today should strive to do better. Much better.

Fortunately, things are changing. Today’s environmentalists acknowledge that minority populations are at greater risk from environmental catastrophe, and are trying to help. They are also acknowledging that minority populations care deeply about the environment, breaking a long-held stereotype. And as was shown with the XL Pipeline controversy of the past few years, it’s now commonly known that Native reservations have it pretty bad, with some companies taking advantage of extreme poverty to build toxic waste dumps as “job creators”. It’s a shame these groups weren’t brought into the environmental and conservation movements from the very beginning, perhaps it would have gone a long way towards not only inclusion, but also improved living conditions and better health outcomes for those populations. But at least there is movement in the right direction.

It turns out that John Muir was not just a human being, but a flawed human being. It’s up to us to be better human beings. The mistake is not trying to improve on what was done prior. We can be better people than Muir was, while still trying to uphold the better side of his ideals.

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