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Tuesday Bag o’ Anthropomorphism

dachshund pokerSorry, I can’t help it. None of us can. When we look at dogs we see ourselves in them, no matter how often scientists warn us against attributing human feelings, thoughts, and emotions to non-human animals.

I think dogs are a hell of a lot like us. They grow and learn, they have distinct personalities, and they’ve lived and worked with humans since the beginnings of time. Even the most disciplined and objective scientist, I bet, goes home at night and talks to his dog.

I hope you’ll indulge me, then, as I try to get inside a dog’s head.

We live with two miniature dachshunds, Schatzi and Maxie. Schatzi is the elder, very much the alpha dog. We raised her from a tiny pup, house-training and teaching her everything she knows about living with humans. Maxie is, we think, slightly younger; she came to us as an adult, perhaps five years old, her habits and behavior around people already formed.

Their diet is regular: dry kibble in the morning, a dog treat in the middle of the day, wet food at dinnertime. The wet food consists of frozen meat pellets, which we buy in bags at the feed store and keep in the freezer at home. The pellets are made of beef, venison, lamb, chicken, rabbit, and duck — we buy a different flavor each time. Since the pellets are frozen, we have to thaw them out first. Each night at dinnertime, as the dogs are eating, we put two fresh scoops of pellets in a plastic container which we leave in the fridge to thaw for tomorrow.

When Schatzi and Maxie eat, they wolf their food in three or four gulps and finish together. Once they’re done Schatzi moves over to Maxie’s bowl to lick the last traces of flavor from it, while Maxie does the same to Schatzi’s bowl. Even so, I watch them while they eat, because sometimes Maxie is a little slower and Schatzi will try to muscle in on what’s left of her food.

What slows Maxie down is this thing she does where she jumps back from her bowl, then warily sneaks back to finish her dinner. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it’s clear something startled or frightened her. I started wondering what that something could be.

Whatever it is, it never happens at breakfast or treat time, only at dinner and then not always. So it’s not a fear of food, nor does it seem to be deference to Schatzi’s alpha dog status. It’s something else, and I think it’s me or something I’m doing.

Lately I’ve been watching Maxie closely as she eats. I’ve observed that she only jumps back from her bowl when I do a certain thing. Like the dogs, I too have a set dinnertime routine: I put one scoop of thawed pellets in each bowl, then put the bowls on the floor. As the dogs start to eat, I turn to the freezer, open it and pull out the bag of frozen pellets, then scoop tomorrow’s dinner into the plastic container to thaw.

Maxie starts in on her dinner without a care in the world, but as soon as I make a move toward the freezer she starts keeping an eye on me. She doesn’t jump back from her bowl until I open the freezer door, or at least that’s what I thought until last night, when I tried to observe her behavior more scientifically. Last night she kept eating as I opened the freezer door, but jumped back the second I reached inside for the bag. I’ll try to confirm that at dinnertime tonight, but I don’t want to take it any farther than that.

Exactly what it is that frightens her when I reach inside the freezer for that bag I’ll probably never know. But clearly it does frighten her, and that’s the last thing I want to do to this sweet little creature, who has always been wary and shy around humans. So after tonight, I’ll change my routine and stop preparing tomorrow’s dinner until both dogs have finished eating.

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Maxie and Schatzi

We think we know and understand Schatzi, since she grew up with us. Maxie was an adult when we got her, her mannerisms and habits already formed. We don’t know much about her prior life. For a year or so before she came to us, she belonged to a friend’s daughter. The daughter was starting her own life, changing jobs and moving from apartment to apartment, so she had to leave Maxie with her mother, who already had two dogs of her own. Maxie was well loved by both daughter and mother, but we thought we could give her more attention and a permanent home, so we offered to adopt her.

The thing is, Maxie lived with someone else, possibly more than one person, before living with our friend’s daughter. We know nothing about that part of her life. Was she loved then, or was she neglected or abused? She had been spayed, but that’s all we knew about her medical history. Even her age was unknown — the vet, looking at her teeth, said she was probably a year younger than Schatzi.

We once had a coyote-collie mix named Duke, who like Maxie was grown when we got him. One day I dropped a glass on the kitchen floor and reached for the broom. Duke yelped and ran for the hills. It was pretty obvious he thought I was going to beat him with that broom, and he must have had a reason to think that, poor thing.

Maxie, like Duke, is afraid of something. You can fault me for anthropomorphising, but when she jumps back from her dinner I see fear. Did a previous owner do something bad to her? Probably, but it’s hard to imagine what it could have been. If she shied away from brooms and sticks, like Duke, cause and effect would be clear. But reaching inside a freezer? What could be threatening about that? We’ll never know, but it’s real to Maxie, and now that I realize it’s scaring her I won’t be doing it any more.

Most people who adopt adult dogs and cats call them rescues. Technically, I guess, Maxie’s a rescue, but I don’t like to think of her as that. She had a pretty good life, at least the life we knew about, when we took her in. It’s not like we were rescuing her from the pound or something. We thought she’d have a more stable life with us, and that she’d enrich our lives, and that’s how it’s turned out. Is she happy? If I may be allowed to attribute human emotions to a dog, I believe she is.


You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news.


Hacked traffic sign in Los Angeles (photo credit: unknown)

YCRT! updates from Tucson, Arizona, where 80 textbooks, along with the entire Mexican-American Studies program, were banned from local high schools in 2012:

YCRT! updates from Dallas, Texas, where we’ve been following an ongoing battle over books assigned to students at Highland Park High School (this is the school district where the superintendent at one time advocated red-flagging any book appearing on the American Library Association’s banned book list):

YCRT! banned book & censorship news:

YCRT! book review:

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich

This is an older review, previously published in a YCRT! column, but having just read about parental attempts in Dallas, Texas to ban the teaching of a similar book on poverty in America, I felt it would be useful to look at the subject of textbooks that address the experiences of low-income working people in America and the controversy such books invariably engender.

This book was recently challenged by parents in Bedford, New Hampshire, who wanted it taken off a high school finance class reading list. The parents’ stated objection was to a sentence describing Jesus Christ as a wine-guzzling socialist vagrant, but I suspect their real objection was to the book’s political message … certainly that was the case with the many right-wing bloggers who took up the parents’ cause and cheered when the school board buckled and removed the book from the reading list. I decided to read Nickel and Dimed to see what the fuss was about.

Barbara Ehrenreich, hardly the Marxist described by her critics, goes undercover and tries to make ends meet by working a succession of low-wage jobs.  Her experience underscores the near impossibility getting ahead, or even keeping one’s head above water, when you’re making minimum wage.

What’s interesting is that the book was written after the first wave of welfare-to-work initiatives imposed in several states during the Clinton administration. Things are undoubtedly much worse now. Then, there were still federal and state programs to help the working poor, if you knew where to look. Now there is almost nothing.

I must say, it’s a shocking book, and a depressing one. Workers, often single mothers, cannot live on one minimum wage job. They have to work two and even three, and still cannot afford anything but the basics: a roof, food … and often not even that.  Cheap apartments or trailers are increasingly impossible to find, and the trend is for several low-wage workers to live together in weekly-rate motel rooms. Miss a day or two of work and you’re out of a job. Get sick, ditto. Your junker breaks down? Sorry, Charlie, and where did you get the idea trash like you was entitled to a car in the first place?

After reading Nickel and Dimed, it occurred to me that if I were to re-read Les Misérables, I’d probably find that not much has changed since Jean Valjean’s day.

Critics and political commentators have attempted to belittle Barbara Ehrenreich for undertaking her experiment, trying to make ends meet with a succession of waitressing, housecleaning, and low-end retail jobs paying, at most, $7 an hour, when all along she had an out: she could have returned to her comfortable life at any time, and she could (and did) move on to different parts of the country when she got bored and discouraged with any particular location and job. They characterize her as a rich dilettante, playing at being poor in order to sell books.

But the book needed to be written, and in my opinion high school kids (ye gods, especially high school kids) need to read it. Could a real single mom, slaving away at two or three part-time benefitless minimum wage jobs, have given voice to the plight of minimum wage workers in America today? I thank Barbara for taking on the project. It can’t have been fun.


Spam & Snipers (w/Updates)

SpamA few weeks ago I wrote about being besieged by comment spammers trying to register as regular readers. I didn’t understand why they thought they needed to register, comments being open and all, and mentioned that I’d seen only one or two attempts to actually post comment spam.

I should have known better. The one or two spam comments I saw (and quickly deleted) were the exceptions that somehow slipped through the anti-spam filter. Last week I discovered the special folder where the filter hides comment spam. There were thousands of them. Most were here at Paul’s Thing, but the Half-Mind Weblog and Crouton’s Kitchen had full folders too.

Romney has binders full of women; I have folders full of spam! Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The nice thing about the filter is that it keeps spam comments from appearing on the blog, which is why you don’t see them. The other nice thing is the “delete all” button that lets me empty the folder with one click. I cleaned it out yesterday morning. Checking it again just now, I see 435 new spam comments waiting for the old heave-ho.

More than 400 spam comments in 24 hours. Just at this one blog. Someone in Russia must think highly of Paul’s Thing. I suppose I should be flattered. Zdrastvooyte, comrade!

Here’s a typical spam comment:
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Don’t worry about accidentally clicking on the links. It’s a screen grab, and if you click on it it’ll just take you to a larger version of the image. You wouldn’t want to follow those links anyway: the sites they take you to are probably infested with malware.

I suppose the people who run the spambots generating this shit 24/7 get paid a few kopeks for every comment they post, whether to million-follower megasites or teeny little blogs like mine. I suppose they also get paid whether or not the spam gets through the filters and out into the open where people might see it. Someone, somewhere, must be making serious money creating oceans of spam no one but a few webmasters will ever see, otherwise there’d be no reason for it.

I want to shake my head like Marge Gunderson in Fargo, and say “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”


Everyone is talking about American Sniper, mostly enthusiastically. I’m sure it’s a gripping movie, but so was Zero Dark Thirty, and it too was about things Americans at one time would not have glorified or celebrated. With Zero Dark Thirty it was torture; with American Sniper it’s assassination.

Was the real life sniper Chris Kyle substantially different from the fictional sniper of The Jackal, crouching a hotel room across the square while trying to get a clear head shot at Charles de Gaulle? Well, Kyle wasn’t a mercenary, I guess, and he worked for the good guys.

Old-fashioned stick-in-the-muds like me think hiding on rooftops in order to take long-distance rifle shots at unknowing human targets is sneaky, underhanded, somehow un-American. But as with torture, tribal loyalties determine what you likely think about the subject. If you’re a member of the authoritarian right-wing tribe, you think assassination and torture are just great, especially as administered to filthy Arabs, all Muslimy and shit. If you’re a member of the progressive left-wing tribe, you think it’s abhorrent and unworthy, especially if it’s also racist.

Imagine one of those ISIS beheading videos. Now imagine the ISIS guy is FBI Fred, wearing a nice suit and standing tall over some shifty-looking Yemeni kneeling at his feet. Half the folks on Facebook would be furiously masturbating as FBI Fred swings his sword, like the chickenhawks creaming their jeans over American Sniper.


I guess I’m not making much of an attempt to hide my tribal loyalties, am I? A fence-straddling friend (not a chickenhawk, but a fellow veteran with years of military service) reminds me that as a fighter pilot I was not that different from Mr. Kyle, that my job was to shoot down enemy aircraft, sometimes unobserved and from afar.

Yes, fighter pilots are sometimes described as aerial assassins; some folks even called us Yankee air pirates. But if I shoot a missile at an enemy warplane in a combat zone, I’m not targeting some poor unknowing schmuck going about his innocent daily business, and there’s nothing sneaky about it. He knows I’m out there, and he knows he’s likely to be targeted and shot unless he targets and shoots me first.

Granted, Mr. Kyle’s targets were not poor schmucks going about their innocent daily business either, but they were unknowing, and I do draw a line between our occupational specialties. What Chris Kyle did for his country may have been necessary and important, but there’s nothing heroic or glorious about it, and I don’t think it’s something Americans should take pride in.

Update #1: Well, isn’t this interesting? This isn’t the first of Chris Kyle’s war stories I’ve heard called into question, either. Grain of salt, people!

Update #2: In my post, above, I contended that shooting down enemy aircraft in combat, even from great distances, isn’t quite the same as hiding in a tree and shooting unknowing victims dead with a sniper rifle. I put a link to this post on Facebook, where a couple of friends pointed out (see the comment below this post) that carpet-bombing civilians from on high, or employing precision weapons against ground targets where innocent victims are likely to be killed along with enemy fighters, is pretty much the same damn thing. They’re correct, of course, and I don’t deny it. I don’t think, though, that Hollywood has made many movies glorifying long-distance aerial assassins. They certainly never made one about Paul Tibbets!


Making Time Fly

A couple of casual observations to start the weekend.


Lately, Rachel Maddow has been asking why Congress isn’t debating President Obama’s military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It’s surely odd that Congress, which interferes with or tries to block everything else the President does, is allowing him free rein to conduct the war as he sees fit.

I think there are two reasons for this. One, neither party in Congress wants to wind up on the blame line for future Middle East disasters — let Obama take the heat; it’s nothing to do with us. Two, after years of opposing any kind of legislation that might make Obama look good, Republicans on the Hill have arrived at the point where they’re not willing to engage with the President at all. They’ve worked so very hard to trivialize Obama they don’t dare engage him in serious debate over ISIS and the Middle East lest they be seen to be taking him seriously. Jesus, what a contemptible lot.


I DVR’d the first episode of the Syfy Channel’s 12 Monkeys last night so I can watch it tonight while fast-forwarding through the ads. While it was taping I watched Fargo — the original movie, not the recent TV series. This has probably been said before, but I’ll say it anyway because it hits me so strongly every time I watch Fargo: there’s something deeply biblical about that movie.

Speaking of ads, they’re ruining regular TV for me. There probably aren’t any more ads than before, but the older I get the more intrusive they become. And you can hear the volume being jacked up about one second into the first commercial of a block of ads — didn’t we pass a law against that a few years ago? Thank goodness for streaming TV, I say, and the DVR.

Now, what to do about those content-blocking ads on YouTube and news websites?


Listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR yesterday, I heard a journalist guest argue that traditional media is the best place to get the news because professional journalists can be relied on to explore all sides of an issue and ask tough questions. Say what? Have you ever watched Meet the Press? Traditional media jumped on the bandwagon and helped Bush & Cheney lie us into a disastrous war in Iraq. Traditional media was silent when Obama abandoned his promise to keep single-payer health care on the table during the policy negotiations that led to Obamacare. Traditional media is ignoring the massacres in Nigeria today. Traditional media — Rachel Maddow excepted, as I noted at the top of this post — isn’t asking questions about the conduct of our current campaign against ISIS.

If it weren’t for non-traditional media — news and political websites and blogs, for example — tough questions would never be asked. Over on the right sidebar I have a blogroll of sites I visit daily or weekly. One of those is a political blog called Hullabaloo. If you don’t go anywhere else on the internet, go there. Wonkette’s not bad either, if you don’t mind sponsored content disguised to look like news (I use an RSS reader to view Wonkette because it cuts out the fake articles, similar to the way Amazon streaming TV cuts out the ads on The Sopranos).


Donna’s away until next Thursday, staying with our grandson Quentin in Las Vegas while our son and daughter in law take a short vacation in Florida. She left Thursday while I was at the Barrett-Jackson car auction in Scottsdale, so I came home to an empty house that night. Well, not entirely empty: there were three hungry critters waiting for me.

I have plenty of prepared food, which is good because I never feel like cooking from scratch when it’s just for me, and I’m slowly catching up with the streaming TV shows I like but Donna doesn’t. There’s a book club meeting this afternoon, a Hash House Harriers run tomorrow, and my museum tours on Wednesday. Monday or Tuesday I’ll probably take the motorcycle out for a long ride. Time flies, and Donna will be home soon.

Oh, one last thing. Last week I took a new vision prescription to Costco and ordered new glasses. I didn’t take Donna with me because I wanted to pick my own frames. This time I decided to go with tortoise shell. The glasses came in yesterday, so Donna hasn’t seen them yet. I don’t know whether she’ll like them or hate them, but I think I like them. Here they are:

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Photoblog: Barrett-Jackson 2015

Yesterday was my fourth pilgrimage to the Barrett-Jackson auto auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s always fun to see the old cars, but the scale of the event is so large it’s hard to take everything in, the crowds so dense it’s difficult to find a clear line of sight for photography. This first photo, taken outside on the midway (yes, that’s a state fair/carnival word, and it’s exactly the right word to describe what Barrett-Jackson has become), doesn’t do the crowds justice. I took it early in the morning; half an hour later the midway was jam-packed. It does, though, give you an accurate idea of the prevailing weather: clear, beautiful, and 70°F, the kind of conditions that make Arizona a wonderful place to live … at least in January.

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Part of the B-J midway (yes, they sell airplanes too)

None of the vehicles on display activated my lust gland, but maybe that’s because I’ve come to accept the idea I’ll never own or drive a classic car. I just don’t have the money. Still, there were some interesting cars, trucks, and motorcycles on display, and I’m glad I decided to lug the good camera and flash attachment around with me.

I’m going to insert blocks of thumbnail images in between paragraphs. As always, you can click on the thumbnails to see the full sized images on Flickr. Alternatively, you can click here now and go straight to the full photoset, skipping the words altogether. Who loves ya, baby?

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I mentioned crowds. The event lasts eight days, from Saturday to Sunday of the following week (this year from Jan 10 to 18), but the actual auction … the part you see on TV … doesn’t start until Tuesday or Wednesday. If you, like me, are crowd-averse, the time to go is Monday, which is both a workday and non-auction day. The downside would be that all the cars may not yet be on site. I was hoping Thursday would be a good compromise: yes, the auction would be in progress, but wouldn’t the hoards be at work on a weekday?

No, as it turned out. I forgot that the collector car demographic is baby boomers. I’m a retired baby boomer, so I can go to B-J on a weekday. Well, there are a hell of a lot of people just my age and just as retired, and damn if they all didn’t decide to go on Thursday, too.

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My gosh, how very many of my fellow first-wave boomers use mobility scooters! I can’t count the times I had to yank a foot back the last second to keep it from getting crushed under a Li’l Rascal wheel. Scooters were especially bad inside the exhibit tents, where everyone is packed into narrow aisles between cars and it’s hard to see scooter people because they’re low to the ground, hidden amongst the walking.

Outside, you’ve got all your fat fucks* in rental golf carts. Between auction employees and fat fucks, you’re just as busy dodging golf carts outside as you are jumping out of the way of Medicare-scam scooters inside.

*I am a fat fuck, but at least I can still walk a few miles and stay on my feet most of the day, for which I am thankful.

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So anyway, I drove up with two Tucson friends, retired boomers my own age. The three of us share similar memories of the cars of our youth, so I have to assume all the other old guys at Barrett-Jackson do too. But that doesn’t keep us from wanting to bend our friends’ ears about how popular Renault Dauphines were in the 1960s and how you don’t ever see them today, or how the whole front of a BMW Isetta opened up and that’s how you got in and out, or how the VW Beetles of the 1950s didn’t have gas gauges, or how they used to hide Caddy gas caps under the taillight. My buddies and I refrained, but I saw plenty of other gray-hairs** forcing their knowledge of old car trivia on their buddies. Hey, everyone on Social Security, we all grew up with those cars.

**I’m not claiming any superiority here. I wanted to show off to my friends too. I know … next time I’ll bring my grandson!

It was a pretty great day in spite of the crowds, and we three amigos had a fine time. Even though I didn’t fall in love with any particular car, there’s another, smaller car show down in Tubac at the end of the month, and I’ll be there too, camera in hand.

I’ll close with a photo I found online, an aerial view of the Barrett-Jackson tents at Westworld in Scottsdale, to give you an idea of the scale of the thing. Don’t go without a good pair of walking shoes!

bj overhead view


Friday Bag ‘o Tribalism

charlie hebdoWatching NBC and MSNBC reports on the Charlie Hebdo terror killings in Paris, I see very few depictions of the magazine’s cartoons. In print and web-based media, though, the cartoons … even the really offensive ones … are everywhere. You’d have to be a cloistered monk not to have seen them, which makes me wonder why our TV networks are so squeamish about showing them.

I think I’ve established my anti-censorship cred here at Paul’s Thing, if for nothing else than my You Can’t Read That! posts. Oh, yeah, and that time I lost a friend for using the c-word to describe Sarah Palin. And all the times my wife has told me I shouldn’t have written about this thing or that. Freedom of speech? Bring it on, baby.

I confess Charlie Hebdo’s style of satire strikes me as gratuitously offensive, particularly its slams at religion, which are based on racial and cultural stereotypes so crude they’d embarrass a Republican. But when it comes to choosing sides, I’m with the irreverent satirists every time. We can’t give an inch on freedom of speech, even when — especially when — those who want to shut us up resort to violence and murder.

A friend asked me to read an interview with a former nun who says that, contrary to conventional wisdom, religion is not the driving force behind violence. When it comes to war, I take her point: while religion may be invoked to justify war, wars are fought for secular reasons like power, territory, and natural resources. Clearly, though, religion, or religion-based tribalism (which I think is a more accurate way to describe it), is a primary factor in terrorism.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims living in Western countries are secular, divorced from the religion-based tribalism sweeping the Middle East. They condemn terrorism carried out in their name by fanatics. You won’t see me jumping onto the let’s-kill-all-the-Muslims bandwagon, any more than I’d jump on a lets-kill-all-the-Christians bandwagon after an NAACP office or abortion clinic bombing. And I hope you won’t either. There are people who react to terrorism by trying to start tribal, religious, and racial wars. We have to stand up to them the same way we stand up to terrorists.

It’s not easy. When I see someone driving a pickup truck with a 2nd Amendment bumper sticker, I assume certain things about that person. When I see a woman wearing a hijab my thoughts are not kindly ones. To be human is to be tribal. I get that, because I see it in myself.

And since I harbor some of this tribalism myself, I don’t expect too much from other people. Muslims in Western countries have been under the gun since 9/11, and in the wake of recent attacks like the ones in France they’ll face even more prejudice, scrutiny, and suspicion. I can only hope governments act with restraint, targeting just the perpetrators of violence, not entire classes of people.

And wouldn’t it be nice if Fox News and right-wing talk radio just shut the fuck up for once? Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?


Air-Minded: the Army & the A-10

Army A-10s? Not gonna happen, folks.

A-10 Thunderbolt II (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

USAF A-10 Thunderbolt II (photo credit: unknown)

Here’s something I posted to Facebook the other day:

People ask me why, if the Air Force no longer wants A-10s, it doesn’t just hand them over to the Army. The answer boils down to roles. From the 1960s into the early 1990s, the Army flew an armed observation aircraft called the OV-1 Mohawk. The USAF fought the Mohawk almost every step of the way, even getting DoD to prohibit the Army from flying it with weapons aboard. The Air Force is very protective of its doctrinal role and won’t tolerate the Army flying armed fixed-wing aircraft.

That’s broad-brushed and doesn’t do the subject justice, so I’ll expand on it here.

From the earliest days of Army aviation, air power pioneers like Billy Mitchell argued that the use of aircraft should be centrally controlled by a single air commander, independent of ground commanders, and used for strategic purposes. Mitchell envisioned thousand-plane coordinated attacks, and actually pulled off one such attack in WWI, although with the primitive equipment and weapons available at the time it wasn’t in any way decisive.

These doctrinal conflicts continued into WWII, with constant skirmishes between Army ground and air commanders over the control and proper use of aircraft. Ground commanders wanted to integrate air assets into the ground battle. Air commanders wanted to play a direct role in winning the war by striking the enemy deep inside his own territory. Air commanders generally prevailed in WWII. Thousand-plane bombing raids became a reality, with devastating effects on Germany and Japan.

The National Security Act of 1947 separated the Air Corps from the Army, setting up an independent, co-equal US Air Force. The air commanders, in other words, had won their long battle. While the Navy and Marine Corps got to keep their own air arms, to control in whatever manner they saw fit, the Army surrendered most of its ability to fight from the air to the Air Force.

A series of subsequent agreements refined the responsibilities and roles of the Army and Air Force: the Key West Agreement of 1948, the 1952 Pace-Finletter Memorandum of Understanding, and the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966.

In the simplest terms, and ignoring the Navy and Marine Corps for now, the separation of roles comes down to this: the Air Force owns fixed-wing aviation, the Army owns rotary-wing aviation. The Air Force flies fixed-wing aircraft for strategic and tactical airlift, attack, reconnaissance, bombing and interdiction, air superiority, and close air support. The Army flies helicopters in tactical combat and support roles. The Air Force, with the exception of special operations, can’t use helicopters for attack or airlift. The Army can have fixed-wing aircraft weighing less than 5,000 pounds, but cannot fire or drop weapons from those aircraft. If the Army needs airlift or close air support and can’t get it done with its own rotary-wing assets, it calls on the Air Force for support.

During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Army used small Cessnas (well under 5,000 pounds) for liaison, scouting, and observation. These aircraft, while not armed, carried smoke rockets to mark targets on the ground, which Army attack helicopters or Air Force fighter-bombers would subsequently attack.

Cessna L-19A-IT Bird Dog (photo: Nishant Deshpande)

US Army L-19 (later O-1) Bird Dog (photo: Nishant Deshpande)

In the early 1960s the Army began operating C-7 Caribou aircraft, using them for tactical airlift in Vietnam. The Air Force, which had no problem with the Army flying light observation aircraft like the Bird Dog, objected strenuously to the Army flying 25,000-pound cargo planes, seeing the Caribou as a direct threat to the Air Force’s own tactical airlift role. In 1967, the Caribou were transferred from the Army to the Air Force.

de Havilland Canada C-7 Caribou (photo: unknown)

US Army C-7 Caribou (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

So what’s the closest thing the Army has had to a fixed-wing close air support aircraft like the A-10? That would be the OV-1 Mohawk.

Grumman OV-1 Mohawk (photo: Paul Woodford)

US Army OV-1 Mohawk (photo: Paul Woodford)

The Mohawk, designed in the late 1950s by Grumman, was originally to be a joint Army, Navy, and Marine Corps aircraft. It would have been uneconomical to build a separate, unarmed version for the Army; since the Marine and Navy versions would contain weapons circuitry and hard points, so too would the Army version, a touchy issue for the Air Force, which objected to the program on that basis.

After the Navy and Marines dropped out of the buy in the early 1960s, leaving the Army as the only customer, the Air Force lobbied even harder against it, fearing that since the Mohawk could be armed it would be, and would then be used for close air support — an Air Force mission — by Army ground commanders. Largely because of Air Force objections, in 1965 the Pentagon handed down a directive dictating that the Army would not operate armed fixed-wing aircraft. Nevertheless, the Army was allowed to buy nearly 400 Mohawks, flying them from the 1960s into the early 1990s.

In spite of the 1965 directive and earlier restrictions limiting the weight of Army fixed-wing aircraft to 5,000 pounds or less, the Army now had hundreds of 18,000-pound weapons-capable Mohawks, flying them in combat during the Vietnam War and Desert Storm, though officially only in the observation role. Army aviation unit commanders often saw to it that combat Mohawks were in fact armed, ostensibly for “self defense,” and one Mohawk crew, in 1966, was actually credited with shooting down a North Vietnamese MiG-17.

The Mohawks were retired after Desert Storm, and as far as I know the Army no longer has a weapons-carrying fixed-wing aircraft in its inventory. It does operate a number of unarmed fixed-wing aircraft in the cargo, reconnaissance, and utility roles — interestingly enough, all well over 5,000 pounds in weight — but if the Air Force has any objections to the Army’s current fixed-wing fleet, I haven’t heard of it.

I think you can see from all of this that the idea of turning the A-10 fleet over to the US Army is a non-starter. It’s probably fair to say both the Air Force and the Army would be opposed to any such proposal, the Air Force for doctrinal reasons, the Army for budgetary ones.

Now for a couple of points that are beyond the scope of this post:

I often hear the Air Force slammed as an elitist flying club with a nasty propensity to turn up its nose at the idea of providing close air support to lowly Army grunts. The criticism is unwarranted and unfair. Since its independence the Air Force has flown close air support for ground forces in every war from Korea to the present day. Air Force fighter-bombers flying CAS saved 6,000 Marine asses at Khe Sanh. A-10s are flying CAS today in Afghanistan.

The Air Force objects to the idea of turning control of its aircraft and aircrews over to ground commanders. So long as our air commander controls our aircraft, we’re happy to provide close air support. Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right word, but we do it and always have. We even detach Air Force pilots to serve as forward air controllers with Army units on the ground to help target Air Force aircraft and weapons on enemy forces.

Is the A-10 still viable and should it remain in the Air Force inventory? That depends on the enemy and the battlefield. In a conflict where the enemy doesn’t have access to sophisticated surface-to-air weapons, yes. But all potential enemy military forces today have these weapons, and even ragtag groups like ISIS or the Taliban might be able to get their hands on them. Low and slow aircraft like the A-10 (and Army helicopters) are sitting ducks in the face of such weapons. Even 5th-generation fighters like the F-35 are going to be vulnerable to sophisticated surface-to-air weapons. The close air support mission itself, at least as currently flown with manned fighters and attack aircraft, may be a thing of the past.

But that’s what we said about dogfighting and aerial gunnery when we designed the F-4 Phantom II, and we were so confident those days were past we built the thing without a gun. Boy, did Vietnam show us how wrong we were about that … so what do I know?


Paul’s Book Reviews

“Unstuck her in time, day-sleeping in her bedroom. How old was she? Seven, seventeen, twenty-seven? Dusk or dawn? Couldn’t tell by the light outside. Checked her phone. Evening. The house silent, her mother probably asleep. Out through the smell of her grandfather’s fifty years of National Geographic, shelved in the hall.” — William Gibson, The Peripheral

the peripheralThe Peripheral
William Gibson

The Bridge Trilogy novels were my favorite works by William Gibson. The Peripheral has bumped them to second place.

I looked over my earlier Gibson reviews before writing this one and think this is worth repeating:

“Gibson likes complex stories with interrelated events and characters. He’s a student of pop culture, and his novels are right on top of current trends. Even more than complexity and hipness, I think, he likes happy endings. Some say he’s a sentimentalist, but I don’t think hipness has to be dark.”

There’s a strong strain of intellectual curiosity behind Gibson’s near-future stories, which always makes for good science fiction, but what I like best about his story-telling is that he leaves it to the reader to figure things out. He doesn’t explain. And when he does, usually through dialog between characters, it’s the barest minimum necessary, in context, and natural. In this novel, characters are immersed in what at first seem to be inexplicable events; it’s natural they would talk to one another and try to interpret what’s happening to them. We’re along for the ride with characters we can relate to and understand.

You can’t talk about what happens in The Peripheral without giving the store away. Most reviews try to explain the essential idea, so I will too. The novel centers around characters living in two futures: a near future and a more distant one, some 70-80 years beyond that. People in the farther future discover a way to communicate electronically with people in the earlier future; this has been made possible by some unspecified technological development occurring during that earlier future. Eventually, characters on both sides are able to virtually visit one another. Every interaction with the future changes the present, which branches off into “shunts.” In this novel, Gibson is concerned with characters living in one particular shunt. Well, enough of that. Gibson makes it real; I can’t even.

My favorite character in the Bridge Trilogy novels is Chevette. Chevette’s great-grandniece is Flynne, and I fell in love with her too. Brave, smart, unintimidated, rolling with the punches. And of all the little details Gibson creates to make the near future believable … a totally credible outgrowth of the world you and I live in now … Hefty Mart is the one that clicks. I’ll never pass the Costco snack bar again without thinking of Hefty Mart.

And what I said earlier about happy endings? Yes.

Seriously, I’m like a 14-year-old kid again, back in the Golden Age of science fiction. Gibson is sick, man! The Peripheral is astonishingly good.

unsubstantial airThe Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War
Samuel Hynes

I heard about this book from a friend and requested a copy from the library. It wasn’t yet in my local library system, but they found one for me (librarians are wonderful people) and I read it straight through.

I was a USAF fighter pilot from 1973 to 1997. Samuel Hynes flew fighters for the Marine Corps from 1943 to 1953. The Unsubstantial Air is about the first American fighter pilots, the young men who flew for England and France … and later on, the USA … during the Great War, between approximately 1916-1918. You can safely assume I was enthralled by Hynes’ book.

Using wartime diaries, letters, telegrams, newspaper articles, and personal recollections of surviving early aviators, Hynes traces the beginnings of young American men’s fascination with the idea of flying, the establishment of college flying clubs in the USA, and the early days of young American men heading off to England and France to play a role in the most important and romantic thing going in those days, the war in Europe. He follows the paths of the first volunteers, who generally started off as French Foreign Legionnaires or ambulance drivers and then gravitated to aviation. He recounts the beginnings of wartime flying training in the USA, the way young men with minimal flight training were transported to England and France, the building of training airfields overseas and the different ways men were taught to fly by the French and British. He follows key figures (Quentin Roosevelt, son of Teddy, for one; Billy Mitchell for another), who organized and oversaw American flight training in France in preparation for the USA’s eventual entry into the war.

All of this, and particularly the chapters describing actual combat over the front lines, is riveting reading, but what most fascinated me was discovering how little the essentials have changed. What attracted the first young men to flying in combat … the romantic idea of one-on-one combat, of being a knight of the air … is what attracts young men and women today. The desire to be above all things a chasse pilot (a pursuit pilot, or as we call them today, a fighter pilot, sent aloft to shoot down enemy aircraft), as opposed to a “mere” observation or bomber pilot … that too appears to be eternal.

No one knew how to conduct aerial combat in the beginning. They learned quickly: how to conduct aerial gunnery, how to strafe and bomb, how to provide mutual support to one another … the fundamentals every fighter pilot today must master. The life fighter pilots lived, the independence and spirited parties and drinking and whoring, the eagerness to take off at dawn to confront the Boche, the shock of a comrade’s sudden death … well, it’s the life Samuel Hynes lived in WWII and Korea; it’s the life I lived in F-15 squadrons during the Cold War and Desert Storm.

This really is a fabulous history of the beginnings of aviation and air power in wartime (as an aside, it’s taken us almost a hundred years, but the vision of air power pioneers like Billy Mitchell, which is powerfully spelled out in Hynes’ history, have finally become reality with improved aircraft, better command and control, and smart weapons). If you’re at all interested in military aviation, The Unsubstantial Air needs to be on your bookshelf.

lords of the skyLords of the Sky: How Fighter Pilots Changed War Forever, From the Red Baron to the F-16
Dan Hampton

Hampton set out to write a comprehensive history of the fighter pilot, starting out strong with long, detailed sections on WWI and WWII. When I got to the Korean and Vietnam War sections, however, eras about which I have some knowledge, I began picking up on errors, omissions, and some oddly sloppy writing, the effect of which had me questioning what I had read in the WWI and WWII sections. By the time I got to the final chapters on the Gulf wars, I felt Hampton was doing a slapdash, rushed, incomplete job, and almost wish he’d stopped with WWII.

Among the errors: calling the piston-engined B-29 a “big jet,” mislabeling A-26s as B-26s, describing infrared heat-seeking missiles as homing in on hot carbon dioxide, saying the Navy initially called the F-4 Phantom II the F-110A Spectre (that was the early USAF designation, not the Navy’s). He doesn’t talk about the Russian MiG-15 pilots in Korea, a couple of whom scored more kills than our own top F-86 aces. He barely mentions the North Vietnamese MiG pilots. Describing the first shoot-down of a USAF fighter over North Vietnam, he switches between first-person and third-person viewpoints — one moment you’re in the cockpit with the pilot and GIB as they ingress the target area; then a god-like narrator, using passive voice, announces that one of the jets in the four-ship has been hit; then you’re back in the cockpit as the front-seater pulls the ejection handles.

While Hampton mentions some of the Soviet women fighter pilots of WWII, there’s not one word about today’s women, who’ve been flying fighters in and out of combat since the mid-1990s. He totally skips the eight-year Iraq/Iran war, which produced at least one Iranian F-14 ace. He doesn’t mention the air war in Kosovo or the years American and allied fighter pilots policed the no-fly zone imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf war. While he goes into detail on some of the methods used in command and control of airborne fighters, he unaccountably ignores AWACS. I expected him to at least mention some of the more notorious blue-on-blue friendly fire shootdowns, but he didn’t. He never brings up the battle between the strategic bombing and fighter factions for control of the USAF.

His only reference to the F-15 Eagle, a fighter aircraft of his own era (he himself flew F-16s), is a throwaway line referencing “some Eagles” participating in an air battle somewhere in the vicinity of a strike mission he flew in Iraq. That is not just a slight, it’s a gratuitous slight, and having flown the Eagle myself I took offense. Fighter pilots flying the F-15 Eagle have over the years achieved a perfect air-to-air kill ratio (105 to 0), something no other group of fighter pilots in the world has done, and one would think this feat would be mentioned in a book about fighter pilots.

The errors and omissions in the second half are jarring. The book seemed well-researched until the Korean War, then felt rushed and incomplete. I now think another book on fighter pilots — The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War, by Samuel Hynes, which I reviewed above — does a better job conveying the fighter pilot experience and mentality, and for two reasons. One, Hynes, unlike Hampton, spends more time explaining what fighter pilots believe in, how they think, and how they behave in the air and on the ground. Two, Hynes confines himself to a single era, WWI — now that may strike you as a limitation, but as an experienced fighter pilot myself I was struck by how little fighter pilots have changed from 1917 to the present day — and by keeping to one era, Hynes wasn’t forced to pick and choose what to include or exclude from his narrative.

Again, I think Hampton should have stopped with the end of WWII. To keep up with his book’s strong start, it should end there, and perhaps continue into the jet age in another volume entirely. Based on the strength of the first half of Hampton’s history, I’m giving his book an overall 3-star rating.

yanks are starvingThe Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army
Glen Craney

Since the author asked me to read and review this book in exchange for a Kindle copy, I should explain my perhaps quirky star rating scale. Four stars, to me, is a top rating. Of all the 400+ books I’ve reviewed here on Goodreads, I’ve given just one five-star rating, that to the entire body of Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. So, three-and-a-half stars for this historical novel? That’s an excellent rating from me.

I thought The Yanks Are Starving a compelling read. I knew the bare outlines of the events the story is about, but none of the details; this fictionalized retelling of a now-forgotten episode in American history filled in that blank spot in my education. The characters in Craney’s story about the Bonus Expeditionary Force are, with few exceptions, historical figures who played important roles in the confrontation; the exceptions, as Craney explains in an afterward, are single characters meant to represent groups of participants (the nurse Anna standing in for several nurses; the black soldier Ozzie standing in for soldiers who fought in the Negro regiments).

I was fascinated to encounter young versions of historical characters I’ve studied in other contexts: Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, Dwight Eisenhower. The author did his research; the characters come across as recognizable and real without being animatronic mannikins spouting quotes. At no point did I feel as if Craney were taking liberties with known history, as some historical novelists do.

As to the tales of what American soldiers did in the Great War and how the country turned its back to them during the Great Depression, open-minded students of actual American history … the un-sugarcoated version … will find plenty here to feed their cynicism. Politicians suck; the police serve their political masters; corruption is rampant; even the military leaders the down & out members of the Bonus Army once served want nothing to do with them. We treated our WWII veterans much better, but during my own life I’ve seen the country turn its back on other good soldiers … the veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, for example … but never to the shameful extent we abandoned the heroes of WWI at their time of greatest need.

And what excuse was used to justify putting down the Bonus Army in the streets of Washington DC with military force? Communist agitation, the all-purpose bogeyman I remember from the McCarthy days of the 1950s … I now better understand its origins and underpinnings. For that alone, Craney gets my respect.

The only bad marks I’d give this historical novel are a few typos and a couple of what I think, perhaps mistakenly so, are anachronisms: one a reference to Herbert Hoover as “leader of the free world” (was that description applied to any American president before WWII?); one reference to working in “Stalin’s gulags” (did we know about the gulags, or use that term even if we did, in the early 1930s?).

Trivial quibbles aside, I got a lot out of The Yanks Are Starving. It’s a compellingly interesting story.

house in the landThere’s a House in the Land: (Where a Band Can Take a Stand)
Shaun D. Mullen

Shaun Mullen offered me a Kindle copy of this book in exchange for a review. At the time I was reviewing another book at an author’s request and had two library books to finish before their due dates, so some weeks passed before I picked up There’s a House in the Land. Once I did, though, I didn’t put it down.

I purposely did not consult reader reviews first, and initially couldn’t put this book on a mental shelf. Was it a story? Was it a fictionalized version of post-Vietnam America? Was it a straight memoir? Soon enough it became clear to me Mullen’s book is a straight memoir … one of the straightest I’ve read.

By that I mean most memoirs have a unifying theme or story to tell. Writers arrange memories and incidents to say something larger than their retold memories and incidents would themselves convey. Not so here: Mullen simply recounts his experiences in the 1970s, when he lived on a farm in Pennsylvania with several men, women, children, and animals. A bit of a story bubbles through, but generally what Mullen give us is a series of snapshots of a period of time and a particular subculture that thrived then.

The memoir is divided into chapters, but I couldn’t discern a reason for chapter breaks. Within each chapter, however, are several mini-chapters, divided on the page by the small silhouette of a farmhouse: these make more sense, since one mini-chapter will be about the farm’s horse, the next about a freeloading sometime resident, the next about attempting to brew beer, and so on.

There’s a large cast of characters, human and animal. At times it’s hard to keep them all straight; then again the narrative covers something like a decade, with people and critters constantly coming and going … one actually has to admire Shaun Mullen’s memory for names and details.

When I say Shaun Mullen doesn’t arrange his memories to convey some larger point, that’s not to say he doesn’t make deliberate editorial decisions: although he talks about the farm’s residents’ consumption of beer and pot throughout the memoir, he doesn’t get around to taking about their consumption of hard drugs until the final chapters; when he finally acknowledges this darker side of life at Kiln Farm, the net effect is disturbing. Had he laid all this on me at the beginning, I might have been tempted to put the book down.

The book is full of cultural references, from Doonesbury to Grateful Dead concerts. Maybe too many for my taste; some of the references felt forced.

Overall, druggy revelations at the end excepted, I very much enjoyed the visit to this Doonsbury-esque near past. I always envied the men and women my age who were able to pull off this emphatically non-nine-to-five lifestyle, and I read most of There’s a House in the Land with a smile on my face. My objection to the lack of a theme or larger point is probably the result of my own limited imagination: my memoir will have a theme because I can’t imagine writing it any other way, so yay for Shaun Mullen, and thanks for the read!

skink no surrenderSkink–No Surrender (Skink #7)
Carl Hiaasen

I notice a few reviewers expressing unhappiness with one of their favorite adult Hiaasen characters, Skink, appearing in a young adult Hiaasen story. Personally, I think YA is the perfect place for a character like Skink, a larger than life, semi-mythic, essentially comic character. I was happy to see Skink consorting with kids; Hiaasen and Skink have probably been heading in this direction all along.

I’ve read most of Hiaasen’s Florida novels, adult and YA, and have enjoyed them all. Skink–No Surrender is very much in line with Hiaasen’s earlier YA stories, filled with nature lore and detail, told from a decidedly pre-teen point of view (i.e., the kids aren’t thinking about sex yet), while still tolerably readable by adult Hiaasen fans.

I enjoyed Skink–No Surrender, but honestly it’s pretty lightweight reading for adult fans of Hiaasen’s fiction. What I wanted to do, after finishing this short novel, was to crack open one of Hiaasen’s earlier adult novels, Native Tongue or Skin Tight … or better yet re-read one of John D. MacDonald Travis McGee novels, which were probably Hiaasen’s inspiration in the first place.

Books I Didn’t Finish Reading

bear is brokenBear is Broken
Lachlan Smith

I started thinking about reading something else a third of the way into this combo legal thriller & murder mystery, when, after a reasonably decent beginning, the author began to pad the plot with unrealistically-contrived complications. I plowed on out of loyalty to the friend who recommended Bear is Broken, but with a third of the book remaining I couldn’t go on; I was no longer interested in what might happen, either with the unsolved mystery or with the increasingly-annoying characters.