If You Needed A War

Say you were the president of a country and you needed a war.  I don’t know why you need this war. Maybe there is something going at that you don’t want people looking at.

And say this was all happening today, late March, 2017. You need a war. Well, you could quietly ship a bunch of Marines to Syria.

Oh, we just did that. They are “Artillery support” for the battle Our Allies are waging against [insert enemy here] at [insert place here.]

OK, I’ve been involved with that artillery support thing. I know how that works, First you pick a spot about, oh, 5 or 10 miles from the battle. Marine 155 guns, M777 Howitzers, the kind we just sent to Syria, shoot just under 15 miles effective range, 24 km, and you’ve gotta be able to shoot clear to the far side of your target, so you’re about 10 miles away from the center of the fight. You put half a dozen or eight 155mm guns in your selected spot in the desert or jungle, maybe a few more, but not a lot more. It takes a lot of people, a lot guards and equipment, a lot of food, and just a lot of general stuff to keep a bunch of guns and gunners safe and operational out in the middle of nowhere. You can only do so much of it in one spot. Recent reports said they were sending 500 troops. That sounds like a lot, but when you get all the work assigned it’s not.

Some of those people run the guns; others camp in a circle around the guns to keep them safe. I figure the original 500 reported would have been barely enough guys (I guess these days guys and gals) to shoot half a dozen or eight guns, with one shift awake and on duty at all times, 24 hours a day seven days a week, plus support staff, plus enough basic grunts to man a perimeter around them, same terms. That was one of my jobs in my war. I was one of the guys on the perimeter standing guard around artillery.

All these gunners and guards, these guys and gals, have to be commanded. It’s kinda like union work. Bosses don’t run the machines. So part of that 500 is bosses.

And all these guys and gals, all the bosses and worker-bees, have to eat three times every day. They have to drink water. They all have to shit pretty much every day. Since this camp just was plopped down into a selected spot, there is no plumbing, no running water, no restaurants or bars. So there have to be cooks and shit-burners, or whatever they do with shit now. I can assure you that they are doing something with it, and that some person has that job. You can about figure the original 500 was stretched pretty thin.

So of course we had to send another thousand a week or so later, and I think I read in that second report that the original 500 was a thousand too. Because mumblemumble. And battalion shit burner.

Food and water has to be hauled into this fire base. Garbage and trash has to be handled somehow, burned or buried or hauled away. Rats are everywhere; towns (or fire bases) that don’t provide sanitation tend to get rabies.

I don’t know what they do about clothing in this new co-educational military; during my war we wore what we had on until they brought us a change, which typically happened every month or six weeks.

So we’ve got this little tiny single-purpose town out in the middle of nowhere, 5 or 10 miles from a major battle. And from this town we are raining explosives down out of the sky on the guys we like the least at the battle. Artillery doesn’t shoot bullets, it shoots bombs. 155 mm howitzers shoot six inch diameter bombs a couple feet long. What we’re doing is shooting bombs into a battle to blow up our enemies.

Sooner or later the bad guys will decide they’re annoyed because we set this thing up in their country.  I can tell you from personal experience that having explosives rain out of the sky onto your place of work is annoying.  And ten miles isn’t that far. So they organize a response, and some morning at 3:00 in the dark of the moon they attack the fire base and kill a bunch of the guys and gals, gunners and guards, bosses and worker-bees, cooks and shit-burners, the artillery folk and the grunts guarding the guns. That’s how war works. Then we’ll have a really good provocation. Say they kill (just pulling a number out of the air) 21 Marines. Now we’ve got to Do Something. It’s on all the TV stations.

Back in my day, says the old geezer, we didn’t have women on our fire bases. Frankly the idea horrifies me. But say they do now; I’m not really sure. I know that Marines have women in combat now. Artillery is serious combat but you don’t have to carry the gun on your back. I’m just guessing here; I have no idea how this women in combat thing works. But if they did have women operating the guns, and two of them got captured when the perimeter was overrun, that would just be, to coin a phrase, the cherry on top. The [current enemy epithet] killed 21 Marines and the Rapist Monsters have two of our women!

Boys and girls, that’d be all it takes. Congress would give the President that Save Our Marines Resolution, and we could get into a real, millions involved, draft-the-young-folks war.

We really haven’t had one since Vietnam.

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Thank You For Your Service

I hear it a lot. Thank you for your service.

There are basically two kinds of combat veterans: ones who can’t talk about it, and ones who can’t shut up about it. I’m in the second group.

Combat changes a person. War. Technically everything a person experiences large or small causes some change, but combat tends to be large, traumatic, and attention-getting, so it changes people more. Or it did me, anyway.

So I talk about it, I say (or write or tweet) “when I was in Vietnam we…” and somebody says (or writes or tweets) “Thank you for your service.”

I really wish they would not say that.

“Thank you for your service” was laid on American society by Republicans to make themselves look like the party that cares for veterans while they’re cutting our funding.

“Thank you for your service” was laid on American society by Republicans who had figured out that people – the American public writ large – had lost the thrill of war and would rather we Just Didn’t Do That Right Now. Because Vietnam. Because it was still fresh in memory then.

So they built this Thank You For Your Service trope so we could pretend that there is an inherent connection between war and patriotism, war and heroism.

I don’t really want to hear it.

In the first place you would have had to thank this guy 

And not this one.

But even more to the point, there was a reason nobody “thanked” us. The war in Vietnam was a shitty idea and a lot of us knew it. If somebody said thanks they might get any number of responses, only a few of which were positive.

Here’s what you are thanking us for: We went into somebody else’s country and we killed them, there in their home country, because our government did not approve of the government they had chosen for themselves.

Thanks? You know, if somebody wanted to say, I recognize your loyalty to your country, I could go with that, but that’s not the message Republicans wanted to get out in the public. A message like that might tend to call attention to the fact that the children of the governing classes in the United States in those days rarely showed the same loyalty we “troops” showed. Our government said, “We want you to go kill a bunch of strangers who aren’t threatening you,” and a lot of us said, “Sounds like a shitty idea, but OK, if that’s the price I’ve got to pay to be an American.” But as it turned out, we were the suckers.

Bill Clinton didn’t go. Newt Gingrich didn’t go. George W. Bush didn’t go. Donald Trump didn’t go. Mitch McConnell didn’t go.

John Kerry and Al Gore went, but they didn’t exactly get thanked for their service.

Attendee at 2004 Republican National Convention demonstrating her contempt for the Purple Heart.

But for now the Republicans don’t have any veterans they have to belittle, so they have returned to Thankyouforyourservice. It’s like a talking doll.

“When I was in Vietnam…”


“I get my medical care from the VA and…”



I killed a bunch of people. It wasn’t their idea for me to be in their country.

They killed a bunch of my friends, and shot me up pretty good in the process. I killed them on purpose. That’s how war works. When the shooting starts one tends not to think of philosophical subleties. But…


No. Please. I really, really don’t want to hear it.

If you happen to see this guy walking by you can thank him.

Sergeant Flower
Sgt. Flower on some godforsaken hilltop in Vietnam, 1968
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O’Jeffy Care

It seems to me that legislatures do everything in their power to make things more complicated than they ought to be. Take healthcare for instance.

Here is the healthcare law I would write:

  1. The government offers free, single payer health care to anyone who wants it. Walk in, sign up, get an appointment, see the doc.
  2. The current, insurance based, for profit medical care delivery system is allowed to operate exactly as it already does. Anyone who prefers that system is allowed to use it.
  3. That’s it.

Let people choose for themselves. If they want to buy insurance, let them buy insurance. If they want to get their care from billionaire corporate owners, let them. If they think the best doctors drive BMW’s and Mercedes-Benzes, let them go to those doctors and pay the bills however they see fit. Provide the minimum regulation required to make it harder for outright thieves to operate openly and otherwise ignore them. Insurance and medical practitioner regulation are primarily state obligations and that is fine. Leave it that way.

If, on the other hand, people are broke or can’t afford to participate in the for-profit system, offer them a complete system at no cost, like the system that Veterans enjoy today.

Insurance companies don’t want to insure sick people anyway. Why should taxpayers force them to take our money when they don’t want it?

Is there a possibility that the free government system might be slower and clunkier than the sleek profit-based system? Yes. And it’s all right. The grim fact is that most people who would otherwise die of their diabetes or cancer are willing to wait in line a little longer, and are willing to have to order their medicines in advance by mail. The alternative is a slow, painful death. It’s not that hard a choice.

The government could start out paying existing for-profit hospitals for care, a la Medicare, but it wouldn’t take long to build up a parallel system. Leave the for profit system alone to do what it does best: separate fairly healthy people from their money. Hospitals are continually closing all over the United States, particularly in rural areas. The Federal government should buy them, refurbish them, and operate them to provide treatment. Staff them with Federal employees.

For profit medicine is opening up storefront clinics and “urgent care centers” in cities all over the country. A single payer Federal system could easily do the same. It’s not that expensive to stock a storefront with a modest amount of doctor’s office equipment and hire a couple of nurse practitioners and some office staff. The truth is that nurse practitioners are, in most cases, better trained and equipped than the MD’s of my earlier adult years. A complete blood lab costs less than a new Chevy and will fit on a table top. Give a homeless person the choice between a friendly nurse practitioner and coughing his guts up under a bridge and I don’t think he’d have much trouble deciding.

This doesn’t have to be that hard. The only thing that makes it hard is figuring out how to get the rich their cut of every public dollar. If we give up on that part, we can do the rest.

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Heat Engines

Everything that moves of itself is powered by an engine. Humankind, in our wisdom, invented engines. There are essentially four common kinds of engines (in terms of operating principle) adaptable to serve most of our needs. Of those four only two are significant in most people’s lives, heat engines and electric motors (engines). Some of the machines we operate on a regular basis are powered by electric motors; virtually all others are powered by heat engines.

Heat engines drive cars, trucks, jet planes, rocket ships, motorcycles, lawnmowers, tractors, atomic submarines, bulldozers and chainsaws. If it has a fuel tank it’s a heat engine. If it runs on nuclear power under human supervision it is, in most cases, still a heat engine.

Electric engines, electric motors, are our other common source of motion. Air conditioners, electric drills, Mixmasters, those other chainsaws, subway trains and Chevy Bolts are driven by electric motors.

If you come full circle even most electric motors, most of the time, ultimately draw their power from heat engines, because that’s how most electricity is generated. Coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power plants are big heat engines spinning generators. The home generators that get us and our neighbors through power outages are small heat engines spinning small generators. Heat, moving from hot to less hot, causing motion. Hydropower, wind power, and solar electric panels generate electricity without the intervening use of some heat engine.

There is an amazing amount of science related to heat engines, but strangely enough the engines came first and the science followed along to explain them. So leaving aside the science for now, here’s how a heat engine works:

You generate a bunch of heat and you stuff it into a confined space.
Somewhere near to that space it is cooler. The heat forces its way from the hot space to the cooler space, and whatever is in the way has to move.

Early steam engines generated the heat with fire and used steam to move the heat into a closed space. There was a piston somewhere in that space, and on the other side of the piston it was cooler. The piston had to move as the heat pushed its way over to the cooler spot.

That’s it. In every heat engine everywhere: Heat moves some object in order to reach a place with less heat. Energy moves from areas of higher concentration to areas of lower concentration. It is an expression of the second law of thermodynamics: heat flows spontaneously from hotter to colder bodies and never the reverse.* Your pizza gets cold and your beer gets warm.

With early steam power they had a problem where sometimes the heat would push its way out to the cool spot without going through the cylinder and piston. If it couldn’t escape any other way the heat blew right through the walls of the boilers, often killing large numbers of people. Heat will not be denied.

One rarely hears our system described in these terms, but this is literally and exactly what is happening. Heat is moving. The fire, the steam, the Ultra High Test Scientifically Improved gasoline – all that is secondary. The heat is the thing. The energy.

Look at how a car works: no firebox, no steam, no boiler. We just squirt some gasoline into the cylinders and the car magically goes, right?

Well, not exactly. It’s a heat engine. We squirt in some gasoline and we set it on fire. The fire generates heat which, in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics, just has to go to the cool place, which is outside your tailpipe, On the way there the heat pushes a bunch of pistons – because remember, anything that gets in the way of the heat’s journey has to move – and the piston bone attach to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone attach to the tire bone, and down the road we go.

A jet plane works the same way, except instead of pistons they’ve got a big fan. Heat moves, the fan spins, air moves, and all things  being equal and opposite reactions the jet plane takes people to Frisco. Riding on heat engines. On rocket ships the heat squirts right out the tailpipe and the whole rocket ship moves.

Heat moves from a hot place to a not-as-hot place and the 21st Century goes round and round.

What all these heat engines have in common is that the amount of heat equals the amount of power. Oh, there are fancy theorems and proportions and this and that, but the basic fact is, the more heat the more power.

Build a bigger fire and the steam engine runs faster. Step down on the gas pedal and your car goes faster. Push forward the throttle on your tractor and your plow cuts either deeper, faster, or both in your field. The more heat the more power.

Not Richmond. I couldn’t find any pics of the local event. CA somewhere.

Which brings me to a related point: the earth is a heat engine. It’s harder to see the confined spaces where the heat is by looking out your window but they’re there. They don’t have shiny fins on them and say Harley Davidson, but they’re just as real. We call them by names like high pressure area and jet stream, but they are essentially just heat stuffed into restrained areas. It operates on the same principle as your car engine: heat moves from the hot place to the cooler place, and whatever is in between has to move.

Everything on Earth moves, from hummingbirds to mountains, and heat drives it all, but we particularly notice the motion of air and water. We know it as weather. Or climate, depending on the frame of reference.

So that’s why earlier this week a spring breeze blew down a quarter mile of electric poles in my home town, and tore down several buildings. There is more heat than there used to be. Our heat engine has more power. Somebody pushed down on the gas pedal. It’s never going away, not in a human scale of time.

We call it global warming.


*Direct quote from Wikipedia article.

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The Free Press Isn’t

It costs a fortune to own a media outlet in America today. Therefore, as a result, only people with fortunes own media outlets in America.

Media, plural of medium. Medium of communication. Tool for dissemination of information. Only people with fortunes are telling you anything. Any. Thing.

The various media empires are said to belong to corporations. Says so right on the website. But follow the corporate chain up, and somewhere up in the stratosphere is one billionaire or billionaire family. At the top of each media corporate chain is a billionaire. These are not faceless masses; corporations are not fungi. Every major media outlet chain in America today is primarily controlled, owned or funded by one, or a family of, very rich individual human beings.

It is not a “conspiracy theory” to say that rich people share interests, objectives, and value systems. They have things in common with one another. Rich people assign a high value to money and material wealth. That is why they are rich. Overall the richer one of them gets the richer they all get. They don’t have to hold secret meetings to agree to shield their wealth and work to make themselves richer. It is what they do. It is how they got rich; it is how they stay rich.

Every word that America has heard since the Reagan Administration has been funded by the same group of rich people. There used to be an FCC policy called the Fairness Doctrine which required that broadcast entities, in order to use the public airways, had to give roughly equal time and exposure to both sides of political questions. The Reagan Administration turned off the Fairness Doctrine. We can’t fix that. We can’t take the TV stations away from their owners, nor the radio, not even NPR. They own it all fair and square. We can’t take the newspapers away from them; most newspapers are wholly owned subsidiaries of the same media empires.

And even if we had a Fairness Doctrine it wouldn’t work anymore. Cable media do not transmit over the public airwaves. They do not have to be licensed by the FCC. The only Federal regulations affecting cable media empires have to do with how much they can charge their customers. They can say anything they want without restriction. They can lie to you all day. Fox News, for one, does exactly that.

Billionaires own or finance all the so-called “mainstream media,” including NPR / PBS. Billionaires are not going to publish and spread ideas that will cost them money. They simply are not. Billionaires are not going to give equal time to the idea that they should pay more taxes than they are now; billionaires are going to tell their audiences that taxes are bad. From their perspective taxes are bad.

Everything that the Democratic Party needs to do for the American people would require that the rich pay a fair share of taxes. If Democrats get elected it will cost billionaires money. Billionaires don’t have to conspire to give Democrats bad press. It’s in their DNA. They can’t imagine anything better.

Quit waiting for current top-level media (TV, radio, newspapers) to give Democrats a fair shake. It ain’t happening. As evidence I offer you the state and federal governments of the United States.

The Free Press, isn’t. Not the one that everybody is looking at. We can either take our minds and our destinies away from them, or we can accept the minds and destinies they give us.

The simple reality is that humans can only think with the information that is in their minds. Most of the people in North Korea really believe that they’ve got the best deal in the world. Their access to information is carefully controlled.

America’s access to information is controlled just as surely as North Korea’s is. Billionaires control it. Unlike North Korea it is legal in America to report news that does not benefit our ruling class, but Americans are so habituated to watching TV that there is little danger that ideas unwelcome to the ruling class will get a widespread audience or widespread consideration.

It goes beyond the news. Television entertainment constantly reinforces the same set of norms: rich people are better people. Poor people are pathetic, silly, and stupid. Normal families live in million dollar homes. There are no intelligent, sensible, honest, liberal working class people on television. There never will be.

The reality of American media is that they have one world view. They push it all day every day. Unless we are able to offer some alternative there will never be a Democratic majority again. Right now today it appears to me that the odds aren’t that good. I would love to be proven wrong.

The above is an edited excerpt of a longer essay in which I recommend alternatives to the media owned by the rich. If you are interested you can read the longer essay here. 

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