Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Too Fast, Too Wrong

Mercifully, I missed the fall of Saigon because I was at mountain school. We were so engrossed in surviving the course that only once did we lift up our heads to ask about South Vietnam. The base camp chef had a radio. He answered us, “Situation still unchanged.”

At base camp our life was physically easier as we did our team exercises in problem solving. We did challenges like “How can we use these scraps from the barn to get the team over the laser beams—don’t slip!” And of course we did the classic “How can we get the team up and over a blank four meter high wall?”

A few years later, in A Soldier Reports, the man in charge over in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, claimed the insurmountable bottleneck for creating an effective South Vietnamese army was teaching corporals and captains and even generals to be leaders. I say, “Golly General, don’t they have mountains in Vietnam too? And doesn’t their culture include generations-old models of leadership?”

For our base camp problems, different groups found different solutions. We were not solely team building. We were growing as individuals, which meant that in the future we would each be better team players. Our problems were metaphors for the real world of, say, a corporate meeting room. For any given problem we might experience a couple of loud shallow extroverts being too fast to get the group to do it their way, while a couple of deep slower thinkers, with a much better plan, might be ignored. You learn to be more inclusive after someone falls four meters.

I suppose every generation has to re-learn common sense. Perhaps today’s generation, which increasingly discourages "deep reading" and newspapers, while encouraging shallow moving pictures and the “6 o’clock infotainment,” is a little slower to learn than most. Such is my suspicion after reading this week’s blog\mini-essay by Scott Berkun, entitled The Fallacy of Quick Answers. During the comments he added:

Part of the problem is fighting for the floor—in some workplaces if you don’t jump in early it’s hard to get heard. There’s a perceived advantage to speaking quickly. If the person with the most power in the room doesn’t lend their authority to those who think slower (e.g. “Hey Sally, you’ve been quiet so far – what do you think?”) then those who are merely better at reacting get more influence than they should.

I suppose a corporation is a typical aspect of our society and of our increasingly less thoughtful media. As Scott commented:

This line of thinking reminds me how useless much of the punditry on television is, since people are forced to give quick answers to very big questions. It can’t possibly represent their best thinking, or even in some cases any thinking at all.
Any time a big question is asked, and the expert is not allowed to say, “I don’t know and no one else does either” there is something flawed in the assumption anything intelligent is going on.

In the years since Vietnam I’ve watched people. Perhaps, with the leadership efforts of many common folk, the current situation will one day be seen as a mere pendulum swing and not, God help us, a permanent change.

During Vietnam the soldiers should, in theory, have been highly motivated to study the Vietnamese culture, As you know the, the problem was to “win the hearts and minds," to get the villages, one by one, to convert to democracy, and get them to NOT convert to communism. Such was the theory, but—Here’s a group problem for you: How do you take the Ugly out of the American?

Soldiering is for professionals: wars are traditional, you “go by the book,” take the high ground and defend the mountain passes. Counter insurgency is for amateurs: your war is “new,” each culture is different, and your “terrain” is the culture. Understanding folks in the valley can be more important than killing insurgents in the hills. Iraq is no exception. The media-raised generation of preppies who flew to Iraq to supply snappy answers for the poor little natives should have read prose about Vietnam, if only to dent their arrogance. One passenger on a flight to Iraq said he felt disgusted when he saw the other passengers all reading books on the occupation of Japan and Germany, when they should have been reading about Arab culture.

The systemic problem with a nation—with you and I—being too fast with snappy answers, and being too ugly to take the time to slowly listen, is well illustrated by Iraq. Americans made decisions where everybody, not just the local experts, but everybody, such as interpreters, barbers and taxi drivers, would have said, “Are you crazy? You can’t just…” But they did. (To name just one example: disbanding the entire armed forces. ) 

Reading Berkun’s piece this week I posed my own problem: What could I contribute to the comments? I was pleased Berkun's readers knew the effect on discourse of being too fast, but no one had seen the value of slowing down enough, even during a national crises, to refuse to announce a thesis. During Vietnam we badly needed a national discourse. Our problem: Should we help or not? Stay or go? But people were too fast. Even little groups of university students felt impelled to begin any discussion first stating whether they were for or against staying in Vietnam. That’s no way to seek the truth.

Ironically, given Berkun’s topic of going slow, I felt that, since it was a blog, I should comment with only a swift sound bite, not an essay. I wrote:

"Since Vietnam I’ve had a long time to think. At the time, it didn’t matter whether the conversation-discussion was to be five minutes or fifty minutes, everyone thought they were supposed to first give a quick answer and only then discuss And/Or defend.
I could have answered, “I don’t know; which aspect would you like to consider and explore with me?” To answer in this way would have required me to have the self-discipline to decide in advance to withstand hot peer pressure towards a snap answer.
The hot pressure was especially silly considering that even leaders in Washington, according to an historian, could not have passed an easy one-semester community college course on the Vietnamese. No such course was offered."

(For how Washington couldn’t pass, see my essay Backfire, archived September 2010)

I passed mountain school. Glad to be home, I went to my dad’s kitchen cupboard where he kept his old newspapers. I re-arranged them all by the their date. Then I read them,  feeling Saigon fall, one by one.

Sean Crawford
July 2010 
October 2015


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Khadr the Kid meets the Code of the West

As you can see, I am still busy, still posting the odd re-run.

Context for a Re-Run
Recently Omar Kadhr, now a grown man, was in Calgary for the film festival showing of a documentary about his case. If Calgary's largest invisible minority group, U.S. workers, are offended that he is not stuck down in a dungeon, well, possession is nine tenths of the law: He's in Canada now to finish his sentence, and we are the ones to decide his fate. And no, we don't believe in a "Gitmo (Cuba) dungeon."

The Code of the West and Khadr the Kid

Had you gone for a walk in Babylon, thousands of years ago, you might have chanced upon a big flat pillar. A king named Hammurabi had made it, and it was a beautiful thing. For inscribed upon it, for everyone to see, were laws. He had taken various beliefs and practices and precedents and rules and had them all codified into laws. How wonderful. No longer could a spoiled prince, rich landowner, or corrupt village chief make up the rules as he went along. These laws, or codes, were to apply to all, equally to Hammurabi himself and to the humblest farmer. This pillar, this "Code of Hammurabi," was a milestone in the advance of western civilization.

Many leagues northeast of Babylon, and thousands of years away in time, in Afghanistan, a Canadian lad of 15, one Omar Khadr, has been captured and this has gotten me to thinking about codes.

Meanwhile here in my city a prominent Muslim leader of a "supreme council," a male, has repented. Earlier he tried to use a code, "Alberta human rights," to silence a local publisher of Danish cartoons. His attempt failed. Now he wants to talk straight with the publisher, in accordance with, he says, "the code of the west." I am inclined to ignore that Muslim leader and focus instead on that code, and on any other codes that apply to my countryman, Omar Khadr.


He was overseas with male family members while his Egyptian-born father was killed in Pakistan by Pakistan armed forces (father killed, brother wounded) as members of Al Qaeda. All four of the Khadr boys trained at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Captured by NATO forces, Omar Khadr has two strikes against him: A) allegedly killing a U.S. army medic, and B) allegedly being an "unlawful combatant." This label means he is viewed as not having bound himself by any code from any government, such as Canada, nor by the Geneva convention.

Codes are important to any society. Remove the codes and society dissolves into individual atoms. The margins of society may have fewer, looser codes, but codes nevertheless. For example in the hills of the former Yugoslavia, where violence is traditional and where traditional houses, therefore, have no first floor windows, there is nonetheless a code against killing women or males under a certain age. Even criminals in the organized Italian mafia exempt underage boys.

The United Nations has a code against underage soldiers. Canadians find the idea of "child-soldiers,"' as in Africa, repulsive. When I enlisted as a minor my father had to sign a legal consent form.

I swore an oath. I was to forsake my big comfy TV couch; I was to be a soldier with proper humility toward my queen and country. Many couch potatoes have seen how in Planet of the Apes the gorillas, not having humility, brandish their rifles in the air. This was considered too egotistical for lawful soldiers; I was to forget about using my army rifle for my own purpose and focus instead on serving the queen. This meant no hunting, no firing at tin cans or scarecrows, and, of course, no vigilante ism.


During my father's war many a boy who served first in the Hitler youth and then as a "very-minor-soldier," would, like me, follow the army code. (In the war the age of enlistment in Canada and the U.S. was 16) Imagine some teenage Nazis stationed west of Paris while DeGaule's Free French Army was advancing. Imagine the young soldiers having landmines. Question: Do they disobey the Geneva convention? In their fierce Nazi hatred of the French people, both civilian and military, do they plant mines to kill and main while knowing such maiming will have no significant effect on battle? Or do they lay their mines in proper minefields, with each concealed mine charted, (by pacing off) and with canvas mine tape (like police tape) around the field and proper signage?

Note: Minefields are generally laid in front of your defensive barbed wire where they can be covered by your rifle fire. (Mines are too easy to lift unless so covered.) After the battle it is simple to lift your own charted field. I have done so.

Answer: History tells us the Nazis, proud self-respecting soldiers, did indeed follow the Geneva code. My father's first German sign to learn was achtung minen.....You may recall the goal of war is not to win a battle but to produce a better peace. A landscape littered with illegal mines is not "better."

My dad survived the war and raised five fine sons. He may have told us not to steal, but he never had to tell us not to kill. This we soaked up from our culture, a culture where trusted elders served on boards of directors, met in parliament, oversaw the police force, and kept society running smoothly with humble regard for majority wishes and minority rights. A terrorist, in contrast, knows no humility: neither for his elders, nor for the majority. He recognizes no legal checks and balances, no codes but his own.


After my father's war isolated Japanese soldiers held out in the jungle for decades. These brave souls were not terrorists. To them the fact that Japanese people were still alive and standing meant the war was still continuing. Under fascism, they had been told Japan would fight to the last person. When Corporal Yokoi returned after twenty-eight years on Guam he insisted on returning his rifle, still in working order, to the emperor. As with Rambo, the best way to bring such soldiers in from the jungle was to locate their lawful old commanding officers.

It is chilling to watch old U.S. army film footage of Japanese civilians on Saipan, including women with their children, killing themselves rather than surrender. And it's awfull to read translations of the postwar classic manga Barefoot Gen, available in most comic book stores, which has graphic depictions of civilian mass suicides on Okinawa. But it's gratifying to know that the Japanese social and legal code meant that once the duly appointed authority, the emperor, ruled against suicide, this couldn't happen again. He proclaimed his ruling on public radio after the second atomic bomb.

The problem facing today's United Nations is obvious: If we want to ban the use of landmines, because of their misuse by people with no self-respect, or sign a treaty to end the war on terror, then how? The former has been done with legitimate governments who sign for their people. But there is no legitimate Arab government that cross-border terrorists or unlawful combatants feel any humility towards. In a normal war soldiers are simply penned up in prison indefinitely, without prejudice, until the peace treaty is signed.

Canada today is part of the UN, part of NATO and part of the war on terror. Where does Khadr fit? Penned up indefinitely? Or given a trial according to a law with a minimum and maximum sentence? The maximum sentence for treason, in time of war, is death.

I live on the Canadian prairie. I think if you buy the average rancher a beer and talked of Khadr then he might, and it's unlikely, say "Dirty traitor" for his first sip. More likely he'd say, "Stupid moron." But he wouldn't sustain the anger. I think for the rest of his glass, if you stayed on the topic, the rancher would feel disgust and tiredness. I can't judge public opinion in Canada towards Khadr: the topic is too weary for us to have thought much about it.

We have in Canada an act of parliament, the youth criminal justice act, where minors can only serve a maximum of three years for criminal offences. We also have a dangerous offenders act where an adult deemed dangerous can be jailed indefinitely.

(Code of the West)

People offshore must be baffled that we aren't pushing loudly for the youth act— and not for the indefinite one. The folks at Amnesty International, respected for their letter writing campaign for political prisoners down in third world countries, are pressuring the U.S. to have Khadr's trial moved to Canada, and are presumably wondering why the mass of Canadians aren't rising up to follow suit. Amnesty probably knows more about political prisoners than about Canadians or enemy combatants.

I can assure anyone offshore that my fellows believe in law. Moreover we believe that our American cousins, who are holding Khadr, also normally believe in the machinery of law, however slowly the wheels are turning in this unprededented "war (on terror) time" case. Sometimes if a Canadian is convicted overseas we can arrange for him to serve his sentence in Canada. If a young Candian freedom fighter, or dope smuggler, in the 1980's Ukraine was captured by the Soviets then his trial would be in in the Soviet Union. Then we might we extradite him, but only after a trial. (Today, of course, the Ukraine is independent.)

I cannot see myself saying gently to a U.S. citizen, "Well of course you guys believe in American justice, you even have a TV show named that, and certainly you guys have one of the most democratic nations in the world, I know you do. And I know you guys assuredly believe in the rule of law... But I kind of think of Kahdr as "the exception that proves the rule" and I'd like his trial to be in Canada..." No, I could not say that with a straight face and keep eye contact, not unless my eyes were narrowed in anger.

The issue is now moot. The U.S. people, by electing President Obama, have signaled their intention to cease having any exceptions. I am sure Obama will close the navy prison.

A major reason for our supporting American justice is: We too are North American, we too value the code of the west.

Europeans need to understand that U.S. culture, as is Europe's, is western, tracing its heritage back to such icons as the code of Hammurabi. But more recently U.S. culture has been shaped by their frontier, which not all Europeans understand...

...Life was hard. People would help each other with barn raisings and charity, but there was no dole, no social assistance. If you stole a man's horse then he couldn't ride across the range to look for work. And so you were condemning him to starvation. No wonder horse thieving here, unlike in Europe, was a hanging offence.

Work was hard. It was scary to drive a herd a herd across a river; a good cowboy was called "a man to ride the river with." Brand a man as a "coward" and you might just as well hang him: no one would want him around; he would starve. So if you called man a coward then you had better be right. If wrong, then he would surely protect his name by challenging you to a duel.

(The quick and the dead)

Deals were made on a handshake so a man needed a reputation for honesty.... Many Americans hold the image of a scene in a saloon. Some one's voice drops to his solar plexus. "Are you calling me a liar?" A hush falls over the bar. People move out of the way. Unlike a European code duelo with seconds at dawn, the duelists will fight their own battle, immediately. The public's job is to ensure that the duel moves to the street with no cowardly back shooting.

Out west the idea of a "twenty two year old fraternity boy" would have been as ludicrous as a man wearing a little apron. Every lad wanted to bypass adolescence as swiftly as possible. He wanted to do a man's work as "a man a among men." As well, he wanted to strap on a man's gun belt. Then if he called you a liar or if he stole your horse... And no, there was no youth justice act for horse thieves...

What if some peach fuzzed Billy the Kid challenged you to a duel? A dilemma— The difference between the quick and the dead is a millisecond. Could you shoot a kid? If your scruples cause you to slap leather just a little bit slower, if you draw your gun but hesitate on the trigger, then your wife is a widow...

Of course it's easy to say, "It'll never happen to me, someone else will be challenged." But what if it did happen, maybe to your sensitive friend, and what if he was tempted to hesitate...? In the U.S. this dilemma had to be solved in advance and it was. The public agreed: "Old enough to wear a gun is old enough."

And these are the people who hold Khadr.

Sean Crawford
West of range road 284

(Originally December 2008

Update, 2011

~For what you can do in the war on terror see the sting in the tail of my essay Are Yankees Stupid? for April 2011.


~ Regarding Amnesty International, Dutch Muslim Member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her book Infidel notes that Amnesty does not keep statistics on how many women are the victim of honor killings, nor the number of woman flogged in public for fornication, or executed for adultery. (p 296)
Eventually she was able to get the government to track "honour killing" (of women) statistics in just two of Holland's 25 police districts. (p 309) "After that, people stopped telling me I was exaggerating."

~ The last Japanese to surrender was in 1980. Others lie in places known only to God.

~ He had once been an eager 22 year old. Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was 52 years old when his direct superior, Major Taniguchi, now a bookdealer, came to get him, alone, except for an innocent Japanese student. Onoda almost immediately commenced giving a long detailed military report. It took all night in the major's tent... ...Onoda's mother and father were still alive…
Update: Lieutenant Onoda has passed away, age 91, January 16, 2014.