Forgetting the lessons of the Vietnam War

We must never again confuse a war with the warriors. American veterans deserve our deepest respect, gratitude and support whenever and wherever they serve. — Secretary of State John Kerry, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, writing on the lessons of the Vietnam War in the New York Times.

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In August 1965, television journalist Morley Safer, who died this month, gave Americans a searing depiction of the growing Vietnam War. He covered an attack on the hamlet of Cam Ne, about 10 miles west of the port city of Da Nang. It had been identified as a Vietcong sanctuary, though it had been abandoned by the enemy before the Americans moved in.

Safer’s account depicted Marines, facing no resistance, firing rockets and machine guns into the hamlet; burning its thatched huts with flamethrowers, grenades and cigarette lighters as old men and women begged them to stop; then destroying rice stores as the villagers were led away sobbing.

“This is what the war in Vietnam is all about,” he reported, according to a New York Times obituary. “The Vietcong were long gone. The action wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one Marine and netted four old men as prisoners. Today’s operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. To a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”

Safer’s report and disturbing images were broadcast on the “CBS Evening News,” then anchored by Walter Cronkite. They stunned Americans and were among the most famous television portraits of the war.

For the generation that struggled with the morality of the Vietnam War, these images and others like them made it impossible to separate the war from the young American military personnel waging it. If these things were happening in sanctioned military operations, what else might be going on?

In 1968, a company of U.S. soldiers killed between 300 and 500 civilians, including women, children and the elderly, at the village of My Lai in central Vietnam. Although it was the worst massacre by U.S. forces during the war, it was far from the only war crime committed by American troops. Books like “Tiger Force” and “The War Behind Me” have in the past decade revealed allegations of hundreds of war crimes, many of them investigated and covered up by the military.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now telling us to give blanket respect, gratitude and support to all veterans, had a different tale to tell back in 1971 when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Speaking as the leader of anti-war veterans group, Kerry told of an “investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. … They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”

A primary lesson of the Vietnam War, it seems to me, is that individuals must be held accountable for what they do in wartime. From Vietnam to Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib, soldiers should not be exonerated for “just following orders.” There is no honor in that.

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How uplifting — a choice between two evils

ten commandmentsMy favorite question asked of guests on the television show “Inside the Actors Studio” is this one:

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

For myself, I would like to hear God say: “Welcome, you fought the good fight.” That’s because I grew up Catholic and was instructed in a moral framework in which there always seemed to be a clear choice between good and evil.

The saints I admired didn’t waffle or compromise. They didn’t sell out. They laid down their lives to do the right thing. They certainly didn’t expect to get to the pearly gates and hear God say: “Welcome, you went through life bravely choosing the lesser of two evils.”

I got thinking about this subject after wading through the Sacramento Bee’s political coverage yesterday. There are a lot of stinky election contests on tap, from the presidential race down to the Sacramento City Council. Voters are holding their noses and wondering which candidate is less sleazy than the other. Political observers are providing little help.

Take Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, for example. He waded into the congressional race pitting Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones against Democratic Rep. Ami Bera. In a diatribe printed in the Bee’s Forum section, Serna lashes out at Scott for endorsing Donald Trump, “a racist and outspoken bigot who has publicly disparaged Latinos, Muslims, Asians and African Americans.” Serna rejects Scott’s contention that Trump is a better choice than the alternatives. In Serna’s view, a write-in vote for Fido the dog would be morally preferable to endorsing Trump because “at least we know Fido isn’t a bigot.”

While trying to smear Jones with guilt-by-association bigotry, Serna neglects to mention the fundraising scandal that has enveloped Bera. His father is awaiting sentencing on two counts of election fraud for reimbursement schemes in which he repaid donors as a way to direct more money into his son’s campaign committee. In addition, according to the Bee, Bera for years has engaged in a complex and questionable series of campaign donations involving his parents and the families of other congressional candidates.

So, do you make a moral choice between bigotry and fundraising chicanery, or wash your hands with a vote for Fido?

Or how about choosing between a scheming fake and a dangerous bluffer? That’s the dilemma posed by columnist Kathleen Parker. She sees in Hillary Clinton a candidate with a lack of transparency, questions about whether her family philanthropic foundation helped donors and friends, and lingering clouds from her tenure at the State Department, including her private email system, the Benghazi attacks in which four Americans were killed and her support for military intervention in Libya.

By contrast, Parker describes Trump as a repugnant character who by virtue of his own statements is unqualified to lead the most powerful nation on earth. The only meaningful question for voters to ask is this: “Is he really as awful as he seems, or has he just been bluffing?”

Parker concludes that Clinton has a tad more virtue than Trump and urges Americans to vote, saying: “The high ground may be more molehill than mountain, but it still beats the gutter.”

With choices like these, I can see why God didn’t put anything about voting in the Ten Commandments.

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How to feel like a dummy while trying to get a smartphone

I’m making progress on the smartphone front. I’m discovering the questions to ask and the details to consider. But I sure feel like an ignoramus.

As I wrote Monday, I finally overcame my fears and inertia and decided to get with modernity. I don’t want to be a dinosaur. I spent several days reading Consumer Reports magazine, online reviews and wading through the websites of major wireless carriers. I thought I had a handle on pricing and long-term contracts. But I didn’t.

I came away from the websites of the major wireless carriers with the impression that I could get a new smartphone for free if I signed up for a two-year service contract. I feel silly saying that because why would Verizon or AT&T give me, say, a classy Apple iPhone with a retail cost of $649.99 in exchange for two years of service costing that price?

Yet that was the primary impression I got after spending hours looking at the websites of those wireless providers. For example, I saw a deal that offered an Apple iPhone 6s for $27.08 a month. The smaller print said 24 months with zero APR and noted the retail price for that phone was $649.99.

Although my research had warned me away from long-term contracts, it seemed that buying a smartphone for $649.99 upfront and then prepaying monthly service charges made no sense if I could get the whole package for 24 monthly payments of $27.08. I assumed the big companies must profit somehow by having me locked in for 24 months.

OK, as I said at the beginning, I feel like an ignoramus. This became evident when I ventured into a Verizon store in Sacramento and dealt with a young woman who ran off a string of charges I would incur beyond the monthly cost of the phone. The final tally was nearly double my fixation on $649.99. She did her best to convince me that buying a smartphone upfront and paying month to month would be unwise.

The visit to Verizon cleared the fog in my head. I returned to the wireless company websites and saw that I would have to compute phone cost and service price separately. I then set to explore what kind of deal I could get by first buying a smartphone and then getting prepaid monthly service.

The savings appeared nominal at Verizon and AT&T. But then I went to a Cricket Wireless store near my home. The monthly prepaid service fees offered were about half those at Verizon and AT&T. But was this another deal too good to be true?

Well, it turns out that Cricket Wireless is an under-the-radar affiliate of AT&T. The woman at the Sacramento store said that AT&T had set it up to compete with a couple of low-cost wireless providers. It uses the same network that AT&T does and service reliability is virtually the same.

That’s where things stand now. I have made no commitment to any service provider nor decided whether to go with an Android or iOS operating system. I feel the smartphone world is coming into focus for me, but I have a nagging feeling I have left some important questions unanswered. It’s time for more research to set my mind at ease.

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Do I really have to get a smartphone?

The February issue of Consumer Reports magazine has been sitting on my desk for three months. I’ve been waiting to get in the right state of mind to read an article titled “Best Smartphone Deals for You.”

Over the weekend I finally overcame my inertia and forced myself to start playing catch-up with the rapidly changing world of technology. I waded through the article as well as a half-dozen related pieces online. I now know the difference between the Android and iOS operating systems. I’m pondering whether I’m an Apple type or a Google guy. I understand the generational significance of 3G, 4G and 4G LTE.

Meanwhile, an irritated voice deep inside my head keeps asking, “Why bother?” What’s wrong with the dumb old cellphone I carry in my car in case I need to make an emergency phone call? Do I really need to be tethered to the Internet and thousands of apps every waking moment?

No, I don’t. My 2013 Dell Inspiron computer running Windows 10 keeps me plugged into the Internet world. But I am feeling increasingly disconnected from everyday realities and more like an outsider to the world around me. When I make plane reservations, I make paper printouts instead of scanning a bar code into my smartphone. Heck, I can’t even use my wife’s Apple iPhone 4 that she’s had for several years and loves dearly. She’s the one who tracks down restaurants when we’re on the road or apps that guide us through museums in New York.

The word “dinosaur” pops to mind with increasing frequency. It could be imprinted in my genes. My father was not one to adjust to the modern world.  He drove a black 1939 Chevrolet into the 1960s. He wore ankle-high lace-up shoes and white shirts with detachable collars that went out of fashion decades earlier. He thought a checking account was dangerous and used money orders to pay bills.

I’ve watched several older men I admired retreat from new technology and isolate themselves in their homes. They didn’t want to do anything that departed from long-established routines. They seemed to dry up and wither on the vine.

By contrast, I’ve been impressed taking adventure tours with men and women in their 80s who were willing to raft down rapid rivers and zip-line through jungle canopy. They displayed enthusiasm for new activities and refused to let the uncertainties of health and age deter them. They knew how to use smartphones and sophisticated cameras.

I hope I will be as open to change and adventure when I am in my 80s. But this won’t be something that merely happens. I will have to work at it. I suppose learning to use a smartphone could be part of the training regimen.

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With dieting, good genes may beat self-discipline

When it comes to weight control, I am feeling more humble these days. I used to think I was a paragon of self-control, but maybe I was just fortunate to inherit my father’s good genes.

As I wrote in Monday’s blog, biological factors appear to play a major role in determining body weight, according to several recent studies. Many dieters find that it’s nearly impossible to maintain the slimmer versions of themselves they worked so hard to achieve. A combination of slow metabolism and uncooperative hormones doom their efforts.

That hasn’t been my problem. Three times in my adult life, I’ve decided I was carrying too much weight and set about losing it. A year after my college graduation, I was 6 foot 1 and weighed 230 pounds. A year later, I weighed 210 and stayed at that weight until I was 50. I then knocked off 10 pounds and remained at 200 until last year, when I lost another 12 pounds.  At age 70, I now weigh what I did as a high school junior, although unfortunately I am at least an inch shorter.

I didn’t struggle much with my dieting. I simply set modest goals, gave up some junk food and ate healthier foods. I assumed that self-discipline was the key to effective weight loss. That was a lesson I learned from my father. He liked to tell the story that he weighed 150 pounds all his adult life except during his first year of marriage, when he gained 10 pounds from indulging in my mother’s cooking. The following year, he decided to return to his regular weight, and that was that.

My father, who was 5 foot 5, seemed to view eating simply as a way to fuel the body. As a chemistry teacher, he knew the significance of calcium, magnesium and sodium chloride. He ate a balanced dinner, but never had seconds and rarely ate dessert. His idea of a treat was to consume, ever so slowly, two Fig Newtons. Every morning, he ate a bowl of old-fashioned oatmeal. He would have two pieces of toast and a cup of tea when he came home from work at 4 p.m.

My mother, by contrast, was a rather large woman who enjoyed eating and had a liking for pastries and cakes from a German bakery near our house. She encouraged her eight children to join her in having a second brownie or slice of cheesecake. She never expressed concern that I was husky in grammar school. She dismissed my fourth-grade nun’s description of me as “obese” and said I was just a growing boy.

As the youngest child, I watched my three brothers and four sisters grow – and grow – through their adult lives. At least one of my brothers topped 300 pounds for a while, the same weight of my maternal grandfather. I never heard much talk about dieting. I assumed weight gain was what happened when you became a full-fledged adult with a spouse, children and career.

I chose a different life path and picked up the active California lifestyle. When my weight got a little out of whack, I cut back on food consumption and congratulated myself on my self-discipline. No big deal. Now, after reading a number of studies on weight loss, I think I was lucky to inherit genes that take the work out of weight control.

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