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Reflecting on the High Water Mark of the Confederacy and the Importance of Our Union

Yesterday was the 148th Anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. There is a spot near the Copse of Trees along Cemetery Ridge which is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” It is the spot close to where Confederate Brigadier General Lo Armistead fell mortally wounded as the decimated remains of his command were overwhelmed by Union forces shortly after they breached the Union line. It is a place immortalized in history, literature and film. It is the place that marked the beginning of the end for the great evil of slavery in America.

My ancestors lived in Cabell County which in 1861 was part of Virginia. They were slave holders along the Mud River, a tributary of the Ohio River just to the north of what is now Huntington West Virginia. When war came to the country the family patriarch James Dundas and my great, great grandfather joined the 8th Virginia Cavalry Regiment in which he served the bulk of the war as a Lieutenant.  When it ended he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Union and had his lands, which are now some of the most valuable in that part of West Virginia confiscated and sold by the Federal Government.  He was a believer in the “Lost Cause” that romantic and confused idea about the rightness of the South in its war against what they called “Northern aggression.”

Because he served I am eligible for membership in the Sons of the Confederacy. However it is something that I cannot do.  There are some that do this as a means to honor their relatives that served in the war and I do not make light of their devotion to their family, but there are some that take that devotion to places that I cannot go.  As much as I admire the valor and personal integrity of many military men who served the Confederacy I cannot for a moment think that their “cause” was just.

It has been said that the North won the war but that the South won the history.  I think this is true. Many people now days like to reduce the reasons for the war to the South protecting its rights.  Sometimes the argument is “states rights” or “economic freedom” and those that make these arguments romanticize the valor shown by Confederate soldiers on the battlefield but conveniently ignore or obscure the evil of the Southern economic system. The “rights” and the “economic freedom” were based upon the enslavement and exploitation of the Black man to maintain an archaic economy based on agriculture, particularly the export of King Cotton.  Arguments which try to place the blame on the North, especially arguments that attempt to turn the Northern States into economic predators’ intent on suppressing the economic rights of Southerners only serve to show the bankruptcy of the idea itself. The fact that the “economic and political freedom” of Southerners was founded on the enslavement of a whole race of people matters not because the “cause” is greater.

The fact is that the longer the South relied solely on its agriculture which was supported by the institution of slavery it deprived itself of the means of economic progress, the same progress that propelled the North to prosperity. The south lagged in all industrial areas as well as transportation infrastructure. The majority of non-slave owning whites lived at the poverty line and only enjoyed some elevated social status because the slaves ranked beneath them on the sociological and economic hierarchy.  The South depended on cheap imports from England, which then was still considered an enemy of the country. When tariffs to protect newly establish American industries were enacted in 1828 South Carolina attempted to nullify the Federal law even raising troops and threatened a revolt in 1832.

The Southern economic system was immoral and antiquated. It enslaved blacks and it impoverished most rural Southerners, with the exception of those that owned the land and the slaves. It was a hateful, backward and loathsome system which even the southern churches attempted to justify from Scripture.  Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians would all break away from their parent denominations regarding slavery.

This does not mean that I think that the average Confederate soldier or officers were dishonorable men. Many officers who had served in the United States Army hated the breakup of the Union but served the South because it was the land that they were from. It was the home of their families and part of who they were.  To judge them as wanting 150 years later when we have almost no connection to family or home in a post industrial world is to impose the standards of a world that they did not know upon them. For those that gave up everything to serve one can feel a measure of sympathy.  So many died and so much of the South was destroyed in the defense of that “cause” one has to wonder just why the political and religious leaders of the South were willing to maintain such an inadequate and evil economic system one that hurt poor Southern whites nearly as much as it did blacks.

The war devastated the South and the radicals that ran “Reconstruction” ensured that Southerners suffered terrible degradation and that Southern blacks would have even more obstacles raised against them by the now very angry and revengeful whites.  It would take another 80-100 years to end segregation and secure voting rights for blacks. Thus I have no desire to become part of an organization that even gives the appearance of supporting the “cause” even if doing so would allow me to “honor” an ancestor who raised his hand against the country that I serve.

I was raised on the West Coast but have lived in the South much of my adult life due to military assignments. I have served in National Guard units that trace their lineage to Confederate regiments in Texas and Virginia. Despite my Confederate connections both familial and by service I can find little of the romance and idealism that some find in the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” I see the Civil War for what it was, a tragedy of the highest order brought about by the need of some to enslave others to maintain their economic system.

Today there are many that use the flags of the Confederacy outside of their historic context. They are often used as a symbol of either racial hatred or of defiance to the Federal Government by white Supremacist or anti-government organizations.  Many that use them openly advocate for the overthrow of the Federal Government.  The calls for such “revolt” can be found all over the country even in the halls of Congress much as they were in the 1830s, 40s and 50s. Some of this is based in libertarian economic philosophy which labels the government as the enemy of business, some based social policies which are against their religious beliefs and some sadly to say based in an almost xenophobic racial hatred.  The scary thing as that the divisions in the country are probably as great as or greater than they were in the 1850s as the country lurched inexorably to Civil War with neither side willing to do anything that might lessen their political or economic power even if it means the ruin of the country.

In recent weeks I have seen the symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the Battle Flag displayed in manners that can only be seen as symbols of defiance.  Tomorrow is July 4th and it seems to me that the flag that should be most prominently displayed is not a Confederate banner, nor even the Gadsen flag, a flag from the Revolutionary War which is used as a rallying symbol for many in the Tea Party movement but the Stars and Stripes.  Somehow I find the flag flown in rebellion to the country that I serve displayed in such an arrogant manner

For many of these people it is the Federal Government which is the enemy. Now I know that our system of government has its flaws. Likewise I cannot agree more about the corruption of many in political office, regardless of their political allegiance.  While it is true that the Federal Government has taken upon itself many powers some never envisioned by those that crafted the Constitution, it has done so because leaders of both political parties have consented to it and even worked to strengthen the Federal Government with the consent of the American people that elect them again and again.

Despite this much of this has been accomplished by the Federal Government has been for the good for the country and people no matter what the critics say. Many of the things that we enjoy today are the result of the work of the Federal Government and not business as much as those that deify big corporations want to believe. There are the National Parks, laws against child labor and for safe workplaces brought about by Teddy Roosevelt, the infrastructure built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The Roosevelt administration also brought about Social Security and banking regulations to protect Americans from corporations and banks that violated the public trust. The Eisenhower administration began the Interstate Highway system which is the backbone of our transportation system.  Likewise the Space Program and yes even the military have led the way in technological, scientific and medical innovation including that thing that we all take for granted today the Internet.

Today quite a few people are calling for revolt or secession if they do not get what they want be it socially, politically or economically. For years politicians on both sides have fought to minimize such talk and enact compromises with the usual discontent that comes with compromise.  Unfortunately many of those compromises have had the effect of widening the political divide much as the various compromises on the road to the Civil War.  Jefferson said of the Missouri Compromise of 1824: “but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

We have allowed the issues of our time to become a fire of unbridled angry passion where those with almost no historical understanding and whose history is often based on myth stake claims and promote ideas that will destroy this Union if they continue. Unfortunately we have not yet reached the high water mark of this movement yet and I fear like Jefferson that the hatred and division will only grow worse as both radical on the right and left prepare for conflict.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 235th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence.  It is a remarkable occasion. It is the anniversary that free people as well as those oppressed around the world look to as a beacon of liberty. It has been paid for time and time again, especially during that cruel Civil War which killed more American soldiers than any other war that we have fought.

A few months after Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln a man much reviled by those that have romanticized the Cause and who is demonized by many “conservative” politicians and pundits today as a “tyrant” made these brief remarks at the site of the battle:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Today with so many radicals on both the political right and political left doing all that they can to plunge us into yet another civil war we should remember Lincoln’s word and rededicate ourselves to this Union, this remarkable Union.  Tony Blair the former Prime Minster of Great Britain remarked today:

“It may be strange for a former British Prime Minister to offer thoughts on America when the country will be celebrating its independence from Britain. But the circumstances of independence are part of what makes America the great and proud nation it is today. And what gives nobility to the American character.

That nobility isn’t about being nicer, better or more successful than anyone else. It is a feeling about the country. It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing. That ideal is about values, freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work.

But it is most of all that in striving for and protecting that ideal, you as an individual take second place to the interests of the nation as a whole. This is what makes the country determined to overcome its challenges. It is what makes its soldiers give their lives in sacrifice. It is what brings every variety of American, from the lowest to the highest, to their feet when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

Of course the ideal is not always met – that is obvious. But it is always striven for.

The next years will test the American character. The world is changing. New powers are emerging. But America should have confidence. This changing world does not diminish the need for that American ideal. It only reaffirms it.”

I think that the Prime Minister got it right.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion

The Disdain of American Business for Military Personnel and their Benefits

“What are you going to trade off — a rich entitlements program, or boots and bullets for the troops?” Richard Spencer Defense Business Review Board (quoted in the Navy Times 2 May 2011 print and internet edition)

The Federal Government is looking for ways to slash funding any way that it can. In light of the seriousness of the nation’s financial crisis previously sacrosanct areas are probably going to be cut.  Military pay and pension portion of the Defense Department budget continues to increase. For the active force due to inflation and medical care costs are the culprits and due to the fact that the pesky retirees just aren’t dying off fast enough.  Obviously something needs to be done otherwise we won’t be able to afford the “bullets” or rather the weapons systems that we use to fight our wars with.

But for a man who has made his money on Wall Street using other people’s money including government bailouts every time our financial, banking and real estate industries due their best to destroy the economy to call military retirement a “rich entitlements program” is simply obscene. If there is anything that has broken the back of the military budgets it is a series of wars that won’t end that somehow make contractors and defense industries rich.  Every day they find new ways to overbill the military for weapons systems that they cannot field on time, or are such money pits that the Defense Department tries to cancel them while our fiscally minded Congress makes the military buy them anyway.

Billions of dollars have been paid to defense contractors that employ a wide scope of companies many foreign owned to provide basic services at overseas bases such as food, transportation and even security supposedly because they can do it more efficiently than the military. The truth is that over the past 20 years the military personnel that would have performed these missions were cut from the force so much so that when we went into Iraq we didn’t have the forces to do all that was needed. Yes we could slap the snot out of the Iraqi or any other military that got in our way but we couldn’t sustain the force without employing and enriching companies like Halliburton, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and dare I say Blackwater.  Additionally our defense contractors have ensured that nearly major weapons system produced in the past 20 years is plagued with problems and cannot be produced on time, are horribly over budget and due to their cost cannot be produced in the numbers needed by the military.  Then there are some projects that are so Rube Goldbergish that the technology needed to make them work isn’t attainable so compromises are made just to keep the programs alive.  Money is spent and weapons are produced that never meet the hype of their supporters in Congress, the defense industries and the army of lobbyists which I think number more than the actual Army. Then there are the weapons systems that are not only money pits but also never are deployed.  Congress and successive Presidential Administrations have made these countries wealthy while killing the defense budget and adding to the massive Federal Debt, which before the wars was actually shrinking, God bless you Bill Clinton.

But now we have a crisis and it is not the corporate welfare queens of the defense industry or the contracting vampires like Halliburton who will feel the pinch it is those who serve.  Yes my friends rather than these blood suckers it is the Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who since 1990 have been deployed who if more that any generation of our military for a great length of time than any force in the history of our country. Count the places Panama, Desert Storm, Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo just to name a few. Then through in things like Operation Southern Watch, no-fly zones, humanitarian missions around the world that we have conducted over the same period.  By the way since these things are expensive and there is not enough money we are told to “work smarter not harder” and “leverage our synergies” so we can cut the force and still do the mission.  We look where that got us. We decided the get involved in massive ground combat operations without the manpower to do them effectively resulting in longer campaigns costing more lives and more money that the wise “smarter synergy” people ever estimated.

And now we have one of these barons of modern American-Global Capitalism which if I can remind you are the same people that have created the financial crises that enveloped the world that had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.  By the way most of these barons of business received exorbitant and obscene bonuses sometimes with the taxpayer’s bail-out money, the very people who brought the house financial house down now call military retirement a “rich entitlements program” while embracing tax cuts for themselves.

Well doesn’t that beat all? Is there anyone but me that has a problem with this? But let’s look at some facts.

Let’s see.  If someone retires at 20 years they get 50% of their high-three or basically the average of their last three years pay, not 50% of their highest pay but the last three years of pay. That was changed back in the late 1970s to save money by pretending to say that you got 50% of your base pay but really a bit less. If you serve 30 years you get 75% of you high three, of course by then you better be set for retirement because most military personnel with skills that are not directly transferrable to the civilian world will not be hired by anyone because they are too old. Mind you the retirement percentage is just from the base pay of the individual, not the housing allowance or other pays that you get for deployments or hazardous duty.  Likewise all those little perks from active duty disappear like state tax breaks for being in the military and by the way the health care costs they go up too. Military retirement is taxable and the Feds, the States and local taxing authorities are quite good at making sure they get their “fare share” of something that they never earned.

Speaking of healthcare what really interesting is that military personnel also pay into Social Security and Medicare. In fact when we are 65 our TRICARE health insurance is supposed to be secondary to Medicare or other insurance that we might have.  Since most of us currently serving are under 55 year old cut off that Congressman Paul Ryan has proposed in ending Medicare we lose that too.  So much for Medical Care unless a veteran is qualified to receive treatment in a Veteran’s Administration hospital.  But those hospitals face an increasing number of patients and a decreasing budget.  Who knows maybe they just give us the Soylent Green option.

Look out if Congressman Ryan and his band have their way as Social Security will go by the wayside too.  That is really a good deal isn’t it? Spend 20-30 years getting busted up for your country and put your family through hell as you constantly deploy to combat zones or on regular operational deployments or training exercises and then get told that the benefits that you worked hard to get are simply a “rich entitlement.” Then to top it all off find out all the money that you have paid into other people’s retirement and health care won’t be there for you.

But let’s take a look at why some of the cost of these “entitlements” is rising. It’s the wars stupid. A lot of money is now being paid to combat-wounded veterans that are medically retired from the service.  No one begrudges them this and I certainly don’t because they have paid their pound of flesh for it. They deserve it and most go through a lot of shit in the medical board and with the Veteran’s Administration to get that.  However, if you add up the tens of thousands of these pensions provided to these men and women that might have only served one or two tours it is a lot of money. This is an increase because in normal times many would have left the military without retirement benefits after they were done with their enlistments. Then there is the cost of paying the survivor pensions to the wives, husbands, children or parents of those that gave the last full measure and died while on active duty.

Some entitlement program huh? An entitlement program that often involves multiple tours in combat zones, separation from family, injuries that build-up simply because we are expected to stay physically active in physically and emotionally environments that wear people down.  Yet Mr. Spencer who served as a Marine Corps Aviator from 1976-1981 a period when we were not at war has the nerve to call this a “rich entitlement program.”  However a one term Congressman gets a retirement and benefits for life. We grind it out for 20 or more years and get told that we are leaches in so many words. Mr. Spencer didn’t use that word but that is exactly what he meant.  In the great World War Two film The Caine Mutiny LT Barney Greenwald played by Jose Ferrer chastised the members of the Caine’s Wardroom following the acquittal of the Executive Officer on the charge of mutiny.

“You know something… When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no, we knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys. Tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg.”

I don’t want to question the honor of Mr. Spencer but I will. Wait maybe I really want to question his honor so what the hell here it goes. According to his bio on the DOD website Mr. Spencer graduated from private college with a business degree in the middle of a really nasty economy. Gerald Ford was President and since the Vietnam War was over and a strong anti-war feeling lingered there was not much chance of seeing action.  So Mr. Spencer took his business degree and went in the Marines, not the grunts but as a Naval Aviator.   As soon as he finished his obligation and the Reagan boom began he left the service. After all he knew that you couldn’t make any money in the military.  I enlisted in 1981 and when I was commissioned as an Army officer in 1983 I had a base pay of $900.00 a month.  I didn’t do it for the money I did it because of what had happened in Iran and the Soviet moves all over the world.  Back then there was no GI Bill and limited tuition assistance or money for college when you got out of the service. I was not alone there were thousands maybe even hundreds of thousands that joined for similar reasons despite the low pay and benefits. We did it out of good old fashioned patriotism.

I resent the term “Entitlement program.” It is pejorative. It is a wonderful big business and fiscal conservative code word for “unearned and undeserving welfare program.”  Now there are programs that could legitimate targets of such a pejorative term especially corporate welfare but for Mr. Spencer and others of his ilk to lump the retirement pay of career military men and women is reprehensible.

How many military personnel and their families lose money every few years due to moving costs, changing the kid’s schools having spouse have to quit work to move to new locations? Let me see, almost all of us who serve a full career that’s who. But to Mr. Spencer we are the welfare queens and leaches. Again those are my words not his even though that is exactly what Mr. Spencer meant. We who serve and go into harm’s way so Mr. Spencer’s cronies on Wall Street can make the big bucks are the problem.  When a military officer fails his or her career is over and he or she suffers scorn, when the executives that Mr. Spencer rubs shoulders with destroy a company or defraud the public they get big bonuses multi-million dollar buyouts and move on to new hunting grounds.

So now we are on the chopping block. All the services are shedding personnel even as the mission demands have not gone down in order to save money.  In the Navy as we speak there are boards being held at almost every rank to send people home, including junior enlisted personnel.

It is a shame that we have come to this. A nation at war for 10 years and engaged all over the world in war and peacekeeping operations the 10 years prior to this using a smaller force percentage wise than we have had than at any time since the 1920s and 1930s.  Less than 1% closer to half a percent of Americans currently serve in the active or reserve components of the military and many have served one or more combat tours.  Meanwhile nearly 90% of people military age cannot meet entry standards to join.

This, my friends makes military personnel an easy target for bean counters. We don’t have a lot of votes and if people like Mr. Spencer and some in Congress have their way we will be thrown under the budget bus. They will throw us into wars that are unwinnable because we don’t have the resources to successfully prosecute them or the strategy and goals don’t match the forces that are there to accomplish them.  Meanwhile the defense industries and the big war contractors like Halliburton will continue to make money hand over fist. The late Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler was absolutely correct when he said “War is a racket. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” 

In the past month another 50 or so American military personnel have died in Afghanistan nine in the latest attack on advisors to the Afghan Air Force just this week. The total losses in Iraq and Afghanistan combined are now over 6000 dead and almost 43,000 wounded not counting those suffering from mild to moderate Traumatic Brain Injury and the tens of thousands of others that suffer from PTSD.  Of course this does not count those that have died on their return to the United States due to suicide risky behaviors caused by their experience in combat.  Neither do the numbers count those that succumbed to their wounds after their return to civilian life or in the Veteran’s Administration system.  God knows how many of these uncounted casualties of war there are but remember this is just another “entitlement program” according to Mr. Spencer.

Meanwhile as Rome burns the Legions continue to serve while the world that the politicians, diplomats and business leaders put together falls apart. Wars and crises abounding into which they will gladly send us. The Middle East is threatening to explode and Mr. Spencer and those like him would call us parasites leaches and welfare queens, again my words not theirs even though that is exactly what they mean and call the benefits that we have sacrificed for over 20 or more years of service a “rich entitlement program.”

In fact as this drumbeat from the business leaders advising the Pentagon continues people will begin to believe it. Already polls are showing the American people think that the military budget needs to be slashed in order to pay for their entitlements.  We know that the defense industry, the lobbyists and the contracting Giants will suffer the least in this, as always it will be the men and women that have volunteered to do the job that no one else wants to do that will feel the brunt of the cuts.

We have been at war for 10 years with an 11 year lead up to it. In a sense we have been at war or heavily engaged in peacekeeping, humanitarian or actual war for 20 years. Your Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are remarkable. In spite of an unending war, deployments that never seem to end and being forgotten by a population more caught up in the problems of Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen, their own financial worries or trying to demonize their political opponents in our perpetual election cycle. Even so they serve selflessly and with distinction.  They don’t deserve to have their retirement called a “rich entitlement program.”

When I see the son’s of the wealthy that inhabit Wall Street and other financial centers say this I become incensed.  Many were born into wealth and all make themselves wealthy on other people’s money usually while exporting the industrial base of the United States overseas because they say that American workers are overpaid. Many simply see the military as the government arm which guards their overseas operations but really hold us in contempt and for the past 40 years have thrown the servicemen and women of the country under the bus if there is a possibility of them having to pay more taxes.

To read about such comments from businessmen and politicians I am reminded of a quote of General John Buford played by Sam Elliott from the movie Gettysburg:

“Meade will finally attack… Straight up the hillside, out in the open, in that gorgeous field of fire. We will charge valiantly, and be butchered, valiantly! And afterwards men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chest and say what a brave charge it was…I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this.”

Yes we will continue to serve and many will continue to die as the vampires of Wall Street consider those of us who serve as leaches and characterize military retirement programs as a “rich entitlement program.” They will thump their chests and say how much they support the troops but such words will only come from their marketing departments hoping to gain the military market share.

The attitude of Mr. Spencer and those like him needs to be confronted and challenged at every turn or they will dishonor those that serve so selflessly.  We need more men like Smedley Butler.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, leadership, Military, national security, Political Commentary