Friday, July 04, 2008

The Way of the Warrior

By Bernie Quigley

For The Hill 7/4/08

The 1970s was a time of squalor. What had started in joy and awakening 10, 15 years before had peaked in 1968-69 and descended the stairs. We found then the vile and the menial; Charles Manson, Son of Sam and assassination attempts on the good and the harmless like the pope and John Lennon. Class status was determined then by drugs and the period was awash in drugs – stock brokers, politicians and bankers were openly snorting cocaine in the restaurants in NYC and bike messengers were injecting heroin in stair wells. Then it all changed swiftly.

As Gary Hart mentioned in a NYTs essay last week, a new political era began with the rise of Ronald Reagan. If anything, Reagan brought a change in overriding themes which affected everyone and everything. That era became identified with the word excellence. With the publication of In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. in 1982, excellence became the mantra for new energy and a new and creative attitude in all aspects of the culture.

As the Sixties was said to have started when Bob Dylan, creator/monkey god of a generation, shifted from a wooden guitar to an electric guitar in Newport in 1965, the “age of excellence” might have found its monkey god in author Tom Wolfe, who wrote a book called The Right Stuff in 1979. And as the mage of the Sixties was a troubadour with a guitar, the avatar of excellence was the Korean and Vietnam-era fighter pilot.

From then until now it is worth reviewing the way of the warrior because once again we have fully descended the stairs.

As Wolfe described these pilots in The Right Stuff: “ . . . it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process.”

No, he writes, “The idea here seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment – and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite . . . .”

They were men of few words, elite warriors far from the all-inclusive idiom of the times. They were in essence, ”Manliness, manhood, manly courage . . . there was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff, no matter what a sophisticated and rational age one might think he lived in.”

And they bore no patience with the horde: “A fighter pilot soon found he wanted to associate only with other fighter pilots. Who else could understand the nature of the little proposition (right stuff/death) they were all dealing with?” And no patience with those even directly below: “There are no accidents and no fatal flaws in the machines; there are only pilots with the wrong stuff.”

When a colleague crashed and burned in a Florida swamp on a training mission, the mourning was only among the widows. Wolfe reported that the other pilots in his squadron asked only: “How could he have been so stupid?

By 1989, the age of excellence had reached denouement. Bill and Ted greeted celestials on their excellent journey with the phrase, “Be excellent to one another!” Reagan Chief James A. Baker had rigged White House computers so that they would freeze up when anyone typed the word excellence as it had become so clichéd, show worn and meaningless.

As Wolfe writes, Vietnam era fighter pilots were a samurai cult. Getting shot down was not an option. Simply getting shot down (or shot up) didn't bring political cache and capital until George H.W. Bush’s Presidential run. Bush was shot down in a Grumman TBM Avenger in 1944. He ran for President in 1988.

The idea of "hero" and it’s public and political persona changed at that very moment. Traditionally, a military hero would be considered exactly like a sports hero. Randy Moss or Derek Jeter; the elite – better than any other. Nathan Bedford Forest, the wizard of the saddle, or Joshua Chamberlain, who held off the Confederates with stones and knives in the turning of events at Gettysburg. It changed then to just anyone who just played, even if they failed.

This is a dangerous slide because eventually this worship of the most pedestrian aspect of military service enters a "nostalgico" phase and it has now. Franco's Spain brought royal militarist nostalgia to the first part of the 20th century and was prelude to the rise of fascism which in Spain, Italy and Germany sought to restore a gone era through military glory.

Rings a bell. In every case it is an attempt to stop time and is always fated to fail. The Ku Klux Klan was also awakened by nostalgico war veterans when Nathan Bedford Forest took its lead. Nostalgia for war lead us to 'war for the sake of war' - the mother of all war crimes and that from which all other war crimes descend.

Today, foot draggers and even cowards are considered heroes provided that they wore the uniform. We regularly see politicians who spent their early years dodging the draft sporting baseball caps and jackets with military insignia while visiting troops. And the leading proponents of warfare today like Vice President Dick Cheney are serial offenders; draft dodgers of legendary proportion. We have entered a middle world; not good, not bad, but mid’lin – what author Curtis White calls the world of Middle Mind. It is a place where soldiers are not warriors, men of the clothe are not men of God but political hacks, it is the place of pedophile priests, apparatchik journalists and accommodating, appeasing politicians.

The general public has really never heard of the great ones; the samurai with abilities at the decimal level of Moss and Jeter. The mediocre and incompetent have ushered them off the stage. Colonel John Boyd, possibly the greatest pilot who ever lived; the pilot who changed the way of modern warfare, is known only to insiders. Colonel Jack Broughton, the legendary warrior who flew F-105’s out of Korat and was relieved of duty for his genius doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

I happen to have been there when they still flew 105s out of Korat. By the early 1970s the 105’s were all gone. Shot down, their screech and roar never to be heard from again.