Sunday, March 26, 2006

Stranger in a Strange Land

Back in the 60s there was an interesting word that was used regularly, but at the end of the day failed to make it into the progressive lexicon of subsequent decades. The word was grok, as in "to grok something", or "I grok what you're saying". Grok was a word coined by the author Robert Heinlein for his book Stranger in a Strange Land. The main character of this seminal bit of science fiction, Michael Smith, is an earthling who's returned to Earth after having been raised by Martians following the death of his human parents, the first visitors to Mars-think of him as Tarzan, but this time raised by ethereal beings of the most advanced intelligence rather than apes. He returns to Earth with a grab bag of highly evolved skills. For instance, by simply kissing a woman he triggers orgasmic paroxysms that would make Don Juan seem no more skilled than a 14 year old boy with a mouth full of braces on a first date. His greatest apptitude lies in his ability to "grok". A character in the book describes it thusly, "'Grok' means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed - to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science - and it means as little to us (because we are from Earth) as color means to a blind man." Smith goes as far as to say that even were he falling to a horrible death from a skyscraper he would continue to grok the whole experience up to and including the instant of body shattering corporeal destruction. I worked very hard as an impressionable teenager to develop my groking skills hoping collateral side effects, especially those relative to kissing, would appear. Sadly they did not, but I did develop a penchant for taking it all in. Which, when I was married, did not always make for pleasant long distant car trips. Unlike many of my fellow males I will ask for directions, however I think my ex found soaking up the scenery was at the expense of paying less attention to her...something which ultimately did not sit well.

So, here I am back stateside groking America, feeling a little like a stranger in a strange land. This past week the actor Richard Belzer, from a bully-pulpit provided by HBO and Bill Maher, condescendingly disparaged the very same young Americans into whose able hands I placed my own life and limb into day after day in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm going to do my dardnest to tell the real story of these kids, but I find it a tad discourageing knowing that our culture has more of an appetite for the Belzers and Joel Steins (author of the LA Times "Warriors and Wusses" article) running rampant across the airways and printed pages of America. In fact, let me apologize for calling them "kids", they're highly competent 18 and 19 year old adults, something as rare in the malls and coffee shops here as life on Mars. Perhaps there in lies the rub, maybe it's just beyond a certain segment of our society, the one dependent on adolescent tastes and buying habits, that anyone under the age of 35 is capable of adulthood, let alone 18 and 19 year olds. There's two wonderful books, Millennials Rising by Neil Howe and William Strauss and Hard America, Soft America by Michael Barone, that do a super job of talking about this rising Best Generation Ever that I heartedly recommend. (See links) In the mean time I'm homesick for my little bungalow in a cozy neighborhood at Camp Fallujah, Hard America.

Tomorrow will mark my official return to the studio. This past week, after checking in off of leave the 17th, was devoted to a variety of administrative tasks. Because of my promotion to warrant officer and new responsiblities there are schools, conferences and training I needed to schedule and lock on for the next year. I also spent hours reviewing my sketchbooks, journal entries, several thousand combat photographs, audio recordings and videos. This is the intial phase of the alchemy that will hopefully result in some good paintings and watercolors.

One last thing, for those of you interested, I'm writing for the New York Times TimesSelect subscription website. The Times invited four milbloggers to contribute our thoughts and experiences about Iraq. I find it very interesting, especially in light of the recent criticism of the MSM, that they would go out of their way to identify and invite us to their forum. From what I can tell they couldn't find a voice negative about the war. This is based on the assumption that if they could have found one they certainly would have used them.


MissBirdlegs in AL said...

Good post! I think we have a lot of people in this country who just don't want to 'grok' when it comes to our military and their jobs. It might require something of them besides running their uneducated mouths. I hope you who are blogging for the NY Times will open some eyes and minds. Thank you!

Samantha West said...

It's okay to call our Warriors "kids." You and I, and everyone here, knows that they are really exceptional kids who choose to leap into adulthood by accepting the responsibilities of protecting freedom. I hope that they all still have a little "kid" left in them when they come home.

I miss your words and your art when they're not around.

Jon Garfunkel said...

re: "This is based on the assumption that if they could have found one they certainly would have used them."

Where is that assumption coming from? If that's yours, can you cut them a little slack?

I'm a Times subscriber. I had not been paying much attention to milblogs-- I first heard of them last June, and a Google search brought me to the Mudville Gazette, but I couldn't, well, grok it very much. Truth be told, it's not the only blog aggregator/listing which is friendlier to insiders than to outsiders.

The fact that the Times selected these opened my eyes a bit. So I decided to do some research into these over the past four days. I was trying to ascertain whether the Times's selections were a good sampling.

I'm not looking for pro-war or anti-war, and I wouldn't expect the readers to either. I'm looking for richness of experience. I was delighted to find Prakash, Bout, and Buzzell. My research is mostly complete; I've learned a heckuva lot. But it took a lot of digging.

Incidentally, Huntress had linked to the Belzer's idiotic performance as well as FrontLines, and she helped me out a bit.

I enjoy your artwork and look forward to more. God bless--

yankeemom said...

That is so great! I'm glad they are taking on milblogs!! And you as one of them!

Anonymous said...

Semper Fi, Sir. Thanks for writing this and sharing with us your experiences.

Carol said...

Hi Mike,

It's so nice to see you posting again. You always say the things I'm thinking - LOL! I watched the Maher/Belzer fiasco last night on On Demand and they are a couple of loons. Fortunately people like them get their fifteen minutes and are soon gone.

Looking forward to more of your lovely images and words. Stay well.


Judy Cohn said...

I watched and heard Richard Belzer on HBO. I didn't hear what you heard. I work for a Congresman and spend much of my time on the Iraq War and the issues affecting the troops fighting there.

What I heard on that show was Richard Belzer's anger at the President and his administration for lying about the war. In my view, Richard Belzer is anti-war, not anti-troops. My take on that show was that Mr. Belzer was trying to keep Republican Congresswoman Iliana Ross-Leitman from using the show as a "pulpit" to spread Bush's propaganda. She, like many Republicans who know nothing of combat, shouts over anyone questioning the official Administration position on the war.

I can tell you that the Democrats I know and work for honor the men and women fighting in Iraq by attempting to get better body armor for them and fighting as best they can against the Republican Majority's attempts to cut veteran benefits. They support the troops by trying to get Secretary Rumsfeld to disclose how he is supporting the troops in Iraq, and what his plans are for these men and women. The people I work with and know support the troops the way Mr. Murtha does, by working hard to keep them safe and to bring them safely home.

I do not know a single democratic congressperson that does not honor and respect the troops. Mr. Murtha, for example, cares deeply for the troops and their welfare and he demonstrates his concern by speaking truth to power as does the Congressman I work for.

When Mr. Murtha says we are not winning the war I beleive him. He fought in Korea and Vietnam and has been to Iraq many times. I never hear him disparage our troops, yet he opposes Mr. Bush's failed policies in Iraq. Mr. Murtha is trying to save the lives of the men and women in Iraq...The lives of those still figthing and those who will fight in Iraq.

I find Mr. Murtha credible where the Administration is not. Mr. Bush never saw combat; Mr. Rumsfeld never saw combat; Mr. Cheney had five deferrements rather than fight in Viet Nam. These people have no credibility with me when they talk about supporting the troops. I don't beleive President Bush or his Vice President and Secretary of Defense support the troops. Their talk is propaganda insubstantial devoid of any real information or answers.
The war in Iraq cannot be fought by campagining for the war as the President does. It cannot be won by a campaign to get Americans to support the war.

I am saddened that anyone who has served his country as you have, would beleive the people who oppose the President and his failed policies also oppose the troops. That is not just a lie; it is a damned lie.

I am speaking for myself as a citizen and not for anyone I work for or with. I certainly honor the troops and thank you for your service. I honor all those who gave their lives for their country even though I oppopse the war. I hope you can find a way to believe that.

flint cordoroy said...

19 guys from Saudi Arabia and UAE hijack 4 airliners. They belong to no army and no country. Their only weapons were cardboard box cutters and Microsoft Flight Simulator. None of them was from Iraq.

Iraq was most secular nation in Middle East. Middle Eastern nations are in constant state of near-warfare. It is important to not look weak, lest your neighbors take liberties. Is it possible Saddam's Rhetoric was exploited by our own right wing chickenhawks. Before Gulf War I, Iraq was a bastion of secular and womens rights. Osama Bin Laden wanted Saddam dead. Since then..."The enemy of my enemy is my friend". or so they say.

Was it Alexander the Great who succeeded largely through deputizing his defeated enemies after kicking the stuffing out of them? And Darius The Great before him? I suspect keeping order in the Middle East requires a lot more interpersonal contact than the United States is willing to commit to. No point in worrying about it though. Too late now. At least we've made Iraq safe for the Sharia once again. The IEDs are much more cost effective than high tech body armor and million dollar bradley fighting vehicles.

Would you like to invade Iran next? it is 3 times larger, and not crippled by a decade of sanctions. It shares massive land borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is a short boat ride from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Much easier for insurgents to flock there.

mdfay said...

Good to see some views and comments a little more diverse than we normally get here at "Fire and Ice". The Merriam-Webster dictionary's number 2 definition for condescend is "to assume an air of superiority". I believe, in re-reading Mr.Belzer's comments, that this word is applicable to his commentary.a Unless of course if you believe that describing 18 and 19 year olds in the military as a sociological sub-group that couldn't have otherwise found gainful employment is a complimentary viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

"describing 18 and 19 year olds in the military as a sociological sub-group that couldn't have otherwise found gainful employment"

Is that what Belzer said? Kinda hard to defend that he supports our "kids" if this slipped out and exposed his true feelings.
I assure you it is not true for my 20yo Lance Cpl. I would put his talents up against either of those bozos when they were 20!!

EdoRiver said...

Wellll, It is your blog, you can take sly digs at, or blindly promote anyone you please, we all have our prejudices, don't we?

Your comments about the kids, I couldn't help but remember a book I read by a Times.....(LA Times,..;-) reporter who lived with the kids in Eutria (that's in Africa) during the 90's. These were 10-12 year olds who were kidnapped by the Johnny Rebels and "taught" (the reporter never got a clear picture of how it was done, I guess because they were 5-6 years old when it was done) to fight the government. I was surprised how mature those kids were, how they took on the responsibilities of....your 18-19 year olds. It was truly amazing. Of course by this time they had been in the field a few years, not like our kids taking this job on in a year or less. But, it goes to show that even 11 and 12 year olds possibly younger can conduct the complex assignments of various necessary missions against an enemy. The reporter often had to trust them with his life during the missions. And these kids were TOUGH. They didn't give in an inch. Makes you wonder why we coddle our kids in our country so long. I can't even get my teenage girls to pick up their clothes, much less think they could conduct a search and destroy mission.
And another thing, it sure didn't cost the government of Eutria to train those kids either. They learned on the cheap, you might say. BUT judging only from the accounts of that reporter, they learned it good enough, that any army would be proud to have them in their ranks defending their country, if they would get a little older ;--)

Oh yes one other thing, I was reading about some Northern Ireland kids who grew up during the troubles during the 1970's and they were interviewing on BBC some kids in Iraq who had witnessed some of the things in their neighborhood, unfortunately they mentioned the US, as well as the terrorists blowing up or shooting their relatives. and these little Iraqi kids expressed the same determination to be soldiers. No doubt they have the motivation it takes. the problem is training. I don't see why we don't seize this opportunity before the terrorists do. Kids can learn, as you say.
Finally, I am a regular reader, sir of your blogs. I pray that we will just kill them before they kill us. It doesn't make much sense, to take any risks, does it?

Collette said...

Kill them before they kill us????? I am a former Marine, my husband is Army, my son is Army (his second tour in Iraq), my other son is Air Force. We are a rather patriotic family, you might say. But, I hope they never become so blind to the value of ALL life that they get an attitude like that. Capture if you can safely, kill if you MUST. NOT just so you can go home.

Samantha West said...

Well, now I have to get serious even though I prefer to keep my comments light and save my rants for my own blog.

Refering to Judy Cohen's remark:
I am saddened that anyone who has served his country as you have, would beleive the people who oppose the President and his failed policies also oppose the troops. That is not just a lie; it is a damned lie.

Judy Cohen,
Let me ask how can you possibly support the troops and not the war? The two cannot be separated. Your comment shouts to our Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen and guardsmen that what they risk their lives for is not important. How do you think your comment might influence a young Warrior? If he is demoralized by your comment before going on patrol and he encounters combat, how might he perform if you have influenced him so? Might someone die because of your thoughtless statement? Can you possibly imagine the amount of pressure a man in combat is under? Do you have the right to implant doubt in the mind of a man who would lay his life down for your freedoms? Why would you do that? Can I infer from your comments that troops should take a vote among themselves and decide whether or not they should go on a mission ordered by their commander? Can you explain to me how that army would work?

Now then, to the body armour issue. If you want to improve the body armour without increasing the weight that has to be carried into combat DO IT! That's not what you're talking about though. You want to increase the amount of weight my beloved Marines and soldiers have to carry into battle with them. Why don't you just put a gun to their heads and pull the trigger? Until the body armour provides more protection with less weight, MORE is useless, and possibly deadly.

Murtha spoke with Marines in Iraq that I PERSONALLY know before he let his opinions be known, and what he told them, and what he told the Nation are two different things. They feel betrayed by him and that makes his motives and reasoning suspect to me.

So now Judy, I'm sure you still don't get it. It's not your position on issues that I have a problem with, it's how people like you go about effecting change, it's how you fail to thoroughly consider your words and how thay may effect people. I want to be very careful not to say "Democrats", because I have been personally involved with the political scene in my home state for many years now and know honorable politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. Your eight paragraph comment can be summed up as follows: The Democrats always tell the truth and the Republicans always lie, that is all you managed to say. Boy, that's credible....not!

Samantha West
Come batter me at my blog if you like.

wendela said...

It must, indeed, be a pretty strange place back here after all you've experienced. "Taking it all in" is a good trait, be it car trips or life in general. Thanks again for your work and willingness to share with us.

Anonymous said...

Bless you, once again, MDFay. You are standing in for a whole boatload of us, and I appreciate it. Hopefully your blogging for the Times will open some eyes, and possibly even some minds.
My 19- and 21-year-old sons are both in the military, and I'd love to compare their SAT scores to Mr Belzer's! I'd also love to compare their enjoyment of life, and the way they interact with others, to his; and we won't even go into the benefit they are performing for society compared to the "gainful employment" he gets paid for. They both had great prospects before they joined up, and one has a good civilian job when he's not deployed (he's a Reservist).
I'm not sure I like the "little more diverse" comments you're getting these days. Seems to me they come from those who just don't "grok" the truth! But hey, my sons are fighting for their right to be ignorant.
Thanks Samantha West, for your well-reasoned comments.

Grateful American and proud mom

P.S. As for the new armor, my son just returned from combat, carrying 80 lbs and more the whole time, and his thoughts on it are, "Don't do us any more favors, please! You're going to get us killed!"

Buck Pennington said...

Hi Mr. Fay!

It's good to hear the NYT recognizes talent and quality when they see it and offered you the chance to reach a much larger audience. OTOH, it's not good to hear they've walled you off from "the rest of us" by putting your writings in TimesSelect.

Is there anything that prevents you from posting what you write for TimesSelect on your blog? I hope not, because I miss your writing, as well as your brilliant sketches, photos, and watercolors.

And like "anonymous," I'm not sure I care for the new-found diversity in your comments section. Your response to your "Diverse" commenters was quite civil and restrained - Kudos.

And Ms. West: Bravo Zulu!

CJ said...

Tell their stories, Sir! There are MANY of us out here who long to read them.

Kyaroko said...

How it's possible to support the troops but not the war: All evidence shows that the president invaded Iraq based on fabricated intelligence and that Saddam Hussein did not pose a direct threat to the security of the United States. I do not support this war.

I believe that if we send our troops out into harm's way, it is the duty of the government to supply them with more than adequate body and vehicle armor and ammunition. I am horrified when I read stories of parents buying bullet-proof vests to send their children in Iraq because the government isn't going to do it because they believe you "go to war with the army you have, not the army you want" or whatever BS Rumsfeld is spouting this time.
I believe that if the government is going to be sending America's children into harm's way, they should only go for a worthy mission and they should know the truth of the mission. They are not toy soldiers to be played with at the president's pleasure. They are, as you say, America's finest.

My father was in the Navy, I was born on a Navy base, I and my tax dollars support our troops wherever they go, and I do not think that they should be in Iraq.

I found your blog by following the Times link. I'm looking forward to reading the archives sometime soon when I can sit down in front of the computer uninterrupted for awhile.

It is tough getting readjusted to life in the States. I was abroad for more than 3 years and it took me a full year to feel comfortable. It's hard to describe but...I was always so aware of the people around me and constantly measuring my actions. It took a year before I felt like life was routine again.

Glad you're home and blogging!

Foilwoman said...

Wow. I just discover your blog, your wonderful posts* and pictures about Iraq and our boys and girls** in uniform, and discover that you're back here. I can't wish you back to Iraq just so that I can read more good stuff, but I do hope there's more, whether here (in the U.S. or elsewhere). Have a good time with your family, especially daughter, whilst you are here is the U.S.

*I disagree with some of your perspective, but like reading it (your perspective).

**At forty-four, almost forty-give, I can safely say a nineteen-year old, even if he or she is much more highly skilled with just about anything military than I am, is a kid. Even most of the officers seem like kids to me. (Twenty-three years old with peach fuzz on his face? Kid.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Samantha's comments. I'd also tell Ms Cohn that it is a spurious argument to say Bush et al have no credibility because they "never served". (How's that gonna work when Hillary runs???) President Bush has been "serving" since 2000 as the Commander-in-Chief. If you don't think he lives and dies with every casualty on the battlefield, you understand nothing about supporting troops. You might not agree with all his decisions, but in my corner of the world he IS serving our country.

Looking forward to meeting some of you at the Milblog Conference.

God Bless our Troops and those who support them.