Photo by Edward F. Palm)

About Me

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

My Column of December 7, 2014: Three Degrees of Infamy

Saturday, December 6, 2014

My Column of November 23, 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

My Current Column

I'm reverting to curmudgeonly type with this one.  --S/f, EFP

ED PALM | Will she regret the gargoyle?

I wish someone would tell me what today’s young people see in tattoos. I’ve been pondering the question since 2002, when I was a dean at a small private university in St. Louis.

One day, an exceptionally attractive young woman who couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19 came into my office. She needed my signature on a form permitting her to take an overload the following semester. (She was obviously a serious student.) I happened to have a few gargoyle knickknacks on my desk, and when she spied them, she spoke up: “Oh, you like gargoyles?”

“Ah, yes,” I responded.

“Oh, I love gargoyles. I have a big one tattooed on my back!” she proudly exclaimed.
This was one of those defining moments in the life of a married middle-aged dean. The wrong response could have been career ending. “That’s nice,” I said, quickly signing her form and holding it out at arm’s length, pointing her toward the door.

Regular readers of these confessions the Sun labels as a “Community Column” may recall that I began my adult life as an enlisted Marine, way back in 1965. I knew a lot of Marines who, soon after getting through boot camp, rushed to get the eagle, globe, and anchor or a Marine Corps bulldog tattooed on their arms. But I was never tempted.

I had two uncles who had gotten tattoos while in the service. The one who had the most tattoos was my Uncle Paulie, who had served in the Navy before World War II. I still remember how those tattoos looked by the time I was old enough to notice them — blurry blue lines that left the images almost unrecognizable. I could tell that one was supposed to be a topless mermaid. I was never sure what the other tattoos were supposed to represent.

In the mid-nineties, when I was a professor in West Virginia, I had occasion to describe Uncle Paulie’s tattoos to one of my students. He had several tattoos, all of which were markedly different from any I had seen up to that time. The lines were sharp, there were four or five colors, and the representations were clear and unmistakable. I asked him if he wasn’t afraid that, like my uncle’s, his tattoos would fade, blur, and become indistinct over time.

“No,” he assured me. “Today’s tattoo inks are much better than the ones they used to use.” I have no doubt that that’s true. As a lifelong amateur photographer, however, I know that all dyes can fade over time, particularly if they are exposed to harsh sunlight and heat.

But even if today’s tattoo inks are indeed colorfast, there are two other considerations I would try to impress upon any young person yearning to be “inked.”

First, aside from the fact that I’ve never much cared for needles, what always held me in check was the realization that novelty wears off. No matter how much a tattoo might appeal to me at the time, I realized that I would eventually get tired of it. And all the ways of removing a tattoo are painful, expensive, and uncertain. One enlisted Marine I knew had talked a Navy corpsman into removing the tattooed name of an ex-girlfriend from his shoulder with a scalpel — one thin slice at a time. How that turned out, I don’t know. I was transferred out of that company long before the final cut.

Second, it’s a fact of life that as we age most of us gain weight and lose muscle mass or at least see a significant redistribution of weight across our frames. We’re also likely to wrinkle and sag. The aging process is bound to distort even the best of tattoos over time. The unicorn that looked cute on the midriff of an 18-year-old girl may look more like a water buffalo when she’s 40 — not to mention the irony of sporting a mythological symbol that no longer applies.

Young women in particular must feel that tattoos add to their sex appeal. How else to explain getting full-sleeve tattoos and ones that extend into their cleavage and other intimate areas? A tattooed arm or ankle would suffice to answer the call of adolescent rebellion.

I don’t doubt that there are young men who find amply illustrated women to be appealing. But, again, we all grow up, and — along with our bodies — our tastes, interests, and concerns change. Styles also change.

What if the current tattoo mania turns out to be but a generational fad? If that’s the case, what will today’s tattooed women say when their grandchildren ask why they have those “cartoons” all over their bodies?

I have a suggestion: “It seemed like the thing to do at the time.” What else can they say?

Contact Ed Palm at efpalm@centurylink.net.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

My Current Column

I'm channeling my inner Andy Rooney with this one.  --S/f, EFP


Friday, June 6, 2014

My Current Column

ED PALM | How about putting health and safety first?

By Ed Palm
Friday, June 6, 2014
I have some insight into two of the controversies currently swirling around us — one local and the other national.

In early April 2009, my better half triggered the red-light camera that Kitsap Sun reporter Josh Farley recently revealed to have been the city’s biggest “revenue” raiser (“Red Light Cameras Raising Red Flags,” May 17). That’s the red light camera in the southbound right-turn lane at 16th Street and Warren Avenue in Bremerton.

That right-turn lane, at the time, was the main entrance to Olympic College, where I was the Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities. My wife was coming to collect me for an appointment in Seattle.

My wife, I must say, missed her calling. She should have been a lawyer. At her mitigation hearing, she made a cogent case for being a victim of entrapment.

At that time, the right-hand turn lane required a full stop on red. That’s fine, my wife explained, except that Warren is a four-lane, 35-mph street at that point; a motorist coming over the bridge must merge into that turn lane, competing with traffic exiting the campus at the end of the north parking lot; and a high hedge blocks the view at the edge of the intersection. Also, she arrived around noon, when the intersection is busiest with car and pedestrian traffic.

As my wife was starting to merge into the right-turn lane, the light was green. Since she had been looking to her right to merge, she wasn’t aware that the light had gone from yellow to red while she was turning and couldn’t see the light.

Also, my wife informed the judge that the Institute of Traffic Engineers recommends a yellow-light duration of at least 3.6 seconds for a simple 35-mph intersection. She went back and timed the duration at 3 seconds — a significant disparity given that the intersection in question is not simple. The judge reduced the fine by a third and recommended that my wife take up the matter with the city council.

She didn’t press the issue that far, but someone must have. As Farley reported, the full-stop requirement has since given way to the flexibility of a yield sign, and the city is considering further changes to the program. What continues to rankle me, however, is what Mayor Lent said about any changes having to be “lucrative.” Shouldn’t traffic safety, and not revenue, be the paramount concern in whether or not to keep our red-light cameras?

Regarding that other issue, I must admit that I’ve had my ups and downs with the VA.
Like many Vietnam veterans, I was too close to too many explosions and wound up with a high-frequency hearing loss and tinnitus. Over the years, I found it increasingly difficult to hear and interact with students in the classroom.

Finally, on August 17, 2008, I applied online for VA compensation. The VA responded eight months later, on March 24, 2009, requesting documentation and that I report for a hearing evaluation on April 9 with QTC Medical Services in Port Orchard.

Frankly, I wasn’t bothered by that eight-month lag. I realized that the VA had more pressing claims to resolve.

I kept the appointment with QTC. Less than a month later, on May 4, 2009, I was rated as being 10 percent disabled.

What bothers me about my experience is what I have since learned from a retired VA official who shall remain nameless. He confided that, in an effort to improve their response rates, the rating specialists routinely “grab the low-hanging fruit first.” My case was well documented and easy to resolve. Hence, my claim was probably placed before older claims.

All well and good for me, but my better self believes that the VA should adopt a triage system, processing the most serious claims, and treating the most serious cases, first.
On the flip side, I’ve been concerned for some time that I may be feeling the effects of Agent Orange exposure. The area I served in had certainly been defoliated in places, and for over ten years now I’ve suffered occasional attacks of transient peripheral neuropathy. Hence, back in February, I thought I would finally try to get on the VA’s Agent Orange Registry.

The VA’s website indicated that I should contact the “Environmental Health Coordinator” for our region. I emailed this person, who promptly responded with an encrypted message I couldn’t open. I emailed her back, asking for an unclassified answer. She then responded in the clear, telling me that the registry coordinator is at the American Lake VA Hospital. About a week later, when I finally got through to this person, he referred me back to the person listed in the website.

So it goes these days with the VA. I’ve given up on the Agent Orange Registry — for now at least.

Friday, May 23, 2014

My Current Column

ED PALM | Slouching toward intolerance

By Ed Palm
Friday, May 23, 2014
The Supreme Court giveth and the Supreme Court taketh away. That’s how I view their two most recent rulings.

The April 22 decision upholding the right of states, Washington included, to bar the use of affirmative action in college admissions, as I see it, was a boon. Ensuring that the students and faculty of our colleges and universities reflect the diversity of our nation is a legitimate goal, and there was a time when giving preferential treatment to underrepresented minorities was warranted. The problem is that our colleges and universities have gone too far, making a veritable fetish of diversity.

What Western Washington University’s President Bruce Shepard recently said about his university being “too white” is a case in point. Shepard went on to characterize the lack of diversity on college campuses as a “national crisis.”

According to the U.S. Census website, in 2013, 11.7 percent of Washington residents were Hispanic, 7.7 Asian, 3.9 African-American, and 1.8 Native American — totaling 25.1 percent. In the “Quick Facts” section of its own website, WWU reports that 22 percent of its students are “students of color.” The university is only 3 or 4 percentage points from our state demographic.

Also, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2012, among the 18-to-24 age group, 59.8 percent of Asians, 36.4 of African-Americans, 37.5 of Hispanics, and 27.8 percent of Native Americans enrolled in college — compared to 42.1 percent of the white student population. How does this qualify as a “national crisis”?

Clearly, Shepard believes that hyperbole in defense of affirmative action is no vice.

Having gone around in academic circles myself — pun intended — I have learned that academics are no more open-minded than anyone else. They’re just better at articulating and defending their prejudices. The communist political officers of old, who were charged with ferreting out incorrect thought, would envy the orthodoxy found on today’s liberal college campuses. Professors who want tenure, and administrators who want to keep their jobs, have to guard against expressing politically incorrect attitudes and opinions. Shepard is pandering to the liberal ideologues who predominate in academia today.

Two arguments I’ve heard in support of affirmative action are that African-Americans and Hispanics are still lagging behind in academic and professional achievement and that legal segregation has given way to voluntary segregation. We do indeed still have a racial divide in this country, but affirmative action won’t bridge it. Giving people of color preferential treatment breeds resentment and reinforces racist attitudes, the worst of which is the presumption that a deserving person of color would not have gotten into an elite college or a prestigious profession but for affirmative action.

As for that other Supreme Court decision, clearing the way for government agencies to open meetings with a prayer, I affirmed it before in these pages, and I’ll affirm it again: What truly set this country apart was the decision to erect a wall of separation between church and state. Those who believe that our founding fathers intended no such thing would remind us that our currency is inscribed with “In God we trust.” True, but that’s a sacrilege. Christians should demand that the inscription be removed. It was a coin, after all, that Jesus used in commanding his followers to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” I can’t think of a better endorsement of the separation of church and state.

I’m also aware that not all our founding fathers were deists. Some were Christians. But I imagine that, like me when I’m visiting my mother-in-law, they could set aside their personal convictions for the greater good. My mother-in-law says grace aloud before every meal. While I don’t believe that ours is a personal God we can appeal to, I bow my head respectfully until my mother-in-law is finished. I do so because I’m in her home, and she gets to display her convictions in her home.

A government meeting, however, is a public and a secular forum. It should set a fully inclusive tone, one reflecting the diversity of our nation. No religious viewpoint should be privileged over another. Everyone in attendance should feel welcome and respected — Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Wiccans, and whatever. No one should be made to feel like an “other.” This is why, as I’ve written before, I respect and admire France’s uncompromising commitment to keeping religion a private and not a public matter. The French believe that a true commitment to “liberty, equality, and fraternity” requires that all citizens set aside their personal convictions in public and that they meet as equals on a secular plane.

We took an important step in that direction when we banned prayer in public schools. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, we’re backsliding toward intolerance.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

My Current Column

ED PALM | Echo back to the Old West

By Ed Palm
Friday, May 9, 2014
Let’s face it. With the advent of Georgia’s new “guns everywhere law,” the NRA is poised for final victory. That being the case, Washington might as well jump over to the side that’s winning. We’re already fellow travelers. No permit is required to carry a gun openly in our state, and our concealed carry permits require no firearms safety training whatsoever. What I’m proposing, therefore, is that we curry favor with the NRA by reaffirming that mythic code of the Old West.

If any number of movies and television programs are to be believed, that code allowed two gun-toting men to face off in leather-slapping, quick-draw duels-to-the-death with no legal repercussions. Think of how we could free up our overcrowded civil-court dockets if people were allowed to resolve their disputes in this fashion.

To be sure, this would occasion some collateral damage. Innocent bystanders might be injured or killed in the crossfire or by ricochets. And the human body does not always stop a high-velocity bullet. But we could take our cue from those Air Force public affairs officers who still field complaints about sonic booms and routine jet noise. It’s the price of freedom!

Those who have any qualms about this modest proposal of mine should consider how we’re almost there now.

In 1992, on Halloween, a Michigan homeowner shot and killed a Japanese exchange student who had mistakenly come to his door in search of a party. That homeowner was acquitted.
Last fall, again in Michigan, a homeowner shot and killed a drunken 19-year-old woman for being on his porch.

In Florida, in 2012, George Zimmerman walked after killing Travon Martin.

Also, in Florida, a man was recently shot to death during an argument over texting in a movie theater, and a teenager was shot and killed for playing loud music at a gas station.

And just last month, a man in Montana killed a German exchange student he found in his garage. The shooter, who had twice been burglarized, was reportedly staying up nights hoping to shoot the burglar.

This last case does raise a possible objection. I am reminded of something the popularizer of military history Gwynne Dyer once said: “Countries that prepare for war inevitably get it.” There is a kind of person who purchases a gun just looking for an excuse to use it. Some of these people will inevitably overreact, resorting to gunfire for light and transient reasons. But we’ll all benefit in the long run. Family and friends will be able to avenge unjustified killings. Weak and timid people are likely to lose their gun battles, thereby improving the gene pool. With so many people taking the law into their own hands, we’ll be able to lay off a lot of police officers. That will help lower our tax bills and help get big government off our backs.

The only other objection I can anticipate is the tired old argument that guns are better left in the hands of those who have been properly trained to use them.But when I was foolish enough to advance this argument in the past, one reader put me in my place by affirming that the Second Amendment is absolute and that the government has no right to require us to get concealed carry permits.

Finally, think how much more exciting life will be once we’re all gun-toting rugged individualists living under the code of the Old West.

New topic: You had to have been living under a rock over the past two weeks to have missed the controversy stirred up by the racist comments of Nevada cattle rancher Clive Bundy and NBA Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Just the other week, however, my 86-year-old white mother-in-law, Amelia Muelenaer — who lives in Roanoke, Virginia, and who was born in that same state — had an experience suggesting that the racial divide in this country is not quite as wide as the pundits would have us believe.
She was checking out several items at Walmart when she noticed that a young black man behind her was buying only a pair of flip-flops. “If that’s all you have,” she said, “please go on ahead of me.”
He demurred at first but did accept her offer.

As the young man was leaving the checkout line, Amelia happened to look down and found a $20 bill lying on her purse. She tried to give it back, but the young man wouldn’t hear of it. He kept walking, except to turn around and blow her a kiss.

Amelia intends to pay it forward, giving the bill to a Walmart shopper who seems to need it.
Make no mistake about it: Slavery was our original sin in America. But if people in the South can get past it, so can the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sunday, April 27, 2014

My Current Column

ED PALM | Perhaps not noble, but not ashamed

By Ed Palm
Sunday, April 27, 2014
In an especially resonant scene in Tim O’Brien’s surrealistic novel “Going After Cacciato,” a squad of hitchhiking soldiers who had walked away from the war in Vietnam are picked up by a member of the counterculture, a San Diego State dropout, driving a VW van. The soldiers are actually on a mission to bring back the deserter Cacciato, but she assumes they are taking a principled stand against what she characterizes as “The Evil”: “Children getting toasted, the orphans, atrocities,” as she characterizes it. “God, the guilt must be awful,” she concludes. After stealing her van and leaving the girl by the roadside, one of the soldiers concedes that “sometimes I feel a little guilt.”

That scene encapsulates what to my mind was the most troubling aspect of the anti-war movement. Forget the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran. Sociologist Jerry Lembcke, in his 1998 book “The Spitting Image,” argues that there is no documentary evidence that returning veterans were literally spat upon. To the contrary, it has been established that pro-war demonstrators spat on anti-war demonstrators. Personally, I don’t doubt that, in isolated cases, it may have happened, but it never happened to me. What I did experience, however, was the pretentious moral empathy of those who, like O’Brien’s San Diego State dropout, presumed they understood what we had been through and how we should feel about it.

In my last column, I recounted some of the reasons why President Reagan was wrong in affirming that “ours was a noble cause” in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was, first and foremost, a nationalist who had expected us to dissuade France from reclaiming her former colony after World War II. The division of Vietnam following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was never meant to be permanent, and the Republic of Vietnam in the south was our creation. As Daniel Ellsberg — who leaked the secret history of our involvement in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers — once put it, “We didn’t intervene on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.” What’s worse, the means we employed were all out of proportion to the ends we sought in Vietnam. At times, we seemed intent on destroying the country in order to save it.

So how then should those of us who served in Vietnam feel about our service? Should we feel guilty?

The fact of the matter is that our cause was not “noble,” but it wasn’t “evil” either. As former Marine Phillip Caputo puts it in his Vietnam memoir, “A Rumor of War,” in our day-to-day conduct of the war we may have resembled “those bullying redcoats” of our own revolution. But history is not likely to rank us among the German Wehrmacht, much less the SS, in World War II or even the Army of the Confederacy during our own Civil War. We were not out to subjugate or enslave the Vietnamese. We just thought we knew what was best for them.

Also, like many of us who went to Vietnam, some who fought on behalf of the Third Reich or the Confederacy may have questioned whether their cause was just. But, from time immemorial, soldiers haven’t fought for the cause so much as for one another. As a character in another Vietnam novel puts it, “You look out for me, I’ll look out for you, and we’ll both go home.”

Like O’Brien’s San Diego State dropout, the ideological purists of my generation — most of whom were risking nothing — would argue that “you’ve just got to separate yourself off from evil.” But, like another of O’Brien’s characters, we would have asked, “What’s evil?” And having grown up where and when we did, for most of us, it was unthinkable to turn our backs on the country that had nurtured us and where we still hoped to make a good life.

The answer, it seems to me, comes from a Marine veteran of the war in Iraq, Phil Klay, who has published a collection of stories inspired by his experiences titled “Redeployment.” In one of the stories, “Prayer in the Furnace,” a chaplain has an epiphany about what the Marines he has counseled are going through in Iraq. Despite the insanity and the horrors of the war, he senses that “this place is holier than back home. Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialistic home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults.”

While so many of our contemporaries sat in self-indulgent safety and comfort, we put ourselves on the line.

Some of us went in believing. Others suspended judgment or, like O’Brien, even went in against their better judgment. But the great majority of us served honorably and proved ourselves to be better than the muddle-headed politicians who had sent us. That’s something to be proud of.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Current Column

ED PALM | Vietnam's anniversary and modern memory

By Ed Palm
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Back in the mid-eighties, an Army officer of my acquaintance succinctly summed up the mood of the post-Vietnam military: “It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s military,” he observed, “so long as you don’t dwell on it or refer back to it.” He was right. He had intuited the largely unspoken but widely understood politically correct attitude toward our humiliating defeat. Vietnam had been an aberration, the kind of war we would never fight again. And the less said about it, the better.

Ironically, this same spirit of denial and revision has spread to American society in general in recent years. It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s America, so long as you remember that war the way Reagan portrayed it, as a “noble crusade,” and so long as you profess utter admiration for our Armed Forces and unwavering support for our current crusades.

April being the month in which Saigon finally fell, marking the end of our Vietnam misadventure, I’m devoting this column to the Vietnam War I remember. It was anything but a “noble crusade.” It was a profoundly existential experience. Survival was the only moral touchstone and getting through to our rotation tour dates the only goal we cared about. All the Marines I knew “in country” were profoundly skeptical of the official rationales for why we were there and increasingly embittered by the reluctance of the South Vietnamese to fight their own war.

My fellow Vietnam veterans seem to have forgotten how traumatized we were about all this. We have been co-opted, bought off with belated handshakes and glib expressions of gratitude. We have forgotten what really occasioned all the bitterness and fueled the post-traumatic stress of our generation.

It wasn’t that the country failed to welcome us home or to honor our service with parades. It was the discovery that our leaders had lied to us about the nature and the necessity of the war and that the conduct of the war put the lie to the ideals and values in which we had all been raised to believe.
Would that we all knew then what we know now. Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a nationalist. Early on, he had appealed to us to help dissuade France from reclaiming its former colony at the end of World War II. But we needed France’s help in blocking communist expansion in Europe, and the ensuing Cold War clouded our judgment. We feared falling dominoes. By 1950, we were mired in Korea and bankrolling France’s Indochina War. With the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, we took over. We sent in intelligence operatives to subvert the Geneva Accords, especially the plebiscite that would have reunited North and South Vietnam under whichever government the majority chose. Having defeated the French, Ho Chi Minh was the hands-down favorite to win. The South Vietnamese president we had installed, Ngo Dinh Diem, was almost as alien to his own people as we were. Ho Chi Minh had cornered the market on Vietnamese nationalism, and out in the countryside, most of the people seemed to want no part in what we were selling.

What’s worse, once we had taken over in our own right, we began to take that indifference personally. Contrary to popular belief, we weren’t forced to fight with one hand tied behind our back. We unleashed a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II. We declared free-fire zones. We defoliated large areas with Agent Orange. We made liberal use of close air-support and indirect fire weapons with little regard for the so-called “collateral damage” such weapons inevitably inflict. Racists that we were, we dehumanized the Vietnamese as “gooks” and “slopes.” Unable to distinguish friend from foe, we viewed them all as potential threats. Hence, the worst atrocity of the war — the My Lai Massacre. Hell hath no fury like a country scorned, especially one that considers itself to be exceptional and eminently deserving of admiration and emulation.

This not to say that, because we were wrong, the other side was wholly righteous. They resorted to terror. They mistreated our POWs. They were hardly magnanimous in victory. But the irony is that we seem to have won after all.

Vietnam today is what we had tried to make it — a free market consumer society. The tragedy of it is that over 50,000 Americans and some 2 million Vietnamese had to die just so that Vietnam could get there on its own timetable rather than ours.

So how then should those of us who served in Vietnam feel about participating in such an unnecessary and misguided war? And how should our country feel about us? Stay tuned. I hope to answer those questions in my next column.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Canadian and U.S. Veterans

We were in Canada a couple weeks ago--as it so happened, just when Canada was bringing its troops back from Afghanistan.  One of the related news items I noted was a move on the part of Canadian veterans to change Canada's law regarding disabled veterans.  Apparently, Canada no longer gives disabled veterans a lifetime pension; they give a disabled veteran a lump-sum payment.  Canadian veterans are trying to reinstate the pension.  It occurred to me that this is one of the things we have in common with Canada.  We have a relatively small all-volunteer professional force; they have a small all-volunteer professional force.  Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, people in the U.S. and in Canada don't much care what becomes of mercenaries. 

Could We Have Won in Vietnam?

The question of whether we could have won in Vietnam is one that continues to haunt us as Vietnam veterans. I'm addressing this issue in a revision of my Vietnam memoir, "Tiger Papa Three" (first published in "Marine Corps Gazette" and reprinted in my web site, www.edwardfpalm.com). This is an excerpt from that revision. --EFP
. . . . a long time ago, back when my generation too thought “freedom was on the march,” I got caught up in something extraordinary. Through a combination of chance and circumstance, I became a Combined Action Marine in Vietnam.

Like most of the pacification and nation-building programs we tried in Vietnam, the Combined Action Program was grounded in the neo-imperial presupposition that, deep down inside, the Vietnamese were just like us and that by merely associating with us they would adopt our cultural values and ideals. But on the plus side, the Marine Corps at least deserves high marks for recognizing the importance of the insurgency that supported the North Vietnamese maneuver units the Army was obsessed with defeating. The Marine Corps further recognized that the only way to wage a successful counterinsurgency was to seduce the people away from the other side.

Hence, as early as 1965, without the support or even the consent of the Army, which was running the show in Vietnam, the Marine Corps began to experiment with sending small groups of Marines out to train and patrol alongside Vietnamese “Popular Force” soldiers in their home villages. In fairly short order, the Corps’ leadership recognized the potential intelligence advantages and the certain public relations value of combined action and decided to regularize the program. Throughout their area of operation, Northern I-Corps, the Marines formed permanent combined action companies, each of which established garrisons in a number of villages. Thus was the Combined Action Program—“CAP” for short—born.

What made CAP unique was not just the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Vietnamese and their culture but also the extraordinary degree of trust and confidence the program reposed in young enlisted Marines. There were no officers out in the “villes.”

On the Marine side, the typical Combined Action Platoon, or “CAP,” consisted of 12 enlisted Marines and a Navy corpsman. The ranking member and compound leader was usually a sergeant, and given the way Vietnam had accelerated the promotion process, most of the compound leaders were still on their first enlistment and were not career Marines.

On the Vietnamese side was a platoon of Popular Force soldiers. Popular Forces were roughly analogous to our national guard, except that they were not nearly as well trained, equipped, or disciplined as our national guardsmen. An irregular component of the Army of South Vietnam that the French, under our tutelage, had formed in order to put a Vietnamese face on their imperialism, Popular Forces were part-time soldiers who served in their home villages under the direction of the village chief.

Popular Forces were part of the fiction we all subscribed to back then, which was that the enemy was alien to the people of South Vietnam and won their support mainly through fear and intimidation. Most of didn’t know that South Vietnam had been our creation and that we had encouraged the man we had put in place, President Ngo Dinh Diem, to renege on the plebiscite that would have reunited North and South Vietnam in 1956 under whichever form of government the people chose, democracy or communism.

We didn’t know that the term “Vietcong” was our coinage and that, insofar as the people were concerned, we were fighting the same nationalist forces who had forced the withdraw of our French predecessors in 1954. We didn’t know that the same clandestine network that had waged guerrilla war against the French, and which had helped hide and supply the People’s Army of Vietnam, was still latent in the villages and the back allies of the cities.

We didn’t know that America had bankrolled that First Indochina War and had even convinced France to stay the course when they were ready to throw in the towel after a disastrous ambush in 1950.

But the Vietnamese knew. They knew they had struggled against Chinese domination for a thousand years and eventually prevailed. They knew they had struggled against French domination for a hundred years and that the French had eventually tired of the struggle and gone home. They knew that we had seized on the French departure as an opportunity to remake South Vietnam over into our image, thereby demonstrating the superiority of our way of life over communism.

They knew, or they would come to know, that we believed the end to justify the means and that the right of self-determination didn’t apply to them. We knew what was best for them—or we thought we did. They knew they could count on the spirit of Vietnamese nationalism, and on the longstanding xenophobia of their people, to outlast our half-hearted and half-baked commitment to “nation building.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Cold Warrior of the Old School

I got an interesting reply to my last post on the "Vietnam and Politics" FB page. One Vietnam veteran argues that all Ho Chi Minh's overtures to us during and shortly after World War II were just a "ploy"--a dirty communist trick to hide his real motives and affiliation. Shades of the "Red Menace": You can take the boy out of the Cold War but you just can't take the Cold War out of the boy! What else can I say?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Rappelling: Camp Pendleton and Quantico, 1989, 1992

My Column for March 30, 2014

ED PALM | Standards and the new SAT

By Ed Palm
Saturday, March 29, 2014 

This column may get me labeled a “reactionary” — an extreme conservative committed to the status quo and opposed to social progress or change. That is because I’m wondering if the College Board would consider “reactionary” to be “esoteric” and would therefore exclude it from the new Scholastic Achievement Test.

I’ll reserve final judgment until the sample questions are released in April, but the new name alone gives me pause. The College Board has given up on trying to measure the aptitude for higher education — always a tricky business. Instead, they are going to try measuring achievement — what students have actually learned in high school. The promise is that the test will now be “relevant.” The problem is that students are not learning nearly what our college-bound students used to learn in high school. Even more troubling, I have to wonder if the new SAT represents a surrender to the sliding standards that have placed American education 17th among the developed countries of the world.

As it now stands, 20 percent of college freshmen nationwide have to start their college careers by taking remedial English or math or both. The percentage is closer to 50 percent in community colleges and uncompetitive state college campuses. Ask any professor if he or she considers today’s college freshmen to be as well prepared as those of his or her day. I certainly don’t. The majority of the students I taught in recent years had trouble with close reading and with constructing a reasonable line of argument.

One of the promises of the new SAT, of course, is that the reading selections and essay will address these problems. If so, I’ll endorse it. But I’m also troubled by the implication that the test will focus on the skills that students need to succeed in college today. And college, frankly, is not what it used to be. Over the years, in teaching English, my colleagues and I had to scale back on the amount of reading we assigned and the amount of in-class writing we required.

I personally have observed a telling example of how educational standards have slipped in my lifetime. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I have reconnected with three former Marines I served with in Vietnam. We correspond regularly by email. Two of us went on to college; the other two did not. But they are high school graduates, and they write better than many of the students I’ve taught in recent years. When we were young, moreover, virtually all Marines wrote coherent letters — not 140-character tweets or abbreviated text messages. We used to be able to count on high school graduates to be reasonably literate. Don’t bet on that today.

Another promise of the new test is that it will emphasize the sort of vocabulary commonly used in college courses — words such as “synthesis and empirical,” according to the board’s own website. All well and good, but I hope they don’t jettison the verbal analogies of old. A student ready for college, for instance, ought to be able to tell that reactionary is to progressive as conservative is to liberal. But I wouldn’t bet on that either.

The sort of analogy I just shared is predicated upon some familiarity with the political context in which the terms are commonly used — giving students from privileged backgrounds a clear advantage over underprivileged minorities. The College Board is now promising to level the playing field. The new test is being billed as free of cultural bias, but to what degree?

In my experience, as a former professor, a student who is largely ignorant of current events and of the issues dividing our country is not ready for college. A case in point would be the former student I mentioned in a past column — the one who thought Israel had attacked us on 9/11.

As the news reports have indicated, more and more colleges and universities are no longer requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. I do understand and support their rationale. No standardized test can make a completely accurate assessment of a student’s academic potential. Admissions officers should and do take a holistic approach. But a convenient collusion born of enlightened self-interest would also seem to be at play here. Our second- and third-tier institutions must compete, and settle, for today’s students as they find them. Organizations that design tests must accommodate that new reality or go out of business.

I am reminded of one of my favorite Doonesbury cartoons. It depicts a university president giving a commencement address and bragging that, unlike so many other colleges and universities, his has refused to lower its standards. I am proud, he says, that we have held firm.
The last panel depicts one lone graduate, amid a sea of empty chairs, saying, “Me too man!”

My Column for March 16, 2014

ED PALM | Vets still facing the stigma

By Ed Palm
Friday, March 14, 2014 

Way back in 1979, the award-winning novelist and short-story writer Tim O’Brien published an article in Esquire magazine decrying the way in which Vietnam veterans were then being portrayed. “The typical Vietnam veteran is bonkers. Outright dangerous: a shellshocked, frazzle-brained, doped-out psycho.” That is what the movies and TV dramas of the day would have had us believe, O’Brien, himself a Vietnam veteran, complained.

O’Brien pointed to films such as “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Coming Home” as well as TV programs such as “Kojak” and “The Streets of San Francisco” as fostering this stereotype of Vietnam veterans as irredeemably disturbed and haunted by the horrors they had witnessed and helped to create. “Some guys never came home. You know what I mean?” an ironic friend of mine used to say, satirizing this popular suspicion of those who had seen combat.

I am concerned that the same stereotype is beginning to build regarding the veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the story lines on the critically acclaimed NBC intergenerational series “Parenthood” is a case in point.

Twenty-something Amber falls in love with Ryan, an Afghanistan veteran. The course of their true love is anything but smooth. Amber’s mother, from the start, is instinctivelyly suspicious of Ryan. Ryan is shown repeatedly popping pills for anxiety. He gets fired from the job that Amber’s uncle gives him. He gets drunk and wrecks Amber’s car. On two separate occasions he overreacts to slight provocations and severely beats the men who set him off. In the end, he throws in the towel on civilian life and re-enlists, breaking Amber’s heart.

And, spoiler alert: What recently released highflying film’s denouement reveals that two disturbed Iraq War veterans are behind all the mayhem?

That film and the Amber-Ryan storyline on “Parenthood,” of course, are fiction, and both can be readily dismissed as just fictional exaggerations. But no less than TV’s pop psychologist Dr. Phil has done his best to validate the psycho-veteran stereotype in real life. His April 19, 2012, show, titled “From Heroes to Monsters,” detailed how PTSD had wrecked the marriages and lives of three combat veterans. “Damaged goods” was how Dr. Phil characterized these veterans. The show drew bitter protest from veterans and mental health professionals.

In his blog, Dr. Phil acknowledged unintentionally offending the veterans’ community and reported that the show had been retitled as “Heroes in Pain.” But he stopped short of apologizing and claimed credit for calling “attention to the challenges our returning soldiers face, including PTSD.”

As a Vietnam veteran myself, I may be overly sensitive to such portrayals of veterans as troubled losers unable to readjust to life “back in the World,” as we used to refer to the States. In that 1979 article, O’Brien established that the great majority of Vietnam veterans managed to fit back in and to get on with their lives. Anyone who has been in, or near, combat is haunted by his or her share of demons, but most manage to keep them in check, if not to exorcise them completely.
Accordingly, I found myself more than a little ambivalent at the news that Kitsap County would be establishing a Veterans Drug Court. I do support treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenses involving substance abuse. On the other hand, I’ve always resented any insinuation that veterans in general are pathetic losers. I worried that this well-intentioned initiative would reinforce the popular suspicion of veterans as prone to criminal activity through drug- or alcohol-dependency.

Now that our Veterans Drug Court has been in operation for a year, I decided it was time to see for myself if the benefits outweigh my concerns. The court is presided over by Superior Court Judge Jay Roof. Sessions are held every Friday, beginning at 11:30, in the Kitsap County Courthouse in Port Orchard.

On the day I went, 13 program members, ranging in age from the early twenties to advanced middle age, were on the docket. Of the 13, only two members were dropped from the program for backsliding into alcohol or drug abuse. The others were doing well and seemed to be genuinely appreciative of the counseling and support they were getting. I came away impressed with the rapport Judge Roof had established with the group and with his fatherly sympathy and concern for their success.

Still, I worry that the need for a separate Veterans Court does reinforce the popular image of veterans as damaged goods. It’s only a matter of time, I predict, before we hear people expressing the same sort of mealy-mouthed sentiment we heard from liberals in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement: “I support our veterans. Some of my best friends are veterans. I just wouldn’t want my sister or daughter to marry one.”

My Column for March 2, 2014

ED PALM | The bad taste of halazone is back

By Ed Palm
Saturday, March 1, 2014 

If that proverbial road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, our troops and our teachers must feel that they’re almost there.

As I was checking out at Walgreens recently, the clerk asked me if I wanted to donate a pack of chewing gum to the troops. “Yes, Bazooka Bubble Gum!” I should have replied.
Seriously? This is Walgreens' idea of supporting the troops?

The gum-for-the-troops gaffe reminds me of the great Kool-Aid crusade from my time in Vietnam. We purified our water with halazone, which gave it an iodine taste. Some shortsighted soldier or Marine asked the folks back home to send him packets of Kool-Aid to mask the taste of halazone, and the word spread like wildfire. In short order, we were inundated with packets of Kool-Aid from family, friends, and strangers. All well and good — except that Kool-Aid and halazone tasted even worse than water and halazone alone.

Curmudgeon that I am, I also have to take issue with a recent TV commercial for the Wounded Warrior Project. It’s narrated by Mark Wahlberg and features a blind veteran who is properly grateful for the project’s help. I have no quarrel with the Wounded Warrior Project; I’m glad they’re there to pick up the slack. It’s just that I have this retrograde, liberal conviction that the government that sends you out to get wounded should bear complete responsibility for your rehabilitation.

Probably the most pernicious falsehood about our all-volunteer force — embraced and exploited by the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld — is that today’s volunteers are “warriors” in the stoical, cavalier sense of the term. Our troops are soldiers, not warriors. Most didn’t enlist in search of a good war — or, failing that, any war we’ve got. If you believe our troops are all hardened professionals, I have another important book for you: David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers.” It’s the prequel to the book I touted before: Finkel’s “Thank You for Your Service. Read “The Good Soldiers” to discover how and why good soldiers like Adam Schumann were left psychologically broken by their war experiences.
The other thing that has brought out the curmudgeon in me lately has been the Sun’s six-part series on the “intersections of race and school discipline.” It’s not that the Sun did a bad job. To the contrary, I thought the series was thoughtful and reasonably well-balanced. My concern is that the Departments of Education and Justice, in invoking the specter of discrimination, are only exacerbating the racial divide in America.

The attitudes of some of the Sun’s well-meaning sources reminded of an old French proverb: “To understand all is to forgive all.” I was also reminded of one of the classic logical fallacies: post hoc, ergo propter hoc, meaning “after this, therefore because of this.” The fact that students of color are disproportionately disciplined in our schools is not proof that they are being discriminated against or that the individuals concerned didn’t merit the degree of punishment they received.

From firsthand experience, I know that a teacher who expects bad behavior from students, black or white, is likely to get it. And, as the Sun’s editorial board pointed out, arbitrary “zero-tolerance” policies that leave no room for teachers and principals to exercise independent judgment were always a bad idea. But, by the same token, our schools have to be evenhanded in disciplining black and white students lest they foster resentment and reinforce racist attitudes. To understand all is not to forgive all, and there is some truth to the adage, “Elastic rules are a poor man’s tools.”

In all fairness, racist presumptions may in part account for the disproportionate number of black students being disciplined in our schools, but the problem goes deeper than the need for a little cultural sensitivity.

As black leaders on both sides of the political spectrum — most notably Bill Cosby and the Rev. Jesse Jackson — have complained, there is a subculture in the black community that discourages academic achievement and reinforces resentment and acting out against white authority. Some 72 percent of black children are raised in single-parent homes — many living in poverty, and without positive role models, in crime-infested neighborhoods. Until we can ameliorate these problems, it stands to reason that black students overall are not going to achieve or behave as well as white students, 23 percent of whom are now being raised in single-parent homes. Success in America requires the ability to swim in the cultural mainstream.

Education is too important to be left to educational theorists. The problem is that Pollyannaish ideologues armored in their good intentions predominate in departments of education. They have principals and teachers running scared. Political correctness is trumping common sense. If you doubt that, look back at the Sun’s coverage of the recent Claudia Alves controversy in Poulsbo.

My Column of January 19, 2014

ED PALM | Difficult thoughts before saying thanks

By Ed Palm
Saturday, January 18, 2014
When it comes to making sense of the experience of war, military history and conventional journalism share a common liability. Both deal principally in abstraction. The individual human experience of the war is generally subsumed within body counts. World War I, military historians and journalists tell us, claimed 10 million lives, World War II, 60 million. Some 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, along with an estimated 2 million Vietnamese. More recently, we lost over 4,000 soldiers in Iraq and over 3,400 Americans have died in Afghanistan. And, as of this writing, another 51,795 Americans have been wounded in both wars. But how many of those wounded were left permanently disabled? Numbers alone don’t evoke images.

Even more problematic, we’ve been told that 20 to 30 percent of the 2 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. But just what does that mean? For the most part, only PTSD sufferers, and their immediate families, have any inkling.
Enter David Finkel, a writer and editor for “The Washington Post,” who has covered both wars and whose latest book, “Thank You for Your Service,” acquaints us with some of the individual stories behind the statistics.

At the center of “Thank You for Your Service” is Adam Schumann, an Army sergeant who had exhibited exceptional grace under fire and selfless leadership throughout two combat deployments to Iraq. His men clearly looked up to and admired him. Early in his third deployment, however, Schumann found himself suffering from panic attacks and depression. His breaking point came when a motorized patrol he was not on was hit by an improvised explosive device and another sergeant was killed. “None of this (expletive deleted) would have happened,” a soldier who had been on the patrol told Schumann, “if you were there.”

The soldier who said this meant it as a compliment, as a testament to Schumann’s reputation for having the “sharpest eyes.” But the remark only compounds Schuman’s survivor’s guilt and continues to haunt him throughout his attempts to adjust to life back in the States.
Finkel shows us just how difficult that adjustment can be, not only for Schumann and his family but also for a number of fellow veterans whose lives his had touched. Forget that old classical bromide about “war being the business of men.” Finkel gives equal attention to the frustrations of the women whose husbands brought the war home to them. They have to endure the periods of crippling anxiety and depression; the substance abuse; the episodes of unaccountable rage; the inability to keep a job and the ensuing feelings of isolation and worthlessness; and, above all, the ongoing threat of suicide.

It’s no secret, of course, that throughout the period in which the book is set the Army was losing more soldiers to suicide than to combat. In 2011, the Army lost 165 soldiers to suicide and another 182 in 2012. Finkel devotes a chapter to the officer charged with trying to counter this alarming trend, Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli, who himself had commanded the troops in Iraq. Chiarelli and his staff held regular monthly meetings at which they would review each case.
What they found validates one of my long-standing criticisms of our all-volunteer force — its overreliance on older soldiers. Those who enlist in their late twenties were found to be three times more likely to kill themselves than those who enlist in their early twenties or teens. Wars, in my experience, are best fought largely by single young men and women — those without family responsibilities and who have yet to lose that adolescent sense of immortality.

“Thank you for your service,” as West Point Professor Elizabeth Samet maintains, has become our “mantra of atonement” for not supporting the troops during Vietnam. Given that mindset, the most provocative part of Finkel’s book concerns the thoughtlessness and insensitivity of some who thought they were helping. A counselor made light of one woman’s problems with the reminder that she was “an Army wife” after all. But the most glaring example was an Army wife whose husband was killed in Iraq. She very much regretted attending a Ceremony of Remembrance for the Fallen held at Fort Riley, where she was expected to stand in a receiving line for 40 minutes while Toby Keith’s vainglorious “American Soldier” played over the PA system. One clueless person actually said “congratulations.”

Make no mistake: “Thank You for Your Service” is not a pleasant read. It challenges the reader to appreciate how bitterly ironic that glib expression of gratitude must sound to those struggling to put their lives back together amid our general indifference to the dubious war that damaged them. Remember that the next time you’re inclined to thank a stranger for his or her service.