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.)

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.

Could we have won in Vietnam?

One of the followers of the Facebook page "Vietnam and Politics" raised the question of whether we could have won in Vietnam.  Here is my answer:

Ho Chi Minh and his people were first and foremost zealous nationalists who were determined that our brand of neo-imperialism would not replace overt French imperialism.  The sad thing is that, before we intervened, Ho had appealed to us for help in preventing the French return after World War II.  But we wanted France's help in blocking Communist expansion into western Europe.  Hence, we rationalized Vietnam as a potential falling domino and acquiesced in, and eventually aided, the French return to Vietnam.  That wasn't lost on the Vietnamese.  To make a long story short, South Vietnam was our creation, and Diem was our man.  He had no base of popular support.  We were tainted and distrusted for our previous support of the French.  On Ho's side, an entire generation had been raised to believe it was their duty to die for Vietnam.  The majority of the people out in the countryside just wanted to stay out of the way of the war, but the Communists could reach them--through terror and the unfortunate xenophobia of the traditional Vietnamese culture at the time.  And then our overkill methods and our so-called "collateral damage" made more VC supporters than the VC we killed.  Our search-and-destroy strategy was self-defeating.  So we could we have won?  Not against that generation of Vietnamese people.  Ho tried to warn the French that they would kill ten of his people for every one of his they killed, but in the end, the French would tire first.  We should have heeded that warning.  To paraphrase what an unnamed Army major said during the Tet Offensive, while standing among the rubble that had once been Ben Tre, we would have had to destroy Vietnam in order to save it. 

Canadian Geese, Guillmont Cove Wildlife Preserve, Kitsap County, WA, March 30, 2014

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Octopus, Newport, OR, 2008

Roller Derby Queens, Kitsap County Fair, WA, 2011

Llama Love, Kitsap County Fair, WA, 2011

Harbor Seal Pup, Rialto Beach, WA, 2006

The White Pass Railroad, Skagway, Alaska, 2011

Under Paris Skies (from the roof of Notre Dame), 2013

Boot Vase, Christiania Commune, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2004

At a lake near St. Louis, 2004

ABC News Commentator Cokie Roberts, St. Louis, 2004