Pssst...wanna hear a secret?

By LTC Bob Bateman

I have a surprise planned for my wife this Fourth of July weekend. It is a pretty simple plan, but it should go over well. A little back story is needed here. Normally, you see, we go to my hometown in northeast Ohio for Memorial Day. This year, we were in Sri Lanka at that time (she was temporarily posted there with the State Department) so my wife agreed that we could go to Ohio for the Fourth instead.

The surprise is that we will not be driving to northeast Ohio, but will instead be heading in the opposite direction to do what I know she would prefer -- we'll be camping out on the beach with a bunch of mostly reformed second- and third-generation hippies in a mass temporary de facto commune on the Maryland coast just south of Ocean City. Part of the surprise for her stems from the fact that last year I got quite annoyed at this same event.

A few more things should be made clear here. The first is a simple re-iteration of my own belief system, a system which can be fairly well summed up in four words: “Don't Preach To Me.”

Preaching can be religious or secular. It can be about nature or political issues or religions or international relations. The topic does not matter, the method does. Don't Preach To Me is pretty much all that I ask in my normal go-along-and-get-along day. This philosophy usually means that I gravitate towards events where nobody preaches. I have never seen anyone preach, for example, at a Grateful Dead concert, or at any of the 40+ Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings I have attended. I love a good debate, of course, but that is different. The point here is that in general I would not have the slightest problem with the whole hippie commune vibe. I am the Zaphod Beeblebrox of the uniformed set most of the time. That being said, I do take a few things seriously.

Perhaps this stems from too much education, I do not know. But I do understand the power of symbols. I grasp their ability to change environments not just in the present, but also having seen their effects as a historian. To a degree, I also understand how strong symbols can affect behavior because I have deliberately used some to motivate men myself. Symbols have meanings, and there are few symbols more evocative or powerful than flags and their attendant mythology.

History is what follows when memories fade, but even through the pale lens of history the hateful meaning behind the symbol of the National Socialist's flag remains virulent. No sane, peace-loving humanist of any stripe would even vaguely consider flying the Nazi swastika today, anywhere in the world. The Nazis murdered 10,000,000 people, at least, and unleashed a war which killed tens of millions more. On a similar scale, I find the Confederate flag to be both an affront (my very name comes from events that took place at the Battle of Fredericksburg as my ancestor fought against the Confederacy) and an abomination. Indeed, I have long harbored a desire to hold a monthly flag-burning ... of the Confederate battle flag, in my front yard. “Heritage” be damned. If one wants to take pride in the martial efforts of your great-great-grandfather, then research his service and get a copy of his local, regimental, flag. This is your heritage. The Confederate flag is racism, death, oppression and treason. As you can see, flags do matter.

So what set me off last Fourth of July weekend? It was, of course, a flag.

More specifically, it was the flag of the Soviet Union. This is a flag which flew over one of the two most murderous totalitarian régimes in all of history. It is a flag which flew over the deliberate murder-by-starvation of millions of their own citizens in the Holodomor, not to mention bullet-to-the-head mass executions in places like Katyn, Vinnytsia, Lviv, and untold others. It was a flag which over the course of the political life of that nation represented death to probably twice as many of its own citizens as did Hitler's murderous régime. It was a flag that represented evil and murder, the knowledge of which motivated me to join the military in the first place. Not because I loved our flag, but because I detested what the Soviet system had done in all places where it gained control.

That was the flag, the only national flag, hung up at the gathering on the beach last Fourth of July.

Now, my personal favorite holiday is Halloween. I love the pure chaos of that evening above all other holidays. But following closely behind are the solemnity of Memorial Day and the jubilation of the Fourth. And jubilation it should be, friends. Jubilation and awe. Jubilation for the success of the experiment we began in self-rule 232 years ago. Awe for the beauty and power of the words, the courage of the signers, and the audacity of all those who converted a declaration into a reality between 1775 and 1783.

Last year, after I noticed that the only national flag up on our national birthday was that of the Soviet Union, I went all Socratic. I asked dozens of those attending how they felt about the Soviet flag, and what it meant. The response, nearly universally, was complete and utter apathy. These were highly educated people in the real world. There were physicians and lawyers, former Peace Corps volunteers and NGO/Human-Rights activists ... all groups that I rather thought would have been opposed to murderous totalitarianism, but no, there was not a murmur. At best some turned my query on its head and said, “Hey, if you want an American flag bring one. Nobody will stop you.” But aside from the fact that I do not own an American flag to begin with, I did not really have a desire to fly one and was not trying to push the American flag. It was not the lack of an American flag that got to me, it was the presence of the Soviet flag. I mean seriously, nobody would fly the Nazi flag, right?

Almost everybody there had at least a master's degree and quite a few had Ph.D.s, so nobody could really plead ignorance. Nobody could claim, “Oh, we didn't know.” All of them lived in major metropolitan areas on the East or West coasts, and I would estimate that 95 percent of them would proudly self-identify with Eric's definition of a liberal. (I'm guessing that a few of them read this site as well.) But frankly folks it was embarrassing.

This year I think I'll try a slightly different tack. You might try it as well. It costs almost nothing but a few moments of your time. Tonight I will print off about 100 copies of the document that kicked it all off, the Declaration of Independence. On Friday, the 4th of July, I will distribute these copies and ask everyone to read it, either aloud with me or quietly to themselves. I will make no speech, nor any lecture. I will just ask them to read the words written by America's first and most radical liberal. And then I will propose a toast to Jefferson, to that hedonistic hippie Franklin, to the Continental Congress, and to our magnificent, tragic, heroic, flawed, 232-year-old experiment in self-rule.

You can write to LTC Bob at

On Secretary Gates: From the Naval Institute's magazine Proceedings. (I always like it when a major general quotes Shakespeare.)

Hitchens gets waterboarded: Eric calls Hitch his “former friend,” and I can understand how friendships can bend and break. But I'm still friends with the both of them and I hope that Altercation readers will take a look at his unequivocal examination.

Writes Hitch, “You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it 'simulates' the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning -- or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure.” See it all here.

A few good blogs: Kaboom, the blog of a lieutenant now stationed in Iraq, has been shut down and removed. So in the interest of expanding Altercators' awareness of the military, here are a few more good blogs.

This soldier returned last year and is now out of the Army, but he does a good job explaining what life in the infantry is like for a junior enlisted man.

This blog, on the other hand, demonstrates some of our diversity. Unfortunately it is not updated all that often, but scanning through his archives will broaden your thoughts.

Finally, for those interested in the internal discussions and debates taking place inside the military about current events let me clue you in to Abu Muqawama (Father of Resistance, or “Struggle” in Arabic). AM is a group blog written by several experts on, or highly qualified practitioners of, counterinsurgency. ( “COIN” in the shorthand.) They use ridiculous pen-names, but their writing is solid and their comments section is first-rate. Read this site and you'll usually be a day or three ahead of The Washington Post and The New York Times on military issues.

Altercation must note the passing of Marie Castello, better known as Madam Marie in Bruce Springsteen's “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” She told fortunes on the Asbury Park Boardwalk since the 1930s, and was immortalized by the line “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do.” She was in her 90s. A brief obituary ran in The New York Times, here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Charles Pierce
Hometown: Newton, MA

I am terribly sorry, but I can no longer let the top of the ticket speak for me on an issue of such transcendent national importance. Like most sentient primates, I refuse to defenestrate the state that gave us the Temps, the Tops, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the MC5, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, and Ted Nugent for a flat-earth piece of bland real estate full of megachurches and idiot football coaches. I decline to trade Ann Arbor for Columbus, a college town that looks like Albert Speer got bored and gave up on it halfway through the project. I'm not trading John Lee Hooker for Rod Parsley, or the greatest football helmets and the Best Fight Song Ever in exchange for the sainted memory of this freaking dolt. You're not going to hand me the misplaced Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame -- which should be in Memphis, dammit -- and tell me to give up the UP and both relevant Great Lakes. You think I'm going to give this away? Party leaders better step in here. I'm serious.

Presumptive Vice-Presidential Nominee

Name: Scott Ferguson
Hometown: Birmingham

LTC Bob,

Thank you as always for your observations and perspective. One thing that struck me reviewing the events of the Philippine occupation was the juxtaposition of the counter-insurgents' needs and the outbreak of the two World Wars.

While many lament our lack of capability (temperament?) for conducting asymmetrical operations and claim that we must cancel all conventional weapons systems in order to meet the presumed future needs, I can not but be struck by the myopia involved.

History's wisdom demands that we acknowledge that there will be wars. There will be conflicts requiring tanks and air superiority. How many of Bullard's peers thought that resources were being wasted on Naval appropriations? With Russia making noise, China asserting her interests and India raising, we can not say what conflicts will arise.

Unfortunately, I think we can be sure that the US will be looking the other way and prepared for the wrong war.

LTC Bob responds: Scott, I think that it can nearly be considered a truism that no matter what the next war looks like, you can be assured that some will contend that we were not prepared for it. This, in fact, has always been the case. To some degree one is never prepared for “the next war.” Nor can you be. We try to mitigate and plan for the most likely wars, but just one peek at history demonstrates that we fail most of the time. The only successful war is the one which is not fought.

Name: Randy Jewett
Hometown: Gainesville, FL

That's an excellent motto you have there at West Point, LTC Bateman. Too bad presidents don't follow it or consult with historians. If ever there was a principle that should be followed, it is that quote by General Leonard Wood. Instead, ever since the Mexican War US foreign policy has been driven by corporate greed and territorial aggrandizement. To not admit this and wonder how we get in these difficult situations century after century is beyond belief. The oil companies are the one and only reason this country is in Iraq. Look at the deal they just worked out. Cheney has had his day. To kill and maim so many of America's brave soldiers for this reason and pretend it's for some other is the greatest crime there is. Insert George Santayana's quote here.

LTC Bob responds: Randy, I am afraid it is not just presidents or even politicians alone who tend not to read or study history. As my story today explains, it seems a common trait among all Americans. I'm also not much of a fan of the “oil conspiracy” thesis. It just does not jibe with some other facts, though I understand the sentiment. On the other hand, I am looking forward to the day when we're all driving electric cars, preferably ones which got their energy from solar or wind or thermal or hydroelectric ... anything but carbon-based fuels.

Name: Brian Geving
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

LTC Bateman,

Nice to see you occupying Eric's chair. I'm sure I'll learn a lot from you.

Regarding your comments about Col. King's retirement, it is an interesting question to ponder. There is no doubt some sadness about saying goodbye to old friends and leaving a life you've known for decades for one that is not as certain and secure as the military. Even as you face the fact that today may be your last, there is a comfortable order and stability in the military that is hard to replicate in the civilian world. I also feel that even though you are putting your life on the line, it is rarely because of some grand vision of service to country. Especially in war, you are risking life and limb for your buddies next to you instead of mom & apple pie, and while it is hard to say goodbye to old friends it is especially hard saying goodbye to friends who risked their lives in battle to save yours. For commissioned and non-commissioned officers, there is also the satisfaction in leading other soldiers. You took care of them, watched out for them and fought with them. They are like family, and a family that is hard to say goodbye to. Even with the risks, it is hard to give that up for the rest of your life. Nothing else compares.

LTC Bob responds: Brian, I think you neatly summed up most of my own thoughts on the topic.

Name: Chuck
Hometown: Kansas City

I understand why someone like Col. Bob is not at liberty to publicly opinionate on the ongoing situation in Iraq. Maybe I'm asking for too much then, but I'd like to know how things could improve in Iraq, from someone with firsthand knowledge, having been there. I do understand why there is a moral obligation to the Iraqi people. But since we hear about how most Iraqis would like us to leave, and the slow progress in training their military, not to mention the divides between different sects and tribes, etc., it just seems as if nothing our military could do will improve things there. Basically, how do we take a military that has been trained to defeat other military forces to stabilize a country and bring so many different factions together? Or do we look at the Kurdish model, basically creating some kind of federation based on ethnic or sectarian and geographic considerations, responsible for their own part of Iraq?

LTC Bob responds: Chuck, that's a full plate you set before me. I might give it a crack at length a little later. Any reasoned response would necessarily be too long for the letters section. Sorry, that's not meant to be a dodge, but your question is a whopper, eh?

Name: Jim Celer
Hometown: Omaha, Nebraska

So if it's patently offensive to suggest that being shot down in an airplane doesn't qualify one to be President, then it follows that anyone who has been shot down in an airplane can and should be president. There must be hundreds of such veterans, so why is McCain our only choice?

Name: Jim Reuss
Hometown: Cheyenne, WY

I'm glad to see some of the policies of the Bateman/Pierce platform are being elucidated prior to the election (in the once smoke-filled backrooms of Boston's fine establishments in lieu of wasteful party conventions, even). One can now begin to get a grip on the priorities of the gentlemen and factor them into the electoral decision. While I favor junkets to Scottish distilleries as a platform point, I am somewhat leery about excluding Michigan from the party's consideration. I'm sure a fair amount of Scotch is consumed in the great, frozen North along with other malt beverages. Perhaps the good LtC could concentrate on the commonalities that bind us together as a nation rather than play to the divisive politics of the past ...

LTC Bob responds: Politics does not have much to do with the feud twixt Ohio and the State-that-is-to-the-North-of-Ohio. It is mostly sports. But I would note that ours are the only two states which fought a “war” against each other. Amazingly, it was the winner, not the loser, who ended up with Toledo. Go figure.

Name: Mike Sinclair
Hometown: Kalamazoo, MI

LTC Bob:

Go Bucks! As a transplanted Buckeye, I suffered through the 90's with Coop but am certainly enjoying the 21st Century with “the sweater vest.” And I see Richie Rich Rodriguez traveling down the same trail as John Cooper; not a Michigan man and no real connection to the team ... give him 3 years and UoM will be bringing in Jim Harbaugh. Yuck!

Name: Joe Adams
Hometown: Hillsdale, NJ

This year's all-star game is supposedly in honor of Yankee Stadium, due for an unnecessary demolition. Why not honor the great Josh Gibson for doing something that neither Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio or Mantle could do -- hit a home run ball out of the ball park -- the only one to do it in the Stadium's 85-year history. Ken Burns' omitting that fact from his baseball series was almost as egregious as excluding Benny Carter from his jazz series.