Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mount Everest Anniversary: Hillary, Mallory and Further Thoughts

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the first summiting of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.  At the time, this stupendous feat ranked with Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic, but whereas Lindbergh's daring can be purchased for the mere price of ponying up sufficient coin for a nice seat on Icelandair, so now the ascent of the greatest mountain on the planet can be purchased for some telling stamina, the time of some guides, and about $65,000.

But for the British expedition of 1953, this was then an unspoiled wilderness in the starkest of terms.  The British were surprised at the success of the Swiss in reconnoitering the mountain in 1952, with members climbing to 28,199 feet of the 29,035-foot mountain, and knew that they would have to make a serious attempt to summit it before the upcoming French and Swiss attempts.  The Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society chose Colonel John Hunt over Eric Shipton, a controversial choice at the time, to lead their next and ninth expedition. 

Colonel John Hunt, CBE, DSO (these prior to the assault on Everest, from action in Italy and Greece during World War II) was already a noted mountaineer from his upbringing in India and experience with the Indian Army under the British, as he had led several mountain ascents into the Himalayas, an experience which found him in command of the Commando Mountain and Snow Warfare School at the beginning of the war. 

He chose a team noted for their mountaineering experience as well as their temperament, and successfully guided the enormous logistical feat of staging tons of gear and supplies in successive altitudes up the mountain.  Hunt's first choice to attempt the summit, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, made it within about 350 feet of the summit but were beaten back by exhaustion and oxygen problems on the 26th, and Hunt chose Hillary and Norgay, a veteran of the Swiss expedition the year before, for the final attempt a few days later when the weather was more cooperative. 

Edmund Hillary was a native of Auckland and like his father, an ANZAC veteran of the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, was a beekeeper by profession but an avid mountaineer in his own right.  Experience in World War II as a navigator in the RNZAF broke him out of his Kiwi world.  He was part of Himalayan expeditions in 1951 and 1952 and helped chart routes by way of Nepal, since the previous Tibetan routes were closed after Communist China forcibly absorbed Tibet in 1950. 

Hillary and Norgay made it to what they discovered to be the last obstacle, a 40-foot rock face now called the Hillary Step.  Hillary wedged himself between the rock and an ice overhang to surmount it, and after "a few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow", Hillary and Norgay stood atop the world's highest point, some two-thirds of the way up through the atmosphere, and gazed down on the largest vista ever seen by earth-bound man, a hundred miles to the horizon, and remarked on the curvature of the Earth while standing at the cruising altitude of a modern airliner.

Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir John Hunt, and Tenzing Norgay

This was a tremendous news flash at the time, but Hillary was insistent that the credit go to the entire team and he was equally insistent that both he and Norgay summited at the same time to ensure that his friend receive equal credit.  (Some years later, Norgay graciously declared that in fact it was Hillary who was the first to the top.)  The two remained only for some fifteen minutes, quick enough for each to leave a crucifix and some cookies and chocolate for the gods of the mountains, and to snap a photo of Norgay and shots of the surrounding territory below them to establish that they had indeed made the top.  (Apparently Norgay was unfamiliar with how to work the camera and Hillary did not feel that there was enough time to instruct him, so there is no photo of Hillary on the summit.)

Tenzing Norgay on top of the world, 1953

Whether or not the team was the first to summit has been a controversial question for some time, as there is the story of the 1924 British expedition that made the attempt from the north side.  George Mallory and his partner Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine were sighted briefly as they were some 800 feet from the summit, before they disappeared.  (It was Mallory who is credited with the snappish reply to the inane question of a reporter who enquired about the appeal of climbing the mountain: "Because it's there.")  There are two features on that side, the First Step (relatively easy to scale) and the Second Step (far more time consuming) which figure into the story, as the last sighting had the two of them crossing over the Second Step in a matter of five minutes.  Some analyses believe that this was an error and the sighting was likely that Mallory and Irvine were scaling the First Step instead.  They were also late on their schedule for what are still unknown reasons.

The 1924 Expedition, with Mallory (hatless) and Irvine to his left

Chinese mountaineers later gave testimony, on separate occasions, to the presence of their bodies at separate locations at about the 27,000 foot level.  In 1960, Xu Jing spotted a body (a "foreign mountaineer", which at the time could have only been Mallory or Irvine) in a location that could correspond to a later (1995) spotting by a Sherpa named Chhiring.  In both cases, the climbers were somewhat in extremis and the details are confusing, but both could have spotted Irvine's body, which has yet to be discovered again.  The body of Mallory, however, was glimpsed by a Wang Hung Bao in a 1975 expedition and reported to a teammate as an "English dead", just hours before Wang was swept to his death in an avalanche.  That teammate passed the information to an American inquiry in 1979.

Eric Simonson led an expedition in 1999 to discover their remains and succeeded in locating, almost by chance in that enormous expanse, the body of Mallory, which by then had bleached and frozen into a state of organic white alabaster.  He had suffered broken ribs, a broken right leg, and a serious blow to his head above the right eye before his descent was stopped by a outcrop of stone.  He would have died within minutes in the snow squall which had overtaken them. 

One prize that the Simonson Expedition was seeking was a camera that the two missing explorers were known to have had with them (perhaps two) that could have evidence of a summit, but it was not with Mallory's body.  Kodak insists that, if handled very carefully, the camera can still yield some photographic evidence after all this time if it is subjected to modern techniques that they have at their disposal.  (I personally have to question the possible photographic quality after its presence for some 90 years at an altitude that is exposed to serious cosmic radiation, but that is for the scientists.)  The Holy Grail of a future expedition to locate the remains of Irvine would be the possibility of retrieving the camera fairly intact. 

Sir Edmund, ever the gentleman, addressed the controversy by stating, "Well, I may not have been the first to climb to the summit, but I was the first to do so and return."  This echoes the sentiment of Mallory's own son John, who was three years of age when his father disappeared on the north slope: "To me, the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive.  The job is only half done if you don't get down again."

The question remains about whether Mallory and Irvine died on their way to the top, or on the way down after their success.  It has been generally believed that they were unsuccessful – historian and mountaineer Tom Holzel stated his theory that Mallory, utilizing Irvine's extra oxygen, made a solo attempt after Irvine elected to remain at the Second Step, but after the collection of further evidence, Holzel has reversed himself.  (Holzel continues in his efforts to launch another expedition to locate Irvine's remains, and believes that he has found the location by high-definition aerial photography.)  Study of the attempt has also led to a better understanding of the role of barometric pressure at that altitude, beyond the more obvious weather considerations, and its unseen physiological effects which can tack on several hundred feet of artificial altitude by a slight variation in pressure. 

These stories are compelling, but nevertheless, two other thoughts come to mind when the subject of Everest pops up.  In 2003, the 50th anniversary, Hillary (who passed away in 2008) marked the occasion to lament, in no uncertain terms, what the area had become.  "I'm not very happy about the future of Everest.  Yesterday there were 1,000 there [at the main base camp] and some 500 tents.  There was a booze place for drinks.  Sitting around the base camp and knocking back cans of beer – I do not particularly view that as mountaineering. … They act as if they are the lords of the area. They don't consider the welfare of the local people. … Having people pay $65,000 and then be led up the mountain by a couple of guides, I personally think, is far less attractive.  It isn't really mountaineering at all."  Bravo.

The other item is the remark from Hillary Clinton, quoted in 1995 (and by her husband Bill in his book in 2004), that her mother was inspired by Sir Edmund's ascent and named her after him as a means to pass on to her daughter the inspiration of achieving great things as a woman.  Mrs Clinton mentioned this to Sir Edmund in person when she met him quite by chance in 1995 in Katmandu.  It is said that Sir Edmund tactfully pointed out (well, as tactfully as he was capable, surely) that the only written reference that her mother would have seen when Mrs Clinton was born in 1947 would have been his name in an Auckland phone book under the heading of 'beekeeper'.  Sir Edmund's ascent of Everest didn't occur until she was six years old.  This is another classic example of the Clintons as wholly political creatures who don't have the wherewithal to do a simple check of the facts, and whose glib need to popularize themselves yields to never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

Mountains have always had an enormous appeal to me, partly I suspect because I have spent so much of my adult life in sand, either on beaches or in deserts.  Now the closest mountain of real note is Mount Rainier and I have never had the satisfaction of being exhausted from exploring where I wanted, limited by practicalities of others.  My appetite was whetted years ago by occasional opportunities with the military, in various places stateside and later in the Alps and Dolomites.  It was always just enough to impress upon me the wonderful sense of the solitude of just a happy few in an immense expanse of rock and snow, with a sky a deeper blue filled with a keener light, surmounting a kaleidoscope of monochrome rocky grays and ice white.  Mother Nature there reveals her true self as a harsh mistress, ready to quickly snuff out the life of the unwary or careless in order to demonstrate our insignificant place on the planet.  But the thrill of knowing the truth of the matter still draws me.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day, 2013

I have posted twice before on the commemoration of Memorial Day, and I encourage you to read them, both here for 2011 and here for 2012, not just for my meager words but mostly for the references to those more eloquent than I am.

For those who must rush off to attend to the day's observances, allow this brief distillation of my thoughts to tide you over until such time that you can give your attention to the remembrances cited above:

Memorial Day is to commemorate those who have given their lives in the ultimate sacrifice for their country and comrades, in battle or as a result of it, and in observance of those families who mourn their loss more deeply than anyone, for to them every day is a memorial day.  I have lost friends and good acquaintances – 'absent companions' – but more importantly a brother in the cause of the defense of our nation.

A greeting of "Happy Memorial Day" is a sentiment misplaced.  There are people who will reflexively say "Thank you for your service," yet while I appreciate the thought, for myself but mainly for the many members of my family who have served and continue to serve, that kindness is reserved for Veterans Day in November.  Note that I allowed for the "observances" above, not for festivities.  While it is fine to relax and clear one's mind from those "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to", it is for the purpose of giving thanks to those who have suffered all the very real variations of slings and arrows in their modern and more lethal form, those who took up arms against our national sea of troubles, to oppose them, to end them.

Yet we should go beyond our mourning of those we have lost, and their future generations.  It is now the political outlook to which our culture has been bent, that we remember only their loss.  Thus the criticism of such places as the Vietnam War Memorial, a "black gash" that is dug into the ground and lists the names of the dead on an extended black slab, designed and selected by people who had little or no experience or knowledge of that or any other conflict.  The Wall reflects only that they died, not what they did.  It is the lists of those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan that were so prominently displayed and reported (though not in this administration), or like the letters "from the front" that were read weekly on a Portland radio station, edited to present only fear and despair, read to the accompaniment of a dirge.

We must reflect not so much on the keen loss but also on what we have gained by their sacrifice, for while there shall always be wars and rumors of wars, we should always be mindful of the great cost borne by those who stand ready to do violence on the behalf of those sleeping peacefully in their beds, to paraphrase George Orwell.  General George S Patton put it well and succinctly: "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died.  Rather we should thank God that such men lived."

And suffer one last apropos quote, from John Stuart Mill: 
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.  A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight; nothing he cares about more than his own personal safety; is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. 
American Military Cemetary, Normandy

Let us remember and celebrate those men – and women – who have helped ensure our freedom here at home, and the freedom of so many countries overseas.  The only territory we have ever fought for since our Civil War has been for fields of crosses, row on row, that adorn the countryside of nations we have fought to liberate.

Update:  Memorial Day, 2014.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

IRS Fast-Tracks Questionable Foundation of Obama's Brother (Update: Details of IRS Abuse)

There has been a lot of action lately on the various scandals du jour involving the Obama administration.  The latest shoe to drop shows what I expected from the administration targeting AP correspondents: that the administration did not limit itself just to the AP, but have been targeting Fox News as well.  I wouldn't be surprised if the target list expands still further.

 Jay Carney at press briefing.  The sign says it all.

The main movement of the administration is to ensure that everything stays right where it is.  After all, stonewalling has worked just fine in the cases of Fast & Furious and taxpayer-funded scams for green cronies like Solyndra, so that remains the reaction of choice.  As for their critics, the administration plays by the Alinsky playbook, most commonly the idea to "pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it".  (Many people believe that this is the whole Alinsky strategy.  Actually, it is only one rule of twelve.)  Dan Pfeiffer makes the rounds to say that the question of the legality (much less the constitutionality) of the IRS over-reach is "irrelevant", and the accusations about Benghazi "offensive".  (Imagine how offended are the families of the victims.)

The IRS case involves high-level agency managers (again, you know that it couldn't have been a couple of low-level flunkies) targeting conservative  groups yet showing  favoritism toward liberal ones.  (Look for the name of Cindy Thomas to start showing up as we climb the chain of command.)  You likely will not be surprised (I wasn't) to learn that veterans are in their cross-hairs too.  A very illustrative example, which hasn't yet received the publicity that one would expect, involves the Barack H Obama Foundation (name ring a bell?).

This 'foundation' drew the suspicion of the National Legal and Policy Center, which first noticed that it was "promoting itself as a charity and seeking donations that it said would be tax-deductable, but it lacked the required tax-exempt status."  Once caught, the foundation quickly applied for the status and was approved within 34 days, far shorter that the average five or six months, and certainly shorter than the many months – or years – of investigations for conservative organizations, asking (as one example) for lists of donors, transcripts of speeches, copies of all newsletters, and how they prayed, among the 55 exhaustive questions required of them.

Not only did the foundation, named after the father of the President, receive an unusually rapid turn-around, its new status was backdated to December 2009, which covers the time period of the complaint of the NLPC, despite the fact that the foundation never requested it.

The purported foundation has Abon'go Malik Obama as its director.  Abon'go is a half-brother to Barack Obama by the senior Obama's first wife.  Barack's interlocutors have remained mum on the embarrassing connection, and apparently hope that it receives as little attention as the news concerning the President's aunt Zeituni and (separate) uncle Onyango, both of whom reside in the US illegally and have remained fraudulently, though both cases are now "under review".  Charles Dickens said "It is a melancholy truth that even great men have their poor relations", and the administration's actions (or lack thereof) give the impression that these are simply distant relations with whom the President has lost touch long ago.

In the case of Abon'go, though, the two of them were close enough that Abon'go served as best man at the marriage of Barack and Michelle.  For that matter, Barack served in the same capacity for Abon'go, though it is not clear which of the twelve wives of Abon'go this applies to.

 Abon'go and Barack, wedding picture

The foundation states that it has built a madrassa in Kenya (though that has recently been deleted from its internet site) but otherwise uses airy phrases about improving the "food, water, and shelter" in order to "elevate the human condition" and "dignity" in his local area.  No specifics are given.

This so-called charity lists two addresses, one of which turns out to be a post office box at a UPS location in Alexandria, Virginia.  The physical address in the IRS filing is occupied by a drug and alcohol recovery service, and has been for "a couple of years" according to its receptionist, which extends back to the date listed on the IRS filing of May 2011.  Nobody at that recovery service has ever heard of the Barack H Obama Foundation.

This is just one of the elements of the IRS investigation into its abuse of conservative groups, including handing over tax documents on the groups to "liberal news organizations".  Lois Lerner, the IRS official who rapidly signed off on the foundation's application and who is neither "good at math" nor answering questions from the press, is under increasingly scalding water of her own, so much so that the Washington Post Fact Checker stamped her with the Four Pinocchio grade of untruthfulness, though its headline says that she deserves a "bushel" of them.  Taking her cue, Lerner has now invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination for her scheduled testimony before Congress.  This should prove to be about as productive as the testimony of the two previous IRS commissioners.

 IRS Commissioner Steve Miller in House testimony (Do I look like I care?)

Have we finally arrived at the time where even the MSM is past the tipping point and actually begins to criticize Obama?  Diehards are still demanding that this series of offenses not be compared to Watergate, but that crisis took some time to get going too.

Update:  Cleta Mitchell of Foley & Lardner LLP provides a memorandum of precise detail about the abuses of the IRS to date.  If you have any interest in this topic at all, this is a must read.  If you don't care, then you need to.  (H/T to J Christian Adams of PJ Media.)

And why would the IRS do such a thing?  Bryan Preston provides the answer, and:

The IRS was aware of the abuse at the top levels by May 2012.  Just six months before the election.  America learned during testimony in Congress today that not only was the IRS aware of the abuse, it had investigated it.  Having investigated it, the agency then covered it up and told Congress nothing about it.  The IRS maintained the charade just long enough for Barack Obama to be re-elected.  Now, the IRS orchestrated breaking the scandal open more than a year before the next mid-term, an election in which Barack Obama hoped to flip the House to Democrat control and consolidate his power for the remaining two years of his presidency.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Umbrella-gate? Silly, But Some Thoughts on the Umbrella in Military History

No, seriously – why not?  Let's put this to rest and get back to some serious issues. 

Last Thursday's Rose Garden presser with Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey has become an issue because Obama, noting the beginning of some sprinkles, called hither a couple of Marines in ceremonial attendance to hold umbrellas over the heads of the Presidential Presence and the Prime Minister.  Some Conservatives are aghast but much of the bluster misses the mark.

The expression says it all ... both of them

A portion of the criticism falls on the idea that Obama violated the Marine Corps dress code, in that Marines do not carry umbrellas under any circumstance (Marine females, however, are allowed the option).  The hubbub amounts to a tempest in a thimble. 

I spent a good deal of time as a Marine and otherwise in joint and combined postings (before it was cool) and I was well aware of the uniform requirements and allowances in those situations.  For example, a Marine should always be 'uncovered' when indoors (civilianese: 'take off your hat') unless he is 'under arms', which means carrying a weapon (rifle, pistol, ceremonial sword – Marine swords are the oldest weapons in the US inventory – or even the fiction of a pistol belt because the Marine in question is on guard duty).  It is also a requirement that a Marine can salute only when covered.  Thus, using the transitive property of logic, Marines do not salute when reporting to a superior indoors.  The Army, however, does – that is their tradition. 

But lest we push the envelope of decorum too far, a Marine is expected to conform to the requirements of his host in a joint posting to avoid compromising situations that would result in confusion or embarrassment.  So for those times when I was the only Leatherneck amidst my cohort of Troopers, I would conform to their saluting norms.  It is the polite thing to do. 

So technically this whole Marine/Rose Garden/umbrella story is a wash, over and above the fact that Obama is the Commander-in-Chief and can tell any member of the Armed Forces what they can reasonably do with an umbrella. So can any President, and most of them have.  For example:

An Air Force Lieutenant Colonel in lieu of a Marine Corporal – sounds about right. 

But for someone so exquisitely attuned to form over substance, the 'optics' of the situation were far off the mark.  It just looks bad, and it adds to the accumulated baggage of his previous arrogant remarks and l'etat c'est moi attitude: get some "folks to get a couple of Marines" who will "look good next to us".  Not even a rim-shot would save that feeble attempt at humor.

The focus is misplaced, and instead should be devoted to his next statement in response to the reporter's query that sought assurance that "nobody in the White House knew about the [IRS] agency's actions before your [White House] counsel's office found out on April 22nd, and when they did find out, do you think that you should have learned about it before you learned about it from news reports as you said last Friday?"  After expressing a need to "make sure that [he] answer a specific question", he instead says, "I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG report had been leaked through the press."  Quite the Inartful Dodger.  [emphasis mine] 

So, my advice about Umbrella-gate?  Drop it, move on to the long list of real abuses like the IRS targeting conservatives and giving breaks to 'progressives' (which amounted to an impeachable offense for Nixon), investigating AP reporters and their contacts (reports are surfacing this morning about contacts drying up as a result of the chilling effect), and the black hole surrounding the deadly terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate just before the last election.  And that is just the recent ones – does anyone remember the swindle of GM stockholders in favor of the unions, the billions of taxpayer dollars given to the variety of 'green energy' cronies, or the Fast & Furious scandal, which to date have all been successfully stonewalled? 

But the story brought to mind that this constitutes a rare juxtaposition of the topic of umbrellas and the military.  There are only two such instances of which I am aware. 

First of all, the proscription of umbrellas from the military occurs because of the obvious insight that a warrior considers a bit of rain to be inconsequential to the questions of life and death, as well as the myriad other vital considerations, swirling about him.  Patrolling through enemy territory during a rain shower is simply a state of mind: ponchos are practically useless since you will be soaked within a few minutes anyway.  Focus should be on protecting your gear, not so much your skin, and your appearance is immaterial to your mission or each other.  Besides, in areas of forested or tropical growth, the sound of the rain helps mask the sound of your movement.

"Embrace the suck"

In garrison, there are overcoats and protective coverings for headgear, providing a means for staying relatively dry without resorting to such an apparently epicene measure. Oddly (or some would say 'appropriately'), the Air Force and now the Navy have approved the use of umbrellas in service dress uniform (civilianese: coat and tie, or office casual).  Surveys of Pentagon staff and those at large installations are typically taken because those in the field are … well, they're off in the field.  Thus burning questions on the topic of umbrella availability are heavily skewed in favor of those whose career is focused on remaining far from the pointy end of the spear.

Some garrison duty requires more stamina and commitment

By tradition, it is held that it was the Duke of Wellington who laid down the commandment that banned officers from carrying umbrellas in the field, during the Peninsular Campaign.  History does not record his opinion about its use by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton, who arrived at Waterloo in such haste that he arrived in civilian clothes, complete with top hat, and led his division on the battlefield brandishing his umbrella like a saber until mortally wounded.

Sir Thomas Picton, Peninsular Campaign

The other such mention of a military umbrella comes in World War II with Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter of the British (naturally) 1st Airborne Division at the Battle of Arnhem, the unfortunate result of Operation Market Garden and its Bridge Too Far.  He ended up being the second in command (the 2IC) of the 2nd Battalion in its forlorn hope of capturing and holding the bridge for the Allied advance.

Major Digby Tatham-Warter

He carried an umbrella much like he would a riding crop because he said that he had an unfortunate tendency to forget the password.  He knew that his men were convinced that only an Englishman would be so dotty to carry an umbrella under such circumstances.  He was immensely talented and popular, at one point leading a bayonet charge with his umbrella during a desperate time in the fighting, and after being wounded (which he downplayed) and captured with his unit at the end of the battle, led an escape of some 120 British paratroopers from German captivity.  Tatham-Warter was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, second only to the Victoria Cross, for his actions in the battle and afterward for leading his men back to friendly lines.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Army Rangers: Thoughts and History of the Crest and Beret

The Rangers of the US Army are clearly one of the finest fighting forces in the world, and is a unit and concept almost uniquely American, with its genesis well before American independence, even unto the days when the colonies were barely established and before they achieved any sense of cohesion.  Despite the viability of the idea, the main nemesis that it has fought for its identity and survival has never been an enemy on the battlefield, but has instead been its parent Army.  It is an axiom that large organizations abhor elites and that applies doubly so to the military, and examples abound in the ebb and flow of the history of the Rangers.  (I am not too fond of the term 'elite'; I prefer 'specialized' – maybe it's just my Marine background.)

I admittedly come at this topic from a tangent, as my primary experience with them was during my time in the US Marines, and that in the early 1970s, taking advantage of cross-training opportunities.  Since then, I am proud to have one of my sons as a member of that august body of warriors and he patiently keeps me up to date (to the limits of my comprehension and clearance) about the Rangers of today.  The distinctions between then and now have been considerable.

Drawing on my recollections, I mentioned to him toward the beginning of his training about the earlier crest (or shield, or coat of arms, or distinctive unit insignia, or most properly the escutcheon) of the Rangers, and how I noticed that it had changed since 'my time'.  I sought to look up what I remembered the crest to be and discovered that its image has been strangely cleansed from the internet.

I set my mind to look for an example and fortunately discovered one finally in a fine military surplus store in downtown Seattle.  My snapshot for posterity:

This is the image that I tried to convey to him and I was glad to have found it, reinforcing again that some of the early memories of my military experience were not the delusions of early-onset dementia (e.g., yes, there used to be numbered companies at Airborne School when I attended).  This earlier design reflected quite nicely an encapsulated history of the Rangers and an attitude of embracing our entire American history.  Those days are woefully gone in this Politically Correct age.  But before I move on to the current Ranger crest, first allow me an explanation of the old one.  (And here are two obscure examples discovered after some degree of searching):

Early versions of the Ranger unit crest and flash

The upper left quadrant contains a hatchet and powder horn against a green background, which symbolizes the early beginnings of the Rangers.  Seventeenth-century European colonists in the region of New England and Virginia formed militia units that allied themselves with friendly Indian tribes, for the purpose of protection against other hostile Indians.  In modern parlance, these units would conduct patrols and reprisals through  wilderness areas – 'range' – on counter-reconnaissance or direct action missions, incorporating tactics and techniques acquired from their Indian allies, beginning in general in reaction to the Indian Massacre of 1622 in Virginia.  Early commanders of Ranger units, fighting in a series of engagements and campaigns collectively called the French and Indian Wars, were Benjamin Church, John Lovewell, and John Gorham (all serving well prior to the Revolution) but most famous to the present-day Rangers was Robert Rogers, the one most responsible for establishing a standard for such units.  These were written originally in 28 rules, now converted to the 19 Standing Orders of the Ranger Creed.  (For some inexplicable reason, the newer creed is rendered in some faux-hick dialect, e.g.: "Don't forget nothing.")  Rogers is considered the father of the modern Rangers, though the fact that he later served on the side of the British during the Revolutionary War is a delicate point often quietly overlooked.

Robert Rogers

In contrast, another Ranger of note at the time was Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" of South Carolina, and arguably Daniel Morgan of Virginia, who were very much the American patriots and scourge of the British.  The green background also commemorates Ethan Allen of the Vermont 'Green Mountain Boys', who successfully fought against the British and New York.  (Let me hasten to add that Marines can appreciate the Green Mountain Boys for no other reason than the fact that they, like the Leathernecks, began in a bar.)  It can even be said that George Washington could be included in the list of early Rangers for his experience as a major in the Virginia militia, conducting joint Virginia/Iroquois expeditions against French incursions in the Ohio Country in 1753 and 1754.

The hatchet, or tomahawk, is also an unfortunately delicate point as well although two of Rogers' 19 orders speak of it.  A very useful tool, if not a fairly effective weapon in dire circumstances, it has become a lamentably symbolic token, with the Left and the press (but I repeat myself) always ready to conjure images of savages taking scalps.  During the Viet Nam War, coincident with the Golden Age of Aquarius and demonstrations/riots, a Lt Col Hank Emerson (later a successful and popular lieutenant general), commander of the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Airborne Infantry, solicited the sobriquet of "Hatchet Hank" Emerson by issuing hatchets to his troops.  Stories quickly surfaced and were printed – never substantiated – about enemy bodies being mutilated (like the fictional quote about the "village that was destroyed in order to save it").  General Westmoreland immediately secured their use, and Hatchet Hank quickly changed his nickname to "Gunslinger".  (Early versions of Rogers' Standing Orders had a twentieth order: "Don't use your musket if you can kill 'em with your hatchet."  That seems to have been misplaced at about the same time.)

[Aside:  I carried a hatchet anyway, discreetly secured to my ruck with an official World War II, GI-issued hatchet carrier.  In thick jungle and forest, I found that there usually wasn't enough room to effectively swing a machete.  I used the hatchet and heavy duty hand pruners much more effectively to cut through the foliage and flora and to set up expedient camouflage, and they were easier to carry.]

Colonel John S Mosby, CSA

The Confederate battle flag in the upper right commemorates the contribution of primarily Colonel John Singleton Mosby of Virginia, credited with continuing contemporary Ranger tactics in the area of northern Virginia throughout the Civil War.  He dominated the area with his 43rd Cavalry Battalion through raids and partisan warfare so thoroughly that the area came to be known as "Mosby's Confederacy".  The other official Confederate Ranger unit, McNeill's Rangers (E Company, 18th Virginia Cavalry) was led by Captain John H McNeill and then his son Captain Jesse C McNeill.  Other such leaders can include the brilliant, controversial and maligned Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who despite a lack of formal education was still quite literate.  His famous dictum was actually to "get there first with the most men", not the blithering nonsense printed in a New York newspaper.

The battle flag also represents such famous units as Terry's Texas Rangers (8th Texas Cavalry), credited with its ability to lay down more firepower than any other unit in its lightening raids.  (Rangers in the early Republic of Texas developed independently from their American cousins but for similar reasons – defense against and pursuit of Indian raiding parties, bandits, and Mexican incursions.  The Texas Rangers often operated as ad hoc posses before becoming formalized as one of the most famous law enforcement agencies in the world.)  An equestrian statue of one of Terry's Texas Rangers is set on the grounds at the Texas Capitol in Austin (which, appropriately enough, is larger than the US Capitol in Washington, DC).

The spearhead at the bottom of the old crest represents the Rangers of World War II, organized into six independent battalions with the first five fighting in the European theatre and the 6th in the Pacific, as well as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), the famous Merrill's Marauders which fought in Burma.  This was the first return to a Ranger concept since the Civil War.

Lt Col William O Darby, father of the Ranger Battalions of World War II, as CO 1st Battalion outside Arzew, Algeria

It was the 2nd Ranger Battalion (-) led by Lt Col Earl Rudder that attacked up the cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc of Normandy on D-Day (I was privileged to know Rudder years later when he was President of Texas A&M.)   The 5th Ranger Battalion, along with two companies of the 2nd, was on their left flank and tied in with the 116th Infantry of the 29th Infantry Division (the Blue and Grey), and thus together took the brutal brunt of the first wave to hit Omaha Beach.  The units on the beach were pinned down by murderous fire until elements of the 5th started picking their way up and through the German lines.  After Brig Gen Norman Cota of the 29th, noting the beginnings of some progress out of the slaughterhouse, asked the 5th's CO, Lt Col Max Schneider, what unit he was with, Cota responded with an imprecation and blurted the famous line "Well, God damn it, if you're Rangers, lead the way!"  It was more of an invitation than a command, but Schneider's troops made good on the effort and are credited with breaking the bloody hold at Omaha Beach.  A truncated version of Cota's exclamation is one of the mottos of the Rangers, now rendered as a declaration.

The 1st, 3rd and 4th Battalions were spearheads in the Americans' first operations in North Africa and then into Italy, and distinguished themselves at such battles as Dieppe, Arzew, Djebel el Ank (Orbata), Salerno and Anzio up until the point where they were caught in a massive and masterful ambush at Cisterna.  The 6th was the only unit assigned to the Pacific theatre, was the first ashore at Luzon and later liberated the Japanese POW Camp at Cabanatuan in a daring raid.

Brigadier General Frank Merrill with Nisei troops

Merrill's Marauders, a completely separate unit but now considered part of the modern Ranger ancestry, operated as an independent regiment-sized unit in association with Chinese troops, and was essentially heavily armed light infantry supported by pack mules.  They moved and fought brilliantly through hundreds of miles of Burmese jungles, finally spending themselves in the almost pyrrhic victory at the Japanese air base at Myitkyina.

The Rangers were shut down after World War II but companies were temporarily stood up during the Korean War, and later Ranger-like Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs, pronounced 'lerps') were used in Viet Nam.  After 1969 the LRRPs were re-designated as Ranger companies but quickly began de-mobilizing as the Americans drew down from that war. 

Up until then, this was a standard reaction of the Army – reluctantly yield to creating Ranger units in time of war (apparently FDR himself had a hand in convincing the Army of World War II), but demobilize them as soon as possible thereafter.  But by the mid-1970s, after the end of our formal involvement in South Viet Nam (and the collapse of that country after Congress withheld promised support during the third major NVA assault on the South), Ranger battalions began being established.  This turn-around in the attitude of the "Big Army" was partly to overcome the discrepancies in the command structure that was felt with the use (or misuse) of Special Forces in Viet Nam.  (To their credit, most SF veterans who I knew at the time agreed about being victims of mission creep.)  Whereas SF units had often been used independently by the CIA and the "Studies and Observation Group" (a more pacific title from the original Special Operations Group), the leadership of the Army afterward, which comprised generals who had been field-grade officers in Viet Nam, wanted a more responsible command structure of special units.  This compromise resulted in standing up permanent Ranger battalions with the cost paid out of the hide of SF units.  (This was relayed to me by a relative, Lt Gen James F Hollingsworth, after his retirement in the late 1970s.  My older brother, having served under "Hollie" in the 2nd Armored Division, was a particular favorite of his.)

The Ranger Regiment was formally established in the mid-1980s with eventually four battalions (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and Special Troops).  The Regiment took its lineage directly from Merrill's Marauders, and the new crest made its appearance, only slightly modified from the one in World War II.  (The survivors of the 5307th were re-grouped into the 475th Infantry toward the end of the war, later re-designated the 75th Infantry, and eventually the 75th Rangers.)  The sun symbol in the upper left comes from the Nationalist Chinese flag, the lower five-pointed star is not the one used by the US Army at the time but came rather from the same symbol used by the Burmese, a fortunate coincidence.  The lightning bolt was for speed and force.  The battalions of the Unit were designated by color, reflected in the initial four colors of the crest when it was designed.  More battalions, and thus more colors (orange and khaki), came later.  (The gold trim in the insignia was added toward the end of the war as an artistic touch, as the first four colors – blue, green, red, and white – did not fit well together.)

 Modern 75th Ranger Regiment crest

A new motto was added - Sua Sponte - literally "your initiative" but translated officially as "on their own accord", signifying the volunteer aspect of the long pipeline of hard training and their willingness to go in harm's way.  The six colors of the modern 75th Ranger beret flash are taken from the six color-designated battalions of the Marauders, and is worn with the modern crest of the unit. 

 Beret flash for the Ranger Regiment (3rd Battalion)

Ranger School, however, wears a black and gold flash with the Infantry School crest ("Follow Me").

Beret flash for Ranger School cadre

As stated above, the old crest as described is no longer evident, yet was present to a great extent in the early 1970s.  As best as I can see, the crest was attributed to the Ranger School, but has apparently been 'cleansed'.  One can imagine that the presence of the Confederate flag was reason enough to expurgate it in today's sensitive political atmosphere, but it is unfortunate that the attitude of reconciliation after the war, extolled by Colonel Mosby and General Forrest themselves, has so eroded.  (Mosby became a Republican after the war and supported the Grant administration.  Forrest, wrongly considered the one who established the Ku Klux Klan, was nevertheless associated with it at first but turned against it when reports of violence surfaced.  He was instrumental in disbanding its first incarnation in 1869.)

To help understand the confusion, it is best to remember that there is a distinction between Ranger School and today's Ranger Regiment.  Despite the ebb and flow of the Rangers after World War II, the Ranger School nevertheless continued to train members of the Army and some of the other services in tactics and techniques.  Graduates were then to return to their parent conventional units and pass on the knowledge.  Training was thus for individual skills, not to provide a pipeline into a Ranger unit, whether one existed at the time or not.  Apparently, that is still the case, and the Ranger School exists as a separate entity from the Ranger Regiment despite their clear overlap.  The Regiment conducts its own induction training, now called RASP (Ranger Assessment and Selection Program), thus graduation from Ranger School does not necessarily constitute being a Ranger; graduation from RASP and assignment to a Ranger Battalion does.

The historic Army attitude that shunned special units could also be applied to distinctive uniforms.  Other countries, such as those in the British Commonwealth, tend to have different headgear (hats, covers) that reflect a tradition within certain units.  Not so within our own Army, until John F Kennedy over-ruled the Army hierarchy and granted the Green Beret to the new Special Forces groups, singling them out as the leaders of the new counter-insurgency approach to warfare that fully blossomed in Viet Nam.  It wasn't long before an interest in berets began to spread in earnest, now that the dam had been breached.  Since a green beret had come to symbolize commando units in a number of European militaries (the British and French certainly), we soon came into line with our European forebears by adopting a 'red' beret (actually more of a maroon color) to symbolize airborne or paratroop units.  These two colored berets were adopted for a sense of esprit d' corps as well as the fact that they were universally recognized. 

The Rangers were certainly a specialized unit though they overlapped the commando and airborne roles, but were more in the nature of shock troops.  (Special Forces, wishing to blend in and win the hearts and minds of the people, will knock lightly on the door.  Rangers will kick it in.)  Starting as far back as Korea, some Rangers started wearing a black beret – unofficially, when they could get away with it – as a reference to their dark nature.  This continued in Viet Nam, though more of an open secret, and it was finally officially approved in 1975 as a distinctively Ranger headgear. 

But by the turn of the century, a controversy brewed up as a result of the decision by the Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, to extend the wear of the black beret to the entire Army, as a "challenge to excellence", a cheap attempt to pump up morale.  I will not attempt to debate the merits – or lack thereof – of Shinseki's decision, but I will point out that the black beret in international usage has traditionally been associated with armored units.  (Well before World War II, thickly padded black berets were used as protective headgear for British and German tankers knocking around hard, confined spaces.)  In fact, some US armored units started wearing black berets for that same reason in the early 1970s until told to stop once the Ranger decision had been made.  As a sop to the Rangers, who were justifiably bent about the fact that their hard-earned berets were now going to be handed out to every Tom, Dick, and Mary in the Army, a tan beret was substituted as a distinctive emblem for them, with the tan color signifying the buckskin of the early Roger's Rangers.  There was nevertheless a great deal of hubbub that continued and I was surprised that an obvious comparison was overlooked.

Ranger from Special Troops Battalion in tan beret

Though I have never heard it officially explained in this way, if one is to consider the international significance of a tan beret, one would have to consider the fact that the first comparison would be with the nation with which we hold the most important Special Relationship (no matter what Obama may say) – the United Kingdom.  The Special Air Service (SAS) of Britain as well as Australia and New Zealand, perhaps the premier such services in the world, wears a beige beret (tan by any other name) to signify its beginnings in the sands of the Saharan North Africa in World War II.
Former CSM of the Ranger Training Brigade

While the earlier Rangers became understandably attached to their black berets, it does make sense, in a strictly objective manner, to stand in positive comparison to the SAS instead of the variety of armored and other uses that the world's military forces assign to the black beret.

Recently, the Army has stepped back its use of the black beret.  It will still be used with the garrison uniform but not the ACU or field uniform.  Instead, the standard and much more functional patrol cap will be used in the field.  Ironically, in the period of the 1950s through the 1970s with the wire-stiffened Ridgeway cap and the later baseball cap in Viet Nam used by conventional units, the patrol cap in its earlier olive drab version was restricted to only the Rangers.

Yet no matter what the uniform accoutremont may be, what matters is the soldier who fills that uniform, and who can always be expected to lead the way.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Mnozil Brass

"And now for something completely different":

I stumbled across this little Austrian delight yesterday, and I naturally wanted to pass this along to the rest of the world (those who have not yet discovered me will continue to suffer). 

The Mnozil Brass has been around for some twenty years, founded by a septet of musicians hanging around the Mnozil Tavern in deepest, darkest Vienna.  This international assemblage (well, one of them is Hungarian) is known for its satirical take on a wide variety of music, mostly Schlager (sort of a Central European version of Country, without the pickups but with more beer).  They are all quite accomplished musicians, graduates of the Vienna College of Music, and quite funny.  Here is a brief intro to both:
For an introduction to each of the ensemble and an example of their humor, stick around for about twelve minutes with this delightful little piece of gemütlichkeit (with subtitles for the German-challenged, or "Austrian" as Obama would say – a double entendre to be sure, but the Germans would agree).  They fall within the same realm as Professor Peter Schickele of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople.  [I wasn't able to directly post the video, but you can click on the icon above to access it.]
And just to show that their talents aren't just limited to the variety of brass instruments at which they are virtuosi, they can all sing quite well.  Perhaps channeling their inner Anschluß, they accompany themselves in an amusingly spot-on rendition (can you sing as well in German?) of the Bohemian Rhapsody.
If you have a chance to catch their act, do yourself a favor.  Note that they will be in Europe for the next year or so, so that might be an added bonus.  Take the opportunity while you still can (Europe that is).
(H/T to Texan99 at Grim's Hall.)