When the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing

The Biden administration is notorious for self-cannibalizing.

One of the better illustrations of this comes in a passage from a story in today’s morning newspaper about reactions to the president’s stroke-of-the-pen edict forgiving up to $10,000 of federal student loans for people making less than $125,000 and up to $20,000 for students who received Pell Grants.

“The changes announced (this week) will likely cost more than double the amount saved through the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, completely eliminating any disinflationary benefit from the bill,” the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget wrote. “The proposed loan changes also do nothing to reduce the amount of borrowing moving forward, setting up a future administration to be called on to cancel debt again.”

Increasing inflation?

While the cancellation will put more money in people’s pockets and increase spending, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget wrote in February that canceling student debt would boost personal consumption and would increase inflation.

Ah yes, a future administration will be called on to again cancel student loan debt. As Ronald Reagan said, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!” No matter how self-destructive.

Richard Germain cartoon

Book review: The maturation of medicine in Nevada

Nevada native, long-time newspaper columnist and author John L. Smith has just published the final volume in his series of thin paperbacks devoted to recounting the exploits and discoveries of some of the most colorful characters who shaped Nevada and the West — especially suited for younger readers wanting a taste of their home state’s history.

Smith’s 69-page “Pioneering Medicine: From Sage to Surgery” completes his “Fields of Silver and Gold” series. In this book, he recounts the exploits of Nevada’s first medical practitioners, some more skilled than others in the budding medical sciences.

In the opening chapter Smith writes about the state’s first doctor, Dr. Charles Daggett, and how he saved Mormon Church leader and judge, Orson Hyde, in the 1850s, while Nevada was still a part of the Utah Territory. As was all too common at the time, Hyde had been caught in the Sierra Nevada range during a December snowstorm, reminiscent of the one that tragically trapped the Donner Party a decade earlier.

Hyde’s legs and feet were seriously frostbitten — likely to take his limbs or his life — when he managed to seek out Dr. Daggett, who knew better than to warm up the limbs too quickly. Smith’s research found that Daggett chopped a hole in the ice of a frozen creek and submerged Hyde’s legs to more slowly thaw them. The doctor then rubbed the area with turpentine.

“Hyde’s legs were saved without the benefit of the kind of advanced medical treatment that we take for granted today,” Smith writes. “In Daggett’s time, even the best-trained medical doctors relied on treatments that mixed herbs, oils, and even animal parts to make what were little more than home remedies. Western medicine in the 1850s still had much to learn.”

That is now considered one of the first documented cases of medical treatment in what is now Nevada, according to Smith.

The book goes on to delve into medical practices of Nevada’s Native American tribes, such as the Paiute, Shoshone, Washoe and others — which included teas, poultices, crystals, medicine bags, chants, dances and sweat lodges. It also recounts how Chinese laborers practiced millennia-old Chinese medicine, which also used herbs extensively. Smith also reports on the groundbreaking efforts of women and minority doctors. There is also a chapter on the ravages of the Spanish Flu in 1918.

The book concludes with the relatively recent establishment of medical education at the state universities and the private Touro University Nevada, which are helping to remedy the state’s historically under served health care needs.

The book gives one a greater appreciation of and understanding of what it took to survive and prosper in those formative years.

The book is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Nobel and other online booksellers.

Other books in the series are: “Sarah Winnemucca: A Princess for the People,” “Snowshoe Thompson: Sierra Mailman,” “Anne Martin: The March for Suffrage,” “Ben Parker: Black Pioneers on the Frontier” and “The Pony Express: True Tales and Frontier Legends.” All are worthy reads.

Celebrating independence in an age of dependence

Today we celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with fireworks and picnics.

But there is another day worthy of a passing mention. That is July 6, the day the declaration was first reprinted on the front page of The Pennsylvania Evening Post. In the following weeks, by order of Congress, at least 30 newspapers reprinted the Declaration of Independence, spreading its simple words and its audacious act of treason against the crown. It was a document for the people, carried to the people by the press.

At the time, the colonies were under virtual blockade and the American Army was vastly outnumbered and often in retreat.

Franklin, Adams and Jefferson

Librarian Robin Shields recounts that when the Boston Gazette published the declaration it carried next to it an advertisement: “Cash given for clean Cotton and Linen RAGS, at the Printing-Office in Watertown.” Most paper was imported from England, and the printer was seeking rags with which to make paper.

In a letter to Congress on July 9, Gen. George Washington reported how his troops were to mark the news of the Declaration of Independence: “The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades, at Six O’Clock, when the declaration of Congress, shewing the grounds and reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice.”

In a letter the next day he reported that British deserters were telling him a fleet with massive reinforcements was expected to arrive in New York any day. The situation was dire.

It was in this setting of uncertainty and imminent danger that our founding document was penned. How it fell to 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson to pen the first draft is a matter of some dispute, but I prefer the recollection of chief independence protagonist John Adams.

Years later, Adams recalled that he insisted Jefferson should write it, and Jefferson replied, “Why?”

“Reasons enough,” answered Adams.

“What can be your reasons?”

So Adams bluntly stated, “Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”

Most of which, of course, was nonsense.

Jefferson borrowed liberally from the great minds of the day, unabashedly paraphrasing George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Jefferson edited it to the more succinct “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In 1825, in a letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Jefferson looked back on those days and his role in writing the founding document. He recalled his motivation and purpose:

“When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of … (but) to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind …”

Today 65 percent of Americans live in a household in which someone receives a monthly check from the government. Federal regulations cost $2 trillion a year. Entitlement programs are going broke. Debt is ballooning. Foreign powers neither trust nor fear us. Morality and ethics are situational. The government enforces only those laws it wishes to enforce. Politicians lie, cheat and steal without fear of facing any consequences. The media are largely toothless and growing weaker.

Even when the voters revolt and elect people they think are fiscal conservatives, the elected officials raise taxes and do nothing to rein in runaway spending on government programs and employee pay and benefits.

At the time of the Revolution, it is estimated the typical tax burden — with or without representation — was 20 cents per capita per year at a time when annual earnings were somewhere between $60 and $100. Today the total tax burden is more than 40 percent.

I wonder whether we have lost that American mind-set that Jefferson cherished. How many of us are still willing for the sake of true liberty to pledge “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”?

Even the meaning of the word liberty has changed from an inalienable right to something granted by the all-powerful government.

“The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our Nation was built. Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits. The Framers created our Constitution to preserve that understanding of liberty. Yet the majority invokes our Constitution in the name of a
“liberty” that the Framers would not have recognized, to the detriment of the liberty they sought to protect. Along the way, it rejects the idea—captured in our Declaration of Independence—that human dignity is innate and suggests instead that it comes from the Government. This distortion of our Constitution not only ignores the text, it inverts the relationship between the individual and the state in
our Republic. I cannot agree with it,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent of a Supreme Court ruling granting the “right” to gay marriage.

We’ve strayed far since 1776.

This first appeared in 2015.

New book, ’The Colony,’ takes readers into a realm they never could have imagined

Author Sally Denton’s latest book may have been prompted by the ambush murders on a dirt road in northern Mexico of three female members of a polygamous spin-off sect of the Mormon Church and six of their children, while en route to the community of Colonia LeBaron, commonly known simply as The Colony, but it is far more than just a true crime book.

Though it begins and ends with vivid accounts of what happened that day in November 2019 and the many scenarios as to why — including the likelihood that it was perpetrated by a drug cartel — in between “The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land” delves deeply into the founding of and teachings of the Mormon Church, as well as the violence-riddled branches of that religion established more than a century ago in Mexico. The book is exhaustively researched and thoroughly detailed.

Denton readily acknowledges that the book was irresistible, because, as she writes, “As a longtime investigative journalist and author, I have written extensively about organized crime, murdered women, drug cartels, Western history, polygamy, and Mormons. The brazen daylight attack on the controversial LeBaron clan instantly grabbed my attention as a reporter. But as a descendent of Mormon pioneers and polygamists, I had a personal impulse to unravel it.”

In fact, two women who play major roles in the settlement of those Mexican outposts were Denton’s great-great-grandmother and great-grandmother. The exploits of both are recounted in the book. Additionally, in the 1970s Denton apprenticed with syndicated newspaper columnist Jack Anderson, who she described as “the nationally renowned Mormon muckraker,” who had broken exclusive accounts of the bloody deeds of some of those Mexican “polygamous cults,” even labeling one of the polygamist leaders the “Mormon Manson.”

In describing her purpose for “The Colony” Denton writes, “This book is an exploration of LeBaron — the place and the family — in an effort to explain the impulses that drove thousands of women over generations, including ancestors of mine … to join or remain within a novel American religion based on male supremacy and female servitude. Many did not have a choice in the matter, of course, but many others did, and many embraced their patriarchal world.”

The book provides a detailed account of how Mormon leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young migrated west to Utah and embraced the “devine Principle,” the practice of polygamy, and something called blood atonement — the killing for a higher purpose, as frequently practiced in true Cain-and-Abel fashion by several LeBarons, literally brother killing brother.

The chapter on the Mountain Meadows Massacre alone is worth the price of admission.

“On September 7, 1857, in a meadow in southwestern Utah, a Mormon militia attacked the Fancher Train,” Denton writes. “After a five-day siege, the Mormons persuaded the emigrants to surrender under a flag of truce and a pledge of safe passage. Then, in the worst butchery of white people by other white people in the entire colonization of America, approximately 140 unarmed men, women and children were murdered.”

She goes on to explain how, why and who ordered the attack, as well as how the closely guarded secret plan was unveiled.

Sally Denton

Denton later in the book delves into the laws being passed by Congress in the late 1880s banning and penalizing the practice of polygamy, which made the Mormon Church’s fourth Prophet, Wilford Woodruff, who himself had nine wives, realize the church “could only survive if the US retreated from its hostility and granted statehood to Utah.” Thus, on October 6, 1890, he issued what became known as the Woodruff Manifesto, advising Latter-day Saints to refrain from polygamy. That prompted the LeBarons and others to break from the church.

After recounting the evolving decades of violence and conflict and prospering agricultural endeavors among the polygamist colonists, Denton returns to the present-day hillside massacre case, which many LeBarons and law enforcement agents still see as unresolved despite numerous arrests.

“The Colony” provides a thoroughly eye-opening exploration of a shocking existence and mindset that few of us could ever have imagined in our worst nightmares.

The book is available in a number of local bookstores, as well as the usual online outlets, such as Amazon and Barnes and Nobel.

Happy belated birthday, Eric Blair — the dystopian world you conjured is still here year after year





“The centuries of capitalism were held to have produced nothing of any value. One could not learn history from architecture any more than one could learn it from books. Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets — anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered.”

— “Nineteen Eighty-four”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve taken to placing a little sticky note over the camera atop my desktop computer. If former FBI Director James Comey and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg do it, so will I. Big and Little Brothers may be watching.

Happy belated 119th birthday, Eric Blair.

On June 25 in 1903, Eric Blair was born in India. This is not the year to overlook this propitious event, because this is the year that gave us the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board and its Russian hoax embracing director Nina Jankowicz.

Under the pen name George Orwell, Blair penned the novel “Nineteen Eighty-four.”

After a hailstorm of ridicule, much of it comparing the new DHS board to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and Big Brother, after three weeks the disinformation board was shelved. Purpose served.

Eric Blair as six weeks old

When Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-four” he wasn’t forecasting a particular date, he simply transposed the last two digits in 1948, the year in which he wrote much of the book. Though a life-long socialist he despised the totalitarian and despotic nature of communism, fascism and Nazism.

He added to the lexicon: Big Brother, thoughtcrime, newspeak, doublethink, Room 101, as well as the painted slogans: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

In “Nineteen Eighty-four” the warring nations kept changing enemies, sort of like today.

If you don’t think freedom is slavery, consider the “Life of Julia” — the Obama campaign video that showed a woman relying on government handouts from cradle to retirement. Julia, by the way, was the girlfriend of Winston Smith, the main character in “Nineteen Eighty-four.”

Ignorance is definitely strength, not for us but for politicians who the ignorant keep electing.

As for newspeak and doublethink, consider the language of the Obama and Trump and Biden administrations. Obama said we were not fighting a war against terrorists but trying to prevent man-caused disasters. His Defense Department (They don’t call it the War Department anymore.) sent out a memo saying: “this administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’” And a man standing on a table, firing a gun, shouting Allahu Akbar is merely workplace violence.

Trump was going to attack Iran for downing our drone, then the called it off. He was going to have ICE round-up immigrants who had been ordered deported, then he delayed it. He was going to impose tariffs, then he did not. During the election campaign he took 141 policy positions on 23 issues over the course of 510 days. He changed stances on immigration, ObamaCare, entitlement programs, gay rights, the Middle East and so much more.

Biden’s bureaucrats’ budget language refers to “birthing people,” not mothers.

Not to be outdone, the quacks at the Nevada Legislature actually passed AB287, which declares that on public documents the term mother is to be replaced with “person giving birth” and father with “other parent.” The governor signed it and there was no news coverage of the event.

The Federal Reserve a year ago put out a memo instructing staff to use bias-free language. The memo lists terms like “Founding Fathers” and “manmade” as well as the pronouns he and she as offensive.

Then there was the news media blackout of all the Hunter Biden monetary shakedowns, obscene photos and racial slurs — never mind the social media banning of a former president and many others.

Trump was called a xenophobe for suggesting the COVID-19 virus came from a Wuhan lab, but now that is widely accepted as possible.

Orwell wrote: “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”

Recently a law professor suggested editing from classroom teachings the details of the Dred Scott case in which the Supreme Court ruled a Black man could not file suit in court because he was not a citizen. The prof wants to omit language “so gratuitously insulting and demeaning.” He said assigning the case forces students “to relive the humiliation of [Chief Justice Roger] Taney’s language as evidence of his doctrine of white supremacy.”

How can there be any thoughtcrime if we are not allowed to use certain words or study history? People aren’t in the country illegally, they are merely undocumented. And this too changes over time. Once the word negro was the preferred and the politically correct term, but now it is a slur.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Orwell wrote in “Nineteen Eighty-four.” “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Today’s cancel culture is Big Brother incarnate.

Statues are being torn down. Books are banned. Military bases are renamed. Social media posts are censored. Speech is deemed the same as violence. Silence is also violence. But violence is free speech. Any thought outside the strictly proscribed is a crime. Thoughtcrime literally.

The editorial page editor of The New York Times was ousted after fellow staffers demanded his scalp for having the audacity to publish an op-ed by a U.S. senator calling for sending troops to quell rioting. (It now has a lengthy editors’ note atop it online disavowing much of the op-ed’s content.) The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer was forced to resign for daring to publish an opinion piece under the headline ”Buildings Matter, Too.”

When President Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts …” Twitter hid it behind a warning label because it “glorifies violence.”

Movies and television shows are being canceled lest they offend the snowflakes. Classic children’s books are being ripped from the library shelves for being insensitive.

Bowing to racial sensitivity, the Associated Press changed its stylebook to call for the capitalization of the “b” in the term Black when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context. It was reasoned that lowercase black is a color, not a person. But the AP still uses a lowercase “w” for white, whether a color or a person. Affirmative action run amok?

Back in 1975, David Goodman wrote in The Futurist magazine that 100 of 137 Orwell predictions in “Nineteen Eighty-four” had come true. With the advance of computer surveillance and drones, how many more have come true?

In 1983, while working as the city editor of the Shreveport Journal, I penned a soft feature tied to the 35th anniversary of the original writing of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

I observed in that piece that Orwell’s book was about a totalitarian dystopia in which BIG BROTHER WAS WATCHING YOU, suggesting this was like the infrared camera equipped drones or huge network of cybersnooping computers, long before the NSA revelations. 

“George Orwell respected language and railed against its abuse,” I wrote in 1983. “He was particularly offended by the propaganda — some of which he helped to write for the BBC in World War II. He saw firsthand the way the press was tricked and subverted for political purposes in the Spanish Civil War. Battles that never happened. Heroes who became traitors.”

In another piece posted here in 2013, I asked whether Orwell was a satirist or a prophet.

Walter Cronkite in a foreword to the 1983 paperback edition of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” claimed the book has failed as prophecy only because it has served so well as a warning — a warning against manipulation and power grabbing and the loss of privacy in the name of state security.

And Cronkite couldn’t resist adding: “1984 may not arrive on time, but there’s always 1985.”

Orwell himself called his book a satire and took pains to correct those who saw it merely as a denunciation of socialism.

In a letter written shortly after the publication of the book, Orwell wrote, “My novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism.

“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

A Newsweek article in 2018 asked the question: “Is Trump nudging America toward corrupt authoritarianism?” Isn’t corrupt authoritarianism redundant?

Back in 2008, when the Las Vegas Review-Journal launched its blogging section online, I engaged in a bit of self-indulgent navel gazing in a column trying to explain why. I leaned on Orwell like a crutch.

I explained that I and other newspaper scriveners were joining the lowing herds browsing the ether — otherwise known as bloggers, those free-range creatures who mostly chew up the intellectual property of others and spit out their cuds online.

In an effort to find a rationale for this otherwise irrational exercise I grabbed Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay from 1946, in which he lists various reasons for writing.

First is sheer egoism: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.,” Orwell explains. “It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. … Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.”

I think that was both a salute and a sully to the profession of journalism.

The second rationale, according to Orwell, is aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. …” Orwell explains. “Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.”

Third is historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

Finally, and probably most importantly, political purpose: “Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Orwell wrote this shortly after he penned “Animal Farm,” but two years before “Nineteen Eighty-four.” He said “Animal Farm” was his first conscious effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

Orwell wrote against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.

Ayn Rand wrote for free-market capitalism.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote for libertarianism.

Others espouse various “isms” and objective journalism attempts to eschew them, not always successfully.

So, what moves one to write?

As our master Orwell said, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

Everybody loves to unravel a good mystery, right?

Happy birthday, Eric Blair.

A version of this blog has been posted annually for several years.

Go along for the ride with “The Pony Express”

Long-time newspaper columnist and author John L. Smith has just dropped on us his latest in a series of thin paperbacks devoted to recounting the exploits and discoveries of some of the most colorful characters who shaped Nevada and the West.

Smith’s 77-page “The Pony Express: True Tales and Frontier Legends” is the fifth in his “Fields of Silver and Gold” series. In the book, he recounts the creation and incredible accomplishments of The Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company — the Pony Express — though it lasted a mere 18 months. But during that time it delivered mail from Missouri to California in just 10 days.

“The legend of the Pony Express is so powerful, in fact, that it can be extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction,” Smith admits up front. “Over the years, the tales have grown taller with the telling as writers by the score have weighed in on the brief but colorful era.”

Among those writers, of course, is Mark Twain, who arrived in Nevada during the brief sojourn of the Pony Express and included passages about the mail delivery service in his book “Roughing It.” Smith quotes Twain describing the Pony Express rider: “The pony-rider was usually a little bit of a man, brimful of spirit and endurance.”

The lighter the rider, the easier it was on the horse, which often sped along at 20 mph. As the famous advertising poster stated: “WANTED — YOUNG SKINNY WIRY FELLOWS NOT OVER EIGHTEEN. MUST BE EXPERT RIDERS, WILLING TO RISK DEATH DAILY. ORPHANS PREFERRED.” Smith allows that the authenticity of the poster, like so much about the Pony Express, is in dispute.

The book is chock full of anecdotes that reveal what made the Pony Express such an enduring tale. Though only six riders died in those 18 months — four in native attacks and two frozen to death — Smith recounts: “One of the saddest tales is the fate of fourteen-year-old Billy Tate, who rode the Ruby Valley route in Nevada during the Paiute War. It has been recorded that he was attacked and fought bravely before being killed. As the story is told, he killed several of his adversaries before suffering fatal wounds and was not scalped as a sign of respect for his bravery in battle.”

Then there were remarkable accomplishments in the face of such hostilities. Such the time Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam rode 380 miles in less than 40 hours — the longest ride in the brief history of the Pony Express.

One of the reasons the Pony Express legend was so enduring, as Smith relates, comes from the efforts of such legends as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who may or may not have ridden for the Pony Express, but who, during 45 years of wild west shows, glorified the skills and bravery of Western pioneers. “He always called himself and old Pony Express rider, although he was likely just a messenger,” Smith suspects.

The book gives one a greater appreciation of and understanding for what it took to succeed and survive in those formative years.

The book is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Nobel and other online booksellers.

Other books in the series are: “Sarah Winnemucca: A Princess for the People,” “Snowshoe Thompson: Sierra Mailman,” “Anne Martin: The March for Suffrage,” and “Ben Parker: Black Pioneers on the Frontier.” Yet to come in the series is “Pioneering Medicine: From Sage to Surgery.”

How effective was the McNamara Line? Father and son seem to differ

I was curious to read what the son of the late Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara had to say about his father and his role waging the ill-fated Vietnam conflict.

Craig McNamara’s book — “Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, From Vietnam to Today” — is a ramble through his own rambling life and lifestyle with the occasional attempt to understand and explain his father and his role in the Southeast Asia military excursion (It was never a declared war.). The later attempt is largely for naught.

It was not until the closing pages of the book that the scion touches on my “relationship” with the former secretary. As in Robert McNamara’s autobiography “In Retrospect,” it is a brief interlude.

In 2018 Craig McNamara, who avoided the Vietnam-era draft due to ulcers, visited Vietnam with a group put together by Vietnam veteran and member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Chuck Searcy. He writes on page 243:

“One afternoon, Chuck and I were driving on a road through a forested area, and he told me that we were going to pass something called the McNamara Line, an installation in the former DMZ where my father had conceived of dropping a series of electronic sensors from planes in order to pick up enemy troop movements. It didn’t work, Chuck explained to me, because the cutting-edge sensors frequently picked up the sounds of animals and other ambient noise. Chuck said that there was a carved stone slab in the jungle somewhere commemorating the folly of Robert McNamara.

“As we were driving, I spotted something off the road. ‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Is that it?’

“Chuck hit the brakes. We got out of the car and went off the road, hacking through a few feet of jungle with a machete. There was a plaque not unlike the marker I had made for my mother’s grave. It read, according to Chuck’s translation:

“The ‘Magic Eye’ of the McNamara Electronic Fence, an evidence of the humiliating defeat of the U.S. Empire in 1975.”

Both the son and the father make no mention of the fact that calling it the McNamara Line is a pejorative allusion to the spectacular World War II failure known as the Maginot Line.

Those of us who worked on it generally called it McNamara’s Wall. Those sensors were much more that just listening devices. There were also ones that detected odors and ones that detected seismic vibrations, such as those created by weapons-laden bicycles.

“In Retrospect” gave its short shrift to this endeavor on page 246 (The braces are mine, parens are his.):

“They concluded the bombing [of the Ho Chi Minh freeway, as we called it] had indeed been ineffective and recommended building a ‘barrier’ as an alternative means of checking infiltration. This concept, which had first come to my attention in the spring of 1966, would involve laying down a complex belt of mines and sensors across the Demilitarized Zone and the Laotian panhandle to the west. (the sensors would guide our attack aircraft to enemy forces on the move.) The barrier would be costly [That was the most secret aspect of the whole damned thing. Each of those sensors was said to cost the same as a Volkswagen beetle, which then was about $2,000.], but because our bombing was ineffective, I authorized it … Once it was put in place, the barrier was intended to increase infiltration losses. And it did.”

It wasn’t actually McNamara’s idea but rather a gaggle of anonymous advisers. And its effectiveness was questionable, as the plaque attested.

McNamara wrote that he had misgivings about the conduct of the war as early as 1967, which, coincidentally, was about when his Air Force decided to send me to Nahkon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base to work on his wall at Task Force Alpha. The base, Naked Fanny, as we called it, was a short but perilous bus ride to the town of Nahkon Phanom on the banks of the Mekong River just across from Laos. It was where Johnny’s Ice Cream Parlor kept the Singha beer in the ice cream freezer.

For me and thousands of others whose lives were changed, it might have been better for him to express his misgivings sooner.


His intelligence, from people with brass on their shoulders, and mine, from inside a computer-filled, air-conditioned tin shed in the jungle, tended to differ.

In those computers we kept track of what was being bombed, secondary explosions and fires, even sightings of POWs, which the F4s were supposed to avoid. But based on the assumption the POWs were moved frequently, the sightings were to be scrubbed after five days. After awhile, not being a fan of assumptions or bombing of POWs, I stopped removing them. But someone else would later.


It was all so antiseptic, so high-tech compared to what was on the ground, beneath the three-tiered canopy of jungle, in the mud and the rain, the insects and the snakes.

Besides, how did a local farmer sound, smell or shake the ground differently from an invading Viet Cong?

By the time Saigon fell, I had finished college on the G.I. Bill and was working as a city editor at a small Texas daily newspaper. After working in an outfit where information was on a need to know basis, I had chosen to work in a field where the watchword was right to know. So, I guess you could say it changed my life, as I’m sure it did many others, including the 58,000 whose lives it ended prematurely.


All these years later, is it pointless to ask what might have been? Craig McNamara seems to face the same quandary.

Thomas Mitchell, next to never used bunker outside his hooch on Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base just across the Mekong River from Laos.

Take a ride to ‘Dream Town,’ where little is as it appears to be

Prolific mystery writer David Baldacci’s latest novel is “Dream Town,” the third in a series about World War II veteran turned private investigator Aloysius Archer. (That was probably the last time your heard of anyone being named Aloysius.)

Archer, who only answers to the name Archer for obvious reasons, takes advantage of the 1953 New Year holiday to pay a visit to his friend Liberty Callahan, who was a Reno showgirl when they met in a previous book but is now an aspiring actress in Hollywood. Instead of spending his whole visit heartily partying in a party town, Archer winds up being hired by a co-worker of Callahan, screen writer Eleanor Lamb, who fears she is being stalked.

When Lamb herself mysteriously disappears, another film industry associate hires Archer to try to find her. From there the cast of assorted and often unsavory characters grows as Archer delves into the dark secrets of glamorous moviedom as well as the weakness some of those characters have for the tables in mobbed-up Las Vegas and the consequences of the resulting indebtedness. Then there is the sleazy Jade Lion bar in Chinatown, where bad booze is served with a chaser of slutty behavior by ladies with familiar faces on the celluloid.

As Baldacci weaves his plot, many of those characters turn out to not be as they first appear. The beauty of the book is how Archer discovers and interprets clue after clue, leading to his unraveling of the underlying mystery in the end. It is a trip worth taking in the passenger seat of Archer’s 1939 French-made bloodred Delahaye convertible that Archer had purchased with a windfall of gambling winnings in Reno, proving the book is a work of fiction.

Baldacci also manages to get Archer into Jack Reacher-style fisticuffs. Here is an excerpt to give one a taste of the action:

He could hear shouts from all over now and knew his odds of escaping were slim to zero, and his final resting place might be in a hole in Chinatown, or the silty bottom of the Pacific. Neither one appealed to him.

The next second Archer ran headlong into someone and he felt the man’s fingers close around his throat. It was the struggle on the beach all over again. Although this time his opponent was the doorman. And his empty knife holder apparently hadn’t really been empty, because the curved blade was in his hand.

Archer didn’t waste a second because he didn’t have one to waste. He grabbed the knife hand and held it away from him. Next, he planted an elbow in the man’s face, breaking his nose. Then he kicked his foot out and bent the man’s knee the wrong way. The man went down screaming in pain, and then Archer laid him out with a crushing hook to the jaw. He had to keep thanking the Army for teaching him so thoroughly how to fight, win, and stay alive to fight again. As he kept running he looked down at his hand: It was wet.

The guy’s knife hadn’t entirely missed. Archer had a two-inch-long gash in his left palm. He took out his handkerchief, wound it around his hand, and kept running.

Though Archer is good in a physical fight, it is the cerebral wrestling that clinches the story.

In celebration, sort of, of Bug Out Day — April 30, 1975 — and how it changed countless lives

Bugging out of Saigon

On this day 47 years ago the United States military “bugged out” of Saigon, leaving South Vietnam to fall to its communist invaders from the north.

The media are largely ignoring what most veterans of that war call Bug Out Day.

I’m not sure how the event got that ignoble appellation, but perhaps it came from Henry Kissinger. Here is a clip from a HistoryNet account of White House talks:

“Declassified transcripts of the meeting reveal Kissinger’s candid assessment of the unfolding situation in Phnom Penh and Saigon: ‘We have two nutty ambassadors. Dean wants to bug out. Martin wants a new version of the Easter Rebellion. He is supporting Thieu too strongly.’

“(President Gerald) Ford asked his secretary of state, ‘Supposing Ike, Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon were president, what would they have done?’ Kissinger responded, ‘Kennedy would have ratted out. Nixon may have bombed, he was vicious in these things.’

“‘How about Johnson?’ asked Ford.

“‘He wouldn’t have bugged out,’ replied Kissinger. ‘His advisers would have tried to bug out.’

“Then Ford took a shot at President Kennedy: ‘Without appearing to do so, Kennedy probably would have bugged out, with some famous statement that would have disguised it.'”

The Vietnam police action, it never was a real declared war, altered the lives of millions of Baby Boomers, who were either drafted, dodged the draft in one way or another or joined the military to avoid the draft. I joined the Air Force, the branch of the military where the officers were the ones being shot at.

They told me my high test scores guaranteed me my pick of jobs. I picked journalism. No, you have to make three choices, they said, but you’ll get your top pick for sure. So I picked something else and my third pick was intelligence. Yes, I was sent to Denver to train for intelligence. I can’t tell you what planes our Air Force flies, but I could’ve told you what planes the Soviet Union had. We used to joke that there are three kinds of intelligence — human, animal and military, in that order.

After months of waiting for my top secret security clearance, apparently the FBI had a hard time finding anyone in the backwoods of north Texas to vouch for my character and integrity, I was shipped out to Thailand to work on McNamara’s Wall.

Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad, some histories claim it was never built, though I seem to recall spending a year with my thumb in a chink of that wall.

Robert Strange McNamara was secretary of defense in the late 1960s. In his autobiography “In Retrospect,” he said he had misgivings about the conduct of the war as early as 1967, which, coincidentally, was about when his Air Force decided to send me to Nahkon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base — Naked Fanny, as we called it, which was a short but perilous bus ride to the town of Nahkon Phanom on the banks of the Mekong River just across from Laos, where Johnny’s Ice Cream Parlor kept the Singha beer in the ice cream freezer — to work on his wall.

For me and thousands of others whose lives were changed, it might have been better for him to express his misgivings sooner.

My little piece of McNamara’s war deserved only a brief mention on page 246 of his book (The braces are mine, parens are his.):

“They concluded the bombing [of the Ho Chi Minh freeway, as we called it] had indeed been ineffective and recommended building a ‘barrier’ as an alternative means of checking infiltration. This concept, which had first come to my attention in the spring of 1966, would involve laying down a complex belt of mines and sensors across the Demilitarized Zone and the Laotian panhandle to the west. (the sensors would guide our attack aircraft to enemy forces on the move.) The barrier would be costly [that was the most secret aspect of the whole damned thing], but because our bombing was ineffective, I authorized it … Once it was put in place, the barrier was intended to increase infiltration losses. And it did.”

His intelligence from people with brass on their shoulders, and mine from inside a computer-filled, air-conditioned tin shed in the jungle, tended to differ.

Thomas Mitchell, next to never used bunker outside his hooch on Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base just across the Mekong River from Laos.

Each of those sensors was said to cost the same as a Volkswagen beetle, which then was about $2,000. They would drop a series of them from aircraft. Some sensed seismic motion, some sound, some smell. How a jungle dwelling Loatian smelled any different than an infiltrating Viet Cong with his heavily laden bicycle was a mystery to the enlisted men manning the computers.

In those computers we kept track of what was being bombed, secondary explosions and fires, even sightings of POWs, which the F4s were supposed to avoid. But based on the assumption the POWs were moved frequently, the sightings were to be scrubbed after five days. After a while, not being a fan of assumptions or bombing of POWs, I stopped removing them. But someone else would later.

It was all so antiseptic, so high-tech compared to what was on the ground, beneath the three-tiered canopy of jungle, in the mud and the rain, the insects and the snakes.

McNamara said the project came to be known as McNamara Line, without mentioning the derisive allusion to the Maginot Line. We just called it McNamara’s Wall.

To this day I wonder if there was not some cosmic joke in the fact that as we walked from our monsoon-soaked hooches to that tin shed the lizards in the trees would make a mocking call that distinctly sounded like: “(Expletive) you.”

Thankfully, my first wife’s uncle, who was in the military police on the base while I was there, never came around when we went over to the Jolly Greens’ (the guys who dangled from helicopters to rescue downed pilots in Laos) hooches to drink beer and smoke our nickel bags. Yes, a walnut-sized wad of seeds and stems wrapped in newspaper cost one baht, a 20th of a dollar.

The fact that the whole operation and its billion-dollar-plus price tag were top secret made it clear to me who the real enemy really was. Those Viet Cong on bicycles didn’t care what it cost, though perhaps the taxpayers might, but it was secret.

By the time Saigon fell, I had finished college on the G.I. Bill and was working as a city editor at a small Texas daily newspaper. After working in an outfit were information was on a need to know basis, I had chosen to work in a field where the watchword was right to know. So, I guess you could say it changed my life, as I’m sure it did many others, including the 58,000 whose lives it ended prematurely.

All these years later, is it pointless to ask what might have been?

A version of this was posted in 2015.

Latest Jack Reacher outing worth the journey

Just finished Lee Child’s most recent novel romp with his donnybrook prone vagabond protagonist Jack Reacher. On this one he’s teamed up with his brother Andrew Child to pen “The Sentinel.”

Former Army MP Reacher — a tall and muscular specimen who appears to survive on a lack of sleep, strong black coffee and greasy burgers — has just been dropped off in the tiny burg of Pleasantville, Tenn., by his latest hitchhike driver, landing by circumstance and mistaken identity into some rather unpleasant and violent contretemps.

Reacher bumps into the town’s recently fired IT manager. It seems the town’s paper archives have recently been destroyed in a fire, which was quickly followed by its computerized data being blocked by a ransomware hack. The IT manager was falsely blamed for not protecting data and he is out to clear his name and somehow recover the data, which is not what a bunch of Russkie spies and a gaggle of neo-Nazis would not like to see happen, for reasons that remain a bit murky. (Coincidentally, the neo-Nazis are planning a huge well-lighted celebration of Hitler’s birthday, which happens to be today, April 20.)

As is Reacher’s wont, on more than one occasion he winds up protecting the IT guy and himself from a half dozen or so of the baddies by using his head — in more ways than one — as well as his fists, elbows, knees and feet in tightly detailed and choreographed combat in which Reacher comes out largely unscathed but the others well scathed and a few hospitalized.

You might assume, as I did, that Reacher is the titular Sentinel, but toward the end it turns out the feds are secretly working on a software program dubbed The Sentinel, which is intended to block malware and ransomware hacks. Or is that a red-herring like so many others? One should not assume all is as it appears.

Looking forward to the next outing with Reacher, but, meanwhile, you likely would enjoy this one.