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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review: Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion by Stephen Johnson

1968 was not a good year: riots in the cities, multiple assassinations, and perhaps coincidentally four submarines were lost that year: one French, one Israeli, one Russian (K-129 see Project Azorian), and the USS Scorpion. The year's only redeeming feature was that I got married in August.
The USS Scorpion, an attack sub, had just been in dry-dock for several months while they refueled the nuclear reactor a complicated process that requires cutting a hole in the sub and then welding it shut. It passed all the requisite tests afterwards (the whole refit process was to come under review following the disaster,) and so was released for active duty where it was to act first as the "rabbit" for surface ships and other attack subs, i.e. the target during exercises. That was not its original mission, but it was replacing the USS Seawolf that had been severely damaged, almost sunk, after a collision with an underwater obstacle. If you remember The Hunt For Red October, you will remember the scene where they are steering through a large deep basin near Maine that required numerous turns that had to be done exactly in order to avoid a collision. The assumption was they had great charts. Nice fiction. The deep basin the Navy was using was very poorly charted as the USS Seawolf discovered, smashing the bow and stern. It was very lucky and survived only by emergency blowing the tanks. It needed to be towed back to base. (Something that surprised me was the number of underwater collisions suffered by U.S. nuclear subs. Of course, after recent events, we now know that Navy ships collide with things on the surface, too.)
Arriving in Rota, Spain, the Scorpion had a substantial list of work that needed to be done, not including huge hydraulic leaks they had managed to fix while in transit. The private contractor which had done the refit in Norfolk refused to cover any of them under warranty so all the fixes had to be done by the sub tender at Rota. They had a long list of problems that needed fixing. One serious one required the sailors to scrounge Freon from as many other ships as possible. Their own antiquated refrigeration systems was leaking substantial amounts. Freon by itself isn't particularly hazardous, but in a closed environment it displaces the air and if it accumulates in a small space it can cause asphyxiation. Normally they would expect to los about 75 lbs per month. They were losing ten times that and would ask for some from every ship they encountered. They were also having considerable communications equipment problems. On the way back it sank without a trace.
The search for the sub is described in detail (John Craven who was also involved in the search for K-129, developer of the Bayesian Search Theory and the super secret spy submarine the Halibut played a prominent role.) After discovery of the location and with analysis of thousand of photographs, the reasons were almost as numerous as those doing the analysis. The major ones seemed to be blown up by one of its own torpedoes (lots of things to go wrong), defective battery causing a fire (the batteries used in the torpedo were often defective), a stuck plane forcing the boat down faster than they could recover before hitting crush depth and others. (Interestingly, you'll learn that submariners don't drown when a submarine reaches crush depth, to put it bluntly, they are squashed instantly.) One peculiarity was that the periscope and communications antennas were in the upright position as if they were close to the surface when something happened. Another possibility was that the TDI, trash disposal unit, ball valve had failed leading to catastrophic water intake.
Whether the fast refit had left some lingering problems was another concern. Following the loss of the Thresher, which had sunk because of a bad weld that broke letting in high pressure sea water, the Navy embarked on an ambitious program to make subs safer. The problem was that for a variety of reasons, refits were dragging on for as long as 36 months. At one point 40% of the nuclear attack subs were in drydock. That was unacceptable. So they were going to try and speed things up, going to sea with known issues, limiting maximum submerged, and ignoring problems that could be fixed later.
No spoilers here. A terrific read.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Truly a depressing book although Bryan Stevenson is a veritable hero. A good companion piece to read with this book is the profile of Stevenson in The New Yorker, August 22, 2016. It has more information about his Equal Justice Initiative and additional frightful details of how capital punishment is being used in the south to replace lynching. Studies have revealed that in the twelve southern states studied, they found records of about four thousand lynchings. It was the ultimate in terrorism.

Alabama has no legal defender system so many people have been incarcerated without legal representation. Bryan Stevenson was instrumental in using federal funds to create a non-profit organization that provided attorneys for the indigent. The book has many stories of the unjustly incarcerated not to mention children who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes they supposedly committed while barely in their teens; sometimes crimes they were conned into by adults.

The book is a series of vignettes about people Stevenson has tried to help and who exemplify the problems with race and the “law” in the south. The link that holds all the disparate stories together is the McMillian case. McMillian was charged and held on death row for six years until, thanks to Stevenson, exonerated. The sheriff had buried evidence that showed McMillian could not possibly have committed the crime, but because he was having an affair with a white woman was ripe bait for an official lynching. Ironically, the case played out in Monroeville, Alabama, the town immortalized in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Interracial marriage, not to mention sex, was feared in the south and made illegal, enforced not just legally but through the terror of lynching. It remained illegal in most of the country until 1967 and Loving v Virginia in 1967. The Alabama Constitution continued to prohibit it even in 1986. It was not until 2000 that a ballot initiative removed it from their Constitution, and even then 40% of Alabamians voted to retain it.

Alabama elects its judges and is one of the few states where a judge can overrule a jury’s recommendation for life in prison with the death penalty. This means that judges compete with one another to be the toughest on crime and what better way to demonstrate that conviction than by sentencing loads of people to death.

Stevenson has appeared several times before the Supreme Court. The McMillian case itself wound up before them. Because Sheriff Tate had withheld exculpatory evidence that would have freed McMillan, he sued but by a 5-4 decision the Court affirmed the lower courts which had decided that the sheriff was acting on behalf of the state rather than the County, and therefore the County could not be held liable for his actions.

Steven's crowning achievement came in Miller v Alabama in which the Supreme Court decided that a life sentence for juveniles was disproportionately severe and unconstitutional.


Miller v Alabama

McMillian v Monroe County, Alabama:

Florida V Sullivan: 13-yr. old convicted of sexual battery and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

More comments on Monuments. Letter to the Journal Standard

I appreciate Jim Sacia's concern for the historical record (August 19, 2017) and hope that his appreciation will translate into active support for history education in Illinois. I love history and read it constantly. I think his support for President Trump's comments on monuments is wrong, however.  

Monuments serve several purposes: to memorialize, to celebrate, and sometimes to intimidate. Intimidation was the purpose of the statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, and many of the monuments celebrating Confederate heroes along with the economic culture that was supported and rooted in slave labor. They provide an interesting exception to a general reluctance to celebrate traitors. There are no monuments (except for the infamous "Boot Monument near Saratoga) to celebrate Benedict Arnold even though he was an important general fighting for the Revolution. But he committed treason. So did Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, all of whom had sworn allegiance to the United States at West Point and in Congress and to not take up arms against the United States, yet then they did just that. We have executed people for less. And do we really want to celebrate Roger Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision that declared slaves to be property and not persons? He will certainly always be taught in any class on the Civil War as part of the War's justification but a monument to him?

Mr. Sacia said Lee was against slavery. Why did he never speak out against it? Why did he never free those owned by his wife? While he wrote to his wife that "slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country," he also added "the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction." According to eminent Civil War historian Eric Foner, Lee never supported voting rights for black citizens and was silent about the terrorism perpetrated against freed blacks by groups such as the KKK. (He did object to raising monuments writing in 1869, that "it would be wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.")

I lived in Germany for several years (I speak German,) and I have visited most of Germany's former Soviet sector and what used to be Czechoslovakia. Sacia is right to bring up the concentration camp example, but he completely missed their point. I have never been to Auschwitz so I can't speak for the example of Poland, but he has misconstrued how concentration camp and other memorials, e.g. Track 17 at the Berlin- Grunewald Station (very much in the spirit of the Vietnam Memorial) are used in Germany and the former Soviet Block. After WW II all the monuments to Hitler were torn down and the flag representing his culture and anti-semitism were made illegal (unlike the display of the Confederate battle flag in the United States, which represents to many support for a similarly odious culture.) Following the dismantling of the notorious Wall, statues of Lenin and Stalin were torn down. The monuments that I have seen all over Germany, but especially in Berlin and Dresden, celebrate the victims not the perpetrators. (No swastikas or Hitler statues at concentration camp memorials.) How many monuments do we have in this country in the South to the victims of lynching or the decades of slavery? A strong lesson: In Germany they celebrate those who died under the hand of those who would enslave; here southern monuments celebrate the enslavers.

Monuments teach very little about history; they do represent a culture and attitude. The tearing down of statues can be just as important for what that action represents. This is not snuffing out history, it's history in the making, a rejection of a culture and value system that subjugated a people and those who fought against the tyranny of that system.

To quote Adam Serwer in the Atlantic. "Lee is a pivotal figure in American history worthy of study. Neither the man who really existed, nor the fictionalized tragic hero of the Lost Cause, are heroes worthy of a statue in a place of honor. As one Union veteran angrily put it in 1903 when Pennsylvania was considering placing a statute to Lee at Gettysburg, “If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’” The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington.

To describe this man as an American hero requires ignoring the immense suffering for which he was personally responsible, both on and off the battlefield. It requires ignoring his participation in the industry of human bondage, his betrayal of his country in defense of that institution, the battlefields scattered with the lifeless bodies of men who followed his orders and those they killed, his hostility toward the rights of the freedmen and his indifference to his own students waging a campaign of terror against the newly emancipated. It requires reducing the sum of human virtue to a sense of decorum and the ability to convey gravitas in a gray uniform."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review: Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty

An excellent series that begins, in this the latest, with Duffy's imminent death. That should get your attention.

Again the "Troubles" feature prominently, Sean noting at one point when trying to find a hotel room for a guest, that Belfast only had three hotels since they got blown up all the time by the IRA. One had been rebuilt four times after being bombed.

I would like to read more McKinty that feature Duffy, but I fear that this one may be the last given the peace accords around the corner and events at the end of the book.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On the destruction of monuments

President Trump has tweeted "...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" I found this statement to be quite interesting. I love history and read a lot of it. So just what do we learn from monuments. They commemorate people or events who represent a cause or culture the community where they reside wish to celebrate. So what do statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson represent? All of them were by definition traitors. They had sworn an oath to the United States: Lee and Jackson at West Point and Davis in Congress and as Secretary of Defense under Franklin Pierce. In seceding they had taken up arms against the country they had sworn allegiance to in order to defend the odious economic system of slavery. 
(Anyone who disputes that the Civil War was not about slavery need only read the secession documents of the seceding states where they explicitly state it was about slavery. They didn't believe in states rights, they were angry with northern states who were exercising what they believed to be their moral right not to send slaves back to the south in contravention of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.)  

Traditionally we don't celebrate traitors or governments we despise. I don't remember seeing any monuments to Benedict Arnold with the exception of the Boot Monument near Saratoga and his name is not even mentioned on the monument even though he was one of the seminal and important generals of the Revolutionary War.*

So just as there are no monuments to Hitler in Germany nor any to George Washington in Great Britain, it seems perfectly understandable to me that communities would wish to remove monuments that memorialize the defense of slavery. The individuals the statues represent certainly won't disappear from history any more than Hitler or Stalin have. The justification to tear down a monument to Jefferson Davis is just the same as that of East Germans ripping down statues of Lenin.


*"On the grounds of the Saratoga National Historic Park in upstate New York, the site of a key battle of the Revolutionary War, there stands a peculiar monument of a leg encased in a boot. Aptly called the Boot Monument, it marks the spot where a leg was shattered by a bullet. The back of the monument is inscribed to the memory of the "most brilliant soldier of the Continental Amy, who was desperately wounded on this spot the sally port of Burgoyne's 'Great (Western) Redoubt' 7th October 1777, winning for his countrymen the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General, The soldier was Benedict Arnold, but because the tribute is to the leg and not to the man, his name does not appear on the monument. And perhaps that is the way it should be for a brilliant soldier whose renown was quickly eclipsed by an everlasting infamy."   From Warriors Seven: Seven American Commanders, Seven Wars, and the Irony of Battle by  Barney Sneiderman




Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: November Rain by Donald Harstad

I have read all of Harstad’s books and liked them immensely. (full disclosure: Harstad was the chief deputy sheriff in an Iowa county close by, and I had invited him to speak at the college regarding immigration issues quite a few years ago -- see Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. He’s a delightful man.) This one I had postponed reading because I shy away from books where the protagonist is transported to a foreign country and immediately seems to know his way around the culture solving crimes right and left. Michael Connelly (I’m a big fan) did this with Bosch in Nine Dragons, which was dreadful. I should not have worried, for Harstad creates a very plausible relationship between New Scotland Yard and the deputy's presence. It all makes sense and Houseman doesn't tear around trampling on the locals or their customs.

Anyway, Carl Houseman is conned by the Sheriff and other locals into traveling to England from Iowa to see what he might be able to find out about the disappearance of Emma Schiller. Thanks to interspersed chapters detailing what is happening to Emma, we know she has been kidnapped, although the precise reason is unclear. Except that after she has been taped with a message, she is to be killed.

I was disappointed to see that Harstad's editors did not do him justice. There are a couple total non-sequitors and errors any competent copy editor would have found. In one case they leave his daughters past midnight only to arrive back at the hotel by 10 pm.

I hope Harstad gets back to writing and returns us to northeastern Iowa.