Monday, March 17, 2008

Encounters with Famous Folks

I'll indulge in this from time to time. Today's entry is sparked by reminiscences of plane flights. On one such, when my kids were small, we sat in the back of a Chicago-Austin flight. The woman across the aisle chatted me up because she was enamored of half-Asian children (like mine). Turns out she was Mari Michener, spouse of the famous writer James Michener. "You must come over for tea," she said. "Give me your phone number."

Weeks went by.

Dena, the wife of a colleague of mine, worked as secretary to James Michener. "Mari always says she's going to invite people to tea," Dena said, "and then she never calls them."

Michener willed his art and documents to the University of Texas. In the UT museum's basement there must be a card with my old phone number on it.

In those days I travelled frequently to Washington D.C. Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita had just become notorious for having, um, done it on the steps of the US Capitol. (A DC tour agency, and later a comedy troupe, were named "The Capitol Steps" in honor of the couple. Or the coupling.) Four or five times on Southwest flights out of DC I found myself just a few aisles away from the comely Rita. Never got any work done on those flights. Rita and my fertile imagination kept me thoroughly distracted.

Friday, March 7, 2008

War: Q & A

Another reader query from the archives of The Conscious Manager bears on the war and the election.
Q. Why does war exist, and is war always bad?  Do we fight because it is the right thing to do, like self-defense / prevention of harm?  Or do we fight because we want something out of it, like getting enjoyment from anger and jealousy?  If you had the chance to kill a ruthless dictator that could care less about peace, and you could kill him with one good sniper shot and get a clean getaway and no one knew that you did it, would you do it?  Also, I grow suspicious of people who want peace and then create conflict, not peace, from their actions.  -J
A. J, we're going to dispense with goods and bads, and deal with "ises."  Humans evolved, and evolution doesn't cut us much slack.  If we were constituted differently, we might not have evolved and survived as a species.  So men complaining about war may be like women complaining that men only think about sex; if either thing were different, we might not be here. (I am aware, of course, that those who've died in war aren't here.) 
The two, not surprisingly, are related.  Bonobos, critters that look like chimpanzees, don't have war.  They defuse conflicts by grooming each other and having sex.  There aren't many bonobos left.  Chimps solve conflict by fighting.  Then the winners have sex, that being the "something they get out of it."  One strategy is better for procreation, the other better for protection, and a population needs both procreation and protection.  There aren't many chimps left, either, but that's because of human-caused loss of chimp habitat, and there are (I think) more chimps than bonobos.

Is the same true for humans?  A news article in early 2003 noted that fully 12% of the current human population are direct descendants of Genghis Khan and his siblings.  So historically, young men were motivated to go to war if it represented their only chance to "marry."  Old men preferred to die in "glorious" battle because it beat the alternative, which involved having other people chew their food for them.  That is to say, old age was not a pleasant affair before modern medicine, and some preferred to avoid it.

Today, some youngsters join the armed forces, even when war looms, because it's the only route out of a bad neighborhood and a life of poverty.  (Actually not the only route: Selling drugs gets you out of poverty, affords the same probability of dying young, and you don't have to take orders from no stinkin' sergeants.)  Others are duped into it, believing their elders' bullshit about glory and justice.

Suppose we could only stop a genocide by going to war.  All other things being equal, most people would like to see fewer deaths rather than more.  All other things, though, are almost never equal, and I would tend to suspect decisions based on body-count arithmetic.  In any case, each person must choose his own battles.  We have a volunteer army, but they don't get to vote on where they will fight and where they won't.  It might be worth letting them do that!  Phil Ochs said, "It's always the old who lead us to the war, always the young who fall."  So it's like abortion, which is similarly tragic:  I don't like abortion and I don't like war, but I'm not going to tell women - or men - what they may or may not do with their bodies.

This is a tough one.  I was raised to see preventing further genocides as a duty, and as a young man I was crushed to see the U.S. fail to act on that principle, for instance in Cambodia or Rwanda.  You're a movie fan, J; go see The Killing Fields.  Should future such situations arise, I might well decide to rally others to a rescue mission, knowing violence might result but dedicating myself to miminizing it. In wars of old, non-combatants suffered in serious, but indirect, ways: via famine, rape, pillage.  In today's wars, innocent bystanders are far more likely than before to be killed directly.  This can happen in myriad ways, from mined rice fields to mis-aimed missiles to cross-fires in urban warfare.  I hope young people desiring to go to war will consider the near-inevitability of killing civilians, and think twice and perhaps decide to stay home in Peoria. 
You mention Pearl Harbor, which was a famous failure of U.S. intelligence.  I'll go so far as to say all war is a failure of intelligence, planning, strategy, communication, or preparation.  If a threat is developing against you, you should, just as in aikido, assemble overwhelming force at your opponent's weakest point.  You tell your opponent what you're going to do should he not stand down, and then do it.   This is how a mission should be defined and executed. 
Even military commanders who have mastered intelligence, planning, strategy, communication and preparation get caught by ego.  They escalate force beyond what's needed for the mission, responding to "insults" and stooping to vengeance.  Others don't understand mission at all.  I heard a recent speech by a general, who began, "My job is to kill people."  He could as easily and more accurately have said, "My job is to protect Americans and that may unfortunately involve killing people."  That guy should lose his job before he does any more damage. 
There have been isolated human cultures that, like bonobos, shun war.  When threatened, they have hired mercenaries or allowed deviant insiders to fight on their behalf.  The fighters were then exiled when the conflict ended - if the village survived - so as not to contaminate the peaceful society.  There are, in the modern world, far fewer isolated cultures.  The characteristic, if not the people themselves, may die out. 
So you're right that untrained pacifists may do more harm than good.  Their attitude that violence never settles anything is naive.  As Robert Heinlein noted, violence settled Hitler's hash pretty good.  Work on yourself first, then work for peace!  As an aikidoist, you are peaceable but skilled at forestalling conflict and applying minimum necessary violence.  You position yourself in ways that communicate your strength and your intention, but you never "attack first."  You don't interpose yourself between someone you want to protect and someone attacking her - except at the moment a blow is being struck - because it's unlikely that you understand what's really going on between them.

For the same reason, you would not assassinate even a despotic leader in cold blood.  (Another hypothetical social experiment:  Suppose all international conflicts were customarily settled by assassination.  Leaders would know before running for election that this is what would happen to them if they piss off another country.  This would put a different complexion on politics, n'est ce pas?)  You give everyone every opportunity to fix up their karma, until and unless they launch another attack.  Only then is matching violence indicated - but if you are unprepared for their next attack, shame on you. -FP

Another reader question, on a lighter note, this one from last week. I'd been talking to my friend Jim on the phone, when the doorbell rang.  I answered the door, and told him I'd call him back...

Q. I heard a female voice say, "Are you the man of the house?" and then you hung up on me.  I can't wait until you blog about that...  -Jim

A. Jim, there was a really pretty girl at the door.  She wanted to sell me a gallon jug of organic cleaning gunk for $100.  In fact, she took out a toothbrush and attacked the oil stain under my motorbike, and the grease smears on the bbq grill.  Little did she know that all the stuff I'd left in storage in Oregon four years ago was due to arrive in San Diego the next day... There's now no room in my garage or spare room for a mouse, let alone a gallon jug.  So, I had to disappoint her.

The next day I checked the grill and the bike.  The gunk had dried, leaving the stains pretty much as they had been before.  So, lucky that I had resisted her sales pitch. Which included a low-cut blouse and tiny short-shorts - tactics we tend not to teach in business school. -FP