The Appealing Poison of Unmanned Aircraft

This opinion piece was published in The Oregonian on Sunday, August 21st.

My family tells the story of war with two voices. The first is the voice of my grandfather, who started working as a typist at the Portland recruiting office, volunteered to enlist in the Army Air Corps a week before Pearl Harbor, and would eventually lead a group of C47 airplanes dropping paratroopers on D-Day. He talks about the exhilaration of flying, the people he evacuated from concentration camps, and the men with whom he made the sharpest memories of his life.

The second voice is of my grandmother, who took the train from Portland to Missouri to marry her young lover before sending him off to Europe. Worry like a thick blanket, woven with pride. Of miscarrying while he was away and being afraid to tell him.

War is wrenching. In small towns you know which families have sons in the service. You see mom at the grocery store, she looks OK, but you wonder if she loses sleep. She’s weary of people feeling sorry for her. The child of a high school teacher comes home with limbs missing. On Aug. 20 our governor ordered that Oregon flags be flown at half-staff in memory of Ryley Gallinger-Long of Cornelius, who died in Afghanistan.

What if we never had to fly the flag at half-staff? I doubt the Prince of Peace will end all wars in my lifetime. I’m talking about a new era with drones fighting in place of people — soldiers strafing bad guys in Afghanistan and making it home in time to tuck in the kids and host poker night. Will we fly our flags at half-staff when we lose another machine? When we kill the bad guys? When we kill children who were too close to the bad guys?

War establishes its moral significance in the stories of people we know. My buddy was pulled out of a full-tuition merit scholarship to college to serve an unlooked-for second tour in the Middle East, and I thought “Good God, are we doing the right thing over there?” War became real to me then, and in 2008, I spoke against war at the ballot box. Fighting with drones could take away opportunities for civilians like me to wake up to carnage 10,000 miles away. It could take away my grandmother’s voice and the role of civilians who experience war personally even though they never enlist.

Professional soldiers already bear enough burdens on our behalf. Asking them to judge whether their leaders are acting prudently is unfair because it feels disloyal. Every rank-and-file soldier I’ve ever met thinks such restraint is above his pay grade.

The voice of restraint needs to come from civilians, from public servants and ordinary voters. Making war means a lot of short-term jobs for soldiers and companies that make guns, planes and bombs. How many needless wars will we fight if civilians’ only personal experience with war is a comfortable job building machines?

I don’t think we should stop or even cut back the role of drones. In the long run of history, the censor and the Luddite have always lost; technology is too appealing. The only remedy for dangerous ideas is better ideas.

Civilian casualties, which happen with or without drones, are just a distraction from the greatest question facing public servants who stand for peace: In a world where Americans can make war without ever flying the flag at half-staff, how will we make ourselves care enough to exercise restraint?

Joy

Hope Lab recently launched a Joy Campaign to celebrate their 10th birthday and a few days ago I made a new twitter friend when I read this:

Liz Moment of Joy

Liz is a visual communication designer at Hope Lab and she has me pondering Joy, or happiness+ as they’ve called it. When she took an interest in my wdydwyd picture I couldn’t help but ask to trade my thoughts on Joy for a wdydwyd portrait of her. To be entirely honest, I tried to trade her wdydwyd picture for my collection of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on Joy but she wouldn’t make a bargain so easy on me. So I had to dig deep and share Joy and my own experiences.

In my life Joy is happiness + loosing all track of time, could be feeling the full weight of history pressing down upon me. The world so wild I feel vulnerable, and something else makes me feel hidden or protected. Joy sets me in motion. It’s never as lethargic as pleasure or happiness can be. The center of Joy is a longing which reminds me I’m not there yet, still growing. That hopeful outlook is part of the exhilaration. Joy is completely different than happiness. All of the differences are invisible to the eye.

I now invite you to stop reading if you’ve had enough; I’ve described my Joy. The rest is a set of almost embarrassingly personal memories that pointed me towards my understanding of Joy.

When I was three years old we lived in a green house on east 10th street with a small orchard and barn. Mom forbid me to enter the barn’s attic, saying it was dangerous, which of course made me immeasurably curious. I remember climbing into the attic one day and finding a faded blue wicker rocking chair. It looked very fine in the faint light full of dust motes, and suddenly I felt urgently that I was close to doing or knowing something extraordinary. The attic was very quiet and I felt safe from my mother’s disciplinarian eye. If only I could sit in the chair I might grasp it… I hastily moved a stack of something off the chair but the motivation faded as I sat down. I was no longer close to it, and it hadn’t lasted long enough for me to properly grasp what it was. At the time I blamed the thought’s flight on the unwholesome noise the chair made when I sat down.

Perhaps two years later we had moved to a house overlooking the Cascades. My brother and I would play through the scrub oaks around the cherry orchards above our house – a place we called The Mountains. One day we stumbled upon a small trench winding up the hillside. So close to places we had run countless times but it was shallow and overgrown with tall grass and other greens; it might be overlooked from even a few feet away. I crouched down, then kneeled and when I hid in the trench something odd happened to time. I had been hidden in the trench for time out of mind, or I had some other sense of ancientness pressing down upon me, like I was hiding where others had hidden. They had been industrious and important and they had sheltered in this grassy, wet hiding place that transported them across the hill. The trench had been instrumental in some weighty endeavor. I realized this would make an excellent game to play with my brother, as soon as my mind crystalized enough around who they were that I could describe them. But the image never gelled, and my brother said something brusque like “why are you crawling in the mud?” I blamed him for disrupting my concentration but I didn’t say anything because part of me knew it had begun to fade before he interrupted me.

At seven or eight I was too young to walk far when my father went pheasant hunting but he would take my brother and I out to Remington’s wheat fields to play in the creek bed while he and the dogs walked the hills above. Guns are scary. Even if you are not the fearful animal, a child’s mind intuits that something is scared. The creek bed was the protected magical underneath, a tunnel of thick tree cover that muffled gunshots and sunlight and everything else. Plastered the ground with red and yellow leaves as small as chicken eggs. Safe. I had the idea that if I ran swiftly enough up the creek bed I might discover the one perfect thing to make believe that most completely was autumn. As if I might catch the fleeting idea by chasing it. This is the precise moment I recall whenever I think of what it feels like to run light of foot, but eventually I was tired and my chase failed. I wasn’t sad. The creek bed is one of my favorite places and this chasing is one of my fondest memories despite never catching or even being able to describe what I meant to catch.

If you have ever had such experiences, you probably remember them fiercely and know precisely what I am talking about. If you have not, nostalgia is the most similar kind of longing you probably know. Different in that it was like nostalgia even then, not only in memory but even as it was happening, and it was so much more exhilarating!

Che Guevara described a similar sensation upon exploring Machu Pichu: “How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” C.S. Lewis’ autobiography revolves around a few such experiences and he names the sensation Joy. I wouldn’t have called it Joy before reading C.S. Lewis but I have no other name for it. Like Lewis, I would say without doubt that The central story of my life is about nothing else…. I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.

I haven’t had experiences like this in adulthood but I think of them often enough that they are still part of my life. When I think of Joy as happiness+, the + is some circumstance that reminds me. The center of Joy is a longing which puts me on a path to still more growth. Whenever I open a wardrobe or even a alluring closet, I reach through to knock the back wall. Not because I have any hope of finding Narnia on the other side, but because I might stumble into Joy, itself the longing for Narnia. My love of fairy tales, my creative endeavors and my quest for richer spiritual experiences. All tie back to a few moments of Joy.

Thank you C.S. Lewis for helping me make sense of these experiences. Thank you Liz for convincing me to chronicle and share them.

The public sector’s fair share of risk

This opinion piece was published in The Oregonian on Tuesday, May 31st.

Risk is the fundamental difference between working in the private sector and working in the public sector. Two recent editorials in the Oregonian (Running a business is hard work, Oregon’s fiscal crisis: a budget built on illusions) point out that the public sector does not know these risks and is not restructuring to accommodate the elastic economy, glossing over the fact that the public sector treats risk differently in good times as well as bad.

My business partner and I run a nine-employee tech startup and know the stress of coming up with payroll every single month. I pay several of my employees more than I make in order to attract the right talent, and I will be the first to go without a salary if the money does not add up at the end of the month. I also know that if I work very hard, make good decisions and build an exceptional team, my company can grow without limits and my salary will grow with it. Financial opportunity and potential for failure are two sides of the same coin: risk. I am a daring entrepreneur. Much of the day-to-day work is mundane, but occasionally I sit down with my team and we make a decision that will make or break our organization. The risks are stressful, the opportunities are enormous; this is the exhilarating private sector.

My parents, on the other hand, chose to be public school teachers, and they always knew that their only opportunity to become rich was to change careers. We always had food on the table, and we always had health care. My parents knew that they would be taken care of in retirement. They chose a career with fewer risks and fewer financial opportunities so that they could enjoy a secure lifestyle focused on family, the outdoors and athletics, as well as doing something for community in The Dalles.

Nearing retirement now, they have lived through several economic booms that made many Oregonians rich, but as public employees my parents did not get to say, “Hey, school board, Oregon’s economy grew by 7 percent this year. Do you think you could put a large Christmas bonus in my retirement account?” It simply does not work that way in the public sector. They get paid the same when a class is unusually large or difficult, no matter how strong the economy is that year.

Many in the private sector will say, “I also lived through boom times and my business did not expand,” or “I did not receive a bonus from my employer.” I can just as well tell you that my organization is growing right now, despite the tough economic climate. The fact that specific individuals and organizations in the private sector are or are not able to take advantage of opportunity or insulate themselves from risk says nothing about the fact that those opportunities and risks did exist in a way that they simply do not exist in the public sector.

Every day Oregon’s private sector steps up to the plate, swinging for the stars. In the most recent fiscal crisis, an awful lot of us struck out — that failure is why we had to tighten our belts and restructure our companies. Seeking profits too great, we took risks too great, and the chickens came home to roost. The public sector never took imprudent risks because it did not have the potential for payoff anyhow. Asking those public sector workers now to take their fair share of cuts overlooks the fact that they already did; they forfeited their opportunity to create a large private nest egg when they chose to serve the public.




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