Non-residents at dinner

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Police memorial

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Snow

January 10, 2016

in Photo of the day, Toronto

Snow

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University College and King's College Circle

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“Sir, what the fuck were the commanders thinking, sending us in there with no armor to clear a fucking town? We could have all been killed, and for what? We’re sitting in the same goddamn field we were in last night, as if nothing had happened, except we got the shit shot out of us and lost a great team leader.”

I walked a fine line. As an officer, I couldn’t badmouth decisions the way a lance corporal could. Even as a lowly first lieutenant, I simply had too much rank, too much authority and influence. It would be disloyal and insubordinate, a transgression both moral and legal. At the same time, though, to smile in the face of stupidity and say something about liberating the Iraqi people or living up to the example of Iwo Jima and Hue City would neuter me in the eyes of the men. Men shrink in combat to little circles of trust: us versus them. A platoon that puts its commander in the “them” category is a dangerous place to be. Every young officer learns the difference between legal authority and moral authority. Legal authority is worn on the collar — the gold and silver rank insignia that garner salutes and the title “sir.” It doesn’t win firefights. Moral authority is the legitimacy granted to a leader who knows his job and cares about his men. In combat, I learned to rely on moral authority much more than on legal authority.

So I conceded part of the Marine’s statement. “That was bullshit, bad tactics. After all the artillery prep and with the air escort, no one expected that ambush to happen. We were all wrong. I can’t speak for the battalion, but I can tell you that will never happen again in this platoon.” I paused and locked eyes with the Marine to be sure he knew I wasn’t just talking. “I’m sorry about Pappy. I don’t know if we’ll be fighting for another three days, three weeks, or three months, but I can tell you one thing. We have to learn from what we do right and what we do wrong, then move on. There were twenty-three of us, back to back. Now there are twenty-two. We have to get each other home in one piece.”

The Marine nodded, accepting this line of reasoning. Strong combat leadership is never by committee. Platoon commanders must command, and command in battle isn’t based on consensus. It’s based on consent. Any leader wields only as much authority and influence as is conferred by the consent of those he leads. The Marines allowed me to be their commander, and they could revoke their permission at any time.

Fick, Nathaniel. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Houghton Mifflin; Boston. 2005. p. 276 (hardcover)

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At company headquarters the captain had no further instructions for me — just settle in for the night and be ready to move in the morning — so I returned to the platoon. By now, the Marines had hacked sleeping holes from the soft dirt and had begun the daily routine of security, cleaning weapons, eating, cleaning feet, and sleeping.

And storytelling. Every fight is refought afterward. Sometimes quietly, sometimes boisterously; sometimes with laughs, sometimes with tears. The telling and retelling are important. Platoons have institutional memory. They learn, and they change. Most of that learning happens after a firefight. Some officers squelched the stories, considering them unprofessional and distracting. I encouraged them, as psychological unburdening and as improvised classrooms where we sharpened our blades for the next fight.

But something about the retelling unnerved me, too. Faith in our senses is what anchors us to sanity. Once, in college, I went cross-country skiing during a snowstorm. As I crossed an open meadow, the blanket of snow on the ground merged with the snow falling from the sky. With no horizon and no depth perception, I got vertigo. A twig poking through the snow near my feet looked the same as another skier hundreds of yards away. My head spun, and I had to sit down.

Combat is a form of vertigo. I was trained to thrive on chaos, but nothing prepared me for the fear of doubting my own senses. Frequently, I found that my memory of a firefight was just that — mine. Afterward, five Marines told five different stories. I remembered turning left off the dirt road onto a paved street running west through Al Gharraf. I saw fire coming from buildings to the right and remembered a drag race of four or five kilometers out to the highway. That was my memory, my accepted truth of what had happened.

But the map showed the distance was only about fifteen hundred meters, less than half of what I’d estimated. Some in the platoon remembered armed men standing to our left as we made the turn; I never saw them. The domed mosque was burned into my memory, but only Colbert and Wright could remember seeing it as I described it. Person was adamant that we had driven across a bridge during our sprint to the highway. Not one other person in the platoon remembered a bridge, but there it was on the map.

Fick, Nathaniel. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Houghton Mifflin; Boston. 2005. p. 219 (hardcover)

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The general stood on top of an amtrac, backed by the U.S. and Marine Corps flags. His voice boomed through a microphone to the hundred or so men standing beneath him. The theme was rules of engagement, and he wanted to make four points very clear. First, commanders had an inherent obligation — not merely a right, but a legal and ethical obligation — to defend their Marines. Second, when the enemy used human shields or put legitimate targets next to mosques and hospitals, he, not we, endangered those innocents. Third, a commander would be held responsible not for the facts as they emerged from an investigation, but for the facts as they appeared to him in good faith at the time — at night, in a sandstorm, with bullets in the air. His fourth and final point distilled the rules of engagement to their essence. He called it Wilhelm’s Law, a tribute to General Charles Wilhelm: if the enemy started the shooting, our concern should be proportionality — responding with adequate, but not excessive, force. If we started the shooting, the concern should be collateral damage.

I took notes as he spoke, thinking that this guidance was pure gold to be passed on to my troops. The rules of engagement harked back to my college classes on Saint Augustine and “just war” theory. I couldn’t control the justice of the declaration of war, but I could control the justice of its conduct within my tiny sphere of influence. Doing right, I thought, wasn’t only a moral imperative but also the most expedient way to lead my platoon. The rules of engagement would be for the Marines’ minds what armor was for their bodies. I made a note to include all this in the formal operations order I would issue a few days later. But I kept the general’s last statement for myself: “Officers,” he said, “please don’t get yourselves killed. It’s very bad for unit morale.”

Fick, Nathaniel. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Houghton Mifflin; Boston. 2005. p. 182 (hardcover)

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Winter and the Third Floor Neighbourhood

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Ride the Worm

January 6, 2016

in Photo of the day, Toronto

Ride the Worm

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Compared with trying to counteract climate change resulting from greenhouse gas pollution through solar radiation management (SRM) — essentially reflecting sunlight away, as with stratospheric sulfate injection — actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere by weathering rocks which form carbonates seems more attractive in many ways. The SRM approach may cause major side effects in terms of changes in precipitation, and any cessation in the injection of reflective aerosols in the upper atmosphere would lead to very abrupt climate change.

I asked David Keith about the idea when he was in Toronto talking about SRM-based geoengineering and he said that the problem is simply one of reaction rates. Even if we used zero-carbon energy to grind up vast amounts of ultramafic rock to absorb CO2, that process of absorbtion would happen so slowly that it would not counteract human-induced climate change on reasonable timescales.

I learned about the idea from Wallace Broecker and Robert Kunzig’s book Fixing Climate. Another oft-touted means of removing atmospheric CO2 is biochar. More recently, I read about the idea of speeding up natural rock weathering by biological means. I don’t know if this could somehow overcome Keith’s objection about reaction rates.

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