Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Taste and See

I'm coming to the end of what proved to be a month-long ordeal, JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center), at Fort Polk, Louisiana. I am here with my Army Reserve unit, naturally, where we spent a week on orders prior to going to Louisiana, a week preparing to go to our field training in Louisiana, and then two weeks “in the box,” i.e. in the midst of our particular war scenario.

I'd like to write a post about the war scenario itself, but a particular incident that happened coming out of the field yesterday gave me something to write about first.

My fellow civil affairs troops were looking for a good meal after a week of eating field rations (both MREs—Meals Ready to Eat—and “First Strike” rations) and were talking pizza, but I wanted to save money and instead of cough up money for pizza, trudged over to the military dining facility at the rather primitive location we wound up being billeted in, “FOB Warrior.”

Military dining isn’t usually bad. The modern Army usually has contractors provide meals, unlike the infamously bad Army cooks of the Vietnam War and earlier. And it happens to be true the contractors feed us very well, almost always.

But in the week of getting ready to go to the field in Louisiana, we had eaten hot food provided by one of the supporting units for our JRTC exercise, the 52nd Brigade Support Battalion. For once, we actually were eating food provided by military cooks. While better than eating, say, wood chips and grass, it wasn’t what a well-fed American Soldier call “good eating.” Plus, the dining area was horribly mismanaged, with thousands of troops trying to pile into the same single fabric-topped building at the same time. The building was large; it sat hundreds, but the demand was in the thousands, so lines were long; sometimes food ran out before everyone ate and often it wound up being cold.

So, my expectations were low when going to eat at the dining facility at FOB Warrior yesterday.  In a building with a fabric top. But to my surprise, contractors were serving the food. And the meal was steak and shrimp. With fresh salad and fruit. With cheesecake for dessert (chilled cheesecake).

I returned to the barracks we’d been put in with the good news of how surprisingly good the food was. And I immediately met with skepticism from two soldiers I personally know to be very intelligent, who both reasoned with me that what I was saying could not be true.

In fact, they stated they believed I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes. To make fools of them. And as we talked, I remembered more details than what they shared here. I said, “And they had mashed potatoes. And cans of soda in the corner, Cokes, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, lots of brands. And in addition to the cheesecake, they had chocolate chip cookies, really big cookies, soft, with M&Ms in them.”

“And I bet the woman serving them was a beautiful blonde who had really big breasts pouring out of her blouse,” said the sergeant with obvious snark.

“Yeah, Perry, I can’t help noticing this story keeps getting better and better,” added the captain with a laugh.

Answering the sergeant, I said, “Um, no. But the woman taking our numbers was a really cute Latina.” Turning to the captain, I added, “Yeah, I recognize this sounds incredible, but every word is true. Honest.”

The conversation went back and forth like that, never in the exact words I just used, but along those lines. In the end, I failed to convince them that the shrimp and steak meal really existed. But it did.

This struck me after the fact as a moment worth of drawing an analogy. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” begins Psalm 34:8, implying the God can be known by those who want to find Him. Those who seek out and test the truth about God can find not only that He is real, but furthermore, that God is good.

It would have taken the two members of my unit a mere five minutes to walk down the road to find out if what I was saying about the meal was true or not. But they would not do it.

It also bears noting that while I write fiction, I never maintain something is true that I know is actually false for any purpose. Not to make a joke—and not for any other reason either. So they had no particular reason to presume I was lying to them, but they chose to believe that I was, because that made more sense to them that me telling the truth. This leads to a conclusion that I’m not just basing on this one event, but which this event illustrates well:

1.      Some people are naturally disinclined to believe a witness talking about something that “seems too good to be true.” Such people in fact often feel no particular need to investigate whether or not this something is true; if it makes no sense to them, it is not true, period. Note I am not maintaining that there was no way to give them more evidence. I could have in the case of the meal, definitely. However, they had sufficient evidence from me to investigate for themselves, but they simply wouldn’t do it. It was more believable to them that I, a person who tries very hard to be honest at all times, was deliberately lying (for the purpose of a joke), than to believe good food was just a short walk down the road. How much more are some people unwilling to contemplate that God might be real and might in fact care about the human race? To them, that’s nonsense and they simply won’t believe anyone who tells them otherwise.

2.      Those who disbelieve may in fact be very intelligent people and very convincing in their disbelief. I wound up laughing after a while talking about the meal because I knew from their point of view what I was saying sounded ridiculous. Of course, when I laughed, they were only even more convinced I was trying to play a joke on them. I promised them I was not and in fact gave them more details—which should have helped them realize I wasn’t inventing the meal, but it didn’t. Again, these were not dumb guys—they were two of the smartest guys in my unit. After a while, their skepticism convinced me to give up on trying to persuade them, because after all, it wasn’t that important. But even if it had been important, a principle applies:

3.      Those who have tasted the meal (or otherwise experienced something) are in fact under no obligation to explain how it happened. I could and did give more information that should have made the meal make more sense, i.e. it wasn’t the 52nd serving the meal, it was civilian contractors. But in the end, I did not know why the change in who was serving happened. I could and did speculate that it was to reward the Soldiers coming in from the field, to make us happy after our two weeks of suffering. But I don’t know that for certain. I offered it to the skeptics to help them make sense of the event I was describing, to make it clear I really was telling the truth. And there was nothing wrong with me doing that. However, all I really knew is what I witnessed myself. A meal was served; I partook. Likewise, I experience the presence of God in my life every day. My experience is real—I can attempt to explain it to the doubters and attempt to make it clear to them. But in fact I don’t owe them that. My experience requires no explanation to make it true. And I actually may not be able to explain very well, if at all. It doesn’t matter—what I have witnessed is what I have witnessed. Which leads me to the next point:

4.      Explanations of witnessed events are not required to believe them and it’s unreasonable to expect otherwise. Yes, it’s possible for people to delude themselves. Yes, it could be I imagined the meal I ate, though for me that would be more unlikely than me eating it, since I don’t regularly have delusions of eating imaginary food, no matter what the skeptics thought about the situation (though in fairness, they maintained I was lying, not that I was delusional). Yes, it could be I have imagined God’s presence in my life, but other than God, I do not in fact routinely sense people who are not around. I have every reason in fact to believe what my experience tells me, even if I cannot fully explain it. And that’s normal. Not irrational, not weird. Simply how experience ordinarily works.

5.      Getting a detail wrong does not invalidate the entire witness. I realized after a bit that I had misspoken—the potatoes were not mashed potatoes, they were scalloped, though served with the kind of scoop you normally see with mashed potatoes. But getting that detail wrong did not invalidate the overall tenor of what I witnessed. Likewise, a person can be mistaken about elements of their religious life and belief while still in fact witnessing something that at its core is true. Which leads to my final point:

6.      Skeptics should take care not to dismiss the witness of others too soon. The guys I spoke with about the meal were bright. They knew they were bright. They weren’t willing to be suckered in with false info, which they knew could happen. They may have even noticed a contradiction in what I was saying, that I first mentioned mashed potatoes but later changed to scalloped. But they in fact were not the center of the universe and what they deduced to be true was not immutable scientific law. Something could happen they had not planned for, something that did not make sense to them. Reality can in fact go in directions they had previously ruled out as “not possible.” They should have shown some willingness to realize they could be wrong. As should skeptics who doubt the existence of God, to whom I say, “Investigate for yourself—you just might discover something you didn’t expect.”


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Two Kinds of Heroes

Doing something boring for the Army (waiting for Reserve Soldiers to check into a building), I happened to find out something really interesting via reading an old magazine lying around, something worthy of a blog post.
A scientific study conducted interviews with WWII veterans--the group including veterans who had been highly decorated for valor. The purpose was specifically to determine what the relationship was between leadership traits and heroism, with the presumption that the WWII survey results would be broadly applicable to heroes in all wars (which makes sense, but may not actually be true).
The study did find, as I imagined the people who created it expected, that veterans who described themselves as “strong leaders” were more likely to have received a reward for valor than those who did not describe themselves that way. That particular factoid didn’t really interest me.
What did catch my eye is the fact the study found there were two different personality types that won awards for valor.
One type they described as the “eager enlistee.” The eager enlistee had tremendous enthusiasm for joining the war and taking part in combat. The number one personality trait that identified “eager enlistee” heroes is that they were natural risk-takers. They described themselves as having a past record of taking risks that other people do not normally take prior to ever being in combat. 
Another type they described as the “reluctant enlistee.” Reluctant enlistees had no particular enthusiasm for war but joined the military because they were drafted (other situations like joining out of financial hardship may also have applied). The number one personality trait that identified “reluctant enlistees” who had performed acts of great heroism was selflessness. Reluctant heroes described themselves as having a trait that would give them a track record of putting the needs of others first and caring more about other people prior to entering into combat (and who would seem to have performed acts of heroism to save the lives of those they served with).

While both eager enlistees and reluctant enlistees were better leaders than average according to this study, isn’t it interesting that people demonstrated to have performed heroics fell into two distinct types? The eager to fight risk-takers and the deeply loyal self-sacrificers?

May this observation help you reading this to create interesting story heroes. :)

By the way, the study can be found at


Friday, September 15, 2017

A Familiar Fantasy: Alara's Call

Alara's Call is a fantasy novel whose cover I've included at the top of this post. I must say that I didn't think when I first saw this cover that it was the best one possible, because to my eye it does not suggest the story is set in a fantasy world. It appears, rather, to be a cover of some form of historical romance.

However, the world of Alara's Call does have romance elements and parts of the story resonate with the historical past. So the cover isn't as out of genre as it appears at first glance. (Though please note, there really ARE fantasy elements to this story--more on that in a bit.)

By saying the story resonates with the historical past, I mean a lot of story elements have a very familiar ring to them. You will hear characters talk of trade agreements; there's a mention of a clearly Trinitarian religion with some kind of church structure; you will find written scriptures, familiar prayers, professors of theology, recognizable kings (but not where Alara comes from), kingdoms, republics, and diplomats--and even far more mundane items like coffee and tea. Hundreds (if not thousands) of correspondences with the world we live in. I only named a few.

In addition, Alara's Call does not feature any fantasy races like elves, dwarves, or trolls. In the story, Alara has visions that come from the Deity, but the tale does not feature story magic. A fair amount of physical combat occurs in the tale, but the most common weapon is the very familiar sword from the past of our world, followed by the use of bows and arrows. Nothing strangely fantastical is described in terms of technology.

There's also no mention of historical items like gunpowder or combat rockets or anything obviously beyond the Medieval in terms of weapons of war. But subtle indications of medicine developed far beyond the Middle Ages do exist--the story does not indicate, for example, that women dying during childbirth is common, or that children passing away at a young age is a normal thing throughout this world.

The fact that women are not dying off of childbirth and are not chained to producing a large number of offspring just to ensure some of them survive (which has been a characteristic of certain periods of history--less of the Middle Ages than is commonly believed, but still a feature of those times to a degree), means that whether a society treats its women as full equals or not is simply a matter of choice. The bad guys, naturally, oppress and isolate women. While the good guys do not.

Alara's own father comes off as a heel, making a trade deal that involves Alara being sent to a hostile woman-oppressing kingdom for reasons that have differing implications for each of the major parties involved. Her response to this situation is the primary source of conflict in the story, followed by her love interest in the man who supports her during this difficult time and follows her on her journey. Though it's noteworthy that the hostile foreign kingdom does not believe in Alara's faith either and are oppressive of her religion.

However, since the Trinitarian faith in Alara's Call takes a decidedly fantasy twist in that the savior in this alternate Earth was a woman, the oppression of women and the suppression of Alara's faith are not disconnected issues. But it is not true that men as a whole group are bashed in this story--not at all. Numerous men, not just Alara's love interest, are shown to be decent and helpful and good, though it is true the baddies are essentially male.

I find the most interesting speculative element in the story that of a Trinity more canted towards the female. Perhaps a society like that would have had a different Garden of Eden and a different fall and a different curse than our world had, giving the separation of genders an entirely different framework than we have in our reality. Likewise, if the savior had been a woman, it would be only natural to expect more women ministers than men, as is the case in this novel (Alara herself is a cleric in the story).

Names of places and people (and basic geography) are also unlike those of our world, giving this novel a fantasy feel. But so many things are ordinary that in some ways this story does feel historical--almost like Zorro or some other story with a great deal of swordplay from the historical past. The use of familiar situations and objects allowed Kristin to give this story a great deal of very rich description that's easy to grasp, from objects of ordinary life like fabrics, metals, books, and many other things, to complex political and social situations.

This world is rich, warm, and friendly in its familiarity, but it is not really Medieval or a match to any period in Earth's history. The subtly but fundamentally different nature of religion above all else really does make this story a true fantasy, a world essentially unlike the world we inhabit, even if familiar.

It's an interesting twist of a story world, with a likable protagonist. Who is in fact interested in the literal liberation of oppressed women. A story world I found interesting and a tale which many of you who view this post would enjoy reading.

The back cover copy reads:

Tales are often told of heroes who fulfill ancient prophecies. Alara’s Call is the tale of a woman who gives new ones.

Alara sees visions of other’s futures, but never her own.
A young clergywoman with a fiery passion for her Telshan faith, she has been assigned to a mission abroad but longs to lead a congregation in her homeland. Her father, the prime
minister, jeopardizes her dream and her safety when he coerces her into what he calls a diplomatic mission.

But it’s a ruse.

The trip is meant to end with her marriage to the crown prince of a foreign nation, where 
members of Alara’s faith are persecuted and women oppressed. All for a trade agreement her father is desperate to enact.

But her mentor intervenes and takes Alara to Dorrel, the suitor she left behind. They 
believe they are safe, but foreign soldiers are under orders to bring Alara to the king’s
palace…by any means necessary."

The story will be released
September 19, Paperback: $16.99, eBook: $4.99 (Pre-order Price of $2.99) via Love2ReadLove2Write Publishing, LLC. Genre: Inspirational Fantasy, 430 pages, ISBN: 978-1-943788-19-4, Full title: Alara’s Call: The Prophet’s Chronicle, Book One by Kristen Stieffel.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Reducing Many Worlds Interpretation--as a means to explain Quantum Mechanics--and to tell stories

The cartoon I included to start off this post comes from "The Universes of Max Tegmark" and has the purpose here of illustrating the "Many Worlds Interpretation" of quantum mechanics, or MWI. It shows that because of a single decision, in one universe a couple is married with two stick-figure kids, while on the other they live on opposite sides of the globe.

In short, like the cartoon, MWI says some of the weird things found in quantum mechanics like an electron interfering with itself (apparently by being in multiple different places at the same time) happen because there are multiple worlds, multiple universes, laid on top of one another accounting for an electron or other quantum appearing to be in multiple places at once. Once something happens that forces a decision (like a measurement), then all the possibilities remain true--but do so by universes splitting off in different directions. 

We then live in a universe where only one possibility took place--all the other possible locations of the electron (or other quantum) happened in other universes. (Note I summarized MWI in some detail in a previous blog post and also am including a link to a Wikipedia article on MWI for people who want to read more.)

In MWI, which I don't in fact hold to (where does the energy come from to make the new worlds?), every single decision at the human level creates a new universe. But far below the human level, every single quantum makes a new universe any time it is forced to be in just one place, which may happen billions of times or more within a single second in our vast universe (or multiverse). By this view, the number of universes is not only mind-mindbogglingly huge, it's increasing continually at an immense rate. Because for every possible decision or split, ALL become true in some new universe out there somewhere, each new universe in turn generating a whole spew of new universes continually.

But what if a MWI hypothesis functioned differently? What if in some space we can't observe by ordinary means, the two universes based on the decision made by the couple in the cartoon above--the one in which they marry and the one in which they don't--already existed even before they met one another? This would allow multiple universes to be centered on one another to account for the weird interference patterns in quantum mechanics just as well as standard MWI would do. But instead of splitting off, each time a decision was made one or more of the potential universes disappeared, like soap bubbles popped by a needle.

So the number of universes would drop continually, becoming less and less, fewer and fewer. Finally, at the end of time (whatever "end of time" means), there would be just ONE universe left.

By the way, friends of mine who read my Facebook page will notice I said several months ago that I think about quantum mechanics on a regular basis and my mind tries to solve the strange explanations it engenders--even though I don't at all have the proper mathematical or scientific background to do this kind of work. I also mentioned I'd thought of a "solution" to quantum mechanics without saying what it was--yes, this is one possibility I was thinking about (I've thought about two, but the second isn't ready to talk about yet). Instead of just holding onto my idea (I have no reasonable means to write a scientific or technical paper about my notion), I'm floating it as a backdrop for science fiction stories.

Before talking about story implications, let me geek out about some of the science implications first:

1. Reducing Many Worlds Interpretation (we'll call this "RMWI") would parallel thermodynamics. In fact, the universe starting at a high state of thermodynamic order and going downhill towards entropy would match very well a universe beginning with an enormously huge but finite number of possible outcomes existing in some overlapping system. Just as the Second Law of Thermodynamics would pull the universe into a greater and greater state of disorder (entropy) as time went on, so would the number of possible choices and also possible universes would become fewer and fewer. At total entropy, of course no more choices would be possible--there would be only one universe left.

2. RMWI would embrace the "arrow of time," which many physicists wonder about. The past would be definitely different from the future and our motion towards the future would reflect potentialities being closed off, fewer and fewer sum total options in the multiverse as a whole as time advances.

3. RMWI would explain where all the other universes came from better than MWI--they originated in the beginning, in whatever process developed the universe or multiverse to start out. Losing them as time goes on seems less of a violation of the Conservation of Matter and Energy laws than gaining new universes as time goes by.

4. RMWI would parallel the "blockworld" model without being strictly deterministic. The blockworld--or better said, "The Relational Blockworld Interpretation of Non-relativistic Quantum Mechanics" (RBW) is an idea floated by physicists in recent times that holds all points and all events in the universe, past, present, and future, all exist somewhere in the space time continuum right now--because time is seen as just another dimension, like space, as per Relativity. This view winds up saying the entire universe is in effect already planned, every action flowing invariably from previous actions, already existing in space-time. RMWI would agree the universe was already planned and we cannot go outside of any parameter not already at the existence of the universe (or multiverse) at the beginning. However, all choices, from quantum to human "choices," really would matter because each one would alter the nature of the multiverse, driving it one step closer to it eventually existing as a true universe--when only one possibility remained.

5. RBWI would imply but not prove the existence of God. If the universe really started with every possible option existing right from the beginning, wouldn't that imply an all-knowing Creator who put such order into universe from the beginning? Yes--but the universe beginning at a high degree of order (that is, very low entropy) already implies that and some scientists seem to have no trouble thinking of the low entropy at the beginning of the universe as strictly natural. No doubt they could come up with a naturalistic explanation for a multiverse of all possible choices at the beginning of time as well.

6. RBWI would parallel some aspects of human life. We could imagine a human baby having a vast array of possible selves superimposed on that one child. As the child grows older, some of those possible choices go away (such as dying as an infant somehow). As the person gets to be an adult, he or she experiences a great deal of options--but as each choice is made, all the other possible choices we can imagine could have happened evaporate. As a person gets older, the number of choices become fewer and fewer. You won't be living that dream to go to medical school at age seventy--that choice has evaporated. Finally, all possible choices come to an end as the human being passes from Earth via bodily death (or so it would seem).

So, how would this affect science fiction story ideas?

1. There would be parallel universes, but not as many.
Since the MWI has the number of universes increasing indefinitely, as far as we know for all eternity forward, it allows for all kinds of alternate realities. RMWI would be somewhat more tame, especially in the future. But note that imagining RMWI were true would still allow stories where a person could cross from one parallel universe into another, just like MWI.

2. The past would have more universe possibilities than the present or future. In fact, it might be fun to imagine gong in past would automatically put someone in a potential past that could have been different from the one that led to our present--but at the same time going forward in time from there would still only lead you back to the time you started from. That may not entirely make sense, but it could be an interesting plot device. Also it would be interesting to have characters enter a story believing in MWI, but as they travel backwards and forwards in time, they discover that what they believed to be true was wrong--the future has fewer possible choices, not more.

3. Stories could still make changing the past either possible or impossible, as already happens in science fiction, but all changes would be from a "menu" of pre-existing possibilities. No one would be able to change the future into a version that hadn't already been allowed for in the past. The number of possibilities could be immense, but would be finite. And would be fewer in the future than the past.

4. Whether or not changing the past is possible, the universe would be both deterministic and allow for free will. The universe would come to a certain, natural end (total entropy), barring Divine Intervention (but a universe coming to an end via Divine Intervention would also come to a single certain end). But many free choices, as in eliminating things that are not going to happen, would take place along the way to the end.

Other story implications of this explanation for quantum mechanics my brain cooked up probably exist. What would you say about how this idea like this could be used in a story?

I'd love it if you'd share your own thoughts in the comments below. :)


Monday, August 21, 2017

My Love/Hate Relationship with War

I remember as a kid watching the Black Sheep Squadron television series, about Marine Corps fighter pilots in World War II somewhere in the South Pacific. While I saw other shows set in war like MASH and Hogan’s Heroes, Black Sheep Squadron was the first series I watched that featured combat prominently (mostly from stock footage of airplanes zooming and sounds of machine gun fire). 

By the way, let me apologize for the length of this post up front—it’s not a quick read, which I don’t say to scare anyone away. But be aware.

I’d had other ideas about fighting before that, largely from Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty, in which Prince Phillip battles Maleficent-turned-dragon. That scene made a deep impression on me and as a kid I often imagined myself as the dragon-slaying knight, the warrior for goodness and truth.

But with Black Sheep Squadron, I imagined myself a fighter pilot, the personality of the knight riding in an aircraft cockpit. I also saw some classic WWII movies on TV, like The Dirty Dozen. I saw war and being a warrior as glorious. Who wouldn’t want to fight bad guys in a war?

I drew pictures of aircraft and naval battles in that period, lousy drawings really, but full of energy and excitement. My mother praised my efforts as kind mothers do, so I decided to send one of my drawings of a carrier battle between US and Japanese ships to my grandmother, expecting her to be as pleased as my mother was. Or even more pleased, because she had been a nurse during WWII and would appreciate my theme.

She wrote me back based on the picture I sent, telling me that war is horrible, that as a nurse she only one time witnessed an explosion tearing up the bodies of men, but once was all she needed. More than enough to know what war is like. Please stop drawing her pictures like that. 

I was genuinely shocked. What? War is not glorious? But the impression that letter made was short-lived.

Another note of discord came when I saw the movie A Bridge Too Far as a kid with my family (at a drive-in theater no less), based on a real operation in WWII, which featured defiant British troops isolated from help due to their parachute drop, with American troops fighting hard to come to their rescue. I thought I knew how that was going to turn out: YAY USA…but what the heck, the Brits wound up starving and out of ammo, many killed, forcing them to surrender? The US forces never able to link up with them? And Polish paratroopers getting shot while they were still in the air when they came down to help? 

I had no idea how to judge that and compare it to things like Black Sheep Squadron. For me, it formed a puzzle in my mind—what is war really like anyway? Is it pure horror? Or glorious?

In my teen years I was required to read The Red Badge of Courage at school, which was followed by commentary from a teacher who never had been to war, talking about the horrors of the Civil War. Like he would know, I thought. I also met some real veterans during that time, men who fought in Vietnam. Mostly, the Vietnam guys did not talk to me much about their experiences, though one did tell me that a moral man can only fight a war if it is to remove an evil greater than the war itself, like Hitler. Whereas a moral man will suffer intensely in a war that removed no evil. I listened and noted what I heard, but did not really understand. 

As a teenager I had a poster on my wall of fighter aircraft of the world and loved to read books about military gear and strategy. I even invented my own Role Playing Game I called The Elite which was about mercenaries and which mostly fixated on weapons and weapons damage. I often talked about joining the military and becoming a fighter pilot on my way to becoming an astronaut—which wasn’t a realistic ambition for me (I needed glasses but didn’t know it, among other issues) but it was in fact what I wanted out of life.

By the time I actually joined the Army Reserve, I was 21, married already and had become much more aware that the New Testament clearly commands “to turn the other cheek.” I’d laid aside my former dreams and hoped to be a foreign missionary or teacher. I joined the Army for the college money. I became a medical specialist because I hoped I would not actually have to violate the New Testament commandment not to kill, even though I was not really sure I knew what that meant.

Less than a year after I completed my training, Operation Desert Storm kicked off. I was activated and served in a hospital unit that deployed to the United Arab Emirates. We worked in a civilian hospital, but my unit lived on a patch of desert beside the hospital, at first in tents but later in trailers, which we had to defend with sandbag walls and guard towers, because the UAE never expelled the Iraqis who lived in their country and our threat of a terrorist attack was high. Doctors and nurses did not carry the weapons to defend the place—that fell on more junior Soldiers like me.

One night while on guard duty and armed with an M16, I saw a vehicle driving out around our compound. We had been instructed about car bombs and had a procedure (rules of engagement) established. If the car stayed a certain distance way, it was fine. The car hugged the edge of that perimeter. After a bit, it stopped. The driver got out and fished in his trunk, his engine partially facing me, so I could not see very well what he was doing. It occurred to be he could pull out a weapon and fire it at us. I faced for the first time the reality that being a Soldier means you might have to kill somebody, that being a medic or in a support specialty does not exclude you from that. (The guy drove off after a while, after I reported what I saw. In retrospect, I imagine the whole thing was set up by the Sergeant of the Guard to test how alert we were. But I didn’t think of that at the time.)

Though nothing happened, my take away from that experience is that war is not something light-hearted. It’s a serious business and I had committed myself to it if I should be needed, even though that’s not what I had understood myself to do when I enlisted.

Between 1991 and 2008, my next war, many things changed. Driven by my curiosity about the true nature of warfare, I’d read a lot more about it. I’d watched more war movies. I came to believe that “turning the other cheek” is not a command to non-violence, but a command to repudiate personal vengeance, which is not the same thing (that’s how I still read that commandment by the way). I had become an Army Reserve officer, in a unit that specialized in military training. I myself held a combat arms specialty—Field Artillery. The pendulum had definitely swung back in the direction of me seeing war as glorious, albeit with caveats that it could be awfully gruesome.

I went to Iraq as a “training support specialist” but wound up advising Iraqis and worked full-time with combat arms specialists in the armies and navies and air forces of many nations who were involved in Iraq, especially the British. I worked with a number of combat veterans and professional military with far more training in combat than I ever had. I knew a quite a lot about war at this point.

But a rocket attack that killed two people and wounded seventeen, in which my best friend was among the wounded and a good friend was killed, drove home the difference between knowing about war, and knowing war. Like a person imagining what a dish might taste like based on its ingredients, I could imagine what it would be like to lose a friend in a war. But tasting the dish is an altogether different experience. I did not see my dead friend that day, even though I helped with the wounded, because I helped with those already outside the gym whose roof had been penetrated by the rocket that exploded inside. I’m thankful for that, that I never saw Major Stuart Adam Wolfer dead. Though at the time, I felt guilt once I knew he died, as if I would have been somehow magically been able to make a difference if I’d been at his side.

Of course, you could say a rocket attack is not really combat. It’s a wartime event, like the London Blitz or something, but it isn’t facing off with an enemy and shooting. I was still in fact curious about what it would be like to do that.

In 2010-11, I served in Afghanistan, in a unit commanded by a Navy Seal and where I met and worked with Green Berets and Marine Special Forces and I also met some other elite troops (including French Foreign Legion a year later in Africa). By worked with I mostly mean I did planning with and helped them succeed by providing money for projects, because I was a Civil Affairs officer by then--not that I was a special operator myself. But I had dozens of conversations with people who had combat experience. I had a good sense of what they did. They were open to me in a way the Vietnam Vets I knew had not been—I think it’s because I wore the same uniform as them and took a small portion of the same risks.

But it was not until I served as a liaison officer to the Italian headquarters at Camp Arenas in Herat that I got the final piece of the picture of what war is like, the thing that made my curiosity about the true nature of war go away, convinced that while my nibble on the flavor of war had been a small one, it was enough. More than enough to know what war is really like.

I got the chance to visit an Italian compound in downtown Herat, Afghanistan, one dedicated to their version of Civil Affairs, in other words, a place inhabited by people who worked humanitarian projects in Afghanistan for the purpose of “targeting” or persuading key people to support NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operations there. While there I enjoyed an authentic Italian pizza cooked in an oven for which the wood had been flown all the way from Italy (I’m not kidding—Italians take their cuisine seriously). I talked to people. I looked around the buildings. I waived at the serious Afghan guards hired on contract to protect the place. I noticed that the compound had a number of higher buildings around it, which I didn’t think about very much.

Six days later, while doing my part of the command briefing that constituted my main job as a liaison (it’s a side note, but I also helped write strategic plans for the Italians because it was easier for me to write in English than it was for them—and all NATO plans have to be in English), I heard about an attack on the compound I’d visited, in detailed briefing.

Insurgents had driven a car bomb to the gate and blew it up, killing a number of the Afghan contract guards I’d waved at. But then the insurgents expected to be able to storm the compound but couldn’t, since the rubble from a collapsed guardhouse blocked the hole they’d made in the gate. They also had taken over the surrounding tall buildings and shooters begin firing down into the compound. They grievously wounded an Italian captain I’d shared pizza with.  

A United States Air Force finance officer, one Captain Brasheer if I remember the spelling of his name right, climbed into the rubble and used the M16 he’d been issued to return fire. Not that he’d every spent much time with an M16, not that he had much chance to hit the enemy, but he did what he could. While under fire, US medics answered a MEDEVAC request and landed a helicopter, and at risk to their own lives rescued the Italian captain and some other people.

Outside the compound, the Afghan Army, once they were able to respond a few hours later, aided by US advisors, did what they were supposed to do—they charged up the stairs of the tall buildings around the compound and took out the attackers. But at least two attackers were wearing a suicide vest, which they detonated, killing a number of Afghan troops.

I knew this place as I heard the events reported, the exact layout. I knew the people involved. You could dismiss what the insurgents did as an act of terrorism, but it wasn’t. They attacked a military compound, even if one that acted as a center of humanitarian assistance. They killed armed people and their attack showed military planning and tactical savvy, even though it largely failed (and as a result was never reported in the USA). What they did was an act of war, even though the only people they killed were other Afghans.

And so I realized with full emotional flavor what the nature of war is. War is human beings using all the cleverness God gave them and perverting it to the task of killing other human beings—planning, training, designing, building, all for the purpose of doing horrific harm. War is fundamentally destructive and a violation of how God intended humans to act.

Is there glory in war? YES. The medics landing under fire. The finance officer climbing rubble with an M16. People risking their lives to protect others. Yes, that is glorious. But it’s a flavor of glory so bitter that it does not justify war. War can contain glory, but the horror is too great to fight just for the sake of the glory, no matter what fictional Klingons and the warrior cultures they were based on thought. War is NOT fundamentally glorious, even though it contains these horrible moments of greatness.

It may sound strange to some of my readers, but I felt especially sick about an aspect of what I heard that I did not have any connection to at all, the Afghan soldiers who got blown up. Because it occurred to my imagination that the ones who got killed were the ones in front, the first ones to reach the suicide bomber. Which would be the ones who were in the best shape as they ran up the stairs—the ones who were trying the hardest, the ones who cared the most. 

And that is part of the perverse nature of warfare—it often kills those who are trying the hardest, those who are among the best of people. You have to pass a physical to be ALLOWED to fight in a modern military. While courts-martial records clearly show some bad people are in the services, that’s the exception, not the rule. In general, modern military training encourages positive virtues and tends to weed out the worst of the worst. The best of people go forth and run the risk of death or of being horribly mangled, while the slugs of society stay at home and collect the benefits paid for in somebody else’s blood. That’s an awful introversion of justice, how things should never be, but actually are. Which is a reason to hate war.

But what shall we do when the bomb goes off and the tower collapses into rubble next to us? Shall we find a hole to hide in because we’re afraid? Or shall we refuse to fight, because war is a horror and we believe we cannot participate in it? Or shall we climb the rubble with Captain Brasheer and do what we can, because there is nothing else we can do, because if we don’t protect these people, who will?

While I deeply respect people who acknowledge the reality of evil in the world but believe it’s wrong for them to add to the evil by fighting in a physical war, I have chosen a different path. I became a Soldier a long time ago. I am one willing to climb the rubble.

People often thank me for my service when they are aware of it, especially in the South. I appreciate that. I’m in fact proud of what I have done in service to my country overseas. I’m not ashamed at all that I never exchanged fire with anyone, that I never had to shoot an enemy myself. I spent time in situations where I and others with me were at risk. Where I could have been called upon to use the weapons I carried—but, thank God, I never had to. (But if I had needed to, I would have used them.)

So I love the…what’s the right term? I love the respect for service. The camaraderie to a degree. I also make use of the understanding I have gained of war to answer military questions on Quora and elsewhere, and I like being afforded some respect for what I know. I also love some of the struggles of war as narrative, some of tragic realities war causes, with profound respect for the tough choices people have to face. Warfare can make very compelling stories. But I also hate those things—my own tough choices, for example, cost me the relationship I had with my family. An effect I continue to suffer, though things are better in a number of ways than they were. I believe, though I cannot be sure without having done it, that I much rather would have lost a leg than my family.

I see the firearms of war differently that I did in my teenage enthusiasm. I understand now, really understand, what they are for. But they still have a beauty of design and target shooting can be fun. I mostly see them as tools with a purpose—a sense that carries with it neither hatred nor love, but does contain a grim reality. And I still think fighter jets are cool, but I’m especially glad none in any real operation have been called upon to unload bombs on my head. (As was shown with dive bombers attacking men on the beach in the movie Dunkirk.)

By the way, I loved Dunkirk because the movie captured the sense that the historical event of the evacuation of Dunkirk was about survival, both of those who were only trying to survive, and of those who either threw away their own survival or put it at great risk for the benefit of others. I find these war stories more moving than I used to, because I feel I really know what it’s like to face war, to lose friends, to be a risk, to risk for others. These are great stories.

But I balk at tales that portray violence as too easy, as nothing but glory, as a walk in the park. It’s part of the reason why superhero movies usually but not always ring hollow with me. The typical superhero story fails in so many ways to show the world what it’s really like to face a situation so horrible that the only option you can bear is itself awful—and I would say that’s what it means to fight and kill to save others.

Though war stories are also horribly wrong at times. On occasion, too optimistic. Though often enough in recent years bloody without a real sense of tragedy, bloody as if war is actually normal somehow and we should not be horrified by its effects.

I find inside myself a burning desire to tell people what war is really like, to explain to those who don’t get it. I also want to celebrate in my own writing and the stories I publish the Captain Brasheers among us. Yet…I also hate war and want to celebrate other struggles, especially ones between good and evil within the human heart, struggles of an ultimate importance far beyond a body count. (And I love the science piece of science fiction and strange stories, wholly independent of anything relating to war.)

I personally am proud of my service but don’t wish to be defined by that alone. Have suffered, but don’t wish to be seen as a victim. Have served, but don’t deserve the presumption that I’m a hero.

In short, I both hate and love war. I’ve tasted its fundamental nature and know the human race would be better off if we put aside warfare forever. Yet…some of the greatest stories are war stories, tragic because of the meatgrinder human evil puts people through, yet shining with patches of genuine glory.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Zombie-Powered Technology

 (The action figures of Michonne and her pack-bearing zombies--kinda strange if not disturbing these action figures really 

I will apologize up front to the readers who might find this topic gruesome. If you find descriptions of zombies inherently disturbing, please don't keep reading. But this post is just an exploration of story ideas, of the sort, "If this is true then that should also be true." I hope it inspires some original takes on what have become standard zombie tropes.

As per Michonne in The Walking Dead using zombies as pack-bearers, in a world with real walking dead, why wouldn't you use them to power all kinds of things? (Note that somebody else may have already thought of the ideas in this post, but if so, I haven't heard of it.)

Zombies with their teeth removed (or lower jaw, as Michonne did) and hands either removed or fingers shortened (cutting off their arms altogether seems rather excessive), would be generally unable to harm anyone. But since they move around without needing to eat and do so for an indefinitely long period of time, why not put that energy to good use?

A cart with zombies yoked to it could provide free, albeit slow, transportation--though it would be a good idea to put the walkers behind the cart or carriage, pushing poles they were chained to. So as they tried to get at you in the cart, they would move forward, pushing the cart down the road. (Which means you'd need a steering wheel for the cart, because you wouldn't be able to steer the zombies.)

Zombies at a water wheel with a similar setup would pump water as much as you need, literally moving as long as a human was placed in front of them to go after. A plow with as many zombies as you would need to move it could plow fields, following farmers as they walked out their rows of crops.

You could hook them to an generator to make electrical power. Or have them pull major road construction gear, if you used enough of them.

In fact, the uses are so plentiful, you'd think that all areas in which people managed to build protected enclaves would use zombie power for at least some things. 

This would create a strange world wouldn't it? Perhaps the zombie-fed industry would become so standard that it would be like Southern plantations were before the Civil War--a fixed piece of the economy. Perhaps people would even deliberately turn MORE ordinary people into zombies, to keep their machines running.

Or if a means were invented to cure "zombieism" (zombieitis?), perhaps the plantation owners would resist any cure that turns their labor pool back into free human beings, adding a sinister twist that would parallel actual slavery (though of course enslaved people were 100% human).

And if you imagined an alternate reality where a massive zombie outbreak as is so commonly portrayed in fiction happened earlier in history, then you could make the parallel even stronger. ACTUAL zombie plantations (though I don't know how you'd get a zombie to pick cotton).

Anyway, back to the original idea--if zombies were really around, instead of being a perennial threat, wouldn't people soon convert them into a pool of labor? Isn't it human nature (as demonstrated by history) to do that?


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(Gal Gadot in the latest incarnation of Wonder Woman)

DC's Suicide Squad led me to swear off superhero movies until I don't know when, ad indefinidum. Friends who recommended DC's Wonder Woman film (along with some free tickets), prodded me to give the latest film adaptation of comic book superhero a chance (though I did happen to see Logan in the meantime--but that's another story).

Does this latest film save DC's film franchise? Does it even provide an excellent story fans can rally behind?

(By the way, numerous spoilers about the movie are in this post, though down a bit.)

I don't actually care very much about my first question. Or I should say my feelings are quite mixed as to whether I actually want both Marvel and DC to be cranking out superhero movies in a vast array, each and every year. I actually hope they don't and superhero films become rare events. So I shouldn't even try to answer that.

As to my second question--"was this even an excellent story?"--it turns out I have mixed feelings about that, too.

This movie was pretty good for a superhero story--but superhero stories are mostly pretty bad in my honest opinion. I would say it's the growth of computer-created special effects, which can make what was only once possible in a pen-and-ink drawing come to life with real actors, which is the primary reason superhero movies are so popular today.

Part of any superhero story was always about spectacle. The superhero can do something no regular human can do. The audience gets a thrill imagining swinging through tall buildings like Spider-man or Batman, or straight out flying like Superman or Storm, or owning other amazing properties, like the ability to block bullets and outfight almost anyone on Planet Earth, like Wonder Woman.

We, the audience, watch with open mouths at the amazing stunts, often too overwhelmed by the spectacle to ask ourselves if the actions shown actually make sense in any kind of world, even the fantasy the superhero story presupposes. When we start asking questions, when we begin to think, most superhero tales melt like cotton candy in our mouths, leaving nothing more than a sugary aftertaste--in my honest opinion.

Actually, some superhero stories do considerably worse than leaving a sugary aftertaste--Suicide Squad certainly did worse. In contrast, I would say Wonder Woman did better than average.

Still, "better than average" is not necessarily great. I saw things that were good in the film, things bad, and things awkward or strange or goofy that I will lump together as "ugly."

1. Wonder Woman is shown to have pure motives. She really does want to rescue humanity. She is not obviously tormented, twisted, and half-evil herself.

2. She has a worthy goal. When Wonder Woman concludes that only Ares could set mankind to killing one another in WWI and rushes of to kill Ares in order to liberate mankind from war (although ironically a warrior woman herself), she assumes what all good-hearted warriors believe. That if I complete this mission, I will save lives, even if I must kill to do so. If killing Ares would be enough to end all war and return the human race to permanent peace, sparing all the innocents who are killed in war, it would certainly have been worth it.

3. In Wonder Woman's attitude towards Ares, the film draws a clear line between innocence and guilt. The innocent do not deserve to die, but the guilty DO deserve it.

4. The movie tells some important truths. Diana winds up discovering that the real causes of warfare lie in the human heart, not in Ares. VERY, VERY TRUE. She also is enraged at generals who callously send soldiers off to battle from places of safety behind the lines--I appreciated that attitude. There are some other points along these lines as well.

5. Diana (a.k.a. Wonder Woman), winds up in a climactic physical battle with the villain Ares (of course, that's what superhero movies DO) and defeats him. But along the way she spares the life of a German chemist building weapons of mass destruction for the Kaiser. In other words, she shows that mercy is a virtue and speaks of the value and importance of love.

1. The moral message about warfare is muddied to a degree by Diana remorselessly killing anonymous German troops on multiple occasions, as if Germany really IS more villainous than all the other warlike nations of Planet Earth and being German = guilt worthy of death. It's also muddied by the fact that even though Wonder Woman discovers the problem of warfare really lies in the human heart, she goes right along in having physical fights--as opposed to addressing what is really wrong with people, which cannot be done by slashing people down with a sword.

2. No God but a goddess: The film reveals Diana is in fact NOT actually an Amazon, but a deity herself. No, not just an Amazon named after Diana, but apparently THE Diana, since she is revealed to be a goddess. Some people may not care much about this, but since the God I believe in was not mentioned at all, while Greek gods and goddesses are mentioned, it's hard for me to imagine there is not some sort of substitution going on, even if unintentional.

Note that the God of the Bible/historical Christianity, who the vast majority of people in Europe believed in during WWI, would quite naturally be mentioned on at least two occasions, at least indirectly, but was not included at all (once was where Steve Trevor talks about marriage, which usually happened then in churches--but he only mentions a judge).

And yes, Diana now can match Marvel's Thor in being a deity, albeit a limited one in some ways. And just as Thor still has modern-day worshipers delighted to see him on the big screen (some people may doubt this, but it's quite true), so will the modern worshipers of Diana likel be pleased. Which is not something I personally consider a positive.

3. Ares, once revealed, proves to be anti-climactic. He makes it plain that he is not really the one pulling the strings--he's merely facilitating. Humans are pulling their own strings to do evil. While I love this twist in regard to the truth it tells, it makes the final battle between her and him rather hollow. Killing Ares accomplishes not quite nothing, but very little.

Note that acting and film production were generally good. So things I note here are exceptional to the overall quality of the film.

1. Silly armor: Granted there are goofier version of armor for women, but Wonder Woman has legs exposed, head uncovered except for her nifty headband, arms exposed except for her bracelets, and plenty of neck and upper chest exposed, leaving her carotids and jugulars and other key stuff not very protected. Impractical.

2. Long leggy Amazons: All the Amazons except one pretty much look alike, conforming to just one concept of feminine beauty and fitness. I happen to know for a fact some short women can be in excellent shape and be good fighters...but you wouldn't know that from seeing Wonder Woman.

3. Germans don't speak German: You know that thing some movies do where they introduce you to what is supposed to be a foreign language by having people speak in a foreign accent, which you are supposed to take for being a foreign language? Or where some films let you listen to foreign speakers speaking their language for real? The Wonder Woman film does the latter for all languages OTHER than German--so you hear short bits of Spanish, French, Chinese, Ancient Greek, and Walloon in the film. But the Germans just talk with a German accent. Awkward.

4. Wrong details about World War I: Various details of WWI are all messed up in the movie. The final months of the war had more movement of trenches and battle lines than most of the rest of the war--yet the film talks about a unit being frozen in place for seven months. Also the Kaiser would not have a gala anywhere near the front lines during the war (trust me on that). And Wonder Woman pretty much single-handedly winning a battle would have attracted a lot more attention than one sole photograph--there were actually reporters covering the war at the time, believe it or not! There was also a real General Lutendorff in command of some of the German forces in WWI--who was nothing like the movie version. Among other similar goofs.

5. German machine gunners can't shift targets: One particular military detail bothered me more than others...there is a scene we would have to call iconic where Wonder Woman charges into "no man's land" towards the German trenches. They eventually direct several machine guns at her, which she blocks with her shield, the force of which is strong enough to keep her from moving forward. Since she is drawing fire, the men with her advance and a battle is won.

Visually the scene is impressive but makes little actual sense, not even in the fantasy world of Wonder Woman. Why no German thought to shift fire downward at her legs I don't know (she was standing up, albeit leaning forward, so her unarmored legs would be a prime target--hey, that's what you do in war, do what it takes to kill the enemy, nice or not). But even more I can't imagine why they would not stop shooting at her when it clearly wasn't working and mow down the men advancing in her wake. Duh.

Dumb enemies make the plot move along faster, but as a device it doesn't qualify as good storytelling.

6. Steve Trevor lacking: Chris Pine as Steve Trevor I found a bit unconvincing. A bit too convenient. And when the film kills him off, it does so with no real love story between him and Diana ever taking place. I think the story would have been better with at bit more fire. Just sayin'.

7. Men not needed for pleasure: Speaking of no real romance between Diana and Steve Trevor, in a conversation between Diana and Steve Trevor about sex, Wonder Woman says men are needed for reproduction, but are not "needed for pleasure." If that sounds like DC is saying Wonder Woman is bisexual, they clarified the issue in a press release. Yeah, that is exactly what they meant to say--Wonder Woman is bi. Which is all very modern of them, but I think was unnecessary to the story and something that I would say definitely belongs in my "ugly" pile.

I could add more nits to the ugly pile--but what I said covers the things that bothered me the most.

So, "Was this even an excellent story?" No. "Excellent" is too strong a word. It was good. Only excellent when compared to superhero stories produced of late...but that isn't fair to all other genres of film. In general, superhero stories I would have to rate as worse than average except for their computer graphics and special effects. In the murky slush of underachieving superhero tales, the Wonder Woman film floats close to the top.

That doesn't make it great. It
wasn't great--it had real limitations and shortcomings. But this movie was at least worth seeing. In my honest opinion.

Disagree with me? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments. :)