Tag: Vietnam

Essence of wisdom, page two.

Doing the right thing has power.

Thus wrote Laura Leggett Linney.  Maybe Laura doesn’t fit into the same folder as Confucius (she’s well and truly alive for one thing) but the quote was perfect, hence the connection.

Yesterday, I offered an overview of the human brain.  Today I want to expand on the idea of “how we jumble up how we act with what is best for us” as was put in yesterday’s introduction.

In researching for today’s essay, the power of the Internet quickly found the quotation by ex-President Lyndon B. Johnson that “Doing what’s right isn’t the problem. It’s knowing what’s right.”  Reflecting on the escalation of America’s involvement in Vietnam that was a product of LBJ’s term of office, perhaps his quotation carries a certain pathos that wasn’t intended at the time of its pronouncement!  In other words, it’s not the ‘knowing‘ but the ‘doing‘ that is critical, as LBJ’s legacy so clearly illustrated.  Johnson might have better said, “Knowing what’s right is sometimes hard. Doing what’s right is sometimes even harder.

To illustrate the challenge of converting these fine concepts into the grind of daily life, I’m going to use a recent essay published by Ian Welsh.  Ian is a frustrated author who writes about his experiences in completing a book on Prosperity. It struck me as a fabulous insight into the vagaries of homo sapiens and one that lent itself beautifully to what I am trying to convey today.

Ian very promptly gave me written permission to republish his essay on Learning from Dogs.  So what I am going to do is to add my own thoughts to Ian’s essay in a way that hopefully supports the proposition that we are far from being logical creatures.

To know what to do is not enough

by Ian Welsh – January 2nd, 2013

For the past year I’ve been writing a book on prosperity, by which I mean widespread affluence. It’s been slow going, not because I don’t believe I know the general technical requirements of prosperity (I do, if I didn’t, I shouldn’t be wasting anyone’s time, including mine, writing the book), but because the real problem isn’t the technical details like eliminating bottlenecks, or redistributing income, or setting up positive feedback loops, or avoiding fraud, or stopping financialization, or any of the dozens of other subjects I either visit at chapter length or touch on briefly.  The problem as with, say, stopping smoking, isn’t so much what to do, it is how it comes that we do it.  When do we make the decision we’re willing to do what it takes, sufferer the negative consequences of getting to a better place, and then push ourselves through those consequences?

Let’s dally with that phrase, “isn’t so much what to do, it is how it comes that we do it.”  On the 1st January, I published an article called Why?  It included a film by Simon Sinek looking at the Why, How, and What of human decision-making.  The film supports the thesis that those who succeed act, think and do things differently; the crucial point being that spending time on understanding why you do what you do is very revealing.  You can see the resonance between Simon Sinek and Ian Welsh, can’t you?  If we better understand ‘why’ we want to do something, we can better think 0f what is the best way of achieving that.

Back to Ian’s essay.

This is a huge problem in individuals, as the weight loss, addiction, psychology, psychiatry and self-help industries attest.  There is, generally, more money in  not solving a problem, as drug makers with their palliatives understand, than in solving it.  The people who have power and money and influence in the status quo are not sure that in a new world, with a new economy, and the new ethics which must undergird that new economy, they will be on top.  They are right to believe so.  They are creatures of the current world, and in being created, have created the world they are unsteady masters of.  Their ethics and morals, their way of business, of living, of apportioning power and influence and money must go if there is to be widespread affluence.  Their methods have been tried for 40 odd years now, and if measured against the human weal, have failed.  They will not, they cannot adapt, not as a group. They were not selected for the skills it takes to create a new type of affluent society, they have not even been able to maintain the mass affluence of the old society, and not just because they have not wanted to.  They would be a different elite, made up of different people with different ethics, talents and skills if they did want to.

This paragraph is just laden with powerful ideas.

First, the recognition that millions opt for the palliative rather than the cure.  Second, that these same millions live in present times that are controlled undemocratically by plutocrats.  Thirdly, changing to a new, better order is not going to come easily.  Ergo, for the last few decades there has been a massive failure of wisdom.  Applying that failure to millions does not, of course, avoid the charge that each of us, individual by individual, each in our own tiny manner, has contributed to that failure of wisdom.

Ian amplifies this idea, as you will see by reading on.

Ordinary people also have the wrong ethics, the wrong morality.  Much is written about why consumerism is bad, but the ultimate problem of consumerism is not how it makes us feel but that the consumer passively chooses from a menu created by others, not to fill the consumer’s real needs, but to benefit those who created the menu.  Such a passive people cannot understand that choosing choices without creating choices is not choice, it is the illusion of choice.

So while my book has a lot of general principles of the sort which books on prosperity often have, such as about trade, and productivity and technological change, that isn’t the most important part.  The part that matters isn’t about the technical requirements of prosperity, it’s about why and when people do what is required to achieve prosperity, and when they don’t.  And when, having obtained it, they throw it away.

Such a passive people cannot understand that choosing choices without creating choices is not choice, it is the illusion of choice.”  Pick the bones out of that!

On we go.  Going to let you read Ian’s closing four paragraphs as one piece.

Our society is ours.  A tautology, but one we forget too often.  As individuals we often feel powerless, as a mass, we have created our own society.  There are real constraints, physical constraints on what society we can have, based on the resources we have, the technology we have mastered and what we understand about ourselves and our world, but those constraints are not, right now, so tight as to preclude widespread affluence, to preclude prosperity.

They are, however, tight enough to preclude continuing to do the same thing, led by the same sorts of people, and expect anything but decline, repeated disasters and eventual catastrophe.  We can be affluent and prosperous, we can spread that affluence and prosperity to those who do not have it now, but we cannot do it if we insist on keeping the current forms of our economy, including our current forms of consumption.  This does not mean doing with less, it means doing with different things, valuing different things.  Those new values will be better for us, objectively, they will make us both happier and healthier, just as most addicts are happier once they’ve broken their addiction, or rather once they’ve gone through withdrawal and rebuilt their lives.

We can choose not to do so.  We have, in certain respects, already chosen not to do so, as with our refusal to do anything about climate change until it is too late (the two problems are combined, climate change is a subset of the political and economic problems we have).  We can, also, choose to make the necessary changes, not only to avoid the worst catastrophes (disasters are now inevitable, there are consequences to failure, stupidity and greed), but to create an actual, better, world, a world in which the vast majority are healthier, happier and doing work they care about.

The monster facing us, as usual, is us.  The monsters are always us, our brothers and sisters, and the one in the mirror.  And it is those monsters I’ve been wrestling this past year.

Reflect on those three points that I made earlier: how we don’t put the cure as the top priority, how we are dominated by the greed and power of the relatively few, how difficult changing our present society would be.  Not a pretty picture!

Then look at yourself in that mirror, either literally or metaphorically, and say to the face you see peering back at you: “This is my society. Yes, I do feel powerless but I have to embrace the cold, hard truth that I am part of my society and that change will only occur if I subscribe to the new values that I require.

That has real power!

The Grand Re-opening

A guest post from Joelle Jordan

A couple of days ago, out of the blue, in came an email with this article attached.  Was sure that Joelle and I didn’t know each other but so what!  One of the lovely aspects of this wired-up world is the ease with which like-minded people can communicate.  It’s a pleasure to publish Joelle’s story.

Charlie's first day!

I had been resistant to getting a new dog. We couldn’t afford one; we couldn’t afford the time to train a pup, the sleep deprivation, the continual puppy proofing the areas he would reside in, the contingent poop and pee cleanup. We couldn’t financially afford the shots, the toys, the food, the new crate. It was just too much stuff all at once, and we were just getting established as a couple and as a family.

That wasn’t the true reason I didn’t want a dog. I had been resistant because of a dog I’d had before, the dog I left behind. I loved this dog with all my heart, he was my “first.” I did not want to disrespect that dog by replacing him. I always questioned if my decision to leave him behind with my ex was right. My head always said yes, but my heart always said no. This left a war inside of me of enormous proportions that I could only allow to play out as it would, a sort of inner-Vietnam that ended only with withdrawal, but not with surrender.

So I put my foot down for a long time. “No, no dogs.” I would add the caveat the sake of mollification: “Not yet.” Maybe someday. Maybe someday I would be ready. Maybe someday our home situation would be perfect for a puppy. That would be when we could get a puppy: when we were independently wealthy and didn’t have to work and had all the time in the world to train a pup the proper way. Yeah, then.

I added another caveat to my “no dogs” edict: “I’ll know my dog when I see him.” I knew I would know the right dog for us when I saw him. It would be a chemical thing, like falling in love. I would not be swayed by cute fluff balls and wide expressive eyes. I would not be swayed by the tug of puppy teeth and the scent of puppy breath through a cage as we wandered through the aisles of a rescue. I would not be swayed; I would not be swayed until the perfect time when we were independently wealthy. In this way, I could save our money, our time, and my heart. I would just use my intuition (which I heretofore had never had) to know the when and the which one.

My partner continued to try to bend me, showing me pictures on the internet of homeless pups and rescue pups. She tried every breed; I saw terriers and shih tzus, Pomeranians and Pekinese, Maltese and min-pins. I saw every mutt with a happy, drooly, grinning face, and heard every sad story about why the owners could not keep said dog. And my response was always the same: “Oh, yes, he’s so cute, but no, not yet.”

What it came down to was that I was not ready to forgive myself. It’s not as though the dog I left behind wasn’t loved; I knew my ex loved him as much as I did. I didn’t leave him in some rat hole; it’s a two bedroom, one bath with a fenced back yard. But circumstances dictated that I leave, and leave my boy behind. Did that kind of behavior even warrant the luxury of having another dog again? I wondered in silence but responded with “No, not yet.”

Until one day, while trolling the internet for that love match for me yet again, my partner turned the screen towards me and said, “Baby, look.” Two males, pug crossed with dachshund, both auburn with black muzzles. Their mother had died shortly after birth and their father had gone missing.

I looked.

“Wow, they’re really cute,” I said.

I’m sure my partner was shocked that she didn’t receive my standard, “Oh, yes, they’re so cute, but no, not yet.” She could only pause and let me look at the picture.

“They’re only two hours away, and they don’t want a lot of money, just to cover the shots,” she offered.

“Yeah, they’re really cute,” I responded again.

Something in me said that’s your dog. I knew in theory that it would happen like that, but I was surprised that it actually did happen.

Two days later my partner and I were in the very nice home of some very nice people trying to rehome the last two of the surprise litter of their two lost but beloved house dogs. I sat cross-legged on the floor, and the daughter put the pups down about three feet from me. They were barely bigger than hamsters, just eight weeks old to the day. One of them walked right to me, as though he knew me, crawled in my lap, as though my lap were his home. The other had nothing to do with me, had nothing to do with either my partner or me. The first pup explored me, my fingers, tasting, smelling, intent. I looked up at my partner as I cuddled the warm ball of fur to my neck, and our eyes met. She smiled at me and fished through her purse for the nominal rehoming fee.

That little guy rode home most of the way with me, on my chest, staring into my eyes as I stared back into his. He studied me hard, calmly, gazing, as though memorizing. I thought perhaps that he was imprinting me (as I was him) but I think it was more than that, now that I think back on it. I think he was singing The Byrds, as sometimes he still sings, even now, softly, as he lays against my leg as I write this about him, “To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

I’m sure all you lovely readers will agree that is a very moving story.  Thank you Joelle.

Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan

A book review

While being born an Englishman in 1944 has me slightly ahead of the so-called Baby Boomer period, which in American terms, ergo the U.S. Census Bureau, is defined as those born between January 1st, 1946 and December 31st, 1964, American and British people born in those ‘boomer’ years after WWII share many attitudes.

However, there is one stark difference between the UK and the USA regarding that period; the Vietnam War.

U.S. military advisors arrived beginning in 1950 and that U.S. involvement escalated in the early 1960s, with U.S. troop levels tripling in 1961 and tripling again in 1962.

Many good young Americans paid the ultimate price for that involvement (58,220 U.S. service members died in the conflict).

Why do I mention this?  Because just as so many Americans have no idea of the scale of enemy bombing that England suffered during WWII, just as many Brits have no idea of the scale of the ‘draft’ (i.e. conscription) that was employed by the U.S. Government as the Vietnam involvement grew.

Now keep that in mind as a means of adding context to what follows.

Until Tuesday is a book of many extremes.  It is a powerful book, a disturbing book, and a book about the beauty, dignity and, sadly, the madness of man.

I have been talking to a good friend of my life-long Californian pal, Dan Gomez.  Let me just call him Tom.  Tom saw service in Vietnam.  This is how Tom describes his early experiences.

I was young and keen for some adventure.  I had watched many war movies so I knew exactly what war was all about.  So I enlisted as a soldier and was shipped out to Vietnam.  After 60 days, I had experienced sufficient to know that things were not as they were portrayed by the media and the reality of Vietnam was very different to those movies. I had seen enough and was ready to come home.

Except that it didn’t work that way. I was there for a full tour of duty.

It became increasingly apparent by our behavior that we were not there to liberate the masses. We were there because some politicians had a theory and because of it didn’t want the locals to have a democratic election.  So good people were put into harm’s way, died or were severely injured for no other reason than some politicians had a theory – that proved to be false in the end.

Through it all, the biggest pain that I suffered was to see my Government operating under false pretences, with no integrity and no dignity.   It left me with a deep anger and mistrust of government that is still deep inside me.

Tom’s very personal and intimate sharing of his experiences of Vietnam resonates powerfully with what Captain Montalvan experienced in Iraq.  Here’s an extract from the book,

I am an American soldier.  I am an expert and I am a professional.

But at the same time, I was coming unmoored, my mind dwelling on the hand-to-hand struggle for my life, the Syrian ambush, the sandstorms, the riots, and Ali, Emad and Maher, the men left behind.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.

The wife of one of my best men from Al-Waleed had become pregnant during his midtour leave.  The foetus was fatally deformed, but Tricare, the army’s health service, doesn’t provide abortions under any circumstances, and she was forced to carry the child to term.  I will never accept defeat.  Little Layla was born without a nose and several internal organs.  Her parents had no financial resources on a soldier’s pay to provide her comfort.  I emailed everyone I knew for help – hundreds of dollars were sent to the sergeant and his family.  Nevertheless, it was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking, to hold Layla in my hands.  I will never quit.  She lived eight weeks, and the difficulty of her life, and the inhumanity of forcing that existence not only from her but her parents too – I will never leave a fallen comrade – fuelled my downwards drive.

I was angry with the army. Not on the surface, but underneath, in the depth of my mind.  Why did Layla and her parents have to endure that pain, especially after everything they had already endured?  Why were they forcing our regiment back to Iraq just ten months after our return?  Why weren’t they helping us cope with our pain?  We were badly banged up.  We were undermanned and underequipped.  The army didn’t care.  They were churning us through.  They cared more about getting us back to Iraq and making the numbers than they did about our health and survival.

It was the summer of 2004.  Victory was slipping away.  Everyone could see that, but the media kept pounding the message: ‘The generals say there are enough men.  The generals say there is enough equipment.  The generals say everything is going well.’  It was a lie. The soldiers on the line knew it because we were the ones suffering.  We were the ones who endured days of enemy mortar fire when we arrived in Iraq without weapons or ammunition, as my eighty troopers had in Balad in 2003; we were the ones going back in 2005 without adequate recovery time or armour for our Humvees.  And that is the ultimate betrayal: when the commanding officers care more about the media and the bosses than about their soldiers on the ground. [Chapter 5, An American Soldier, pps 88-89]

So the first thing that most definitely comes out of the pages of Until Tuesday is the depth of disconnect between Montalvan as an active soldier in the front line and his nation.  Just like Tom in Vietnam!

It’s not until Chapter 8, The Thought of Dogs, that the author moves on from his obsessiveness about his military experiences to his future world.  Please realise that when I use the word ‘obsessiveness’, in no way is it used as a derogatory term.  One of the symptoms of mental insecurity is the ease with which we can obsess on things in our lives.

Here’s how Chapter 8 starts,

I can’t tell you how much my life changed when I read the email on 1 July 2008. (A Tuesday, I just realised.  I’ll have to add that to my list of fake reasons for Tuesday’s name.)  The Wounded Warrior Project, the veteran service organisation I went with to the Bruce Springsteen concert, forwarded the message.  They forwarded messages every day, actually, but I usually didn’t read them.  This tagline intrigued me: ‘WWP and Puppies Behind Bars’.  Puppies behind bars?

The message was almost as simple: ‘Dear Warriors, please note below.  Puppies Behind Bars has 30 dogs a year to place, free of charge, with veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan who are suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries or physical injuries.  I’ve attached the Dog Tags brochure which explains the programme, as well as the Dog Tags application.’

As soon as I read the attached description, I knew the programme was for me.  I suffered from debilitating social anxiety, and the dogs were trained to understand and soothe emotional distress.  I suffered from vertigo and frequent falls, and a dog could keep me stable.  Because of my back I could barely tie my own shoes, and a dog could retrieve and pick things up for me.  I was the perfect candidate.  I was down, but I was working towards a future.  I was a leader, so I would never give up.  And I was lonely.  Terribly, terribly lonely.

From this point onwards the remaining 189 pages of Until Tuesday are about Luis Montalvan’s recovery built upon the foundation of his beautiful relationship with Tuesday, his service dog.

Of course there are ups and downs, as there are in all our lives, but the overall message is clear.  A dog loves a human in the most beautiful and purest fashion of all.  That unconditional, undemanding love for the humans in that dog’s life unlock even the most damaged souls.  Tuesday unlocked the private hell that Captain Montalvan endured for so long.

In the privacy of a deep hug of your dog lays release.  From that release comes peace, understanding and the desire to re-connect with the larger world.  There is no greater gift than that.

So standing back in terms of reviewing this book (I reviewed the UK edition) here are my thoughts.

  • It’s a deeply moving book which many, but especially dog owners, will be touched by.
  • It’s a book that offers real hope and inspiration, most certainly for those who are going through their own private hell.
  • It’s a very American book and, at times, when reading it I did wonder if some UK readers might find themselves culturally disconnected.
  • Overall, this is a book that needs to be read.

Perhaps I should close by saying this.  I didn’t have to pay for the book, it was sent to me on a complimentary basis once I had agreed to do the review.  In the UK Until Tuesday is published by Headline Publishing.  However, having read the book I realise that to have missed the opportunity of reading it would have left my life a little poorer.


A note for all those that have been good enough to read to the end!  This post published today is the 1,000th post since Learning from Dogs first saw the light of day on July 15th, 2009.  That it has reached this point is a direct result of the number of readers and the support that so many of you give to this rather crazy enterprise!  Thank you all!