Tripwire –
The Trump Dilemma in Syria

President Trump’s pattern of military force brings to mind another set of decisions nearly 6 decades ago, decisions that may have saved us from nuclear war.

I can tell you right now, I don’t see any way around hitting them.

If we hit ’em, kill a lot of Russians, they’ll move against Berlin. All right, they attack Berlin, that’s NATO, and we’re at war.

– Script for the film Thirteen Days

That was a re-enactment of decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States had photographic proof that the Soviet Union had placed into Cuba missiles that were to be armed with nuclear warheads. The only available option seemed to be attacking the missiles before they became operational. If we attacked after they were armed and ready to launch, we could destroy most of them. But if just one or two remained, millions of Americans would die.

But even destroying all of them carried an end-of-days type danger.

If we hit ’em, kill a lot of Russians, they’ll move against Berlin … that’s NATO, and we’re at war.

The world’s super powers were always concerned with tripwires. The United States had constructed an entire doctrine based on the concept.

In 1945, President Harry Truman was faced with a dilemma. The Soviet Union was taking over one country after another. Eastern Europe was gone. The eastern section of Germany had been conquered by the USSR.

There didn’t seem to be any reasonable way to stop them from marching on. West Berlin was in the heart of East Germany, completely surrounded, militarily indefensible. Western Europe was vulnerable. Their armies were depleted by World War II and they were no match for Soviet armed might.

The United States had the ability to attack with nuclear weapons, at least for the couple of years before spies in the US working for the Kremlin managed to get atomic secrets and send them to the USSR. But nobody really believed the United States would launch a nuclear war on behalf of Europe as long as America itself was not attacked. After the Soviet Union got atomic bombs of their own, deterrence might have been a distant fantasy. You can’t deter with a threat that nobody really believes.

But Truman, then Eisenhower, found a way to make the not-believable threat believable. Compelling, actually. It was simple. The United States formed NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in partnership with Western European countries that had not been taken over by the Soviet Union. Then the US placed a substantial number of American troops into West Berlin and member countries of Europe.

The additional troops were still no match for Soviet military might. But everyone knew a Soviet attack would result in large scale American casualties. And everyone believed, most importantly the Kremlin believed, that American deaths would result in American retaliation. You kill a few thousand of ours in an act of aggression, we’ll kill several million of yours, even if we are faced with your nuclear response.

The not-believable nuclear deterrence became compellingly believable.

Once the Soviet Union got the bomb, the reverse was also true. Any military move to free countries that had become Soviet satellites would kill Soviet soldiers, most probably triggering a nuclear war.

Everyone believed in tripwires. We did, they did, everyone in the hemisphere did. Nuclear deterrence didn’t work against indigenous movements, like Vietnam or Cuba. Local leaders didn’t much care about tripwires. But NATO did keep a lot of people from falling under the rule of Soviet imposed dictatorships.

Tripwires were important.

And tripwires were the key to the strategy eventually adopted by President Kennedy in Cuba. We held back on attacking missile bases before they went nuclear, because we would be killing Russians and starting a war that nobody could stop.

If we … kill a lot of Russians, they’ll move against Berlin … that’s NATO, and we’re at war.

So the government got creative. Kennedy announced a naval blockade. It was a jerry-rigged sort of mini-tripwire. If Soviet ships supplying Cuba ran the blockade, shots would be fired at Americans of the coast of Florida. If Soviet or American naval personnel were killed or wounded, escalation was probable, maybe inevitable.

In the end, there were secret side deals involving obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey, but essentially, leaders in the Kremlin looked into the darkest abyss and opted for survival.

Tripwires seemed to be everywhere in those days. I recall being marched into hallways with other children in drills. In case of an attack we were trained to duck and cover. The retrospective joke has been around for decades, based on how we were instructed, as children, in those days.

File into the hallway.
Sit, facing the wall.
With both hands, pull your head between your legs.

And kiss your ass goodbye.

Tripwires had to be taken seriously. They still are.

That is why the recent American missile attack against the Assad dictatorship in Syria was so ineffective.

Chemical attacks launched by the Assad regime had killed 70 Syrian civilians. The 70 included small children. The television images were ghastly.

American missiles hit the airfields that seemed to be the launching points. But not much damage was done.

President Trump had notified Vladimir Putin of the coming attack in time to get Russian personnel away from the targets. This had the virtue of not getting Russian troops killed, triggering military clashes between the world’s two main nuclear powers.

In turn, Putin notified Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in time to get his troops and planes and military hardware out of the way. So what was there left for our missiles to hit, aside from the ground. The damaged airfields were reportedly back in operation within hours.

President Trump is getting a lot of support from the public for acting boldly.

…I think Donald Trump became President of the United States…

…I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons…

Some international leaders were happy at what is called proportionality. In the end, we may find the missile attack on Assad and his deadly chemicals was little more than a case of military chest thumping.

A few years ago, President Obama reacted to a much more massive chemical attack. This did not result in 70 civilian casualties, but rather 1400.

He maneuvered a more amplified sort of military dare. He delayed on what may have been the pretext of seeking congressional approval, while insisting he had authority to launch an attack that would have been several times the size of President Trump’s recent missile launch.

That prospective action got Russia’s Putin to pressure Bashar al-Assad into an agreement to a ban on the use of chemical weapons.

The agreement was never violated while President Obama was in office.

The threat of attack was criticized by most Republicans. Some denounced Obama for holding back on an actual attack. A few, like then citizen Donald Trump, condemned President Obama for even considering an attack on Syria’s dictatorship. As candidate, then as President, Donald Trump went even further, denigrating refugee children from Syria, children fleeing those attacks, publicly attacking those children as the real threat to the United States.

There does exist in human nature an unfortunate inverse reaction to tragic death, to aggressive destruction. An attack on 70 civilians, with the bodies of children shown on television, is a human tragedy. An earlier attack on 1400 civilians with many more children, is a number.

70 is an outrage. 1400 is a statistic.

What portends real danger to the United States is how decisions are made by the new administration.

An attack on a terrorist base in Yemen was quickly approved by Donald Trump as he enjoyed dinner a little more than a week after becoming President. He wanted to show American resolve against terrorism. There was a new sheriff in town, and something had to be done right away to show it.

Planning turned out to be inadequate. Intelligence had not been checked. Return fire was much heavier than expected. A multi-million dollar advanced military helicopter was lost. An American warrior was killed. So were civilians nearby, including children. It was a disaster.

Two months later, another plan was accelerated to bomb suspected terrorist holdouts as the Iraq city of Mosul was taken back from Islamic fanatics. Pamphlets were dropped. Residents in the process of being liberated from the harsh rule of ISIS were warned to stay in their homes. Then those very homes were bombed, those residents killed. The number of innocent civilians whose lives were taken is still being totaled, but it looks bad. Over 200 civilians, including women and children, have been counted so far. The Vice President of Iraq calls the air strike a “humanitarian disaster.” He seems to be right.

Our President is said by those around him to be unlikely to take responsibility for rapid-fire decisions and a lack of adequate preparation in that latest mass casualty.

But now we have Syria.

Sometimes reflexive action does bring good results. But that is largely a matter of luck. Good results are more likely when risks are calculated and alternatives are examined.

Those seeking a solution to nuclear missiles in Cuba saw no answer that did not involve war. President Kennedy wanted another way. They, and he, created a better alternative.

Human reflex in the face of tragic human need calls for immediacy. Something must be done.

Human wisdom, when possible, calls for thought. Human power calls for care.

What must be done is not something.
What must be done is the right thing.

When our leaders can’t think of the right thing, sometimes what must be done is to think harder.


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The Serious Side of the
Corner Taco Truck

I didn’t see the film Tombstone for years after it came out. Family members urged me, but I didn’t want to waste my time on a Val Kilmer characterization of Wyatt Earp’s buddy Doc Holliday. History had told me that Holliday was a tough guy with an incurable, degenerative illness that would weaken, and eventually kill him. He had every incentive to take risks. So tough, torn … Val Kilmer? Really?

Okay, I had nothing to do and the movie was on television, what the hell?

And Val Kilmer? What the HELL? If that was not Doc Holliday, it was how Holliday should have been.

I liked the film. I later read up on it. It was a difficult production. One director was fired. Before another was brought in, the studio pretty much decided to close down the project. The cast convinced the studio to look for another director. Kurt Russell, who played Wyatt Earp, took over script editing, casting, and even direction of the movie until the new director could be brought in. He made it work.

What especially impresses me is the extent of research. Details were checked for accuracy wherever possible. Even vocabulary as used during the time period seems to have been researched.

Doc wins at poker, expressing fake amazement at the cards he lays on the table. “Isn’t that a daisy?” “Daisy” has faded with time, except for maybe as in pushing them up. In those days the word referred to something surprisingly fresh or pleasing.

He later approaches a gunfighter. “I’m your Huckleberry!”

“I’m your Huckleberry!” makes sense. Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” had not yet been published in 1881, but the very popular “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and two lessor books about the wayward Tom had Huck as the narrator. And there is some evidence Huckleberry was occasionally used to describe something sweet and a little wild. A surprise treat.

The research goes to at least some of the history of the characters.

Name’s John Behan, Cochise County Sheriff.

Jon Tenney’s appearance as John Behan

As a minor character, John Behan introduces himself to the arriving Earp family. Dialogue could not be verified, of course, at least not for accuracy. Who knows what words were used? But the context played.

Behan was married, frequently beat his wife, and then was divorced after his wife found out about his attachment to prostitutes. He also frequently allied himself with deadly outlaw gangs. Not a nice fellow.

He would not have mentioned any of that part of his background to strangers. But he might have mentioned that he was a successful businessman, the owner of a saloon and a livery stable. As the movie character describes himself, “Yep, a man of many parts.”

John Behan gives to the Earps a brief autobiography that does not include those facts. It is less than complete, although historically accurate.

Besides sheriff, I’m also the tax collector, captain of the fire brigade, and chairman of the non-partisan Anti-Chinese League.

Now why would he include that last part?

It was true. He did indeed help establish Tombstone’s Anti Chinese League. It was partly his enthusiasm in persecuting Chinese immigrants that later persuaded authorities in El Paso to appoint him Chinese Exclusion Inspector after he moved on from Tombstone. “Yep, a man of many parts.”

That last item in Behan’s boastful self-description, chairman of the non-partisan Anti-Chinese League probably says as much about us today it does about Behan back then. It advances the plot, establishing Behan’s credentials to modern audiences as a mean, mean man, a bigot who sees virtue in beating down a vulnerable ethnic minority. It is our distaste for that casual statement of hatred that should tell us something about the development of the American character. It should tell us something hopeful about ourselves, as well as something not so attractive about that part of American culture that was prevalent in those days.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 prohibited any new immigrants from China from permanent residence in the United States, if it was possible for them to be employed in the mining industry. That pretty much excluded everyone from China, since it was impossible to prove you could not work in mining. There were a few exemptions. You could come as a student or a teacher although you had to leave after that. But that’s about it.

Any Chinese immigrant who was already here, was allowed to stay on, but anyone who left the United States for any reason would not be allowed to come back to family and friends.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was supposed to last just 10 years, but it was renewed for another 10 years, then made permanent. In 1917, the ban was extended to all Asians. No more could come in, and those who were already here could not re-enter if they left.

And citizenship was out of the question for any Asian.

Beyond simple ethnic hatred, the main argument against immigration was cultural. The ethnic and cultural values of America must be preserved. If you let in all those Chinese, you’d turn America in a land of pagoda type houses and Asian temples.

The same argument eventually went to other ethnic and religious groups. Jews became a special target. So were eastern Europeans. We had to preserve American culture, American values, and American ethnicity. In 1924, the Quota Act was passed. Immigration would be allowed according to a strict quota system based on the existing racial, ethnic, and other characteristics of the population already here.

The prejudice was accompanied by a common slur. Those immigrants were criminals, a threat to civilized society. In fact, in each case, immigrants were more respectful of the law than any other group in this country, but humans often make a point of not letting facts interfere with opinion.

There was a lot of support for anti-immigrant policies in those days. We had to preserve America as it was, without adulterating it with foreign values and alien races. We had to keep those unruly criminals out. I remember the strength of those arguments well into my youth.

My parents were married secretly. The secret became a non-secret when it became apparent that a new baby was on the way, which is to say me. One relative was especially vocal. She did not want to be related to some little Polack child. She was not mollified when it was pointed out that my grandparents had, in fact, emigrated from the Ukraine. The new relatives were Catholic and they were from Eastern Europe and that was enough to justify rejection.

Memory fades with each decade, but there was one incident that still intrudes.

I must have been little more than a toddler. I remember walking with another family member in a supermarket. I caught sight of one of my mother’s favorites, a brother-in-law. He was married to her sister. I remember Uncle Johnny as a big man with huge hands. He had a deep voice and a friendly smile. His skin was a little darker than mine. I remember calling out to him and running ahead in the supermarket aisle. I turned and introduced him. “This is my Uncle Johnny.” I remember feeling kind of proud.

Johnny smiled and held out his hand, only to see my afternoon guardian turn and walk away. He must have detected my confusion. He continued smiling and his outstretched hand patted my shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said softly, and gently sent me on to follow the family member who was supposed to be watching me.

Times change. The Quota Act was abolished in 1965 with the new Immigration and Nationality Act, over the angry objections of conservatives. Hatred and fear remain. Targets of ethnic and religious hatred seem to turn, slower than the seasons but just as inevitably. Along with that fear, the arguments and rationalizations are constant. They may always be with us. We must be kept safe. We must preserve our culture.

The famous Taco warning has, for many of us, become a punchline.

My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.

Marco Gutierrez, Latinos for Trump, September 1, 2016

We laugh, but many of our fellow citizens take that sort of warning to heart. Cultural acceptance is scary for the more timid among us.

That fear does have a history. It is older than the Chinese Exclusion Act and it is as new as the newest form of current conservative thought. Arguments continue in favor of further restricting non-white immigration, while taking legal steps to make sure immigrants can still come from white countries.

Now, I say to myself, why aren’t we letting people in from Europe? I have many friends, many, many friends–and nobody wants to talk this, nobody wants to say it–but I have many friends from Europe. They want to come in. People I know. Tremendous people. Hard-working people. They can’t come in.

Donald Trump at CPAC, March 15, 2013

Someday this latest season of racial, religious, and ethnic invective will change. Muslims, refugees from the Middle East and their children, immigrants from Mexico and South America will all be accepted.

Hatred and fear will be directed at other vulnerable groups. Some new Donald Trump will turn up to articulate that hatred and fear.

And the fight against bigotry will begin again.


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