Daily Archives: 11 November 2004

Good Soldier Outlier: Two Commanding Officers

During my stint as company clerk of HQ Co., 95th Civil Affairs Group, in Ft. Gordon, GA, in 1970-71, I served under two commanding officers (COs): one white, one black, both former enlisted men.

The white captain was a grizzled, foul-mouthed, unambitious hillbilly who took good care of his men but otherwise wasn’t officer material. However, I believe he had received a battlefield commission, which would indicate a capacity for inspirational leadership under extraordinarily dire circumstances–when push came to shoot, to coin a phrase.

I don’t remember his name, but I would sometimes get mysterious phone calls from supply sergeants or mess sergeants in other units with whom he had worked out some mutually advantageous exchange of rations or equipment. And on one occasion I became embroiled in his defense of one of his greenest soldiers, a 17-year-old who had bought a ring on credit from a jewelry store in Augusta whose letterhead motto was “Serving servicemen for over 50 years”–or words to that effect.

The owner had written to ask the CO to intervene and force his lowly private to stop defaulting on his ring payments. The CO was not sympathetic, and asked me to draft a letter saying the jeweler should have known better than to extend credit to a minor without an adult cosigner. In my response I included a gratuitous rhetorical slap at the end, asking whether the store’s motto might be more accurately rendered, “Serving ourselves at the expense of servicemen for over 50 years.” He read it, grunted, and signed it. I posted it, and we never heard anything more about that soldier or his ring.

Capt. Parham was the opposite in almost every respect: all spit-and-polish, demanding yet diplomatic, ambitious for himself and his men, and determined to make a difference. He was an inspiring boss.

In an effort to improve relations with the off-base community, he organized an excursion to Gracewood State School and Hospital for the mentally retarded, just down Tobacco Road a ways. (Tobacco Road runs right into Ft. Gordon.) We were all in uniform and caused quite a stir, with many shouts of “Look at all the soldier boys! Look at all the soldier boys!”

Capt. Parham and I were both taking college courses toward a degree, and I typed up more than a few of his term papers. One of them was about Flannery O’Connor, I remember. I took two extension classes from Augusta College: a physical anthropology course and then a humanities course that was mostly Greek and Roman classics. I remember reading Plato during one all-night shift guarding the motor pool.

It was during Capt. Parham’s time that a chess fad passed through the Orderly Room. In fact, he probably initiated it. I’ve never played much chess, but at that time I happened to know precisely one opening, the Queen’s Gambit, which I put to good use the one time I couldn’t avoid a challenge. I checkmated my opponent in about 3 moves, acquired a reputation as a chess genius, and no one challenged me again. At least not until Capt. Parham brought in a checkerboard one day, challenged me, and proceeded to wipe my checkers off the board in short order.

Capt. Parham had ambitions for his men, too. And I let him down big time. It wasn’t just that I didn’t meet his high standards of spit and polish. He recommended me for NCO (Non-Commissioned Officers) school, and I was too stupid to know what I was getting into. It wasn’t until I got to Ft. McClellan, AL, and met a few representatives of my prospective cohort that I started getting cold feet, despite their enthusiasm about the presence of so many women on base at the WAC School there. Fortunately, I was asked as soon as I reported for duty whether I really wanted to be there. I replied, “No, sir!” and was on the next bus back to Ft. Gordon.

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Iris Chang, requiescat in pace

Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking and other works, has died at the age of 36.

via Arts & Letters Daily

Jonathan Dresner posts a brief assessment of her work at the Japanese history blog Frog in a Well, and re-examines his own reactions at the History News Network’s Cliopatria.

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Why All Reasonable People Agree

Mark Bauerlein explains in The Chronicle:

The first protocol of academic society might be called the Common Assumption. The assumption is that all the strangers in the room at professional gatherings are liberals. Liberalism at humanities meetings serves the same purpose that scientific method does at science assemblies. It provides a base of accord. The Assumption proves correct often enough for it to join other forms of trust that enable collegial events. A fellowship is intimated, and members may speak their minds without worrying about justifying basic beliefs or curbing emotions….

After Nixon crushed McGovern in the 1972 election, the film critic Pauline Kael made a remark that has become a touchstone among conservatives. “I don’t know how Richard Nixon could have won,” she marveled. “I don’t know anybody who voted for him.” While the second sentence indicates the sheltered habitat of the Manhattan intellectual, the first signifies what social scientists call the False Consensus Effect. That effect occurs when people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. If the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way….

The final social pattern is the Law of Group Polarization. That law–as Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of political science and of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has described–predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck

Bruce Robison reviews Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, by Eric Enno Tamm (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2004) in American Scientist Online:

Ricketts is perhaps best known for having been the prototype for “Doc,” the central figure in John Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954). By most accounts the fictional Doc, who loved women, beer and truth, was much like the man who operated Pacific Biological Laboratories on California’s Monterey Peninsula from 1923 until his untimely death in 1948.

Ricketts, who supplied prepared biological specimens to schools, was a gifted field ecologist. His coastal collecting trips led to a seminal book on intertidal ecology, Between Pacific Tides (Stanford University Press, 1939). It went beyond taxonomy to describe intertidal animals holistically, placing them in the dynamic context of their habitat and ecology. Concepts that we now take for granted, such as competitive exclusion, and habitat descriptors such as wave shock, were novel then and seemed to threaten the established order. Ricketts was “a lone, largely marginalized scientist” with no university degrees, and he had to struggle long and hard against the “dry ball” traditionalists of the time just to get the book published. Yet today it is widely regarded as a classic work in marine ecology and is now in its fifth edition.

Ricketts’s lab on Cannery Row was a magnet for scientists, writers, prostitutes, musicians, artists, academics and bums. Gatherings there included discussions of the interplay of philosophy, science and art, and often evolved into raucous, happy parties that went on for days.

Steinbeck was a frequent visitor, and Ricketts had a strong humanistic and naturalistic influence on the writer’s work in the 1930s and 1940s. Ricketts’s persona appeared in several of Steinbeck’s most powerful novels, including In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Steinbeck occasionally referred to himself as a biologist, and ecological themes run through much of his finest work, as Tamm points out. Tamm also notes that except for East of Eden (1952), Steinbeck’s fiction and his literary reputation declined after Ricketts’s death.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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