Saturday, August 19, 2017

Review: Separated @ Birth / Twinsters

As the title implies, Separated @ Birth is about Korean twin sisters who were, well, separated at birth and grew up in different countries. Is also demonstrates the power of the Internet, as one (Anaïs Bordier) initiates contact with the other (Samantha Futerman) after watching her in a kevjumba YouTube video in 2012.

It’s an astounding story – Anaïs was adopted by an upper-middle class Parisian family and was an only child, while Samantha was adopted by a middle class Jewish family in New York as the youngest of three children. At the time, Anaïs was in fashion school in London, while Samantha worked in Los Angeles building an acting career in Hollywood.

The book follows a sort of she-said, the-other-said kind of format that builds up around several key events:
  1. Their first meeting (how’s that going to go?)
  2. Confirmation they’re actually twin sisters (is it true?)
  3. Meeting each other’s families (how are they going to take it?), and
  4. Traveling to Korea together for an adoptee conference
I think the most touching and poignant part of the book comes after the Korea trip, when Anaïs reevaluates some of the insecurities she’s dealt with all her life. It’s a recurring theme I’ve seen in the other adoptees I’ve known: “Who’s going to love me if my own mother didn’t love me enough to keep me?”

This moment is even better in the documentary film version of their story, Twinsters. Samantha was savvy enough to realize early on that she was in a very marketable position, and involved a circle of friends to help film the experience. While the book is upbeat and interesting, the movie is compellingly emotional. What you’re watching is not a recreation – you’re actually in the room as everything unfolds.

The only thing I didn't like about the movie was the stress it put Anaïs through. While I'm sure she consented to everything, she’s an introvert and her family is much more private, so she wasn’t quite as used to all the cameras filming all the time. It felt like I was intruding on an intensely personal experience, and didn't belong there.

My recommendation: read the book first (at least half-way) and then see the movie. It’ll help explain the whole “pop” thing.

Twinsters is available on Netflix’s streaming service.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Duty, dignity, and disgust

It's gratifying to see this officer's dignity and commitment to duty... ...while also painful to see Scriptures misused this way.

I've been trying to make sense of the president's "on many sides" statement on Tuesday, where he equated an act of what the Attorney General called "domestic terrorism" with actions by anti-fascists that he said "were very, very violent."

On one side, you have a guy who plowed his car into a crowd of neo-Nazi counter protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 others. On the other, you have a crowd of allegedly "non-permit carrying" people who were "swinging clubs" yet resulted in no reported injuries.

That's not the same thing -- you can't say in this situation, "well, I guess both sides are wrong."

How is it that it's OK for Trump to advocate violence against the people that disagree with him, and yet decry people carrying clubs? Would have it been better if they were protecting themselves with guns?

"Both sides were wrong" is appropriate when kids argue over who gets to play with a toy. But that's a judgment made by an adult when they're concerned with some kind of bigger picture, like "playing with a toy is not as important as getting along with your sister."

You don't apply that to Cain-and-Abel type stuff. Can you imagine Adam sitting Cain down and saying, "Well, son, it's not right to kill people and all, but I have to admit, Abel was at fault for embarrassing you."

Two other aspects about this story bother me. First, he talked about waiting for all the fact to come in, but that didn't stop him from making a statement about the foreign terrorist attack in Spain right away. [Source] Apparently, when a foreigner kills you, that's something the president will decry right away, but when a racist white American kills you, it's something that requires some research.

Second, he said the anti-fascists didn't have a permit, but in fact they did. So even when the president "waits for the facts," he's still wrong.

By the way, did you know President Trump has a winery in Charlottesville? Apparently, we won't let national tragedies keep us from advertising our conflicts of interest. How crass...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Renaming American military bases

The Army Times recently asked readers if the Army should rename military posts named after Confederates. From the comments I read, most people felt we should keep them the same -- that we shouldn't try to change history. [Source]

But I think we should rename them. This does not destroy or erase history, as if history could ever be destroyed or erased. Rather, this is a question of what we value in our history.

Three reasons we should change the name:
  1. We shouldn't honor those fought in defense of slavery (Why not? Please see comment below)
  2. It's unconscionable that we should expect black Americans to serve in places that honor those who fought to preserve their enslavement, and
  3. It's offensive to those like me -- a person who continues to fight in defense of the Constitution -- to see a place that honors those who turned their backs on it.
It's not like we have a shortage of heroes from that era. If you want to remember the Civil War, why not choose from the more than 360,000 loyal soldiers who died during that period? [Source] Or one of the 1,500 Medal of Honor awardees? (Perhaps Or a few of the 15 MoH recipients from the U.S. Colored Troops?) [Source] Naming a U.S. military base after someone who fought against the U.S. military is equivalent to spitting in the faces of a veteran's surviving family.

Take, for example, Fort Hood, named after John Bell Hood, a Civil War general who commanded the Texas Brigade. In 1942, when World War II required new military bases, Texas was selected for one of the new training areas, and the state apparently picked Hood as a fitting person to honor.

Note that this was during segregation -- before the Army integrated races (1947), and way before the Civil Rights era (1960s) -- so the federal government was trying to be sensitive to the presence of federal troops in Southern states.

But with the developments we've seen in the past 70 years, these sensitivities are anachronisms, and we need to question the values that led to those decisions.

So who would be a fitting person Civil War veteran to replace Hood? Personally, I think General George Thomas, the Union General who defeated him in battle at Chickamauga and Nashville. The battle at Nashville was one of the few -- if not only -- times a Confederate Army had been truly crushed in the field. Hood retreated from the battle to Mississippi and ended up resigning his commission. (Hardly the stuff of epitaphs.)

Thomas was a Virginian who remained loyal to the Union, and was disowned by his family for that loyalty. Sure, there are others who've made greater sacrifices, but I think "Fort Thomas" would be a fitting, symbolic rebuke to what we've valued to up to this point.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Missile marksmanship

My grandfather left behind a box of military stuff. Some of it was pretty rare, like his Korean Service Medal (IAW AR 600-8-22 §5-9a) and Army of Occupation Medal-Germany with Berlin Airlift clasp (IAW AR 600-8-22 §5-11b). Others, like a spare Good Conduct Medal and some oak leaf clusters, you can buy anywhere.

And from his time with a missile unit in Pennsylvania, he had one of these -- a Marksman Badge with Missile component bar. Just like with "Flamethrower," you don't see too many people with the "Missile" component bar these days. For me, personally, I've never seen a single person with one on active duty, but that may only be because I don't work in that part of the Army.

Most people that I see with marksmanship badges have "Rifle" or "Pistol," or maybe even "Grenade," but I suppose it's theoretically possible to qualify with missiles even today -- AR 600-8-22 Table 8-2 still permits those qualified to wear this component bar.

I had to laugh, though, that he just a "Marksman," rather than "Sharpshooter" or "Expert." When you're at an M4/M16 range, that means you hit only 60-74% (23-29 out of 40) of your targets. Now, I don't know what the qualification process was for missiles, but I chuckle at the thought of him hitting only 28 targets out of 40 missiles fired.

I guess it's true: "Almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades -- not when qualifying with missiles.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Old money, lasting lessons

My grandfather collected several kinds of things: coins, hats, German beer steins, and -- believe it or not -- pens. This box was just one of two pen boxes that he left behind.

But it was his coin collection that I remember most from my childhood -- not his uncirculated coins, but the ones he'd gotten from the places he'd been. Some of them were from before the war; it was like looking back in time....

Now that I'm older, I have an even great appreciation for them -- coins from countries that no longer exist (South Vietnam), former colonies (Hong Kong with Queen Elizabeth on them), and ones who've since adopted the euro (Portugal, Italy, etc).

He even had some Series 641 (1965-1968) Military Payment Certificates left over from his time in Germany, and a few Weimar-era Reichsbanknotes -- the stuff people used to wallpaper their houses when hyperinflation destroyed the German economy. According to a 1924 Los Angeles Times story (via Wikipedia) banks "turned the marks over to junk dealers by the ton" to be recycled as paper. To this day, inflation is anathema in Germany because of stuff like this.

Yet the thing with most poignant lesson is this 1942 French coin. It doesn't say "Republique Française." It says "French State." And it doesn't promote such liberal notions as "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." Rather, it reads "Work, Family, Country."

The difference in mindset is striking -- in defeat, Vichy France had turned inward and distinctly more conservative. So the question arises -- even 150 years after the French Revolution, was Vichy France an "isolated, exceptional phenomenon or one rooted in often long-standing traditions of public life"? [Source]

It's a question I find myself asking about the United States today, as we undergo this period of conservatism following the developments of the past 8 years (our first black president, LGTQs serving openly in the military, and de-criminalization of marijuana use). Are these attitudes something isolated, or have they been there all along? I regret to say it, but it definitely seems like the latter.

In many ways, the similarities between 1942 Vichy France and the U.S. today are striking. Marshal Pétain led a traditionalist government with strong ties to the aristocracy and the church. President Trump has touted his business acumen, filled his cabinet with the very rich (business elites being the closest thing we have to an aristocracy) and -- despite being in his third marriage -- drew strong support from the social conservatives of the religious right.

Pétain drew on Gallic imagery (such as that double-edged axe, the labrys) to build legitimacy, emphasized a return to "the true France," and promised to regenerate a country suffering from la décadence of the Third Republic. President Trump has promised to "Make America Great Again," consistently contrasted his performance against President Obama's (even when it's no different), and touts mediocrity as success to build legitimacy.

Pétain also spoke directly to the French people frequently via national radio, calling them to turn inwards and withdraw from the world, which he always portrayed as a hostile and threatening place full of endless dangers for the French. [Source] Similarly, Trump frequently uses Twitter to reach directly to the public, and has withdrawn from both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Fortunately, Vichy France didn't last long. By 1944, the country was liberated and the Fourth Republic would soon begin. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité retook its place on the nation's coinage, and the fear of Germany would be replaced by partnership in the European Community.

I'd like to think our present mindset, with all its incumbent fears, will also pass quickly.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

VItal, but not that vital, pt. 2

The Army's Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program has been suspended due to concerns about enlistees' loyalty. That's a shame -- it's been around for 8 years without incident and produced some outstanding soldiers, but conservatives' fears seem to Trump the program's merits. It has since been defunded for FY 2018.

For more details about the program and how it worked, International Student Voice Magazine has a great article (Source), but basically "MAVNI gave the opportunity to certain legal non-citizens who were fully licensed health care professionals or who spoke one of the 44 sought-after languages to join the U.S. Military. In return, they were naturalized as U.S. citizens. This program was developed because the Army had a difficult time recruiting qualified healthcare professionals and recruits who could speak certain languages."

So, let's say, you were a Chinese citizen here in the U.S. on a student visa -- not necessarily a permanent resident -- and you wanted to earn U.S. citizenship. Chinese is (or was) a critical needs language. The MAVNI program would have allowed you to join the U.S. Army, and with honorable service, contribute to the U.S. economy for the rest of your days. [Source]

But one problem the Army couldn't seem figure out was how to properly utilize all the MAVNI enlistees.

Take Saral Shrestha, for example -- the 2012 Soldier of the Year. He qualified for the program because he spoke Nepalese and Urdu, a language common in Afghanistan and used in Pakistan (India, too), and enlisted in 2009. How did the Army make use of his skills?

They made him a mechanic. As he explained, "During my deployment in 2009 I mostly worked as a mechanic, but I did get a chance to translate and help my command." It's nice that he got to translate a little bit, but why recruiters bring him in as a mechanic instead of a linguist? My guess is because that's what his recruiter's office needed to focus on that particular month.

So while the Army felt that he was of vital national interest because of his language skills, recruiters saw him as a way to meet their particular quotas. It's an agency problem.

The MAVNI program's not the only the only example I can think of where the Army drops the ball on utilizing soldiers' language skills. There's also Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus (FLPB). With this program, it doesn't matter if you're in a language coded billet or not, the Army will pay you for simply maintaining proficiency in a "critical needs" language.

I've written about the supposed merits of the FLPB before (Link), but there's another consideration I hadn't thought of before:

Does FLPB help assignment officers put the right people in the right jobs? Unfortunately, the answer this question -- like all the ones in that post -- is a great big No.

Assignment officers have a great many factors to take into account when assigning someone, but a soldier's language skills (apart from filling language coded billets) don't matter a single bit. When I was assigned to Korea, it had nothing to do with the fact I spoke Korean -- it had to do with the fact I was a logistics captain and they had a shortage. The Korean thing was mere icing on the cake.

As another example, consider someone I used to work with: a Haitian-American logistics platoon leader at Fort Hood. At the time, the U.S. was taking part in an earthquake relief effort in Haiti. She would have been an ideal officer to take part in that mission.

But was she ever called up? No. Why not? Because the Army isn't going to try assembling an ad hoc team of folks who've never worked together before for a particular mission -- it prefers to maintain unit integrity. And even if there's a particular need for a translator, the Army will scrub the files of enlisted people already in the unit rather than bring in some outside officer. It just doesn't work that way.

Sadly, the Army's talent management systems seem incapable of tracking and properly assigning language-talented soldiers to utilize their skills. The MAVNI program, like the FLPB, could have been wonderfully useful to the Army and the United States in general. It's a shame we couldn't get our act together to make it work.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

VItal, but not that vital, pt. 1

Ten Army Reservists are suing the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. They enlisted under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program because they possess valuable skills sets, but have not shipped out due to concerns about how the program is managed. [Source]

Concerns about the programs surfaced in an Inspector General report from late June, called "Evaluation of Military Services' Compliance with Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest Program Security Reviews and Monitoring Programs." The report is classified, which makes evaluating its problems difficult. [Source]

The program has been around since late in the Bush 43 administration, but according to Fox News, "concern over management of the program has grown over recent months." [Source] I read this to mean that concerns have only popped up since the beginning of the Trump administration.

The conservative-leaning Center for Immigration Studies opposes the MAVNI program, asserting that "It is unnecessary to meet recruiting goals, most aliens would not meet the educational or background standards of our modern fighting forces, and it introduces needless risk into the equation of national defense and security." [Source]

That may be the case, but that's not the newly enlisted reservists' fault. The program was started when there WAS a problem with recruitment, and from what I can tell, the issue is that candidates are enlisted, then expected to support themselves while their clearance is reviewed. It's only been recently that immigrants' applications have come under heightened scrutiny.

So while, yes, the program can be better designed, it seems excessive for Republican Congressman Steve Russell to say -- and for Fox to highlight in its article -- that "The program has been replete with problems, to include foreign infiltration." The Fox source acknowledges that the program has had many success stories, including the 2012 Soldier of the Year, Sgt. Saral Shrestha, who from Nepal. [Source]

Plus, Fox reported that "independent analyses have found MAVNI recruits out-perform non-MAVNI soldiers in critical areas," and admits that "as of yet there is no evidence in the public domain that ISIS, Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist groups have penetrated the MAVNI program." [Source] To the extent we've been infiltrated, we've been infiltrated with some stellar soldiers.

I hope the Department of Defense can find a way to improve and continue the program. As I read about Chinese students willing to join the U.S. Army (Source), I can't help but feel proud that my employer has the same kind of global mindset that I do.

After all, it'd be a loss to the nation's vital interests to shut the door on them, and lock them out.