Citizens Police Academy: Use of Force and Active Shooter


CPAs are popular all over the U.S.

The most anticipated session of the Hatboro and Horsham Citizens Police Academy occurred two weeks ago with the presentation of Use of Force as it applies to the difficult duties of criminal arrests and preserving public safety.  In the wake of recent controversies over the use of deadly force by police officers, I anticipated an extremely interesting presentation and lively discussion.

The Use of Force presentation was provided by Officer Mike Peters, a veteran of the Horsham Police Department since 1988.

The presentation began with the definition of Use of Force, which was mind-opening from the perspective that there is no single definition of Use of Force that’s generally accepted by police or other experts in the field of law enforcement.  For the purposes of our seminar the standard cited by the International Association of Chiefs of Police was used.

The amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling suspect.

From there the discussion moved to several key United States Supreme Court (USSC) cases, specifically Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor. 

Tennessee v. Garner involved a fatal police shooting of an unarmed burglary suspect who was attempting to flee from arrest.  A federal Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling against the shooting victim’s father in a $2 million lawsuit, citing the shooting as an excessive and unreasonable means of effecting Garner’s arrest.

Graham v. Connor involved the forcible arrest of a man exhibiting erratic behavior, including an apparent shoplifting, while in the throes of a diabetic attack.  Although officers had restrained Graham forcibly, he had been released as soon the true basis of the incident and Graham’s behavior were determined.  However, Graham still took police to task for the use of excessive force.

Both cases led the USSC to begin to identify those circumstances where force can be used appropriately.  As in Tennessee v. Garner, the Court has stated rather clearly that deadly force should only be used on a fleeing felon who poses a significant threat of harm to others.  In Graham v. Connor the USSC ruled that use of force should be applied under the “reasonableness standard” of the Fourth Amendment.

Next Officer Peters launched into a discussion of Pennsylvania’s legal standard for use of force as cited in Title 18 (Crime and Offenses), Chapter 5, § 508.  The Code sets forth the following (not all-inclusive):

  • Law enforcement need not retreat from efforts to effect an arrest because of resistance or violence.
  • Officers are justified in using such force as they believe necessary to make an arrest; to defend themselves; or to protect the public in the course of their duties.
  • Deadly force is authorized only when the officer believes such force is necessary to prevent serious injury or death to themselves or others.
  • Officers are authorized to use force, including deadly force, to prevent the escape of any prisoner from a correctional facility.

The process by which the officer’s belief that force is necessary is articulated in the Use of Force Report. These are used widely throughout the country to document an officer’s perspective in a use-of-force incident.

Use of Force Reports will include the following (not all-inclusive):

  • Background information, including number of officers and subjects involved, witnesses and specifics of the location (layout, tightness of quarters, maneuverability, obstacles, etc.)
  • Approach or why contact was initiated; reasonable suspicion, probable cause, warrants, disturbance call, etc.
  • Tactical considerations: approach, distance, positioning, tactics
  • Early warning signs or pre-attack posture of the subject (if applicable)
  • Conditions of the subject: mental, emotional, drugs/alcohol, crisis, control, etc.
  • Weapons: on the scene, available to officer and to subject
  • Special considerations: perception of threat; officer’s knowledge of the subject; officer injury, conditioning, exhaustion

Evaluation of use-of-force incidents will include all evidence and the perceptions of the officer(s) involved as expressed in interview and on the Use of Force report.  In addition, such evaluation will look at physical comparisons between the subject and officer (size, weight, gender, skill level of subject); specifics and limitations in the physical location, the subject’s perspective if available, steps of escalation and de-escalation, etc.

Obvious principles in the use of force normally apply during an arrest for known or suspected criminal conduct, which can occur under circumstances of reasonable suspicion; probable cause; or known wants and warrants.  Arrest can only be achieved when the subject/suspect is under control.

An often overlooked aspect of any use of force incident is the suspect/subject’s frame-of-mind and willingness to obey lawful commands.  Often this decision is clouded by alcohol, drug use, mental instability, or their mindset towards authority.

Use of force must cease once control has been effected.  An officer’s responsibility is to determine how much force is necessary to overcome resistance.  Part of that decision-making process are situational components, such as number of responding officers, physical characteristics of the subject (size, gender, conditioning, etc.), and the choice of options available to the officer(s).  These options, known as the Use of Force Continuum, are in ascending order of intensity:

  • simple dialogue
  • escort techniques
  • pain compliance (very difficult to use on actively resisting individuals)
  • mechanical control (e.g. painful manipulation of the arms)
  • chemical sprays (hard to control, harmful to all in close quarters)
  • impact weapons (e.g. batons)
  • firearms

image004The goal of any confrontation is to exert control.  An officer must have the mindset that he must win such confrontations 100% of the time (self-preservation), while considering the likelihood of establishing control vs. the potential damage to the subject.  Finally, the use of force frequently escalates and de-escalates several times in the course of one confrontation.

At this point, I have to be honest in my disappointment at the way the use of force presentation was structured.  This was the one presentation to which I was most looking forward; and I was disappointed for several reasons.  My primary disappointment was in the lost opportunity to have a frank, open, and honest discussion among a somewhat diverse audience that appeared extremely interested in the topic, particularly given recent controversies over police confrontations in places like Ferguson, MO and New York City.

My opinion, which I expressed to one of our instructors, was that too much information was crammed into this session, in part due to the inclusion of a presentation on active shooters which followed.  My suggestion was that Use of Force should be the lone topic for the evening with a suitable portion of the session dedicated to open discussion.  I believe this would serve as an opportunity for the instructors to provide their own most personal viewpoints and to instill a level of confidence in the public to whom these sessions are intended to reach.

To underscore this, I spoke to one of my fellow CPA attendees, a Liberian immigrant, who I discovered has been driving to Horsham from Northeast Philadelphia (roughly a 60-90 minute round trip) simply for the opportunity to learn and understand more about the role of law enforcement and the community-cop relationship.

Lawrence related his biggest question concerned why the community-cop relationship was so contentious.  (Living in Philadelphia certainly would provide a greater opportunity to witness such contention, in my opinion.) 

Lawrence framed the issue from his perspective in one way that confirmed some of my own opinions about the community-cop relationship and race.  He described his general experience with the police by stating that his limited interactions were much more contentious when a black cop was involved.  I took that to mean that for him it is more an issue of authority than race.

And that’s one crucial element of the community-cop relationship that might have benefitted from an open and honest classroom discussion on Use of Force.


Active Shooter

The second half of the session was a presentation by the seminar’s work horse, SGT Pete Van Dolsen, Hatboro PD, that addressed Active Shooter situations, such as those at Columbine HS in Colorado (1999) and Virginia Tech University (2007).

Several crucial factors set active shooter situations apart from other criminal shootings:

  • The events are often well-planned by the perpetrators.
  • The shooters are very mission-oriented and as a result appear to remain very calm among the chaos they create.
  • The perpetrators often have trouble coping; are anti-social; and view themselves the victim of some wrong-doing

Prior to the calamity at Columbine, the police strategy in active shooter incidents was to surround, organize, then overwhelm the shooter(s).  Unfortunately the carnage at Columbine and the realization that in such incidents a death can occur every 8 seconds, changed that approach to one of immediate entry, search, confront, and arrest/neutralize.  The examples cited, going all the way back to the University of Texas clock tower shootings in 1966, illustrate that the quicker law enforcement engages the shooter, the sooner the killing of innocents stops.

There is no more time to kill when you are trying to evade capture or the aggressive suppression by trained officers.  In most cases, the shooter ends up killing themselves or completing their plan through suicide-by-cop.  In any case, aggressive police intervention changes the dynamic dramatically.  The shooter becomes focused on the police intervention.

One startling fact offered was the frequency in which shootings at schools has escalated.  Between 1966-96 there were 15 reported school shootings.  In 2013-14 there 17!

After several workplace shootings, my employer began offering training in surviving potential active shooter situations.  The need for this training was underscored in 2013 with the mass shooting that occurred at the Washington Navy Yard.

Our training emphasizes the following actions to take in an active shooter situation:

  1. Flee the area if at all possible
  2. If unable to flee, shelter in place preferably in a room with a door that locks without a window.
  3. If sheltering in place, make certain to follow all law enforcement instructions regardless of your state-of-mind or your assumptions of the shooter’s status.  Responders may not be convinced that all shooters are in custody or neutralized.
  4. If cornered with no escape path, fight with whatever is available.

Police reactions will adhere to the following pattern:

  • Contact mode:  location of the shooter is known
    • Contain, control, communicate, gather resources
  • Search mode:  location of shooter unknown
  • Rescue mode:  subject neutralized or gone from immediate area

First responder priorities in an active shooter situation will be the protection of:

  1. Shooting victims
  2. Other citizens
  3. First responders themselves
  4. Shooters

And so ended a very long night of rather depressing subject matter.

Citizens Police Academy: District Courts

citizens-police-academy-wilmington-delawareSession 3 of the Hatboro and Horsham Citizens Police Academy (CPA) dealt with District Courts, the most local of courts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania judicial system.  The seminar was provided District Justice Paul N. Leo, Magisterial District 38-1-14, located in Hatboro, Pa.

Justice Leo was a police officer in the Upper Moreland Police Department.  He has been elected to his third term (six years each) on the District Court.  In addition to giving his time to the Hatboro and Horsham CPA, he provides instruction at the Montgomery County Community College Municipal Police Academy.  In this capacity, the Honorable Justice teaches police cadets the basic and finer points of criminal law and the legal system.

Frankly, the law – like economic theory – tends to make my eyes water and ears bleed.

(For this reason, I take no responsibility for inaccurate legalese which may – or may not – be found in the following.)

Judge Leo was able to make the legal system – as seen through its basic, most local interaction with the average citizen – both interesting and relatable.


Click here: Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System for an extremely informative, interactive presentation of the PUJS pyramid style organization.

  • Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System consists of:
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court – Highest State Court
      • Established in 1684 (Oldest appellate court in U.S.)
      • 7 justices request selected appeals from Superior and Commonwealth Courts
    • Superior Court and Commonwealth Courts
      • Superior Court (15 judges)
        • Final Arbiter in most legal matters, primarily criminal and most civil matters
      • Commonwealth Court (9 judges)
        • Established in 1968 and unique to Pennsylvania
        • Primary responsibility is with issues involving State and Local governments and regulatory agencies
      • Superior and Commonwealth Courts hear appeals from Court of Common Pleas
    • Court of Common Pleas (451 judges)
      • 60 Judicial Districts (67 counties in PA, 14 counties combined into 7 districts)
        • General trial courts for both criminal and civil cases
        • Appeals from District Court decisions
    • Minor Courts (526 judges)
      • 526 magisterial districts
        • includes 13 Allegheny County DJs serving Pittsburgh
      • 29 Philadelphia District Courts (27 General, 2 Traffic)
      • Civil trials
      • All minor criminal and some serious criminal trials
        • Decides which criminal cases refer to Court of Common Pleas
      • Preliminary hearings and arraignments
  • Montgomery County Courts consist of 30 District Courts
    • District Justice Paul N. Leo, Judicial District 38-1-14
Paul leo

District Magistrate Paul N. Leo (MD 38-1-14)

In District Court, Judge Leo is responsible for hearing criminal arraignments and deciding – on prima facie grounds – the likelihood that a crime has been committed and whether the alleged perpetrator should be held over for trial or if bail should be set (except for cases involving murder and voluntary manslaughter that automatically go before the Court of Common Pleas). He also decides which criminal cases are sufficiently serious for Court of Common Pleas.

In addition, Judge Leo hears all civil cases in disputed amounts up to $12,000., summary offenses and municipal ordinance violations.

In his presentation to the CPA, Judge Leo also touched on subjects such as:

  • The hierarchy of offenses in the criminal code that range from Summary and Misdemeanor (Classes 1-3) offenses through Felonies (Classes 1-3) and Super Felony charges for drug dealing and abuse of a child.
  • Workings of the bail bond system
  • Domestic abuse and implications of Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders
  • Role of the Prothonotary
  • Search warrants

One of the more interesting topics was a discussion of the “four corner” concept in the presentation of Probable Cause, which is normally the responsibility of an arresting police officer.  The concept requires that all facts and evidence substantiating an arrest and the alleged commission of a crime or violation must be contained within the four corners of any document submitted to The Court, particularly in criminal matters.

The concept places the onus for documenting any violation or crime on the arresting officer.  It requires a meticulous attention to detail and relies on the ability of the officer to properly articulate all important facts and supporting information without providing the Defense an easy out on technicality or substantive error.

As you can imagine, some of the stories related on this issue and others, gleaned from years of experience on the bench were enlightening, troubling, or downright funny.  The impression one gets is that a day on the bench cannot be confused with a day on the beach; but it does have its moments.

02The judge related several issues of frustration.  One was on the parade of repeat offenders or “frequent fliers” whose experience in the legal system rivals that of the judges themselves.  Too often repeat customers of The Court know all too well the gradual escalation of court action and sanctions; and they are able to “game the system” to maintain their freedom right up to the point where serious action and incarceration might occur.

The saddest problem involves the redundant appearance of domestic violence victims, who often refuse to testify against a significant other repeatedly over separate incidences of abuse.  It’s a long-standing and difficult problem with no easy or simple solution.  The worst part is that it can eventually become a matter of life or death.

Other subjects I found interesting:

  • Law degrees are not required to serve as judges in the lowest courts (Magisterial District) or in the highest court (Pennsylvania Supreme Court); but they are required to serve on the mid-level courts (Common Pleas, Commonwealth, and Superior)
  • Conviction rate for jury trials in Montgomery County is 87%.
  • Video arraignment systems now available at incarceration sites and to The Courts is saving much in the way of costs and in freeing police officers and sheriff’s staff for other duties due to the removal of transportation complications.

courtroom-gavelOverall, Judge Leo did an excellent job of explaining – in mostly laymen terms – the conduct, operation, and expectations a participant might have of an interaction with the Minor Courts of Pennsylvania.  It’s difficult to make discussions of law sound very interesting to the man on the street.  Judge Leo made it interesting and well worth the time spent listening.

At some point, I plan to take the good Judge up on his open invitation to observe his court in action.

All courts, including local Magisterial District Courts, are open to the public.  Judge Leo’s court is located just south of “downtown” Hatboro, as part of the Victorian Village complex at 420 S. York Road.  The Judge recommends calling (215-957-5935) for The Court’s schedule before stopping in to observe the local court at work.

The Magisterial District Court for Horsham (38-1-22) is operated under District Justice Harry J. Nesbitt III, and is located at 903 Sheehy Drive, Suite A, Horsham, PA 19044 (215-675-2040).

Police Academy 19

1626For 19 times the police departments of Horsham and Hatboro, Pennsylvania have presented a seminar-type forum know as the Citizens Police Academy.  Having heard several rave reviews of the program, its organization, and presentation, I decided to register and take a look at what our local law enforcement types do and how they do it.  There are local CPAs in surrounding communities as well, such as Abington, Cheltenham, as well as both regionally and nationally.

This past Wednesday night was our first session.  And although the first session was by necessity a bit dry and full of background information and program objective, several interesting factoids were presented that would make the under-educated (police service-wise) go, “Hmmmm …”

If subsequent sessions appear to be nearly as interesting as I think they might, I intend to share some of my experiences and lessons-learned with you.  I will not promise to do so each week; but I will not let anything of value out.

By way of full disclosure I reveal the following.  I have several former and current officers in my family, including one who retired from a command position in a fairly large police department out west.  Currently, I have one extended family member serving as a patrol officer (last time I checked) in Wilmington, Delaware.

The objective of the Citizens Police Academy (CPA) are fairly obvious.

  • Improved community relations
  • Improved public safety
  • Crime prevention through the elimination of Opportunities to commit crime

PA-HorshamTwpPDOf course, the primary goal is an outreach to its citizens as a way of fostering familiarity with police roles and techniques, an understanding of what police can and cannot do, as well as a forum for citizens to learn how to prevent the most common criminal acts and how local police will react and handle those situations.  The underlying theme is to promote a tighter relationship between the community and the police, and to encourage greater participation by everyday citizens in community.

Personally, I find it to be an excellent way to show support for local law enforcement as well as taking an interest in the important role they play in making our community a safer, more attractive place to live.

My class has roughly 20-25 attendees on the first night, coming from both Horsham and Hatboro.  For those not familiar with the two communities, they are located very closely though they do not physically border each other.  The township of Upper Moreland separates the two by a thin piece of land, known by some as “the dog leg”.  However the two communities share a common school district, known appropriately enough as the Hatboro-Horsham School District.

I live in Horsham.  But in a strange quirk of U.S. Postal Service zip-coding, my residence holds a Hatboro zip code.  (Not sure how that fits the narrative here, but there ya go!)

You want to do what?!?   (generic CPA photo)

You want to do what?!?
(generic CPA photo)

Our first class was mostly a familiarization session, with some random facts and an opportunity to check out the routine equipment carried and used by today’s officers.  Most of this was interesting in a hands-on way, being able to feel the heft of the expandable baton or noticing that their sidearm ammunition used hollow-point bullets or imagining what it feels to have 50,000 volts of taser hitting your muscles from an effective range of 25 feet.

Does this come in pink? (generic CPA photo)

Does this come in pink?
(generic CPA photo)

Future classes will include patrol functions, a session on District Courts, use of force, crime scene and homicide investigations (CSI), the FBI, terrorism, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), K-9 programs, and drug awareness.

Some other random tidbits picked up in our first session:

  • Although Pennsylvania is an open carry” state, as soon as you enter a vehicle with your weapon, it is considered to be “concealed” for the purposes of requiring a Concealed Carry permit.
  • The average police shooting last 3-6 seconds from a distance of 3-6 meters where 3-6 rounds are fired.
  • Police officers “walk through” every school in the Hatboro-Horsham SD at least once a day.
  • Hatboro will be celebrating its 300th birthday in 2015!

More to follow …

Death of a President (2006)

death_of_a_presidentI have avoided watching this movie for years, because I thought it such a disrespectful way to portray a standing President, especially at a time when some were probably wishing him dead … until they realized Dick Cheney would have become POTUS!

So the other night I’m skipping around my 800 channels looking for something, anything worth watching before I turn to tried-and-true On Demand.

And there it was …! Death of a President on one of the movie package channels.

A 2006 docudrama, produced in Britain (I had thought it was a German production.) as a “high concept” political thriller.

Not so sure about the “high concept” thing, but nonetheless … The question was should I swallow my Sense of Propriety; watch it; and see what value – if any – it offered. Or should I continue to avoid it like I do the Michael Moore: Outraged activist while I’m making all this money spectacle?

I decided to watch it.

Should have held onto my Sense of Propriety just a bit longer.

Sure, I get it. If you want to do a docudrama right, you must have some Docu in the Drama! You have to have a hook to connect the theoretical subject with reality.

I’m sorry. No … You really don’t have a whack a President, no matter how unpopular he is, in order to sell an entertainment concept. His inclusion added nothing to the subject matter of what happens in a theoretical situation. POTUS could have very well have been played by some formless, off-camera subject.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The fact that George W.Bush was so roundly hated in 2006 simply made the concept more palatable to a large section of the population … both here and abroad.

If you don’t believe that, just answer the following questions honestly.

If it was the current President being portrayed in this way – simply to sell a docudrama concept as being relatable, up-to-date, and credible – what do you think the reaction would be in this country?

Do you think – at a time when Kim Jong-un could stop a comedy dead in its tracks – the movie would have a chance at seeing the bright lights of the local Bijou???

I don’t … not for a second.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

When it comes to book reviews, I can get a bit wordy.  (Hard to believe, I know!)  Usually this occurs because my goal is to encourage people, who might hold the same interests, to read a book I have found enjoyable or educational.

Such encouragement won’t be necessary for Unbroken, one of the few books I had to ask coworkers not to discuss in my presence so as not to spoil a highly anticipated read.  As an entry at the top of best-seller lists for quite some time, it had a rather large following long before I got around to picking it up.

Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote the best-seller (and eventual movie) Seabiscuit, masterfully chronicles the true life and trials of Louis Zamperini.  The main character of Unbroken, Zamperini led a fascinating – and at times tragically graphic – life.

Born of Italian parents and living as a teen in Torrance, California Zamperini fought the allure of juvenile delinquency early in life through competitive running.  He developed into a record-holding high school track star, qualified for the 1936 Olympics held – appropriately enough considering the main theme of his story – in Berlin, Germany during the swelling of European Nazism and the reign of Adolph Hitler.

Zamperini tied 5000 meter world-record holder, Dan Lash, to qualify for the '36 Olympics as a high school runner

Zamperini tied 5000 meter world-record holder, Don Lash, to qualify for the ’36 Olympics as a high school runner

While still in high school, Zamperinin’s 56-second final lap performance in the 5000 meter in the 1936 Olympics was so impressive, Der Führer Adolph Hitler pointedly asked to meet him.  Legend has it Zamperini made off with one of the Führer’s personal flags before leaving Berlin.

The circle of karma to which this event belongs is but a small segment of a truly amazing story.

Zamperini, not quite ready to call 1936 the apex of his athletic career, trains hard for the 1940 Olympics, scheduled to be held – of course – in Tokyo, Japan.  But with the drums of World War II beating throughout the world, the 1940 Olympics never occur and Louis Zamperini marches off, along with millions of other young Americans, to a world-wide conflagration to beat back fascism and the Asian Pacific designs of the Japanese Empire.

Louis Zamperini becomes one of the recognizable icons representing all those who risked everything to free half the world from tyranny.   He becomes one who survives perhaps the one collective ordeal that might rival death in combat as a more favorable outcome.

Trained as a bombardier flying in B-24 Liberators in the Pacific Theatre, Zamperini survives a non-combat air crash; barely survives a 47-day ordeal floating in a raft through the Central Pacific with two fellow crewmen – one of whom does not survive the ordeal; then spends the rest of the war at the mercy of several sadistic Japanese prison camp guards.

green hornetThere is no “spoil” in laying out the major waypoints of the Zamperini saga here because you must read the details of his journey to truly appreciate the mind-numbing difficulties faced by Zamperini and the thousands of POWs and civilians held by a Japanese culture where surrender and capitulation rendered the subjugated as inferior beings unworthy of humane treatment.

The telling of this part of the Zamperini tale would normally make the events that preceded it nothing more than prelude, yet his early life challenges and his evolution into an Olympian admired throughout the world is equally interesting.  And his fame in pre-war life has its effects on his captivity at the hands of the Japanese, a scary intersection that may have saved his life while at the same time rendering his time as a prisoner-of-war barely survivable!

Mr. Zamperini still resides in Torrance, CA at the extraordinary age of 96!

Mr. Zamperini still resides in Hollywood, CA at the extraordinary age of 96!

It is – very simply – a story that must be read to be believed.

As one might expect, his life immediately after his return from imprisonment includes post-traumatic symptoms and problems in his attempts to return to a normal life.  In this regard, Zamperini’s experiences are no different in most regards to those suffered by thousands of POWs in WWII and hundreds of others in dozens of wars.

In these “book reports” I tend to share those new things I learned or the more interesting perspectives a good read can bring to light.  But to do this here would simply spoil a fascinating twist to Zamperini’s psychological and spiritual recovery.

So if you are one of the few who – like me – waited too long to pick up a fascinating book, grab Unbroken before the movie comes out!

  • In 1998, at the spry age of 81, Zamperini was afforded the opportunity to run a leg of the Olympic torch relay for the Winter games in Nagano, Japan.  While there he requested the opportunity to meet his worst POW tormentor, but was frustrated in his attempt.
  • For those of us Philadelphia Eagles fans, Mr. Zamperini continues to attend USC football games, and is purportedly a friend of recent Eagles draft pick, QB Matt Barkley!
  • Unbroken, to be directed by actress Anjolina Jolie, is slated to appear in movie theatres for Christmas 2014.

The Admirals (Walter R. Borneman)

Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King and Bill Halsey

Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King and Bill Halsey

I have always enjoyed reading American history, especially about both the American Civil War and World War II.  One – a domestic conflict – determined the future course of America’s development as a “united nation”; the other – a world-wide conflict – resulted in America’s emergence as a global leader.

That’s not to say I have read everything out there on either subject.  And from time-to-time I run across a book that teaches me a new thing or two.  In the case of The Admirals, I gained a new perspective on America’s military leadership during the last world war to end all world wars.

Walter R. Borneman ‘s enlightening work focuses on the four admirals, who transcended the U.S. Navy’s pre-World War II rank hierarchy, to become the first five-star admirals in American history.  This development was made necessary by the British Allies’ penchant for Fleet Admirals and Field Marshalls.  The 5-star rank was added (by Act of Congress in June 1944) to the American military ranks to place U.S. admirals and generals on equal footing with their European counterparts.

Flag of the Fleet Admiral of the U.S. Navy

Flag of the Fleet Admiral of the U.S. Navy

Five-star ranks of Fleet Admiral were bestowed on the four U.S. Navy Admirals and subjects of the book: William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. Halsey, Jr.  Fifth stars have not been issued to a Navy officer since 1945 and the conclusion of World War II.

Prior to reading The Admirals I was much more familiar with the four U.S. Army Generals, who carried the five-star rank of General of the Armies:  George C.Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Henry H. Arnold.  (Omar Bradley was added as a five-star General in 1950, the only officer in U.S. military service so honored after WWII.)

In The Admirals a new appreciation is gained for the leadership exhibited by two men often overlooked in most media presentations on the War in the Pacific.  Those men are Admirals Leahy and King.  Until I picked up The Admirals, I had no appreciation for the contributions they made in the prosecution of America’s WWII efforts.

The exploits and accomplishments of Admirals Nimitz and Halsey during the Pacific campaign are well-known and referred to relatively often.  For instance, the other night I could not resist watching part of the movie, Midway in which Nimitz and Halsey are prominent.  For that reason, the following speaks mostly of Bill Leahy and Ernest King.


Admirals King, top left and Leahy, behind FDR, at the Yalta Conference in June 1945

Admirals King, top left and Leahy, behind FDR, at the Yalta Conference (June 1945)

Bill Leahy had been age-retired and was serving as Governor of Puerto Rico when the long-anticipated conflict with Japan broke with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  His friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cultivated during a period in his Navy career when – as a Navy captain – Leahy ferried the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy up and down the U.S. eastern coast.  Their relationship led to Leahy being named the Ambassador to Nazi-controlled Vichy, France when the Germans had overrun most of Western Europe.

Leahy’s role as ambassador was to influence the Vichy government from total subservience to the Nazi government, especially when it came to the remnants of the French fleet.  When the Vichy eventually fell in line with the Nazis through the elevation of the pro-German Pierre Laval to the head of its government, FDR kept his promise to the previously retired Admiral Leahy; brought him home from France; and recalled him to military service to help fight the war.

Leahy, left, and King, top right, in conference with Generals George C. Marshall, right, and Henry "Hap" Arnold, top left

Leahy, left, and King, top right, in conference with Generals George C. Marshall, right, and Henry “Hap” Arnold, top left

Tragedy befell Leahy as he prepared to leave the Vichy.  His wife, Louise died suddenly from medical complications of a rushed hysterectomy performed in France.

In time Leahy came to be viewed by  FDR and – almost as importantly – General George Marshall as the perfect candidate to become Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  From this position Bill Leahy would not only coordinate the military’s strategic implementations with FDR’s global considerations, he became the man The President relied upon more and more for all manner of domestic and foreign policy execution.

Admiral Leahy accompanied President Roosevelt to most of the major war conferences, being left behind once in Tunis and missing Casablanca due to a high fever.  He acted as a gatekeeper to information, communications, and personal access to FDR; coordinated execution of the both military and domestic presidential directives; and as Roosevelt’s health diminished, assumed responsibility for the daily functions of The Chief Executive.

The true testament to Admiral Bill Leahy’s effectiveness in those positions was his retention by Harry S Truman as his Chief of Staff for the entirety of his first term following FDR’s death in April 1945.


Fleet Admirals Nimitz and King with Admiral Raymond Spruance aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis

You gain keen insight from the earlier, less exciting chapters of The Admirals for the process through which the U.S. Navy ensures its officers and future leaders are well-rounded and thoroughly trained.  In the pre-World War II chapters, Borneman concentrates on the early careers of his four study subjects.  What is learned is the important role played by the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation (Bureau of Navy Personnel since 1942), an administrative position that controls the assignment and detailing of naval officers throughout the vast opportunities offered by Navy service.  Each of the World War II five-stars is exposed to the various types of boats, ships and planes.  From destroyers, to submarines, through cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers …

Although none of the four officers Borneman follows gains experience in every possible Navy assignment, the reader sees how each officer’s background developed and how those experiences contributed to their efforts, ideas and strategies during the war.

For a U.S. Navy plying the seas leading to an intriguing World War II theatre of operations in a Pacific Ocean covering tens of millions of square miles, this background provides perspective to the Navy’s evolution from a force built around the great battleships of the Great White Fleet to a fighting force oriented around the aircraft carrier and the long-distance reach of ship-borne aircraft.

It was this kind of ingenuity, an ability to take what was experienced and learned in career assignments that led to a vastly improved vision of modern ocean combat.  The kind of vision that most adequately prepared the U.S. Navy for the challenges of fighting a veteran Japanese navy in the expansive Pacific Theatre.

For this reason, Borneman’s focus remains almost exclusively on the Pacific side of the two-front war America faced during World War II.  There is little mention – aside from Admiral King’s assignment as Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet – of the Atlantic conflict that was more narrowly focused in the fight against the German U-boat.


Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King

Ernest J. King was known as cold, career-oriented, hands-on boss with a penchant for hard-drinking, something which changed in the years just before the war broke out.  One of the most senior Navy officers, who was on the short list for mandatory retirement when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Recalled to active fleet duty, King was initially assigned to lead the Atlantic campaign against the German U-boats.  After convincing FDR to use his flag-ship, U.S.S. Augusta in his initial meeting with Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland, King began consolidating a leadership position that would eventually land him as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet (COMINCH).  From this position he would direct the overall strategy of fending off the advances of the Japanese in the Pacific even as the U.S. and its allies pursued its Germany First war strategy in Europe.

King realized that to leave the Japanese free to roam the Pacific, if the Allies became exclusively focused on Fortress Europe, would make retaking the largest ocean in the world that much harder.  Throughout the war King would beg, borrow and steal to keep the Japanese at bay, then slowly start pushing them back towards their home islands.

It was King who charged Nimitz with preserving the vital ocean links from the U.S. west coast to Hawaii and Wake Island as well as the ocean routes to Australia through New Caledonia and Saipan. A strategy that led to the early and successful battles at Coral Sea and Midway.

Admiral "Fighting Bill" Halsey on a Victory poster

Admiral “Fighting Bill” Halsey on a Victory poster

King also endorsed a plan, developed by his Operations Officer, Captain Francis “Frog” Low to bomb Tokyo with Army Air Force bombers launched from aircraft carriers known as the Doolittle Raid.  King’s global strategic vision made winning the war in the Pacific less costly than a myopic obsession with Germany First could have cost the Allies in time, lives and treasure.

As with such major world conflicts, even Allies don’t always get along.  Besides clashes with British and Soviet priorities and strategic visions, American military leaders had to deal with their own internecine struggles over power, resources, and tactical ideas.  As one would expect the U.S Army and Navy did not always see eye-to-eye on how and where the great battles should be fought.  And with personalities as large as Generals George Marshal and – more pointedly – Douglas MacArthur there were more than a few opportunities for paralyzing disagreement.

Borneman credits Admiral King for smoothing the often ruffled feathers of his Army counterparts, particularly MacArthur.  King’s relationship with General Marshall got off to a slow start; would never be particularly close; but was always of mutual respect.  King wholeheartedly endorsed Eisenhower to head the North African invasion (Operation Torch), a success that led to Ike’s leading of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France (Operation Neptune).

MacArthur, as most who competed with or tried to control would learn, was another story.  But King was deft at keeping MacArthur from interfering too much in the Navy’s war efforts; and usually was able to keep him happy enough to remain an effective threat to the Japanese.


In an attempt to summarize this very long post, Borneman’s The Admirals forces the reader to focus on the complexities of developing properly trained, strategic-thinking naval officers; the prosecution of wide-ranging global warfare on a scale rarely seen in any generation; and the way personalities and the politics of leadership comes together in just one arm of the U.S. military.  In a war that encompassed much of the globe and no less than three major Allied powers, respective political establishments and military organizations, it is a tribute to confident and visionary Allied leadership that the effort didn’t simply collapse under the weight of its divergent personalities and priorities.

Admiral of the Fleet Chester W. Nimitz at Japanese surrender Behind him stand MacArthur, Halsey and Admiral Forrest Sherman

Admiral of the Fleet Chester W. Nimitz at Japanese surrender
Behind him stand MacArthur, Halsey and Admiral Forrest Sherman

Other random bits of knowledge picked up from reading The Admirals:

  • Vice Admiral Ernest King staged an attack on Pearl Harbor in 1938 from the U.S.S. Saratoga as part of Fleet Problem XIX manuevers.  The result was complete surprise.
  • When asked what won the war in the Pacific, Bull Halsey stated, “I would rank them in this order: submarines first, radar second, airplanes third, bulldozers fourth.”
  • By FDR’s fourth inaugural, Roosevelt was so weakened and Bill Leahy so trusted by the President that it was Leahy who rendered Roosevelt’s remarks at his fourth inaugural dinner.
  • In early December 1941 Vice Admiral Bill Halsey commands Task Force 8 on a mission to reinforce one of America’s isolated island bases.  Bad weather delays their expected return to Pearl Harbor on Saturday, December 6.
  • Ensign Chester A. Nimitz ran his very first ship command, the destroyer U.S.S. Decatur, aground on a reef near Manila Bay in 1908, an event that usually dooms a Navy officer’s career.  He also once jumped into the water to rescue an overboard sailor who could not swim.
  • Admiral Nimitz almost died in a PB2Y Coronado (flying boat) crash at
    PB2Y Catalina

    PB2Y Catalina

    NAS Alameda after the Battle of Midway.  The crash was caused by a telephone pole-sized piling allowed to drift into the landing area.  The aircraft flipped onto its back and broke apart.  Although Nimitz escaped without injury, the co-pilot, Lt. Thomas M. Roscoe of Oakland, CA, was killed.

  • Early in the war, U.S. submarines were plagued by a host of defective torpedoes.  Many exploding prematurely or, when they did hit, simply emitting a hollow thud and sinking.  The problem wasn’t solved until well after the summer of 1943.
  • In another torpedo story, as FDR – with Admiral Leahy in tow – was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to the Teheran Conference (November 1943 with Churchill and Stalin) aboard the battleship U.S.S. Iowa, the destroyer U.S.S. W.D. Porter decided to track the Iowa in a targeting exercise.  Inexplicably, with the President on the main deck watching a gunnery exercise, someone on the Porter accidentally hit the FIRE button for one of the torpedo tubes.  The Iowa’s skipper, Captain John McCrea, was forced to take violent evasive action to prevent the accidental assassination-by-friendly-fire of much of the country’s war leadership!

As you can see, there’s a lot of good sea and war tales in this very enjoyable and informative book.  And despite the length of this post, it barely scratches the surface.  If you have a “WWII habit” like I do, you should find a few new topics in The Admirals to scratch that itch.

Killing Kennedy

300806jfkIt has become cultural cliché that everyone – old enough to be aware that day – remembers where they were when they heard JFK had been shot … or when the planes hit the World Trade Center … or 70 years ago when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Yet by whatever definition we now describe such memories does not change the fact that they indeed will last a lifetime.  And as in the events described above, they will also transcend generational experience.

Friday, November 22, 1963 was a pleasant day for the week before Thanksgiving.  I was a first-grade student at the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic elementary school located on Chelten Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

UnknownIt was close to lunch when the quiet of the classroom was broken by the unexpected squawk of the intercom system.  At first just a confusing message to this 7-year-old, “Please say a prayer, the President has been shot!”  Initially all of us were puzzled, but the one image that was seared into my memory was the look of horror on Sister Anne’s normally placid face.

Minutes later came the words I remember so clearly, as though it was only yesterday, “The President is dead.”


A sign of those times in a Romans Catholic family, though not exactly what hung in our home.

What I remember most from then, particularly those days after the assassination was the reaction of my parents.  As Irish Catholics, the Kennedy election and inauguration held a special sense of pride for them.  In our house one wall contained two pictures, one of John F. Kennedy, the other Pope John XXIII … side by side.  The days after November 22 were filled with an almost non-stop vigil in front of the television, where we first witnessed some of the images that accompany our never-fading memories of those emotional days.

Recently I came across Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot (Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard) in an unexpected place – my 23-year-old son’s bedroom.  It was a bit surprising given the way many historical events get lost within our natural focus on more current events.  But Brian has always been a bit of a book-worm, and was never very parochial about his reading choices.

And in his room I also found a Steven King fiction, 11/22/63, that revolves around the Kennedy assassination.  Of course I immediately confiscated it; and added it to my reading list as well.

Apparently, the Kennedy assassination had indeed transcended Brian’s generational experience and interests.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald

This is certainly not the first book on the Kennedy tragedy I have picked up.  My first in-depth look into that day in Dallas was Josiah Thompson‘s conspiracy piece Six Seconds in Dallas, a book that sowed all sorts of doubts in my young mind on the official version of the assassination as set forth in the Warren Commission Report.

O’Reilly and Dugard do a credible job of identifying those organizations and criminal elements long considered as potential conspiracists in the Kennedy assassination.  Yet they do an even better job of describing Lee Harvey Oswald as a dejected reject of both the Soviets and Cubans, a man who always believed he was deemed for “greatness” despite doing little to achieve even a passing notoriety.

Even his relationship his wife, Marina, an increasingly disenchanted spouse, shows a man who had a very difficult time living up to even pedestrian expectations.  Oswald was the loser lone gunman that has become the all too familiar figure in many objectified killings, be they the assassination of key public figures or the serial killing of more common citizens.

Oimages-1ne of the well-developed themes of Killing Kennedy is the ability to look back through the perspective of time and pull an entire picture together.  The book looks back at the figures and events that led up to that bloody day in Dallas.  But it is even more interesting to relive those legends that surrounded the troubling facade of the Kennedy Camelot.

  • Most Americans from that era are familiar with JFK’s propensity for extra-marital relationships.  Chapter 5 of Killing Kennedy deals openly with Kennedy’s well-known affair with Marilyn Monroe.  But how many people dazzled by the Kennedy mystique ever considered the lengths to which his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (and later Onassis) went to enable – if not condone – said dalliances?

    Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

    Jacqueline Bouvier kennedy

Jackie was known to leave The White House almost every Thursday for weekends away at the family’s Glen Ora estate in Virginia.  She was no fool when it came to JFK’s escapades, yet she left him each weekend alone with Dave Powers, who kept a constant stream of young women accessible to the President.

Kennedy actually claimed that he needed sex almost every day to prevent debilitating headaches (the male twist on the headache-sex relationship?).  As for Jackie, she eventually took the unusual step for the 1960s and sought frank, explicit sex advice from Dr. Frank Finnerty, a cardiologist and family friend, in an attempt to improve the First Couple’s intimacy and keep The President from wandering.

  • Another interesting facet of Killing Kennedy is its frank discussion of the Bay of Pigs disaster, that ill-advised, poorly executed attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow the young revolutionary, Fidel Castro.  One  factor in the military disaster was Kennedy’s own part in forcing the Bay of Pigs plans to its infamous conclusion.  Kennedy was particularly hard on the images-2Eisenhower Administration’s for what he described as its soft stance on Communism – and Cuba in particular – in the 1960 election campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon.

After such a showing Kennedy was in no position to forego a plan that had its origins in the Dwight Eisenhower administration despite his obvious misgivings in the lead-up to the invasion.  Once it became apparent that the invasion would fail, Kennedy further complicated his mistake by being indecisive and timid; and then abandoning the effort completely, leaving many of the Cuban expatriates spearheading the invasion to die or to suffer years of imprisonment in Castro’s new Cuba.

  • Amazingly enough it appears that the Soviet-Cuban Missile crisis resulted in Kennedy’s far wiser embargo strategy against Communist Cuba; and it also may have saved the Kennedy marriage.  Many within the Kennedy inner circle, even the men on the Secret Service detail, saw a marked change in JFK’s womanizing after the Soviets almost forced a nuclear showdown over placing offensive, nuclear-capable missiles on the island just 90 miles from Florida.  As a result of that nuclear near-miss, the President appeared to become a much more family oriented and accessible husband and father.
  • It is not difficult to appreciate JFK’s actions to end racial discrimination in the South.  Although his
    Martin Luther King, Jr and LBJ at a meeting in the Kennedy White House

    Martin Luther King, Jr and LBJ at a meeting in the Kennedy White House

    civil rights efforts really found their impetus in Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, the actions – and reactions – taken in the early stages of the 1960s would continue as a central theme of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As I read Killing Kennedy much attention was being given to the 50-year anniversary of the Birmingham campaign to protest racial discrimination .  It’s sobering to consider that just 50 years ago African-Americans – some as young as elementary school students – were motivated to expose themselves to physical violence at the hands of white law enforcement authorities to press their case for equal treatment under the law in the racially hostile South.  The author’s description of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade is provocative.

Other facts I found interesting and enlightening in Killing Kennedy:

  • Jack Kennedy was hardly the decisive Navy PT boat Commander immediately after PT-109 was cleaved in half by a Japanese warship in the South Pacific.  Initially Kennedy is hesitant to make command decisions, instead polling his crew as to the best course of action.  But he certainly made up for his timidness as the episode progressed.
  • Kennedy was in constant pain over most of his adult life as the result of injuries from the PT-109 incident.  To relieve his back pain, Kennedy liked to swim naked in the since removed White House pool.  This activity also led to some embarrassing episodes with young female staff members.
  • During the Bay of Pigs Kennedy was beset with diarrhea and urinary tract infection that severely tested his ability to concentrate.
  • Jackie Kennedy was a closet chain-smoker, who continued the practice even during pregnancy!
  • UnknownThe Kennedy’s despised LBJ; and him them.  This is not difficult to understand, given the way the Kennedy brothers brought Johnson onto the 1960 ticket in order to land the Electoral College votes of Texas then eviscerated his political power as Vice President.
  • Just weeks before his death, Kennedy already has the U.S. heavily involved in the survival of the South Vietnamese government.
  • JFK greatly embarrassed Frank Sinatra when he cancelled long-made plans to stay at Sinatra’s Palm Springs home following a speech at UC-Berkeley in 1962. This after Sinatra had already gone to the trouble of making significant changes to his property, even adding a helipad.  Instead Kennedy stayed at Bing Crosby‘s estate, purportedly bedding Marilyn Monroe for the first time there, because of Sinatra’s alleged relationship with La Cosa Nostra.  Sinatra, irate when Peter Lawford – a Kennedy by marriage – was forced to break the news, eventually became a Republican.

Regardless of whether you come from my generation, an earlier one, or a generation much younger and far removed from the shock of an assassinated President, you will enjoy the historical perspective provided by Killing Kennedy!

The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson

To be honest, I didn’t expect to get much of value out of my first foray into the world of Gonzo Journalism, a phrase coined by Hunter S. Thompson describing the journalistic technique of living a story to the point where you become part of the story itself.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the unorthodox way Thompson lived and wrote his subject matter.  It is crazy, off the rails, irreverent, pointed, and irresponsible.  But it works!

With the constant references and first-party accounts of repeated drug use, Thompson’s are not the kind of books you leave lying around for your impressionable school-age children to read.  The journalism included in The Great Shark Hunt harken back to a day when any behavior was fair game.

Thompson was a journalist at a time when society was going through a number of monumental changes.  The 1960s and ’70s were times of social upheaval wrapped in an unpopular war that ignited a new generation looking to break the molds of its predecessors.

Hunter S. Thompson was a high school dropout due – not surprisingly – to delinquency and a criminal conviction.  He joined the U.S. Air Force after his release from a 60 day sentence (31 days served) for accessory to robbery.  He never graduated high school as a result, but found his stride as a writer while in the military.

What became abundantly clear quite early in his Air Force hitch was that his interests and intellectual honesty were not well suited for a military establishment.  Eventually he splashed on the literary scene with his first Gonzo Journalism work Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, a first hand look at living and riding with one of the country’s more notorious organizations.  He became a staple of Rolling Stone magazine after they serialized Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream that took a critical look at the failure and demise of the ’60s counter-cultural movement.

Thompson’s works were new to me before I picked up The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers, Volume 1.  I was all of 13 years-old in 1969, when the counter-culture hit its apex at Woodstock, just one year after the debacle of the ’68 Democratic Convention.  I was never a big reader of Rolling Stone in those days, only occasionally picking up an issue to read specific articles.

The Great Shark Hunt is a collection of Thompson’s works as they appeared in Rolling Stone, The National Observer, The Chicago Tribune, and Scanlan’s Monthly (an obscure periodical that was published in 1970-71).

What I found most enjoyable and interesting was the trip down memory lane Thompson provides to those of us old enough to remember the events and happenings from that era.  From the political upheavals in South America in the late 1960s, through the decadence on display at the early Super Bowls and in the infield at the Kentucky Derby, to the fall of the Nixon White House and the Liberal disappointments with the presidency of Jimmy Carter.  In between Thompson also writes about iconic personalities such as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy, beatniks and the last days in the life of Ernest Hemingway.

The most enjoyable articles for me were those where I learned something new or was able to view a memorable event long remembered from a different perspective.

  • Thompson’s view of Richard Nixon’s fall as the result of the Watergate break-in and cover-up are particularly jarring.  To say he hated Nixon would be a gross understatement.
  • Under the category of Some Things Never Change, Thompson describes how his hometown – Louisville, Kentucky – went from broken down wasteland to jewel of Federal urban renewal, but with the ominous twist of economic segregation.  As the title of the 1963 piece, A Southern City with Northern Problems, might suggest, you could pick Louisville up and place it in just about any city in this day and the same conditions and results could still be found.
  • Thompson being no fan of Richard Milhouse Nixon, you might be surprised that he wasn’t all that enamored of Jimmy Carter either, at least not until he heard Carter deliver a Law Day speech at the University of Georgia in May 1974.  Thompson was so impressed by the social insight displayed in Carter’s speech that he carried a recording of the speech throughout the 1976 Presidential campaign, playing it for anyone who would sit still long enough to listen.
  • In a series of articles over a period of time Thompson provided an interesting explanation of how the beatniks of the early ’60s gave way to the radicals and hippies, who then retreated into their world of Let-it-be after the debacle of the ’68 Democratic Convention.

The only story I missed that might entice me to look for another Thompson tome was his first-person account of that conflagration in Chicago.  Those were horribly interesting times when two far different cultures clashed over politics and an unpopular war, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy cast a pall of violence.

In a way not at all surprising, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide on February 20, 2005 with a gunshot to his head, after a prolonged bout with painful medical issues.  His suicide note to his wife, Anita, was entitled Football Season is Over:

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax. This won’t hurt.

I guess at some point, I’ll have to pick up Dr. Thompson again.

A Sunday morning at the National Institutes of Health

Dealing with rare health issues is never much fun.  And when the possibilities are shadowy and evasive, it is not only difficult to diagnose, the uncertainty itself becomes a source of anxiety.  With this as a backdrop, we found ourselves spending a Sunday morning in Bethesda, Maryland as guests of the National Institutes of Health.

Yep, not a misprint … a Sunday morning in the monolith to American medical innovation and research just north of D.C., that black hole of Government bureaucracy.

Naturally, on a Sunday morning this huge facility was as quiet as a catacomb with barely a smattering of staff on hand for The Institute’s routine of Sunday sample processing.  Why Sundays are preferred was not clear to us before our trip; but – to be honest – the off hours arrangement reduced our anxiety level by several orders of magnitude.

We were there for only a few hours, performing a rather simple step that could lead to either a much more complex round of testing and probing, or – hopefully – the answer we really want to hear, “No worries.  It’s not THAT.  The indicators were false.”  Not that The Answer would belay all our concerns; but at least we could move on to other less threatening possibilities.

We ended up at the NIH because local specialists could not nail down the existence of a condition indicated by routine tests, yet elusive to medical imagery technology.  A nationally renown expert was the next logical step; and referral to the NIH was suggested.  As is the norm for bureaucratic networks, it took us six months to get to the point where patient-specific variables were addressed to the satisfaction of both patient and specialist.  Once the arrangements for our visit were finalized, our family physicians were so impressed with our pending NIH visit, you could tell they almost asked if they could go along with us!

And so we found ourselves making a Saturday trip to my sister’s house in Bowie, Maryland for our 8:00 AM NIH appointment for the simple task of drawing blood samples.  One would think such a routine medical procedure could have been done locally, as so many of us do for a variety of health-related issues.  Not so for the purposes of the NIH … Controls in process and technique are understandably crucial when participating in a diagnostic study.

Our experience at the National Institutes of Health, aside from the necessity of travel, was nowhere near as inconvenient or irritating as we had feared.  Part of that was undoubtedly the result of visiting this sprawling facility on a quiet, unobtrusive Sunday morning.  But by far, the experience was made relatively painless by the helpful administrative and professional employees we encountered there.

To say I was pleasantly surprised with our NIH visit would be an understatement!  From the guards responsible for the physical security of the NIH facility; through the painstakingly thorough, well-organized registration process; to the nurses who administered the sample collection, we were impressed with the professionalism and friendliness exhibited throughout our visit.  (I even had the opportunity to argue the merits – and shortcomings – of NFL QBs RG3, Michael Vick, and Tony Romo with both a Redskins fan and a Cowboys fan just hours before Vick played the Steelers as though the football itself had contracted an infectious disease!)  In roughly three hours time we completed the entire exercise and were on our way out.

Our biggest problem?  Trying to solve the cheese-at-the-end-of-the-maze challenge of finding an open exit from which to escape the monstrous facility.  We were convinced it was part of the evaluation process … some form of intelligence assessment.  How long would it take these rubes to find their way out?  All that was missing from making the test a viable reality show concept was a back seat full of over-dressed, pruning dance moms or elimination challenges at each inaccessible gate!

As a moderate political conservative, who eschews the huge footprint of Big Government, most would expect me to look at an organization like the National Institute of Health as a monumental example of bureaucratic excess.  I like to think I’m more pragmatic than that.

There are several valid arguments for the benefit of federally funded footprints on basic social functions.  Some are glaringly obvious … National Security, Emergency Management, Social Safety Nets, Interstate Commerce, Transportation Safety.  Others may not be so obvious, yet are just as important to a well-functioning society that is  responsible for maintaining and improving the health and welfare of its citizens.

The National Institutes of Health’s mission statement reads as follows:

NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.

The goals of the agency are:

  • to foster fundamental creative discoveries, innovative research strategies, and their applications as a basis for ultimately protecting and improving health;
  • to develop, maintain, and renew scientific human and physical resources that will ensure the Nation’s capability to prevent disease;
  • to expand the knowledge base in medical and associated sciences in order to enhance the Nation’s economic well-being and ensure a continued high return on the public investment in research; and
  • to exemplify and promote the highest level of scientific integrity, public accountability, and social responsibility in the conduct of science.

In realizing these goals, the NIH provides leadership and direction to programs designed to improve the health of the Nation by conducting and supporting research:

  • in the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and cure of human diseases;
  • in the processes of human growth and development;
  • in the biological effects of environmental contaminants;
  • in the understanding of mental, addictive and physical disorders; and
  • in directing programs for the collection, dissemination, and exchange of information in medicine and health, including the development and support of medical libraries and the training of medical librarians and other health information specialists.

The NIH performs research in a number of fields including obvious ones, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, aging, and infectious disease, and less familiar studies in human genome, bioengineering, and environmental health sciences.

Health and medical research are vital contributions to the advancement of societies.  It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where social development can be successful if the overall health of its members are left to the vagaries of commercial research and the lure of The Almighty Dollar.  Having a nationally recognized hub for research that ensures growth in knowledge, better health, and healthier behaviors is a benefit to everyone.

Now, from my scant exposure to the NIH, I can’t claim to be in a position to know everything the NIH does or to judge the merits of all they do. But from the point-of-view of a citizen seeking the relief of knowing what’s on the horizon, it’s comforting to know that medical frontiers are being explored.

Understanding China – John Bryan Starr

China has become one of the most important influences on U.S. foreign policy in the years since the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) dissolved into a smaller version of itself (Russia) and a collectively less prominent scattering of nation states.  The Peoples Republic of China has impressively grown beyond being Southeast Asia’s powerbroker of the 1970s and ’80s to be recognized as an international force in the world’s economy, as well as a major industrial contributor to the planet’s environmental problems.

It slowly dawned on many Americans that China was emerging as the United States chief international rival.  But the relationship between the two major superpowers developed a unique twist that was never an issue in the U.S. competition with the U.S.S.R.  China became a significant holder of American international financial debt, a situation created in part by our own credit card addict’s view of financial (mis)management, aggravated by a growing U.S.-China trade imbalance.

For these reasons I became very interested in former Ambassador to China, John Huntsman’s unsuccessful run at the Republican Presidential nomination.  Suddenly, here was someone who understood the intricacies of our relationship with the Chinese.  But I also came to realize my own “China problem”.  I knew very, very little about the Peoples Republic of China. 

This glaring blind spot led me to John Bryan Starr‘s Understanding China, an expanded 2010 study of a nation so few of us know much about, let alone understand.  This is Starr’s third revision of his original book, published in 1997.

Starr is a former U.S. Navy officer and current political science lecturer at Yale University.  Before Yale he taught Chinese politics at UC-Berkeley.  He has served as Executive Director of the Yale-China Association and as President of the China Institute in New York City.

The Great Wall

I found Understanding China to be a well-organized and enlightening look into a region of the world I have admittedly ignored over the years, at least since those heady days of fifth-grade geography and 10th grade world science.  Starr’s approach begins with a discussion of 12 critical issues facing China as it moved from being the brunt of jokes about cheap toys and flimsy consumer products to a regional military power and international economic force. 

The 12 issues range from those that most affect the Chinese people (e.g. housing and feeding a growing population, restrictions in the free flow of information) to the issues that challenge the country of China as it emerges as a developing economic power (e.g. environmental degradation, finding sufficient sources of energy, relationships with Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States).  This outline sets in the reader’s mind the questions that will be addressed throughout the book and serves as a useful guide for framing Starr’s discussion.

It proves difficult for me to do such in-depth studies justice in a blog post.  So many of my readers have short attention spans and prefer lawn care tips over international political science.  With those restrictions in mind, I’ll limit my discussion here to those aspects of China I found new and most interesting.  A serious study such as Understanding China is a useful tool for gaining an overview on a broad spectrum of issues; the reader can then decide which specific areas might require more in-depth research. 

Points of interest I was surprised to learn:

  • China experiences approximately 120,000 very public protests every year.  Quite the surprising statistic for such an authoritarian and – in the case of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising – downright brutal government.
  • China is just a tad larger than the United States (3.7 million square miles vs. 3.6 million).  But 75% of its population lives on just 15% of the land mass; two-thirds of which is covered by mountains akin to the U.S. Rockies.  China’s arable land for farming is limited to just 10% of the total.
  • The 2008 global financial meltdown had a relatively limited effect on the Chinese economy.  The reason was the authoritarian government’s capability to quickly and effectively inject new capital into the domestic economy.  So there does seem to be at least one advantage to not having to kowtow to a democratically elected legislature … quick action in a crises!
  • Foreign investment, channeled primarily through the Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong, Macao), tops $1.6 trillion a year; consisting of 60,000 joint ventures; and accounting for half of all Chinese exports.
  • China’s People’s Liberation Army receives an official annual budget of only $70 billion; but experts estimate that it’s truly 3-4 times that large.  In addition, the PLA self-finances in part through the manufacture and international sale of military weapons and equipment.  And until recently ordered to divest,  military-owned and operated facilities also produced consumer goods for domestic sale that accounted for 20% of the domestic consumer market. 
  • In 2004 Morgan Stanley estimated that high quality, less expensive Chinese products saved the U.S. consumer an astounding $100 billion!    

There were several topics in which I was keenly interested, given China’s expanding global presence and impact.

Interests of local authorities and economies vs. objectives of the national government …

Despite China’s authoritarian communist rule, the countryside is relatively free of control by the central government.  Local authorities are delegated much latitude on a broad spectrum of administrative and operational issues.  This arrangement serves to contradict certain objectives like reducing pollution and feeding an expanding population. 

The crux of the problem is that local authorities at regional and village levels are incentivized (or penalized) based on production outputs and cost efficiencies, along with ensuring compliance by its citizens with social programs (e.g. one-child birth policy).  Often the extent of local compensations, power, and access to corruptive practices causes local interests to run counter to national policy.  Local leaders will overlook environmental threats, sacrifice arable land – which are already scarce in relation to farming needs – for modern industrial facilities, and coerce social compliance with the one-child policy simply as a cost reduction measure.

Mao Zedong

The environment was just one sacrificial lamb in Mao Zedong’s vision of the Chinese nation.  He portrayed Nature as an enemy to be overcome in the struggle for a powerful, independent China.  Water and energy were provided free of charge, which ensured no one questioned the economies of conservation or the use of alternate energies. China is the largest user of coal, the second largest of oil (with 60% coming from the Middle East), and home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities on the planet. 

China’s refusal to commit to most international environmental restrictions is based on its claim as a developing industrialized power (i.e. not yet fully developed).  The claim has some merit since all developing nations, including the U.S., have histories as a major polluters as they grew into advanced industrial powers.  This standoff does not bode well for international efforts to reduce the global effects of man-made pollution.

The family responsibility system …

The Chinese are well-known for the strength of their family system; and this is illustrated nowhere better than the reliance on the family responsibility system as a glue that holds Chinese rural society together.  Due to China’s sparse infrastructure outside its urban concentrations, huge swaths of rural land especially in the north and west have limited accessibility, little in the way of government and social support structures (hospitals, schools, roads, communication, etc.), and less government control.  As a result, a loose federation of local authorities coupled with a strong family agrarian culture are left to their own devices for sustenance, industry, and social support.

The family structure is most important here.  The family system is responsible for seeing the individual through life from birth to death.  With national priorities focused on feeding the much larger urban populations, the family structure is crucial to the success of rural farms which are owned and operated primarily by family units.  Farming and limited rural industrial capacity is owned, managed, and staffed almost entirely within the family system.  For this reason the limits of the one-child policy are largely ignored in rural areas since the larger the family, the greater the output; the greater the output, the more healthy and wealthy the family.  These families find the penalties for multiple births and additional children over one-child to be well worth the investment, even a matter of pride. 

In addition, older Chinese in rural areas do not benefit from the pensions city dwellers can accumulate.  So younger generations see providing for their elderly parents and grandparents to be part of their family duty. 

One interesting spinoff from this significant urban-rural divide is that rural Chinese do not identify with the problems and shortcomings faced by those Chinese in the big cities.  As a result, rural Chinese felt little compulsion to become involved in the Tiananmen Square uprisings of 1989, which were initially caused by protests over poor education and living conditions at Chinese universities, located in its major urban centers like Beijing.      

Remaking the Chinese economy …

This post is already way too long for some of my attention-span-challenged fans, but Starr’s biggest contribution to my understanding of China’s present day status was his explanation of the remaking of the Chinese economy.  For decades China was the land of cheap toys and poorly made consumer products.  Now it’s known for cheaper priced consumer products and top-line brand-name clothing and electronics.

China’s status as The Land of American Outsourcing hits a sensitive nerve with work-a-day Americans, particularly those without good jobs and especially those who have lost jobs to cheaper overseas labor.  It’s an issue that will plague Chinese-American relations for years to come until some form of equilibrium is reached.  One cold, hard reality is that the outsource destinations did nothing other than take advantage of the high cost structure in this country, much of it the result of the high level of Government regulation and the expenses of a union-committed labor force.

China’s big chance to remake its often ridiculed economy came with the cessation of Hong Kong by Great Britain.  This handover opened the door for China’s own brand of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”.  Hong Kong, which had long existed as a conduit for financial activity, opened the floodgates for a dramatic expansion of foreign investment. 

Deng Xiaoping

It was Deng Xiaoping who set the stage by initiating a number of reforms that eased the transition for China’s economy.  Deng’s reforms included moving industrial development from central government planing to market-driven decisions, and shrinking the state-owned industrial sector in favor of an expanded private sector.  These decisions accomplished more for China’s economy than any other outside development.  

From the socialist/communist point-of-view however, China also moved from an economy among the most equal in income distribution to one that is now one of the most unequal in terms of the differences between rich Chinese and poor Chinese.  This just goes to prove that trying to force a philosophy of income equality for all does absolutely nothing for the long-term financial and economic health of a developing country.

And that’s it, a rather long-winded but inadequate attempt to portray John Bryan Starr’s look inside the Chinese behemoth.  I certainly have skipped and skimmed a large part of Starr’s treatment.  For a real appreciation of China’s story from the age of dynasties to land of Wal*Mart you really need to pick up Understanding China.