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America has smart bombs, but not smart leaders." — Words of an Iraqi Diplomat, 2003

(Chickenhawk Part II)

By Dom Stasi

(Cathartes aura: a carrion feeder, the Turkey Vulture neither stalks nor kills its prey directly. Instead, it lives off of the flesh of creatures killed by others. Its method is to swoop down in swift silence and exploit the success of smaller, direct predators. Using its deceptively large appearance, the Turkey Vulture will drive the lesser creature away from its own fresh kill with a flurry, alight on the abandoned carcass for a period, loudly squawk its dominance, devour the best meat, then fly off silently. A Turkey Vulture is recognizable by its disproportionately small brain case.)

Thanksgiving Day, 2003: As this weekend draws to its close, Americans have reflected upon how very much we have to be thankful for. More - far more, in fact - than do the citizens of most countries scattered across this eternally squabbling orb. And to be perfectly honest about it, I probably have even more to be thankful for than most Americans. Yet, somehow, I've not always taken the time to do so - to give thanks that is, you know, formally, on Thanksgiving Day. It's not that I don't recognize or at times marvel at the myriad good fortunes that have befallen me. It's just that I don't always do so at prescribed times. Instead, I've often found myself working, at least part of Thanksgiving Day, rather than celebrating it or reflecting on my blessings. I've been guilty of it as recently as last year. My family never seems to mind (hmmm…). But of all the Thanksgivings I've endured either feast of famine, none, not a single one, comes close to Thanksgiving Day, 1962. That one remains in my memory more vividly than does any Thanksgiving Day before or since. It was the hottest month of the Cold War. It was also the day Air Force One dropped in on my spooky little air base, unannounced.

November of 1962 was a time long before I'd even had a family of my own to take for granted. No. In fact I found my then-bachelor self facing what to all indications was to be just an uncommonly quiet day at work. How wrong I was. I was on active duty, USAF. I'd just returned from a short TDY at a patch of concrete on the low rent side of the Arctic Circle, and was very thankful for my plush, new, stateside assignment in beautiful New England. As was the norm on most big stateside holidays, the single guys in the squadron happily took over the holiday duty for some of the married, family guys. Why not. They usually showed up at the Ops shack with leftover home cooked banquets for us lonely bachelors later in the day anyway, out of gratitude (or just to get out of the house). The brass was always nowhere to be found on the holidays as well. So why not stay on base? Be part of the skeleton crew. Enjoy the lull.

But this Thanksgiving, 1962, was different. The usual holiday quiet was shattered by the USAF duty controller's voice in my headset. He was shouting. "Mode two, Code six-three!" He repeated the words over and again, "Unknown target squawking Mode Two, Code six-three!' Then, from Irv Nelson, the watch commander, "Stasi, gimme range marks! Dammit, where's my f+#+ing range marks?" (By the way, if someone is reading this aloud to president Bush, be advised that the codes and names {other than my own} being used here are of course, phony).

I quickly came to the watch commander's side. "Everything's five-by-five, Nelly. No sweat," said I, exuding a certainty and confidence I did not feel. I reached over and turned a knob which he had neglected in his excitement. The range marks began painting their slow circles on the video screens. In front of his disbelieving eyes, and now before mine as well, was revealed the cause for all the excitement. To an omniscient observer we would have appeared a group frozen in place. We were in fact, anything but. I checked the new IFF set. IFF stood for Identification, Friend or Foe - Cold War radio lingo. It checked out. "Target identity… confirmed," I said, hesitantly. I then repeated it with conviction. "Target ID confirmed!"

The secret IFF code being "squawked" by the strange "target" was that reserved for a Minuteman missile, or for the president's jet, Air Force One. Only God and NORAD know the logic behind this dual-use of a secret ID code, but that's the way it was, so help me. And at this little, unobtrusive field, our response to unannounced visitors - whomever they might purport to be - was always rude, always the same. For this was, after all, a U-2 base.

Nelson's hand slowly, ever so slowly, found its way onto the scramble button. He flicked open the red lid. He was about to send interceptors aloft to have a look at whatever was coming our way. Then the altitude reports started coming in from the elevation radar controller: "Sixteen-thousand feet. Descending fast. Fourteen, no, through angels twelve for ten. Still squawking, mode and code." Groundspeed, heading, trajectory, everything started to make sense. The control tower checked in, "Radar, this is a Shell," the password for the day. "We got your bogie traffic. Disengage and disregard. Stand down all interrogations. Do not acknowledge further transmissions. Over." "Wilco," said Nelson, his hand moving away from the button. This was no Minuteman missile gone astray. It was Air Force One. It had to be. The president, it seemed, was coming by for a Thanksgiving visit, right here in the land of the Pilgrims. Unannounced.

I stepped outside the shack as the target lined itself up on final approach. The clear and distinct silhouette of a Boeing 707 (USAF version: Boeing 720) appeared in my binoculars. She was about two miles out. I opened the door and mumbled something indicative of my joy. I mumbled what any sane GI would mumble when learning of an impending visit from a Washington big shot. I said, "Who needs this #*&%?

One minute later, the aluminum behemoth landed perfectly, squeaking its tires on the runway's end. As it taxied to the ops area, I looked for the distinctive blue and silver scheme that so clearly identified the president's aircraft. But this jet was gray. Like all the other machines on the line, it was dull, Air Force gray!

Well, as things turned out, it was not Air Force One, at all, but something just as bad. The airplane was nothing more than a big, gray, Trojan Horse carrying that most reviled of all quasi-military entities, the Inspector General. This was not a visiting dignitary. This was an ORI! The sadists at headquarters had decided to impose an ORI: an Operational Readiness Inspection on us, and do so under false pretenses on Thanksgiving. Cold war intrigue or bureaucratic chicken---t, you decide. But it was a brilliant bit of deception.

Now. All this reminiscence brings me to another Thanksgiving day, of course: this Thanksgiving Day. And I cannot help comparing that long ago stunt, against what was in some ways a similar, but in no way a brilliant stunt that took us all by surprise this Thanksgiving Day. After all, the guy playing president was an imposter back then. He's an imposter now. The visit was not for the reasons we've been conditioned to believe back then. It was not for the reasons we've been conditioned to believe now. Only Air Force One was the real thing this time.

Naturally our troops in Iraq were all overjoyed by a surprise sneaky visit from a president, especially one many of them consider to be a deserter.1 USA Today said the troops were "Stunned," whatever that means. Too bad Bush had to sneak in, though. Barely time to serve up some turkey at the airport with his lackeys, sneak back out without seeing first hand any of the fruits of his recent efforts to liberate Iraq. He's spending 166 billion taxpayer dollars, you'd think he'd want to take a look. Just imagine, he could have become as happy as the troops if he'd seen some of that Iraq liberation stuff with his own eyes. But that's the way it goes. It's tough to be the president. Busy, busy, busy. The Alamo is still the only real battlefield Elite Force Aviator has ever visited. Oh. Well, as long as the troops - who don't sneak in or out of country surrounded by fighter jets and stooges, and do get to see that liberation stuff with their own eyes - were happy to see him. Then it was worth it.

Speaking of the troops, these people serving in Iraq are an unusually happy group of troops, too. Don't you think? They never seem to complain or ask traitorous questions like those whiners in World War II and stuff. Those guys were always griping to reporters like that creep, Ernie Pyle. Not these troops, though. Ever notice that? These men and women must be real Americans. Happy all the time. So are the reporters. Each and every one, happy to be serving the cause of freedom. At least that's what the generals who seem to be the only ones that do talk to "reporters" say over and over again on Fox and CNN.

So, I know the troops are happy about the visit. The smart, talking men on television said so, and that's good enough for me. I only hope that seeing the former military miscreant and now commander in chief sneaking in and disappearing again like that, without even telling his family or the radar controllers about it, I hope that didn't give the "insurgent terrorist freedom haters" in Iraq cause to think he was scared or anything. It was in the interest of national security. Don't they get it? He's always disappearing. Didn't he disappear from his military unit back in the Seventies?1 Then didn't the commander in chief disappear for fully three hours on 9-11, before he finally showed up at Barksdale Air Force Base for about five minutes, said a few tough guy words (219 to be exact) then disappeared again for several more hours before turning up in the concrete bunker beneath Offut Air Force Base.2 C'mon, a guy has a right to disappear now and then. Besides, didn't he leave the country in the capable hands of Rudy Guilliani while he slithered around in Air Force One from one secret place to another? Silently. Just because he slithers around in Air Force One silently doesn't mean he's scared or anything like that. Just because he's kept more isolated than the bubble boy when he does land for an announced visit somewhere, doesn't mean he's not concerned about the tear gas, and tazers, and rubber bullets, and hog-tying being used on the thousands upon thousands of peaceful demonstrators that follow his every public move. And while a militaryish George W. Bush - last time in a flight suite, this time in an army jacket that looks like it was designed by Hugo Boss - does not conjure up the same image as did Ike on Normandy Beach, he is the president. He's the only one we got. He's the Elite Force Aviator, and he's all dresses up and playing soldier at our expense, one more time. Hopefully these phony baloney man of the people, warrior pictures will be good enough for Karl Rove. I don't think the troops could endure all that unbridled happiness for a third time.

Oh, well. God bless America, and Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

- END -



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