conwaylazbom02Vietnam War (20)

I was born in 1950, five years after the end of the Second World War. My country has been at war somewhere in the world for as long as I’ve been alive, with brief time off in the mid to late fifties in order to re-group. Even then, we were engaged in a “cold war,” stockpiling nuclear weapons as fast as we could make them, and the rockets to carry them across the world at many times the speed of sound.

When I was a child, we were told that our country observed certain “rules of war,” because we were the good guys and always took the moral high ground. We didn’t target civilians and we took prisoners of war and treated them humanely. By the way, I’ve heard of German prisoners of war, but never Japanese. Did they all commit hari kari?

Maybe we observed the Geneva Convention sometime before World War II, but it certainly wasn’t our experience or intention after we invented napalm and firebombed many Japanese cities and a few German ones. They weren’t military targets. We were trying to kill as many civilians as possible, in order to demoralize our enemies so they’d surrender.

It worked, we won. Then we took the same strategy to Vietnam and it didn’t work. In case anyone still believes the bullshit that we spun and resulted in Kissinger being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the North Vietnamese finally won the right to live in a Communist country. After twenty years of fighting foreign invaders, they unified their nation. It cost them millions of lives but they won.

So we learned our lesson. No more boots on the ground. Air attacks are the way we prosecute war now, and we no longer pretend that civilian deaths are “collateral damage.”

We no longer carpet bomb countries from 30,000 feet, we engage in “precision bombing,” often using unmanned drones. The accuracy rate has improved dramatically. Sure, we still take out a funeral procession or wedding party by mistake, but in general it’s no longer a mass slaughter. But we’re still bombing people. We’re still telling other people what they can and cannot do with their own countries. This hasn’t changed.

Bombing is a lousy way to persuade other countries to change their ways. Even though there’s a good chance we bombed ourselves in 9/11, we certainly didn’t learn any lessons from the experience of being bombed. One delusional Muslim teenager fashioned a shoe bomb for himself on an airplane and the rest of us are still taking off our shoes in airports ten years later.

We have fashioned a police state so large it may be impossible to dismantle it. That seems to be the main lesson we learned from being bombed.

When General MacArthur was in charge of our forces in North Korea, he suggested we drop fifty nuclear weapons along the border of North Korea and China. Truman fired him, but the next year General Curtis LeMay was ready to drop even more nuclear weapons. Truman never gave the order to do so.


To this day the North Koreans hate us with an almost unimaginable intensity.

I spent some time in Nicaragua, which is a socialist verging on Communist country. They endured a civil war that lasted from the late seventies to the eighties, finally overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship. The Sandanistas who emerged victorious were not to Reagan’s liking, so he and his cronies cooked up a scheme to sell arms to Iran in order to finance an illegal backing of contra-revolutionaires, or “Contras,” mostly the remnants of Somoza’s highly corrupt national guard. This prolonged the Nicaraguan civil war by several years, but the Contras were eventually defeated as well. When I traveled the country I half-expected the common folk to hate Americans, but most of them had no memory or experience of that time.

Their struggle for independence was fought by citizen soldiers, some women, committed to freedom from Somoza and the U.S. Here’s a picture of one of them nursing her baby while dutifully carrying her carbine.



No Guarantees


When I was in my twenties, I would set off on long trips with not much more than a hundred dollars in my pocket.  I had no credit card, and since debit cards and ATM’s hadn’t been invented yet, the cash in my billfold was all there was. Nothing really concerned me, as I floated along like Mr. Magoo, blindly avoiding mishaps without having the good sense to know how lucky I was. In all my years of hitchhiking and driving long distances across borders, nothing really bad ever happened.  Sure, I stayed in some miserable hotels, but I picked them out because they were dirt cheap and I full of what I thought was “atmosphere.”

In 1972, I spent a month in Mexico on one-hundred and seventy-five dollars.  I survived for five weeks in Europe in 1971 on three hundred dollars, and that included a few days in Paris.  Back then, Europe was cheaper than the States. I stayed in hostels and bed and breakfasts, sometimes paying as little as three dollars a day for bed and board.  One day I ate only candy bars and oranges, but usually hunger wasn’t even an issue.  One night in Paris I slept in a parking garage.

As I look back somewhat astonished by my recklessness, I realize that the big difference between then and today lies in the fact that then my parents were still alive.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew that if things got too bad, I could always call them (though International calls were very expensive) and they would find a way bail me out. Or try to.  It never came to that, but I guess that’s how I justified my lack of fiduciary caution.


Who will come to my rescue now?  Here, in Southeast Asia, six foreigners were recently executed for drug smuggling.  These were young people who had thought to make a quick buck by bringing drugs to Bali.  I’m sure if I had been in their position and so tempted, I might have been just as stupid.  Again, luck was with me in my twenties. Surely, I had no more common sense than they, and was every bit the smug hipster as these lads who recently faced an Indonesian firing squad.

I remember once being pulled off a Mexican bus by soldiers and carefully searched for drugs.  I didn’t have them, they didn’t plant any, and they let me go. Just lucky, I guess, because I didn’t have any reluctance to use drugs if they were freely offered.  I was just too cheap to buy my own.

As we age, all the things we had taken for granted are removed, one by one, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but they all leave.  Looks, health, mental quickness, natural talents…they’ve only been on loan even though we thought they were our birthright. Fortunately, some of us we weren’t totally reckless in our salad years and still have something left over to help us coast to the finish line.

I keep thinking “This hanging around third world countries is fine as long as I’ve got no real problems and some money in the bank, but what happens if I become infirm or broke?”  Then places like Switzerland and Norway don’t seem so boring.  I wonder what it takes to immigrate there?

Decrepit hippies are probably not high on their lists of potential permanent residents, but there are ways to sneak through the filters they’ve imposed.  Note to self: remember to stash enough cash to hire a Norwegian immigration attorney when the shit finally hits the fan.

Nobody really knows what the future holds for them or anyone else, but we sure like to pretend we do, for what feels like sanity and hope is often just desperation and wishful thinking creating a dream world.  In 2007, I remember reading business journalism praising the selling of collateralized mortgage debt and subprime mortgages. The rise in home values was a good thing until the moment it wasn’t.  Those financial wizards were geniuses until the moment they were fools.

Nobody knows what’s going on and nobody’s in charge.  It’s all a crap shoot, so we might as well enjoy the game because there are no guarantees regarding who’s going to win or even whether the other players will play by the rules. Those retired American orthodontists who buy beachfront properties in a banana republic may be rudely awakened one day by soldiers pounding on the front door of their McMansions.  The officials and agents who smiled accepting money to purchase a retirement Xanadu may suddenly look away as the newly suntanned retirees are being deported at gunpoint.

Why Do You Keep Harping On About Nicaragua and Thailand?


I’ve found that people without much money are often more sweet- natured than people who have more than enough. They’re also inclined to be more generous with what they have, and with their time. I know such a statement could be considered to be so general as to be meaningless, but it has been my experience in traveling to places where the median income is very low.

Thailand has some awfully fancy shopping malls, and some really spoiled rich kids who are as addicted to their iPhones and iPads as any kids on the planet, but there are millions and millions of Thais who live much as their Lao and Cambodian neighbors do. For them, it’s Ireland before World War II. It’s rural America before the Depression. Kids know where eggs come from, and chickens, as well.

There is a natural beauty to children at play outdoors that you don’t find in monitored play groups at institutions. That’s what I’m looking for. No consent forms to sign, no driving kids to scheduled activities. It has existed for hundreds of thousands of years, but now it’s almost absent in America. You don’t see or hear kids playing tag in the streets or ranging through a neighborhood. They’re all indoors playing Xbox or watching TV.

Emerging democracies have their own growing pains, and the spoilage caused by rapid development is heartbreaking to watch, but they still have more of what I’m looking for than has been retained in the American landscape. I don’t want to drive to a shopping or strip mall and choose between franchises. If my opportunities for socialization involve a choice between church and shopping, I’ll take neither.

In Nicaragua, people in cities and towns set up rocking chairs on the sidewalk in front of their house. Then, in the darkening twilight, they rock and visit with neighbors who stroll by. Of course, this habit is dwindling, and you can see the flicker of a television inside most livings rooms, but until it dies out completely, and the giant flat-screen TV dominates all activity in the home, I’d rather stroll around my neighborhood and chat with folks.

How else are you going to learn the language? You can’t learn a language by only a few hours a week in class. Most of the learning comes in forcing yourself to use it on the hoof. You can’t remember vocabulary unless you can trick yourself into forming emotional connections with the words. Those come from talking to real people with whom you are developing real relationships, not from scanning lists of words in a book.

It’s thrilling to come alive again in somewhere that hasn’t lost most of its messy human-ness. To eat where the food hasn’t first been shrink-wrapped, to drive into the countryside where uncertainty awaits. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is predetermined. It’s life on life’s terms. Could turn out great, could be awful, but at least there’s a sense of adventure lurking somewhere.

I know I’m romanticizing these places because I’m a foreigner, and since I didn’t grow up here I find novelty where others who have lived there whole lives here might find only drudgery. But I think there’s more at work here than the sense of novelty I’m finding. I think there’s a difference between real and illusory, human and inhuman, life and death.

One out of five people I know back in the States is hooked on anti-depressants. Their well-intentioned doctors sadly inform them that they shouldn’t try to wean themselves from these expensive drugs, because then the depression will reoccur. Then, like a lobotomized patient, the doctor recites the tired old lie about a chemical deficiency in the brain that is not likely to go away, necessitating a lifetime on the pills. This is nonsense. Lethal nonsense. It is, at best, a self-fulfilling prophesy.