Archive for April, 2014

Much Ado About Money

By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  I am in a bit of a slump right now, so, again, I had to go rummage in my files for something to fill in the time gap between more modern essays, poems, etc. This column was written in 1982, while I was editor of a small West Texas semi-weekly. However, I think it is still timely. I point out the fact that the incidents related herein preceded the development of the handheld calculator on which today’s young people are so dependent that many of them appear to be stumped by purely mental calculation.

— BL

Some people won’t believe this — in particular my boss and my brothers — but I don’t like money.  I do like books and records and nice, shiny, new pickup trucks; and those things, lamentably, cost money.  Therefore, I have to pay attention to filthy lucre.

As a matter of fact, it’s the very process of paying attention to it that makes money so detestable to me. After all, green, except in grass and trees (and football jerseys) is the most hideous color. And then there are all those numbers of incongruent sizes imprinted on the greenback.  I never did get along well with numbers.

But you learn to cope. I remember as late as my senior year in high school I was under the delusion that one had to be able to figure correct change instantaneously in one’s head. Now, fifty cents out of a dollar presented no great problem, but something like $1.23 out of a fiver gave me goose bumps.

The great day of enlightenment came to me that senior year. I was working in the afternoons and on Saturdays as a front man in a cleaners-and-launderers. One day a man came in to pick up his bundle of laundry. I put his bill in the register and gave him what I thought he had coming in change.

“That was a twenty dollar bill,” he said.

“No, it wasn’t,” I replied.

Luckily the cleaners’ proprietor was present. He stood up from his desk, opened the register and gave the man change as if he had paid with a twenty dollar note.

After the gentleman had left, my boss turned to me and said, “Here’s how you make change. Put whatever bill the customer gives you on the ledge of the register and then, starting with the amount he owes, count up to the limit of the note. After the customer has accepted his change and left, put the bill in the register.”

I was a little embarrassed at first by the episode but also greatly pleased to have such a simple, apparently sure-fire way to handle a troublesome process.

Another lesson along the same line was more indirectly taught me while I was a student at SMU.

My favorite barber of the time had his shop in the student center. Those were the days when a haircut cost $2. If you gave him a five or a ten dollar note, he would hold it up between you and himself and declare, “That’s a five” or “That’s a ten.” The idea, obviously, was to simply utter an understanding of what he had received from you. If you disagreed, then was the time to say something about it.

Now that, I thought, was quite clever, and I adopted the technique. In practicing it with other people, however, I sometimes encountered difficulty because not all people readily grasped the motive behind it. A few would smile at me as though I were on the verge of a mental breakdown and say quietly, assuringly, “Of course it is, young man!” Others, usually waitresses in fast food places, would be irritated, thinking, I suppose, that I was implying they were incapable of giving me the correct change.

Despite such little bright milestones on my path to gathering an understanding of money, I still don’t like it. My reasons in the advanced years are more philosophical than those of the teen years.

For one thing, “legal tender”, as I learned in school, does not pay a debt but rather transfers one. That is, instead of me owing the bank what I owed them in a car payment, Uncle Sam now owes them. And his credit, somehow mystically related to a huge stock of yellow metal at Fort Knox, is not too good as far as I am concerned. Every dollar bill is an I.O.U. which nobody is ever expected to cash in on.

Also, I found out with some disgust, if one has a knack for sleight-of-hand in the commodities market, one can handle notes similar to U.S. Treasury bills relating to commodities that one does not really possess. The challenge is to get “real money” before you have to prove your right of ownership.

And then, money begets money. Conceivably, one can get “salt money” from a friend or relative, say, $500, and by clever manipulation or speculation make several thousand dollars out of it in a few months. Then, you take that money and reinvest it without doing much more work than reading the financial gazettes and making a few phone calls. Some people have become millionaires that way. And these are usually the ones who cry out against the inheritance tax because it would take away their “hard earned income.”

What I would like to see would be some kind of barter system nationwide or even worldwide.

Bartering has come back into vogue on a very small scale and usually for the not very commendable purpose of avoiding part of the income tax. What the new barterers are doing is forming little clubs of about 100 persons, mostly with professional or high level trade skills. Then a dentist, for instance, will work on a lawyer’s teeth to the approximately equal value of the preparation of a will, which the lawyer then prepares for him. No money changes hands, and one’s efforts come out in tangible values instead of another I.O.U.

The only problem with that system, of course, is that the dentist may not need or want a will or anything else anyone in the group has to offer. Is the lawyer to go around with a sore tooth until the dentist decides he needs him to handle a traffic ticket?

What I would prefer is a system of work units. These would be generally agreed upon values per hour of all kinds of work — not just professional — and trade-type services. Some kind of secure and universal record system would have to be developed to keep track of an individual’s accumulated work credits; but, in whatever way that was accomplished, a person would be drawing upon the real value of his own exertion, not upon some absurd value arbitrarily applied to a stack of gold.

The Monahans News, April 29, 1982



Rose-colored Lens on War

By Bob Litton

A friend of mine up in Medford, Oregon, was practically gushing last week with praise for Victor Davis Hanson’s book The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern (2010). My friend is a retired USMC lieutenant colonel and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is preoccupied with military history as well as 1st Amendment issues. He likes to press my nose into the war pee, hoping thereby to render me as addicted as he.

I am about three years younger than my friend and I was in the military, but I went into the air force and served during that ambiguous period of no war, but under the hovering threat of total war, known as “The Cold War”. Although I honor the veterans of our modern hot wars — particularly those who served in World War II — I do not see any conflict as a moment of glory.

But back to Hanson. My friend wrote in his latest email that Hanson “argues that war is the highest, most important expression of human achievement.” I looked Hanson up in Wikipedia. Hanson was born in 1953, but I saw no record of his ever serving in any military branch. (The draft ended in 1973.)  A child of well-educated parents, Hanson himself enjoyed an extended collegiate career and became a professor of classics and military history. He is now teaching at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

I did watch a YouTube video of Hanson speaking to a small audience in a library. His primary message that day seemed to be that, because the general public does not study war enough nowadays, we have ceased to distinguish between “good wars” and “bad wars”. Instead, we have taken to condemning all war as “bad”.

I was not interested in reading any more books on warfare, although I had gained some enlightenment in my undergraduate years from reading Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, particularly the sad tale of the slaughter of the neutralist Melians. I also slogged my way through other Greek and Roman historians as well as the gory epics by Homer and Virgil. In preparing for this essay, I did check out, in Wikipedia, the Danish-German military theorist Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780-1831) and the German general Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891). Much of the information below comes from that source. A major exception is Moltke’s famous comments on peace and war in his Dec. 11, 1880, letter to international law expert Johann Kaspar Bluntschli.

Clausewitz was the man who famously declared that “war is policy carried out by other means” in a dialectic involving opposing wills; the object, he wrote, was to impose one’s will on a foe. Another basic tenet of his was that the defense usually has the advantage because it not only consists of the regular army but also militias and partisans, in other words, a country’s whole population. His “trinitarian” view of an effective force required (1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; (2) the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and (3) its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason. Another of Clausewitz’s pronouncements (which the G.W. Bush administration would have done well to take to heart) was his evaluation of military intelligence: “Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain…. In short, most intelligence is false.”

Helumth von Moltke the Elder regarded strategy as the practical art of adapting means to ends. Also, he realized the great defensive power of modern firearms, and that the “enveloping attack” was more formidable than the attempt to pierce an enemy’s front. His main thesis was that strategy had to be understood as a system of options, since only the beginning of a military operation was capable of being planned. His most frequently quoted statement on peace and war is in the second paragraph of his letter to Bluntschli:

“First, I find the humanitarian striving to lessen the sufferings that come with war completely worthy. Eternal peace is a dream — and not even a beautiful one. War is part of God’s world-order. Within it unfold the noblest virtues of men, courage and renunciation, loyalty to duty and readiness for sacrifice — at the hazard of one’s life. Without war the world would sink into a swamp of materialism. Further, I wholly agree with the principle stated in the preface that the gradual progress in morality must also be reflected in the waging of war. But I go farther and believe that [waging war] in and of itself — not a codification of the law of war — may attain this goal.”

I see all kinds of logical problems with that paragraph; can you? In the first sentence, what kind of humanitarian improvement is he imagining? Changing warfare into a tag football match? And when did God give Moltke the authority to describe His “world-order”? As for the “virtues” of courage and renunciation, I think of the man who three decades ago went repeatedly into the freezing waters of the Potomac River to rescue survivors of a plane crash there, dying himself as a result of his efforts: where is war a part of that event? Nobody, not even soldiers, is asked to display their courage every day; and any serviceman or woman who has enlisted is already giving up years of his/her life for their country. This reminds me of Gen. George Patton’s assurance to his troops in the movie Patton (I don’t know how authentic it is, but it does reflect Patton’s attitude): “Nobody expects you to die for your country; they want you to make that other poor bastard die for his country!”

I confess,  Moltke’s sentence about the world sinking into “a swamp of materialism” is unfathomable, especially if it means that the slaughter known as war is materialism’s opposite: idealism. How is a field of bloody bodies an ideal situation? Finally, his remark that warfare must include a “morality” element reminds me of Abe Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, wherein Abe said: “Both (sides in the Civil War) read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other….The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

And General William Tecumseh Sherman, who thoroughly displayed his ability to wage “total war”, said,  “I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

The Civil War was in fact the costliest war — in terms of lives lost — of all America’s wars and lesser conflicts. During the first 100 years of U.S. history, a total of 683,000 were confirmed dead due to war, 623,026 (91.2%) of them during the Civil War. Over the next 100 years, 626,000 Americans were killed in wartime, of which 405,399 (65%) died in World War II. In that regard, then, the Civil War can be considered the costliest war in U.S. history, with World War II running a close second.

The recent conflicts have not left the U.S. unscathed either. Between 2003 and 2012, a total of 4,804 American servicemen and women were confirmed dead in Iraq. And, as of Nov. 13, 2013, three thousand three hundred and ninety-five U.S. military personnel have died of war-related injuries in Afghanistan since 2001; and, of course, the “operation” still is ongoing there.

As for economic the costs of war, because of the multitude of variables involved only rough estimates can be obtained. Nonetheless, in June 2010, the Congressional Research Service published a report for Congress. Therein, the tally for the Civil War (in 2011 dollars) comes to $79,742 million (11.3% GDP) for the Union and confederacy combined. The total for World War II was $4,104 billion (35.8% GDP).

The economic costs of the Iraq/Afghanistan “operations” are still accruing, but, according to a study made at Brown University, the total from 9/11/2001 through FY 2013 has been $3.1 trillion.

I apologize for not including the losses suffered by other nations, particularly the United Kingdom. To have included those figures would have involved so much of my readers’ attention that they very likely would not finish my essay.

Now back to Prof. Hanson’s distinction between “good” and “bad” wars. I recall he claimed that World War II was a “good” war, presumably because we did not initiate it and our foes were enslaving whole populations and seeking world domination. I do not know what he would classify as a “bad” war — possibly the Spanish American War or even the Vietnam War. Oddly, he did support Bush regarding the Iraq invasion.

I basically take issue with the classifications “good” and “bad”. As far as I am concerned, no war is good: they are all inhumane, extremely costly in lives and resources, and extended in time (i.e., the end of one usually leads to the start of another [e.g., WWI], and the ethnic hatred that is promulgated during any war can extend into the subsequent peace period).

I prefer the terms “necessary” and “unnecessary”— terms which dislodge the moral element. I am not a jingoist, but that does not make me one who will not resort to violence to protect my family and friends. We have to be prepared to defend our nation, but to play policeman for the world is both costly and futile; albeit, I will concede that, shrinking as the world has too much and too fast, it is becoming more and more difficult to avoid playing policeman, preferably in tune with a world organization.

Moreover, in our nuclear age, hardly any government uses the term “war” anymore: the usual word since Korea has been “police action” or, better yet, “operation”. That is due partly to the fact that “war” implies an unconditional surrender is needed to end it, and we often enough would be satisfied with a simple “cessation of hostilities”. Another reason is that most of our recent conflicts have not been between nation states but between tribes or sectarian groups within a nation, with other nations interfering. The main point I am trying to make, however, is that, should any war become necessary for us to be a part of, we should not glorify that war.

War is not glorious; it is hideous.








By Bob Litton

Note To Reader: This is another of those essays I wrote in a time long, long ago and in a place far, far away. However, I think it is still timely.
— BL

In the summer of 1977, while I was editor of a small weekly paper in the Texas Panhandle, I wrote a feature article about an 86-year-old woman who, it was said, had been the first girl born in the little town.

As a young woman she had attended a nearby college where she majored in art.  Back in those days, I’m told, most young women who sought a higher education were in reality attending a “finishing school”.  That is, they were improving their graces while awaiting a proposal of marriage.  As soon as they got married, they packed away their palettes or, if music majors, relegated their talent to Sunday hymn-singing.

At any rate, that’s what this woman did.  She quit painting.  “I couldn’t stand the smell of the turpentine,” was her excuse to me.  Apparently she never considered water colors.

She became what I call a “squaw”.  She concentrated on home-making.  She allowed her brain to atrophy by not using it for anything more complicated than preparing the weekly grocery list.  She surrendered all judgments to her husband and a great deal of the conversation as well.

In fact, I had a difficult time getting the information for my article because every time I asked her a question, her husband would answer it.  And most of his answers related more to what he had done than what she had done.  The husband had had a rather interesting life of his own as one of the city’s leaders, but the story I had come for was about the woman and I was determined to get it.

One peculiar exception to this lady’s squawism was that she retained her membership in her own church.  She was a Methodist and he a Baptist.  Each Sunday for the 50-odd years of their marriage they had walked to separate churches to worship.

With that anecdote as background, perhaps you will understand why I am more pro-women’s rights (and obligations) even than many feminists.  I want to see them paid the same as men for equal work and do the work.  I’m glad to see them take responsible positions in political parties and in government.  But, I want to see them fight in wars, too, pay the same insurance premiums I pay, relinquish their advantage in child custody litigations, and even open doors for themselves.

The main thing, however, is that they learn a job skill that will help them survive if their husbands die first.  I don’t know what happened to the couple in the anecdote above, but I do know that, if he had died during his working years, she would have been a basket case—unless a second husband quickly appeared.  She didn’t know how to do a damned thing that would earn money except be a maid.

Many elderly women now on Social Security — their husbands’ Social Security — have to live within the meager bounds of their government checks.  Although the law allows them to earn a certain amount, they simply don’t have any saleable skills.  If they had learned a trade of their own, the burden of life in their sunset years wouldn’t be as heavy.

In yet another way women were hamstrung by the social dictate that they be ignorant and helpless in certain areas.  By never being taught by their parents and husbands how to deal with car salesmen, home repair workmen, and the like, when they became widows they were left vulnerable to con artists.

I suppose in a way I’m beating a dead horse.  Women have gained a lot in the workday world since World War II, when the conflict made their entry into the factories a necessity.  Some of the economic inequities still exist but are being whittled away day by day.  Yet, in individual instances I still see squawism of the old sort: A story was related to me just yesterday of a man retiring on a pension and then divorcing his wife of forty years, leaving her with no income and no job skill.

And, although the Democrats made a big deal out of the fact that a woman had finally been nominated as vice-president by a major political party, the fact remains that Geraldine Ferraro supposedly lost the Southern vote because of the attitude that “a woman belongs in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.”  This despite the historical experiences of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher.

Yes, there is still a long way to go.

November 1984



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