Chicken Hogs

There’s been a fair amount of attention paid to the Chicken Hawk phenomenon–People in the Bush administration who never saw combat but who think combat is a swell occupation for the sons and daughters of people they don’t know. My purpose tonight is not to jump on that obvious and easy target. They’re just jerks, that’s all.

Rather, I’m concerned with the notion of gravitas, a sense of significance that one projects through one’s bearing, not necessarily based on one’s deeds.

“Gravitas” is a term that appeared on the political scene when Dick Cheney was anointed as Bush’s running mate in 2000. This conclusion was generated by a blue ribbon committee charged with deciding who would be the best candidate for Vice President. Many of us have forgotten that Dick Cheney was the chairman of the blue ribbon committee that recommended Dick Cheney as the VP candidate.

If you were a novelist, you wouldn’t dare to make this stuff up…

Pundits nodded sagely, just 3 years ago (can it be that recent?), noting that it was brilliant for the Bush campaign to add the serious appearing, tight-lipped Halliburton CEO to the ticket. Good counterpoise to a Yale frat boy whose crowning political achievement had been to make Texas so business-oriented that its deficit approached $7,000,000,000 within 2 years of his departure. (Yeah. A 7 followed by 9 zeroes.) I guess you’ve gotta build a platform on at least the appearance of principle.

My three regular readers may recall that one catalyst of my Bush resentment is that he and I raised our hands and swore to uphold the Constitution and to show up as ordered and do what we’d be told, at the same New Haven USAF recruiting office. The record is pretty clear that Lieutenant Bush subsequently failed to report for duty after finagling an assignment from Texas to Alabama. The assignment coincided with his oh-so-vital participation in a congressional campaign now remembered only by the candidates. He must have been a pivotal player–he was later to demonstrate his management skills by trading Sammy Sosa from the Rangers to the Cubs. Swell.

The Gravitas Inversion

I don’t take a lot of things seriously. I don’t possess Gravitas, whatever-the-fuck that is. As I navigate through my reality, I find much to laugh at and little to take seriously, except the spectacle of public “servants” fattening themselves at the trough of the common wealth. A sense of irony was my take before I went to Viet Nam, but it was hard-wired by the time I got back. We were the first wave of pilots to return from “Nam” and be assigned to the Strategic Air Command. We immediately noticed that all of the Test Flight officers who hadn’t been in combat were poring over the flight manual looking for semicolons to stump the crew members on the next exam:

Describe the navigation lights on the wingtips of the KC-135 aircraft: are they colored bulbs with clear lenses or clear bulbs with colored lenses?

Why would a pilot care about such a detail? Meanwhile, we were scheduling our next visit to the Stag Bar to trick each other into buying drinks by playing “Dead Bug.” What were they gonna do? Send us to Viet Nam? Hah!

Dead Bug!

My premise this evening pretty much revolves around the important ritual that pilots call Dead Bug! There’s a wonderful Dead Bug sequence in The Great Santini. Rent it.

Here’s the ritual. You go fly a mission. You land and repair to the Stag Bar. You order a round. The glasses become empty.

This is serious, far more serious than the fact that you just landed with a hole in your airplane, streaming fuel, #2 engine out, no oil pressure on #1. That’s just part of the job. What’s at stake here is that SOMEONE BETTER BUY A FRICKIN’ ROUND!

The obvious solution is that a seemingly mature officer, devoted husband, father of 3 and Defender Of Our Freedom, cries out DEAD BUG! at the top of his lungs and immediately throws himself and his chair straight back onto the floor, wiggling his feet in the air. Last guy on the floor buys. It’s a reflex test.

Baseball players and pilots value fast reflexes.


Here, the game is demonstrated on the flight line by the oh-so-serious “Wild Weasel” crew members of the 333TFS, Takhli RTAFB, Thailand, 1968. The Wild Weasels were guys who flew around North Viet Nam in F-105 “Thuds,” hoping someone would fire a Surface-to-Air-Missile at them. Now the way you defeat a SAM is to immediately dive right at it as fast as you can! If it whizzes past your canopy at a 1,000 knot closing rate, it’s a successful engagement. Then you fire your missile at the ground station that launched their missile. The F-105 was called the Thud because of the sound it made when it dropped out of the sky, which it always wanted to do since it was basically a brick with wings. Cool. 2 or 3 hours of this kind of fun and a guy could develop a thirst…

And shed every pretense that anything else matters as much as hanging it out over the edge every day.

I’m reminded of the disconnect between seriousness of mission and seriousness of demeanor because Doc introduced me to the legendary Drazen Pantic Wednesday night. Drazen is the guy who brought the Internet to Yugoslavia when Miloshevic was killing people who did things like that–truly dicey times. Drazen’s picture is misleading. It makes him appear somber but in person he smiles easily and often. No obvious gravitas. Just a joyful appreciation for the passing scene. My instant comment upon meeting Drazen was, “You’re much better looking in person!

Where’s the Beef?

This disconnect between reality and demeanor seems to me universal. Rent a late forties movie and notice how guys behave after returning when their buddies didn’t. They’re joking around all the time! Now fast-forward to the demeanor of our administration’s warmongers. They’re Oh so Serious… So full of the weight of the world… Such vital things to ponder and decide and, regretfully, put someone else’s kid in harm’s way…

I’m not alone among veterans in this insight. I got an email from a guy who was there when we coaxed (fly would be an overstatement) our burning C-130 onto the tarmac at Tay Ninh on 25 June 1968.

He agreed with my conclusion that you’d never follow a manager into battle, and that the Bush administration is deep-sixing the values that made our country great.

Another C-130 Pilot, John Robb, seems to agree. My conclusion is that if you never put you
r ass on the line, you’d better look as serious and self-important as you can.

But if you’re dealing with serious matters, including making ends meet in the kleptocracy John Robb describes, it helps to keep it light and keep smiling. John was landing C-130s by starlight in 1995, trying to keep Miloshevic from killing Drazen. Good show!

Da More I Steal, Demeanor I Look

It goes without saying that rich people who would rather control the country than serve her don’t really deserve our vote, no matter how grave and determined their demeanor.

12:22:39 AM    

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