A regular reader, a lady who lives, I believe, in St. Louis, recently emailed this message:
I hope this email finds you doing better and in good spirits. You have not posted anything new on your blog in two months.
Needless to say, her observation is gratifying. There are reasons for my not posting, but they will not be the subject of this piece. I need only say that to sit at a computer for more than a few minutes is difficult. Rather, this will be a memoir, which at my age and condition is the venue that makes the most sense, if in fact I can offer any sense at all to where we have been for the past quarter century.
Obviously, too much has happened in that period for a non-professional, casual observer like myself to handle. But I can offer a memory, a specific one, which has a bearing on where we are today. I plan to draw few if any conclusions. I offer this to anyone who would like to think it through for himself or herself. In this regard, any follower of my blog knows well that I have abstained from posting anything of political opinion, with the exception of one piece a couple of years ago.
Roman ruins and sand, endless sand …
Peripheral to my thoughts at the moment is a coincidence which occurred in my reading habits. I recently pulled down from a shelf an old issue of Archaeology, to which I subscribed for many years. I was attracted by a story and wonderful pictures of the classical ruins in Lepcis in Libya. At the same time, in a new issue of National Geographic I viewed a similar article about the Roman and Greek ruins in Leptis Magna. As it turns out, they are the same, the former with an older spelling. The ruins are some among many sites, nearly forgotten and unseen except by archaeologists and historians. Leptis Magna’s remnants represent what was once a major city. Besides the tons of stone there is now a lot of sand.
Either article can depict the beauty of the ruins, but together one magnified the other.
What they tell me is that much has changed. What they cause me to question is how much are we, in a modern, powerful country, obligated to – or entitled to – make change.
While both articles illustrate similar change, it is the subject of Libya which caused me to reflect on something that I remember well, a story that will be posted, for want of a better place, in my Memoir section. It dates back a long time, but to my way of thinking, it has a bearing on the present. The memory makes me ask myself, “Are not all things in some way connected?”
Flash back to 1986.
I was a member of a life insurance group of professionals called the Top Twenty. We were not necessarily the top twenty producers in the city of New Orleans, but all were successful and knowledgeable agents willing to share ideas. Each of us had to be voted on and invited by our co-competitors.
Our usual activity included a dinner at one of New Orleans’ fine restaurants where we were given a private room. Dinner was followed by a presentation and discussion led by a member chosen according to a planned program.
At the time, United States bombing raids on Libya were at the center of the news. I was having a civil discussion about that with two long-term friends, both of whom had been combat pilots during World War II. I was asking them to give me an answer to a question that was prompted by the action, which had come from different sources – all US – and from different places.
In a nutshell, Gaddafi was then and remained until recently an enemy.
That is not disputed. What perplexed me were the facts of the raids. France, Spain and Italy did not give permission to fly the attacking planes over their territory. US Air Force planes had to approach by flying over the Straits of Gibraltar. In addition, raids came from US Navy and US Marine planes.
Initially, my questions centered around why were the attacks done by different branches and from different places. My friends, both combat veterans, knew the answer. One put it succinctly: “It was to give each branch a shot.”
The brief analysis was terribly apparent, once stated, but at the same time I felt a bit of revulsion.
(Parenthetically, I am brought back to more long-term memory, a sometimes haunting mechanism which recalls old, preferably forgotten experiences. This was about a playground fight between two brothers on one side, and one person on the other. I was little, and these were big kids, and I probably used better judgment not to get involved. Still, I regret that I did not try. The relevance here is that the two brothers would take turns; when one was tired or hurt he would step out and let his brother take his place. I was revolted then too.)
I quickly posed more questions to my two dinner companions, such as, why, if our friendly allies wanted no part of this, was not the matter worked out in conjunction with them and others, and wasn’t this a case for the United Nations?
Our conversation was, as I said, civil, and both of these veterans remained close friends to me until they died. However, another member, who happened to be the speaker for that night, broke in forcefully, asking me, “Are you not willing to fight for our freedom?” I did not know him well, and he could not have known that I had served three years in the Army Security Agency, two of them in Europe.
I think I answered something about the raids not making me feel free. I tried to make my case for fewer United States initiatives, again mentioning the UN. To this, he scoffed and walked out. He kept pacing up and down outside our dining room, and I could see him in the hall, still agitated. Eventually, he disappeared. He did not deliver on his commitment to lead the program that night. He apparently no longer saw it to be his duty. The rest of us made use of the time with a round table discussion of our business problems and solutions.
One of my friends, a former pilot who saw combat in the Pacific theatre, spoke up when one of the other members asked what had transpired. He said something like, “Russell expressed himself and it may have been helpful if the other person had just listened to what he says.” That comment was accepted, and the issue was not brought up again.
The man who was angry never spoke to me again. I never did ask him whether he had any military experience.
Back to Libya
What were the results of the raids? We lost one plane and two crew members. Libya lost forty-five soldiers and officials; a number of planes and pieces of equipment were destroyed.
Fifteen Libyan civilians died.
Gaddafi survived. His baby was killed.
The remains of a once mighty civilization sit quietly in now forgotten areas, mostly along the Mediterranean coast near Tripoli.
There is something beautiful about a single standing classical column. But here there are hundreds of them, starkly reaching proudly to the empty sky, as though in mute supplication. There are also walls and free-standing arches. There are piles upon piles of carved stone, some tracing buildings like the amphitheatre and the town square and the baths.
If one becomes engrossed in the past, he is brought back into the present as he observes wild horses walking over lovely mosaics in ancient floors.
The most magnificent area is that part of Leptis Magna along the shores of the Mediterranean which National Geographic calls the “Harbor to the World.” It is near Tripoli.
To the east is Benghazi.
Once again, change is inevitable.