It’s Snowing on Thud Ridge

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Spending time with grandchildren is a glimpse of the hazy horizon from a mountain vista, a view of a future world I will not see. Old men have always greeted the future with muttered “bahs & humbugs”, seeing a world going to the dogs, and despite my pretensions to enlightened difference, I am no exception. I do my best to separate the “I’m old & life sucks” common to my gender and age from a genuine concern for my family’s continued descent into the whirlpool of the emerging Adorable Matrix. I try for sober wisdom, but I cannot escape that keel of inborn pessimism steering the direction of my thoughts.

Between my children and grandchildren, I have now spent decades exposed to the bland vanilla of children’s books AND I shake my head at their creeping vacuity. Perhaps vacuity is the wrong word, but there does exist a doughy emptiness at their core boding a future culture lacking both backbone and steel necessary for retaining the freedom our nation once boasted. The stories we tell our children and the lessons derived are unstained by the dark depths plumbed by the untamed human will.

As we have insulated ourselves within the protected sanctuaries of Adorable urban life, we have steadily removed fuel for our children’s imaginations from anything beyond playground or school cafeteria experience. Perhaps this is unavoidable, few parents yearn to exchange air conditioning and Uber Eats for an unheated cabin on the frontier. But “everyone wins” soccer games are probably not a good thing either.

The word “snowflake” has come to have a new meaning, something beyond its traditional usage describing a unique crystal of frozen water. Snowflake is now a disparaging bit of slang for a fragile individual, overly emotional, easily offended and unable to deal with opposing opinions.

As we deal with the oncoming blizzard, we wonder what drives this storm. Maybe there is a reason our culture is producing snowflakes, this avalanche of fragile psyches. Grimm’s Fairy Tales are a netherworld, unseen from the neighborhood of the Berenstain Bears. The wildly successful Harry Potter series of J.K. Rowling clearly owes large debts to Lewis Carroll, but is missing even a hint of Carroll’s ambiguity while even glimpses of the depths plumbed by J.R.R. Tolkien are a bridge too far. We have created power and wealth beyond the reckoning of earlier generations but persist in training up generations of child-like naïfs to control it.

How will it work out for my grandchildren in a culture believing that virtue signaling is citizenship? We want to protect our children and grandchildren from the darkness that is in us, but how do we educate them to handle their own dark natures? It seems we simply whistle past the graveyard, singing rounds of a secularized “Kumbaya” as the dark shadows lurk round our campfires.

At some level we recognize our fallen nature, but in the culture of our times we shrink from acknowledging it. We know we must teach our children to live in a world inhabited by human beings as they are rather than as we teach them to be. But how do we do that without offending someone somewhere? With pious sanctimony we pass judgment on our forefathers while believing the latest Twitter irruption to be undiluted Truth.

In our retreat from responsibility we take comfort and refuge in the sanctity of secular piety, though we are only following in paths well worn by other credulous cultures. But putting our faith in Homo Multiculturalus to escape the combination clown car/cataclysmic wreck that was Homo Sovieticus is a sucker’s bet.

A current best seller for young readers is “Wonder”. The book about a young boy with severe facial deformities tugs on our heartstrings. It is soaked in therapeutic empathy, sweet and heartbreaking. It is a book melting hearts, wallowing in a sea of what earlier generations would have recognized as “schmaltz”.

To be honest, my thoughts sound churlish, even to me, but it is hard to escape my nature and experience. I think that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist, saw us far more clearly than we can see ourselves. As the goldfish asked in puzzlement when asked about the water, “What water”?

Solzhenitsyn spent years chained in Siberian concentration camps, gulags created by an ideology with which our children, raised on stories like “Wonder” and its ilk, now seriously flirt. The final line of Solzhenitsyn’s Cold War novel about America, “In the First Circle” speaks a hard truth about us and our times:

“Prosperity breeds idiots”

Hard to argue Solzhenitsyn’s point. America is prosperous, only the oblivious or the purposefully pedantic would disagree. I leave you to honestly listen to the public conversations we engage in; then make your own judgment about idiocy. Spending time with grandchildren is to glimpse a future I will never experience but they are excused, they don’t have the memories of living through the times of idiocy’s birth and growth.

Amazon Prime’s algorithms, a preview of the Matrix to come, recommended a documentary, one banal enticement among the many clogging my Inbox. The documentary in question resonated with me (those algorithms do work) – but I resisted its lure for a long time. I suspected watching the show would roil my memories, bringing emotions to the surface difficult for me to control. The evidence of my tearing eyes while watching television with my wife leaves me uncomfortably vulnerable. The man living in the ebbing glow of a fireplace’s cooling ashes hesitates to revisit the raging fire. But a steady diet of “Frasier” and “30 Rock” grew tedious even for me, and one evening succumbing to temptation, I clicked on the documentary.

The show in question is a work of love. It can’t be mistaken for anything else. “Thud Pilot” is a heartfelt tribute to a long gone machine by a former “Thud” pilot, Mark Vizcarra. The “Thud” was the nickname given to the F-105 Thunderchief, sixth in the Century series of 1950-60’s era USAF fighter aircraft. Most of the documentary is a sweet love song by former pilots’, reminisces of their time in the cockpit of a “Thud”.

The film’s subject, though only fifty years past, is to revisit a long gone and increasingly alien world. The F-105 Thunderchief was designed in the 1950’s as a fighter-bomber to make supersonic low level penetrations of the Soviet Union, that Eden of Homo Sovieticus now being rehabilitated by Adorable intellectuals. The “Thud” was typical of American aircraft design at the time. Make it big and make it fast. Weighing in at 50,000 lbs, the F-105 could achieve Mach 2 in level flight. Compare that to the 20,000 lbs of the F-16, the “Thud’s” replacement.

As you might imagine from its description and its name, the “Thud” was not built for graceful pirouettes on the dance floor. While the “official” version of the nickname’s origin was “Chief Thunderthud” of Howdy Doody fame (in itself a reflection of long gone mores), one suspects the explanation little more than public relations. Perhaps more insightful was the wry joke on the flight line. It was said in the vernacular of the times, the “Thud” was a triple threat aircraft. It could bomb you, strafe you or fall on you.

In a stomach-tightening vignette, alien to the sensibilities of us who spent our careers cradled in the cube farms of American business, one of the pilots remembers what the life of a “Thud Pilot” was like. The pilot recounted his time during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. Based in Germany, this man spent his day, a shift of 8 hours at a time, in the cramped cockpit of an F-105 parked at the end of the runway waiting for the order to “Scramble”. With only 12 minutes before destruction rained down from the sky in the event of an attack, his mission, along with his fellow “Thud” drivers, was to get airborne, go supersonic and deliver a nuclear bomb onto a target over a 1,000 miles away deep inside Mother Russia.

In a matter of fact way, the pilot mentioned that this was a one-way trip, the “Thud” didn’t have the fuel capacity to return after delivering its bomb load. He said, “It didn’t matter. The airbase wouldn’t be there if he returned anyway”. Instead, the pilots on alert were given a map, a survival kit and the assurance, “There would probably be somebody on the ground to connect with when they crash landed.” He chuckled at the thought. One wonders his thoughts at the snowflakes that might be his grandchildren or their peers.

That barely disguised suicide mission was the design basis for the “Thud”, but it was in the skies over North Vietnam that the F-105 found its true calling. To the north and west of Hanoi is the Tam Dao Range, a mile high ridge of forested rock paralleling the Red River. This ridge became famous, or perhaps better said infamous, as “Thud Ridge” during the early years of the Vietnam War because it served as landmark and camouflage for F-105’s on their way into the maelstrom of MIGs, flak and SAM’s that was the airspace surrounding Hanoi.

One after another, aging men remembered how it was. At times they chuckled, at times they spoke in that calm authoritative voice we hope to hear in emergencies and at times they choked up, overcome with emotion. They talked about what their country asked them to do, what their training taught them to do and what their honor demanded. Coming through their words and experiences was something that could only be called love for the machine that carried them through so much – for their reliable warhorse, the “Thud”.

It is completely and totally outside of my experience to know what it was like to fly a “Thud” over Thud Ridge in 1966, a time when I was navigating the hormone soaked halls of high school. The United States Air Force purchased and put into service a total of 833 F-105’s. 334 of them were shot down, some 8,500 tons of scrap metal, made in America, now scattered across the People’s Republic of Vietnam marking the final resting places of the men who flew them, men only a handful of years older than myself. It was said that the area they flew into, day after day after day, had the thickest, heaviest and most lethal air defenses in the world, possibly excepting only Moscow itself.

Each pilot’s tour of duty consisted of 100 missions. Given mission losses, those 100 journeys into the belly of the beast gave each man a 50/50 chance of going home, back to friends and family, to the prosperity that breeds idiots. Listening to the talking heads on television today, one can only muse at how devalued the words “hero” and “courage” have become. Is it possible for a nation obsessing over the definitions of “hate speech” to remain great, to remain free? Time will tell.

But in the background of the film are markers, clouds on the horizon, signposts of the times pointing to roads taken, and roads not taken. Camouflaged within the words of the old pilots there is a barely hidden hurt. How did their great sacrifice come to mean so little? To paraphrase Julius Caesar, “They came, they flew, they died”. All in vain. Time has dulled the surviving pilot’s anger, but it remains.

These men flew on an almost daily basis to the same place, commuting to the same “worthless” targets. Their enemy knew when they were coming and where they were going while themselves were protected, – in a state of grace, free from reprisal. Day after stomach clenching day evading the red/black blooms of AA fire, they watched the construction of SAM missile complexes. And then one day they saw those missiles rising to tear their aircraft apart.

There is nothing so vulnerable as aircraft sitting on the ground, their passive concrete runways cratered, the aircraft themselves flaming wreckage. These men made a daily commute over the bases of the MIG fighters coming up to ravage their formations. They let their killers throw punch after unanswered punch at them, their own hands tied behind their backs – by leaders comfortable and safely removed back in the Washington swamps.

Is this where it began? We once believed in the essential goodness of the American government. We once trusted our government, our leadership – a trust in short supply today. How often can we watch our government make feckless commitments and then shrink from the hard consequences those commitments might demand. Do we ever see that those in charge suffer consequences, or actually act for any greater good than career?

This is a documentary about men and their machines, but at odd moments the film is seeded with television film clips providing context and background. One is struck by the many clips of LBJ or Robert McNamara. Both men are archetypes of the leader that has become our lot, the career politician and career bureaucrat, individuals dominating our politics, our businesses, our institutions.

Even at this great distance in time there is little agreement about the morass that was Vietnam. Knowledgeable people differ while scoundrels pander to the mob. But it is worth pondering the men making the decisions that put lives at risk. Both President Eisenhower and President Kennedy (JFK) were hesitant to get involved in “wars of liberation”, avoiding the entanglement of murky conflicts. It was President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) that rushed headlong into the briar patch, going so far as to manufacture a “smoking gun” in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Eisenhower and JFK had experience with war, Eisenhower as commanding General of the largest amphibious invasion in history. JFK won the Medal of Honor captaining a torpedo boat in harms way. LBJ, appearing to be a man eager for war, worked on “manpower and production problems” in Washington DC as a Naval Lt. Cmdr. for six months before being honorably discharged in mid-1942. One wonders how you get discharged in 1942, the darkest days of WWII and only months into the war? Robert McNamara, the man directing the conduct of the war in Vietnam, was a professor at Harvard University, serving his WWII years in the US Army Air Force’s Office of Statistical Control.

Was the War in Vietnam necessary? Was it a “Just War”? I don’t know, but I do believe it was something new to our people and our country, a political war fought for political objectives by politicians. Despite the connotations that come with the word “politics”, a political war fought for political objectives by politicians is something every nation must do from time to time, particularly great nations such as the United States.

“Thud” pilots flew into the meticulously prepared killing field that was the sky over Hanoi, with their hands tied, unable to do what needed to be done to defend themselves. Instead of attacking the SAM missiles and MIG fighters that were killing them, they bombed parking lots. The “Thud” pilots did it willingly, obediently and at great cost to themselves. But how many times and for how long can men be asked to do this?

It is a very dicey thing for leadership to ask men to die in meaningless ways, for political purposes. Those who are asked to pay the price, to serve and endure, become hesitant to do so, particularly for leaders who have neither known nor shared their burden. Earlier generations had built a great store of trust with their citizens through leadership that served rather than pursued career. But in Vietnam, that great endowment of trust began to be drawn down.

LBJ and Robert McNamara had important jobs in WWII, jobs that needed to be done, jobs that contributed greatly to the war effort. But their experience of war was in an office building, safely removed from the consequences of their work, their greatest danger the careless word or missed networking opportunity that might damage their career prospects. The definitive four volume biography of LBJ by Robert Caro paints the picture of a man who thrived in the shadows of backroom politics. One suspects Mr. McNamara to be of similar ilk.

Today, we have been at war for nearly two decades. We have spent the lives of thousands of our citizens, blighted the lives of tens of thousands. We have spent trillions of dollars. While only God knows the real figure, various agenda driven experts put the costs of our wars during that time at nearly 6 trillion dollars. It must be said that our leaders over those two decades, the men and women making decisions, are the clones of LBJ and Robert McNamara, rather than Dwight Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy.

There are other film clips scattered in “Thud Pilots” hinting at truths contained in Solzhenitsyn’s quote, including clips of a less recognizable man, Robin Olds. At the time, Robin Olds was Colonel Robin Olds, commanding the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing of F-4 fighters and specifically tasked with protecting the vulnerable heavily loaded “Thuds”. The F-4, nicknamed Phantom II, was of a newer generation of fighter-bomber, escaping the ignominy of a nickname such as “Thud”. But both aircraft shared in a common American approach to fighter design. Pilots joked that the F-4 Phantom was proof a brick could fly if you put a big enough engine in it.

Robin Olds is in the documentary because he took a bold step. He did something and risked his career, actually forcing effective and decisive aerial combat with the MIG’s wreaking havoc on the “Thuds”. He devised stratagems that tricked the MIGs out of their safe zones, putting them at risk of actually being shot at. In short order, “Thud” losses dropped and their MIG tormentors suffered such losses that they declined further engagement, remaining safely on the ground increasingly irrelevant in the air war.

Colonel Olds action seems only common sense, the right thing to do, but it must be seen in the light of the times. The documentary tells of a “Thud” pilot who could not take it anymore and attacked a SAM missile site under construction. The pilot was put under arrest on his return to base. Though under arrest, the shortage of pilots required his continued flight status. Before the court martial could be held, the man and his “Thud” went down. Case closed.

Robin Olds’ action was a bold one, but he was a bold man and somewhat protected, a colonel and a fighter ace in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. The fact that his father was a three star general probably helped as well. I admit to a bit of hero worship back in those hormone soaked halls of high school.

In my senior year, I was coming to grips with the painful realization that I was not going to fly jet fighters. Having worn Coke bottle bottoms masquerading as glasses since the 1st Grade, I should have long since accepted reality, but the heart wants what the heart wants. In the melancholy brought on by coming to grips with reality, I wrote a fan letter to Colonel Olds back in the day, and surprise, surprise, he answered it. I have a two-page hand written letter from him. While in the middle of the air war’s worst days, he took the time to write back to a high school student, encouraging me to rise above my disappointment.

Robin Olds risked his career, saving the lives of fellow pilots. The success of his tactics and ideas led to the development of Wild Weasel SAM killing operations, tactics and hardware since saving uncounted US pilots. He was widely recognized as an innovative and forward thinking leader, loved and respected by his men.

But bucking the system, flaunting the faceless men back in their air conditioned offices, comes at a cost. Robin Olds returned home to a succession of dead end jobs, retiring a Brigadier General, well down at the bottom of 198 generals in the Air Force. Perhaps his career might have been better served by time in the Office of Statistical Control.

Though most reasonable people not acquainted with the demands of bureaucratic life would applaud Robin Olds and his actions, it also serves warning. Our nation is not so unique that there have not been other times and other places where pursuit of career combined with insulation from consequences have occurred. Overweening ambition in the corridors of bloodless halls, whether of a palace or bureaucracy, often invites a reaction by those called on to shed their blood.

Robin Olds took the steps that needed to be taken. He did what needed to be done to save the lives of his people and ensure the success of his mission. But his was a step onto a slippery slope. Sooner or later, men with swords hesitate to die useless deaths in the service of pointless causes. Perhaps if the history taught ventured past celebratory lists of gender and ethnic “firsts” and their contributions however small, we as well as the snowflakes might more readily realize the consequences of our fecklessness.

There was a man, Gaius Marius, back in the Roman Republic faced with a familiar situation, an out of touch elite was wasting the lives of its soldiers, emptying its treasury and inviting chaos on the frontier if not in Rome itself.

Gaius Marius, sometimes called the Third Founder of Rome, took action, doing what had to be done. Known as the Marian Reforms, his actions restored Rome’s legions to an effective and efficient service.

The Roman legions, reformed by Gaius Marius, subdued the armies that had been creating havoc. For a time peace and tranquility returned to the Mediterranean. The success of Marius and the incompetence of the elite transformed Roman politics. The need for proven competence with the legions became de rigueur for advancement in Rome. But the Marian Reforms had created a dangerous instability in the checks and balances of Rome’s government. Ambitious men, of whom there is always a ready supply, took advantage. The men in the ranks of the legions were no longer accepting of civilian indifference to their fate. A generation after Gaius Marius, Rome was wracked by decades of bloody civil war. After that, Rome was no longer a Republic but instead a dictatorship.

There is irony, perhaps unintended, in the word snowflake. The snowflake is a temporary thing, fragile and only here for a short time. The snowflake will either melt with the return of the sun or harden into a block of ice as winter continues. Those who are led will not always allow themselves to be led by fools. When those led have swords, prosperity’s idiots stand to lose more than their prosperity.

 

 

2 Responses to “It’s Snowing on Thud Ridge”

  1. Jeffrey Esbenshade says:

    I was @ Tail Hookers Convention @ Nellis Airbase 1972.

    My fraternity brother was a Marine “jet jockey” and he passed me off

    as a crew member. The egos were very high on how many MIGS

    each man shot down and a huge amount of adult beverages were consumed.

    Today all of this would be total un PC.

    These men put their lives on the line, they came home to chants of baby killers.

    LBJ and General Westmoreland lied to us. I am so tired of defending Europe and we

    pay 72% of the expenses.I am tired of defending the Arabs. Its time for the media,

    children books,elected officals to grow a pair, stand up and tell the world the

    real facts.

  2. Judy Hoxworth says:

    I’ve never heard of Thud Ridge…but your memories have reduced me to tears! I had Uncles who were in WORLD WAR I! And their sons who fortunately were in the Navy during Vietnam! I remember it all in detail and discussed it constantly during those years and praying that my sons would not see war! They didn’t…but in many ways they see a new kind of war on the horizon which may be far worse than any we’ve witnessed

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