Song for My Father, Those Who Mentored Me, and for the Son who is Father to the Man: Veteran’s Day 2015

Joseph Pisano

My father was Joseph Pisano. He wasn’t a hero to anyone but me and those who loved him, nor did he fight in combat, though it wasn’t for trying. He joined the Navy at the age of 17 against the wishes of his parents in 1944, lying about his age to get into the Second World War. He went through boot camp at the old Naval Training Center at Bainbridge, Maryland, and later was trained to become an aviation mechanic for a squadron of Avengers. After a brief assignment on the USS Philippine Sea (CV-47), he was discharged in the post-war drawdown. A few years as a civilian were interrupted when the Korean War broke out. Though still in the Navy Reserve he found himself drafted into the U.S. Army where, he did his basic training at Ft. Dix in New Jersey, and then combat training at Ft. Benning in Georgia. Though he volunteered for combat in Korea, the Army stationed him in Germany and assigned him to the artillery. He rose to Sergeant First Class before being discharged in 1952. He was admired for his diligence, hard work, and leadership—qualities that he carried with him throughout his life, along with a fiery temperament.

An otherwise unassuming man, he never made more than $20,000 in any one year, but he owned what he had, and lived life on his own terms, even when it meant that he swam against the tide of the times. He was a co-founder of the Toms River, New Jersey Little League, and mentored many a young man and woman over the years. To this day I meet men and women who tell me that my father had a profound and positive influence in their lives. He was loyal to his family, his wife until the day of her passing, the New York Yankees—and to me his only child.

The times my father served in the Service were among the most significant of his life. He impressed upon me the values of hard work and dedicating oneself to something greater than one’s self-interest. His was among the first generation American immigrant experience. As with many people previously disenfranchised and looked down upon by previous arrivals, Italian-Americans felt a need to demonstrate their commitment to a country that promised, though did not always live up to, a measure of human dignity and equality. Here, in the United States, was at least the chance of not bowing to the rich man on the hill, to be told what to think and do, and to owe one’s existence to the whims of the rich’s largesse. Here a man or woman could stand upright and look his or her fellows in the eye, to get one’s rights—or at least to have a fighting chance to get them.

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Nick Rubino

The photo above is of Nick Rubino, my mother’s brother and my namesake. Though I was named for my paternal grandfather Nick, my mother had a special place in her heart for her younger brother. She confided to me one time that she was proud that I shared the same name of the sensitive little boy whom she remembered would cry if someone stepped on an ant. She saw the same characteristics in me.

My Uncle Nick, as I knew him, was a very gentle and quiet man. He was the father of twin girls, my cousins, who were named Tony and Mary. The sisters, children themselves just a few years older than me, watched over me when I was a very small boy. I have many early memories of them dressing up the four year old me and including me in their make-believe worlds. They were very kind to me, as was their father.

Nick Rubino was late when he came of age to serve in the Second World War. He went to basic at Ft. Dix and was sent to jump school where he became part of the 101st Airborne Division. He arrived in France after D-Day and was among the fresh troops in Belgium being positioned in December 1944 prior to the push into Nazi Germany.

My uncle never talked of his service. He didn’t tell sea stories or brag about what he had done. But something took hold of him one day. An old friend had passed away and my uncle began to drink in a way that he had not done in quite a long time, and his memories of the war began to spill out. He opened an old footlocker that he had kept under his bed and took out his medals and insignia, a German helmet with a bullet hole stained with old blood, a Luger sidearm, a bayonet, and other items, laying them on the floor.

He began to tell us in a very quiet voice about what has become known as the Battle of the Bulge and the encirclement of the 101st Airborne in Bastogne, Belgium. He recalled each of his friends and how they had been killed or captured. The Americans had dug themselves in to repulse the German offensives, which for the foot soldier mostly involved combat at close quarters if one survived the artillery and mortar shelling.

His outpost was at the top of a hill outside of the town. The command at Bastogne tried very hard to break out of its encirclement and so they sent my uncle and his comrades down that hill to find a weak spot in the German lines. Three times they attempted to break out and each time were repulsed, and then themselves repulsed German counterattacks. After each battle the number of Americans was diminished.

My uncle described nights of pure fear, and days filled with the most horrible scenes of industrialized murder. When I look back at the things he described, sobbing and pounding the floor with his fists, I can only say that my uncle was momentarily transported back in time in his mind, and that in that moment he had lost his mind, as he must have done living in the horror of that forest in Belgium.

A U.S. tank under the command of Patton’s 4th Armored Division arrived on that hill around the 9th of January 1945. Bastogne had been encircled for three weeks, under constant bombardment and deadly attacks. The tank commander called for the members of the 101st who had been positioned on the hill to come out of their foxholes. The only man left in his Company not killed, severely wounded, or captured was Nick Rubino.

The tank commander who liberated that hill was my father’s brother, William Pisano. They did not meet again until February 1953 when they met at my parents’ wedding rehearsal. In 1945 my parents had not yet met. The Pisanos and Rubinos were not closely associated with one another, though the former lived in what used to be known as lower Weehawken and the latter from Hoboken in New Jersey separated merely by a mile. It was just one of those things.

When night overtook us and the alcohol took its toll on him, my uncle quietly returned the items to the footlocker. He never spoke of the war again, nor did he speak to us about what he described that day that went late into the night.

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William Pisano, the man who I do not have a photo in uniform, was, like my Uncle Nick, a hero by any measure. He joined the war early and joined the tank corps. He participated in Operation Torch in North Africa under the 1st Armored Division where he was involved in many of the earliest direct battles with German forces. At the Battle at the Kasserine Pass his tank was destroyed by Panzer fire. His life was saved by the sole African-American tank crew member who, not fearing for his own life, threw my uncle from the tank just before the man was killed by machine gun fire.  When he returned to the United States he remembered the man who had saved his life and supported the drive for equal rights for all Americans.

The American defensive positions were overrun that day in North Africa, and my uncle was forced to fight his way back to the Allied lines.  Suffering from burns, shrapnel, and multiple bullet wounds, he was sent to England to recuperate. By June 1944 he was found fit for duty and participated in the landing of armored units following the D-Day invasion. Assigned to the 4th Armored Division he continued to be deployed against German forces in battle until the end of the war.

My father and my Uncle Pete, William’s other two brothers, complained that when he returned that my grandparents babied him. But I think that it was because they saw what no one else at the time saw. My Uncle “Chick,” as he was called, never fully recovered from the war. Today we recognize the signs of his behavior as PTSD, but at the time it was simply not fully understood. Eventually the night terrors passed, the screaming in the night, the sleepwalking that caused him to believe that he was surrounded again and had to fight those around him. From time to time he drank too much, lost his temper, and suffered from long bouts of depression.

But, on the whole, he was a good and loving son to his parents, my grandparents, and a good brother, father, and husband. He worked hard throughout his life and provided for his family. He paid his dues. He always treated me with kindness and encouragement. The only descriptive for him that comes to mind is that he was a good man. That’s as good an epitaph as any.

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Ruben Soliman

Ruben Soliman pictured above, who retired from the United States Navy is my best friend.  He was best man at my wedding in Key West and, during challenging times, was a surrogate father to me.  Ruben followed his distinguished Navy career, retiring as a Chief Petty Officer, as the Deputy Material Officer at Naval Air Station, Norfolk.  There I had the pleasure of working with him.  Ruben taught me many life lessons, and has provided much wisdom.  When he was a small boy he survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.  Many people forget that the Philippines was a possession of the United States for almost 50 years.  As such, it was U.S. territory when it was invaded in 1941.  The Filipino people were Americans–and many who inhabit those islands are still Americans in their hearts.  Many of them emigrated to the United States by serving in the U.S. military.  Ruben followed in that tradition, and is the epitome of what it means to be an American.  He is soft-spoken, he does not brag, he is loyal and loving.  He is a natural leader, and in some very challenging situations, he was always level-headed and steel-nerved.  I am proud to call Ruben my friend.  I admire him a great deal.  I aspire to be as good a man as Ruben.

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Tommy Jones

Tommy Jones served in the United States Marine Corps.  He is a big man with a very big heart.  If I ever had a brother, I could only wish that it would be Tommy Jones.  He served his country during a time when serving one’s country in the military was falling out of favor.  As with most veterans, Tommy does not brag about his service, except to state emphatically that he is a Marine, still. I admire Tommy.  He demonstrates kindness, courage, and modesty.  Tommy is Ruben’s brother-in-law and, watching him, I can truly say that to me Tommy epitomizes loyalty and reliability.  When the chips are down, Tommy is the guy who you want to be there.  You can rely on him–put your life in his hands.  I would trust him with mine.

Visiting Ruben and Tommy in Williamsburg 2015

Tommy Jones (purple), Ruben Soliman (red), their families, and me (in blue), 2015.

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Finally, there is John Paul Pisano, my son.  I have a number of photos of him in uniform that have not yet been scanned for this blog.  I will need to rectify that deficiency in the near future.  When my son told me that he was joining the Marine Corps, I must admit that it was with both pride and trepidation.  Pride because I knew that he had to just one-up his U.S. Navy career dad by joining the toughest of all of the Services, bar none.  I have always been able to rely on the Marines with whom I served, that they were true to their country, the Constitution, and to their Creeds.

When Bill Clinton became President of the United States I attended a Dining In shortly after his first inauguration where the senior officers at the head table, confusing their personal ideology with their service and Oath, refused to rise when the toast to the President of the United States was announced.  I raised my glass and looked around.  Only myself, one other Navy Officer, and every other member of the United States Marine Corps who were present rose, and held their glasses high during the playing of “Hail to the Chief.”  The Marine Lt. Colonel in the audience looked around and called “Attention on Deck!”  A number of other Navy officers then rose and toasted, defying the senior officers who dishonored themselves and their commissions that day.

When I was a Supply Officer on a tank landing ship and Boat Group Commander, I had the pleasure of serving with the Marines in both fair and foul operations.  I formed a bond with my fellow officers when engaging in counterterrorism operations in Southeast Asia in the early 1980s.  The Marines with whom I operated made it plain that they would fight anyone who threatened our position, and the safety of the ship–and they had a brief opportunity to prove it.

Thus, when my son decided to join the Marine Corps, I knew that he was joining a Service with a long and proud tradition.  Though there is a great deal of inter-service rivalry, the fact of the matter is that the Navy cannot perform its mission without the Marines.  Nor can the Marines perform theirs without the Navy.  Both have fought and bled together from the beginning of the United States.

But that knowledge also was part of my trepidation.  We live in a time when very few serve their country–are willing to put their lives on the line–where the military experience is understood, and the idea of a shared stake in this democratic experiment is suffering from neglect.  The ideology of self-interest is anathema to our ideals.  Democracy dies without the care and feeding of the people.  Self-interest turns the American people from citizens and persons into interest groups and employees.  The idea of the modern non-partisan foreign policy and non-politicized military has been largely undermined.  Commitment today is often limited to a hashtag, the waving of flags or their flying on cars, and the platitude “thank you for your Service.”

This makes the soldier, sailor, or marine unimportant as human beings.  They have become like the burger flipper in the minds of the political establishment and economic elites, though the difference, of course, couldn’t be greater.  They are seen as there to do a dirty job and then be forgotten, reminded to stay in their place.  After all, they are reminded, you volunteered.  Personnel medical and pension expenses are viewed as if it is corporate America–even within the confines of the E-ring at the Pentagon, and among the senior staff.  Like the protagonist in the book Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by author Ben Fountain, there is nothing for us to do than to support each other, and hold on to one’s ideals.

My son was in Okinawa when the Twin Towers fell.  It wasn’t long before he was sent to combat in Afghanistan during the initial invasion there.  The occasional details he provides of his service while there are that it was a miserable place and the days were mostly boring, punctuated by the proverbial moments of terror.  When he returned home for duty in North Carolina, it was with a great deal of relief and thankfulness.  I was living in western Virginia at the time, and thought I would finally be able to see him from time-to-time.

But there was another invasion to come, this time in Iraq.  During the run to Baghdad he was at the pointy end of the spear.  He wrote occasionally of his experiences, which involved combat and riding in convoy.  He then served in country for the initial occupation, and was returned home with severe physical issues.  For the longest time he wouldn’t talk to anyone, seemed to hold a burning resentment.  The gentle and sensitive boy I had raised had been changed.

I felt a great deal of guilt at this condition.  After all, I had served a charmed life in the service.  I joined at the end of the Vietnam War and retired four years prior to 9-11.  The Cold War was anything but safe, especially in the many years I served in operations at sea and overseas, but there is no comparison in my experience to those of the men and women who have served since 2001.  My anchors in placing all of this in perspective were the men and women who had served in Vietnam, just as they and the Second World War and Korean War vets had been my mentors and anchors when I was first a young enlisted man, and then later when I achieved my commission.

But time and patience have brought my son back to me.  As I sit here and write this post on Veteran’s Day 2015 I am thankful for having him once again, that he went through a trial by fire, and came out stronger and wiser for it.  John Pisano is the bravest man I know.  I couldn’t be prouder to be his father.

But it is not just because of his service.  It is because of what he took from that service–for the caring and thoughtful man he has become.  Just as the unassuming and dedicated men named above were and are caring and thoughtful.  Just like William Pisano, who through his awful experience, learned to see the humanity of everyone despite the separation of skin color that was common in his time.  Just like Nick Rubino who lived a quiet life taking care of his wife, his children and his mother, and who never revealed the many decorations for bravery he earned on that hill outside of Bastogne to his family, who only learned of them at his funeral by a contingent sent by the local VFW.  Just like Ruben Soliman and Tommy Jones who are good family men–and good friends–and have continued to serve their communities is so many ways.  And just like Joseph Pisano, who took so many young people under his wing regardless of their color, creed, and ethnicity, to help them realize their intrinsic worth.

As William James said at the dedication to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry–one of the first African-American military units during the Civil War–in 1897:

“It is hard to end a discourse like this without one word of moralizing; and two things must be distinguished in all events like those we are commemorating–the moral service of them on the one hand, and on the other the physical fortitude which they display.  War has been much praised and celebrated among us of late as a school of manly virtue; but it is easy to exaggerate upon this point.  Ages ago, war was the gory cradle of mankind, the grim-featured nurse that alone could train our savage progenitors into some semblance of social virtue, teach them to be faithful to one another, and force them to sink their selfishness in wider tribal ends….It is that more lonely courage which he (Robert Gould Shaw) showed when he dropped his warm commission in the glorious Second to head…the 54th.  That lonely kind of valor (civic courage as we call it in peace times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared, for the survival of the fittest has not bred it into the bone of human beings as it has bred military valor; and of the five hundred of us who could storm a battery side-by-side with others, perhaps not one would be found ready to risk his worldly fortunes all alone in resisting an enthroned abuse….The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.  Such nations have no need of wars to save them.”

Real World — Normalization of Relations with Cuba

Family and holiday routine has interrupted regular blogging.  I’ve been working on new posts on project management and high tech that will shortly appear at AITS.org, as well as here.

In the meantime, much has happened in the world.  Among these events was the President’s announcement on normalizing relations with Cuba.  The usual suspects have squeaked but this is a policy a long time coming in sweeping away the last vestiges of the old Cold War.  As a student of both history and political science I cannot let this go by without some comment.

Those of who served during the latter part of that long standoff known as the Cold War understand that, after the initial institution of containment of Soviet imperial ambitions, that the Iron Curtain fell only after the implementation of policies such as the West German Ostpolitik under Willy Brandt and greater U. S. engagement through rapprochement.

Low level social and cultural contacts are more effective in bringing about change in oppressive regimes than isolation. An isolated people are more easily manipulated, tending to play into the regime’s hands fostering paranoia, xenophobia, and social control. This is not just opinion but the result of numerous studies tracking the incremental changes that led to liberalization and liberation in central and Eastern Europe.

It is harder to blow up the world if one realizes and acknowledges the basic humanity of one’s adversaries. We had to learn that lesson anew after the nearly disastrous ramifications from FleetEx ’83 and the similarly foolish brinkmanship of Able Archer ’83. Both of these Reagan era exercises almost led to thermonuclear war. (I participated in the first, on an LST just off the Kamchatka Peninsula, as part of the greatest naval armada ever assembled).

I think Mr. Obama has once again proven himself clear-eyed and level-headed in changing a failed policy that nonetheless has managed to survive due to political intransigence and perceived electoral politics.  The repressive regime in Cuba is no less hesitant to fully embrace this change than our own extremists. I think that this alone is a good indication that this president has made the right decision.

Note:  The links for this post did not appear in the first version.  I have refreshed them for update.

Why Can’t We Be Friends — The Causes of War

Paul Krugman published an interesting opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times entitled “Why We Fight Wars” in which he attempts to understand why developed, relatively affluent countries still decide to wage war, despite the questionable economic costs.  Many websites seconded his observations, particularly those that view social systems and people as primarily rational economic beings.  I think the problem with Mr. Krugman’s opinion–and there is no doubt that he is a brilliant economist and observer of our present state of affairs with a Nobel to his name no less–is that he doesn’t fully comprehend that while the economic balance sheet may argue against warfare, there are other societal issues that lead a nation to war.

Warfare, its causes, and the manner to conduct it was part of my profession for most of my life.  My education was dedicated not only to my academic development but also to its utility in understanding the nature of civilization’s second oldest profession–and how to make what we do in waging war–at the tactical, operational, strategic level–that much more effective.  In the advanced countries we attempt to “civilize” warfare, though were it to be waged in its total state today, it would constitute post-industrial, technological mass murder and violence on a scale never seen before.  This knowledge, which is even recognized by peripheral “Third World” nations and paramilitary organizations, actually make such a scenario both unthinkable and unlikely.  It is most likely this knowledge that keeps Russian ambitions limited to insurgents, proxies, Fifth Columnists, and rigged referendums in its current war of conquest against Ukraine.

Within the civilized view of war, it begins with Clausewitz’s famous dictum: “War is the attainment of political ends through violent means.”  Viewing war as such we have established laws in its conduct.  The use of certain weapons–chemical and biological agents for instance–are considered illegal and their use a war crime; a prohibition honored throughout World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and most other major conflicts.  Combatants are to identify themselves and, when they surrender, are to be accorded humane treatment–a rule that has held up pretty effectively with notable exceptions recorded by Showa Japan, North Korea, and North Vietnam and–tragically and recently–by the United States in its conduct in the War on Terror.  War is not to be purposely waged on non-combatants and collective punishment as reprisals for resistance are prohibited.  There are also others that apply, such as Red Cross and medical persons being protected from attack.  In the U.S. military, the conduct of personnel at war are also restricted by the rules of engagement.  But in all cases the general law of warfare dictates that only the necessary amount of force to achieve the desired political ends is to be exercised–the concept of proportionality applied to a bloody business.

Such political ends typically reflect a society’s perception of its threats, needs, and grievances.  Japan’s perception that the United States and Western Europe was denying it resources and needed its own colonial possessions is often cited as the cause of its expansion and militarism under Showa rule.  Germany’s economic dislocations and humiliation under the Allies is often blamed for the rise of Hitler, rabid nationalism, and expansionism.  In both cases it seemed that at the societal level both nations possessed the characteristics on the eve of war that is typically seen in psychotic individuals.  Other times these characteristics seemed to behave like a disease, infecting other societies and countries in proximity with what can only be described as sociopathic memes–a type of mass hysteria.  How else to explain the scores of individuals with upraised hands in fealty to obviously cruel and inhumane political movements across the mess of human history–or the systematic collection and mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, Intellectuals, and other “undesirables”: not just in Germany but wherever the influence of this meme spread across Europe, Africa, and Asia?

Nations can also fool themselves in learning the wrong lessons from history.  Our own self-image of righting the wrongs of the Old World go back to our anti-colonial roots and the perceptions of our immigrant ancestors who were either rejected by or rejected that world.  Along these lines, the example of Munich in the 20th century has been much misused as a pretext for wars that have ended disastrously or created disastrous blowback resulting from the fog of war simply because the individuals assessing the strategic situation told themselves convenient stories gleaned from an inapplicable past and ignored the reality on the ground.  We have seen this in my lifetime in Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.

For all of the attempts to “civilize” warfare and lend it rationality, there comes a time when its successful prosecution requires the rejection of rationality.  This is why soldiers and combatant personnel use euphemisms to dehumanize their enemy: it is easier to obliterate a person who is no longer seen as human.  Correspondingly the public is inflamed, the press becomes a tool of the war party, and dissent is viewed with suspicion and penalized.  This is why warfare cannot be interpreted as an extension of neo-classical or–any–economics.  There are no rational actors; at least, not as it is presently conducted by modern nation-states no matter their level of economic development or the maturity of their political systems.  War is unhinged–part of the savagery found in all of us from our primate pasts.

One of my most effective professors when I was seeking my Masters in Military Arts and Sciences was the brilliant historian Dr. Roger J. Spiller–a protégé’ of T. Harry Williams.  “We are always learning,” he would say in repeating a familiar refrain in the military profession, “the lessons from the last war.”  For students at the Army Command and General Staff College it was the critique that doctrine (and therefore the organization and construction of the force) was based on the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; probably the only analogue that could be used in Iraq and–unfortunately for Russia–if they decide to turn their armor on Ukraine or any Article V NATO countries.

Aside from these few exceptions, however, the American way of total warfare that we learned first in our own Civil War and then perfected on the battlefields of Europe and Asia–and our success in its use–has rendered it largely obsolete.  It has been obsolete for quite some time because warfare has changed; its practitioners have evolved.  It has changed because its present incarnation is being prosecuted by people and groups that have no significant power and so use violence to destroy power.  This is the purpose of the terrorist.  Even the strength of this new form of warfare–Low Intensity Conflict–is transient–evident only in tactical situations.  What it cannot do is establish legitimacy or power.  Thus, meeting violence with violence only exacerbates the situation in these cases because power is further eroded and–along with it–legitimacy.  We see the results of the vacuum caused by this inability to adjust to the new warfare in the political instability in both Iraq and Afghanistan–and the rise of ISIS.

While I would argue that the use of economic balance sheets are not what we need in assessing the needs to ensure global stability and peace, we do require a new theory of war that infuses greater rationality into the equation.  Clausewitz–and his intellectual successor Antoine-Henri Jomini–in looking at the guerilla warfare in Spain against French rule, simply admonishes war’s practitioners not to go there.  It is not until T. E. Lawrence and Mao Zedong that we have a modern theory to address this new, societal form of “revolutionary” warfare and then only from the perspective of the revolutionary that wishes to establish neo-colonial, authoritarian, or totalitarian regimes.

Thus, we possess the old templates and they no longer work.  With the specter of nuclear weapons still held over the head of humanity we can ill afford to view every situation as a nail, needing a hammer.  We must, I think, follow the lead as advocated by Hannah Arendt, who distinguished the differences between power, strength, force, violence, and authority.  There is, as John Dewey observed, a connection in consequences between means and ends.  The modern form of violence through terrorism or paramilitary revolution has all too often, in the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century, led to new oppression and totalitarianism.  This has probably been inevitable given the indiscriminate brutality of the struggles.  Diplomacy backed by credible power and sufficient military force to counteract such violence is the new necessary face of achieving stability.  Contrary to the assertions of neo-cons at the time, the very thing we needed in the wake of 9-11 was an effective police action in lieu of chaotic regional warfare.

Interestingly, the insight between means and ends in warfare was perceived early by George Washington when he won his struggle over the conduct of the war against the methods of Nathaniel Greene.  Greene’s irregular methods of warfare were designed to win the war but to unmake a nation, while Washington’s method–the existence of the disciplined continental army as the strategic center of the revolution–was designed to make a nation once the war was over.  Unfortunately for the French and the Russians, there was no George Washington to see this important distinction in their own revolutions.

So too in the 21st century is this connection between means and ends in the handling of conflict–and terrorism–important.  The years since the fall of the Soviet Union seem to have turned the clock back to 1914 for the pressures and conflicts that were held in check by a bi-polar world: the Balkans, the Middle East, Eastern Europe all have been engulfed in conflict.  The tragedy that can result given the new technologies and approaches for inflicting violence and chaos on civilization require that we not apply 1914 methods in meeting them.