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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Editorial

by Don Webb

A wise saying I inherited: “The boss is there for when things go wrong.” Well, that saying is my father’s, and he would know. He captained artillery fire-control centers in General Patton’s Third Army in WW2, and he earned a medal; but it was not for combat. He was awarded the Bronze Star for managing a mass evacuation of troops in the aftermath of the war.

That was a hair-raising two weeks or so: hundreds of Allied units — including Russians — were arriving and departing in an almost unbroken stream, and transport planes were landing and taking off every ten minutes of daylight on muddy fields and in all weather conditions. And what do you do when a squadron of Luftwaffe shows up in the middle of it all to surrender, and a riot threatens to break out?

My father’s accounts are matter-of-fact, but I know why he amply earned that medal: everything had gone wrong to begin with, and the Army appreciated very much his bringing order into that chaos. His accounts of those momentous years of 1944 and 1945 are fascinating. I treasure his stories as I will treasure his medal when it is finally passed on to me. It is an emblem of what went into making the Great Generation.

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Jerry and I have always marveled at how much we’ve agreed over the years. We’ve seen eye to eye on just about everything. However, when and if Jerry and I ever meet, I think we will not talk politics. The crux of Jerry’s editorial “Storm Warnings” is:

And FEMA... The Federal Emergency Management Agency proves once again why federalizing what should be a local concern often screws up. Remember Civil Defense? Civil Defense in the 50s and 60s were local agencies with National coordination. One of the things that Civil Defense handled was emergency preparedness for natural disasters. Including the deploying of National Guardsmen.

But FEMA took over, got rid of Civil Defense, and now shows up, too little, too late. Federal... Feh...

Well, about the National Guard: several weeks before the hurricane, a Louisiana Guard officer complained that their high-water vehicles were in Iraq. In Biloxi, Mississippi, where the Guard was needed to maintain order, Air Force personnel were out playing basketball; they had received no orders.

CNN dutifully reported a presidential photo-op at a food station. The German TV network ZDF stayed on the scene a little longer: when the President left, the food station was dismantled like the stage prop it was, and the people were once again left to fend for themselves.

Small images? They loom large against the backdrop of the administration’s systematically neglecting and undermining FEMA and the Corps of Engineers. FEMA has lost many professionals in the last few years. And the Corps’ chief resigned under threat of dismissal in 2004 when he protested budget cuts on flood control; the money was going to Iraq. And navigable waterways are the federal government’s responsibility, after all.

From the President on down we have heard ignoble, self-serving excuses and worse. The flood could not have been foreseen? It was predicted regularly, in many quarters, and in detail. New Orleans is inaccessible? Then how are so many reporters and private aid workers able to get into and out of the city?

The PBS News Hour of Friday, September 2 hosted three commentators. Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune) said the scene in New Orleans reminded him of places like Haiti. Thomas Oliphant (Boston Globe) warned that the disaster is national in scope and that the worst is yet to come in the form of social and economic disruption. David Brooks (New York Times), for years an apologist for the administration, was beside himself with fury.

Brooks gave then and in a subsequent editorial the same reasons as outlined in Paul Krugman’s sober article in the Times: “A Can’t-Do Government.” Krugman concludes that the disaster goes beyond mere incompetence, which is something that could be remedied. Rather, the fault is in an administration that does not take seriously what government is supposed to do.

And what is government supposed to do? The Preamble to the Constitution puts it succinctly: “to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.” And as George Washington himself reminded the nation in his Farewell Address, that begins at home. When a government official neglects that duty, he reneges on his oath of office.

For good or ill, the 1950’s and 60’s are half a century in the past. Now the National Guard is off fighting foreign wars, the objectives of which seem to change weekly. And the military, like FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, are too few and too ill-equipped for the conditions they face. Meanwhile, Louisiana, which has natural resources and the fifth largest port in the world, is unaccountably dirt-poor.

For the last 25 years, U.S. politicians have gotten elected by running not against the opposition but against the very government they pledged to serve. Providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty don’t come cheap. Citizens are right to expect government to operate economically, but what kind of citizen expects it to go AWOL and shirk its duty?

Disasters are a part of nature; it takes human beings to turn them into catastrophes. Some 65 years ago, humanity confronted a world-wide catastrophe of its own making. I’m glad my father was able to take part in facing it down. And that was a world-wide effort in which America’s part was organized by the federal government...

Copyright © 2005 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories

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