Something I miss

After six months of living in Staunton, I miss any number of things about home.  

First of all, I miss home – those few acres of riverfront and the old farmhouse at Bermuda Hundred where I grew up, and to which I returned in middle age.  I spent several nights there over Christmas, and every now and then, I get down for a night.  

Whenever I do, I walk the land, looking in on my beehive and checking the progress of my trees.  I sit on the front porch, enjoying the rich diversity of resident birds – from mockingbirds and cardinals to ospreys and American eagles.

It’s still home.  

I also miss southeastern Chesterfield.   The old courthouse green, where Dad and I practiced law.  The old high school – which should, in my opinion, still be Chester Middle.  Enon Elementary, with the long slope in front where we kids used to sled on snow days.

Of course, there are also things I don’t miss, like the four-mile parking lot between I-95 and River’s Bend – laughingly called Route 10.

Certainly, there are people I miss.  Like the folks at the Shepherd’s Center, where I’ve enjoyed teaching everything from Shakespeare to American history.

And my book club.  It’s been a while since I managed to show up on a Saturday morning, but I still keep up with the readings, thanks to Chris Wiegard’s emails.  After seven years, the dedicated core of the book club continues reading and discussing ten books a year, mostly intelligent non-fiction.

A remarkable run for a book club, seven years.  Especially since the club pretty much stays away from fiction.

And that’s important.  In an historical period like this, it seems to me that citizens of the world’s only superpower should be reading and studying more, discussing more, and using the results for greater involvement in the political process.

Because these are complex times.  The issues we face – both the problems and the opportunities – demand more sophistication than is generally to be found in public discourse.  

Now, obviously, I could take off from here on, say, automatic weapons or global climate change, because the debates on both of those issues have been clouded by a good deal of what – to be kind – might be called misinformation.  Yet anyone who actually seeks to be better informed, rather than to confirm his or her knee-jerk position, could learn a great deal about both issues from looking beyond our own borders.

Indeed, in both cases, one could learn a great deal from merely studying the recent history of only one other country – Australia.  There, in 1996, the conservative coalition led by Prime Minister John Howard introduced a strict weapons control regime and buy-back scheme.  As a result, Australia – which had experienced 13 massacres in 18 years – dropped to zero massacres over the past sixteen years.

Likewise, anyone who doubts the impact of global climate change could learn a lot from Australia, where this impact is being felt more dramatically than in perhaps any other modern, developed society.

But today, I don’t want to go there.  Let’s instead choose a random moment from last week’s domestic news.  

Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator who is President Obama’s nominee to serve as Secretary of Defense, got grilled by the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

Senator John McCain – another Republican whom I’ve long admired, and for whom I have twice voted for President – has been highly critical of Mr. Hagel’s nomination.

As a senator, Mr. Hagel was a critic of our second war with Iraq.  He was even critical of “the surge,” an idea promoted by Senator McCain and carried out under the leadership of generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno.  In the hearings, McCain pressed Hagel to admit that he had been wrong – and that history had proved him wrong.

Which was a remarkably dumb thing to say.  First of all, history doesn’t prove anything that quickly.  Whether Chou En-Lai actually refused to appraise the impact of the French Revolution because “it’s too soon to tell” – or whether that’s just a story – the story makes a point.

History takes a long time to unfold, and nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Over the holidays, I read Thomas E. Ricks’ The Gamble, a well-researched history of the surge in Iraq.  Overall, Ricks suggests that the surge saved the US intervention from imploding – but he stops there.  Merely avoiding disaster doesn’t mean that the surge “worked.”  

If Iraq ultimately implodes, or goes badly awry, the best we’ll be able to say might be that the surge allowed us to get our troops out without having to airlift people off the roofs of the Green Zone.

It’s too soon to tell.

Ricks’ book is the sort of thing the book club reads.  I read it on my own, and that’s fine.

But I miss the conversation.  And the friends.

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