Understanding the Trump phenomenon

I didn’t write this, but thought it so good that I suggested putting it online so there would be a link available.

By Phil Watts, guest columnist

I have to admit a certain obsessiveness about my inability to understand the Trump phenomenon. I hope my readers will stay with me as I express my frustrations and efforts to reach some reasonable level of insight.

First, let me say that most Trump supporters are good people who love our country and want what’s best for her. That’s why it’s been so hard for me to understand what I see as their unblinking support of a hopelessly flawed individual. From the beginning of his candidacy and as I have come to know him even better now, I see Donald Trump as completely unqualified and unfit to be President of the United States and with ideas so at odds with the ideals of our Constitution and Bill of rights as to make him seem at home with the cruel and murderous dictators he has praised like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and recently, Saddam Hussein.

…the only way this makes sense is that events have moved beyond the person of Donald Trump and that Trump himself is now just a bystander…the election must be about something else.

During numerous political discussions I have pointed out his lack of qualifications, outrageous statements and inconsistencies to his supporters only to be met with anger or a “yes but.” The “yes buts” include “he has been a successful businessman,” “he tells it like it is,” “the country can’t survive four years of Hillary Clinton,” and “he’s tough enough not to be pushed around.” In my mind these “yes buts” are either only marginally related to necessary qualities for a successful presidency or simply untrue. In this process I have managed to increase tension between me and some of my close family members and some of my good friends without changing anyone’s mind.

We have a great country, and thanks to the freedoms we enjoy and the balance of powers embedded in our Constitution our county will survive and likely prosper after four years of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as President, barring our participation in a major armed conflict. My great fear is an unnecessary war costing us dearly in blood and treasure. Recent history is not reassuring on this point. Lyndon Johnson with his inflated ego used the Gulf of Tonkin incident in order to justify ramping up U.S. involvement in the civil war in Vietnam. Then Richard Nixon with his inflated ego ramped it up even more in order to end it honorably. As a result 58,000 Americans and 355,000 North and South Vietnamese died. Words can’t describe the folly of that one.

The scale of the current quagmire in the Middle East is enormous. I think you can draw a line back to W’s invasion of Iraq (perhaps the worst intelligence gaffe in history) as the source. The cost in lives and dollars has been enormous. You can also draw a line from W’s decision to the refugee crisis that is destabilizing much of Europe and Turkey today. You can say what you will about Barrack Obama, but his decision to eat his words about a “red line in the sand,” after having Assad drop his chemical weapons all over it, was right and took political courage. You can’t tell your friends from your enemies there and if you could they might change in a few months. We’re good at winning these wars; we just don’t know what to do next (see Iraq). Assad has a point when he says, “You better leave me alone; what you get after me will be much worse.” How many lives and how much money did Obama’s decision save? There are some things even the USA can’t fix. Beware the law of unintended consequences.

The critical question for me in the presidential election then is which candidate is least likely to get us into an unwise war? Both Hillary Clinton (who I find a thoroughly disgusting person) and Donald Trump have super egos. Big egos are dangerous things, particularly when their owners have the power to send young people to their deaths. Hillary tries to cover hers but it is uncontrollable as shown by her email fiasco; Donald Trump flaunts his every day. It makes for a tough choice.

One of our great freedoms is our right to express our political beliefs without fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution.

In my quest to understand Trump supporters I eagerly read every opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal and the Birmingham News and have watched Fox News, CNN and MSNBC commentaries and debates ad nauseam. Recently I have read two articles in the WSJ that have pulled back my blinders at least partially. Peggy Noonan a few weeks ago was theorizing on this topic and said a light turned on for her after one Trump supporter when questioned said, “I want my country back.” Of course, this could mean many things to many people. She felt it meant a sense of things slipping away, a loss of control, which caused a feeling of insecurity and fear.

The second piece was by Daniel Henninger in the 7/7/16 edition. In it he postulates that regardless of all the missteps Trump makes, any one of which would have doomed a normal candidate, he still stands within a margin of error of Ms. Clinton in the polls. He reasons that the only way this makes sense is that events have moved beyond the person of Donald Trump and that Trump himself is now just a bystander. Mr. Henninger says the election must be about something else. He thinks it is a reckoning of accounts and grievances that go way back. It’s a street fight between irreconcilable views of Americans. It’s about political correctness and its backlash, not just PC itself but the moral contempt and superiority its proponents show towards everyone else. Trump supporters are just fed up with attempts to make them feel morally inferior.

There’s a third thing I think fuels the passion and uncritical support of Donald Trump. As expressed to me by a friend this week, “Phil, four years of Hillary Clinton will turn us into Venezuela.” It’s a sense of impending doom. This is Armageddon for many; now or never—America’s last chance to stay American.

As I stated earlier, excluding war, I think whomever is elected, our country won’t be that different in four years from what it is today. It’s because of our history, our rights, the balance of power in our government, and our freedom that I feel this way. So while I am apprehensive, I am also optimistic. I’m sure my feeling of optimism has been a huge barrier to my understanding of the power of Trumpism.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand the Trump phenomenon, and as a result I’m feeling much less frustration with those whom I felt couldn’t really see their candidate for the defective man he is.

One of our great freedoms is our right to express our political beliefs without fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution. God Bless America!

Love and peace,

Phil Watts



Please don’t call me a hussy or I will be very angry. Don’t call me a courtesan, either.

By Jacque White Kochak

I’ve been thinking about pejoration lately.

I’m glad I haven’t used the word “Oriental” in years, because when I wasn’t looking this innocent word morphed into an offensive term for Asians. I was unaware of this inexorable shift, as I tend to think of Oriental as meaning Eastern.

Occidental has not undergone such a shift, so I was taken by surprise. Fortunately, my consciousness was raised one afternoon as I listened to NPR and an earnest young woman talked about her father’s Chinese restaurant. She made a good case, so I’ll be on my best behavior.

‘But see, here’s the thing. Illegal alien and undocumented immigrant mean exactly the same thing.’

Thank heavens, I have long been aware that “wetback” is a totally unacceptable name for Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande without benefit of papers, although in the 1950s, when I was a very young girl, President Dwight David Eisenhower made the inexcusable mistake of including this insulting term in the name of a quasi-military search-and-seizure operation aimed at illegal immigrants (remember “Operation Wetback”?). Umm, make that undocumented aliens. No wait, I forgot, “aliens” is not nice. Undocumented immigrants, that’s it—for now, at least. Apparently  Ike missed the memo.

I have to keep up with these things, because as a journalist I’m supposed to know AP style. For the uninitiated, that’s the style preferred by the Associated Press. Knowing AP style is a way to ensure consistency, so the reader isn’t subjected to the annoyance of things like the period that ends a sentence being isolated outside the closing quotation marks. I’m enough of a true believer that I cringe at such an abomination, and AP style says undocumented immigrant is acceptable.

Back to the subject at hand: Missing the memo these days, in the time of Twitter and Facebook, can be a very serious thing. One slip of the tongue, and yours can be a household name in every 50 states. Your mother may be exposed for failing to raise you correctly, and you may lose your reputation, your job, and I suppose even your family.

But see, here’s the thing. Illegal alien and undocumented immigrant mean exactly the same thing. The difference, as you’ll remember from English class, is that “illegal alien” has a negative connotation, or the “idea or feeling that a word evokes,” quite beyond the literal meaning.

The problem is that the connotations of some categories of words tend to pejorate. Pejoration is a linguistics term describing the way some words take on negative or disparaging connotations over time. This isn’t really a random process; certain categories of words tend to pejorate more than others, which to me raises some interesting questions.

‘You can insist that sexism exists only in the perfervid imaginings of a bunch of old feminists, but our language tells a different story.’

For example, words having to do with women often pejorate. Hussy started life as the perfectly respectable “huswif,” or housewife—but please don’t call me a hussy or I will be very angry. Don’t call me a courtesan, either, although a courtesan once meant nothing more insulting than a lady of the court. You know, like a courtier—but words having to do with men do not have the dismaying habit of slumming around with the riffraff.

A few centuries ago, a wench was a female baby or a young unmarried woman. I don’t think I need to explain “mistress” and “madame,” but you might not realize that a spinster was once a woman who spins. And a tart, in the sense of a prostitute? Tart was probably just a contraction of the innocuous “sweetheart.”

Are you angry yet? Our attitudes are indelibly imprinted upon our language. You can insist that sexism exists only in the perfervid imaginings of a bunch of old feminists, but our language tells a different story.

Words having to do with smells also tend to pejorate, as do words having to do with the bathroom. So that brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is words having to do with ethnic groups and words referring to people with disabilities.

This is perilous territory, and I risk a misstep that will send me into Twitter purgatory. I did my homework, however, and I believe—unless the terminology has already changed—that black and African American are still acceptable. “Negro” not so much, apparently—the Army actually apologized in 2014 for saying the term was tolerable.

I guess Martin Luther King didn’t get the memo when he used the word “Negro” in his moving “I Have a Dream” speech: “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” he wrote. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Let’s not even talk about the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP). What were they thinking?

Most people are aware of the care needed in referring to different ethnicities, but they’re shaky on words referring to people with disabilities. A “disabled person” or “the disabled” are definite no-nos. You should probably stay away from “mentally ill” (“person with mental-health issues” is better).

‘Why keep changing words when the problem is really societal attitudes? I realize I’m on treacherous ground here, but can’t the word police ease up just a little on us old fogies who grew up using terms that are now totally unacceptable?’

I’ve kept up well enough to know that “retarded” is no longer acceptable, never mind the fact that The Arc, an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, started out in 1953 as the National Association for Retarded Children. The association’s history of name changes allows us to date with some precision the period when “retarded” pejorated to the point of becoming completely verboten. That would have been the early 1990s, when the Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States euphemized into The Arc.

And don’t forget, “handicapped” is really bad.

I could go on with examples all night, but I bet you get my point. In fact, my point is, “What’s the point?” Why keep changing words when the problem is really societal attitudes? I realize I’m on treacherous ground here, but can’t the word police ease up just a little on us old fogies who grew up using terms that are now totally unacceptable? It’s just hard to keep up, you know.

Does changing a word to something less “offensive” really solve anything? Doesn’t it make more sense to work on the entrenched attitudes themselves? If I ever end up in a wheelchair, please—just call me a cripple. I promise I won’t get angry (but stay away from hussy or courtesan).

Even worse, aren’t the sensitive, empathetic, socially conscious ones among us—the people who point out that “Oriental” is really not nice—the ones who are perpetuating this pejoration?

I realize I’m an outlier, but my philosophy has always been that I won’t take offense unless offense is meant. In this era of political correctness and “microaggression,” can’t we all all just lighten up a little bit?

Ukrainian famine shows that a journalist’s job is not always pretty

The job of an honest journalist is to climb to the top of a hill and shout, ‘Look what I see!’ no matter how messy or ugly.

By Jacque White Kochak

This article first appeared in The Auburn Villager

My maiden name is White, and every three years the White clan holds an enormous family reunion. The descendants of all my grandfather’s siblings show up at the appointed place—we’ve been to Kansas, Arkansas and New Mexico so far—to update each other about our families.

Inevitably, my children ask why I have so many relatives, and my husband has so few. The short answer is that he is Ukrainian, and his great aunts, great uncles and a vast assortment of second and third cousins are still in Europe, not in the United States.

The long answer is that many of them didn’t survive the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933.

The state-orchestrated famine, designed by Josef Stalin to break the backs of Ukrainian peasants who refused to join collectives, claimed the lives of at least 4.8 million Ukrainians. That is the conservative estimate; others say the figure was closer to 10 million. No one knows for sure because Stalin suspended routine census taking during the period.

Stalin sealed the borders of the region and then sent soldiers through every home to steal any food that might help the peasants survive. Some resorted to cannibalism. While his own people starved, Stalin exported grain to the West, refusing offers to help from international relief organizations.

Never heard of the famine? I’m not surprised. Although Stalin’s genocide rivaled or surpassed Hitler’s, the history books I read when I was growing up were mum on the subject. The searing Canadian film Harvest of Despair finally started educating Americans about the holocaust in the early 1980s.

‘Whatever I may do or think in the future, I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow asking for bread.’

Stalin’s oppression of the story was a triumph of “public relations.” He spoonfed the news that he wanted told to eager journalists who didn’t want to lose their cushy jobs in Stalin’s Moscow. After all, foreign correspondents had been “advised” to remain in Moscow by the press department of the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and not go poking around the countryside.

And some of them believed in the idea of a Communist utopia. They couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see the truth. One of them, Walter Duranty of the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for his vivid, glowing dispatches about Stalin’s Five Year Plan, in which he attributed the deaths to errors in Stalin’s plan. Duranty was fooled—or he lied.

Other journalists tried to tell the story, but their veracity was attacked. In 1932, you see, negotiations were underway to accept the Soviet Union into the League of Nations. Criticizing Stalin’s regime wasn’t “politically correct.” Available archival evidence testifies that several Western governments were well-informed about the Ukrainian genocide but adopted a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a foreign sovereign state.

The British scribe Malcolm Muggeridge, who was sympathetic to  Communism when first posted to Moscow, was one of those journalists who told the truth. He described peasants ravaged by hunger, kneeling in the snow and begging for crusts of bread.

“Whatever I may do or think in the future,” Muggeridge wrote in his diary. “I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow asking for bread. Something that I have seen and understood.”

Another was William I. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, who recorded the sight of ragged peasants crossing a river to escape the Ukrainian famine. And dispatches from another British journalist, Gareth Jones, left no doubts. “I walked alone through villages,” he wrote. “…everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying.'”

The job of a journalist is to climb to the top of a hill and shout, “Look what I see!” no matter how messy or ugly. That’s a lesson to remember, even here in Auburn.

With the rise of the blogosphere and every Tom, Dick and Harry spouting “facts” to support opinions, have honest journalists become irrelevant? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all.



Woman takes chance as a father seeks a handout

I wrote this a long time ago. It first appeared in the Westchester Opinion section of the New York Times. Although little Tommy is all grown up, I wouldn’t say my point of view has changed very much.

By Jacque White Kochak

As I wove through the crowds in Grand Central Terminal on my way home from work one day, I saw a man carrying a child and pushing her stroller. The little girl was plump, and her white shirt stuck out below a red jacket. A tiny face peeked out below a fringe of curly bangs.

The man was young, with a light shadow of beard and an open, unmarked face. The stroller was fairly new and nondescript. Nothing about the two particularly spoke of poverty. Yet the man walked along, chanting in a singsong voice. The words he chanted, walking along with the crowds ignoring him: “Can you help me feed a homeless child?”

I don’t deny that I was a perfect mark. I have three children of my own, and this little girl was just the age of Tommy. A picture of homeless children in a newspaper is enough to set me sobbing. I have a soft spot for children, of course.

I can also, sometimes, almost, see myself in that picture. Not as the parent, but as the child. By the time my mother was 22 years old and my father was 24, they had had five children, all born in four years. When I was 4, my sister was 3, my brother was 2, and the twins were newborn. My brother had cystic fibrosis. My parents had no insurance. I was very young, but I think things got kind of tough. I remember eating a lot of dried beef gravy on biscuits for dinner, and one year wearing shoes that scarred my instep because they were too tight.

I’m from Kansas, so New York-style poverty is alien to me. But once, when I read about a young couple with their children living out of a dilapidated car as they chased chimerical jobs across the Southwest, I imagined how easy it might have been to slip between the cracks.

So, I followed the man, through the crowds, until I caught up with him. A squat little woman, probably with grown children of her own, stuffed a dollar in the man’s cup. “God bless you,” he said.

I stuffed another dollar in his cup. “God bless you,” he said again. I imagined the people around me sneering. What an easy mark I was! The man was probably using the little girl to provoke pity, then he would take the money and spend it on booze or drugs.

Then someone called out. “Why don’t you put her in foster care?” the voice said. The young man reeled, furious and sincere.

“Yeah, and never see her again!” he yelled at no one in particular. “Only a moron. . . .” and his voice trailed off. The little girl just looked at him, with that uncanny patience and innocence that toddlers show before they really understand what is going on around them.

I am an easy mark, but I am also fairly sophisticated about poverty. I once worked for an organization that raised money for orphanages, schools, feeding programs and a child-sponsorship program in Latin America. It was my job to break vulnerable hearts with heart-rending tales of malnourished children. I know the techniques.

I also have traveled extensively, and I know that beggars can be very businesslike. I have seen gypsy women in Madrid who make a living begging. They find a comfortable spot, perhaps in an overpass shielded from the sun, and spread themselves out. They bring along two or three dirty-faced kids for effect, and one wily woman even displayed an enlarged black-and-white poster of herself with six or seven more children of all sizes.

And I have dealt with pint-sized beggars in Santiago, Chile. Their alcoholic parents dress them in rags and send them out to beg. The parents keep out of sight; they know that the children will be more effective alone. The money the kids collect goes for liquor.

But I also remember another man I saw in Madrid. He huddled against a wall, his face hidden in shame. Next to his begging cup lay a hand-lettered sign. “I am a poor man from Andalusia,” the sign read. “I sold my house and came to the city to look for work. Now I can’t find work, and my children are hungry.” Somehow, I believed him.

What can I say? I’m an easy mark. I gambled that my dollar would go for a nourishing meal for the little girl, just the size of my Tom. And really, a dollar is such a little bit of money.

And then I looked at the people around me, the ones who would chide me for being a sucker. They hurried by, dressed in their heavy coats and their winter boots, maybe not prosperous, but surviving. Not one of them would have missed a dollar. Yet, many of them wouldn’t hesitate to drop 10, 20, even 100 times that measly dollar in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. And that made me mad.

I prefer my gamble, thank you.

A general’s spiritual journey

On the occasion of retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore’s death, I am re-publishing an article I wrote about him several years ago. This surprising portrait of a complex and interesting man was first published in The Auburn Villager.


By Jacque White Kochak

Retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore of Auburn is best known as the man who led 450 soldiers into the valley of death at Ia Drang in 1965. His unlikely victory over some 2,000 Vietnamese troops was chronicled in first a book and later a movie starring mega-star Mel Gibson.

At the time this article was written in 2008, Moore had just been chosen by Armchair General Magazine as one of the 100 greatest generals in history. A second book about his adventures called We Are Soldiers Still was set to be published by Harper-Collins that September. Like Moore’s first book, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, the book was co-authored by journalist Joe Galloway.

There’s another side to this stern warrior, though. Moore stays after Mass every Sunday morning at Auburn’s St. Michael’s Catholic Church, on his knees praying for every man he lost. Their names are alphabetized on 3 x 5 cards.

Sometimes, Moore attends daily Mass, spending three hours a day praying for the men who died in his command.

“At the age of 86, I realize I’m not long for this planet,” he said. “I want to stack the deck so I’ll make the cut for eternal life.”

This complex man’s spirituality isn’t something new, though, occasioned by fear of impending mortality. Moore’s long spiritual journey, beginning when he was just a boy in Kentucky, has now been chronicled in yet another new book by, of all people, a local man we’ll call The Driver because he has asked not be identified, in the book or in the press.

When Moore lost his beloved wife, Julie, in 2004, his friends around the country feared Moore would give up and pass on, too. They asked The Driver, who lived in Auburn, to keep Moore company and redirect his thoughts. Besides visiting with Moore, The Driver started acting as an unofficial chauffeur. And over four years’ time, on long excursions to the airport or to the cemetery at Ft. Benning to visit Julie and his men, Moore started talking. The Driver listened, and went home to recount the stories to his wife.

“You have to write this down,” she said.


The Driver approached the general about writing his stories, only for his family and close friends. Moore agreed. The Driver wrote for a month, and presented a draft for Moore’s approval.

“Why would you think I would deserve this? This may be the greatest thing I’ll ever leave my children,” Moore said when he saw the draft.

As it turns out, more people than just Moore’s children are now reading the modest treatise, entitled A General’s Spiritual Journey. After it was written, a group called Operation Gratitude requested 70,000 copies to be included in care packages going to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Carolyn Blaschek, founder of Operation Gratitude, said she was just looking for a letter from someone prominent to include in the care packages. Armchair General Magazine put her in touch with Moore’s representatives, and she heard about the book.

“I thought, Omigod that would be amazing,” Blaschek said. “I said, I need to have those books, not just a letter.”

The books were printed by another of Moore’s friends at Wild Goose Ministries in Colorado. The ministry agreed to print 90,000 more copies, and at the time he was interviewed Moore had received perhaps a thousand e-mails and letters from soldiers and others touched by his thoughts. Chaplains around the world had asked for copies, and Moore had been asked to appear on the Catholic television network EWTN as well as Larry King Live. The book is about spirituality, not a particular religion. Although Moore is Catholic, Blaschek is Jewish and the founder of Wild Goose Ministries is Baptist.

“What I am learning from this book is reconciliation, reintegration and renewal,” said one correspondent. “I feel like I am fighting the toughest battle of my life right now with grief. Grief of great loss is worse than my falling on a grenade in Vietnam and losing my legs and one arm. If Hal Moore can do it, I can do it!”

Neither Moore nor The Driver sought compensation for their effort. All proceeds from all of Moore’s books, as well as the blockbuster movie, go to the Ia Drang scholarship fund to educate the children of the men Moore lost in Viet Nam.


“Gen. Moore once asked me, ‘Do you think God will forgive me for all the men I killed?'” recalled The Driver. “When he goes to the cemetery, he goes to every tombstone of every soldier who fought under him, and tells me something about each one. He ends up at Julie’s headstone.”

Moore admitted that people who read the book seemed to be surprised that a general officer had deep spiritual beliefs, but he pointed to Gen. Robert E. Lee and Douglas MacArthur as other examples, although he didn’t count himself in their company. He agreed the book might not have had the same impact if written by an insurance salesman, because generals are looked on a little differently than businessmen. He said he believed, nevertheless, that many presidents of large corporations cared about their employees as much as Moore cared about his men. They just don’t make the news, and they don’t lead men to their deaths.

“I did my duty,” Moore said. “My proudest accomplishment is that I never left a man on the battlefield, never a prisoner of war, never missing in action.”

In 1993, Moore returned to the Ia Drang Valley with the Vietnamese commanding officer against whom he fought. The men were stranded for the night in the remote valley in the central highlands, some five miles from the Cambodian border. When a shower of shooting stars illuminated the black sky, they stood mute.

“I never saw such a phenomenon,” Moore said. “It crossed our minds that these could well be the spirits of men on both sides who fought and died, spirits coming back to tell us hail and farewell, we’re with you one last time on this night.”

That familiarity with death, the awareness that each of us is balanced precipitously on the edge of forever, may be part of Moore’s intense spirituality.

“I never thought about it, but probably subconsciously that was in my mind,” he said. “It’s just a crapshoot whether you get shot or struck in the helmet by a bullet.”


Moore was born in the backwoods of Kentucky, in the little community of Bardstown. Bardstown was the first Catholic community west of the Alleghenies, settled by pioneers from the Catholic colony of Maryland. His father was Catholic, but his mother was Methodist. She agreed to raise her children in their father’s faith.

Sometimes, Moore’s mother went to both Catholic and Methodist services, and during the wars in which her son served she visited the local cathedral almost daily to light candles, their smoke wafting her prayers to God.

“Most other religions believe in a supreme being,” Moore said. “I certainly do, and my mother did. During battle, I would pray that I would prevail with the least loss of life and get guidance from above.”

Moore’s father attended daily Mass, slipping out at 6 a.m. while the rest of the family slept. The boy attended a Catholic grade school, continuing his education at a high school run by the monastery where the famed Thomas Merton lived. Moore tried to read every book in both school libraries, he said.

Moore recalled that he always wanted to be a soldier, though, partly because he loved the outdoors. He flirted with the idea of being a priest, mainly because he wanted to be a military chaplain. He attended West Point, where Moore said he was smart in English language and history, but not so good at math, physics and chemistry courses. That was tough, he said, since West Point was an engineering school. Moore graduated in 1945, just as World War II was ending.

“I personally knew upperclassmen who were killed in action,” he said. “We were under no illusions what we were headed for. I probably would have been killed jumping into Japan, because everyone had been issued pitchforks to attack paratroopers.”

Moore said West Point left its mark on him; he took seriously the honor system requiring cadets not to lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who did. He attended Mass almost daily, and when he graduated Moore spent the weekend at a silent retreat.

“I trusted in God,” he said. “I raised my right hand and took an oath to follow orders. It was as simple as that.”


Moore served in Korea, and by 1965 was a lieutenant colonel. He and 450 men parachuted into the Ia Drang Valley in Viet Nam, only to discover they were surrounded by some 2,000 enemy troops. Ia Drang was the first major battle of the nascent Vietnamese War, and the battle that made Moore’s reputation. He lost 79 men, but the Vietnamese lost a thousand.

“Is he the blood and guts General Patton we need in Vietnam?” one headline asked afterwards.

“To his soldiers, he is Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, James Bond, Teddy Roosevelt and William Tecumseh Sherman all rolled into six feet of bone-hard Kentuckian,” the author said. “The Vietnamese feel the same way. He is one of the few American officers who is greeted on the street with traditional Asian half-bow, from civilians as well as local officials and troops.”

Moore was welcome in the inner sanctums of the powerful Buddhist monks,and enjoyed the same closeness with Christian leaders as well.

“Both spiritual groups say, ‘He has won our understanding,'” the article said.

“In the battles I was in in Viet Nam, I was always the first man on the ground, in the lead helicopter,” Moore said. “The officer is always the first man out the door.”

When Julie died, Moore turned his attention to an organization called The Public Trust, signing on as founder. He spent much of his time traveling to speaking engagements, accompanied by The Driver. In A General’s Spiritual Journey, the last section was devoted to “unfinished business.” He considered that little book part of his unfinished business, Moore said.

“When I make talks, I emphasize the brevity of life on earth when compared to eternal life,” he said. “I’m hoping to reach younger people, because they look on life as unending.”

He didn’t try to impress his particular religious beliefs on others, however. One has to arrive at those beliefs on his or her own, he said.

As for The Driver, he visited Moore daily, often taking supper. He took him to the cemetery to visit Julie and his men, and to the airport for his speaking engagements.

“It was a privilege for me to be in the same space,” said Moore’s unofficial chauffeur. “I was Hal Moore’s driver, and you didn’t have enough money to take my job.”


A vortex churning at the mouth of Hell

As the Peace Corps pulls out of El Salvador, I figure it is time to share my memories. The first draft was written a year ago upon my return to the U.S. after visiting my daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer in the highlands of El Salvador. As the situation worsened, I updated last summer.

At 6:30 a.m., I am sitting on a sofa in the home of Dorita, a nurse from San Salvador in the violence-torn country of El Salvador. A black Chihuahua is curled by my side, and the savagery seems far away. Outside, the cocks crow one after another, as if in response to each other, perhaps offering defiant challenges. The controlled cacophony punctuates the background chatter of birds, barking dogs and an occasional old truck sputtering down the steep track.

I am accompanied by two of my daughters, the three of us visiting my youngest daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer in La Laguna, located in the highlands of Morazán Department along the northeastern border with Honduras. During El Salvador’s vicious civil war, which encompassed the entire decade of the 1980s, Morazán was the most troubled of the country’s zonas rojas, and the site of the notorious El Mozote Massacre. Members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion slaughtered as many as a thousand civilians in and around the village of El Mozote during the war. The Reagan Administration at first hotly denied reports of the atrocity, which were later proven to be accurate.

Until recently, the highlands of Morazán were safe, far distant from the drug-fueled turbulence that has plagued the region since the construction of the Pan-American Highway made transportation of drugs from the south much easier. Then, a government-brokered truce between the gangs disintegrated. The violence escalated. In a recent crackdown, the Salvadoran government transported some of the worst gang leaders to a high-security prison in the capital of Morazán, the hot, bustling city of San Francisco de Gotera. Gotera for short, the municipality is located on the optimistically named Ruta de Paz—Route of Peace.

The presence of the tattooed gang leaders caused the country’s miasma of violence to seep northward into Gotera and the surrounding countryside. In June, the country’s newspapers reported that 10 Morazán residents had been murdered in just 48 hours. One of the victims, a 52-year-old woman who was thought to be a collaborator with the national police force’s Prevention Committee in Morazán, was attacked by a gang of men who invaded her home in the pueblo of Cacaopera, just 15 miles from my daughter’s site.

The canton of La Laguna

La Laguna, where my daughter lives, is a canton of the pueblo of El Rosario, but use of the word “pueblo” is perhaps deceptive. El Rosario is a random collection of small homes for a few thousand souls, scattered up and down steep green hills and reached only by a dirt road. There is no downtown shopping district, no hospital, no fire department, no infrastructure to speak of. There is a clinic, although most of the neighbors visit Dorita with their minor health concerns.

A couple of our friends in La Laguna.
A couple of our friends in La Laguna.

Two plastic bookshelves crammed with over-the-counter medications, bandages and mysterious elixirs are the only sign of her profession. Above the shelves is a handwritten sign, proclaiming in Spanish: “Good faith died, killed by bad payment.” The same sentiment is shared at the front door, before prospective patients enter. By 9 a.m., Dorita had already received two patients, one a little girl with a slight fever, another a woman with a headache.

Dorita’s house is luxurious for La Laguna, with an indoor toilet and shower utilizing water from a well. The shower is for the hardy, since there is no hot water. My daughter and I washed breakfast dishes outside in the guacales, which hold rainwater collected from the metal roof via a pipe. We filled two tubs with cold water, and then my daughter scrubbed the dishes with a soapy sponge before dipping each one in the first tub to remove the soap. I rinsed in the second tub. All clothing, even at Dorita’s home, is washed outdoors by hand with cold water, scrubbing relentlessly. The only way to get rid of trash is to burn it. Dorita’s front and back doors are always wide open, and sometimes a chicken from the backyard pen comes exploring inside. Neighbors appear unexpectedly, as well. There is no such thing as privacy.

Remesas and La Renta

Several small homes have been built in the neighborhood with remesas sent by relatives living in the U.S. Remesas translates roughly to “remittances,” and these payments are vital to the region’s economy. In fact, they are vital to the economy of the entire country; the estimate of the number of Salvadorans living in the U.S. is equal to one-third of El Salvador’s current population, and the U.S. dollar is the standard currency. In the early 1820s, newly independent El Salvador even petitioned the U.S. government for statehood. Every child I met had an American name—Gladys, Cindy, Katelynn and Evelyn are a few examples.

Economic prospects in Morazán are virtually nonexistent, but migrating to San Salvador or another city means dealing with the gangs. Like almost everything else in El Salvador, the gangs—the two biggest being Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13)—have an American connection. Mara Salvatrucha, for example, evolved on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s, and most of the members were the children of Salvadorans who fled the country’s civil war. In the 1990s a wave of deportations removed the gang members to El Salvador, where none had lived since they were small children—if they had ever lived there at all.

Now, the warring criminals in some ways rule the country. Children as young as 10 who live in poor neighborhoods are forced to join one of the gangs or face retribution. Almost every business is required to pay la renta, or protection money. Many of the businesses in the better parts of San Salvador have security guards posted, their guns in clear view. Visiting a McDonald’s protected by armed guards is a disconcerting experience.

The requirement to pay la renta is an effective deterrent to entrepreneurial efforts, and tourism is efficiently strangled by the presence of armed guards on beaches and outside restaurants, along with the coiled barbed wire atop the walls surrounding facilities like our hotel, which was perfect in every other way. That is a shame, because the country boasts rugged Pacific vistas, mountains, volcanoes and shimmering crater lakes. As the venerable Frommer’s tourism guide notes, much of the violence is between gang members, and the Salvadoran people are both friendly and gracious.

Twin threads of fear and hope

They are also anxious to get out of the country. My stay in Morazán Department reminded me that the quest for economic gain does play a role, but it is difficult to tease apart the twin threads of fear and hope. My daughter’s friend, another Peace Corps volunteer living in a nearby pueblo, reported that 14 youngsters left her village just in the week I was there. Neither violence nor drugs were a problem there at the time, but choking poverty is pervasive.

All of the young people have family in the United States, and members of their extended families pool their funds to engage coyotes, the name for the businessmen who arrange transport. Although the trip is inherently dangerous, some of the coyotes are trusted because family members have previously utilized their services.

My daughter says the average cost is $7,000 for a trustworthy, reliable coyote. Relatives could just as easily pool their dollars to start a small business, but why bother when extortion will bleed away profits? And there are almost no jobs in the safer regions like Morázan. The privileged few are teachers, nurses or policemen, but most men work the land in one capacity or another. Gladys’ stepfather, for example, labors as a caretaker on the estate of a wealthy landowner from the city of San Miguel. He earns just $2 a day.

Gladys lives with Dorita and my daughter because her stepfather said he couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. She goes to school in the pueblo and had been staying with a teacher, for whom she worked as a maid in exchange for room and board. When 13-year-old Gladys broke her arm and couldn’t do the heavy work, the teacher kicked her out.

The government provides free health care, so Salvadorans are fairly healthy. Diabetes is a problem, and serious health issues can be difficult to address because of poverty combined with the inaccessibility of more sophisticated care. Vilma, a neighbor who helped Dorita during our stay, is thin and tires easily because she has a heart problem that was treated with a mechanical valve when she was 3 years old. The valve is nearing the end of its useful life, but Vilma is unable and unwilling to travel to San Salvador for the regular cardiac care she needs. For one thing, the cost is too high. A bus ride costs $10 each way, an impossible sum.

Pulling out the first time

In late 2011 and early 2012, the Peace Corps pulled out of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—known as the Northern Triangle of Central America—after a Peace Corps volunteer was shot accidentally during a bus robbery in the troubled Honduran city of San Pedro Sula. The volunteer group returned to El Salvador in 2013 after reassessing safety measures. My daughter, among the first crop of returning volunteers, was instructed to stay out of San Salvador and use only approved transportation. She felt safe, and she was safe. That is the paradox of El Salvador, which I have come to view as the vortex churning at the mouth of Hell.

The Peace Corps has not yet returned to Honduras, which until this year claimed the dubious honor of having the most murders of any country in the world outside of a war zone. Volunteers were hanging on in El Salvador until the country’s death toll surpassed that of Honduras. In 2015, a total of 6,657 people were murdered in tiny El Salvador, not quite the size of Massachusetts. The Bay State, by contrast, suffers an average of 170 homicides a year. El Salvador’s murder rate is the highest of any year since the end of the civil war in 1992, and the country recently claimed Honduras’ title.

Clearly, the already impossible situation has deteriorated in recent months. Gang killings of bus drivers have paralyzed San Salvador’s transportation system, and in late July two motorcycle-riding gangsters tossed a grenade into the restaurant at San Salvador’s exclusive Sheraton. Windows shattered, but no one was hurt. At one point, rumors swept the country—reaching even remote La Laguna—that gang members were targeting women with blonde or red hair, so the salons filled up with desperate women dying their hair brown or black.

With the gang violence comes extraordinary abuse of women. Gang rape is common, sometimes as an initiation, sometimes as punishment, sometimes as threat, and sometimes out of sadistic indifference. A young girl was gang-raped at a site near La Laguna, and my daughter worried about the girls on her soccer team. The girl joined family in the United States, where she is seeking asylum. Last fall, U.S. immigration attorneys told the Associated Press they were seeing an exponential increase in the number of women and girls from Central America seeking asylum after being kidnapped and raped.

The most nightmarish aspect of the chaos, though, is that the good guys and the bad guys sometimes seem to be interchangeable.. The specter of the civil war still haunts the country; the governing party is the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, which started life as a coalition of guerrilla fighters. The main opposition is the conservative ARENA, founded in 1980 in response to the FMLN insurgency. Now, the FMLN, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén (a former guerilla leader) and the national police have adopted a crowd-pleasing mano duro (iron fist) approach; they have been accused of complicity in the kind of “extrajudicial killings” made infamous by right-wing death squads during the civil war. At the same time, government officials are pointing fingers at the “oligarchic right wing,” suggesting they are spreading rumors and lies to undermine the democratically elected government.

The gangs

All the while, the gangs continue their depredations, a third force estimated to be at least 60,000 strong (in a country of six million), with a support network possibly in the hundreds of thousands. By contrast, the FMLN guerilla force never numbered more than perhaps 15,000. As police violence against the gangs escalates, a few journalists have penned articles that sounded vaguely sympathetic, quoting gang leaders saying they are somehow in touch with the country’s poor and downtrodden.

People are suggesting that another kind of civil war is evolving, between the gangs and the state. The army has launched several “rapid response battalions” to react to gang violence, and the National Association of Private Enterprise, the country’s most prominent pro-business organization, hired former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as a consultant. He talks of “annihilating” the gangs. In early August, the nation’s bishops issued a statement pleading with their Divine Savior to protect and save their nation. They asked every parish priest to organize a holy hour, fasting, the praying of the Rosary and processions.

Much has been written in the U.S. press about a wave of unaccompanied minors that last summer swept across the porous border between the United States and Mexico. Most of the youngsters came from Central America, and they will continue to come, like drowning people fighting to board a lifeboat. The flood of young immigrants prompted the passage of a massive U.S. aid package, a plan that includes increases in programs that have already promoted militarization of the region’s security forces, as well as measures promoting social programs and private enterprise. Critics say any attempt to find a military solution to the gang problem is a big mistake in a country with a history of violent repression.

The situation calls to mind theater of the absurd, with repetitious and meaningless dialogue and confusing plots that defy logic. I flash back to the early 1980s, when I worked for an organization providing aid to Salvadoran refugees at a camp in Honduras. I collected the peasants’ stories about fording the Rio Lempa, seeking safety in Honduras, as the Salvadoran military fired upon them. They were poor so they must be revolutionaries, and the U.S. was providing aid to the Salvadoran government in hopes of defeating the leftist FMLN, who were allegedly supported by the Soviets and Cuba. Helicopters firing from overhead bore the insignia of the U.S. government, the refugees told me.

A few weeks ago, police arrested a La Laguna resident, and there were murders at two of the formerly peaceful Peace Corps sites in Morazán. “I don’t worry about myself,” my daughter says. “I can return home. I worry about all those who can’t leave.”

the girls in el salvador2
The girls and I in El Salvador.