Monday, September 26, 2005

War Sucks

There was a protest in Washington, DC, on Saturday, you may have heard. Against the war in Iraq. Against President Bush. Against a whole lot of things, I expect. What exactly they're for, they generally don't say.

Anyway.

On the Metro, Saturday night. Always full. That night, full of people coming back from the protest. Because, you know, at night they get to go home and escape whatever it is they're protesting. Not like, say, the ordinary Iraqis freed by this war. Or the soldiers, from America and Britain and Iraq and a host of other nations, doing the fighting.

Anyway.

One girl. White girl, about college age. Wearing a black T-shirt with big white letters in a font you might see in a cartoon which say "War Sucks."

Protester chic.

I'd worked that day. Eight hours in a hobby shop. Not a bad way to earn a little bit of your living, really. Meet a lot of people in this job. Lot of our customers are military, active and former. During the week, they stop by on their way home from work, just like anybody. In uniform, of course, because, well, they're on their way home from work.

Don't get too many in uniform on a Saturday, though.

Army captain. That's not unusual. He's not wearing BDUs. That's unusual. Generally it's forest camouflage, here in the city. But this captain is in his Class A uniform. Dress greens. 25th Division patch on the shoulder. Ribbons on his chest. Row upon row. More than most Army captains have, in my experience. Campaign ribbons from Afghanistan and Iraq. Decorations for valor.

"Anything I can help you find, sir?"

"No, just looking around. Not too many hobby shops in Hawaii."

Smile, nod. "Okay, just give a yell if you need anything." We go about our business.

Eventually he comes up to the counter with his purchase. One of my co-workers, who was once an Army officer himself, says hello. "Been assigned here or just on TDY?" he asked. TDY. Temporary duty.

"TDY," the captain says. "Arlington. Just flew in from Hawaii today. Escorting remains for burial." He looks down.

None of us know what to say. We ring up the sale, mumble a few words of thanks, and he's on his way.

To Arlington.

On the train, I remember his face. His words. His uniform. This is a man who knows at first hand just how much war sucks. Because he has gone to war, and he has come back from war, and now he is bringing home one of his soldiers in a box. He knows what it is to be in a foreign place while other men try to kill you. He knows what it means to be free, because he has seen those who once were not free and are now free because of the sacrifices made by he and the soldiers whose remains he is escorting for burial.

And I see the protester in her shirt. Tonight, she will return to her apartment and hang the shirt in her closet. War Sucks is put away for another day, to be brought back out at her convenience.

Tonight, the soldier will go his quarters and hang the uniform in the closet. Tomorrow, he will put it on again and go to Arlington, where they will lay his soldier to rest.

One day he will take the uniform off for the last time, but he will never quite put away War Sucks. Because he knows, far more than she ever will, exactly what it means when they say "War Sucks."

Update: Welcome to everyone arriving via Neptunus Lex, and thanks to lex himself for sending 'em.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Week Three

At least the Inner Columnist is consistent.

For the second straight week, the Inner Columnist recorded a 7-9 won-lost record, an 0-15-1 final-score record, and chose poorly in the Eliminator Challenge. The tie in the final-score column is thanks to Kansas City's 23-17 victory over Oakland (predicted score: KC 23, Oakland 10) and the missed pick is thanks to Dallas' inexplicable failure - not once but twice! - to cover the deep route while leading 13-0 late in the fourth quarter. Even a Joe Gibbs offense can figure out that when you need two touchdowns late, you have to go down the field. How a Bill Parcells defense didn't figure that out, I have no idea.

This week, the Inner Columnist selects Tampa Bay. The Lambeau mystique is no longer what it was, the entire Green Bay team looks old and tired, and the Tampa Bay defense looks very, very good.

And now, the Week 3 final-score predictions:

Week 3
Atlanta 24, Buffalo 20
Carolina 31, Miami 13
Chicago 20, Cincinnati 14
Indianapolis 24, Cleveland 10
Jacksonville 21, N.Y. Jets 10
New Orleans 17, Minnesota 7
Philadelphia 34, Oakland 17
Tampa Bay 17, Green Bay 10
St. Louis 27, Tennessee 13
Seattle 20, Arizona 13
San Francisco 21, Dallas 13
Pittsburgh 27, New England 20
San Diego 31, N.Y. Giants 24
Kansas City 30, Denver 21

That's all, folks!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Monday Mishmash

Monday Mishmash

Thoughts on the end of the weekend...

Quite the weekend for sport, here in the US of A. Football (of which more later in the week), tight baseball pennant races, NASCAR fireworks at New Hampshire.

Wild stuff in baseball. With two weeks left in the season, five of eight playoff spots there are up for grabs - including all four in the American League - and there are lots of key divisional games coming up. (But then, isn't every game key for a contender this time of year?)

With the Cardinals already having clinched the NL Central, the Braves putting the finishing touches on yet another NL East crown, and only real drama in the NL West centering around Barry Bonds (how many home runs will he hit in the last two weeks?) and the Padres (will they or won't they finish at .500?), the only race left is for the wild card. There were four contenders going into the weekend, but my local Washington Nationals dropped two out of three and are in a 4.5-game hole. The Phillies and Marlins battered each other over the weekend, while the leading Astros swept Milwaukee. The unbalanced schedule works for the Astros and against the NL East contenders; while the NL East teams mostly play each other the rest of the way (and it should here be pointed out that the last-place Mets have a record that would put them only 1.5 games behind the West-leading Padres), all thirteen games remaining for the Astros are against teams with nothing to play for. Seven against the Cubs. Four against the woeful Pirates. Two against the cruising Cardinals. Barring a major meltdown, Houston is going to take the wild card.

In the AL East, the Red Sox and Yankees are separated by just 1.5 games and will close the season with three games at Fenway that could decide the pennant. Potential spoiler: the once-promising, now third-place Baltimore Orioles, who still have three games against the Red Sox and eight against the Yankees.

And then there's the AL Central. The White Sox are sliding, the Indians surging. Just 3.5 games separate these teams and they meet six more times. Nor can we forget the AL West, where there are only two games between Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (a kludge of a name that must have been dreamed up by the marketing department.) They play each other only four more times, but they face Texas a total of nine times.

Did I mention the wild card? One of these six contenders is going to get it...but don't ask me who. I have enough trouble predicting football games.

***

There were some angry people in New Hampshire this weekend. Robby Gordon...well, frankly, I expect that sort of thing from him. Kasey Kahne...that was more of a surprise.

There will be fines - probably in the neighborhood of $50,000. There will be suspensions - at least one race for each of those drivers. It wouldn't surprise me if they got Gordon for two.

You might expect that these incidents would happen between the ten guys racing for the Cup, right? Nope. Also-rans, every one of 'em. The guys racing for the Cup are too smart for that kind of nonsense, this time of year.

Part of the problem is the track. It's flat - just two degrees down the straightaways, twelve in the corners. And it's not real wide, and it's a mile long, which puts it right in that in-between zone - too small to be a real superspeedway, too big to be a short track.

Flat tracks generally do not make for good stock-car racing. New Hampshire is probably the worst example of this. A flat track has to be either really big (Indianapolis, 2.5 miles long and with nice wide turns) or really small. As in, the half-mile Martinsville Speedway.

At New Hampshire, the track is long enough for the cars to build a lot of speed down the straightaways, but it's not banked steeply enough to let the cars carry that speed through the corners. The cars tend to slide a bit in the turns, particularly if the setup isn't quite right or the driver isn't quite good enough.

As you might imagine, this makes side-by-side racing awfully exciting. For a very short time. See, the low car has a tendency to slide up into the high car. Which has a tendency to slide up into the car. Which has a tendency to make people throw helmets. At other cars.

That sort of thing is frowned upon, these days.

If the setup is good, and if the driver is perfect, you can get some good racing there. The Stewart-Newman and Kenseth-Biffle duels at the end of Sunday's race demonstrated that. But those are four very good drivers in four very good cars. There were 39 others on Sunday, and most of them weren't good enough.

It's too bad the track configuration is so lousy, because it's a nice facility which packs 'em in twice a year. But man, I don't like this track. And I don't know if it can be fixed. I used to have the same complaints about Homestead-Miami Speedway until it was rebuilt (now I love the place) but that was a bigger track to start with. So I guess we'll just see more of the same at New Hampshire.

***

You'd think I spent the whole weekend glued to the TV. I didn't, really. Had to work, you see. I did find time for a midnight showing of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein ("that's Fronkensteen!") in downtown DC, though, and that was a blast. Boy ain't right. Genius, but he ain't right.

***

Speaking of things that ain't quite right, I almost forgot that today is Talk Like A Pirate Day. Arrr! Shiver me timbers, mateys!

***

While flipping between games, I passed C-SPAN, and there my attention was caught by the debate between Christopher Hitchens (my favorite left-winger) and George Galloway, Baath Party Respect Party MP for Al-Qaeda Bethnal Green and Bow.

Best line I heard was Hitchens to Galloway: "I suppose we'll have to congratulate you on being absolutely 100% consistent in your support for unmentionable thugs and criminals."

Had to stop watching after a while. Too disgusted by Galloway.

***

Another thing I saw, or rather first heard, then saw. As I often do, I turned on CMT (that would stand for Country Music Television) for background music while doing other things. And while so engaged, I hear somebody rapping.

This is not standard CMT fare.

So I get up and go look, and I see a black man in a cowboy hat. This is not, in itself, an unusual sight, especially if you've spent any time in Texas. What is unusual is that he is, in fact, rapping. Don't get much of that.

Turns out he's called Cowboy Troy and what he's doing is, so it is claimed, a sort of country-rap fusion thing known as "hick-hop."

Right.

Now country music has had its share of stylistic blending through the years. Rock and blues and country have all influenced each other. Even pop gets in there once in a while, though it doesn't seem like it does quite as much any more. But rap?

Sorry, Cowboy Troy, I know you're from Texas and all, but I gotta say it: a hat don't make you country.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Week Two

Clearly, the Inner Columnist was not ready for some football.

It's not just the 7-9 record in Week One. Nor is it the inability to get up and play flag football last Saturday morning. Oh no. It's the Eliminator Challenge. In which your humble scribe first picked the Giants before switching to the Broncos - more accurately, switching to whoever met the Dolphins.

You probably know what happened. Even my father, a man who has been heard to claim that he doesn't understand why football players wear helmets, since they obviously don't have anything to protect, knows what happened. And was kind enough to tell me. Dad, did I mention the guy on the tomato aisle who looked at me funny? Just thought you'd like to know. I guess you don't hear many primal screams at the Safeway.

(In case you haven't figured it out - Giants won, Broncos lost, Inner Columnist kicked himself. Repeatedly.)

This week, the Inner Columnist selects Dallas. The Inner Columnist isn't sold on Drew Bledsoe in Dallas, but he's a lot less willing to buy Joe Gibbs' quarterback du jour. If Joe Gibbs, NASCAR owner, changed drivers as fast as Joe Gibbs, Redskins coach, changes quarterbacks, Tony Stewart would be back in USAC instead of racing for his second Winston Cup (yeah, yeah, Nextel Cup) championship. Just saying.

***

This week's picks:

Week 2
Baltimore 17, Tennessee 7
Buffalo 24, Tampa Bay 17
Detroit 20, Chicago 10
Indianapolis 31, Jacksonville 17
Cincinnati 24, Minnesota 20
New England 24, Carolina 17
Pittsburgh 31, Houston 10
Philadelphia 20, San Francisco 13
Atlanta 20, Seattle 13
St. Louis 24, Arizona 21
Green Bay 13, Cleveland 10
N.Y. Jets 27, Miami 21
San Diego 28, Denver 10
Kansas City 23, Oakland 10
New Orleans 24, N.Y. Giants 17
Dallas 30, Washington 10

Last week, the Inner Columnist was 7-9 in picking winners. Hey, in the NFC that's good enough for the playoffs! More impressively, the Inner Columnist was 0-15-1 in picking final scores. 0-15-1, you ask? How can that be? Simple. The Inner Columnist got one team's score right. The prediction for the Jacksonville-Seattle tilt was Jacksonville 24, Seattle 14; the actual final score was Jacksonville 26, Seattle 14. Two lousy points! This may be the highlight of the year in this category.

***

See you next week!

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Are you ready for some football?

This may be the latest preseason predictions column anywhere.

Of course, since the season started Thursday, that won't be hard.

But I've always viewed the Thursday night game as something like Major League Baseball's overseas openers - yeah, it's the first game that actually counts in the standings, but it's not Opening Day. That doesn't come until the first full slate of games is played. That first September Sunday when grown men in plastic armor start beating on each other while cheerleaders bounce and tailgaters toast every first down...that's Opening Day.

And it can't be football season without Andy Griffith. Because What It Was, Was Football.

And now, the Inner Columnist predicts:

AFC East
New England 12-4
N.Y. Jets 10-6
Buffalo 8-8
Miami 4-12

Are we allowed to hate the Patriots yet? It's bad enough when a team like the Yankees buys title after title, but there's something downright creepy about an organization that can build a salary-cap dynasty.

AFC North
Pittsburgh 10-6
Baltimore 10-6
Cincinnati 8-8
Cleveland 6-10

This division will score fewer touchdowns and more safeties than any other in the league.

AFC South
Indianapolis 13-3
Jacksonville 9-7
Houston 7-9
Tennessee 6-10

Vroom! Vroom! The Indy 500? Close, very close.

AFC West
San Diego 12-4
Denver 9-7
Kansas City 7-9
Oakland 5-11

It should be a Brees for San Diego to take the division again.

AFC Playoffs
Round One
Byes: Indianapolis, San Diego
New England over Baltimore
Pittsburgh over N.Y. Jets
Round Two
New England over San Diego
Indianapolis over Pittsburgh
AFC Championship
New England over Indianapolis

NFC East
Philadelphia 11-5
Washington 9-7
N.Y. Giants 8-8
Dallas 5-11

Somebody explain to me again why Dallas is in the East? This makes less sense than when the Atlanta Braves were in the NL West.

NFC North
Minnesota 9-7
Green Bay 8-8
Detroit 7-9
Chicago 6-10

Every team in this division could finish 8-8 and shock absolutely no one.

NFC South
Carolina 10-6
Atlanta 9-7
Tampa Bay 6-10
New Orleans 4-12

I can't help but think that if not for all the hype, Michael Vick would have followed many college quarterbacks into the ranks of professional wide receivers. And been a good one.

NFC West
St. Louis 11-5
Arizona 8-8
Seattle 8-8
San Francisco 3-13

The 49ers have the potential to be very, very bad.

NFC Playoffs
Round One
Byes: Philadelphia, St. Louis
Carolina over Washington
Atlanta over Minnesota
Round Two
Carolina over Philadelphia
St. Louis over Atlanta
NFC Championship
Carolina over St. Louis

Super Bowl XL
New England 31, Carolina 17

***

Inspired by the abysmal record of the New York Times (among others) at predicting final scores - as detailed at length by my favorite football columnist, Gregg Easterbrook - Inner Columnist will this year attempt to predict the final score of every NFL game. Check back every week for the latest on this exercise in futility.

Week 1
New England 23, Oakland 14
Washington 17, Chicago 10
Cincinnati 20, Cleveland 14
Denver 30, Miami 10
Houston 24, Buffalo 13
Carolina 20, New Orleans 14
N.Y. Jets 27, Kansas City 21
Jacksonville 24, Seattle 14
Minnesota 27, Tampa Bay 10
Pittsburgh 17, Tennessee 10
N.Y. Giants 24, Arizona 17
San Diego 31, Dallas 14
Green Bay 21, Detroit 10
St. Louis 38, San Francisco 7
Indianapolis 14, Baltimore 3
Philadelphia 31, Atlanta 24

***

The Inner Columnist is also playing ESPN's Eliminator Challenge, wherein you pick one team to win every week. Simple enough, no? Ah, but you have to pick a different team each week. Meaning that to run the table, seventeen teams have to come through for you over the course of the season. I don't think it's going to be as simple as it looks. Predicted record for the Inner Columnist: 11-5.

This week, the Inner Columnist selects Denver. The Inner Columnist had originally selected the New York Giants, but then realized that picking one likely 8-8 team over another likely 8-8 team is probably not a winning strategy. The Inner Columnist has no great faith in Denver over the long haul, but believes that picking whoever plays Miami is probably a safe bet.

***

Now...are you ready for some football?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

"This is no time to go wobbly, George."

Margaret Thatcher. August 1990. Different George. Different Iraq. Same worry. Isolationists. Defeatists. And some who just aren't sure any more.

This is for you.

You know why we invaded Iraq in 2003. Saddam, Public Enemy No.2, big thorn in everybody's side, a house of cards desperately in need of a good swift kick. America and our allies on the offensive, knowing there were plenty more snakepits that needed cleaning after Afghanistan, wanting to take the war to the enemy needing a place to do it. Finding Iraq. Asking "if not here, then where?" Knowing all along it had to be somewhere. Deciding that Iraq was at least as good a place as any, and probably a sight better than most. Knowing it would be tough. Doing it anyway, because it was the right thing to do. Sticking with it, because it's still the right thing to do.

We've been in Iraq what, two and a half years? Who really expected us to have won by now? Maybe in those headily optimistic days before the invasion, we did. Wanted it to all go right. Right away. Win Iraq and move on to the next snakepit. Hoped that was the way it would go, and maybe even believed it would. Remember those days?

No, it hasn't all gone well. Of course it hasn't. It's a war. Friction rules the day. Realistically...well, this is what we expected, deep down. We knew it was going to be a long hard slog. We just didn't want it to be. But it is. And we've still achieved far more than we had any right to expect. Iraq is becoming a functional society again. Rebuilding from decades of war. Voting. Having a national debate. Arguing over form of government they should have. Think about that. A people, free to argue. It's not only in America. But in Iraq, it's only because of America.

And after Iraq...somewhere else. Another snakepit, in another corner of the world where evil men would do us harm. Because if we don't face them on their streets, we will surely face them on ours. And we've done that far too often, for far too long.

Defense didn't work. Never has, in truth. Seize the initiative. Take the fight to the enemy.

Stop the war. Win it.