Honoring The Fallen

Memorial Day — a day to enjoy the outdoors, picnics, ball games and other moments of leisure.  Today, we call them “down-time” days or “unplugged.”

But the origins of Memorial Day go back to May 1, 1865, when a group of former slaves — African Americans — reburied 257 Union soldiers that had been buried in a mass grave — and who had died under unspeakable conditions in a makeshift prison camp at the site of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, SC.  Each received a “proper burial” in gratitude for giving their lives so that others may be free.

This day of honor is especially personal to my family.  Our ancestor, Darwin Olney (my great-great grandfather), was a Union soldier (Michigan) who served in the Civil War, but died in a Confederate prison camp — Salisbury Prison — in Salisbury, NC — under the same unspeakable conditions as those who were encamped in Charleston.

Darwin Olney

At the time of his death, he was 39 years old, a teacher, a husband, and father of eight children, five of which survived beyond infancy.

You see, we know him well.

He wrote dozens upon dozens of letters to his wife during his years of service to the Union.  Those original letters survived, unearthed by our family historian, Kelly Beach, and painstakingly transcribed and technologically preserved.

In those letters, he spoke of the varied countryside through which the soldiers traveled, often pointing out the hospitality and kindness frequently bestowed upon them by Southern families — even those who had family members serving in the Confederate Army.  The composition and eloquence of his letters spoke to his educational level.  As a teacher, it would have been natural for him to observe, intellectualize, and thereby describe his surroundings — and he did it well. There were days of frustration, days of joy, and days of loneliness and sadness.  All of this was Darwin’s gift to us, now, more than 151 years later.

So, as we celebrate what was then “Decoration Day,” which  is now known as “Memorial Day,” it is a time of reflection.  A time to humble ourselves to those who gave the ultimate so that others could be free.  Freedom always comes with its price.  Parents who lost their child, widows who lost their beloved husbands, and children who would live with only one parent.  Most of them never got to say “goodbye.”

Pray for peace, pray for enlightenment  … and honor those who have fallen in the name of freedom.  In God — We Trust.

A Country Flexing Its Muscles

Approximately 870 miles from Hong Kong lies the Spratly Islands — a series of reefs and shoals — claimed by nearby countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines.  The area is known for its commercial fishing grounds and has the potential for undersea natural resources.

Two years ago, China began a land reclamation project that was, when completed last October, responsible for adding 3,200 acres of land to three sites; Fiery Cross Reef, Hugh Reef and Gaven Reef.  Each of the projects began with a single structure, but now have been expanded to contain an artificial island and a dredged channel.  According to a statement by James Hardy, Jane’s Asia Pacific editor, each now has “helipads, airstrips, harbors, and facilities to support large numbers of troops.” (CNN, Katie Hunt reporting, February 17, 2015)  Even the Pentagon has gone on record, stating that they believe the structures also contain surveillance systems.  Looking at each project, they bear such a similarity to each other, that it appears that there is some standardization involved.  If that is so, it begs the question of whether there will be more projects such as these in the future?

So, why are these countries allowing China to simply invade and develop what is considered their land?

Answers to this question can vary.  Some, like Vietnam, for example, have filed mild legal protests with the United Nations citing maritime and other international law, but have become mired down in the legal hair-splitting world of definitions: What legally constitutes a “reef?”  What is the definition of a “shoal?,” further bogging down the process without resolution.  Others, like the Philippines, have protested the loudest (and perhaps the longest), as they suggest the strategic value of the reefs and shoals lie in the fact that they are adjacent to major shipping channels and trade routes in the South China Sea, which could heavily influence their country’s economics.

A recent report from the Pentagon also warned that China was committed to sustaining a growth pattern, even if it meant doing so on distant shores.  (Reuters, Phil Stewart David Brunnstrom reporting, May 14, 2016).  This seems to correspond to recent economic reports which state that China has recently cut its interest rates in order to stimulate their economy because their rising debt levels have had the effect of limiting their fiscal expansion plans.  So much so, that now regulators have now forbidden the practice of buying stocks with borrowed funds.  Also reported, $300 billion dollars have left China in the last six months, in part due to the strength of the U.S. dollar, but also because the confidence in the Chinese economy is waning.  (The Wall Street Journal, Lingling Wei reporting, May 11, 2016)

So, with the possible motivational aspects that China may have in an economic sense, are they also positioning themselves militarily in the sense that each of these three Reefs are now considered by the Pentagon to be long-term civil-military bases, each having a 9,800 foot airstrip, capable of accommodating advanced fighter jets?  More chilling, are the reports that China intends to establish naval “hubs” in countries with which they have shared interests — as they do in Pakistan.

In an effort to continue to sail in international waters, and possibly to show our support of the Philippines with whom we have had a long-standing relationship, the U.S. Navy recently deployed the USS Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship (able to patrol in coastal waters) to the South China Sea on a route that took it near the Spratly Islands.  The Fort Worth was immediately shadowed by a Chinese guided-missile frigate, the Yancheng.  In spite of Commander Matt Kawas’ official statement that “Our interactions with the Chinese ships continue to be professional,” China issued a stern warning in response against the U.S. “taking any actions that might be considered provocative.” (CNN, Brad Landon and Jim Sciutto reporting, May 14, 2016).

All of this rhetoric has prompted Secretary of State, John Kerry, to travel to Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders which he did so today and will continue to do so tomorrow.  The State Department has released a statement suggesting that Secretary Kerry will leave no doubt in China’s mind that the U.S. will continue to have a presence in international waters — and fly in international airways — even if they are in the South China Sea.

Move over, Mr. Trump.  There’s a new bully in town … and it’s called China.

A Prince … And A Vision

He’s Second Deputy Prime Minister, the youngest Minister of Defense in the world, Chief of the House Royal Court, and Chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.  If you don’t know who this is — you should!

He is 30-year old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — also referred to as the “Face of the Future.”

Undoubtedly, he earned that reputation after having devised and presented to the Council of Ministers on April 26, 2016, a plan for Saudi Arabia’s future — adeptly called “Vision 2030.”

It is a somewhat lengthy plan which you can read in its entirety at the link provided below, but in reading through it, several things resonated with me.  The clarity and focus of the plan is indisputable.  The perspective of which he sees Saudi Arabia’s future as a global citizen is well-balanced and meaningful, inclusive of all its citizens.  It is a bold plan to reshape Saudi Arabia’s economic focus away from oil exports to a larger, broader and more encompassing vision — that which includes tourism, sporting events, entertainment, education through arts, museums and libraries, just to name a few.  In his words, “A vibrant society with fulfilling lives.”

Here are a few proposals from Vision 2030 that particularly stood out to me — and perhaps they will for you, too:

Among our commitments:

A flourishing retail sector

A developed digital infrastructure

Increasing direct investment from 3.8% to international level of 5.7% of GDP

Raise share of non-oil exports from 16% to 50%

Embrace transparency and, to that end, zero tolerance for all levels of corruption

Publish plans and performance indicators for public monitoring

Engage everyone so that “the government can serve them better and meet their aspirations …”

Efficient spending and balanced finances

Be sure that Saudi services “are performing well in accordance with global best practices”

Establishment of HR centers of excellence in every government agency

“Working with our economic partners around the world to build new strategic partnerships for the 21st century”

Given that more than one-half of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 25, I believe he has a wide and malleable audience.  His leadership skills were evident with the following assertions:

[Be] an ambitious nation — responsibly enabled

Be responsible for our lives

Be responsible to society

Remember our lifelong obligations to our families

Become independent and active members of society

We are each personally responsible for our own futures

And perhaps the most provocative statement of all:

“We all have the means to achieve our dreams and ambitions. There are no excuses for us to stand still or move backwards. Our vision is a strong, thriving, and stable Saudi Arabia that provides opportunity for all.”

A Deputy Crown Prince today — but a King tomorrow.

As-Salaam-Alaikum …… Peace Be Unto You