The Corps Hasn’t Taken the Threat of Flooding Along the Missouri Seriously

Every snowstorm and every rain event that occurs in the Missouri Basin between now and spring will increase the odds that the Missouri River will flood in 2020.

National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fuchs recently stated that the Missouri Basin can expect a wetter-than-normal winter. In addition, the soils in the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains are either saturated or nearing saturation. Fuchs fears that all the moisture presently lying atop the land, stored beneath it, or yet to accumulate on it, will lie in wait till the spring thaw. And if that thaw comes in a hurry, like it did in March, 2019, then the Missouri will leap out of its banks again, with potentially catastrophic consequences for those living in the valley south of Sioux City. Continue Reading »

A Review of “Napalm: An American Biography,” by Robert M. Neer. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2013. 352 pages.

Napalm. The word conjures up images of light, fire, and death. But not just any death; rather, one accompanied by intense heat, melting flesh, and unimaginable pain.

Robert M. Neer’s Napalm chronicles the history of one of the world’s most fearsome weapons from its inception in World War II to its present status as a global pariah.

The story begins in the early 1940s at Harvard University, in the laboratory of Professor Louis Fieser. The chemist, and his Harvard colleagues, created a new incendiary device that burned extremely hot, resisted flame retardants, could be safely stored and transported, and possessed a gelatinous texture that facilitated its spread over a wide area. Continue Reading »

Road Warriors: The North Vietnamese Army and the Collapse of South Vietnam

Although North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho signed the Paris Peace Accords in January, 1973, he and his colleagues on the North Vietnamese Politburo remained committed to toppling the Saigon regime. Evidence of Hanoi’s intentions toward South Vietnam were not hard to discern – they were easily visible across the South Vietnamese landscape. Continue Reading »

A Review of “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Harvard University Press. 2016. 384 pages.

Nothing Ever Dies is a good book, but a difficult read.  It is a difficult read for three reasons.  First, the subject matter, it’s about war and war is never pretty.  Second, the prose, it’s dense, sometimes dry, and repetitive.  Third, the book’s organization, it’s all over the place.

Nothing Ever Dies is a book that requires deep concentration, discipline, and a willingness to slog through the tangled organization and plodding academic language to arrive at its ideas.  But those ideas are worth the effort.

Continue Reading »

A Review. “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” by George Packer. Alfred A. Knopf. 592 pages.

George Packer’s Our Man is occasionally insightful, at times gossipy, and nearly always disturbing.

Packer argues that Holbrooke’s diplomatic accomplishments stemmed, in part, from his personal failings as father, friend, and husband.  In other words, the traits that made Holbrooke so unlikable to so many –  his ambition, arrogance, personal insecurity, self-absorption, deceitfulness, and shameless self-promotion – also made it possible for him to attain institutional stature and power.  He then used his influence to do good, bringing peace to the Balkans, establishing an American cultural center in Berlin, and ensuring that the United States paid its overdue financial obligations to the U.N.  According to Packer, only someone as shady and shifty as Holbrooke could have successfully negotiated a peace deal among the murderous warlords of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia.  And it was Holbrooke’s idealism, which was the ying to his narcissistic yang, that put the cultural center in the German capital and saved the U.N. from financial ruin and irrelevance. Continue Reading »

A Butiful Plain: The Oacoma Bottom, the Missouri River, and the Legacy of Lewis and Clark

[This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of “We Proceeded On.”]

“…the first comers in a land can, by their individual efforts, do far more to channel out the course in which its history is to run than can those who come after them….”  Theodore Roosevelt, July 4, 1886, Dickinson, Dakota Territory.[1]

On the morning of Sunday, September 16, 1804, after having travelled a little over a mile upstream from the previous night’s camp, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the men aboard the keelboat and two pirogues, landed on the west bank of the Missouri River at a place later known as the Oacoma Bottom (west of today’s Chamberlain, South Dakota).  The exploring party spent the next two days at this location, drying clothing and equipment, observing flora and fauna, and hunting bison and deer.  The men had such a wonderful time at this Missouri River bottom that they referred to it in the journals as “Pleasant Camp.” Continue Reading »

An August Day on the Missouri

Strands of moss twisting in the current

Big-lipped carp greedily sucking in dead mayflies in the foam

Layers of gravel in a steep cutbank – laid down by a forgotten deluge

A mule deer mother and her yearling atop a high ridgeline, ears up and alert

Osprey screeching above the cliffs, bound for downriver

Deep water pushes heavily against a bluff, turns back on itself, and slips away

Water-worn stones reveal the unrelenting past

Pelicans riding thermals, so high their white undersides resemble distant jetliners

Silence, then a breeze, and the sound of sheets being removed from a bed, it’s the leaves

Silver flashes in amongst the cottonwoods

A brown spider walks across my bare foot, a butterfly lands on my chest

Wind coming up, temperature cooling down, time for dinner

The Corps Has Lost Its War Against the Missouri

When Lewis and Clark went up the Missouri in 1804, the river south of today’s Sioux City, Iowa, possessed a series of long, graceful bends and a relatively narrow main channel. But in the mid-nineteenth century, this meandering river began to morph into something altogether different. Changes in the weather, in conjunction with the fur trade and agricultural settlement, dramatically altered the appearance and behavior of the Missouri.

A wet precipitation cycle began across the Missouri drainage basin in the 1840s. Heavy winter snows, and torrential spring and summer rains, increased the amount of runoff entering the Missouri. Continue Reading »

Missouri River Flood of 2019: The Role of Agriculture

The Army Corps of Engineers and the environmentalists got a bad rap during the recent Missouri River flood.  Specifically, Missouri Valley farmers blamed the flood on the Army’s supposed mismanagement of the Dakota dams as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s program of habitat restoration in the valley south of Yankton, South Dakota.  The accusations, and their promotion by a sympathetic Midwestern media apparatus, are just not true.  As a matter of fact, farmers are the ones who contributed the most to the recent flood.

Agriculture has the greatest influence on runoff into the Missouri and its tributaries.  The reason for this is obvious – farmers own most of the land within the Missouri River’s drainage basin.  Consequently, what farmers do with their land has a profound effect on the Missouri’s hydraulic regime. Continue Reading »

Vietnam 1965: Portents of Failure – The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley

In August, 1965, while General William C. Westmoreland finalized the details of his ground war strategy, 700 skytroopers from the 1st Cavalry Division disembarked from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Boxer at the port of Qui Nhon, South Vietnam. At the time, international military analysts considered the 1st Cavalry (whose troopers called themselves the “First Team”) to be the most technologically sophisticated ground combat unit in the world. The 1st Cavalry’s large contingent of helicopters, including the new UH-1 Huey and twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook, provided the skytroopers unprecedented mobility; and in modern warfare, mobility translated into killing power. Continue Reading »

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