Elliot: Parsing wood and other war stories


DI columnist Beau Elliot

Wood, Woodn’t ​— anyone could make that mistake.


This society has launched itself so far down the rabbit hole that we’re parsing wood?

There’s an app for that.Well, no. In the spirit of our times — and following the lead of Our Grand Buffoon — I mispronounced “app” when I meant to say “A Modest Proposal.”

“Modest Proposal.” “App.” They sound exactly the same.

And by “Modest Proposal,” I mean “parade.” As in there’s a $12 million parade for that.

Yep. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Modest Proposal, by which I mean FiveThirtyEight’s Significant Digits, OGB wants to run a $12 million military parade in Washington in November. Because that’s what the Russians do in Moscow.

You know the type. Military battalions high-stepping down the boulevard, lots of military trucks. And tanks. And nuke-tipped missiles rolling by on truck-like thingees. And submarines, with Armaggedon deep within their bowels.

The cute thing about that $12 million price tag? It’s the same amount of money of the U.S./South Korea military exercises that OGB canceled as a sop to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un following their “successful” summit. (“Successful” summits are going around this year.)

At the time, our leader said, “We save a fortune by not doing war games.”

I wonder what Donald Kaul would have to say about that.

Recently, longtime Des Moines Register (and, for a while, Gazette) columnist Donald Kaul passed away. I was going to write something, but then I didn’t. I couldn’t find the words.

Usually, the vast majority of the time, I don’t need to “find” words; they “find” me. I generally attribute this to being descended from the Irish, because that fits neatly into a stereotype of the Irish, always so full of words even if many of them are born (or borne) from the blarney. But then, that’s part of the charm. Or so we Irish like to think.

So I’ll try these words. Maybe. If they come.

Donald Kaul was my hero. Yeah, I know: Most boys have sports guys or generals or something of that ilk as heroes, but I had a newspaper columnist. From a young age. Nine or 10 or 11 or something. He was my breakfast food, because I hated cereal. Or rather, I hated how cereal mixed with milk (I hate milk) and became all mushy.

Kaul’s “Over the Coffee” column was not mushy. Not in the slightest wisp. I could tell that from a very early age.

Kaul was biting, sardonic, imaginative, brilliant. To say that Kaul didn’t suffer fools gladly was an understatement, akin to saying the ocean occasionally decides to engage in a tide or two. Kaul took on all the dragons of power in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and slew them so gracefully, so cleanly, so suddenly with the perfect arc of phrase.

There was Kaul on Iowa legislative debate: “Pure drivel tends to drive out ordinary drivel.”

Yes, I know. I’ve quoted it many times before, and I will probably continue to do so. It’s so perfect. Especially in these times, when Republicans in the Legislature seemed to be determined to turn public universities (including, but not limited to, the UI) from flagships of learning into private colleges accessible only to the semi- and quite rich and those few poor folk who can scavenge up scholarships, scraps that the rich leave about as if they were feeding stray kittens.

Or take Cambodia. Nobody else would, so Kaul did. Cambodia in the late-60s, in those “light at the end of the tunnel” days, had a rather delicate balance. The U.S. was waging war in Vietnam to the east. Something was going on in Laos to the north, but the CIA wasn’t talking. The North Vietnamese were running arms, ammunition, and other supplies to the south via eastern Cambodia on what the U.S. called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A delicate balance.

Into this, Kaul had a vision of a conversation between U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk:

Rusk: You face a delicate balance, Prince, what with the North Vietnamese, the right-wing generals, the insurgency, and what ever’s going on in Laos.

Sihanouk: That’s one of my two great worries.

Rusk: But I’m here to tell you, the U.S. has your back 1,000 percent.

Sihanouk: That’s my other great worry.

As usual, Kaul nailed it. Years before the U.S.-backed right-wing coup deposed Sihanouk, which led to the Khmer Rouge insurgency gaining strength and overthrowing the right-wingers, which led to the Killing Fields.

Just as Kaul would nail these times.

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