Errant Astronauts, Friendly Fire, and Other Civics Lessons

Today’s news was awash in stories that made me reflect on the vagaries of human nature, especially in the crazy world we live in. I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the stories, but if you’re not, just click the links for more information. The tales run from bizarre to tragic to uplifting, with a side trip to controversy.

The first one that hit me today was the story of the NASA astronaut, Lisa Nowak, accused of driving from Texas to Florida with the intention of murdering a romantic rival. I don’t follow astronaut personalities the way I did when there were just seven of them, but I remembered Lisa Nowak from the coverage of the shuttle mission last summer: she was bright, competent, strikingly pretty, and by all accounts a great role model for girls and young women. What in the world happened, that she could do such a bizarre thing? Does she suffer from a psychological disorder that was hidden until now? Did she simply crack from the stress of being simultaneously an astronaut and a mother? I feel a mixture of sympathy, pity, puzzlement, and a bit of fear. Could any one of us crack this way? Does this dark side lurk in all of us? It makes me shiver a little, and vow to get more sleep.

Next came the furor over released cockpit video from two U.S. A-10 pilots who, in the early days of the Iraq war, mistakenly strafed friendly trucks, killing a British soldier. The incident was declared an innocent mistake and the pilots cleared of wrongdoing, back in 2003, but only recently was the cockpit video (containing the radio conversations) provided to the British government and subsequently leaked to the public. I watched the video—it’s about 15 minutes long—and the first thing I noticed was how businesslike and calm it all seemed until the mistake was discovered, not at all the image of combat one gets from the movies. The guys saw orange panels on the roofs of the trucks—the sign of friendly forces—but because they were assured by their ground controller that no friendly forces were in the area, they concluded that they were looking at orange rocket launchers. And they opened fire. In hindsight, it’s pretty easy to conclude that they made a dumb call—especially given how hard it is to see things on the ground from a cockpit. But it would also be a cheap shot, since I wasn’t there.

What I really noticed was how different I felt about it after watching the video, versus reading the stories. The news reports said the pilots cursed, wept, and were distraught after learning that they’d just shot a friendly. But the selected quotes also made it sound as if they were mainly concerned about how much trouble they were in. Watch the video, and you get a different picture. They were beside themselves. Yes, they obviously knew they were in trouble, but they were also kicking themselves around the block for the error. The news reports one pilot saying to the other, Is your tape still running?—after which the recording stopped. What the pilot actually said was, My tape ran out; is yours still running?—and this when they were well on their way back to base. What comes across in the news story is, Can we cover our asses? Watch it, and you get something quite different. So…I guess this story made me think less about the possible culpability of the pilots than it did about just how easily the truth gets distorted. And how we have to form opinions and make decisions all the time, based on this kind of incomplete—or misleading—information.

On the flip side of the war, you have the court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to go with his unit to Iraq, because he believed the war was illegal and immoral. From the San Jose Mercury News:

“…He took to heart a superior’s advice to make exhaustive preparations for missions. What he found — in reading international law, the history of war and the history of Iraq, and articles by governmental and independent agencies, journalists and scholars about the situation in Iraq — changed his mind.

As he told the Army Times, he was in turmoil. “I found out this administration had gone to great lengths to deceive Congress and the people of this country to go to this war.”

With complete respect for those who are in Iraq right now, including one of our wrestling coaches, my hat’s off to Lt. Watada for being willing to take a stand on principle, knowing he could be court-martialed, but believing that these things had to be said.

Of course, I’m basing that opinion on news reports. See earlier paragraph.

Finally, I read of actor Richard Dreyfuss’s current passion—not acting in films, but teaching civic responsibility in schools. Among other things, he’s working with a school system in Massachusetts to help create a civics curriculum for elementary schools, hoping to find ways to make this exciting for kids. You go.

Funny, I was not always a huge fan of Dreyfuss in the movies, especially his earlier ones—but I thought he was great in the quietly forgotten TV series, The Education of Max Bickford.

Which, coincidentally, is where I first encountered the actress Katee Sackhoff. Starbuck.

0 Responses

  1. Charlza
    | Reply

    My first thoughts when I heard about the astronaut love triangle was: Wow, how did the let this crazy women into the program?

    I realized, afterwards, as I usually do that she is just human, as is every other near/celebrity. Where humans are involved, anything, no matter how off the wall, can happen.

    As for Dreyfuss…
    I recall seeing an interview with him where he talked about Civics. AH! I remember – Real Time with Bill Maher. I was stunned as we watched the panel. He took it over with his excitement. I had never seen him in anything beyond films. (Favorites: Always, What About Bob, and Moon Over Parador.)

    I would hands down classify his love for Civics as having passion.

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