Monday, November 8, 2010

Swords Into Plowshares, or Back Again?

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:4

I traveled to my hometown of Arlington, Nebraska last month to visit my Mom. She's lived her whole life in this county until the past two months in neighboring Dodge County, the county where I was born.

Arlington has a little VFW Hall, now headquarters also for the American Foreign Legion, or what's left of it. They have burger barbeques regularly and post honor guards at funerals of veterans, plant flags on veterans' graves on Memorial Day and Veterans' Day.

Outside the VFW Hall is, of course, a flagpole. But there's also the mandatory piece of non-functional armament. In this case, it's a 155mm model M1A2 Howitzer.

It's been brush painted with several coats of olive drab paint that are now badly oxidized again. The military tires have actually been replaced since a previous visit, but they are not faring and aging well in the heat and sun of Nebraska summers and the cold of Nebraska winters.

In the few minutes I spent around the artillery piece last month, I probably looked more closely at some details than almost anyone in town. It's kinda like that with things we see every day and take for granted. Kinda like veterans whom we see every day assuming that we know what's there.

Within the length of two football fields from this big gun, one can be standing in my cousin Verdel's soybean or corn field, depending on what he's planted that year. Farming is now an industrial process limited exclusively to two heavily genetically modified crops: corn and 'beans. It wasn't always so, but things are always changing in this technologically driven world of ours.

Illinois blacksmith John Deere gave the world the steel plow. It worked so much better than its cast iron predecessor because the steel would polish up nice and smooth and scour much better as it turned the soil. It tilled better. The horse could pull it more easily. John Deere's peer named Oliver accomplished the same thing using chilled iron.

And with the growth of the iron and steel industry, American manufacturers were able to bolt and rivet together huge 10-bottom plows to break up the prairie sod when pulled by monstrous steam tractors burning coal and wood. Hello, Dust Bowl, a few decades later!

As with all things that rise rapidly, an apex is reached, then a fall. At the height of intensive tillage, turbocharged diesel farm tractors pulled 6-bottom plows, mostly 16-inch bottoms unlike the smaller 12- or 14-inch bottoms pulled by the steamers. Some of the better ones were made by the Oliver Corporation of Chicago, Illinois. Zip code 60606.

Chi Town. Also home of International Harvester, successor to the McCormick-Deering Company that grew out of the reaper invented by Cyrus McCormick. Among Chicago, Moline, Waterloo, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Coldwater (Ohio), you had over 90% of the farm equipment manufactured in the United States.

The Oliver Corporation went belly up long ago. IH had to merge with Case to stay afloat. There is no Minneapolis-Moline. No Massey-Harris, no Cockshutt (Canada), no Ferguson, No Allis-Chalmers, no Avery. Thankfully, farmers no longer use plows. No-till farming has begun to save a lot of fuel and topsoil, and none to soon. But we've replaced plowing to some extent with genetic tinkering and massive amounts of chemicals. How long before we figure out that doesn't work in the long haul either?

I wonder how many of the farmers or farm rooted people in Arlington know that the gun carriage for the big Howitzer was made by The Oliver Corporation? 1955. Says so right on the barely legible data plate. It's a composite piece, this big gun. Barrel came from the Watervliet Arsenal, 1984. Breech has been welded shut. So has the muzzle.

Sometimes these big guns took lives. Sometimes they saved them. Sometimes they took friendly lives on our side when we put expired Korea era shells into them: short rounds that exploded near the gun, not the target.

A friend's father, David Paul Spears, was killed that way in July 1966. He left behind a young widow, Shelby, and three little kids. Years later, David Spears would also have a granddaughter named Shelby. And since we're talking about iron and steel, how about this irony: The Oliver Corporation manufactured carriages for the 155mm Howitzer at its Shelbyville, Ohio factory.

And sometimes the big guns took lives even when they weren't present. Because they existed and we sold them to others, munitions were made and stockpiled. Sometimes, as the Saturday Night Live Coneheads used to say, "in mass quantities."

Decades later a whole new technology of asymmetric warfare would emerge. The shells would be pilfered "in mass quantities" after the fall of Saddam because we went in with too few troops to actually occupy Iraq and then naively dismissed the entire armed forces of Iraq.

Can you say "Improvised explosive device?"

Proclaim this among the nations:

Prepare for war, stir up the warriors. Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, "I am a warrior." Joel 3:9-10.

Seems so many things are becoming obsolete all around us. The military draft has become obsolete. But war hasn't yet. I wonder when we'll figure out that we can't afford war. Philosophically or financially...

Funny how much the M1A2 on the Howitzer's data plate looks like MIA2. I wish war would go MIA, too. I wonder if we could grow to embrace that thought?



P.S. In case it looks insignificant, the inside diameter of the welded shut Howitzer muzzle below measures 6.1 inches.

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