American Presidential Politics (and the Tokyo Train System)

Are you like me…totally frustrated and perplexed by the U.S. presidential race this year? Faced with two choices between highly questionable candidates, I have tried my best to come up with an acceptable path forward with my vote. After searching my mental database of all my past experiences that could advise me on the matter, I have concluded that (believe it or not) this year’s race bears much similarity to the Tokyo Train System.


Looking at the included train map, the first thing you may notice is that it is complicated! So complicated, in fact, that upon my arrival years ago in Japan my employer required me to take a “train class”. Little did I realize at the time that the class would prove to be a lifesaver over my next eight years in Tokyo!

One thing I have observed in recent years is that our American political process is a lot like a train headed down the tracks. Our unique check-and-balance feature created by our Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches keeps our government running along established tracks year after year. No branch, person, or party has complete control. Our two major political parties (Republican and Democratic) are like trains that run on their established routes. Their big difference is that they generally run in opposite directions. The engineers ‘driving’ the train have little control over the route of the train…the train’s direction and route is already established. Never during my eight years in Tokyo did I ask, “Who’s driving this train?” I trusted each train to go in the direction of its rails.

Just as the Republican and Democratic parties often have similar multiple candidates running in the primaries, the Tokyo train system has multiple lines that run in the same general direction operated with different engineers. That certainly adds complexity to the map. But to get to where you eventually want to go, taking any of those ‘party line trains’ will move you in the right direction. From my early experience riding the Tokyo trains, I learned that getting on the wrong train was a mistake relatively easy to correct, as long as it was moving in the general direction I wanted to go. Similarly, in this year’s presidential race I saw multiple candidates that could have taken me in the direction I wanted to go. But now, that once complicated train map has been reduced to two lines running in opposite directions…Republican and Democratic (discounting the role of any realistic third party possibility).

My own worst mistake in riding the Tokyo trains was once to hastily hop on a train while standing on the wrong platform! The unnerving result was that I traveled miles in the totally opposite direction I wanted to go, taking me far away from my desired destination.

From that simple personal lesson, I get my perspective on this year’s presidential race. Contrary to the media message, the engineer sitting in the front of the train is not the gravest of our concerns. Instead, I am much more concerned about the DIRECTION of the train I am about to board. To ensure I get on the train headed in the direction I want to go, I must first make sure I am standing on the platform where the departing train is moving in the direction I want to go. If I happen to board the wrong ‘political train’, then four years from now I will find myself ‘miles’ from the place where I really want to be. And to correct that mistake, I would have to make my way back to the right platform, wait for another train going in the right direction, and then travel twice as far to get back to my original desired destination.

So, here is my new perspective: All this American political hoopla about picking the best ‘engineer’ to ride in front of the train is of little importance in the big scheme of things. But boarding the train from the right platform is much more critical to get me (and my country) closer to the desired destination.

What’s my take-away from all this? I need to make my decision wisely after studying the political train map in light of where I want this country to go. At the voting booth I will “board the train from the platform” that will take me in the direction I want to go (and the direction I want this country to go)! I hope you will do the same. Do your part and trust our American political process to work.

A caveat…this political analogy only works for trains! J If either of our two major presidential candidates were piloting an airplane that I wanted to board, there is no way I would take even one step down that jet-way!  The plane analogy would better fit a dictatorship form of government. Fortunately the U.S. is NOT a dictatorship where its ‘pilot’ would have complete control and could easily run this country into the ground at any whim.

What You’ll Find Under This Flag


What will you find where this flag flies?    The simple answer is – FREEDOM.

Unless you have spent significant time in any country that does not enjoy the extent of our freedoms, you will likely never fully appreciate our flag’s symbolism. Enjoy your freedom this and future July 4th Independence Days, and never take it for granted.

This flag flying in the midst of a July 2003 dust storm at Camp Speicher, Iraq was an unlikely sight for our convoy traveling from Baghdad to Mosul. But for us, it was a welcome reminder that we could find freedom, security, safety, and help within the camp’s borders as we stopped to get a vehicle repaired.

Just as that small American Flag in a tiny desert outpost represented safety and refuge to the few in our convoy, I can just imagine what it now means for those around the world fleeing violence and desperately seeking its refuge.

Although the concertina wire is unsightly, it serves as a stark reminder to me that freedom must be protected from those who oppose it, much like our own nation’s borders.  At the same time, gates are included to allow for reasonable access.

The lesson I took away for myself was to cherish my “Independence Days”.  And as a reminder, those days can be both national and personal.

A favorite quote:   “What is living if I can’t live free? What is freedom if I can’t be me?” – Bonnie Raitt

Memorial Day – A Life Cut Short

Today I visited the grave of a young soldier killed in Iraq, buried in Northern Wisconsin. This trip was somewhat of an act of closure for me. I did not know the young soldier (Paul), nor did I know any of his family members, or any of the soldiers in his unit. In fact, I only learned his identity a few years ago. But this trip was still meaningful for me.

Cemetery Wide

Paul’s tombstone was one of thousands that dotted the Northern Wisconsin’s Veterans Memorial Cemetery. It sits in the newer section and looks very much like the rest of the tombstones. If you look at the picture of the tombstone, you will learn a bit of information about Paul (I’ll not use his full name here.) He was an Army Specialist who served in Iraq. He died young, just eight days past his twenty-first birthday. He had received the Bronze Star and been awarded the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal. And…he was “loved by his family”.

Tombstone cropped

When I look at his birth date (Sep 14, 1982), I realize I was already thirty years-old then, but I can recall exactly where I was on that date. I had just started a four-year assignment in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – nineteen days before he was born. I imagine neither of us never expected to end up in the middle-eastern deserts of Saudi or Iraq.

But it’s the date of his death that brought our random paths together, and brought me to his grave site today. On Sep 22, 2003 we both flew out of Mosul, Iraq in the back of a C-130 aircraft headed for Kuwait. We were both headed home, but it was Paul’s final journey. I sat along the side of the rear cargo bay as Paul’s body-bag was placed gently into the back of the C-130. It was dark except for a small red light in the back of the plane’s bay. Not a word was spoken by me or the other few on the flight. A quiet reverence filled the entire flight.  That time has seemed forever sacred to me. The flight was long, and it provided me a serious and somber time to reflect on my own few months in Iraq. What if…What if…What if?

At that time, I had no idea who the young soldier was that had been killed that day in Mosul. Male or female?…Someone I knew?…Someone who had provided security for my civilian team? Who? The ‘not knowing’ haunted me. It was years before I learned of Paul’s identity and that he had been killed by an accidental discharge of a fellow soldier’s weapon that day. The cause of death made little difference…Paul was still dead.

So, what’s my take-away thought today? Paul died young. Young…just like the overwhelming majority of men and women who have died in all our wars. I think that is what makes the death of our soldiers so tragic for the families. Lives were cut short, denied their full potential. Time has now marched on for Paul’s family without him in their lives for sixteen years.

I was reminded of just how young our soldiers are when last summer I had the opportunity to talk with two Vietnam vets from my small Alabama hometown. One had served in the Army in Vietnam just out of high school, only nineteen years old. The other (with the Navy) commanded a small river patrol boat in Vietnam at the age of 20, and was responsible for the lives of his three crew members. I also recalled that my uncle was only 22 when he was killed in Okinawa in 1945. By contrast, at the age of 19, 20 and 22, I was enrolled in college and safely preparing for my career and future.

As a closing thought, it is obvious to me that we should never forget these soldiers who sacrificed and who never returned. Nor should we forget their families who must endure the pain and separation of a life cut short. Likewise, we should honor those who served and did return…for their lives were forever changed and cut short in their own way.

Please remember them all this Memorial Day.

Jim Peak

Fear vs Love (and Terrorism)

Fear vs Love

“Of course I was afraid, but not living is worse than dying.” Did I really hear myself just say that? That was not like me at all. Without thinking, those words just rolled off of my lips. That was my off-the-cuff response when a friend asked me upon my return from Iraq, “Weren’t you afraid something bad would happen to you?”

It took me quite a while to sort out my true feelings that lay behind that response. By using the phrase “not living”, I meant letting fear prevent me from living the positive life possible for me. If I kept letting my fear prevent me from doing what I wanted to accomplish, I would essentially give my life over to my fear – “dying” one day at a time doing something I did not really want to do. We are all going to die. Choosing to not live any day because of fear is like dying for that day.

I find myself from time to time asking the critical question…”Am I still living, or just marking time?” I think a lot about that question and the root motivators that drive each of us to act. Much has been written about the two primary emotions that drive humans: Love and Fear. All other emotions seem to be sub-categories of these two.

Love-based actions carry positive connotations such as life, truth, trust, joy, goodness, and service. Fear-based actions are better associated with negative words such as death, lies, suspicion, sadness, evil, and selfishness.

Many religions address the love-hate dichotomy, especially Christianity through statements like these: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control”, “We love because He first loved us” and many more.

As you read this, there is likely recent news of another shocking and violent attack…we choose to label it terror. The media puts it front-and-center into our consciousness through their twenty-four-hour news coverage. Where does the terrorist fit into the love-hate equation? What is the motivation and goal of a terrorist?  The goal of the terrorist is to instill fear into the multitude through heinous violet acts to a few. As a proponent of fear, the terrorist strives to herd a panicked society over the cliff of fear. If we succumb to the fear and panic, we ourselves unintentionally propagate fear. Our actions then are driven less by love or caring and more by the fear motivators such as hate, prejudice, and anger.

I would argue that America was founded upon and prospered through the love/caring motivation, and not through fear. Our self-declared link to the principles of liberty and freedom for all is the fruit of love, not fear.  We should all be able to choose because we want to…not because we have to. Isn’t that what freedom is all about?

My hope is that my fellow American citizens will not be so gullible to take the terrorist’s bait in his attempt to push our society into a state of fear.   Allowing ourselves to be controlled by fear only breeds additional fear-based actions. These actions can appear as good intentions, but they are rooted in fear. Actions born out of fear reflect a temporary desperation instead of sustained and lasting goodness.

The opposition of some in our nation to receiving Syrian refugees, now fleeing obvious danger, is a clear example of fear-based thinking. Without the terrorist’s fear-induced spell, I think our response would be much different. At our best, we are a caring nation. We would be prone to reach out and help others in such a dire state of need as the Syrians.  Are we now choosing to let the terrorist control our rational caring thoughts? Look at how the terrorist has transformed our thoughts into stereotyped rejection of the needy thousands, for fear of the unknown dozens? We have moved away from the love-based caring for humanity and toward the slippery slope of hate, prejudice, and mistrust. My question: Have we allowed the terrorist to win?

For the segment of our society who calls ourselves Christians, I see this as an especially shocking and disappointing surrender to the dark side when compared to examples from the Bible. In Jesus’ classic story, the Good Samaritan acted out of concern and did not hesitate to stop and help the stranger that had been beaten and robbed by ‘terrorists’ (even though his own life was likely in danger)! Jesus also chastised those who would not receive strangers, saying “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me…”

Using the word “terrorist” today to describe a premeditated killer of innocents gives him more power over us than he deserves. Let’s take that power away from him and call him simply what he is…a murderer – A murderer to be held accountable for his actions. In a civil society such as ours, we have laws, law enforcement officers, and armies to deal with those who commit such atrocities.

Every day we face a choice. Do we want to live a life rooted in the light of love and freedom or cower under the darkness of fear and bondage?

I still say, “Not living is worse than dying”!

Join me in living today, tomorrow, and the next. Let’s not give up our freedom of life choices!



John Kennedy, Liberty, and Iraq

A quote of President John F Kennedy near his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

A quote of President John F Kennedy near his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”   John F. Kennedy

I went to Iraq in the summer of 2003 with those words in my back pocket…literally.  Immediately prior to my departure to Iraq, a good friend, mentor, and Army Chaplain gave me his business card with those words printed on the back.  That card remained with me throughout my days in Baghdad, Mosul, Irbil, Dahuk, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah.  Those words gave me purpose and motivation as I sought to contribute in my own very small way to give liberty a foothold for the people of Iraq after their years of suppression under Saddam Hussein.

Kennedy uttered his bold words in support of liberty in the same address as his “Ask not…” challenge in 1961.  Setting political leanings aside, most would agree that Kennedy’s speech was one of the most inspiring presidential inaugural addresses ever given.  That address ignited a generation and got us started on our way to the moon.

Today we are left to wonder if those were just hallow words, or can they still reflect America’s resolve in the support of liberty.  The commitment to “oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty” has never been an easy task.   Yet we met the challenge in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.  In each of those situations, we committed to a long-term presence to permit the new flame of liberty to grow, mature, and develop that could withstand perpetual threats of outside elements.  Leadership of high resolve and profound human sacrifice underlies each success.  And the citizens of each of those three countries enjoy the fruits of liberty to this very day.

But today I am left utterly disappointed with the state of Iraq.  America clearly failed to carry through with our promise to “assure the survival and the success of liberty” for the people of Iraq.  By ‘walking away’ from Iraq we allowed their flickering flame of liberty to become a raging uncontrolled wildfire fanned by violent outside winds that now destroys everything in its path.  We were Iraq’s firemen until they could develop their own capability.  Iraq didn’t stand a chance after we pulled out.  Our ‘firemen’ did everything asked of them while there.  Pulling them off the job resulted in a disaster it seems anyone could have anticipated.  The real failure was a failure of leadership and resolve to stand behind our national promise.   And while Iraq ‘burns’, the world’s trust of America burns in the ashes alongside it.

And we are left to ask…Now what?  Perhaps Kennedy also provided the answer in the same speech:

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.”

Freedom Inspired by the “Free State of Winston”

This blog at its core is influenced by one of the strongest human desires…the quest for freedom.  The freedom simply to choose, to do, and to say what you think is right.  I admit I have been influenced by my upbringing, as I grew up in a rural county commonly referred to as “The Free State of Winston“.

This was an Alabama county whose citizens at the start of the Civil War desired to remain neutral and wanted the freedom for each to choose.  Since that time, people from the county have always been viewed as a bit different from their southern neighbors.  Harper Lee even comments on Winston County in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, speaking of Scout’s school teacher from Winston County:  “Miss Caroline printed her name on the blackboard and said, “This says I am Miss Caroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from Winston County.” The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”

Maycomb County was a fictitious county in south Alabama but Winston County in north Alabama was real and we all knew exactly what Harper Lee meant.  The county’s unique legacy still lives within it’s sons and daughters and inspires me to choose freedom, even if that means being different.

The Free State Barn

The Free State Barn