Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Sixty years ago today Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima was taken by the United States Marines. This excerpt is from John Keegan's The Second World War:

On 29 September 1994, Admirals King, Nimitz, and Spruance, meeting at San Francisco, agreed to make Okinawa the principal target for amphibious operations in the following year. Because a main aim of the advance to the Ryukyu Islands was to secure better air bases for the prepatory bombardment of Japan and to drive an "air corridor" between the home islands and the Japanese airfields on Formosa and Luzon, it was also agreed that a subsidiary base should be seized on another island nearby, which could be taken more quickly, to provide a staging post and emergency landing field for B-29s. Iwo Jima in the Bonin Islands seemed the best choice. On 3 October the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a directive for Iwo Jima to be attacked in February and Okinawa in April.

...The 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions assaulted Iwo Jima on 19 February. The (fact that the Ten-Ichigo kamikaze offensive was not yet ready to be launched) was the only mercy granted the Americans at Iwo Jima; heavily gunned and garrisioned, honeycombed with tunnels, its bedrock of basalt covered with a deep layer of volcanic dust, the island submitted the Marines to their worst landing experience of the Pacific War. Amphtracs lost traction and ditched on the beaches, to be destroyed by salvos from close-range artillery which three days of battleship bombardment had not destroyed; riflemen dug trenches which collapsed as soon as they were deep enough to give cover; the wounded were wounded again as they lay out on the beaches awaiting evacuation,. Robert Sherrod, the correspondent who had been at Tarawa and most island landings in between, thought it the worst battle he had ever seen: men died, he said, "with the greatest possible violence". When Iwo Jima was finally secured on 16 March, 6821 Americans had been killed and 20,000 wounded, over a third of those who had landed; the 21,000 Japanese defenders died almost to a man.

About 4000 of the American, British, and Canadian soldiers who landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944, were killed. About 1500 Americans have been killed in Iraq.

You might call up your local country music station today and ask them to play Johnny Cash's "The Ballad of Ira Hayes".

Slight change of subject. One of the reasons sports are fun is they are an artificial universe in which you can test your decision-making skills. Do we sign a midfielder or a defenseman? Do we play a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2? Should we get rid of Player X? You'll find out at the end of the match or the series or the season. Baseball is particularly fun because detailed baseball statistics have been kept for over 140 years, and baseball is one of the sports in which an individual's performance can be most easily measured. Baseball statheads and sabermetricians, led by Bill James, love to argue about arcane questions of baseball history (who was better, Edd Roush or Heinie Groh?). One of the concepts they've laid out is that when judging a player, you look at both his career value and his peak value. For example, Mickey Mantle, during his four or five really great seasons, was a better player than Willie Mays was at his peak. But Mays had eight or ten great seasons and ten more good ones, and Mays played every day, never got hurt, and took good care of himself instead of going out every night and getting drunk with Billy Martin and getting into the papers for various barfights down at the Copa. Mantle's last big year was 1961. Mays played steadily through until about 1971.

So who would you rather have on your team? Well, if you can choose one single player at his very highest peak performance, and you want to win the World Series this year, you take Mantle. If you're investing for the long-term, though, you'd take Willie, who will likely help you get to several Series.

I think you can make an analogy for career and peak value with musicians. For example, Johnny Cash's peak was in the '50s and early '60s; he was OK through the rest of the '60s, didn't do much in the '70s and '80s, and came back very strong in the 1990s. Gotta give Johnny cred for both a high peak and high career value. Hank Williams would be an example of a high peak value during a short career. Paul McCartney is a Mantle-ish guy who had a very high peak between about 1963 to 1968, but then his career value goes all to hell. The Stones had a long, steady very high peak value between 1965 and about 1972; then they were OK until about Tattoo You, and after around '83 decline had definitely set in, but '65 to '83 in the major leagues is a very high career value. Loretta Lynn would have a high career value but never really hit an enormously high peak; you could say the same about many singer-songwriters. Best combination of a really high peak and solid long-term career value: Bob Dylan.

I always thought that rock bands should be like sports teams, so, for example, Van Halen could trade Sammy Hagar to Whitesnake for David Coverdale and then re-sign David Lee Roth as a free agent with an incentive-heavy one-year contract, or Journey could cut Neil Schon and see if Alex Lifeson is on the market; as an alternative, they could swap their soundman to Black Sabbath for Tony Iommi and a roadie to be named later. Rush might be willing to give up Lifeson in exchange for a rookie bass player and a lead-guitar prospect. There would always be a solid market in free-agent session players, who might sign with Cyndi Lauper one season, get cut, and get picked up by Bonnie Tyler the next year. Some of these guys might go down to the minors occasionally, signing on with BTO or ELP or ELO, who are always looking for a veteran left-handed drummer with experience. Certain players might change position; Van Halen might move Hagar to rhythm guitar and replace him as lead singer with Coverdale, for example, or with veteran pickup Roth if Coverdale can't sing the hits in the clutch.

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