Reflection 101: The Morality of Proxy Wars

Stephen F. Dennstedt

One could easily make the argument that there is no morality in war—proxy or otherwise. But if we were to substitute the word pragmatic for morality the argument might become a little more confused (less black and white). Admittedly, I am not a military historian but I am a bit of an amateur historian with an eye cocked towards Man’s folly.

On many levels we are a sorry-ass species. So noble on the one hand and so barbarous on the other. Scientists tell us that our closest living (non-human) relative is the chimpanzee, and one only need study the behaviour of chimps to get a glimpse into our own violent psyche. We’re a species who can define a moral code but can seldom live by its tenants.

A comparison of Clint’s genetic blueprints with that of the human genome shows that our closest living relatives share 96 percent of our DNA. The number of genetic differences between humans and chimps is ten times smaller than that between mice and rats.

I think every war (or armed conflict) the United States has been involved with since World War II has been a proxy war. The biggest of these proxy wars was Vietnam (my proxy war) with 58,220 American lives sacrificed on the battlefield followed by Korea with 33,652 war related American deaths. We continue to put our military in harm’s way to fight these proxy wars in the name of national security. And though our borders aren’t threatened there might be some warped logic to that premise.

A proxy war is a conflict between two states or non-state actors where neither entity directly engages the other. While this can encompass a breadth of armed confrontation, its core definition hinges on two separate powers utilizing external strife to somehow attack the interests or territorial holdings of the other.

Having participated in the Vietnam War (an undeclared war) as a nineteen year old Marine Corps Sergeant I am no fan of war. The United States has formally declared war eleven times in its brief history. In recent years (post WWII) I think we often enter into armed conflict prematurely without proper regard given to the loss of American blood and national treasure. Like Vietnam,  our forays into both Iraq and Afghanistan have been unmitigated disasters: untold lives lost, trillions of dollars spent, the radicalization of Islam and a truly unstable middle east.

It’s interesting (and very unsettling) to realize that we often support one side in a proxy war only to reverse ourselves in later years to fight the very same people we helped put into power. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan we armed and supported the Taliban—yes, the same Taliban we are now fighting in the hills and mountains of that strategically insignificant country. Saddam Hussein of Iraq is a similar story—once our ally (Iraq versus Iran) and then our sworn enemy.

The immorality of proxy wars is they aren’t really about national security (in a direct sense) but more about big business, economics, natural resources and the military/industrial complex. Like the chimp, Man is very territorial and violent—The Law of the Jungle rules (and it always has). In an indirect sense proxy wars may very well help with our national security (as absurd as that notion first appears). Trust me, I am no advocate for war (proxy or otherwise) but the alternative might be even worse.

Consider for a moment that proxy wars have served as an alternative to confrontation between the super powers (United States, Russia and China). In this nuclear age a direct armed conflict among the super powers would be catastrophic and very possibly the end of the human race as we know it. But with nuclear proliferation we now have lesser nation states and even rogue elements possessing nuclear capability posing a significant international threat (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea to name a few).

The Law for the Wolves

“NOW this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

Wash daily from nose tip to tail tip; drink deeply, but never too deep;
And remember the night is for hunting and forget not the day is for sleep.
The jackal may follow the tiger, but, cub, when thy whiskers are grown,
Remember the wolf is a hunter—go forth and get food of thy own.

Keep peace with the lords of the jungle, the tiger, the panther, the bear;
And trouble not Hathi the Silent, and mock not the boar in his lair.
When pack meets with pack in the jungle, and neither will go from the trail,
Lie down till the leaders have spoken; it may be fair words shall prevail.
When ye fight with a wolf of the pack ye must fight him alone and afar,
Lest others take part in the quarrel and the pack is diminished by war.

—Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936

I am not Nostradamus with clairvoyant insights into the future but I can make a prediction based on human nature. Proxy wars have always been dangerous but they are going to get even more dangerous going forward. Backed into a corner it’s only a matter of time before a rogue element falls back on nuclear weaponry as a defense or provocation. Where proxy wars once served as safety valves letting off steam before the boiler blew up they may now serve as the catalyst for all out warfare between the super powers with their convoluted mutual defense treaties.

A naive bury-your-head-in-the-sand world view (typically liberal) is neither pragmatic nor helpful. But the power-driven bullying view (usually conservative) is equally dangerous. As our country (and the world at large) becomes increasingly polarized the option of cooler heads will prevail seems to become more remote. As our technology advances I don’t see commensurate growth in our moral/ethical human behaviour. We are technically advanced chimps still living by the Law of the Jungle. Proxy wars, once a flawed solution, might now lead to our destruction.

Raquel Welch Visited Me in Vietnam

Raquel Welch Entertaining Us At Chu Lai, Vietnam in December 1967

Raquel Welch flew all the way to Vietnam to see me—and about 500,000 other guys in December 1967. She was part of Bob Hope’s Christmas Tour to entertain the troops. I was one of the troops at Chu Lai: Sergeant Stephen F. Dennstedt USMC (twenty years old). I was finishing up my 13-month combat tour in-country and was scheduled to fly home in early February 1968. I almost didn’t make it because on January 30, 1968 at 0430 hours the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched the Têt Offensive.

Raquel was a local girl from my hometown of San Diego, California and of course I bragged up that fact to all of my buddies (yeah, like I knew her or something—fat chance). She’s seven years older than me so she would have been twenty-seven years old when this photo was taken. What I remember most vividly about that day was that during Hope’s show the MedEvac choppers kept landing with wounded soldiers from the Army’s Americal Division at the 91st Evac Hospital just up the hill temporarily drowning out the music with their loud rotors—evidently there had been some serious action close by.

I was just one small insignificant face in the vast sea of green Jungle Utilities (combat uniforms) but I had the distinct feeling she was looking and talking just to me—after all, I was her San Diego homeboy wasn’t I? I’ve never met Raquel Welch but if I ever do I will be sure to take a moment to thank her for visiting me and bringing a bit of home to Vietnam. I understand she is very generous and kind when meeting Vietnam veterans and I think her time in Vietnam must have had a profound affect on her.

Afternoon Delights in Murrieta, CA

Stephen F. Dennstedt

The temperature this afternoon in Murrieta was a sunny and warm 28°C/82°F with low 11% humidity and a gentle breeze of 5 mph. Typical San Diego weather for this time of year (early spring). In other words: just about PERFECT. A golden opportunity to pursue a plethora of decadent Afternoon Delights.

I sat myself down, on the patio, for an hour’s reflection with: three fingers of 12-year Glenfiddich Highland Single-malt Scotch Whisky, a C.A.O. Brazilia Gol cigar and a good piece of classic literature—in this case Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-1894) New Arabian Nights first published in 1882.

A good old dog (preferably a German Shepherd or Labrador Retriever) would have rounded out the experience nicely—but, alas, the dog probably would have wanted some of my Scotch (or a puff of my cigar). The book would have been safe (because everyone knows a dog can’t read) unless he wanted a chew-toy to occupy his time. I can’t think of a better way to pass an hour or two. Retirement is pretty GREAT.


Photography 101: When to Use Manual Mode With Auto ISO

Stephen F. Dennsted

Some so-called photography Purists insist that you should NEVER use any of your camera’s automatic features. I for one don’t find the self-ascribed label Purist particularly helpful—in fact the label is ostentatious and reeks of snobbism. Many Purists hold Ansel Adams up as their poster child for purism—but he was, in point of fact, anything but a Purist.

I find two automatic settings very useful: Auto White Balance and Auto ISO. Canon cameras do a very good job of determining the proper White Balance (or Kelvin temperature setting) of an image and both of my cameras are in Auto White Balance mode 100% of the time. I shoot CameraRAW files so any minor tweaks to White Balance can easily be done in post-processing.

Female Cinereous Harrier

ISO (International Standards Office) is basically the same thing as the old film speed designation ASA (American Standards Association). ISO refers to a camera’s sensor sensitivity to light and ASA referred to a particular film’s sensitivity to light. I know all of you Old Hands with film know that but some of the Noobs coming of age with digital technology might not. My new Canon cameras (EOS 5D Mark IV & EOS 7D Mark II) both allow me to shoot in Manual Mode with the full range of ISOs within the Auto ISO setting (my 5D Mark II would only allow up to ISO 400 in auto).

Long-tailed Meadowlark

They also allow me to program definite ISO limits within the Auto ISO setting. For instance I have set a maximum Auto ISO limit of 12,800 when using my 5D Mark IV and a limit of 6400 when using my 7D Mark II. I am primarily a wildlife, landscape and travel photographer. When shooting landscapes and travel subjects I often have time  for deliberation but with wildlife I usually don’t. Whenever possible, when shooting wildlife, I like to set up my camera before I go out (I can refine those settings in the field if I need to).

Male Cinereous Harrier

My dedicated C1 & C2 user-defined modes are programmed for static and dynamic wildlife photography (C3 is not programmed at this time). C1 & C2 were both programmed using M-Mode (Manual Mode) and then registered to the C1 & C2 modes (making them appear in my viewfinder as C1m and C2m). You can also program C1, C2 and C3 using AV-Mode (Aperture Priority Mode) or TV-Mode (Shutter Priority Mode). Why did I choose Manual Mode with Auto ISO? Simple really.

Female Cinereous Harrier

After shooting for many (many) years (63 years to be exact) I have a pretty good idea of what I want my shutter speed and aperture (f/stop) settings to be: in the case of static wildlife it’s 1/800s @ f/5.6 and for dynamic wildlife it’s 1/2000s @ f/5.6 (again these basic settings can be further refined in the field if time and circumstances permit). I use Auto White Balance and Auto ISO in my C1m and C2m shooting modes—just two fewer things to worry about. With these programmed settings I can confidently concentrate on the subject before me and let my camera do its thing.

Brown-faced Capuchin Monkey

Photographer’s Field Note: When I use Auto ISO I usually have quick access to my Exposure Compensation setting. When I’m “Chimping”  (looking at my LCD screen) I can quickly see if I have to increase or decrease my exposure—using Exposure Compensation is MUCH faster than resetting my ISO. I couldn’t do this on my 5D Mark II but I can with both the 5D Mark IV and 7D Mark II. Improved technology continues to make my life as a photographer easier. SFD

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot

This is just one time when I use the Auto ISO feature on my camera. I will often use it with my camera’s AV and TV programmable modes too. When shooting landscapes, however, I normally try to shoot at ISO 100 and lower my shutter speed as needed. IS-Image Stabilization or a sturdy tripod really comes in handy here. As a general rule the lower your ISO the better your image resolution but with new digital technology the boundaries are being pushed everyday. I can get really good images up to ISO 3200 (and even ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800 in a pinch).

Northern-crested Caracara

I must confess that it amazes me when I hear (some) photographers say: I would never do this or I would never do that—I am a Purist. To each his own I guess but it makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. To have a modern feature-rich digital camera at your disposal and then to not use its features seems ridiculous to me. I think Ansel Adams would have laughed those guys off the stage and punched them in the nose for calling him a Purist. He was, in fact, kind of a cranky old bastard (kind of like me I guess). Hope I didn’t offend anyone out there in my reading audience.


This New Camera + Lens Combination is Epic

Stephen F. Dennstedt – Photo Courtesy of Shawn A. Dennstedt

I recently got the opportunity to take some of my new photo gear out for a test spin. Here I am using my new wildlife rig: the Canon EOS 7D Mark II camera body (with battery grip) coupled with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom lens. The APS-C crop-sensor body gives me 60% more EFOV (Effective Field of View) when applying its 1.6x crop factor and its autofocus plus 10 fps continuous shooting are stellar. I really enjoyed using this setup. I’m also anxious to get my new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and its lenses out on the road.

Harbor Seal – La Jolla, CA, USA

Canon EOS 7D Mark II + Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

1/800s @ f/5.6 ISO 160 @ 340mm (EFOV 544mm)

My son, Shawn, and I spent the late afternoon/early evening hours in La Jolla photographing the wild Seals and Sea Lions. If you’re a photographer (and even if you’re not) it’s a great way to spend an afternoon. If you’re interested in learning more about this location, our photo shoot and seeing more images from the day you can link to my blog post: La Jolla Cove in San Diego, CA. If you’re a local you certainly know where La Jolla is, if you’re visiting San Diego La Jolla is one of San Diego’s most iconic tourist attractions: great scenery, shops and eateries.

Shawn A. Dennstedt – Photo by Stephen F. Dennstedt

La Jolla Cove in San Diego, CA

Harbor Seal

1/800s @ f/5.6 ISO 160 @ 340mm (EFOV 544mm)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

Stephen F. Dennstedt

If you ever get a chance to visit my hometown of San Diego be sure to visit La Jolla, one of San Diego’s truly iconic locations. It’s beautiful all year round but especially now in early spring. To see the ubiquitous California Sea Lions and Harbor Seals be sure to checkout La Jolla Cove and the Children’s Pool (which has morphed into Seal Beach). Pupping season began in February so the beach is roped off to give the mothers and pups some privacy but you can still get really close without disturbing them. Here is a great link if you would like more information about seeing the critters: How to See the La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions.

You can see the critters throughout the day but if you’re a photographer late afternoon/early evening is the time to go. This time of year the sun sets at about 7:30 p.m. so anytime between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. is perfect for the golden light (depending on the time of year you visit these hours will vary). You want the late afternoon/early evening light because it’s coming from the west and illuminates the shoreline beautifully. In the morning the sun is rising from the east and the shoreline cliffs throw everything into deep shadow making it very difficult to photograph the Seals and Sea Lions without a flash.

I recommended shooting the critters with longer lenses: 70-200mm or 100-400mm zoom lenses work well especially with APS-C crop-sensor cameras like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II or the Nikon D500. Don’t forget your wide-angle lenses, however, because the coastline presents some gorgeous opportunities for scenic photography (remember that your APS-C crop-sensor camera can work against you in this scenario). Warning: If you’re like me and get totally in the zone when you’re taking photos beware of the surf. I was kneeling in the sand taking the photo above when three waves came in back-to-back and soaked me to the crotch: shoes, socks, underwear and pants (no camera or lens damage).

Feel free to browse the gallery below (clicking on the images will enlarge them for better viewing). There is only one Sea Lion in this grouping (top row, third photo from the left). How do you know if you’re looking at a Seal or a Sea Lion? Sea Lions have very small external ears whereas Seals just have two holes in their head. The guy with the camera is my son Shawn with my old Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super-telephoto “Prime” lens (I’ve replaced that setup with a new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom lens combination. Enjoy the photos and visit La Jolla in San Diego if you ever get the chance.

The World Doesn’t Care

Stephen F. Dennstedt

A great quote from Tony Northrup (Northrup Photo): The world does’t care whether you think it’s going to change or not—it’s going to change anyway. Life is about change, it’s always evolving and morphing in new directions, and it has always been like that (from the beginning). How a species adapts to change often determines the difference between life and death—survival or extinction.

As we pursue our passions in life we need to accept that things change. In photography things change all the time—digital technology threatens to leave me in the dust if I don’t adapt and evolve. That’s the way it should be, curiosity and continued learning promotes good mental health and helps to keep an oldster like me young (in mind and heart if not body). We should embrace change not resist it—it keeps things fresh and exciting.