Friday, June 04, 2004

Evaluating the Costs

The Army’s order requiring soldiers whose enlistments soon end to stay with units if within 90 days of deploying to Iraq got me thinking about the costs of the Iraq war. Bush went to war believing that it would be fast, easy and not too expensive. He was wrong. Americans and Iraqis have been paying for his mistake for over a year. Now, GI’s will be serving against their will. It’s not a draft but it amounts to the same thing for those affected. War costs continue to mount with no satisfactory end in sight.

Bush’s problem now is to keep Americans from realizing what a terrible mistake he made in attacking Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction, few Iraqis dancing with joy (although many welcomed Saddam’s fall) and an unstable post war occupation that has largely appropriated Iraq’s economy to American corporations. Baghdad will soon host the largest US embassy in the world and teams of Americans will monitor and advise Iraqi ministries after the hand over. In the meantime, Iraqi businessmen and entrepreneurs are shut out of their own economy and ever more likely to support resistance to the occupation.

The Iraq war is quickly running up costs, adding to the US government’s deficit. It’s something we are paying for right now with scarce public funds. We are also paying for it with our national honor and the lives of soldiers and civilians. So what are we getting for all this sacrifice?

• The War on Terror. So far, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has created the conditions for more terror. Iraq is now up for grabs where it wasn’t before. Saddam Hussein did not tolerate independent organizations within his dictatorship. He controlled his borders. Now Iraq is becoming a Mecca for jihadists wanting to drive the infidels from Muslim lands. Outside Iraq, al-Quaeda and its allies remain active. They continue to strike pretty much at the same rate as they did prior to 9-11, not in the US but elsewhere. The most recent attack in Saudi Arabia targeted the oil industry, sending shock waves through the economy. Meanwhile, America is diverting resources to Iraq at the expense of effective action against terrorism elsewhere in the region and the world.

• Weapons of Mass Destruction. Invading Iraq did little to reduce the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorist groups. By 2003 Iraq no longer possessed meaningful WMD stocks. Hans Blix, in Disarming Iraq, his account of weapons inspections immediately prior to the US invasion, tells of asking the US to identify sites for inspection only to find nothing significant there. Although Blix expected to find some WMD’s in Iraq, he began to think that Iraq may have actually disposed of these weapons. By the end of 2003, many former experts concluded that Iraq possessed no significant WMD’s when the US invaded.

But weapons of mass destruction remain a genuine problem. North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel have nuclear weapons. Pakistan and North Korea are known purveyors of nuclear weapons technology. Uncomfortably large amounts of fissionable material is unaccounted for. Chemical and biological technology is readily available to terrorists who know how to employ this knowledge. These are the conditions that threaten the world and America with WMD’s. Invading Iraq did nothing to address these conditions.

• Middle East Democracy. Bush promised to plant and nurture democracy in the Middle East. Instead, he brought a military occupation that was unable to fulfill the expectations of many (most?) Iraqis. The Baathist dictatorship was quickly overthrown but the occupation failed to provide a timely reconstruction and basic services. A year later, the Iraqi economy is barely functioning and much of the money goes to foreign corporations and workers. If America is lucky, Iraq will hold elections in January and begin to deal with its own problems. Perhaps Iraqis will have the talent and good will to create a vibrant multi-ethnic democracy in the coming years. If they do, it will be their achievement, not ours.

Not much accomplishment to show for the lost lives, billions of dollars and damage to America’s honor and credibility in the world. Many Americans have sacrificed greatly in the months since 9-ll, all doing so because they believe they are serving their country. That gift has been wasted by Bush’s careless and reckless war. He and his advisors ignored evidence that merited further consideration before invading another country. They authorized the destruction, death and chaos of war because they thought it would be easy. As a veteran, what bothers me most about Bush’s war is that he did not understand what he was doing. Neither he nor his advisors understand the chaos and inhumanity of combat: once the dogs of war are unleashed, they are out of control.

Sometimes, war is unavoidable. In those times sacrifice, hardship and sorrow protect the nation and its people. Difficult but necessary. But calling for these sacrifices to fight imaginary dangers at the expense of effective action against real threats is a betrayal of the public trust.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Foot Travel

Walking 2,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail took me through and past many places. At least 36 small towns, countless mountain tops, lakes, rivers and valleys. Many, many different places. The odd thing about all these places is that on foot they beocme one place. Walking does not create gaps between places. There’s no “leave there, arrive here” sensation in walking. Instead, the space between here and there is filled with the places experienced on the way here.

My thru-hike was the first such experience for me. My longest previous hikes did not really take me from one place to another. After 50 to 70 miles I was more or less in the same place I started. Even after hiking 170 miles of Vermont’s Long Trail in 1991, I was still in Vermont. The Appalachian Trail was different. I started walking in Georgia. I ended up in Maine. That’s one hell of a difference.

Despite this vast difference, I found continuity. Springer Mountain, Georgia is linked to Mount Katahdin, Maine by the thousands of steps I took along the way. Between those two points are the countless “here’s” that I passed through during 180 days of walking. Tray Mountain, Georgia. Hot Springs, North Carolina. Rockfish Gap, Virginia. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. South Mountain, Maryland. Cumberland Valley, Pennsylvania. High Point State Park, New Jersey. Mombasha High Point, New York. Kent, Connecticut. Mount Greylock, Massachusetts. Sherburne Pass, Vermont. Wildcat Ridge, New Hampshire. Stratton, Maine. To name only a few

All these places merge into a “single place” stretching along the Appalachian Mountains. Walking links them together without the separations that are so common with faster modes of travel. Just as Christians believe in the unity of the Holy Trinity in which separate spirits are also one, this thru-hiker believes in the mystery of many places/one place. I was in many places. I can measure the distance between any two. But because I walked from one to the other, they are part of the same place in my memory. No discontinuity here. Only the gentle progression of one step following another.

The sense of place that comes from walking a long distance is unique in our modern society. We span great distances in a few hours. Rapid means of transportation make the world smaller in terms of access but they also fragment the world into many unconnected places, many more “there’s” that are linked only by the fact that one has traveled to them. The inherent links from one place to another are not part of the experience traveling 600 miles per hour in an airplane or at 75 miles per hour in an automobile. Only the gentle pace of non-motorized travel creates the experience of one place merging into another and, by extension, the interconnections among all those places.

Crossing state lines further illustrates this experience. Until I hiked the Appalachian Trail I had never walked across a state line. I always drove or flew. Even when I lived right next to the Arizona-New Mexico line, I never walked across it. Walking across the Georgia-North Carolina border was a first for me. With one step, I linked two states. I did this 12 more times as I hiked. Each step across a state line connected to the steps that preceded it. My final step on Katahdin summit in Maine was a clear successor to my first step off Springer Mountain in Georgia. Katahdin and Springer were not here and there but rather a succession of “here’s”, two of the many places that together constitute a single place that I experienced as the Appalachian Trail. Walking at the speed of foot on the Appalachian Trail, I saw for the first time in my life the connections that join many different places into a single whole.

Vietnam, Iraq and America

The Vietnam analogy continues to crop up in discussions about American policy and strategy in Iraq. On the left, Iraq is a “quagmire” that will consume lives and resources well beyond the public’s willingness to support the war. The right says our experience in Vietnam is largely irrelevant to Iraq except that it shows America must take the lead in making the world safer. My own take is that Iraq is similar largely in that manner in which the administration misled the public about the need for the U.S. to act unilaterally and the cost of the war. I think the administration should be held accountable for its deceit; beyond that the Vietnam analogy does little to inform the current situation.

But Vietnam does offer some important lessons. The most important to me, as a combat veteran, is that war is always hell. It’s hell for the soldiers and even more so for the civilians caught in the crossfire. As a soldier, I can expect hostility. That’s what I am trained for. But combat is still ugly and frightening. And as a target, I will grow increasingly hostile toward anyone whom I believe is putting me in their sights and will respond as best I can with the weapons available to me. In Iraq, that frustration and edginess is compounded by the elusiveness of our enemy. The guerilla sniper looks just the same as an Iraqi civilian. If I can’t tell them apart, they all become my enemy. In Vietnam, the running joke was “kill ‘em all and let God sort it out.” Uncertainty breeds fear and suspicion which makes a soldier more likely to fire. It’s damned hard NOT to cut loose with all your firepower when you’re under attack.

Which makes war hell for civilians. Over the past year, Liberators have become Occupiers. Civilians ambivalent about the U.S. invasion a year ago, have been subject to an increasingly aggressive tactics in response to armed resistance to the American presence. Unwilling to support the foreign invader against their countrymen, civilians tolerate the insurgents and by so doing, civilians become the targets of the American guns, rockets and bombs. I remember my response in Vietnam was to trust no Vietnamese and a strong desire to kill anyone whom I believed was a threat to me and my unit. I think that American forces are better trained and led now than in my day but combat paranoia is real in any war. An it leads to over reaction and dependence on force. The inevitable result is civilian casualties. Each one becomes another reason for non-combatants to distrust the Americans and resent our presence.

What we are seeing in Iraq is the consequence of a misguided policy based on ideological distortion. The neocons running the Bush administration convinced themselves that regime change would be easy. They looked at intelligence and saw what they wanted. And they believed that America could unilaterally launch a preventative war. They and the American public are now discovering that they were mostly wrong. About the only prediction that was true was the fact that American forces could easily overcome the Iraqi army. But the rest has been messy and gets messier with each day.

What is certain is what I call the “imperative of combat” which is where the Vietnam analogy holds true. The imperative of combat is an increasing spiral of violence that belies the lofty aims of war. Our invasion generated some opposition. The opposition began to coalesce, inflicting casualties on American and Coalition troops who then respond with greater violence. And so it goes with each side upping the ante and civilians caught in the middle. Just as all Vietnamese became “gooks”, Iraqi civilians become terrorists and terrorist supporters. Even when American troops don’t target civilians, the scale of American actions kills civilians anyway.

War is unpredictable. Even when it goes well, it never goes as expected. And Iraq isn’t going well. The U.S. was never prepared to occupy and control Iraq. Our leaders assumed that we would be welcome and cheered. Now we are faced with a cycle of violence that is all to predictable in a war zone. And we are not prepared for it. American troops and Iraqi civilians are paying the price for our ignorance. That much of the Vietnam analogy remains relevant.

Bush Lies

Earlier this year Bush supporters were outraged that a contestant dared illustrate similarities between Bush’s words and those used by Adolf Hitler. It was a mini-firestorm of outrage and accusation that soon gave way to the next controversy. I haven’t forgotten it, though, mainly because the similarities are too frighteningly similar. I don’t think Bush is a Nazi. He’s no Adolf Hitler. But he and his administration may be as dangerous to America’s security and civil liberties as the Nazis were in Germany.

The cabal that stole the presidency in 2000 has lied, manipulated public opinion and made every effort to expand government’s ability to spy upon Americans and limit time honored liberties. And that’s just at home. Internationally, the Bush Administration is the ultimate rogue state. But unlike the rogue states and terrorist organizations that Bush claims to protect against, the US is able to assert its will against all others, at least in the short run, creating major mayhem in the process. The world did not want Gulf War II but we invaded Iraq anyway. Iraqis may have been pleased to be rid of Saddam Hussein, but our ill conceived occupation has failed to restore their security even as it heaps insult and hostility on them. Much of the world sees the U.S. as dangerous these days.

But what most bothers me and reminds me of Hitler’s Germany is Bush’s manipulating the public. Josef Goebbels knew the power of the Big Lie. And the Bush Cartel has used that weapon extensively. Bush tells the lies that Americans want to believe. We invaded Iraq only in self defense. Weapons of mass destruction are still to be found in Iraq. Only opponents of democracy oppose our occupation in Iraq. The administration repeats these mantras over and over. The overwhelmingly conservative media (America’s equivalent to a state run media) amplify this message. In the meantime, reality moves in a completely different direction. Americans and Iraqis die, hostility grows and the goal of a stable, democratic Iraq grows more distant.

Not that Bush is the first American president to lie or distort the truth to fit his version of reality. Manipulating opinion goes back a long way in American history and has had a particularly egregious history since World War II. But the Bush administration seems to be more comprehensive in the scope of its ambitions to control America and the world. The world must accommodate itself to America’s needs, not unlike the arguments put forth by Germany in the Thirties. And Americans must sacrifice liberty for security. Again, I hear totalitarian echos in these words. We are engaged in a titanic struggle with evil, with The Other. Any criticism endangers our troops and weakens America in this time of peril.

It all reminds me of 1984. Permanent war. Big Brother. A cowed citizenry. Back in the 50's and 60's I always thought the threat was external. I’m older and wiser now. The danger that George Orwell warned about was not from the outside. It came from within. We’ve been at risk almost since he wrote his prophetic words but the Bush Cartel has brought us to a totalitarian precipice. I fear that Americans will not see the danger before we step into the abyss.

At the Beginning

Welcome to Unsolicited Opinion, yet another blog. It's taken me a while to set this one up. I am posting a few previous essays and hope to provide some interesting commentary on events.

These days I am pre-occupied with the Iraq war/occupation. Iraq may not be another Vietnam for America but it is a war and all war leads to brutality and dehumanization so in that regard, it's very similar. Iraq is also similar to Vietnam in that America is a foreign occupier in a country with a long history of nationalist hostility to foreign occupation and control. It is a war that the US did not have to fight. Now it's costing Iraqi and American lives and money and has distracted the US from its stated goal of defeating international terrorism. I'll post a couple previous essays to get started.

As a relief from the war, politics and current events, I am also writing about my 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail hike in 2002. I'll post excerpts from my manuscript as a diversion.