Friday, March 24, 2006

Supporting the Troops

“I support the troops” is almost a cliche’ in America these days, most frequently seen on magnetic yellow ribbons and bumper stickers. But without some sort of definition it is meaningless. Actually, all taxpaying Americans support the troops. Our federal tax dollars pay their salaries, provide equipment and transport them to wherever they are directed to go. That’s quite a bit of support. Virtually all Americans no doubt wish them a safe return, hoping that they somehow avoid the all too dangerous reality of war.

Where support becomes questionable, for me at least, is their mission. Why are the troops in harm’s way? What is the purpose of their mission? That’s where my support wavers. How can I support a war that I believe is wrong for America, wrong for Iraq and wrong for the world? I can’t. I can make a distinction between the troops and their mission, recognizing that the soldiers are not the ones who decided to go to war. They are following orders.

But there’s the rub. “Following orders” is not a defense for carrying out illegal orders. It did not save Nazi war criminals after World War II and even American military law requires soldiers to refuse illegal orders. Soldiers’ willingness to do what they are ordered is what allows world leaders to wage war. If no one accepted military service (either as a volunteer or conscript), war would cease. Leaders would have to fight it out themselves or, more likely, work out deals to settle their conflicts. To say that I support the troops in Iraq suggests that I support that mission when, in fact, I do not.

Several commentators have raised the issue of soldiers’ responsibility for war. Cartoonist/columnist Ted Rall wrote about this a few months ago. He said he does not support the troops in prosecuting an illegal war. His rationale is that soldiers choose to participate and can also choose not to participate. Where I differ is that I know how difficult that choice is and how few soldiers will make that choice. Rall cites the example of Darrell Anderson who deserted to Canada rather than fire on women and children. British Ranger Ben Griffith made a similar decision. These are courageous decisions that most soldiers will not make. I know that I was afraid to say no to my country when faced with Vietnam. I went even though I believed the war wrong. It’s not at all easy to say no. It’s even harder to say no when the vast majority of troops believe that they are in Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s role in the 9-11 attacks.

Like Rall, I believe that the Iraq war is illegal (sanctioned neither by a Congressional declaration of war nor a United Nations resolution) and a stain on America’s reputation. Like Vietnam, probably even less so, this war is not something about which this nation will be proud when all is said and done, despite what BushCheney says over and over and over. The men and women we send to Iraq will have to come to terms with their service as best they can. While I oppose the war they prosecute, I do not blame them for it. That responsibility lies with all Americans. Whether we support the war or not, our country is making war in our name. It belongs to all of us.

Supporting the troops has a distinct meaning for me since I was “a troop” in Vietnam. I know what it feels like to sacrifice for a meaningless cause (a very depressing, frightening experience that leaves great residual anger). As a veteran of that experience, supporting the troops means several things to me. First, I want them to return alive, whole in body and spirit. Second, I expect this nation to provide the medical and other care they need to make the transition from war back to civilian life. Third, I respect and honor those who follow their conscience and refuse to serve. At the same time, I do not fault the majority of soldiers who go war. And finally, I support ending their misbegotten mission as soon as possible.

All this doesn’t fit well on a bumper sticker but then simplistic slogans don’t really tell the entire story.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Speaking Freely

Jack Shafer has an interesting piece in Slate a while back regarding a possible prosecution of the New York Times under the Espionage Law of 1917 for revealing BushCheney’s warrantless evesdropping. The Espionage Law of 1917 as amended in 1950 makes disseminating classified information to unauthorized parties or publishing same a criminal offense. Using this law to prosecute the Times would raise a host of free speech and other legal issues. Those issues are a big reason why no case has ever been brought under this law.

National security has always tested America’s commitment to free speech. In times of imminent danger and peril, statements and published materials may endanger the nation or its forces. “Loose lips sink ships” and all that, where the damage is clear and direct. But when the danger is less imminent, more abstract free speech and press should always prevail. This Republic is more secure with free speech and press than it will ever be with out these fundamental freedoms.

Free Speech is one Constitutional right that has a clear lineage from the Framers. Speeches given in public settings and published in broadside were the essential means of communicating during their time. Hundred of small presses carried accounts of events and announced others. All this at a time when this nation was under attack by the world’s major power. The Framers recognized the power and resonance of speech. No wonder Speech, along with Assembly and Religion, is among the first rights protected by the Bill of Rights.

Knowing that speech can be dangerous, I draw the line where the danger and risk posed by speech or publication threatens the exercise of American Constitutional liberties. Unless a threat puts our ability to enjoy our fundamental liberties at risk, it does not rise to my standard for restricting speech or publication. Osama bin Laden and other terrorists threaten us attack but whatever small scale havoc they can inflict poses little real danger to America’s Constitutional order. Bin Laden threatens America economically by disrupting our energy supplies but this nation is not at such risk as to toss away two centuries of free speech.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Never Ending War

Modern war no longer an end. Even after hostilities cease, the damage continues. In case you had forgotten, Agent Orange remains a lasting legacy of Vietnam.

Iraq will no doubt offer its own long lasting horrors. Can you say "depleted uranium"?

Going As Positive As I Can

I participated in Saturday’s anti-war rally in Phoenix along with fellow Veterans for Peace and other local peace and justice activists. Turnout was small but the rally and march were lively and boisterous, echoing in the high rise canyons of Phoenix’s mostly empty downtown. Later two other Veterans for Peace, a Code Pink representative and I participated in a call in show on local radio. We spoke of all the reasons why we think the Iraq war is wrong and needs to end sooner rather than later. One caller berated us for being “negative, negative, negative” and how it demeans our troops. The host asked us several times if we didn’t see some good in America’s Iraqi intervention.

My answer is that whatever good America achieves in Iraq is more than counterbalanced by the harm our intervention has caused to Iraq, its people, their economy, our troops and our security. Iraq is simply not a positive experience unless you happen to be a military contractor/supplier or a Shi’ia fundamentalist. Specifically,

• The Iraqi people have been immiserated by the consequences of our invasion. Their economy has been destroyed. The nation’s social fabric has been rent; people who were once friends and neighbors are becoming the victims of ethnic cleansing. Personal safety is precarious.

• Removing Saddam Hussein unleashed political forces that have sharpened conflict among ethnic and sectarian groups. The notion of Iraq as an independent, stable nation (precarious from day one) is fast receding into the past. Even if some semblance of a single state is established, real power will remain fragmented.

• American troops are being worn down in an unclear mission in which they are regarded as foreign occupiers and end up “pacifying” the same areas over and over. Even our “allies” in Iraq (ie, the politicians trying to cobble together a government to which we can hand off the country) believe that it is appropriate to resist the occupation. American honor has been compromised by carelessness (“collateral damage” that kills civilians and destroys their homes) and outright brutality (the torture).

• The United States’ ability to respond to crises around the world is limited by the occupation of Iraq. We have few troops and equipment that can be deployed to meet other emergencies. The absence of National Guard troops in Louisiana and Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina suggests what is to come.

• The war in Iraq breeds more terrorism. Not only does the American presence inflame Islamic fundamentalists and nationalists but it provides opportunity for various groups to develop skills in waging asymmetric war against America and other nations. Fighting what was a non-existent threat in Iraq has distracted America from dealing with the very real threats caused by small, dedicated terrorist groups who operate largely under the radar well outside of Iraq. The Taliban, whom we defeated in 2002 remain an active force, waging an insurgency against the United States and the Afghan government.

That’s all pretty negative and, unfortunately, it’s all pretty major too. When I think about the positives, they seem small in comparison.

• Saddam is gone.

• American forces have demonstrated great courage and bravery under very difficult circumstances.

• The Iraqi people have demonstrated their ability to endure under very difficult circumstances.

• America has rebuilt some of the infrastructure destroyed during the war and the decade of sanctions that preceded the invasion.

• The occasional Iraqi obtains a high level of care in an American hospital.

I wish it were otherwise. I wish I had been wrong about the war, that it had turned out to be the cakewalk predicted by BushCheney. But it was a doomed effort from the start; history, culture and ignorance combined to deprive America of its goals in Iraq, leaving this nation unsure and exposed in a region that is dangerously unstable. Three years ago, I knew pretty much what would happen. So did many, many others. Our skepticism and criticism did not compromise the war effort. BushCheney and his warriors did that with their arrogance, ignorance and amazing incompetence even as American forces performed well.

So it’s not easy being positive, however much I try. Maybe that’s why I am in such a dark mood today.

"Ah the freedom. Look, we have the gas-line freedom, the looting freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom, the hash-smoking freedom. I don't know what to do with all this freedom."
Akeel, a 26 year old Baghdad resident on life in the new Iraq.

update: John Simpson of the BBC has an article pointing out some of the good things that have occurred in Iraq as a result of the invasion. He notes the proliferation of motor vehicles, an abundance of consumer goods (albeit high priced), growth of media and access to satellite television, participation in elections and a people no longer in terror of authority. Like me, Mr. Simpson, also notes some of the downside aspects of life in Iraq three years after the invasion.

A Song for All Soldiers

The third anniversary of the Iraq invasion sure has me by the throat. Here's some appropriate music for the event.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

Now when I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover.
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback,
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said, "Son,
It's time you stop ramblin', there's work to be done."
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
And they marched me away to the war.

And the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
As the ship pulled away from the quay,
And amidst all the cheers, the flag waving, and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.

And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water;
And of how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk, he was waitin', he primed himself well;
He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell --
And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell,
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
When we stopped to bury our slain,
Well, we buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.

And those that were left, well, we tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
Though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
And when I woke up in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead --
Never knew there was worse things than dying.

For I'll go no more "Waltzing Matilda,"
All around the green bush far and free --
To hump tents and pegs, a man needs both legs,
No more "Waltzing Matilda" for me.

So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed,
And they shipped us back home to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship sailed into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve, to mourn and to pity.

But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
As they carried us down the gangway,
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,
Then they turned all their faces away.

And so now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glory,
And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask meself the same question.

But the band plays "Waltzing Matilda,"
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday, no one will march there at all.

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong,
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?

note: The link is to the composer's site. I first heard the song on the Pogues' album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, a version that is still my favorite.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Today in Iraq

Check out Chris Allbritton's post at Back to Iraq about Operation Swarmer. It says a lot about the nature of the entire war these days. Swopa at Needlenose has some snarky observations about the affair.

Snark aside, Riverbend offers a sobering view of life in Baghdad on this third anniversary of the American invasion.

"...I don’t think anyone imagined three years ago that things could be quite this bad today. The last few weeks have been ridden with tension. I’m so tired of it all- we’re all tired.

Three years and the electricity is worse than ever. The security situation has gone from bad to worse. The country feels like it’s on the brink of chaos once more- but a pre-planned, pre-fabricated chaos being led by religious militias and zealots....[snip]

The real fear is the mentality of so many people lately- the rift that seems to have worked it’s way through the very heart of the country, dividing people. It’s disheartening to talk to acquaintances- sophisticated, civilized people- and hear how Sunnis are like this, and Shia are like that… To watch people pick up their things to move to “Sunni neighborhoods” or “Shia neighborhoods”. How did this happen?

I read constantly analyses mostly written by foreigners or Iraqis who’ve been abroad for decades talking about how there was always a divide between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq (which, ironically, only becomes apparent when you're not actually living amongst Iraqis they claim)… but how under a dictator, nobody saw it or nobody wanted to see it. That is simply not true- if there was a divide, it was between the fanatics on both ends. The extreme Shia and extreme Sunnis. Most people simply didn’t go around making friends or socializing with neighbors based on their sect. People didn't care- you could ask that question, but everyone would look at you like you were silly and rude....[snip]

Three years later and the nightmares of bombings and of shock and awe have evolved into another sort of nightmare. The difference between now and then was that three years ago, we were still worrying about material things- possessions, houses, cars, electricity, water, fuel… It’s difficult to define what worries us most now. Even the most cynical war critics couldn't imagine the country being this bad three years after the war... Allah yistur min il rab3a (God protect us from the fourth year)".

I don't know what the "3" in the Arabic quote stands for. I do know that the situation is not good.

Another War Poem

I'm in the mood for war poetry today.


Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.

I see them in foul dugouts, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain.
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

The Truth

More than anything else I have read, this post describes how BushCheney has violated the soldiers he sent to war.

Words for All Time

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918)

Iraq War Without End

War anniversaries are noted rather than celebrated. War is a somber affair; even victory comes at a cost. So today I note the beginning of the Iraq War’s fourth year. This year along with two of its predecessors was not supposed to happen. Mission Accomplished in 2003 morphed into Stay the Course in 2004, 2005 and now 2006. All that is certain from three years of war and nation building in Iraq are many tens of thousand dead and wounded, massive destruction, chaos and instability arising from sectarian and ethnic rivalry. The quick and easy victory has turned into a quagmire that of violence, intrigue and instability.

The United States never had much credibility in Iraq, either with its people or the Arab world. What little credibility and goodwill we may have earned by removing Saddam Hussein was destroyed by the many dead, wounded and dispossessed left in our military wake. Iraqis were suspicious of America’s intentions in 2003 but welcomed the chance to escape Saddam. Now they cannot understand how powerful America cannot restore infrastructure, services that Saddam managed even under international sanctions. Many recall a time when life was normal, when they did not fear for their lives and suffer the humiliation of a foreign occupier, a time when they had a functioning economy, reliable water, electricity and fuel. America dismantled Iraqi society without understanding the forces it would unleash. In the absence of a stable government Iraq, once a bastion of secular stability in the middle east, is now becoming more fundamentalist and fragmented.

No good reason justified the American invasion. The weapons of mass destruction that were the heavily marketed reason for the war were long gone by 2003, dismantled by the Iraqis themselves, when BushCheney and the neo-con Vulcans charged into Iraq. UN inspectors were beginning to realize that Iraq, despite its bluster, coyness and dissembling, had actually disposed of its nuclear and other WMD’s. But the American warriors would accept nothing less than a coup d’etat by invasion.

Iraq was a no lose proposition for BushCheney and the Vulcans. Nothing could stop the American invasion. World opinion did not count for anything in his universe. American military forces would make short work of Iraqi opposition. After that, America would simply build a new Iraq in its own image with permanent military bases to oversee the region. So simple. But even if it ended up costing more American life and treasure, BushCheney would still establish American hegemony over huge oil reserves, giving American interests ample opportunity to leverage this resource in their own favor. If a few thousand Americans are killed and maimed in the process, that’s simply the cost of business. Their families can always be bought off with false patriotism that won’t let their sons/daughters/etc die in vain. After all, BushCheney will profit, even if America and the world don’t.

If I sound bitter, that’s because I am. Bitterness and anger are the lessons I have learned from three years of war. I am enraged that BushCheney hijacked American patriotism and disdained the rest of the world after 9-11. I am angry that my fellow Americans blindly supported an aggressive war against a nation that did not attack us,. I am angry that American forces were so ill prepared to manage the aftermath of the invasion. I am angry that my country has wreaked havoc on an another country. I am angry that America is a both a pawn and perpetrator in a foreign land. I am angry that BushCheney cynically manipulated patriotism into blind fear. Forty years ago, America stumbled into war based on lies and misinformation. Even with that experience, Americans fell so easily into the Iraq war. FDR was so right. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

BushCheney never told America the truth about Iraq. This nation would have never accepted what has become the current mission; even in 2003 Americans were not interested in anything other than short, successful intervention. That’s why BushCheney ramped up the fear and purged anyone who suggested that this “painless” action might incur real costs. Initiated with lies, the Iraq war has no real purpose now beyond averting an embarrassing defeat. A vague mission that guarantees more casualties on all sides but offers little to boost morale and sense of accomplishment among those required to serve or endure its consequences.

These days America talks only of how and when to exit Iraq. Even that discussion is pathetically limited to American casualties and costs, not Iraqi capability or long term American presence. Remember that when BushCheney and his generals talk of Iraqi fighting forces, those forces are propped up with American logistics and advisors, supported by American armor, artillery and air power. The US won’t be leaving Iraq any time soon.

The turn of a fourth year of war is hereby duly noted.