Saturday, August 05, 2006

Nothing Sweet About Parting

Riverbend at Baghdad Burning on the Summer of Goodbyes:

Residents of Baghdad are systematically being pushed out of the city. Some families are waking up to find a Klashnikov bullet and a letter in an envelope with the words “Leave your area or else.” The culprits behind these attacks and threats are Sadr’s followers- Mahdi Army. It’s general knowledge, although no one dares say it out loud. In the last month we’ve had two different families staying with us in our house, after having to leave their neighborhoods due to death threats and attacks. It’s not just Sunnis- it’s Shia, Arabs, Kurds- most of the middle-class areas are being targeted by militias.


I’ve said goodbye this last month to more people than I can count. Some of the ‘goodbyes’ were hurried and furtive- the sort you say at night to the neighbor who got a death threat and is leaving at the break of dawn, quietly.

Some of the ‘goodbyes’ were emotional and long-drawn, to the relatives and friends who can no longer bear to live in a country coming apart at the seams.

Many of the ‘goodbyes’ were said stoically- almost casually- with a fake smile plastered on the face and the words, “See you soon”… Only to walk out the door and want to collapse with the burden of parting with yet another loved one.

During times like these I remember a speech Bush made in 2003: One of the big achievements he claimed was the return of jubilant ‘exiled’ Iraqis to their country after the fall of Saddam. I’d like to see some numbers about the Iraqis currently outside of the country you are occupying… Not to mention internally displaced Iraqis abandoning their homes and cities.

I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever know just how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis left the country this bleak summer. I wonder how many of them will actually return. Where will they go? What will they do with themselves? Is it time to follow? Is it time to wash our hands of the country and try to find a stable life somewhere else?

Friday, August 04, 2006

More Pondering Lebanon

Boris' fourth installment about Lebanon at The Galloping Beaver discusses the corrosive effect of a war where the two sides are so disproportionately mismatched.

Learning History at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

When I paint, I must know when to stop. More than once I have ruined a painting by continuing to tweak it, to change this or that. At a certain point, anything more just detracts from the work. I mention this because I read that a Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center has just been approved for construction adjacent to the memorial on the National Mall.

The federal commission with final say over monuments and memorials in the nation's capital gave the green light yesterday for the newest addition to America's front yard: a sprawling underground Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center that will be constructed between the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.

The center will be the first new memorial project on the coveted Mall since the National World War II Memorial was built. Preservationists, who have wanted to conserve the Lincoln Memorial's grounds, fought the center. But the project was championed by some veterans groups that have long been troubled by the understated nature of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and want to provide more history and context for its list of more than 58,000 Americans killed or missing in the war.
(emphasis added)

Like the war it memorializes, The Wall has been controversial from its very beginnings. It’s lack of traditional memorial iconography disturbed many as did the designer Maya Lin’s Asian ethnicity. Wikipedia has a good summary of the memorial’s history and development. Despite the controversy, the memorial has become the most visited site in Washington.

I have visited three times, in 1983, 1986 and 1988. More than anything else, The Wall is a memorial to equality in death. No rank. No branch of service. Just names: heroes, fools, combat dead, accidental dead, grunts, REMF’s (rear echelon motherfuckers), seasoned vets, new guys, alcoholics, drug addicts, men and eight women. They all served. They all died. More than anything else, The Wall reminds the viewer that war is death. Anything else is eyewash.

My visits also gave me a sense of where my Vietnam service fit in the scheme of things. Looking up the name of one the dead from my company, I was amazed to see how close to the end of the war my service came. My dead comrade is on panel 4-W, only three more panels and another 3,500 or so dead to the apex where the cycle begins again. I knew at the time, I was on the tail end of combat but The Wall makes it so clear. It also makes it very clear that, long after the US decided that it did not want to sacrifice any more soldiers, soldiers continued to die.

The simplicity and equality of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has always appealed to me. That’s why I am disturbed at any change in the wall. A statue and flag were added in 1984. Suddenly, the dead have an image of three combat soldiers. Admittedly, combat deaths are the majority of the names on the memorial but by its nature, the statue excludes the pilots, the nurses, the truck drivers and all the others who died in Vietnam. The Three Soldiers statue did not compromise the original design, it looked to me more like an afterthought compared to the power of those names; I suspect the same of the Womens’ Memorial that was added in 1994. I don’t mean to denigrate combat dead or the women but, in the end, the only thing that matters is all served, some died and many, like me, somehow survived. The names on the reflective black granite say it all for me.

Now a visitor center will offer “history and context”. It will be an underground facility and probably will not change the visual experience but that history and context will add political debate to what has been a site of remembrance and reflection.

Somehow, we just can’t leave well enough alone. Maybe there is a fear that if all we see in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Americans will only know that men and women die in wars. Not a bad lesson as far as I am concerned.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Pondering Lebanon, Part 3

Boris posts his third installment on the Israel-Lebanon war at The Galloping Beaver. The money quote:

I think it is fair to say...[Israel wants] de-populate southern Lebanon of, well, as many Lebanese as possible. The logic is simple: Hizbollah is an organic part of the social and political landscape of south Lebanon, therefore in order to defeat Hizbollah, obliterate the environment in which they exist. Destroy the social and civic infrastructure that supports them. This means demonstrating in the worse possible way, to the civilians in the region, that it is a better option for them to leave. If that means turning their homes and workplaces into rubble, cratering roads and destroying bridges so be it. It is the equivalent of draining a lake to kill the fish. If the civilians are gone, then anyone left must be Hizbollah and is fair game for the IDF. If you have to slaughter the odd batch of innocents to emphasise the point, so be it. If the UN are on a hill taking notes and you want them out of the way, drop a guided bomb on their position so there can be no doubt they are not longer welcome. It doesn’t matter what you say in public. This fight is for keeps.

Be sure to follow the "Dr. Strangelove" link. It reminds us that the logic of war is a constant in the pantheon of human behaviors.

Summer Thunderstorm

[Four years ago on this date, I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in western Massachussets. This is what that day was like.]

The storm hits hard and fast. Towering thunderheads sweep in from the west, driven by strong winds. Thunder and lightning crash ever closer as I near the top of East Mountain in western Massachusetts. At 1,900 feet, it’s pretty low but still the highest peak around. I climb quickly, hoping to beat the worst of the storm over a natural target for its lightning. The last thing I need is to end my Appalachian Trail hike dead from a lightning bolt.

Only a few hours ago, I nursed the illusion that maybe the storm wouldn’t materialize. A day hiker warned me early on that the afternoon forecast called for severe thunderstorms and, sure enough, clouds were visible in the west as I crossed Route 7 with Red and Gary. But more than anything, the day was just hot, muggy and still. Thunderstorms were the least of my worries as I limped into the Corn Crib, a local nursery doing a brisk business selling food and drink to hikers. All I wanted was to sit in the shade and drink something cold. Soda and ice cream were welcome and refreshing, although its benefits quickly faded as I walked alongside the Housatonic River. I joined Red and Gary in a quick swim in the river–anything to cut the heat.

I knew that the storm was imminent as I began climbing up from the river. The clouds that had been in the west when I was sweltering across Route 7 were now overhead, the day had become dark and windy. The breeze felt great but I knew what was coming. Lightning flashes. I count down. “One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three....” Thunder ends my count at eight seconds. The storm is about a mile and a half away, heading my way. I continue up the slope, wondering how exposed the ridge will be. I conjure lurid images of my body fried by lightning or ripped by splintered wood. Trees bend in the howling wind. FLASH! One thousand one. One thousand two,...One thousand five. CRACK! Closer. Suddenly, a sign: “foul weather alternate route”, a blue blazed side trail. I make the turn, hoping the side trail will keep me safe.

The alternate trail is distinct but less so than the AT. I look carefully for the path on the ground, scanning trees for blue blazes. FLASH! CRACK! Right over me. I wince at the close call. The first rain drops strike my parka, followed by more and more and more. Now it’s pouring. Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles. I pick up my pace with each bolt, somehow hoping that speed will keep me safe. Thunder and lightning continue to explode around me. The blue blazes seem to disappear against the wet bark. I worry that I’ve lost the trail but no, here’s another blaze. I crest the summit under a canopy of trees, not exposed rock, still nervous each time lightning strikes.

The woods are wet. Rocks, roots, branches and leaves glisten with a moist sheen in the forest darkness. The day has cooled dramatically. Now I’m cold unless I move and move fast. I’m scared, too. I worry about the lightning, which is still close but seems to be–maybe–moving away. I worry that I’ve lost the alternate trail. I worry that I’ll miss the next shelter because it will be south of the junction with the AT and not clearly marked. The wind and rain have sapped my confidence but all I can do is push on. I sure can’t stop here.

The junction with the AT is unmarked. No sign alerts southbound hikers to the alternate trail. I wonder how many unfortunate souls end up on the rocks in a storm because they did not see the alternate trail. I thank the spirits for the sign that I saw. I head north on the AT, hoping I’ve not missed the shelter. No rain now but moisture drips from all surfaces. The thunder is a safe rumble in the distance. I pick my way over wet rock and muddy trail, thinking that I should have seen the shelter by now. I wonder where Red and Gary are. Damn, I hate being alone at times like this.

Finally, a sign for the shelter! A short side trail leads down a steep, rocky slope. I see the shelter below. Red and Gary are there. So are Pickle and Pinata; they got in before the storm. We decide to stay in the shelter since no good tent sites are available. We change into dry clothing. We slap at the mosquitoes now emerging after the storm. I’m happy to be dry and safe with my friends and not sprawled atop East Mountain, felled by lightning. I lucked out once again.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Boris on Lebanon, Part 2

Boris at The Galloping Beaver has posted the second installment of his series on Lebanon. In this episode he discusses the role of Hezbollah as a meaningful entity within the body politic.

Total Limited War (or maybe Limited Total War)

Among the many casualties of the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon is the environment. The massive assault by rockets, bombs and artillery lay waste to the land along with its people. Little noticed by the mainstream press is the oil spill on Lebanon’s coastline caused by Israeli airstrikes on an oil storage facility. A Google (Lebanon + oil spill) search yields plenty of articles about the spill but the closest to a mainstream medium is an AFP report in Yahoo! News. The rest are from alternative media. It seems that this particular tragedy is simply not worth mention in the daily litany of death and destruction that befalls the Lebanese in this latest war.

In context, the environmental costs of this war do seem to pale compared to the human toll. On the day after Israeli bombs killed 57 civilians (mostly women and children), a civilian death toll approaching 600 and a quarter million displaced Lebanese, the less dramatic threat to the marine environment seems a lesser priority. But it is still a cost of the war and, I wonder, exactly what that oil storage facility had to do with the rockets that endangered Israelis.

The answer lies in collective punishment. Israel is holding an entire nation hostage in its campaign against Hezbollah. One Israeli general famously said that if the Lebanese what air conditioning to work or travel to Paris, then they need to get their heads out of the sand and reign in Hezbollah forces on the border. (Sorry, I don’t have the link to the quote but it’s sufficiently well known that I am comfortable paraphrasing it.) Juan Cole summed up the issue early on.

[T]his is my problem with Israel's war on Lebanon. The [Israeli] government wants to clean Hizbullah's katyusha rocket emplacements out of the area above its northern border with Israel. That may or may not be a realistic goal.... But it is legitimate for the Israeli government to fight Hizbullah and to attempt to destroy the missiles, once Hizbullah showered Israel with missiles (and even though the missiles have mostly failed to hit anything).

But the Israeli military from the beginning of this conflict did not limit itself to fighting Hizbullah or to hitting its arsenal. The Israeli air force bombed Beirut airport ...and bombed the sea ports of Tripoli, Jounieh, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. It bombed civilian neighborhoods and villages and killed whole families.


Israel has fought a lazy war, both morally lazy and militarily lazy. It is work to surveil enemy shipments. So, you just blow up the airport and the ports and roads and bridges, regardless of whether you have reason to believe that any of them is used by Hizbullah for their war effort. Just in case. It is a just in case war. You bomb Shiite villages intensively, just in case they have military significance to Hizbullah. Maybe they don't, and you've just blown up a civilian neighborhood and killed whole families. Where blowing up things has no immediate and legitimate military purpose and harms innocent civilians, it is a crime. It can be prosecuted, especially in Europe.


That is collective punishment. It is holding millions of innocents hostage and threatening them with death. It is state terror. I don't think the Israelis get it.

In the end, it all comes down to a complete failure of humanity. The imperative of war inexorably creates its own logic that pushes all other considerations. At least one Israeli recognizes this. Gideon Levi writes in Haaretz (hat tip to Billmon)

Since we've grown accustomed to thinking collective punishment a legitimate weapon, it is no wonder no debate has sparked here over the cruel punishment of Lebanon for Hezbollah's actions. If it was okay in Nablus, why not Beirut? The only criticism being heard about this war is over tactics. Everyone is a general now and they are mostly pushing the IDF to deepen its activities. Commentators, ex-generals and politicians compete at raising the stakes with extreme proposals.

Haim Ramon "doesn't understand" why there is still electricity in Baalbek; Eli Yishai proposes turning south Lebanon into a "sandbox"; Yoav Limor, a Channel 1 military correspondent, proposes an exhibition of Hezbollah corpses and the next day to conduct a parade of prisoners in their underwear, "to strengthen the home front's morale."

It's not difficult to guess what we would think about an Arab TV station whose commentators would say something like that, but another few casualties or failures by the IDF, and Limor's proposal will be implemented. Is there any better sign of how we have lost our senses and our humanity?

War offers few truths. One is that people die. Another is that killing civilians is ALWAYS wrong.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Taking Credit

Diarist sfRenter at Daily Kos takes responsibility for everything. It's good to know that someone finally admits it. But he or she is not the sole perpetrator here. All the short-sighted leaders who send death and destruction on others represent a terrible collective persona that is as old as humankind.