Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Down Side of Olympia

The down side is that the war and the Army are very close here. There's no escaping it, really. Olympia is adjacent to Fort Lewis the largest Army base on the West coast (and my infantry training alma mater). The fort is home to the Second Infantry whose soldiers have deployed multiple times to Iraq. One of the its Stryker brigades just returned from a 15 month deployment. They lost 48 dead and over 700 wounded. Not many other communities have experienced that kind of lost. The soldiers may have been from Vermont or Kansas but they were also from here. The losses are painfully obvious. Most recently, a brigade (I think) of the Washington National Guard received notice to deploy to Iraq. "It seems like they just got back!" was one comment I heard. I had not seen the Iraq war in this way this close before.

Coming this close--and I mean relatively close, nowhere near to war's actual reality--has the potential to trigger memories. Army Chinooks fly over Olympia pretty regularly. Sometimes more, other times less. Even the little television and police choppers in Phoenix reminded me of Vietnam. The Chinooks are an actual relic of that time, still a real workhorse for the Army. They remind me that others are flying at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't expect these reminders to trigger anything like flashbacks; I came to terms with my Vietnam ghosts on the Appalachian Trail and the years since. Any reaction I have to war's proximity is to THIS war, not events 40 years past that I can do nothing about. As long as Americans are occupying Iraq and directing its internal affairs, I'll be angry about war. I can't imagine not being angry about such waste, arrogance and stupidity.

Olympia has a downside. I'll deal with it.

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Future Imperfect

Via Candide's Notebooks, I found Paul Rogers' analysis of American policy in Iraq. As with any prediction, it's speculative but Rogers lays out a clear line of fact and logic to reach his conclusion.
...the United States plan for Iraq is to establish a series of tight political mechanisms of control deriving from the original CPA-era agreements; a huge embassy-based structure in Baghdad to oversee and maintain these; immunity for over 300,000 foreign personnel; and continuing, direct authority over and access to Iraqi detainees. The entire operation is to be secured by the US military and its private contractors, increasingly protected by the use of air power.

This ambitious project is hardly consistent with the idea - still the official line propagated by Washington, and uncritically recycled by much of the establishment media - that the US's political objective is to bolster the independent governance of Iraq by the Iraqis themselves. Indeed, it goes further than the considerable power exerted by the United States in several central American countries in the early 20th century; its sheer grandeur might better be compared to some of the French or British colonial-era protectorates. In contemporary terms, it comes close to the establishment of a fully-fledged American colony in the heart of the Arab and Islamic world. Whether or not the George W Bush administration and its supporters realise it, the implications of that - for Iraq itself and for the whole region - are set to match even what has happened over the last five years.

The Occupation has cost America almost half a trillion dollars. It doesn't look like it will get any less costly for a long, long time.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

The 700 Club

That last post was number 700, a nice, round number. That comes out to a post every other day on average. Of course, some of those posts have been as meaningless as this one. A few may have been profound. Or not. But they still total up to 700.

Numbers don't lie but humans sure read what they want into them. I'm no different.


Violence by Any Other Name is Still Violence

Last week Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, resigned from the board of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non Violence after writing a column in which he called Israel and the Jews the biggest players in creating a culture of violence that will eventually destroy humanity. Too bad he blamed it all on one group, because he is otherwise correct. This world does live under a culture of violence, a culture that does indeed destroy humanity. Israel and the Jews are certainly in for their share. So are Arabs and Islam. In other parts of the world, tribalism, capitalism, Christianity and even atheism have their own cultures of violence. Mankind has a long history of violence. Israel, the Jews, Arabs and Muslims are only the latest victims; they are only the latest perpetrators.

Violence begets violence. A violent act, sometimes even violent, insulting words, creates a wound, a violation that calls for revenge, atonement and retribution. The circle goes round and round, destroying what fragments of civility and community we humans manage to create. So long has this been our history, so many are the lessons and examples of sheer waste and folly, that our unwillingness to renounce violence belies our scientific, technological and intellectual achievements.

The culture of violence is not something apart from ourselves. We are each responsible for the violence that we bring into the world, for the violence we allow in our own lives and for the violence we ignore it when it doesn’t affect us. Americans have been “fortunate” to have been removed from much of the world’s violence (Native Americans and Black Americans excepted); all we’ve really had to worry about are the occasional wackos like Charles Whitman, Timothy McVeigh and Seung Hui Cho. We’ve mostly dismissed violence from our lives; unless it directly affects us, it’s merely Something That Happens to Others . We live in security where the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are usually respected and protected. No matter how dire an American’s life may be, the American is still among the world’s richest people. To the rest of the world, we are rich and secure. Most of us sleep in beds each night and are well fed.

Not so for others in many places. We want to dismiss those places as failed states, where it’s not our fault that they can’t all just get along, that they can’t control their population, that they are illiterate and ill prepared for much beyond subsistence living. Their plight is terrible but we can’t do much about it so why try? We can’t build their society for them. That’s why we have television, so we don’t have to think about this all too much. Instead we can watch something else. But our inattention does not solve the problem, it only separates us from our fellow humans even as our comfortable, secure life depends on the economic dominance and control that contribute immensely to the world’s poverty, strife and violence. Local culture, tradition and history also contribute to this insecurity but a world economy driven to always seek and exploit every advantage puts weaker, fractionalized nations and regions at risk. Local foibles only make matters worse but are by no means the problem.

The problem arises when one person, tribe, ethnic group, nation or alliance determines that it must have what another possess and cannot be induced to share through negotiation, barter or normal commerce. I or my group, simply declare myself more worthy, therefore, I can simply have what others possess on my terms regardless of others’ interest or objection. Whatever is necessary to effect that transfer, including the sacrifice of another’s life, family and property ultimately becomes justified. That is violence.

Cartels, dictators, oligarchs, monarchs, corporations and religions all exist in order to seek some desired result, preferably by persuasion and logic but all have used and many still use violence and intimidation in their pursuit of those results. All have justified taking from others what they do not willingly surrender, justifying the taking only in terms of one-sided self-interest. Any place in the world where people attack and kill each other, someone has decided that another is less worthy of life.

Mr. Gandhi is correct about the culture of violence in the Middle East. He is incorrect that the culture is unique to Israel and the Jews. Rather, the culture seems endemic to human intercourse. Violence is our species’ greatest failure.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

Your gesture caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect it from you. It’s not that you are the first person to give me the finger while I stood vigil against the Iraq war and occupation. You aren’t even the first woman to do so. It’s just that you looked so young, so innocent that your gesture seemed out of place. Even the look on your face–not hostile, just blank–suggested a casualness, a lack of intensity that belied the message of your upraised finger.

But the gesture was anything but ambiguous. It was clearly hostile and leads me to ask why. Sure, you may disagree with me. And you may demonstrate your disagreement with words and gestures (I think legally the limit is where those words and gestures imply physical threat and intimidation but I'm relying on memory of a Constitutional law class I took in the mid-60's so I'm a bit fuzzy on the specifics). What I don't understand is why you feel the need to display hostility to a group of peaceful fellow citizens exercising their rights of free speech, petitioning Congress to end a catastrophically disastrous foreign intervention.

You look too young to be an Iraq veteran but maybe you are and think that I dishonor your service. Perhaps you are related to an Iraq veteran or service member currently at risk in Iraq and think the same. You may still be suffering from losing a loved one in the war and think I do not honor that sacrifice. If so, you are terribly wrong. Serving in Iraq is not the issue. The issue is the order that sent you or your loved one into harm's way. I believe that the commander-in-chief has dishonored that service by squandering it on a lie. And, believe me, I know what it feels like to sacrifice for a lie. It leaves a wound that doesn't heal. That's why I’ve been standing on corners since I returned from Vietnam.

Maybe you have no direct connection to the war and those who fight it. Instead you are a patriotic American who believes that we should all stand behind the commander-in-chief when the nation is at war. I respectfully disagree. In fact, for me that is exactly the time that we should ask "why" and use critical thinking to ensure that when the nation goes to war, that action is taken as a last resort in response to a dire threat to our national interests. War under any other circumstances is a profound disservice to those we send to kill in our name. I come to that way of thinking through experience. You may have reason to think otherwise.

Even if we disagree, I am distressed that you consider me such a threat that you must respond to my actions with hostility. Your one finger salute certainly displays a lack of tolerance for differing opinions. Many others who think like you simply give me a "thumbs down" as they pass. In doing so, they display their disagreement but don't imply the same threat that I see in your upraised digit. With them I see at least a modicum of respect for a differing opinion. Not so in your case.

Please don't think I'm singling you out. I don't think I've been on the street without catching a few birds from passersby. What I don't understand is the hostility. I don’t flip off Republicans or war supporters when I see them. I believe in treating people as I would have them treat me; if I make any gesture, I turn my thumb down or hold my nose.

It could be that I am being too intellectual about the whole thing. But it seems so much better to engage in dialog rather than hostile gestures and shouting matches. It’s the only way citizens can reconcile differing opinions on a matter of grave national importance.

[Disclosure: This post is pretty much plagiarized from an earlier one. It's a perennial issue and hardly unique to any one part of the nation.]


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Actual Results May Vary

Barak Obama got the Kennedy Prize yesterday, endorsements by that family’s most illustrious members and a symbolic bestowing of the Kennedy mantle. With that mantle comes the promise and vigor of the late President Kennedy. It’s a good theme to peddle in an election, especially to a nation desperate for leadership and change. The fresh, young face and new direction are hopes that turn elections.

But if Obama gets the Kennedy mantle, he also inherits the Kennedy reality, a pretty thin record of accomplishment that verged on the brink of nuclear war and further committed the United States to the Vietnam War. He stumbled badly in his first year. The Bay of Pigs damaged his credibility (he should have called it off immediately upon learning of the operation) and he looked weak against a bullying Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna later that year. Kennedy’s “weakness” is often cited as one reason the Soviets thought they could get away with installing missiles in Cuba. Kennedy, to his credit, was able to pull the nation back from the nuclear confrontation that resulted from that miscalculation. A more “experienced” president might have avoided the whole affair. Within a year, however, Kennedy was able to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

Kennedy, like Obama today, was called inexperienced. Yet Kennedy had 14 years in Congress, eight in the Senate, when he ran for president. Kennedy was a combat veteran. His lack of experience was that he was not an intellectual leader like Adlai Stevenson or a legislative workhorse like Lyndon Johnson, two rivals for the nomination. He was seen as a usurper who was using his wealth and privilege to buy his way to the top. It showed most in his first two years. In the third year he was dead.

Experience is a relative term although it can be quantified in time. Experiences can yield different lessons under different circumstances; the numbers may not reflect the depth and intensity of life experience. A senator with Obama’s tenure would not have been considered a serious candidate in 1960. A senator who would be considered fairly experienced by today’s standards spent two very difficult years as president and was still cautious in his actions when he died in his third year.

Right now, Obama can bask in the Kennedy Legend. That’s mostly hype and hope, good for rallying the troops. And it may work. Obama is new and shiny. Clinton is old and dull. That strengthens him against Clinton’s traditional campaign, allowing him to carve into her support. A good electoral strategy. People are getting excited.