Saturday, May 29, 2010

History Lesson

A review of An Artist in Treason: the Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson in the New York Review of Books tells a tale of a highly self-serving man. A paid Spanish agent even as he served in America's highest military offices at a time the US was contending with Spain for control of the continental heartland, Wilkinson is described as "maybe the most unscrupulous character in all of American history". His extraordinary career included facing "...three military tribunals and four congressional investigations into allegations of misdeeds. Yet he was never found guilty. No wonder it was said of him that although he had never won a battle, he had never lost an inquiry."

Not exactly a figure of worthy regard. Except for his opposition to a standing army. As Jefferson's commander-in-chief, Wilkinson was the only officer supporting Jefferson's efforts to reform the army, with preference for state militias over a standing army. By dint of a scoundrel supporting a president with an agenda, the US was spared a standing army for its first eight score and ten years.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the Constitution does not establish or require an army. Article 1, section 8 requires Congress to provide and maintain a Navy but simply authorizes Congress to raise and support armies. The framers were certainly conscious of the need to provide for a common defense but were well aware of the dangers of standing army.

That circumspection ended after World War II. America has had a substantial standing army throughout my lifetime. Like any well well entrenched institution, the US military/national security establishment has its own perspectives and interests. If you have any doubt that those interests do not necessarily serve the nation's interests, look at the military budgets that include weapons systems that either do not work or are irrelevant to the international threats this nation faces. Read James Carroll's House of War. Or ask yourself why America's foreign policy is discussed largely in terms of military action.

Only one president in my lifetime actually saw through the veil of military obfuscation and self-interest: John Kennedy. And even he didn't have the nerve to fully act on that knowledge until after he was safely re-elected. Too bad he did not live to act on his knowledge.

America is unlikely to give up its standing army under any circumstances. We could probably live with that if we really believed and acted with serious attention to civilian control of that standing army.


Friday, May 28, 2010

A Snippet

I am preparing my Appalachian Trail memoir for publication and came across this paragraph.

The routine is not bad. I am very, very pleased to be here. But the trail is still tough going. I groan at the sight of another climb and just keep walking, however slowly. Descents are often difficult as I try to keep from falling, tripping or slipping down steep inclines. But with every step, no matter how difficult, I truly walk in beauty. Great trees tower overhead, encompassing the earth and sky in an eternal embrace. And for these few weeks, I join that eternity. A thick mantle of foliage and rock covers the ground under this canopy. Waters flow in timeless streams. I share this wooded place with the grouse, woodpeckers, deer and snakes that I see and hear along the trail. I am part of that forest, one with Mother Earth and Father Sky. I cannot think of anything else that I’d rather be doing day after day.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

We Have Nothing to Fear

...but chickens.


There She Goes Again

Former half-term Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, is still full on "Drill, baby, drill" despite the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore oil production is fine if it's "accountable". Even better is exploration and development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Palin panders to the masses, promising comfort and contentment, requiring no change in lifestyle, asking no sacrifice that will contribute to a sustainable world. Her message is personal and national irresponsibility in a time of wrenching challenge.

In Palin-Tea Party world America is sacrosanct, endowed by God to forever be the Center of the World from which all ideas, authority and permissions will issue. In Palin-TP world drilling a mile below sea level for oil is just fine and dandy if you're accountable. No need to change or sacrifice anything.

Um, not really, Sarah. Offshore oil reserves don't amount to much in the long term for a nation with an economy based on continued consumption of large quantities of oil. The most optimistic estimates give us two years' supply. Much of America's wealth and prosperity grew from the seemingly limitless supply of resources. For a small population living on an immense continent resources were for all intents and purposes unlimited. That, along with a lot of ingenuity, made us strong.

Those resources are gone now. We used them up. That's why we are drilling a mile down in the ocean. Like a junkie, we are desperate for our next fix, so we will go anywhere and pay any price to keep the juice flowing. If we trash the earth in he process, that's the risk of progress. But that won't happen. It says so right there in the company's permit application. Besides, companies will be held accountable.

But accountability does nothing to ensure performance. Accountability, when it exists at all, assigns responsibility for harmful actions and penalizes those responsible. The oil has already washed on to beaches. Accountability, to the extent it ever happens, is after the fact. Supposedly, accountability will keep rational people from committing harmful acts but when the money is high, calculate risks and take chances. When they're wrong, accountability doesn't do squat to keep the oil out of the marine environment or the gas tanks from exploding.

Only two policies offer any real, long-term solution for America's (and for that matter, the world's) energy needs. The first is simple and direct: energy conservation. Conservation is the most readily available source of energy and can be implemented almost immediately. Ingenuity and innovation can further expand the savings. Serious conservation would demand greater fuel economy for motor vehicles and functional alternatives to individual vehicle transportation.

That's the second policy: getting serious about alternatives. In the short run, the prospect of finding different forms of personal mobility and livelihood is difficult and seems to be too much like losing something. In the long run, the idea of leaving a sustainable planet to future generation seems like something worth the effort.

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