Saturday, May 19, 2012


The news that white births are now a minority in the US, as shocking as it may be to some fellow Caucasians, sounds good to me.  Racial distinctions are inherently meaningless and often destructive so the sooner we dispense with them, the better.

Juan Cole states the matter well in his discussion of whiteness
Whiteness as it was constructed in the nineteenth century was not about skin color but about being Protestant and propertied...[s]o not all whites were equally white. Moreover, Catholic immigrants such as the Irish, the Poles and the Italians were either not considered white when they first came or were denoted as a lesser category of white. Jews, Arabs, Japanese and Chinese were also not considered white.... The Latinos have for the moment been categorized as non-white, but surely everyone can see how arbitrary that is. Many Latinos in Argentina and Brazil are of Italian ancestry. If they come to the US now, they are a ‘minority’ or ‘brown.’ But their cousins who just came straight to Rhode Island are ‘white.’

Ultimately, the whole idea of whiteness can only be kept going through a set of racial and class exclusions. Working-class African-Americans eternally get the short end of the stick. Recent immigrant groups are often excluded along with them.
The better outcome would be to just stop using the word ‘white.’ As should be clear from the above, it doesn’t actually mean anything. If you really had to categorize citizens of the US by ancestry (why?), use geographical terms. We have African-Americans. Why not have European-Americans or Euros? Since there may not be a currency called that much longer, we can repurpose the term.

 Best of all if we can just say that in the US, we are all Americans and stop categorizing people with regard to their adaptation to ultraviolet waves. It is anyway a temporary adaptation.
 Racial distinctions, like national borders, privilege some and exclude many.  No doubt that is why they are so useful.

Other chroniclers of whiteness, in case you are interested, include  Neil Irvin Painter and Martin Mull.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Class Notes

Today I spoke to a high school English class about Vietnam.  The students are about to begin reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and the instructor asked if I would talk to the class about my experience in Vietnam.  It was definitely an interesting hour.  I spent about 15 minutes telling the basic facts about my service, how Vietnam has informed my life since and then opened the floor for questions.  That pretty much filled the time.  About a third of the students actually asked questions and several students asked many.  I showed them these images.  No one looked especially bored.

The students were engaged and had no trouble coming up with questions. Some were easy:
  • How old were you went you went to Vietnam?  23.
  • What was Christmas like in Vietnam? The first one was sad because I'd just arrived.  The second was okay because I was about go home.
  • Did you ever torch a village?  No.  I did not tell them that we trashed a lot jungle.  They saw some of that in the photographs I showed them.  One student asked about wildlife and I could recall none beyond bugs.  Any animal with a sense of survival would have stayed way clear of an American infantry company in Vietnam.  I'm glad I did not tell them about the animal that set off our trip flares and was pretty much atomized by a wall of claymore mines.
  • How much did your pack weigh? 65 pounds plus 200 M60 rounds hand carried in a metal ammo box; 80 pounds when I carried the radio.
  • What did you find good about your time in Vietnam.  The mountains and the jungle.  When I could see past my own miserable situation.  I valued the friendships and camaraderie.  I also liked the irresponsibility.  I had no other obligation other than to show up and not fuck up.  I managed to do both.  I learned the sheer randomness of life and how to stay sane in the midst of uncertainty and fear. I neglected to tell them that I saw the Third World in person and understood why they were fighting us. That was a most valuable lesson.
  • How many people used drugs?  I estimated about 98 percent.  I was thinking illegal drugs.  Certainly 98 percent of the people I knew used pot and heroin.  If you include alcohol, just about everyone used drugs.  I told them pot kept me sane. 
Some were not as easy:
  • Did you see anyone die?  Yes.  I read a poem.
  • If you could go back in time would you make the same decision?  I told them I would like to think that I would but if I faced the same constraints and information, I would probably go to war.   I told them that my decision was much like Tim O'Brien's in "Rainy River".  I did what was expected.  Like him I was a coward.  I went to war.
Some were utilitarian:
  • How long did it take to get to Vietnam?  16 to 18 hours.  I told them about the long night that took me through Anchorage Alaska to Bien Hoa, Vietnam.
  • What was your favorite thing you carried?  I had to think about this one for a while but finally decided it was my canteen cup because I could fix hot chocolate in the morning.  Kind of like getting up and going to work.  Somehow it made things just a tiny bit normal. The emphasis was on favorite.  A book would also be a favorite.  I liked carrying the radio but it wasn't exactly favorite.
  • What was the least useful thing you carried?  I said grenades but I meant fragmentation grenades.  Frags.  You could not throw them in foliage  (actually I could not throw one anywhere far enough to avoid my own shrapnel); they were mostly for rolling into bunkers but I never had call for that so they were pretty useless. 
  • In the jungle was it so dark you could not see your hand in front of your face?  I recalled it being dark at night in the bush.  I told them about laying my position with something approaching me in the brush, so paralyzed with fear that I could not even let the next guy know that I was about seconds away from opening up with my M16.  And then it was gone.
  • Did you ever have fires at night or on the firebase?  Never at night in the field. I talked about the trip flare fire that started a fire and blew a claymore near my squad leader. I forgot to mention the trash fires when we burned excess rations and supplies that we did not want.   I did not tell them about the fire that started when Mario ambushed the NVA training cadre.  Or the napalmed jungle we walked through the day before.
  • At some point I mentioned to the class that I always carried a book. Later someone asked what I read.  T. Harry Williams' biography of Huey Long, Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power and Dean Acheson's auto biography, Present at the Creation.  I told them That Dean Acheson was a Secretary of State who initiated the policies that ended up sending me to war.  I told them about Love Story and the crying soldiers.  I said that pornography was plentiful. I did not give titles.
In all, it was a good experience for me.  I was uneasy about being too graphic but I was honest.  I didn't use a script or prepare for the class other than reading exerpts from The Things They Carried.  I would do it again.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Mission Never-to-be-Accomplished

 Gen. John R. Allen, supreme allied commander in Afghanistan, describing his hopes for withdrawing American forces from that country,
We want them to miss us because we were special to them. We don’t want them wiping their brows and saying, ‘Thank God they’re gone.’
But they will say exactly that, only the thanks will be to Allah.  Many Afghans wish they could say those words now. 

So do many Americans.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rational Choices

Survey results show Americans favor reducing defense spending* by 18 percent.  What is especially interesting for me is the methodology. This is not some simple yes or no survey.  Participants are asked to learn, understand and think.
Smith and his co-authors stress that they designed the study to make participants—who they said were a representative sample—as well informed as possible: they provided context, information and detailed, opposing viewpoints for each part of the budget, replicating budget deliberations as they actually happen in Congress and the White House. Participants considered type of spending—for each divisions of the armed forces, weapons programs, military health care, etc.—and decided whether it was worth, say, spending more money on special ops (yes!) or a new $1 trillion fighter jet (no way). 


survey participants were given more background: for example, they were shown how defense spending compared to all other kinds of government spending, and how current spending compares historically. Then, they had the ability to specify exactly how they’d treat different types of spending.
Imagine.  Informed people making informed decisions.  Compare the results of that process with the stay-the-course military spending of our national officeholders. 

(*)  The sanitized term for war and militarism