Saturday, April 21, 2007

Virginia Tech 16 April 2007

A big part of me remains in Virginia so Virginia Tech is still an important part of my life even though I went to That Other state university. Many friends went to Tech, I have fond memories of good times spent in Blacksburg. Two years ago, when Montreal, Kutsa and I came off the Appalachian Trail for a night in town, that town was Blacksburg. Our ride from the trail was a long time local resident and very proud of Virginia Tech; he gave us a campus tour and even took us back to the trail the following morning. It's that kind of place. Now, along with all those fine memories, the massacre is part of the record.

I immediately put myself in those buildings, wondering what it was like, wondering what I would do. Infantry training taught me to attack an ambush but the professors and students (which is what I would be in that building) don't know that. They've never experienced that kind of murderous mayhem. As the story emerged, people did resist in whatever way they could against a well-armed, rampaging killer. In that extreme siutation, everyone did the best they could. The killer pulled off a perfect ambush so fatalities were inevitable. I wish more had survived. I'm happy that the death toll wasn't higher.

NPR ran a story this morning about the campus police who were the first responders and their reaction to criticism about how they handled the case. Campus police are frustrated with the criticism and cite their policies and procedures to demonstrate that they did exactly what they were supposed to do. The Blacksburg police chief, whose forces also participated in the rescue after the second round of killings, noted that many officers have worked long hours in a traumatic situation and have yet to deal with their own reactions much less what they consider second guessing of their performance in an unknown, deadly situation.

The only real question I have is with the policy. The officers on the scene were following routine when they should have been prepared to deal with the unthinkable: that the shooter could be a mass murderer. That's the job of leaders and managers. Had some one acted on the fact that the shooter was still on the loose, perhaps lives would have been saved. That's iffy since there was no description of the killer early on. I wonder what the mail clerk who accepted his package between killings noticed or recalls, if something looked odd that in retrospect was a clue. I doubt if Cho wore his armament into the P.O. Once in Norris Hall with doors chained closed, he was a very effective killer. His rampage did not take long.

My question is why no one thought to warn the community that a murderer was at large. Until the police could clearly identify and apprehend the shooter, the community is at risk and should be warned (not panicked)to be cautious and alert, to recognize the odd, significant sign, perhaps, and call in tips that may assist in locating and apprehending the shooter. I don't consider my question to be second guessing so much as asking how communities will plan to deal with this mayhem in the future. I would prefer that people like the killer not obtain such lethal force but in the meantime, how will the community leaders and managers deal with the all too predictable consequences of such freely available firepower?

Questions aside, I agree that the responders acted valiantly and well. At least, in what I do know of their actions. I saw them racing bodies out of the buildings. I saw them anxiously waiting, weapons at the ready. Tense. Worried. Whatever shortcomings that may have occurred in that desparate time and place do not detract from the courage and skill of the police, rescue and medical responders on that day. I write a lot about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in these pages and know that many in the Virginia Tech community, including its public safety personnel, will have long, difficult memories of April 16. I hope all affected will come to terms with the demons unleashed that day. For some, I am sure it will be very difficult.

The attack hit me close to home. A place, a community and many who are important to me were wounded April 16. None of the names were familiar but I know that many lost family and close friends that day. Their loss is part of my own. I recognize victims' hometowns. I know where they lived. I see the mountains and valleys surrounding Blacksburg. I feel that cold, hard wind I see in the photos. I morn the loss of so many fine people and the gaping hole left in the Virginia Tech community. I know that the community will recover as certainly as I know none will ever forget.

Go Hokies! Godspeed!

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Language Skills 101

CheneyBush and his Republican parrots are screeching "enemies", "defeat", "bloodbath", "dire consequences" at Harry Reid and the Democrats who advocate ending the American occupation of Iraq. Reid replies that the war is already "lost" and America should invest no more of its sons and daughters.

What I find amazing is why the Democrats accept CheneyBush's framework for this debate. America "loses" only when we accept defeat, only when we say as a nation that we will or can no longer pursue and protect legitimate national interests. Nothing I've heard in any of the alternatives to CheneyBush's war and occupation suggests to me that those alternatives compromise America's ability to protect itself. Rather, I see them enhancing our security by abandoning a costly, failed policy in favor of something that works, something that promotes regional involvement and responsibility. If we're really good (or lucky) this appoach will stop the bloodbath that CheneyBush now uses to justify continued occupation.

Keep in mind, too, that the "victory-defeat" framework works the other way as well. America cannot win until our adversaries accept defeat. That's why we're still fighting long after "Mission Accomplished". Even worse, who exactly will surrender? America has a multitude of adversaries in Iraq, any one or more of whom may continueto fight. Much easier with an actual state and its army. Under these circumstances "victory" is elusive.

Finally, I question the concept of "the enemy" of whom CheneyBush constantly speaks. Why is it that I or my country has enemies? Exactly what does that mean? To me, enemy means inplacable and never-ending hatred. I cannot think of why I should hate any individual or nation without end. I may be angry at them. I may think they act against me or my country's legitimate interests. But these actions are a matter of circumstance, environment and human weakness rather than specifically directed at me or my country. I certainly left Vietnam feeling that way toward my VC and North Vietnamese adversaries, despite their persistent attempts to kill me. Once I and my nation left Vietnam, that nation has not been any real threat to America. That's why I prefer to have adversaries rather than enemies. I can deal with an adversary to overcome differences. Force and violence are not part of that relationship.

For me, Iraq is a problem to be solved not a war to be "won". Iraq's problems are best solved locally by the parties most at interest. America will win when the killing stops and Iraq governs itself. Iraq will only govern itself when its leaders make their own decisions with the confidence (ideally) or acquiesence (at least) of its people. In a nation that overwhelmingly objects to foreign occupation, the people will not give their confidence to allies of the occupier.

That makes the first real step toward a real solution very simple. No doubt too simple for CheneyBush.

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The Other National Security

In warfare, an important tactic is to take out the enemy's command and control systems, thereby disabling the ability to manuever and respond effectively. In the modern world, information systems are a key component of command and control. Information systems are critical to commerce, health care, public safey and many other essential aspects of life. That's why I'm uneasy to read that government information systems and networks are increasingly at risk of attack by hackers and other threats.
Federal computer networks are being targeted on an unprecedented scale and recent high-profile compromises at two key federal agencies are likely just the most visible symptoms of a government-wide security epidemic, government security experts told a congressional oversight committee today.


"These attacks didn't affect just the federal government, but also the private sector, state agencies and other national governments," Sachs said in an interview during a break at Thursday's committee hearing. "What we don't know is what they were able to do, what did the attackers do after that? There is just no telling."


Federal agencies are fending off and cleaning up digital attacks against their information systems on a scale never seen before, said Jerry Dixon, director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division. In 2006, the NCSD received reports of nearly 24,000 security "incidents," activity that ranges from attackers probing electronic networks for security holes to computer virus infections to cases of unauthorized access to government information resources. The NCSD is already on track to receive more than double that number of incident reports in 2007, Dixon said.

I can only imagine the size, complexity and difficulty of maintaining the massive systems that carry the information on which we all rely. I'm amazed that the system works as well as it does most of the time. I can also imagine how difficult life would be in the event of a wholesale failure. Information security is crucial for public and private health, safety and welfare.

That's why information systems and networks are perfect targets for America's adversaries. The investment is low; all they need is a computer and an internet connection. Disrupting a computer network doesn't produce the spectacular casualties of blowing shit up but it can wreak havoc that will cost the victim dearly. Combined with a blowing shit up attack, a network attack will compound the damage.

Perhaps a "surge" would do some good here.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Devil's Dictionary, Iraq Edition

Tom Englehardt has a fine piece at TomDispatch on the evolution of language in the Iraq war. Like Ambrose Bierce over a century ago, Englehardt demonstrates how CheneyBush has used language to avoid the reality of his failed vision in the Middle East.
The developing administration language for the President's surge plan in Baghdad (and al-Anbar Province) does several things. It manufactures "newness" from some of the older and less promising materials around; it creates a "new" plan out of ancient, failed strategies, not to say, the thinnest of air. It also strips Iraq of some of its recent horrendous past, and us of our responsibility for it. In this case at least, that is what "starting over" really means.

This new, hopeful language offers one group -- and only one -- a "second" chance: the top officials of an administration that otherwise looked to be in its last throes. It has bought a little time for George Bush, while adding some new twisted definitions to an American Devil's Dictionary of War in Iraq, all the while carefully leaving blank pages where significant definitional chunks of reality should be.

But make no mistake, whatever words may be wielded, that "clock" of General Petraeus's is indeed ticking --loudly enough to be a bomb. Sooner or later, it will go off and whether it proves to be an alarm, waking Congress and the American people, or an explosion demolishing some aspect of our world remains unknown. In June or August or October, when horrific reality in Iraq outpaces whatever the Bush administration tries to call it, we may have our answer and perhaps then reality will name us.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007


This is what has been done in my name by my country. From the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA):
Iraq is facing a humanitarian crisis with up to an estimated eight million people in need of immediate assistance and protection. The affected population faces escalating violence, ongoing military operations, human rights violations, and a crisis of protection. At the same time, the increase in violence has severely constrained humanitarian space and relief provisions have become very limited. The humanitarian situation is further exacerbated by the combination of degraded basic services, loss of livelihoods, and rampant inflation, which have increased the vulnerability of the people.

While horrific violence dominates the lives of millions of ordinary people inside Iraq, the displacement, malnutrition, chronic poverty, and illness that have been increasing over the last four years are crippling the lives of hundreds of thousands more. The protection vacuum that characterises much of Iraq has resulted in huge unmet needs and a denial of fundamental rights. The people of Iraq have a right to humanitarian assistance, but this right is being neglected.

Lest I be accused of harping on the negative, I will also report the good news, or as good as it gets these days, from the ICVA:
Despite the current security challenges facing humanitarian work in Iraq, there are a number of areas where more can be done to address humanitarian needs. This conference is one way of acknowledging the humanitarian crisis, but in order to improve the ability of NGOs to respond in a neutral and impartial manner, donors and UN agencies need to provide greater, more readily accessible, long-term, flexible emergency humanitarian funds. The necessary mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that NGOs, including Iraqi NGOs, can receive funds in a timely manner, building on discussions underway to better operationalise remote programming mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation.

You will note that the solution does not mention counter insurgency tactics, more troops or surges.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Why Foreign Occupation is a Losing Strategy

Maybe because I spent four years in college during a shooting war that directly affected me, I learned about national liberation, the advantage and power of fighting for your home on your own soil and American diplomatic history. By the time I graduated, I knew that the US would never prevail in Vietnam. Witnessing first hand Vietnamese opposition to American occupation further strengthened that conclusion. Proof came in 1975. That lesson is pretty much seared into my brain.

Which is why I am so enraged at the war and occupation of Iraq. The current fiasco was more than easy to predict. That's why so many of us said predicted it.

For those who have not yet fully grasped this terrible lesson, I recommend Juan Cole's history of nationalist insurgencies that defeated superior western military forces.

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