Saturday, February 21, 2009

Minding the Mines (and Cluster Bombs)

Whenever I begin to think this world is doomed, I often encounter something that makes me doubt that apocalyptic conclusion. Last night was one of those times. I attended the "Night of 1,000 Desserts" landmine awareness event sponsored by the Capitol High School Minesweepers Club. I'd seen a notice about the event and pretty much decided to attend even if it meant sitting under that roof.

The Minesweepers are a school club that speaks out against the use of land mines and cluster bombs. It supports programs to identify and remove unexploded ordnance, educate populations at risk and provide assistance to victims. The evening's program included several displays about land mines and other unexploded ordnance around the world, a 20 or so minute presentation about land mine use, lethality and longevity in parts of the world and a showing of the documentary "Bombies". The evening was well-organized, informative and thought-provoking. (One map showed that Finland is among the many nations that stock cluster bombs. Finland!!) That high school students in the safety and comfortable ignorance of contemporary America are aware of this issue completely floored me; it notched my hope meter up a few points.

I know about mines and ordnance but the young woman making the presentation was equally conversant about the various types of mines and cluster bombs in use during the past half century. She described how a bounding mine works and what it does and what it does to a human body. She knew that the ratio of casualties from these weapons has dramatically shifted to civilians. She even had a picture of my old companion, the claymore anti-personnel mine and knew that although it is usually command-detonated, it can be rigged with a trip wire. During the break I not only thank her and fellow club members for their knowledge and interest but also verified for them that my unit did set claymores out as "automatic ambushes" which we were told were somehow not illegal booby traps under the laws of war(*). I did not tell them that those automatic ambushes caused two deaths and other casualties in my company during my first two weeks in Vietnam. They know enough already.

The Minesweepers took donations at the door with proceeds to support Adopt-A-Minefield. About 30 people attended, mostly students but a few parents, the club adviser, another Veteran For Peace and myself. In addition, to the information tables, the club also had two tables of sugar bombs of all sorts. I don't think the count of desserts actually reached 1,000 but it was more than ample. Not part of the presentation but obvious were the two 4x4 timbers shoring up the roof and drywall and baseboard repair from the flooding that followed December's roof collapse.

My high school did not have a Minesweepers Club. It probably could have supported a Ku Klux Klan student auxiliary if true local feelings were expressed but mostly our clubs were the social and junior networking organizations typical of the pre-revolutionary 60's. Nothing nearly as worthwhile as what I saw last night at Capitol High School.

(*) Update 02.21.09:

Later in the day, I remembered why our automatic ambushes were "not" illegal booby trap: we did not leave them in place. We set them up along roads and trails near our night defensive perimeters and retrieved them in the mornings before we moved on.

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No Secrets

As America looks uneasily into the financial abyss of world that few can comprehend, everybody is wondering how we will continue to pay for the life to which we are all so accustomed. So far, all the money seems to be flowing toward maintaining what we have, a natural inclination, but only as good as the sustainability of that system.

America's transportation system (motor vehicles and highways)is now facing a sea change in financial assumptions. We've funded highways primarily based on the assumption that fuel consumption will continue to rise. Last year, for the first time, consumption dropped, reducing available funding. Since EVERYONE in America favors reducing fossil fuel consumption in the future, it's no surprise that policy makers are looking at alternate financial arrangements.

One of these is mileage-based transportation taxes where vehicles record and report distances traveled and fuel stations add tax accordingly. Privacy advocates object to a system that would document individuals' movements so precisely. They have a point but they are way too late. That system already exists for virtually every American. It's called your credit/debit card. Look at your statement for the past few months or years and it's pretty easy to track where you've been. I'm pretty sure cell phone records can also provide equal or maybe even better documentation.

I would prefer that my movements and whereabouts not be recorded but as long as I engage in normal commerce, a record of those transactions will exist. Hell, the government already knows when I purchase fuel. I use my debit card rather than stand in line behind three people buying god knows what.

Privacy advocates have good reason to be concerned. It's just that the game is pretty much over.

Excuse me now. I need to get some cash from the ATM.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

General Orders

Two Washington Post articles and one in Asia Times last week present a disturbing picture of military-civilian relations in America. We all know, of course, that the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces; he is senior every general and admiral. What is less well understood is that the military leadership is not fully under his command, that the generals and admirals have their own bases of support which give them leverage that can challenge even a president’s authority or convince him that they have the answer he needs. The military brass are as adept at fighting for bureaucratic turf and influence as their front line subordinates are in real combat.

Exactly how the influence flows depends on the president. A fearful president like Lyndon Johnson will accede to the military demands lest he be seen as weak on national defense. He will not want to look like he is letting “our boys” down even as he does just that. A clever president like Richard Nixon or Dick Cheney will play to the military’s ambition and self-interest. No post-WWII president ever really challenged his military. Carter and Clinton made some isolated attempts but soon quickly surrendered to the combined forces of Congressional patrons, retired officers and bureaucratic warriors

James Carroll has thoroughly and eloquently documented the dominance of the American military in the American Constitutional system since WWII. The generals may not always win overseas but they’ve certainly done well in the corridors of power in Washington. All this was well-known when I was a political science major in the 60’s and nothing I’ve seen since gives me any reason to think otherwise.

So the efforts of Generals Ray Odierno and David Petreaus to work around their chain of command and play to CheneyBush’s desperate wish for a “victory” in Iraq shouldn’t surprise me at all. Like Lyndon Johnson, wanted something that could show success for a mission stalemated and far more chaotic than the “cakewalk” that would liberate Iraq. Odierno and Petreaus gave him what he needed. The conventional wisdom is that the surge succeeded (it’s right there in the 8th paragraph), that the additional troops and change in tactics pulled Iraq from teetering on the brink of civil war.

On its face the claim is plausible. Iraqis are no longer killing each other on a large scale, al Qaeda in Iraq has been marginalized and a nascent political process is slowly emerging. On further investigation, much of the change has more to do with the interests of the various Iraqi factions and the fact that the nation underwent extensive ethnic cleansing in the years prior to the surge—the bloodbath went on right under the noses of American troops that were supposedly in place to prevent a bloodbath. Odierno and Petreaus managed to pull off a tactical victory and laid the basis for continued and extended American involvement in Iraq despite a growing public desire to be done with that war.

What these two articles tell me is that generals will pursue the policies they believe in regardless of larger national interests. I won’t question their motives. They believe in their mission and the capabilities of their men. They are trained in the application of force in the national interest and are capable of employing that force. More than anything, they want to succeed. So it is natural for them to want to use their commands in service to the nation. That’s what they are there for.

What I question is these—and all—generals’ influence in directing national policy. It’s one thing for a president to reject popular will in the name of the greater good (theoretically, the president is directly accountable to the electorate). Abraham Lincoln certainly did that during the American Civil War. It’s quite another, however, for an unelected career officer to challenge that will. And that’s just what Odierno and Petreaus did. When the American people clearly demonstrated in 2006 their interest in ending a poorly-thought out policy that damages this nation both militarily and economically, the generals provided CheneyBush with the means to ignore that interest and to extend America’s deployment in Iraq indefinitely.

The Asia Times article demonstrates that the process is still going on, with Petreaus maneuvering to prevent Obama from keeping his promise to draw down US forces in Iraq. The story attributes Petreaus’ motives to presidential ambitions but it could easily be the general representing his institution. Either motive is dangerous to Constitutional government, which is why ending the 61 year military-corporate stranglehold on government and policy is a critical long-term issue facing this country.

Generals shouldn’t be in a position to direct policy. Advise, yes, but not decide. They are the instruments for policies chosen by elected representatives. The Framers knew that when they established civilian control of the military in the Constitution. A real commander-in-chief would know that.

I hope Obama learned that lesson when he studied Constitutional law and that he is strong enough to do something with it.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

If You Do Random Lists's a one for our unlamented newest former president.
No.23. I’m sorry I never got to thank Ken Lay for dying.