Saturday, March 30, 2013

Endless War

The tenth "anniversary" of the the initial assault on Iraq passed by without a comment from this humble blog.  Maybe I've lived with the war so much in the past decade that the years have simply fused together into what seems like a never-ending present.  No matter that American troops no longer occupy Iraq--we have plenty of foreign engagements to keep ourselves, our adversaries and plenty of  unlucky non-combatants bleeding for years to come.

Focusing on the Iraq war misses the point.  Rather than some new and surprising initiative, the US invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation were simply the follow-on to a decade of sanctions.  Those actions were part of America's arc of hegemony that began after World War II and saw a host of interventions and military action around the world including Vietnam, the war that gave me my own personal introduction to combat.  So rather than seeing Iraq as some unique event, I view it as an act within a long-running play.  Or maybe a play within a play as in Hamlet.

As a Baby Boomer, war has been a constant in my life.  Not war as experienced by the targets of American policy--no one ever fired at me in my home, on my way to school or during any of the daily activities that were typical of life in America in the 50's and 60's.  Still, war was part of the landscape.  We all expected Soviet bomber or ICBMs sooner or later.  Even as that threat receded, Vietnam took center stage.  And following Vietnam, came Ronnie the Popular and more threats of nuclear war followed by a host of covert wars.  About the only thing unique in the Iraq war was the open aggression and the constant wear and tear on a small, volunteer military.

And, of course, Iraq is "over" (for most Americans, at least) but we still have Afghanistan, Pakistan,Yemen, sub-Saharan Africa and anyplace else where someone yells "Death to America!"  Barack Obama has certainly been no improvement over CheneyBush in that regard.  So looking back at March 2003 as something entirely new in American policy ignores seven decades of American war-making.

So I take the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion as something to be noted in the context of "the beat goes on".  More catastrophic than previous actions, certainly, but nothing entirely new.  Still, much about Iraq should be remembered; Tom Englehardt has a good summary of the many things that most Americans have either forgotten or never paid much attention to--all worth remembering if we are ever to move America from a militarized to a civilian economy but more than likely will be ignored as successive administrations hype the fear that has turned the supposedly mightiest nation on earth into a paranoid giant, shooting at everything that moves.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

A Chilling But Fascinating Tale

Stalin's Barber by Paul M. Levitt

Russia, 1931.  An Albanian Jew, Razeer Shtube, a barber fleeing fascist persecution in his homeland seeks refuge in the “workers’ paradise” under construction in the Soviet Union.  He not only finds refuge but a wife, newly widowed after the death of her abusive husband.  Unlike the deceased husband, Razeer is kind but in Stalin’s Russia he is also always wary.  His skill as a barber draws the attention of his stepson, Dimitri, a KGB officer, who recommends him as a replacement for Josef Stalin's recently dismissed barber.  Razeer recognizes the risk—the closer to power, the greater the danger—but takes the job and his chances.  Stalin’s Barber vividly and chillingly re-creates Russia during the unfolding years of Stalin’s dictatorship where people live double lives, their private thoughts at odds with the public persona required to avoid the scrutiny of an all-encompassing ideology and all-too-ruthless state.  

 Paul Levitt vividly recreates Russia in the 1930’s.  Razeer and his family live in the Kremlin and move among the new Soviet elite.  Then the purges begin.  They witness the purges as neighbors disappear.  They experience exile, hardship and, for some, survival.  The story is chilling one but Levitt also demonstrates how human beings manage the hand they are dealt.  Razeer, Anna, her children and Yelana, their adopted daughter, retain their humanity even as events become foreboding, more dire and outright dangerous.  Stalin’s Barber is a tale of difficult lives and times, well told and a fascinating read for students of Russian History.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Timothy Kudo killed people in Afghanistan.  He said so in the Washington Post.  As a Marine lieutenant, he didn't personally administer the lethal force but he was part of the machinery.  He gave the orders.  His thoughts as a veteran:
I can say that the ethical damage of war may be worse than the physical injuries we sustain. To properly wage war, you have to recalibrate your moral compass. Once you return from the battlefield, it is difficult or impossible to repair it.
I didn’t return from Afghanistan as the same person. My personality is the same, or at least close enough, but I’m no longer the “good” person I once thought I was. There’s nothing that can change that; it’s impossible to forget what happened, and the only people who can forgive me are dead.  

I will never know whether my actions in Afghanistan were right or wrong. On good days, I believe they were necessary. But instead, I want to believe that killing, even in war, is wrong.


Civilians can comprehend the casualties of war because most people know someone who has died. But few know someone who has killed. ...The question “Did you kill anyone?” isn’t easy to answer — and it’s certainly not one every veteran wants to. But when civilians ask, I think I have a duty to respond.

And if explaining what I did 6,000 miles away in a conflict far from the public’s consciousness makes the next war less likely, then maybe my actions weren’t in vain.

Combat leaves an indelible mark on the human spirit.  That mark may vary but it is real and always present.

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Nothing But Your Chains

Steven Pearlstein had a long piece in the Washington Post that asks some hard questions about the morality of a capitalist economy that distributes rewards so unevenly.  Pearlstein notes that both left and right have some serious misconceptions as the basis of their perceptions of capitalism.  The entire column is worth the read but I was struck by his his strong focus on inequality, not to mention seeing this idea addressed so prominently in a MSM publication.
In our current debate over capitalism, too much attention is focused on whether, how or how much to redistribute the incomes that markets have produced, with too little focus on the institutional arrangements that determine how that income is divided up in the first place. Such a focus would take in everything from minimum-wage laws to labor laws to the rules of corporate governance. At this point, the markets’ uneven distribution of income has become so dramatic that it threatens to overwhelm the ability of a progressive tax-and-transfer system to keep up with it.
Capitalists assume that their rewards a ordained by the Invisible Hand of the Free Market (aka God) when in fact capitalism is a man-made system that gives capital vastly more power and reward than it gives to labor.  In our overheated capitalism on steroids, that imbalance leads to a small owning class and a much larger owning-far-less-or-nothing class.

You'd think that, rich as they are, the owning class would understand the perils of inequality, that hoarding all of the wealth leaves far too many with nothing to lose.  Karl Marx may have been wrong about the  Communist Utopia but he was dead-on correct about what people with nothing to lose can do.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

No Other Choice

This and this convince me that this country very much needs a single-payer medical insurance system, not the bureaucratic nightmare of the Affordable Care Act.  Other benefits--access, cost control--aside, a single-payer system would relieve small businesses of the need to broker health insurance, file compliance reports and bear the uncertain risks of health care costs.  Small business could get on with the work that builds and maintains business.
Medicare for All. makes perfect sense to me.

Too bad perfect sense doesn't go far in Washington, DC.