This Was the Winter That Was, in Boston

March 18, 2015

Boston snow 2015


Courtesy of the National Weather Service and Dave Epstein, a fabulous weather guy


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“Pay Any Price:” The Terrible War on Terror

March 16, 2015

JamesRisen“A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been the most skillful at hyping the terrorist threat. Fear sells. Fear has convinced the White House and Congress to pour hundreds of billions of dollars — more money than anyone knows what to do with — into counterterrorism and homeland security programs, often with little management or oversight, and often to the detriment of the Americans they are supposed to protect” (p 203).

Those sentences neatly sum up the central thrust of  Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War (Houghton Mifflin, 2014), James Risen’s stunning report on the ‘War on Terrorism.’  He adds, “Fear is hard to question. It is central to the financial well-being of countless federal bureaucrats, contractors, subcontractors, consultants, analysts and pundits. Fear generates funds.”

The phrase “pay any price” was first uttered to indicate national determination in the face of a real threat. Risen takes the phrase to be cynical and hollow: the United States is being looted by what is done in the name of the ‘War on Terror.’ Moreover, unchecked power is being amassed, and secrecy and the invasion of privacy have come to dominate.

The book laces together several years of Risen’s reporting on the ‘War on Terror,’ much of which first appeared in the New York Times. (Earlier, Risen had published State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Free Press, 2006.) Most of this book’s argument is carried not by broad-banner claims but by detailed cases of profiteering, indefensible torture, invasion of privacy and unchecked power. “Greed,” “Power” and “Endless War” are the book’s main sections Risen uses to assemble his account.

Here are a few more topic sentences to give you a sense of the case Risen draws together:

“America has become accustomed to a permanent state of war. Only a small slice of society — including many poor and rural teenagers — fight and die, while a permanent national security elite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks, and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace. To most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable, and so there is no longer any great incentive to end it (p xv).”

Today, at least $11.7 billion of the approximately 20 billion the Coalition Provisional Authority ordered sent to Iraq from New York is either unaccounted for or has simply disappeared (p 19).”

“Far more than any other conflict in American history, the global war on terror has been waged along free market principles. … From Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia, American counterterror operations have relied heavily on outside contractors to provide intelligence and logistics. As a result, the tenets of twenty-first century American capitalism have become the bywords of twenty-first century American combat. That includes the catchphrase of the global financial crisis — ‘to big to fail’ (p 142).”

“Before the war on terror, the U.S. military had a well-earned reputation for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. … During the post[WWII]war years, the United States was a driving force behind the 1949 Geneva Conventions, codifying the rights of prisoners in armed conflict. … Bush’s decision to abandon the Geneva Conventions changed everything” (p 168).

“The American archipelago of terror…was built on a myth. It was a myth built despite strong evidence to the contrary. It was as a myth enabled by a community of supposed experts, many of whom now admit they knew better…. Like many myths throughout history, its real resonance came from the fact that it helped powerful men justify what they wanted to do” (p 176). [The myth is the claim that the United States could torture prisoners, denying what we did was torture, and gain useful intelligence from that torture. We knew not only that it was wrong but that it would not work.]

“Despite the professional consensus among psychologists that torture was counterproductive, the American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization for psychologists, worked assiduously to protect the psychologists who did get involved in the torture program” (p 194).

“One of the most baleful consequences of the toxic combination of fear and money in the post 9/11 era has been the constriction of the physical landscape of the United States. Freedom of movement–one of the greatest attributes of life in the expanse of the United States–has been curtailed” (p 203).

“America remains on combat footing in the global war on terror, without realizing that the war that was declared after 9/11 is all but over. The main adversary in that war, Osama bin Laden, is dead, and al Qaeda is broken. What is left are shattered remains and splinter groups” (p 216).

The book’s final chapter closes with this chilling thought, again told largely through specific instances:

“Of all the abuses America has suffered at the hands of the government in the endless war on terror, possibly the worst has been the war on truth. On the one hand, the executive branch has vastly expanded what it wants to know: something of a vast gathering of previously private truths. On the other hand, it has ruined lives to stop the public from gaining any insights into its dark arts, waging a war on truth” (p 230).

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A Fly on Water

March 4, 2015

Fly on Water Surface

© Uwe Hennig, Germany

Shortlist, Split Second, Open, 2015 Sony World Photography Awards

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Learning to Kill

March 2, 2015

sniper GettyImages_140238116I was very moved by an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times Sunday Review section titled How We Learned to Kill. It was written by Timothy Kudo, “a Marine captain and graduate student at New York University who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.” In a way it is a bookend to James Fallows’s Chickenhawk Nation piece. Where Fallows talks about how most of us are not paying attention to endless war and what that shallow, fawning regard we consequently have for the military does to our national character, Kudo talks about how those who are in the military learn to focus intensely on killing in combat and what that does to you. It is a sad and troubling piece.

Kudo focuses on the uncertainties of the kinds of war we are fighting today. Are those two men militants or farmers? Are they tending their fields or planting an IED? Should we shoot them? With those uncertainties and in the fog of war, mistakes are inevitable. How do you learn to live with that–with the killing of innocents, however well-intentioned the killing? Those are his questions.

Kudo was a young man when he became an officer. He talks about learning to give the command to kill, realizing that usually the decision when it came was his alone to make. He recounts how he had first to learn how to kill by himself, with knife and gun. He could not be entrusted with commanding others to kill until he was seen as willing to be the killer himself.

For me, the hardest and also truest part of Kudo’s account concerns his motivations for killing, and what he thought were the motivations of those attempting to kill him.  “The longer I lived among the Afghans, the more I realized that neither the Taliban nor we were fighting for the reasons I expected.” He says “The more I thought about the enemy, the harder it was to view him as evil or subhuman.” He realized that most of the Taliban fighters were “too young and too isolated to understand anything outside of their section of the valley.” They weren’t fighting for religious or ideological reasons, they fought because “that’s what they always did when foreigners came to their village.” He adds, “Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone.”

As to his own motives, Kudo says that the ‘big’ reasons he had “internalized from the newspapers back home,” the ‘war on terror’ reasons, gave way to this new understanding of the enemy. “I ended up fighting for different reasons once I got on the ground–a mix of loyalty to my Marines, habit and the urge to survive.” And this recognition: “If someone is shooting at me, I have a right to fire back. But this is a legal justification, not a moral one.”

Not a new thought but one that will stay with me from Kudo’s account: “Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone.”

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Did I Serve? I’ve Never Been Under Fire

February 24, 2015

There’s a certain luster in having served in the military. Members of Congress like to claim it, journalists, too, even when these claims don’t turn out to be accurate. Having served in an elite branch of the military or been under fire only increases the luster.

There’s a heroic glow to combat, a stature that comes with participation in violence.

I take this to be a feature of the Chickenhawk Nation that James Fallows talks about in the Tragedy of the American Military. Most of us don’t serve—don’t care to serve—so we give ourselves a free pass by ‘honoring’ those who did serve, even if the honor accorded is cheaply given.

We’re seeing this play out in a series of mini-scandals over false claims. No, Brian Williams never came under fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. No, Bill O’Reilly never faced combat. No, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Chief Robert McDonald didn’t serve in the Special Forces. Each has claimed a status never earned.

The truthfulness of such claims by journalists or government officials are worth taking seriously.

But let’s also consider whether we want to pay this homage to war. Are these our principal heroes, those who participate in violence? I would rather we especially honor those who enrich life and seek peace. I like the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that begins “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death.”

For the record, I applied for recognition as a conscientious objector, was denied (reasons not given), and twice refused induction into the military. I was arrested but never tried. I’m reluctant to say I never served; I’d rather say I made a different, life-affirming choice.

Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

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Do I Love My Country?

February 23, 2015

“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.” Albert Camus said that, and he added, “I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”

That observation of Albert Camus has been on my mind since the kerfuffle began about Rudy Giuliani saying “I know this is a terrible thing to say but I do not believe that the President [Obama ] loves America.”

Of course that is an offensive thing to say, both inaccurate and ugly. Giuliani made the statement worse by coupling it with this dog whistle: “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” That’s a clear appeal to the racists who reject Obama because he is an African American.

Let’s remember that Camus made his declaration while underground, fighting in the Resistance against the Nazis, in the first of his “Letters to a German Friend,” available in Resistance, Rebellion and Death (Knopf, 1960). Camus was fighting for the best of France while being hunted not just by the Nazis but also by the then-Vichy government of France. Camus was a patriot who dared speak the truth.

Do I love my country? I love its ideals, and I’m proud when it lives up to them. And I’m not proud when it doesn’t: when we torture, when we deny the right to vote, when we jail too many, when we spy and lie. When anyone criticizes this country for these and other failures, I don’t take it to be a failure of loving but rather a very act of love. I mind much more when this or any president fails to press for “liberty and justice for all.”

All this was on my mind when I read David Brooks’s Friday column in the New York Times, The Nationalist Solution. Brooks was writing about where ISIS and other variants of Islamic extremism come from. “Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse,” he wrote. “You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision.” He was arguing against views that tie extremism more mundanely to lack of economic opportunity. I agree with him on this.

But then he added a shout out to a certain kind of nationalism, posing democratic nationalism as the sort of “heroic vision” we need to challenge Islamic fundamentalism. “We sometimes think of nationalism as a destructive force, and it can be,” Brooks wrote. “But nationalism tied to universal democracy has always been uplifting and ennobling. It has organized heroic lives in America, France, Britain and beyond.”

Always? Hardly. Yes, democracy can soften the dangers of nationalism. Yes, I believe “nationalism tied to universal democracy” can be a progressive force that brings good things. In the United States it brought us broader public education, social security and medicare, for example. But it, too, can and has overreached. In the name of “nationalism tied to universal democracy,” minorities can find their rights trampled. That’s been true in “America, France, Britain and beyond.”

I love my country when it extends respect and decency to all human beings (“liberty and justice for all”) not just when it piles up benefits for “us,” whoever “us” may be. I don’t want loving my country to be a pursuit of benefits for us that come at the expense of others who are “not us,” whether those “others” are within our borders or beyond.

I’ve grown increasingly wary of “nationalism” as a progressive principle. I expect I’ll say more about why in the future.

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World’s Top Arms Exporters, 2013

February 22, 2015

Top Arms Exporters 2013This stunning graphic displays all transfers (sales or donations) of major conventional weapons in 2013 from one country to another.  Natalia Bronshtein, a professor and consultant who runs the blog Insightful Interaction, used data from the Siri Arms Transfer Database to construct this.  You can use the interactive version to see more clearly the volume of arms transfers from one country to another. Note that Russia is the largest player, exporting $8.23 billion in arms that year, while the U.S. follows behind with $5.99 billion, and China is a distant third, exporting $1.83 billion in 2013.

Lesson: the major powers flood the world with weapons, making the planet a more violent place.

h/t Knowmore


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