Friday, August 29, 2008

Where Have All the Soldiers/Citizens Gone?

The loneliest job in the world these days has to be that of US Army or Marine infantrymen, and their close ground support comrades. One is hard pressed to find any historical examples of such inattention paid by any nation to the life of its defenders while they suffer and die in battle. It doesn’t stop when those of all services come home and need help.
Even during the Vietnam War, citizens were attentive, if disapproving. Today they are disengaged.
“Once again a generation of Americans is tempted to live undisturbed, buying tranquility on credit while hearts atrophy, quarantined from any great enthusiasm but private ambition.”
Bill Moyers

Sadly, even many of our fellow veterans pay little attention to the soldiers themselves, concentrating on the elusive goal of “winning” – without understanding in almost any sense what “winning” as a nation entails. They most often reduce it to the simple concept of “winning” as in a fistfight, or a bar brawl. They hoot and holler with ramped-up nationalistic vigor at the thought of our soldiers “winning”, meaning beating the daylights out of “them” – “the other guys”.
The picture many of us older, and dare I say more thoughtful veterans and citizens have of the American soldier is as the defender of a bright and clear vision of equality, freedom, democracy, and fairness. We see the soldier more like Gary Cooper in High Noon – quiet, reserved, fair, thoughtful, professional, hard to provoke, firm in his convictions, deadly in his execution, then benevolent in his victory.
The view of those who hold the ferocious warrior or even the berserker concept of the soldier, is as relentless, quick to anger, violent and bloody in execution, giving no quarter, and holding an eternal grudge against those who dare challenge him or his nation. The model is Mel Gibson as "Mad" Max in Beyond Thunderdome, or worse yet the Lord Humungous from the same film.
Don’t get me wrong. This latter view, I am sure, is not how most soldiers view themselves, rather it is how a disengaged and self-pampering public views them, when they bother to think of them at all. Unfortunately it comes close to how some of our fellow veterans view them as well. Just read some of the blogs and the websites if you don’t believe me. The blood-lust is palpable, and the language praising our soldiers sounds like an advertisement for a super-violent MA-rated video game. But ~
“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”
William Tecumseh Sherman
So one model is that of maturity, strength, wisdom. The other model is that of the comic book super-hero-turned-slayer.
Those other guys may be right, at least in part. We only need to look at some of today’s reality TV to find a metaphor. Take the Spike TV “Ultimate Fighter” cage-fighting series as a fair example.
It’s 2003 and two fighters are in the cage. One well-armed but not perfectly; a rested, strong, and fully supported heavyweight faces up against the other, a poorly trained poorly armed lightweight. The battle is over shortly, and the ring attendants slip the noose around the loser’s heels and drag him from the arena like a defeated bull at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring. His leaders and supporters declare “Victory” but they are wrong.

Let’s extend the metaphor and make it more like 2003 – 2008’s real battle. We leave the winning fighter in the cage – the gate is locked. We improve his armor from time to time and give him a new weapon or two, but he cannot leave the cage. The cage is brilliantly lighted but the spectator area outside the cage is pitch black. He believes that his fellow citizens are still out there watching and rooting for him.

The lights outside the cage are flashed on for a moment and he sees the truth. His fellow citizens aren’t even there anymore. He has new opponents but they are outside the cage armed with sniper rifles and roadside bombs. He can’t see them but they can see him only too well. His leaders are only present in order to act or fail to act in a way to ensures that the supply of foes is steadily increased. After all, we need a continuing war to be able to claim war-leadership.
When our soldier asks for help, the handlers occasionally send in another soldier, but he or she too is locked in the bright cage in the dark stadium, and is subject to the same attacks from unseen foes.

When our soldier asks for more help, he is given some money and by pushing it through bars of the cage he is able to buy off a few, but not all of his foes, and the attacks continue with some relief from at least one quarter. When he runs out of money, or his leaders act to ramp up the rage of his foes, the bought-off ones resume their attacks.
The cage is impregnable from his side as it is made of political choices that cannot be retracted. His cage and his way out of it are based on a policy of “winning”, but no one can explain that policy to him – no one knows what the hell “winning” means! The key to the cage is hidden in the undefined goal.

The outer lights flash on now and then, briefly, and still there are none of his fellow citizens there to cheer him on, much less to aid him, and certainly not to involve themselves. The seats reserved for them remain empty – reserved, of course, in recognition of their importance, but empty nonetheless..
If he is killed he is sent home but hidden from view. When he is wounded he is replaced, and sent home to find yet another cage.
This time he is outside the cage and the cage door is locked, for inside it are those who make the money, have the power, and hand down the decisions that control his life. They post long lists on the outside of the cage of the benefits available to him, but the benefits are inside this home cage, and he has to fight to get inside.
He isn’t allowed to get any help in getting through this cage wall, while those inside stack up the regulations that reinforce those walls, and they line up the new foes – those who make him fight this new battle once again all alone – those who hand down the arbitrary decisions that govern his life for good, or more often for ill.

These are the keepers of the new cage who talk about “average wait times” and “budget limitations”, interspersed with “Support the Troops” and “Honor the Veteran” speeches. They will only listen to him long enough to tell him that the wound he suffered or those horrific dreams he is having are not combat-related unless he can provide proof that he was once in combat, and that that specific time resulted in his problem. Somehow he forgot to take notes.

Deep inside the home cage there is an inner ring of all those of his fellow citizens who were rooting for him in the first few weeks of the conflict, but who disappeared from the audience around the original battle cage. They are surrounded by all of the amenities of the self-indulgent life. They shop at stores with banners hawking their “Veterans Day Sale” and their “Memorial Day Sale”. They are surrounded by a soundproof wall that excludes his pleas for help. Their televisions don’t have a channel that shows the outside of the cage. The ads for their high-priced goodies and their fanciful vacations appear daily in the paper many pages before the occasional article about the soldier and his comrades.

Our veteran soldier tries to find a copy of the US Constitution – the document and the idea that he had sworn to defend, and which he believed also defended him. To no avail. Those in the inner circle had burnt every last copy back at the beginning to keep them from being uncomfortable on chilly and scary nights.
In the end, the soldier gives up and fades away. He walks away from the cage, looking back over his shoulder to read the inscription over the cage door:
America ~ Land of the Happy ~ Home of the Indulgent
No entry to veterans – closed for indifference

Sandy Cook

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cossacks Ride Again

And the Bear South shall sweep
To thrust her claws far and deep
Into the mountains, the seas and the prairies
Grasping farmland and dairies
Sparing not honey or berry
Nor prince nor monastery
Alas, you will never find rest
For the Bear wheels East and then West
And now with our global warming
Fresh routes are still forming
To the North; now a lake
For the Bear to swim for her take

History has an odd and sometimes irreverent way of repeating itself. Most of us saw the fall of the USSR (Reagan’s “Evil Empire”) as a triumph of the god-fearing West over the evil, atheist and Communist state. The truth is more complex than that and has a long and Byzantine trail through history. Russia has always been a little paranoid about her neighbors, but rather than build a border fence like ours at Mexico, Russia has preferred to control her fate by forming buffer states under her influence. East Germany was both a buffer state and had a fence because the West resisted creation of further buffers. Part of that is a natural outcome of ever more distant buffers because what was once a buffer becomes integrated into the central control of Russia herself. This process has been going on for centuries. Indeed, the word “Ukraine” means border. Belarus is “White Russia.” Now Russia has had some rough patches in her history when greater buffers might have saved the day for the motherland. The Mongols swept through many of her border states. Napoleon made it to the outskirts of Moscow and Hitler nearly drove through to the heartland. Buffers prevailed.

History shows that Russia has been involved in the formation of many states as well as alliances that offered her space and time from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Much of the early history is tied closely to Byzantium and the Orthodox Church, if we look south, but Russia has not been fixed on Georgia and the Caucuses or Bulgaria and the Balkans. She has wrestled with Poland and the Baltic states and has tried to annex Finland (a noteworthy military failure although they outnumbered the Finns). She wants warm water ports and farmland and forests and “friendly” (read that subordinate) neighbors. We should not be strategically or even tactically surprised by her incursion into Georgia. Georgia has been in the Bear’s sandbox for centuries. Our presence in Western Europe for decades after the Second World War served to place Russia in the awkward position of challenging our intentions, especially with hundreds of thousands of our troops in Germany. Were we bluffing, or would the USA actually commit troops to fend off the Bear? But now we are preoccupied with a pointless preventive war in Iraq and dallying in a former Russian buffer state (Afghanistan). We can shake our fingers or employ nuclear weapons, but we have no credible force to encourage Russia, the Bear, to cease and desist. We have hollowed NATO by our departure and have not yet strengthened the smaller nations of Europe to carry their own sabers. As Americans, we need to make some weighty decisions. Our economy is in shambles; we have already outsourced much of our defense to low-bid and no-bid contracts; we have alienated our “Old Europe” allies and have put our “New Europe” allies in peril by encouraging them to resist militarily before they are ready and by failing to create credible alliances. We cannot fight our way out nor can we buy our way out. Our encouragement of Georgia is similar to the encouragement we provided the Kurds before Saddam crushed them or before the Hungarians and Czechs were over-run by Russian tanks. Even the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as well as Poland to the west expected our help to achieve freedom from the clutches of the Bear. We broadcast Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America and hinted that we would assist these European brethren. They may still love us, but the bitterness of unanswered brutal oppression lingers. Georgia is only the latest example and it will remind them all of our hesitation and our rhetoric of “looking into the eyes/soul of Putin” while they look at Russian boots. Russia has historically employed the flooding of neighbor states with ethnic Russians in order to generate stability and loyalty in her buffer states. Estonia is especially filled with Russians, but so were Ukraine and Belarus much before them. If the Russian justification of entering Ossetia or Abkhazia “to protect ethnic Russians” sounds like the German rationale for entering the Sudentenland, it is the same. The only difference is that the Russia placed Russians there to begin with to help guarantee a loyal buffer. Stalin, a Georgian by birth, frequently used boxcars to cross-balance ethnic Russians in the far-flung reaches of the USSR, but he was only keeping up with Russian history and using the technology of the time. He did not invent the practice.

The Cossacks, in the time of the Czars, were quick to ride out to punish any breakaway vassal state or any group that had the temerity to challenge Mother Russia. That practice was aided by an Orthodox Church that often exiled or excommunicated individual nobles who were feared by the central state. There was little difference between Church and State. Communism was merely another ideology that served as an overlay or a garnish to the fundamental Russian approach to protecting the state. As a child, I recall praying for the conversion of Russia, but I was unaware that we needed to pray for the healing from the paranoia that has gripped her for a millennium. Putin is doing what Russians and the current president want done. Do not expect that to be changed by investment in US Steel or Getty Oil. It is basic Russian and it has worked to their satisfaction.

All this sounds negative, and it is. It is far from hopeless, however. Let us list a few approaches we must consider to make things better:
Use more tools than the military option. We have seriously damaged our military in the past 7 years and cannot stretch it any further. We need real diplomacy through rebuilt alliances with old friends. Iraq has not only damaged our military, but has alienated our friends who we need to balance power region by region. We need official friends and need to encourage their participation in the process of ongoing international relations; not merely the military support of wars that we start without their consultation and agreement.

Rebuild the military to the numbers and quality we need to defend our homeland and to confront real threats to our national security. Iraq had no real capability to reach us in any significant way to pose a threat. I won’t even mention the fear mongering of weapons of mass destruction. Although we know and most of us knew that Iraq had none, even the slowest among us knew that the Iraqis had no delivery system capable of a real threat to us.

Immediately stop the practice of encouraging dissent and discontent in foreign countries as a specific policy. It has not worked in any of the countries enumerated above nor in Cuba nor Iran or any country you might pose. Worse, it engenders resentment in those countries that believe that we will support them in ways that we will not or cannot do.

Reconsider the security effects of global economics when we invest or permit investment in our corporations. It is easier to deny entry to a threat than to nationalize an industry to remove them from our critical industries. NAFTA and CAFTA have not brought prosperity to us or to our friends. Most corporations (foreign as well as domestic) pay absolutely no income taxes. Given the loss of control over our own resources including our human resources, should we be opening ourselves to unlimited investment by foreign companies and governments?

We cannot change the nature of the Bear, but we can build a better Bear trap and can learn how to use our moral leadership by earning it back by being true to ourselves as well as our word. The world forest is large and dark and sometimes scary, but if we join with other nations, we can protect one another from the paranoid Bear. The last thing we need to do is to confront the Bear with a slingshot and a prayer. Actually, that could be the last thing

George Giacoppe
20 August 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

War in Georgia

When I heard about the conflict in the Caucasus between the Republic
of Georgia and Russia, and especially Michael Klare’s (author of
"Blood and Oil") comments about its relationship to United States
designs on the huge oil deposits nearby, something rang a bell.

Then I remembered. Jeremy Scahill, in his book "Blackwater: The Rise
of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army," has a short chapter on
Blackwater and Caspian Sea oil. Take a look at a map of the region
and you see that Georgia is located smack in the corridor between the
Caspian and the Black Seas. Its closest neighbor, bordering its south
and east, is Azerbaijan. Scahill tells us that in order to protect
western oil and gas interests in that region, the Pentagon “deployed
‘civilian contractors’ from Blackwater and other firms to set up an
operation that would serve a dual purpose: protecting the West’s new
profitable oil and gas exploitation in a region historically
dominated by Russia and Iran, and possibly lay the groundwork for an
important forward operating base for an attack against Iran” (p. 173).

Now, with the battle over Georgia, we see more of what’s going on.
According to Klare, the United States, beginning with the Clinton
administration, has been pouring arms into a province, Georgia, that
had never had a real army of its own (it is, after all, the Russian
province which gave the world Josef Stalin). Now it’s armed to the
teeth, and those arms (plus special forces training similar to the
kind the U.S. has long exported to its neighborhood friendly
dictators via the School of the Americas) apparently gave it the
notion that it could simply invade Ossetia without consequences. In
Azerbaijan, the tactic is a bit subtler, but possibly more dangerous:
send in private “contractors,” i.e. mercenaries, instead of our own
forces. And why? Because we love democracy, as the President would
have it; because we love freedom?

Not exactly. As Scahill and Klare make clear, it’s about oil, folks.
Russia and its Caspian Sea region has all this oil. And we have
almost none (Klare, in a recent essay, “Portrait of an Oil-Addicted
Former Superpower,” contends that, because of its insatiable need for
foreign oil, the U.S. has already faded as a superpower). Russia also
has these former provinces which seem open to western money,
influence, and clandestine activities—not to mention that western-
owned pipeline which bypasses Russia and therefore avoids Russian
control. More than that, both countries, Georgia and Azerbaijan, are
“sandwiched between Russia and Iran,” so sending uniformed American
troops could be provocative, but sending private contractors keeps
things a bit quieter (at least, that was the hope).

Now, however, the Georgian attack on Ossetia and the overwhelming
Russian response has blown things into stark relief. The United
States has been caught playing a risky game, inciting the Georgians
into a tweak of the Russian bear’s whiskers, and no doubt doing the
same in Azerbaijan. In the latter country, according to Scahill,
Blackwater mercenaries are being used to “bolster Azerbaijan’s
military capabilities, including creating units modeled after the
United States’ most elite Special Forces, the Navy SEALs—this in a
country, according to Human Rights Watch, already prone to employing
“torture, police abuse, and excessive use of force by security
forces.” In Georgia, though, the Russian bear has struck back, with
consequences no one can really predict. What we can predict is that,
once again, the United States is stirring up a witch’s brew of
conflicting loyalties, as in Iraq, which may prove impossible to
control. And it is doing so in a region that has exploded before, and
could well explode again. For all we know, that may be the intention
here: start a little backfire, set the tanks and planes rolling, and
perhaps find the excuse the Bushies have been looking for to invade
yet another muslim country, Iran. Then the United States of America,
the great “peacemaker,” will have torched not just Afghanistan, not
just Iraq, not just Georgia, but the whole damn region.

Meantime, our leaders are singing their song of outrage: big bully
Russia has attacked a defenseless “democracy,” is trying to
reincorporate Georgia into its “empire,” and must withdraw,
immediately. How noble they sound, demanding a ceasefire, pretending
to work hard for peace—all the while knowing that they themselves are
the incendiaries, the naughty boys who simply can’t stop pouring oil
on fire, or fire on oil, take your pick. Only this time, the game is
not working very well. Russia holds all the cards here. It has all
the oil, and the United States has nothing but oil debt. So weakened
has the Bush Administration made us (Klare points out that with the
average GI in Iraq using 27 gallons of petroleum-based fuels per day,
America’s gasoline bill for 160,000 troops comes to more than $14
million per day, or $5.1 billion per year) that it took France’s
President Sarkozy to put together an initial cease-fire.

At this writing, Georgia is licking its wounds and a once-invincible
superpower is left with nothing but protests about the brutality of
Russia’s “invasion.” That, and the vain hope that somehow its oil
exploitation in the Caspian region can survive the blow. If it does
not, and if the U.S. keeps adding fuel to the regional fire (such as
today's Bush administration action of using military planes to send
"humanitarian aid" to its dear ally, Georgia), the least of the
consequences may be the $200-a-barrel oil prices that many have

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Department of Just Us

By God, we love to compete
It’s so rewarding and neat
And you can always tell
Because of our smell
We’re frugal and chaste
Upright and laced
Not spendthrifts so bawdy
Or common or gaudy
We’re loyal and true
And nothing like you
Though we hold all the cards
And have special guards
To keep out most gnats
And all Democrats

Monica Goodling has brought a new dimension to the DOJ. We suspected that the department was corrupt given the leadership of John Ashcroft who, when on his own, could not win running as an incumbent against a dead man or the leadership of Alberto Gonzales who could not recall anything he said or did during his tenure or Michael Mukasey who could not call torture what it is unless if it were done to him. Corruption is as much a product of the inept as it is of the sinister schemer. The incompetent are slow to recognize the signs of corruption and are less likely to be able to respond effectively when it is uncovered. The incompetence can be technical, interpersonal or ideological. I believe that we have seen all three aspects in the past 7+ years of the George II reign. John draped marble statues so as to not offend the eye, yet allowed detention of Middle East residents of the US to be rounded up and incarcerated like criminals but without trials and he established the extraordinary system of detention and “enhanced interrogation” of Guantanamo. Alberto Gonzales furthered the policy of absolute executive immunity through his tacit if not direct approval of torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and sites of extraordinary rendition such as Syria. Ideology of “strict” Christian fundamentalism makes both marble modesty and torture in the defense of country “heroic.” International law sees these latter actions as illegal and yet none of the serial DOJ triumvirate admits illegality. Not incidentally, even the internal Inspector General of the Justice Department found serious lapses in law.
While one could point to defective leadership by the Attorney General to mitigate the actions of Monica Goodling, they are far more complex and extensive. The scope and nature of the corruption are vastly different. The Attorneys General affected our national appearance to the outside world and Alberto Gonzales affected the employment of some 93 politically appointed US Attorneys for the period of the Bush Administration. Monica Goodling potentially has affected the employment of 120,000 career attorneys in the Department of Justice for the indefinite future. The US Civil Service system has been a model merit system that uses testing and performance standards applied by other career servants and not political or religious grounds for hiring or promotion. Corruption of that scale has, until now, not ever been seriously threatened. What happened?
First, Monica Goodling may have graduated from a little known law school, but she knew enough about the law to plead the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution to prevent self-incrimination. She was one of about 150 graduates of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School absorbed by the White House after she was hired by the Republican National Committee. Remember John Ashcroft? He is now “Distinguished Professor of Law and Government” at Regent. The Huffington Post repots that Kay Coles James was named by Bush as head of the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (2001-2005). That job affected the careers of about 1.8 million federal civil service employees. Ms. James was formerly Dean of Regent’s Robertson School of Government. Accidental and coincidental, I am pretty sure! It was equally coincidental that Jim David, current Assistant dean for Administration in the Robertson School of Government served in the Justice Department as Deputy director for the Task Force for Faith Based and Community Initiative. Huffington quotes Jim David after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans “We do not grieve, however, for the flooded and destroyed sex clubs that filled men with lust and degraded women.” “We do not miss the casinos that preyed upon individuals whose lack of self-control deprived families of needed food and shelter. We do not lament the destruction of voodoo stores prevalent in New Orleans before the flood.” In pleading the Fifth, Monica clearly chose the law rather than the Commandment to not bear false witness. Nice evangelist touch.
When we understand that Ms. Goodling took a direct hand in the hiring decisions, it is not comforting that she used Google to get background information in three major areas: political affiliation; religious and sexual orientation; and loyalty to GW Bush. These were not “tie-breakers,” but an integral part of the decision. There was no weight given to experience or what most of us would call “qualifications.” I do not know of a more direct way to ensure mediocrity or, worse, incompetence, than to systematically employ criteria that are irrelevant to the jobs being filled. As you have probably read, Goodling used the computer search engine using “god, guns+gays.” Other applicant key words included: “abortion,” “homosexual,” and “Florida recount.” On second thought, perhaps we should be grateful that the key words were not truly job requisites.
Now, I do not want to be na├»ve and assume that because Goodling is Republican, that she was therefore dishonest. Nor is it true that Conservatives are godless louts who always believe that the ends justify the means. What we need to understand is that this breech of the law and disregard for ethical behavior will have long term consequences that are highly negative and may lead some Democrats to “justify” partisan illegal behavior in hiring and firing and that the compromise of the Civil Service System is absolutely unacceptable as is the outsourcing of these jobs to contractors on a similar partisan basis. I understand that the hiring and firing practices of the 93 US Attorneys was also illegal. I don’t like it, but it is almost to be expected that some maneuvering will happen with political appointments even when the job as US Attorney is apolitical. The Civil Service must remain free from partisan hiring, promotion and firing if we are to ever attain even modest qualifications for labor. Let there be no compromise. Let the job essential qualifications determine the winners and losers. That gets me to Goodling’s sports analogy of “building a farm team” for the GOP. We have seen what the GOP did with the K Street project by teaming with the lobbyists to their self perpetuation and the sale of more earmarks than have ever been seen before or since. That was building the “dollar farm team.” We have seen the building of the “legal farm” through appointment of judges that agree with the unitary executive concept and executive immunity from prosecution for crimes.
I can recall some relatives in Albany, NY complaining that only opposing party cars parked on many Albany streets were towed during snowstorms. It was done using voter registration and automobile registration rolls. Partisanship will rear its ugly head in some unusual places. As Americans, we have an abiding interest in a clean and non-partisan Civil Service. It is not cute. It is not funny. It is illegal and it is damaging to organizational effectiveness. We cannot allow illegal “farm teams” to be part of our nation. And I am getting to hate sports analogies applied to non-sports, anyway. It seems to lead to cheerleading and winning and losing instead of building a government for and by the people.

George Giacoppe
8 August 2008