Archive for April, 2011

War is the End; the State is the Means

April 27, 2011

Just finished reading Nicholson Baker’s piece on pacifism in the latest Harper’s. It dovetails nicely with some other thinking I’ve been doing lately. Specifically, I’m remembering the ten years of the Vietnam War, and what it felt like at the time, and trying to figure out why Americans, even those most opposed to the current ten-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are so much less passionate in their opposition than we were to the Vietnam War. One of the major differences, of course, is that we have no military draft today.

I was very active in the struggle against the draft during the Vietnam War, and got the ultimate rush, 20 years later, when one of my students, in a discussion of relatively recent history, literally could not remember the words “draft” or “conscription.” By George, I thought. We really did it! Many of my more radical friends and colleagues, at the time, predicted that ending the draft would take a lot of the juice out of opposition to any future wars. I allowed that they were probably right, but that even so the unspeakably hard choice to kill or not kill ought not to be forced on any unwilling person. I still believe that. But it’s obvious that, without a draft, this war, or the next or the next after that, could conceivably go on forever. That’s how all those European wars—the Seven Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War—got to be so interminable. They were not fought with conscript armies. Neither were the conquests that built and maintained the Roman Empire over 400 years, or the British Empire for 200+ years..

Baker takes up the issue based on what most of us have seen as the ultimate hard case against pacifism, the Second World War/the Holocaust. If you assume, as most of us have after the fact, that the war was necessary to save what was left of the Jews in Europe, then how could one argue against it? What originally disabused me of that notion was reading Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died, published in 1967. Subsequent research only strengthens the premise of that book—the Second World War may or may not have put an end to the slaughter of the Jews of Europe, but it clearly was not fought for that purpose. We need to disentangle the war from the Holocaust to make sense of either of them.

In point of fact, to be sure, the Holocaust and World War II went on at more or less the same time, and were instigated by a lot of the same people. But they were very different phenomena. They gave rise to very different responses (even from the same people.) And, while they were causally inextricably related to each other, that relationship was almost unimaginably complex. The war provided a pretext for the Holocaust, as war almost always provides a pretext for oppression (up to and including murder) of noncombatant minorities, viz. the Armenians. And the Holocaust, ultimately, obstructed the Nazi conduct of the war, probably fatally. Hitler wasted resources on killing Jews and other “inferior” races that he could have devoted to beating the Allies. (Which may partially account for the reluctance of the Allies to do anything that might have impeded the Holocaust.) He expelled from Germany the Jewish and anti-Nazi scientists who might have given Germany the nuclear bomb. The Six Million, arguably, were martyrs to the Allied victory. Without their deaths, that victory might never have happened.

Those who opposed the Nazis at the time, both in Germany and elsewhere, opposed them, not because of their treatment of Jews and other minorities, but for pretty much the same reasons the Allies had opposed Germany in World War I and the democratic forces in Germany had opposed the Kaiser. Hitler was well on the way to conquering the world. In the course of doing so, he had eliminated most of the hard-won democratic rights enshrined into law in the Weimar Republic. Which is what happens to the civil liberties of citizens in almost any war. Good enough reasons, to be sure, and by no means to be sneered at. But even the staunchest anti-Nazis, at home and abroad, at best had little concern for the Jews, and at worst viewed the racist Nuremberg Laws as one of Hitler’s few good moves. This was as true of anti-Nazi resistance in occupied countries as in Germany itself. Indeed, there were anti-Nazi partisan units in Eastern Europe that killed Jews in their spare time, when Nazi-fighting got slow.

The British found it inconvenient to notice the plight of the Jews, because they were being called on to respond by opening up Mandate Palestine to Jewish refugees, at the expense of British relations with the Arabs. The Americans stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbor was bombed, fortuitously, by the Japanese–because American public opinion tended to side with the Germans against the Jews, but could easily enough be swayed against non-whites who had had the nerve to bomb American territory. The French had no choice but to respond to the invasion of their territory–but their struggle against the Nazis stopped short of any serious effort to protect French citizens of Jewish ancestry, much less alien Jewish refugees from further east. Indeed, rounding up Jews was one of the few activities in which many of the French cooperated willingly or even enthusiastically with the Germans.

The allied War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg made clear what the Allies considered to be the real offenses of the Nazis: violation of treaties, making of aggressive warfare, and torture and murder of Allied prisoners of war. The Nuremberg trials had virtually nothing to say about Nazi treatment of enemy civilians, and nothing whatever about Nazi mistreatment and murder of German and Austrian citizens. It was left to the Israelis and the successor governments of the formerly occupied countries to prosecute those crimes. Obviously none of them were in any shape to do so until at least the 1950s. By then many of the major war criminals were safely hidden away on other continents.

The switching of gears came in the 1960s. It was partly precipitated by the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann (and Hannah Arendt’s in-depth coverage of it) between 1961 and 1963, and partly by the intensification of the Vietnam War. At that point, hawks, especially liberal hawks like the Henry Jackson faction of the Democratic Party, were holding up World War II as a shining example of a just war fought to protect a helpless minority against a marauding dictator, and a model for U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. It was the American war machine which, in the words of Herman Wouk, “kept my grandmother from being turned into soap.” Draft boards and congressional hawks stated over and over again that opposition to the Vietnam War was equivalent to the America Firsters’ opposition to American participation in World War II, which in turn was tantamount to endorsing the Holocaust. The “war crimes” actually tried at Nuremberg were hardly ever mentioned–except occasionally by anti-war advocates. Pro-war forces gave up their use of the Holocaust analogy only after the My Lai massacre, when it became fairly obvious that the U.S. military was killing at least as many civilians as the Viet Cong.

In the Vietnam and post-Vietnam rationale, the reason the Nazis were Bad People was their murder of helpless civilians, especially Jews. American World War II movies made in the ’60s and after often portrayed German soldiers who weren’t in the SS as “good Germans”, tragically honorable men doing what any patriotic citizen would do (including, presumably, aiding and abetting all the crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg), as opposed to the “bad Germans” who ran concentration camps. It might be inhumane to put civilians into concentration camps and gas them, but strafing, shelling, or dropping bombs on them from overhead was just a normal exercise of warrior morality, i.e., the same sort of thing our warriors were doing.

Getting back to Baker, he goes into considerably more detail than Morse about pacifist opposition, and the reasoning behind it, to American participation in World War II. Many of the pacifists of that era, including important Jewish spokesmen, accepted well before our time the premise that the purpose of any such participation was to save the European Jews, and by extension the Jews in the rest of the world not yet directly threatened by Hitler. But why not find some way to save the Jews that did not involve widening the war? they asked. “The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses. And who was doing their best to get them visas, as well as food, money, and hiding places? Pacifists were,” Baker points out. Moreover, if the purpose of the war was to stop Hitler, war might be precisely contraindicated. “…what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was…the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German ‘morale’ by dropping magnesium fire-bombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers. The firebombing killed and displaced a great many innocent people—including Jews in hiding—and obliterated entire neighborhoods. It was supposed to cause an anti-Nazi revolution, but it didn’t….If you drop things on people’s heads, they get angry and unite behind their leader. This was, after all, just what happened during the Blitz in London.”

Baker takes a perspective on the Holocaust that I found startling: that it was “the biggest hostage crisis of all time.” Hitler’s threats against the Jews of Europe were largely unfulfilled before the US entered the war. Many anti-war activists proposed negotiating at that point, when the US still had something to offer in exchange for the lives of Europe’s Jews. Holocaust historians Saul Friedländer and Roderick Stackelberg suggest that, although Hitler had long planned the killing of all Jews under German control, “its full implementation may have been delayed until the US entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages.” The first extermination camp, Chelmno, began operations, coincidentally (?), on December 8, 1941. Pacifist and near-pacifist advocates continued to call for “peace without victory”, an end to military operations in Europe on condition that the Jews be allowed safe passage out of Europe. It was not a popular suggestion among Allied politicians. Among the excuses for not even considering this possibility were Churchill’s statement that “[e]ven were we to obtain permission to withdraw all Jews, transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.” Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, told the American Secretary of State that “Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.” This from the engineers of the Dunkirk evacuation two years earlier, who had gotten nearly 340,000 men from the French beaches to England in a mere nine days!

Baker is either a nicer person than I, or just more cautious. These lame obfuscations make it obvious to most modern readers that the Brits—and the US State Department—would not have wanted a massive influx of Jewish refugees even if all of them had somehow grown wings to fly themselves out of Europe. The real point was that both countries had a lingering substrate of anti-semitism to deal with, both in the general population and among their diplomatic apparatchiks in particular. Many of their citizens were likely to be lukewarm in their support of the war if they thought its purpose had anything to do with saving Jews. The diplomatic establishments were nice enough to consider acknowledging this in official communications to be a breach of etiquette, but not decent enough to overcome it with an offer to save Jewish lives. If the Jews were to be saved, the Anglo-Saxon alliance was declaring, it would have to be as an incidental—or perhaps even accidental–by-product of a war being fought for utterly different reasons.

If even World War II, for which the most noble and humanitarian purposes have since been adduced, was not in fact fought for those purposes, what does that say about the rest of the wars which have bloodied the world since humans first aglommerated into groups large enough to have wars? What are the real reasons for war?

The first and most obvious one is They hit Us first. Beginning with the first blood feud, this becomes problematic, because each “first blow” from Them always turns out to be a response to a pre-first blow from Us, and so on. So let’s abandon that game, or at least recognize it for the fraud it is.

The next most popular reason is They might hit Us first, if We don’t hit Them first,which is vulnerable to the same realities.

Then there’s if We don’t hit Them, Those Other Guys Over There might think We’re weenies and start hitting Us. In this age of universal publicity, it should be fairly easy to deal with this proposition without actually hitting anybody.

The fact that both sides, in any war, can come up with some reason for their behavior makes it pretty clear that those reasons are really nothing but excuses.

So if there are no bona fide purposes for war, why do we do it?

I suspect that this hypothesis isn’t even original, but war is not a means to achieve an end. If it were, many of those ends might be achievable by other means. Somehow, that never happens. Because war isn’t a means, it’s an end. Clausewitz to the contrary notwithstanding, war is not the continuation of politics by other means. It is the purpose of politics. It is the purpose of the nation-state (and the street gang, and the clan, and arguably the religion, and maybe even the family.) Domestic politics, and government, and the arts of peace are merely things to do in the interval between wars, to give the crew time and resources to break down the set, get the audience out, build up the new sets, find a new script and get all the lines learned, and then get the new audience in. In the American political context, the Republican party is more honest about this. The Democrats are willing to help us fool ourselves that we don’t choose war. Like Michael Corleone in his declining years, we just get pulled into it against our will because we’re such nice guys. The post-Vietnam series of wars and incursions—Panama, the Balkans, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan—aren’t an aberration. Vietnam was the blip. Vietnam was the play to which we reacted as if it involved real people dying real deaths. Abolishing the draft has revived the concept of the “theater of war.” Vesti la giubba.

Red Emma

Surviving in Third-World America

April 12, 2011

Do you ever get tired of hearing that the U.S. is the only western industrialized country that (doesn’t have handgun control/doesn’t have a national health care program/has an infant mortality rate over __%/imprisons more than __% of its citizens/pick one)? After hearing so many of the pronouncements indicating that we trail the industrial West in good stuff and lead them in bad stuff, are you starting to wonder whether the U.S. really is a western industrialized nation any more? Is it possible that we’ve become, or are at least well on the way to becoming, a Third World country? After all, we are no longer the world’s wealthiest nation, nor its healthiest, nor its best educated. Now that the Soviet Union is no longer marking the boundary of the First World, maybe we are. And how long will it be before we mark that boundary from the wrong side?

I’m willing to leave the geopolitical and macroeconomic implications of all that to the politicians. What concerns me is what concerns just about any ordinary person–how to make it from day to day in a Third Wold, or nearly Third World, country. Obviously, the best way to research this question is to ask people who’ve done it, more or less successfully, all their lives–the ordinary, would-be middle-class people from various Third World countries. Or at least to learn as much as possible about them.

So, based on what we know about real life from Third Worlders, here are some basic suggestions:

* In unity there is strength. Extend your family as far as you can. Begin with real relatives, by blood or marriage, and then quasi-relatives (exes and steps and their families) and then what anthropologists call “fictive kin”–godparents and foster siblings and so on. Cultivate these relationships and use them for the benefit of all concerned.

* One of the most important ways to do this, of course, is to share living space, especially if somebody in the family has a large, fully-paid-for house. This gets everybody economies of scale in housing, utilities, and food. It also puts people who have both jobs and small children within easy reach of potential baby-sitters with neither.

* If you can’t extend your family, you can at least create one. Get married. Form close friendships. Join cooperatives of all kinds. Join the church/ synagogue/mosque/ coven/whatever of your choice. Making it will be hard enough in the company of others. Alone, you’re probably a dead duck.

The only possible exception to this rule is children. Third Worlders typically have them–lots of them, if possible–for retirement insurance. But Third Worlders generally are required to expend fewer resources up front on their kids than American child labor and compulsory education laws allow. Give this one some thought.

* Stay out of the official dollar economy as much as possible. The IRS, of course, frowns on “off the books” income and untaxed barter. But even they have not figured out how to tax you on the value your do-it-yourself activities add to your assets. The official money economy in Third World countries is rigged to underpay the non-rich to the point of starvation while extracting from them in prices and taxes more than they can possibly afford. The only way to survive in such an economy is to stay out of it, both for production and for consumption (including credit–borrow from family, borrow from friends, borrow from your business colleagues, and then let all of them borrow from you, but stay out of the official credit market if you possibly can. Likewise, don’t lend in that market–that is, keep your savings out of banks.)

* Play the lottery–but not very much. It is true, of course, that your chances of winning are slightly less than your chances of getting struck by lightning. But they are also only slightly less than your chances of attaining the American Dream in any of the official legal jobs likely to be open to you. Buying a ticket nearly doubles your chances. It’s hard to beat odds like that. But buying more than a couple of tickets a week is a bad investment of money you should be using elsewhere. By the way, if the prior history of American lotteries is any indication, this batch will be around only another fifteen years or so, so take advantage of them while you can.

* Use public amenities creatively, while there still are any. Their days too are numbered, but while they last, public schools, public libraries, public parks, public hospitals, and similar amenities are usually perks of living in a particular locality. Therefore, given your limited stock of housing dollars, you are usually better off spending them on cramped, shabby accommodations in an affluent town or neighborhood than on a commodious, well-appointed place in the slums. Besides, your well-off neighbors are more likely to have jobs for you–both long-term and free-lance–than slum-dwellers are. And they are usually canny shoppers, so the assortment of merchandise available to you in local stores will be higher quality at lower prices. You and your family will have a much better chance of making good business contacts too. In short, unless you have ambitions in local politics, it is better to be the poorest person in a rich neighborhood than the richest person in a poor neighborhood.

* Education will still pay off, but will be a lot harder to get, and won’t necessarily bring your income above the poverty line. Nevertheless, get as much of it as you can, and try to keep as much of it as possible in four-year colleges, which produce slightly more respectable credentials than community colleges. You may want to consider going outside the U.S., at least for your bachelor’s degree–it could be cheaper.

* Don’t plan to retire. You will probably never get a private pension, and the value of your Social Security grant will almost certainly diminish rapidly. So be prepared to look for the odd jobs you are still physically capable of doing, most notably childcare and other home help for employed family members.

* Stay healthy. If you can’t stay healthy, at least try to stay out of the official health-care system, which you probably can’t afford, and which probably can’t do much for you anyway. Better you should spend your health care dollars on (a) studying self-care; (b) alternative practitioners recommended by people you trust who have not yet died of their own health problems; or (c) if you must use “official” practitioners, use the lowest professional level available to you–that is, better a Physician’s Assistant than a physician; better a Nurse Practitioner than a PA; better a Registered Nurse than a NP; better a Licensed Practical Nurse than an RN. The lower down on the professional scale you go, the more personal attention you are likely to get. Whenever possible, stick with practitioners you pay out of your own pocket–they’re cheaper, they are accountable directly to you rather than some insurance company, and they still realize you have the option of not coming back next time if they screw up this time.

* Stay morally connected. Be active in religious, neighborhood, civic, and volunteer organizations. They will remind you–when it is very easy to forget–that there is more to life than survival, and that, even if the big corporations that control the few remaining permanent full-time secure jobs consider you less than the dust beneath their big wheels, there are plenty of people around you to whom you are not merely valuable but essential.

* Similarly, if you have some sort of artistic or intellectual talent and can’t get the official purveyors of culture to take notice of it, don’t let that stop you from putting it to work in blogs, local newsletters, murals, amateur theatricals or whatever, which are probably the only art your friends can afford. Who knows–someday it may get noticed by the official critics. But even if it doesn’t, you have given and received pleasure.

* You may have to do a lot more groveling than you are used to. It is possible to be marketably obsequious and still keep your self-respect, simply by maintaining your objectivity behind your mask (see W.E.B. DuBois.). We Americans have long believed that people who have attained wealth and prominence must be more deserving than the rest of us. As long as ordinary people had a reasonably decent chance of achieving some wealth and prominence of their own, that was a harmless delusion. Now, however, it is dysfunctional and can even be deadly. The only way to survive psychologically and morally in a Third World United States is to be absolutely certain that, as a human being and a citizen, you have the same ultimate value as any other human being and citizen. Do not allow yourself to become part of any institution that undermines that conviction, unless it pays you relatively well. And withdraw your attention and your allegiance from the artifacts of commercial culture that undermine your sense of your own value as a human being. Nobody, after all, is paying you to watch television, so your family loses nothing if you stop watching.

* Do your homework–speculative fiction is rich in models for the world we are moving into, from the novels of John Brunner (The Sheep Look Up, Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider) to Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” to Robert Heinlein’s future histories. Not to mention, of course, Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. See also Strieber and Kunietka’s Warday and Nature’s End. These are just my particular favorites–there are lots more where they came from. If there is one thing we have learned in the past fifty years, it is that if the warped mind of a speculative fiction writer can imagine a shape for a future dystopia, the grasping hands of a political or economic establishment can implement it.

* Furthermore, there are plenty of ways to learn more about how today’s real-life Third-Worlders are managing. Among the goodies available in public libraries are magazines and newspapers from such places, many of them in English (which is, after all, one of the official languages of India, the Philippines, and many African countries.) Much of the fiction of modern India, the West Indies, and Africa was written in English, and much of it is richly informative.

* And note, by the way, that used books are probably one of the cheapest forms of recreation available. The only thing cheaper are the public domain books available for free on your computer or iPhone.

* Learn to like rice and beans. Together they make up the complete protein necessary for good nutrition, as well as containing lots of fiber. With a little celery, onion, and garlic, they can provide most of your nutritional needs for literally pennies a day. They’re probably healthier than whatever you’re eating now.

* Don’t drink the water. Not unfiltered, anyway, and not bottled—that’s just a waste of money and of valuable natural water imported from many places that need it badly themselves, like Florida. Pick up a used scouting handbook and find out all the cheap and quick methods to purify questionable drinking water. Note that, if you live in the country, the air may smell better, but your drinking water may already be dangerously contaminated with pesticide and chemical fertilizer runoff. Urban problems will be different, but just as serious.

I am not suggesting that the ThirdWorldization of the United States is a good thing, or only trivially harmful. On the contrary, for most ordinary people, it can mean perpetually living on the edge of catastrophe and occasionally slipping over it. But it is time we started getting prepared for it, while we still can.

Red Emma

Same Old Song II; or Some Dilemmas of Democracy

April 5, 2011

We have never established a rule for when a reply is long enough to become a post, but I suspect this one may reach that limit. It is not merely the “defense” establishment that stays while presidents come and go, but a few other eternal verities.

One is that, while the House of Representatives is constitutionally entrusted with both the power of the purse and the power to make war, it has had no serious chance to use the two in tandem as the Framers intended for well over a century. This is partly a technological problem. As every grade-schooler who paid attention in American History knows, the Battle of New Orleans was fought well after the War of 1812 had ended in a peace treaty, simply because, at the time, communications were limited by the speed of horse and sail. Now, wars can happen, and be ended, literally in a blink of an eye. The power of the purse becomes merely the power to pay the debts already incurred during that blink. That’s the theoretical limit.

In real life, wars take a bit longer to get started, but nowhere near as long as getting a declaration of war through Congress. And the power of the purse becomes a nullity if we already have “boots on the ground” and Congress could accomplish nothing by refusing to fund them except to leave the boots on the ground with no resources to maintain or defend themselves or even catch the next flight home.

The second problem became apparent in the run-up to the First Gulf War. Amazingly, both houses of Congress seriously debated our entry into that war for several days, before actually embarking on it. The ultimate result was, of course, a nearly unanimous vote in favor of the war (see the next paragraph for explanation.) But a good deal of time was consumed by war advocates proclaiming that such debate was “premature” since the war had not yet broken out. Debate over the Vietnam War, which took place almost entirely after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, involved at least the same amount of argument that it was “too late” to deliberate whether the war was a Good Thing, since we were already in it. Apparently there is a split-second in time, known only to Stephen Hawking, when it is neither too early nor too late to debate entering a war. It probably happens at 4:30 AM Eastern time, when both houses of Congress are asleep in their beds.

The third problem is that, once the executive branch has decided on a war, they become not merely the object of patriotism but its voice, and anyone who disagrees becomes, at best, the loyal opposition or the honored but ignored voice of an outworn pacifism (like Jeanette Rankin, bless her soul), and at worst a pack of traitors. Often, even those who argued against the war in the early part of the debate end up voting for it in the end, to provide a show of “unanimity” in support of national goals.

The first thing those arguing against the war have to do is disclaim pacifism. Senator Obama himself did a fine job of this in his speech opposing the Iraq War, when he stated that he wasn’t against all wars, just against dumb wars. Being against all wars renders an American politician permanently unfit for office, since a pacifist Commander in Chief is a contradiction in terms. Being against unjust wars might leave a Catholic politician among the legitimate competitors, except that it has been a long time since the US was involved in a war that plausibly met the Augustinian qualifications for justice. Or, for that matter, an intelligent war.

The next thing an opponent of the currently debated war has to do is proclaim his loyalty to and support for our brave men and women in the field, no matter how pointless and iniquitous the task they are commanded to accomplish. As pointed out earlier, this utterly precludes using the power of the purse to stop the war, and thereby turns the constitution into a nullity.

Only then can the opponent start talking about the merits. One of the few issues that is still a matter for legitimate disagreement in such debates is whether we go to war alone or with allies. Bush Senior gets a lot less praise than he deserves for his coalition-building in the First Gulf War, which enabled him to fight that war mostly on other people’s money, and with no foot-dragging by the UN or NATO. It put us in the position of being a mercenary army for the Europeans and Japanese, who needed Kuwaiti oil a lot more than we did. But it left us in a considerably better financial position than Bush Junior’s device of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq “off the books.” These days, “multilateralism” has a bad name in some quarters. Real macho nations go it on their own—and on their own money, which they then borrow from the Chinese. This issue needs revisiting, preferably before we go to war with the Chinese.

The financial issue is rarely raised until the war is actually over. By that time, it is too late to ask whether we can afford it. All we can do is try to figure out how to pay for it. The last time we looked at the money issue up front was in World War II, when Roosevelt had already decided we had bloody well better pay for it. He spent most of the war borrowing the money from American citizens. Wars are not paid for out of discretionary income, because wars, once decided on, are not discretionary. The Vietnam War was paid for by short-circuiting the War on Poverty, and by inflating the currency, rather than by raising taxes as we had done during WWII. Shortly thereafter, we decided that inflation, like raising taxes, was a bad thing. Now we pay for wars by viewing every other item in the budget (now, apparently, including even Social Security and Medicare) as discretionary, and by not noticing inflation as long as it affects only ordinary working people.

The one great force of modern economics to which even the “defense” establishment is not immune is privatization of governmental functions. So far, it extends only to what would otherwise be considered “staff” and “logistics” functions of the military, such as food, housing, transportation, and intelligence. Oddly, the private-sector jobs thereby created don’t seem to make a dent in the unemployment statistics—is this another idea worth revisiting? Could we balance the economy by putting 5 million unemployed civilians to work peeling potatoes in Kabul, suffering all the dangers and difficulties of military service at minimum wage with no benefits, no job security, and no legal rights except those provided by the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Donald Trump, call your office.

And finally, the “defense” establishment has to deal with the problem posed by a former Secretary of Defense: you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Now, that apparently means that you go to war with a bunch of overfed, overweight, undereducated, unhealthy people, many of them with minor criminal records, who can’t find jobs in the civilian sector. Watch this space for announcements that Boot Camp has now become a Fat Farm, and Advanced Individual Training now starts with basic literacy. You heard it here first, folks.

Red Emma, with assistance from her beloved brother, Ben Trovato

It’s the Same Old Song…

April 4, 2011

Maybe it’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Or one of the pale imitations that sprang up in WWII. One of the ever-so-alluring melodies of a “good war.” Given half a chance, most of us—and even worse, most of our presidents–really want to be the good guys in somebody else’s revolution, the Lafayette to somebody else’s Washington. We may have other motives lurking underneath, like oil, but that one is the hardest to ignore. And now Obama, whom I would have expected to be immune to that nostalgic passion, has been hit hard by it.

It shouldn’t surprise me all that much. In 1964, my first election, I voted for Johnson precisely because he was such a seasoned politician. Too self-interested, I thought, to blow up the world. Nobody blows up the world out of self-interest. Clausewitz says so. (What he actually says is something like he is presuming that the opposing parties do not possess any weapon capable of utterly destroying each other, which is why it’s reasonable to consider war a pursuit of politics by other means.) And so long after the fact, it’s hard to figure out how much self-interest and how much yearning for a good war comprised his motivation for lying us into Vietnam. But it is absolutely clear that he was motivated by both.

And then there was Jimmy Carter, who apparently thought the Ayatollah was a brave and saintly rebel against the evil Shah, until the American hostages got locked up. Everything that happened after that was fumbling, because he still had a hard time grasping how the Iranian Revolution had gone wrong (or maybe, that it had never gone right in the first place.)

And even Clinton, who insisted on intervening in the Balkans based on the really awful things the Serbs were doing to everybody else in the neighborhood—where, I asked myself, was the draft dodger I had voted for?

Of course, Woodrow Wilson, who “kept us out of war” just long enough to get re-elected before getting us into WWI, wasn’t a particularly great example either. The only president I can recall who promised to get us out of a war and actually did it was Eisenhower.

All of this should be going up on the wall beside my list of never-believes, like “Never trust a person who says ‘trust me.’” Or, as Nelson Algren says, “never eat at a place called Ma’s, never buy a used car from a man who calls himself Honest John, and never sleep with anybody who has more troubles than you do.” Never vote for a presidential candidate who promises to get or keep us out of a war, unless you really want a war.

Is there a chance Libya won’t turn into another Iraq? Apparently, Ghadafy is trying to work things out diplomatically, preferably by letting his son inherit and sort of clean up the family business. It might even work. But we ought to have figured out by this time that, when you elect somebody to an office that includes the title of Commander in Chief, you’re handing a gun to a 12-year-old, and the best you can hope for is that he knows how to use it without shooting anybody he’s not trying to hit.

Daniel Ellsberg has a slightly different take on all this. For him, it’s not the title or the frills that turn a rational animal into a predator. It’s the super-classified information you get, that almost nobody else has access to:

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” (

Oddly enough, the History Channel, and writers like Dan Brown, may be our best defense against this problem. They tell us up front that our world is run by an intersecting cabal of hidden rulers who know things the rest of us will never know because they will never permit us to learn them. The Secret Brotherhood of the Tasmanian Illuminati is as good an explanation as any for what happens to American presidents once they get elected. Dan Brown and his ilk seem to have a plan to overthrow the Secret Brotherhood—subvert some of the people best qualified to belong to it, before they come to power. Sneak people into Harvard, and Princeton, and Skull and Bones, and Opus Dei, who will survive the initiation without losing their moral compass. People like Dan Ellsberg, in fact (alumnus of Harvard, the US Marine Corps, and the RAND corporation.) Bradley Manning doesn’t exactly fit this profile, nor does Julian Assange; technology may have changed the prerequisites for the job of mole in the Illuminati. But arguably, that’s the real purpose of a liberal arts education—to train both the next generation of the Illuminati and a few moles to keep them honest. In the meantime, if you are confronted with a choice between two presidential candidates, both more or less equally qualified except that one promises to end a war, or not to start one, you might as well flip a coin. You’ll get the same results.

Red Emma