Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Reality TV Presidency

"The Vice-President is especially proud of the fact that his lips didn't move once during the entire speech."

I was watching the State of the Union Address and I suddenly started getting it confused with the Bachelor.  If I substituted “connection” for “Freedom” and “amazing” for “liberty” then squinted just a bit, I could easily confuse the President with Boob Guiney or a short version of Dr. Travis Stork, a young man who may soon be wishing they had rosegiving malpractice insurance.  If you don’t watch reality tv, the Bachelor’s main job is to spout platitudes about cheesy dates with women they barely know. The President's main job appears to be to spout platitudes about events he barely seems familiar with.  

In the meantime, Cindy Sheehan was being arrested for wearing a “protest” t-shirt to the event while we teach the world about democracy.  At this point, I find the president embarrassingly vapid when he talks about Iraq.  “We’re here, we’re going to stay here, because we’re not going to break our promise.  The whole lie thing shouldn’t be second-guessed and just because I completely messed up the invasion and occupation well hindsight isn’t really a strategy.”  

Oddly enough, he never articulated a strategy of his own other than we like them Iraqis, they even have a whole battalion that can operate independently now and half a dozen inflatable boats in their navy.  My favorite line though was “if we leave now, Bin Laden gets control of Iraq.”  Uh, no one in 2003 would have given Bin Laden any chance of getting control of Iraq, so what’s that say about the effectiveness of U.S. strategy in 2006?  And why the heck is Bin Laden still running around making audition tapes for American Idolators?  If you asked me what the real problem with the President’s speech is, it would be this.  His rhetoric has about as much relation to reality as reality tv.  

I did like some of what the President had to say about alternative fuels since it’s remarkably similar to what Jimmy Carter called for almost thirty years ago minus the shale oil conversion business.  Fascinatingly, the president is big on ethanol which currently mostly comes from corn which is grown in red states.  One of the keys to his energy policy appears to be let’s find ways to make more energy and different ways to power our cars.  Can we talk about the paradigm a little bit?

Has it occurred to anyone that equating energy policy with every adult in America having a motor vehicle happens to be part of what’s getting us in trouble in the first place. Real long term plans talk about mass transit, conservation, and finding more efficient ways to lay out communities so that maybe oil becomes less necessary.  What I see is that we have a country full of single drivers getting into huge traffic jams while navigating lives built around having house, school, and work as much as fifty miles apart.  Of course, the last time W had a driver’s license, he hadn’t been governor yet.  I also loved his reference to “safe” nuclear power which wasn’t that far removed from dangerous Iranian nuclear development that’s stemming from their not so “safe” nuclear power program.  

Let this day be remembered as the day we gained a Justice Alito and lost Coretta Scott King.  Sad to think that she died within months of Rosa Parks.  I didn’t  know it until I looked it up earlier today, but Mrs. King was in some cases ahead of her husband on issues, in particular his opposition to the war in Vietnam.  She also took a broad view of civil rights and backed gay marriage and opposed the War in Iraq in recent years.  I don’t think Justice Alito sees the world in quite the same way. I also wonder who was honoring Coretta Scott King's legacy more last night W or his Crawford erstwhile houseguest, Cindy Sheehan. How can you kick someone out for a t-shirt on a night when you give lip service to a famous dissenter?

In the meantime, I’m still wondering how anyone who worked in the oil business, invaded the second largest oil exporting country in the world, took money from Enron, presided over years when Exxon Mobil reported record profit, could tell America that he’s serious about stopping our addiction to oil or is it “awl”?  Sometimes things just don’t add up like when Dr. Travis asked the lady who’d been married before to hang around just so he could embarrass her again at the rose ceremony or when Paula Abdul shakes her head and says thanks I enjoyed your audition, but you’re just not right for this competition.  I hate to tell America this, but your president isn’t really planning to give any of us a rose.  

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Duhama Karasi?

If you’re wondering what Duhama Karasi is,  it’s Mu'ammar Qaddafi’s claim that our word “Democracy” comes from Arabic.  Most people believe that the English word comes from the Greek “Demos” or people.  Qaddafi’s  near perfect cognate,  has the literal meaning of “common people in the seats”, which in a rhetorical sense is very close to the American folk notion of democracy as government by the people, for the people, of the people.  I spent a while on the internet looking for the actual Arabic phrase for democracy and surprisingly never found it.  I’m not sure what that signifies, but it’s a reminder to me that the concept doesn’t translate that readily.  Qaddafi’s phrase, a kind of Libyan Hakkunah Matata, seems to be the only “Arabic” phrase for “Democracy” in google.  How’s that for search engine distortion?

I do, however, wonder if “democracy” comes close to describing the way our House or Senate now look.  If you look at any income profile of the U.S. Senate, even with an Obama, there just ain’t a lot of Duhama there.  Bill Frist’s family is inside the corporate medical business.  Diane Feinstein is married to a prominent venture capitalist.  Hillary Clinton used to be the first lady .  Jim Bunning was a Hall of Fame pitcher.  Chanceclucky is more or less a Duhama and I have to tell you these are not the people I run into at any kids’ birthday parties or dinners that I attend.  If you want a reason we don’t see things like universal health care though, that’s probably it.  And does anyone have to be reminded that while the U.S. military has lots of Duhama serving in Iraq, none of them are the children or siblings of any member of the U.S. Senate?  Perhaps, that’s why we make the distinction between “mature” democracies and “fledgling” ones.  The mature demoecracies have worked out the whole “people” part of the concept.  

This was another eventful week in the Middle East.  First Hamas, a militant Islamic group, won the elections in the Palestinian authority, which still  sounds more like the name for a bus terminal in New York than a country.  Second, Bob Woodruff , an ABC anchor, and Doug Vogt, a camerman, were both seriously wounded in an IED  attack in Iraq.  Secretary of State Rice and President Bush publicly walk the tightrope of explaining how they’ve endorsed  the spread of “Democracy” in the Middle East, yet can’t support a democratically elected Hamas.    It’s a familiar paternalistic dilemma,  “I want you to learn to choose any car, boyfriend, or major you want as long as it’s one that I don’t disapprove.  What do you do with the kids who come home with the modded Honda from Fast and Furious, a guy named Spike, or who decide to major in social work or Italian. Or whatever the current equivalent of I’m going to college then coming home again happens to be.  Anyway, the kid chooses, then you lecture her about how she’s proving that she not ready to make her own choices because of the choice she made.  

At another level though, hardly anyone seems to be reminding us that both events are signs that something’s very much wrong with the picture.  In this New American Century, once the US asserted its dominance in the Middle East, then the rest of the region was supposed to fall in line.   Possibly, the Democracy part is happening, but it doesn’t appear that the results are exactly what we had in mind in Iran, Palestine, Egypt, and even Iraq.  In all four countries, Islamic fundamentalism, nationalism, and growing anger about Israel have been reinforced by elections.  The US might see itself  in the role of a democratic Prometheus, but I suspect the region’s voters are much more aware that the US has invaded two countries in the region in the last three years and overthrown existing governments with something other than Democracy.  The right likes to insist that Iraq is nothing like Vietnam for any number of reasons.  This whole Hamas election is more than a little reminiscent of an American dilemma in Southeast Asia.  The US kept having to be complicit in fixing or stalling elections in Vietnam for the simplest reason of all, the wrong side would otherwise have won the election.

I saw an article a couple weeks ago that pointed out that China’s emerging capitalism serves as proof that capitalism and democracy don’t necessarily go together.  In Vietnam, anti-communism and democracy didn’t always go together.  In the Middle East, democracy and peace and stability may be very different indeed.

For the last year, the mantra in Iraq has been that the insurgency is slowly and inevitably losing.  The administration has taken great pains to make sure that we don’t know the names or faces of the dead and wounded in Iraq.  When Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, they took great care to “fix” the reports.  One of the truths about Tora Bora appears to be that the US did know where Osama was, they just didn’t have the manpower in the region to catch him.  Interestingly, they cast Pat Tillman as an army ranger in Afghanistan searching the landscape with his unit for Bin Laden himself.  

Bob Woodruff is yet another famous casualty in the war and yet another journalist casualty in a conflict that has been unusually effective at both killing journalism and literally killing journalists.  There may be any number of reasons things are getting better in Iraq, but the image of Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt (now there’s a democratic name) being blown up in an Iraqi army vehicle may overpower any array of statistics they might trot out about cell phones, business openings, or operational Iraqi army units.  


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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

America's Secret War (book review)

One of the problems with maintaining a political blog is that it’s far too easy to rely on other blogs for information and inspiration.  After immersing myself in a variety of other blogs both left and right for much of the last two years, I’ve come to the hardly unique conclusion that for the most part political blogs are basically talking points.  Talking points range in quality.  The best ones can even be very informative, but they tend to be too narrowly conceived and encourage a simplistic view of most any issue.  Ninety five percent of the time, someone is absolutely right or completely wrong in the opinion of any notable political blog.  Even when you purposely readblogs from both sides on a single issue, there’s no broader vision.  In particular, you quickly lose sight of how complex most issues really are.  This came home to me most recently after listening to George Friedman’s America’s Secret War on tape. , a book which forced me to look at my favorite source of diatribes, the Iraq War, both in broader and fresher terms than any blog had.  

Friedman, a longtime political science professor, runs a private intelligence firm called Stratfor  that sells its assessments of geopolitical trends to companies interested in doing business internationally.  America’s Secret War is Friedman’s attempt to make like a latter day Clausewitz and analyze our war in Iraq and against Al Qaeda from a non-partisan perspective.  Friedman criticizes both parties.  He insists that the Clinton administration under responded to the emergence of Al Qaeda because it made its domestic agenda the priority.  The first Bush administration, he says too often saw the world in cold war terms.  He also clearly criticizes the current Bush Administration for underestimating the Iraqi insurgency, lying about the real nature and purpose of the  war, failing to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora, backing Chalabi, the Iranian agent,  and for devoting insufficient resources to the task.  He even ends the original edition of the book, published before the 2004 election, with a warning about the fact that America’s elite is sending other people’s children to fight the war.  

Friedman does an excellent job of presenting the context for the war against terror.  He makes two particularly compelling arguments.  First, he reminds us that Al Qaeda  had already defeated one superpower, the USSR, in Afghanistan and played a role in the demise of the Soviet Union.  He argues that this experience was the crucible for the development of a very tough, well trained, and tactically sophisticated leadership corps.  He argues that the US went from erstwhile ally in Afghanistan to sworn enemy during the first Gulf War when American troops are placed in Saudi Arabia itself, anathema to a group that saw itself as defenders of the Moslem world.  He then does an excellent job of detailing the intricate level of planning and execution that went into the 9/11 attacks.  

Friedman also does an excellent job of showing how Moslems in the 80’s and 90’s were led to believe that US Military power was both in decline and even soft across four administrations.  Along with this he also unsparingly critiques the failures of American intelligence in the Middle East over that period from the much discussed decline in the use of human intelligence assets to the lack of coordination and clear common mission between agencies.  

I believe Friedman is weakest in laying out the US response and in trying to argue that US policy over the last four years has been equally nuanced and rational.  One serious problem throughout the book is that Friedman doesn’t use any clear documentary sources.  While he is clearly an authority on the geopolitical and military history of American Middle Eastern policy, there are no footnotes and few references to other accounts of the time.  Friedman expects us to assume that Stratfor simply out CIAs the CIA and we are thus expected to simply act like we are being briefed.

  1. He argues that because of various institutional intelligence shortcomings, the sheer volume of facts about 9/11 might have been available before the actual attack, but American intelligence had no way to put it all together because the system emphasized information gathering over analysis.  This, of course, has been a source of serious criticism of the Bush administration.  A number of people have pointed to any number of smoking guns, particularly the August 6, 2001 daily presidential briefing, FBI reports that possible terrorists were enrolling in flight schools, etc.  Friedman doesn’t deal with any of these oft-cited examples specifically.  Instead, he asserts that no one could have “known” because no one was putting it all together and “analyzing” the information.  

I have not looked at all the evidence, but I have looked at the text of the August 6 briefing.  First, it ‘s clear to me that someone at CIA was trying to put something together in that briefing.  Second, Friedman is being awfully dismissive of much of the actual information that was out there.  It wasn’t just parts of a jigsaw puzzle.  I know that looking back can be misleading, but I would argue that many of the clues were clear enough to act on.  

  1. A big part of Friedman’s analysis is that the US strategy in Iraq really is about Al Qaeda.  The “Secret War” is that the US’s real reason for the invasion was not about Saddam, but a nuanced and rational strategy to neutralize both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which though nominal US allies were really major sources of support for Al Qaeda.  In essence, the US’s presence in Iraq has forced Saudi and Pakistani intelligence to clearly take on Al Qaeda.  Friedman goes on to argue that the strategy has been ultimately successful.

There is a surprising amount that fits Friedman’s theory, particularly when it comes to looking at some of the odder rhetoric of the Bush administration like the President’s declaration that “Osama simply wasn’t that important.”  (which he recently contradicted) and the frequent repeated insistence that the invasion of Iraq was about addressing the problem of international terrorism.

Friedman’s secret strategy view of US policy has a certain post hoc propter hoc appeal in that it makes American policy in the region appear well conceived.  It does, however, fly in the face of both Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward’s insider descriptions of the runup to war.  Either W and his cabinet weren’t privy to this secret strategy and real American foreign policy has been carried out by some shadow government (I suppose that’s a distinct possibility) or the administration seriously went through the motions even privately of convincing itself that its stated reasons for the invasion of  Iraq were both legitimate and primary reasons for going to war with Iraq in favor of directly hunting down Osama.

Friedman’s description of the international chess game is both fascinating and tempting.  He argues that the US lacked the manpower and intelligence assets to dismantle Al Qaeda directly particularly with an ambivalent Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  He points out that the US could not afford to go to war with either ally and that the next best thing was to exert the pressure of “making hem choose” a side against Al Qaeda by triangulating to Iraq.  By invading, the US has the advantage of stationing troops on Saudi Arabia’s border and forcing both countries to cooperate in the war against Al Qaeda.  In particular, both countries have the human intelligence assets and contacts that the US lacks to get the job done.  

  1. Friedman argues in his 11th chapter, written after the publication of the first edition, that despite a number of tactical mistakes, the US is likely to win its struggle with Al Qaeda.  While conventional wisdom is that the Bush administration is politically shrewd but utterly uninformed in terms of broader tactics and international strategy, Friedman makes the reverse argument.  He insists that the Bush administration has been dangerously incompetent.  In fact, he identifies at least two points where the US was poised to finish the task of pacifying Iraq only to fonder in major intelligence failures about the likelihood of the insurgency and Shiite resistance.  At the same time, he ascribes a sophisticated and sound overall strategy to the administration’s Middle Eastern adventure.  

Friedman gets there by positing two goals that are outside most public discussion of the war on terror.  First, he claims that Al Qaeda’s real goal has been to foment Islamic revolution in Islamic countries.  In fairness, he was writing before the most current developments in Iran and Palestine.  He argues that over the last three years, the Taliban has lost control of Afghanistan and is now further rather than closer from setting the streets of Mecca and Karachi afire with unrest and pressure for Fundamentalist governments that are openly hostile to the west.  This may well be correct, but I neglects the more common view of why the US needs to stop Al Qaeda.  First, to most Americans, it is important to catch Bin Laden himself.  Second the stronger immediate American interest is to reduce the likelihood of Al Qaeda terrorism.  Friedman does claim that since the Spanish train bombing, terrorist efforts to disrupt Iraq have been progressively less effective, but he wrote before the London bombings and the 2005 resurgence of terrorist jihadist attacks in Iraq itself.  I’m not sure I’m convinced that Al Qaeda’s capacity to carry out terrorist activity has been significantly curtailed.  I’m not even sure Friedman is convinced of that.  I’d be interested in what he does have to say about the most recent Bin Laden tape.

Second, Friedman makes the very provocative claim that the US isn’t necessarily expecting to win quickly in Iraq and withdraw.  He doesn’t quite say it, but implies quite ominously that the US’s real goal is to maintain its military presence in the Middle East to keep Saudi Arabia, among other nations, on the right side of the street.  I do understand this as a tactical goal, but it raises the principal weakness in Friedman’s approach.

The limitation of Clausewitz is that despite his famous statement that War is Diplomacy by other means, there was always a difference between what was good in military or strategic terms for Napoleon’s armies and what was good for the French Republic.  The limitation of Friedman is that he seems to completely understimate the political dimension in his analysis.  It does, for instance, matter that the US has committed itself to a major foreign policy initiative without revealing its goals or priorities to the American people.  I think it does matter that citizen soldiers are told one reason for risking their lives for their country when the real motives are drastically different.  

Second, by his seeming approval of the “strategy”, he completely downplays the complete subversion of the American constitutional system to carry out that strategy.  Friedman is not totally tone deaf to this, he, for instance, recognizes the disaster Abu Ghraib created both strategically in terms of pacifying Iraq and politically.  He even makes a very strong point about the double bind the scandal presented.  If it was enlisted soldiers run amok, what did it say about the basic nature of American soldiers.  If it was really a function of policy, then the US would be admitting to a morally bankrupt systematic approach to interrogations.   Freidman hints that he believes it was the latter.

He, however, gets so caught up in the geo-political chess game, that he misses the political and moral consequences of the scandal.  The US is trying to defeat its enemy by taking on some of the worst character traits of what it claims to oppose.  Perhaps this is a valid way to take on and ultimately defeat Al Qaeda, but the cost of the victory may be to lose the republic itself.

In one interesting aside, Friedman compares the insurgencies thrust at Fallujah to the Tet Offensive.  He points out that Tet was a tactical disaster but a political master stroke for the Viet Cong.  Even though, they lost the battle and incurred heavy almost disastrous casualties, Tet changed the American public’s perception of the war and the potential cost of victory in Vietnam.  He goes on to argue that Fallujah did not achieve the political success of Tet and was still disastrous in military terms for the insurgency.  Later in the book, Friedman points out that the Moslem world may be underestimating both American soldiers and American will.  He perhaps accurately claims that the Moslem world sees America as too averse to heavy casualties to be militarily effective.  He makes the historical argument that American soldiers through the Battle of the Bulge have always had their real courage and resilience drastically underestimated by their opponents.  

I do not question the courage of American soldiers.  I do, however, question Friedman’s belief that the Iraqi version of TET is a done deal.  The last year of renewed and invigorated activity doesn’t bear that out.  I also believe that America is more than willing to pay the price in casualties for a just cause, but that national strength has been subverted in this particular war.  Our leaders lies about our real reasons for being in Iraq have become more transparent and more obvious to the American public.  As a result, the public’s will to sacrifice American lives for a “false” cause is weaker than it might have been had the public been trusted with the real objective.  Second, the elite who have brought us into the war has sent the clearest message it can about its own real commitment to the goals of this war.  They aren’t sending their own children.  

One possible consequence may be that the administration’s “shortcuts” in this effort, if Friedman’s view of the US’s wider strategy is accurate, may have ultimately weakened its capacity to carry out its objectives abroad and badly damaged the quality of our democracy at home.  Ultimately, what might be a positive security  climate for American business may not be what is good for America, the country.

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Monday, January 23, 2006


My wife and I are very different which is usually a good thing.  One of those differences is that I obsess over the news and surfing the net has become a default mode of being for me when I’m not clearly engaged in something else.  My wife doesn’t like that for reasons that are perfectly understandable.  In fact, she takes the view that it’s possible to overdose on bad news and thus purposely avoids the news of the war, the state of the earth, etc. not because she wants to ignore it, but because she’s keenly aware that it drags her down.  We do have this continuing conversation about if and when our golden years come, what do we want to be doing with them?

Being me, I sometimes lapse into some scenario where America is in chaos, there is no oil, there are no social support systems, famine and plague are everywhere, and all businesses are owned either by Walmart or McDonald’s.  My wife prefers to talk about making things possible, like finding a pleasant town, a little house to restore, having grandchildren, and maybe opening a small business to keep ourselves busy.  She says ocean and I think tsunami.  She talks about opening a business and I think about debtor’s prison.  I’ve turned into Malthus.

For a while, I went to this local meditation group that I labeled the Buddha Club.  There are actually two significant Buddhist groups in my town.  There’s an actual temple where most of the congregation appears to have been born Buddhist and has the higher concentration of Asian members.  They chant from something that looks like a hymnal, sit in pews, and there’s a sermon.  In fact, if you didn’t understand anything that was being said or looked closely at the symbols and decorations, you could easily be in any protestant service in America.  

The other group meets in a community room next to a bellydance class and an aerobics group.  This group is all middle-aged white people or older.  They meditate for thirty minutes, do a walking meditation, then listen to its leader’s thoughts for about half an hour.  I wound up choosing the latter and they spend a lot of time there talking about the Buddhist time frame which tends to be in thousands of years.  Good Buddhists appreciate how genuinely hard real change is in the world.  

I don’t know why I stopped going for the time being, but there’s been little to filter out my persistent pessimism about the fate of the world and me.  It actually stopped me from blogging for a few days.  I was asking myself if I was spiraling myself into depression by trying to write at least every other day, usually about some anomaly of the public/political world.  My friend Pogblog  tends to write every now and then about what is essentially imagining the future in a universe that allows for multiple threads of reality.  Alan Howard another blogger, I have on my links, seems to swear off politics from his site every now and then and then mysteriously pop back a few weeks later.  I’ve noticed that Benny writes a lot of obituaries to say how various individuals have positively influenced her life (I confess I wasn’t sure if Benny was male or female for several weeks). In the meantime, Jamie at Intoxination, manages to find a couple items a day with amazing dependability.

Even when I purposely turn away from the political, I find myself writing about shooting turkeys in my front yard or being rejected by my own cat.  I do frequently try to write funny, but often it’s really dark funny.  Now and then I too easily forget that I have so much to be thankful for even in the straight-line version of existence.  Part of that is having the good fortune to be married to someone who does remind me from time to time that the glass doesn’t have to be full for us to have enough water to drink.  In the meantime, I suspect that there is some zen of blogging that remains just beyond my intellectual grasp.  

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Monday, January 16, 2006

The Greatest Pianist in the World (fiction) Vladimir Horowitz-Art Tatum, etc.

This story is now up at Lacuna Journal

link to some Tatum bio materials

Other fiction on this site


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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Honoring Dr. King's Stance on War

On Martin Luther King Day, any number of Americans will be reminiscing about his I Have a Dream speech and its vision of a nation where children are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.  We now honor Dr. King by making certain that all photo ops now have a mixture of blacks, latinos, Asians, and women in them.  The rest of us will be watching football playoff games, hopping on multi-colored snowboards, and assuming that Dr. King’s work is somehow done because conservatives say nice things about Dr. Rice and Justice Thomas.  As we do with most “saints”, we tend to forget that Dr. King’s advocacy went beyond race.  At the end of his life, he made the very controversial decision to speak out against the War in Vietnam, link to MLK's speech about the duty to resist the War in Vietnam.  Almost exactly a year later, he was killed.

For those who don’t want to read this fine speech, I list a few excerpts below.  
“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation”

“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
“t is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

One might argue that Iraq is different in many ways from Vietnam.  In particular, I’ve been reading George Friedman’s book America’s Secret War (I’ll likely review it here once I finish) that argues that fighting terrorism requires a very different approach to “war”.  It doesn’t matter to me that Martin Luther King opposed that war instead of this one.  I’ve read the President’s warnings about not aiding the terrorists by criticizing the war.  He would undoubtedly have included remarks like Dr. King’s.  Had he lived, I’m certain that any number of hard core supporters of the war would be calling Dr. King the same names they are applying to John Murtha, Howard Dean, Gold Star Mothers, and now likely Walter Cronkite.  

Dick Cheney is off the hook of course.  He opposed the creation of a holiday to honor Martin Luther King in 1979, though he later flip-flopped when the majority voted for the holiday in 1983.  I kind of agree with the vice-president.  Why have a holiday to honor Martin Luther King if we can’t honor his spirit?  

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Tell Me a Story

"More Americans may remember a story about a goat than any facts about 9/11"
I write a lot of my fiction in the first person.  Even when the voice is more or less me, it’s never exactly me, yet many readers act as if it must have been my real life..  My father was never tried for treason.  I’ve never fallen in love with a character in a video game.  I’m not a middle-aged woman selling a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  I’m not an Ameri-Asian woman who volunteered for the first Gulf War to get out of the house. B  There was a time when I thought of it as a compliment.  “Gee, I must have been really convincing.”

I don’t think that any more.  I think a lot of readers simply like to “believe” in a story, any story.  I imagine it’s easier when the writer happens to be talented, but I suspect it even happens for writers who aren’t so talented.  There’s something about the human mind that craves connected events in the world.  When you manage to create a narrative,  people actually prefer it to reality.  As a result, they most willingly drop contrary facts, give credulity to the preposterous, or even add in details for you simply to keep the story/narrative intact.  

This seems to have worked in James Frey and JT Leroy/Abbott’s favor.  The personas of the two authors just helped to fill in the stories they had written.  A variety of people simply wanted JT Leroy, the survivor of the most extreme abuse, and James Frey, the full blown outlaw, to exist.  It’s also the same instinct that seems to be working in Sam Alito’s favor right now with the “They made his wife cry by distorting this fine man’s record.”

As I tried to follow the Alito hearings, I was struck by how poorly the Democratic leadership seems to understand this. Instead of developing a counter-narrative, they kept trying to argue, corner, and expose.  Ronald Reagan was extremely good at it.  I remember watching Walter Mondale talk about the need to raise taxes in 1984 and Reagan simply brushing all the very real numbers aside with “this is a great country built on rewarding hard work” and “never underestimate America”.  

A long time ago, I remember reading in a psychology text that the mind has a capacity for both seeing and finding “faces” in images.  In 2005, the faces and story that had the most impact on the war turned out to be the various gold star mothers who took on the president.   For most of August, the president road his mountain bike and played right into the story.  It feels like this lesson was lost on the Democratic leadership except perhaps for John Murtha.  For a quarter of a century, the Republicans have understood that America gets its news and makes its decisions based on People Magazine not the National Section of Time.  

I think it was Poe who said that if a gun appears in a story, it must go off.  The democrats seem to have an odd variation on that.  All they see is the smoking gun and they totally forget about the story.  Once, the public believes the “I” in the story, the votes follow.  

Given the right story, you could probably nominate and confirm J.T. Leroy for the Supreme Court.  

story about stories

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Faketion and JT Leroy

I call it “Faketion”.  For the last few years, any number of writers, editors, and Oprah’s book club have been taken in by two writers, JT Leroy and James Frey
whose persona were as much fiction as anything they wrote.  Is this Milli Vanilli gone literary?  Isn’t there a long history of pseudonyms and misdirection in the literary world from George Elliot forward to Clifford Irving to the Education of Little Tree?  There's also a long history of impostors that predates Tony Curtis movies, Catch Me if You Can , and Princess Caraboo like scenarios. The crucial difference is that in earlier generations impostors would pretend to be rich, royal, or simply exotic. Both Frey and Leroy found a path to celebrity by pretending to be more pathetic and damaged than they really were, yet somehow able to tell the story of their "survival". Had they simply held up a sign at the local mall that said "Injured Iraq War Vet, Will Work for Food", we would have ignored them whether or not they actually drove home in a Lexus.

Any number of very well known writers/editors were fooled by Leroy/Abbot.  They edited his/her stories, supported readings, offered praise, even gave money.   They are the ones who invested in Leroy being real.  I read maybe two Leroy stories when there was a feature article in the Chronicle some three years ago.  I’ve never read James Frey.  So, why am I the one who feels so cheated by this adventure in performance art?

I’ve written for most of my adult life.  I don’t claim to be any great talent, but I’ve put a lot of time into it.  I’ve never been anywhere near Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, or Sharon Olds.  To them, I remain some speck underneath the slushpile.  Perhaps I belong there, I don’t really know.  Somehow, a couple of wannabe rockers got a hearing/read from all these people by faking a backstory and a writer.  Some insist that the product was still “good”, highly readable, etc.  In fact, there’s even a movie in the can based on Leroy’s writing waiting to be released.  

Frey got himself endorsed by Oprah, the single biggest force in publishing, with an addiction recovery story that posed as his autobiography.  Leroy wrote fiction based on a constructed life of a “lot lizard”, an adolescent boy left to work as a truckstop prostitute in West Virginia.  I could go on about how the real world, particularly the Bush administration keeps pressing the boundaries between the unimaginable and the actual.  In this case, the misadventures of WMD, misdirection of Valerie Plame,  and JT Leroy all successfully duped the New York Times for a variety of reasons.  I could go on and on about the social significance of the twin frauds here while talking about William Gaddis’s the Recognitions, but maybe that’s why I’m still on the slushpile.

I could go on and on, but honestly, I’m just pissed.  The whole tale hurts me, as an aspiring and long frustrated writer, in ways that non-writers probably can’t fathom.  While, I’m seeing all these apologia from the various people who are in a position to help unknown writers who happened to get duped, not a single one seems to have shed a tear over what this may have cost writers like myself who foolishly persist in the "fiction" that it's the writing not the persona of the writer that matters.  

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Rambo Four, The Secret Script

It’s been a few years since Sylvester Stallone had a hit movie.  His last appearance was in Spy Kids 3 in 2003.  His last decent movie was the generally unseen Cop Land in 1997.     His last  Rambo movie was in 1988.  In case you don’t remember, Rambo 3 has Vietnam Vet, post-traumatic stress survivor, John Rambo finding a new place to be a human killing machine by fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Rambo is drawn there because his best friend and former commander, Richard Crenna, has been captured by the Soviets.  Rambo allies with the Mujahideen and rescues Crenna/Trautman, shoots down a helicopter, and helps his new allies learn to wage guerilla war with a super power.  In 1988, Americans loved this movie and whole theaters actually cheered as these pious Moslems were inspired by Rocky Balboa to show the Soviets what it meant to face the Eye of the Tigris.  

Fifteen years later, many of the kids who went to see Rambo are now in Iraq shooting at his good pals, the Mujahideen.  Well it may not be that many since Rambo 3 only grossed 55 million.  Apparently, there is a Rambo 4 in the works, with a plot involving White Supremacists kidnapping Rambo’s daughter, Natalee Holloway.  There was talk a few years ago about a Rambo 4 with John Rambo joining forces with Jackie Chan to take on the terrorists behind 9/11 that even has status as an urban legend.Here you thought Hollywood was anti-American.  Of course, that posed a minor continuity problem with Rambo 3, but that’s never stopped action movie makers before.  It could be worse, they could make Rambo governor of California, but I imagine no one in Hollywood would greenlight that absurd of a plot.  

Possibly because I was the only person working for the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy (VRWC) who wasn’t involved in putting Sam Alito through the Red Screen for his confirmation hearings and perhaps because of my time working on George Lucas’s least known movie, Fast Times at Ewok High, it fell to me to redo the script for Rambo 4.  

Scene 1:  John Rambo is at home having a beer with Clint Eastwood.  

JR:  Yo, Clint.  Dirty Harry can’t make no boxing movie.  

CE:  I’ve already signed Hillary Swank to do the lead.

JR:  No Way.  Did you see what that chick did to the Karate Kid franchise?

CE:  Look, if you’re going to keep making movies, you’ve got to grow.  (Clint points to Oscars in his bookshelf)  My characters get in touch with their feminine side.  

JR:  Okay, okay, so letting me beat up Tommy Morrison wasn’t such a good idea and maybe I shouldn’t have cast my own son.   Clint, why don’t you have the chick fight Rocky in the sequel?  We could work together.  

CE:  Seriously, critics really dig my kinder gentler older Dirty Harry characters.  You ought to try it. It’s better than turning up on some reality tv show about boxers.

JR:  Mmmm…Well I was being serious.  I got an Oscar too.  

CE:  But you also wrote and directed Oscar.  

JR:  Hey, I thought it was pretty witty.  (Clint does his stare)….  Okay, how about this, Rocky becomes a serious artist instead of a boxer and calls himself Rocky Bilbao. (Clint’s stare changes to his squint)

CE:  I’m outta here.  (he walks out)

Scene 2: (weeks later)
(JR flips on the television and sees the World Trade Center coming down)

JR:  Oh my god.  That’s horrible, that’s shameful.  What a tragedy. (buries face in hands, pauses, then brightens)  What an idea for a sequel!

(Osama Bin Laden’s face appears on the screen)

JR:  Holy Paladin!  I know that dude.  (brief flashback to Rambo 3 where JR is showing Osama how to aim a rocket launcher at a Soviet tank along with another Moslem freedom fighter).  Hold on here.  He’s my friend. Why would my friend do this to the financial and political centers of the country that helped him in his struggle against the godless soviets? (JR reaches for his cellphone, a Razor phone is shown in a product placement)

Scene 3 (two weeks later)
Operator:  (Lily Tomlin)This is the CIA how may I connect your call?

JR:  I got to speak to Colonel Trautman.

Operator:  I’m sorry we have a Valerie Plame who works here, but she’s not really covert.  In fact she drives into headquarters every day so she’s obviously not on an overseas assignment.  Would you like to talk with Ms. Plame.  Everyone knows she works here.

JR:  No, I just want to speak with my best friend in the world Colonel Trautman. They’ve got the wrong man in this 9/11 thing.  Osama Bin Laden was my friend and co-star. I’ve been trying to reach him for 3 weeks now.

Operator:  I’m sorry sir.  We have all these untranslated cables about him.  We even have an August 6, 2001 presidential daily briefing that’s technically classified about the Al Qaeda Network.

JR:  Lady, they’re going to kill my friend.  He couldn’t have done this.

(the screen cuts to covert operatives who are listening to the conversation)

CO:  Wow, it’s a good thing we didn’t have to go to the FISA court for a warrant to do this!  We would never have been able to get a hold of General Trautman for Rambo.
(a young woman is seen running off to make the call in a mumbled conversation that ends in “Stat”)
Scene 4
minutes later
GT:  This is Trautman. John, I’m sitting here with the National Security Council.  They hired me to replace Richard Clarke, who quit so he could write a tell all book and because W wouldn’t promote him.

JR:  Osama didn’t do it.  You know I wouldn’t lie to you.

GT:  How do you know this John?

JR:  He’s my friend.  We killed Russians together in Afghanistan.

GT:  John, that was another administration.  No one cares that we armed the Mujahideen and made the Taliban the Taliban.

JR:  He’s like the Moslem Rambo.  We even stole a Mig Fighter together then crashed it into a Soviet ammo dump…(pauses) After we bailed out of course.
(there is the sound of much discussion)

W:  See, I told you guys Osama’s not the one we want.

DR:  It must have been Saddam then.  

Chorus of voice:  Damn right, Saddam is our real enemy.

GT:  John, thanks for setting America right yet again.

JR:  Well the first movie helped America understand the pain of being a neglected Vietnam vet and the horrors of PTSD.  The second Rambo movie was about all those missing POWs still in Vietnam that John Kerry betrayed.  The third movie was about Osama being a good guy. Youse welcome though.

DR:  Okay, time to divert all the money and intelligence assets to Iraq.

CR:  What is this Al Qaeda anyway? I like this better, Rambo fought the Soviets.  I know a lot about the Soviet Union.

Scene 5
(a few months later, JR is at home again watching the rescue of Jessica Lynch)
JR:  That’s pretty cool.  I’ve got to use some tracer bullets in my next sequel.  Boy, those Iraqis didn’t put up much of a fight though.  (there’s a knock at the door, JR opens it to find Angelina Jolie)
JR:  Wow, you’re much hotter than Francis Ford Coppola’s sister.

AJ: (in thick Middle Eastern Accent)  John.

JR:  (motions her in)  Hey, I know you.  (cuts back to Rambo 3, Osama+another Taliban fighter are blowing up a tank)

AJ:  (puts on head dress from her time as freedom fighter)  Maybe this will help.  (cuts to continuation of tank scene.  JR has turned his attention to downing a squadron of giant black helicopters, but you see Taliban fighter take off her head dress and shake out her dark luxuriant tresses)  

JR:  Youse a girl, and I thought girls couldn’t fight.

AJ:  Boys Don’t Cry either.

JR:   Geez, I knew youse wax pretty...What are you doing here in New Jersey?

AJ:  I’ve come to warn you about Osama.

JR:  You mean he didn’t do 9/11.

AJ:  Well, duh, of course, he did 9/11. We’re supposed to be chasing him not Saddam.

JR:  But he’s my friend.  That’s not how action movies work.

AJ:  He’s mean and abusive to women.  After you left, he enforced Sharia.  They wouldn’t let me wear revealing clothes in public.

JR:  Now, that’s definitely a crime. (looks knowingly at camera as it pans up AJ’s cleavage).

AJ:  He tried to legalize abortion.  Now I have to adopt children from all over the world.

JR: That murderer.  We have to stop him.

AJ:  Wait, I just told you he killed three thousand people in 9/11 but you still said he was your friend.  Now I tell you that he’s pro-abortion and you want to kill him?

(cut to Covert Operator with General Trautman in room, they are listening in without a warrant ready to save John Rambo)

JR:  This country’s been ignoring this modern holocaust for far too long.  Where is Osama?

AJ: I don’t know, you’ll have to spend fifteen minutes of screen time in a montage where you try to track him while risking your life.  Maybe you can pick up a partner like Jackie Chan.

JR:  I have a better idea.  A Rambo buddy movie with a female partner from likeTomb Raider.  You can do the physical stunts and I can be sensitive but morally steadying influence.  (they shake hands) Now, I have a legitimate reason to turn on my former partner and blow him away along with all his Al Qaeda henchmen.

Scene 6
Seventy five minutes of action sequences ensue.  AJ kills several hundred people while JR consoles her in her grief for having to kill so many of her former comrades in arms. There is little to no dialogue except for one key scene where Osama is shown meeting with Saddam (played by Harry Belafonte or someone who looks like him) to discuss the way they had actually planned 9/11 together.  

JR:  Wow, General Trautman, you got this video of Saddam and Osama together through  unwarranted cell phone surveillance.  

GT:  Yes, believe it or not, the key link was a librarian in New Jersey.  One of her patrons had checked out a copy of the Q’aran and the anarchists handbook in the same month.

JR:  Thanks to the Patriot Act.

GT:  And a Supreme Court that understands the rule of law, the real meaning of the Bill of Rights, and judicial restraint.

JR:  If the president wasn’t protecting us in a time of war, who would?

GT:  Can you imagine, not letting him operate with all the necessary tools.  

Scene 7
(AJ has Osama in a cave on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.  She is holding a gun at him, but is uncertain whether or not she should kill him)

AJ:  Where did Saddam hide those weapons of mass destruction?

OSB:  Saddam, I don’t know any Saddam.

AJ:  We have the videotape.

OBL:  The WMD are equally divided between Howard Dean’s basement and Cindy Sheehan’s garage.

AJ:  Anywhere else?

OBL:  Oh yeah, Jennifer Anniston has some of them too.  

AJ:  That witch.  I have an Oscar.  She doesn’t.  I have Brad. She doesn’t.  Now American knows why.

JR:  AJ don’t do it.

AJ:  What do you mean don’t do it?

JR:  We have to put him on trial first.

AJ:  Trial, he doesn’t deserve a trial?

OBL: I don’t need no stinking decadent western trial. I only answer to Allah

JR:  We’re defending freedom, remember. (patriotic music plays in background, picture of ruins of WTC appears)

AJ:  Oh yeah, I forgot.

JR:  Don’t worry, we don’t have to charge him yet and until we try him it’s okay for us to torture him all we want.  You know that black outfit from Mr. And Mrs. Smith?

OSB:  Please, kill me now.  I have no reason to go on.  Let me die a dignified death.  John, remember that helicopter outside Kabul?  For old times sake? We were freedom fighters together.

JR: Freedom fighters don't shake hands with Saddam. I'm only considering this because all action heroes are really pro-life.

AJ:  John?

JR:  Put the gun down AJ.

(she puts the gun down, screen goes black, next shot is of OBL, hogtied, dressed in a miniskirt and full makeup, while JR plays barefoot hopscotch over an open copy of the Koran)

AJ:  J, I’m sure glad you had that secret handbook from Abu Ghraib, that was misused by a few bad apples.  This will be very effective in getting key information even if it looks like a harmless prank.

JR:  We did it for freedom AJ.  Sometimes you have to kill thousands of innocent people in the name of freedom and also ignore the unnecessary parts of the constitution.

AJ:  JR, you’re a great American.  We all look up to you and thank you for the gift of democracy. You know, this makes me want to convert.

Credits come on. Blooper reel is interspersed of JR trying to say “War Powers Act” and “Right to Privacy”
At end of credits there’s a pullaway shot to the covert operators watching the video of the capture of Osama.  One of them watching another screen yells,”Damn, I knew it.  That Arab terrorist said “Happy Holidays”.  I bet he’s an illegal immigrant too.”
Screen Title in white runs underneath.
“Coming in fall 2008, Rambo 5 Rambo saves Christmas from Illegal Immigrants protected by a partisan special prosecutor.”

No chicken hawks were killed or harmed in any way in the making of this movie.  

see also the Da Vinci Clone


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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq

Would You Buy a Used War from this Man?
I wrote several months ago that I.F. Stone would have been an incredible blogger.  In many ways, the I.F. Stone weekly showed the modern political blogger that one doesn’t need to have inside sources, be at the scene of every story, or have significant resources to find political stories.  There are plenty of revealing stories to be found in the official record itself if you happen to have a critical eye.  I also believe that the ratio of opinion to actual information in blogspace, including mine, happens to be way too high.  Pablo Casals, the  great cellist, used to play Bach once a day to keep purity and precision in his playing.  In that spirit I decided to have a look at the following Pentagon report, Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq from October 2005. I'm an amateur at this and if you've ever heard me play Bach on the piano, you should know that this is more for my political blogging soul than anyone's listening or reading pleasure.  

As part of the supplementary appropriations for the war, the Pentagon has to supply congress with measurable indicators of progress on a periodic basis.  The first version of the report from July 2005 was heavily criticized for being overly vague, more or less like the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.  The October report serves as a revision to that earlier report  and at 44 pages is roughly twice as long.  Essentially, the report plays the same role as a business plan supporting a loan application.  The Pentagon has to convince Congress to put even more of our tax money into the war.  

The Pentagon throws a lot of numbers and charts into its report.  Most of these will sound familiar.  Donald Rumsfeld talked about 88 operational units of Iraqi army.  The report confirms that.  Joe Lieberman went off about the insurgency being limited to a few provinces and oddly started talking about the number of new cell phones in Iraq.  The report mentions both of those items.  The report also makes much of the fact that the insurgency was unable to disrupt the election process.  Essentially, the Pentagon worked hard to get in every bit of good news it had about its adventure, not unlike its War on Terrorism news page, which I suspect serves as the model for all those pay for positive stories being planted in Iraqi media.

If I were a loan officer at the Bank of the U.S. Taxpayer, I would have to mention that the report raises far more questions than it answers.  Of the 88 units of Iraqi army, the report admits that only 1 unit was prepared to operate fully independently.  All of the 140 plus units of Coalition forces can operate independently.  The second highest rating for an Iraqi army group is the capacity to take the lead in an operation.  In the summary, the Pentagon says that 36 units are capable of being in the lead or operating independently.  In their bar graph, they don’t separate the two.  According to the report, being able to “take the lead” is almost as good as operating independently because it indicates that the group is genuinely operational.  The Pentagon also mentions that the capacity to operate independently is “overrated”.  

One of the favorite tricks in trying to figure out how much Iraqi army is necessary to allow a U.S. withdrawal is to imply the coalition’s current total should bethe target for the Iraqi army.  The report never comes close to suggesting how many “operational” units it’ll take to stabilize Iraq with Iraqi forces only.  Just a hint, it’s not currently stable with 140k plus American troops (all presumable rated as “independent”)  along with 88k Iraqi troops and all the other coalition forces.  After two and a half years, there is one Iraqi army unit capable of operating independently.  More charitably, there are 36.  A rough guess would be that they need 360, at a minimum.

One interesting fact is that Iraq has 27 million people.  The country has roughly five million people who are fit for military service.  One problem with that figure from the internet standby CIA world fact book, which interestingly has dropped its estimates of the size of the Iraqi army, is that a certain percentage of that five million is on the side of the insurgency.  Roughly ten percent of Iraqi’s fit for military service would have to serve in the military.  That’s not an impossible figure, but that doesn’t include police or anyone working to keep the economy going in other forms.  

Speaking of the economy, the report claims that the Iraqi economy is growing in real terms, but it’s only growing when compared to the disastrous year 2003 when the war started.  The Pentagon has chosen to compare the current Iraqi economy to the last couple years of Saddam’s reign which if anyone remembers why there was a Food for Oil program were dismal.   The report cites an inflation rate of 20 percent as well and an unemployment figure of 21 percent.  These aren’t unreasonable figures for a country at war, but they also aren’t signs that things are going well.  

The report summary claims a real growth rate of 3.7 percent for Iraq’s economy for the year 2005 and that electricity production briefly exceeded its goals last summer.  It doesn’t say a lot about the fact that Iraq’s GDP dropped by 41 percent in 2003.  It also only mentions that disruptions of the infrastructure have meant that electricity production has not been steady or reliable since summer.  You may have also read stories about the price of gas and other fuel quadrupling in Iraq the last few weeks of 2005.  

Instead, the report happily cites statistics like the number of new business registrations in the country without referring to the estimated total number of businesses in Iraq, the total lost in the last two and half years, or the total amount of capital involved in these new registrations.  For instance if General Motors goes out of business and I start a car company in my backyard, there’s no net loss.  They also happily cite a World Bank ease of doing business survey which now ranks Iraq 114th out of 155 countries in the world.  New Zealand is first btw.  

Other good news numbers are surprisingly subjective.  These include surveys of how safe Iraqis feel in their neighborhoods and willingness to participate in the political process.  Think about it though, how many people who are involved in the insurgency are going to say, “No, I don’t believe my neighborhood is safe or no I’m not going to vote, I’m too busy planting IEDs.”  

One fascinating bar graph indicates that “tips” received from the population have gone from 483 in March 2005 to 3341 in August 2005.  I have a couple worries.  First, there may be more tips because there’s a lot more activity to tip.  For instance, my suburban neighborhood is not a source for many tips about youth gang activity.  If that number jumped suddenly, it would scare me.  Second if the coalition is paying for those tips, the bar graph doesn’t suggest what percentage of those tips are reliable.  If you remember, police investigators often claim to have received hundreds of tips in a well publicized murder case especially when the family announces a reward.  Yes, the larger number of tips might indicate greater cooperation from the general population.  It might also be a very ominous number.  

Another graph quantifies the total attacks by province.  It’s meant to show that out of the 18 provinces, there are large numbers of attacks in only five of them.  Of course, the largest two, Baghdad and Al-Anbar are the two most heavily populated provinces.  Al-Anbar is has 2.2 million people or a little less than 10percent of the country’s population.  It’s more or less like saying that Americans are safe in twenty states and the problem is really only bad in two.  If it turns out that the two are California and New York and the twenty are all in the between the Rockies and the Sierras, that’s not a good thing.  At one point, the report mentions that Iraqi troops are taking the security lead for 87 square miles in Baghdad province, 450 square miles in other provinces, and have the lead in one province (funny that they didn’t mention the name).  Iraq has 168,000 square miles of territory.  Yes, there are large sections of Iraq that remain relatively safe.  Unfotunately, the equivalent of D.C., New York, Philadelphia, and Boston doesn’t happen to be.  

Btw, this report turned out to be the first indicator that the U.S. had been tracking Iraqi death totals, the President’s estimate of 30,000.  On page 23, the report talks about 80 percent of attacks being against coalition forces with 80 percent of the casualties being Iraqis.  

One fascinating figure is the estimate of 192,100 trained an equipped combined military and police in Iraq.  The washout rate in training is 15% and absentee “spikes” during combat run 5-8% of units, which means that one in 12 soldiers disappears during combat.  
Overall AWOL rates are 1-4%, which isn’t bad compared to certain National Guard units in Alabama during the War in Vietnam.  

It turns out that the Iraqi police, for instance, are equipped with Ak47s, the Kalashnikov.  I don’t know what this means exactly, but it’s curious.  I had a horrible time figuring out what the level of equipment is for a unit of coalition forces.  When talking about the Iraqi army, the Pentagon mentions the infusion of hundreds of Kraz and Gaz trucks, from Russia.  I looked closely for items like the number of tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and helicopters available to the Iraqi army and possibly for strategic reasons, the Pentagon failed to offer any figures.  I don’t know why they made a point of mentioning hundreds of trucks.  ;The report mentions some 750 light to medium vehicles have been added to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, but that might include motorcycles and cars and those hundreds of Russian trucks.  

The report does mention specific equipment in discussing the Iraqi navy and air force.  The Iraqi navy operates 24 Fast Aluminum Boats, I’m thinking future Iraqi John Kerrys here, and 10 rigid hull inflatable boats.  The air force has three C-130e aircraft.  It mentions 14 reconnaisance aircraft, then points out that 6 of them are currently grounded.  The Iraqi air force has 9 helicpoters, five of which are used for training only., but four of them aren’t operating and there’s an equivocal sentence about whether or not the others can operate in the “Iraqi” environment.  

The police figures and equipment numbers are similiarly vague.  ;There is some mention of the fact that AWOL police remain a problem wherever there is “considerable strife.  The report offers no AWOL rate.  There is also mention in the report of problems with various security units getting out of control and torturing suspects during interrogation.  For some reason, the Pentagon declines to quantify the problem.  

The Pentagon ends its report by identifying criteria for withdrawal of coalition forces.

  1. levels of present and projected insurgent activity.  (it offers no target here)

  2. readiness and capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces.  Worse estimate, after 2.5 years there we have 1 unit that can operate independently.  Their estimate is 36 are at an acceptable level, roughly 40% of the current Iraqi army and about one tenth of the lowest reasonable number needed.  If this is linear, that means 20 more years.

  3. readiness and capabilities of relevant governmental institutions.  It takes 3 weeks to count the votes in their elections.  When you run for office, you do so anonymously so you can’t be assassinated.  Baghdad, where the parliament expects to meet isn’t secure.  Other than that, there’s been a lot of progress.

  4. ability of coaltion forces to reinforce the Iraqi Security Forces if necessary (that sounds suspiciously like Murtha) and there are no “metrics” on this count.  In fact, I can’t find out how many planes and tanks we currently have over there ourselves.  I do suspect that we have more than four working helicopters.

The Report also concludes that international support and the engagement of Iraq’s neighbors will be crucial to the process.  Let me throw two names at you, John Bolton and Condaleeza Rice.  

Would I loan more money on this project based on a report like this?  I doubt it.  If this is the Pentagon’s loan application, even at its most favorable it just doesn’t look good.  Another way to look at the report is as a “dependency matter”. Dependency court is basically the place where courts determine what to do with children who have been taken out of their parents’ custody.  In this case, there may have been good reasons for declaring Saddam an incompetent and abusive dad.  If this were the foster parent’s report to the court for a soon to be 18 year old child, I would worry.  There are indications that the kid isn’t being fed, is still getting into fights, and that there’s still abuse in the home.  We might be moving towards adoption by the foster parent, but it might be a long time before any court lets that happen.  

This is the amazing thing though.  There are almost 300 Democrats in the House and Senate and some 612 overall. They’re the ones who got this report and they’re the ones who are supposed to act on it.  We’ve heard from Joe Lieberman.  I’ve seen a number of right wing blogs claim that this report shows “real “ progress and the hidden good news in Iraq.   Why isn’t there anyone in Congress who complains about even half the flaws that an amateur like me found in the thing?  


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Friday, January 06, 2006

The Roots of Marriage

Photo of less than perfect family man on right

Wow!  Thanks to the Daou Report I came across this op ed in USA Today Roland Warren on African-American Marriage.  I’m fine with the premise that at least in this culture it’s better for kids if their parents are in a stable marriage.  It’s the Roots part of Warren’s argument that threw me.  

Kunta Kinte escaped his master several times only to be caught each time. But one thing finally caused him to change course: his marriage and the birth of his daughter. Kunta "jumped the broom" with Bell, the plantation's cook. The ritual was used to formalize the husband-wife bond, since slaves could not legally marry. Bell soon gave birth to their first daughter, named Kizzy, an African word for "stay put." Kunta decided that creating a legacy of hope for his family was more important than escape.”

Warren can’t really be serious.  Is he actually implying that “marriage” helped Kunta Kinte stop trying to escape or resist slavery and that it thus made him a better man?  Holy Spartacus!

I know that some argue that living the “straight life” is a form of slavery, but Warren may have had a few too many dinners with Trent Lott.  Some of us grew up believing that it’s perfectly honorable to resist slavery for yourself and those you love, rather than to “make the best of it.”  Perhaps he really did mean to imply that fatherhood and family life were a fair tradeoff for being chattel? Whether one works in the house of Goldman Sachs (Warren's former employer) or some other field, slavery still can't be justified.  

Criticize those who escape to drugs, crime, other women, surfing the internet all you want, but I gotta draw the line when it comes to implying that trying to escape or resist slavery is ever a bad thing. I would mention though that Warren's loose Roots talk may inadvertently make for a very strong argument for gay marriage :}.

I have no problems with the basic goals of the National Fatherhood Initiative, but Warren’s Roots argument is both embarrassing and strangely reveals a lot about his sensitivity to African-American history and the legacy of slavery itself.  I say this fully aware that Roland Warren is African-American and that I’m not.  Warren may need to take a look at another Haley book, the Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

My Father's Paradox (fiction)

story published at Eclectica


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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Can I Use Your Bathroom, Please?

It’s rained steadily here for most of the last two weeks.  Some of my county was flooded enough that I got an e-mail from a friend in New York City checking to see if we were all right. Four years ago, I e-mailed him to make sure that they weren’t anywhere near the World Trade Center.  Other than being wet, our one direct flood problem is a section of fence near the creek that marks the end of our backyard fell after the posts failed.  We also happen to have dogs, so now we have to keep them in the garage or keep a close eye on them as they venture near that end of the yard.  Border collies got their name for a reason.  Ours love to inspect and test the integrity of any boundaries both physical and between owner and pet.  The fall of the “wall” may be a great moment in Border Collie history for our dogs though this one only leads to the neighbor’s otherwise enclosed backyard.  Two nights in a row, I’ve had to retrieve our dog from the neighbor’s living room because they have one of those pet doors.  Fortunately, they’ve been very good natured about it, the neighbors that is.  The escaped border collie does this civil disobedience thing when I find her.  As I try to walk her home, she turns over on her back and forces me to carry her back to the garage.  She probably has a name in their language equivalent to “butterfly” or “spirit catcher” and blogs on the animal internet about freeing our voluntary cat with the implanted chip.  

As I drove to work this morning, hundreds of acres of winery were underwater with vines and their frames poking up just above the surface.  My normal back roads routes also got shut down and the approach roads had sprouted potholes.  On the main highway to San Francisco, a forty foot section on top of a hill crumbled like a graham cracker and pushed down six to ten inches below the surface.  The traffic backed up for about two miles.  You know those two thousand year old Roman roads?  They’ve got to be among the most extraordinary engineering achievements of any civilization.  

Okay, speaking of civilization and rain, America is headed backwards on a few fronts.  Before 1960, the shame was that places in the United States forced blacks and whites to use separate water fountains and bathrooms.  In the 1970’s, unixex bathrooms appeared in any number of places.  In the twenty first century, public facilities disappear completely.  It’s happened already with payphones.  Since most people now have cell phones, it’s harder for the phone company to make money off phone booths.  Possibly more serious, it’s getting very difficult to find public bathrooms in any place where you don’t have to buy something first and with Jack Abramoff gone… In our family, we routinely bring water bottles in the car on trips, because we can’t expect to find working water fountains in most places.   This shame is deeper.  We are building around the needs and comfort of money rather than actual people.  

As much as some people want to believe in the “ownership” society, there still has to be a thing called “public space” in towns and cities.  One should not have to pay for the privilege of walking, sitting, seeking shelter from the rain or cold, going to the bathroom, or to have access to clean drinking water.  I also think there should be sufficient phone service at a nominal cost in case of personal emergency.  For whatever reason, our commitment to provide those items has faded.  It’s easy to have some very anxious moments in places where thousands of people walk and shop because it’s virtually impossible to find a bathroom.  We now take it for granted that finding a public bathroom after hours is essentially impossible.  Yes, there remain any number of restaurants and other businesses that maintain public restrooms.  Still, I’m noticing more public gathering places that simply don’t have them unless you happen to be a customer.  Generally, they’ll give you the key if you have an emergency and tell them so.  It isn’t  a simple matter of a lack of public spirit on the part of private business owners.  In many cases, they turn careful about their bathrooms because the general public abuses the privilege.  

A lot gets said about public health care and transportation.  There’s currently a fair amount about cyber rights, universal access to the internet, etc.  Almost nothing is being said about the disappearance of public facilities that provide for our day to day bodily needs.  It was De Tocqueville that said you can measure a civilization by looking at its prisons.  Perhaps the clearest measure of our decline is the loss of public facilities.  The old porcelain water fountain, clean, working, and always on was one of the symbols of our cultural generosity of spirit.  Payphones once sent the message that technology was available to anyone.  Reasonably clean well lit public bathrooms once used to be a reasonable if not a universal expectation.  One of my saddest memories was visiting a Washington D.C. public high school and discovering that their toilets didn’t flush and hadn’t for some time. It probably was no accident that the school was entirely African-American.  Again, we once had the confidence to leave bathrooms unlocked.  Other disappearing amenities seem to be places to sit and places to deposit trash.  

My local mall has had gang problems in recent years, so I think they’ve reasoned that if there are no benches or seats to tag or fight over then there are fewer arguments.  I suspect the stores tend to be happier when people pay for the privilege of sitting down rather than hanging out in non-retail spaces.  

Instead of talking constantly about the “ownership society” and the “evils of entitlement”, I’m wondering when some political leader will start talking again about the necessary elements of our “shared society” and the level of pride, duty, responsibility we share to keep public facilities available and useable.  I can imagine anthropologists at some point in the future coming into our cities and concluding that Americans must have physically evolved in some way.  They didn’t have to drink water, didn’t have to go to the bathroom, and never had to sit down.  Either that or we took self-sufficiency so seriously that we simply never traveled without our own phones, water, lavatories, etc.  

When I was a kid, we worried about the dangers of socialism.  I suspect observers from some more civilized planet would simply call our emerging physical culture “anti-social” in the most literal sense.  In the meantime, the rain keeps falling outside and I keep thinking about the movie Bladerunner and its vision of the LA of the future as a place better suited to androids than humans.  

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