Sunday, September 30, 2007

The GOP vs. the U.S. Military: Part Six- Purging the Officer Corps, Indoctrinating the Ranks

* The Danger Grows...

Our topic is an ongoing campaign by President George W. Bush and the Neoconservatives to undermine, discredit, suborn and crush the professionals who make up the U.S. Civil Service, the intelligence and law enforcement communities, the courts, scientists, and any others who might stand in the way of their principal program -- the unlawful usurpation of unaccountable power.

Foremost among these skilled and dedicated public servants -- who have been the Bushites’ first and worst victims -- are members of the United States Military. As I have been showing, our men and women in uniform are harassed, overworked and undersupported. The services are worn down and misused, apolitical traditions shredded, and careers terminated... especially whenever a brave officer or enlisted person stands up to protest.

Whether this destructive process is driven by obstinate dogmatism -- or something diabolically deliberate -- is left to opinion. (Or else, it is a matter for our harried professionals to uncover.)

HowDemocratsRepublicansWageWarNevertheless the overall outcome is unmistakable. It appears that flag-waving jingoism and noisy posturing do not guarantee genuine support for our troops. Indeed, they seem to correlate with the exact opposite.

* The Great Purge

In Parts One and Two we discussed the demolition of our nation’s reputation for invincibility and our stature on the moral high ground. Two traits of inestimable value, even in strictly military terms. But those are still abstractions, so Part 3 focused on the marrow -- the plummet in readiness of the United States army and Marines. A situation that is horrifying, the more you learn.

In Part 4 we saw how demolishing the Army, the Marines and the Reserves, without asking the rich for money or the rest of us for volunteers, does not even remotely resemble how leaders of a rational nation would fight either a war of national policy or a response to dire crisis. All of the excuses that have been offered have been revealed as absurd.

* But that ain’t the worst, by far.

Vastly more chilling is the relentless effort to purge the officer corps. A culling process that has only accelerated in the last couple of years, eliminating men and women of high calibre from what had been a pool of supremely educated, competent and apolitically dedicated professionals, replacing many of them with yes-man hacks...

...a catastrophe that could justifiably be compared to Joseph Stalin's purge of the Red Army in 1937-1938, which is widely blamed for leaving the Russian officer corps understaffed and undertrained on the eve of war with Nazi Germany. True, the neocons aren’t shooting our generals and admirals, just forcing them into early retirement. But be patient. We may still be in early days.

A couple of years after I first broached this matter (pretty much alone), news articles began circulating about clusters of retired flag officers, speaking out against the creeping betrayal.

What remains puzzling is the gaping silence from prominent democrats -- except for Wesley Clark -- about a scandal that should be right out there. Treated as a major campaign issue and one of our paramount concerns.

(Let’s take a note of optimism in the rise of Navy CNO Admiral Mike Mullen to be our nation’s next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with Adm.William Fallon as Commander of US Central Command -- both of them outspoken critics of administration policy and diametrically opposite to kind of officers we are accustomed to seeing rewarded by this president. These important promotions suggest that the military professionals aren’t exactly lying down. Dedicated to silence on political matters, they may nevertheless have applied forceful back pressure of their own, behind the scenes, against the ongoing Bushite purge. If so, these people deserve honor for defending us, yet again, this time from an enemy within.)

See: The Under-reported Purge of the U.S. Officer Corps

* But the Great Purge Has Many Sides

Alas, our military’s professionalism and dedicated tradition of Constitutionalism are under assault from many directions, not just the ongoing effort to bully or dumb-down commanders at the top. There is also a deeply worrisome campaign to suborn and infiltrate dogmatism into the ranks, from the side and from below.

Bruce Wilson a lead researcher for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, wrote to me about ongoing neocon efforts to transform the United States Military, turning it into an active force for the fundamentalist Christianization of America. (Moderate churches have always played a very different and positive role.)

Read more about scandalous efforts to turn our apolitical and Constitutional military into an instrument of religious orthodoxy, on our way toward a theocratic state like the one forecast - in fiction - by a worried Robert A. Heinlein. (In prophetic novels he portrayed theocracy beginning, chillingly, in the year 2012.) MRRF is commendably trying to combat this trend, which some services have resisted more vigorously than others. (For a darker view, from an even more worried perspective, see

Take this testimony from a recently-serving Army NCO: “In Basic Training in Kentucky, all soldiers are sent to a local church that gives you a few hours of downtime on a weekend and required to attend an Evangelical Christian worship service - no matter your religious persuasion. (Those who objected based on religious grounds were so harshly threatened that they gave in and went.) This fire and brimstone service in no uncertain terms paints the current geopolitical situation in terms of the Book of Revelations, anoints these trainees as chosen soldiers of God converting and killing heathens, and ends with a conversion ceremony where nonbelievers are peer-pressured into being 'Saved' .”

(In fairness, when I queried soldiers and marines whom I know or could reach via blog, only a minority report having seen this kind of travesty, though more subtle attempts at suasion appear to be common. Notably, none of the sailors I’ve spoken with -- either serving or retired -- have experienced anything like it. But that’s the Navy for you.)

Responding to my recent articles, Bruce Wilson wrote: “I can guarantee your concerns were not overblown. In fact, my research findings have recently demonstrated that.” Wilson acknowledged though, that none of their efforts have yet been directed at what may be the most dangerous part of this trend, an attempt by up to one hundred far-right members of Congress to stock the military academies with young men and women whose allegiance would no longer be Constitutionalist and neutral, but rather, as personal, ideological and lopsidedly political as the praetorians, janissaries, or jaguar warriors of old.

Of course, I had hoped that MRFF would already be monitoring this part of the problem. Perhaps now they will. It could take substantial dedication and research... or else, perhaps, just a simple polling of Congressfolk, under the letterhead of a quasi religious group, asking a straightforward question: “Are you using your Congressional privilege to appoint dedicated evangelical Christians to the military service academies?” One might be surprised how eagerly obliging and up-front some of the representatives are likely to be. (If any of you out there have suggestions or contacts that might be helpful, do contact MRFF.

I am especially interested in further confirmation of one clear impression -- that the Navy has been stalwart in resisting attempts to “stock” fanatics into Annapolis, while the Air Force has given in completely -- lock, stock and MX missile.

* Again... at least there is the Navy.

God bless the United States Navy.

And let’s go save the Army.

==Continue to Part 7

Friday, September 28, 2007

The GOP vs. the U.S. Military: Part Five - Let The Excuses Roll!

Last time, we discussed two kinds of modern armed conflict -- a bona fide crisis that can be likened to an “emergency room operation” vs. the “elective surgery” of an intervention that is meant to enforce policy. Sure, this dichotomy oversimplifies terribly. But it does clarify some important tradeoffs concerning how best to apply force. Like whether a particular overseas endeavor should be allowed to affect our economy, our honor, our laws, our reputation, our social cohesion... (or return to Part 1 of this series.)

...and especially our overall military readiness. Of all my “j’accuse” points, the one that angers me most is the Bushite betrayal of the National Guard and Reserves, using them up and stripping us bare, in an endeavor that is - at best - an attempt at utopian nation-building.

In response, a commenter posted his own powerful observation:

“The evisceration of the Reserves and Guard ought to enrage states' rights conservatives. Not only has disaster relief in the near term been compromised, but future recruitment is virtually doomed. People once joined up expecting to help their communities, fight fires or conduct disaster relief, and only deploy abroad in case of an urgent, temporary emergency or major conflict. Now they've got to take into account the probability that they’ll be thrown in the line in endless, grueling missions, as if they were full time soldiers.

“We haven't begun to experience the fallout from this particular insanity.”

* Excuses Abound!

Any Boy Scout will tell you that it’s best to “be prepared.” So what do neocons say, when you point out that our military readiness has -- inarguably -- plummeted during the GOP’s watch?

Their first line of defense is to reply that none of the rules for “elective policy wars” apply, since this really is an emergency! Indeed, a State of Emergency has been declared and re declared by George W. Bush, so often that the word loses resonance. Its primarily effect is to let administration cronies bypass stringent rules for competitive bidding of military and associated contracts, allowing billion dollar deals to be assigned, at whim, to whatever friends the administration chooses.

Again, if it were a real emergency, all of us -- rich and poor -- would be asked to sacrifice. And we would sacrifice! In order to act decisively and put the emergency behind us. (Though the last thing we would surrender is our civil liberties.)

Anyway, if the world is so dangerous, shouldn’t readiness be out top military priority?

A second excuse for abandoning high levels of military readiness goes like this: “Exactly what is the point, any more, of the US Army being trained to fight major unit conventional warfare, as if going "toe-to-toe with the Russkies" in the Fulda Gap? No one fights that way any more!”

Consider how bizarre this is. The "no one will fight that way anymore" argument is put forward by defenders of the Bush family.... who in 1991 and 2003 chose precisely to fight Saddam Hussein in the old, brute force way. Both Bushes hurled large field armies into frontal assaults against entrenched enemy forces, ignoring reasonable alternatives that might have removed Iraq’s mad tyrant far more cheaply. Now, that Army the Bushes fielded is essentially gone. Can anyone explain why this weird flip is greeted with shrugs?

Which president did work closely and respectfully with the scholar generals, to implement a “revolution in military affairs”... while maintaining high levels of conventional readiness? Bill Clinton’s campaign in the Balkans -- blatantly the most successful war in U.S. history -- applied overwhelming but surgical force toward the achievement of crystal-clear goals in rapid time. (Losing not a single American serviceman or woman along the way.)

Likewise, our post-9/11 retaliation against the Taliban regime, in Afghanistan, utilized similar procedures and doctrines, following detailed plans that were laid down during Clinton’s tenure. (Bush only had time to say “Go!” to blueprints already on the shelf and local alliances that were already in place, a fact that is clear in the timing, and yet never gets mentioned.)

.* Crux time.

“Nobody fights that way anymore" is a rationalization of stunning hypocrisy. It could as easily have been said about the way we waged war in Vietnam, allowing our forces to get embroiled in a futile, mindless, draining, alienating, counter-insurgency war of attrition on the continent of Asia. We swore that would never happen again. Yet, it did.

They offer that lame excuse in order to distract from the core point, one that needs to be hammered again and again. George W. Bush and his allies are demolishing the United States Army and Marines.

We can argue whether this vile effect is due to massive incompetence, or deliberate planning.
Whether to fix the problem by mobilizing society to greater martial commitment, or else by pulling out of a senseless quagmire and letting the pros get back to training.
We can either see this in the larger context of a neocon “war against professionalism”...

...or else focus only on the men and women of the military, who are the Bushites’ paramount victims. All of these secondary issues, reasonable people might ponder and dispute honestly.

But not the bald fact of this crime against America. That George W. Bush and his allies are demolishing the United States Army and Marines.

Only then, alas, Babylon, it gets even worse.

--continue to Part 6 of this series...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The GOP vs. the U.S. Military: Part Four - Wars of Emergency vs Wars of Policy

Last time, we pondered the ghost at the banquet. A scandal that few seem able or willing to discuss. The plummeting combat readiness of the United States Army, Marines and Reserves. Their steeply declining ability -- trapped and worn down in a faraway desert -- to meet any military challenge that might suddenly confront the nation, in dangerous times. (Or return to Part 1 of this series.)

So relentless and systematic has been the Bush Administration’s demolition of U.S. military readiness that one might even give in to temptation and imagine this along the lines of a lurid thriller novel, wherein this destructive process did not arise out of dogmatism and blithering incompetence, but something else. Something even more odious and deliberate.

But let’s not give into that temptation here. There’s too much on our plate that is blatant and irrefutable. So we’ll concentrate, this time, on fundamentals. Like how any sensible leadership ought to use armed force in dangerous times.

What follows may seem cynical and hard-headed to some liberals, while striking a neoconservative as idealistic. In fact, it is neither. Alas, these points may be too subtle for dogmatists of either left or right to grasp. So, once again, I’ll be talking to the harried middle.

Those who believe that pragmatism and idealism can -- and should -- coincide in a complex world.

* Does anybody remember -- “last resort”?

Almost any member of the U.S. Officer Corps, serving or retired, will recite a nostrum about how often he or she has prayed not to go to war. For the diplomats and politicians -- (and yes, covert operatives) -- to find alternative solutions to any given problem or crisis, short of using brute military force.

Yes, the services have a principal task, to make themselves ready for every conceivable variety of conflict. Indeed, that readiness is viewed as the ultimate deterrent to war. But, in the George Marshall tradition, it is deemed rash and immature to rush violent action -- if for no other reason, because wars are always costly and messy, and seldom go according to plan.

Go ask an officer... any military officer... and see if they use the phrase ”last resort.”

(Those that have gone according to plan -- e.g. the Balkans intervention and the Afghanistan campaign, succeeded because they hewed closely to what was ironically called the “Powell Doctrine” -- a policy of applying overwhelming force with surgical precision, maintaining clear goals, coordination with local allies, and a plan for the aftermath, along with close teamwork between diplomats, warriors, politicians and a well-informed people... a doctrine that, was diametrically and weirdly betrayed during the tenure of Secretary of State Colin Powell.)

So, what ever happened to “last resort?” When all but one of the leading Republican presidential candidates declare that they would rush to use torture, dispatch bombers, and trade away civil liberties, faster and more harshly than the others, should not even a cynic or practitioner of realpolitik pause and wonder? When they all speak of a “permanent state of emergency,” shouldn’t even rational conservatives ask a simple question:

“What kind of a decent, mature or prudent person speaks of torture and war without, at minimum, applying those two words? Last resort?”

Such is the madness that our professionals must deal with, today. Especially in the military, where the resort to war has been treated with cavalier carelessness by meddlesome politicians, to a degree that beggars our memory of Vietnam.

Which brings us to a subtle but important point about the use (or misuse) of America’s varied armed forces.

* Wars of Emergency vs Wars of Policy: Either way, we’re betrayed

Elsewhere I distinguish between two kinds of foreign intervention: Wars of Emergency vs Wars of Policy. Those that are like “emergency room” operations and others that more resemble “elective surgery.”

Our rush into Iraq was initially justified entirely on the first of these models, stoked by an appeal to fear and imminent danger. But when weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi terror links proved chimerical, the administration’s rhetoric flipped like a switch to the other genre of justification. That we should pour all available resources into a utopian exercise in nation building, planting democracy in the rockiest of ground, as a matter of (ill-considered, hubristic, impractical and profoundly immature) national policy.

Forgive the parenthetical remark. Because, for just a moment, we need to put aside whether a particular “elective policy endeavor” is sensible and well-planned, or venial and moronic. However good or bad a policy-based act of power projection may be, there would appear to be several basic “don’ts” when it comes to a political war -- or an intervention that’s “elective surgery.”

1) Don’t send in the reserves. They are -- by law, tradition, and common sense, reserved for the protection of our communities and homeland. Brief use of the National Guard overseas, in bona fide emergencies? Sure. But it is rash -- bordering on criminal -- for the Commander in Chief to use citizen militia as tools of optional foreign policy.

Whether or not a President’s policy is sensible, if he cannot achieve the nation’s policy aims with the field army at his command, he should ask for a bigger field army.

(Note to Congress. Try focusing on the Guard. Push a bill limiting their overseas stints to six months, then dare a filibuster! Even Red Staters will rouse and start wondering.)

2) In “elective surgery” wars, you might use elite, fast-reaction troops, sparingly, committing them for a brief time, perhaps for their ability to shock and overwhelm. Only then, the elite shock troops -- e.g. airborne and Marines -- should be withdrawn again, to concentrate on readiness for either an emergency or some more important policy endeavor.

Retraining such units for extended constabulary duty is beyond stupid. It is a pure waste.

3) Even regular Army divisions should not be spent wantonly on policy-based conflict. The old nostrum of being prepared to win two major regional wars at once may be obsolete. But the underlying wisdom is not. Those who assure us otherwise bear the steepest burden of proof.

4) Whether a projection of force is an emergency operation or an elective enforcement of national policy -- truthful evaluation of short and long term costs is essential. If the nation must sacrifice its warriors, its treasury, its international goodwill and peace of mind, then we should be called upon to mobilize, as our ancestors did, rich and poor, to willingly pay whatever must be paid. If convinced, millions would step up to enlist. And the rich would, as in times past, come forward to offer billions.

That neither thing has happened -- that our forces are being ground down while American youths and moguls hold back -- demonstrates how little enthusiasm either of these vital sectors have for the policy itself.

5) Finally, do not break faith with the troops. Using extraordinary measures and coercion to maintain an army in the field is not consistent with an elective, policy-based intervention. These extraordinary measures include “stop loss” retention of servicemembers who are finishing their enlistments, or keeping men and women stationed in hellish places for more than a year without a break. Such measures constitute a creeping and dishonest form of conscription, or impressment.

Again, if it is an “emergency” -- and the neocons keep saying so -- then stop treating this as elective surgery. As a political program of nation-building that should be funded and staffed by peacetime means. Choose one justification or the other!

If this is a policy-war, then achieve your goals efficiently, without theft, crony-deals, deficit spending, torture, stop-loss betrayals, and ruined readiness.

But if it is a true emergency, then have the guts to step up and do what Lincoln did. What Wilson and Roosevelt did.

Ask us to give up butter for guns, till it’s over.

Ask for volunteers.

Ask for a draft.

--Next: Let The Excuses Roll!

or return to Part 1 of this series

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The GOP vs. the U.S. Military: Part Three - Destroying Readiness

In Parts 1 and 2 we covered an important aspect of the war being waged by George W. Bush & co. against the United States Military. In an accomplishment of prodigious magnitude, the neocons have succeeded at systematically destroying two precious and useful abstractions -- our reputation for invincibility and our reputation for taking the high moral ground.

While never perfect, both of these hard-won images were powerful incentives for people and nations to try to be allies of America and its people, rather than enemies. Indeed, they underpinned a nearly-worldwide consensus, before 2003, to accept a “unipolar world.”

Today, both of these important images lie shattered. That consensus has dissolved. And the world - despite so much sacrifice -- is a far more dangerous place.

* It gets even worse.

But enough about image and reputation. Now let’s talk about the actual, day-to-day situation in today’s U.S. military.

I have elsewhere addressed the declining state of US military readiness, offering -- for example -- a glimpse at the horrific condition of our National Guard and Reserves, whose principal task should be preparing for emergency service at home, or (at most) overseas in some dire and temporary crisis. Not to be hurled -- at presidential whim -- into lengthy and grinding foreign adventures or political wars. The devastation of our reserves, tearing families apart, breaking solemn promises and leaving communities defenseless, should be a major scandal. It certainly is part and parcel of the overall demolition of our military.

Now that the “Revolt of the Generals” is finally getting some attention, will journalists and mass media finally start doing their jobs, investigating and telling the stories America needs to hear?

Or should we stop passing the buck and start looking in the mirror? Back when I first raised this issue, I never expected that the American people would let these horrific trends continue.

But we have. Indeed, things are even worse. And, ultimately, the fault lies at our own feet.

* America’s Plummeting Readiness for Real War.

Two years ago, I spent a fascinating several days at Fort Irwin, in California’s Mojave Desert (to film an episode of my "Architechs" TV show) riding armored hummers and interviewing Special Forces sergeants. There, at the National Training Center, US Army Brigades used to assemble for large scale field exercises, practicing the art of full-force combat in order to hone the very skills that were used so effectively against Saddam’s huge military machine, both in 1991 and in 2003. These are the capabilities -- to fight large-scale land warfare -- that seemed so impressive to the rest of the world, that many potential adversaries seemed ready to admit that they would never achieve parity with such a formidable US Army.

That was then. Today, no brigades come to the National Training Center, anymore, to forge their large scale war-fighting skills in fiercely realistic exercises. Now, small units arrive weekly to blitz in and out of fake Arab villages, simulating urban counter-insurgency tactics. In essence, we have turned almost all of the US Army into one giant SWAT team. Yes, it is an important modern skill. We need to invest in 21st Century counter-insurgency tools and doctrines. But have we forgotten that the principal purpose of the Army is to defend our nation from those who would wage real war against us?

Consider the divisions that were sent to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 -- what now seems ages ago. Heavily outnumbered -- a mere corps, that was sent (against professional advice) to do the job of a full army -- those professional units nevertheless performed brilliantly against the a deeply-entrenched Republican Guard. Whatever one thinks of the dismal Bushite caste, who first nurtured Saddam Hussein, then deliberately left him in power, in 1991, to continue brutalizing his people for twelve more years, then finally toppled him, but botched the aftermath...

....putting all of that aside, each of those divisions took on herculean labors for a month, demonstrating how much warriors can achieve, when their training, equipment, doctrines and morale are honed to a mighty peak. Only, now ask the officers and noncoms of the Third Infantry, or the Marines, if they feel ready to perform such miracles again, after four years rotating in small units, getting worn down as an occupation constabulary, re-taking the same dusty streets, over and over again, bleeding without apparent goal or purpose, for people who - to a large degree - just want them to go away.

Are there any exceptions to this near-utter turn of the US Army away from training for war? Well, one brigade of the 101st and one of the 82nd are kept on standby, at a high level of readiness. But they are light, air-mobile forces... essentially SWAT teams in their own right. So, when it comes to heavy warfare, they don’t count. No. If you look carefully, we only have a couple of brigades that are ready, at this moment, to perform a heavy war-fighting role. And those are in Korea. That’s two brigades. Maybe three. Far away from home.

* We Could Not Defend Our Borders Against Canada.

Of course the preceding sentence creates an absurd image. Yet, it was inspired by something said to me recently, by a senior officer.

Speaking off the record, a recently retired general confided: “The Army that George Bush Senior fielded in 1991... or the one that Bill Clinton commanded ... could beat our present force, hands down. Even hobbled and blindfolded. Hell, I wonder if we could keep the Mexican Army out if (purely in theory) they decided to invade.”

Imagine what an issue this would be, if laid out, cogently, before the American people! Fortunately for the neocons, most Democrats and moderates seem unable to grasp the potential power of this scandal, transcending old definitions of left and right.

Take the “two wars doctrine” that was prevalent throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout his administration, President Bill Clinton was harshly criticized for maintaining a land force that would “only marginally” be ready to overcome two major regional challenges at the same time. .So, what are we to make of the consensus among U.S. generals, that our present land force could not even deal with one small or moderate surprise conflict?

On land, that is. All indications suggest that the U.S. Navy is still in decent shape. Still training for wide range of contingencies. Still ready to fight for us. At sea, that is.

Why isn’t this a major public scandal? If Democrats and the Media seem unable to perceive the power of the readiness issue, wouldn’t you expect some conservatives -- the quaint, old-fashioned Goldwater-types, who cared more for country than culture war -- to broach this subject? Indeed, at long last, a few are speaking up -- if in muted, grudging tones. Columnist George F. Will -- often a poster boy for rationalized double standards -- nevertheless lifts his head out of the ostrich hole, now and then. On September 23, 2007, he remarked on how an endless quagmire was affecting one service:

“For Marines.. fighting such a war (in Iraq) for more than four years jeopardizes the skills essential to its core mission -- combat as an expeditionary force.” Indeed, taking this from a strictly realpolitik point of view, the Marines Corps is precisely the branch of service that should maintain high readiness levels, in order to project U.S. power as a matter of (hopefully well-considered and mature) national policy. That’s their mission.

Only, they have been betrayed. And so have we.

* Well, at least there is the Navy.

At last, a part of this that requires only one sentence, given all that we have seen. Just this glimmer of hope.

God bless the United States Navy.

Next time... two kinds of war... and two ways to botch it....

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Real Bush War -- Neocons vs. the U.S. Military

Part Two - Staining the Honor of our Armed Forces

Our topic is the number one accomplishment of the George W. Bush administration. Not the record deficits, or stagnant science, or rampant theft, or even a legacy of nation-dividing Culture War. Rather, it is something that until a few years ago seemed downright impossible -- bringing low the finest and most professional national military the world has ever seen.

Especially the U.S. Army, which incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, has called “in critical condition.”

Despite frantically posturing as tough, flag-waving patrots, the neoconservative cabal (led largely by men who avoided or took cushy military service) has in fact succeeded in making America far less safe. Not only by driving away allies and spurring recruitment of Islamic radicals, but -- even worse -- by demolishing much of the power, elan, and reputation of the services that are dedicated to protecting us.

This problem ranges far beyond the military, of course. Elsewhere I speak to what ought to be the core issue of our coming elections. A broad campaign, led by our president, to bully, quash, subdue and politicize the professionals of the Civil Service, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the scientific community and countless other skilled public servants. A campaign whose paramount victims are the brave men and women of America’s armed forces.

In Part One we focused on one specific aspect of this travesty... the ruination our military’s hard-earned reputation for invincibility.

In this segment, we’ll another aspect of reputation. The cost of losing the high moral ground.

Then, in Parts 3 and 4 we’ll move on to matters even more horrific: the negligent squandering of our our military readiness and the ongoing effort to purge the United States Officer Corps.

But first...

* ...some added words about the value of reputation.

Along with “invincibility,” our nation -- and military -- used to benefit immensely from another advantage in the realm of appearances. A reputation for honorable behavior, hewing to the high moral standing that we established when we shocked the world by showing kindness to defeated enemies, like Germany and Japan. As George Marshall clearly saw -- with zealous agreement by (among others) Douglas MacArthur -- it can be not only good, but also profoundly pragmatic to seize the moral high ground. Because, over the long run, your nation will face more allies, instead of enemies or fence-sitting neutrals, if it is trusted, admired, and liked.

Do not let neocons get away with cynical shrugs (“who cares what foreigners think?”) We should all care, because nowadays. world popularity translates into power. We all saw this in the early nineties, when folk in Eastern Europe bravely told their communist masters “Either let us join NATO and the West, or shoot us!” They would never have done that, forcing the Cold War’s end game, if they thought that East and West were morally equivalent.

Would the Founding Fathers agree with my view, that it matters what the world thinks? Just re-read the very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. The part that declares a solemn and basic duty to pay “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind...”

Moreover, this abrogation of our nation’s paramount moral standing (as we saw in Part One) has not only harmed us at a diplomatic and strategic level. It also has devastating effects on a smaller, tactical scale.

Suppose that last resort measures like torture are truly reserved for super-rare and desperate occasions -- at the level of top spies and secret agents -- the way our government operated, by bipartisan consensus, for generations. Then further suppose that, as far as the battlefield is concerned, our soldiers in the field are trained to try -- whenever possible -- to fight with honor and obey the Laws of War, including fair treatment of prisoners. Does this hamper or help the soldiers, over the long run?

Ask any experienced warrior, what kind of victory is best. He will say that he prefers a foe who surrenders, over one who fights to the death. And enemies are more likely to lay down their arms if they confidently expect to be treated well, not subjected to Guantanamo water-boarding.

Over any span of time, tactical or strategic, decent, grownup and principled behavior is not only the higher moral path, it is also the practical road, leading to better long term results.

Yes, this is a statement that many neoconservatives would call sappy or naive. Witness how all but one of the present Republican presidential candidates claimed to be more eager to use torture than the others. (An ends-justify-the-means attitude to which Stalin, also, prescribed.) The words “last resort” were never used.

But we all know those words ought to be used. By adults.

* The Generals Agree

Want an example? Across several years, I’ve spoken repeatedly about how the United States Officer Corps is the third-best-educated clade in America today, just after college professors and medical doctors. Their dedication to skill, responsibility and strict attention to lawful process is matched by a level of scholarship that most civilians would find surprising. Senior leaders know an awful lot about history, about the world and its dangers. And this depth of knowledge gives them perspective on the pragmatic benefits of ethical behavior.

Moreover, a great many of our senior officers are worried. Not only about the ongoing political purge of their ranks and physical destruction of the Army (we’ll get to those), but also about a steady sliming of the honor of the armed forces.

Let me illustrate with a recent excerpt, describing one soldier who stood up: "This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind the hit TV show 24. Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming.... (They) had come to voice their concern that the show's central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country's security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. "I'd like them to stop," Finnegan said of the show's producers. "They should do a show where torture backfires."

(A cynical aside: how long, do you think, before Finnegan is purged, just like scores of other flag officers, whose only crime was to be grownups, at a time when they are bullied by political brats and? And how long shall we have to wait before Democrats, liberals and moderates realize that this is the issue? One that could rouse "ostrich Republicans" and tear apart Karl Rove's Big Tent coalition?)

* But should we be surprised?

After all, this is the same list of names -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and so on -- that committed the ignominious Shame of 1991, deliberately leaving Saddam Hussein with his boot on the necks of the Iraqi people, just days after Bush Sr. had gone on radio, personally, asking that the people rise up in rebellion, because we’re on our way. Gen. Schwarzkopf could have -- with 12 more hours -- liberated most of southern Iraq, leaving Saddam isolated and penniless, in a rump state without oil. Simply by offering southern Shiites the same protection we were already giving the Kurds - and going nowhere near Baghdad - Bush Sr.’s promise would have been kept, instead of betrayed, in one of the worst stains on American honor in our lifetimes.

Instead we had to come back 12 years later, squandering our boys and girls, our treasury and our alliances, in order to fix a festering sore of hatred that was in large part of our own making.

All of which prompts the question, was there ever a time when these people did anything right? (Certainly not if we go back even farther in time, when the same list of names were among Saddam’s best pals, and sent arms and training money to ... Osama bin Laden.)

No, we should not be surprised. We should wake up. We should take our soldiers, sailors, airmen, reservists and marines out of the hands of blustering brat-amateurs who treat those fine men and women like toys.

So far, we’ve dealt with stupid, impractical and immoral stains upon our honor. In part 3 we’ll move on to crimes against the U.S. military that are even worse.

==Continue to Part 3

or return to Part 1 of this series

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Real War of G.W. Bush -- Against the U.S. Military

One of the key points I keep trying to raise is that our core problem is not the War in Iraq, per se.

The real issue people should be talking about is what is being done to America. A nation that has been -- and remains -- historically vastly more important to the future of our descendants, and humanity in general. A country and civilization that is steadily being diminished, crippled, robbed and distracted. Not by a party or a movement, but by a bona fide criminal gang.

We need to remember that the Iraq war is a horror, but its core effect has been to divide, corrupt, cheat, demoralize and steal from the people of the United States.

This time, specifically, I want to aim at one aspect of the betrayal of America. One that I was among the very first (anywhere!) to point out, as long ago as 2004...

HowDemocratsRepublicansWageWar... that the number one accomplishment of the Bush Administration has been the partial-destruction of the United States military. Accompanied by (in some ways even worse) a near-complete demolition of its hardwon reputation for overwhelming invincibility.

This problem lies not only at the feet of the mad, neocon right, but also on some bad habits that Bush opponents have to break. It will be impossible for liberals to deal with the devastation of the Bush Era, if they nurse even a scintilla of simplistic hostility toward our men and women in uniform. That silly reflex is not only inaccurate and unjust -- picking on the wrong target -- but also self-defeating. We need these people. They are the Bushites’ worst victims.

Moreover, they are a large part of our hope, for the restoration of a lawful, constitutional and confident American Republic.

* But first, some preliminary data dumps.

One of you wrote in about an article in this month’s Rolling Stone "The great Iraq Swindle," covering a topic I have long spoken-of - that the Iraq incursion features truly vast amounts of contractor graft and corruption. So much that theft from the US taxpayer may plausibly have been one of the principal drivers of the entire misguided campaign.

Consider that our ongoing “Mess o’ Potamia” never followed the standard leftist scenario preached by Michael Moore and others, of being "about grabbing oil."

What oil? Do you see any Iraqi oil on the market? Standard left-wing excuses -- that the Bushites simply botched the oil grab -- look tired, after so many years. Especially since the FOBs (friends of Bush) have proved stunningly competent at getting rich off this war, by other means. (Indeed, keeping Iraqi oil OFF the market serves the desire of the world’s very top FOBs.)

No, the swindle is simple. In a "war" or "emergency," normal competitive contracting rules can be thrown away, enabling a Decider Presidency (look up "autarchy") to privatize anything it wants, any way it wants, and hand deals to its favorite, family friends.

Note that defenders of privatization do not even try any longer to justify it as "more efficient," since it takes four times as much (on average) to pay contractors in Iraq to accomplish nothing, as it took soldiers and civil servants.

ostrichpapersThis is one of a dozen issues that would let Democrats attack the Bushites from a conservative perspective, awakening “ostrich Republicans” and tearing apart Karl Rove's Big Tent coalition. That is, if any of the dems had enough savvy to look at the big picture.

Here is sad and worrisome news. Two US soldiers who helped write an article from the front saying America had "failed on every promise" in the Iraq war have been killed in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant Yance Gray, 26, and Sergeant Omar Mora, 28, were among a group of seven soldiers serving in Iraq who wrote a piece excoriating America's conduct of the war, published in The New York Times last month. ... Their public criticism caused a flurry of debate in the US because of the candor with which the men, all serving in the elite 82nd Airborne, described the war. "Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise," the seven wrote. "When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages."

View Keith Olbermann’s latest “J’accuse” polemic toward the Gang of Crooks and Liars.

* And now, on to the main part of this missive.

To reiterate, our main focus here concerns the number one accomplishment of the Bush Administration -- the ongoing demolition of the United States military.

...accompanied by (in some ways even worse) a near-complete evaporation of its hardwon reputation for overwhelming invincibility.

* The illusion is as important as the substance

Let there be no mistake. When it comes to practical politics in a dangerous world, these two things -- both actual and real power -- are equally important. For perception often guides what others do. Indeed, as recently as 2002, it seemed that the US military services could do nothing wrong. That their skills and equipment and elan were so far ahead of any possible combination of foes, that any future adversaries would have to act against us in secret, or not at all.

This impression was doubly reinforced after stunning military (though not political) success in the first Gulf War (1991), followed by almost perfect execution of skilled diplomacy and policy in the Balkans Intervention. (All stated goals were achieved within weeks, at zero cost in US lives, clear exit strategies were followed to the letter, all “nation building” chores were delegated to others, readiness and budgets were unaffected and our popularity in the Muslim world went up.)

Moreover, if anyone was still unconvinced of US prowess, there came 9/11, followed by our swift intervention in Afghanistan when President GW Bush said “Go!” to an existing Clinton-Clark plan - one that hewed closely to the Powell Doctrine of professionalism, intense diplomacy and selective application of overwhelming (if surgical) force.

If Osama’s ultimate 9/11 plan was (according to many experts) to draw us into the Kush Mountains’ killing zone, where he had already helped to humble one superpower, he was shocked and bitterly disappointed when the US led a coordinated campaign, combining local forces with air power and extensive local expertise, swiftly eliminated the Taliban regime that had succored bin Laden. An entire enemy regime toppled - fair enough retaliation for 9/11... and Osama was running for his life.

And all of these successes (since 1992) were accomplished without any truly substantial stains upon our nation’s or the military’s honor. (Indeed, at that point -- with the Taliban toppled -- shouldn’t we all have been allowed to get back to our lives? Would not that have been the ultimate punishment of terrorists?)

At this point, there also seemed to be a peak in international acceptance of unipolarity... the notion that having just one superpower is a good thing. Despite some gnashing of teeth in Moscow, Paris and Beijing, very few other nations sent delegates to meetings on the topic “what shall be done about America?” We were that popular. That strong. And apparently that unbeatable.

Only now... where is that reputation?

Reiterating: even if you put aside all the unnecessary death and theft and incompetence and immorality of recent years, you would still be left with a Bush Administration that has squandered and spoiled something both pragmatic and precious -- an appearance of invincibility that helped to keep the peace, better than whole divisions.

Now that inestimable aura is gone. Ask anyone, around the world, what their perception is, of a US Army that flounders, mired up to its neck in a quagmire of confusion, sloppy waste, plummeting morale and blurry goals. Is our current reputation an effective deterrent? Or does it encourage others to restore a multipolar, militarily competitive world?

Even (especially) American conservatives should find this a case of utter - and possibly criminal - betrayal of leadership.

A multi-part series on the GOP vs. the U.S. Military:
Next time... Part 2: But it Gets Even Worse: Neocons vs. the U.S. Military
Part 3: Destroying Readiness
Part 4: Botching Both Kinds of War
Part 5: Let the Excuses Roll!
Part 6: Purging the Officer Corps
and More on the War Against Professionalism in Government

==Also see: How Republicans and Democrats wage war

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Top Capitalist Speaks About War and America

Time to upset some stereotypes. Let me quote extensively from a recent interview, given at the recent FiRe FiVe Conference (Future In REview) where I am a yearly guest speaker. These words are from Robert Hormats, of Goldman Sachs International, discussing his new book The Price of Liberty - Paying For America’s Wars...

HORMATS: The title comes from Alexander Hamilton. After the American Revolution, the government – the Continental Congress – had accumulated a lot of debt. The states had accumulated debt. Some of that debt was to foreigners, and Hamilton concluded, with some degree of opposition from others [who believed] that perhaps we shouldn’t pay that debt, Hamilton said we should definitely pay the debt because we need to establish the credit-worthiness of the new country, and because critically important to the success of the U.S. during the Revolution was the ability to borrow from abroad, particularly from France and the Netherlands.

If there were to be another war – which was widely anticipated at the time – the view was that we’d have to borrow again and we would have to go to those same creditors to get the money, and therefore we needed to repay the first war debt in order to borrow again, were there to be another war. And that tradition of borrowing during wars and paying down wartime debt very quickly afterwards really was a key element of American financial policy up until the 1960s. So that was really one point: you had to borrow during a war, but pay it down as quickly as you can. Fiscal responsibility. Because it was seen as not just important for financial stability, but for national security as well.

And the second point that comes through this book, throughout, is that war financing is not just about raising money, it’s about engaging Americans in the war effort. When American troops are fighting abroad, Americans should be making sacrifices at home to support them. In World War I, the treasury secretary, whose name was McAdoo, called it “capitalizing patriotism.”

During World War II, Roosevelt explains to Americans, several days after Pearl Harbor, that war costs money – that means taxes and bonds, bonds and taxes; it means sacrifices from all Americans. And I think that engagement of Americans behind their troops in the war effort has been very important in mobilizing support within the country for what’s going on abroad, so that you don’t have the soldiers fighting on one side and Americans going about their ordinary business and not paying taxes, not making any sacrifices back home.

The great leaders have been very upfront and candid about what war costs, even though the amounts are very high and people don’t particularly want to pay higher taxes – many of them don’t want to buy war bonds, many of them didn’t like the sacrifice of World War II, where they had wage and price controls, and rationing. People didn’t like that. But when their leaders told them it was important for the interests of the country, they went along. If you don’t lead by bold presentation….

(Hormats goes on to describe the myriad ways in which the GW Bush administration has broken with this tradition of frankness and persuaded sacrifice. Concentrating on the fical end - the right wing mania to avoid taxes even while they declare our nation in danger - he does not mention another aspect. The fact that other wars beconed millions of young men to their local recruiting stations. But few are swallowing the “emergency” bait for this one. Despite lowering recruit standards and offering $20,000 signup bonuses, the Army cannot meet its goals.)

And the tragedy is, who sacrifices? The troops. The troops don’t get proper body armor. They don’t get proper armaments for their Humvees. Their families back home, many of them have to go on welfare. And as we’ve seen, they don’t get, in some cases, proper care after the war if they’re wounded. And a lot of the Homeland Security things that we should have done – increase public health services, police, firemen – that’s just not done. So, we didn’t establish the correct priorities, we didn’t have a national dialogue, and we’ve sidestepped tough issues. You can’t do that forever in a democracy; you need people who are educated about the issues. You need the American people to have a dialogue with them, and in past wars they’ve done this, but in this one they have not.

If there were to be a tragedy, if there were to be a terrorist attack… In 9/11 we had a budget surplus; we were not nearly as dependent on foreign capital. Today, we have budget deficit. The next decade we’re going to have big budget deficits as a result of entitlements, and we’re going to be far more dependent on foreign capital because our savings rate is so low. And that might not be there, or if it’s there it might require very high-risk premiums. So, our lack of sound fiscal policy, which is going to be a big problem in the next decade, is going to constitute both a financial vulnerability and perhaps a national security vulnerability. I think that’s the short story of a long pitch for the book.

You need intelligence. You need to have a better education system so people abroad understand what we’re trying to do, and basically you need to have alliances. I mean, the interesting juxtaposition here is the alliance Bush put together for the first Gulf War – the first Bush and the first Gulf War – it had Muslim countries in it, it had other countries contributing, because there was a genuine feeling of working together for a common good. This war... There is really, it’s really a phony alliance. No one’s given us any money. There are no Muslim countries.

Wow. May I remind folks that all of this is coming from a paramount capitalist? In the ultra meaning of that word, a man who lives and breathes what Karl Marx called the process of capital formation through a combination of asset allocation, financial deal-making and entrepeneurialism?

One more piece of evidence that this present crisis has nothing at all to do with the hoary and outmoded and silly so-called “left-right political axis.” Nearly all of the smartest and best capitalists hate the Bush Administration (I know one or two exceptions, Texans all)... as do nearly all of the smartest generals and admirals.... and FBI guys and members of the Intelligence community. A horde of people in crewcuts who were lifelong Republicans, are hearing the whirring, spinning sound of Barry Goldwater, spinning in his grave. Many ostriches are lifting their heads.

Will the democrats... ANY democrats... lift THEIR heads enough to realize the opportunity that this offers? To not only defeat the neocons, but repudiate them, forever? So that they cannot retrench and come roaring back with fresh doses of “culture war”?

This is vital especially to candidates like Hillary and Barak. If they want the presidency to be worth more than a bucket of spit, when they hold it, they must deal with culture war NOW. The only way to do that is to make the issue NOT Iraq, or any liberal agenda item.

The issue has to be America.

SCIENCE & SUCH: still catching up...

Devin Murphy sent this one in: - The Synthetic Biology Company Your Building Blocks of Life. It looks like you can order gene sequences, embedded in host organisms. There's even a mix-and-match program called Gene Designer. They also check with a CDC database, hopefully to keep people from ordering smallpox or 1918 influenza.

Jeb sent this in. A researcher tried to desalinate seawater with a radio-frequency generator he developed to treat cancer. He discovered that as long as the salt water was exposed to the radio frequencies, it would burn. The radio frequencies act to weaken the bonds between the elements that make up salt water, releasing the hydrogen, Roy said. Once ignited, the hydrogen will burn as long as it is exposed to the frequencies, he said.

David Brin comments: This is only the beginning. I have long figured that fine-tunable masers should be able to do countless things, like dig holes. In this case, of course, I very much doubt that you’ll find a net energy gain. But as a desalinization method...

The Neuroscience of Empathy: To neuroscientist Jean Decety, empathy resembles a sort of minor constellation: clusters of encephalic stars glowing in the cosmos of an otherwise dark brain. See how they flash, decety says, pointing to the orange-lit anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula on an fmri scan. This person is witnessing another person in pain. ... What‘s interesting is that this network of regions is also involved in the firsthand experience of pain.

David Brin comments: This is a fascinating article dealing with a topic that has long fascinated me in many ways, ranging from fiction to pondering the over-used assumption that advanced extraterrestrials will automatically be altruistic.

What is under-mentioned in the article about Jen Decety and empathy is the perspective of evolution. Yes, it was somewhat advantageous to be able to sympathize with others, in order to create bonds and facilitate social interaction. But that is more recent. I contend that the real roots of empathy lie in something far deeper, older and more feral... predation. Specifically, the advantages that fall upon a predator who is able to empathize with, and thus imagine the thought patterns of, his prey. I have pointed out before the irony that this might be the background source of our capability to imagine that we are the “other”... and that sympathy is actually an emergent property. The feral empathy ability becomes sympathetic empathy when the right conditions appear. The gregarity of social apes. The self-interested desire to make alliances. Cutlural teachings that encourage sympathetic reactions. And above all, satiation.

Ponder. Contemplate. Comments welcome.

====    ====    ====

See a presentation "Nanotechnology and the Future of Warfare" given by Mike Treder, my colleague at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology,
at the recent World Future Society conference.

Life, But Not as We Know It – (Australian – August 13, 2007)Scientists have discovered that inorganic material can take on the characteristics of living organisms in space, a development that could transform views of alien life. An international panel from the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the University of Sydney found that galactic dust could form spontaneously into helixes and double helixes and that the inorganic creations had memory and the power to reproduce themselves.

Our Lives, Controlled from Some Guy’s Couch – (New York Times – August 17, 2007)If you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems. Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century. Yawn!!!

The Enthusiast – Technology Review – September, 2007)A controversial biologist at Harvard claims he can extend life span and treat diseases of aging. He may be right. David Sinclair's basic claim is simple, if seemingly improbable: he has found an elixir of youth. The 38-year-old professor of pathology discovered that resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, extends life span in mice by up to 24% and in other animals, including flies and worms, by as much as 59%.

And I (and - I think - only I) keep trying to explain to these people that NONE of these studies of bacteria and flies and mice have ANYTHING to do with human beings! We are different because we are already the Methuselahs of mammals, getting three times as many heartbeats as mice or elephants. We needed long lives, to sustain culture and raise long-childhood offspring. Hence, we have already turned on all of the chemical switches that expand lifespan in any straightforward way. See:
Do We Really Want Immortality? for a splash of cold water on the extropians' dreams. Hey, I hope I am wrong!

(Lately, I've been hoping that about a lot of things.)

Scientists Hail Frozen Smoke as Material That Will Change World – (Timesonline – August 19, 2007)A MIRACLE material for the 21st century could protect your home against bomb blasts, mop up oil spillages and even help man to fly to Mars. Aerogel, one of the world’s lightest solids, can withstand a direct blast of 1kg of dynamite and protect against heat from a blowtorch at more than 1,300C. Nicknamed “frozen smoke”, it is made by extracting water from a silica gel, then replacing it with a gas such as carbon dioxide. The result is a substance capable of insulating against extreme temperatures and of absorbing pollutants such as crude oil.

Celestial Add-on Points Google Earth at the Stars – (New Scientist – August 27, 2007)Amateur stargazers have a new way to explore the heavens - with an update to Google's free global mapping application Google Earth. The new feature, called Sky, adds a wealth of astronomical data to Google Earth, including images of more than 100 million individual stars and 200 million galaxies. At the press of a button, a user sees their perspective shift upwards, revealing the correct constellation of stars for their selected position on Earth. They can then pick out particular stars or planets manually, or using the search field, and zoom upwards to see more detailed images and additional information. Some 20,000 celestial objects can be searched for by name using the Sky feature.

Eight-million-year-old Bug is Alive and Growing – (New Scientist – Augsut 7, 2007)An 8-million-year-old bacterium that was extracted from the oldest known ice on Earth is now growing in a laboratory, claim researchers. If confirmed, this means ancient bacteria and viruses will come back to life as ice melts due to global warming. This is nothing to worry about, say experts, because the process has been going on for billions of years and the bugs are unlikely to cause human disease.

Segway Inventor Focusing on Green Cars – (EcoGeek – August 11, 2007)Dean Kamen has spent over $40 million in the last decade developing stirling engines which convert heat directly into mechanical energy by use of an expanding and contracting gas inside a cylinder. His stirling engines are already being used in developing countries. There are a couple in India that can power an entire village by burning cow patties. But Kamen started to realize that stirling engines would never be economical until they were mass produced. Which is when he met the CEO of the electric car company, THiNK, and decided that he'd found his method of mass production.

Psycho Paintball & Drug Drones – (Wired – August 23, 2007) and drug-spraying robots sound like something for The Joker rather than the Marine Corps. But these are two of the more promising new methods for administering nonlethal chemical weapons (sorry, calmatives) being developed by the Pentagon. For larger targets such as a crowd, there are a number of new projectiles under development for carrying chemical agents including 81mm mortar and 155mm howitzer rounds.

So High, So Fast – (ABC News – August 17, 2007)At virtually any moment — day or night — you can look up and know that somewhere over Earth there's a U-2 pilot at the edge of outer space, watching and listening. Developed in secret for the CIA more than 50 years ago, the U-2 first detected the movement of Soviet nuclear weapons into Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the U-2 is not just a piece of Cold War history. Since this spring it is flying more missions and longer missions than ever before — nearly 70 missions a month over Iraq and Afghanistan, an operational tempo that is unequaled in history. The pilots fly for 11 hours at a time, sometimes more than 11 hours up there alone. By flying so high, the U-2 can look off to the side, peering 300 miles or more inside a country without actually flying over it. It can "see" in the dark and through clouds. It can also "hear," intercepting conversations 14 miles below.

In the past month, the Bush administration has ordered employees to ignore congressional subpoenas, asserted broad new parameters for executive privilege and issued an executive order that could permit seizing assets of Americans deemed at its discretion to be hurting the war effort in Iraq. Meanwhile, the administration continues to spy on its own citizens, including widespread data mining of telephone records and emails. The American Freedom Campaign is working to build bipartisan grassroots support "to reverse the abuse of executive power and restore our system of checks and balances." The Campaign is designed to be an online hub for Americans concerned about the country's democratic system and who are ready to act to protect the Constitution.

There are now almost 200,000 private "contractors" deployed in Iraq by the United States government. This means that U.S. military forces in Iraq are now outsized by a coalition of corporations whose actions go largely unmonitored. In essence, the Bush administration has created a shadow army that can be used to wage wars unpopular with the American public but extremely profitable for a few unaccountable private companies. "I think it's extraordinarily dangerous when a nation begins to outsource its monopoly on the use of force and the use of violence in support of its foreign policy or national security objectives," says veteran U.S. Diplomat Joe Wilson, who served as the last U.S. ambassador to Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Gloomy ruminations on an anniversary of 9/11...

On the Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we are drawn away from contemplations of peaceful development and Asia’s rapid rise*, back to the gritty Earth of America’s current predicament.

Even as General Petraeus asked Congress for yet another nine months of “surge” before we can “pull out” back to pre-surge levels, it has become clear that the Iraq War has everybody transfixed. So, contrarian that I am, let me take this opportunity to remind people that Iraq is not the principal issue before us, right now.

In fact, I feel it is a grotesque distraction from the real issue that lies before us. The issue of America.

Some people already grasp this. Take an interview with Prof. Gregory Cochran that appeared on the online intellectual salon “The Edge.”

What would be the consequences of a rapid USA exit from Iraq?

Cochran: Someone would win the civil war and then they'd sell oil.

So, why don’t we get out?

Yes, the Iraq War is a terrible thing. A wretched repeat of every blunder made in Vietnam, all the way down to “meddling in military matters by inept, draft-dodging politician armchair generals.” (The rant we heard for thirty years from the far right, but strangely absent from their rhetoric today. I wonder why.) Spurred by lies and arm waving motivations that shift with every week, the has accomplished a long list of things that even conservatives ought to find repellant, if they were true patriots:

* erosion of United States military strength and reputation

* devastation of our alliances and standing in the world

* ruination of the National Guard and Reserves

* squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars, including some billions that went missing when left by the side of an Iraqi road (an event that would have led to impeachment calls, if it happened under Clinton)

* destruction of American social cohesion, unity, confidence and belief in ourselves

* feeding the sense of resentment in the Muslim world and increasing, steadily, the number of recruits available to radical anti-western causes

* almost complete abandonment of standards of accountability, including contracting rules that used to prevent the handshake passing of billions of taxpayer dollars directly to “companies” owned by friends of the administration... another impeachment-level scandal, if Clinton had done it. Yet, no journalist even cares....

... and so on, and on. With no tangible results to show for this wasted trillion dollar calamity, but a long list of negatives, I have been asking: “If you were an enemy power, who suddenly found itself in secret control over a U.S. administration - able to make it do whatever you wanted - isn’t all of this EXACTLY what you would have ordered?”

After a century of amazing success in nearly all things... even miraculously controlling our own budget (under Clinton)... what great American mistake would such a foreign power have us make, if it had the chance to steer us from the top? What other than a repeat of the biggest and dopiest error we ever made. Abandoning every recent military and political doctrine of agility and care, turning away from jiu jitsu to sumo, and getting mired in a land war of attrition in Asia?

Oh, this war has only been a means to many ends, achieving deepening rifts in America’s “culture war” for example. And providing a competition-free gravy train to every contractor who has Bush family ties. But I refuse to be distracted.

Because the real issue... the only important one... is the issue of America.

Will this nation manage to thwart those who have their eye on permanent political power?

A monopoly of power sufficient to prevent a thousand cohorts from going to jail for defrauding the public and stealing billions?

A grip that will let them continue to degrade our professional civil service, intelligence community, law enforcement and military, so they cannot be used by the people as tools of accountability?

A trend toward secrecy that is already undermining the operation of all four of our basic processes: democracy, courts, science and markets, all of which depend ultimately on players who are well-informed?

Yes, the political winds seem to be blowing against these guys. Hence they now seem to be turning toward another actor-politician. Trying the tactic of criticizing and dissing the previous GOP administration. Claiming the next one will be different... while shouting the same slogans.

And yet - (God how I hope that what I see is just an author's over-active imagination at work!) - one can point to plenty of signs that they are confident for some unknown reason. The reason that they are stupid? Or mad?

Or for the reason that we haven't even glimpsed yet their real trump card. The big one that the Bushites haven’t played yet. A trump card that they already seem to be bidding toward, for example by striving furiously to strengthen a presidency that they seem about to lose.

As if they (or their masters) know something that none of us do.


* The twinge I felt, seeing THREE Asian buildings shooting skyward, each aiming to take a turn being tallest in the world. 9/11 was reason for bold determination. But not the thuggish, stupid kind that we have been led toward.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

An Asian Journey - part one

All right. We're home in California, after a grueling but fascinating three weeks in China and Japan, spent hauling and herding three (three!) American kids through Asia. (I must be crazy, as well as near-bankrupt... but they learned a lot and had a great time.) We visited four cities in each country and saw some countryside, as well as making many new friends.

First, Beijing. While I was in town to attend a science fiction summit, hosted by Professor Wu Yan at Beijing Normal University, I also found time to join the family in some sightseeing to the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, etc. It was (as expected) hot, humid and hazy/smoggy. But we happened to be there when the government was testing pollution-abatement measures, for use during the Olympics, next year. Some factories were shut down and cars could only enter the city on alternate days, depending on even/odd license numbers. As a result, on our third day, while the university folks were taking me to lunch at a Sinkiang-style Muslim restaurant, I looked up and saw... blue sky!

How about that. Maybe they'll pull it off next year, after all. And maybe the people will like what they breathe. Enough to ask for more..

Beijing itself is simply amazing. I'm told that people who left the city just ten years ago can barely find their way around. Nearly the only remaining landmarks are Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and Beihei Park... all tourist attractions... and the ring roads. Everywhere else, the hutongs and Stalin/Mao-era apartment blocs have largely been torn down, making way for immense office buildings and hotels, each of them designed by some fancy international architectural team to shout "look at me!" There is no comparison with, say, Tokyo's starkly utilitarian towers or the moderate and practical approach to the building surge that's taking place in regular Chinese cities, like Chengdu.

(A surge financed by all you WalMart shoppers. Keep up the great work.)

Of course Beijing is the nation's capital and the Olympics are their coming-out party, so you can expect that some extravagance is natural. Wherever the new has not already pushed out the old, scaffolding (much of it made of bamboo and woven reeds) covers nearly every monument undergoing refurbishment. And overhead, towering cranes fill the skyline. Later, we saw the same thing happening in Shanghai, the nation's commercial capital.

In preparing for this trip, we all watched videos and read books about both China and Japan, a practice that I highly recommend. Wherever our family travels, the local tour guides seem surprised that our kids point and say "Oh look! Yes, that's_____" And yet, it only seems natural to prepare, before going somewhere. If I am spending $thousands to take children to this or that historical site, they had darn well better know what they are looking at! Alas, the surprise that is expressed by our guides does not reflect well on American intellectual torpidity. A disturbing laziness to which I referred in my speech about science fiction and its future in Asia.

(SF is a literature of energy and wary ambition. It will rise wherever people are facing the future with courage. And it fades wherever people lose their nerve and turn away from tomorrow... as has been happening in the USA, ever since this #$@*! century began.).

At one level, all of our preparations for the trip helped us to realize the staggering scale of change in China. Take one 1978-era documentary we saw, the first made by westerners right after Nixon's visit -- a time when everyone in China wore Mao jackets, when there were still Red Guards roaming and chanting, and when the narrator could say "there are no private cars in all of China." That revolution-drenched and hysterically egalitarian (though poor) Beijing of 1978 seemed light years from the city of psychotically indulgent aristocratism that you see in THE LAST EMPEROR. But, turning the other way, it also seems like another planet, many parsecs away, than the Beijing you'll see today. Transformations that might normally take a hundred human lifetimes, all packed into one.

Of course we took in the obligate Wonders. As one might expect, there are several choices when you go to see the Great Wall. We gave the nearest and most crowded site a skip, traveling instead two hours from the city, to a more remote locale, but one that's well-restored. It felt eerie having a lifelong goal achieved. And somewhat tingly... if for no other reason, from hauling this old carcass up a mile or two of almost sheer steps. And all the way, I felt my usual contrary schizophrenia at work. At once, I could admire the skill and craftsmanship of those Ming-era builders, their determination to achieve a prodigious goal...

...while, simultaneously, another portion of my mind -- the same one that fumes whenever I walk through the Schoenbrun or Versailles -- kept humming La Marseiillaise and pondered how many other good things China might have achieved, if the same resources that were spent on an ultimately futile static fortification had only been applied, instead, to building schools, colleges and water mills. A China thus strengthened would have had little to fear from Mongolian or Manchurian invasion. (Just offer scholarships to their best and brightest. Cultural conquest is the best kind. Especially when it is earned.)

But it can be hard to face the future with boldness. Indeed, back in Beijing, I learned about another contradiction. One hears that the urban boom has created resentment in the countryside, where most Chinese still dwell -- and there are efforts underway to disperse industry and jobs. Only, then I learned that the building frenzy you see in most cities does not seem to include universities! I was told that very few new ones had been opened in recent years and few were planned. Now that surprised me. America's rise directly correlated with the burgeoning of land grant colleges. Heck, the University of California is establishing new campuses, even today.

Still, the one campus in China that I did see - Beijing Normal University - was profoundly impressive. Totally rebuilt and gleaming, right near the urban core. Moreover, BNU has the only post-graduate program in science fiction in all of Asia! A proud statement -- tempered somewhat by the fact that it resides in the Department of Childrens' Literature. During the SF Summit that was graciously hosted there, I met professors and writers who seemed enthusiastic about the future of SF in China.

On the other hand, the two film producers in attendance told us (with admirable frankness) that they doubted they would ever be funded to create science fiction movies. So low is the reputation of SF among those actually in power.

I told them (confidently) that this would change. No nation that assertively seeks the future can for long avoid literature that thinks about the future. Indeed, that weird reflex to despise SF -- which is shared by most postmodernist or neoMarxist lit departments in American universities -- seems so nonsensical that it has to be supported by crude stereotypes of the genre. Caricatures that portray ALL of the field as silly and childish... just like Star Wars, the example that is cited over and over again, to the detriment of the entire genre. Yes, in China, too. (This may constitute the worst of many ways that George Lucas harmed a field he supposedly loved.)

In my speech - which I delivered with some modifications also in Chengdu and Yokohama - I tried to explain that SF is about much more than simply waving magic swords and/or encouraging children to like science. (A pair of traits that, ironically, nobody seemed to find contradictory.) Rather, science fiction - at its best - is about seeking wider perspectives and deeper horizons. All else - from aliens to spaceships to time travel - is mere furniture, and not even necessary, at that.

I explained that only one in ten anglo SF authors knows much about science. But nearly all of us read history. Devour it. Perhaps our field should have been called speculative history instead of Science Fiction, because it is really about the panorama and tragicomedy of the human story. Only with one added ingredient -- a brave willingness to ponder change. To do mental experiments about possible pasts, alternate presents, extrapolated futures.

To illustrate, I offered an example to those doubters at the Beijing conference. "What if --" I began with the sacred phrase of our genre -- "What if Admiral Zheng He, who sailed a Chinese fleet to Zanzibar when Henry the Navigator was still sucking his thumb, had been allowed to continue his voyages? Perhaps sailing into Lisbon with a hundred ships, just as Henry was getting ready to dispatch one or two? How might history have changed?"

"That is science fiction?" One of the film producers asked, expressing some excitement. "Why don't you write that story for us!"

(Later that very day -- I learned that a Chinese SF author has already done exactly that, extrapolating Zheng He's voyages into an imagined circumnavigation of the globe, long before Magellan.)

Ah well. I made some introductions. We spread some memes. My wonderful Beijing literary agent, Jackie Huang, added her own voice. Who knows? Maybe some minds were shifted, a little.

Upon leaving Beijing, we entered China's interior, traveling to the fabled city of Xian, home of the legendary Terracotta Army of the First Emperor -- clay soldiers, two millennia old, that have stirred imaginations worldwide, including my own. (Along with the golem myth, they helped to inspire my novel KILN PEOPLE.) Our kids met two of the men who actually made the archaeological discovery of the century, while digging a well, back in 1974. A stirring and unforgettable visit... and, of course, I felt the same schizophrenic mix of admiration and resentment. La Marseiillaise played again, softly, in the background. Old Chin sure did a lot of interesting thing... but he was a terrible bastard. Oh. Stay tuned, maybe for a hundred years, till the Chinese government finally allows excavation of his actual tomb. It may be stunning.

Xian also has the largest intact city wall and moat in the world -- truly vast. An impressive place.

We then took a train across Sichuan, in order to be able to see and experience some of China proper, outside the hazy cities. A jostling, gritty style of travel that put us much closer to the people. It was a time when I might wish that I had more than a smattering of the language. The tour guides and intellectuals and SF fans could reach out to me in English. But the folks who got on and off the train... it was the one time I went wistful for that long ago time when Cheryl and I took months to wind our way around the world, just us, with time enough for adventure.

I could go on about the countryside of Sichuan -- the mountains and villages, the poverty and glimmers of rapid development, the colors of rice and water and steep hills and bamboo -- but I have already stretched this out too long.

Arriving in Chengdu, we re-entered the world of SF, as a crowd of fans wearing the same conference t-shirt waved signs to pick us up from the station. Cheryl and the kids then visited pandas while I attended convention hosted by SF World Magazine, the science fiction periodical with the highest circulation in all of history. The event was much bigger than expected, with 5,000 people attending! What an experience to look out from the red-carpeted steps of the Sichuan Museum of Science upon such a crowd, while the science minister introduced us under one of the last, huge statues of Mao left standing in China. There followed endless toasts and banquets, punctuating speeches and spells of wading through autograph seekers (a "star treatment" that you sure don't get from blithe North American fans, who - of course - have seen it all.)

Wonderful hospitality. And you could feel the intense hunger of so many young people for the kind of thoughts and excitement that science fiction has to offer. (It's still a little risky in China, where some stodgy bureaucrats still call SF "spiritual pollution." Hence, there is also a bit of a courage-high, I imagine, just like I sensed from eastern eurpoean fans, before the Iron Curtain fell.) In any event, I hope that the fans and organizers got everything they wanted and needed from the event.

After that, starting at 6am, we Brins made a quick dash for the airport in order to attempt the impossible. A quick - but surprisingly comprehensive - one-day visit to Shanghai. A blitz through that bustling, legendary city in time to catch an afternoon flight to Tokyo! It was risky and perhaps foolish. It might not even have been possible without the amazing mag-lev passenger train - the only one open to public use in all the world - running from Pudong to the airport. We watched the in-car spedometer climb to 430 kilometers per hour, approaching half the speed of sound, before falling to 330 as the other car rushed by in the opposite direction, in a whoosh and blur. Probably the biggest product of speed, closeness and mass that I have ever experienced. (Oh, and Shanghai was amazing, too.)

And that was part one of the trip....followed by more tourism in Japan, returning to see friends and sights in Tokyo, Nara, Kyoto... all of it leading up to the World Science Fiction convention, in Yokohama!

But more on that, later.

For now, let me conclude that - while exhausting - it was also a terrific experience, especially getting to know many fine friends, both old and new, and broadening our horizons a bit. Our view of the world. It is important to hunger for fresh - even disturbing - perspectives. We learned so very much, about cultures and different ways of viewing history, the present and the future.

Above all, seeds were planted. Roots nurtured.
For the spirit of SF needs many homes.
Especially if American civilization continues its funk, its decline into nostalgia, silly grudges and lost confidence.

In that case, some other land will pick up the spirit of adventure that we fumbled and dropped. Some other people will become the 21st Century's new "Chung Kuo"... its new central kingdom.

For the sake of humanity and a better future, we had better hope that the leadership they show will be one of tolerance and eccentric wisdom.

Those, too, are lessons taught by a literature that rattles assumptions and turns the head, focusing our attention on tomorrow's undiscovered country.

David Brin