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'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Some Random Reflections About Cindy Sheehan 

Originally, I had not intended to post on this subject, but driving home from the Bay Area last night, I heard Bernie Ward on KGO Radio defend Sheehan against those who had maligned her so savagely, and I changed my mind. It is important, I think, to recognize her for her accomplishments, with the challenge being, of course, to properly identify them.

Back in August 2005, I was in Venezuela on a Global Exchange tour when Sheehan demanded to see the President during his summer vacation in Crawford, Texas. Some of the other tour participants would talk about the growing protests after getting updates over the Internet. I didn't take it that seriously, partially because I was engrossed in my tour experiences (when someone said that Peter Jennings had died, I thought it was either a hoax or a sign of their mental incapacity), and partially because, given my cynicism at the time (the peace movement had pretty much slept through the 2004 election), I superficially believed that it more style than substance, more emotionally gratifying than politically important, just another feel good opportunity to bash Bush.

I got it totally wrong. Sheehan challenged the President when the war in Iraq was still popular, and most of the political elite was too intimidated to confront him. She tapped into a groundswell of middle class discontent as veterans against the war flocked to her side. Her loss of her son Casey in Sadr City in April 2004 provided her with an unassailable credibility. She literally stepped forward and changed the direction of public opinion.

Even so, I thought that Sheehan would be enveloped within the boundaries of acceptable dissent as defined by liberal activists and the Democratic Party. Sometimes, she criticized specific Democrats for their support of the occupation, like Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Clinton, but then drew back. But each time, I noticed, she became more aggressive. She was giving them time to change their mind, but she made it clear that she did expect them to take action to bring the troops home. She was holding them accountable, and that impressed me.

Sheehan also walked outside of the lines on other issues as well. Sometime in late 2005 or early 2006 (I don't exactly recall), she visited Venezuela and met Chavez. Just the fact of the visit was significant, an indication that she believed that there was something profoundly wrong about American society and curious about alternatives. Upon her return home, she praised Chavez, no doubt inducing her more mainstream liberal supporters to faint. After all, didn't she understand that Democrats can't raise money to defeat the Republicans without demonizing Chavez? Pelosi did, as discussed here late last summer when she called Chavez a thug.

Now, I got it. Sheehan was just one of those people who always slips the leash of conformity, and her supporters justifiably admire her for it. Personally, though, according to Ward, she was being ground down. Her family life was difficult, and she was going into debt. It is a common story among activists. People like Bill O'Reilly, Sean O'Hannity and, at KGO Radio, morning host Ronn Owens, get paid handsomely to viciously attack activists like Sheehan, to instigate hostility against them, with the expectation that they will get emotionally exhausted and quit.

To her credit, Sheehan didn't. She fought through it, but encountered more intransigent problems that eventually overwhelmed her, and these problems go to the heart of the question as to the extent to which it is possible to bring about meaningful political change in this country. One of the most difficult challenges she was faced, a challenge that must have been shocking and demoralizing to her, was apathy. Initially, most of us would believe that a war and occupation that gets worse and worse, with no end in sight, motivates people to become politically attentive and involved. The war in Iraq has energized some people, but Sheehan, and the peace movement generally, have been unable to create a mass movement against it.

Certainly, one can find fault with their strategy and tactics, but this misses the more serious impediment: the lack of confidence that most people have in the US political system, along with a combination of financial pressures and entertainment alternatives, that render them either incapable or consciously dismissive of political action. Sheehan and the peace movement have not been effective at persuading them otherwise, and it is arguable whether there was any way that they could possibly do so. Indeed, I wonder whether, in a globalized world, where neoliberal transnationals and finance capital uniformly pursue their interests across nation state boundaries, and even continents, the traditional forms of protest, marches, civil disobedience, street theatre, strikes and boycotts, forms developed to compel changes in policies and practices within a specific country, have any prospect of success. One of the debilitating aspects of the postmodern condition, in other words.

Sheehan and the peace movement also encountered another paradoxical problem that they could never reconcile, and it haunts efforts to bring the war to an end to this day. As the parents of soldiers who served (or in Sheehan's case, died) in Iraq, or veterans of the Iraq war and previous wars, they insisted, understandably, on the importance of supporting the troops while condemning the policy. The consequence of this approach blunted any effort to educate the public that the primary purpose of the US military today is the imperial dominance of much of the rest of the world.

Frankly, as I have stated here several times, no one should enlist in it. But, for veterans, soldiers and their parents, such an acknowledgement destroys the romanticization of military service that they still passionately retain. From their perspective, the US military is fine, service is not only acceptable, but a noble endeavor, and it only inflicts harm when it is deliberately misused politically. Such an emotionally understandable, but naive perspective, one that presumes to place the military outside the political world in which we all live, ignores obvious facts, such as the fact that the military is is designed and trained for imperial intervention, that it has, since the end of World War II been deployed almost exclusively for this purpose (at this point, it is even implausible to describe the war and occupation of Afghanistan as acts of self-defense) and that, in the future, it is anticipated the military will be deployed within cities and shantytowns around the world in counterinsurgency operations.

Of course, Sheehan and the peace movement have encouraged people not to enlist and re-enlist, but the effectiveness of the message has been undermined by the inability to truthfully state that service in the US military necessarily involves the brutalization of other peoples and cultures around the world. As long as military service carries a residue of nostalgic pride, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to persuade people to reject it, or, at least, reject it sufficiently to impair US military operations. In the end, most people shy away from it for the obvious reason that they don't want to get killed or maimed or separated from their family indefinitely, but enough still enlist and re-enlist to provide the Pentagon with sufficieint force to occupy Iraq indefinitely.

Such a perspective has also contributed to the public's seemingly contraditory willingness to continue funding the occupation, while wanting it brought to end as quickly as possible. Opposition to a war based primarily upon the harm brought to our troops, while perserving an idealized view of military service, is invariably going to result in such confused attitudes. We want out, but we don't want to hurt our boys, and Bush recognizes it, and exploits it every day. Beyond Iraq, the possibility remains, no, the probability, if not certainty, that people will again enlist in larger numbers after this conflict, and excitedly participate in the next atrocity, because no one has informed them about the true nature of US military service, and then there will be a another Cindy Sheehan, living through the same thing all over again.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Weekend Update 

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Page Has Been Turned 

As anticipated, the congressional Democrats have permitted Bush to perpetuate the occupation of Iraq. A small, salutary consequence is that we have been spared an illusory victory based upon performance benchmarks that were meaningless, unenforceable and irrelevant to the nature of the conflict itself. Fearful of being maligned as the party of defeat, the Democrats willingly prostrated themselves before the President. The liberal blogosphere is ablaze with anger, as the strategy that they have so assidously advocated since 2003, that the war can only be ended by electing the Democrats into positions of power, has been revealed as a hoax. Like Communist Popular Front true believers confronted with the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, they have been exposed as dupes, and it must be a most unpleasant experience.

The capitulation of the congressional Democrats is a significant event, and one that should be understood in a broader historical context. In 2002, neither Democrats nor liberals initiated opposition to a possible war in Iraq. Instead, they either provided Bush with the authority to initiate hostilities, as Democratic congressional leaders Gephardt and Daschle did in October 2002, or created safe havens for activists at the grassroots by insisting that there should be no war without UN authorization, a rather strange slogan that implicitly acknowledged that the war was inevitable, and enabled them to support the occupation once the initial messiness of the invasion had concluded. It was effective because it touched upon a historic strain of multilateralism and, in my view, misguided support for the UN as counterweight to US militarism among liberal internationalists.

Intransigent questions related to the morality of the war and the death and destruction that it would inflict upon the people of Iraq were therefore artfully evaded. Congressional Democrats echoed neoconservative themes about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the existence of weapons of mass destruction, refusing to permit anyone to testify in contradiction of them. No, in the end, opposition to the war was organized in its early phases by a motley group of peace activists, leftists, anarchists, anti-globalization advocates and just plain citizens afraid that their family members were going to be sent off to Iraq to fight an unjust war.

Amazingly, they struck a nerve, as did the efforts of people around the world, culminating in the mass protest marches of February 15, 2003. Liberal activists were swept along with the tide, even as they sought shelter in the need for UN authorization as cynically promoted by MoveON.org. With the start of the war, there was a spasm of direct action protest, centered predominately in San Francisco and Northern California, but this quickly dissipated, as the emphasis now was upon the need to Support the Troops. Despite the lack of UN authorization, the Democrats and liberals facilitated an indefinite support for the occupation by playing upon legitimate concern for the troops stationed in a dangerous, far away place, and soon, by early summer, the UN had obligingly provided the cover for the presence of US troops in Iraq.

Throughout the rest of 2003 and 2004, the Democrats played a double game, limiting public criticism of the occupation to its implementation, while whispering to peace activists that it was essential to unconditionally support them in order to obtain the power to bring the war to an end. Such behaviour resulted in the absurdity of the 2004 Kerry campaign for President, whereby Kerry asserted that more troops were needed to stabilize the country and that he would have provided the President with authorization to invade even in the absence of an al-Qaeda connection and the existence of weapons of mass destruction, while peace activists, with the exception of a few on the left, remained silent and directed all of their criticism towards the President and the Republicans.

The public was not fooled, and Kerry lost the election narrowly despite possibly prevailing in the electoral college. 2004 was the lost year, a year of lost opportunity whereby peace activists suspended meaningful efforts to organize mass resistance to the occupation in order to get a pro-war candidate elected to the White House. Encouraged by the enervated opposition to the continued presence of US troops in Iraq, Democrats initially did little to change policy. But, as 2005 progressed, with the Iraqi insurgency becoming more effective, killing and wounding more and more US troops, the families of US troops took the lead. Cindy Sheehan galvanized public opposition to the war, and parents of children in the public school system began participating in counter-recruitment activities.

Something had to be done, and finally, as 2005 faded into 2006, some Democrats and liberals began to assert that it was time to get US troops out of Iraq. The devil, of course, was in the details, and, in the beginning, all proposed withdrawal plans involved the removal of troops by some date in the distant future, distant, anyway, if you were a soldier or an Iraqi, sometime in 2007, and, as time passed, 2008. Quite convenient, because it kept the door open to stationing US troops in Iraq indefinitely based upon intervening events.

With the approach of the 2006 congressional elections, the Democrats could no longer escape confronting the issue. Finally, they appeared unified around getting the troops out of Iraq, and the electorate responded. Opinion polls revealed increasing majorities of people wanting to bring the war to an end. With Democrats taking control of the Congress, people expected action. There was an emerging fear among some within the military that US forces were being demoralized and degraded to an extent not seen since the Vietnam War. It might take awhile, but the Democrats were going to take the fight to the President. Most voters were unaware, however, that pro-occupation leaders within the party, people like Rahm Emanuel, have ensured that the primaries had produced a group of candidates for contested seats that, in most instances, opposed withdrawal.

So, now, the entire effort has been exposed as yet another shadow play, yet another act of political theatre designed to protect the entrenched leadership within the Democratic Party, as US troops and large numbers of Iraqis continue to die. Indeed, the Democrats are silent about the fact that the number of US combat troops will nearly double by December of this year. The US political system, as with a number of other social problems, has shown itself to be incapable of fashioning a response. Public sentiment cannot penetrate the Iron Triangle of lobbyists, politicians and bureaucrats that make policy and adminster the government within Washington, D. C.

Needless to say, this is dangerous. It is now evident that, as the title of this post states, a page has been turned. People within and without the US must be looking more seriously to other forms of protest, other forms of action to bring the war to an end. One can imagine the possibilities, but cannot predict what will happen. Will sporadic rebellions erupt within the US military, as troops are sent for a seemingly perpetual series of tours of duty? Will the nascent movement of civil disobedience intensify? Will people around the world organize boycotts against US corporations associated with the occupation? Will people increasingly turn to violence against US facilities and institutions, wherever they may be? Will the counter-recruitment effort become even more effective at starving the US military of the people it needs to continue the conflict?

Or, alternatively, will people just become more and more demoralized? Are we living through a historical period where the populace lacks the capacity to wrench power from an elite that is so violent, so destructive, until we experience a catastrophe that is nearly global in nature? While the Democrats dither over Iraq, Bush is instigating violent conflicts in Lebanon, Gaza and, internally, within Iran, pushing the entire Middle East towards a conflagration. Indeed, Iran looms large on the horizon, and with the projection of US force in the region increasing on an almost daily basis, all of these questions take on an inescapable urgency.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Quote of the Day 

From Part 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle series on the Summer of Love in 1967:

Peter Coyote: I am still proud to say that I'm an anarchist. It's a viable political, decentralized system. I don't see much evidence that huge nationalized, centralized states, under either communism or capitalism, work very well for the majority of their citizens.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

US Attempted to Kill Sadr? 

An amazing story by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent:

The US Army tried to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr, the widely revered Shia cleric, after luring him to peace negotiations at a house in the holy city of Najaf, which it then attacked, according to a senior Iraqi government official.

The revelation of this extraordinary plot, which would probably have provoked an uprising by outraged Shia if it had succeeded, has left a legacy of bitter distrust in the mind of Mr Sadr for which the US and its allies in Iraq may still be paying. "I believe that particular incident made Muqtada lose any confidence or trust in the [US-led] coalition and made him really wild," the Iraqi National Security Adviser Dr Mowaffaq Rubai'e told The Independent in an interview.

It is not known who gave the orders for the attempt on Mr Sadr but it is one of a series of ill-considered and politically explosive US actions in Iraq since the invasion. In January this year a US helicopter assault team tried to kidnap two senior Iranian security officials on an official visit to the Iraqi President. Earlier examples of highly provocative actions carried out by the US with little thought for the consequences include the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the Baath party.

The attempted assassination or abduction took place two-and-a-half years ago in August 2004 when Mr Sadr and his Mehdi Army militiamen were besieged by US Marines in Najaf, south of Baghdad.

Dr Rubai'e believes that his mediation efforts - about which he had given the US embassy, the American military command and the Iraqi government in Baghdad full details - were used as an elaborate set-up to entice the Shia leader to a place where he could be trapped.

The arrogance of such an action, if true, is remarkable. As noted by Pat Buchanan a few years ago, a President that presumes to target others for death makes himself vulnerable. But, of course, Bush is worth more to the cause of Political Islam alive than dead. No doubt, leaders like Sadr and Nasrallah find themselves frustrated by having to spend an inordinate amount of their time explaining it to their more passionate followers.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Benedict: The Pope of Mendacity 

Like most religions, the Catholic Church has an ambivalent relationship with its history. Some priests and parishoners have faith precisely because of the Church's failings, because they see themselves, their personal inadequacies and their attempts to overcome them writ large within the Church itself, while others consider faith so fragile that it is necessary to deliberately falsify the Church's past to create a sanitized image that does not unduly trouble the masses.

Unfortunately, it is becoming quite obvious that Pope Benedict XVI falls within the latter category. Last September, as described here, Benedict absurdly suggested, quite deliberately, that Catholicism, unlike Islam, has not relied upon violence and forced confessions to propagate the faith. He was engaged in the sinister enterprise of scapegoating Islam for the conduct of his Church, aligning himself with a neoconservative vision of the world. He was rightly condemned for it, and found himself subjected to the humiliation of having to apologize for his remarks several times.

Given that Benedict taught as a professor at three prominent German universities in the 1960s and 1970s, it strains credulity to believe that he is unaware of the Church's history of violence in Europe and the Middle East during medieval times. We would have to believe that, despite such an education, he remains ignorant of episodes like the forced conversion and expulsion of Muslims from Spain in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in order to assert that he is currently expressing such views sincerely.

Last week, Benedict traveled to South America, where he made a number of public appearances in Brazil. Again, as with his remarks about Islam, he revealed that he is especially troubled by the Church's history of violence and exploitation, and perceives an urgency about falsifying the record for the preservation of the faith. In this instance, the subject was, quite predictably, the Church's atrocious treatment of the continent's indigeneous people.

Here is Benedict's perspective:

Yet what did the acceptance of the Christian faith mean for the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean? For them, it meant knowing and welcoming Christ, the unknown God whom their ancestors were seeking, without realizing it, in their rich religious traditions. Christ is the Saviour for whom they were silently longing. It also meant that they received, in the waters of Baptism, the divine life that made them children of God by adoption; moreover, they received the Holy Spirit who came to make their cultures fruitful, purifying them and developing the numerous seeds that the incarnate Word had planted in them, thereby guiding them along the paths of the Gospel. In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture. Authentic cultures are not closed in upon themselves, nor are they set in stone at a particular point in history, but they are open, or better still, they are seeking an encounter with other cultures, hoping to reach universality through encounter and dialogue with other ways of life and with elements that can lead to a new synthesis, in which the diversity of expressions is always respected as well as the diversity of their particular cultural embodiment.

Is it really necessary, at this point, to document the atrocities perpetrated in the Americas by the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Church since the time of Columbus, Cortez, De Soto and Pizarro? If so, go here for one example, or consider Benjamin Dangl's description of the the looting of the mineral wealth of Potosi in Bolivia by the Spanish in his recent book, The Price of Fire, wealth obtained through the mining of silver by slave labor, wealth that the Church gratefully received to build numerous ornate churches there among the impoverished.

In effect, Benedict has pulled back the curtain, and exposed the Eurocentrism at the heart of his Catholic vision. The indigenous peoples of the world should be grateful to have been brought along the paths of the Gospel, no matter how ruthlessly it was achieved, and, indeed, in order to aspire to the privilege they must suppress their own experience through a sort of collective amnesia. Accordingly, it is no surprise to discover that Benedict invoked an illusory narrative of benign Catholic modernization in the Americas to confront another Eurocentric social philosophy, Marxism. One gets the impression that, for Benedict, indigenous culture is an inpenetrable void.

Benedict's willingness to blithely erase the suffering of the indigenous peoples of the Americas from the historical record raises troubling questions in light of his own personal background. In 1943, at the age of 14, he joined the Hitler Youth, although, the BBC reassures us, he was not an enthusiastic member.

Even if we take this at face value, one wonders, did his youthful willingness to participate in the rituals of Nazism suggest an indifference to mass brutality when it was directed towards non-Christians? Did he perceive the Jews of Germany, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, as outside the faith, and therefore, at the mercy of vicious historical processes beyond the protection of the Christian God? Did he, and does he, and one hesitates to say something so horrible, believe that the catastrophes that befell the Jews of Europe and the indigenous people of the Americas was partially the result of their persistence in rejecting the gospel?

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Help the Middle East Children's Alliance Raise $40,000 for Medical Supplies for Iraqi Children 

Yesterday, I received a letter in the mail from the Middle East Children's Alliance. Executive Director Barbara Lubin described the severe malnutrition experienced by an estimated 400,000 Iraqi children, a condition characterized by diarrhea and protein deficiencies.

The Alliance is asking for $40,000 in donations so that it can send medicine and other medical supplies to Dr. Salma Haddad af the Children's and Women's Hospital in Baghdad. The Alliance needs to receive them within the next 10 days. As observed here earlier in the week, Lubin notes that Iraq now has some of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

You can contact the Alliance by clicking on the link, and reading the contact information at the bottom of the page. Or, alternatively, here it is: Middle East Children's Alliance, 901 Parker Street, Berkeley, CA 94710 • Tel: 510-548-0542 • Fax: 510-548-0543 • meca@mecaforpeace.org

I'm sure that they would be delighted to explain how you can promptly send them a donation. I've already sent one off in the mail.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Hey, Has Anyone Else Noticed That Blogs Suck Lately? 

I've been thinking about blogging and the fact that I don't post as often as I used to and so forth and have come to the conclusion that part of the problem is beyond my control. To post a lot you have to read a lot of blogs, and political blogs just aren't that interesting anymore.

When I started this blog in 2003 the only hard left blog that I knew about was Left I on the News. There are a few more now, but the fact remains that even if one wants to run a leftist blog one ends up having to read a lot of liberal blogs -- which had been fine, there are many great liberal bloggers out there (I think reading Atrios was what got me interested in blogging in the first place), but since the 2006 elections or since Billmon called it quits or since something, I find the big liberal blogs boring as all hell.

The novelty factor, the faddish quality, has worn off of political blogging. Everybody is dropping out and the only people left are the big partisan Democratic blogs which are becoming increasingly interchangeable: they are all turning into group blogs with lots of long content-free posts about the same topics. Seriously I was never a big fan of DailyKos but am I crazy or has that place become unreadable?

Anyway, enough whining ... I need some new blogs to read. Which political blogs do people read and enjoy -- leftist, liberal, or otherwise?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Surpise, Surprise 

So last year Columbia's Alvaro Uribe, a standard issue corrupt rightwing Latin American president and a favorite of the Bush administration, was enmeshed in a big scandal: his administration turns out to be, surprise, surprise, in bed with Columbia's rightwing paramilitaries. A week ago he came up to Washington, lobbying for a standard issue neoliberal free trade agreement.

Quite a depressingly humorous sight: a guy who was just tarnished by a human rights scandal in which he was shown to be actively supporting death squads that kill a couple hundred trade unionists every year trying to get Congress to sign off on a treaty that's primary benefit to US corporations is access to cheap Colombian labor -- labor which is, of course, so cheap mainly because of things like the fact that the rightwing thugs who kill a couple hundred union guys every year frequently use chainsaws.

Pretty standard depressing story right? But here's the amazing thing ... the Democrats didn't go for it. For humor's sake, here's Robert Novak's item from his Evans-Novak Political Report (to which I subscribe ... seriously, I highly recommend it):

Last week's visit to Capitol Hill by Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe to convince congressional Democrats to pass aid and trade legislation was described by insiders as "catastrophic." Influenced by human rights and protectionist lobbies, Democrats had no restraint in dismissing a rare U.S. ally in South America. That constitutes a victory for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and suggests that President Bush is not the only one in Washington lacking diplomatic skill.

According to The Hill, The Washington Post "expressed editorial shock at the way leading Democrats seemed to go out of their way to insult Colombian President Alvaro Uribe during his visit to this country last week" because I think Nancy Pelosi issued some tepid condemnation of his administration's relationship to paramilitaries. Anyway, the free trade agreement seems to be dead or in serious jeopardy judging by the commotion: some Uribe droid issued a "fuck you, America"-type statement; the statement was quickly retracted; the White House scrambled and, I kid you not, sent down Negroponte, etc.-- although Charlie "I'm Not A Free Trader But I Never Saw a Free Trade Agreement I Didn't Like" Rangel hedged a little to Reuters, as noted here.

All sarcasm aside I find this pretty surprising. Yes, the AFL-CIO was pressuring the Democrats but don't they always? -- I mean the grand daddy of all these things, NAFTA, was a Clinton policy, right? So I really don't know what to make of it. All I can offer is the following two lame thoughts:

(1) The corporations that stood to make money off of this deal were probably uniquely unlikely to throw money in Democratic coffers. For instance, Chiquita Brands International, which coincidentally is also a big funder of Columbian death squads, was up until 2002 controlled by Carl Lindner, Jr. who is friend of Bush's and is from a long line of nasty partisan Republicans.

(2) Even the reddest of red staters -- spurred on probably by the immigration issue -- is starting to understand that what these FTA's mean to them is a bunch of jobs getting shipped south of the border.

If the two above points are true, supporting something like the US-Columbia FTA offers nothing to the Democrats politically -- other than maybe some cheap points and some good press for screwing with Chavez. So, you know, maybe Brooks was right about the death of neoliberalism.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Support the Troops (Part 1) 

From today's Independent:

Two wars and a decade of sanctions have led to a huge rise in the mortality rate among young children in Iraq, leaving statistics that were once the envy of the Arab world now comparable with those of sub-Saharan Africa.

A new report shows that in the years since 1990, Iraq has seen its child mortality rate soar by 125 per cent, the highest increase of any country in the world. Its rate of deaths of children under five now matches that of Mauritania.

Jeff MacAskey, head of health for the Save the Children charity, which published the report, said: "Iraq, Botswana and Zimbabwe all have different reasons for making the least amount of progress on child mortality. Whether it's the impact of war, HIV/Aids or poverty the consequences are equally devastating. Yet other countries such as Malawi and Nepal have shown that despite conflict and poverty child mortality rates can be reversed."

Figures collated by the charity show that in 1990 Iraq's mortality rate for under-fives was 50 per 1,000 live births. In 2005 it was 125. While many other countries have higher rates - Angola, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, all have rates above 200 - the increase in Iraq is higher than elsewhere.

Sadly, as we all know, it's not just children who have been victimized by the sanctions, the wars and the occupation, many thousands of adults of have lost their lives as well. As for the living, our soldiers don't seem to have a very high regard for them:

Almost one in ten US combat troops deployed in Iraq have mistreated a civilian, according to a new survey conducted by an army mental health advisory team.

The report, released on Friday, also found that less than half of the soldiers and marines surveyed would report a fellow serviceman for killing or injuring an innocent Iraqi.

"Soldiers with high levels of anger, who had experienced high levels of combat or who screened positive for mental health symptoms were nearly twice as likely to mistreat noncombatants," Major General Gale Pollock, the acting army surgeon general, told reporters at a press conference.

The most common mistreatment reported by soldiers and marines was that of insulting non-combatants in their presence, the report said.

The survey showed that 55 per cent of US army soldiers, and only 40 per cent of marines, would report a fellow serviceman for killing or injuring an innocent non-combatant.

The survey, which shows increasing rates of mental health problems for troops on extended or multiple deployments in Iraq, was the first to include questions on ethics and ethical training.

As such, the report stresses the findings cannot be compared "with any other group of military personnel".

More than a third of the 1,320 soldiers and 447 marines surveyed said that torture should be allowed to save the life of a fellow soldier or marine, while almost 38 per cent said torture should be allowed in order to gather "important information about insurgents".

"These men and women have been seeing their friends injured and I think that having that thought is normal," said Pollock, but she added: "They're not acting on those thoughts. They're not torturing the people."

The survey showed only 47 per cent of soldiers and 38 per cent of marines agreed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect.

US operations in Iraq have been dogged by claims of mistreatment of Iraqi detainees and civilians, including revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 and reports of the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by Marines in Haditha in November 19, 2005.

Of course, the striking part of this story is the extent of rationalization for the tendency of many US troops to consider Iraqis as dehumanized, along with a paradoxical perspective that the troops merely keep their negative attitudes about the Iraqis to themselves, without acting upon them.

Major General Gale Pollock's comment encapsulates it perfectly: These men and women have been seeing their friends injured and I think that having that thought is normal. They're not acting on those thoughts. They're not torturing the people.

Oh, really? Apparently, as the article suggests, Pollock is ignorant of the disclosures of abuse at Abu Ghraib, as well as the outright killings of civilians at places like Haditha. Meanwhile, the survey questions related to torture are revealing, indicative of a predisposition within the military to sanction it. The troops were asked if torture should be permitted to save their lives and gain valuable intelligence information about the insurgency. Not surprisingly, significant pluralities found it acceptable.

By asking questions about torture that assumed its effectiveness, the army mental health advisory team actually propagandized in support of it. It is actually a wonder that more troops didn't answer the questions affirmatively. If the advisory team had framed the questions differently, based upon a more honest description of the uses of torture and its consequences, it may have obtained very different responses.

For example, consider this evaluation of torture in the historical, ethical and moral context by Alfred McCoy:

For over 2,000 years, from ancient Athens through the Inquisition, interrogators found that the infliction of physical pain often produced heightened resistance or unreliable information - the strong defied pain while the weak blurted out whatever was necessary to stop it. By contrast, the CIA's psychological torture paradigm used two new methods, sensory disorientation and "self-inflicted pain," both of which were aimed at causing victims to feel responsible for their own suffering and so to capitulate more readily to their torturers. A week after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, General Geoffrey Miller, U.S. prison commander in Iraq (and formerly in Guantánamo), offered an unwitting summary of this two-phase torture. "We will no longer, in any circumstances, hood any of the detainees," the general said. "We will no longer use stress positions in any of our interrogations. And we will no longer use sleep deprivation in any of our interrogations."

Under field conditions since the start of the Afghan War, Agency and allied interrogators have often added to their no-touch repertoire physical methods reminiscent of the Inquisition's trademark tortures - strappado, question de l'eau, "crippling stork," and "masks of mockery." At the CIA's center near Kabul in 2002, for instance, American interrogators forced prisoners "to stand with their hands chained to the ceiling and their feet shackled," an effect similar to the strappado. Instead of the Inquisition's iron-framed "crippling stork" to contort the victim's body, CIA interrogators made their victims assume similar "stress positions" without any external mechanism, aiming again for the psychological effect of self-induced pain.

Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, the CIA's "no touch" torture actually leaves deep, searing psychological scars on both victims and - something seldom noted - their interrogators. Victims often need long treatment to recover from a trauma many experts consider more crippling than physical pain. Perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating acts of cruelty and lasting emotional disorders. When applied in actual operations, the CIA's psychological procedures have frequently led to unimaginable cruelties, physical and sexual, by individual perpetrators whose improvisations are often horrific and only occasionally effective.

Just as interrogators are often seduced by a dark, empowering sense of dominance over victims, so their superiors, even at the highest level, can succumb to fantasies of torture as an all-powerful weapon. Our contemporary view of torture as aberrant and its perpetrators as abhorrent ignores both its pervasiveness as a Western practice for two millennia and its perverse appeal. Once torture begins, its perpetrators, plunging into uncharted recesses of consciousness, are often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of power and potency, mastery and control - particularly in times of crisis. "When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power," reads one CIA analysis of the Soviet state applicable to post-9/11 America, "they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures on the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy 'confession' and brutality may become widespread."

Enraptured by this illusory power, modern states that sanction torture usually allow it to spread uncontrollably. By 1967, just four years after compiling a torture manual for use against a few top Soviet targets, the CIA was operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam as part of its Phoenix Program that killed over 20,000 Viet Cong suspects. In the centers themselves, countless thousands were tortured for information that led to these assassinations. Similarly, just a few months after CIA interrogators first tortured top Al Qaeda suspects at Kabul in 2002, its agents were involved in the brutal interrogation of hundreds of Iraqi prisoners. As its most troubling legacy, the CIA's psychological method, with its legitimating scientific patina and its avoidance of obvious physical brutality, has provided a pretext for the preservation of torture as an acceptable practice within the U.S. intelligence community.

Once adopted, torture offers such a powerful illusion of efficient information extraction that its perpetrators, high and low, remain wedded to its use. They regularly refuse to recognize its limited utility and high political cost. At least twice during the Cold War, the CIA's torture training contributed to the destabilization of two key American allies, Iran's Shah and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos. Yet even after their spectacular falls, the Agency remained blind to the way its torture training was destroying the allies it was designed to defend.

Or, to be more concise, information obtained through torture is unreliable, but creates a sense of sadomasochistic omnipotence in those who practice it. Ringo Lam's Hong Kong classic, Burning Paradise, is an arresting cinematic exposition of this phenomenon. One assumes that the military is well aware of the lack of effectiveness of torture from the standpoint of gathering information, it has been common knowledge for a long time. But is the military really interested in torture for this purpose? I doubt it.

Perhaps, we should instead focus upon the potential psychological benefit, from a military perspective, related to those who inflict it. As McCoy describes (and Lam displays visually, to chilling effect), those who do it become addicted to a feeling of irrational omnipotence, perhaps akin to those who abuse cocaine and methamphetamine. Militarily, such a psychological state may be considered desirable, especially when, if left to an objective examination of the situation, the troops would conclude that the war has bn lost.

Indeed, the difference between those who found torture acceptable, and those who did not, may be partially explainable in this way. Troops who answered affirmatively may have believed, even if they had not personally abused Iraqis, that torture was empowering, a way of transforming a demoralized situation, while, those who answered negatively may have thought that recourse to torture would not change anything, and might even makes things worse.

As for the Iraqis, I have frequently commented, as with Guantanamo and the detainees there, that the use of torture is not about developing information for the purpose of attaining military objectives. Rather, it is about intimidating the populace through the brutalization of those subjected to it, and the many others who learn of it. Given that we are now in the fifth year of the occupation, we can only charitably describe the effectiveness of it as mixed at best.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Afghanistan: The Other Lost War 

From an article published by Jane Kay of the World Socialist Web Site:

Bombing raids by US-led NATO forces in western Afghanistan last week killed at least 50 civilians and perhaps over 100, reports from Afghan government officials and human rights organizations have confirmed.

The aerial bombings took place on April 28 and 29 in the Shindand District of the western province of Herat. According to a statement by the US military, 136 “Taliban fighters” were killed in two separate bombing raids, but this claim provoked immediate anger and skepticism on the part of local residents, who insist that there are no Taliban in the region. Earlier this week, thousands gathered to protest the killings and denounce the US-backed government of Hamid Karzai. At least 20 were wounded when Afghan police opened fire on the demonstrators.

In recent days, reports have emerged from the province itself about the nature of the bombings. Ghalum Nabi Hakak, the Herat representative of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told the Washington Post on Wednesday night, “So far the people have buried 45 bodies, and they are still taking out more. Yesterday they buried 12 children,” he said. “The exact number of dead is not clear, but the people are very angry.”

Those who visited the area said that by mid-week villagers were still attempting to dig out bodies from collapsed mud houses destroyed in the NATO raids on two villages.

Reports differ on the number of people killed and displaced by the bombings. One resident said that more than 100 people had been killed, and all were civilians. Many more were injured. Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said a separate investigation found 49 civilians killed and over 900 families displaced. Farzana Ahmadi, a spokeswoman for the governor of Herat, said that 100 houses were destroyed and 1,600 people rendered homeless.

Ahmadi said that a report prepared by local officials concluded that “some women and children were drowned in the river, and it was maybe in the heat of the moment that the children and people wanted to escape and jumped into the water.”

Now, there are reports that 13 more civilians may have been killed on Tuesday night. One wonders if NATO is subjecting the Afghans to the kinds of indiscriminate, violent brutalities that occupation forces have inflicted upon people so often in the past when it is no longer possible to evade recognition of defeat.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

May Day 

Hey happy belated May Day everyone. Of the many laudatory things one might say about the immigrant rights movement that has risen up in this country lately, it's nice to see people marching on May Day in America.

Anyway, if anyone's ever heard Chomsky mention May Day, he often speaks of the irony of the turn of events in which May Day, a workers' holiday invented in the US, is not currently celebrated in the US as such. He also often points out that Reagan in 1984 decreed that May 1st should henceforth be known as "Law Day" and should not be about celebrating the socialists, anarchists, and reds that made America what it is today -- at least the good part, specifically May Day itself began as a general strike aimed at securing an 8-hour work day -- but should be about celebrating the, umm, rule of law.

This whole "Law Day" thing, which I had only heard about from Chomsky, always elicited from me a reaction like, "Oh, come on, that can't possibly be true." So I looked into it and, yeah, it's true, but Chomsky got the details wrong.

"Law Day" pre-dates Reagan. It goes back to the red scare, was established by Eisenhower in 1958 to co-opt "the biggest day on the socialist calendar", to quote an editorial in the Times -- and the really crazy thing is that this transparent bit of cold war propaganda is still around (the above linked to NYT article is from yesterday)

The reason Chomsky got it wrong is because when he read an article in 1984 about Reagan proclaiming May 1st as Law Day, it was probably a lot like this proclamation from yesterday:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, in accordance with Public Law 87 20, as amended, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2007, as Law Day, U.S.A. I call upon all the people of the United States to observe

So, you know, take that Sacco and Vanzetti... (and you all can make up your own joke about Bush inaugurating festivities celebrating the constitution)

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