June 24, 2006

Gitmo & Other Sorrows

"The Road to Guantanamo" is a good movie, if unusual in its composition. It tells the story of the 3 Brithish Pakistanis who found themselves trapped in Afghanistan near the conclusion of the U.S invasion in 2001, their subsequent capture by the Northern Alliance and eventual shipment to Guantanamo. The movie is unable, obviously, to use archival film of the their actual travels in Afghanistan or incarceration as suspected al-Qaeda operatives, since none exists, so it demonstrates what happened by means of talking-head narration by the 3 Pakistanis (now at home in England) and dramatized footage based on their narration. So, to a major extent, we have to take their word for it. If 50% of what they claim is true (and independent sources suggest the percentage is probably much higher), then the United States of America has descended into a moral sewer of degradation and inhumanity which will unquestionably plague us for decades to come.

The happier parts of the movie demonstrate the close friendship and camaraderie of the four friends (one is lost in the escape from Kunduz) as they cheerfully endure the hardships of rustic travel in Pakistan and Afghanistan. One senses bonds of culture and religion that are distinctly "un-American" in their style, meaning they lack the ironic detachment more characteristic of modern American loner-ism. These bonds, I suspect, proved decisive in assuring their survival. If George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had ever been capable of experiencing this kind of camaraderie and emotional support, it seems unlikely they would have found it necessary to preside over the sadistic freak show which the American P.O.W. system has become.

I found myself tensing up as the happy idyll in Aghanistan was apparently about to end, and I realized that my apprehension had an unusual source for a kid who grew up watching John Wayne surmount Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, and Audie Murphy take on an entire German patrol in Europe. The three hapless Pakistani-Brits were about to be captured by the Americans. One of the captives voices this irony in his narration, saying, in effect, we thought everything would be okay once the Americans had us. "We were wrong," he said. Wrong because Bush & Co. are now in charge and they have instituted a program of always appearing as macho and unsparing as inhumanly possible, and these attitudes have been internalized by the Gestapo-like apparatus running American detention camps in Gitmo and abroad. Essentially, they treat the enemy, whether they have any actual proof or not (of the hundreds held at Gitmo for years, only 10 have ever been charged with anything), like vermin, pushing them around, abusing them, screaming at them, depriving them of sleep, tricking them with Photo-Shop pictures of the POW attending a bin Laden rally, placing them in stress positions in isolation chambers where thundering rap music is played at ear-splitting levels, binding them in unnecessary restraints, placing bug-like blackout glasses over their faces for any movement, etc., etc. Truly sickening.

All of this abuse is apparently in the service of something, although the Bush Administration never says what. The 19 hijackers who attacked America died in the operation, and the actual mastermind, Khallid Sheikh Mohammed, is somewhere in CIA custody, undergoing, no doubt, much worse treatment at the hands of American surrogates with even less humane inclinations. The war on terror is a massive exercise in guilt-by-association, but fundamentally it is an anti-Arab and anti-Muslim jihad. I doubt seriously this is lost on the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, and the anti-American feelings we are engendering with this mindless campaign will play out for a long, long time.

June 22, 2006

Weekly Sitdown at HQ

Time: Spring, 2008

Scene: Oval Office, Morning

Having lost all need for pretense, Capo George “Big G” Bush arrives at gang headquarters wearing a black suit, black shirt and broad white tie. He wears spats and carries a jaunty cane, which he slaps on the pool table to awaken Captain Dick “The Scowl” Cheney from a spell of hypoxia. Big G sets his black fedora on the refrigerator, opens the door and pulls out a frosty Bud. Unscrewing the cap, he looks at the long table running the length of the office.

“We got any cannoli? Where the fuck’s the cannoli?”

“Right here, right here,” mutters Don “The Torque” Rumsfeld, pushing a tray toward Big G.

G nods his head derisively.

“Real nice, real nice, Torque,” he says. “Maybe you’ll show a little more fuckin’ respect if I break your fuckin’ head for you.”

The Scowl breaks in. “What’s up today? We got somethin’ more pressing than fuckin’ cannoli to talk about?”

G gives The Scowl a long look. Sorry, didn’t know it was that time of month.”

Josh “The Shutter” Bolten strolls around G at the head of the table, taking pictures of G’s hands from different angles.

“Think you got enough fuckin’ pictures of my hands, Bolten?” G tosses his head at Bolten, his cheeks bulging with cannoli. “What’s wid dis guy?”

“What’s the body count on Iraq?” the Scowl cuts in.

“Who gives a fuck?” G says. “You and yer fuckin’ numbers.”

“5 grand and change,” John “Black Bridge” Negroponte says.

“That’s what happens when ya go to the mattresses,” G says. “No broke eggs, no omelettes. Where’s Halliburton stock? Anybody runnin’ the numbers?”

“Trew da roof,” breaks in Bolten.

G smiles, tossing his head at Bolten. "Get a load. Talkin’ like a wiseguy now, huh? Dat’s real good, Josh. Why don’t you take a picture of my ass next?”

“Hey Scowl,” G says. “You welsh on that Halliburton deal we made, and you’ll be standin on the bottom of the Potomac, capisc’?”

“Who’s welshin?” the Scowl scowls. “You’ll get your cut, same as always.”

“Sweet. Okay, what else we got? Say, Black Bridge, you oughta know. How you say ‘Our Thing’ in Eye-talian?”

“Cosa nostra,” Black Bridge answers. “Why?”

“I like that. Runnin this thing's Our Thing, huh? Anything else? Okay, I’ll be over at the social club with Lacquer Head if you need me.”

June 21, 2006

Catch-22 and Iraqi Amnesty

I can't quite help myself. I've been reading Joseph Heller's masterpiece again. I saw it on the shelf and intended only to confirm whether I remembered the very first line: "It was love at first sight." I had remembered, and now I'm on page 200. I have a facility for remembering the prose of great books verbatim which unfortunately dispels much of the pleasure of multiple perusals. I would guess this is pass #6 or #7 through Catch-22, but the prose is such absolute perfection it withstands repetition, like listening to a great monologue from early Woody Allen.

Anyway, it's a disconcerting juxtaposition to read this brilliant parody of the insanity of war, even a war as just as World War II (the last one, I suppose, in which America wholeheartedly agreed to its necessity and righteousness) while occasionally watching C-Span coverage of Congress and reading on-line news reports. Yesterday the Senate argued at length about the language of a Senate resolution expressing the "sense" of the Senate about reports the Iraqi government of al-Maliki was considering granting amnesty to insurgents who had killed American soldiers. The Senators were posturing, thundering, and declaiming like mad to make sure they appeared to be the most outraged over such a suggestion. John Warner seemed to take the whole thing personally, as if that mane of white hair should have been proof enough that no one could possibly be more supportive of America's brave young men and women, and that if any ambiguity seemed to seep from the edges of the resolution...

Well, you see, that's the problem. The Senate, in expressing its "sense," does not want to be in the position of telling the Iraqi government what to do. We would never do that, because Iraq is a "sovereign" country that we set up and are dying to preserve. And as we set it up, defend it and die to preserve it, Maliki & Co. are trying to make peace with the unrelenting insurgents who attack them 600 times a week by letting them off the hook for killing the people who are dying to preserve the Maliki government.

So I'm wondering what the great, the incomparable, the brilliant, the one-and-only Joseph Heller would do with priceless material like this. Remember Milo Minderbinder? The entrepreneur who bombed the air base on Pianosa on a for-profit basis? Well, it really happened. It's called Kellog Brown & Root, and they furnish "services" to the military on a contract basis. They constantly short-change and cheat the military. They serve them substandard food and pad their invoices. If the Administration entered a contract with KBR to kill American troops, would Congress say anything about it? Wouldn't the Republican majority rise up and defend the Bush Administration's absolute right to conduct the war under the President's constitutional war powers in any way he saw fit? And if bombing American troops using American planes is part of that conduct, does Congress really have anything to say about it? Didn't they sign an Authorization for Use of Military Force in 2001? And if bombing American troops using American bombers isn't a use of military force, what is?

And Colonel Cathcart, who Yossarian kept saying was trying to get him killed by making him fly combat missions. Isn't Donald Rumsfeld the perfect Colonel Cathcart? Isn't he trying to get Americans killed by sending them in insufficient numbers with inadequate armor against an implacable foe who are so tenacious the government wants to tell them it's okay if you only killed Americans? Doesn't the American soldier have the right to say that his enemy is anybody who's trying to get him killed? And if some Clevinger, some unthinking grunt challenges the would-be Yossarian and tells him, they're not trying to kill you, they're trying to kill everybody, isn't the rational response -- what difference does that make?

Thank you, Joseph, for letting me see it was always thus. Contextually, the Iraq War is even crazier than World War II, of course. The entire exercise has become very similar to Captain Black's Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, where airmen were forced to sign nonstop loyalty oaths to eat, to get a parachute, to get a bombing map, to move about the base. The question now is who supports the troops? Maybe they shouldn't be there at all, maybe the whole project is insane, maybe we'll go bankrupt doing this forever, but that doesn't matter. Do you support the troops or don't you? You could say you support the troops by trying to get them out of Iraq, where the government you're fighting and dying to preserve says it's okay to kill you, but that's too complicated. And anyway, nobody cares anymore. Long ago everyone forgot why we're in Iraq. We call it the "central front" in the war on terror, but it's the central front only because we're there, and if we weren't there, it wouldn't be the central front anymore.

Gee, I can see how intoxicating it must have been to write the original Catch-22. All you have to do is open your eyes and see. And be an insightful genius, of course. The world is crazy.

And getting crazier. It now develops that Iraqi troops trained by Americans have used their training to kill Americans, including two soldiers from California in 2004. The Pentagon was a little slow in delivering that news to the parents of the soldiers killed by American-trained Iraqis. We may need another sense of the Senate on that one, that it's none of our business how the Iraqi government uses the training we give their soldiers, but our sense is that we'd rather they kill the insurgents with their training, even if the insurgents who kill our American soldiers will be given amnesty for killing us directly, although it's our sense we're not too crazy about that either.

June 20, 2006

Meanwhile, back in Pyongyang

Last week's post about Stephen Hawking concentrated mostly on one catastrophe in Hawking's Unholy Trinity, the looming possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect. I suppose Hawking is one apocalyptic horse shy of a full team for his Stagecoach to Hell, but give us time - we'll devise something. After all, we're the human race.

#2 horse on the list was nuclear annihilation, and this way out (which I think I might prefer to the Venus scenario) was given a sharp whip to the rump by Bush's Arch-Nemesis, North Korea's Tyrant-for-Life, Kim Jong Il, he of the rattling sabre and botanical haircut. As a California resident (for how much longer? yikes), I was pleased to see Condi Rice rise up and protest Kim's planned missile test. Maybe this is because Taepodong-II has an enhanced range of 9,300 miles, nearly reaching to Washington, D.C. Back when we all thought it could only reach California, Bush & Co. seemed fairly sanguine about the whole thing. After all, nuclear incineration of the West Coast could only improve Bush's grip on Congress. A major Blue State: Ka-BOOM! Just like that. Would Boxer & Feinstein be permitted to continue representation of a state where all their constituents were dead? How would Scalia handle that delicate Constitutional question?

But Kim added a little juice to the booster stage and now all bets are off. One of his nukes might hit Crawford, Texas, if I'm reading the range maps correctly. So Condi is sounding very stern, or as stern as she can sound, which is not all that stern. When I watch her on Meet the Press or at a press conference, I'm always taken with her diligence. She knows exactly what she's going to say and how she's going to say it. Of course, we know exactly what she's going to say and how she's going to say it. It's as if a Spelling Bee Champion has been elevated to the post of Secretary of State. I'll bet when she plays a Bach Two-Part Invention on the piano, it is absolutely flawless, note perfect, the time impeccable. Also, completely soulless. Just my hunch.

When I think about the various ways we seem to be hurtling toward catastrophe, I can't help but wonder: is it possible the rest of the world shares the perspective of the American Troublemaking Left? That this President and his team, including Note-Perfect Condoleezza, are in way, way over their heads? That they suck at their jobs? Do you suppose A-Jad in Iran and Kim in North Korea noticed what went on after Katrina, and FEMA's grotesque mishandling of the destruction of an American city? And then said to themselves: This guy is what we've been worrying about?

I never see the media discuss that angle, although, when you think about it, it's as obvious as the crook in Dick Cheney's smile. Or grimace, I've never been sure which. Media blather, when it comes to America's reputation in the world, is limited to the question of America's loss of "moral authority." There may have also been a loss, during the last 6 years or so, of another kind of stature. Simple respect for American competence in high places. I don't think Kim and A-Jad give a shit about moral authority, but pulling the lion's tail reflects a different kind of calculation. The idea you can get away with the unthinkable. Develop your own atomic bombs and the means to deliver them, for example. Test, right out in the open, a missile which can hit Omaha. I doubt that it's been lost on these guys that Bush, with the largest defense budget in the world, a budget which is many multiples of Iran's and North Korea's combined, nevertheless managed to strand the American military in an endless street fight in a wrecked country out among the sand dunes. He can't leave and he can't stay. He can't seem to make a good decision under pressure, that he's a choke artist, that he doesn't know what the hell he's doing, in other words.

The stakes have been raised very recently by the American threat to shoot Kim's Taepodong out of the sky, a suitably war-of-the-phalluses kind of image. Now that's what I call proactive intervention. And for those of you who may have forgotten, George has kinda been itchin' for just such an opportunity. Please recall that an early act of his leadership was to withdraw the United States from the ABM Treaty of 1972, which prevented the development of anti-missile missiles. What Bush had in mind was just this kind of moment: the threat of a "rogue" state (hard to think of many countries roguer than N. Korea) or terrorist group with its finger on a nuclear-armed Button. This is Bush as Gary Cooper, strolling confidently on to that dusty street at midday, while Laura looks on in that loving, Grace Kelly way. True, because of the poofy hair, Kim Jong Il looks weird standin' down there near the entrance to the saloon. Still: Bring it on.

One note of caution, however, and it relates to the point with which we began. Bush might want someone on his staff to re-read Steven Weinberg's "Can A Missile Defense System Work?" [http://socsci.colorado.edu/~parisr/IAFS_1000/Can_Missile_Defense_Work.htm]. The ABM has a spectacular record of failure even when 1) we know when the missiles are going to be launched, 2) we know where they're going, and 3) we know (1) & (2) because they're our missiles. Then again, Mr. Weinberg is a Nobel Prize winning physicist and part of the Reality-Based community. Irrelevant, in other words.

But suppose he's right? Suppose we aim an ABM at Kim's Taepodong (it's just fun to say) and miss? Do you realize how many times the vaunted Patriot ABM missed Saddam's crummy Scud missiles in Gulf War - I: This Time We're Stoppin? Every single time. I hope they rethink it. We don't need this. If you're going to shoot something, use a cruise missile to blow Jong's 'Dong up while it's still in the silo. I know it's not "High Noon," kind of like shooting the Bad Guy while he's still asleep. But it might be good to do something smart for a change.

June 19, 2006

Bush & Hitler's Line of Work

"See in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda." President George W. Bush.

"The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction for blasé young gentlemen, but to convince… the masses. But the masses are slow moving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them." -- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 185.

There are, to be sure, critical differences between the two leaders. For one thing, I'm not aware Bush ever wrote a book or manifesto, let alone a sentence with the reasonably felicitous and evocative phrase, "...to provide interesting distraction for blasé young gentlemen..." Nor is Bush an overpowering, mesmerizing orator, and his roots, unlike Hitler's, were patrician rather than plebeian.

Hitler went from a failed career as an architect and artist to the Beer Hall Putsch, which stamped him indelibly on the pages of German history. Bush meandered his way in an alcoholic haze through failed academic and business pursuits until he found his true calling, as a Hollow Man perfectly suited to makeover by the Image Machine responsible for choosing American candidates and presidents. Lacking a discernible character or any principles of his own, Bush was an ideal vessel for media manipulation, a sort of Human Hologram on which the Conservative Right could project any laudable quality they desired. Mostly this was done through simple acts of substitution; for example, for his obvious vapidity, they could insert "straight-talking." Or, better, "talkin." For foolishly stubborn intransigence, they could sub in "resolute." As to his clear penchant for pathological lying, they could explain it away as an aspect of his sense of "loyalty" to his "inner circle." Confronted with the man's sick enthusiasm for torture and for indefinite detention of Untermenschen captured in his neverending war on terror, the Right could applaud his steely determination to do the necessary in a time of crisis.

Bush lacks Hitler's subtlety, but Bush doesn't need it. He can use the word "propaganda" openly and can even brag about misleading the American public. As one obvious and oft-cited example, Bush deliberately created the impression that Saddam Hussein played a key role in the terrorist attacks of 9-11. When confronted directly with this ruse, Bush allowed us to see the man behind the curtain in ways his stylistic mentor would have avoided: "I was careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack on America." March 20, 2006. I suspect Goebbels did not have to worry nearly as much about Hitler's Fuss-in-Mundt tendencies. Bush's propaganda, repeated many times according to the Mein Kampf playbook, always gave the general impression that Saddam Hussein was mixed up, somehow, in the 9-11 plot. It never made any sense; there was never any proof; and none of that ever made any difference. So why was Bush being so fastidious about pointing out this trivial distinction between what he did say and what he says he didn't say?

This is where Rove has always had a harder job than Goebbels. Hitler - well, the Fuhrer you could trust with freelancing. Bush, on the stump, is likely to go sideways on you. Under pressure, trying to remember amidst the dense fog of lies he tells everyday about what the U.S. Government is up to, something he did say about Saddam and 9-11, the only thing that popped into Bush's subnormal cerebrum was Karl's admonition: "Always be careful never to say directly that Saddam ordered the attacks of 9-11." So Bush could, under the pressure of the moment, confidently remember that he must have avoided that. He was, for our amusement and dissection, reproducing faithfully and exactly how Rove talks to him when only the Inner Circle is around.

Hitler, I'm sure, would have simply made up another lie on the spot. He didn't really care whether he was lying or not. Neither does Bush, but his handlers have told him he's supposed to appear to care, so he does his best to fake it. He's punctilious that way. If you pay attention, it's all there. The man's trying to tell you -- this is how I've been programmed. I suppose it isn't really a cry for help. Hitler was made of sterner stuff, that's for sure, but then he was actually a soldier in World War I, saw combat, was wounded. He came up through the ranks the hard way and wore his ruthlessness as a badge of honor. See, it's the only way a guy like me could make it against those blasé young gentlemen. Hitler was a monstrosity forged in an iron crucible of aggrievement. Bush is from a cushy, pampered, authoritarian-lite tradition. It's difficult to think up an excuse for being like Bush, really. He is one of those blasé young gentlemen, yet he allowed himself to be molded into another Hitlerian monstrosity, while we stood by and let it happen.

What on Earth will we tell History is our excuse?

Living in Interesting Times

"It took all of human history until 1830 for world population to reach one billion. The second billion was achieved in 100 years, the third billion in 30 years, the fourth billion in 15 years, and the fifth billion in only 12 years. In 2005, world population exceeded 6.5 billion people, growing by nearly 80 million per year with virtually all of the growth taking place in the poorest countries in the world, where population already strains economies, environments and social services."

In 1950, not so long after I was born, the world population was only about 2.5 billion. My grade school memories seem to confirm I was living in a world with 3 billion people. Not so long after that, in the early 1960's, Paul Erlich began writing about a "population bomb" and the Malthusian concept of exponential growth entered the common lexicon. Erlich warned the world population would double every 35 years or so. In the rear view mirror, his mathematics look pretty spot on.

With the exception of the United States, the developed countries, the First World, have stopped growing. Did they get Erlich's message? I don't think that was it. I don't believe, frankly, that environmental concerns ever manifest themselves from the bottom up. The declining birth rates, to levels below population replacement, in Europe, Japan and (almost) the United States reflect other pressures. The disappearance of what I call Life's Margin of Ease. As life became more difficult in the First World, as its real standard of living began to decline, the citizens of the advanced West forwent family in favor of "lifestyle" advantages, a way of saying that materialism replaced kinship as the chief measure of wealth. For concerted action to be successful, it must be part of top-down, mandated policy. China's success in controlling a once-burgeoning population explosion, while Draconian in nature, explains its success in defusing its own Bomb. The rest of Asia, much of Africa, nearly all of Latin America, meanwhile continue on their Malthusian way. Children, for the most part, are what they have. Until someone makes them stop having them, they won't.

Which takes us back to our first graphic. These days, with the success of Al Gore's PowerPoint movie, the airwaves are abuzz with initiatives to arrest global warming, to hold CO2 concentrations at present levels. All language describing these efforts is in the future conditional. "We can begin to decrease emissions when..." "The technology is available now to start a transition..." While all of this talk goes on, Massachusetts-size chunks of Antarctica are breaking off and floating north, 80% of the world's glaciers are in retreat, and Hemingway, if alive today, might write "The Green Hills of Africa," but never "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

The Keeling Curve continues to ratchet skyward, even as we talk, even as we dream of the transition. We all keep driving, keep heating and cooling our houses, keep blogging away on computers plugged into the electrical grid. No one, in America, is telling us what to do. They're busy with more important things. In Washington, they're concerned they might not get reelected, and would find themselves struggling among the hoi-polloi. No sense bumming the electorate with discussions of reality. Better to protect Americans from burning flags and marriageable gays, and above all else, to spend every dime we don't have on that stupid war in Iraq.

And high above Mauna Loa, the latest reading clicks up another notch.