December 09, 2010

And it's one, two, three...

what are we fightin' for?

I watched the movie "Restrepo" on Netflix recently; it had a short theatrical run a while back, too short for me to get there in time. It was good to save the money, I would say, on actually seeing the movie. I think the producer/cinematographer Sebastian Junger (author of Perfect Storm, that phrase which has forever entered our cliched lexicon as the only allowed description of a confluence of bad coincidences) did a good job with what he had. The movie is essentially static, as the lives of the men of the Airborne platoon posted at the Restrepo base in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan must have really been during the year they spent there in 2007. Restrepo was the name of one of their fallen comrades, killed early in the deployment.

The movie has three main recurring sequences. Life atop the outpost; patrols; and interaction with native Afghans. The first is boring; the second intermittently gripping or a little theatrical in a self-conscious way, depending on what was filmed; and the third pathetic and very sad. Occasionally the U.S. military kills innocent natives. Then a meeting is held where the young American noncoms sit and explain why these things happen, sometimes in the presence of a dead and bloodied child who got in the way of a firefight or was hit by a rocket fired by a helicopter. These are strange encounters. The GIs are all decked out in their camo and state of the art weaponry, Kevlar helmets with built in spot lights, the works. The tribal elders have long straggly beards, a few teeth, weathered bronze skin, wear robes and turbans. The elders nod inscrutably, betraying no expression at all. The sergeant, through his interpreter, talks a mile a minute, patiently, condescendingly explaining why we're trying to kill the right people but it doesn't always work out that way, and anyway, don't go helping the Taliban or this stuff will happen more often.

There is no real attempt to place the war in context. You do not get the impression that anything the soldiers are doing is helping anything, but on the other hand, you're unable to tell whether it's counterproductive. It isn't made clear what other things those local Afghans would have to put up with in the absence of U.S. soldiers patrolling their valley and barging into their ancient dwellings. Out on patrol, as they take fire (and as two soldiers are hit, one fatally), you get the feeling that context doesn't matter. It's this group of soldiers versus the bad guys, and there's no room for philosophy. The Taliban, the mujahideen, are trying to kill the U.S. soldiers; the GIs want to kill them first and to protect each other. That's essentially the story.

Do the mujahideen want to kill the Airborne soldiers because the insurgents are in league with the attackers of September of 2001? Because they feel just the way an Egyptian ringleader, with an accomplice from the UAE, and a couple of other pilots, and 15 Saudis felt that day in New York and Washington? When they hatched their plan in Germany and perfected it in South Florida? Is that why these American soldiers are humping through the high mountains around the Korengal Valley, because we have to root out....what, exactly? You'll never figure it out from this movie. All you can say is that whatever is going on there seems far removed from one terrorist plot carried out in another part of the world.

The soldiers just seem like average guys. They horse around a lot, the F word is used constantly, they smoke, they're heavily covered in tattoos. Their quarters are messy and dirty and they have virtually no amenities. You get the impression they're well trained with their weapons. One slightly bizarre feature of modern...everything, really, which I hesitate to bring up, given the hardship, privation and mortal danger these guys were in - but even in combat, I noted, this strange modern phenomenon of Americans speaking as if they were characters in a movie was constantly present. Well, I suppose these guys were in a movie, but I couldn't help noticing the huge difference, for example, between the interviews of these soldiers (many of them conducted back home in the States after the deployment was over) and those conducted of the World War II GIs in the HBO series on the European and Pacific theaters. That's probably a brain belch for another day, but it is as if, in our media-saturated times, our very consciousnesses have become so permeated by media images and snatches of dialogue and action movie cliches that any kind of "authentic" behavior and reaction has sort of gone by the boards. You see this all the time in TV interviews after disasters, for example; everyone sounds exactly like the characters in a disaster film sound reciting scripted lines. We all know how it's supposed to sound - it's supposed to sound the way Bruce Willis would say it. The soldiers at Restrepo even spent some of their down time playing "World at War" on their GameBoys. Well, you know: why not? Their lives were imitating the art of our culture anyway.

Whatever the reason, we're still in Aghanistan, more than nine years after the putative cause for our involvement occurred. The soldiers of the Airborne platoon seem competent at killing people, but the "hearts and minds" project is probably in the wrong hands. Why, indeed, should they be expected to carry out such a mission anyway? They've got other things to worry about, like surviving. As it becomes increasingly obvious that President Barack Obama is not very clear on why he does anything, it's hard, after watching a movie like "Restrepo," to escape the conclusion that we're in Afghanistan because we were there when Obama was elected, and he doesn't like to change things, campaign slogans be damned. The military brass told him we should stay, and that was good enough for him. And thus the war drags on and on and on.

December 08, 2010

Washington D.C. Jumps the Shark

The phrase is based on a 1977 episode of "Happy Days" where the Fonz, wearing swim trunks and his trademark leather jacket, water skis on a Los Angeles vacation and jumps over an underwater enclosure containing a shark. The concept seems to refer to some watershed development in a sitcom which forever marks its turning point toward fading out. I think I remember when that happened in "Seinfeld;" it was some episode late in the Seinfeld era (it may have been the last year) where Kramer is taking a test drive with a car salesman and they get into some silly plot point about seeing how far they can drive with the gas gauge warning light on. It seemed like an attempt at the Theater of the Absurd, and it didn't really work at all. It was tedious. Seinfeld had jumped the shark.

Thus, we now have the federal government, itself a kind of sitcom or running gag, jumping the shark with its "tax deal." Make no mistake, this is a major turning point in the history of the republic. Faced with mounting debts which it increasingly cannot handle, Congress and the White House have decided to go all in with their madness. While with one hand Obama has created a Frankenstein of a "deficit commission" headed up by the certifiable lunatic Alan Simpson, former Cowboy/Senator from Wyoming who is openly hostile to America's safety nets, on the other Obama has decided to cooperate with the Republicans in further decreasing America's income stream by perpetuating the "Bush tax cuts" and also decreasing the employee's FICA contributions from 6% to 4%.

These are truly insane ideas. It appears that young Barry has bought into the idea that if you just keep cutting taxes sufficiently, jobs will magically appear. This was Bush's cover story when the "temporary" tax reductions were enacted in 2001 and 2003, but that was not the mendacious former president's real goal. He just wanted to lower the top marginal rate for his plutocrat friends. Knowing how fiscally irresponsible the tax reductions were (and how unnecessary for the chief beneficiaries), Bush & Co. inserted a sundown clause of December 31, 2010 so that in "outer year" calculations the tax cuts would look more benign. Yet the goal was always to make them permanent, using what was assumed to be permanent Republican majorities to do so. What is truly amazing is that Obama and the Democrats are going to allow Bush to get away with his sleight-of-hand. They are going to make the tax cuts permanent for Bush, for no reason, and with disastrous fiscal results for the United States. The last thing this country needs is a deeper deficit hole. We're barely holding on as it is.

Similar concerns apply to the Social Security system. The mythical "trust fund" is cited far and wide as a reason that the system is in good shape, that $2.5 trillion in government IOUs that supposedly guarantee the solvency of Social Security for decades to come. For the last time: there is no trust fund; it is nothing more than the historical record of money stolen from the American people by its politicians and spent on other things. When the trust fund "pays" into the Social Security system to make up for what are already existing cash shortfalls, all that is happening is that the intergovernmental debt is transmuted into public debt, which is to say, the trust fund is "funded" by more borrowing. On a cash in/cash out basis, the Social Security system already does not take in enough money to fund itself. Against this reality, the federal government proposes to make the situation worse.

This is shark jumping, pure and simple. It is a picture of a national government so overrun by incompetence and bad faith that it has gone insane. There is not even a suggestion in any of this that anyone, any adult of good will, actually has a plan to deal with the looming threat of government bankruptcy. China is going to downgrade our bond issuance to junk status; interest rates on longer-term government obligations (such as the 10 year) are already beginning to rise sharply. And to deal with its deadbeat status, the federal government proposes to reduce its own income. As Arthur Fonzarelli would have said, "Wrongamundo."

December 06, 2010

President confined to couch, not allowed on rug

from today's Washington Post (Dec. 6)

Incoming Speaker of the House and Republican Bully John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader and Republican Bully Mitch McConnell continued their Oval Office occupation today with even more onerous restrictions on President Barack Obama's use of his West Wing quarters. Obama was forced to sit on one of the sofas with his feet flat on the hardwood floor and not touching the large oval area rug in the office. Last week the President was allowed to use his desk occasionally to take telephone calls, but that privilege was revoked today. Senator John McCain of Arizona was the only politician allowed to sit behind the President's desk.

Obama is allowed to walk around in the Oval Office, provided he does not step on the rug or touch any of the stuff on the desk. The President was upbeat in his assessment of these new restrictions.

"Mitch and John have been here for about a week now," the President said, smiling. "They've made some demands, such as telling me where I can walk, and of course the rule about not stepping on the rug."

(As he spoke, the President appeared to step on the edge of the rug with his right shoe. Both Boehner and McConnell were quick to point emphatically and yell "Hey!" in unison. The President stepped quickly off the rug.)

"Working with the other side is part of the job," Obama continued, stepping backwards toward his desk. (McCain reached out and poked him in the back with a ballpoint pen, causing Obama to jump forward and almost step on the rug.) "It's made running the Executive Branch a little harder in this case, but I just don't think, with the country needing cooperation from both sides of the aisle, that this is the time to play politics. So I'm working with my friends in the Republican Party."

Obama returned to his seat in the corner of the sofa by carefully walking heel-toe along the edge of the rug and sat down facing Boehner and McConnell. "Can I go to the bathroom now?" he asked.

McConnell checked his watch. "In another twenty minutes," he said.

Since the midterms the Republicans have seemed to flex their political muscle and grow in confidence about their ability to extract concessions from Obama, such as the amazing coup of gaining a Democratic President's agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which were only temporary and would have expired without Congressional action in another 25 days; thus, the Democrats only needed to refuse to take a vote, an easy task when they currently control both houses of Congress. Nevertheless, the Democrats and Obama capitulated, completely unnecessary as it may have seemed.

Some White House observers believe that this show of weakness on the President's part may be part of the reason the Republicans have upped the ante and are now restricting Obama's use of the Oval Office. A high White House official, speaking off the record because he is afraid of his own shadow, indicated that starting tomorrow Boehner and McConnell may not allow Obama the use of the sofa, confining the President instead to a side chair in the hall.

"It's one of the options we're looking at," the President said. "Right now, the Republicans are refusing to allow me back to my desk, but politics is the art of compromise and it's possible a bipartisan consensus can be reached which allows me to use my office, at least for a while."

McConnell was less optimistic about reaching a deal. "I think we've made our position plain," the multi-chinned solon drawled. "We're open to suggestions, but I just don't see a compromise where the President uses his desk or starts walking on the rug again. I think the American people need a clear position from us on that."

December 05, 2010

One Moment of Grace of Highway 57

Although I will say this. No matter how debased existence can sometimes seem, there will always be moments of grace possible through a shift in perspective. Could be that Kandinsky, Grosz and others discerned in that very macabre quality of Man's artifacts, his alienating creations, a strange beauty that transcended their surface repulsion.

And in such a way, while riding through that nightmare traffic jam, my daughter asked if I wanted to hear some of the "Symphony of Science" she had downloaded onto her iPod, and I said, "Sure." Not realizing what recordings of transcendent beauty these simple things were. So, if of a Sunday evening, you would like a religious experience of your own, I commend them to you.

(They reminded me too of how much we need people like Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan in our own day and time.)

The Not-So-Open-Road

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain-- All, all the stretch of these great green states-- And make America again!

Langston Hughes

I went to Arizona for Thanksgiving. I left very early Wednesday morning and arrived home very late Saturday night. Of the various ways of traveling between Northern California and the Phoenix area, I decided against taking the high-speed rail line. There was something axiomatic about this choice in the sense that there is no high-speed rail line between Northern California and the Phoenix area, nor will there be during my life time. It is possible, with enough ingenuity, to travel by train between San Francisco and Phoenix, or mostly by train. All you have to do, for example, is to take a bus (buses are prominently featured, oddly enough, on Amtrak's schedules) from Oakland's Jack London Square (picturesque! a way) and Santa Barbara, leaving around 10:30 pm (I guess I'm talking about Tuesday night, to make this work) and arriving around 6:30 am Wednesday. When dealing with Amtrak, it's always best to say "around." 15 minutes later (that is, about an hour before your bus actually arrives in Santa Barbara), the Surfliner leaves Santa Barbara for Los Angeles and Union Station. For some reason, this trip (about a hundred miles) takes the better part of three hours. So you pull into Union Station around 9:30, and you wait for 5 hours for the Sunset Limited to leave at 2:30 pm or so. Not for Phoenix, for Tucson, which is on the direct route. This is a distance of about 485 miles by road, yet it takes Amtrak almost 10 hours to cover the distance. Isn't this about the same speed as the old Pony Express?

Obviously, Tucson is not Phoenix, so you haven't arrived, actually. You're 116 miles away. It's now around midnight, Wednesday, or early Thanksgiving morning, and you've been traveling by bus and train for more than 24 hours. You're exhausted; a logical response to your predicament would be to commit suicide there and then, perhaps by leaping in front of an oncoming train. This works for the French TGV, where such suicides are fairly common; however, with Amtrak you might have the problem of trains (a) being so rare you would change your mind before one came along and (b) going so slow they would simply inflict annoying, non-fatal injuries. Somehow or another, another bus I guess, you would get to Phoenix in the small hours of Thursday morning, unbathed, unshaven, sleep-deprived, depressed.

So you can fly or drive. Not thinking it through completely, I drove. I wasn't the only one with this idea on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Things reached their hypotheosis sometime around 7 pm on Wednesday night on State Highway 57 between Pasadena and Pomona. I became trapped on an inner lane, #2 or 3, perhaps, of 5 or 6 lanes. The traffic crept along, inching forward in spastic lurches. Looking out over the sad asphalt, it occurred to me that not a single living thing, an insect, a rabbit, a human being, could survive out there for more than a few seconds. It was an alien landscape, a hideous apparition, the sort of subject that a German Expressionist such as George Grosz or Max Beckmann might want to wallow in, if there was some way to capture this claustrophobic perspective. There was no way out, no way forward, no way to change lanes. Cars were everywhere, hemming you in, pushing against your rear bumper, stretched out in front to infinity. I knew that someday, if I did not run out of gas, if I did not abandon my car, I would get to Indio. Indio became a kind of El Dorado - getting to Indio became my own form of Zionism. Aliya - to get to Quartzsite!

Or you can fly, submitting to a probably dangerous dose of radiation (or sexual assault), the madness of airport check-in, the contortionist tricks of sitting in an airline seat, the anxiety of the overhead bins, the expense, the parking, the remote location of airports from where you live and where you ultimately want to go...

The conservative blowhards who don't like trains (I'm not sure why they don't, but they're threatened in some way) insist that trains always require government subsidies to remain viable. I'm sure they do. Of course, even the bone-jarring, axle-cracking, potholed poor excuses for a highway we have now, such as Highway 57, demand huge government subsidies in order to be maintained even in the lousy condition they're in. Roads, railways, take your pick, they have to be maintained, you have to keep investing. So what? Trains, however, offer huge economies of scale in transporting people. They can be run, as in France, with centralized power generated by nuclear plants. You don't need oil as fuel, at a sufficient level of infrastructure build-out. Only one guy has to drive, the engineer. Everyone else can talk, read, sleep, party and carry on.

I've ridden some great trains in Europe. The TGV from Lyon to Paris, a distance of 250 miles, covered in two hours and 15 minutes (scheduled time: we had a suicide that day - see above). The Spanish AVE, from Madrid to Sevilla, under 3 hours to cover 350 miles. The Eurocity from Ulm, Germany to Paris. Cologne to the Frankfurt Airport. These trains all offer a high JDV Factor (joie de vivre factor, or jdv(f*). On the standard 10 scale, they come in at about 9.3. You're glad you're alive when you're riding one of those trains. Life enhancing. It's almost as if the countries who build and operate those trains care something about quality of life. They're nicer than they even have to be.

Highway 57 actually carries a negative jdv(f*). The experience of driving on that road subtracts from your overall will to go on. Highway 57 is ameliorative of the fear of death - you will be dead, but you will never again drive on Highway 57. So buck up.

In modern America, you accept such benisons where they are offered. But you will not travel from San Francisco to Phoenix on the Train A Grande Vitesse. Train A Grande Distress, peut etre.