Thursday, November 17, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (11/17/05)


Shame on us. We Americans live in two worlds. Here at home, we are only dimly aware there's a war going on. Yet half a world away, more than two thousand American servicemen and service women have given their lives and tens of thousands more have been maimed. We are relentlessly sacrificing the flower of our youth in an undeclared war with vague goals, no exit strategy and no way to define victory.

And what sacrifices have we here at home been asked to make? Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Contrast this with the home front during the Second World War. Then we were well aware a war was going on. Food, clothing, shoes, gasoline and tires were rationed. Scrap metal was collected diligently; even an empty toothpaste tube had to be turned in when buying another. Victory gardens sprouted in vacant city lots and suburban backyards to augment the food supply.

A family with sons or daughters in service had a small banner in a window with one or more blue stars on it. The dreaded telegram from the War Department announcing the death of a loved one turned a blue star to gold.

War bonds financed the war effort. Taxes were hiked and made more immediately available by a new gimmick: withholding. People learned to make do with less--but these were small sacrifices compared to what was being given up by our fighting men and women. A spirit of purpose was abroad in the land.

Today, apathy reigns at home, and we immerse ourselves in shopping or sports spectacles during which we observe the obligatory moment of silence for the fallen. Then it is back to the game. Our knowledge of the blood and dirt of battle comes from the special effects created for war movies and violent computer games.

How did we manage to create such an enormous disconnect between the home front and the troops? It began in January of 1973 when Congress abandoned national service, also called "the draft." This reaction to the imbalance of sacrifice imposed by the unpopular Vietnam War effectively changed the American armed forces.

What in past wars had been a succession of vast armies of hastily trained citizen-soldiers responding to an emergency became a small all-volunteer force ready to strike on a moment's notice. The active military now has become a class apart, not unlike the priesthood. For most Americans today, military service is something the children of other people do.

Few of us know how hazardous it is to fight a stealthy enemy with too-few troops using the tools and tactics of conventional warfare, and with equipment unsuited for guerrilla warfare. Thirty months after "Mission Accomplished" our troops still making do with Humvees not intended for such warfare; even an armored Humvee cannot withstand a roadside bomb. And the wheeled landing craft the Marines are using in Iraq are intended for landing on beaches, not cruising hazardous desert roads.

And how do we honor their lonely deaths? We put magnetic yellow ribbons on our automobiles or attach flags to their antennas, and quickly return to complaining about the hardships imposed by the high price of gasoline.

We said nothing when a supine Congress failed to insist on its constitutional prerogative to declare war and surrendered war-making power to the President. Is it any wonder that Congress today is held in such low esteem?

The rush to war was predicated on the imminent danger of attack by Iraq. When no weapons of mass destruction were found there, our government hastily concocted a new purpose for the war: to turn that unruly tribalized country into a democracy. Running for office, George W. Bush blasted nation-building and vowed never to allow our military to become entangled in the process. Now we are up to our elbows in it.

"Stay the course," we are told. What course? The Administration seems to be making it up as they go along, hoping by guess and by God that everything will come out right in the end. Although we pay lip service to democracy, when the time comes to demonstrate to the world our devotion to the system, a majority of the American voting population fails to show up at the polls.
We allowed the hunt for bin Laden and the terrorists responsible for 9/11 to be derailed and converted to an interminable war that has made Iraq a vast training ground for a host of al-Qaida acolytes. We have destroyed cities and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Our response to Iraqis unhappy with our actions as occupiers is to characterize them as ingrates. And we wonder why we are reviled throughout the Muslim world.

Our access to factual information has been arbitrarily curtailed. When our forces accidentally kill one of our own in the heat of battle, as happened to football star Pat Tillman, our government creates a phony story of the circumstances of his death "to shield his family." Officials shamefully tried to conceal the truth for almost five weeks--truth it knew from the moment the first battle reports were collected.

In a replay of Vietnam, the Administration gives us rosy predictions that never materialize, body counts and distorted news. A favorite line is that the insurgency is limited to only four of Iraq's eighteen provinces. What they do not tell us is that these four provinces contain more than half the population of Iraq. Anyone who legitimately questions the wisdom of this pointless, ill-advised war--even a parent who has lost a son or daughter--is branded as unpatriotic and disloyal.

We have a President who prides himself on not reading newspapers, rendering him unaware of the rising groundswell of opposition to his policies. Our chief executive lives in a cocoon insulated from the world by sycophantic advisors. His administration is rife with croneyism more blatant than the infamous Harding administration in the 1920s. His favorite venue for speechifying is a military base where service members can be counted on not to raise embarrassing questions.

We complacently allowed all this to happen in our name. Shame on us.

Lest we forget. In 1979, 133 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against making Martin Luther King Jr's birthday a national holiday. Nine of them are still in the House. Another one of them is the current Vice President.

Social insecurity. Here in the U.S., only six tenths of one percent of Social Security contributions goes toward administrative costs. In Britain's privatized system, that number is 30 percent.

The neighborhood's going downhill. An Iraqi is two and a half times more likely to die today than in the last year of the Saddam Hussein regime. The cause of death is 58 times more likely to be violence.

Better get your sea legs. An 80-year-old senior citizen could live out the rest of his or her days on a luxury cruise liner for $230,497. The average cost to do the same in an assisted-living facility would be $228,075.

Grim statistics. The U.S. is the world's top exporter of cigarettes. The chance that a tsunami will strike the U.S. Pacific Northwest in the next 30 years is 1 in 10. An average of 7,900 Americans are injured annually on amusement park rides each year.

Don't hold your breath. Only one state, province or territory in the U.S., Canada and Mexico lacks a McDonald's; the last holdout is the Canadian territory of Nunavut, north of Hudson Bay.


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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (11/10/050


To the manor born. For some unfathomable reason, supposedly egalitarian America became fascinated by royalty in the 19th century, and the phenomenon continues. The current Prince of Wales and his former mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, newly minted as his wife and Duchess of Cornwall, have just completed a whirlwind tour of the United States. Prince Charles, who has been active in the environmental movement and has warned about the dangers of climate change, is not as green as he pretends to be.

"We must take action to reduce pollution," he intoned about a month ago. Environmentalists, however, have pointed out that the prince has a penchant for high-speed, gasoline-guzzling motor cars; he has two large houses and a farm; he racks up more air miles than a commercial airline pilot. They suggested that the prince's advice might carry more weight if he got rid of his Aston-Martin car, his private plane and helicopter, and moved into a smaller house rather than the two "which use as much energy as a medium-sized town." Critics also rail at the prince's preference for chartered aircraft and the royal train. His two residences need a full-time staff of 29, including secretaries, butlers, four chefs, two chauffeurs, valets and gardeners.

The principal reason for the U.S. visit is to rehabilitate the royal image here, badly damaged by multiple retaliatory adulteries, notably his long-running affair with Mrs. Parker-Bowles, and the subsequent messy divorce from Princess Diana, who was adored by the American public. His new wife brought 50 frocks, dresses and gowns, and three dressers to drape them on her.

Righteous indignation. Members of the 9/11 Commission were right to be incensed that the Administration's dismal response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast and the latest debacle of Hurricane Wilma in Florida only underscored the reality that none of the commission's year-old recommendations still had not been put into effect. Natural disaster or terrorist incident, crony-heavy FEMA showed that it wasn't--and isn't--ready to handle evacuations or to rush in relief supplies to masses of displaced victims. FEMA's repeatedly bungled performances do not bode well for Westchester County, with its faulty plan for evacuating the area within a ten-mile radius of Indian Point with its two aging, obsolescing nuclear power plants and a leaking fuel storage pool.

Animal lore. Some remarkable and righteous human beings have figured in the history of man's relationship to animals. Two centuries ago, animal cruelty--notably horse and dog whipping--were common on both sides of the Atlantic. It remained for the English, that "nation of pet-keepers as well as shopkeepers," to demonstrate their exceptional devotion to animals by taking the lead for animal justice in the "animals' Magna Carta," a law sponsored by Richard "Humanity Dick" Martin and passed in 1822. Other early fighters for animal rights in Britain included the Rev. Arthur Broome, and William Wilberforce, the philanthropist who worked successfully for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. These three founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. With the blessing of Queen Victoria in 1840, the Society added "Royal" to its name to give the group greater leverage. Interestingly, societies for the prevention of cruelty to children were formed as an offshoot of animal humanitarianism.

On this side of the Atlantic urbane Henry Bergh founded of the first American society for the protection of animals in 1866. Two years later, George T. Angell, achieved passage of anti-cruelty laws in Massachusetts. Within twenty years every other state had followed suit. In the United States today some 65 million dogs are in 40.6 million households. Almost 78 million cats are in 35.4 million households. The downside to the pet explosion is that between 6 and 8 million cats and dogs are turned in annually to animal shelters. Half of these are adopted and the other half euthanized. Amazingly, one of every four dogs in shelters is a purebred.

Just asking. Does it make sense to rebuild a major city below sea level at water's edge behind fragile levees? Rebuilt levees could still be victims of another major hurricane or a terrorist bomb, resulting in a replay of the recent disaster. The devastated neighborhoods must be bulldozed. Why not fill in lower sections of the city with the abundant material available from Mississippi River dredging before rebuilding? Other alternatives include turning the low portions of New Orleans into an American Venice with canals in place of streets. Or, most daring of all, city planners could give the Mississippi River back its flood plains, as was done in Grand Forks, North Dakota, with the Red River of the North.

Oh, deer. December 21 marks the winter solstice, the beginning of winter. It is the shortest day of the year. The period we are now entering of diminished daylight is always marked by an increase in the number of accidents involving deer on roads and highways, some injurious or fatal to motorists. The explosion of the white-tailed deer population, of course, is a consequence of our removal of the deer's natural enemies, namely the wolf. My friend Roger Caras had a solution to the deer problem: bring back the wolf. In the long history of the European occupation of the Western hemisphere, he liked to point out, although we have killed about two million wolves, there has never been a recorded incident of a wolf or wolves attacking a human.

Your tax dollars at work. Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, has announced that Michael Brown, who resigned under fire as the head of FEMA, is being retained as a FEMA consultant for another 30 days. The hapless Brown's only conceivable usefulness would be as a reverse barometer.

"Reverse barometer" is a term often heard on Wall Street. Knowing that unskilled investors are bad at forecasting, the smart money keeps an eye on what the public is betting on and does the exact opposite. In popular culture, the term was featured in the movie "Little Big Man." When Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), tells Gen. Custer (Richard Mulligan) that thousands of Indians are lying in wait for him, Custer's reaction is: "Anything that man tells me will be a lie; therefore, he will be a perfect reverse barometer? Isn't that correct?"

Dead of night. World maps in the 19th century were splashed with large areas of red indicating the broad sweep of the far-flung British Empire. It was an appropriate tint--the color of the blood of British Tommies who "took the King's shilling," a small payment paid to enlisters, who were sent to fight and die. They now lie far from home in cemeteries at the scattered outposts of empire. On the other hand, we repatriate our honored dead. But our government thinks images of flag-draped coffins are too shattering for our tender eyes. We bring our fallen home almost surreptitiously in the dark of night.


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