Thursday, September 28, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/28/06)


"What if they gave a war and nobody came?" This catch phrase, popular during the Vietnam War, echoed the unhappiness of Americans over the glaring inequities in the application of the Selective Service Act, better known as the draft, and the flagrantly obvious mismanagement and futility of the war. The so-called "War on Terror" now being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan with diminishing success needs a similar catch phrase. Since 1973 our army has been an all-volunteer force; the draft inequities that have plagued every war since the Civil War are not a factor in our discontent. But the mismanagement and futility of such wars are with us again--this time in spades.

What we need now is a catch phrase that embodies the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves: a nation unhappy with its government, especially its executive branch and even more unhappy with its legislative branch; a society that has grown distant from its military, and a military that has been worked nearly to the breaking point and has come to believe that nobody gives a damn about them. For those in the military, there's no end in sight, only the day-to-day reality of sudden death and the hope of one day returning to the peaceful, totally oblivious world back home. Unlike the closely reported Vietnam War that played out in grisly color on TV screens in our living rooms, this time the government did not make the same mistake. Censorship rules govern what little we see of the fighting in our $300 billion war on terror. Even photographs of flag-draped coffins are taboo.

The Victorian Era spanned most of the 19th century. During Queen Victoria's reign, a tiny country, Britain, aggressively expanded and consolidated the British Empire until maps of the world had predominant patches of red showing its far-flung colonies. Britain's crowded industrial cities provided the poor and unemployed young men who took the Queen's token shilling for enlisting and left their bones to bleach white in the mountain fastnesses of India's North West Frontier Province or the rolling hills of the South African veldt.

Similarly, America is replaying that imperial scenario. Unable to find work in anything but service industries because our heavy industry has gravitated overseas, our unemployed young men and women have responded to the blandishments and enlistment bonuses of military recruiters and signed up. Like the regiments that served Britain's imperial ambitions, their fate is now to be cut down in some foreign field in a war of doubtful legitimacy and at a horrendous cost in blood and treasure.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the phrase "war on terror" was not coined by George W. Bush. Its roots are actually in the Reagan administration, which came into office declaring that a war on terror would be the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Ronald Reagan called on all nations to band together to counter "the evil scourge of terrorism." George Schultz, his Secretary of State, called state-backed terrorism "a plague spread by depraved opponents of civilization itself, a return to barbarism in the modern age." Their war on terror was conducted in two areas: Central America and the Middle East. Interestingly, the very first time the Reagan administration encountered a massive act of terrorism--the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport in 1982--it cut and ran. Yet the Bush administration characterizes any attempt at early withdrawal from Iraq as cowardly cutting and running.

If we are indeed engaged in a genuine war on terror, why has there been no definition of terror? A U.S. Army manual defines terrorism as "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature ... through intimidation, coercion or instilling fear." The official U.S. Code, the body of laws we live by, gives another definition: "Terrorism is the use, or threat, of action which is violent, damaging or disrupting, and is intended to influence the government or intimidate the public and is for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause." Where can the line be drawn between international terrorism and aggression?

Paradoxically--and this may be the reason so little is said about definitions of terrorism--if either of our definitions were strictly applied to the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States may be guilty of terrorism. Similarly, the official U.S. definitions of counterterrorism (also called "low-intensity conflict," "fourth generation warfare" or "counterinsurgency") have a virtual resemblance to definitions of terrorism. The Nazis in occupied Europe, for example, claimed they were defending the legitimate (read "occupied" or "puppet") governments from the resistance--partisans who received instructions, money and weapons from abroad. U.S. facilitation of the largely foreign mujahideen imported into Afghanistan during the Russian occupation is another example of the blurred line between terrorism and resistance.

The Charter of the United Nations recognizes "the right of self-determination, freedom and independence, as derived from the Charter, of peoples forcibly deprived of that right ... particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes or other forms of alien domination (i.e., foreign occupation)." What could be fairer as an example of self-determination than encouraging the Iraqi government to hold elections to allow voters to decide whether the occupation should continue? That would certainly give us a face-saving excuse for exiting Iraq with a semblance of honor.

In its infancy, this country learned just how difficult it is to know where resistance ends and terrorism begins. Only about one-third of the colonists actively backed the Revolution. King George III, of course, considered the self-denominated Patriots to be terrorists. Those who wished to preserve the status quo were called Loyalists or Tories. Persecution of Loyalists started with mob action by secret societies like the Sons of Liberty for whom tarring and feathering were the least of their punishments. It continued throughout the Revolution, and included the confiscation of Loyalist property. At first, Loyalists resisted in scattered bands, but soon enlisted by the thousands in the British Army. New York alone furnished some 15,000 troops to the redcoats and another 8,000 Loyalist militia. Other colonies furnished similar numbers. In all, there were about 50,000 Loyalists serving as soldiers, either regular or militia, who swore allegiance to the king. New York actually supplied more troops to George III than to George Washington.

President Bush is fond of saying that the world has changed since al-Qaida struck on 9/11, apparently forgetting that al-Qaida had telegraphed its intentions by striking the World Trade Center eight years before. Our world has indeed been on a downhill slide since the events of 9/11, but largely because of the President's impulsive reaction to it. Instead of treating 9/11 as a crime and enlisting the police agencies of the civilized nations to regard al-Qaida as a criminal conspiracy whose members should be hunted down, brought before an international court and given appropriate sentences, we decided to go it alone and attacked Afghanistan, where we succeeded only in driving the Taliban into the mountains. Next we made the fatal mistake of attacking and occupying Iraq. We compounded this error by declaring Iran to be a sworn enemy. More recently we backed Israel's war against Shiites in Lebanon. Soon every unemployed Muslim or disaffected malcontent was claiming al-Qaida's successes as his inspiration. Osama bin Laden's tiny and financially strapped organization reaped its reward: an infusion of cash and a host of would-be jihadists all over the Muslim world. The rest, as the saying has it, is history--but it is a history whose final chapter has yet to be written. Sadly, it may not be written by us.


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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Who Invented the Bowie Knife?


The year 1844 marked the end of an era. In that year, Captain Jack Hays and part of a company of Texas Rangers, newly equipped with the Walker model of Samuel Colt’s revolver, fully demonstrated the superiority of that weapon over all others for close combat. This history-making event occurred dur­ing the Battle of the Pedernales in what is now Kendall County, Texas, where the fifteen Texas Rangers stood off and severely defeated about seventy Comanche Indians.

The repeated volleys from Hays and his men sounded the death knell of a weapon which until that time had been the favorite for infighting. Part of the regular equipment of frontiersmen and backwoodsmen from the Mississippi to California, that weapon was the Bowie knife and its many imitations and modifi­cations.

The question of the identity of the originator of the first Bowie knife has been argued for many years. Today, the answer can be only that no one really knows who made the first of these famous weapons. At least a dozen different accounts have been accepted as true, depend­ing on the author and the locality--for even the place of origin is diffi­cult to fix--and the exact time when the first Bowie knife was made is anybody’s guess. As a matter of fact, in dealing with the many stories that have come down through the years about the origin of the Bowie knife, it is now impossible to draw the line where history leaves off and legend begins.

The Bowie Family
All accounts--or leg­ends, if you choose to call them that--are agreed on one point: Some member of the Bowie family had a hand in the design, manufac­ture (either purposeful or acci­dental) or use of the first blade. Like everything else connected with the Bowie knife, the history of the Bowie family itself is rather difficult to trace, even though the name was an old one in America even before the Revolution, with branches in Maryland, Virginia, and South Car­olina.

By all odds, the most colorful member of this family was James Bowie--soldier, searcher for lost mines, and fighter for Texan independence. Of all the characters connected with the history of the Southwest, James Bowie comes closer to being a true folk hero than any other. His brave and tragic death in the Alamo in 1836 only added to the legends already begun by the hair-raising tales of his fights with Indians, his duels to the death while lashed to his opponent and his fondness for alligator- wrestling, to name but a few.

“Big Jim,” as he was called, was born in Georgia, or in Kentucky, or in Tennessee--historians are not clear about the place. The date is variously given as 1795, 1796, or 1799; some writers place it as late as 1805, but this date is inconsistent with the generally accepted state­ment that his parents moved to Louisiana in 1802, taking him with them. He was the son of Rezin Bowie and Alvina (or Elvira) Jones; again, the surname of his mother may only be a blundering attempt to write the name “Jane” on the early Spanish records in which it appears. He had four brothers: David, Rezin P. (also spelled Resin and Reason), John J. and Stephen. Their names are among the certain facts of Bowie history that have come down to us.

Relatively little is known about James Bowie’s early life. Tradition makes him a participant in a desperate en­counter on the Vidalia Sandbar in the Mississippi River on September 19, 1827--the so-called “Sandbar Duel”--in which, after being badly wounded, he killed his opponent with his now-famous knife. About 1828 he traveled to Texas, making his home in San Antonio and searching in the San Saba region for the lost mine that bears his name.

If numbers count for anything, then James Bowie may well have been responsible for the Bowie knife, for he figures in more different ac­counts of the origin of the first blade than any other member of the clan. One account with an early and wide circulation is that of the broken sword: Bowie, while engaged in a fight with some Mexicans, it is said, broke off his sword some fifteen or twenty inches from the hilt. He found the broken blade so useful in hand-to-hand fighting that others rushed to imitate his weapon. Harper’s Weekly printed this version at the time of the Civil War as the true story of the origin of the Bowie knife, a weapon that was again finding favor with Southern troops.

But still other accounts give Bowie credit for devising the first blade rather than accidentally contriving it. One has it that in preparation for the Sandbar Duel, he took a fourteen-inch file to a cutler named Pedro, in New Orleans. It seems that Pedro had learned his trade in Toledo, the famous sword-making center in Spain. Another version tells that James Bowie whittled a pattern of the knife from soft wood--but after the “Sandbar Duel,” while he was recovering from his wounds--and that a blacksmith named Lovel Snowden fashioned the weapon. Yet another story maintains that James Bowie injured himself in an Indian fight by letting his hand slip from the hilt to the blade of his knife. Bowie afterward discussed the addi­tion of a guard, with John Sowell, a blacksmith of Gonzales, Texas, who made the first weapon from a wood­en model carved by Bowie, accord­ing to a descendant of Sowell.

Additional Claimants
Other members of the Bowie family are also given credit for the invention of this lethal weapon. John S. Moore, a grand­nephew of James Bowie, claimed the original blade was modeled as a hunting knife by Rezin Bowie, the father of James Bowie and was wrought by his plan­tation blacksmith, Jesse Cliffe. Later, according to Moore, James Bowie met Major Norris Wright while rid­ing, and Wright, in a very unneigh­borly manner, took a shot at Bowie, whose life was saved by the presence of a silver dollar in his pocket. Bowie drew his own gun to return Wright’s fire, but his flint was faulty and the gun “snapped.” When his father, Rezin Bowie, learned of the incident, he gave his hunting knife to his son, telling him, “This will never snap.

But even the lineal descendants of the Bowie family are not agreed on the subject. Notes kept by an­other, Dr. J. Moore Soniat du Fosset of New Orleans, give credit for the design to James Bowie’s brother, Rezin P. (for Pleasant or Pleasants) Bowie. This version has it that Rezin P. Bowie cut his hand on a knife while butchering wild cattle and decided to design a knife that would not slip from his hand. He drew the design of the desired knife and gave it to the previously mentioned Jesse Cliffe, together with a file, from which Cliffe fashioned the knife. Apparently the resulting weapon was highly prized by Rezin P. Bowie, but when James Bowie told his brother about the encounter with Major Wright, and how the faulty pistol had prevented him from even­ing the score, Rezin immediately gave his knife to his brother, with the advice: “Here, Jim, take ‘Old Bowie.’ She never misses fire.”

The Sandbar Duel
If stories of the Sandbar Duel that followed are to be be­lieved, the knife fully lived up to its expectations. What started out as a duel between Dr. Thomas H. Maddox and Samuel Levi Wells be­came a free-for-all fight among about ten partisans of the duelists, in which two men were killed and three badly wounded. Bowie him­self was shot in the arm and hip and stabbed in the chest. This same Major Wright had rushed up to Bowie in the course of the fight and stabbed him with his sword cane, saying, “Damn you, Bowie, you have killed me.” Bowie made this statement completely accurate and final by disemboweling Wright. But if the version ascribing the in­vention of the knife to Bowie’s father is correct, it must have oc­curred before 1819, the year of the death of Rezin Bowie Sr.

Knowledgeable readers may point out that the “Sand­bar Duel” did not take place until 1827, eight years after Rezin Bowie had died, but history has no more business challenging legend than leg­end has challenging history. How­ever, the evidence is certain that Bowie used a knife in the “Sandbar Duel.” Whether it was only a butcher knife or a true Bowie knife is unknown.

Rezin P. Bowie has received wide acceptance as the inventor of the Bowie knife. The chief evidence to support this is the word of Rezin P. Bowie himself, contained in a letter dated August 24, 1838, to the Planters’ Advocate, a small weekly newspaper in French and English published in Donaldsonville, Louisi­ana. A series of articles by a NewOrleans correspondent signing himself “P. Q.” had appeared in the Baltimore Commercial Transcript on June 9 and 11, 1838, and were subsequently copied by Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, a Philadelphia newspaper. The articles claimed that the first knife had been made in Arkansas by Rezin P. Bowie, with the help of an itinerant blacksmith, and described the duels of the Bowie brothers in great detail.

But the facts, according to Rezin P. Bowie’s letter, were these: The first knife had been made by him in the parish of Avoyelles Parish in Louisiana as nothing more than a hunting knife. In what may have been a ref­erence to the “Sandbar Duel,” Rezin P. Bowie stated that the knife was used by his brother only once after its manufacture”--in a chance med­ley or rough fight”--and then only after he had been shot and as a means of saving his life. He dis­claimed any credit for the fine state of perfection the knife had since acquired in the hands of experienced cutlers and asserted that neither he nor his brother had ever had a duel with any person. It seems probable that Rezin P. Bowie was anxious to destroy the growing legend that his then dead brother had been a bloodthirsty duelist. That he was unsuccessful can be concluded from the legends that remain current about Jim Bowie’s prowess as a knife wielder.

For a long time the Bowie knife was also known as the “Arkansas toothpick,” and that state takes credit in some versions for a part in the manufacture of the first Bowie weap­on. But the true Arkansas Toothpick is a heavy dagger with a narrow blade up to 25 inches long. A former judge in Arkansas, William F. Pope, insisted that Rezin P. Bowie carved a pattern of the first knife from the top of a cigar box and gave it to James Black, an early-day smith in Washington, Arkansas. Black’s charge for making this knife was ten dollars, but Bowie was so pleased with the workmanship that he gave the smith a bonus of fifty dollars. In a burst of state patriotism, Judge Pope maintained that no genuine Bowie knives were ever made outside the state of Arkansas.

Another claimant, Daniel Web­ster Jones, Democratic governor of Arkansas from 1897 to 1901, concurred that James Black had a hand in making the first Bowie knife, but insisted that Black was also responsible for the design. His story was that Black, who had been a silversmith in Phila­delphia, came to Washington, Ark­ansas, and set up a blacksmith shop there on the route of the Southwest (or Chihuahua) Trail to Texas, spe­cializing in the making of knives. Now part of Old Washington Historic State Park, with 40 restored buildings and facilities, including Black's shop. In 1830, James Bowie came to Black's shop and gave him an order for a knife, furnishing the desired pat­tern. Black completed the knife ac­cording to Bowie’s pattern and, because he had never made a knife that had really suited his own taste, he made another based on his idea of what a knife should be. When Bowie returned, Black showed both knives to him, offering him his choice at the same price. Bowie im­mediately selected Black’s design. The fame and reliability of this knife soon spread, until people were tell­ing Black, “Make me a knife like Bowie’s.” This eventually became “Make me a Bowie knife.”

Governor Jones claimed that Black had worked out a process something like that used in making Damascus steel, and kept it a jeal­ously guarded secret. After making and tempering a knife and before polishing it, Black would test it by carving on a tough old hickory axe-handle for half an hour. Then, if the knife would not easily shave the hair from his arm, he would dis­card it. After many years of knife making, Black grew old and blind and was treated by Dr. Isaac N. Jones, father of Governor Jones. In 1870, Black, then living with Jones, tried to impart the secret to him but discovered, to his consternation, that he could not remember a single one of the dozen processes through which he had put the knives. Some blacksmiths scorned such prosaic tests as whittling hick­ory axe-handles and instead drove their newly made Bowie knives through silver dollars. Others rejected blades that did not quiver at the touch of a finger, or give off a bell-like, vibrat­ing tone when plucked with a thumb­nail.

In Texas, the knife is sometimes attributed to Noah Smithwick, a pioneer blacksmith and gunsmith in the town of San Felipe on the Brazos River--although Smithwick said only that he had cut a pattern of the original knife carried by James Bowie and set up a factory to manufacture authentic copies of Bowie knives. The completed blades brought him from five to twenty dol­lars, depending upon the finish de­sired. Antiquarians in Pennsylvania have claimed that James Bowie him­self hammered out the first model there when he visited the city of Phil­adelphia. In Natchez, Mississippi, it is said that the design was Rezin P. Bowie’s, that a blacksmith’s file fur­nished the crude steel for the first Bowie knife, and that the cutler was a Natchez craftsman.

What Happened to the Original?
Stories about the fate of the “original” Bowie knife are today al­most as numerous as those describing the circumstances of its manufacture. One story is that Bowie left it on the ground after butchering a deer with it near the Goliad road; when he rode back to get it, it was gone. He decided that a wolf had found it and carried it off because of the traces of blood on it. Another tradition is that Bowie gave the orig­inal knife to the famous actor Ed­win Forrest, who used it in his presentation of the play Metamora. And still another claims that many years ago a Lou­isiana descendant of Rezin P. Bowie lost the original knife in a bog.

Accounts of the fall of the Alamo in 1836 usually include the claim that James Bowie had the original knife with him there. The heap of dead Mexican attackers said to have been found around his cot (he was ill at the time of the attack) would seem to bear witness to the corpse-making qualities of the blade. One Juan Padillo, said to have been a member of Jean Lafitte’s band of pirates, presented a Bowie knife with a silver plate on the handle bearing the name “Jim Bowie” to a Texan. An “original” Bowie knife is among the relics exhibited in the Alamo today; the Witte Museum in San Antonio has another that is supposed to have been presented by Bowie to a friend. The Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock displays in its knife gallery more than 100 historic and modern Bowie knives, including one attributed to James Black and confirmed to be of his manufacture.

A comparison of several descrip­tions indicates that the original knife had a superbly tempered blade from ten to fifteen inches long, curved concavely along the back, and con­vexly along the edge near the point. It was about two inches across at its broadest part and was equipped with a wide guard and a man-sized hilt, the whole thing being so well bal­anced that it could be thrown with unerring accuracy, as well as wielded. The hilt was usually of wood, but in the more elaborate versions was of­ten of inlaid horn or ivory. Whatever the original knife may have looked like, it was soon copied throughout the Southwest. About 1840, copies were being made in large quantities by a cutlery firm in Sheffield, England, exclusively for the Texas trade.

The Bowie knife was a weapon of many uses. The pioneer and hunter found it handy for skinning game, cutting up meat, eating or fighting. The handle could be used for hammer­ing nails or pounding a bag of coffee beans. On the trail, the knife was unexcelled for cutting firewood, blaz­ing a trail, or even for hacking a path through the underbrush.

Texas folklorist and historian J. Frank Dobie once attempted to unravel the many conflicting tales connected with the first Bowie knife in an attempt to separate truth from legend. He concluded, however, “Bowie’s knife has become nothing less than the American counterpart of King Arthur’s ‘Excalibur’ or of Sigmund’s great sword ‘Gram.’ Its origin is wrapped in multiplied leg­ends as conflicting and fantastic as those that glorify the master weap­ons of the Old World.” And so it seems destined to remain.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/21/06)


On Tuesday, February 25, 2003, Eric K. Shinseki, serving his last few months as the Army's top general, appeared at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was a scene freighted with high drama. During the course of the general's tenure as Chief of Staff, press reports had circulated describing the tension between him and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The preemptive war against Iraq was less than a month away.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the committee, asked, "General Shinseki, could you give us some idea about the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq following a successful completion of the war?" Keenly aware of military protocol, the bemedalled general, who had lost a portion of one foot to a land mine in Vietnam, responded that he couldn't give specific numbers of the size of the occupation force but would rely on the recommendation of the commanders.

"How about a range?" suggested Levin, his eyeglasses characteristically perched low on his nose. "I would say that what's been mobilized to this point--something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers--are probably a figure that would be required," was the general's response. "We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. And so it takes a significant ground-force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure that people are fed, that water is distributed--all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this." After the Senate hearing, Levin called Shinseki's estimate of an occupation force of several hundred thousand soldiers "very sobering."

Visibly angry with the general's numbers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, both pooh-poohed Shinseki's force estimate. Wolfowitz said it was "hard to believe" more troops would be required for post-war Iraq than would be needed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In 2001, when Rumsfeld became Defense Secretary once again (he had held the post under Gerald Ford), he became enamored of "transformation," a concept that had been kicking around the Pentagon since the 1990s. Its basic premise was that a differently constituted army emphasizing technology, super-accurate munitions and maneuver warfare would need fewer soldiers.

Shinseki successfully staved off suggestions by Rumsfeld that the Army be reduced in size. According to one source, he came close to insubordination, but he prevailed. Rumsfeld had argued that the high-tech weapons planned for the new Army a smaller force. Of course, as it turned out, Rumsfeld's transformed army with its Buck Rogers weapons was not up to the task. What was needed to avoid the bungled occupation was Gen. Shinseki's plain old-fashioned "boots on the ground"--and plenty of them.

Fast forward now the three and a half years during which the neocons in the Bush administration predicted victory momentarily, insisting repeatedly that our forces in Iraq were more than adequate for the task. In a recent op-ed piece in The Washington Post, two administration cheerleaders, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, called for "substantially more troops" to be sent to Iraq. How characteristic of those who never served in the military to be ready with advice about how to run a war. How typical of them to blithely put other people's children in harm's way. Unfortunately, the administration has been hiding from the public the sad state of our military. This time the cupboard's bare and the well's gone dry.

From the beginning, the military had grudgingly acknowledged the small initial force was large enough to carry on the war with a few rotations, but a larger force would be needed to carry on a longer war. The stress of the prolonged fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has now taken its toll. Every available active-duty combat brigade has served at least one tour of duty in Iraq, and some units are on their second and third tours there. With less than a year back home between tours, this crazy-quilt pattern of combat service has made life especially difficult for National Guard and Reserve units and their families. Rotating additional troops for further tours in Iraq at this time could literally break our volunteer Army and threaten national security.

The only source for such troops would be the regular Army, one-third of which is already deployed. An official report released in July revealed that two-thirds of the Army was classified as "not ready for combat." The Army has almost no combat-ready brigades that could be deployed to Iraq. Moreover, harsh battlefield conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused vehicles, weapons and equipment to wear out at a rate between four and nine times the normal peacetime rate.

As a result, the military is cannibalizing stocks of equipment, and running out of spare parts and supplies. Both the Army and Marines have had to dip into equipment and supplies of nondeployed stateside National Guard and Reserve units. And as much as 70 percent the equipment stocks pre-positioned at strategic locations in Europe and the Pacific intended to be available for the next crisis has been drawn down. The Marine Corps has been hard hit in heavy-lift helicopter availability, particularly the workhorse CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters. Introduced in 1981, the inventory of 160 planes has been sharply reduced. Attrition of these machines, costing better than $26 million each, has been high because of overuse.

As hard as the Iraq War has been on machines and equipment, it has been even harder on manpower, significantly lowering the quality of our Army. After failing to meet its manpower quota in 2005, the Army raised the maximum age for enlistment from 35 to 40 in January of this year and to 42 in June. In addition, basic training has been made less rigorous. In the first six months of 2006, only 7.6 percent of recruits failed basic training; the year before that the number was 18.1 percent. Quadrupling of enlistment bonuses since 2003 has not been sufficient to induce enough qualified men and women to enlist.

Recruitment standards have also been lowered. The number of recruits scoring below average on aptitude tests doubled in 2005. The Army is now enlisting twice the number of non-high school graduates, even though its own studies have shown that better-educated recruits make better soldiers and are less dangerous to themselves and their comrades. And while the Army has made it easier for recruiters to find recruits, albeit with lower qualifications, violations of the rules have been rife. In May of thus year, one recruiter signed up an autistic man to be trained as a cavalry scout.

The impact of this unpopular war on officers has been equally bleak, and the Army has been compelled to offer significant inducements to retain officers. Last year, 97 percent of captains were promoted to major; the historical average has been between 70 and 80 percent. Traditionally, this step marked the beginning of the winnowing process to push low-performing officers out of the military. One high-ranking Pentagon officer who spoke on condition of anonymity was quoted as saying, "The problem here is that you're not knocking off the bottom 20 percent. Basically, if you haven't been court-martialed, you're going to be promoted to major." Similarly, 86 percent of eligible majors were promoted to lieutenant colonel; the historical average has been between 65 and 75 percent.

In part, the increase in promotions stems directly from the large number of officers who are leaving the Army. Retired Army General Barry R, McCaffrey, who toured military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to survey the state of readiness of our military in those countries, has said, "We don't want to come out of such wars and lose what we lost after Vietnam." What he was referring to was the "hollow force" that followed that misadventure. Only three solutions are possible in this dilemma: (1) Stop the saber-rattling; potential enemies know the scabbard is empty; (2) increase the authorized strength of the regular Army; (3) adequately fund its weapons and equipment needs.


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Monday, September 18, 2006

Come Blow Your Horn: Do-It-Yourself Book Promotion for Authors


If authors share one complaint, it's that publishers don't do enough to promote their books. What will a publisher do to publicize a book by a new author? The answer is, not very much--unless a lot of money was advanced to the author against anticipated royalties. A publisher's' willingness to promote a "title" (the term publishers prefer to us to refer to a book) will often be proportional to how much a publisher has invested in the book in the form of such advances.

This, by the way, is the single best reason for authors--or their literary agents, if they have managed to get a reputable agent to handle their work--to try for sizable advance when negotiating a book contract. But remember that a publisher will not advance more than a book will generate in royalties and sales of subsidiary rights (i.e., paperback, book club and foreign rights). Book publishing can be a risky business, and some books disappoint both author and publisher by failing to earn their advances.

Dozens of new titles are added to major publishers' lists each season. Such numbers make it impossible for any publishing house to get behind every book. As a result, works by new authors often languish while so-called "blockbusters" get all the attention. Frustrated authors are convinced that their books would earn more if publishers had simply advertised them more. Not necessarily, say publishers. For every book that becomes a bestseller because of advertising, they can point to another that failed in spite of heavy promotion.

Consider two classic case histories: In 1985, after resigning as Ronald Reagan's budget director, David A. Stockman signed a contract with Harper and Row, said to be worth more than $2 million--then the largest advance that publisher had ever paid for a book. Thanks to an all-out publicity campaign, The Triumph of Politics, Stockman's kiss-and-tell account of life inside the Reagan administration, started out as number one on bestseller lists. However, when readers discovered that Stockman had little new to say about how the massive deficit he masterminded had gotten so far out of control, his heavy-handed book dropped from the top spot a scant two weeks later.

Other titles have climbed the bestseller charts without benefit of advertising. An often-cited example is Blue Highways, whose author, William Least Heat-Moon, rewrote the manuscript eight times before selling it. Published in 1982 by Little, Brown and Company, this account of one man's travels in a battered van named "Ghost Dancing" over the back roads of America--the ones printed in blue on road maps that were once the main arteries of early travel and now only link backwater towns--aroused strong feelings in readers. Of English-Irish and Osage Indian ancestry, the author's curious surname, Heat-Moon, is the Sioux name for the moon of midsummer nights.

After the nearly simultaneous loss of his college teaching job and the failure of his marriage, he embarked on a 13,000-mile trip across America, visiting forgotten small towns and talking to their colorful inhabitants. The book's initial promotion had been limited to an excerpt in The Atlantic Monthly. But readers who bought Blue Highways discovered that, as the Chicago Tribune said, it was "better than Kerouac." Reviewer Robert Penn Warren called the book "a masterpiece. [The author] has a genius for finding people who have not even found themselves." Other enthusiastic newspaper reviews made Blue Highways into what the book trade calls a "sleeper," and booksellers' orders surged. Only then did the surprised publisher crank up an ad campaign to match its bestseller status.

The Business of Bookselling
Bookselling operates like no other business model. Moreover, most authors are abysmally ignorant about book publishing, an industry still largely saddled with practices dating back to the early 20th century. Chief among these is the privilege publishers accord to booksellers of returning unsold books for creditagainst future orders..

In recent years, the number of unsold books reached uneconomical proportions, with as many as 50% of books ordered by booksellers remaining on store shelves. This figure has since dropped to 40% as a consequence of more prudent ordering on the part of retailers, but it still means four out of every ten books ordered are being returned to distributors or publishers. These books are then replaced in stock and used to fill future orders . When the time comes to declare a book "out of print," publishers sell the remaining copies in large lots to specialized dealers as "remainders." These are then retailed at reduced prices to readers through specialized catalogs . Authors get no royalties on remaindered books. Perhaps if writers better understood how books are merchandised, friction between authors and publishers would diminish. Similarly, with more and more authors embarking on self- publishing ventures, awareness of the intricacies of retail bookselling can help to avoid headaches.

The selling of a book actually starts many months before it is published. At sales conferences held twice a year, usually at a hotel near the publisher's offices, editors "present" forthcoming titles to their sales staff. Originally called "book travelers," sales people are today more prosaically described as sales reps, publishing consultants or even account managers.

Following these meetings, the publisher's specialized sales force fans out across broad territories to call on a dwindling number of independent booksellers. At each outlet, they echo those presentations in negotiations with bookstore owners or book buyers for chain stores, soliciting--even pleading for--orders. Predicting customer interest in a title not yet set in type can be a gamble for individual bookstore owners and chain-store book buyers. Yet it is these advance orders from booksellers that govern the size of the initial press run for each title.

In the United States, 190,478 individual titles were published in 2004, the latest year for which firm statistics are available. Of these, 24,159 were so-called trade books (fiction and nonfiction sold in bookstores, as contrasted with specialized professional, technical and reference books). Preliminary figures for 2005 indicate slippage in the total number of titles--some 18,000 fewer titles were published last year--an unsurprising reduction considering the steadily rising costs of paper, presswork and binding. Competing with such an avalanche of new titles in any year are several hundred thousand previously published titles still in print, referred to as the publisher's "backlist." With so many books clamoring for the limited space on bookstore shelves and for the reading public's attention, the chances that any bookseller will order a new title by a first-time author are exceedingly small.

Advice from Literary Agents
What can an author do when a publisher budgets next to nothing for advertising and does little in the way of promotion? New York literary agent Bill Adler advises: "The first rule for success in book publishing is that the best person to promote your book is you. Don't count on the publisher to do it for you."

Another New York agent, Richard Curtis, is equally emphatic: "If you feel that the only thing holding book back from success is the expenditure of a little money, and you can't persuade your publisher to spend it--then spend it yourself." Good advice. But don't rush out to buy advertising. Your money will go farther if spent in other ways. Besides, if your book isn't in local bookstores, any money you spend on advertising will be wasted. Readers who have been made eager to read a book don't want to hear the disappointing words, "Sorry, we don't have that title in stock--but we can order it for you."

Once a date has been set for publication of your book (called the "pub date" by publishers), you, the author, must move swiftly. The initial thrust of your self-promotion should be to increase awareness of your book within the book trade, with specialized review and media outlets, and among librarians in the crucial period leading up to your book's pub date. A book that's not on the shelves of most retailers on its pub date and that has escaped the notice of reviewers and librarians is a sure bet to be overlooked by readers. After publication, you should shift your attention to the media and to media personalities likely to give your book a post-publication push with the reading public.

Do-It-Yourself Promotion

The ideal self-promotional tool for authors, whether published by a traditional publisher or self-published, is direct mail, the second-largest advertising medium in use today. Direct mail's success stems from its ability to command instant attention from specifically targeted recipients at comparatively low-cost. With the explosion of vanity press and print-on-demand books, a promotional campaign of direct mailings in advance of publication is really the only medium open to authors of self-published books.

Can direct-mailings by an author pay dividends? You bet. Consider the experience of novelist Terry McMillan. Because Houghton Mifflin, publisher of her first novel, Mama, had planned virtually no publicity, McMillan launched a letter-writing campaign to booksellers and reviewers. In addition, she arranged and paid for a post-publication reading tour to promote her story of a poverty-stricken unmarried black mother's struggle to raise five children.

That was in 1987. Two years later, unhappy with her original publisher, the 37-year-old African-American writer took her second novel, Disappearing Acts, to Viking Press, where it became a bestseller. Without the first novel's successful publicity generated by author McMillan's own self-promotion efforts, it's unlikely she would have earned strong publisher support for her second novel. In 1992, to promote her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, Viking Press paid for an intensive six-week, 20-city author tour, and her book skyrocketed to near the top of fiction bestseller lists. Pocket Books bought paperback rights for a cool $2.64 million.

When movie rights were sold to this story of four females friends looking for love, 20th Century-Fox allotted a mere $15 million to the production budget, not expecting it to have much "crossover" appeal for white audiences. The 1995 film, directed by Forest Whitaker and starring Whitney Houston, Angela Basset, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon, became a surprise hit, grossing almost $68 million domestically. The budding novelist and self-promoter suddenly became a millionaire.

The success of McMillan's books and films made her a hot property. In 1996, her novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back, about the relationship between a woman and a much younger man, became an instant bestseller, and movie rights were snapped up by 20th Century-Fox. Produced for $20 million, the 1998 grossed nearly $38 million. Terry McMillan co-wrote the screenplays of both films. Film rights to her second novel, Disappearing Acts,were bought by MGM and later resold to an independent production company. The resulting 2000 TV movie, with sizzling performances by Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan, was shown on HBO.

Mailing Lists and Letters
The renting of mailing lists is the cornerstone of direct mail. But ours is a mobile society, and rented lists quickly become dated unless their names and addresses have been verified recently--the procedure is called "cleaning." Some letters will inevitably be returned because of what mailers call "bum addresses." The objective of list cleaning is to keep these to a minimum. List rental can be expensive, too--averaging about $100 per 1,000 names.

One low-cost solution is to prepare your own mailing lists. Drawing names from the directories listed at the end of this article, you can compile your own local, regional and national lists of booksellers, wholesalers, book reviewers, librarians, radio and TV talk-show hosts or program directors. Don't overlook off-trail possibilities. If your book is a history of cutlery thought the ages, you'd be wise to compile lists of organizations with interests in knives and cutlery, particularly those that publish newsletters or bulletins for members.

Resist the urge to pick up the phone to call persons on the lists you compile. Unsolicited telephone calls are intrusive and often result in a negative response. A well-organized letter touting your book is always better. In the public relations field, these are called "pitch letters." With your computer's mail-merge program, you can easily generate personalized letters, labels and envelopes. For the ultimate in personalization, addressing your envelopes by hand will spark curiosity and increase the chances that the letter will reach the addressee and be opened. Make your pitch short and to the point. Keep your letters positive in tone. Their sole purpose is to create interest in your book--and in you. Remember that successful direct mail always promises benefits to the recipient.

When writing to librarians and book reviewers, make your book sound interesting or exciting. To newspaper feature editors, make your book--and you--the focus of the story. When pitching booksellers, emphasize its sales appeal and the intensive publicity campaign you are mounting. Letters to radio and TV program directors should portray your book as all of the above, and present you as a colorful, lively and desirable guest. Avoid the pedestrian. Be imaginative. Lead off in the first paragraph with a challenging fact or provocative statistic to catch attention. Nonfiction writers will recognize this as "the hook," a time-honored technique for beginning an article.

The body of your letters should describe in broad terms what makes your book--and you--noteworthy. Summarize its theme, offer supporting facts, quote critics' advance praise, highlight the importance of the subject, underscore your availability and stress the book's reader appeal or listener interest. Your letters should also make clear exactly what you're asking for: a book review; an order; a meeting; an interview with a reporter and a feature story; an appearance on a radio or TV show. Conclude letters addressed locally by saying that you will telephone in a few days to follow up. Pitching letters to big names also can be fruitful. A well-known expert might be willing to read the manuscript or galleys of your book and write a foreword or jacket blurb. Imagine what a few kind words from Dr. C. Everett Koop, would do for the sales of a book on health care. Remember, it costs almost nothing to ask.

Pitching to Booksellers

Your letters to booksellers should, of course, encourage them to order your book. Dealers who neglected to stock it may be prompted to do so by a strong pitch letter. Dealers who ordered only a few copies may decide to increase their order. Only when your book is widely available in bookstores should you think about spending money on advertising.

The number of retail book outlets, especially independent booksellers, fell dramatically in the United States in recent years. An idea of the severity of the decline can be gleaned from the following statistics: In 1995, the American Booksellers Association, based in Tarrytown, N.Y., numbered more than 5,500 members with about 7,000 stores. Five years later membership was down to 3,100 members and 4,000 locations. Today, this trade group of book retailers has only 1,800 members and 2,500 locations. Don't overlook the importance of chain bookstores in book distribution today--including the new superstores--with centralized buying facilities. This means that one buyer does the ordering for many outlets, and any book order will likely be a big one. Major book wholesalers and distributors are desirable contacts, too.

Every author should make friends with local booksellers. Follow up your letters to them with a telephone call and then a visit in person. Having your book in a prized spot in a bookseller's display window can make a big difference in the number of copies sold. Suggest a traditional in-store autographing party. At these, you will talk about the writing of your book, chat with customers and autograph the copies they buy. If wine and cheese are served, your publisher may underwrite that cost.

Because customers rely on their recommendations, independent retailers can still play a major role in a book's success even though their numbers are dwindling. A case in point is Robert James Waller's 1992 novel, The Bridges of Madison County, a tender story of the brief love affair between a lonely Iowa farm wife and a magazine photographer, and how it haunts them for the rest of their lives. As with many other first novels, the publisher, Warner Books, made no special effort to publicize Waller's book. Enter Warren Cassell, owner of Just Books, a tiny independent bookstore in Greenwich, Connecticut. Cassell praised Waller's book in his store's newsletter as "one of the finest first novels we have ever read," certain to be on "our life list of favorite novels." Booksellers everywhere shared his enthusiasm. Word-of-mouth praise kept The Bridges of Madison County on bestseller charts until it reached the number one spot early in 1993 and remained there tenaciously. Just Books, the store that originally ordered only three copies of this unheralded work, eventually sold more than a thousand copies.

Pitching to Librarians
In pitching a direct-mail publicity campaign, don't ignore libraries, especially regional library systems with centralized purchasing. Local public libraries or nearby college and university libraries are also good targets. Librarians like to have the works of local authors represented in their collections. Although librarians are strongly influenced by reviews of forthcoming books in such publications as Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, these publications cannot evaluate every new title. A personal letter from the author can make librarians aware of a new book they otherwise might have overlooked. The buying power of the 34,296 libraries in the United States and Canada is impressive. In fact, librarians buy one of every three trade books published. And, unlike individual book buyers, larger libraries often buy multiple copies of popular titles for their main and branch libraries.

Pitching to Reviewers
It's accepted dogma in publishing that a good review does more for sales than any advertisement. This makes review copies inexpensive tools for self-promotion. All publishers maintain mailing lists of the book reviewers to whom review copies are sent, and they will usually share these lists with their authors. Classified according to size, the publication's circulation and its clout with readers, these are referred to as their A, B and C lists. With them in hand, you can easily compile your own mailing lists of reviewers at newspapers and magazines that are not on the publisher's lists. When a preliminary dummy of your book jacket is available, mail a photocopy of it and the table of contents with a cover letter to such untapped reviewers. Ask them to note at the bottom of your letter whether they would like to receive a review copy, and include a return envelope to make responding easy. Publishers will welcome the names of such reviewers who express an interest in receiving your book--especially if you provide the addresses on peel-off labels. Your publisher can afford to be generous with review copies; authors are paid no royalties on books distributed for promotional purposes.

Other Promotional Possibilities
Sales of subsidiary rights are important sources of additional income for both publishers and authors. These rights can include sales to book clubs, paperback publishers, or movies and TV, as well as the marketing of foreign rights and serial (magazine) rights. Your publisher will probably touch base with the major players in these leagues. But don't be timid about doing a little horn-blowing on your own in the form of personalized letters to book club acquisition editors and other subsidiary rights buyers.

The Truth About Author Tours
Many writers dream of author tours, but a tour can be expensive. Airfares, hotels, meals and incidentals make this a particularly costly form of advertising for publishers. The fact is that certain books--first novels, children's books, and some kinds of nonfiction--often don't lend themselves to all the chores. Moreover as the late Fran Harris, longtime Detroit newscaster and radio and TV interviewer, pointed out to this writer, "many authors simply aren't good at impromptu conversation, or are uncomfortable before a camera or microphone, making them poor candidates for tours." Nevertheless, if you're convinced that a tour is essential to the success of your book and your publisher won't underwrite it, there's nothing stopping you from personally financing the tour.

Writers also can tour their books without even leaving home. "Radio interviews conducted over the telephone are the hottest way of promoting books today," says Rick Frischman, president of Planned TV Arts, a New York and Washington booking agency for author tours. "We've booked authors Bill Moyers, James Michener, Arnold Palmer, Jane Bryant Quinn, Alan Dershowitz, and others on our 'Morning Drive Radio Tours' with great success."

The Wayne Dyer Story
The undisputed all-time self-promotion champ is Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. In 1976, he was an associate professor at St. John's University and a practicing therapist. That year Funk & Wagnalls published his Your Erroneous Zones, a book based on his own experience and describing how to reverse unhealthy behavior patterns .

Convinced that he needed to take control of his life and to stop worrying about being bald or feeling guilty about his divorce, he decided to write a bestseller. After spending two years in reflection, he wrote the book in 13 days. When the prestigious New York Times Book Review failed to review his book, the 36-year-old Dyer decided to do his own promotion. Taking leave from his faculty post as a guidance counselor, he loaded his station wagon with copies of his book and began his self-financed promotional tour that took him to every state in the United States. People magazine called his effort "a self-marketing tour de force."

Making himself available for talk show interviews at any hour of the day or night, he soon propelled his book to the top of bestseller charts and kept it there for well over a year. Avon Books later bought the paperback rights, paying one of the highest prices then on record. Other best-selling self-help titles followed, all promoted by Dyer in the same way. He never returned to teaching and gave up his private practice and moved to Hawaii. Aggressive self-promotion had made him a millionaire. Today, Dyer is a fixture on public television, where he preaches his inspirational philosophy and hawks his books and associated products.

Why Self-promotion?
Unless you're an established author, it's unlikely that any publisher will provide your book with much in the way of advertising and promotion. The publisher's efforts will, in most cases, be perfunctory and largely futile. It's up to you, the author, to do everything you can to promote your book. But you must be ready to move quickly. As in perhaps no other industry, the timing of a book's promotional campaign is critical. The average book has the reading public's attention for only a few weeks or even days. A book's shelf life is--in humorist Calvin Trillin's words--"somewhere between milk and yogurt." The window of opportunity for the promotion of your book will be open ever so briefly. As the author, you must seize the moment. Self-promotion is no longer an option; it's a basic survival tactic.


Build your own mailing lists of booksellers, librarians, book reviewers, and radio and TV programs that feature books and authors by using the following books available from public libraries. Many are also available on databases through regional library systems and larger public libraries.

American Book Trade Directory lists 30,000 retail and antiquarian book dealers in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 wholesalers and paperback distributors.

American Library Directory lists 34,296 U.S. and Canadian libraries, including public, armed forces, government and special libraries.

Bacon's Newspaper/Magazine Directory lists `8,000 trade and consumer magazines, newsletters and journals, including ethnic and university newspapers.
Editor & Publisher International Yearbook lists daily and Sunday newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, weekly newspapers, newspaper syndicates.
Literary Market Place lists selected news services and feature syndicates, book reviewers at newspapers and magazine, and book clubs. Also lists selected radio and TV programs featuring books.
Standard Periodical Directory has more than 56,000 listings of U.S. and Canadian periodicals.
Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory lists more than 280,000 periodicals by 90,000 publishers in over 300 countries.

Bacon's Radio/TV/Cable Directory lists every U.S. and Canadian broadcast outlet, with names of producers, assignment editors and reporters.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/14/06)


These days, we Americans seem lost, living as we are in a state of heightened fear induced by our government, a submissive media and a few neocon pundits. We have become a nation of frightened sheep, made infinitely more malleable and susceptible to suggestion. Yet, from 1946 to 1989 we were engaged in the Cold War, a stand-off with the Soviet Union some chose to call World War III. The inconvenient truth--inconvenient, that is, for those who profit from keeping us in a perpetual jittery state--is that we were at greater risk of destruction in those uneasy years than we are today. Nevertheless, we went quietly about our everyday business and lived full lives.

The truth is that not al-Qaida, not Hamas, not Hezbollah, not the Muslim Brotherhood, not any other group of violence-prone militants, not the Islamic right as a whole, and not even the entire Islamic world present the kind of challenge to our existence that the Soviet Union did. No alliance of nations of the Middle East, most of which are roiled by internal secular or religious differences, could mount a threat to the United States that would warrant calling the present administration-hyped state of fear, "a clash of civilizations." The administration would have you believe that the Muslim world is fundamentally and unalterably hostile to the West. Some neocons have prematurely named it World War IV, bringing the fear quotient to a ridiculous level.

On a cold, raw day in March of 1933, President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke these words: "First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." They are words to live by. When asked recently what he would change about the course the administration has pursued over the last five years, Vice President Dick Cheney replied that he would change nothing. The same manipulating administration, compliant media and neocon pundits would have you believe that unrest in the Islamic world began on September 11 and that it started with al-Qaida, as if that tiny organization had sprung fully formed, like Venus, from a gigantic sea shell. History tells it differently: Al-Qaida has a much older ancestry and deeper roots, all watered and carefully nurtured by Uncle Sam.

If al-Qaida can be said to have had an American godfather, that title must be conferred on Zbiegniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor. From an elite Polish family, well-educated and a militant anti-Communist, he saw political Islam--as contrasted with religious Islam--as merely another piece on what he called "the grand Chessboard." Just as Winston Churchill had seen the nations bordering the northern Mediterranean as "the soft underbelly of Europe," Brzezinski saw the Soviet republics of Central Asia as "Russia's soft Islamic underbelly" that might be encouraged revolt against rule by Moscow. On July 3, 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed the first directive giving secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. This induced a Soviet military intervention on December 24, 1979. In giving training and providing equipment to the mujahedeen who flocked to Afghanistan from all over the Islamic world to fight the Russians in a holy war, the United States did not comprehend the irreversible forces it was unleashing.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emboldened Islamic right emerged as a danger to American interests abroad. As early as 1993, The New York Times reported, "Western diplomats and Arab officials say thousands of Islamic militants engaging in violent campaigns to overthrow governments in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey and other predominantly Muslim states currently use Afghanistan as a base." Convinced that their insurgency had defeated a superpower, Russia, the Islamic right began looking for new nations to conquer. Suddenly we discovered that in the mujahedeen we had created a Frankenstein monster.

The first state to be targeted was Algeria. In a December 1991 election, the Islamic Salvation front (FIS) defeated the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), but the army intervened to cancel the vote. Denied a victory, the FIS launched a campaign of terror, assassinating the Algerian president, bombing ministries and killing hundreds of security officials and police in a civil war that would last until 1999. As the violence grew, Islamist vigilantes and paramilitary militias attacked remote villages, slaughtering men, women and children until the government eventually prevailed.

The next country to be threatened by Islamist terrorism was Egypt, the original home of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the mid-1990s. It, too, almost fell to an Islamist revolution. Hundreds were killed by armed militants, including military and police officers, government officials and leading Egyptian intellectuals. Despite an unsuccessful 1995 assassination attempt, Hosni Mubarak, who had taken over the reins of government after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, cracked down on the Islamists. A last-gasp spectacular terrorist attack was made on tourists in 1997.

The third major area in which the Islamist right blossomed was war-torn Afghanistan, and it manifested itself as the Taliban, which seized Kabul in September of 1996 and imposed the world's strictest theocracy. The fundamentalist Taliban movement received strong financial support from Saudi Arabia and cooperation from Pakistan. Initially, the Taliban and the United States were bedfellows. Not only did we view the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia and pro-Western, we had our eyes on a proposed Unocal pipeline to transport gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan by way of Afghanistan and saw the Taliban as another version of Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist ruling family with whom we could work.

In a 1998 interview with the French publication Nouvel Observateur, Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked whether he regretted having supported the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and provided arms and training to mujahedeen who would become tomorrow's terrorists. He replied pragmatically: "What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" When asked whether Islamic fundamentalism represented a world menace today, Brzezinski responded: "There isn't a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries."

In the welter of speaking and tear-shedding by politicians to mark this past September 11, one admission was exceptional by its absence. Not a single government official uttered the words, "We in your government failed you. We let you down. We did not prevent the horror of September 11, although the evidence was there before us." Another irrefutable truth also went unremarked by anyone in a position of responsibility that day: It was not the government, not the military, but a small group of passengers and crew on UAL Flight 93 that kept September 11 from becoming an even greater disaster.

Their actions prevented al-Qaida terrorists from flying their fourth commandeered plane into the White House or the Capitol. Thanks to ordinary people who never intended to be heroes, good triumphed over evil. The plane plunged to earth in a remote Pennsylvania field. One cannot help thinking of Ma Joad's eloquent expression of faith in the people at the conclusion of the film The Grapes of Wrath: "Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."


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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/07/06)


Between the time you read this and Election Day, November 7, there will be about 60 days during which politicians of every stripe will attempt to rewrite history. The most outlandish lies will be told with a straight face. Facts and statistics will be twisted until they bear no resemblance to reality. None of it will be true.

The onslaught against truth and the denial of reality have already begun, always before a receptive audience unlikely to challenge wild exaggerations. If platitudes could do what our brave, undermanned military forces have not been able to accomplish, the Iraq misadventure would have been over long ago. This time the thrust is to market the "war on terror" and its centerpiece, the interminably bloody occupation of Iraq, as the latter-day equivalents of World War Two. Any one who deigns to question the wisdom of America's belligerent adventurism can expect to be tarred as an appeaser of Nazism in the mold of Neville Chamberlain.

The big guns have been rolled out and have begun firing a concerted barrage on opponents of the war--which is to say, if polls are to be believed--on about two thirds of the population of the United States. After so many years of indecisive warfare, their theme is hard to swallow: "Whatever has gone wrong is the fault of everybody but us." On August 29, speaking before the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told an understandably supportive audience that today's terrorists pose the same threat as yesterday's Nazis; critics of the war in Iraq are like the appeasers before the start of World War II; the real problem is "the media" which spreads "myths and distortions about our troops and about our country."

Also on August 29, 2006, speaking before the officers of the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Vice President Dick Cheney extolled the war in Iraq and denounced self-defeating pessimists who oppose it. Describing the war, he repeated this whopper: "We wage this fight with good allies at our side." About conditions in present-day Iraq and Afghanistan, he boasted, "Fifty million people are awakening to a future of hope and freedom."

Not to be outdone, President George W. Bush appeared before the American Legion convention on August 31 and with a straight face made a statement that few, if any, Americans believe: "The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq." If that statement is true and the stakes are so high, why has troop strength in Iraq never been adequate for the task? Why hasn't the defense budget been doubled? Why has Congress not been asked to reinstate the draft? Where are the war bond rallies in support of such a crucial war?

The President also said that the war in Iraq is really the front line in "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century." Our foes are the "successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists." The term-du-jour--and you'll hear it often--is "Islamo-fascist," coined by the neocons, whose roots are surprisingly deep in the Trotskyite-Social Democratic left. In the President's typically childishly simplistic view, earlier presidents' desire for stability (and this includes his father) caused the festering stagnation and resentment of the terrorists responsible for Sept. 11. He concluded: "Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither," and intoned these high-sounding words: "We will take the side of democrats and reformers throughout the Middle East." The latter sentiment may play well in Peoria, but to those in power in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan it can hardly be seen as supportive or friendly.

The focus of attention in the next two months, of course, will be Sept. 11, an off-the-cuff attack of such utter simplicity and exquisite coordination the wonder has to be why it was not anticipated. Instead, it has been described as the first encounter in the long-heralded "clash of civilizations," a phrase coined by Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington. But the reality of Sept. 11 is concealed by the patness of that term. Let's face it: The Sept. 11 attack on the United States was not perpetrated by Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, or any other militants on the Islamic right.

Instead, it was perpetrated by al-Qaida, a small, tightly knit group bent on suicidal martyrdom with the unctuous promise of paradise. Conservative columnist George Will recently wrote: "The London plot against civil aviation confirmed ... that better law enforcement, which probably could have prevented Sept. 11, is central to combating terrorism." But, sensing the mood of the country immediately after Sept. 11, the Bush administration calculatedly magnified the danger posed by al-Qaida out of all proportion, inflating it into a global threat. Although al-Qaida-inspired groups have struck in Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and England, not a single violent act by al-Qaida has occurred in America, despite Attorney General Ashcroft's wild claim after Sept. 11 that thousands of al-Quaida agents had infiltrated the United States. For its part, the United States has done little to seal off, identify and arrest or kill the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attack.

The claim that Islamist terrorism is the Bush administration's target is given the lie by the countries and organizations they have actually targeted. The prime example is Saddam Hussein. During the Cold War, the United States supported dictatorial presidents, kings and emirs in the Arab world so long as they remained pro-American and supported U.S. policies. One of these was Saddam Hussein. Ever since seizing power in 1968, Saddam was the implacable enemy of radical Islamists--ranging from Ayatollah Khomeini and terrorist Shiite groups to al-Qaida itself. The Baath Socialist Party is totally secular. By attacking Iraq, George W. Bush played into the hands of the Islamic right and al-Qaida.

Moreover, the so-called war on terrorism and the ongoing occupation of Iraq is absolutely the wrong way to counteract and diminish the appeal of the Islamic right to the so-called "Arab street." Aside from al-Qaida, Islamic Jihad and similar terrorist groups, the broad spectrum of Islamic organizations represents no threat to the United States but rather to existing governments in the broad crescent stretching from the Gates of Hercules in Morocco to the far reaches of Indonesia. The longer we insist on maintaining a sword-rattling presence in the Middle East, the more we fuel radical Islamism and make that part of the world unstable.

The real danger is that such unrest could grow and spread, disturbing the stability of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, whose conservative governments could be overwhelmed by radical groups associated with al-Qaida, the Taliban or a Wahhabist underground. Man-in-the-Arab-street unhappiness over the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has created more terrorists than have been captured or killed.

And what of the rest of the world? The Pew Research Center conducted 91,000 interviews in 50 countries over a period of years to determine attitudes and opinions. Findings of its "global attitudes survey" published in the 2005 book America Against the World are indeed alarming. In Britain, Germany and France favorable opinions of the United States nosedived, with overwhelming majorities also saying that the Iraq war has made the world more dangerous.

Released in June, the Pew Research Center's most recent survey showed equally alarming statistics. In only four of fifteen nations surveyed (Britain, India, Japan and Nigeria) did a majority of citizens have a favorable view of the United States. In six countries (Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Spain and Turkey) Iran had a higher rating than the United States. In one nation (Russia), Iran and the U.S. were tied. In all but one country (Germany) America's presence was seen as a greater danger to world peace than either Iran or North Korea. The only conclusion to be drawn from these numbers is that a country's global image is formed not by what its leaders say but what they do.


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