Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

"Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they'd never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children's Crusade
Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death's bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
The children of England would never be slaves
They're trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation
Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History's lessons drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death's bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children's Crusade" - From "Children's Crusade", Sting, "The Dream of the Blue Turtles", 1984.

Today, we (some of us anyway) will pause and reflect for a moment about Memorial Day.  Initially called "Decoration Day", to honor those lost in the Civil War, Memorial Day became an official Federal holiday in 1967.   The day's meaning is really not lost on anyone. We will celebrate the sacrifice of our soldiers' loss for our country.  Usually, our politicians will soap up the day with speeches calling these fallen heroes and that they made their sacrifice for "freedom".  To be sure, some of that is true, but it is also true, that like many issues that should be much more important and prevalent to us daily, we as a country don't really think that much about the sons and daughters we have lost in combat.  We think even less of those who were fortunate enough to survive combat and make it home, but are unfortunate in the respect that they carry the physical, mental and emotional scars of bearing situations that most of us will never experience in our lifetimes.  

We're a country of war.  We were born of war during our revolution, and have been embroiled in military conflict in almost every decade of our existence.  The horrors of the Civil War, where brother fought against brother was the most egregious loss of life in combat in our history.  Over 700 thousand perished in the war.  In our nation's history, there is only one decade that there were no recorded deaths from military conflict.  That decade?  The 1820's.   That's right.  In every decade since the 1770's, American soldiers have fought and died in conflict except in the 1820's.   Total lost in the conflicts across our history run to 1.3 million dead and 1.5 million wounded.  In our recent history, the "war on terror" has claimed over 6,700 dead and more than 50 thousand wounded.

We of course honor our fallen and wounded on Memorial Day. We know they have taken a task many of us wouldn't (including me) sign up for.   Their deaths are a horrible payment that has been made for a country that on about every other day of the year generally ignores them.  We've seen the general attitude in Washington from both parties to make the soldier a tool that is used for political purposes and then cast aside until they are needed again to promote some policy, gain advantage during an election or accuse the other party of some level of ineptitude, misconduct, or other sin.

The recent events with the Veteran's Administration highlight what I'm talking about.  In 2008, President Obama, made dealing with the backlog of claims filed by veteran's with the V.A. one of major talking points of his campaign. He was going to clean the mess up and get the care to our veteran's that was needed.  He appointed General Erick Shinseki, a retired general who got it right about the number of troops needed in Iraq and was summarily booted out by the Bush Administration for telling the truth.  President Obama put General Shinseki in charge of cleaning up a bloated and inefficient administration that's sole purpose was to make sure veterans got the services they needed when they left military service.  Health care, financial assistance, educational assistance, and other services are provided by the V.A.  In many respects they do a good job.  Once you can actually get medical care, it is usually very good. The problem is handling the claims.  We have well over a million veterans alive today dating back to the Korean War and some from World War II.  It is a big job to ensure these people get the services they need.  While the current administration has indeed made some improvements, they are still failing.  Worse, now, it turns out that some of the work done by the V.A. was to "cook the books" and basically lie about the improvements on reducing claims backlogs.   This is a moral stain on an administration (Obama's) and on a system (V.A.) that should be better than this.  We know how this goes.  A directive comes from the President to fix the problem.  His secretary of the V.A. crafts the policy requirements and delineates it down to the organization.  The organization attempts to comply by the policy and some, fearing loss of job, shame or reprimand or whatever, lie about their progress.  They cook the books to say things are better.  They are found out.  The lie becomes public.  The lie becomes scandal.  Now it becomes political.  The other guys are now very interested in the troubles at the administration even though they voted to cut funding from the very organization they are now so concerned about.  The President has to speak about the problem and of course declare how mad he is about this.  Calls for General Shinseki's head on a platter abound, not only by the talk show punditry (most of whom never served a day in their life.  Rush I'm talking about you), but also by members of Congress, from both parties, because they are "shocked!, shocked! to find out there are troubles at the VA!).   It is monumental hypocrisy to hear criticism from Congress about this.  It makes me want to vomit how hypocritical they are on this topic.

General Shinseki should resign.  Not because he cooked the books. He didn't.  But, he is the leader of this organization, and as the leader, he bears responsibility and accountability for its actions.   The resignation of this man, would be the honorable thing to do and General Shinseki is an honorable man.  I don't think he will resign because I believe the administration will pressure him to stay.  If he does resign, the noise level will not reduce, it will enlarge.  The opposition to the President will not say that this was the right thing to do and we'll support the President in getting this fixed. No, they will use it as a cudgel to beat this administration and the Democrats about the head for the next two elections.   Oh, and by the way, if the situation was reversed, the Democrats would behave exactly as the GOP are doing now, so this isn't a condemnation of one party over another. It' a condemnation on the US Congress and by extension the rest of us about how pitiful and pathetic we are when it comes to taking care of those who come home from combat.   Yellow ribbons and America First! magnetic badges on the backs of our SUV isn't enough.  There are many veteran's organizations doing fine work in attempting to help out returning soldiers and the families of those who lost loved ones in conflict.   Veteran's of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, The USO, The American Legion, Wounded Warriors, etc. are all focused on helping veterans.  I would encourage all of us today to pick up the phone, get on the Internet and contact one of these organizations and give money to these folks to help our soldiers and families of soldiers.

I believe we go to war too easily and too often.  I was supportive of the attack on Afghanistan in 2001 to respond to the attacks against us in New York, Pennsylvania and in Washington in September of that year.  A response was necessary and important.  What we are doing there 13 years later I have no idea.  Why we went into Iraq is not clear, but it certainly was not because the regime in power at the time had weapons of mass destruction they were about to use against us as advertised.  I'm not cynical enough yet to believe it was simply a geo-political land grab, but cannot be sure.

I think we need to dramatically change the way we send our sons and daughters into harms way. I have a three point proposal that I think will help us think about this a little better and perhaps not have so many to mourn and remember in subsequent Memorial Days:

  1. Before we commit military forces to conflict situations, we must have a declaration of war.  The US Constitution requires it and we should respect that. We've not had a declared war since World War II.  In every conflict since then, we've had something less.  The reason I think is because Congress is too frightened of being on the record to send kids off to die.  They will "authorize the president certain powers", then if things go poorly castigate the poor devil mercilessly afterward.  This was what happened with the Iraq War.  Democrats such as Joe Biden, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton all used the weasel worded authorization to distance themselves from the resulting fiasco.
  2. Institute the Draft during Conflict times.   We have effectively separated America into two factions since the draft ended in the early 1970's.  Those who serve for economic or other reasons, and those who don't.  We have essentially divided the country into those who suffer loss and those who don't.  We know due to the demographic data that most of our military come from lower economic standing. I said most. There are some wealthy families that have members who serve and their participation is no less noble or dangerous.  However, most of us do not feel the pain of service, and if we instituted the Draft again during conflict situations, it might make us all think about this a little harder and with more conviction. 
  3. Tax to Pay for the War.  In this last conflict, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, we have essentially been told to ignore the cost of the conflict, and it would be taken care of.   We've not been asked to sacrifice, even if it is just from our wallets.  During World War II, which lasted less than half the time the Afghanistan conflict has, taxes were raised, rationing was established and everyone had to participate, whether they were in the military or not.  Victory gardens were grown by families in order to allow the big farmers to produce food for the military.  Metal was collected and melted down for use by the military. Auto manufacturers converted factories to tool up for tanks, planes and other military uses.  The country was at war, not just a few soldiers.  Everyone had to pay. Everyone was engaged. It became personal and real.   Unfortunately, we've not seen this in the last several conflicts going back thirty or forty years.  Soldiers were someone's brother, sister, son or daughter.   The majority of us were told to "go shopping".   So my proposal is to tax the rest of us to pay for the war and its aftermath (not only the rebuilding of the country we blow up, but also the rebuilding of the lives of the veteran's and their families when they come home).  We must become part of the process and not an idle observer.  We owe it to those who sign up and offer to go get themselves killed on our behalf.  
Ultimately, if we could see these three actions become part of the fabric of our decisions to go into conflict I think the result would be fewer adventures that aren't necessary, fewer casualties as a result of fewer conflicts, and if, as it is sometimes necessary, we go to war, we do it together.

I honor those lost, and I want to see us find a way to make this day one of reflection of not only for those who were lost, but those who were saved because we got our collective act together.

Tell me what you think,



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, Race and Bigotry Issues in America

Well, we've had a considerable amount of time over the past two months with these two men.  They each have a few things in common:  They are old, they are white; they are fairly wealthy, and by their words, they are presumably racists.   Mr. Bundy, whose fame is more related to his thievery by not paying grazing fees for more than 20 years recently mouthed off with the now infamous phrase "I know something about the Negro".  Mr. Bundy recently had a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for managing federal property.  Mr. Sterling on the other hand was thrust into the news when a recorded conversation of him and his alleged mistress showed he had some rather controversial views about who his girlfriends should take to his team's (The Los Angeles Clippers) basketball games.  Both have recently made some very inflammatory remarks about African Americans. Mr. Bundy, seems to believe African American's who are on government assistance would probably be happier if they were still slaves, and Mr. Sterling simply cannot believe anyone would believe he is a racist even though he has had a long history of discrimination against African Americans and Latin Americans. 

The statements made by both of these men are of course repugnant.  They have both attempted to walk back their statements and have only dug themselves into a deeper hole by doing so.  Check out Mr. Sterling's "apology" interview with Anderson Cooper here:

Now, both Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy are pretty wealthy, so their attitudes don't come from not having access to good education or a lack of ability to associate and mix with people from other ethnic backgrounds.  They easily could and in Mr. Sterling's case have, engaged with people of different colors, points of view and perspectives.  What they have chosen to do is emblematic of what a lot of people in this country do regardless of income, social standing or, in fact skin color.  They have chosen a perspective that those who look differently from them somehow are "less".    The concept shouldn't be lost on us, as we all have these biases and prejudices to some degree.

The issue at large though is the idea that because we look different or worship different than each other denotes that we are indeed different than each other.   This is nothing new.  Hundred's of years ago, in the play "Merchant of Venice",  Shylock said: "If you prick us do we not bleed, if you tickle us do we not laugh, if you poison us do we not die, if you wrong us do we not revenge?"   Of course, the matter at hand in Shakespeare's play was Jewish and Christian antipathy, but it nonetheless displays that probably since we have been able to think, we've decided that we should categorize people by what they look like, who they worship, who they love, how much money they make, etc. etc.

But back to Mr. Bundy and Mr. Sterling.  They are indicative of racists in the most descriptive sense:  Loudmouth people of privilege who have decided for one reason or another they are better than African Americans and Latin Americans.   These guys are easy to spot. They display their attitudes generally through words or actions.  In Mr. Sterling's defense in this matter, he was outed by a recorded phone call, which I also have a problem with, but I digress.  These types of racists are common and we see them often, whether it is someone like this or someone who parades around in a ridiculous looking bed sheet spouting idiotic terms like "white supremacy". 

The bigger problem is the subtle racism that still occurs over 50 years after Dr. King's "I have a dream speech". The job not given, the loan not secured, the cab ride not available: these are all examples of what I'm talking about and it is as prevalent today as it was in the 1950's.  No, we don't have forced segregation and different drinking fountains for "white" and "colored" people, and there has been significant progress in some areas of racial importance.  However, this stain on our collective soul is still here and we have to work hard to eradicate it.  Racism comes from hatred.  Hatred comes from fear.  Fear comes from lack of understanding and knowledge.    What we need is wisdom.  Wisdom is the understanding and knowledge through experience that we are all much more the same than we are different.  We have the same hopes and desires for ourselves and our children. We all want to be secure and happy.   We can't get there by hating.  We can't get there by classifying people as somehow being less deserving or worthy than us because of our color.

We have made some great strides in our attempts to throw the notion of racism into the trash can of history but we have much left to do.  As exemplified by Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy, there are still pathetic people out there.  They are to be pitied for their views as much as they should be rebuked. They are small minded people who, if they maintain their views will never have their eyes opened to the possibilities and promise of a society that as Doctor King said:  "they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"

Our country has had lesson after lesson that setting people apart because of skin color is simply wrong.  Whether it is our own history or that of countries like India and South Africa, we can see what is achieved once the institutionalized racism of policy and government is cast aside.  If we can get there ourselves by getting rid of our own institutionalized biases then we will have a much better place for ourselves and our kids.

Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy: you've done us a service by reminding us that racism is alive and well in this country and we need to find more will and effort to eliminate it.  So thanks for that. I pity both of you for your views, and hope that before you breathe your last breath that you come around. It's sad to go through life with points of views like those you hold, and maybe, just maybe you can change. I hope so.

Tell me what you think.  Where are you on this issue?