This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 7/2/14 under the title “U.S. Role in Iraq Should Be Humanitarian”. Jon
It is eleven years since President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Rarely have words been so wrong. We can now look back and see that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their crew of neo-conservatives cluelessly opened Pandora’s box in Iraq.
The costs have been incalculable. The economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated the price tag of Bush’s war at more than three trillion dollars. Over 4,000 American soldiers have died along with an estimated 500,000 Iraqis. For the wounded American troops, the injuries have been grievous. IEDs have ripped off limbs and genitals, catastrophically affecting many lives. And that does not even touch the many thousands of traumatic brain injuries and PTSD cases.
In watching the further unravelling of Iraq, I have been struck by the shallowness of most political commentary about the war. Typically the narrative is a blame game. Democrats blame George W. Bush’s administration and Republicans blame Obama.
I want to suggest a different viewpoint. Both parties bear some degree of responsibility for the Iraq War. While the George W. Bush administration bears primary responsibility as the architect of war, it must be pointed out that many, many Democrats went along with Bush and supported the invasion. Both the neo-conservatives and the liberal hawks were on board.
It needs to be flat-out said: the Iraq war was a colossal fraud perpetrated against the American people. The Bush Administration submitted false information to Congress and the public. They manufactured a case for invasion based on complete falsehoods. The two major falsehoods were existence of weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. While Obama took a pass on it, a strong legal case can be made that Bush and Cheney committed war crimes. There is an immense amount of blood on their hands.
United Nations charter law did not permit the President to launch the Iraq War unless there had been an armed attack by Iraq against the U.S. or unless the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force. Neither condition was met. And I am not even getting to the matter of torture.
While many would, no doubt, dismiss this, I submit that the United States lacked legal authority to intervene in the affairs of the Iraqi people. This is quite different than our legal position relative to Al Qaeda after the 9/11attacks. A far stronger argument can be made to justify a military response to the perpetrators of 9/11. Al Qaeda did attack the U.S. and killed over 3000 people.
As politicians ponder next steps with Iraq, the history of the last eleven years suggests caution. It also suggests critical reevaluation of American interests. Really going back all the way back to the Vietnam War such a critical reevaluation is long overdue.
Politicians focus on questions like: should we use drones or air strikes? Or should we reintroduce combat soldiers? These are not the most important questions. We need to look harder at whether our national interest is actually threatened by a regional conflict. Too often we immediately answer “yes”.
Nations have a right to self-determination and it is not the job of the United States to be world policeman. I think it is a safe bet Sunnis will be fighting Shias and Shias will be fighting Sunnis for the foreseeable future. Why does the United States belong in the middle of this mix? Is it simply because of fear of a loss of face or fear of being criticized for presiding over another disaster where Americans are considered losers? If there is a role why should it not be diplomatic or humanitarian?
Before the war started, I remember the world-wide demonstrations against it. Along with millions of others all over the world, I demonstrated in Concord in front of the State House. The demonstrators all knew the war was wrong before it started but nobody listened to the demonstrators. Many of us had the insight that the war made little sense, was unrelated to 9/11, and was probably about oil. Whatever politicians say about terrorist threats, access to oil still remains a central concern of American policy.
One profound irony of the Iraq War of the last eleven years is the reality that the American invasion set into motion a terrorist advance. There would be no ISIS without the Americans. ISIS is blowback. Whatever the awfulness of Saddam Hussein’s rule as a military strongman, he had held the country together and squelched Sunni-Shia rivalry. The American invasion and aftermath created the context for the demolition of the country into Sunni, Shia and Kurd power blocs. The amount of bloodshed unleashed by our invasion has been staggering.
When I think of those who acted honorably around the Iraq war, one political name comes to mind: Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. Facing an avalanche of criticism including death threats, Congresswoman Lee was the only member of either House of Congress to vote against President Bush’s broadstroke authorization for the use of force after the 9/11 attacks. In explaining her vote, she said:
“It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events – anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”
Now Congresswoman Lee is emphasizing that President Obama needs to come to Congress for any war authorization. She is also advocating no more money for combat troops. I think she has been a lonely voice of wisdom and remains so.
It is predictable that military hawks will fulminate about ISIS and push for deeper military involvement in Iraq. Witness Dick Cheney reappearing last week on TV and in the Wall Street Journal. Discredited is too kind a word for that individual. Before the war in Iraq in 2003, Kurt Vonnegut described people like Cheney as PPs – psychopathic personalities. To quote Vonnegut:
“PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose”.
We need to resist the siren song of the neo-cons.Given their track record, why anyone would listen to them now is beyond imagination.
At least as far as the role of the United States, I am reminded of a saying from A.J. Muste, a peace activist from an earlier generation: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Considering the results from eleven years of war, I do not think that is bad advice.
There is much more that needs to be said about our militarism and our American tendency to overreach. I will write more about this in the future.
A Different Take on Bowe Bergdahl – posted 6/9/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/12/2014
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on June 12, 2014 under the title “Opinions on Bergdahl Too Often Stated as Fact.” Jon
I have been shocked at the amount of hatred unleashed against Bowe Bergdahl and his parents. I was driving to work after the prisoner swap, listening to Boston sports talk radio. One of the early morning show hosts stated Bergdahl was a worthless traitor as if that was an uncontroverted fact. There has been an avalanche of sentiments of that type.
You would not have thought Bergdahl was a POW for five years. Now we are finding out he was tortured after he tried to escape captivity. The New York Times reported that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time.
Critics of Bergdahl have called him a deserter, mentally ill, anti-American, a jihadist, and a warrior for Islam. One Fox News commentator said the Taliban could have saved the United States money on legal bills if they had executed him. Bergdahl’s parents have also received death threats.
How commentators know so much about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s separation from his unit and his capture remain a mystery. Just like how other commentators know that the five released Taliban prisoners are “the worst of the worst”.
Speculation becomes rampant when political agendas try to shape perception. Before the prisoner swap, the best information we had about Bergdahl was the 2012 story written by Michael Hastings that appeared in Rolling Stone.
Hastings article described a person very different from any stereotype. Bergdahl grew up near Hailey Idaho, deep in the mountains of Wood River Valley. His parents home-schooled him. He was a free-spirited kid who loved dirt bikes and boys’ adventure stories. His parents are devout Calvinists very concerned about ethical issues.
As a teenager, Bergdahl developed a passion for fencing. He also took up ballet where he met a girl friend. He dreamed of joining the French Foreign Legion. He actually travelled to Paris and started to learn French but his application to join the French Foreign Legion was rejected.
Bergdahl remained interested in a military career. He enlisted in the army. He was a reader. Hastings wrote that Bergdahl surrounded himself with piles of books including Three Cups of Tea about a humanitarian crusade to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hastings said that unlike others in his training unit, Bergdahl was more likely to hang out in Barnes and Nobles than a strip club.
Hastings goes on to say that after getting to Afghanistan, Bergdahl became disgusted with the war and the general incompetence of his unit. He had sincerely wanted to help Afghans but he did not see that going on. He gravitated away from his unit and he became more psychologically isolated. He had seen an Afghan child get run over by an armored vehicle.
Hastings speculated that the trauma of seeing an Afghan child run over had a big impact on Bergdahl. He quoted from an email Bergdahl had written: “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down on the dirt streets with our armored trucks…We make fun of them in front of their faces and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
I would offer an alternative speculation for why Bergdahl walked away. He was disgusted by the war. Hastings wrote that Bergdahl did not see the American war effort as an attempt to win Afghan hearts and minds. Possibly he was just a sensitive, idealistic guy who was horrified by a senseless war.
I think much of the criticism of Bergdahl reflects misguided militarism and jingoism. In the 21st century, we should be far down the road from gung-ho soldiers with John Wayne fantasies who never doubt and who blindly follow orders. The 20th century provides many horrible examples of the “I was just following orders” variety.
There has been a too cavalier acceptance of all the wars the United States has engaged since Vietnam. There have been so many. Maybe we should be questioning that – not focussing so much attention on what Bergdahl did or did not do.
Bergdahl’s situation made me flash on Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun and Ron Kovic’s book Born on the Fourth of July. Bergdahl is a different variant but it is so premature to be drawing the type of hateful criticism we have seen. How many of these armchair generals criticizing Bergdahl and his parents ever enlisted or put themselves in the type of dangerous situation Bergdahl did?
If the military eventually decides Bergdahl violated any military law, he should face military justice. Still, he also deserves due process of law and the presumption of innocence. That is the American way – not unsupported slander.
Making the Death Penalty Even More Barbaric – posted 6/1/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 6/4/2014
The death penalty has fallen on hard times. The international community has largely rejected and abolished its use. No other Western democracy besides the United States resorts to the death penalty and it is widely considered barbaric in Europe. Only a handful of outlier nations cling to this nasty old practice. Not great when you are in the company of Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and North Korea.
Making things even worse, executions of late have not gone smoothly. I thought we were past the days of flames shooting out of peoples’ heads. However, we just had the spectacle of the State of Oklahoma botching the lethal injection execution of Clayton Lockett.
Mr. Lockett was alive quite a while after the time the State had expected he would be dead. Witnesses reported that he twitched and writhed in pain. He tried to lift himself off the gurney to which he was strapped. This went on until Oklahoma state officials drew the shades so observers could not see more. Later the state officials called off Lockett’s execution but it turned out he was already dead from heart failure.
Since capital punishment was restored in the United States in 1976, the Death Penalty Information Center has reported 44 botched executions. About 75% of these involved lethal injection, the form of execution now touted as humane.
Lethal injection has become more problematic partly because states have not been able to procure the drugs used in lethal injection. Some states like Indiana appear to be turning to untested drug combinations. A U.K.-based human rights group, Reprieve, has successfully lobbied pharmaceutical companies to bar export to the U.S. of drugs used in executions. There is a massive shortage of these drugs.
So what is a state to do when it can’t use more modern, sanitized, scientific forms of execution? It would appear states are moving backward, reviving old ways. For example, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslam has just signed a bill that requires the state to bring back the electric chair if lethal injection is not available. In Wyoming, the Legislature is considering a bill to bring back firing squads.
Since New Hampshire has not yet eliminated the death penalty, it too could face the dilemma of how to kill somebody if lethal injection drugs are not available. In the case of New Hampshire, our last execution was carried out in 1939. It was a hanging.
Since 1734, New Hampshire has executed 24 people. Hanging is the method of execution historically used by the state although lethal injection is now the primary legal form of execution. Hanging can still be used if lethal injection is determined to be impractical.
The late comedian George Carlin thought about this dilemma. He had a number of suggestions to offer. I think Carlin would have encouraged the state to think outside the box.
Carlin said enough with soft American executions. He suggested bringing back crucifixion, a form of capital punishment he thought both Christians and Jews could relate to. Except Carlin favored naked, upside-down crucifixions preferably held at half-time on Monday Night Football. He knew people would be tuning in who didn’t care about football.
Carlin thought if you liven up executions and learn how to market them, you might be able to raise enough money to balance the budget. He had a Hunger Games vision long before the Hunger Games became known.
He favored bringing back beheadings.
“Beheadings on TV, slow motion, instant replay. And maybe you could let the heads roll down a little hill. And fall into one of five numbered holes. Let the people at home gamble on which hole the head is going to fall into. And you do it in a stadium so the mob can gamble on it too. Raise a little more money.”
And he says, ” When’s the last time we burned someone at the stake? It”s been too long! ” Put it on TV on Sunday mornings. Nothing like satisfying bloodlust with a little human bonfire.
Also, don’t forget about boiling people in oil.
“Boy those were the days, weren’t they? You get the oil going real good, you know, a nice high roiling boil. And then slowly, at the end of the rope, you lower the perpetrator head first into the boiling oil.”
Carlin says maybe instead of boiling all these guys, you could french fry a couple. “French fried felons. Dip a guy in egg batter, just for a goof, you know. Kind of a Tempura thing.”
With Carlin for inspiration, the possibilities are limitless. How about a giant shark tank of great whites on the State House lawn? Bye-bye perpetrators. We could replace Jaws with the televised real deal, and time it with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.
And for technology buffs, we have to work in a drone. Let the convict facing the death penalty loose in a major wilderness area. Give him a few days head start. Then give a drone one shot at blowing him away. Televise it and we can bet on results.
Those with a more religious orientation might recall stonings. I remember when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, stoning became official state policy for many crimes, including adultery. Admittedly, we might be a little rusty with stonings but no one can deny we have many great pitching arms here in the U.S.
New Hampshire, I submit there are possibilities. We replay the same old debates about taxes and casinos. Here is a way we can move forward by moving backward.