Monday, March 29, 2004

We lost Davy…

"We lost Davy in the Korean War; still don't know what for."  

So sings Bette Midler in her song, "Hello in There," adding disturbingly,  "doesn't matter any more."  Perhaps that's the way some of us feel, but of course it isn't true.  It matters a great deal, for us individually and for our society.  Listening to those words put in the mouth of an aged mother on my MP3 player while running in the park made me think about war, the ones in which we are engaged today, and those waged in our past.

Taking us into war, all Presidents claim, is the most difficult thing they do.  Deciding whether we should follow them in, which plays a huge role in its ultimate success, is equally so.  I'm old enough to remember The War which is what we called it without any concern about confusion well into the 1960's.  After all Korea, the conflict referenced in Midler's song, was termed a "police action."  I was a little kid during WWII which left me with three vivid memories.  One was VJ-Day celebrated on a summer afternoon by the whole neighborhood  which coincided with my recovery from strep throat, the most traumatic and threatening illness of my childhood.  Were it not for the recent availability of Penicillin, I might not have survived.  The second was Della Hayes, our beloved housekeeper, beating reddish food coloring into margarine at our kitchen table to make it look a little more like the butter we couldn't get in a time of war.  Finally there was that black "A" sticker affixed to the rear window of our Chevy denoting the preferred gasoline allocation given my clergyman father in a time of severe rationing.  Most people had "C" stickers on their windows.  Memories of celebration and of sacrifice. 

How different in this time of war.  Zabars, Fairway, Whole Foods or any supermarket across America chockfull of food, plenty of butter (even if some of us can't eat it any more).  "A" or "C" stickers?  Forget it, the garage under my New York apartment building is crowded with gas-guzzling SUVs (oh to have a Hummer to navigate those pot-holed city streets).  The only restrictions on plentiful gasoline is how much we can afford to buy at what we perceive to be exorbitant prices (still a fraction of what others pay around the world.  The little ones in my building will have very different memories of war than my own, probably no memories at all because there are no signposts.  The war going on right now, even with 9/11, doesn't touch most of our collective lives. There is no sacrifice involved, not one we experience personally.  Only a fraction of American families have sons, daughters, fathers, mothers or siblings at war and among those of us in the middle and upper classes, fraction would be an overstatement.  There isn't even a draft to evade.

But let me not wax nostalgic, so unbecoming in connection with the ugliness of war, any war.  While the cost of WWII was immense, it was a hugely successful effort, not inconsequentially because it had full public support.  It isn't that some isolationists didn't oppose it early on and, in doing so, delay our entry.  It is that once in, the citizenry gave its wholehearted support.  No one was ambivalent about the enemy or the rightness of our cause for which we were willing to personally sacrifice, for however long it took.  That wasn't true with Korea.  Perhaps we were just tired of fighting and had not yet been fully convinced of the Communist menace (these had been our allies).  In any event, the eloquent Adlai Stevenson went down to defeat when war hero Ike promised to go to Korea and end the conflict.  We wanted out.  Our discomfort was brought to new heights with Viet Nam, which in many ways was simply an extension, albeit delayed, of the same anti-Communist hostilities in Asia.  The opposition took some time to build, but ultimately the war became an unwanted and discredited cause.  In some ways, we still haven't recovered from it.

There is a military lesson in all this.  We won WWII with which the public concurred.  We failed in Korea about which we were ambivalent and more so in Viet Nam where we rose up in angry protest.  Harry Truman, FDR's successor won the election most immediately following WWII.  Stevenson, the incumbent party standard-bearer, paid the price for Korea at the polls in 1952 as did Lyndon Johnson (who couldn't even run) and Hubert Humphrey for Viet Nam in 1968.  Successful wars need public support.  Wars fought for questionable causes have bad endings, militarily and politically.

All of this brings me to the unprecedented situation today, the duality of war with what is clearly fractured support presenting a real military and political conundrum.  Few of us would question the reality of the global terrorist threat and consequently the War on Terrorism.  In that we are one, much as we were in WWII.  The other war is more reminiscent of Korea and Viet Nam.  The "why" we went to war in Iraq has been muddled by the mixed messages of the very Administration that advocated it.  The ever changing rationale: the threat of (ultimately elusive) WMD's, links to Al Qaeda (unsubstantiated) , freeing what may be considered an arbitrarily selected group of oppressed (there are so many around the world), bringing democracy to an unruly region, and the ever present elephant in the room — huge oil reserves, makes for a nation divided.  It's hard to define for what cause and reason all these young kids are dying or being damaged for life.  Knowing our limited attention span and how well we have been trained to avoid complexities, the two very different wars are being portrayed as of the same cloth.  That is, excuse the expression, a real stretch.  Absent full support, not to mention a pretty well defined and understandable cause around which we can collectively rally, history suggests a problematic prognosis.

From that perspective, even if we fail in a foreign war of questionable purpose, it is unlikely to do us long term damage.  Certainly not for those of us who are risking and sacrificing absolutely nothing, not even a little butter or gasoline.  It's ugly, tragic, but in the scheme of things, sadly inconsequential.  Losing the other war, the real war about which we have no doubt and where the enemy isn't armed with phantom weapons, but with committed human time bombs of real destruction, could be disastrous.  Losing that war could claim life as we have grown to know it.  If there was any time in which we needed focus and unambiguous purpose it is now.  Duality, mixing metaphors, won't do it.  It could, in fact, do us in.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Whole Truth

Perhaps the most credible words out of George Tenet's mouth at the 9/11 hearings were his confession to have been primarily concerned about keeping his job during the transition in late 2000.  He's been a good solider ever since and, given the many reasons that he probably should have been sacked, one can't help but wonder why he's still in place.  Perhaps he is protected by what we might now describe as the O'Neill/Clarke factor.  Experienced public officials talk after leaving the Bush team, and they don't seem to have such good things to say about either its character or intentions.  If we are to believe Clarke, and why shouldn't we, Tenet, his public utterances notwithstanding, may harbor his own doubts about the machinations in the Bush land.  Let's have none of that, thank you.

What strikes me is the degree of mendacity in our government, often in the form of routine spin, to which Richard Clarke himself admitted, under oath, being a party.  "Put the best face on things" are the routine marching orders.  Smooth the edges of truth which, I'm sad to say, while taken to new heights these days are hardly the modus operandi of a single party.  People in high places skirt the truth and talk out of at least two sides of their mouths.  Is it any wonder that such a large percentage of Americans have given up on voting? 

Our government officials are also habitually disingenuous.  Watching these hearings in the context of Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Yassin, followed by various sanctimonious expressions of outrage and "concern", I was struck by how desperately we were looking for an opportunity to "take out" Osama bin Laden in 2000.  I continue to think the Israeli's are taking the wrong approach in their conflict with Palestinians, but let's not pretend their policy of assassination is unique.  We'd love to have the leaders of Al Qaeda in our missile sights.  Remember how the Iraq war started a few days early because our "intelligence" told the President that there was an opportunity to take Saddam out?  Why can't people be straight with us, treat us like grownups?

The answer is pretty clear.  Truth telling raises serious questions and that is something they simply can't have.  Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill seem to be pretty candid fellows, both somewhat painfully disillusioned about the process and probably most by their complicity in it.  Clarke even apologized to 9/11 families for having failed them.  Now that's something different.  Hearing them is almost like listing to the confessions of recovering alcoholics at their first AA meetings.  Those still addicted to power don't like this kind of behavior, this straying from the reservation.  They have tried to discredit or at best to marginalize these two men.  I pray that decent Americans will see through this charade. 

The months ahead will be important for our country and for the world which is so much in our powerful hands.  We need a change, and with it straight talk.  Howard Dean had that capacity, even in telling us that we weren't any safer with Saddam's capture (something with which Clarke agrees).  It scared the hell out of everyone including the voters which is probably the most depressing part of his implosion.  But it's early and John Kerry has a great opportunity to truly herald a change in substance as well as in form.  Remember Robert Kennedy and the "why not" question?  Indeed, a little truth for a change, why not?

Friday, March 12, 2004

On hearing the news from

On hearing the news from Madrid, the first words out of my son were, "oh, it's the eleventh."  I'd been listening to the dreadful reports for more than two hours by then and no one had mentioned that numerological connection.  I don't know if it is more than a coincidence, but there certainly is an eerie similarity.  Violence in a beautiful city, the home of Picasso's monumental Gurernica, mirroring violence in my own, home of the United Nations founded on the idea of world peace.  They don't yet know if it was ETA or Al Qaeda, though some believe the Spanish government, one day away from elections, won't say because perceived home grown terror will be more beneficial for them at the ballot box.  Politics injecting itself into tragedy, now that's something new.

As it happens, I am reading Jessica Stern's fascinating book, "Terror in the Name of God."  That Terrorism is our number one global problem is a truism that's fast becoming a cliché.  George Bush talks of little else. Tony Blair delivered an impassioned speech yesterday in which he decried Madrid and vowed that we would not be frightened, but would aggressively defend our way of life.  He's not alone in thinking that force is needed to meet these gross acts.  I'm not naïve enough to believe we or anyone else, so hurt, can easily hold back from military retaliation.  But I don't think this tit for tat really works.  In the end, it is more a tactical quick fix rather than a long term viable strategy for success.  If you need any proof of the futility of retaliative force, simply look at the Israelis who, after years of using it, are now building a Berlin-like wall to keep the bad guys out.  The irony of history.

If we are really facing a totally new kind of threat, we must begin to develop a totally new approach.  New doesn't mean 21st century smart bombs, state of the art detection or better trained dogs with highly sensitive noses.  Surely, we need all those things to protect ourselves, but they are not going to win the war.  We've been told over an over that this is a different kind of enemy, one that is obviously confusing the hell out of us.  The military, on whom we rely, are trying to adjust, trying to find a point of reference.  But they may be looking in the wrong place.  If we want to fight terrorism, we have to look not at the battlefield but at the source of what led us to it.  In the late 1960's American waged two wars: Viet Nam that has taken on an almost iconic nature and the War on Poverty that is both out of sight and mind.  I didn't participate in the first, but was an active soldier in the second, the one that may provide the best reference point for the current situation.

Reading Professor Stern's book one is reminded once again that most of the foot soldiers in the terrorist armies come from the worst social circumstances.  Sure there is an absence of democracy in their world, but most of all there is unimaginable poverty and despair.  They live in a hopeless environment in which no one really cares if they live or die, where humiliation, not personal pride, prevails.  If there was any time for a new War on Poverty, a contemporary Marshall Plan, it is today. 

Perhaps I'm dreaming but think about this.  How different would our world look if instead of letting Orthodox militants build settlements, the government of Israel had poured all that money into transforming slum infested refugee camps into decent dwelling places for Arabs on the West Bank?  What if, instead of sending tanks they had provided seed money to establish small businesses?  How many suicide bombers would have come out of those green garden neighborhoods, how many Palestinian recruits would have been lured from their productive jobs into Jihad?  Perhaps, I'm being simplistic; perhaps I'm out of touch with the real world.  Perhaps, but I don't think so.  I think this approach could have worked for Israel, wish that it had been tried.

I'm certainly not suggesting that Israel not having taken a different course makes all of this terrorism their fault.  That would be absolutely untrue.  I know talking about solutions is always easier than creating them in the face of a complex set of circumstances and conflicting interests.  What's happening today falls on all of our shoulders, reflects mistakes of countries much larger and certainly more powerful that Israel.  My point is, we better start thinking new thoughts, starting from new places and doing it soon.  There are West Banks all over the globe.  Just as Arabs in Gaza look with envy at the plush Jewish settlements in the midst of their distress, so too do the have-nots elsewhere look at our oases of perceived opulence.  They don't need our world view, but they do need a modicum of the comfort and the hope that we cherish so very much.  We in the West are doing well.  They need a piece of the action, and they need it now.  Making that happen may be the most effective way of moving past the eleventh.  What concerns me most is that, while avoiding fresh thinking, we are running out of time.

Saturday, March 6, 2004

It's a Good Thing

I'm distraught.  Really bummed out!  How can I face Thanksgiving and the other holidays without Martha to guide me?  How will I know how to set the perfect table, prepare the perfect meal?  I feel like a rudderless ship heading out to an unknown sea.  And then there are those dreams.  Scenes of Martha decorating a federal prison cell, convincing the Warden to let her have a go at the yard, have a few words with the mess hall cook.  Perhaps she can make him into a chef.  Perhaps she can make it all perfect which, after all, would be "a good thing."

People love Martha, people hate Martha; few are neutral.  Her conviction of a crime most lovers and haters believe she committed is seen as another metaphor for a world of excess gone awry.  A strong statement that no one, even iconic Martha, is above the law.  All true, but in some ways all at the periphery.  When you watch Martha demonstrate and pontificate on TV, you can't help thinking that no one, least of all yourself, could get it that perfect — every time.  And that includes Martha.  There is a large staff behind her to insure that illusion of perfection.  No matter.  The whole idea here is aspirational, not what we can reach but what we hope to accomplish.  That's the problem.

It isn't merely that this illusionary perfection doesn't exist it is that, in a deeper sense, it just isn't human.  I consider myself a pretty good cook, but perfection simply isn't in the cards.  Certainly not Martha's kind of blemish-free perfection.  There is nothing like a good stew.  They say stews come from of a world of poverty which for many of us is not even a memory.  Yet stews remain popular because they are forgiving.  A little more onion. wine or whatever really doesn't matter.  So too with life which, if we want to survive its ups and downs, has to be forgiving.  Whether it's setting a table, making a meal, relating to one another, bringing up kids or doing our jobs, the perfect is not only unattainable, it's downright unattractive.  A little flaw in the diamond makes for the memorable, the real.

So goodbye dear Martha.  I know there will be appeals, attempts at rehabilitation, perhaps even a cookbook from jail (if it comes to that), but you're history.  Personally, that's sad.  I'm sure you're kicking yourself (hope you're kicking yourself) for a stupid act of greed.  But, regardless of what happens to you, the myth you have been selling is history.  To give you the last word, "that's a good thing."