Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Future of Journalism

Are newspapers about to go the way of the Pony Express, replaced by the faster, wider, longer reach of the Internet? Is blogging the future of journalism? I’ve been thinking about this a lot since retiring from a newspaper career and exploring the Internet in search of new possibilities for publishing my writing.

Modern American newspapers have lots of drawbacks. Few of them publish poetry, for instance, despite a lively history of enticing readers with poems by famous, local or justly whimsical poets. Decades ago, several of my poems were in major newspapers. These days, the Internet is a more realistic way of reaching poetry readers, although it doesn’t have the same heft as having a poem in the Chicago Sun-Times or New York Times.

Many newspapers are dropping or greatly reducing in-depth investigative or explanatory reporting. The latest trend at daily newspapers is to skip covering public meetings, given the downsizing of reporting staffs. The emphasis is on airplane and traffic accidents captured in dramatic photos and features about people doing something heartbreaking—such as losing their job—that busy readers hopefully will slow down enough to glance at, and get hooked by an adjacent advertisement.

“We need eye candy to hook readers’ eyes on the page,” an editor at a newspaper where I worked said at a staff meeting some years ago. This is nothing new. Newspaper editors since the days of “yellow journalism” have tried every gimmick they could think of to attract and retain readers—from raucous comics to outrageous political cartoons, juicy gossip columns to pinup photos of sexy gals. Yet 21st century Americans continue migrating to the Internet, which offers more of all of these attractions.

The question is whether blogs can provide the wide variety of news that newspapers traditionally delivered amid, and as a major part of, their eye candy. The Huffington Post and several other online news and commentary web sites are betting they can, with the idea of attracting sufficient advertising to pay staff. Online ad income so far is a backyard woodlot compared to the shrinking forest of newspaper ads.

The problem I foresee is that small, start-up blogs run by one person or a handful of people can’t sustain themselves. It takes a lot of effort to report news and write timely commentary. I helped a friend some years ago run an online magazine. The writers and editors volunteered their time, covering whatever personally interested them. Managing volunteers is quite different from issuing assignments to paid employees. After awhile, the web-magazine publisher got tired of trying to push volunteers to squeeze more time from their day jobs to compete week after week with print and online operations with paid staffs. He decided to go back to being a freelance journalist, writing for whatever publication he could sell on a story.

Yet, the idea that anybody with grit and gumption can start up a news and commentary operation is the history of American journalism. The future, I feel, is a fascinating work in progress.

(This article was also posted on

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays

And a Better New Year

Farewell 2008

As Ms. Cardinal says

in her favorite tree in the icy Finger Lakes:

“Global warming--ha!”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Culture Warriors

A military uniform is akin to a soldier’s skin festooned with tattoos, displaying eye-grabbing patches and campaign ribbons, a feisty advertisement of where this soldier/ sailor/ airman/ marine has been. Imagine what it takes to deliberately tear one’s war uniform apart.

“It was liberating,” says Drew Cameron, a former Army artilleryman who served in Iraq in 2003 during the ongoing war’s initial phases. Cameron was describing the sensation of slicing his desert camouflage uniform into shreds last year and turning it into handmade paper festooned with a silk screened poem that says, in part:

You are not my enemy
my brother my sister,
but I have done something wrong
and perhaps I am now yours.

You are not my enemy
you never were.
You are a part of me
as I am with you.

Cameron, 26, is a cofounder of the Combat Paper Project, which offers a very creative take on war memories. The idea is to gather a group of vets and college students to shred military uniforms into handmade “combat paper”—which is then inscribed with images or messages designed by the vets. Some of this work is on display in a collection of art and writings by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, titled Warrior Writers: Re-making Sense and in limited edition chapbooks and art portfolios printed on handmade paper that contains visible threads of uniforms.

“The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. … Reclaiming that association of subordination, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration,” says Cameron, who founded the project last year in Burlington, Vermont with fellow artist Drew Matott.

Cameron, Matott and a small band of fellow papermakers recently conducted a series of workshops and public events at Rutgers University, turning old uniforms into posters and pages for chapbooks of art and poetry. I went to the first of these workshops during the week of Veterans Day intending to spend a day and ended up returning all week, intrigued by the interaction of vets, students, art instructors and passersby.

“We’re making paper today out of veterans’ uniforms on Veterans Day, with real veterans,” Matott said to a curious circle of students and pedestrians who stopped near the entrance to Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in downtown New Brunswick, NJ, where a mobile papermaking work table had been set up. “There’s an opportunity of epic proportions for artists and activists to get together and work with veterans,” Matott, a professional papermaker and performance artist who teamed up with Cameron to take this idea around the country, said at another event.

“It’s phenomenal—marrying the medium to this message that’s not really talked about in our culture,” said Lisa Switalski, a papermaking specialist at Rutgers’ Judith K. and David J. Brodsky Center for Print and Paper, which hosted the Combat Paper workshops. “It’s a way of bringing people in, in a contemplative way.” Throughout the week, papermaking instructors, art students and veterans mingled in an informal sharing of ideas, skills and artistic visions. The veterans were invited to give art presentations and poetry readings in classes, at a prestigious papermaking center in New York City and at a peace concert on campus that drew hundreds of students.

“I was there to open the doors and to observe,” Anne McKeown, master papermaker at the Brodsky Center, wrote after hosting the Combat Paper participants. “The dance was theirs. It was slow and beautiful, fragile and spooky and heavy. To receive another gift of knowledge in understanding is what I received from the week. In healing one's self there can be calm and patience that is not in abundance in the northeastern United States world that I live in. How do these wounded and these ones in pain cause such deep peaceful calm while they search for their absolution? It is nothing I can touch, it is of the moment, maybe that is the gift of the revelation. I invited the encounter into my life, into the realm of the Brodsky Center Paper studio, I was touched and have the memory of the beauty of camaraderie and respect, of humor and fun and extreme sensitivity to the other's pain that does not need words.”

As a writer, I’m hard-pressed to explain this experience. Presented the opportunity to lop pieces off a desert warfare uniform, I found it very satisfying to disassemble with my hands and scissors an official symbol of military might. I wished I still had one of my Vietnam uniforms to slice up and throw into a papermaking mashing machine. Cutting pieces from a uniform donated by a more recent soldier reminded me how my transformation from soldier to civilian included creating with other veterans a poetry anthology titled Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. Putting to a new use a propaganda slogan of the war in Indochina, we pasted up the layout pages of poems and artwork by hand. It never occurred to us, though, to transform war uniforms into the paper our book was printed on.

Through Cameron and Matott’s efforts, Combat Paper workshops and their recycled works of art have appeared at numerous colleges and art galleries around the country in the past year. “Veterans of wars in Iraq, Viet Nam, World War II and Bosnia, have contributed so far,” Cameron wrote on the project’s web site. “From each new participant, I take a piece of fabric and mix it into the lineage pulp. This pulp is then mixed in with each new batch of pulp, so a little piece of each vet’s uniform is in every new piece of paper made.”

The biggest artistic impact may be on the vet who shed the uniform. “The Combat Paper Project gives vets a chance to fight back against their trauma — taking the horrors of war from the battlefield into the studio, sharing their experiences with other veterans, and remaking those experiences into something entirely new,” writer Julia Rappaport noted in a perceptive news report in the Boston Phoenix (“Scars & Stripes,” 9/25/08).

At the Rutgers’ workshop, a young Army veteran from Pennsylvania named Jen enthusiastically poured various colors of mashed up uniform fibers into a large papermaking bin to make a poster-size display of her mood: black, gray and blue swirls on a field of red. “It’s good to be with people where I don’t have to explain why I’m angry,” she said. Trying to convey why a young woman could be so bitter, she contributed to the Warrior Writers anthology, which noted that Jennifer Pacanowski served with a medical evacuation unit for a year in Iraq. “I have a huge gaping hole in my soul,” she wrote in a poem titled “Whose Soul Is That?”—which concluded with these chilling lines:

Emptiness is all you find where her loving soul used to be
Anger and hatred is now her contagious disease

Don’t ever look into her eyes

“We’re very good at constructing walls,” Cameron said of American culture during a Combat Paper Project presentation at Dieu Donne, a papermaking center in New York City. “Walls on our borders—or a wall in Baghdad where people used to come and shop. A large part of what we do with this project is tearing down walls, deconstructing walls.”

“We’re all going through many changes in this project,” added Eli Wright, a 27-year-old Army veteran from Colorado. “I was a medic. I enlisted in the military to save lives, not take them. … So the first friend I made in Iraq was confusion. In a detention center, I witnessed a fellow medic beat a prisoner. And I made friends with anger that night. … I made my third friend coming home, and that was shame. … I only had these three friends until I discovered this project. I finally found some new friends. … This project saves lives, it gives us direction—to find we can build bridges and tear down those walls and remake sense of our lives.”

Combat Paper art selections will be displayed at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions Annual Exhibition from Dec. 17 to Jan. 23 at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, 33 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, NJ. Closing reception, which is open to the public, is Thursday, January 22 from 3 to 7 pm. For further information: 732-932-2222 Ext. 838.

For more information on Combat Paper Project:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Moving Experience

After 30 years in the same town, I’m moving on. But it’s not easy uprooting the threads and memories that make a hometown.

I first saw Montclair one snowy day in 1978. My wife wanted to show me a sprawling Victorian house for sale in a spectacular town. We decided on the spot to move to this picturesque New Jersey suburb on a mountain slope with stunning views of the New York City skyline. Our sons grew up there in a rambling, rustic wood-shingled house designed by architect Stanford White’s Gilded Age firm and, as property taxes shot ever higher, in two smaller, yet memorable places when we made downsizing moves. I went from youthful pursuits to PTA dad to retirement in that eclectic community of old money, new money and lots of hard-working strivers. My wife died of cancer at home in the town she loved best. I’ve been a renter at yet another Montclair address in an apartment with a front window view of the high school marching band as it parades down the street, drums rattling an infectious beat, to the football field around the corner.

Yet it’s time to move on. Covering rent and heating costs of my large apartment in a drafty old house would have been dicey after I retired in June from my newspaper job. Then a letter arrived that the building is being sold, for the third time in a few years. With housing prices rising faster than my head can spin, and now in a tailspin, life in Montclair has gotten to be too much like the financial market gyrations for me.

As a retiree on Social Security, I could move anywhere I can afford. My kids live in California, but I have no desire to move across the continent. I spent some time at a friend’s mountain retreat in the Catskills, considering his offer to stay there and fix up an old artist’s studio on the forested property. But living alone come winter on a snow-bound mountain didn’t appeal to me. I considered the Ithaca area further west in New York state; my parents still live there and I love the Finger Lakes in summer. But I remember miserable snow storms and rainy weather most of the rest of the year when I was growing up there.

I spent some wonderful weekends in Philadelphia, hoping to woo a woman whose art work I admire. My courtship hopes didn’t work out. Neither did any of my other romantic encounters in these alleged golden years. But that’s another story. So I thought out a workable move for a widowed, single, reluctantly retired newsaholic who still wants to keep a hand in current affairs and rented a small apartment near New Brunswick, NJ, next to the Delaware & Raritan Canal (for kayaking) and Rutgers University (for graduate school studies and teaching writing courses).

I’ll miss Montclair. To ease the transition, I moved a car-load at a time the 30-some miles to South Bound Brook, over the course of more than a month, sorting through tons of stuff that a family accumulates over 30 years. That was exhausting. Right now, I can’t wait to get settled in the new digs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

National Service, or National Disgrace

Calls for national service boomed forth on 9/11’s anniversary of the World Trade Center attack. It was a feel-good-America moment. But in no time, the Bush administration shoved aside that quaint notion of do-gooder volunteerism with a more urgent demand—that taxpayers dig deep to deal with a new disaster in lower Manhattan, the meltdown of Wall Street. I have a modest proposal. Why not address these twin disasters with the same solution: Let the stock market wheelers and dealers volunteer their services for free to fix the financial mess that was made on their watch.

Indeed, why not enlist a bunch of those high risk-happy traders, put ‘em in uniform and send them to track down the evil doers who attacked the World Trade Center. What seems to be lost in the drunken party-that-crashed story reported from Wall Street is that there’s a war going on. And those tipsy revelers who played high-stakes games with other people’s money did more damage to the American/international economy than Osama bin Laden could ever dream of accomplishing by smacking down the World Trade Center buildings.

While thousands of American soldiers fought and died in futile searches across the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan for the elusive mastermind behind 9/11, the Wall Street crowd partied on, smashing the furniture and breaking the bank back home.

Predictably, every time an administration in Washington gets into trouble, it calls for national service. Facing a youth revolt against the military draft during the war in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara called for “every young person in the United States to give two years of service to his country, whether in one of the military services, in the Peace Corps or some other volunteer developmental work at home or abroad.” That was the centerpiece of McNamara’s address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1966 and in his 1968 book, The Essence of Security.

Four decades later, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and a host of other national figures are echoing the same theme. “We became a co-sponsor this year of a national service summit whose mission is to make national service a reality for all Americans,” Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine, wrote in a special issue titled “21 Ways to Fix Up America” that featured McCain and Obama on the front cover. In side by side essays, the presidential contenders call for increased volunteerism in military service and civilian projects. There was no mention of helping fix a fiscal crisis. Time’s very next cover story (9/29) was titled “How Wall Street Sold Out America.”

This raises a serious question as to who is serving the national interest. Volunteerism has indeed been crucial to creating and sustaining the society of community enterprises that Americans love and visitors admire. But Wall Street’s financial gambling dens are a very different kind of creation, where greed greases every move. Maybe it’s time to close down the “investment” gambling dens. Surely, it’s long past time for public-spirited, national financial experts to foster a climate of prudently managing people’s money in community banks and local credit unions. Let’s see the financiers rise to the challenge and invest themselves in national service.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Pawn's Story

Millions of Americans protested the war in Vietnam. Far fewer people took the brunt of government retaliation against war critics—including select conspiracy trials of people the feds said were particularly dangerous characters. The targeted enemies of the state included baby doctor author Benjamin Spock; the Catholic peace agitator-priests, the Berrigan brothers; a bevy of well-known radicals called the Chicago 7; and a handful of Vietnam veterans and supporters nobody ever heard of, called the Gainesville 8.

Amazingly, the latter group may well have played a big role in bringing down the Nixon administration and with it the last props of the war in Southeast Asia.

Such an outcome seemed unimaginable at the time, given the high-stakes chess endgame in which a few surrounded pawns appeared overwhelmed by the forces marshaled against them by a political master of the universe. In a stunning turnabout, the pawns won. The vets, charged with conspiracy to violently attack the 1972 Republican Party convention, were acquitted by a federal jury in Gainesville, Florida. Due to illegal actions designed to quash war protests, including the White House-authorized break-in of Democratic Party offices in the Watergate building in Washington, many of their tormentors in high places went to jail. Caught in a cover up of these criminal acts, Nixon resigned from office, after winning a second term in a landslide. A landslide greased by political dirty tricks.

For instance, one of the men arrested for breaking into the Democrats’ offices was James McCord, head of security for Nixon’s reelection committee. McCord testified to a Congressional committee and at his trial that he had received reports that Democratic staffers were plotting with violent radical groups, specifically VVAW. McCord cited the indictment of the Gainesville 8 as proof. “VVAW was thus the government’s alibi” for sending a midnight crew of CIA operatives to plant telephone bugs in the Democrats’ campaign offices, according to Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement. Republican campaign literature claimed that Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern glorified VVAW, whose members were described as “conspiring to blow up the Republican convention,” according to The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. These were the charges a jury rejected a year later, after hearing how the plans for violence were promoted by government informers.

That’s the background to a new memoir, Combat by Trial: An Odyssey with 20th Century Winter Soldiers, by Nancy Miller Saunders. Like the veterans she writes about, Saunders was one of the little people Nixon and his political fixers liked to torment and then shove off the table like toppled pawns.

“Even those of us who lived through the 1960s and early 1970s find it difficult to remember just how bad things were in this country with the war and movements for change tearing it to shreds,” writes Saunders, now retired from the University of Arkansas Press. At 591 pages, including endnotes, this is the heftiest self-published book, printed by iUniverse, I’ve ever encountered. It is an outstanding example, conveyed in a diary format, of telling the story of a social movement at the grassroots level.

“These veterans were a unique group. Never in United States history had US combat veterans, most of them volunteers, massed together in opposition to the war in which they had fought as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) were doing … I was on my way to help film their second major action. I had worked on the film of their first and been so deeply impressed by their disciplined determination to end the war, which had torn apart their lives as it was tearing the nation apart, that I jumped at the opportunity to film this action,” she writes. “I never dreamed that I was about to meet and fall in love with a veteran who would be targeted as a scapegoat” for Nixon’s dictatorial assaults on the Bill of Rights.

Saunders argues America is in a similar era of an imperial president waging a disastrous war and that lessons can be learned from how VVAW stood up to Nixon. “VVAW set a fine example for us to follow,” she writes.

Raised in an Ivy League academic family, with a Stanford degree in communications, Saunders recalls being very upset when her photo was taken by an intimidating plainclothes cop during a VVAW demonstration she was helping to document as part of an independent film crew. “I was shocked to realize that I was now a documented radical. I was doing what I had been brought up to believe I should do: stand up for what I knew was right. And for that I was being treated as if I were a criminal.”

Over the next couple of years, Saunders would have a ring-side seat as government agencies tried to destroy the growing antiwar veterans’ movement that she and other radicalized filmmakers documented in independent films (Different Sons and Winter Soldier). When she hooked up with a VVAW Southern regional organizer, Don Donner, she often found herself in the middle of the confrontation. This included facing the threat of arrest for camping on the Mall in Washington during VVAW’s Operation Dewey Canyon III, in a direct challenge of Nixon’s war policy; getting arrested with a group of vets gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to protest Nixon’s Christmas 1971 bombing of major cities in North Vietnam, and spending a night in jail; frantically trying to help the legal defense of the Gainesville 8 group of VVAW members and supporters, whose homes and personal lives were invaded by FBI informers and other police agents; and nearly going crazy with fear of a particularly loathsome informer who stalked her and, she contends, threatened to kill her. Adding to that frightening experience, Donner slept with a gun under his pillow, but was often away doing peace movement organizing in a hostile Deep South, leaving her to take up sleeping with a loaded pistol.

As this story unfolded, Saunders was taking notes, filming demonstrations and otherwise closely observing the interactions of angry veterans, arrogant officials, slippery government spies and sympathetic but often clueless supporters. “I was enrolled in a hard-knocks course on realities of human nature and going through one of those winnowing crises in which we discover how few people will stick by us through difficult times,” she wrote of those days. VVAW was coming apart at the seams in raging disputes over moderate versus radical politics, moderate versus radical civil disobedience tactics, enlisted men versus officers as lead organizers, as well as Southerners vs. Yankees, exacerbated by mistrust of one another as potential FBI informers. Yet, she notes, the vets set aside their differences to mount an on-going challenge to Nixon’s war policy and his harassment of war critics.

Yet angry veterans can be tough to live with, she found. Saunders broke up with Donner but persisted in lending her support to their cause. The indicted veterans—Scott Camil, John Kniffin, Alton Foss, Don Perdue, Peter Mahoney, Bill Patterson and Stan Michelsen—plus a supporter, John Briggs, often strongly disagreed over how to conduct their legal defense and their lives. Hot-headed as many of the vets were, they were very articulate in defense of their right to protest the war they survived, she noted.

“As our evidence will show VVAW, being among the most vocal and effective critics of the Nixon administration’s continuing escalation of the Indo-China war, was targeted for heavy infiltration throughout the country. Our evidence will show, this infiltration was not for the purpose of gathering information, but rather an elaborate attempt to provoke us into some acts of violence or crime, in order to discredit our non-violent activities,” Patterson, a former Army helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, said during the Gainesville 8 trial. The jury, which unanimously voted for acquittal on all counts, was clearly more impressed by the vets than by the prosecutors’ case.

Saunders notes she borrowed the title for her book from Patterson’s unfinished autobiography and relied on liberal use of his girl friend’s courtroom notes, Donner’s memoirs, interviews with other vets, newspaper coverage, FBI files and other books that reported elements of these events. “We were determined that one of us would publish this story. After he [Patterson] died of cancer, I believe from exposure to Agent Orange, the job became mine and I took his title,” she wrote.

For more information:
(“History You Never Knew: How I Caused Nixon's Resignation” by Peter Mahoney, a member of the Gainesville 8)

Jan Barry was a cofounder of VVAW in 1967 and wrote a magazine expose about the Watergate and VVAW connections in 1973.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sources Said

Where would journalists be without sources? While reporters get the bylines that win awards, their best sources often risk loss of a job. Reporters used to honor whistleblowers’ commitment by doing hard-hitting exposes. That relationship soured with the war in Iraq. Many sources these days are taking their stories straight to the public, because self-important journalists by and large ignore or belittle them.

That’s what’s happened with many whistleblowers who challenge the official version of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Bush apologists dominating television talk shows and newspaper op-ed pages, dissenters issue books and blogs to get past a virtual news censorship of informed criticism of the War on Terrorism. The infrequent exceptions to this pattern of the US media muzzling savvy watchdogs are stunning for being so rare.

“Because of the Bush administration’s highly successful propaganda campaigns and a huge media failure in the United States, most Americans didn’t realize until recently how often the Bush administration has violated domestic and international law,” Ann Wright, a former State Department official who resigned in protest the day before the invasion of Iraq began, wrote in the preface to her recently published book, Dissent: Voices of Conscience.

Susan Dixon coauthored this collection of profiles of a number of former US diplomats and soldiers who challenged Bush’s war policies at the cost of their careers. In an interview with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Dixon noted that “Much of what we know about the run-up to the Iraq war has come from whistleblowers. It’s also because of whistleblowers that Americans have learned about the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib, warrantless wiretapping in the U.S., etc. … The press can make the information so well-known that the administration cannot ignore it. As soon as CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast some of the photos from Abu Ghraib, the Bush Administration was forced to deal with the scandal.”

But the usual media pattern is to present war apologists as having the only acceptable position on the war. For instance, “On March 16, the New York Times presented a discussion of the Iraq War with ‘nine experts on military and foreign affairs’--all of whom supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq,” Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) noted on its web site in May.

“As FAIR asked in a March 17 Action Alert, why should the debate over the war … be restricted to those who made erroneous predictions about the invasion? FAIR supporters sent many emails to the paper, but we received no response. On May 4, the Week in Review section featured the exact same line-up of ‘experts,’ this time reacting to the fifth anniversary of George W. Bush's ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech. Thus, Times readers could hear from Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute--who, five years ago, penned an op-ed for USA Today (5/2/03) headlined ‘Relax, Celebrate Victory.’ The Times also shared the views of AEI's Danielle Pletka, who five years ago said on CNBC (5/2/03), ‘We just won a war in Iraq.’

“Over the course of the Iraq War, many commentators have pointed out that the pundits and analysts who pushed for the Iraq invasion in the first place are still dominant figures in the media debate over the war--as if the fact that they were wrong were unimportant, or even evidence of their seriousness.”

War critics of the sort in Wright’s book were left out of The New York Times’ gallery of experts, five years into a war that the administration had touted would be a swift victory. As Daniel Ellsberg noted in the book’s forward, these were professional diplomats and soldiers who were “amazingly prescient … about the course in Iraq they were criticizing internally before they left office.”

Resigning from a diplomatic post in Mongolia, Wright, who was previously a military reserve officer, wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell that she couldn’t uphold Bush’s war policies. “Much of the world considers our statements about Iraq as arrogant, untruthful, and masking a hidden agenda. … I strongly believe the probable response of many Arabs of the region and Muslims of the world if the U.S. enters Iraq without UNSC [United Nations Security Council] agreement will result in actions extraordinarily dangerous to America and Americans.” Several other diplomats and military officers made critical statements before the war started and in its early days that got minimal press attention.

The previous Middle East zone commander, retired General Anthony Zinni, for instance, cautioned Congress not to rush to war yet had to publish a book with celebrated military author Tom Clancy (Battle Ready) to get the news media to take his critical views seriously.

This news media pattern of downplaying dissent was tightly woven before the war began. As FAIR noted in February 2003, “A FAIR study examines all 393 on-camera sources appearing in stories about Iraq on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer beginning one week before and ending one week after Colin Powell's February 5 presentation at the U.N. The study finds that while war skeptics are rarely seen on the network newscasts, 76 percent of all sources were current or former government officials. At a time when 61 percent of respondents were telling CBS pollsters they felt the U.S. should ‘wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time,’ just 6 percent of U.S. sources were skeptics about the need for war. Just 3 of 393 sources were identified with anti-war activism.”

A month into the war, a major news media reference to Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector who challenged the administration’s war claims that it needed to eliminate what he maintained were non-existent weapons of mass destruction, was to call him a traitor: "Do you all remember Scott Ritter, you know, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector who played chief stooge for Saddam Hussein?” MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said (4/10/03), according to FAIR. “Well, Mr. Ritter actually told a French radio network that—quote, ‘The United States is going to leave Baghdad with its tail between its legs, defeated.’ Sorry, Scott. I think you've been chasing the wrong tail, again.”

Days later, The New York Times quoted Ritter in a news article titled “A Nation at War: Outlawed Weapons; Some Skeptics Say Arms Hunt Is Fruitless” (4/18/03) by William J. Broad, and then dropped him from future coverage. (A New York Times Magazine profile of Ritter in November 2002 painted him as a vainglorious self-promoter who made contradictory statements—a description that would fit many public figures.)

More than two years later, in Oct. 2005, Amy Goodman noted a stunning juxtaposition on her Democracy Now radio program: “In a major article in The New York Times this weekend, reporter Judith Miller admitted she was wrong when she wrote several of the key articles that claimed Iraq had an extensive weapons of mass destruction program ahead of the 2003 invasion. Miller wrote, ‘W.M.D.—I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them—we were all wrong.’

“Today we are joined by someone who was not wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq–-Scott Ritter,” Goodman continued. “He was the United Nations top weapons inspector in Iraq at UNSCOM between 1991 and 1998. Before working at the UN he served as an officer in the US marines and as a ballistic missile adviser to General Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf war. Scott Ritter has just published a new book titled Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein. The book details how the CIA manipulated and sabotaged the work of UN departments to achieve the foreign policy agenda of the United States in the Middle East.”

Miller’s correction statement in The New York Times included this zinger: "If your sources are wrong, you are wrong." Apparently, she and her editors had been content to stake her front page stories that turned out to be factually wrong on a limited set of war promoters and ignored knowledgeable critics.

The underlying message in such actions seems to be: If you know what’s going on at an out-of-control government program, don’t call a news reporter—write your own book.


Jan Barry is a retired newspaper reporter. His views are his own and get no more respect in the “news cycle” than anyone else’s. He got enlisted as a “reliable source” by reporters covering the 2004 election campaign once they found he could still recall protesting the Vietnam war back in the day alongside Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Support Our Peacemakers

In the face of widespread public disenchantment with the war in Iraq, “Support Our Troops” car stickers and banners defiantly proclaim a fierce sense of patriotism. So why don’t these supportive folks rally behind other national security figures? But when’s the last time you saw a “Support Our Diplomats” sticker or “Support Our Peace Corps” banner?

This is a serious disconnect in America.

Addressing the question of “what is America’s greatest moral failing,” raised by the Reverend Rick Warren at his recent church forum for presidential candidates, Senator McCain answered, "Perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest ... I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers, expand what you're doing."

McCain’s straight talk on that topic sure sounded inspiring. Did “Vote for McCain, Join the Peace Corps” signs pop up on Republican front lawns? Not that I noticed.

Senator Obama is said to have said something even more inspiring about the Peace Corps at a speech in Colorado last month—if you can find it, wherever it disappeared on the Internet. Here’s the closest I could find along those lines: “The Democratic Party platform … calls for a doubling in the size of the Peace Corps, and the creation of a volunteer Civilian Assistance Corps. It would be made up of engineers, agriculture specialists, doctors, city planners and other specialists to intervene in humanitarian emergencies in failed states,” Voice of America reported this week.

So have “Obama for President, Double the Peace Corps” signs popped up on Democrats’ lawns? Not that I’ve seen.

There’s a great disparity in the cheerleading for our front line foreign policy teams. Here’s the military team, fielding more than a million troops around the world, fighting two wars with multi-billion-dollar budgets and an open checkbook in Congress. Think they need the support of bumper stickers? And over here’s the Peace Corps, fielding 8,000 volunteers in dozens of countries on a paltry budget that faces a fiscal squeeze in Washington.

“The Peace Corps, the popular service program that President Bush once promised to double in size, is preparing to cut back on new volunteers and consolidate recruiting offices as it pares other costs amid an increasingly tight budget, according to agency officials,” The Washington Post reported today. “In part, the program is caught in the political standoff between lawmakers and the president over the federal budget. If, as seems likely, Democrats delay final passage of the spending bills that fund the government until after Bush leaves office next year, programs such as the Peace Corps could be forced to operate at current funding levels indefinitely, administration officials said.”

And what’s the big budget crisis at the Peace Corps? “The program, which has a budget of $330.8 million, is facing an anticipated shortfall of about $18 million this fiscal year and next,” The Washington Post reported. That’s a pittance, of course, in comparison to the $18 billion the Pentagon earmarked four years ago for reconstruction projects in Iraq that never seem to get completed.

The Peace Corps budget shortfall could easily be covered by recovering reported billing overcharges in the Pentagon budget. But when’s the last time you saw a banner on a fiscally proud American’s home that said “Support Our Pentagon Auditors”?

As for our embattled diplomats, consider this lament from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as channeled in The New York Times: “The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats. This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service. More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane,” New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote recently.

The source of Kristof’s stunning comparisons, he write, was the Secretary of Defense: “’One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,’ Mr. Gates said [in a recent speech]. He noted that the entire American diplomatic corps—about 6,500 people—is less than the staffing of a single aircraft carrier group, yet Congress isn’t interested in paying for a larger Foreign Service. ’It simply doesn’t have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs,’ Mr. Gates said. ‘As an example, the F-22 aircraft is produced by companies in 44 states; that’s 88 senators.’”

Given the sobering military stand-off the US is now engaged in with nuclear-armed Russia over hot button issues in the Republic of Georgia, maybe it’s high time to unfurl a new set of patriotic banners, large enough so they can see them all the way to Washington: “Get Serious—Support Our Peacemakers.”

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Attention Shoppers

There’s a man on television trying to get your attention. But he’s not trying to sell you a great new gadget or a snazzy new car. He’s trying to tell you something important about your buying habits. He’s saying people are hurting, people are dying, because our passion for amassing great collections of stuff is fueling the fires of war.

“We refuse to live within our means. We continue to think that the problems that beset the country are out there beyond our borders. And that if we deploy sufficient amount of American power we can fix those problems, and therefore things back here will continue as they have for decades,” this very distinguished-looking guy on TV said to Bill Moyers.

“The big problem … with the current crisis in American foreign policy, is that unless we do change our ways, the likelihood that our children, our grandchildren, the next generation is going to enjoy the opportunities that we've had, is very slight, because we're squandering our power. We are squandering our wealth.”

That’s Andrew J. Bacevich talking, summarizing the main point of his new book, The Limits of Power. That point, in a nutshell, is that our American way of life, which so much of humanity has been attracted or urged to emulate, is the engine of impending disaster.

“The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: They are of our own making,” writes Bacevich, a retired army colonel who teaches international relations at Boston University. “The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy [America’s] appetites has not kept pace with demand. As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders. Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life….

“With Americans, even in war time, refusing to curb their appetites,” he adds, “the Long War [in Iraq and Afghanistan] aggravates the economic contradictions that continue to produce debt and dependency…. The Iraq War deserves our attention as the clearest manifestation of these three crises, demonstrating the extent to which they are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. That war was always unnecessary. ... Of perhaps even greater significance, it is both counterproductive and unsustainable,” writes Bacevich, whose 27-year-old son died in a military operation in Iraq last year.

Bacevich, a West Pointer who fought in Vietnam, rejects the Bush administration’s claim that the war in Iraq is defending freedom and saving the world. "The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people," Bacevich writes, "is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad….

“Rather than insisting that the world accommodate the United States, Americans need to reassert control over their own destiny, ending their condition of dependency and abandoning their imperial delusions,” Bacevich states. “Of perhaps even greater difficulty, the combination of economic, political, and military crisis summons Americans to reexamine exactly what freedom entails. Soldiers cannot accomplish these tasks, nor should we expect politicians to do so. The onus of responsibility falls squarely on citizens.”

In his recent PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich added: “We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President's a failure and a disappoint—we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.”

But, having lost his son in a war to feed gas-guzzling American appetites, Bacevich is not letting the public wriggle off the hook. “We're going to have a long argument about the Iraq War. We, Americans. Not unlike the way we had a very long argument about the Vietnam War. In fact, maybe the argument about the Vietnam War continues to the present day. And that argument is going to … cause us, I hope, to ask serious questions about where this war came from.

“How did we come to be a nation in which we really thought that we could transform the greater Middle East with our army? What have been the costs that have been imposed on this country? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Some projections, two to three trillion dollars. Where is that money coming from? How else could it have been spent? For what? Who bears the burden?”

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Peace Correspondent

War correspondents have been all the rage in America for generations. News organizations love war coverage, even if what’s reported isn’t actually entirely true. “You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war," William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, telegraphed one of his soon-to-be famous correspondents in Cuba in 1898. We are again in a gilded age for war reports, with Russia invading the republic of Georgia—or was it Georgia attacked first?—just as the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going stale as old news.

But when’s the last time you read or heard anything by a peace correspondent? They sure don’t make the front page of the newspapers or get on national TV. Here’s a big reason why: “The newspapers get behind these wars,” Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist who teaches peace education courses, said on C-SPAN recently. “The [Washington] Post endorsed Vietnam. They endorsed Iraq. The New York Times endorsed going to Afghanistan.”

Here’s the difference war-supporting stances make in newsrooms. Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, McCarthy wrote a column in the Washington Post (4/19/03) pointing out that “the news divisions of NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox” had turned their news programs into platforms for gung-ho generals to tell the public we had to go to war and how to view the media pool images and reports by embedded journalists who could only report what military commanders approved. “Viewers are not told of possible conflicts of interest—that this general or that one is on the payroll of this or that military contractor,” McCarthy wrote.

Five years later, The New York Times informed its readers that the retired military commanders presented as news analysts on TV were working from a Pentagon script and also working for military contractors, in many cases. “Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks,” The New York Times noted in its belated expose, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.” (4/20/08).

So what would a peace correspondent do differently? Colman McCarthy is a good model. He poses pointed questions to newsroom gatekeepers. He writes about issues from a perspective that suggests there’s a lot more to the story than the Pentagon’s version. “Why were pacifists from such groups as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi USA, Peace Action, and the American Friends Service Committee not given airtime to counter the generals,” he wrote in the Washington Post in 2003. “Why were leaders from Veterans for Common Sense or Veterans Against the War in Iraq not brought in to offer their analysis and view: that what the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell-Wolfowitz war machine has been doing to the people of Iraq is brutal and criminal and that political, legal, and moral alternatives to violence exist?”

McCarthy also noted that covering “dissenting voices” can provide a vital window on what’s going on in our nation: “It was on C-SPAN, not the networks, that a three-hour antiwar forum aired on March 22 [2003] in which the director of Veterans for Peace said that hours after Congress endorsed a resolution to support the troops in Iraq it proposed cutting $25 billion from health, education, and disability programs for veterans.”

Colman McCarthy is not a household name on TV talk shows. But what he has to say about public education in America tells a lot about where the news media’s priorities are formed. Holding up a $100 bill on C-SPAN, he said no one has yet to win the history quiz he’s presented at schools around the country.

“I’ve done the quiz over a—hundreds of times, at teacher conferences, high school audiences. I always ask, ‘Who was Robert E. Lee?’ All hands go up. ‘Who was Ulysses S. Grant?’ All hands go up. ‘Who’s Paul Revere?’ They all get three for three. Then I say, ‘OK, all right. A hundred dollars. Here it is. Who was Emily Balch?’ Rarely does a hand go up.

“Emily Balch was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, taught at Wellesley College, founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Rarely does anybody know her. Then I ask who is Jeanette Rankin. I’m sure you know Jeanette Rankin. Only member of Congress to vote against First and Second World War. Then I say, ‘Who is Dorothy Day’—founder of the Catholic Worker. Very few know Dorothy.

“Every once in a while, someone will get five out of six, but no one has ever gotten all six. We know all about the men who break the peace, but not the women who make the peace.”

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So Where's Henry Kissinger?

Like many famous public figures, Henry Kissinger says preventing nuclear war is a top priority. So why’s it left to local activists to do the heavy lifting?

This past weekend, about 75 people spent Saturday afternoon in a church in Dover, NJ to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing that destroyed Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945 and discuss how to organize grassroots action to help get traction for a long-standing campaign to dismantle the nuclear arsenals that could destroy life as we know it. I’ve attended similar meetings, in big cities and in small towns, since the 1960s. In the 1980s, I went to the Soviet Union as part of a grassroots-organized citizen diplomacy campaign that helped to end the Cold War. Now we’re in another dangerous era of waging war in the backyard of riled up nations with nuclear weapons.

So where was Henry Kissinger on Saturday? According to news reports, the former secretary of state was at the Olympic games in Beijing with President Bush. Did they discuss nuclear disarmament with the leaders of China, Russia and other nuclear-armed nations whose star athletes were gathered there to participate in peaceful competition? Nothing of the sort appeared in the news. Instead, the news was full of reports of nuclear-armed Russia invading neighboring Georgia, US and coalition troops battling in Afghanistan along the border of nuclear-armed Pakistan, while Russian and US officials rebuked each other.

And where was George Schultz, another former secretary of state, and other dignitaries who signed a letter with Kissinger in the Wall Street Journal calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons? Whatever Schultz was doing Saturday, which did not make the news, he’s weighed in on this issue from time to time.

In and out of office, these former high ranking officials have had the ear of presidents who could have ordered a stand down of the deployment of nuclear missiles, bombers and submarines. I doubt that Kissinger needs the moral support of 75 people at a church in Dover, NJ to advise Bush to order the Pentagon to get serious about honoring agreements hammered out nearly two decades ago, when Bush’s father was president, to end the Cold War and wind down the threat of nuclear war.

Is it possible that Kissinger doesn’t get listened to when he speaks to this President Bush on the topic of nuclear weapons? Maybe that’s why Kissinger signed that letter in the Wall Street Journal, to send a message to the military-industrial complex chieftains who have both ears of presidents. But that letter, which ran in January—like a previous joint statement the same group issued in January 2007—apparently didn’t light a fire under anyone in Washington. Whatever it takes to communicate with this White House, Kissinger’s expertise is needed on this topic. Kissinger previously advised a president (Nixon) who wanted to nuke Vietnam but instead settled for a political bombshell and reached out to China and the Soviet Union to reduce tensions that could have triggered a nuclear war. Kissinger can speak from direct experience on the dangers nuclear weapons pose to America and how to negotiate with adversaries to lessen those dangers.

So if Kissinger is getting nowhere talking to Bush about abolishing nuclear weapons, why isn’t he out speaking in churches and temples to drum up public support in places like Dover, NJ? (The largest employer in the heavily Republican area is Picatinny Arsenal, where nuclear missile warheads were developed, among other weapons.) Why aren’t Kissinger and his fellow heavy hitters out speaking at Rotary and Chamber of Commerce lunches in other places where the nuclear weapons industry is big business? If abolishing the threat of nuclear war is so vital to the future of America and the rest of the world, why aren’t they out there with local activists making their case to the public?

For more information:

Jan Barry is the author of The Great Challenge: How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War (1986), A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns (2000), and other works on civic activism.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Declare the War Over

The official hidden history of our disastrous war in Vietnam was leaked to the news media in a purloined document called the Pentagon Papers. The damning truth about America’s disastrous war on terrorism has just been made public in a press release.

“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon contractor on national defense research, concluded in a comprehensive study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world. Specifically, US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are not working, the study concluded.

“Current U.S. strategy against the terrorist group al Qaida has not been successful in significantly undermining the group's capabilities, according to a new RAND Corporation study issued today,” the California-based research company stated in a press release dated July 29. “Al Qaida has been involved in more terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, than it was during its prior history and the group's attacks since then have spanned an increasingly broader range of targets in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, according to researchers.

“In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism,’ researchers concluded.”

A better term would be "counterterrorism," the RAND study advised. "The term we use to describe our strategy toward terrorists is important, because it affects what kinds of forces you use," Seth Jones, the study’s lead author, said. "Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism."

On its web site, RAND bluntly summarized what it found:

“All terrorist groups eventually end. But how do they end? The evidence since 1968 indicates that most groups have ended because (1) they joined the political process (43 percent) or (2) local police and intelligence agencies arrested or killed key members (40 percent). Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame have achieved victory. This has significant implications for dealing with al Qa'ida and suggests fundamentally rethinking post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism strategy: … The authors conclude that policing and intelligence, rather than military force, should form the backbone of U.S. efforts against al Qa'ida. And U.S. policymakers should end the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism’ since there is no battlefield solution to defeating al Qa'ida.”

The RAND report echoes public statements by numerous retired military officers, diplomats and veterans who argued against waging war on Iraq before that war was launched, and in the aftermath of the March 2003 invasion. Some US military commanders in Iraq came to a similar conclusion three years ago, according to a June 13, 2005 Knight Ridder report: “Baghdad - A growing number of senior American military officers in Iraq have concluded that there is no long-term military solution to an insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis and more than 1,700 U.S. military personnel during the past two years. …

"I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that... this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations," Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week, in a comment that echoes what other senior officers say. "It's going to be settled in the political process."

When the Pentagon Papers were published in 1971 by The New York Times and other newspapers, most Americans learned for the first time what many Vietnam veterans had been saying for years—that there was no military solution to the social and political issues we were trying to bomb into submission in Southeast Asia. Folk singer Phil Ochs, among other critics of that war, pointed to the way out in a popular song: "Declare the war is over." Now the Pentagon’s top think tank is saying there is no military way to stop suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s time, the RAND study advises, to wind down military operations and turn the job over to the police of tracking down violent extremists, while politicians work on addressing legitimate grievances and social concerns in the Middle East.

For further information:

Thursday, July 24, 2008

War Stories

Growing up, I was fascinated by war stories. None of them prepared me for the Vietnam war, where I grew into adulthood as a soldier and then as a veteran protesting the war. That’s because of how war stories are generally presented in America: War is hell, but it’s the only proper way of peacemaking in a rough world.

It’s hard for veterans with another view to get heard in this country. It takes a lot of perseverance. It means telling shocking accounts to often skeptical audiences of ill-conceived missions that waste soldiers’ lives, of counter-productive actions against civilians, whose outraged relatives then seek revenge, escalating the level of violence. It means enduring accusations of making it up, of being unpatriotic. It means being your own reporter and presenting documentation and other witnesses, as well as your commentary. It means being ignored or rebuffed by news organizations, more often than not.

Fed up with news coverage of the current war, many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are going public to tell their own stories. Some want to call attention to heroic and humanitarian deeds, which they contend demonstrate America’s commitment to fighting the good fight against bad guys. Others want to unveil horrendous deeds, which they contend undermine the good deeds and official claims of protecting civilians trapped in war zones that our military actions created. Upbeat war stories generally run as feature stories and then get overshadowed by headlines and photos of the next bombing or disputed battle. The bitter war stories are a harder sell in newsrooms, because they are far more chilling than editors are comfortable with.

Consider the recent Winter Soldier hearings at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland. “The BBC predicted that the event, organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, ‘could be dominating the headlines around the word this week’ (3/7/08)…Yet there has been an almost complete media blackout on this historic news event in the U.S. corporate media,” noted Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) after the four-day event in March.

The Washington Post buried an account in the local news section. The major TV networks ignored this grassroots challenge to the official version of the war on terrorism, presented by “scores of angry young combat veterans denouncing the war they recently fought as a disaster kindled by inadequate vision, with American troops wasted while being pushed to commit acts that scarred them,” said a report on the hearings in The VVA Veteran, published by Vietnam Veterans of America.

Former soldiers told of repeated incidents, sparked by what they were trained to do, of GI’s in supply conveys and patrols shooting up civilian cars that share the same roadways, even driving on sidewalks and hitting anyone in the way. They told of repeatedly being ordered to break into people’s homes in futile searches for insurgents and terrorizing families whose sons and fathers were dragged out of their beds and hauled off for interrogation. They told of repeated abuse of men, women and children held in custody. They told of living with nightmares of their own actions.

“The veterans are not against the military and seek not to indict it – instead they seek to shine a light on the bigger picture: that the Abu Ghraib prison regime and the Haditha massacre of innocent Iraqis are not isolated incidents perpetrated by ‘bad seeds’ as the military suggests, but evidence of an endemic problem,” The Sunday Times Magazine of London reported in a cover story on the veterans’ searing accounts. “Some see it as their responsibility to speak out … They believe that, as veterans, they are the most credible sources of information. They say they were put in immoral and often illegal positions.”

These are the violence-scorched voices of veterans that most of the American news media ignored in previous wars, as well. But times have changed since the TV networks and major newspapers shied from accounts of repeated military assaults on civilians in Vietnam, conveyed by Vietnam veterans in hearings around the country and before Congress. This time, the “harrowing testimony about atrocities,” as FAIR put it, was carried live on the Internet and widely broadcast on independent TV and radio.

“These are the stories you never hear in the paper,” a woman watching a live screening of the Winter Soldier hearings shown at a Unitarian Church in Cambridge, Mass., told a Boston Globe reporter. “It’s really powerful to hear from the veterans.”

Yet some speakers at the hearings in Maryland told the same horrendous accounts four years ago at a Veterans for Peace convention in Boston. Organizers of that 2004 event—which I reported on at the time in an Internet newsletter—sought news media coverage of the newly-formed Iraq Veterans Against the War. Many of these veterans were subsequently featured three years later in a Nation magazine cover story titled “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness.”

These accounts and others are presented in a new book, Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, published by Nation Books. Hedges, who wrote the Iraq vets’ story in The Nation, is a former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times; Al-Arian, a freelancer whose work has appeared in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. So far, according to a Google search, the most substantial media notice of this book appeared in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah.

“It is an unapologetic ‘expose of a military occupation gone awry.’" says Deseret News book reviewer Dennis Lythgoe. “The authors discuss how the mechanics of war — home raids, convoys, patrols, detentions and military checkpoints — lead to abuse and the killing of innocent people.” After summarizing some nightmarish incidents, Lythgoe concludes, “This represents just a small part of the stories contained in this disturbing but well-written book about the damages of war that journalists don't usually cover.”

Hedges, who wrote two previous books on the ugly reality of modern warfare, which he covered as a war correspondent, addresses this disconnect in Collateral Damage. “The press coverage of the war in Iraq rarely exposes the twisted pathology of this war,” he writes. Part of it has to do with reporters “hemmed in by drivers and translators and official security and military escorts” not being present during most military actions, when ferocious gunfire can abruptly erupt amid mid-day civilian traffic or in a residential home subjected to a night time raid.

“The campaign against a mostly invisible enemy, many veterans said, has given rise to a culture of terror and hatred among U.S. forces, many of whom … have in effect declared war on all Iraqis,” Hedges wrote in a summary of his interviews with 50 disillusioned veterans of military operations in Iraq. That sort of attitude is not likely to be shared with news reporters by publicity minded military escorts. Another reason reporters in Iraq seldom stray from the officially approved version of events, Hedges maintains, is self-censorship in order to stay on the good side of military escorts: “Most reporters know that the invasion and the occupation have been a catastrophe. They know the Iraqis do not want us [there]. … But the press, or at least most of it, has lost the passion, the outrage, and the sense of mission that once drove reporters to defy authority and tell the truth.”

Hedges also faults editors, who make the final decisions. Perhaps the biggest reason for lack of coverage of what he calls “the vast enterprise of industrial slaughter unleashed in Iraq” by Americans wielding machine guns, grenade launchers, heavy artillery, rockets and bombs from helicopters and airplanes in city neighborhoods and rural villages is that news editors, he argues, have lost interest in the war. “As the war sours, as it no longer fits into the mythical narrative of us as liberators and victors, it is fading from view. The cable news shows that packaged and sold us the war have stopped covering it,” he noted, while newspapers “have shut down their Baghdad bureaus.”

Still, there are ways to reach the public. When the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings held in Detroit, Michigan, got scant news coverage outside the Midwest, hundreds of Vietnam veterans took their war stories to Washington. They set up an encampment to talk with members of Congress, passersby and anybody else who would listen. What they had to say as they marched around from government office to government office set off such a confrontation with the Nixon administration it became an instant national news story.

Months later, a small group of Vietnam veterans published a book (Winning Hearts & Minds) that told exceedingly grim war stories in poems—many of which quickly appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country and, within a few years, in American history books.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are following a similar route and making wide use of the Internet, as well. A sampling of their stories was published earlier this year in Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense, a Collection of Artwork by Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. “This writing is raw, edgy and meant to shock readers into feeling what it’s like, for an instant, to be in a soldier’s skin when war memories intrude into civilian life,” I wrote in the book’s introduction.

For further information:

Jan Barry is a veteran of war zones and newsrooms and coeditor of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, among other works.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Oily Times

What would Ida Tarbell make of today’s global oil cartels? A century ago, Tarbell’s relentless reporting in magazine articles and a book sparked antitrust actions by state and federal officials to break up the oil market monopoly headed by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.

Today, news organizations and governments seem clueless as to how the market system works that has created an international financial crisis. Rather than getting to the bottom of who is causing gasoline prices to skyrocket, Congress is debating which lands and sea beds to open for more drilling, which might produce some more oil years from now or hasten the end of the era of burning underground fossil residue for fuel. News editors seem more interested in documenting the latest lurch in gasoline prices and their corrosive effect on the cost of living than in dispatching reporters to uncover what’s going on.

In the early 1900s, Ida Tarbell’s “Standard Oil expose, bolstered by [her] Rockefeller character sketch, spawned reform efforts within the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, the White House, and governor’s mansions. It led to precedent-shattering court rulings as well as populist movements,” noted Steve Weinberg in a new look at that distant, yet not dissimilar era. Weinberg is an investigative reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Missouri. His recently published book is titled Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (W.W. Norton & Co., 304 pp.).

The muckraking legacy created by Tarbell and other pioneering investigative journalists is hard to find in current reporting on the latest oil outrage. A Google search on “oil prices” churned through pages of repetitive, surface-skimming news items on the ups and downs of exceedingly costly oil. Then a beacon of light appeared in a local news report in the Malden (Mass.) Observer on the steep rise of home heating fuel costs, which was investigated by a state legislative committee:

“The state senate’s report, ‘Running on Empty,’ places much of the blame on excessive speculation in the oil futures markets. Unregulated trading and market manipulation, the report says, add $25 to $50 per barrel to the price of oil,” reporter Rob Barry noted in the July 16 news story.

“The necessary trade regulations were removed by what is commonly referred to as the ‘Enron Loophole,’ a piece of legislation created by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which President Bill Clinton signed in December 2000.An attempt to reverse this legislation was vetoed by President George W. Bush earlier this year.

“’Tighter control on speculators and market manipulation could immediately reduce fuel prices by 25 percent,’ said Michael Greenberger, former director of the Division of Trading and Marketing at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.”

Given such oily manipulation wreaking havoc on Americans’ wallets, here’s the extent of official action that the Malden reporter could find: “As oil prices skyrocket, legislators nationwide are asking for more money” from Congress for state heating assistance funds.

Ida Tarbell is likely spinning in her grave. “Reading Tarbell’s expose of the Standard Oil Company is a remarkable experience; in many ways it seems that it could have been composed only yesterday, not more than a century ago,” Weinberg marveled. Yet, despite the scores of probing journalists that Weinberg and others taught at Investigative Reporters and Editors workshops, most of today’s economically battered news business seems devoid of the moral outrage over manipulation of the nation’s pocketbook expenses that Tarbell conveyed to readers of her day.

“Rockefeller, according to Tarbell’s evidence, ‘has introduced into business a spy system of the most odious character. He has turned commerce from a peaceful pursuit to war, and honeycombed it with cruel and corrupt practice, turned competition from honorable emulation to cutthroat struggle,’” Weinberg noted, quoting from her portrayal of the original oil tycoon, who amassed enormous wealth from rigging the costs of oil delivered through a regulation-skirting monopoly to hard-pressed customers.

Tarbell relentlessly uncovered how Rockefeller’s secretive business system worked, traveling great distances to read lawsuits and interview informants. “Starting with court testimony and other statements from independent oil producers over a thirty-year period and bolstered by information from Standard Oil insiders, Tarbell pieced together a corporate espionage saga perhaps greater than anything previously perpetrated by a government,” Weinberg found.

The thrust of Weinberg’s book is that Tarbell “invented a new form of journalism” in a robber baron era that was largely covered by slap-dash, sensationalistic reporting on police blotter crimes and manufactured celebrities. Paying homage to such a legacy of probing for the hidden hand whipsawing the price of a vital commodity, he suggests, is exceedingly timely.

Alive at 65

After an astonishingly long run, I’m retiring from the life of a daily newspaper reporter. This was my day job so I could write poetry. But it got all mixed up: News became the main theme of my poetry; poetry snuck into my journalism. To borrow from a highway safety campaign that I generally ignored, given some recent health bumps and the frenetic pace of the Internet-challenged news business, I’m slowing down to the speed limit.

The company announcement succinctly tells the story:

Record reporter Jan Barry is “retiring into his next career”– teaching and writing – at the end of the month. Last semester he moonlighted as an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University and three years ago he was NJMG’s Journalist-in-Residence at Rutgers University. Jan has had a long affiliation with The Record: his first job out of the Army, returning from Vietnam in the mid-’60s, was that of library clerk. He returned to us briefly as a correspondent in the early ’80s, but it wasn’t until 1987 that he joined us as a full-time reporter in the Passaic/Morris Bureau. He won several awards for The Record, including a Community Service award from the Society of Silurians for exposing how government inefficiency and political maneuvering polluted the state’s water quality. He was also a point reporter and key contributor on The Record’s acclaimed “Toxic Legacy” investigative series. “It’s been a memorable career and provided the underpinning for my other endeavors in teaching and writing books and poetry,” Jan said. He is the author of Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems and A Citizen’s Guide to Grass-Roots Campaigns.

My first gig as a news reporter was in the summer of 1976, when I applied for a job as a municipal correspondent at the Morristown (NJ) Daily Record. I was just completing my second poetry anthology (Demilitarized Zones: Veterans after Vietnam) and needed a better income than poetry readings provided. I’d also decided I needed to learn the discipline of newspaper writing. I discovered that I enjoyed the hectic, eclectic nature of newspaper reporting. Over the course of 30 years—with some time out for other pursuits—I wrote thousands of news articles. Here’s one of my favorites:

Positively relentless in saving Highlands
Women's Clubs used old-style diplomacy

By Jan Barry, Staff Writer

When it comes to saving North Jersey's environment, a group of women has proven that some crusading techniques are timeless.

As legislators strode into the State House last week for a session that included a vote on the Highlands preservation bill, the halls were lined by environmental lobbyists - familiar faces from the Sierra Club and the activist Highlands Coalition. But among the most persistent at spurring passage of the Highlands legislation, by all accounts, were members of the New Jersey State Federation of Women's Clubs.

As it happens, just the night before, the organization was honored for its role more than a century ago in helping save the Hudson River Palisades from quarry blasters.

"If it were not for the New Jersey Federation of Women's Clubs, we would not be here," Carol Ash, executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, said at a tribute dinner Wednesday at the Ross Dock park house at the base of the Palisades in Fort Lee.

Ash also lauded the group for waging a similar effort to save the core watershed lands of the Highlands from development.

That effort, two of its leaders said, involved mobilizing the group's 305 clubs and 14,000 members in New Jersey to politely but persistently contact state officials by letter, e-mail, telephone, fax, and in face-to-face talks.

"One hundred years ago, [women's club leaders] Cecilia Gaines and Elizabeth Vermilye kind of invented the wheel when it came to demonstrating women's organized strength. We just replicated that," said Ann Quinn, the immediate past state president of the federation.

"It appeared to work all over again," she said after witnessing Thursday's vote for the Highlands bill by a sweeping majority of legislators.

The Highlands bill, which Governor McGreevey will sign shortly, will sharply restrict development on critical lands near reservoirs and feeder streams that provide water to millions of state residents. The mountainous area, which has been under severe development pressures, stretches from northern Bergen County down to Hunterdon County's farmlands.

"We all stood up and cheered," Quinn said of the crowd in the galleries of the Senate and Assembly, as the Highlands bill passed by wide margins. "So many groups worked on this for so long, it was like 'Wow, it really happened!'-"

David Epstein, a member of McGreevey's Highlands Task Force, called the women's clubs the "bedrock" of the Highlands effort.

"They are so unassuming, so courteous, and yet they are so tenacious and passionate about protecting the environment," said Epstein, executive director of the Morris Land Conservancy.

"They did so much of the legwork to get this done. They were at every single hearing; they were lobbying in the halls," he said. "Their approach is always so friendly and courteous, you can't help but be taken by the positive attitude they bring to this."

Curtis Fisher, a policy adviser to Governor McGreevey, described the group's lobbying approach. "I was at an event with my boss. The federation grabbed him and said 'the Highlands, the Highlands, the Highlands!' They kept calling me, attending hearings all across New Jersey - the federation was there, raising the flag for protecting the Highlands."

Quinn, who spent Thursday buttonholing legislators after testifying month after month at hearings, credited the federation's legislative chairman, Patty Whitehouse, with organizing the lobbying effort.

"She was the one who coordinated everything. She did a vast amount of work," Quinn said. Whitehouse, a Peapack-Gladstone resident of the Highlands who recently became a vice president of the state federation, said she copied the 1897-1900 letter-writing campaign used to spur New Jersey and New York officials to save the Palisades.

"And we used some new techniques," Whitehouse confided. "E-mail and telephones!"

(The Record, Bergen Co., NJ 6/13/04)

Learning Curve

Life is often not a straight line, but a lot of twists and turns. In high school, I couldn’t wait until the end of classes to get outside—to play sports, roam the countryside beyond our town and then the wider world. I was an antsy student. Now I’m working on ways of bringing what I’ve learned out in the world into classrooms.

This spring, I taught investigative journalism to graduate students at New York University, learning as much from the experience as I hopefully contributed. The final product of the course can be seen at One of the students, Jonathan Starkey, summarized their work well in an introduction to the class project:

“For weeks, a group of student-reporters at New York University set out to understand and describe skyscraper safety in New York in the post-September 11, 2001 era. The product became the stories you see posted here. Members of Prof. Jan Barry’s Investigations in Depth class looked into everything from the width of stairwells in commercial buildings to evacuation procedures, from problems in high-rise residential buildings to recent construction-related deaths in the city. New Yorkers, visitors to the city and workers want to be safe not just inside buildings, but also while walking by buildings and working on the buildings. The 15-part report was produced by a diverse group of student-reporters (see bios after each story) over the course of a semester. We hope these stories will add substance to the discussion about skyscraper safety in New York City.”

My students and I learned a great deal about this topic, which I proposed after walking upon the site of the horrendous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire (now part of the NYU campus)—where desperate workers trapped in a fire jumped out windows to their deaths. I wondered if high-rises in New York are any safer today in the wake of the 9/11 horror, where desperate workers trapped in fires at the World Trade Center towers jumped out windows to their deaths.

I learned from the NYU students, fellow professors and well-versed guest speakers helpful ways to improve my classroom skills. Students also showed me how to create and manage a blog that provides much more interaction and multi-media materials than my ancient Authors Guild web site (which is in the process of being updated).

I learned many other things, as well…such as it takes about 40 minutes to walk from the NJ Transit train platform in Penn Station to NYU’s Department of Journalism off Cooper Square. And in those 40 minutes of fast walking every Friday morning, I traveled back through 40 years of memories to when I lived in that part of New York, in my mid-20s, in a very different stage of my life.

In 1968, I was a West Point dropout with a checkered academic history of attending classes at five institutions of higher education in three states without getting close to receiving a bachelor’s degree. I couldn’t sit still in college classrooms. I walked off the first campus to join the Army and see the world. After a war tour in Vietnam, the Army sent me to West Point. But I couldn’t sit still there either and resigned from the military academy to seek an alternative to senseless wars. I took classes at three more colleges, but none had the kind of course—how to change the world—that I was looking for.

So by the spring of 1968, fed up with formal education, I tried to directly reform America’s addiction to war, as an unpublished writer and fledgling peace activist working out of a Lower East Side tenement apartment, squeaking by on a low-paid job as a filing clerk at the New York Public Library. Without much money, I walked a lot of pavement. That hard-scrabble pavement is still there. Another constant in the city’s ever changing skyline are the flocks of young people who come to the Big Apple seeking big things in their lives.

Back in the day, working with other Vietnam veterans, peace activists, writers and the woman who became my life partner, I learned how to focus my energies, set goals and get projects done—including poetry anthologies and other creative activities that helped shift public sentiment on the war in Vietnam. In an era when reporters learned their craft by running out the door and reporting whatever was going on, I then forged a career in journalism, learning by daily trials and errors and the guidance of good editors. Once I decided on what I wanted to learn in more depth, I returned to college and got a B.A. in political science and wrote a book on how to organize a grassroots social change campaign.

Much to my amazement, I’ve gotten astonishingly diverse invitations over the years to talk to activists, journalists and students from grade school to college on how to tackle tough issues in ways that hopefully make a difference. Those talks led to teaching college courses.

But I’m still wary of the traditional academic approach to teaching the elements of public life in America. Despite the civics books and the history books, not to mention the Constitution of the United States, the biggest barriers to getting vital information and acting on that information are those set up by bureaucrats and politicians—graduates often of the finest institutions of higher education—who prefer that ordinary people not participate in American democracy. That’s where civic activism and civic journalism come in, to give voice to affected citizens’ concerns. But grassroots citizen action gets less attention in the academic world than the traditional levers of power.

To convey citizens’ concerns effectively, I found, requires doing sound research, wide networking and a well-focused presentation; skills that are honed by seasoned activists, journalists and sympathetic government officials in the heat of doing a project. It requires getting out of the classroom/newsroom/office, interacting with people who are addressing an issue and applying analytical skills to systematically explore what’s going on and what’s being done about it.

Figuring this out took me on a long learning curve—one that I’m still on.