Monday, December 7, 2009

Disastrous Lessons

Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to escalate U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, despite public statements that he sought no wider war, destroyed his political career. John F. Kennedy’s decision to veto hawkish generals and advisors and wage a secretive, low-key counterinsurgency campaign—which included approving a military coup that killed the American-installed president of South Vietnam and his hard-to-control brother—eerily foreshadowed JFK’s own assassination in office.

Now a new president has dramatically signed off on a major military escalation of what was a long-simmering insurgency in a distant Asian land. In announcing his decision in a televised speech at the U.S. Military Academy, President Obama assured the world that, unlike the ill-fated war in Vietnam, his military surge plan is the best option for concluding the eight-year-long war in Afghanistan, while saving an embattled American-backed government that has waning local support in battling a relentless insurgency.

The new plan is a slam dunk, it was revealed to reporters, because Obama and his advisors learned how to avoid the pitfalls of the past by reading books such as Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.

So far, the main lesson that Obama and his war cabinet seems to have absorbed from Goldstein’s book is how Johnson stage-managed a White House debate among advisors in 1965 to arrive at a plan to send a large contingent of combat forces he’d already approved through back door dealings with generals. LBJ got furious with Bundy when the former Harvard dean went on national television to debate war policy with leading academic critics of escalation.

“Johnson wanted to create the illusion of a deliberative process,” Bundy, who was Kennedy and Johnson’s national security advisor, recalled decades later. “He wanted the record to be every argument was made and every voice was heard.” LBJ, however, had already made it clear that he wasn’t about to negotiate with the North Vietnamese, so that option wasn’t seriously considered in the “debate” that quickly narrowed in on how many U.S. ground combat units to send in conjunction with an escalated bombing campaign. Johnson had already determined how many troops his field commander wanted as a minimum, and that was the number his war cabinet agreed was just about right.

“Political stagecraft,” Goldstein called it, based on Bundy’s notes and recollections.

Consider the Obama version, as reported in The New York Times: “The president welcomed a full range of opinions and invited contrary points of view,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview last month. “And I thought it was a very healthy experience because people took him up on it. And one thing we didn’t want — to have a decision made and then have somebody say, ‘Oh, by the way.’ No, come forward now or forever hold your peace.” But the only critic of the military plan that was the main focus of discussion—a request by the field commander for 40,000 more troops, more or less—was Vice President Biden, who argued for a lower profile counterinsurgency campaign with a focus on Al Qaeda leaders hiding out amid the Taliban in Pakistan. Negotiating with the insurgent Pashtun clans that make up the bulk of the Taliban who live on both sides of the border and have been fighting outsiders for centuries apparently never got serious consideration.

“Mr. Biden asked tough questions about whether there was any intelligence showing that the Taliban posed a threat to American territory,” The New York Times reported. “But Mr. Obama also firmly closed the door on any withdrawal. ‘I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan,’ he told his advisers.”

During the months Obama was reviewing the war he inherited, he declined requests to meet with representatives of civic groups that argue for withdrawing U.S. troops from combat missions in Afghanistan’s mountains. A delegation from Military Families Speak Out got a meeting with White House aides in August, brokered by a New Jersey congressman, but never was invited back for a meeting with Obama.

“The American people want safety and security, as do the people of Iraq and Afghanistan,” MFSO leaders wrote in a recently released Open Letter to President Obama. “But we don’t believe these wars are helping to achieve these goals. The more we bring bombs and guns into Afghanistan, the more civilian casualties there are and the more our troops are seen as occupiers rather than liberators. … Please do not be the one to dash our hope for an end to these wars; for the swift and safe return of our troops; and for a new foreign policy that truly respects the lives of our service members who volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way, as well as the lives of children, women and men of other countries who are caught in the crossfire.”

In ducking out on meeting with families of soldiers and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are seeking a change in foreign policy, Obama made it absolutely clear he wasn’t going to even consider a peace plan. And like LBJ, Obama preferred a closed-door debate on narrow grounds of how many more troops to dispatch into a long, grinding war, rather than a public debate of all potential options.

As The New York Times dryly noted:

“And in another twist, Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of transparency and had been announcing each Situation Room meeting publicly and even releasing pictures, was livid that details of the discussions were leaking out.

“‘What I’m not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room,’ he scolded his advisers. ‘It’s a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.’

“His advisers sat in uncomfortable silence. That very afternoon, someone leaked word of a cable sent by Ambassador Eikenberry from Kabul expressing reservations about a large buildup of forces as long as the Karzai government remained unreformed. At one of their meetings, General Petraeus had told Mr. Obama to think of elements of the Karzai government like “a crime syndicate.” Ambassador Eikenberry was suggesting, in effect, that America could not get in bed with the mob.

“The leak of Ambassador Eikenberry’s Nov. 6 cable stirred another storm within the administration because the cable had been requested by the White House.”

Eikenberry, a retired general, stated that he felt a U.S. military buildup could make things worse if the government in Kabul doesn’t improve. Maybe he read the bottom line lesson of Vietnam that McGeorge Bundy arrived at in hindsight: the decision Kennedy made every time his generals called for bailing out the floundering regime in South Vietnam with the U.S. cavalry and Marines. “Kennedy firmly and steadily refused to authorize the commitment of ground combat troops—in that quite decisive sense, he never made Vietnam an American war,” Bundy wrote in notes before his death in 1996.

No doubt, a book is already being written tracking how Obama’s war works out.

For more information:
Lessons in Disaster
How Obama Came to Plan for 'Surge' in Afghanistan
U.S. Envoy Urges Caution on Forces for Afghanistan
Military Families Speak Out

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ending War

Army Captain Paul K. Chappell attended West Point with an usual goal, "determined to study war the way a doctor studies an illness." What he found in his studies and in a war tour in Iraq was a pragmatic way of envisioning what it would take to create a cure for war fever. "In the U.S. Army, as in ancient Greece, the most admired trait in soldiers is not their ability to kill but their willingness to sacrifice for their friends," Chappell notes in his new book, Will War Ever End? A Soldier's Vision of Peace for the 21st Century (Ashoka Books, 2009). His book argues that soldiers and folks at home, in order to protect each other, should mount a concerted campaign to wind down warmaking, due to the massively deadly threat of military escalation in the nuclear age. A better way of dealing with international disputes, he contends, is to adapt nonviolent tactics to produce conflict resolution that de-escalates violence.

In an essay titled "How Patriotism Can Save America," posted earlier this year on The Huffington Post and other websites, Chappell summed up his call for peace actions in terms that echo the stance of Veterans For Peace and other antiwar vets groups: "With the survival of our planet now at stake, our country needs patriotic Americans to question, think critically, and pioneer this democratic experiment. Now more than ever, our country needs us to help it become a beacon of hope that exports peace instead of war." Chappell, who served seven years on active duty after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 2002, is the Peace Leadership Director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

In his book, Chappell argues that the war on terrorism "can never be won with an army alone, because terrorism is not a place we can occupy or a dictator we can overthrow." He also notes "how multiple deployments have pushed many soldiers to the breaking point." He argues that military actions are stoking the hatred fueling angry people who use terrorism as a tactic in fighting for their beliefs and causes. "If we are going to win the war on terrorism ... the United States will require many more soldiers, and not just soldiers who are armed with guns. ... During the challenging years ahead, our planet will need soldiers of peace who understand this truth of our brotherhood, because our survival in an interconnected world will not depend upon our ability to wage war. The fate of humanity will depend upon our willingness to wage peace."

Chappell grew up in a military family, where his view of war's widespread consequences was shaped by his father's raging threats to shoot himself. His mother, he adds, grew up in Japan during World War II and then moved to Korea, where her family endured the Korean War, where Chappell's father began a 30-year military career, which also included combat in Vietnam. "Throughout my childhood, I watched my father lose his grip on reality ... Rage overshadowed his once peaceful nature, and when I heard him complain about violent nightmares, I realized that something called war had taken my gentle father from me ... when I was a teenager, I wanted to know if war will ever end."

At West Point, Chappell studied peacemakers as well as warmakers. Gandhi, he discovered, was a British army medic during the Boer War in South Africa, where he took close measure of the British military culture that he outmanuevered to gain India's independence with a nonviolent campaign. Chappell found that some other West Pointers had come to the same conclusion as Gandhi. His book quotes General Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address as president, in which he warned that "another war could utterly destroy this civilization" and that people must learn "to compose differences" without war.

Chappell found a model for banishing war in the 19th century campaigns to ban slavery. "Slavery existed on a global scale for thousands of years, but due to the courageous actions of our ancestors who fought this injustice, no country today sanctions slavery. Together we have the capacity to create a world where countries no longer sanction war."

He was struck by how hard the military has had to work to train and prod soldiers to fight a battle, rather than flee for safety. This is proof, he argues, that humans don't have a gene for waging wars. And he took note of General Omar Bradley's comment after leading armies in World War II: "Modern war visits destruction on the victor and the vanquished alike. Our only complete assurance of surviving World War III is to halt it before it starts." Reflecting on his own military career, which started at West Point and spanned two world wars, Bradley stated, in a 1948 Memorial Day speech: "Wars can be prevented just as surely as they are provoked."

In the foreword to Will War Ever End?, Lt. Col. (ret.) Dave Grossman noted "there is cause to hope, and believe, that there can be an end to war. The West has won the Cold War without resorting to mega-death ... In recent years we have exercised the choice to step back from the brink of nuclear destruction." Chappell is currently finishing a sequel titled The End of War, designed to offer what Grossman calls a "toolbox" of information on peace actions.

For more information:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum and at the Chicago Sun-Times.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Veterans Day Talk

On November 11, 1918, my grandfather
on my father’s side was on a stateside dock
with his Army unit about to ship out
to fight in France,
when word was received
that the war had just ended.

Armistice Day, they called it.
Sometimes you’re lucky in war;
sometimes not.

On November 11, 1944, my mother’s
brother was killed in a Navy dive bomber
that crashed into the sea in a battle
near the Philippines.
There was no armistice
that Armistice Day.

Surviving war is no guarantee it’s over.
Never know when something from the war
may catch you unawares. A flare up,
a flashback, a smell from a bad day long ago.

With two bitterly contested wars churning out
more wounded, more dead, more veterans,
there’s still no armistice
on Armistice Day.

Veterans Day, they call it now—
as though all those war emotions
can be contained in a holiday.

In Vietnam, I was a Boy Scout
turned into Army radio specialist.
A communications breakdown
in a war zone can be fatal.
Communications failure among veterans
and our support network
of family and friends
can also have scary consequences.

That’s what we need to talk about today,
after the parades, the bagpipes,
the drums and trumpets, the bugle calls,
the solemn speeches, the moment
of silence, the hearty drinks at the bar—
when memories of war
still intrude into our dreams, our lives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dying on the Home Front

An estimated 2,200 U.S. military veterans died last year because they lacked private health insurance or access to VA health care, a study by a Harvard Medical School research team found. In contrast, there were 155 combat deaths among U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2008, the researchers noted.

“On this Veterans Day we should not only honor the nearly 500 soldiers who have died this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the more than 2,200 veterans who were killed by our broken health insurance system,” Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, said in releasing the report this week.

Himmelstein added that the proposed health care reforms being considered by Congress would do little to change the situation for veterans too young for Medicare, not making enough to afford private health insurance and not eligible for VA care, which is restricted to military service-related health problems. “These unnecessary deaths will continue under the legislation now before the House and Senate. Those bills would do virtually nothing for the uninsured until 2013, and leave at least 17 million uninsured over the long run,” he said.

“Like other uninsured Americans, most uninsured vets are working people – too poor to afford private coverage but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or means-tested VA care,” said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a Harvard Medical School professor who coauthored the study. “As a result, veterans go without the care they need every day in the U.S., and thousands die each year. It’s a disgrace.”

The Harvard study analyzed the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2009 Current Population Survey data on Americans asked about insurance coverage and veteran status. It found 1,461,615 military veterans between ages 18 and 64 were uninsured nor received health care by the Veterans Administration in 2008. That includes about 10 percent of Vietnam era veterans aged 55 to 64.

Based on a recently published report in the American Journal of Public Health that found being uninsured raises the odds of dying by 40 percent, causing nearly 45,000 deaths in the United States annually among those aged 17 to 64, the researchers estimated there were 2,266 preventable deaths among uninsured veterans in 2008. More than half that estimated death toll was among Vietnam veterans aged 55 to 64.

The Harvard study on veterans followed an earlier study of health data on all Americans called “Health Insurance and Mortality in U.S. Adults,” published in September in the online edition of the American Journal of Public Health. These studies are pointed to by Physicians for a National Health Program as reasons for health care system reform.

Dr. Andrew Wilper, who worked on the larger Harvard Medical School study and now teaches at the University of Washington Medical School, said, “The uninsured have a higher risk of death when compared to the privately insured, even after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors and baseline health. We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from hypertension, diabetes and heart disease — but only if patients can get into our offices and afford their medications.”

Dr. Woolhandler, co-author of both studies and a primary care physician in Cambridge, Mass., noted: “Historically, every other developed nation has achieved universal health care through some form of nonprofit national health insurance. Our failure to do so means that all Americans pay higher health care costs, and 45,000 pay with their lives” annually.

For more information:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Veterans Day Town Meetings

On some issues that affect me personally, I do what I can to advocate for public education and sensible courses of action. Having lost a number of friends to the Vietnam war and its aftermath, this for me is a big one. What follows is a combination news release and resources list for war-injured veterans and families.

A drumbeat of recent news reports has called attention to rising rates of suicide among soldiers, post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hardships of military families facing multiple deployments to war zones. How communities can help address these often shattering effects of war is the focus of public forums in several cities on or around Veterans Day.

In Hoboken, NJ, the Nov. 11 event is being held at the high school under the sponsorship of Mayor Dawn Zimmer and the Board of Education. It features a showing of “Leave No Soldier,” a documentary by Donna Bassin about veterans helping one another deal with troubling war legacies; a staged reading from a new play, “Flashback,” by Penny Coleman, about the emotional turmoil in families of veterans who killed themselves; and a panel discussion of veterans and counselors with the audience.

“It is important that we honor our veterans and remember the sacrifices they have made to preserve our freedom and our way of life,” said Zimmer. “Equally important is our support as they transition themselves back to their families and society after months or years of serving their country.”

Similar events are being held at the City Library in Manchester, NH; First Unitarian Church in Ithaca, NY; Cable Car Cinema in Providence, RI; Rutgers Prep School in Sussex, NJ, and First Unitarian Church in New Orleans, LA. The events were organized by local civic organizations—including Military Families Speak Out, Veterans For Peace, Pax Christi, Unitarians, municipal officials and students at a private school—as part of the Veterans Day Town Meeting Project. The project is directed by Donna Bassin and Jan Barry, coeditor of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans and a founder of one of the first Vietnam veteran support groups.

“Supporting our troops requires more than welcoming them home, but also listening and responding to their concerns,” Bassin said in offering her film for showings at Veterans Day town meetings. “A big concern for many soldiers and their families is how to handle the transition back to civilian life. A big concern for many older veterans and their loved ones is how to handle the emotional distress of flashbacks set off by current events.

“Among the most emotional of times for war veterans is Veterans Day,” she continued. “Community support is not complicated, but requires a welcoming space where veterans and family members can speak candidly and get feedback, and perhaps useful information and contacts, from a supportive audience.”

“Leave No Soldier,” directed and produced by Bassin, documents emotional journeys by two groups of veterans—Rolling Thunder, Inc. and Veterans For Peace/Iraq Veterans Against the War—that transformed a military oath from the battlefield to social activism. The two groups are divided by their politics, but united in devotion to their pledge to “leave no fallen soldier behind.” Bassin is a psychologist who aided 9/11 rescue workers and survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

“Flashback” was created by Penny Coleman, Elana Michelson and Patricia Lee Stotter based on the book, Flashback, by Coleman. It explores issues of post-traumatic stress injuries from the point of view of widows of Vietnam veterans who committed suicide.

Veterans Day Town Meeting events:

Nov. 5, 6 p.m. -- City Library, 405 Pine Street, Manchester, NH
Nov. 7, 7 p.m. -- First Unitarian Church, 306 N. Aurora St., Ithaca, NY
Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m. -- Hoboken High School, 800 Clinton St., Hoboken, NJ
Nov. 11, 7 p.m. -- Rutgers Prep School, Easton Ave., Somerset, NJ
Nov. 11, 7 p.m. -- Rhode Island Association of Psychoanalytic Psychologies, at Cable Car Cinema, 204 South Main St., Providence, RI
Nov. 11, 7 p.m. -- First Unitarian Universalist Church, 5212 South Claiborne Avenue, New Orleans, LA

For further information:

Vets and Family Resources List
Coming Home Project is a non-profit organization providing care, support and stress management tools for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.
Give an Hour asks mental health professionals to donate an hour a week to provide free mental health services to military personnel and their families.
National Veterans Foundation provides assistance and advice by veterans with experience from Vietnam to Iraq, trained in crisis management for PTSD and suicide prevention.
Service Women’s Action Network promotes services for women in the military and women veterans.
The Soldiers Project offers free psychological treatment to military service members and veterans of OEF and OIF, as well as members of their families and other loved ones.
Veterans for America sponsors Wounded Warrior Outreach Program and “The American Veterans’ and Servicemembers’ Survival Guide.”
Veterans Health Council, sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America, provides information on health issues and programs for veterans and families.
Vets4Vets is a non-partisan veteran organization dedicated to helping Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans through the use of peer support.
Welcome Back Veterans is a Major League Baseball-sponsored project to help find jobs and job training for returning veterans and to raise funds for mental-health programs.
Wounded Warrior Project offers services to help injured veterans cope with combat stress or trauma.
War Related Illness and Injury Study Center in NJ is one of three VA centers that provide medical evaluations and information on difficult health problems from military service.
My HealtheVet is the gateway to health benefits and services at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
VA Vet Centers provide readjustment counseling and outreach services to veterans of any combat zone. Services are also available for family members for military related issues.
New Jersey Veterans Helpline Program -- 866-VETNJ4 (838-7654) -- provides free, confidential peer counseling and referrals for treatment to NJ soldiers and families.
Gateway to four nonprofit sites that offer PTSD information and resources, including the National Center for PTSD.
PTSD support site created by a Vietnam vet on how to navigate the VA system.
Veterans of Foreign Wars outreach on PTSD, how to contact the VA’s Vet Centers nationwide and VFW service officers for assistance.
Combat PTSD blog featuring research, news, resources, and events for returning veterans coping with post-combat reintegration issues.
Brain Injury Association of New York State’s Traumatic Brain Injury Training and Military Veteran’s Services Project is a resource for providers and families on the symptoms of and treatment for TBI.
Brain Injury Association of New Jersey helps returning military personnel and their families with information, support, resources, and training about traumatic brain injury.
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is a non-profit organization that offers grief support services to military families facing the loss of a loved one.

Complied by Veterans Day Town Meeting Project

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Duty, Honor, Dissent

Matthew Hoh took a Foreign Service job in Afghanistan determined to make a difference in a key part of America’s war on terrorism. After trying to carry out the U.S. mission plan for Afghanistan, he resigned in a letter that may be far more meaningful than any other action one can take on behalf of his country. When he felt that his actions and those around him were counterproductive and making things worse, he spoke out.

“A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed,” The Washington Post reported this week. “But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the White House, Hoh, 36, became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency. …

“As the White House deliberates over whether to deploy more troops, Hoh said he decided to speak out publicly because ‘I want people in Iowa, people in Arkansas, people in Arizona, to call their congressman and say, 'Listen, I don't think this is right.'"

Hoh’s reasons for resigning were spelled out in a four-page letter to the State Department, which The Washington Post displayed on its web site.

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan,” he wrote Sept. 10. “I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."

Hoh’s letter makes several telling points, including that the insurgents are mainly local tribes fighting against what they see as a corrupt government backed by a foreign army. “Next fall, the United States’ occupation will equal in length the Soviet Union’s own physical involvement in Afghanistan,” he noted. “Like the Soviets, we continue to secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people.”

Perhaps his most telling point is to reveal a candid view of the war that apparently is not being reported up through the official chain of command, and certainly not being conveyed to the American people.

“’We are spending ourselves into oblivion,’ a very talented and intelligent commander, one of America’s best, briefs every visitor, staff delegation and senior officer,” Hoh wrote. “We are mortgaging our Nation’s economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years. Success and victory, whatever they may mean, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory.”

For the former Marine officer, the bottom line of his reasons for speaking out is that our troops are fighting and dying or getting grievously wounded for an impossible mission.

“Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds, some that will never heal or will only worsen with time,” he wrote. “The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.”

For more information:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Winding Down Wars—And Ramping Up Real National Security

The warning signs have been flashing for some time. Waging two wars in distant parts of the world simultaneously is unsustainable. Yet American leaders seem to have no clear-cut plan for winding down military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, from Baltimore to Detroit to New Orleans to many other cities and towns, once vibrant neighborhoods and business districts are ghost towns or pockmarked with derelict buildings and destitute people. A spreading blight of unemployment is impoverishing millions more families. A fixation on military maneuvers as national security priorities has blinded national leaders to the hollowed-out state of so much of the nation the U.S. government was designed to protect.

A big problem is that the United States has a checkered record at winding down wars and fostering a sustainable peacetime. After World War I, the U.S. Senate famously balked at supporting international efforts to create a climate of peaceful cooperation in Europe. Barely 20 years later, fueled by the economic chaos of the Great Depression, World War II broke out among the same militaristic nations that battered each other in World War I. More than 60 years after the bitter end of World War II, Europe is at peace thanks to U.S. policies such as the Marshall Plan. But the U.S. military is still stationed in the long-ago defeated nations—Germany, Japan and Italy, which are doing very well as peaceful societies—plus at scores of far-flung bases around the world.

In the name of national security, the U.S. is waging its second war in Iraq in the space of a few years. It’s waging war in Afghanistan against hostile Islamic groups not long after paying many of these same groups to chase the Soviets out of Afghanistan. At the same time, the U.S. is perennially engaged in belligerent disputes with North Korea—where we previously fought a stalemated war—and with Iran, which not long ago fought a war with the U.S.-backed Iraq regime that the U.S. subsequently invaded.

Yet despite America’s bristling array of military forces around the world, 19 young men from the Middle East slipped through these defenses in hijacked airliners and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and blew up part of U.S. military headquarters at the Pentagon. The instigator of the 9/11 attacks was trained by U.S. agencies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, according to investigators. Apparently, Osama bin Laden’s aim was to provoke the U.S. to chase him around Afghanistan, which has a history of mauling invading armies. His motive was anger at U.S. military bases near Muslim religious centers in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after its army was battered in Afghanistan played into this calculation that the U.S. could be up-ended by being sucked into a drawn-out war. This devious ploy got a boost when the U.S. also invaded Iraq, another part of the world that has bedeviled invaders.

While Washington power-brokers and presidential candidates debated fine-tuning troop levels in two multi-billion-dollar warfronts that have dragged on longer than World War II, the U.S. economy nearly collapsed. Yet even as it rushed to bail out Wall Street banks and bankrupt automakers with billions in borrowed money, Obama’s new administration appears intent on pursuing essentially the same war policies as were conducted by past administrations.

“American policy seems to be wed to a perpetual state of war. Why?” cultural critic Camille Paglia noted in a recent column. “History shows that the world will always be in flux or turmoil, with different peoples competing for visibility and power. The U.S. cannot fix the fate of every nation. In many long-embattled regions, there are internal processes at work that simply must play themselves out. We are overextended abroad and committing financial suicide at home. The escalating national debt is our enemy within. Fanatical jihadism will continue to be a tactical problem, but its attacks, however devastating, will always be sporadic and local. Jihadism cannot destroy the U.S. But our own reckless politicians, spending us into oblivion and servitude to China, can.”

Before the bottom fell out of the economy, historian Andrew Bacevich warned that the U.S. faced an impending economic crisis while wasting precious time and money fighting ill-conceived wars.

In a comparison that may unsettle many conservatives and liberals, Bacevich argues in a recent issue of The American Conservative magazine that the U.S. is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet empire abruptly dissolved “the best minds in Washington proceeded to devise policies incorporating all the worst features of the Soviet policies that had hurtled the Soviet Union toward self-destruction. The Bush administration committed U.S. troops to what quickly became a costly, open-ended war, beginning in Afghanistan, then shifting to Iraq, then reverting in the Obama era back to Afghanistan. Like the Politburo of olden days, our political elites remain oblivious to the possibility that the real threats to the American empire might be internal: an economy in shambles and basic institutions wallowing in dysfunction.”

In a recent article in Commonweal magazine, Bacevich further warned that “If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself. Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: ‘Come home, America.’ The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on ‘the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.’ Dr. King’s list of evils may need a bit of tweaking—in our own day, the sins requiring expiation number more than three. Yet in his insistence that we first heal ourselves, King remains today the prophet we ignore at our peril.”

Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam, teaches international relations and history at Boston University. His son was killed on an Army mission in Iraq in 2007. He argues that few if any officials in Washington learned the real lessons of 9/11.

“The events of September 11, 2001, ostensibly occurred because we ignored Afghanistan. Preventing the recurrence of those events, therefore, requires that we fix the place,” Bacevich wrote. “Yet this widely accepted line of reasoning overlooks the primary reason why the 9/11 conspiracy succeeded: federal, state, and local agencies responsible for basic security fell down on the job, failing to install even minimally adequate security measures in the nation’s airports. The national-security apparatus wasn’t paying attention—indeed, it ignored or downplayed all sorts of warning signs, not least of all Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States. ... Averting a recurrence of that awful day does not require the semipermanent occupation and pacification of distant countries like Afghanistan. Rather, it requires that the United States erect and maintain robust defenses.”

Maintaining robust defenses at home, vital as that is, will provide little comfort however to tens of millions of Americans under assault by economic shock waves. National security needs to be expanded from a military mantra to encompass building a sustainable economy to support a robust nation. So what can we do about it? For starters, check out Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power (Metropolitan Books, 2008).

“Bacevich describes an America beset by three crises: a crisis of profligacy, a crisis in politics and a crisis in the military,” wrote Washington Post reviewer Robert Kaiser. “The profligacy is easily described: What was, even in the author's youth several decades ago, a thrifty society whose exports far outdistanced its imports has become a nation of debtors by every measure. Consumption has become the great American preoccupation, and consumption of imported oil the great chink in our national armor.”

For further information:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Health Care Red Tape

It's a term directed derisively at government bureaucracy, often accompanied by copious cursing. But something's happened with health care as administered by private insurance companies that can only be described as [expletive deleted] red tape. Here's a recent example that's astounding, given the rip-roaring national debate as to whether private insurers or government can provide the best service at the best cost.

I went to switch dentists, since I've moved to a different area than where I was living. First I had to search my HMO's web site to find a dental office that accepts my insurance plan and accepts new patients. I called an office nearby and was informed that I need to get a new insurance card from my insurance company listing this dentist's code number. OK. I called an 800 number on my old card and encountered a pre-recorded voice asking me why I was calling. The choices offered by the pre-recorded voice did not include changing dentists. I was instructed to start over and explain why I was calling. I said again, "I want to change dentists." "OK, you want to change dentists," the pre-recorded voice said this time. "You need to speak with a service representative."

Ultimately, a live person gets on the phone. He asks for my ID number and date of birth. Sorry, he says, that's the wrong date of birth. This was news to me. I've been enrolled with this same insurance company for years. I state again that this is indeed my date of birth. He asks for my social security number. That turns out to be acceptable. But there's still a problem with the recorded date of birth, he says. It could cause problems in paying bills from the new dentist. And his company can't correct the information it has on record, he adds. That has to be done by the company I retired from.

OK, I rummage around and find a phone number for the human relations office of the company I retired from. I call the number and get a pre-recorded voice that says there's a new number. I call that number, and the pre-recorded voice says there is a newer number. I call that number and leave a message. Someone calls back and says there was indeed a typo on a document that was sent to the insurance company and it will be corrected.

Back on the phone with the insurance company guy. He says, once they hear from the company I retired from about fixing my date of birth, they'll mail a new card with the new dentist's code number on it. The new card, he adds, will be effective next month.

Meanwhile, I rummage through piles of advertising stuff from insurance companies, slick brochures from politicians weighing in on the national health debate, and other mail. There's a form letter from my health insurance company. It informs me that the COBRA extension of my former company's dental plan expires in two months. It provides no information on what my choices are in getting dental coverage after December 31. There's also a bill for next month's payment, which includes a fine print warning that my policy will be cut off if I'm late in making that payment.

So now I've got to check out Medicare, which I joined when I retired last year, and see if the government can tell me how to go about getting to see a dentist.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Department of Peace

The former community activist who garnered a Nobel Peace Prize shortly after taking office as president of the United States should appreciate the grit of this civic campaign. Signing legislation that would cap this grassroots effort, moreover, is the sort of action that would likely generate a wall of peace awards for Barack Obama.

The campaign to create a U.S. Department of Peace is backed by the usual suspects, including Veterans For Peace and the Student Peace Alliance, but also by more mainstream supporters like country music singer Willie Nelson. A persistent voice for grassroots causes like Farm Aid, Nelson is a spokesman these days for a cause that’s flared and sputtered and flared back up again throughout American history.

“I want to share with you why I feel this campaign to establish a U.S. Department of Peace is so important,” Texas-bred Nelson says in a web site promo for a bill that seems perpetually stuck in some committee in Congress. “We have the opportunity to make violence prevention and peacemaking a central conversation in our culture right now. And there couldn’t be a more urgent time to do so.”

In Brooklyn, N.Y., community activist Howard Rosenberg is conveying the same message, urging the New York City Council to join Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Cleveland and other cities in calling for such federal action. "We have to engage the world as a community and open a dialogue," Rosenberg said, reported the New York Post. "Some say that's naive, but [Richard] Nixon went to China and he was the most conservative president in history."

In West Linn, Oregon, Councilman Mike Jones, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, joined the unanimous vote last fall to support the Department of Peace bill, the fourth city in the state to do so. Addressing a delegation of high school students who requested municipal support of this campaign, Jones said "What you've started and are working on here should guide you through your lives," according to the local newspaper, The West Linn Tidings.

“It's not just the will, but the skill to make peace," Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota said of the proposed legislation’s public education components. Ellison is among more than 70 cosponsors of the Department of Peace bill, HR 808, reintroduced in February by Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who represents a Middle America district that includes the Polka Capital of Cleveland, Ohio—not to mention the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Versions of this bill, based on ideas going back to the founding of the country by rebels who revolted against the tyrannical behavior of the British army, have been kicking around Congress for decades.

An earlier version flared hot in the 1980s, leading to creation of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. The federally funded peace institute is constructing a new headquarters that’s rising on a corner of the Mall in Washington, D.C. overlooking the Vietnam, Korea and World War II memorials. Its mission is to sponsor research grants, books, pilot projects and conferences on nonviolent approaches to dealing with hot spots of violence.

For instance, last week “the U.S. Institute of Peace and the U.S. Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute unveiled the first strategic ‘doctrine’ ever produced for civilian actors involved in peace operations. The ‘Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction’ (S&R) is a practical roadmap for helping countries transition from violent conflict to peace.” Why is this kind of document important? "Ad hoc, disorganized campaigns for peace have been the hallmark of past missions," said Amb. John Herbst, U.S. Department of State Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. "This two-year investigation into thousands of pages of documents written by dozens of agencies may help to mitigate the chaotic nature of these missions by finally putting into one place what we know."

The proposed peace department would have a cabinet-level seat next to the departments of state and defense. It would consolidate several existing programs that are now scattered around Washington. These include the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Peace Corps and the Office of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs of the Department of State.

It would also create public education programs to address outbreaks of violence in American communities, as well as abroad. That dual emphasis is what attracted Willie Nelson’s support, as well as that of a long list of civic organizations. “We see daily the tragic impact violence is having on the planet. And I feel heartened that so many practical solutions will be brought forth through a Department of Peace. There are many programs and practices that are already proving to be incredibly effective at reducing … gang violence, violence in our schools and our homes, as well as conflict around the world,” Nelson said.

Walter Cronkite, the late retired CBS News anchor, offered a thought-provoking take on this idea in a newspaper opinion piece in 2004. “Wouldn't it have been an advantage in the run-up to the Iraq War to have had a cabinet officer whose department was responsible for training U.S. personnel in human rights, conflict resolution, reconstruction and the detailed planning necessary to restoring a durable peace; in short, to do what was so disastrously absent when our forces rolled into Baghdad?” Cronkite wrote.

Besides Iraq, which remains more a battle zone than a functional nation, a change in U.S. policy to a peace-building approach would go a long way in lowering violence levels in Afghanistan. After eight years of escalating warfare, the U.S. military is flailing down the same path of destruction as previous armies that found it impossible to tame Afghanistan’s mountain tribes. And yet, as a little reading about the region shows, a peaceful visitor to these same parts has historically been warmly welcomed.

Creating a peace department would clearly demonstrate that Obama is developing a new plan for addressing increasingly unsustainable war policies.

For more information:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Duty of Dissent

They teach a lot of things at the US Military Academy at West Point, but one thing they don’t teach is the honorable duty of dissent, a vital element in a democracy. I was reminded of that while reading a new book about the latest crop of veterans protesting military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A long time ago, I resigned from West Point and joined the campaign for ending the war in Vietnam, where I learned more about democracy as an activist than I ever did as a soldier.

“I have been impressed by the courage and inspired by the persistence of these veterans,” journalist Dahr Jamail writes in The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books, 2009). The contrast he makes between fed-up soldiers who became activists and others who die in despair is startling.

Jamail’s probing into causes for the steep rise in suicides among soldiers and recent veterans sparked this thought: The best way to prevent suicides in the military and at home after a war tour might be quite simple—encourage and enable soldiers to speak out about their concerns and get a responsive hearing.

Testifying last year before an ad hoc Congressional committee convened to put on the public record war criticisms by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, former Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan said he wanted to register not only his own concerns from two tours in Iraq, but also call attention to a particularly chilling death in the war. That was the June 2005 death of Army Colonel Theodore Westhusing, who officials said shot himself shortly before his tour in Iraq was to end, leaving a bitter suicide note addressed to his commanding generals.

“I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied -- no more,” Westhusing, who was 44 and due to return to teaching at West Point, wrote. “I didn't volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.” Westhusing’s wife told Army investigators, according to an extensive report in The Texas Observer, that he’d conveyed similar concerns to her. “I think Ted gave his life to let everyone know what was going on,” she said.

The Texas Observer plumbed this tragic story in a March 2007 feature article. “The disillusion that killed Ted Westhusing is part of the invoice that America will be paying long after the United States pulls its last troops out of Iraq,” wrote reporter Robert Bryce. “Some 846 American soldiers died in Iraq in 2005. Of those, 22 were suicides. Westhusing’s suicide, like nearly every other, leaves the survivors asking the same questions: Why? And what was it that drove the deceased to such despair? In Westhusing’s case, the answers go far beyond his personal struggles and straight to the heart of America’s goals in Iraq.”

A lot of other soldiers have sent a similarly anguished message, as they’ve been committing suicide in record numbers. How to stop an epidemic of soldiers killing themselves in greater numbers than are dying on battlefields has baffled military leaders.

Yet there is an alternative way of handling disillusionment and despair. The alternative is the action that Captain Montalvan and other veterans have undertaken—to speak out in public about military experiences that haunt them. That’s the focus of Jamail’s book, which profiles a variety of outspoken soldiers.

One of those profiled in The Will to Resist and in Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent (PoliPoint Press, 2009), is Camilo Mejia, a former National Guard staff sergeant who refused to return to Iraq a second time and served nine months in prison. Mejia did his time, wrote a memoir and hit the lecture circuit, crisscrossing the country as a leader of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Mejia’s lawyer as he faced a court-martial to challenge the legality and conduct of the war in Iraq was Louis Font, a West Pointer who refused to serve in Vietnam.

Perhaps Col. Westhusing and many others might still be alive, if West Point—and indeed, the entire US military—provided a civics course in Military Dissent, with case studies of officers and soldiers who spoke out about troubling military actions. Such a course could start off with a discussion sparked by this quote: "Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels - men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion." (Dwight D. Eisenhower, West Point grad, in a speech in 1954 as president of the United States.) It could survey any number of current military critics, including members of West Point Graduates Against the War, Veterans for Peace and the star-studded list of generals who protested Bush administration’s policies that violated the Geneva Conventions and other international prohibitions against torture of prisoners.

Rules of Disengagement, by National Lawyers Guild activists Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd, offers a handbook on dissent against a variety of military practices and policies. “Service members who fought in Vietnam, and recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, have challenged not only the rules under which they operated but also the very propriety of American engagement in those wars,” they write. “We offer service members practical guidelines for dissent and disengagement, from political protest to requesting discharge from the service.”

In whatever forum or format, speaking out can be vital for a soldier in anguish, as well as for the public to understand what’s going on that’s so upsetting to many military veterans. “Kids grow up wanting to be GI Joe and save lives. But military policy is dictating that people do terrible things, things that violate their conscience, and then have the psychological burden of carrying that around, because the military says you can’t talk about it. Soldiers live with it and die with it,” Perry O’Brien, an Afghanistan vet, said of why he helped organize the “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan” hearings at the National Labor College in Maryland last year.

“It’s not going to be easy to hear what we have to say,” Kelly Dougherty, a former National Guard sergeant who served in Iraq, said at the Winter Soldier hearings, as recounted in Rules of Disengagement. “It’s not going to be easy for us to tell it. But we believe that the only way this war is going to end is if the American people truly understand what we have done in their name.”

For more information:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Psalms of Peace

For people who experienced war or grew up in times of war, imagining peace is hard to do. “Growing up, war was a playground/and my friends and I played in it,” Yasmin Elmi writes in a poem about his native Somalia, which appears in a new poetry and art collection called Waging Peace. The multi-media anthology, which includes one of my recent poems, is published online by Voices Education Project in Seattle, Washington.

Many contributors, from students like Yasmin to older folks, vividly recall wars in Africa, the Middle East, Central America, Southeast Asia, Europe and other violence-torn places in recent decades. Their dreams of peace are eclipsed by nightmarish war images. Others struggle to engage peace on its own terms.

For instance, here’s the beginning passage and the ending of Tristan Alving’s poem, “As Long As: A Psalm of Peace”:

As long as we fight
There will be no peace
As long as we hate
There will be no peace
When we stop fighting
When we stop hating
Then peace shall flourish

And as long as the wall between
Israel and Palestine stays up
Then fight will break its bonds
And hate will escape its prison
And then chaos will endure

A middle school student in Seattle, Tristan was stumped trying to imagine peace taking root in the war-prone Middle East. A big problem in promoting peace is that there are far more images linked with war, says Barbara Kaufman, a long-time peace activist, in a poem titled “Could Use a Little Help Here, Humanity!”

War veteran Jack McLean marshals imagines from both camps to float a thought-provoking idea:

Create a village as strong as a war
To pick the maggots off my skin
And burnish the gold that lies within
This will renew the strength of my sacred core.
Can we create a village as strong as a war?

Storyteller Joe Bruchac invokes the Native American tradition of the Tree of Peace. Judyth Hill, a poet living on a farm in Mexico, proposes that people create the conditions of peace by avidly living peaceful lives:

Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious:
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Celebrate today.

Song writer Susan Salidor suggests, in a finger-snapping You Tube performance, that peace is a choice of what we do with our hands. Musician Michael Valeri argues in his song “Change the World!” that the path to peace is for crowds of people to raise their voices in a united movement. My own contribution is a poem, “Make a New History,” that encourages people to make better use of our minds.

Make a New History

In harsh, benighted lands
Child soldiers learn early
How to kill each other
With little skills
But gory practice

In modern, enlightened lands
Gentlemen go to elite schools
To learn how to bomb cities
And whole nations into oblivion
With the latest high-tech devices

Modern sons and daughters
Are carefully educated
In how to dispatch, eliminate—
But not call it murder;
Torment, but not call it torture

Let’s make a new history,
One where war is banished,
Outlawed, like slavery;
One where disputes are resolved,
Not used as violent excuses

--Jan Barry

For more information:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Traveling Through America

After enduring travel in an army convoy that rattled over rutted roads for two months navigating from coast to coast in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower’s dream was a national network of paved highways. As president, Ike signed an order in 1956 to build a system of superhighways. Little did he know how that would turn out.

A drive across the USA recently in interstate summer traffic drew intense longing for relief from multiple lanes of hard-charging motorists. One incredible highway scene after another loomed up and disappeared into the rearview mirror. Traffic slowed only for severe congestion, lanes closed for road repairs, and accidents. On a California freeway, the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend, a beleaguered-looking military convoy crept along the breakdown lane, the helmet-clad troops warily watching a relentless, churning river of cars, vans, SUVs, motorcycles, campers, pickup trucks, utility trucks, garbage trucks, car carriers, rental trucks, 16-wheeler trailer-trucks whooshing past inches from their machinegun mounts.

Squeezed amid careening caravans of double-trailer, long-haul truckers and family campers towed by pickup trucks racing in packs lunging for lead position at 70 miles-per-hour-plus, I was drawn to old-fashioned roadside attractions to preserve some sanity. Lot of roadside crosses in Indiana, for instance. Either there’s a great revival of evangelical Christianity or a horrendous toll of traffic fatalities. But I was driving too fast to stay out of the path of a herd of trucks to figure it out.

It was intriguing to find out that Jesse James hid out in a cave in Missouri. Roadside signs touting that piece of history flashed past, as my speedometer and the trucks hammering on my back bumper topped 80 miles per hour. Didn’t catch the name of the cave. Signs for kayaking in the Ozarks similarly flashed past. Just so with the first sight of a cattle ranch in Oklahoma, an old oil well in Texas, the Petrified Forest in Arizona.

I barely remember New Mexico on the first pass. I drove across the entire state amid a stampede of trucks and campers tearing up the interstate at a breakneck clip, mileposts zipping past in the blink of an eye. Out of the corners of my frazzled eyes, picturesque mesas peeked up in the distance.

But a sight in Arizona made me slam on the brakes and grab the camera. Fortunately, there wasn’t a truck on my bumper, a rarer occurrence on the two-lane old road to the less-visited north side of the Grand Canyon. What caught my attention was a sign on the edge of a remote village. Next to a painted silhouette of soldiers were these words in red letters: “BRING THEM HOME.” Nearby was an older sign that set the scene: “Echo Cliffs Veterans Memorial Park, Cedar Ridge, Arizona.”

After that, I looked for every opportunity to get off the interstate and take an old road to where I was going for the day. And in traveling from coast to coast and back, I saw a lot more of America—golden meadows of mountain wildflowers, fascinating small town landmarks, kayakers in a Colorado River gorge—the further I got off the highway.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Scamming America

It’s one of the biggest scams in the USA , according to the Federal Trade Commission. Yet chances are that most Americans don’t know much about it. In a bizarre twist on our nation’s traditions of justice, victims of this financial ripoff are treated like criminals, forced to pay for someone else’s fraud—and, in some cases, arrested for being taken in by widespread, professionally run counterfeit check and money order operations.

"It’s usually the elderly who get scammed," says a detective assigned to financial crime cases in a Los Angeles suburb. But not always. Younger people using the Internet to look for a roommate, sell an item or answer an ad for making money doing online work have also been hooked by sophisticated hustlers. "I investigated a case where a woman thought she was doing work online for medical billing. She went to the bank and got arrested for depositing a counterfeit check," the Glendale , California detective added.

Glendale police are currently investigating a case where a 29-year-old local man, a relative of mine, got entangled in a check scam while seeking a roommate to share rent, through an ad placed on craigslist. While such fraudulent financial schemes—involving interstate email communications and transfers of money via UPS and Western Union —are a federal crime, the local detective holds out little hope of anyone being convicted in this type of scam. "I guarantee that the federal government isn’t going to do much," he said. Yet, "only they have the resources" to investigate and shut down these operations.

The problem from a local police perspective, said Detective Jason Ross, is that "it can take two to three weeks to get access to investigate the IPO address" of the party who responded to the roommate ad and arranged for a check to be sent—to cover a month’s rent and pay a bill from a shipper for the new roomie’s things—that turns out after it’s been cashed to be counterfeit. And then it could turn out that the emails were sent from Eastern Europe or Nigeria , outside of American legal jurisdiction.

Tracing the cash sent by the unwitting Glendale man to a shipping company in Arkansas can be just as frustrating, the detective added. "The money goes to a Western Union office, but it can be diverted along the way to another office" and picked up by an unknown party. "It’s impossible to track down."

The key piece of this scam that allows the operators of these financial crimes to get off scot-free is that they are manipulating a loophole provision in American banking procedures. That provision holds that the person who cashes a check is responsible for knowing whether it is a valid check. "The banks typically aren’t held responsible for this," the detective said.

That means the victims are stuck with repaying the bank for a counterfeit check or money order that the bank accepted and paid cash on. And so these financial scams have mushroomed like Madoff’s international investment Ponzi schemes. "The only way to prevent them is to educate people about scams," the detective concluded.

Yet, there is much more to this story than the need for more press releases from police on the latest scam. For one thing, this form of fraud is so pervasive it has its own category on the Federal Trade Commission website, its own entry on Wikipedia and a dedicated website devoted to trying to stop this particular form of fleecing Americans. It is also descibed in an "avoid scams & fraud" section posted on the craigslist website. Information on how this fiscal ripoff works, however, clearly did not come to the attention of people who were victimized. One reason is that the warnings are provided in the equivalent of the fine print in credit card documents.

Federal and state agencies, including banking regulators, appear to be dozing on these cases. A call to the FBI about the Glendale man’s case resulted in being referred to the Glendale police department. An email contact with the federal Internet Fraud Complaint Center was not responded to. An email to the California Attorney General’s Office of Victim Services got no response.

As for the bank that cashed the dubious check for the Glendale man, it seems to have multiple procedures regarding checks. Another branch of the same bank refused to cash a second check sent to the victim, even though it was drawn on another prominent bank and was purportedly from a legitimate company. So why was the first check readily accepted and cashed at the young man's neighborhood bank branch?

A Congressional hearing, with witnesses testifying under oath, could get to the bottom of why banks and law enforcement agencies seem unable to stop a wide-scale scam of bank clients that may rival Bernie Madoff’s wholesale victimization of investment clients.

For more information:


A former detective in Houston, Texas, Brian Bagent, provided more information on these types of fraud, in a reply to a version of this article posted on

Jan, a giant part of this problem is that there is almost nobody investigating it. I spent my last two years in the Forgery Detail of the Houston Police Department investigating exactly this kind of crime.

We had about 15 detectives in our unit, out of a total of about 5200 sworn personnel, allocated to investigate these things (serving a population of 2 million). The Harris County Sheriff’s Department had less than we did (serving a population of 1.1 or 1.2 million). The United States Secret Service’s Houston field office had maybe 10 or a dozen agents assigned to this sort of thing. The FBI’s Houston field office had 7 or 8 agents dedicated to this. We all (the various agencies) concerted our efforts whenever the opportunity arose because most of these rings operated across jurisdictions, as your essay suggests. I spent about a half of each month working cross-jurisdictional cases.

And we were absolutely inundated with financial crimes. Most investigators in HPD (Burglary and Theft, Robbery, Homicide, Vice, etc) were assigned about 25 – 30 cases a month. We were assigned 100 to 125 cases a month. There was no way to even read that many cases, let alone work all of them, so I cherry-picked the ones with losses in excess of $20K, and still had more than I could do anything about. While testifying at a federal trial in Corpus Christi, Texas, my case load came out in the trial. It was embarrassing, to say the least.

It gets worse. Even when we got convictions, sentencing was light – usually no more than 2 or 3 years for thefts that exceeded $100K.

Granted, this was 10 years ago, but I don’t expect much has changed except that it has probably gotten even worse.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

National Defense: Saving the Environment

One of the biggest forces of destruction of the natural world are military actions in wars and training exercises, such as extensive explosions at bombing ranges and pollution of groundwater from leaking gasoline storage tanks, chemical and nuclear wastes. Imagine if “national defense” missions were reconfigured to fully focus on saving the environment that sustains life on earth. A germ of that idea is contained in a current advertisement on the Military Times website, placed by Colorado State University.

The Sustainable Military Lands Management (SMLM) Certificate program is a
one-of-a-kind online educational opportunity that trains current and future
professionals in the breadth and complexity of military land management to
provide you with knowledge of the rapidly evolving practices, technologies, and analytical tools necessary to support this national defense mission. Civilian and military land management professionals learn the key concepts for conservation and sustainable management of natural and cultural resources on Department of Defense lands. The knowledge and skills gained can be used by a wide array of United States and foreign, federal and state land management agencies.

This certificate will help you understand the importance of military lands management and the cultural and ecological significance of sustaining these lands. You will learn the general practices and the theory of land management as well as cultural anthropology. You will also study the ecological principles of military training and testing areas and the impacts of disturbances caused by these activities. Topics covered will include an overview of military lands in the United States in historical, geographical, and environmental contexts, cultural resources laws, policies, management, and preservation as they apply to military lands.

Imagine if every soldier, sailor, marine, airman, secretary of defense, member of Congress and president had to take this course. Under a law signed by President Eisenhower in 1960, the Department of Defense—which oversees 30 million acres of often prime wildlife habitat—is obligated to develop and follow a natural resources management plan. The purpose of these management plans is “to provide for the conservation and rehabilitation of natural resources on military lands,” according to an agreement signed in January 2006 by the Department of Defense and US Fish and Wildlife Service. Under other laws, the Department of Defense is obligated to clean up contaminated sites it owns or that were used by military manufacturing contractors, including some of the most heavily polluted Superfund sites in the nation. This is a mission that may require an army of well-trained experts to do right.

For more information:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Recruiting for Peace

Suel D. Jones is on an unusual mission. The 60-ish Vietnam vet, who hails from Texas and has a hideaway cabin in Alaska, wants to create a Veterans For Peace chapter in Hanoi. “I already got 10 members,” Jones said last week as he talked up his latest campaign, while hawking copies of his memoir, Meeting the Enemy: A Marine Goes Home, at the 24th national convention of Veterans For Peace.

In his memoir, Jones wrote: “At a Veterans For Peace convention in 2006, I was asked about how I was recruited into the Marine Corps. I replied that I didn’t have to be recruited. My parents, the church, and society had recruited me since birth.” After years of wrestling with rage he brought home from the war, Jones moved to Vietnam and did volunteer work with the Vietnam Friendship Village, a hospital for children and Vietnamese veterans affected by Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by the US military to destroy much of the forests in Vietnam. “I felt that as a warrior I was not complete until I returned to the country where I had fought in order to help heal the wounds of the war,” he added.

At a nearby table, Marine vet Doug Zachary of Austin, Texas, was selling a variety of books, buttons and bumper stickers on peace themes, including War Is a Racket by Smedley D. Butler, the legendary Marine major general and two-time winner of the Medal of Honor. Among the most popular items for men and women who stopped by between workshops on conflict resolution and other aspects of peacemaking were olive drab T-shirts emblazoned with the Veterans For Peace logo—a white dove on a military helmet—and an unusual team spirit message: “Recruiting for Peace.”

The event at the University of Maryland also drew Master Sergeant (ret.) Wesley Davey. A draftee during the Vietnam war, Davey ended up in Iraq with an Army Reserve unit at age 54. He arrived in College Park on a dual mission. A founder of the Minnesota chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Davey is also challenging the official “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that discriminates against gays in the military. “I was against this war, but felt that as the first sergeant I should deploy to Iraq to look out for the good people in my unit,” Davey told an assembled gathering of antiwar activists with ties to the military.

In a news article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2007, Davey bluntly said: “For the second time in my life, a president has plunged our country into a quagmire where there is no way to win a victory which can be defined. I thought we learned a lesson in Vietnam. I was wrong.”

Another participant was a mother of a young war veteran who attended a workshop on poetry for peace. “My son has several poems in this anthology,” said Tina Richards, a Missouri member of Military Families Speak Out, waving a copy of Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense, a collection of poetry and art by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Writing and reading poems on the war at antiwar events was a great help to her son, who was struggling to cope with severe health problems after two tours with the Marines in Iraq. When requests to the VA and traditional veterans’ organizations for assistance proved fruitless, Richards said she found Veterans For Peace on the Internet.

“I called my son and said ‘we’re going on a march to New Orleans,’” joining a protest march by veterans’ peace groups in 2006 through hurricane-ravaged towns awaiting federal assistance while billions of dollars were spent on waging war in Iraq. During an evening of songs and poetry by participants, her son got up, she recalled, and read a poem he’d jotted down on a napkin. And now he’s a published poet, Cloy Richards, with a growing family of his own and a future he couldn’t see through the pain before.

The veterans’ convention in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC, drew scores of people from across the United States. It also drew one of the newest members of Congress. “It is important to hear a voice for peace. We who are working for peace have to open up the space for people to move in that direction,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), who was elected last year. “I think that the work you do as veterans working for peace gives the rest of us validation for what we do,” she added.

In her keynote speech, Edwards noted that she grew up in a career Air Force family and lost her brother at age 27 as a result of “psychological problems” from his military service. “I feel that I, as a very strong opponent of the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, am a great patriot,” she said. Yet in working to change these policies, activists need to “work for peace with respect” for other people’s perspectives, she advised. Noting that she went on a tour of Afghanistan with other members of Congress, she concluded that the US strategy of widening the war with more troops “will not work. I’m a big supporter of President Obama. But I disagree with him on this.”

Summing up the focus of the convention, Michael T. McPherson, executive director of Veterans for Peace and a Gulf War I veteran, wrote in the program book that “We must reach out and educate about the full horrors and impact of war. … We must provide and live alternatives to war. We must become examples of conflict resolution in all aspects of our lives and build solidarity with allies in search of justice. … This weekend we gather to gain strength and learn from each other to do that work.”

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Health Bills Debate

In a scathing critique of health care coverage by America’s news media, the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review contends that “this year’s health-care debate sounds like the one in 1993.” That debate produced the Clinton administration’s proposed reforms that were politically dead on arrival.

“With few exceptions … the press has done little to challenge this reality or help to broaden the health-care debate,” wrote Trudy Lieberman, a Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor who monitors this issue. “Rather, it has mostly passed along the pronouncements of politicians and the major stakeholders who have the most to lose from wholesale reform. By not challenging the status quo, the press has so far foreclosed a vibrant discussion of the full range of options, and also has not dug deeply into the few that are being discussed, thereby leaving citizens largely uninformed about an issue that will affect us all.”

As Congress winds down its latest try at reforming America’s hodge-podge health system, eying the exits for a long vacation, there’s been no real debate, for instance, over a bill in the hopper that would create a single-payer plan.

A Democratic Congressman from New York, Anthony Weiner, raised this issue last week to deafening silence in the national news media, which was all agog over the latest distractions to comprehensive reporting of what‘s happening on the medical-bills battlefront. Weiner is a cosponsor of the U.S. National Health Care Act (H.R. 676), sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). This bill has 85 co-sponsors and is backed by a coalition of doctors, unions, civic groups and local governments in support of a single-payer system.

“Without acknowledging it, both sides seem to agree with the argument for a single-payer system. But instead of having a debate about its value, both sides have turned the idea into an odd punching bag,” Weiner said. “The right uses the term ‘single-payer’ to condemn the White House approach, while the White House — and my colleagues in the House and Senate — quickly decry the scurrilous charge and concoct legislative language to make their public option look less, well, public. By conceding that the public option would have less overhead, be more efficient and have the freedom to focus on health care rather than profits, opponents of the public option are in fact arguing for it. Isn’t complaining about the marketplace ‘advantage’ of the public plan just another way of saying that people are going to want it?”

Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program, lauded Weiner’s stance and lambasted the reform plan cobbled together by House leaders as a “proven failure.” Young argued, in a news release on behalf of his group of 16,000 doctors, that “state-based reforms of this type — Massachusetts being the latest example — have repeatedly foundered.”

“Although many supporters of the House tri-committee bill are well-intentioned, it’s an inconvenient truth that only by replacing the private health insurance industry with a single-payer, Medicare-for-All program can we save $400 billion annually on overhead and bureaucracy — enough to provide comprehensive, first-dollar coverage to all,“ Young added. “Surveys show that two-thirds of the public favor national health insurance, as do most physicians. Over 550 labor organizations support H.R. 676, as do scores of civic and religious groups and city governments.”

The $400 billion savings that Young referred to would come from eliminating the administrative overhead in private insurance plans, which eat up 30 per cent of their billings, in contrast to Medicare’s administrative costs of 3 to 4 percent, freelance journalist Dave Lindorff recently noted on his website,

“So, want to have some fun? Tell your congressional delegation to demand that the Congressional Budget Office, which just came up with an estimate that the Senate’s health ‘reform’bill would add $1.6 trillion in costs over 10 years, do a study of what expanding Medicare to all would cost, after netting out the savings to individuals and employers of having their insurance payments and out-of-pocket health expenses eliminated,” Lindorff wrote in an op-ed piece that’s been popping up in various corners of the blogosphere. “And then tell them to support Michigan Congressman Rep. John Conyers' single-payer bill, HR 676, which would extend Medicare to one and all.”

That bill is not even on the radar screen in the Senate, where leaders of the finance committee are crafting a minimalist reform measure that excludes any hint of extending Medicare to more citizens. “After weeks of secretive talks, a bipartisan group in the Senate edged closer Monday to a health care compromise that omits a requirement for businesses to offer coverage to their workers and lacks a government insurance option that President Barack Obama favors, according to numerous officials,” The Associated Press reported today. “They said any legislation that emerges from the talks is expected to provide for a non-profit cooperative to sell insurance in competition with private industry, rather than giving the federal government a role in the marketplace. The White House and numerous Democrats in Congress have called for a government option to provide competition to private companies and hold down costs.”

While Congress takes off on vacation in August, maybe its members will start paying attention to what local folks have to say about the health-billing mess. Consider what this emergency room doctor in Michigan argued today in the Detroit Free Press website:

“In order to maintain their profit margins, insurance companies are raising premiums while pushing more of the costs of care onto individual policyholders. Premiums are increasing annually at a rate that is three times the rate of inflation. Fewer employers, especially small firms, continue to offer comprehensive coverage, and for workers with employer-based insurance, out-of-pocket expenses increased 34% between 2004 and 2007. Those who have been laid off are finding that extension coverage under COBRA is overpriced and unaffordable,” noted Dr. James Mitchiner of Ann Arbor.

“But there is a viable alternative,” Mitchiner added. “Single-payer health insurance is simply a way to finance universal health care. By replacing the 1,200 private insurance companies – each having its own set of regulations, provider networks, prescription drug formulary, pre-authorization forms, 1-800 number and Web site – into a single insurance entity, such a single-payer system would reap the benefits of economies of scale, reduce administrative waste, mitigate bureaucratic duplication, sever the link between health insurance and employment, reduce health care disparities, and at last provide creditable coverage for the millions who lack it now.”

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Socialized Medicine

The federal government is once again considering instituting a national health care plan, something first proposed by President Teddy Roosevelt more than a century ago. The problem is that many Americans are scared of getting dreaded “socialized medicine.” You know, like they have in Canada, where people have to wait for weeks to see a doctor, unless it’s an emergency. I can relate to that, having recently waited for four weeks to see a specialist for a knee injury and another two weeks for the MRI results. And that was under the current American health system!

So what’s going on here? When I was born in 1943, millions of Americans were in the armed services, subject to military health care. I don’t recall any complaints about how during World War II our soldiers and sailors, marines and air crews had to endure government-run “socialized medicine.” When I served in the Army in the early 1960s in Vietnam and stateside, I don’t recall any horror stories of soldiers being subjected to “socialized medicine.” For all the complaints about sometimes horrific problems at Veterans Administration hospitals, veterans’ groups have continually demanded that the government-run system be improved, not abolished.

I don’t recall anyone moaning that they dread Medicare, the government health care program that every American qualifies for when they retire and go on Social Security. Meanwhile, horror stories about families bankrupted by medical bills under the privately run HMO system have appeared in newspapers and magazines and TV reports for years.

No doubt Medicare, and any expanded national health care plan, will have glitches. But I’m dubious that it can top many of my nightmarish experiences with the non-governmental health care system. Besides recently waiting more than a month for treatment of a painful knee injury, I’ve previously waited in emergency rooms in utter agony—after dropping a filing cabinet on my foot, from kidney stones (twice)—so long to see a doctor that I wished I could have run to Canada for relief.

During a previous round in the long-running debate over health care, Bill Bradley, a senator from New Jersey at the time, suggested a simple, yet profound reform—give every American access to the same health care plan that members of Congress enjoy. Bet the naysayers in Congress don’t call what they’ve got “socialized medicine.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Remembering Robert McNamara

“McNamara’s War” is what a senator called America’s disastrous military invasion of Vietnam. Reading news items about Robert McNamara’s death this week at age 93, I remembered how wide the gulf was between a soldier and the Secretary of Defense, whose exalted place in the chain of command we had to know by heart, when I served in Vietnam in the early 1960s. In 1967, after resigning from the US Military Academy and a military career, I sent McNamara a letter at the Pentagon enclosing my war medals and a protest of the conduct of the war. I never got a reply, although he subsequently had me investigated by the FBI for signing an antiwar statement in The New York Times. For a man who was often in the news with his views on Vietnam and war, it seems McNamara had lots to say to everybody except to the troops who disagreed with what he was overseeing.

A fellow antiwar veteran, Ben Chitty, illuminated this dark side of McNamara in an Internet posting. “Back when McNamara's memoir ‘In Retrospect’ came out, I wrote him a letter. Never did get a reply,” noted Chitty, a college librarian in New York City. Here’s what Chitty wrote to his former boss at the Pentagon:

Sunday, April 30th, 1995

Robert S. McNamara
c/o Times Books, Random House
New York, New York

Secretary McNamara,

I'm writing because of your book, In Retrospect.

I enlisted in the United States Navy in 1965, and deployed twice to Vietnam, in 1966-7 and again in 1968. I was medically discharged in 1969. Right away I joined an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) -- perhaps you've heard of us. I spent the next three years doing what I could to stop the war, especially working to keep 18-year-olds from being drafted into it. I had some success in the latter and smaller task, but we had none at all in the larger. Disillusioned, depressed and exasperated at our failure to stop the war, I left the country in 1972, returning only when Nixon had resigned.

So I read your book with some interest. Of course it told me nothing new about the war's cost and futility. Nor did it change my conviction that the war we waged in Indochina was a crime. Not a mistake, however deadly and tragic, but a crime. I believe we disagree in that assessment.

Howver, you say you wrote the book because you believe that we -- the people of the United States -- need to come to terms with the Vietnam experience and its legacy. I certainly do not disagree there.

We may not agree exactly what that legacy is. You rehearse a long series of errors in geopolitical understanding and mistakes in the procedures by which decisions were made, and describe a certain amount of wishful thinking. You offer to contribute to our understanding of the Vietnam experience by confessing your mistakes -- "our" mistakes, since you served and remained loyal to your presidents and their successors, our representatives in power.

A beginning, perhaps. Of course the veterans and victims of your war may be bitter about your late confession. Certainly the illusion that we could have won the war has been important to them all these years. Certainly that delusion needs to be deflated, since it deflects us from the process of understanding, healing and reconciliation. But the delusion that we could have won the war is not the main or central legacy of the Vietnam experience. That legacy is easy to delineate.

Our government undertook a war in which there were no military means of accomplishing "our" political objectives. A very large number of citizens realized this, and tried every means possible -- mostly constitutional -- to persuade "our" government to stop the war. Although "our" government -- at least many people in it, including yourself -- knew that the anti-war movement was right in its assessment of the war, "our" government fought this opposition bitterly, and finally unconstitutionally. The anti-war movement failed to stop the war. The direct legacy of Vietnam was Watergate. The political tragedy of Vietnam for our country -- then and now -- is that the anti-war movement failed.

This is the legacy you do not address. Our own government was beyond our control. Two issues can illustrate the problem.

You write of concern about widespread cynicism and distrust of government. Yet you do not reflect on the consequences of government deceit, or acknowledge the extent to which government deception remains common practice. During the years you remained silent, Geronimo Pratt, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, was imprisoned in California, convicted of a murder the FBI knows he did not commit. He's still there. Just as your book was going to press, our government assured Jennifer Harbury it knew nothing about her husband's capture, torture and execution -- but the CIA did know; in fact, their informant did it. These cases are part of the legacy of the Vietnam experience too. There are very many others.

You write of the role played by the politicians critical of your war effort, the people we called "hawks." You and your Presidents feared their political influence, and concocted your war policies to deflect their criticism. You might say that tens of thousands of Americans -- mostly soldiers "serving their country" -- and hundreds of thousands of Indochinese -- mostly non-combatants -- died so that Lyndon Johnson (and Richard Nixon) could be President. Ronald Reagan and George Bush used these deaths again to help themselves get elected, and these deaths may yet help elect Bill Clinton's successor in 1996. Some of the hawks are still in Congress. Their political heirs just swept the last Congressional elections. You have little to say about them, except that some are your friends. But they feed (and feed on) the very delusion of a winnable war from which the rage against you rises, and which in fact you permitted to fester all these years.

This is not an issue of Republican and Democrat. There are plenty of hawks and their heirs on both sides of the aisle, and I myself am a veteran of Lyndon Johnson's war, your war, though I protested against Richard Nixon's war, and Henry Kissinger's. It is an issue of democracy and citizenship. I saw American "democracy" in action in Vietnam. I came back to the world and saw American "democracy" at home.

The American Legion has demanded that you forego your "profits" from this book. This is a little ironic, since the Legion always supported the war.

I myself don't much like capitalism, but I think that the Legion's criticism of your "profits" is trivial, though understandable. As you have suggested, it would be a good idea to support an inquiry into the mechanics of the mutual failures of the Vietnamese and American governments to end the war.

I'd like to make a different suggestion. The Americans who learned the best and the most from their experience in Vietnam are surely the veterans who have tried to help repair the damage you sent them to do, to compensate for the crime you commissioned. And unlike the programs for Vietnam veterans, where the need is so great that all your profits would hardly be noticed, for activities like the Veterans Viet Nam Reconstruction Project, Project Hearts and Minds, the Veterans Initiative or the U.S. Indochina Reconciliation Project, a little conscience money would make a lot of difference, both to the Vietnamese and to the veterans themselves.

Ben Chitty