Monday, January 26, 2009

Generals for Human Rights

They didn’t look the part of tough-as-nails military commanders—just another group of smiley faces in business suits clustered behind a president and politely clapping as he signed some documents. Yet a big page in the history of human rights was turned last week, when 16 retired generals and admirals flanked President Obama while he signed executive orders on his third day in office to close the US War on Terror detention camp in Guantanamo, Cuba; end the CIA’s secret prisons program overseas; “and requiring all interrogations to follow the noncoercive methods of the Army Field Manual,” according to The New York Times, which ran a prominent photo of the troop of retired brass hats.

While a number of former soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been protesting war tactics they detested at public events around the country, including launching the antiwar group Iraq Veterans Against the War during the 2004 presidential campaign, many of their former commanders were venting similar concerns behind the scenes. “One of them, retired Major General Paul Eaton, stressed that, as he put it later that day, ‘torture is the tool of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough. It’s also perhaps the greatest recruiting tool that the terrorists have,’” The New Yorker reported on its Web site.

Eaton, a former commander in Iraq, told reporters in a conference call on Thursday, “that the Abu Ghraib scandal ‘immediately undermined me, my moral authority’ as he worked in Iraq with eight other nations to build up Iraqi security forces,” reported. “‘It created a far more dangerous environment for every soldier, every marine we had in Iraq,” Eaton said. Human Rights First, which has been working with retired military leaders who have been pushing for a change in policy, set up the conference call. Eaton places direct blame for Abu Ghraib on the Bush administration’s embrace of enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Another member of the group, retired Brigadier General James Cullen, a former member of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, told The New York Times that he was appalled by changes in military actions in recent years. “A wide circle of former military officers, he said, were shocked by the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo. ‘We were muttering to ourselves in the closet,’ he said. ‘We knew this was not the military we left.’ …

“The son of Irish immigrants, General Cullen, who will be 63 on Tuesday, had been active as a civil rights monitor in Northern Ireland, and through that work he had become friendly with Michael Posner, the president of Human Rights First. In discussing Iraq and Afghanistan, ‘I told him how disturbed we were by the breakdown in values,’ General Cullen said.” A group of about 40 retired senior officers began meeting on this issue in 2004 and tried to meet with every candidate for president last year, seeking a pledge to change policies, the Times and The New Yorker reported.

On the campaign trail in Iowa, a “group of military men, which included retired four-star Generals Dave Maddox and Joseph Hoar, lectured Obama about the importance of being Commander-in-Chief. In particular, they warned him that every word he uttered would be taken as an order by the highest-ranking officers as well as the lowliest private. Any wiggle room for abusive interrogations, they emphasized, would be construed as permission,” The New Yorker noted.

“Last month, several members of the same group met with both [Greg] Craig, who by then was slated to become Obama's top legal adviser, and Attorney General-designate Eric Holder. The two future Obama Administration lawyers were particularly taken with a retired four-star Marine General and conservative Republican named Charles ‘Chuck’ Krulak. Krulak insisted that ending the Bush Administration's coercive interrogation and detention regime was ‘right for America and right for the world,’ a participant recalled, and promised that if the Obama Administration did what he described as ‘the right thing,’ which he acknowledged wouldn't be politically easy, he would personally ‘fly cover’ for them.”

For more information:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Poetry and Great Events

Poets are seldom put on the spot to speak on national television next to a popular president, as Elizabeth Alexander did on Tuesday, abruptly standing in front of a crowd of millions. Before I took poetry seriously, I once addressed a large crowd on the Mall in Washington protesting the war in Vietnam. I was so overwhelmed standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. famously spoke and facing a sea of expectant faces that I don’t remember what I said.

Poetry helps us remember what’s important. Alexander, a widely published poet, reminded us what was important about the path of Barack Obama’s amazing journey from obscure community organizer to president of the United States.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road," she said in the central passage of her poem, “Praise Song for the Day.”

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Alexander, who was born in New York City and now teaches at Yale, was only the fourth poet to speak at a presidential inauguration. The first, Robert Frost, was a national icon when tapped to honor John F. Kennedy’s swearing in ceremony in 1961. As a senior in high school in a small town in New York state, I barely paid attention to what the white-haired old poet said on TV.

But JFK understood what I had yet to learn. There is a powerful, popular history conveyed in poetry that tells people’s stories in ways that don’t always toe the official line. Some years later, many Vietnam veterans including myself tapped into that history to present a dissident GI view of the war in Vietnam that Kennedy’s actions launched.

This is what JFK had in mind, as reported recently in The New York Times: “A few years after Frost recited ‘The Gift Outright’ at Kennedy’s inauguration, the president had the chance to speak some public words about Frost, who died in 1963 at 88. Less than a month before his own death Kennedy appeared at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.

“’When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,’ Kennedy said. ‘When power leads man towards his arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.’”

Elizabeth Alexander—whose father was a Harlem community organizer when Frost recited his poem beside JFK and later, under President Carter, became the first African American Secretary of the Army—has written powerfully about the ugly side of power. In a poem titled “Smile,” cited in a profile of her in The New York Times, she wrote:

When I see a black man smiling
like that, nodding and smiling
with both hands visible, mouthing
“Yes, Officer,” across the street,
I think of my father, who taught us
the words “cooperate,” “officer,”
to memorize badge numbers,
who has seen black men shot at
from behind in the warm months north.

As Obama too surely knows, poetry is not all smiley, pretty words on TV.

For further information:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Celebrating Chinese New Years

Chalk up another victory for General Tso’s chicken. According to official government sources, the close ties between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China were forged 30 years ago by President Carter and Chinese Communist leaders in an historic restoration of diplomatic relations, following breakthrough secret negotiations set in motion in 1971 by President Nixon. But the real back story is cleverly hidden, like the fortune-telling message in a Chinese cookie, in a Wikipedia entry.

“General Tso's chicken is a sweet and spicy deep-fried chicken dish that is popularly served in American and Canadian Chinese restaurants where it is considered Hunan cuisine. The origins of the dish are unclear. The dish was previously largely unknown in China and other lands home to the Chinese diaspora.[1] Thus, General Tso's Chicken is most likely an American invention in the history of American-Chinese food,” says the anonymously posted article.

“The association with General Tso, or Zuo Zongtang, a Qing dynasty general and statesman, is unclear. One theory is that the dish was a classic specialty from Hunan province, invented by General Tso's wife and served for him and his officers, although this theory is generally considered to be apocryphal.[2] Hunan cuisine is traditionally very spicy and rarely sweet. Instead, the dish is believed to have been introduced to New York City in the early 1970s as an example of Hunan and Szechuan-style cooking.[1][3] The dish was first mentioned in The New York Times in 1977.[4]

So there you have it. Reading between the lines, it’s clear--in a Mark Twain tall tale kind of way--that the devilishly devious Nixon ordered a White House cook to concoct a sweet and spicy dish that could be palmed off on the Eastern Liberal Establishment as an authentically Chinese delicacy. While the New York Liberal Media Elite was aswoon over discovering a new dish in Chinatown, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger slipped unnoticed off to Beijing and made arrangements for Nixon’s stunning political reversal as an implacable foe of Communism by traveling to China in February 1972 to eat a real Chinese dinner with Mao Tse-tung himself.

Kissinger was back in Beijing again this week, smiling like the Cheshire Cat at China’s president, Hu Jintao, in a photo-op with a beaming Jimmy Carter. As usual, Carter, the straight-laced Baptist Sunday school teacher who served a lonely term as president in a White House where secret deals and fooling the public were forbidden, didn’t get the insider joke. But he duly noted that, thanks to Nixon and himself and a lot of other people, things have changed a lot since the days when American and Chinese soldiers fought each other bitterly over icy hills in Korea.

"There's been tremendous changes made in China, and I would expect that same trend toward more openness, more freedom, more participation in government by the people will continue," Carter told The Associated Press. Meanwhile, millions of Americans back home were ordering Chinese takeout dinners, pausing to savor the thought of chomping into a lip-smacking bite of General Tso’s chicken.

Monday, January 5, 2009

I Like Ike

I wrote this post a couple years ago as part of an autobiography I’m working on. Current news out of the Middle East reminded me how a president a long time ago addressed a crisis in that region and other hot-button military issues.

My hero when I was growing up was Dwight D. Eisenhower. His nickname was so famous, that’s all he had to put on his hugely popular presidential campaign buttons—“I Like Ike.” Like Ike, I wanted to attend West Point and become a famous general. With that glorious goal in mind, I paid little attention to what Eisenhower said as president.

I didn’t give it a thought when our revered World War II hero vowed in 1952 to go to Korea if elected president and stop the stalemated war over there. But then, I was only 9 at the time. If I overheard his “I Shall Go to Korea” speech on the radio, I quite likely only absorbed the first part of Ike’s ringing declaration of why he was running for president: “A soldier all my life, I have enlisted in the greatest cause of my life—the cause of peace.”

Nor did I take note when Ike refused, four years later, to support Britain, France and Israel’s invasion of Egypt in the Suez Crisis. By then, I was a freshman in high school and aiming to join the Army as soon as I was old enough. I don’t recall thinking about, or discussing in class, Ike’s statement about the Suez Crisis—“we do not accept the use of force as a wise or proper instrument for the settlement of international disputes”—and his no-nonsense diplomatic moves to stop that war.

Indeed, for all my civic preparation in high school, Boy Scouts and the American Legion Boys State program to be a model citizen, a major theme of the Eisenhower era, I had no idea what Ike was about. Eager to emulate his military career, I tuned out what he had to say about current affairs, even though his points were based on his military experience.

I certainly didn’t take in Ike’s Farewell Address, as he stepped down from his second term as president, in January 1961. As a high school senior about to turn 18, I was tightly focused on getting into West Point. Good old Eisenhower’s era was over. Now it was my turn to conquer the world. Like so many others who soon after marched off to wage a disastrous war in Indochina, I didn’t pay attention to Ike’s urgent message to America and the world:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose difference, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war-as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years-I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

(Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961.)

(This article also posted at