Thursday, April 30, 2009

An Old Book's Lessons

For decades, through multiple moves and clearings out of dusty bookshelves, I’ve dragged around a book by John Kenneth Galbraith. The sole reason for keeping this timeworn tome is that Galbraith signed it and, with a hearty flourish, handed it to me when we both appeared on a national TV talk program in 1971. Yet, while flattered to catch the eye of the famous Harvard economist, I never found the time to read a doorstopper dauntingly entitled A Contemporary Guide to Economics Peace and Laughter.

After a recent move, I stumbled across Galbraith’s guide in a pile of old books stacked on my apartment floor. Leafing through it, to see if its time has come to be donated to a library book sale, I was struck by how insightful Galbraith was about current events.

“One day in the winter of 1969…a reporter asked me if I expected another stock market crash. I replied, as I had a hundred times since I wrote a book on the 1929 experience, that of course there would be,” he wrote in a chapter titled “Financial Genius Is Before the Fall.” Then he succinctly explained what he learned in studying the reasons for the financial crash that ushered in the Great Depression. “The reason is that the stock market is inherently unstable, the instability being related to its superbly orchestrated ability to attract people with a promise of effortless riches, give them a taste of such gains, give them the promise of a great deal more … and then, usually after overcoming some preliminary setbacks which greatly add to the general state of confidence, destroy these illusions in one mortal thud. What is necessary for a new disaster is only for memories of the last one to fade,” he noted in what initially was an article in Harper’s magazine.

If Galbraith were still around—he died in 2006 at 97—he’d likely dash off a zinger on the current fiscal crisis. For fodder, all he’d need would be a headline in today’s New York Times, “Economy Shrinks at Its Fastest Rate Since the 1950s,” and the accompanying time chart showing the repetitive recurrence of recessions in the USA. The chart showed 11 downturns in the national economy from 1949 to the current crash.

For those who endured the downturn of 1970, for instance, Galbraith wrote a stinging contemporary analysis in New York magazine, reprinted in his book as “The Nixon Administration and the Great Socialist Revival.” That was the year the federal government seriously weighed taking over private railroads, starting with a nearly $1 billion bailout of Penn Central and other faltering rail companies. “This dramatic rush to socialism won the initial approval of the Republican Administration. … Full nationalization of the railroads is being discussed. ‘Washington seems to be the only power that has the potential, at least, of building a rational, balanced, national rail system,’ Time magazine declared in a special editorial early in the summer of 1970,” Galbraith wrote. And who was pushing for government action? “Urged on by what Newsweek called ‘a frantic consortium of 77 banks,’ the railroad executives turned to the state.”

In a move right out of recent headlines, the government also rushed to shore up a jittery stock market. “The Wall Street vehicle of the new socialism is the Securities Investor Protection Corporation or SIPC, a fund created by the Stock Exchange which is to be guaranteed by the government to the extent of a billion dollars. This will pay off the customers, creditors and victims of the failed [stock exchange] houses,” Galbraith wrote in 1970. Galbraith’s take on all this was caustic. “I am concerned with reminding everyone that financial genius consists almost entirely of avarice and a rising market,” he wrote, describing the recurring cycles of the stock market’s ruinous losses of people’s life savings.

When he handed me his book, I knew little about economics or Galbraith, other than that he was a widely quoted author and former government official. What caught my attention was his blunt opposition to the war in Vietnam. Galbraith’s gift to me on the set of The David Frost Show was meant, I’m sure, as a sharing of his thoughts with a Vietnam veteran whose critique of the war had just appeared in The New York Times.

For all his witty quips on politics, which reporters loved to quote, Galbraith was widely experienced in what made the US government tick. Dipping deeper into this book on his take on war-making in Indochina unveils passages describing why our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still being endlessly waged.

“It is impossible to think of a case more intellectually inert than that for the Vietnam war. Yet the war continues. This is because the bureaucracy, the military and intelligence bureaucracy in particular, operates not in response to national need but in response to its own needs,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in 1970, reprinted in this book as “Foreign Policy: Plain Lessons of a Bad Decade.” From his perspective, which included a term as ambassador to India in the early 1960s, Galbraith wrote that “the inertial dynamic of the bureaucracy is the major explanation of the disasters of the decade. At the Bay of Pigs, in the Dominican Republic, in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand (as again in Cambodia), the bureaucracy showed its power to sweep the leadership into disaster and against all the counsels of common sense.”

What he critiqued 40 years ago illuminates the mind set that still holds sway in Washington. That mind set is fixed on mounting massive military interventions in Third World nations, leading to repeated, indecisive battles with incensed people who keep fighting to defend their lands no matter how much their impoverished region is pelted by bombs and bullets. “The proper policy toward the Third World requires not only new doctrine but also elimination of the need for a large part of the military, intelligence and civilian bureaucracy that conducts the present policy.… It would be na├»ve to imagine that these organizations will acquiesce easily in the change, however effectively they are proven in error and however ghastly the resulting experience. Not wickedness but the dynamics of big organization is involved. It is a far greater factor in our foreign policy than we have even begun to realize,” Galbraith argued.

“American [military] withdrawal does not ensure good international behavior … It accepts only the lesson of the last decade, which is that our intervention does us no good and, for the people involved, can make everything much worse.” Instead, Galbraith argued for mounting “orthodox diplomatic relations and the assistance in capital, technique or volunteer manpower that an economically and technically advanced country finds it morally rewarding or economically advantageous to render to its less equipped neighbors.”

Hmm, given our new Era of Change, maybe I should donate this book to the Obama White House.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Writers at Work

Writing is an essential nourishment for writers. “I felt so much better doing that,” an Iraq war vet turned poet and playwright said, exhaling as though he’d just pumped oxygen into his muscles by jogging around the block, after jotting down some thoughts during a writers’ workshop the other day. Earlier, one of the participants blurted out, in an agitated tone, that he felt out of sorts because he hadn’t written anything lately.

I’ve been jotting down random thoughts and observations on scraps of paper and in pocket notebooks since I was a soldier in Vietnam. But my writing was undisciplined and often frustrating until I became a working journalist. So I was delighted to be invited to an unusual workshop that’s been traveling around the United States to assist veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to tell pent-up stories.

The Warrior Writers workshop and evening reading at the City University of New York Graduate Center revived memories of the early 1970s, when I worked with a small group of Vietnam vets and supporters to put together a poetry collection titled Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. We published the book ourselves out of my apartment in Brooklyn and then hawked it at readings at colleges in New York and around the country. Asked for my comments during the workshop on Monday, I said that collaboration with other vets to convey our experiences and views through our writing was the best education of my life.

This workshop was equally informative. “People don’t know what women do in war,” said Robynn Murray, a slim young woman wearing an array of nose rings and an Iraq Veterans Against the War T-shirt. “I was a machine gunner for 10 months in Baghdad.” Then she read a journal entry about getting home and suddenly crying while driving with her mother. “I couldn’t tell my mother [why], because I was scared she’d see what a monster I’ve become and not love me any more.”

Whistling outbursts of breath and supportive gestures and comments shot around the conference table at CUNY’s graduate school on 5th Avenue, where about a dozen veterans were huddled with Lovella Calica, director of the Warrior Writers Project. Also at the table was a set of volunteer writing coaches that included Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ, and David Gothard, a director at the Abbey Theatre Dublin, who also works with a writers’ workshop in Derry, Northern Ireland, the Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University in NJ and the Theatre Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Mann, who wrote a play about a Vietnam veteran’s home front problems (Still Life), said she was fascinated by the way Calica uses idea “prompts” to set a mood for the veterans to do productive writing on the spot. The first prompt—“Where are you today?”—set off a flurry of writing in journals, notebooks, or on pieces of handmade paper crafted from sliced up military uniforms. The Warrior Writers Project sparked the Combat Paper Project, which has been a thought-provoking, uniform-shredding sensation at colleges across the US in the past year. The writing workshops have produced a chapbook and an anthology of poetry and artwork (Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense).

The Combat Paper Project was started in 2007 in Vermont by a small group of artists and veterans who have conducted workshops from Cape Cod to California, creating art works that have been purchased by major museums and libraries, bringing both a source of funding and social affirmation. “These workshops serve as a catalyst for insight and discussion, as well as psychological release,” stated the program note for a recent exhibit at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington, Vermont.

“This has saved my life,” said Jennifer Pacanowski, an Army veteran who has participated in a number of the writing and papermaking workshops in various locations. She said she feels isolated in her hometown in Pennsylvania, where there are few other Iraq war veterans to get together with. Some of the other veterans traveled from Vermont, upstate New York and even more distant places to participate in the CUNY workshop in Manhattan. The day of events included an evening reading in the Martin E. Segal Theatre of some of their work and a new play, Returns: A Meditation in Post-Trauma, by a former Abu Ghraib interrogator turned conscientious objector, Joshua Casteel.

Gothard talked about working with Casteel, a theater student at the University of Iowa, to develop what began as email messages into a play. Both he and Mann encouraged the veterans to develop a regular habit of writing, to jot down memories, experiences and ideas in raw form and then work on refinements. “This is his first play,” Gothard said of Casteel’s drama about an Iraq veteran beset by brutal memories of fellow soldiers and an Iraqi man they tortured during interrogation sessions, an experience that drove one of the GIs to suicide. “It’s incredibly courageous. It also is what we look for in theater,” he said of the play’s moral dilemmas. The play was read by student actors from Montclair State and Florida State, with stage directions narrated by a recent Princeton grad with the New Jersey Repertory Company.

“You don’t really come back. Things come back with you,” one of the characters says. “My family didn’t understand,” he says later on, after a scene that recreates sadistically berating a prisoner whom the GIs pinned a medal on while mockingly calling him the President. “We had to be proud,” the speaker continues in a bitter outburst about coming home to a nation that patriotically sent its soldiers to wage relentless war on Iraqis, “so they could feel proud of their yellow ribbons.” Vets from the workshop told the audience of about 70 people that the play conveyed their sentiments “pretty dead-on,” as Jon Michael Turner, a marine veteran, said. “It really hit home.”

“I think my PTSD comes from growing up gay in Alabama,” quipped Jeff Key, a strapping tall ex-marine who looked like a New York magazine model wearing a blazer, crisp white shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. “The war really starts when you come home.” Key, author of a play (The Eyes of Babylon) based on his war journals, read a stream-of-consciousness poem about visiting a “dog tag memorial” to soldiers who died in Iraq, created by an artist in an out-of-the-way place that seldom had visitors. To a question from the audience—“how did you learn to find your voices?”—he said “We’ve learned by doing. We go to workshops with each other.”

Displaying a portfolio of his papermaking art work, Turner said this creative collaboration has been “a tool for veterans to find ourselves, to find our voice.” He noted that he put together a hand-made “journal book with paper from four generations in my family’s uniforms.” A key part of the collaboration, he added, is that the vets support each other in dealing with “mental issues.”

A key part of the workshop and reading was airing troublesome thoughts. “I’m not very good at reading,” said Jennifer Pacanowski, who was visibly nervous as she addressed the close-packed audience surrounding the intimate theater space. “I can barely breathe.” Noting that she was a medic in Iraq, she rose from her stage seat. “I have to stand for this.” Rising to the rigid military stance of “Attention,” she proclaimed:

We are not your heroes,
Heroes come back in body bags and caskets…
We are not your heroes.
We are your burden
Smacking you in the face with our honesty of this needless war.
We fought
So you have the freedom to judge us.

Audience members responded with a round of applause and encouraging comments during a question and answer session: “It is such an act of courage to read on stage something that you wrote yourself,” said a woman. “We need you—we need this kind of work,” said another. A man suggested that the vets’ poems and art work be recorded in a documentary. The reply was that there is a film being made, called Iraq Paper Scissors.

For more information:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)