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.”

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(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.”

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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.

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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.”

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(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)