It’s NOT About Issues

Today Howard Zinn had an article titled Beyond the New Deal posted on The Nation’s website (and will be in the April 7, 2008 issue).

The gifted narrator quickly begins a hypothetical speech that could be given by a candidate with a concerned finger on our collective pulse, "Imagine the response a Democratic candidate would get from the electorate if he or she spoke as follows…"

Rather than ignore the flaws of the New Deal Zinn draws upon them as a symbol of where progress can continue.

It’s not just FDR’s New Deal that could be improved upon in order to better our society.

Last weekend I found a used library copy of Thoms Ricks’ Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. This book seems to encompass the narrow spectrum of criticism about the illegal war waged on Iraq. The problem is not whether it was right  – morally or legally – to wage war on Iraq, but as he noted in an online interview posted on the Amazon page for his book the problem is HOW we waged the war:

" You cite many strategic errors in the planning and execution of the war, but perhaps the central one is that the U.S. military leadership failed to recognize that they were fighting an insurgency, and their methods of fighting in fact helped to create that insurgency. Can you explain those methods, and their effects?

"Ricks: The U.S. military that went into Iraq in 2003 was the best military in the world for fighting another military. But it was woefully unprepared for the task at hand. For example, U.S. military culture believes in bringing overwhelming force to bear. Yet classic counterinsurgency doctrine calls for using only the minimal amount of force necessary to get the job done. U.S. soldiers and their commanders, untrained and unschooled in the difficult art of counterinsurgency, tended to improvise. So in the summer of 2003, some soldiers in Baghdad decided that the best way to deter looters was to make them cry–and they sometimes did this by threatening to shoot the children of looters, and even conducting mock executions.

"More broadly, the Army in the fall of 2003 fell back on what it knew how to do, which was conduct large-scale "cordon-and-sweep" operations. These missions scarfed up thousands of Iraqis, most of them fence-sitting neutrals, and detained them. U.S. military intelligence officials later concluded that 85% of those detained were of no intelligence value. The detention experience frequently was humiliating for Iraqis, a violation of another key counterinsurgency principle: Treat your prisoners well. (Your readers who want to know more about this should read a terrific little book by David Galula titled Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.)

"Not every unit was ineffective or counterproductive. I was struck at how successful the 101st Airborne was in Mosul in 2003-04. And some units showed remarkable improvement–the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had a mediocre first tour of duty in Iraq, but when it went back in 2005 for a second tour, it did extremely well. Col. H.R. McMaster, the regimental commander (and author of a very good book about the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty) told his troops that, "Every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you are working for the enemy." I was especially struck by how his regiment handled its prisoners–it even had a program called "Ask the Customer" that quizzed detainees when they were released about whether they felt treated well. This recognized the lesson of past wars that the best way to end an insurgency is to get its leaders to put down their guns and enter the political system, and to get the rank-and-file to desert or switch sides. But it will be harder to discuss the sewage system with the new mayor next year if your troops beat him in his cell when he was your prisoner last year."

Again, the problem is not that we did it, but how we did or didn’t do it. It is disturbing that criticism of the war can be expressed with "I was struck at how successful the 101st Airborne was in Mosul in 2003-04."

But, it’s not just Ricks that expresses a similar attitude.

I recently encountered someone, an American soldier, who said "I had the greatest time of my life in Iraq."

I noted that this was a disturbing comment and was told, "not really. I wasn’t out killing and being shot at. When you are in that enviroment the bonds that are formed are unlike anything else."

I then proceeded to paint a hypothetical picture to take us out of our shoes of the aggressor and to put our feet in the shoes of the victims. I said:

"Imagine that China had initially supported a coup de tat that brought into power a dictatorship that pitted different sects, ethnicities and what not against each other.

"Then this dictatorship supported by China started a war against Mexico that killed millions of Americans and Mexicans and that after this war the US misread Chinas intentions [call it an April Glaspie moment] and invaded Canada because the US borrowed trillions from Canada to protect them from Mexico – or so their logic was – and because Canada demanded payments immediately (keep in mind the US has been nearly bankrupted by a decade long war with Mexico) that the US invaded.

"Now China turns on their dictator-ally and threatens to intervene. The US dictator offers numerous peace offers but China’s communist leader ignores them and invades. They target water treatment facilities to see the health effects, they target the electrical plants, they kick the Americans out of Canada and have a ‘turkey shoot’ as they flee; they bury thousands of American soldiers in trenches with bulldozers. They call for a popular uprising to overthrow the American dictator and then when the uprisings begin the Chinese give the American dictator permission to smash the uprisings that kill millions of Americans.

"Then begins more than a decades of sanctions that kill millions of children from preventable diseases and poverty. These sanctions are used to deny the US from rebuilding their water treatment facilities that the Chinese intentionally attacked (which are major war crimes). Cancer has skyrocketed thanks to the use of depleted uranium. The Chinese foreign minister says the death of millions of American children by sanctions was ‘worth it.’

"Then despite Canada or Mexico feeling threatened by the United States of America the Chinese begin to make bogus claims about an imminent threat that the Americans pose and attack them again. This invasion and occupation kills millions more and causes an ethnic cleansing that causes nearly 5% of the population to flee the country to live in shoddy refugee camps in neighboring countries with fear of being murdered by death squads if they return.

"Now during all of this, what would your thoughts be if a Chinese soldier said he had the time of his life in the US?"

Stubborness knows no bounds.

"If that chinese soldier claimed to have the time or experience of his life while ‘facilitating’ in this war because of the relationships he formed, because his sense of right and wrong in the world had changed, and he had a new take on both his life and his place in the universe, I would have no problem with it at all." I am not kidding. This is a real conversation.

A couple of years ago CNN reported that, "Dean Kamen, the engineer who invented the Segway, is puzzling over a new equation these days. An estimated 1.1 billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water, and an estimated 1.6 billion don’t have electricity. Those figures add up to a big problem for the world—and an equally big opportunity for entrepreneurs.

"To solve the problem, he’s invented two devices, each about the size of a washing machine that can provide much-needed power and clean water in rural villages.

"Kamen is not alone in his quest. He’s been joined by Iqbal Quadir, the founder of Grameen Phone, the largest cell phone company in Bangladesh. Last year, Quadir took prototypes of Kamen’s power machines to two villages in his home country for a six-month field trial. That trial, which ended last September, sold Quadir on the technology.

So much so in fact that Quadir’s startup, Cambridge, Mass.-based Emergence Energy, is negotiating with Kamen’s Deka Research and Development to license the technology. Quadir then hopes to raise $30 million in venture capital to start producing the power machines."

I haven’t seen much of this develope and right now clean water is an important issue, but think about this for a minute. Joseph Stiglitz is estimating our cost of war to surpass $3 trillion while only $30 million is needed to jumpstart a program to provide life saving resources to the worlds poor.

Then there is xenophobic hysteria about immigrants. The issue seems to be more about HOW they come here and not WHY they come here. This completely avoids the possibility of looking at our own political and economic policies that play roles behind why someone would come here in the first place.

It is important to note – though we shouldn’t have to – that numerous studies have shown that many of the claims about "illegals" are wrong. As one study titled Taxing Undocumented Immigrants: Separate, Unequal and Without Representation put it:

"Americans believe that undocumented immigrants are exploiting the United States’ economy. The widespread belief is that illegal aliens cost more in government services than they contribute to the economy. This belief is undeniably false. [E]very empirical study of illegals’ economic impact demonstrates the opposite."

It doesn’t matter to some because the broke the law by coming here illegally. I didn’t realize that respect for silly immigration laws mattered so much. What is more disturbing is the lack of knowledge on the realities of what it means to come here legally from Mexico. In the end they are "criminals" and we can forget that another study has found that "in California U.S.-born men have an institutionalization rate that is 10 times higher than that of foreign-born men (4.2% vs. 0.42%)."

And if we turn to the economy we see similar distortions. While some candidates support doing away with Social Security on false premises like Ron Paul these same candidates had no problem with voting for $140 billion in corporate welfare back in June 2004.

If workers were as cattered to as private industries are then we would all be doing much better. Tax cuts and economic stimulus packages are being used as bail outs and safety nets for affluent institutions while the real living wage for the working class continues to go down as inflation goes up and the gap between the rich and poor grows larger and larger and larger.

We are told by conservatives and libertarians who want to do away with social programs that people need to learn how to save better and to be more responsible, but then these same people fail to see that our economy is maintained by large amounts of protectionism. If it makes sense to provide safety nets for affluent institutions then it should be even more necessary for workers, retirees, disabled citizens and so on who have access to far less resources.

From the Pentagon budget to corporate welfare it is clear that what helps our economy is protectionism. In fact there are a couple of recent books being put out on this very topic. One is Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang, and the other is How Rich Countries Got Rich… and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor by Erik Reinert. If we can recognize that economic planning is important, and that sound economies are not really left to "markets", then what next is to look at how the planning occurs. Does it happen from above or below? Who decides, a special ruling class or the workers and consumers themselves?

How can we begin to fix our economy if we don’t really know how it works?

I was recently talking with my paternal grandfather about this. He is a New Deal Democrat and was a labor organizer in his prime. He believes in an honest wage for an honest days work. I asked him when will we stop putting bandaids and get to fixing the problem at its source. He smiled and got a twinkle in his eye and urged me to finish my thought. I gladly obliged and rhetorically inquired into how long the working class will allow a ruling class to make decisions for them.

When will we determine for ourselves our own wages?

When will we be done with labor reforms and move towards something along the lines of Michael Alberts PARECON?

Who has a problem with solidarity, diversity, self-management and equity?

These are indeed more radical thoughts than my grandfather ever contemplated. He is a practical man and considering the era he came from it is understandable.

All these issues are just waiting to be brought up in this election. Perhaps the existing realities of political campaigning neuter a candidate from discussing such issues as Ralph Nader has exemplified. But the lesson here should not be that we should give up. History should teach us another lesson. Namely that an organized population can not only make itself heard but can be the driving force behind progressive change. We should not be leaving our fates to the actions or inactions of politicians – or some ruling class – and we should be taking democracy seriously. We need to particiapte in the management of our affairs and turn this formal democractic system into a vibrant, functioning one that empowers citizens.

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