Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day!

According to Wikipedia, Memorial Day has been observed in America for almost 150 years, beginning after the Civil War as Decoration Day, a day established by an organization of Union veterans to honor Union soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers.  As time passed, the day evolved into one in which all veterans of all wars were honored.

Unfortunately, also per Wikipedia, there are plenty of war deaths to honor; approximately 1.5 million fatalities, in addition to another 1.5 million wounded or missing.  Interestingly, while many more American lives were lost during the American Civil War (upwards of 750,000, compared to 400,000 in WW2), there were more military lives lost in combat during World War 2, about 300,000 compared to the Civil War (a little over 210,000).  Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, twice as many Americans lost their lives during the Revolutionary War outside of combat (17,000) as in combat (only 8,000).  Of course, we don't note method of death on our veterans graves, don't separate those that died from gunfire from those who died of starvation or disease. 

One can easily conclude from a quick perusal of the death and injured charts, that we have seen a tremendous advance in our ability to treat and save the lives of our injured warriors.  Up until the 20th century, more deaths occurred in war than injuries, presumably because the injured died of their wounds before treatment or transport to medical facilities was possible.  During the World Wars, more were injured than dead, and by the Korean and Vietnam Wars that ratio grew to 3 to 1.  Now, statistics from our latest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate just how advanced our in-field medical technology has advanced as only one in nine injured soldiers die of their wounds.

Of course, the scale of wars America has been involved in has no comparison today than during our very worst war, against ourselves, and in the World Wars of the 20th century.  Literally hundreds of deaths occurred to Americans per day in those conflicts; over 400 per day during the Civil War, and almost 300 per day during the World Wars.  Imagine that, each and every day for years at a time, hundreds of American families lost a loved one.  Perhaps the good news is that only 11 or so deaths occurred per day during Vietnam, yet those deaths spurred everyday Americans to question the legitimacy of our involvement in that conflict.

At this point, many people forget that the Iraq-Afghanistan is the longest running war in American history recently surpassing the Vietnam War.  Perhaps because ONLY 1.5 soldiers have died in the years since 2001 during this war, and only dozens in that last few years, we seem to have forgotten that we are at war at all.  Sad that, except for the occasional politically driven headline about the state of our VA hospitals and the care being given, we also seem to have forgotten about the 50,000+ injured men and women that have resulted from our excursions into those countries. 

While our ability to wage war has increased dramatically, as evidenced by our use of drones to target those we have determine should die, we, at least as of now, are limiting the number of boots on the ground in the Middle East.  Perhaps America has lost her taste for continued deaths of our citizens overseas.  Perhaps we tire of being the world's policemen. 

Still, it is apparent from the recent success of the two presumptive presidential candidates, that use of force is not still attractive when dealing with our enemies.  Hillary Clinton, whether due to the pressures of needing to seem tough in order to get elected as a woman, or whether she truly believes in the use of force, is certainly no dove.  And Donald Trump seems to have never met a reason not to bully or strike back, or a weapon not to be used, when dealing with an adversary he doesn't like or an idea not his own.  

While we wring our hands over the prospect of a nuclear Iran or a North Korean spasm, we applaud certain statements that seem to suggest that we will use force, any force, we deem necessary to stop evil.  What is truly sad is that in 2008 when President Obama was elected, we were knee deep in military deaths.  We elected someone who sought diplomacy before conflict, who seemed to value the lives of those who chose to serve in our military by NOT sending them to die in foreign lands.  For his efforts, he is now accused by some to have made America impotent in the face of ISIS and the various other crazies like them.  Strange that they blink past the needless money and American lives that have been wasted in the Middle East, seeking to double down by spending even more resources and wasting even more lives.  All while we vote with flag in hand and patriotic pin on lapel to spend over $600 billion dollars a year on our military while our public schools strain to pay the bills, and our college graduates face tens of thousands of dollars in debt once they leave school. 

Memorial Day is, and should be about honoring those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for America and for its citizens.  But I hope that there might come a day when it also reminds people of the strength and sacrifice it takes to NOT use violence to solve one problems, whether those problems be personal or national.  To honor those who have died for our country by resorting to violence only as a last resort, not first thought.  To make the meaning of Memorial Day more than remembering those who died but about preventing those deaths in the first place.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Making America Great Again

Clearly, the call for a return to when America was great has inspired the popularity of both "change" candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, that common thread being that the politicians in Washington have been doing the bidding of Big Business/Special Interests at the expense of everyday Americans.  Whether one points to the outsourcing of jobs, tax laws that provide too many loopholes for the rich, or the stagnation of the standard of living for American workers, both change candidates blame Washington.  One might argue that Trump's solutions lean heavily on the demonization of illegal aliens and Muslim terrorists while Sanders pointed to the evil inside America as represented by corporations buying our elected servants, the dysfunction of Washington was the common denominator.  "They" let our borders soften allowing illegals to stream into America, "they" let Big Business move manufacturing jobs overseas where labor was cheap, "they" did nothing to stand up for America in the face of China's growth as an economic power fueled in part by American businesses, currency manipulation, and unfair trade practices.  "They" sold out America for short term profits and long term employment in the public sector.

And, it is easy to get excited by the prospect of finding blame, rooting out the guilty, and marching forward, flag in hand, towards a better day when America is great again as is evident in the meteoric rise in popularity of both Trump and Sanders in the past year. 

But we seem to have missed the answer to an important question; who is responsible for electing these horrific public servants?   Sadly, of course, the answer is the American electorate.  We are responsible for the "mess in Washington", and rather than take credit for our poor record of choosing those we elect, we prefer to divert the blame, and then run into the arms of anyone politically smart enough to realize our greatest weakness; the inability to look in the mirror to place blame.

Even sadder, when the time to vote rolls around, we stay at home in droves.  Over 225 million people were eligible to vote in 2008, yet only 131 million (58%) actually voted.  In 2012, about 235 million people were eligible, yet less people voted than in 2008, dropping the percentage to less than 55%. 
When compared to the voting rates in the "developed" countries, we perform abysmally.
Now, one might make the argument that more people voting won't necessarily mean better results, but at least the elections would reflect the opinions of most of the people, not half.  Some of the better performing countries have passed mandatory voting laws.  Can you imagine forcing Americans to vote?  I wonder what kind of play demonstrators against forced voting laws would get on Fox News?

However, an even bigger question regarding making America great, is how one defines great?  Do we harken back to WW2 when America saved the world from Hitler?  Does that translate into saving the world from ISIS today?  Muslim fanaticism?  Communist China?  What great protagonist do we need to identify (or create), so we can defeat it and become great again.  And, is this greatness dependent on others' agreement, or can we anoint ourselves as great without third party opinion?

Perhaps greatness is having the biggest economy or strongest military.  Check and check.  But do we use those assets to their best advantage?   If you listen to Trump or peruse his ideas, we should be more forceful in the use of our assets to gain advantage.  Economic pain first, the use of force if necessary.  After all, what good is having such might if it is rendered impotent?   Is a country or a person great because they are the strongest and force their will on others? 

Some might postulate that greatness can be reflected in the freedoms granted to all people.  Are Americans the most free people in the world?  We certainly have a history of not allowing all people to enjoy the benefits of our country.  Our treatment of Native Americans and African Americans is not exemplary.  Marriage equality, while finally the law of the land, has created much backlash in some circles where the right to discriminate is religiously based.  I would argue that we are near the top of the list in terms of freedom, yet I suspect that too large a strain of the current push to make America great includes restrictions on some people based on nationality, color and religious affiliation, not expanding freedoms. 

Is greatness a reflection of education?  When I Google "Best Countries for Education", the United States generally ranks in the top 10, frequently top 5 depending on the criteria.  While we do not spend the most per child, we do gain points for having some of the best universities in the world.  I would think that it is a no brainer, given the fact that the next generation of leadership is currently enrolled in our public and private schools, a focus on education might be wise.  Yet I do not see education on the top of the list by some touting American greatness.  In fact, at times, educated people are ridiculed for being smart, while certain scientists in the fields of climate change and evolution are considered anti-capitalist at best, godless at worst.

Perhaps greatness can be defined simply as taking responsibility for one's actions whether individually or as a group.   If we want to believe that American Democracy is one of our greatest inventions, then we must participate, knowingly, in the system.  And, if we are to set the goal of becoming great, or adding to our greatness, then perhaps we need to eschew those definitions that include bullying, extortion and killing, and embrace the concepts of equal opportunity, a more equitable income distribution system, and freedom for all, not just for those that look or worship like ourselves.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Final thoughts on Disaster

Took advantage of my day off yesterday to finish the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly.  A number of essays towards the end inspired this post.

The first was excerpted from William James' "On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake", concerning the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  James was in Palo Alto at the time, studying at Stanford University, where the earthquake was felt, albeit at a much lesser degree as Stanford is about 35 miles from San Francisco.  James' essay recounts how his experiences surrounding this disaster confirmed his belief that man can do extraordinary things when faced with difficult circumstances.  His observations centered around the cooperation that was exhibited by the survivors, how so many everyday people stepped up to assist where assistance was needed. 

Similarly, an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit's "A Paradise Built in Hell", expounds on James' beliefs, as Solnit recounts the response by those effected by numerous disasters.  Her conversations with the survivors of all types of natural disasters, led her to posit that the best of humanity is often displayed at the worst of times.  In fact, she goes further in her thinking that such disasters break us out of the modern lifestyle that corrals us into limited contact with our fellow man; the use of computers and cell phones rather than face to face conversations.  And, when forced to renew our social contacts, man reacts admirably, for the most part.  In essence, she uses the best of our reactions to disaster to contradict the prevalent belief that men are fragile, in need of professional help to navigate the perils of the world. 

But it is one thing to rejoice in the altruistic and honorable behavior of the survivors of disasters, and another thing when considering the victims of those same tragedies.  In Svetlana Alexievich's "Voices From Chernobyl", the story of Lyudmilla Ignayenko, and her husband, who was one of the firemen from the first fire brigade to arrive at the crippled power plant, is recounted.  What was striking to me was the juxtaposition of the day before the reactor's meltdown and everyday afterwards, until the death of Luydmilla's husband from radiation poison.  As it is when any story is retold, as it would be if we were to read about the day before activities of any of the 3000 people who died on 9/11, those stories include birthday parties, news of recent engagements or pregnancies, vacation plans, and a myriad of everyday events, going to school or work or church.  And that is the rub.  One day, life is normal.  The next day, everything has changed, forever. 

The reality however, is that everyday is the last day of normal life for thousands of people in our country.  Some die from a fatal disease that has sucked the life from them for a while, some from complications to a medical procedure that may have extended their life, but did not.  Some are killed instantly in accidents, vehicular or gun related.  These people and their families did not have the warning of a fatal disease diagnosis, just one day there, the next day gone. 

What is strange is that the odds are, we won't die tomorrow.  So we pretend we are temporarily immortal, and spend too much of the time of our life engaged in petty arguments.  We fight over possessions, land, minerals, knowing we can't take them with us, but fighting all the same.  We ignore the knowledge that while we may not die tomorrow, there will be a two day span sometime in the future where life will be normal one day, over the next. 

Perhaps ignoring that inevitability is good for the mind, keeps one from falling into an existential morass.  Perhaps.  But maybe acknowledging our immortality is what inspires the actions of those who survive calamities.  They experience death through others, are grateful to have not been a victim, and find their eyes are reopened to the wonder of being alive.

Do we cry when a loved one dies for them only, for the fact that we will never see them in this life again, or also because we know that day will one day arrive for us too, and we worry that we might not experience all that we want before that day comes.  Or do as much good as we could.

I would like to think that James and Solnit are correct in their belief that disaster brings out the best in us, because it assumes that the best is already there, waiting to show itself.  Now, if we could only demonstrate those higher qualities without the need for catastrophe. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Getting to the end of the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly called Disaster.  Just finished reading one of the ending essays, by John Gray.  Very thought provoking, and challenging to both the prevalent world view which is dominated by Western thinking, and my personal perspective.  If interested, the link below will take you to the essay.

In a nutshell, Gray uses the current bogeyman of the day, ISIS, to rebuke the basis of, not only our generally accepted foreign policy, but the entire set of beliefs that equate the movement towards a modern society with the eventual elimination of barbarism.  He states that barbarism has long existed as part of man's nature, but rather than decreasing as man's sense of civilization has evolved, it has merely changed in its form of expression as technology has changed.  In other words, the simple slash, pillage and burn mode of conquering that was prevalent for literally thousands of years, has been dramatically altered with the advances in weaponry.  He cites the many 20th and 21st century examples of barbarism as proof that our ability to be cruel and savage has been multiplied by our ability to create nuclear bombs, kill from miles above the ground, and present our atrocities to the world via social media and instant access to information.  He in no means defends ISIS, but he does cite the many examples of those who went before ISIS using those same techniques.

Gray often mentions in his essay how it should be no surprise that a group such as ISIS has arisen in the Middle East, considering our disastrous actions to destabilize the region.  We remove the structure, however distasteful we may find it, and leave a vacuum of power that is instantly filled by those very same forces that were being restrained by that structure.  He scoffs at our naiveté in thinking that by liberating a people from a dictator, the West would be greeted with open arms, and a democracy would quickly follow, when the people of that area had no recent experience with democracy.  Gray reminds us in no uncertain terms, that our version of freedom, runs contrary to a population where religion is more important, and divisive, than in the West.  At one point he quotes a high ranking official who was prescient in stating decades ago that drawing lines in the sand to create countries where no national allegiance exists would need strong leadership rooted in suppression and restriction, not freedom.  Finally, he warns that continued destabilization in Syria would exacerbate the problem, not solve it. 

I think that the following quote best illustrates Gray's mindset.

"Civilization is not the endpoint of modern history, but a succession of interludes in recurring spasms of barbarism".

This is his main disagreement with the liberal mind in general, me in particular.  I believe that man is evolving intellectually, socially and spiritually.  That as time marches past, instances of terrorism will lessen, both on the individual level and group level.  Gray asks the question, why do we wonder why some European born men leave their homes to fight for ISIS?  He seems almost amused that we can't get our mind around why someone would depart from the freedoms that exist in most western nations to join an extreme group marked by utter control of the individual.  We ask how did they come to be "radicalized", yet forget that an entire nation turned to barbarism against those deemed less than human during World War 2.  We are baffled by the hundreds from Europe who join ISIS, without remembering the millions who followed Hitler and his policies of genocide.

Gray condemns the reluctance of western leaders to unequivocally call a spade a spade, and commit to a unified policy of defeating ISIS.  On that front, he agrees with the hawks among us who want to eradicate the ISIS threat.  Yet, at the same time, he rejects the notion that democracy and capitalism are the answer.  It is as if, he has determined that we need to court the lesser of two evils by supporting strong arm dictators like Hussein, Khadafy and Assad, and hope that their lust for power will remain regional, and not spill into "our" world.  He is willing to condemn all those people whose only guilt will be to be born in the Middle East, to a life under the rule of a psychopath.  To me, it seems like a short term answer, yet understandable if one believes that man is more evil by nature than good.

So, we ridicule the Bush Administration for its debacle in executing the Iraq War, yet, perhaps, admire those who thought that the uplifting nature of capitalism and democracy might break the cycle of fundamental religious views that seem to mark so much of the region.  Certainly, and despite my belief that a similar backlash by those who cannot handle the changes now replete in our society are resulting in anti-human laws that seek to find sin and evil in those unlike us, I prefer a naïve optimism over a cynical fatalism.

As someone who has been more recently exposed to History, and the facts surrounding the advanced societies that existed in America before it was "discovered", in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, perhaps we should ask ourselves if, centuries ago when Europe was marked by barbarism and all the advanced cultures were elsewhere, would it have been better had we been dismissed as people who would never change, could never change?

I often remark that violence begets violence, hatred breeds more hatred.  That only Love can defeat evil.  That, in the end, God created man to spend life searching for the line that separates good and bad, and to then choose a side, and that God created humanity to seek a group decision to act to benefit or harm each other, and the planet we inhabit. 

Yet, it is the real world we live in where there is in fact bad people engaged in horrible acts.  And, it seems ever more clear that despite our desire for simple answers, there are no simple answers to such complicated issues.  But perhaps answers will come more readily if we strive to expand our perspective, rather than narrowing it, whether that narrowing is caused by nationalism, religion, or politics. 

When one believes there is only one way, one Truth, one solution for every question, is that the mark of consistency or the burden of intransigence?

Is obliteration the only way to defeat those who engage in Barbarism?  Not if we assume that barbarism is part of our nature.  Does "using all means to defeat one's enemy" move us over the line from good to bad if we use torture to achieve that goal?  When is it time to fight the good fight, and how far removed from "good" is justifiable to fight that fight?

Gray takes on a tough subject.  Strange that his essay appears in a magazine called Disaster.