Saturday, January 31, 2009

Withdrawing "Combat" Troops

In his campaign to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2008 and again in the race for the White House, Barack Obama pledged that, if elected, he would remove all U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of assuming the presidency.
Undoubtedly, this promise alone influenced many voters. But what does the promise include – and what does it exclude? First some background.

At the most basic training level, everyone who wears a uniform is in the infantry. With the exception of chaplains and medical personnel, every soldier is issued a rifle of side arm and is taught how to use it.

Through most of the 20th century, the Army’s structure focused on the division as the principal self-sustaining warfighting and administrative level. Divisions consisted of some combination of combat (infantry, armor, artillery, aviation), combat support (engineer, communications, intelligence), and combat service support (logistics, transportation, maintenance) units. The division “type” – (infantry or armor) was based on simple arithmetic: if infantry battalions outnumbered armor battalions, the division was “infantry.”

The Army’s recent shift to the brigade (one level below the division) as the principal self-sustainable warfighting level is intended to speed response times to events. The result has been the creation of modular Brigade Combat Teams and Support Brigades whose strength runs between 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers.

Unchanged in all this is the historical system originally used to name combat units at the regimental (roughly equivalent to the brigade) level. The two world wars of the last century dissipated the regimental system which survives now only in the designations of combat arms battalions (one organizational level below brigade).

If someone says that all combat troops will be withdrawn from a geographic area within a set time, a listener would be justified in assuming that all units whose nomenclature includes the terms, “infantry,” “ armor,” “ cavalry,” “ artillery,” or “attack” or “combat” (such as “combat brigade”) would be totally withdrawn. The distinctive warfighting “Brigade Combat Teams” will be pulled out to meet the 16 month campaign pledge. But among the anticipated 50,000 or more “support” troops will be smaller units whose primary functional missions will include or even may be fully oriented to what ordinary people would label “warfighting.”

For example, an aviation company might draw a battlefield surveillance mission to prevent an enemy force from surprising a friendly ground unit. Should the aviation unit discover the approach of the enemy, it is not going to simply relay the sighting; it will either strike the enemy with its weaponry or (and) transport other friendly forces into a position to attack. Even more straight forward, an infantry unit might be kept in-country with a mission of “force protection” for reconstruction efforts.

The military will not count the unit as combat because that is not its mission – moreover, the unit is supporting the reconstruction team, which is the reverse of its normal position as the supported unit. Quick-reaction units and ones assigned convoy protection also will not be considered “combat” because of the functional nature of their missions which always include the right of “self-defense” if threatened by a hostile force.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama At the Pentagon

Today President Obama went to the Pentagon for a sit-down with what the media like to label “the military brass.” Commentators made much of the fact that the President went to the “home turf” of the military, proclaiming that the president’s journey across the Potomac River (it flows between the White House, located in the District of Columbia and the Pentagon located in northern Virginia) was an indication of the great respect the new commander-in-chief has for the men and women in uniform.


Left adrift by the unexpected length of the meeting, the media talking heads imbued the short automobile trip with a symbolism normally reserved for events that alter history, such as Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon.

Put the visit in perspective.

1. The Joint Chiefs had already as a body gone to the White House in Obama’s first full day as president to formally receive the president’s directive to plan for the drawdown and eventual complete withdrawal of all U.S. military forces in Iraq.

2. This meeting was the first opportunity for the new president to see the “tank” where the most highly classified secrets are discussed. After all, as commander-in-chief, Obama “owns” the real estate and the building sitting on it.

3. The range of topics discussed reportedly was broad. The Chiefs would want to have immediately at hand a bevy of senior joint staff officers who could respond to questions posed by the president and thus not waste presidential time. Taking this circus to the White House would require a multi-mile convoy of vehicles to ferry all “the brass” to the White House. Common sense suggests that moving the president and his entourage is more efficient.

I do not doubt that President Obama respects the men and women who serve in the armed forces. In his remarks after the Pentagon meeting, he expressed his and the country’s gratitude for the sacrifices of those in service and their families. He promised to get the troops the resources they would need to carry out their assigned missions. He also pledged to make sure that the nation’s military forces are supported in their missions by the civilian “forces” that constitute the non-military elements of national power such as the State Department and USAID.

Here I take issue with Obama, or at least with the way he phrased his comments. Perhaps the physical setting in which he made his remarks unconsciously influenced his choice of words. Whatever the cause, Until the Washington politicians get used to putting into motion the non-military sources of national power when confrontation looms, the U.S. will continue to stumble into armed conflict unnecessarily. Yes, it will take a re-ordering of priorities and resources to build the civilian tools of national power. But it is never too early to start talking about it so that, when the resources are redistributed, we already have the psychology right.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Rounding Up

In the beginning the repetition of the observation and even the tone of wonderment that crept into the voices of the pundits and talk show hosts seemed quite natural. After all, the election of Senator Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America breached the nation’s last remaining exclusive white male socio-political “club” – the presidency.

But by the middle of December, the commentaries had turned from mere celebration of the achievement to what I can only describe as near adulation and media-fed curiosity about every aspect of the coming transition – not just of the president-elect’s administration but of familial decisions relative to his spouse, his mother-in-law (who will move into the White House), and the two Obama daughters. Like Chelsea Clinton, the Obama children are still in elementary school, and the choice of which Washington-area school they would attend gave the media days worth of copy, as did the letter left the new first daughters by the Bush daughters (college age) and the choice of their wardrobes for inauguration day.

Perhaps the economic times called for more than the usual stylistic interest. Some recalled the interval between the election and the inauguration of John Kennedy on January 20, 1961. That too, was a significant generational change in the nation’s evolution; Kennedy, the first president born in the 20th century, brought new energy to the White House. Many have drawn the obvious comparison in terms of the youth, energy, and call to service made by Kennedy and Obama in their inaugural speeches. Both appealed to and challenged the nation’s youth to advance the ideals of the Founders to “form a more perfect Union” at home and restore America’s leadership abroad in conquering the ills of the day.

In 1960, I was finishing high school in the Midwest and so escaped direct exposure to the media frenzy that year. This year, however, found us inundated by the volumes of opinion, criticism, commentary, and analysis that consumed print inches, wore down hundreds of thousands of non-rechargeable batteries, and creating a bulge in the activity of the earth’s electromagnetic spectrum running from to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific – much the same phenomenon that in wartime is an indicator of increased enemy activity that signals a probable attack.

With anywhere between one and five million people forecast to flood (invade might be a better term) Washington for the inauguration festivities (the final estimate came in at 1.5 million), a number of local families – including mine – took flight before the masses arrived on Sunday night and Monday morning. Where to go until the madness subsided was an easy choice, given the many “firsts” – symbolic and actual – associated with the candidacy, nomination, election, and now the inauguration of Barack Obama. We would travel south for about 150 miles to a most singular place – or really three places – that offered a set of institutional “firsts” that defined and shaped what would become the United States of America.

While the media to our north focused on the hoopla of the week’s events, the relatively sparse numbers visiting Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown offered the opportunity for quiet reflection about the “colonial” experience in Virginia as reflected down the decades to January 20, 2009.

Of the three, Jamestown, as the first permanent English settlement in North America, was most relevant. (The Spanish claimed all of the Americas, which they called Florida, based on Columbus’ voyage under the patronage of the Spanish crown.) Most Americans know that the early years were very hard and that the Europeans survived only because of the aid provided by Native Americans. In fact, the years from 1614, when John Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of Wahunsunacock, the supreme chief of the Native American Powhatan Confederacy, to 1618 were perhaps most crucial, for Wahunsunacock refused to war against the English despite the latter’s continued ill-treatment, including the killing of Native Americans and encroachment on the land.

Jamestown was the creation of a group of investors seeking riches in the “New World.” In 1606 they petitioned and obtained a charter as a trading company from King James I, a charter renewed in 1609. Over the first eleven years, those who came to Virginia were employees of the wealthy London “proprietors” and therefore had no real stake in the success or failure of the colony. In 1618, under what became known as the “Great Charter,” the proprietors gave those who went to the colony the right to purchase property – in effect giving them a stake in the venture’s success. The colonists also were granted the privilege of making local laws to regulate the conduct of day-to-day affairs and to have magistrates settle disputes.

Although little remarked at the time, these provisions, which went into effect in 1619, were revolutionary. Ordinary Englishmen were not represented in Parliament and would not gain this power for decades.

Ironically, another singular event occurred two months after the Great Charter went into effect: the first twelve Africans arrived in Jamestown on board a ship that was part of the growing slave triangle between England, modern Angola, and the Caribbean/American continent. Looking back 390 years ago, it is clear that these two events – one setting down the principle of self-governance, the other permitting one human to keep in permanent bondage “others” and to regard them as less than whole human beings (the so-called “three-fifths” compromise) – set such diametrical different courses that sooner or later one would have to overthrow the other if ever a nation was to emerge.

This fundamental dichotomy was resolved formally by the U.S. Civil War. But its echoes ran through the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th -- even in the armed forces until President Truman ordered its desegregation.
Racial discrimination endures in practice if no longer in law. Other forms of discrimination occur in practice although never sanctioned by law – e.g., discrimination against women or even in some quarters against belief systems.

For example, John Kennedy’s election was viewed at the time as effectively neutralizing the “religion test” for anyone seeking the presidency. But as the last two national election cycles demonstrated, Kennedy at best neutralized the religion test for Roman Catholics. “Minority” religions still raise objections that candidates feel compelled to refute – e...g., Senator Joe Lieberman in 2004 as the Democrat’s candidate for vice-president, and in 2008 former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who failed to secure a place on that year’s national Republican ticket.
In contrast, Obama’s successful bid for the presidency after only four years of national political prominence, has effectively eliminated more than the just the racial barrier to an African-American as the nation’s Chief Executive. His convincing win in the popular vote (in excess of nine million votes) shattered all the barriers of ethnicity and gender that have stymied the full achievement of the rights and privileges enumerated in the U.S. Constitution as forming the inalienable rights of all Americans regardless of how they came to inhabit these shores.

So as the nation celebrates Barack Obama’s inauguration, celebrate too the triumph of the strand of representative government that began 390 years ago in a place called Jamestown, Virginia.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

FCNL Staff on the Inauguration

See what FCNL staff have to say about their experiences attending and observing the inauguration of President Barack Obama:

What kind of American is this? - Joe Volk

"You were there" - Alicia McBride

Biking the Inauguration - Jim Cason

President Obama shout out to the Muslim World - Jim Fine

What kind of America is this?

Guest blogger - Joe Volk, Executive Secretary

After the evening news, we family and friends ate hot soup to take the Inauguration Day chill off our bones at the end of a long cold day outside. Like a couple million others, we had been hours in the below freezing weather to be with the throngs of people who gathered on our "nation's front porch," the mall. Our feelings, thoughts, recollections, and conversation though had been warmed up by the Inauguration Day's events.

Joe Volk and guest Susie Whitehouse at the Lincoln Memorial for the inauguration.
Early that morning, Beth and I had led her cousin Susie Whitehouse and Tom Figlio from our apartment to Arlington Cemetery where it meets Fort Meyer. Susie and Tom had come down from New Jersey to celebrate President Obama's victory with us. We crawled over the old stone wall and walked through the cemetery, where so many fallen soldiers, sailors, and fliers lie. I did not think they would disagree with my "War Is Not the Answer" button on my coat. Further on our way to the Inauguration, as we walked across Memorial Bridge to meet friends from the UK at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was lost in my own thoughts - as too often I am, Beth tells me.

My recollections settled on a time 40 years ago in a barracks room of a black sergeant at Fort Carson, CO. Our cavalry unit had been sent to Chicago for riot control. The six or seven of us, all black but I, had been left behind. It was 1968; we soldiers watched on his TV the news of the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, anger and grief embracing swirling in our hearts. "What kind of America is this?!" I had asked myself. Years later by the time President Bush invaded Iraq and authorized torture, I wondered how could America lose its voice for all the ideals it is supposed to stand for?!

As we left the Memorial Bridge and made our way to the Lincoln Memorial, my question of 40 years ago got a long awaited answer. Now in 2008, I could see that America can change and be healed by coalitions of conscience that work together to mend a broken world. If we let hope unite us in action toward our better selves and put fear in its place, we can reach up to the ideals of America. When Aretha began to sing "My Country Tis of Thee," I thought America has found its voice again.

That morning as we walked the Memorial Bridge, Beth stopped to take a photo of the icy surface of the Potomac River. It was a chaos of frozen, then broken, then refrozen pieces of ice - quite forbidding. I thought that the river looks like a metaphor for our troubled world. Then we walked eastward into the sun and blue sky with some lovely clouds. I recalled an email from Europe that I received the day after the election from Brenda Bailey. She said, "Congratulations, America! A new day is dawning."

Events have emerged from the nonviolent freedom struggle for justice, equality, and human dignity and led up to the 2008 Presidential election victory of Barack Obama. His election now gives meaning to that civil rights struggle. Going forward from Obama's election, the events emerging from it and over the next forty years will define his presidency and give it meaning. What we do now will make all the difference. We stand at a decisive and opportune moment. Perhaps a new day is dawning. We will all have to work hard in new coalitions of conscience to make it so.

President Obama Shout Out to the Muslim World

Guest Blogger - Jim Fine

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, my home state, should have been as gratified as I was yesterday when President Barak Obama issued his inaugural call to the Muslim world and pledged “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Senator Specter had told Congressional colleagues last spring that a good bit of recent U.S. foreign policy toward the Muslim world and elsewhere had been “insulting” and “earned us the title of ‘the ugly American.’” The Obama administration’s change in tone should be a change that Republicans as well as Democrats can believe in.

Senator Specter favors U.S. talks with Iran without preconditions. President Obama has promised such talks. President Obama’s shout out to the Muslim world picked up Iran’s favorite word in talking about the change it wants from the U.S., “respect.” Iranians will have gotten the message that the President’s remarks were directed to them, as well as to others. The president’s challenge to Muslim leaders that “your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy,” will also have resonated in Iran, where the sad state of the Iranian economy will be a key issue in the presidential elections that will take place this June. Dissatisfaction with the economy may help the moderates in Iran. A softer U.S. tone may help the moderates, too.

The U.S. and Iran have many common interests: in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Administration initiative and bipartisan support in Congress for pursuing them, with respect, will be needed. The inaugural address was a good start.

Biking the Inauguration

Guest blogger Jim Cason

The Metro by our house was already standing room at 5:30 am when I first went outside to take a look and decide how we were going to get to the inauguration. In the end, with no ticket promising special access to the event, we decided to ride bicycles through the crowds with our six-year-old daughter in tow. Bicycle riding was pretty easy. Security precautions had stopped almost all traffic except for charter buses, emergency vehicles, and limos carrying the rich, famous, and one assumes powerful.

By 9:30 am the street in front of the FCNL building was jammed with people clutching maps and walking along toward what they hoped were special entry places (after months of back and forth the security folks chose not to close the street to people). We saw several people stop to take a picture of the War Is Not the Answer sign hanging on the front side of the building before hurrying off to find a way into the festival.

Although many people from out of town were confused about which way to go, the spirit of the crowd was amazing. Hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom had traveled for days to get to this event, didn’t even appear to care if they heard every word that President Obama spoke – they just wanted to be here and to catch a glimpse of the man who is now the president. While I spend nearly every day parsing words, and trying to figure out the meaning behind what people are saying and doing, many of the people who came to this inauguration just wanted to be physically present for the event.

On our bikes, we tried entering the Mall at North Capitol, at 4th Street, at 7th Street, at 14th Street, and finally got onto the Mall at 17th Street by the Washington Monument. But by then the Cold was catching up with our 6-year-old and we went down to get a better view at the Lincoln Memorial (23rd Street). A crowd that stretches back 23 blocks is pretty good size – as you can see from this amazing satellite photograph. Crowd estimates ranged from 1.4 to 3 million.

We passed the “Congressman Danny Davis” bus (presumably carrying constituents from his district in Chicago), saw people from Minnesota (they probably didn’t think it was cold), and California (they probably thought it was cold). But most of the people were so bundled up it was hard to tell where they were from – they just looked happy.

After returning home, a friend asked me what did you feel? Today I find myself relieved to have a president who says he will “restore science to its rightful place”, who wants to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories,” and who understands the economy can’t just be fixed but has to be transformed. I expect a lot, I imagine what could be, and I know that we at FCNL have a lot of work to do to energize the movement that will be needed to make the change in Washington that we all want. On this inauguration day, I saw a lot of people who would like to help. The challenge is how to reach them and draw them into this work.

"You Were There"

Alicia McBride, Director for Communications
Guest Blogger

Alicia, Sam and Miranda
Alicia Mcbride with her husband Sam Garman and their daughter, Miranda looking over the parade route.
My family and I watched the inauguration from an apartment overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, along with dozens of other people who couldn't turn down our friend's invitation to share her view over the parade route. We could hear Obama take the oath of office, broadcast on loudspeakers down the length of the Mall, if we opened the balcony door. During the parade, we watched on television until we saw the new president getting close, then we all rushed outside to watch in person. We were rewarded with the sight of Barack and Michelle Obama walking and waving - and we suddenly understood why we'd had to hand over photo IDs weeks ahead of time to be able to be in the building. Rumor was that Tobey McGuire, Spiderman himself, was turned away from the building because he wasn't on The List.

I'm not by nature a crowds person. Publicity in DC in the run-up to the inauguration emphasized the negatives: the numbers of people expected, the cold, the potential for jammed trains and buses going into the city. Had it just been me, I probably would have been disuaded and found a place to watch it all on TV.

I went because of my 2-year-old daughter. I wanted to be able to tell her that she was there, that she saw Barack Obama become president and chart a new course for the country. What Obama does in the next 4 years is going to determine the kind of country she grows up in. I thought it was important to both of us that she be there at the beginning.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Inauguration 2009

With this being the start of the long Inauguration Weekend (in Washington DC this is a four day weekend whereas the rest of the country has only three days), I thought I would give blogging a rest – after two short clips.

First, it appears that the more than 24 month-old effort of the West, led by the Bush administration, to stabilize Somalia as an anti-fundamentalist Islamic state is about to collapse. It was already in trouble as the Ethiopian troops that had propped up the Transitional Federal Government over the past two years returned north to the part of Somalia call the Ogaden - which Addis Ababa has coveted for some time. And while the UN has authorized the world’s navies to track down the pirates operating out of the various inlets an small harbors that dot the coastline, it will be too much of a stretch to interpret this authority as empowerment to sweep into Mogadishu again.

Second, if you missed Bill Moyers PBS program tonight, I strongly recommend you call it up and watch – before January 20, his discussion with historian Simon Schama.

I will resume my postings January 26. FCNL co-workers may post items next week about the Inauguration, so check back from time to time and add your impressions and experiences.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Testing New Weapons -- DIME in Gaza

FCNL has received a number of queries about the use by Israeli Defense Forces of what appears to be a new, perhaps experimental weapon with the acronym DIME, which stands for Dense Inert Metal Explosive. Medical personnel working in Gaza reported seeing wounds that were consistent with on-line descriptions of DIME munitions. Two years ago, in Iraq, there were reports of unusual fatalities among Iraqis who got too close to American checkpoints. But what caused death in those events were burns, suggesting some form of high-powered lasers whose intensity was set too high.

It must be said that this is not the first time the Israelis have been cited by medical staff (this time doctors from Norway) for, in effect, “testing” newly developed weapons during periods of intense combat to see if they work under battlefield conditions. Such use once or twice is all that is necessary; after that, the weapon can go into “black storage” and the world will forget about it – until it is used again. But now a little narrative “history” as I think the evolution of DIME might have occurred. Sources are Aviation Week and Space Technology, Wall Street Journal, Guardian (UK), and Ha’aretz going back over two years.

Since October 2001, the USAF has pursued at least two tracks in munitions development. The older track goes back to Vietnam and the 15,000 lb. bomb popularly known as “Daisy Cutter.” This weapon was designed to create helicopter landing zones by destroying vegetation across a 250 radius without creating a crater. The key to obtaining these weapons effects lay in the use of a three-foot extension protruding from the bomb nose as the munition descends on a parachute The force of the explosion flings the bomb’s payload – metalized slurry – at extremely high velocity but for only short distances.

In 2006, the air force tested what it called the “Massive Ordnance Penetrator” (MOP) as part of its program to develop non-nuclear munitions that would be capable of penetrating earth, concrete, and rock up to 20o feet without exploding.

Most of the weight – almost 25,000 lbs, is in the casing, special heavy steel that will survive the stress of penetration and then the counter-stress of very high acceleration after detonating. Estimates of weapons specialists credit the MOP with 10 times the explosive power of its predecessor, the BLU-109. (Bomb Live Unit-109).

The other approach involves improving the precision of smaller “smart munitions” (satellite-guided) in the 500, 250, and even 100 lb. range. Traditional high explosive iron bombs, whether guided or dumb, kill primarily through the shrapnel produced when the blast shatters the bomb casing (and the destruction of materials in the blast zone. The new, so-called “focused lethality munitions” have a carbon-fiber shell casing that simply disintegrates into fibers – that is, to say, no shrapnel is produced. The “smart bomb” achieves its destructive effect through the blast force which, because the bomb casing disintegrates so readily, is not absorbed. The result is an increase in the blast effect the closer the target is to the point of detonation but to reduce the radius of the destructive force overall when compared to traditional munitions.

On top of this change, the space normally filled with the high explosive payload is filled with a newly developed dense metallic powder substance. On detonating, the explosive force flings the metallic powder into the surrounding space at speeds high enough to cause death or severe injury by “slicing” through limb s or vital organs. The distance the powder traverses before the blast force succumbs to gravitational effects is short, thus again limiting the killing zone.”

In 2006, the informal schedule for developing the metallic powder munition called for fielding 50 warheads and testing them in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. Since then, information on developing the weapon has been more difficult to find – until now.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Historical Lies or Literary License

Biographies can take only a few formats – books, plays, serials in magazines, cinema, and “films made for television.”

“Based on historical events,” by contrast, may use an event or series of events as the basis for the genre of “historical novel.” Such a product is a fictionalized re-telling of an event or series of events. And despite the time-cost pressures most evident in the electronic media to fling the script through History’s transom with only minimal interest in how the pages fall, the general public may be better served if the dramatis personae and literary license are slid under Literature’s door.

Most biographies and historical novels are written about persons who are dead – and of these a significant number had been deceased for hundreds of years. In a sort of cosmic irony, Shakespeare, the English language’s most prolific writer of “history plays,” has himself now become the subject of 20th and 21st biographers.

I am always willing to be educated and entertained simultaneously as long as the parts intended to entertain are clearly distinguished as non- historical. But when that part of the retelling that is fiction is claimed as history, it is time to take notice and object.

Two such incidents were part of my past weekend’s experience. What has been called “the nation’s attic” –the venerable Smithsonian Institute flanking the Mall between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument – has mounted an exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery (which is at 8th and F Street NW, not on the Mall) of the significant events during the George W. Bush administration (January 20, 2001-Janaury 20, 2009). This morning, National Public Radio reported that written material accompanying the exhibit says that 9/11led directly to the War in Iraq – at least that is what NPR says Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) says the exhibit states.

Whether or not this association of 9/11 with Iraq is another attempt to rewrite history – an enterprise to which Bush has devoted much time of late –or a simple reductionism of facts that went awry, the Smithsonian has an obligation to correct this mistake as soon as possible – preferably before January 20, 2009. As the nation’s attic, it is the keeper – along with the National Archives – of the national memory: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The other event in my weekend was seeing the film “Frost/Nixon,” the story of the first interview of Richard Nixon three years after he resigned (1974) the presidency in disgrace Like the stage play, the film is based on the unpublished tape interviews of Nixon at his villa in San Clemente, California.

I was “with” the film until the climax where Frost is portrayed as asking three direct questions that “nailed” the former president to Watergate: did Nixon concede that he made “more than mistakes,” that “wrongdoing” and even crimes might have been involved; and that the former president was involved in the cover-up. In the film and the play Nixon confesses, but in the taped interviews he adamantly refuses: “You're wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No!”

Noted political journalist and presidential author Elizabeth Drew faulted the script writers for both the play and the film for grossly distorting the answer – and possibly popular history. (One is reminded of the impact of films by Oliver Stone.) While this is a legitimate criticism, I was more interested in an associated statement by Nixon that, while not a “confession,” seemed entirely out of character: “I let down my country.”

Drew, as I found later, also remarked on this statement as an unusual sentiment to be expressed by Nixon. (See Drew’s entire critique in the on-line December14, 2008 Huffington Post entitled “Frost/Nixon: A Dishonorable Distortion of History” at .)

I could never think of Nixon as suffering remorse for anything he did, especially if he was caught out in the act. He was, in contrast to what Drew seems to convey, a remorseless person willing to do whatever was needed – according to his lights and for his advantage. I believe Nixon cared little about the opinion of the American public except or unless it threatened to interfere with his plans and projects – especially when the subject was foreign policy.

Like the Smithsonian exhibition, the film presents itself as history or nearly history. In this it does a dis-service to the majority of Americans today who were not alive in the mid-1970s and who therefore will have to rely on others to understand what really happened.

But then, so must I, for I was not at San Clemente either.

Friday, January 09, 2009

In One's Image

The two stories were dissimilar only in the numbers of people involved.

For 96 hours, soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force refused to allow International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC) to enter an area that had been shelled to look for survivors. When they finally pushed through the soldiers and found the rubble that had once been home, the ICRC found six children barely still alive and six adults – all dead but all laid out neatly on mats.

The next day, again in the face of opposition from the Israelis, another 100 Palestinians were pulled from the rubble of buildings blasted by warplanes and tanks. As the offensive into Gaza continues – Tel Aviv rejected the UN Security Council’s demand for an unconditional and immediate ceasefire by all parties.

The continuing Israeli assault is madness – as in deranged behavior – that will kill many today and tomorrow and create even more embittered young men and women who will continue the fight for the right to live not in squalor but in dignity.

Treat someone – an individual or a group – like a mad dog for long enough and they will grow into that role, if only in the eyes of those who are oppressing them.

One need look no further – albeit in a much different context – to see a parody of the psychological transformation that can be fueled by inhuman behavior which is then fixed into the individual’s identity by the adoption of a new name (or nickname).

I refer, of course, to the world of “professional” wrestling. Here grown men (usually) select patterns of behavior that invite commentators, fans, or almost anyone passing by to come up with some outrageous nickname that the wrestler “adopts” and then plays back to audiences with outrageous antics and “costumes” in which they perform.

In the ring, this can be somewhat entertaining playacting.

In Gaza, treat people like mad dogs and they will become just that to their tormentors – always attacking simply to be able to survive..
Such treatment is simply criminal.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The "Missing" in Gaza

Listening to Israeli Defense Force briefings for the press and then talking to UN and non-governmental organizations that work in Gaza, even the more attentive person might be forgiven for thinking the media are describing two separate conflicts that by some accident of misperception have in common the same territorial boundaries.

Israeli Ministry of Defense representatives claim that the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) killed 130 Hamas militants in the first eleven days of Operation “Cast Lead” which began December 27. UN personnel living and working in Gaza report “more than” 500 fatalities among the Palestinians, with “more than” 100 of these being civilians (Associated Press). Assuming – not unreasonably – that the two “more thans” are approximately the same, somewhere there are 270 individuals reportedly killed who have no identity. (Do the math: 500+ killed minus 100+ civilians = 400 “others.” Subtract the 130 militants Israel claims to have killed and the remainder = 270.)

What most Americans don’t realize is that the Israelis have developed a “standard” for reporting “enemy” killed that minimizes the death total, thereby avoiding the U.S. military’s Vietnam-era “body-count” foolishness that said the Viet Cong had buried IN the ground twice the number of fighters the American command said were ON the ground shooting.

The IDF’s practice is to count only those who clearly can be identified as militants or combatants either by engaging in actual combat with IDF units or preparing for combat by possessing weapons, weapons parts, explosives, etc. But there are two other possible categories for fatalities: “collateral damage” – those killed “unintentionally” because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time – and “civilians” – a less discriminate and therefore larger category of people who can be any non-combatant, including those killed when an attacking force commander targets civilians.

European cities of the late medieval or early Renaissance eras were fortified so that meandering hostile tribes could not simply ride in and destroy the settlements. But rather quickly, even rumors that invaders were nearby would send streams of people into the city in search of the safety provided by the walls. In so doing, however, the local populace signaled its “allegiance” to the rulers of the city and implicitly accepted the same fate – should the city succumb – as would be visited on the full-time city dwellers. (Europe’s “discovery” of gunpowder and the development of field artillery after 1350 would rapidly decrease the utility of fortifying cities.)

Efforts to limit the growing problem of civilians killed on the battlefield go back at least to 1863 when the first meetings were held in Europe to transform what could loosely be called “rules of engagement in land warfare” into international law. Since the levee en masse of the French Revolution first mobilized the whole nation for war, citizens lost the option to simply hunker down and ride out the storm. Neutrality might avoid being killed by a bullet during battle, but it offered little comfort if unrestricted warfare condoned scorched earth policies that deprived local inhabitants of food and clean water. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea” in the final months of the American Civil War is routinely rolled out as “Exhibit A” of scorched earth warfare even though he was neither the first nor the only commander to use this tactic to subdue the secessionists.

Over the next 80 years to the end of World War II, with its deliberate targeting of cities by incendiaries and the destruction of two Japanese cities by atomic weapons, civilians more and more were deliberately targeted as war became “total” and “breaking the enemy home front’s will to resist” was seen as a legitimate objective of war.

The 1907 Hague Regulations on Land Warfare and the 1949 Geneva Conventions together with the 1977 Protocols to the latter sought to tighten the bans against targeting civilians. But while the sheer absolute scale of deaths from the deliberate targeting of civilians may have been reduced (raising expectations that war might be tamed), perversely the frequency and the brutality of massacres seemed to mushroom in the second half of the 20th century, putting the lie to the hopes of many. Then too, the generals and admirals touted the ever-increasing accuracy of “precision” munitions that reduced “collateral damage” and thus the total civilian casualties from battle.

Nonetheless, in the month preceding the Israeli assault on Gaza that began eleven days ago, both sides disregarded prohibitions on deliberate targeting of civilians. Israel claims that it has the right to defend itself by any and all means, a right written into the UN Charter and one, they assert, was endorsed last summer by president-elect Obama during his visit to Israel. But the “right” of self-defense via armed conflict is not an absolute right; it is limited by the possibility that one party or the other has the ability to alter the context of a dispute by unilateral action. In Gaza, Israel, as the stronger contender, could change the context to favor an immediate ceasefire (and thus end its deliberate targeting of civilian areas) by withdrawing land forces from Gaza. In return, Hamas would stop firing rockets from Gaza into Israel and the UN would deploy a new peacekeeping force to monitor the border between Egypt and Gaza to preclude Hamas from re-arming.

Beyond the immediate crisis, the whole idea that wars can be fought without targeting civilian areas is outmoded. In 1863, 1907, 1945, and in some parts of the world today there were (and still are) large areas that are relatively uninhabited by humans and thus unlikely to be fought over. But the explosive growth of urban development in much of the developed and developing world renders inoperable – prima facie – the original basis on which commanders could weigh the possibility and accept as a necessity of war an extensive (bordering on disproportionate) level of civilian casualties while attacking an otherwise legitimate military target in the same locale. With 1.5 million souls packed into 144 square miles, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, and military “installations” have in many cases become surrounded by the press of civilian development.

In short, armies must both give up the “right” to target urban areas and abide by the complementary rule that prohibits combatants from using civilians and civilian areas as shields to ward off attacks on what would otherwise be legitimate military targets.

Monday, January 05, 2009

From the East to the Middle East

In looking over the offerings on television tonight, I decided to watch the first two hours of a six hour presentation on the origins and the history of India. It is not a new subject for me; I came to the study of the subcontinent first as a major part of the World War II theater "East of Suez." A more in-depth appreciation had to wait a few more years until I studied the religions of India -- Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism -- and by extension, the cultures of India.

As I watched the first 90 minutes of the program, which carried the story up to the death of the Buddha circa 483 BCE, two points came to mind. First, the subcontinent had powerful and populous states based on the indigenous cultures and belief systems of the subcontinent. Second, virtually every exogenous culture -- from the Aryans whose origins are lost in the mists of unrecorded time to the 20th century British Empire -- that entered India to conquor and rule it inevitably lost its own identity in the vastness of the subcontinent.

India, in a phrase, is constantly evolving. It is always in flux, never static, never defined because it is never done.

And then it occurred to me that the very absence of this ability to remain flexible, to not become "done," lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides have come to define themselves rigidly in a zero-sum contest on one issue to the exclusion of all else: the land. To lose this is to lose their identity.