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On Veteran’s Day

This was published in my dad’s hometown paper, The Milwaukee Sentinel,  on January 30, 1945.  My poetry-loving father kept it in a box  along with  his army cap and my mother’s wedding photo. The “new arrivals” being addressed are fresh troops being quizzed by the long-time soldiers away from home:

 To Recent Arrivals

Is our land still the same
As we dimly recall
With plenty of room
For the great and the small?
Has there been any change
From the old, well-loved scenes
In the Bronx, or in Brooklyn,
Long Island or Queens?

Does the water still sing
‘Mid the rocks and the rills
Of the tiny trout streams in the clean Berkshire hills?
Does the draftee’s step drag
With a touch of the blues
As each juke box in Natchez
Blares forth “Born to Lose”?

Do the geese flying south
Rend the dawn with their call?
Did they crown a new “Ice King”
Up there in St. Paul?
Do the trains whistle yet,
Clear and sweet as a flute
As they speed thru the darkness
Towards Billings and Butte?

Do the stockmen still stroll
In a tight little clan
With their boots striking sparks
In the streets of Cheyenne?
Do the gay lights of Frisco
Make sport of the dark
As you gaze over town
From the “top of the Mark”?

Is our land just the same
As it was long ago?
Please tell us, compadres,
We’re wanting to know.

Anonymous

 image: wlodi via Flickr

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From a friend of mine who publishes a popular political blog in D.C. comes proof positive of a badly kept secret: the operations in Iraq are being rebranded. Operation Iraqi Freedom will, as of September 2010, be known as “New Dawn.” 

This is not the first time the activities in Iraq have undergone a name change. The original title for the war (or, if you prefer, “incursion” or “invasion”) was Operation Iraqi Liberation. No sooner did the White House issue a press release  in 2003 than an astute observer noted the acronym spelled “OIL.”  Everyone quickly moved on to “OIF”.

Rebranding a war effort, particularly when the mission changes, is certainly one way to recalibrate public perception. Incidentally, the term “perception management” originated with the Department of Defense; the original meaning was to be a synonym for persuasion. However, as noted military author and military affairs specialist Emily Goldman has written, “falsehood and deception [are] important ingredients of perception management; the purpose is to get the other side to believe what one wishes it to believe, whatever the truth may be.”

The truth is that military operations in Iraq are entering a new phase, one in which the American military presence is fading (or rather is moving over to Afghanistan). Perhaps a new title for this group of actions is needed.  But if I were asked, I might suggest a less poetic-sounding name, at least until we are truly certain a new dawn is coming to that part of the world.

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“I am not opposed to all wars; I’m opposed to dumb wars.”
then-candidate Barack Obama, March 26, 2008
ObamaAfghanistan is a war which we didn’t start but which we will end. We have twenty months (more or less) to do so. Before we end it, we will provide a surge to counter the insurgency. This will be done in full view of absolutely everybody. This is not done lightly but with the security of the United States in mind. We will secure key areas (not deeply rural areas because we can’t; no one can) against the Taliban as we  train and grow the Afghan Army. Yes, we are forced to count on support from a deeply corrupt government, but we will hold that government accountable. We will not send them money directly but instead will fund local leaders, build up local miltia and convert former insurgents. We cannot send troops uninvited into Pakistan, where we know Al Qaeda is most active and where the nuclear arsenal is less than secure, but we will be close by. We will try to cut off any nascent partnership between the Taliban and Al Qaeda and prevent new alliances from growing. Most importantly, we will convince ordinary Afghans that we are there to help them take their country back and then move it forward. This is at the heart of any lasting success.
Afghanistan_652277a
War is hell. It’s also either strategic, unavoidable, inevitable, unwinnable, manageable, practical, essential — or dumb. What have we here?

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20ambusha6002 The photo on the front page of Monday’s New York Times of a soldier caught in a firefight in a remote region of Afghanistan came in the midst of a news cycle filled with depressing stories out of the region: Taliban takeovers of towns and villages close to Pakistan’s capitol city, new bombings in Baghdad and the story out of Afghanistan.

The day after the story about the ambush, the paper ran an op-ed piece by two young Afghan women who begged America not to turn its back on give up on the brave women who took to the streets to protest the latest government law caving in to fundamentalist demands. “[Westerners assume] Afghans are a ‘tribal people’ who probably do not want a say in choosing their leaders,” they wrote. “Others claim that because Afghanistan is a traditional Islamic society, any promotion of democracy and women’s rights will be resented as an imposition of Western values… These assumptions are wrong.”15afghan2-600

That’s good to know. There are people in Afghanistan and in Pakistan who fervently support women’s rights, human rights and democracy. Possibly even more of the population simply wants to live in peace under whatever form of government is presented to them. In any event, we should support their efforts to live a life free from terror and intimidation.

And it’s not quite fair to say we’ve turned our backs on Afghan human rights, regardless of which country our politicians may discuss from one day to the next. We’ve got boots on the ground there who will soon be joined by new troops our experts are moving from what we and they hope is a more stabilized Iraq.  Although we have no troops in nuclear neighbor Pakistan, we have planes overhead and an Executive Branch proposal for nearly 3 billion in investments to support a military I worry seems far more focused on India than the Taliban militants. Decisions have to be made about how and where to place finite resources – our resources. Maybe that’s why it seems as if Uncle Sam is playing in  high-stakes chess game all by himself.

It’s no fun to be a superpower soloist.

The authors of the piece about Afghan’s marching women note that “Democracy and progress are not products to be packaged and exported to Afghanistan. Afghans have to fight for them.” Absolutely true, as I think our government is beginning to figure out.  Democracy promotion isn’t something that can be done strictly from the outside in. We should assist, support, speak out in no uncertain terms  concerning anything relating to human rights. But as far as translating words into actions, we can always use a little inside help.

sam-chess11

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I crawled out of bed after being hit by a spring version of the flu, I suppose, to learn that Priscilla Presley had been kicked off “Dancing With the Stars,” the Yankees had trounced the Red Sox and [your candidate here] had won the Democratic debate on Wednesday. I watched a little of it but the acrimonious tone and the constant hammering nearly sent me back to bed. While Obama’s use of the word “bitter” in describing small-town America is getting all the attention (temporarily sweeping aside Clinton’s claims of being under threat of sniper fire in Bosnia), did anyone catch the revelation that Cindy McCain’s homey little website featured a couple of recipes poached from the Food Network? That bit of “news” rated a six column article in the New York Times, which can ill afford the space in its print addition. Are we all going crazy here or am I still suffering the after-effects of the flu?

All three of the candidates are wealthy and privileged, all of them are educated and very smart and all of them are pandering, though Obama far less skillfully. I suspect he doesn’t understand why he has to and there are some days when I wonder the same thing. Why are we focusing on whether a guy wears a pin in his lapel? I don’t wear a pin nor do I have a flag decal in the rear window of my gas-guzzling car. You can love your country and recognize that symbolism can also mask laziness or hypocrisy. Don’t forget, there are politicians and CEOs wearing flag pins and it doesn’t mean they’re looking out for the best interests of the ordinary citizen. On the other hand, I can’t for the life of me figure out why Barry had to act so squeamish about the calories encased in a free sample he was offered at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania. Just eat the damn thing!

This campaign feels like a train wreck waiting to happen. For historical perspective, I took myself out of bed and down to the living room couch to watch a repeat of part six of “John Adams,” HBO’s fantastic rendering of David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize-winning book about our second President. Adams was truly unpopular, despite his success at avoiding war with France. He signed the roundly despised Alien and Sedition Acts , was villified constantly in the press and he had to take up residence in a White House still under construction. Imagine contemplating important bills in a drafty building by the light of a single candle while roof scaffolding threatens overhead. Oh and his son Charles, an alcoholic, died.

Adams had it tough, no doubt. He also seems to have been a prickly, arrogant sort. He didn’t pander and he was punished for it. I’m not certain his stubbornness was a virtue; his successor, Thomas Jefferson seems to have been a man of conviction, intelligence and vision but with a much lighter touch. It’s all very well to think about shattering precedents with the election of a female or an African-American (or even somewhat older) president. But what I really want is a superior president.

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Today’s highly touted Mideast peace conference in Annapolis ended with a pledge amongst the designated representatives. Since said representatives have pledged before, cynics might argue that the announcement was hardly what you’d call a breakthrough on the order of, say, creating stem cells from adult human skin instead of human embryos. Even the most dedicated optimist might have winced to watch the lame-duck, heretofore uninvolved U.S. President presiding over a handshake between the scandal-ridden Israeli Prime Minister and the politically diminished Palestinian leader. As one of my friends remarked dismissively, “Like that’s ever gonna happen.” 

It’s pretty hard not to view today’s conference as just another photo-op.  For one thing, there have been agreements before. For another, a number of experienced and well-intentioned people put forward their thoughts, suggestions and advice prior to this gathering and its not clear that any of those were incorporated, considered or even advanced. Of course, both sides balked at specifics. The “joint understanding” between the Israelis and the Palestinians appears as fragile as a spider’s web – and just as treacherous. It falls short of the detailed document put forth by Palestinians yet feels pushy to a highly suspicious Israel.  The two sides, or their leaders, have agreed to “engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations,”  which is as vague as it gets.

One wonders how many issues can one conflict contain? Land, power, pride, jobs, security, ancient grievances and religious beliefs all play a role. Are these issues addressed by settling borders, moving settlers, dividing Jerusalem, or by making promises as to security, autonomy and the right of two distinct states to exist? Are they addressed by agreeing first to try and address them?

So maybe it’s different this time. Maybe President Bush, finally goaded by his Secretary of State, sees this as an opportunity for a legacy and maybe he’ll push, really push, for progress towards a treaty. Maybe Saudi Arabia finally sees that conflict in the region is not to their advantage. Maybe Olmert and Abbas can enhance their political capital by reaching for peace while remaining firmly committed to addressing their constituents’ concerns. Maybe Iran’s foray into nuclear power and/or weapons development gives everyone pause.

Maybe the players know, even in the deepest corners of their hearts and souls far away from political calculations, that the people they purport to represent are weary unto death of terror, destruction, despair, uncertainty and hate. Maybe. But I’m not that much of an optimist.

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No Exit

This has been another depressing news week. I’m starting to understand why people put aside the front pages of their papers, turn off their radios, tune out cable news and spend copious amounts of time blogging over whether Britney is fat or malfunctioned in her choice of costume (well no, I don’t understand that last bit). The long-awaited report from General David Petraeus, our military man in Iraq, held no surprises. Maybe it all depends on how you define “progress” but all I could think about was that “Grey’s Anatomy” episode where Meredith has her hand inside a patient with a live munition inside him. She can’t pull out because it might explode; then again, it might explode anyway. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Some members of Congress at the hearing – those few who weren’t enamored with the sound of their own voices – expressed a high degree of frustration with the General and his report. What did they expect? He’s a military guy offering a military perspective. And didn’t a majority of Americans say in a recent poll that they trusted the military over the President to know best how to end the war in Iraq? Of course, that’s assuming there are no other solutions but military ones. As it stands, the report feeds right into our partisan mood. You’re either a “cut and run” coward or you’re a “stay and pray” idiot. Damned either way.

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