Friday, August 31, 2007

Let me get this out there . . . I do not support bathroom sex in any form. I could not possibly endorse something so unhygienic. I have a hard enough time opening a bathroom door without using a paper towel as a buffer so that my freshly washed hands don’t get soiled. I simply can’t fathom sensual fondling in some place so horribly unsanitary as an airport bathroom.

Oh yeah, and there’s that whole public thing too. Why individuals want to subject the public to the awkwardly squeamish, decidedly jerky, and completely unpleasant sight of middle-aged lovemaking is completely beyond me. We all deserve better than seeing Larry Craig’s face peering in through the crack of our bathroom stall, his hand motioning under the stall, soliciting us for sex. Leave us alone Larry Craig; we just want to poop in peace.

People hate hypocrisy. Unfortunately most politicians are hypocritical – this is the dilemma of politics. Republicans, I think, more than Democrats. Because we are the party of tradition, we have locked ourselves into all kinds of stupid beliefs in terms of public morality. If we weren’t the “values party”, then Larry Craig probably would have been able to go home after being arrested, have a weird conversation with his wife (as if she didn’t know), and then probably keep his seat in Congress, maybe with a few additional smirks from the press gallery.

That is if he wasn’t a big fat hypocrite. I will pose the question from inside the Republican Party: What exactly is wrong with electing a gay Republican senator?

Larry Craig’s alleged sexual preference is taboo in the “values party” because our party is dominated by bigoted notions (and, well, bigoted people), who dehumanize homosexuals for reasons of fundamentalist religiosity, profound ignorance disguised as tradition, or maybe, just good old fashioned prejudice.

I’ll pose the question again: What is wrong with electing a gay Republican? A person’s sexual preference has little to do with their moral development and you can be just as adamant about “family values” and be gay. There is nothing excluding a gay Republican from public office except for the fact that the Republican Party doesn’t like homosexuals.

I believe in calling things what they are; if you are advocating a position that I consider to be questionable morally, it is my right to challenge that position. From my experience in dealing with the Republican Party faithful, I have seen very blatant bigotry toward gay people. You can tell by the way that your average Republican committeewoman says the word homosexual – like it is taboo – her face tense and tight, like she’s trying to work out an unpleasant popcorn kernel from her teeth. The majority of GOP faithful talk about gay people like they aren’t people at all. They hide behind values as a way to ignore gay people – to passively disenfranchise them from society by wishing that they would just keep to themselves.

Stupidity, to me, is the conscious decision by a person to remain intentionally ignorant because it is easier to hate what you do not know or understand, to be paralyzed by it, than it is to admit that you might be wrong. The GOP’s bigotry toward an entire demographic is based upon fear and upon constructions of morality that reinforce stereotypes of a cruel cultural past.

Unfortunately, it took a stupid senator’s solicitation of public sex to show how stupid the GOP is. Larry Craig’s Party is abandoning him not just because he solicited sex in a public place – lots of Pols have done that – but because he wanted to “do it” with a man. Though I don’t like lewdness of any orientation, I have no moral issue with homosexuality. I am not threatened or intimidated by any sex, whether gay or straight. My position in my party is in the decided minority.

By condemning gay sex so blatantly, by being so repulsed by it, the GOP is sending a message of intolerance hiding behind rather stupid “values”. They are also telling moderate and liberal Republicans, those who like me believe in equal treatment for people of all sexual orientations, that in moral terms, we don’t measure up. They are condemning not only homosexuals, but also, those of us who believe in that very American value, equality.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

It would be a severe misstep for the County Council to implement a drink tax in Allegheny County. Though we have heard from tavern owners in opposition to the tax, we haven’t heard from a lot of tavern patrons. Eventually this tax will trickle down to middle and working class people who like to go out for a drink.

Americans are notorious for our strange relationship with alcohol. Religiosity has something to do with it – after all taxes on alcohol and cigarettes are commonly called “sin taxes” – but it’s about time that we grew up as a nation. Anyone who’s been to the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts can tell you that the Puritans, our original cultural policemen, drank beer in quantities we would now view as decidedly immoderate.

A tax on drink hurts taverns and their patrons. Which demographic of patron will be hurt the most? The working class – any additional tax on alcohol distributes the burden of collective revenue unfairly on those who have the least amount of money to pay for those taxes. For the tax on cigarettes this is understandable; we have long known that cigarettes kill and it is in the public interest to decrease the number of cigarette smokers.

Alcohol is a different substance and one that, unlike cigarettes, is determined by the individual’s relationship with it. There are significant health risks in drinking immoderately. There are also public risks. Drunk driving should be penalized, perhaps, even more heavily than it is now and particularly for repeat offenders.

However unlike cigarettes, where exposure increases one’s chances of getting cancer exponentially, the moderate use of alcohol has been shown to be, well, somewhat healthy. It’s not as healthy as going for a jog but there is nothing wrong with a glass of wine a few times a week. The majority of drinkers are moderate in their consumption but we make laws that seek to passively impose an abstentious morality on people that don’t want it.

A good, reasonably priced drink, is one of those quiet luxuries that crosses class divides: an investment banker and a welder can both share an affinity for Belgium beer and afford to do so. A strapped for cash graduate student and a successful lawyer can both order the same glass of Pinot Grigio at an Italian restaurant in Oakland and be, at least in terms of food and drink, equal patrons.

Any ten percent drink tax won’t break the bank of most people, but it may make them think twice about going out for a drink. On a $4 glass of beer, a ten percent tax would increase that drink to $4.40. If a person drinks four of those beers a week at a local bar (certainly not an immoderate amount), that is an increase from $16 a week to $17.60. In a year that’s the difference between spending $832 dollars on weekly drink compared to $915.

To a person who is making eighty thousand dollars a year, the $83 difference isn’t that much. To a person who makes twenty thousand dollars a year it is. Critics would say that if a person is one a shoestring budget then they shouldn’t be out at a bar drinking. To say this is not to understand the social motivations for doing so. Meeting friends for a drink is one of the cheapest ways to socialize in the evening, particularly those strapped for cash and for young people. It is far cheaper to have a drink than to see a movie – it is cheaper to have a drink than to go to a play or museum – in some places, it is cheaper than a latte.

For all the lip service by public officials in Pittsburgh about economic development and especially the declining number of young people, it is amazing that the County Council would consider a tax that would hurt businesses and disproportionably hurt young drinkers and the working class. A sin tax on drink, whether used on transportation or whatever, does exactly that. It’s a backward step from a region that, frankly, can’t afford any more backward steps being made by their government.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

This weekend 5 GI’s (Buddhika Jayamaha, Wesley Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, Edward Sandmeier, Yance Gray, and Jeremy Murphy) authored a column in the New York Times entitled The War as We Saw It. This article has been attracting controversy: From Hardball to O’Reilly, people are fired up that a group of active duty NCO’s published an article on the state of the ground war in Iraq. Though I can understand the certainly cringe-worthy issue of front line soldiers venting their frustration to major news sources, I am glad that in this case, they did.

It is considered a faux pas for soldiers to offer political insight. This hasn’t always been the case. We like to think of our soldiers as dutiful enforcers of political might. However, soldiers are just as prone to opinions as the rest of us and they are, in fact. a reflection of our democratic society. Moreover, who better to offer insight into our situation in Iraq than people who are actually on patrol putting their lives at risk. For all the tough talk by politicians about what we should or shouldn’t do, for all of the lip service paid by men in suits toward men in uniform, we get skittish when men in uniform speak their mind.

Who else should we be talking to? The best of embedded reporters in Iraq are still one degree of separation away from having to shoot someone; we should be getting our news, in part, from soldiers in the field instead of through the filter of reporters and editors, or worse, from ex-soldiers who now have an axe to grind. Active duty men walk a fine line when speaking their mind.

The issue this week us whether these five men are showing disloyalty by writing a frank but very balanced article. I was actually surprised by the tone - there was nothing disloyal about what these soldiers said. There was certainly nothing “unpatriotic” as subjective as that term may be. In this article there was little that we don’t already know or haven’t suspected for a long time. It is, however, the first published account of its type in a major news source (a liberal one too) and this is challenging a convention.

However, this convention is one that has been frequently challenged. Soldiers have historically vented their opinions to Congressman and Senators on national television in committee hearings on everything from strategy to body armor. They are encouraged by Congress to do so. Soldiers occasionally publish stories, poems, or even their own opinion pieces, often in magazines and on websites associated with the military. Uniformed officers publish scholarly articles for the Army War College and teach “mistakes”, often contemporary blunders, at the Service Academies. It is a falsehood that active duty military leaders need to be silent – in fact it is a detriment to the service if they don’t share their opinions.

It is only when you have something published in an outside newspaper or magazine that the disloyalty hawks and the Chain of Command fascists come out questioning your patriotism. Will this letter hurt morale? I can’t answer this question but it is hard to imagine that a well-reasoned article on the difficulties of fighting an insurgency in Iraq is more detrimental to morale than the actual fighting of the insurgency, which has to be a rather tough thing on morale itself. I anything, I would think a letter from the grunt’s perspective would be a welcome thing for soldiers in the field – their voices and frustrations are being heard over the usual political static and military jargon of the General Staff.

It is cheap and easy to question one’s patriotism or loyalty. It’s far easier to do that than to accept that some of the things in this article are probably true.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Of Politics and Youth

It’s an old cliché that those who are liberal in youth become conservative with age. In my case I have become more tolerant, lenient, even some would say, more liberal in the ten years since my nineteenth birthday. Hopefully I can make a turn right soon; no one wants wake up at forty realizing that they are living in an organic farming commune in Vermont. I suppose that there are worse things in life than folk singing and groovy drum circles – though this image has long been my vision of purgatory. I believe firmly that though political beliefs can change it is a far tougher for people themselves to change. In my case they go hand in hand.

I went a little (or a lot) to the left in recent years. It was a big leap to go from that sweater-vest wearing, national review reading, insufferably pretentious teenager I was ten long years ago. As a young man I beat a few brows, always favored the sucker punch in debate, and was as complete a party man as my penny loafers would indicate. Being the resident little old man with a teenager’s complexion and the brooding sense of self-importance of a middle-aged man was extremely difficult work for a high school kid.

On the outside, I am sure a lot hasn’t changed. Internally, I feel like my eighteen-year-old self is a curious relic, someone to smirk at in a bemused way, not sure if I am embarrassed of immensely proud. It was so easy then to be absolutely sure in absolutes – I thought I knew who I was at eighteen more than I certainly do now. The gradually process of adulthood has brought more insecurity, doubt, and fear (not in the physical sense), and these things have challenged and molded me into someone different. Now my life is an altered version of that former self. I think I am stronger, certainly more aware, and far less ambitious and self-absorbed (at times this is subject to debate).

I am positive that education had something to do with this. Education can easily change your opinions, but I think it rarely changes who you are internally. For that you need a personal crisis. When your very emotional being, your soul, is challenged to the edge of civility, that’s when you realize the stuff you’re made of. I don’t think I felt grown up until very recently when I looked around and saw so much that didn’t really matter but knew exactly, for the first time in my life, what things really did.

The point in all of this was that when I was a younger man, I believed in political parties and issue politics. Now I don’t. A recent New York Times/CBS poll of the political trends in young people showed that only twenty-five percent of those ages 17-29 identified themselves as Republicans. By the time they’re forty I think these numbers will even out a little. When I was at the lower end of this demographic (now I’m at the very top!), I identified myself as a big R Republican. Now, I don’t agree with most of the party platform. I can say this now without any guilt or sense of disloyalty. My party and I are in a separation period – some day we might file the papers but not just today.

Though I know it is wickedly condescending to say, I actually feel sorry for red meat voters. These are the people who drink the cool-aid of party ideology and don’t realize that the entire game of national politics is one designed to manipulate their passions. I think this is why elected officials feed off the young – why they recruit idealists to work for them and then destroy their humanity sometimes through corruption, but more often, through simple apathy. When you see the wheels of government spinning in the mud of ego and petty corruptions, working hard but hardly making any difference, it’s easy to lose your faith in a system, especially one run by so many loud, boorish, and unimpressive people. Not to mention stupid - I have always been amazed how people confuse a base level of manipulative ability with genius or cunning - especially in politics.

My political evolution, I think, has mirrored an internal personal change, as it was apt to do. I am still embarrassed to some degree by reminders of my nineteen-year-old self. When I am around my parents, who don’t believe in personal change, or when I meet someone, a long lost acquaintance, one who knew me then but has no interest in getting to know me now, this feeling is more acute. They usually say something like “you just haven’t changed at all.” I just smirk. It’s a lot easier, and more polite, so do so than to tell someone how wrong they really are.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I was, perhaps, a bit mean in my entry yesterday. It not mean then certainly unfair. All politicians are slaves to their own sense of ambition; why should the young Mayor of Pittsburgh be any different?

I spent three very long years working in local politics in Pittsburgh. I try to say little of that experience because it is so varied and so complex in my memory that I feel I would do a great injustice to write about these experiences in any type of direct memoir. I am often told at dinner parties, or when out for drinks, that I have a hundred great stories from my short experience being a legislative briefcase boy and constituent caseworker. Perhaps this is true, but not unique. All former staffers with a decent long-term memory can frame their experiences into stories; we all have them and share them with each other. People in other professions do the same thing.

I learned enough in those three short, yet very long years in terms of my human development, that there are many types of people attracted to political work. Among the young people who go into the field (I am intentionally excluding older, more seasoned veterans who have their own hierarchies and motivations) are principally two kinds of people.

On one side, are the youthful idealists who eventually, after a rotten stint or two of staffing, will go on to better careers in the law or in “real” government, working for an agency, or maybe, a non-profit. Maybe they will become teachers or reporters. Their future is open once the scales are lifted from their jaded eyes and they look around with a sigh and say, “I simply can’t do this anymore.” These people are diligent community workers; they are the kind of people that legitimately try to help constituents because they have that sense of idealism pressing upon their shoulders, whispering daily into their ears, that they are making a difference. Even if they aren’t.

These folks and very different from those who work in, what I will call for convenience, the more political side. These people are motivated by ideology, ego, or just basic competitiveness. They love politics because it provides a psychological gratification. Some are romantics – they love the idea of living in the real life West Wing while working out of some grubby campaign office in a suburban strip mall. Some are power-hungry – they seek to crush the opposition because they like the power involved with crushing and conniving. Some are ideologues – they legitimately drink the party cool-aid and are crusading for moral or social causes. They are tough people; they are hacks.

Both of these types have been with us since Rome. Brutus was an idealist and Cassius was a hack – it’s the simple nature of our political human development that we can so easily fall into these categorizations. Jack Burden, the self-conscious narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, is the classic man in the middle of these two worlds, a tough place to be, and the reason Burden was burdened with alcoholic self-loathing throughout the book.

Although the Mayor is an elected official and not a staffer, his age and accidental authority, not to mention his behavior, is more staffer-esque than that of a chief executive. I have read some interviews with Mayor Ravenstahl and I have followed his antics and scandals casually over this last year. His behavior isn’t consistent with that of the idealist; it is, instead, consistent with the behavior of the campaign hacks I knew in my short-lived days writing briefing memos and fetching coffee. The love of perks, the celebrity stalking, the parties and photo ops, the complete lack of policy, and the focus on ego over substance all are demonstrative of a man who’s political motivation is personal ambition – not of community service. It’s easy to say you’re interested in these things; those who legitimately are, though, are consumed with it. Fixing problems is their motivation for going into the office every day.

With Ravenstahl, you don’t get the impression he’s burning the midnight oil studying policy. Surely, you don’t need to be a policy wonk to be a great leader. But you need to show that you at least care. Unfortunately, the Mayor hasn’t shown anything but an affinity for empty phrases and tired initiatives. Both are the mark of that dubious label – political hack.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

As I have been sitting at home watching my face become infected from a root canal operation gone bad, I have been looking for breezy reading material. Because of the painkillers, I can’t handle anything heavy, so I looked to my trusty subscription of Esquire Magazine to provide the necessary blend of fluff, humor, and advice. This is a shame, of course, for I have many books that need my attention and all of them deserve the priority more than narcotics.

I always like reading Esquire because its nice to see pictures of beautiful clothes on people who can afford them. Its like staring at a beautiful painting and knowing that no image in your own life will ever be seen in such a beautiful way as it has been depicted by that artist. Much the same I think, though superficially, with fine clothing.

Though not a model and certainly not decked out in finery, I was surprised to see Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, one of 28 Mayors profiled in their photo spread on mayoral fashion. Was he a debutante? Did he look sartorially superior to his fellow mayors? The answer, unfortunately, is no. He looked like an insurance agent from Penn Hills: completely average and a little bit smarmy in a dark coat, bad tie, cheesy smile and car dealership haircut. He looked like someone who was a fluke, which I suppose, is fitting. The only thing remotely remarkable about him was his hair gel, which he uses liberally, though this is no indication of his politics. No, you need to think about things to have opinions and nobody checked for thought when he became mayor of the fastest dying City in America. People in Pittsburgh are impressed easily; they often confuse confidence and ambition for competence and experience. Hair gel boy is a case in point.

Did he offer wisdom for the magazine to show that he is a much older soul than his haircut would denote? Here’s his quote:

“I don't have the political relationships yet, so I think that's an advantage. But because things move so quickly, I haven't had the chance to sit down and digest it. To this day, quite honestly, it hasn't hit me -- the opportunity I have."

Of course, nobody really buys this bit of nonsense. If anyone has been subject to that age-old cliché of good intentions gone bad by party machine, it is this poor shlub of a mayor. He only makes the headlines now for doing something embarrassing, like kissing up to sports heroes, or blowing off his official duties to party with second and third rate celebrities, which I guess is fitting, because Pittsburgh is a second or third rate town. He obviously has digested the fact that he’s mayor because he’s been running around telling everyone who would listen for over a year as the City suffers further humiliation at the hands of his blatant incompetence.

The part about not having political relationships is another old lie. He is completely dependant upon the old guard Yinzer democrats that have aided in his wrecking the ship of state upon the rocks of irrelevancy. What about jobs, economic development, healthcare, jobs, infrastructure, taxes, jobs, urban blight, poverty, conservation and JOBS, Mr. Ravenstahl? I guess these things can take a second stage to whether or not the Steelers are going to have a winning season this year.

Hey, at least it’s an election year.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

I watched the AFL CIO Democratic debate this week. I have been avoiding the debates because I have developed a no-tolerance policy toward blowbagship. Of course, my no-tolerance policy was certainly tested by the Democratic candidates, particularly Chris Dodd, who likes to position himself as an “expert” on foreign policy. The problem is that for all his expertise, he has the know-it-all demeanor of an aging columnist for a second rate publication, thereby marginalizing anything of sense he might say. Then again, the odds of finding sense at the Democratic debates are about the same as trying to finding a virgin in a whorehouse.

None of the candidates were striking. None were worth the hype they have received in recent weeks. All their answers were disappointing. It was like their campaigns sat around a blackboard sketching out their responses to hypotheticals. On the top of the board are headings like Health Care, Economy, Defense – general issues that real people give a crap about. The hacks then decide what to write under each heading – they say them out loud - then they tweak their answers to make them catchier. It is an exercise in finding a creative way to say the obvious to people to stupid to know any better.

This is the state of modern political rhetoric. I suppose this was the state of ancient rhetoric as well. Mark Anthony, not to be confused with Marc though both handsome, was known by his peeps in ancient Rome for his ability to speak with passion and vigor and to persuade the mob of his day by the emotion of his addresses, instead of by the substance of his message. The modern politician does the same thing; they focus on making the highlight reel on shows like Hardball rather than actually persuading anybody of anything. It’s a sad state of affairs when the most persuasive thing about MSNBC’s prime time politics are the bowel softeners being hawked during the commercial breaks. What is even sadder is that the public buys this stuff wholesale (not the bowel softeners – the politics of stupidity being hawked by the candidates). The collective attention span of John Q. Public is now about the same as that of a puppy. I know . . . it’s not our fault, we all got ADD from TV and video games.

Obama was a big let down at the Labor debate. He couldn’t put together an articulate thought to save his life – his soundbites were muddled compared to the soundbite attacks on his foreign policy misstatements by his neighbors. Joe Biden made sense on Iraq, but he’s got no chance of being elected, so he can afford to be honest with people. Clinton continues to amaze me. She talked down NAFTA even though her husband, sorry co-Presidential contender Bill, has been NAFTA’s loudest spokesman since the law took effect under his presidency. Senator Clinton continues to pander on the war, saying nothing but still sounding tough, and if I have to hear another three point plan, I might move to Siberia for the rest of this campaign. Wouldn’t four points be better than three? Surely four or five points are better researched, deeper, more developed than a measly three points.

The Republicans are no better so please don’t accuse me of partisanship. The best thing about the Republican debates seems to be Ron Paul. Enough said. Republicans don’t even have three-point plans – plans are un-American – they just say “terror” and “values” and hope the formula works with only a two-part strategy to win over the NASCAR voter.

We hear from politicians all the time that the people are cynical. They say this like they have nothing to do with it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Arlen Comes to Town

When Senator Arlen Specter walked into Mara Auditorium at Gettysburg College yesterday morning, an elderly woman behind me said, “he looks frail.” We should take this more as an observation on how people become more critical with age than an accurate depiction of the senator. Though his legs were carrying slightly slower now than when I saw him last, he proved in this town meeting that his mind is anything but frail

And besides, the squash playing cancer survivor deserves a little more respect than the pallid criticisms of a judgmental collection of geriatrics bent on grandstanding.

Arlen Specter is one of the most interesting people in national politics. He is also one of the most demanding; if you go to any staffer happy hour in DC, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia when his junior staff is imbibing, you will hear of the horrors of Snarlin’ Arlen. He is the kind of boss that one thinks of surviving and not of working for. That being said, he is a truly independent voice in a political system that frequently punishes people for unique thought.

Unfortunately, the town meeting is a public demonstration of the complete idiocy of the masses. Specter does these town meetings with frequency and I am sure at each one of them, he has to answer to the same imbecilic questions from people on the barely functional cusp of rationality, people like those in the audience at the Gettysburg event. If ever there was a demonstration of the Churchillian mantra that “the greatest argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter,” it is the town meeting.

Specter, a man short on temper but tall on self-esteem, bears these things well. When a man, one who could only be described as a lunatic, asked Arlen whether he believed that the United States Government was responsible for 9-11, the senator answered with a dismissive “no”, a shake of the head, and the eternal line of “you are entitled to your opinion”, a line that coming from him means that his opinion sucks.

Specter characterizes his recent pit-bull-esque attacks on Alberto Gonzales, “a one man crusade to oust the Attorney General,” a line that was greeted with bipartisan claps. When one questioner, a rather rude man who heckled his fellow questioners for long-windedness only to ask a seemingly long-winded question himself, asked the Senator when he would change parties and become a Democrat, Specter said that he felt “very comfortable” being a Republican.

His explanation of that comfort was a comfort to me. It sums up a probable reason why I have remained in a party that’s platform I find more contentious and moronic, every day. Explaining his position within the party, the senator said that by remaining a republican he assures that his voice can be heard because he is not lock step with the party platform. If he were a Democrat, he would not enjoy the same unique position. He is able to be a contrarian, a lone voice of objection in a party suffering a public identity crisis, and one of moderation. There is much to admire here since it is easy to give up and switch your party – it’s another thing to try to change it.

When the senator detailed his position on the issues, it became apparent that Arlen Specter isn’t a bad Republican; he’s just an archaic one. He believes in the line item veto, the balanced budget amendment, small and cautious reform rather than large and risky public programs, and a strong defense. He is an Eisenhower republican who never got the message in the 90’s that the party was changing. Socially, he is liberal; economically he is sensible. He is an optimist and a compromiser.

People hate him for these traits but I find them endearing and sensible. You could tell at the town meeting that Arlen Specter didn’t make anyone want to grab a sign and follow him outside on some public crusade, but you did get the feeling that people had a begrudging amount of respect for him. The public at large likes to vote for the dynamic firebrand, people like Rick Santorum, who eventually burn out and disappoint. It’s a lot harder to get really excited about a guy who has spent the last twenty years hoping for a chance to revisit the balance budget amendment.

This is why Specter is good for my state. It is also why he is underappreciated.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Senator Hillary Clinton has repeatedly promised that of the Congress doesn’t end the Iraq war by next year, then as president, she will. Who’s being naïve now?

Surely, you can end a war by admitting defeat and withdrawing your forces. You can as long as your opponent is a conventional one. However, in unconventional conflict, like the Iraq War, withdrawal doesn’t end the war, but instead it changes the landscape of the conflict.

Whether Sen. Clinton wants it or not, she may not be able to end this war, even if the country decided to elect her. To claim that she will end the war is naïve and overtly political. It also sets a dangerous president of candidates making declarations of future strategy or military decisions without taking into consideration the opinions of generals in the field. This is not to mention the fact that the very landscape of this conflict could be completely different in one year’s time.

Here’s where the neocons have it right, though it pains me to say it, because they got us into Iraq under dubious pretenses and numerous deceptions. For two years they have equated retreat in Iraq with losing a major battle in a global conflict on terror. Though they often use this piece of strategic thought in overtly political ways, equating it with doomsday scenarios to question the patriotism and resolve of political rivals, it doesn’t make the belief any less sound. It appears to be a piece of propaganda because it is used that way. However, it doesn’t make it wrong.

Widespread withdrawal from a shooting war in Iraq, one that is both an ethnic conflict as well as a very active campaign against terrorism, is a concession of defeat in that war. I am not saying that we shouldn’t concede this defeat – for many battles surely are lost before a war can be won - but to say that withdrawal is anything but a concession of defeat is putting lipstick on a pig. It certainly does embolden our enemies, it does send a bad message to those who are teetering on the boundary between extremism and normalcy in the region, and it destroys what little credibility we have left in the Middle East.

I fundamentally believe that if we withdraw our forces, as Clinton and others want to do, then this campaign against terror will only shift in focus but not in severity. The prospects of this are grim and too speculative for a serious person to engage in print, but I think that the thoughts have crossed all of our minds, when we consider what would happen if Al Qaeda in Iraq wins a major victory and become ambitious as a result.

Clinton and the other Democratic candidates frequently reference Afghanistan as a justified conflict worthy of more funding and troops. They are surely right. However, by withdrawing from Iraq, they hope to repeat the past by focusing on the just war thee instead of on the battles we are already fighting. You can’t go back to 2002 again and act like Iraq never happened because the instability there, no the war being fought there, will have ramifications beyond the borders of that nation far deeper within Middle Eastern culture than we can now fathom.

I don’t mean to play the neocon line here because I hate the neocon line for screwing this thing up from the beginning, but I think it is important that we know what we are voting for when we vote for the anti-war candidate. All rational people are anti-war; all of you probably are, because to be anti-war is to value human life over the ambitions of tyrants or of the ideological blindness of ambitious nations. Americans are individualistic, we believe in people and value them, and that’s what makes each loss of a serviceman so painful. This is also why we are so reluctant to go to war.

But whether we like it or not we have to see the Iraq War through. We need to expect our politicians to view this conflict with the seriousness and strategic learning that it requires and not with cheap sound bites that play on our emotions. If Senator Clinton wants to get us out of Iraq, she should be talking to ex-generals who know a thing or two about shooting wars, and find a way to win. Or has the word Victory out of fashion?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Lost Generations

In recent weeks I have been reading First World War memoirs published in the 1920’s and 30’s. This is partly professional but it is also informational and I believe we can learn something about the way we view history, as well as contemporary politics, from these war writers.

There was a conscious literary movement after the First World War, led by ex-subalterns who fought bravely on the Western Front, to portray the war as a generational bloodletting wrought by irresponsible politicians and bad generals. This futile bloodletting led to a culture of disenchantment and cynicism. These writers are known collectively as Lost Generation writers, survivors who became the voice of their fallen comrades from beyond the trenches.

Most of these writers were pacifists in the 30’s. They had seen enough combat to know that they thought all war to be slaughter and folly and they had no problem telling people so in this decade of appeasement and political debate.

However, the Lost Generation writers that we identify with now, are those whom fit nicely into this narrative of the war. Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves lead the pack and Edmund Blunden brings up the rear. All three were friends, deeply loved Wilfred Owen (a good poet who died in the trenches) and all three sought to show their disdain for the war and the men they believed caused it.

Their interpretation of the Great War was not the only one; however, their collective voice has proved to be the most lasting, calling out from the 30’s to our present day. In their time, these authors were greeting with skepticism by people, largely other writers, who believed that the war was not all great folly and destitution, and that to call it such was in poor taste. This alternative view believed strongly that though Great Britain had lost so much in terms of the human costs of the war, they had shown great courage in the conduct of the war, and were able to win the war of attrition through better discipline and morale over an inferior German force and government.

There is some truth to this interpretation. When we think of the First World War, we think of futility, but surely if the men in the trenches thought their actions were completely futile then they would have given up. Writers construct their own version of history after the fact. Often this memory of war is clouded in horror or sentiment, sometimes nostalgia, and sometimes bitterness and political objective. In this case, writers after the war created a genre of literature that we often take as history, instead of taking it as memoir, which is a subjective retelling of one’s life events, a deliberate construction. When we think of the cost of the First World War, we think of the war poets, but we should think instead, of the letters written home by Tommy’s in September 1918.

For those few of you who are interested in these things, think for a moment about our perceptions of the Iraq War and where you predict they will be, say, in fifteen years. All governments, in time of war, put the best possible spin on the outcome of that war. Bush does it now and Asquith did it in the First World War. The legacy of this war will be determined, largely, by the end result. However, the experience of war, what our perception of combat is like, is not always interpreted by whether war is won or lost. You can win a war but lose the legacy of that war – the case in point is the Lost Generation.

Now I end with that generic, but appropriate dodge, only time will tell.