Sunday, April 25, 2010

America: Killing and Dying in Vietraqistan

Graphic by Larry Ray
“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” - General Stanley McChrystal, Senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan - March 27, 2010

''The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." Gen. William Westmoreland, South Vietnam - on film quote, Oscar-winning 1974 Vietnam documentary ''Hearts and Minds."

While outrage in the United States over our endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has retreated into the background noise of immediate domestic economic and political concerns, outrage in the Middle East over civilians killed by US forces is kept alive and seething. American troops continue to mistakenly shoot, bomb, kill and maim a steady stream of innocent folks trying to go about their daily lives. It has been going on so long it rarely even makes the evening news here at home.

First, a review of the numbers ...

We have had troops fighting and dying in Iraq for an incredible eight years, and in Afghanistan for an even more incredible ten years. Hannibal crossed the Alps and defeated the Romans in not much more time . . . using elephants. To date we have not really defeated anything to speak of and the troop casualty count, including coalition forces in both wars is reported to be 6,500 combat arena deaths. The price tag for Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 is spinning toward one trillion dollars . . . $986,284,900,000 as of this post.

The Iraq Body Count Project as of this writing, reports 95,888 – 104,595 non-combatant civilian deaths since the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. Estimates of total Afghan civilian deaths as a direct result of the war since the US invasion in 2001 are estimated at 10,172 - 12,969. Folks continue to argue over totals, but civilian casualties have been outrageously high and unacceptable.

The accepted figure for US military troop deaths in the Vietnam war is 58,236. South Vietnam US forces killed an estimated 90,000 South Vietnamese civilians from extensive use of fire power (artillery, carpet bombings, small weapons). Another 1,500 were killed in various massacres as detailed in Rummel's "Statistics of Democide."

The politics of dying ...

In Texas we always called a pointless fight, argument or defense of the indefensible a "skunk-pissing contest." A colorful argot meaning no one wins and both risk smelling really bad, figuratively or literally.

Politics is rife with these contests. And the really bad smell has too often sadly been the smell of death. Pure politics, not a palpable threat of invasion or attack on America by a rogue nation, is at the heart of the political reasons for our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Their origins, accomplishments and civilian death tolls could collectively be called "Vietraqistan."

The alleged cold war "domino effect" and Lyndon Johnson's trumped up claim of a US Navy Destroyer being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin was used to justify our massive troop presence in South Vietnam and sustained bombing of North Vietnam.

Looking back, a cold-war commie menace threat with red hordes taking over all of Southeast Asia if America didn't "win" in South Vietnam is far-fetched. But no more so than America's hastened military posse sent to Afghanistan to locate and capture Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 hijacked airliner attacks. After Bin Laden slipped away the hunting expedition turned into a decade-long on-again, off-again American military war presence in this ancient Muslim country.

I will not even address the reeking politics of America being led into an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, a nation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA. Instead, drop by The Center for Public Integrity for a line-by-line documentation of the more than 935 false statements used by the Bush administration to lead our nation to war there.

Why does any of this matter right now?

It matters because ignoring or forgetting what America has lost in lives, treasure and international reputation is both irresponsible and dangerous. A decade of our troops kicking in the doors of people's homes, terrorizing whole families and treating the "ragheads" with little respect, has done us great harm. Young, motivated Muslims easily believe America is actively involved in a war on Islam. These potential Islamic terrorists share with members of the armed, angry citizen militias being formed right here in the USA the idea that they are being personally attacked and must fight back.

The idea that we could win hearts and minds by bombing and blasting away at centuries of ideology, traditions, sectarian hatreds and deeply embedded Islamic faith is stunningly misguided. Political expediency has let one year become ten years with ever changing justifications for not pulling out and coming home.

It quickly became clear after we entered Iraq that the touted weapons of mass destruction never existed. But we had blown the country's infrastructure to smithereens and had to come up with new justifications being there in the middle of the huge deadly mess we had made. No WMD's, so let's create a model American styled Iraqi democracy, a showplace for the Middle East.

Our costly eight year presence in Iraq has succeeded in eliminating a dictator and his two psychopathic sons, but Americans are not heroes there. Eight years on and there is still limited electrical service, and raw sewerage still floods poorer quarters of Baghdad. They just want us to go away, just like they did in Vietnam. We might have all troops out by New Year's eve, 2011. Or not.

Afghanistan is an even sorrier mess. Its name dates from about 982 AD and the modern day country has been in a constant state of civil war since the early 1970's, intensified by foreign occupations by the Soviets in 1979 and the US-led invasion in 2001 that overthrew the Taliban government . . . for a while.

Bloody coups, power struggles and tribal warlords determining unstable transfers of power have always been the norm in Afghanistan. It has been governed by just about every known form of government for the past century. We have been stuck there for ten long, dusty and deadly years.

After several touted "plans" for US success in Afghanistan over the years, former special forces commander, General Stanley McChrystal recently became Senior American and NATO commander with a plan to have US troops undertake a mission of nation building and establishing trust among the far-flung tribes who have seen all this many times before. Again, politically bogged down, the spanking new mission is "to win hearts and minds."

Instead, we continue to regularly kill Afghan civilians especially as we press into Pakistan to bomb and launch missile attacks across the ill-defined Pakistani-Afghanistan border. We also regularly call in air strikes and wipe out the wrong houses killing women, children and the elderly. Going rate is said to be around $2,500 a family that we pay for our targeting mistakes. This perceived repeated brutality is easily interpreted as America waging war against Islam.

"Why the hell do we keep doing that?" we ask back here at home. "Why have we always done that?" is a better question.

US Army WWII and Korean war combat historian, S.L.A. "Slam" Marshall used oral history recorded interviews to get the gut reactions of troops in combat and under fire. In his latter years what he observed about troops in Vietnam equally applies to young Americans fighting today:
" ... The American fighter can outwit, out-move and out-game anyone thus far thrown against him. Their main gripe is that the enemy is loath to come out of hiding. Their aggressiveness arises from pride in unit. The bond with their buddies. A wish to get the job over... "
And that is it in a nutshell. Since no one is coming over the walls back home trying to conquer the USA, the motivation to carry out "the mission" in some far-flung place varies but it always involves a tit-for-tat payback for every American killed be it by a sniper or a roadside bomb. When in doubt, fueled with adrenaline, the answer is to kill the raghead, (or the gook, or the kraut or the whatever). The sergeant will sort it out later.

I spent a year out in the boonies with combat units all over South Vietnam as a civilian correspondent in 1966-67. When young Americans are sent to strange, inhospitable countries where they can neither read nor speak the native languages, winning hearts and minds is not at the top of the list. It ain't hearts and minds when the rounds are incoming, or when the laundry lady or friendly local interpreter blows up half your unit. In Vietraqistan our troops on the ground, or in the air, will always try to kill someone before they kill them. That's just the way it is.

Where does all this take us?

Vietnam finished out its civil war of nationalism as soon as we left and in a few years it moved toward reunification of North and South. Today we are proud to have full diplomatic, economic and trade relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. True to Buddhist tradition, the Vietnamese hold no deep hatred for America or Americans.

But our invasion and extended presence in these two Middle Eastern countries has served to validate the widely held belief that America is waging open war against Islam. The longer we stay and the more the civilian casualty toll rises, the more Muslims, especially young people, fiercely believe we are waging war against the dominant religion in the Middle East.

If this seems to us a far fetched thing for anyone to believe, consider that we have killed, conservatively, some 120,000 non combatants, including women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Here at home civilian anti-government and conspiracy-based militias now number some 300, doubling since last year according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of these folks think President Obama is building concentration camps where fine loyal Americans like them will be locked up.

Distrust, ignorance and anger usually starts a skunk-pissing contest. It can take a long time for the air to clear.

We may not have the time required for that before another dramatic and deadly domestic terrorist attack upon American soil. The question is will it come from Islamic zealots, or from another equally mad and militia-motivated Timothy McVeigh?

How long does it take to learn the lessons from Vietraqistan?

Montage photos - AP, Jamie Wiseman

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Conspiracies: Exhaust fumes from the angry

Some time ago a kid I had years earlier been asked to sponsor at an Eagle Scout awards ceremony invited me to his wedding. Call him Stan. He had razor sharp quick wit and an unquenchable interest in everything around him. From a poor background, Stan was a likable young redneck who had managed to earn the merit badges needed to become an Eagle Scout. He clearly had a high IQ which had gone unchallenged for most of his young life.

I was given a map to the location of the wedding. It was far out in the country up north of the coastal Biloxi-Gulfport metro area. I had always marveled at how in less than half an hour one enters thick pine forests and a totally different world, detached from the tourism, golf courses, beaches and all the glitz of the casinos "down on the coast."

The wedding at an old settlement church at the end of a gravel road was brief, plain and functional. The bride's full skirt helped conceal her pregnancy. The reception was in a large room beneath the church. Women and kids shuttled in bags of chips and other snacks from the cars and trucks outside.

Stan's new bride poured me a paper cup full of Hawaiian Punch right out of the can as friends and family gathered for the party. Stan introduced me to his father, a rumpled rather dour man in his 40's. He shook my hand and almost immediately pulled me aside from the others and looked me in the eye conspiratorially and asked what I knew about "the new world order."

I didn't know what he was talking about. Stan walked over briskly before I could answer, and trying for a bit of levity, I said, "Stan your father just asked me if I knew about the new world order. I'm not sure, do you know if that order was for here or to go?"

Stan guffawed. His father stiffened and folded his arms across his chest. Stan quickly led me off to meet his mother and other relatives. He rolled his eyes and said, apologetically, "Man, I forgot to tell you about my old man. Just ignore him. He is all off into that kind of stuff."

I had just met my first conspiracy theorist true believer face to face and it was unsettling.

I later would learn the wide range of beliefs in secret societies and evil plans afoot all seem designed to bring ruin, harm or even imprisonment. British polemicist, Cristopher Hitchens, defines conspiracy theories as the 'exhaust fumes of democracy.'

Those who ramble on about the Freemasons, the Tri-Lateral Commission, satanic cults, "the Clinton body count" and of course, the "birthers" are a duke's mixture of folks whose angst and anger can be traced back some 2,000 years. Early believers felt that a religious, social, or political group or movement would cause a major transformation of society for better or worse, depending on what one was believing. World domination or end of the world ... depending.

Early Christian Millenarian groups proclaimed that the current society and its rulers were corrupt, unjust, or otherwise wrong. The Lutherans in about 1520 condemned the Millenarians. Countless new "we are right and you are wrong" cults and sects have been forming ever since, based upon narrowed religious interpretations, politics, pseudo science and lots of rumor and wild speculation.

American has its own religious sects with their very own prophets, founders and teachings including Mormons, Jehova's Witnesses, Scientologists, and Christian Scientists just to name a few. All seem good folks seeking enlightenment, proclaiming peace and goodwill and devotion to good works.

Former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, as well as US Senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid who are among sixteen Mormon members of Congress in both houses who wear "sacred underwear" to remind them of a "continuing need for repentance and obedience to God, the need to honor binding covenants voluntarily made in the temple, and the need to cherish and share truth and virtue in our daily living." Visitors are not allowed into the inner sanctum of their huge temple in Salt Lake city, however.

Extreme fringe groups may claim a loose Christian connection but they also easily mix in hatred, racism, paranoia and patriotism. Hundreds of obtuse and extremist groups flood the internet with classic conspiracy beliefs including the American Nazi Party, White Power Worldwide, several skinheads groups and deniers of all sorts. On November 18, 1978, a charismatic psychopath, Jim Jones, founder of his conspiracy-based People's Temple, led his gullible and devoted followers into one of the largest mass suicides in history convincing 918 people to drink poison laced Kool-Aid.

But if we dial down the level of these extreme examples of anger, political confusion, misplaced faith and too often, gullible ignorance we can get a picture of conspiracy-based protests and activity in America today.

We already have a 2012 doomsday prediction and in the news this week, the Michigan Militia calling themselves "Christian warriors" and training to battle the Antichrist were planning to kill a police officer then set off roadside bombs to kill policemen who would gather en masse for the funeral. Nine of those folks have just been rounded up and jailed. Prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, said of the group, "They fear this 'new world order' and they thought that it was their job to fight against government — the federal government in particular."

Fifteen years ago Stan's father's "new world order" beliefs were less militant but probably not too fundamentally different from those of the Michigan Militia "Christian Warriors." But fifteen years ago he and his buddies mostly railed and fumed amongst themselves reinforcing their beliefs and forming bonds in their churches, clubs and civic organizations.

Today conspiracy internet sites and cable TV talking heads like Fox News and Glen Beck, and Rush Limbaugh's raving radio programs keep the anger among conservatives stirred up 24 hours a day.

Conspiracy believers, who are so easily influenced by rumors, innuendo and outright lies are, however, not easily dissuaded from their view of the world, even after the rumors, innuendo and outright lies have been totally and repeatedly debunked.

They cling to those beliefs because it allows them to be members of a group and it sustains a sense of belonging. Intellectual challenges are seen as threats to what they fiercely already know to be the "real truth."

The USA's landing on the moon, for example, is still is thought to be a hoax, all filmed on a movie set. Fox news even aired "Conspiracy Theory: Did we land on the moon?" Even with moon rocks having been studied by scientists around the world and proclaimed to be of extraterrestrial origin, conspiracy nuts like Bart Sibrel were still out there screaming about the "government coverup."

Sibrel might have had some sense knocked in to him when he confronted Buzz Aldrin in 2002 and called him a "coward and a liar." Aldrin, 72 years old at the time, socked Sibrel a good one in the jaw.

Today's conspiracy theorists have what they feel is a rock-solid target with a black president having been elected by "liberal Democrats." That he is a constitutional scholar, has worked at the grass roots with the poor and disadvantaged after becoming a Harvard educated attorney and is extremely bright and "motivates the world" is proof enough for them that he is the Antichrist. And others who don't believe in Antichrist predictions still don't like him because he is black. Period.

The Tea Party crowd today certainly contains a large percentage of those disaffected supporters at the McCain-Palin rallies where we heard shouts of "kill him!" and other violent epithets against Barack Obama. Obama's clear victory validated a mandate for change. But the Republican party has pledged to keep Obama from succeeding, no matter the consequences for the country. Many ultra-conservatives have taken his election as a personal insult.

What better better way to divert attention from the catastrophic eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration than to fan the flames of discontent with renewed conspiracy theories and and tacit encouragement for simmering racism to come out into the open once again. Tea Party extremists were easily whipped up to scream "nigger, kike, fagot, baby killer" at the nation's Capitol where some actually spit upon elected officials. Republicans stood on the balconies of the Capitol building holding posters egging on the ranting mob below. What a great Tea Party everyone was having!

President Obama and his administration have had the stamina and calm determination to take on the toxic Bush political and financial disasters with unpopular, costly damage control while also moving forward with other badly needed and long ignored major legislation. Obama's perseverance resulted in beginning historic health care reform legislation.

Applauded by many at home and around the world, this progress has, however, created increased fear and anger among Obama;s detractors rather than generating hope. The clouds of dissent are thickening, as Hitchen's noted, from "the exhaust fumes of democracy."

The last thing that soured and riled-up conspiracy theorists and simplistic political protesters need is an even darker cloud over them. Perhaps their hot air will disperse their own exhaust fumes and allow some clear light to shine upon them. Or perhaps not.

Photo montage by Larry Ray