• Groundhog Day in Iraq? Nope, Worse

    June 23, 2017 // 24 Comments

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    Posted in: Iran, Iraq

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    It’s a helluva question: “Tell me how this ends.”

    It was a good question in 2003 when then Major General David Petraeus asked it as the United States invaded Iraq, an ironic one in 2011 when the US withdrew, worth revisiting in 2014 when the US reinvaded Iraq, and again in 2017 as Islamic State appears to be on its way out. Problem is we still don’t have a good answer. It could be Groundhog Day all over again in Iraq, or it could be worse.



    Groundhog Day

    The Groundhog Day argument, that little has changed from 2003 until now, is quite persuasive. Just look at the headlines. A massive Ramadan car bomb exploded not just in Baghdad, but in Karada, its wealthiest neighborhood, during a holiday period of heightened security, and all just outside the Green Zone were the American Embassy remains hunkered down like a medieval castle. Islamic State, like al Qaeda before it, can penetrate the heart of the capital city, even after the fall of their home base in Fallujah (2004, 2016.) Meanwhile, Mosul is under siege (2004, 2017.) Iranian forces are on the ground supporting the Baghdad central government. The Kurds seek their own state. American troops are deep in the fighting and taking casualties. The Iraqi Prime Minister seems in control at best only of the Shia areas of his country. Groundhog Day.

    But maybe this time around, in what some call Iraq War 3.0, we do know how it ends.


    Not Groundhog Day

    It seems unlikely anyone will be able to get the toothpaste of Kurdish independence back into the tube. A functional confederacy since soon after the American invasion of 2003, Kurdish national forces have linked with Kurdish militias, albeit with American help, across the width of northern Iraq, from the Iranian border in the east into Turkey and Syria in the west. This is in large part the land mass traditionally thought of as Kurdistan.

    The Trump administration is for the first time overtly arming Kurdish militias in Syria (some of whom the Turks consider terrorists) to fight Islamic State, without much plan in mind about how to de-arm them when they turn towards the Turks who hold parts of their ancestral homeland. That may not even be a valid question; the ties that bound the United States and Turkey during Iraq War 2.0 appear significantly weakened following Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s coup. His authoritarian government seems far less a valued NATO partner in 2017 than it was even a few years ago. Though the US may require the Kurds to maintain some sort of fictional relationship with the country of “Iraq” to preserve the illusion of a unified nation for American domestic consumption, the key question is whether the Kurds will go to war with Turkey somewhere in the process, and whether the US will choose a side.

    Any reluctance on the part of the United States during Iraq War 2.0 to act as a restraining force on the Shia central government’s empowering of militias (gifted the Orwellian name of Popular Mobilization Units) disappeared when the Iraqi National Army dropped its weapons and ran from Islamic State in 2014. Those militias — only loosely allied with one another, and even less tied to the central government — now carry the bulk of the responsibility for the fight against Islamic State. Many owe their primary allegiance to Iran, who helps arm them, command them, and by some accounts supplements their efforts with special forces dispatched from Tehran. These militias, empowered by the Iranian help now offered openly as America shrugs its shoulders at expediency, are unlikely to be interested in any kind of Sunni-Shia unified Iraq post-Islamic State. It will be near impossible to demobilize them. Indeed, holding them back from committed a Sunni genocide will be the likely challenge in the near future.

    The Iraqi government “victories” over Islamic State in Sunni strongholds like Ramadi and Fallujah have left little for those not sent off as internal refugees. Large swathes of Sunni territory lay in ruins, with no clear plan to rebuild in sight. A political officer at the American Embassy would likely tell you the problem is that neither the U.S. nor Iraq will have the funds anytime in the foreseeable future. A Sunni tribal leader would likely spit on the ground and explain the Shia central government wouldn’t spend a dime if it had a dollar, and will settle for a slow-motion genocide of the Sunni people if the Americans won’t allow a quick one at Shia gunpoint. No matter; the desolation of Sunni areas is severe, regardless of the cause.

    Iraq will be a Shia nation with extraordinary ties to Iran. With no small amount of irony, the price Iraq and Iran will be forced to pay for America, and Israel, titularly accepting this will likely be permanent American military bases inside Iraq (don’t laugh until you remember Guantanamo in Soviet-dominated Cuba, or Hong Kong nestled in Communist China), mostly out of sight way out west with more interest in Syria than Iran. America has wanted those bases since the early days of Iraq War 2.0, and Iran has nothing to gain by picking a fight with the United States. They get the rest of Iraq, after all.

    What happens to the bulk of Iraqi Sunnis is less certain, though the menu is all bad news. World media optics suggest it is in everyone’s interests that any mass slaughter be avoided; Iran in particular would have no interest in giving President Trump or an angry Congress an excuse to get more involved in Iraq’s internal affairs. With the US bases most likely to be located in western Iraqi Sunni homelands, it may be that the tribes find themselves the unofficial beneficiaries of American protection. Those permanent American bases, and the safety they provide, might also keep the successor to Islamic State from moving into a power vacuum the way Islamic State did when al Qaeda found it had outstayed its welcome among the Sunni population.

    This is the End

    Tell me how this ends? A defacto divided Sunni-Shia-Kurd “Iraq” with stronger ties to Iran than the United States. The only unanswered question will be if the value of that ending is worth the cost of some 14 years of American combat, close to 4,500 American dead, and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent.

     

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  • Facebook and the Public Square

    June 22, 2017 // 13 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America




    In what is likely to be a more controversial decision, the same Supreme Court session that confirmed hate speech is protected speech also struck down a law that made it a crime for registered sex offenders to use Facebook and other social media.

    Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in Packingham v. North Carolina , said the web is now part of “the modern public square.” Denying access to it, he wrote, violates the First Amendment.

    “By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge,” Kennedy wrote.

    The case touches on another snowflake battlecry, that private concerns like Facebook are not the government, and thus not subject to the First Amendment. Such thinking is being double-plus used as a work-around to prohibit speech that offends certain groups. So, while say a public university funded by the government must under the First Amendment allow a nazi to speak, a private company like Facebook can set it own rules and prohibit any speech it wishes.

    The importance of the ruling is in its forward-looking perspective. The ruling does not address the question of whether or not Facebook can ban certain speech directly, but does confirm the idea that entities like Facebook, by their size and prominence, take on a larger role in our society (i.e., the “modern public square”) that cannot be ignored. One can easily imagine Justice Kennedy’s opinion used in a future case challenging Facebook or some other private entity’s restrictions on speech.


    And despite the willingness of many to try and dilute the ideas of free speech by citing the public-private divide, the Supreme Court is really doing little more here than enforcing the very old concept that free speech runs deeper than the Bill of Rights. It’s as much a philosophical argument as a legal one, not a bad thing for a nation founded on a set of ideas (and ideals.)

    Free speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Though cited as far back as 1689 in England, the American version of all this was laid out most clearly by Thomas Jefferson, in the mighty Declaration of Independence, where he wrote of rights that flowed from his notion of The Creator, not from government, and thus were fixed. Abetting free speech is an obligation in a democracy in general.

    Jefferson’s invocation of the Creator is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something that exists before and after our time. Government thus did not give us the right to free speech and therefore cannot take it away. The First Amendment simply codifies that latter part, laying out like much of the Bill of Rights what the government cannot do.

    So the argument that the First Amendment does not necessarily apply to all speech (such as that which takes place on private property) can be both true and irrelevant at the same time, and the latter is more important.



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  • 1A Victory: SCOTUS Again Confirms ‘Hate Speech’ is Protected

    June 21, 2017 // 19 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    In the world we awoke to on November 8, 2016, a myth took hold among many progressive people that so-called “hate speech” — speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability — is not protected by the First Amendment. Even Howard Dean contributed to the falsehood.

    The Supreme Court just made it very, very clear that is wrong. Offensive and hateful speech is as protected as any other. It is vital to protect all speech, for the road of prohibiting speech one disagrees with is a slippery one. There is a right to offend; deal with it, snowflakes.




    A recent case, Matal v. Tam, focused on an all-Asian band called The Slants, who wanted to trademark their group’s name. “Slant” of course is one of a dictionary full of racist terms used to offend Asians, and the group wanted to push the word into the world’s face to disarm it, as gay men have done with the slur queer.

    The United States Patent and Trademark Office said no, the group could not trademark the name The Slants because of the disparagement clause, which denies federal trademark protection to messages that may offend people, living or dead, along with “institutions, beliefs or national symbols.” This same reasoning denied the Washington Redskins’ trademark renewal of their team name in 2014, seen as disparaging toward Native Americans.


    No more. The Supreme Court just ruled the government cannot use trademark law to stop people from promoting an (potentially offensive) name. That constitutes the government prohibiting free expression, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

    The First Amendment protects offensive speech, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in this unanimous decision. “The proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” he said, quoting the classic 1929 dissent from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

    (Trump-era snowflakes usually misapply Holmes’ famous line — not shouting fire in a crowded theatre — to justify banning offensive speech by claiming it incites violence. They’re wrong; it doesn’t work that way at all. The whole thing is laid out here.)

    “The danger of viewpoint discrimination,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in The Slants’ case, “is that the government is attempting to remove certain ideas or perspectives from a broader debate. That danger is all the greater if the ideas or perspectives are ones a particular audience might think offensive, at least at first hearing. To permit viewpoint discrimination in this context is to permit government censorship.”

    The ACLU called the decision a “major victory for the First Amendment.”



    And… mic drop.

    The marketplace of ideas needs to be broad and deep, and awful people must be free to spew terrible words, into it, so they can be exposed and bad ideas shoved aside by good ones. That’s how the Founders intended the system to work, that is how it has worked through over 200 years of controversy, and the Supreme Court made it clear this week Trump, Howard Dean, Milo Yiannopoulos or your favorite nazi have no place in trying to change things.


    BONUS: And though the Court didn’t feel the need to remind people that it has long ago sorted out questions about whether hate speech inciting violence justifies restrictions, or the obligation of campuses to provide platforms to offensive speakers, or cities to protect them and their listeners, I will. It’s all explained here, children. Stop trying to use fascism’s tools to silence free speech. Let them speak.)

    DOUBLE BONUS: Five bad arguments the Left is using to restrict speech from the Right.



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  • My Dreams Seek Revenge: Hiroshima

    June 20, 2017 // 16 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War

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    I’ve visited Hiroshima many times.


    The thing that always struck me about Hiroshima was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d get off the train, step out into the sunlight — that sunlight — and I was in Hiroshima. I had the same feeling only once before, taking a bus out of Munich and having the driver announce the next stop as Dachau. Somehow such names feel wrong being said so prosaically.

    I guess no matter how many times I went to Hiroshima, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there that no matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down could not have been buried deep enough. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise.

    But past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. The mountains that form the background in the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of tall buildings of course now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. In that way the Japanese had of trying to make the war go away as quickly as they could once it was over, most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the bomb. Same for most pubic buildings. With a map and some old photos, you could see where you where in 2016 and where you would have been in 1945.

    In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. Take a fast walk and you feel like you have asthma. But in 2016, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English.


    Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceeded its day of infamy.

    While grieving for the victims, many outside of Japan feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war, preferring to portray the nation as a victim.

    Indeed, the otherwise moving Hiroshima Museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised by some as focusing too exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began years earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives at the hands of the Japanese military. The criticism is particularly sharp right now, given a rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    There have also been issues between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima. An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, many of them slave laborers kidnapped from Korea and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories.

    The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, was created as the final resting place for the ashes and bones of the bomb’s victims, many of whom were never fully identified. Under Buddhist tradition, without such interment, the souls of those men and women will never rest. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial.


    There is still much to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S., above all, remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American Ambassador ever came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” There is still not enough for some, even seven decades later.

    Perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me.

    Or so I thought each time I tried, because at night my dreams always sought revenge.



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  • America’s Real Loss of Prestige and Leadership Abroad

    June 19, 2017 // 13 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, NSA, Post-Constitution America




    Because we traded the smooth talking guy for the clumsy boob with no manners, it is popular to bleat that America has given up its role as leader of the free world, to say other nations don’t respect us anymore, or look to us for moral guidance — in the extreme, that we are no longer that shining city on the hill we see ourselves as.

    What such cliches overlook is that not everyone in the free world is as blind as a typical American op-ed writer. Some in fact see past who the current Spokesmodel of Democracy in the White House is, and look to what America actually does. And what it does is often not pretty, and when revealed suggests our nation is and has been morally bankrupt a lot longer than the Trump administration has been in charge.

    One of the more recent revelations of what much of the world already knew comes, again, via Wikileaks, America’s conscience.

    Leaked documents show home internet routers, that blinking thing in the corner of the room where you’re reading this, from ten American manufacturers, including Linksys, DLink, and Belkin, can be turned into covert listening posts that allow the Central Intelligence Agency to monitor and manipulate incoming and outgoing traffic and infect connected devices.

    Short: American-made devices sold globally to allow the free world to use the Internet have been repurposed by the CIA as spy tools.

    The CIA’s technique requires new firmware to be added to the router. This can be done remotely, over WiFi, at the factory, or at any point along the supply chain. It is unknown if America’s leading electronics manufacturers actively helped the CIA do this, passively allowed the CIA to do this after sharing technical data, or simply looked the other way.


    The results of this CIA hack are spectacular.

    The firmware allows the CIA full access to the router, and all connected devices and networks. The spooks can insert malware, copy passwords, see what is being sent and received, redirect browsers to fake websites, why there is little-to-no limit. Apparently the user interface the CIA created for itself is quite friendly. There’s even a Quick Start Guide.

    And you know what?

    The CIA has been doing all this since at least 2007. That means it started under the George W. Bush administration, ran during both Obama terms, and continues without a break right into the Trump years. Three very different presidents, three very different self-images for America, yet underlying all was the same CIA, turning American products to their own needs and spying on well, everyone. Anyone. Free world or not.


    From a global perspective, it doesn’t really matter whether the person in the White House is a Nobel Peace Prize winner or a bumbling oaf. Because the real America, the one that spies on a global scale for its own ends, never changes. That guy on TV you hate? He’s just a placeholder, maybe a distraction, about as consequential to the real role of the United States as a professional wrestler.




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  • Moral Injury and Hooper’s War

    June 17, 2017 // 17 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War, Military



    As research for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan I encountered people suffering in ways they had a hard time describing but which they wrestled with God over everyday. They told me they went away to fight with an idea “we’re the good guys, they’re not” that did not always survive the test of events. They spoke of a depth of pain that needed an end, some end, and for too many, as many as 22 a day every day, any end, even suicide.

    That’s to scratch at describing what we now know as moral injury. The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war — each person sent into conflict finds their sense of right and wrong tested. When they see something, do something, or fail to do something, a transgressive act, that violates their most deeply held convictions, they suffer an injury to the soul, the heart, their core. There are lines inside us which cannot be crossed except at great price — ignoring a plea for medical help, shooting a child in error, watching friends die in a war you have come to question, failing to report a sexual assault witnessed, a sense of guilt simply by presence (documented well in Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried), can cause moral injury. Moral injury is represented well in documentaries such as Almost Sunrise, and though not by name, in films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon.


    Society once expressed skepticism toward such ideas; well, perhaps not skepticism, for that implies more of an open mind than calling sufferers cowards, or dismissing them by saying it’s all in their heads, have a drink, take some time off. Now sister illnesses to moral injury such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are not only acknowledged as real, but new MRI technology can pinpoint their effects inside the brain.

    Moral injury differs from PTSD in that it is tied to the parts of a person that decide right and wrong, and applies guilt, regret or shame as a penalty. PTSD is fear-based, and includes stresses like hyperalertness that worked well over there in war (quite valid adaptations in the mind and body, such as hitting the ground when hearing loud noises, to the real situation of other people trying to kill you), but are dangerous, exhausting, and frightening back here. The flight-or-fight response just won’t shut off, even in the absence of threat. PTSD to many is a loss of safety, but not a loss of self. Moral injury might be thought of as a disconnect between one’s pre-war self and a second self develops in the face of death, action, or inaction. Moral injury jumbles these two selves which cannot in fact live well together inside one body.

    There is a formal definition of moral injury, “the lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral and social impact of perpetuating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Moral injury occurs at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and so, in a sense, is all in someone’s head — as we are thinking beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, then it follows that sense can be broken. Moral injury ironically represents a strength of character — as a human being they cannot ignore what was done — but it feels like a weakness.


    The term moral injury may have originated with Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who conducted groundbreaking work in PTSD, publishing two books, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and Trials of Homecoming, examining the experience of combat through classical texts. Others place the origins of the term moral illness with Vietnam veteran and philosopher Camillo Mac Bica.

    The Department of Veteran’s Affairs now acknowledges moral injury and its effects. Syracuse University created the Moral Injury Project in 2014 to bring together veterans, doctors, chaplains, and mental health providers. Psychologists are developing diagnostic assessment tools.

    Because the research on moral injury is in its infancy, there are no data yet on the number of combat veterans who suffer from it. But the conditions of modern warfare, from Vietnam forward, suggest they are many.

    “There are no long front-lines,” said Nancy Sherman, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and author of Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers. “The city or village is the war zone today. Women and children are armed. Men are fighting without uniforms.”


    But that sounds too clean to me. Because the results of those two words — moral injury — are exactly what you might expect: a long-war struggle for understanding, thoughts of suicide, and self-medication.

    I came to know a handful of veterans, and spoke intimately with the men and women I lived alongside in Iraq for a terrible year that was scarred by two soldier suicides. I spent time speaking with Japanese who lived through WWII as civilians. One now-elderly woman remembered her mother’s own moral injury after seven decades, a failure to comfort two dying siblings, hearing her mother’s ghost say in a park in 2016 Tokyo “Haruo-kun, that day of the firebombing was so hot for you. Akiko-chan, you wished so hard for water then. Please drink now.”

    What response can there be to something so human?

    A lot of pain festers not just out of what people saw, as with the Japanese woman, but the realization that what they saw and did really didn’t matter in any bigger picture. It should’ve had a reason, many pleaded to me. People say to sufferers, “whatever you have to tell yourself,” to help them create justification, but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be in your 30s, or 70s, and scared of the dark. Imagine you have real reasons to be scared. Imagine you want to cry years out of you. Imagine failing to understand what you feel, not being able to talk much about the things you think about every day.


    Suicide is never far from moral injury. The soul isn’t that big a place.

    It is above all the act of killing that does it: 70 percent of those Afghan and Iraq veterans who participated in heavy combat attempt suicide. One guy who told me he has never forgiven his neighbor from talking him out of going into the garage with his rifle. Another who said the question wasn’t why he might commit suicide, but why he hadn’t already done so. The Department of Veteran Affairs counts 20 veteran suicides a day. About 65 percent of all veteran suicides are by individuals fifty years and older who have had little or no exposure to the most recent conflicts.

    A lot of those suffering from moral injury self-medicate. Seeking help is still a stigma for some, the hard work of recovery too hard or too slow for others.

    Drinking (drugs for many of the younger guys) hurts. Everyone learns it just sends pain off to wait, but still it was something to look forward to, they told me, the first fizzy beer of the day tickling their nose, or the throat-burning shot of something stronger biting into an ulcer. Drinking wiped away hours when someone had too many of them, all the way back to 1945 sometimes. You drink in the dark places, a bar, an unlit living room because there is a sense that you have lost your future and that’s easier to deal with when you can’t see anything (you see too much in the dark anyway.) Pain can be patient, a drop of water swelling on the end of a faucet, waiting for that one guy who had a little too much at a wedding and started talking about blood and brains in some alcoholic dialect until a couple of other vets walk him outside where he tells stories from his knees which they understood.

    The trip back is as complex as the individual, and the most effective treatments evolving. “Soul repair” is the term some use.

    One path to healing is via helping a patient to understand (“owning it”) what happened and their own responsibility, not necessarily fault, for transgressions. Others speak of seeking self-forgiveness, including a benevolent moral authority, often because those transgressed against are dead.

    Another way back is for the sufferer to make amends, either toward those harmed, or to a third party. To amend literally mean to change something already done, and in the case of moral injury that is drawing a line between who one was then and can be now.

    The goal is to accept wrong was done but to also understand it and learn how to deal with it; the act, while impossible to reconcile or forgive, does not have to define the rest of a life. The goal is for individuals to reclaim good parts of themselves and to examine and accept — but not be defined by — what they did, what they saw, what others did,

    What doesn’t work, in the eyes of one veteran-advocate, Matthew Hoh, is lying, as we do every day in the United States, telling veterans who view themselves as villains they are really all heroes. Hoh, after leaving the Marine Corps after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, later became one of only four State Department officials to resign in protest over the post-9/11 wars.

    “You mean like that Vietnam helicopter thing?” a well-meaning family doctor asked me when I told him coming home from the anemic role I played in Iraq left me more interested in vodka than my family, with a few too many orange containers lined up next to the sink even before I saw him. That was my own tiny taste of this, a failure to have accomplished anything, but I was lucky to benefit from some good people who helped me to accept my choices, and give up trying to erase them or explain them away. I didn’t want pity or understanding, I just wanted to get this stuff out of my head.

    The process is hard; it doesn’t always have the happy ending I wrote into my story. Sometimes these things don’t end when the war ends. Sometimes for some men and women they don’t end until they do. That’s the end loss for everyone.

     

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  • The Myth of Hiroshima

    June 16, 2017 // 17 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War

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    With rare exception, the question of whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end World War Two is debated only deep within the safety of academic circles.

    Could a land invasion have been otherwise avoided? Would more diplomacy have achieved the same ends without the destruction of two cities? Could an atomic test on a deserted island have convinced the Japanese? Was the surrender instead driven primarily by the entry of the Soviets into the Pacific War, which, by historical accident, took place two days after Hiroshima—and the day before Nagasaki was immolated?

    But it is not only the history of the decision itself that is side stepped. Beyond the acts of destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen.

    The short version of the atomic myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were not dropped out of revenge or malice, immoral acts, but of grudging military necessity. As a result of this, the attacks have not provoked or generated deep introspection and national reflection.

    The use of the term “myth” is appropriate. Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new, extraordinary power the United States alone possessed. The military necessity argument was largely created later, in a 1947 article defending the use of the atomic bomb, written by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Conant described the article’s purpose at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”

    The Stimson article was a response to journalist John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorker and later as a book. Due to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required that formal White House response. Americans’ general sense of themselves as a decent people needed to be reconciled with what was done in their name. The Stimson article was quite literally the moment of creation of the Hiroshima myth.

    The national belief that no moral wrong was committed with the atomic bombs, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection, echoes forward through today (the blithe way Nagasaki is treated as a historical after thought – “and Nagasaki, too” – only drives home the point.) It was 9/11, the new Pearl Harbor, that started a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition and indefinite detention are seen by most as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right.

    And with that, the steps away from the violence of Hiroshima and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are merely a matter of degree. The myth allows the world’s most powerful nation to go to war as a victim after the tragic beheadings of only a small number of civilians. Meanwhile, the drone deaths of children at a wedding party are seen as unfortunate but only collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism itself. It is a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified simply based on who held the knife.

    We may, in fact, think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands to otherwise end World War Two. There is little debate in the “war on terror” because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says an illusion of expediency wipes away any concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to strike next.

    Japan, too, is guilty of failing to look deep into itself over its own wartime atrocities. Yet compared to the stunning array of atrocities during and since World War Two, the world’s only use of nuclear weapons still holds a significant place in infamy. To try and force the Japanese government to surrender (and no one in 1945 knew if the plan would work) by making it watch mass casualties of innocents, and then to hold the nation hostage to future attacks with the promise of more bombs to come, speaks to a cruelty previously unseen.

    For President Obama to visit Hiroshima without reflecting on the why of that unfortunate loss of lives, acting as if they occurred via some natural disaster, is tragically consistent with the fact that for 71 years no American president felt it particularly important to visit the victimized city. America’s lack of introspection over one of the 20th century’s most significant events continues, with 21st century consequences.




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  • On the Ethics of Hell

    June 15, 2017 // 14 Comments

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    flyers



    Japan absorbed WWII. The collective memory was tidied up. Little is taught about the war in modern Japanese schools, and even less of what is taught is true. There seems no reason to bring up all those bad deeds and rotten memories. For the most part, the Japanese created their own alternate history of the war.


    Vivisection

    So it is all the more shocking that a Japanese university opened a museum acknowledging that its staff performed vivisections on a handful of downed American airmen (above) during World War II. The incident has been previously documented by both sides of the war, but the very public and ongoing acknowledgement of the atrocity at the site where it was committed is quite unusual for Japan.

    The newly-opened museum at Kyushu University explains how eight U.S. POWs were taken to the center’s medical school in Fukuoka after their plane was shot down in May 1945. The flyers were subjected to horrific medical experiments. Doctors dissected one soldier’s brain to see if epilepsy could be controlled by surgery, and removed parts of the livers of other prisoners as part of tests to see if they would survive. Another soldier was injected with seawater, in an experiment to see if it could be used instead of sterile saline solution to help dehydration.

    The airmen so tortured were aboard a B-29 on a bombing raid over Fukuoka. They all bailed out when their aircraft was rammed by a Japanese fighter.


    Firebombing

    The ethics of hell come into play when we think a bit on what those flyers were doing in the skies over Fukuoka: dropping bombs in hopes of burning, shredding or maiming as many Japanese as possible.

    The U.S. at this late stage of the war was as a strategy not discriminating between “military” and “civilian” targets, and often conducted mass firebombing raids over cities. Thousands of incendiaries were dropped simultaneously in hopes of creating a firestorm, a conflagration that burned hot and long enough to literally suck the oxygen out of the air and kill everything beneath it.

    I have a history of the war on my bookshelf that makes quite a point of being horrified, with no obvious irony, that when the Japanese captured another group of shot-down B-29 crewman from firebombing missions, the flyers were burned alive in an impromptu fire; some others were killed with boiling water. It says elsewhere a negotiated peace was impossible when one side was fighting for civilization and the other represented barbarism.

    Same kind of thing in an actual description from another book of one of the terrible things that happened in the Pacific War: “As the bodies started to sizzle, their arms and legs twitched, and they sat up as if they were alive. Smoke came out of their eye sockets, their mouths opened, and licks of flames came out. Their lungs were full of steam, and hissing noises came out.”

    Did that description come from the firebombing of a Japanese city, or from the burning alive of American prisoners? It was one of the two, though it describes both, but how does that matter?




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  • Review: Hooper’s War: An Imaginative Retelling of the End of World War II

    June 14, 2017 // 1 Comment

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    W.J. Astore, on Bracing Views, reviewing Hooper’s War. You can read the whole review at his site, but this paragraph sums up much of what I am trying to say in the book:

    Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.


    Buy Hooper’s War today on Amazon!


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  • Review – Hooper’s War, My War

    June 13, 2017 // 8 Comments

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    Here’s a new review of my book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, written by Dr. Rod Deaton. Dr. Deaton has served combat veterans since 2009 in a variety of settings, including at the United State Department of Defense and at the United States Veterans Health Administration.

    His review, below, is what my book is about. Dr. Deaton and I have never met and do not know one another, but his words describe my words as I intended them. If you read this review and it resonates with you, please go on to read my book. This is, to me, a perfect description in a few hundred words what I tried to convey in my few hundred pages.


    The Review

    A longer piece today, reviewing a book well worth reading.

    In Peter Van Buren’s book, Hooper’s War (Luminis Books, 2017), history changes. Yet history never changes, even when it does.

    What might have happened had the atomic bomb never been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? he asks. Had the Allies invaded Japan instead, taking first the southern island of Kyushu, establishing then a beachhead on the main island of Honshu? Had the ancient capital of Kyoto, until that point spared aerial attack, become the scene of a firebombing that would leave behind nothing but ash posing as February snow, to be taken up by the wind and then returned in torrents of black rain upon a teen-aged American soldier screaming, “Get it off me, get it off me. It’s people, get it off me.”?

    What might have happened had a ninety-year-old American tourist, years later, stopped hearing that boy’s cries?


    While visiting a Buddhist temple north of Kyoto in 2017, former Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper tells an elderly Japanese women he meets there that he had “outlived them all, and usually in a war that means I won.” She doesn’t seem to mind: she is there to talk to ghosts, after all, the spirits of her two children, while pouring water onto one of the many small Buddhas scattered throughout the garden, comforting souls that had years before thirsted until the heat had finally consumed them.

    It is the image of that old American man that sticks with me: his bending down toward those small statues outside the one temple that had managed to survive not only earthquakes, but also heavenly conflagrations, the shrine having been scuffed around the edges only by some, shall we say, fateful artillery fire. His then reaching into his pocket, his pulling out a yellowed scrap.

    My wife refused to return to Kyoto herself, but insisted I do something for her, after her death. Doctors say someone can’t technically die of a broken heart, but I know better. It just takes a long time. So my final obligation in Kyoto was to leave behind an old photo of two Japanese children. I’d helped take care of it for 70 years, but it was never mine. It was a treasured possession of hers, and it needed to return home, before the next change of season. They were together. It had just taken a long time.

    “Words were all I had,” Hooper tells us. And so Van Buren adds words to that image, moving backwards in time as his American protagonist encounters Naoko Matsumoto, the woman with whom he shared those seventy years, and Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, the man for whom, perhaps, he did.

    For in the end, whatever each man did, he did for her.

    Hooper’s War is anything but a romance. It is not an action thriller, either. It’s not the ending at the beginning that matters, after all. It’s the beginning at the end.

    Van Buren calls it a tale of “moral injury,” the au courant psychological term for what War does to a man’s, a woman’s soul. I’ve heard that some are trying to quantify the term these days. Data is always so helpful when it comes time for reports to the Budget Office. That means we won. I think.

    Words can only qualify an image, however, not replace it. Van Buren makes no promises otherwise. Yet with his words, he delivers, such as when the American soldier and the Japanese soldier play chess, literally and figuratively, mediated by the words and the heart of the young Japanese woman, fully bilingual, fully willing to live out the values that both men would have preferred had remained hidden in the pasts of southern Japan or middle America, pasts that Van Buren slowly unfolds for the reader, until youth is rediscovered, histories that will never again be.


    And it was at that moment of discovery, in the final pages of the novel, that Hooper’s War became mine.

    If as a practicing psychiatrist all I do is hear the wars of others, if I do nothing to make some small part of their War my own, then really I’m just a cleaned-up version of “First Warrant Officer Rand, 20th Army Air Force, strategic bomb damage assessment branch, acting deputy chief assistant assessor”—by the way, also a high school math teacher from Nebraska.

    “So, Rand, you’re saying [all this destruction] is good?” [asked Hooper.]

    “No sir, not good,” Rand said. “I’d have to score it pretty close to perfect to be honest about it. Almost nothing left standing. That’s an achievement.”

    “If you’re so smart, Rand, tell me, why are there so many logs blocking up the river? What caused that?” I said.

    “Oh, those aren’t logs, Lieutenant.”

    Yet in Van Buren’s book, it was not the Nate, Naoko, and Eichi outside Nishinomiya Station, south of Kyoto, who first claimed me.

    No, first it was a Japanese housewife, whom I met briefly in the closing pages of the book.

    My father told me [Eichi] that because Japan had freed Korea and China from the west, our markets were flooded with new goods from those faraway places. Mother especially loved the Korean plums, quietly insisting they were juicier than Japanese ones, even as my father would shush her for fear a neighbor might overhear her being what he said was disloyal.

    Then it was some (likely) high-school track coach from, of all places, Reeve, Ohio.

    I [Nate] was 14-years-old in December 1941, sitting in an overheated classroom hearing about Sherman’s Burning of Atlanta and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, asking my equally bored teacher numbing questions about why we had to learn this stuff. Every minute dragged like a week’s worth of Mondays.

    The novel made War mine through these passing mentions of adults who, without much thought, were living what they were living because someone else, somewhere, had died to give them that opportunity, both soldier and civilian.

    The dead aren’t that choosy, one way or the other, which side they might once have been on. Plums, classrooms, all the same to them.

    I am Eichi’s mother, Nate’s teacher. I am the one who has eaten those plums in those classrooms, who even now nibbles on a sticky bun in a quiet bed and breakfast as my Twitter feed narrates more deaths in Afghanistan, acknowledges final words uttered somewhere, whether in English or inDari.

    I live in my Society. I profit from my Society. My Society has sent troops to other Societies, for reasons good or ill, depending on whose viewpoint you assume.

    Either way, I have therefore sent them there as well

    In his “alternative universe,” Van Buren has forced me to to realize: I too am morally injured. Even more, I have morally injured. Yes, I still can enjoy a rose garden and a Lake Michigan breeze. Yet I don’t get a pass, either.

    Neither Lieutenant Hooper nor Sergeant Nakagawa indict me, their families, their Societies for the acts they themselves, as soldiers, committed or did not commit. They chose their fates as much as they were chosen by them, and they lived with those choices—and died with them.

    Yet, somehow, I cannot but feel indictment, not from the young men in wartime Japan, perhaps, but rather from a boy who had his picture taken with a girl years before, when they had both enjoyed Sakuma, the fruit drops in the metal tin, made in the factory so far away from their hometown. From a boy in Ohio who “left the house in the morning always knowing [he’d] be back in time to wash up for supper.”

    Those two boys–and the girl whom, at different times in different worlds, they together loved–they say to me, “You, Dr. Deaton, you helped make this story. We were merely playing our parts, understudies to much older folks like yourself, taking direction, falling on cue.”

    The Buddhas, the old man, the photograph, quiet Japanese villages and rustic Ohio towns: may the images last with me, even longer than the words. Thank you, Mr. Van Buren, for having, in Hooper’s War, given both to us all.




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  • Understanding the Cost of War: Moral Injury

    June 12, 2017 // 10 Comments

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    “My guilt will never go away,” former Marine Matthew Hoh explained to me. “There is a significant portion of me that doesn’t believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair.”

     

    If America accepts the idea of fighting endless wars, it will have to accept something else as well: that the costs of war are similarly endless. I’m thinking about the trillions of dollars, the million or more “enemy” dead (including civilians of every imaginable sort), the tens of thousands of American combat casualties, those 20 veteran suicides each day, and the diminished lives of those who survive them all. There’s that pain, carried by an unknown number of women and men, that won’t go away, ever, and that goes by the label “moral injury.”

     

    The Lasting Pain of War

    When I started my new novel, Hooper’s War, a what-if about the end of World War II in the Pacific, I had in mind just that pain. I was thinking — couldn’t stop thinking, in fact — about what really happens to people in war, combatants and civilians alike. The need to tell that story grew in large part out of my own experiences in Iraq, where I spent a year embedded with a combat unit as a U.S. State Department employee, and where I witnessed, among so many other horrors, two soldier suicides.

    The new book began one day when Facebook retrieved photos of Iraqi children I had posted years ago, with a cheery “See Your Memories” caption on them. Oh yes, I remembered. Then, on the news, I began seeing places in Iraq familiar to me, but this time being overrun by Islamic State militants or later being re-retaken with the help of another generation of young Americans. And I kept running into people who’d been involved in my war and were all too ready to share too many drinks and tell me too much about what I was already up all too many nights thinking about.

    As these experiences morphed first into nightmares and then into the basis for research, I found myself speaking with ever more veterans of ever more wars who continued to suffer in ways they had a hard time describing, but which they wrestled with everyday. I realized that I understand them, even as they seemed to be trying to put their feelings into words for the first time. Many of them described how they had entered the battle zones convinced that “we’re the good guys,” and then found the depth of guilt and shame that followed when that sense didn’t survive the test of events.

    Sometimes they were remarkably articulate, sometimes anything but. It seemed not to matter which war we were talking about — or whether I was reading a handwritten diary from the Korean War, an oral history of the Pacific War, or an old bestseller about a conflict ironically labeled “the Good War,” — because the story always seemed to be the same: decisions made in seconds that lasted lifetimes, including the uncomfortable balancing of morality and expediency in situations in which a soldier might believe horrific acts like torture could save lives, or accept civilian causalities in pursuit of military objectives. In war, you were always living in a world in which no action seemed ideal and yet avoiding acting was often inconceivable.

     

    PTSD and Moral Injury

    Matthew Hoh, that former Marine, now a veterans advocate, introduced me to the phrase “moral injury,” though the term is usually attributed to clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay. Shay coined it in 1991 while working for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    We are, of course, beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, which can be messed with in disastrous ways. There are boundaries inside us that can’t be crossed without a great price being paid. Though the term moral injury is fairly new, especially outside military circles, the idea is as old as war. When people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested when they violate deeply held convictions by doing something (such as killing a civilian in error) or failing to do something (such as not reporting a war crime.) They suffer an injury to their core being.

    Examples of this phenomenon are relatively commonplace in popular culture. Think of scenes from Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried, William Manchester’s World War II odyssey, Goodbye Darkness, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, or films like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

    You can find similar examples as far back as the Iliad and as recently as late last night. Lisa Ling, a former Air Force technical sergeant who worked in America’s armed drone program before turning whistleblower, was perhaps typical when she told the makers of the documentary film National Bird that, in helping carry out drone strikes which killed people across the globe by remote control, “I lost part of my humanity.”

    Once upon a time, society expressed skepticism or worse toward such formulations, calling those who emerged visibly suffering from the acts of war “cowards” or dismissing them as fakes and frauds. Yet today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a widely acknowledged illness that can be identified by MRI tests.

    PTSD and moral injury often occur together — “I think having both PTSD and moral injury are the normal things for us,” says Ling of those in the drone program. Moral injury, however, takes place at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and so is, in a sense, all in someone’s head. When experiencing moral injury, a person wields guilt and/or shame as a self-inflicted penalty for a choice made. PTSD is more physical, more fear-based, and often a more direct response to an event or events witnessed in war.

    Think of it this way: PTSD is more likely to result from seeing something terrible, moral injury from having caused something terrible.

     

    Civilians, Too

    Moral injury doesn’t just affect soldiers, but civilians, too. Noncombatants are not just victims or targets, but are often complex participants in war. This reality led me, as my book developed, to interview now-elderly Japanese who had experienced World War II as children. They described the horrific choices they faced, even at a young age. In a wartime landscape of hunger, survival often depended on small, grim acts that would never be forgotten.

    Sometimes, I sensed in talking to them, as in interviewing former soldiers, that the psychic injuries of wartime don’t end until the sufferers do. Moral injury turns out to be a debt that often can never be repaid.

    Those survivors of the end of the war in Japan who got the food had to pay a price for knowing what happened to those who didn’t. In a landscape ravaged by war, just because something wasn’t your fault doesn’t mean it won’t be your responsibility. An act as simple as which of her children a mother offered a disappearing supply of water to first could mean the difference between life and death. And though, in truth, it might have been impossible, in such circumstances and at such an age to know that you were responsible for the death of your sister or brother, 70 years later you might still be thinking about it with an almost unbearable sense of guilt.

    And here’s a small footnote: Did you know that it’s possible to sit quietly on a modern Tokyo park bench, perfectly aware of whose distant relatives and countrymen dropped the bombs that took away the water that forced that mother to make the decision, and still shamefully continue taking notes, saying nothing as you witness someone else’s breakdown?

     

    The Trip Back

    What help can there be for something so human?

    There are, of course, the bad answers, all-too-often including opioids and alcohol. But sufferers soon learn that such substances just send the pain off to ambush you at another moment, and yet, as many told me, you may still look forward to the morning’s first throat-burning shot of something strong. Drinking and drugs have a way, however temporarily, of wiping out hours of pain that may stretch all the way back to the 1940s. You drink in the dark places, even after you understand that in the darkness you can see too much.

    Tragically, suicide is never far from moral injury. The soul isn’t that big a place.

    One former soldier told me he’s never forgiven his neighbor for talking him out of going into the garage with his rifle. Another said the question wasn’t why he might commit suicide, but why he hadn’t. Someone knows vets who have a “designated driver,” a keeper not of the car keys but of their guns during emotional rough patches.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs counts a stunning average of 20 veteran suicides a day in America. About 65% of those are individuals 50 years old or older with little or no exposure to the country’s twenty-first-century conflicts. No one tracks the suicide rate for civilians who survive war, but it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t high as well. The cause of all of those deaths can’t, of course, be tracked to any one thing, but the pain that grows out of moral injury is patient, the equivalent of a slow dripping of water that just adds to whatever else is going on.

    For such sufferers, however, progress is being made, even if the trip back is as complex as the individual. The Department of Veterans Affairs now acknowledges moral injury and its effects, and in 2014 Syracuse University created the Moral Injury Project to bring together vets, doctors, and chaplains to work on how to deal with it. In the meantime, psychologists are developing diagnostic assessment tools for what some call “soul repair.”

    One effective path back seems to be through helping patients sort out just what happened to them and, when it comes to transgressions, what part of those may be their own responsibility (though not necessarily their own fault). What doesn’t work, according to Matthew Hoh, is trying to convince veterans who view themselves as damaged that, in the present American manner, they are really heroes.

    Others suffering moral injury may try to deal with it by seeking forgiveness.

    Drone combatant Lisa Ling, for example, traveled to Afghanistan, with a desire to truly grasp her role in a drone program that regularly killed its victims from thousands of miles away. To her surprise, during an encounter with the relatives of some civilian victims of such drone strikes, she was forgiven by them. “I didn’t ask for forgiveness,” Ling told me of her role in the drone program, “because what I did was unforgivable.”

    “Like all of us,” she added, “I spent time on the mission floor, or at briefings where I saw and heard devastating things, or blatant lies, but to actually connect my individual work to single events wasn’t possible due to the diffusion of responsibility. For sensor operators, it is more like stepping on ants. For analysts, they get to know people over time. As watchers and listeners they describe an intimacy that comes with predictably knowing their family patterns. Kissing the kids, taking children to school, and then seeing these same people die.”

    Killing by remote control requires many hands. Ling worked on databases and it networking. Analysts studied the information in those databases to recommend humans to target. Sensor operators manipulated lasers to pinpoint where a drone pilot would eventually slam his missile home for the kill.

     

    Moral Injury and Whistleblowers

    Another way back is for the sufferer to try to rebalance the internal scales a little by making amends of some sort. To do so involves trying to alter or transform acts already committed. In the case of moral injury, this can often mean drawing a line between who one was then and who one might be now. Think of it as an attempt to re-inscribe those internal borders that were transgressed so long ago.

    Perhaps not so surprisingly, the connections between moral injury and whistleblowing, like those between moral injury and suicide, appear to run deep.

    For example, Iraq War whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s decision to leak video of civilian deaths caused by members of the U.S. military may have been her version of amends, driven by guilt over silently witnessing those and other war crimes. Among the acts she saw, for instance, was a raid on a printing facility that had been billed as an al-Qaeda location but wasn’t. The U.S. military had, in fact, been tricked into shutting down the work of political opponents of Iraq’s then-prime minister Nouri al Maliki. Until Manning finally tells her story, this remains speculative, but I was at the same forward operating base in Iraq she was and know what happened and how it affected me, as well as the others around us.

    Whistleblowers (and I was one of them) talk of conscience, of a realization we were part of something that was wrong. Jonathan Shay suggests that the failure of moral agency does not have to rest with the individual alone. It can involve witnessing a betrayal of “what’s right” by a person in legitimate authority.

    That part of moral injury could help explain one of the most significant whistleblowers of our time. In talking about his reasons for blowing the whistle, Edward Snowden invoked questions of right and wrong when it came to the actions of senior American government officials. It would be a worthy question to put to Snowden: How much guilt and shame — the hallmarks of moral injury — do you retain from having been part of the surveillance state, and how much was your whistleblowing driven by trying to rid yourself of it?

    After all, for those suffering from moral injury, the goal is always the same: to somehow reclaim the good parts of oneself and to accept — but not be eternally defined by — what one did or didn’t do.

    I know, because for me, this is so much more than fiction.

     

    My War at Home

    “You mean that Vietnam helicopter thing?” A well-meaning family doctor asked me when I got back from Iraq in 2010, referring to scenes from war movies where the angry vet overreacts to the noise of a helicopter, sending him “back to the jungle.” No, no, far more than that, I responded, and told him a little about my sorry role in administering reconstruction projects in Iraq and how it left me more interested in vodka than my family. That was my own personal taste of moral injury, of a deeply felt failure to accomplish any of the good I’d hoped to do, let down by senior leaders I once believed in. It’s why I tell the story in Hooper’s War in reverse order, opening with a broken Nate Hooper in his late eighties finally finding a form of redemption for the events of a few weeks at war when he was 18. By moving toward an innocent boy as far away in rural Ohio as one can be from war, I felt I was working through my own experience of the damage war causes deep inside the self.

    About the costs of war: is a quick death better than a slow one? A widow with one child versus a widow left with five mouths to feed? A soldier who leaves his brains on the wall in the den ten years after the peace treaty versus one who brought his body home but left his mind ten thousand miles away? What price did each pay? How do you count those costs?

    We are left knowing the price of endless war is beyond calculation. We simply become a society surrounded by costs, the financial, the ones in blood, and the ones we can’t see that tear apart men and women we welcome home. The nasty conclusion is that moral injury scales: our endless wars may indeed have left all of us, a society that cannot stop itself from making war, among the casualties.

     

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  • Review: Hooper’s War an “Allegory of Hauntingly Memorable Ethical Power”

    June 11, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    In a new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, author and veteran Pete Free writes:

    Peter Van Buren’s Hooper’s War is an early 21st century American allegory of understated, but hauntingly memorable ethical power… a masterpiece of sparsely worded brevity.

    What is foreseeable in war is its unavoidable escalation of the brutality that lives in us. Wisdom, therefore, counsels against beginning combat, absent genuinely existential justifications. It is in over-expanding the scope of what is existence-threatening that we fall into moral and strategic error.

    Hooper’s War illustrates the first concept (escalating brutality) more than the latter (maintaining a sensibly core scope of vital national interests). But the allegory’s frequent use of early 21st century American English — and, by implication, the history of U.S. warmongering since World War II — remind us that Van Buren’s focus is actually on what happened after we addictively tasted the national power inherent in dropping Little Boy and Fat Man (among other things) on Japan.

    In using his alternative history (meaning conventional war only) format, Van Buren bypassed the moral obfuscation that the expansive nature of atomic weapons brings with them. It is not the fission and fusion weapons that comprise the evil of modern war, he implies. It is the instinct-activated brutality that already lies within us, regardless of the weapons we use.

    See the full review for more!



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  • The Actual Order for the Bombing of Hiroshima (With Bonus Children’s Death Count!)

    June 10, 2017 // 6 Comments

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    Here’s the actual operations order that launched the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, along with a sample of the results: a compilation of how many school children the U.S. killed that day! (click to enlarge)




    And one lucky survivor!





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  • Propaganda: Imperial Japan and Modern Day

    June 9, 2017 // 10 Comments

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    beheading


    There are basically only two messages in propaganda: our side is good, strong and will win, and their side is evil, weak and will lose. Everything else is just music and narration.


    So to demonstrate how little propaganda statements towards whomever happens to be America’s enemy of the time change, let’s have a look at the 1943 propaganda film here, made to help stir up Americans for the long fight ahead to defeat Imperial Japan during World War II. Everybody likes Japan now, but remember the country that now makes our anime, manga and weird porn used to want to conquer us, even going as far as beheading hostages (sound familiar?)

    The Video



    What We Learn

    In the video we learn many things about the evil Japanese (and ISIS):

    — They are fighting a “Holy War” against the West (no change with ISIS);

    — They are trying to establish a world government with everyone living their austere, Emperor-worshipping lifestyle, with their harsh laws (substitute Caliphate);

    — They fight “fanatically,” and are willing to give their lives for the Emperor, believing Shinto paradise awaits them (substitute Allah and the same Paradise, less virgins on the Japanese side);

    — You “cannot measure the way Japanese think by any Western standard. While their weapons are modern, their thinking and beliefs are 2000 years out of date” (no change with ISIS);

    — The Japanese believe they have a “sacred duty” to fight for the Emperor against all others (ISIS, infidels, Allah, you get it)

    — They are “fanatics, and we must kill them before they destroy our way of life” (no change with ISIS);

    — The Japanese are not nice to their women (no change with ISIS);

    — They hate us (no change with ISIS);

    — They behead hostages (no change with ISIS)



    The Long Con

    Now, this all begs the question: if the core propaganda messages the U.S. government promoted during World War II are nearly identical to those pushed out today via the mass media about ISIS, does that tell us something? Is it that our enemies, as varied as Imperial Japan and ISIS across some sixty-five years of conflicts, are just so much alike, or is it that when America needs a villain, it goes to the same playbook? After all, what works, works.


    Why reinvent the scam?



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  • I Am a Fictional Author

    June 8, 2017 // 18 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Other Ideas

    As regular readers know, my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, is a work of fiction, by which I mean I acknowledge that I made up more of it than a typical journalist will admit to.

    “Fiction” also allows me to pretend that pathetic episodes from my own life that are in the story didn’t happen, and allows me to mock obvious real people by simple saying “All characters are fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is merely coincidental” (Lawyers: Kidding!)

    Since my personal goal this time around is to involve fewer government agencies than got involved with book one, We Meant Well, I can’t believe I didn’t stumble on to this fiction thing a long time ago except for my resume.

    That said, I have come to learn that fiction writers are expected to be different. As a non-fiction writer about the failed reconstruction of Iraq, I just showed up and wrote down what happened. I could have hired a stenographer to follow me around Iraq, and just signed off on the text. Again, you mature, you grow, it’s a journey.

    Fiction writers it turns out are supposed to be characters in their own right, quirky, fascinating people you want to spend time with drinking inexpensive but marvelous wines in Brooklyn, saying words like “quirky” and “robust” (the wine, not the author.) Apparently being a fat, bald old guy with a chip on his shoulder isn’t enough to sell fictional books.

    So, some changes will need to happen.

    Though I overpaid for LASIK a few years ago, I henceforth shall wear the thick black glasses that made everyone in the 1950s look like a dork. It seems the whole thing is based on living a life of total irony, without ever letting on you actually know what irony is.

    I’ll wear only black shirts with old jeans, and a twenty foot scarf wrapped a bunch of times around my neck, ’cause nobody’s done that look. I’ll look like Yassar Arafat with a bad cold.

    Or black turtlenecks.

    Or black t-shirts. Unironed.

    Perhaps a fedora, or, when I’m feeling especially plucky, a jaunty beret.

    Tattoo in Chinese characters whose meaning I do not know. I will later learn the giant thing permanently inked on my arm actually only means “table.”

    I will use more foreign words. For example, I will use the French tableau frequently, which actually does mean “table,” to describe pretty much whatever the hell I want and you’ll nod.

    I will be seen with someone, such as Lindsay LohanMiley Kardashian Cyrus, who is edgy. (Miley, tweet me up, you got the digits. Payment in blow, like before.)

    I hate smoking but I will often smoke. A pipe for author photos, hand-rolled tobacco in public.

    I will listen only to bands so obscure that they haven’t even formed up yet.

    Sell the dog, get an exotic cat. Say “animals are so pure, unlike people, they just know love.”

    When out to dine with other self-important people, we shall order only “small plates.” I don’t know what that is– are they what used to be appetizers? Are they just tiny portions of the stuff that used to come on big plates? No matter.

    Other things I will say often: Amazing, take it to a new level, my passion, pivot, robust, my journey. I will go out for a coffee while you go out “for coffee.” I will refer to other famous people as “the new Gatsby” (I have never been able to finish reading anything by Fitzgerald but I saw most of that movie and was sober for the first half.)

    I will raise false modesty to an art form. When people ask what I do, I’ll say “Oh, I scribble down some things for people. Perhaps you’ve seen them– in a little paper called the New York Times?”

    I will refer to obscure artists as “the best ____ of his generation” not only to sound douche, but in hopes that someone will do me a reach-around and refer to me as the best of my generation.

    I will claim to do all my writing on some cutting edge Apple product you can’t buy yet, or with a special 19th century pen on hand-crafted paper, or maybe (quirky!) on a reconditioned Selectric typewriter. I will refer to the crap I write as “my craft.” I will “practice it.”

    I will refer to my fictional characters as if they were real people. Not in the Seinfeld way, but as if they were actually people I could see and talk to. Though I do something like this now when on an Everclear-Oxy bender (Law Enforcement: Kidding!), it will be cool because those characters are me, man. So tableau, oui?

    I will write blog posts like this:

    Up early. Enjoying free range, gluten-free coffee, watching the street scene unfold. Life. So much suffering– I feel it all– but you can’t get cut off. Felt a breeze, a whisper, a feeling, a kiss, in my hair, across my face. Then spilled my coffee, but f*ck society, I don’t care.

    Do cool people still say “ciao?” No? I will restart the trend.

    I will only consume products that are described as artisanal. The electricity in my green lifestyle will be generated by unionized Peruvian shamans whom I visited (well, flew over enroute to Colombia to score Miley’s blow) to appreciate their indigenous lifestyle first. I will feel a relationship to all I encounter, starting with Cyrus once she’s coked again.

    I will start saying my children are adopted, or refugees, or maybe rescues, and make them wear makeup so they look “foreign.” Sorry kids, it’s for daddy’s job. Pretend it’s Halloween. You will see photos of me mentoring third world children on one of my many give-something-back foreign tours. Nobody does this crap with kids in the U.S., so it’s important that the Instagrams have some foreign props or backgrounds. You can Photoshop that if I don’t have time for the travel, right?

    All my media interactions will be meta. I will slouch. I will mumble. I will say publicity does not matter to me, I just want to get my real message out. I will turn the tables and ask questions of the journalists. I may refuse to talk about my book at all and just focus on my concern for the dying tribes of Peruvian shaman electricity generators. Like it seems every modern male author, I will have to work into my book some faux-humble reference to my sexual prowess and/or gifts.

    I will go to rehab. Not because I need to, but because that is where you make the right connections in the business. I will say things like “the business.”

    I will often discuss my favorite writers, but I will not say “favorite,” I will say meaningful. You will not know any of them and will not have heard of their work. I will name one writer you do know, but in a pretentious way, such as “I find Ernest’s later work such a mind blow.”

    I will acquire an agent I only speak to by phone but refer to as my best friend and artistic soulmate. S/he will be one of the 2,367 agents in New York who have turned me down now through three books. My agent will wear thick black dork glasses. Um, any agents reading this, seriously, I’m still at the same number. OK to call late or early or on Sunday.

    I will be a fictional writer. You will love me for it.



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  • Hey Intercept, Something is Very Wrong with Reality Winner and the NSA Leak

    June 6, 2017 // 31 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, NSA




    An NSA document purporting to show Russian military hacker attempts to access a Florida company which makes voter registration software is sent anonymously to The Intercept. A low-level NSA contractor, Reality Winner, above, is arrested almost immediately. What’s wrong with this picture? A lot.


    Who Benefits?

    Start with the question of who benefits — cui bono— same as detectives do when assessing a crime.

    — Trump looks bad as another trickle of information comes out connecting something Russian to something 2016 election. Intelligence community (IC) looks like they are onto something, a day or so before ousted FBI Director James Comey testifies before Congress on related matters.

    — The Intercept looks like it contributed to burning a source. Which potential leaker is going to them in the future? If potential leakers are made to think twice, another win for the IC.

    — The FBI made an arrest right away, nearly simultaneous to the publication, with the formal charges coming barely an hour after The Intercept published. The bust is sure thing according to the very publicly released information. No Ed Snowden hiding out in Russia this time. IC looks good here.

    — More evidence is now in the public domain that the Russians are after our election process. Seems as if the IC has been right all along.



    What Happened is… Curious and Curiouser…

    Now let’s look at what we know so far about how this happened.

    A 25-year-old improbably-named Reality Winner leaves behind a trail long and wide on social media of anti-Trump stuff, including proclaiming herself a member of The Resistance. Never mind, she takes her Top Secret clearance with her out of the Air Force (she had been stationed with the military’s 94th Intelligence Squadron out of Fort Meade, Maryland, co-located with the NSA’s headquarters) and scores a job with an NSA contractor. Despite the lessons of too-much-access the Snowden episode should have taught the NSA, Winner apparently enjoys all sorts of classified documents — her Air Force expertise was in Afghan matters, so it is unclear why she would have access to info on Russia hacking of U.S. domestic companies.

    Within only about 90 days of starting her new job, she prints out the one (and only one apparently, why not more?) document in question and mails it to The Intercept. She also uses her work computer inside an NSA facility to write to the Intercept twice about this same time.

    Winner has a clearance. She was trained as a Dari, Pashto, and Farsi linguist by the Air Force. She knows how classified stuff works. She has been told repeatedly, as all persons with a clearance are, that her computer, email, printing, and phone are monitored. She mailed the document from Augusta, Georgia, the city where she lives and where the NSA facility is located. She practiced no tradecraft, did nothing to hide her actions and many things to call attention to them. It is very, very unclear why she took the actions she did under those circumstances.


    The Document

    The Intercept meanwhile drops by their friendly neighborhood NSA contact and shows them the document. NSA very publicly confirms the veracity of the document (unusual in itself, officially the Snowden and Manning documents remain unconfirmed) and then makes sure the open-court document filed is not sealed and includes the information on how the spooks know the leaked doc was printed inside the NSA facility. Winner went on to make a full confession to the FBI. The upshot? This document is not a plant. The NSA wants you to very much know it is real. The Russians certainly are messing with our election.

    But funny thing. While the leaked NSA document seems to be a big deal, at least to the general public, it sort of isn’t. It shows one piece of analysis suggesting but not confirming the GRU, Russian military intelligence, tried to steal some credentials and gain access to a private company. No U.S. sources and methods, or raw technical intel, are revealed, the crown jewel stuff. There is no evidence the hack accomplished anything at all, never mind anything nefarious. The hack took place months ago and ran its course, meaning the Russian operation was already dead. The Russians were running a run-of-the-mill spearfishing attack, potentially effective, but nothing especially sophisticated. You get similar stuff all the time trying to harvest your credit card information. The leaked document looks like a big deal but isn’t.

    Another issue. The Intercept has a lot of very smart people working for it, people with real-world intelligence and tradecraft experience. People who know about microdot encoding on printed documents, one of the tells here, and people who know they don’t show their whole hand when asking the NSA for a comment. The Intercept journalist volunteered to an NSA contracting company that the envelope received was postmarked to Augusta, where Winner lived and worked. Like Reality Winner and her own security training, it is very, very unclear why the Intercept took the actions it did under those circumstances.



    So For Now…

    So, look, what we know about this story may represent .01% of the whole picture, and that tiny sliver of visible information is only what the government has chosen to reveal. And sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Sometimes smart people make dumb mistakes.

    But that’s not the way you place your bets, especially when dealing with the IC who are good at these kinds of games. At this very early stage I’m going to say there are too many coincidences and too many mistakes to simple shrug it all off. Too many of the benefits in this have accrued on the side of the IC than is typical when a real whistleblower shares classified documents with a journalist.

    If it frightens you that I invoke the question of the Deep State using journalists to smear the President, just forget I said anything. But if we’re willing to believe the Russians somehow successfully manipulated our entire society to elect their favored candidate, then we can at least ask a few questions.

    Otherwise, if anyone hears Winner’s lawyer use the word “patsy,” let me know, OK?

    BONUS: Matt Cole, one of The Intercept journalists credited to this story, was also involved in the outing of source CIA officer John Kiriakou in connection with CIA torture claims. Small world!



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  • In-Depth Interview: New Novel ‘Hooper’s War’, Explores Moral Injury

    June 6, 2017 // 1 Comment

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War



    Journalist Peter B. Collins wrote of his latest podcast:


    State Department veteran Peter Van Buren talks about his powerful new antiwar novel, Hooper’s War exploring the personal cost of combat, moral injury. Since he published his first book about his experiences in Iraq, We Meant Well, Van Buren has been a frequent contributor to this podcast.

    Today, we discuss his new novel, set in WWII Japan, which looks at the impact of war on combatants and others and introduces the concept of moral injury. Unlike PTSD, which is the result of a fear-conditioned response, moral injury is a feeling of existential disorientation that manifests as intense guilt, grief and regret, often leading to self-medication and suicidal thoughts.

    The lead characters in Hooper’s War are an American and a Japanese soldier, and the reverse-chronology narrative (Hooper looking back during his final years) of the fictional firebombing of Kyoto.

    As we discuss, Van Buren deftly uses the form of fiction to depict his own residual pain resulting from a one-year tour of Iraq where he saw victims who had been “roasted” by modern warfare driven by incoherent missions and pointless conflict. One of Hooper’s superiors tells him “This shit doesn’t end when the war does, it only ends when we do.”

    While we rarely cover novels on this podcast, Van Buren’s new book is a compelling look at the human cost of armed conflict, and raises many important issues about the morality of war. PBC strongly recommends this book.

    Listen to the whole interview here.



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  • Review – Hooper’s War, Prayin’ for Alden Jones

    June 5, 2017 // 24 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War




    Here’s an excerpt from an essay titled Harvard Law School–and Private Jones by Dr. Rod Deaton, where he talks about my book, Hooper’s War, and one of its supporting characters, Alden Jones:


    Currently I’m reading a recently-published novel, Hooper’s War: A Novel of World War II Japan, by Peter Van Buren. An intriguing tale, it asks an interesting alternative-history question: what if the atomic bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What if, instead, the Allied forces had invaded Japan? What if, soon after that invasion, the one city that had until then survived the bombings, the ancient capital of Kyoto, had instead become the city whose name we’d forever remember, not because of a single plane’s mission, but rather because of the mission of countless planes one particular night, lighting afire a city of wood and paper, turning the word Dresden into just another city that had had its share of War woes?

    What if one particular American, Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper, had a story to tell of just such events?

    Early in my reading, though, it is not yet Hooper who has grabbed me. It is Private Alden Jones, from outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. No spoiler here: within pages of the narrative, you realize that the War will not turn out well for PVT Jones. It is how it does not turn out well that pauses me this morning, sitting again on my quiet porch, somewhere in my consciousness hearing the wind chimes sing in pentatonic, do-la-sol-mi-do-mi-sol-la-do. Quite Asian, come to think of it.

    “You much for praying, Alden?”

    “Sometimes, sir. Not sure God always listens,” Jones said.

    “He’ll hear you,” [Hooper] said. […]

    “If God listened, I don’t think I’d be like this now,” Jones said. He looked away. “I wanna be older. I got a dog at home older than me.”

    So what does all this have to do with Harvard Law School, you might ask?


    Find out what it does have to do with Harvard, here…



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  • Hooper’s War and That Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (and Hiroshima)

    June 4, 2017 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War

    Here’s a “book trailer” to go along with my new book, on sale now via Amazon, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.






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  • Review – Hooper’s War: Does it Offer Redemption?

    June 3, 2017 // 1 Comment

    Tags:
    Posted in: Hooper's War


    A Five-Star Review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan says:
    Does it offer redemption to witness the horrors of war through the eyes of one with a conscience? If so, then all must read Hooper’s War.

    Lt. Hooper is thrust into an invasion of Japan at the end of World War II – an alternative history that is as horrific as the actual account. His relationships with the Japanese woman, Naoko, and Sgt. Nakagawa make Hooper question his own humanity. Surviving battle after battle, often within his own army, does not provide Hooper solace nor victory. He must find a way to heal, even seventy years after the war’s end. The flashbacks unveil Hooper’s struggles bit by bit, making the reader yearn for the ending, if only to relieve the burden of memory. Hooper’s War is not an easy read due to the magnitude of the issue – the emotional weight of war – but it is necessary to read in the current divisive culture.

    Reminiscent of McCormick’s Purple Heart and Myer’s Sunrise Over Fallujah and Fallen Angels, Hooper’s War offers an intense emotional struggle not to be missed. As Van Buren writes, “..the question isn’t so much why Private Garner is screaming. It’s why we aren’t.”

     

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  • Top Five WWII Movies

    June 2, 2017 // 27 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War, Military

    War is Over!


    My latest book, Hooper’s War, is set in WWII Japan, and portrays the horrors of war from the rotating perspectives of an American solider, a Japanese soldier, and a Japanese woman civilian.

    With that setting in mind, here are my top five favorite World War II movies.

    1) Saving Private Ryan

    Is there anyone’s Top Movie List, never mind one of WWII films, that doesn’t include Saving Private Ryan? I’m a big fan of war films that bring massive-scale events down to human scale, and none do that better than Ryan. The largest amphibious invasion in human history? Sure, there are a few panoramic shots, but the images we remember are of Tom Hanks and Tom Berenger struggling to get their men off that beach. WWII as a crusade to save Europe? Noted, but how about a couple of hours of a crusade to save one man?

    Ryan gives you the all-star cast, the production values and realism, the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of horror, and the split-seconds of terror surrounded by hours of boredom. I’ll just say it — no one will ever make a better war movie than this.





    2) The Best Years of Our Lives

    When I first saw The Best Years of Our Lives and learned it was made in 1946, and then learned it won an Academy Award for Best Picture, I knew I was watching a profoundly subversive film that had somehow slipped into the mainstream.

    The story follows Fred, Al, and Homer, three couldn’t-be-more-different at first glance World War II veterans coming home to find that things were not going to be as easy as they thought. The war had changed them, and changed the America they left. The slick Fred is a war hero honored for his service while ignored by employers. Wealthy bank executive Al realizes his desire to help vets with loans conflicts with the profit motives of his bank now that the war is over. Homer, who lost both hands in the Pacific, learns he will not fit in, and that his courage is no longer seen as worth much removed from combat.

    The men learn the lesson following “The Good War” that too many think was unique to the post-Vietnam years: that despite some happy talk and the occasional free drink, society could care less about its warriors once the fighting is over.





    3) Grave of the Fireflies

    Few movies focus on civilians as much more than targets or victims, often showing them as little more than ants scurrying under falling bombs, or villagers accidentally killed, a dramatic plot device to bring on the hero’s angst in Act II before redemption in Act III.

    Grave of the Fireflies is an animated feature from Japanese geniuses Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro and others.) The film is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of the home front in Japan. It follows two young Japanese children in last days of World War II, with a focus on the numbing hunger that plagued Japan alongside daily firebombing raids conducted by the United States against civilian targets. There are no happy endings in this movie as it reveals the desperate acts people can be forced into to survive in wartime.





    4) Patton

    Every list of great WWII movies has got to have one real sh*tkicker. Mine could have been Bridge at Remagen, Battle of the Bulge, Kelley’s Heroes, Von Ryan’s Express, The Longest Day… you get the idea.

    But Patton comes out on top for its sweeping battle scenes — so that’s what a massive tank battle criss-crossing Northern Africa would have looked like — as well as its sharp portrayal of the kind of men America wants to fight its wars, but then acts embarrassed around as the fighting starts to fade. Patton was the perfect man in the right place to help win the war in Europe, but as victory became more and more understood, his crude manners and obvious affection for killing turn into something America wanted shut away, at least until the next conflict. A film that begins on the grandest scale (that opening speech in front of the flag!) and ends more than bittersweet.




    5) Sophie’s Choice

    I get one controversial choice, right?

    Though only a short portion of Sophie’s Choice takes place in WWII proper, the entire film is a lovingly detailed metaphor for the horror of war, the suffering its survivors cannot end until they do, and the delicate compassion without understanding well-meaning people try to bring to war’s victims. The naive main character Stingo, thinking he can understand what has happened to Sophie and her children inside the concentration camps, seems a stand-in for a post-war America far removed from the killing fields of Europe and the Pacific. Not everyone destroyed by moral injury carried a weapon.






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  • Five Bad Arguments to Restrict Speech

    June 1, 2017 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Post-Constitution America


    Without free speech people stop thinking, losing out on all but a narrowing band of ideas. Open discussion, debate, and argument are the core of democracy. Bad ideas are defeated by good ideas. Fascism seeks to close off all ideas except its own.

    Yet all of these most basic concepts of free speech in our nation are under threat, and too many of them are under threat from the left. I never thought I would write that last phrase, just as I never thought I’d need to explain five bad arguments the Left is using to restrict speech from the Right.

     

    Despicable People

    Despicable people and their ideas have always existed, though it is essentially a quick summary of the whole point of free speech to remind that at different times in our history speaking out against slavery, against war, against one president or another, have all been seen as despicable. Restrictions on free speech have been used to ban great literature, books about women’s reproductive health, and photos once deemed “pornopgraphic” now displayed as art. Someone will always find an idea or word offensive. Allowing that person to judge for all of us has never proven to be on the right side of history.

    The arrival in 2017 of neo-nazis, alt-right, white supremacists, racists, and the many flavors of ‘phobes is sadly nothing new. The current poster children for hate, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Charles Murray, are no one new either (Coulter’s first book came out in 1998; Murray published his loathed book on welfare in 1984 and both have spoken publicly ever since.) What does seem to be new is that their opposition — the antifa, the anti-fascists — is now aggressively embracing many of the same tools once used to try and stop the anti-war movement, feminists, and other progressive groups in the past. The justification is Everything Is Different since November’s election, and the old rules not only don’t apply, but that wishy-washy democratic ideals of free speech are now a threat to democracy.

     

    Punching Nazis

    And so an incident at the Trump inaugural set “Is it OK to punch a Nazi for what he said?” bouncing around the media, including in the New York Times and The Nation, two venerable outlets which have otherwise long fought for free speech, and whose writers have long risked jail time in the practice of it.

    What happened was that alongside the inauguration Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was explaining live on camera the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-feminist movement Spencer promotes. An anonymous black-clad antifa protester ran into the scene and sucker punched Spencer. His free speech was ended by that act of violence.

    There followed tens of thousands of comments on the YouTube videos of the attack. The standard response was “I don’t condone violence BUT…” and then go on to condone violence. Another popular comment was to invoke Hitler, claiming violence is now justified as a leftist response to hateful speech by the right, and that if perhaps more people had punched Hitler in the early days the world would be a better place. More than a few people online also suggested punching someone in the head is in fact a form of protected free speech itself, and others seem to think whatever they label as “hate speech” is a crime. Others used phrases along the lines of “the end justifies the means” and “by any means necessary.”

    A popular meme was to put different songs, many calling for more violence, behind the punching video. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, tweeted “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

    Following the Spencer attack, similar violence landed at Middlebury College, then at a rally where one protester who displayed a Confederate flag was attacked, and at the University of California Berkeley (the university was ironically home to the Vietnam War protest-era Free Speech Movement.) Institutions, including Berkeley and New York University, canceled, postponed, or scheduled into dead zones for attendance speeches by conservative speakers, citing public safety concerns.

    What grew out of the Spencer incident and those in Berkeley, Middlebury and elsewhere are a series of inaccurate and/or weak arguments from too many in favor of restricting speech. Let’s look at some, and why they do not hold up.

     

    1. The First Amendment Only Applies to Government?

    The first fallacious argument used to shut down free speech is that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution only applies to government, and so universities or other entities are entitled to censor, restrict or shut down altogether speech willy-nilly.

    Short Answer: Not really. Public funding invokes the First Amendment for schools, and free speech runs deeper than the Bill of Rights. It’s as much a philosophical argument as a legal one, not a bad thing for a nation founded on a set of ideas (and ideals.)

     

    Free speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Though cited as far back as 1689 in England, the American version of this was laid out most clearly by Thomas Jefferson, in the mighty Declaration of Independence, where he wrote of rights that flowed from his notion of The Creator, not from government, and thus were fixed.

    Jefferson’s invocation of the Creator is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something that exists before and after our time. Government thus did not give us the right to free speech and therefore cannot take it away. The First Amendment simply codifies that latter part, laying out like much of the Bill of Rights what the government cannot do. So the argument that the First Amendment does not necessarily apply to all public speaking can be both true and irrelevant at the same time, and the latter is more important. Abetting free speech is an obligation in a democracy in general, and to an institution devoted to truth and education in the particular.

    And though the fundamental argument is the controlling one, there does also exist a legal one that extends the First Amendment restrictions to institutions that accept Federal funding (which means most of them); in the 1995 case Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Supreme Court held that the University could not fund all student publications except those addressing religious views because such a policy violated the institution’s constitutional obligation not to discriminate against particular viewpoints.

    Bottom Line: Universities are not free to restrict speech simply because they are not the government. They should be ashamed of themselves for trying to find ways to circumvent free speech instead of promoting it.

     

    2. What’s Said May Provoke Violence in the Room (A Clear and Present Danger)

    Some claim that certain conservative speakers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who purposefully use anti-LGBTQ slurs to provoke their audiences, should be banned or shut down. Their speech is the equivalent of yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theatre when there is no actual danger, provoking a deadly stampede for the exits.

    Short Answer: The standards for shutting down speech are very restrictive, and well-codified. Milo comes nowhere close.

     

    The Fire! line from a Supreme Court decision Schenck v. United States by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Here’s what Holmes wrote:

    The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.

    The full decision says the First Amendment doesn’t protect false speech that meets three conditions: 1) the speech must be demonstrably false; 2) it must be likely to cause real harm, not just offense or hurt feelings, and 3) must do so immediately. That’s the “clear and present danger.”

    This interpretation of the First Amendment has been adjudicated to impose a high barrier to restrictions on what can be blocked or banned, and over the years has allowed flags to be burned in front of veterans, Nazis to march among Holocaust survivors, artists to make religious sculptures from their own body waste.

    Schenck was what jurists call bad law, in that it sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer, to stop free speech, not protect it (in other words, the pamphleteer was determined to be a clear and present danger in wartime and rightfully arrested.) The case was eventually overturned, and in truth Holmes’ statement was originally intended to mean the First Amendment is not absolute, that restriction is lawful, along with the developing idea that restriction on speech should be narrow and limited.

    It was the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio that refined the modern standard for restricting speech to that “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” But we talk about Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theatre” line as a kind of shorthand for all that.

    Justice Holmes, perhaps as an act of contrition, later wrote in another landmark case:

    The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

    Bottom Line: The Supreme Court has set a very high bar against restricting speech based on the idea that what is being said leading to violence. Concerns, offense or general threats alone are insufficient to justify silencing someone as a solution.

     

    3. What’s Said May Provoke Violence Outside (Public Safety)

    The idea that a university or other venue cannot assure a speaker’s safety, or that the speaker’s presence may provoke violent protests, or that the institution just doesn’t want to go to the trouble or expense of protecting a controversial speaker has become the go-to justification for canceling or restricting speech. Berkley cited this in canceling and then de-platforming (rescheduling her when most students would not be on campus) Ann Coulter, whose campus sponsors are now suing, and New York University cited the same justification for canceling an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos.

    Short Answer: Canceling a speaker to protect them or public safety is the absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost to a free society for unfettered speech.

     

    The most glaring misuse of this argument is when such a justification is applied only toward one strain of speech, say unilaterally against conservative speakers and not against others. The conclusion can only be danger comes from unpopular ideas based solely on their being presented on a left-leaning campus. The argument of restricting a speaker “for their own safety” who is otherwise willing to take on certain risks to make their voice heard can thus be applied in a biased manner. Restricting speech for safety needs to be content neutral.

    Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence otherwise protected speech. Recently the town of Urbana, Illinois arrested someone burning an American flag (an act long-held to be a form of protected speech) claiming he was in danger from bystanders. Such thinking has in the past been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the protestors. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. Though there exists opinion on the proper balance, the answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order.

    One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet:

    When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.

    The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude langauge (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBTQ gathering. The judges continued in their opinion allowing the Bible Believers to speak:

    We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested; or allowing the Bible Believers to speak from the already constructed barricade to which they were eventually secluded prior to being ejected from the Festival.”

    “If none of these measures were feasible or had been deemed unlikely to prevail, the officers could have called for backup… prior to finding that it was necessary to infringe on the group’s First Amendment rights. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.

    The understanding that law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed the courts’ tests in cases are diverse as Occupy and where a Christian group brought a pig’s head on a stick to a Muslim Arts festival.

    In sum, the court has long recognized that content-based regulation of speech in a public forum (the “health and safety” restrictions) is permissible only “to serve a compelling state interest” and only when the regulation “is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

    Bottom Line: An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having Ann Coulter speak on campus are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. Getting rid of the speaker is expedient but unconstitutional. There are plenty of laws that legitimately protect against violence on their own.

     

    4. Speech Can or Should Be Restricted Based on Content (Hate Speech)

    There are no laws against “hate speech.” A speaker can call people names, and insult them by their race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. What many people think and say is hateful. It is carefully thought out to inspire hate, to promote hate, to appeal to crude and base instincts. Indeed, that is their point. But there is no law or other prohibition against hate speech. Even restrictions on “hate speech” meant to prevent violence, often cited as the justification to restrict such speech, are by design extremely narrow.

    Short Answer: You cannot restrict hate speech. Free speech means just that, with any limited restrictions content-neutral.

     

    The Brandenburg case test precludes speech from being sanctioned as incitement to riot unless (1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action; (2) the speaker intends that their speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and (3) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of the speech. A hostile reaction of a crowd does not transform protected speech into incitement. Listeners’ reaction to speech is thus not a content-neutral basis for regulation, or for taking an enforcement action against a speaker.

    A second type of speech that is categorically excluded from First Amendment protection and often erroneously labeled hate speech are “fighting words.” This category of unprotected speech encompasses words that when spoken aloud instantly “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” No advocacy can constitute fighting words unless it is “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation.” Offensive statements made generally to a crowd are not excluded from First Amendment protection; the insult or offense must be directed specifically at an individual.

    The upshot is that apart from some very narrow definitions of violence-inducing words, the obligation exists to the concept of free speech independent of the content of that speech. This is also one of the most fundamental precepts of free speech in a democracy. There need be no protections for saying things that people agree with, things that are not challenging or debatable or offensive; free speech is not really needed for the weather and sports parts of the news. Instead, free speech is there to allow for the most rude, offensive, hateful, challenging stuff you (or your neighbor, your political party, your government) can imagine.

    This is why, in the midst of Berkeley seeking to ban Ann Coulter from campus, Elizabeth Warren said “Let her speak. If you don’t like it, don’t show up.” Same for Bernie Sanders, who said “What are you afraid of, her ideas? Ask her the hard questions. Confront her intellectually. Booing people down or intimidating people or shutting down events — I don’t think that that works in any way.”

    More? The ACLU also supports Coulter’s right to speak. And so the ACLU supports the rights of all groups, to include Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan, to speak.

    It should make a college age ACLU donor proud to know her $25 contribution helps both Black Lives Matter and the Klan to stand up and say what they think, but it apparently does not.

    The president of the Newseum goes as far as arguing some people have developed an “alternate understanding” of free speech, with students in particular believing “offensive” speech is or should not be protected, particularly when the offense is directed at groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

    Ulrich Baer, vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, and professor of comparative literature at New York University, wrote plainly “Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good. In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.”

    Baer is worth quoting at length, because his views capture the view of many progressives toward the now-threatening concept of unfettered speech:

    The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.

    He ends without irony this way:

    Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.

    Baer could not be more wrong. There is no legal or other justification for banning speech based on who it may offend or threaten, in fact, quite the opposite. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared unpopular ideas should have their opportunity to compete in the “marketplace of ideas.” Free speech is not an ends, it is a means, in a democracy.

    Justice Louis Brandeis held that people must discuss and criticize ideas, that free speech is not only an abstract virtue but also a key element that lies at the heart of a democratic society. Even the fact that speech is likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” Brandeis concluded “the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent” violence and disruption “are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of free speech.”

    Bottom Line: There is no justification for restricting speech so that people are not offended. Speech may offend, indeed that may be its point, but bad ideas are then defeated by better ideas.

     

    5. Free Speech Should Not Be Subject to the Heckler’s Veto

    Another argument used by some progressives is that the so-called Heckler’s Veto is in itself protected speech. Someone may have a right to speak, but someone else has the same right to shout them down and prevent them from being heard.

    Short answer: Free speech is not intended to mean whomever can literally “speak” the loudest gets to control what is said. The natural end of such thinking is mob rule, where Speaker A gets a bigger gang together to shout down the gang Speaker B controls.

     

    While protestors have an obligation not to abuse their rights of free expression by harassing or intimidating speakers in ways that unduly interfere with communication between a speaker and an audience, there does exist a balancing process.

    Agreed upon is that numerous legitimate ways exist to challenge speakers, including engaging them or ignoring them entirely. In contrast, using a Heckler’s Veto to keep unpopular speakers from expressing their views not only stifles a particular idea, but threatens to chill public discourse generally by discouraging others with controversial ideas from sharing them. Who wants to stand up only to be shouted down by a mob?

    The most insidious use of the Heckler’s Veto is to have audience members create a situation that compels law enforcement to shut down a speaker for them, abusing their own freedom of speech to get the government to shut down someone else’s. The law allows for law enforcement to act this way, but also makes clear it is wrong for “regulations to allow a single, private actor to unilaterally silence a speaker.”

    It is also quite sad to note the same tactic used at Middlebury College to silence speaker Charles Murray was employed during the civil rights movement when whites threatened violence if civil rights marches were permitted to take place. The tactic is also used by abortion foes to try and shut down clinics. The Supreme Court concluded the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten or act out disruption, rather than to sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, that was not what happened in Middlebury College, as Murray was run out of town for his own safety and the mob won.

    Bottom Line: Balancing the rights of the speaker, those who wish to hear them, and those who wish to protest is complicated. But simply shutting down one party entirely, or allowing one party to block the rights of the others, is wrong.

     

    Flipping the Argument

    It is hard today to be seen as defending the nasty words of a guy like Richard Spencer when one is defending his right to speak independent of what he says. It is easy for some in Trump’s America to claim the struggle against fascism overrules the old norms, that freedom must be defended and that defense justifies violence. Flipping an argument makes it easier to see the fallacy. So:

    So this guy beat the air out of this Black Lives Matter woman; she was spewing out hate speech, really racist stuff, and the guy acted in what he perceived as self-defense. Then some people who opposed Trump’s travel ban started calmly laying out their views on a street corner, and the same guy, who believes deep into his soul that Muslims are a threat to democracy and allowing them into America is a step toward fascism, got a bunch of his buddies together and by sheer force of numbers shouted down the pro-Muslim people, forcing them to run away for fear for their safety.

    Justification? The dude was pretty clear he was just exercising his First Amendment rights, that it was wrong for those protesters to have a platform and hey, he isn’t the government and the First Amendment only applies to the government. Sure violence is bad in isolation, but in defense of freedom, well, by any means necessary. While he was beating on the activists, he shouted he “understands the moral and practical limitations of wholly free discourse.”

    You get it.

    Free speech protection covers all the things people want to say, from the furthest left to the furthest right. You can burn a flag, display a nude body, fill a fish tank with urine and call it art, put on a KKK uniform and march past a Black church, and say whatever Richard Spencer says. Free speech means a lot of things, including that I can write this article, and you can say what you want about it and me. It is messy as hell, and it is our essential defense against fascism and control, whether from the left or the right.

     

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  • Dear President Trump: Do Not Prosecute Wikileaks

    May 31, 2017 // 19 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America




    Chelsea Manning, whose information about the war in Iraq first brought Wikileaks to the attention of Americans, will leave prison as a free woman on May 17.

    However, the U.S. government’s attempts to punish people for bringing war crimes from Iraq into daylight continues, in the form of prosecutions directed against Wikileaks and/or its founder Julian Assange.

    I recently signed an open letter in support of Wikileaks, as drafted by the Courage Foundation. Here it is.


    Dear Mr. President,

    We are journalists, activists and citizens from the United States and
    around the world who care about press freedom and are writing to you in
    response to the latest threat of prosecution against WikiLeaks for its
    journalistic work. We ask you to immediately close the Grand Jury
    investigation into WikiLeaks and drop any charges against Julian Assange
    and other Wikileaks staff members which the Department of Justice is
    planning.

    This threat to WikiLeaks escalates a long-running war of attrition
    against the great virtue of the United States — free speech. The Obama
    Administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than all presidents
    combined and opened a Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks that had
    no precedent. It now appears the US is preparing to take the next step
    — prosecuting publishers who provide the “currency” of free speech, to
    paraphrase Thomas Jefferson. It is reported that charges, including
    conspiracy, theft of government property and violating the Espionage Act
    are being considered against members of WikiLeaks, and that charging
    WikiLeaks Editor, Julian Assange, is now a priority of the Department of
    Justice.

    A threat to WikiLeaks’ work — which is publishing information protected
    under the First Amendment — is a threat to all free journalism. If the
    DOJ is able to convict a publisher for its journalistic work, all free
    journalism can be criminalised.

    We call on you as President of the United States to close the Grand Jury
    investigation into WikiLeaks and drop any charges planned against any
    member of WikiLeaks. It was a free and robust press that provided you
    with a platform on which to run for president. Defending a truly free
    press requires freedom from fear and favour and the support of
    journalists and citizens everywhere; for the kind of threat now facing
    WikiLeaks — and all publishers and journalists — is a step into the
    darkness.

    Sincerely,

    Trustees of Courage




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  • Review and Podcast: Hooper’s War is Raw, Caustic and Sober Look at War

    May 30, 2017 // 5 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War




    Hooper’s War is a raw novel, caustic in tone and sober in its treatment of war and the forever rot that war creates within us. It revolves around a character who is a World War II veteran, and its content carries even greater resonance as Americans mark another Memorial Day.


    On this week’s Unauthorized Disclosure Podcast former State Department employee Peter Van Buren joins the show to discuss his new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.


    Van Buren blew the whistle on malfeasance and corruption related to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. He is also the author of Ghosts of Tom Joad and, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

    Hooper’s War is a raw novel, caustic in tone and sober in its treatment of war and the forever rot that war creates within us. It revolves around a character who is a World War II veteran, and its content carries even greater resonance as Americans mark another Memorial Day.

    During the interview, Van Buren highlights what influenced his story. The show delves into the concept of moral injury.

    We discuss myths about wars that are told, particularly how those who served in World War II were the “Greatest Generation.” Later, Van Buren addresses finding ways to heal by making amends with those veterans once dehumanized as well as endless war and what the book’s main character, Hooper, might think about the present day.

    As Van Buren describes, his book “deals with the issue of moral injury in war, the concept that people set off to fight America’s endless wars come home broken, their moral fiber challenged.”

    Moral injury, according to Van Buren, is well-established in military circles. It is an acknowledged illness by the Veterans Administration. In fact, the term was coined in the 1980s by Veteran Affairs psychologist Jonathan Shay.

    “As complex moral beings with a sense of right and wrong, that sense of right and wrong can be bent and eventually broken in war,” Van Buren adds. This can happen when transgressing moral boundaries or when people fail to do something that also crosses a moral line (such as failing to stop an atrocity).

    “It’s very difficult to describe what 100,000 deaths look like so what I wanted to do in my book is talk about what one death looked like—what happens in someone’s mind when they watch someone die, when they feel culpability for that single death in the midst of this horrific scenario, where there’s 100,000 corpses all around you.”

    In regards to myths, Van Buren contends that myths are “very much a part of causing moral injury because it’s the conflict between the grossness of reality and the cleanliness of those types of myths that cause people to realize that they have been buffaloed. That they have been taken advantage. That they have sacrificed a lifetime of comfort with themselves in the dark for these myths.”

    One of the most persuasive myths that comes out of World War II, which is central to Hooper’s War, is that by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and taking away countless the United States did the Japanese a favor. The war ended earlier than it would have if the U.S. had not dropped bombs.

    Separately, Van Buren asserts the myth of the “Greatest Generation” has been “responsible for an extraordinary amount of suffering.”

    “What you find is, sure, it’s great to be called up at the Memorial Day ceremony as the oldest surviving veteran in the crowd and the member of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ defeated fascism, band of brothers, marched across Europe, all those good things. And there’s truth to that, of course” Van Buren says.

    “But war is what it is, and when you send people out to commit acts of violence, when you force them into morally ambiguous situations, where you take an 18 year-old and you give him the power of life and death over others and the responsibility for preserving the life with them and you don’t expect mistakes to be made, if you don’t expect bad people to be made horrible, you’re not being fair.”

    Van Buren argues, “When you place that burden of ‘Greatest Generation,’ you’re telling people you shut up about this. We’ve got a story going here.”

    On the subject of endless war, “We have set in motion, following 9/11, an endless cycle of war, where it is impossible for the United States to ‘win,’ which means it’s impossible for anything to really end. And I don’t think ending is what anyone is particularly looking for. You’re talking about tamping down a fire that you know will inevitably flare back up, and you have conditioned a society based around this multi-ambiguous fear of terrorism.”

    Van Buren believes the main character in his book, Hooper, has figured out at the end of his life he was used. He has a great sense of loathing when it comes to the clever manipulation that transformed him and others into killers.




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  • Requiem for a Soldier Suicide: Missing Him

    May 27, 2017 // 25 Comments

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    Posted in: Iraq

    For Memorial Day, here’s an excerpt from my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. The name of the deceased has been changed and the exact location of the ceremony obscured out of respect.

    Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson, in Iraq, put the barrel of his M-4 rifle into his mouth and blew out the back of his skull. He was college-aged but had not gone and would never go to college. Notice appeared in the newspapers a week after his death, listed as “non-combat-related.”

    I heard about his death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. I took a quick look inside and saw the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. Blood like this smelled coppery. It reminded you that you were not welcome. Even if you’d never smelled pooled blood before, you didn’t have to learn what it was, you already knew something was wrong in this place.

    The death of any soldier reverberated through our Forward Operating Base. This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The comfort of ritual stood in for public expressions of actual feelings, which were best kept private and close. And the ritual prescribed by regulation was that the chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Hamilton, Ohio, or Marietta, Georgia, for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box with holes for the U.S. and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle. The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a B+ wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. Before the event started, the hum in the room was about future meetings, upcoming operations, food in the DFAC, the workaday talk of soldiers.

    There was a program, done up on a word processor, with the official Army photo of the deceased, wearing a clean uniform, posed in front of an American flag. You could see a few red zit marks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo.

    The program was strained. As with every other briefing they gave the officers read words someone else wrote for them to give the impression of authority and familiarity. The dead man’s job had something minor to do with radios and most present didn’t know what to say beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself that the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible. He understood why we were all here, and that a task had to be done, and that he need not be Pericles or Lincoln to do a decent job of it.

    The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted personally with the deceased. In today’s ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life and had done so after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this base. Nobody really had befriended him, and this being the third suicide at this place made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.

    But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in awhile somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Lieutenant rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”

    This was how the Army healed itself. It was a simple organization, a vast group of disparate people who came together for their own reasons, lived in austere conditions, and existed to commit violence under bewildering circumstances. Simply, we will miss him anyway because he was one of us. The word that raised the sentence beyond simple declaration was “anyway.” It was important to believe we all meant something to one another because we were part of this. When it rained, we all got wet. We could hate the war, hate the president, hate the Iraqis, but we could not hate one another.

    The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, today, at this place, we all missed him anyway.

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  • The Battle for Nishinomiya Junction

    May 26, 2017 // 3 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War



    Here’s an excerpt from my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, on sale now at Amazon. This excerpt is told from the perspective of the main character, Lieutenant Nate Hooper.

    After you’ve heard that thunk, you always know it. Once you know that sound, being mortared is like a sneeze coming on. It’s going to happen and there is nothing you can do about it but wonder if the shell is marked with your name. Thunk. That’s fear.

    Men were dying all around me. Each mortar shell exploded into light so I could see who was being killed, the explosions walking across the battlefield like giants. About the only thing I could do was roll into a hole and pull my knees up to my chin and try and dig out the dirt and snow blown up my nose. The pressure on my eardrums first emptied the world of sound and then pinched out tears. My mouth dried to a whisper. There was nowhere to hide; I was inside it.

    There was another sound. Sharper, closer, our mortars replying. We had the same kinds of shells, and I knew they were creating the same hellscape among the Japanese. But I truly did not care. I wanted them to all die in as horrible and painful a way as I was watching happen to us. I was on my knees in my hole now like every other man, thanking a no doubt horrified Baby Jesus for the American mortars.

    The battle became a living thing that ate men. It had become harvest time in our field. Then we heard whistles and shouts. Whoever was still alive on our side ordered the final assault on the rail junction to begin.


    People who have not experienced this level of madness cannot understand why we left our holes and advanced. People will say “Why didn’t you surrender, or quit, or run away, or hide?” Any man who tells you he did not consider each and every one of those choices is a coward for not telling the truth.

    But if you can’t understand how guys who spent all of a few weeks together 70 years ago can greet each other like brothers today, then you can’t understand why we ran forward. The best I can do for you is say time out there is dog years, a place where we gained and lost significant things, our one minute of combat together worth seven of your suburban existence. We were 18-year-olds facing things even most 90-year-olds don’t understand. You learn what’s private and secret about a man whose first name you don’t know, because out there you don’t talk about honor or duty, you talk like goober poets about girlfriends and baseball games you screwed up in high school and dads, and sometimes about the dark.

    And so if love at first sight is possible at home, then love after a week in war is also possible, because the opposite of fear out there isn’t safety, it’s love. And you do insane things for those you love, including die for them. The brotherhood you hear about isn’t friendship. It’s about knowing what happens to you depends fully on what happens to all of you. It works that way, and always has, and the people who start wars depend on it. So do the soldiers.

    I did not refuse or surrender or run away or quit or hide because I saw Sergeant Laabs move forward like dying wasn’t a possibility. There are no medals for things like that, Laabs just acting like sergeants leading men in combat have done since Julius Caesar’s time. I don’t know why he did that just then, maybe he saw someone else advance, but once I saw him move I knew I had to move. Then someone saw me and stepped out, and someone saw that man, and we advanced, all that were left in our group—Smitty, Polanski, Marino, Hermann, and Jones. It was more like the blurry photos from Antietam or Gettysburg than anything I imagined belonged in a modern war. The battle had been handed to us on the ground. Men would pay for yards with their lives.


    It was suicide to stand up, but we were certainly going to die lying down. Me, Laabs, Smitty, Polanski, Marino, Hermann, and Jones.

    Marino ran right into the station wall, bouncing off it. Laabs dropped and rolled the last few feet, moving like he was a piece of the night. I was close behind. I counted off the men as they grouped around us, Polanski, Hermann and Jones. Smitty was still trying to run as the next star shell burst overhead, spotlighting him. He’d been weighed down by the engineers who designed his SRC-300 radio, the damn thing now killing him with its thirty pounds and its two ten-pound spare batteries.

    Smitty obediently began the process of disintegrating, like cardboard in the rain.

    As the rounds stopped his forward progress, other Japanese gunners swiveled to the stationary target. What was left of Smitty’s body was held vertical for some part of a second by the force of the bullets, before he gave in and fell forward with the greatest possible violence and the least possible grace.

    Watching Smitty die, my brain squeezed down to a lump that pushed everything aside I thought only moments before. We’d gotten this far, proven ourselves; why did we have to go forward again? Couldn’t some other outfit do that, men I didn’t know? What if we stopped shooting at the Japanese, wouldn’t they figure it out and stop shooting at us? Two male pitbulls snarling at each other, who in the end back away, deciding it wasn’t worth it?

    I unbuckled my web belt and was ready to throw away my weapon. It was only Sergeant Laabs, again, who pulled me back into his landscape, deciding for all of us.

    Sergeant Laabs led us, crawling, pressed as tightly as we could against the foundation of the building, away from the Japanese, their weapons still picking at Smitty’s corpse, or aiming at other soldiers trapped like light looking to hide in the sanctuary of shadow. The wall near me had whole constellations of bullet holes violated into it.

    As we neared a door, Laabs shouted, “They’re in there, I can smell them. We’ll break through, catch them by surprise. Follow me.”

    How the man could think clearly, I can never know. He could squeeze away everything else and what was left was not what was desirable or nice, but what was necessary. That’s what makes war such a terrible thing for an otherwise decent society, because you don’t want monsters like that teaching in your schools or working in your hospitals, but you need them for a time here before you want them to go away until the next war. You’re looking for a man mad enough to commit murder, with enough conscience to come home feeling a little guilty.

    Laabs.


    The group of us burst through the door, screaming prayers and curses, and hid behind a busted slab of office wall. I heard men scuttling across the floor. The Japanese had moved to the other side of the office, our two groups separated only by that concrete slab. We heard the clink of metal against metal. They were loading a heavy machine gun.

    “You two, Marino and Jones, job opportunity for you, around that side, throw your grenades and make as much clatter as you can pulling back to distract the scum,” Laabs said. “Polanski and Hermann, you shoot any Japanese that come around after them. I’m going alone around this other side. Lieutenant, watch it, because I don’t intend to let any of ’em past me and if you shoot me by accident running back I will return from the grave and kill you myself. If this works, I’ll get most of them, and the four of you will take apart any of the others.”

    “American, you dung man.” The Japanese were calling at us in broken English from the other side of the wall. “You surrender, you no die tonight, GI.”

    “Gentlemen, I’ll see you all on the other side,” Laabs moved up to his corner. “Marino, Jones, on my count.”

    “American, you die tonight.”

    Laabs, loud: “One.”

    Jones mouthed the word alongside Laabs.

    “You no never see your mama home.”

    Laabs, louder: “Two.”

    Jones made a low sound.

    “You die here, American.”

    Laabs, a whisper: “Three.”

    Marino and Jones turned their corner. Laabs stepped forward, me leaning to watch him.

    Marino fired, and a Japanese went down, shot just below his right eye. Marino rose and fired again, into the now prone target, all eight rounds his M-1 held. As the magazine emptied with that metallic sound the spring inside made, a second Japanese soldier rounded the corner and shot Marino twice in the chest. I heard Marino’s skull connect with the concrete floor with a soft crack, a sound people who’d never a heard a rifle shot or a skull break think sounds like a rifle shot. Jones shot the man who shot Marino who earlier had grenaded the first Japanese to die.

    Me, Laabs, Polanski, Hermann, and Jones left.

    Sergeant Laabs stepped tight around his corner, between the wall and the stream of rounds coming out of the Nambu. He grabbed the red-hot barrel of the machine gun, screaming as it hissed against his bare hand, and swung it aside.

    His hand had fused to the hot metal. He tore it off, leaving a mitten of flesh on the weapon, and fell on the one Japanese left. With bloody fingers he stabbed at the man’s eyes. Laabs could not stop, the head now in both hands, the blood in the cold air.

    The war was now between Laabs and the Japanese.

    I knew hundreds of other American soldiers were fighting somewhere around us, opposed by hundreds of Japanese. I heard distant mortaring. I heard far off screams.

    I saw only Laabs.

    “Oh hey, Lieutenant, you wanna hear a story?” Laabs said.

    “Laabs, what’re you talking about?” I barely recognized his voice.

    “On Okinawa. We’re clearing caves with flamethrowers, a day before that stuff I did saving those kids. I never talked to anyone before now about this other cave I ran into, where all I found alongside the smoked up bodies were pencil boxes and schoolbooks. Two minutes later the Doc was giving first aid to one school kid that somehow was still alive. Two minutes between one thing and the other. Go figure. And you know the worst part? It didn’t even bother me until now.”

    “Laabs, I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

    “Nothing more to say. That’s the whole story. Now get into position with Jones,” Laabs said. He smiled. “Got something I need to do.”

    I scrambled to join Jones and Polanski. Gunfire flashed from deep inside the station, as if the Japanese were taking photos at a wedding. I watched Hermann get shot through the head. Two minutes between one thing and the other.


    And there stood Laabs. What was left of Hermann’s body lay nearby. There is a lot of blood inside a man, and it looked as if some naughty boy had spilled two full cans of red paint on the garage floor.

    Everyone who’d been in the field long enough heard of a guy who one day under enemy fire just stood up and took off his helmet. Laabs left it up to us to figure out the difference between self-sacrifice and self-destruction.

    I actually think he was dead before he rose, the Japanese bullets unnecessary even as they tore him apart. That’s how Jones, Polanski, and I watched Sergeant Jason Laabs die inside the train station the day before his 18th birthday.

    “Lieutenant, we gonna die?” Jones said. His legs were bloody.

    Deep breath. Calm, waiting for my turn. An explosion, and a bright flash…


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  • Hiroshima and the Scar of Moral Injury

    May 25, 2017 // 3 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War


    For military historians, walking a battlefield is a special experience. That’s where things previously locked away in books happened, the hill that blocked an advance, the river that defended an important city and altered the course of human history. Historians visit Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Normandy all the time.

    Things work differently for those interested in the final days of World War II. Absent the bloody struggle for Okinawa, the real end days of the war were conducted from the air. The firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the greatest civilian loss of life in a conventional air raid, left no signs some 70 years later in the modern city. There is nothing to indicate a million people were left homeless because one-fourth of the urban area was destroyed. And that is exactly as the Japanese want it. It was all cleaned up, buried, as if it never had happened.

    The only indication in Tokyo that any war at all took place is tucked away in the Yushukan War Memorial Museum. Attached to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Japan’s war dead reside (including some who committed war crimes), Yushukan is in its own way a marker of things cleaned up and things buried. The building houses carefully curated artifacts from the war. The choices speak of things almost no Japanese person, and few Japanese textbooks, will otherwise talk about.

    There’s a locomotive from Burma, the rail line it traveled constructed by slave labor (as shown in part in the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai). It is not a symbol of shame, however, like the locomotives displayed elsewhere in the world that pulled train cars into Auschwitz, but a point of pride: Japan brought modern train service to the jungle. Also in the museum is a kaiten, a human-guided, suicide torpedo. Not a symbol of the madness of war, but one of martial spirit. There’s an aircraft like one that bombed Pearl Harbor. A video shown claims Japanese forces were liberating Asia from western colonialism and that Japan’s troops were warmly welcomed into Manchuria. Located inside the stigmatized Yasukuni Shrine grounds, the museum is almost purposely not easily visited. Certainly not by foreign tourists or young people out for day’s entertainment.

    Otherwise, there is little to see, even less to experience, of the war, all across the country. Small towns lack the plaques and displays to the fallen you see in rural America, and certainly nowhere is there evidence of the self-reflection one sees across Germany. Elsewhere, the museum and peace monument at Nagasaki are small, a bit out of the way and well, tatty around the edges. There’s almost nothing of a world war in Japan.

    Nothing except Hiroshima.

    Hiroshima is the place that has not been buried, the place not allowed to heal fully. The Peace Park and Museum at Hiroshima were created for the Japanese as a symbol of their victimhood, but they end up, against all plans, exposing raw edges of a war everyone otherwise wanted to go away.

    I’ve visited Hiroshima many times.

    The thing that always struck me was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was just another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d step out into the sunlight — that sunlight — and I was in Hiroshima.

    No matter how many times I went, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise, but past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. No matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down, it could not have been enough. History runs very deep in Hiroshima.

    Even if you have never been to the place, you know the place. The mountains that form the background in all the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of newer, tall buildings now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. You’ve seen the pictures. Most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the Bomb. Same for most public buildings. You could see where you were in 2017 and where you would have been in 1945 because they are the same place.

    In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. You feel like you have asthma. But in 2017, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Atomic Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English and lead you around chatting. Have you seen the famous watch, they ask, the one that the atomic bomb froze at the moment of detonation? How about the atomic shadows, the ashes of people photo-flashed to death? You can take pictures, no problem.

    But no matter how many truly genuine smiles or how many Big Macs, you can’t get away. Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceeded its day of infamy.

    Outside of Japan, most people feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war. Indeed, the museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised as focusing almost exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began over a decade earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives before the bomb fell on August 6, 1945. The criticism is particularly sharp, given the rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Now, as in decades past, China watches to see what Japan will do with its armed forces.

    There is also ongoing friction between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima.

    An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, most slave laborers kidnapped and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories. They were the industrial equivalent of the “comfort women,” the Korean sex slaves raped by the Japanese military. The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, is the final resting place for the ashes of the bomb’s victims. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial. There was of course no way to determine whether a handful of ashes was Japanese or Korean. The Korean dead did not get a marker until the 1980s, and that was laid off to the side, and was paid for by Koreans. Until that time, following Buddhist tradition, the souls of those men and women could not rest.

    How deep does hate lie? Or is it actually a shallow grave?

    There are others with things to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S. remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American ambassador came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. There has never been an apology for the first use of a nuclear weapon, and against a civilian target at that. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” A few elderly survivors, many with disfiguring burns, still suffer today. Yet there is not enough vengeance for some, even seven decades later.

    But perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me. Or so I thought each time I tried.



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  • Racism and Our Enemies, Same as It Ever Was

    May 24, 2017 // 3 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War

    For those are persist in using the word “unprecedented” in relation to the racism and fear that pervade our society today, directed at Muslims, here’s a propaganda cartoon from WWII showing much of the same, directed at the Japanese.




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  • Hooper’s War: What is Moral Injury?

    May 23, 2017 // 4 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War

    Here’s a “book trailer” to go along with my new book, on sale now via Amazon, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. This video helps define the central concept of my book, moral injury. Have a look.

     

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  • Willful Ignorance and the Legacy of the ‘Comfort Women’ (慰安婦) in Japan

    May 22, 2017 // 11 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War

    comfort-women-5


    Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once told told parliament he was “stunned” at the content of an American high school history textbook. Japan’s Foreign Ministry complained to the book’s author. A group of 19 Japanese historians, lead by a professor from Ivy League-equivalent Nihon University is sending “corrections” to the publisher.

    The topic of contention: Japan’s World War II system of sex slavery, the so-called “comfort women,” (慰安婦; ianfu in Japanese) women and girls kidnapped from conquered Asia to serve as sex slaves to the Japanese Imperial Army. Japanese historians downplay or deny their existence. Japan’s Asian neighbors know the truth, and struggle against the revisionist history.



    Germany, Japan and the Legacy of WWII

    Unlike Germany, which has reconciled with its World War II past, paid reparations to its victims and worked to achieve modern relationships with its neighbors, Japan has more than passively chosen to not acknowledge its past. Japan seeks to actively deny the existence of well-documented historical events it committed, even to the detriment of current relations with important neighboring nations. Yet while Holocaust deniers in Germany are seen as little more than crackpots, comfort women deniers occupy positions at the most senior levels of government.

    The majority of Japan’s victims were kidnapped from occupied Korea. Known in Japanese as ianfu, and in Korean as wianbu, the number of women enslaved varies considerably, from unrealistic lows in the tens of thousands to high-end estimates close to half a million. While the numbers themselves are a source of ongoing friction between Japan and the victimized countries, in some ways they matter little; atrocity is atrocity, and tragedy tragedy. Pain does not scale, it simply remains. Nonetheless, differences over the number of women involved are representative of the larger issue: Japan simply will not come to terms with what it did.



    The Evidence

    Japan’s official attitudes toward the issue are especially troubling given the preponderance of evidence even within their own archives. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, stationed during WWII on Borneo, organized a “comfort station.” The young officer’s success in procuring Indonesian women went so well that he was officially commended. The source of this information? Nakasone’s own 1978 autobiography.

    Imagine a U.S. presidential candidate making similar claims.

    Limited but key testimony from Japanese responsible for the system also exists. The former president of the Sankei newspaper, a major Japanese daily, worked in the accounting division of the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. He was in charge of staffing and opening “comfort stations.” The now-elderly former bureaucrat described his work as “When we procured the girls, we had to look at their endurance, how used up they were, whether they were good or not. We had to calculate the allotted time for commissioned officers, commanding officers, grunts, how many minutes. There was even a prospectus we learned in military accounting school. The term used for the procurement of women was choben, an old military word that referred to gathering food for the horses.”

    But nothing from the Japanese side comes close to comparing to the memories of the surviving women themselves. Here is just one example; as with the Holocaust, there are too many more:

    Soldiers came to my room. The first soldier wasn’t drunk and when he tried to rip my clothes off, I shouted “No!” and he left. The second soldier was drunk. He waved a knife at me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t do what he said. But I didn’t care if I died, and in the end he stabbed me… My clothes were soaked with blood. I was treated in the infirmary for twenty days. I was sent back to my room. A soldier who had just returned from the fighting came in… I had a bandage on my chest. Despite that, the soldier attacked me, and when I wouldn’t do what he said, he seized my wrists and threw me out of the room. My wrists were broken, and they are still very weak. I was kicked by a soldier. It took the skin right off… you could see the bone. When the soldiers came back from the battlefields, as many as 20 men would come to my room from early morning… There was no bedding… underneath was earth. We cried in the dark “Mummy, it hurts!

    Approximately three quarters of comfort women died, and most survivors were left infertile due to sexual trauma or sexually transmitted diseases. Beatings and physical torture, beyond the daily gang rapes, were common.



    Current Efforts in Japan to Deny the Issue

    Current Prime Minister Abe’s administration denies Japan ran a system of human trafficking and sex slavery, implying that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes. His latest move came when his party appointed Nakasone’s son to chair a commission to “consider concrete measures to restore Japan’s honor with regard to the comfort women issue.”

    Abe’s goal is to dilute the 1993 Kono Statement, named for Japan’s chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yohei Kono. Though perhaps unnecessarily vague in the original language text, the statement was understood in Asia as about the closest that was ever going to emerge from the Japanese government to an apology for the sex slave system.

    The efforts by Abe to deny sex slavery are not his first. During Abe’s first administration, in 2007, his cabinet began undermining the Kono Statement by stating there was no documentary evidence of coercion in the acquisition of women, and that the Statement was not binding government policy.


    Sex Slaves and Foreign Relations

    The Japanese government seems unconcerned in the extreme with how its views on WWII sex slavery affect its Asian neighbors. The issue remains a block to better relations with Korea and China especially; some of Japan’s other neighbors who do not occupy such strong economic positions have had to ameliorate their criticism for practical reasons, though the underlying anger remains.

    The role of the United States remains troubling to many. Unlike in Germany, where the U.S.-led Nuremberg Trials pressed Nazi war crimes into the world’s media and served as a starting point for Germany’s own healing, war crime trials in post-war Japan were brief, focused in large part on responsibility for the decision to go to war in the first place, and purposefully excluded the Emperor. Imagine if Hitler had lived and if the U.S. chose not to bring him to trial.

    Support in the United States is spotty. The House of Representatives, in 2007, passed a non-binding resolution asking the Japanese government to redress the situation and to teach the actual historical facts in its schools. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the use of the euphemism “comfort women” and stated the victims should be referred to as “enforced sex slaves.”

    However, the United States otherwise has remained largely silent on the issue, preferring to say the disagreements over the history of the sex slaves, like those over the facts of the Rape of Nanjing and the ownership of several small islands in the region that continue to roil East Asian relations, need to be sorted out by the parties involved. Many see this as a weak way out, and, given America’s influence over Japan, almost a tacit acceptance of Japan’s history as unimportant.

    How many Japanese citizens agree with their government’s version of WWII history is difficult to pin down. However, given the election successes of those politicians pandering to the extreme revisionist views of events, one can sadly surmise the percentage is not small. Willful ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence remains the most recent wounds committed against the “comfort women” by Japan.



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