• Review: Ken Burns’ Vietnam

    October 2, 2017 // 5 Comments

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    Posted in: Iraq



    Though Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War doesn’t try very hard, he can’t be blamed for failing as a filmmaker even if he had. It can’t be done. There are too many Vietnam War’s to accurately portray in a documentary, even one 18 hours long. So fair enough. But Burns’ real failure is not as a documentarian per se, it is one of courage.


    Burns teases us at the beginning of the series that there will be courage here, a reckoning of sorts, riffing off the final pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, showing war footage in reverse, so bombs return to their mothership’s belly, rockets are sucked out of the bush back onto helicopters, and, in case the point wasn’t clear yet, the 1st Cav walks backwards onto their Huey’s and departs the rice paddy. See, it’s an antiwar movie.

    Well, not really, or maybe not also. Burns quickly moves on to the next test, getting all the greatest hits in. There’s the iconic image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm raid, alongside that footage of bombs dropping, exploding Kodachrome orange against greener-than-green foliage. If the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black hadn’t been written during Vietnam, it would be necessary to invent time travel to place it alongside the war. And yep, there’s Dylan, a hippie chick with flowers, grunts in the jungle, Marlboro hard packs and M-16s at the ready. Check, check, check – Oh Suzy Q!

    No, wait, it’s one of those balanced documentaries. Burns treats us to the trope-ish story of Ho Chi Minh foolishly writing fan letters to American presidents over the years, starting way back with Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, thinking the American love of freedom, ye olde tale o’ democracy, the experience as fellow colonialists, should in fact bond the United States to his side over the imperialist French. That didn’t happen, you see, so it’s ironic. There’s also a bunch of actual Vietnamese interviewed in Burns’ movie, albeit disproportionately far too many identified as formerly of the “South Vietnamese Army.” The ties to the CIA of several of those interviewed are also left obscured.

    For the Americans in the audience, there’s also a dollop of “Vietnam as a test of manhood/the test of manhood is actually a metaphor for broken American dreams of the 20th century.” Burns had no choice with this one, as it is required as much as the shots of Saigon whores in their tight ao dai’s. America loves the manhood story; it’s the version of Vietnam that allows us to revere a crusty old war monger like John McCain (Episode Four of Burns’ film even includes a shot of George W. Bush in the Air National Guard), and leaves people who took deferments like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton forever in shame.

    Burns does the manhood theme proud, though, slipping us both the noble grunt version via gritty personal anecdotes from guys you don’t know (though rough-and-tumble Marine guy Karl Marlantes pops up), and the Oliver Stone subreddit, where manhood is proved only after it is broken down (forget Platoon, his real telling was in Born on the Fourth of July.) Stone and his subject Ron Kovic don’t appear for Burns’ camera, but a non-celebrity grunt named John Musgrave is on camera to illustrate the journey from gungho killer to “it was all a lie, man.”

    OK, fair enough, Dad shouts at the TV screen, this is Ken Burns for heck’s sake. He does jazz, he does Americana, he gets baseball in a way that sends George Will reaching for the Viagra, of course he’s gonna go folksy. That’s why we donate and get the PBS tote bag each year. At least he filmed this one in color, all 79 individual interviews.

    But where Burns lets us down is where nearly everything that has or maybe will be written about Vietnam lets us down. He is too easy on the politicians who cynically manipulated the public, he is too easy on the bulk of the media who gleefully participated in the manipulation (everything short of proclaiming WMDs in Hanoi), too easy on individual soldiers who took advantage of lax leadership to, in historian Nick Turse’s words, kill anything that moves (My Lai was one, far from the only.)

    Burns drinks too deeply from the cup of “hate the war, not the warrior.” Deaths were committed because of a policy that demanded body counts, a number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. As Turse writes and Burns omits, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.” In 2017 America, where the military is fetishized, personal responsibility is lost.

    Burns indeed lets all of us off too easy. Us, the American people, the voters, the spectators, the ones who bought the epic story that Vietnam was a struggle between two great forces for the soul of civilization, Communism versus Freedom. The American people in 1962 (or ’65, or ’68, or 1945, or 1954) were not yet cynical. They were easily convinced what was little more than a continuation of colonialism was instead a firewall of the Cold War. We had come out of WWII winners, with anything that would have made that less than the Good War hidden for another couple of generations. Vietnam was then our bad childhood, and should have left us with no such excuse for Iraq (Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya…)

    Burns lets us off too easy because he does not demand we not let it all happen again, and that is his sin, omission.

    “With knowledge comes healing,” the filmmaker told Vanity Fair about his goal, but that is not the film he made.

    We should know better but we were the ones who bought the epic story that Iraq, et al, like Vietnam, was a struggle between two greats forces for the soul of civilization, Terrorism versus Freedom (feel free to substitute in Islam and Christianity.) We had to fight them over there (the beach at Danang instead of the beach at San Diego) or we’d fight them over here, the smoking gun a mushroom cloud over Cincinnati. We let Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lie to us about the war, then let five successive modern presidents, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Kissinger also won the Peace Prize for ending the war he first helped prolong) lie to us about Iraq in a spin of our illusion of invincibility and moral rightness.

    Burns tips his hand in the first minutes of his series when the narrator intones the war was “begun in good faith.” Who could have known Vietnam was a war for independence, not a civil war as sold to the American people? That Pakistan supported the Taliban with U.S. aid money? That there gosh dang it weren’t any WMDs in Iraq? Burns doesn’t tell us that Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.

    And so we all say “thank you for your service” today with the same uninformed conviction that we said “baby killer” back then. Americans need to die for freedom, yes, that’s standard, but civilians from the other side need to die in vast, angry clouds of millions, too, for their freedom. Agent Orange in the ‘Nam to punish the next generation of slopes, depleted uranium across the Middle East for the baby ragheads. There are no names of any Vietnamese civilians on that wall in Washington DC.

    Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at, historical amuse bouche. By eschewing experts from his interviews to focus on “real people” and their anecdotes, Burns by default puts himself into the expert role. He then chooses not to responsibly occupy it.

    Ken Burns had a chance to reach for a higher goal with his work on Vietnam. Instead, there is no reckoning, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.

    Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.



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  • Obama in Hanoi: Vietnam Arms Embargo to Be Fully Lifted

    May 24, 2016 // 20 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Military

    obama


    What other nation on earth would signal its intent to “bury the hatchet, and what it believes to be the start of a new relationship, other than the United States, by lifting an arms embargo?


    The United States is rescinding a decades-old ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam, President Obama announced at a news conference in Hanoi on Monday, ending what the New York Times called “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War.”

    “The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,” Obama said. “It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam.”

    So, to sum up: the sale of weapons is a sign of normalization. Appropriate, in that that is what is normal in America’s foreign relations in the 21st century. Not whether a nation is an ally or adversary per se, but whether they are a customer for our defense industry. For example, Saudi Arabia. Sure, they fund Sunni terrorism globally and played a role in the horrible events of 9/11, but they are also one of America’s most prolific buyers of weapons, and so are courted.


    As for the arms ban being “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War,” one does wonder what the Vietnamese might have say about that.

    Started under false pretenses and brutally fought for unclear purposes, America’s war on Vietnam took a terrible toll. No one really knows, but estimates of the death count on the Vietnamese side run from half a million to a million and half. That is before you include the untold numbers who continue to die or suffer birth defects due to the prolific use of defoliants like Agent Orange. While the American deaths in the war were “voluntary” in the sense that America started the war and pointlessly continued it for years, the Vietnamese had no choice.

    To now say that bygones are bygones, and seal the deal with the export of American weapons into Vietnam, seems a new low in cynicism by a fading American Empire.



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  • Echoes of Vietnam, or Between Iraq and a Hard Place

    June 22, 2015 // 6 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Military

    Kim Phuc story

    Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.

    But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.


    In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.

    Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.

    After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.

    It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.

    It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.

    This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog. Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.

    The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.

    In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.


    We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.


    Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.

    Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.

    In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics

    One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.




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  • Book Review: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

    February 23, 2015 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Iraq, Military

    Kim Phuc story

    Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.



    Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam

    Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.

    We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.

    The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.

    Vietnam as a Template

    Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.

    — The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.

    — Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.

    — A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.

    — Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.


    No More Vietnams

    Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.

    The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.

    Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.



    Post-9/11

    For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.

    Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.

    You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”

    How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.




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  • No, Obama is Not Spending $2.7 Mil on Communist Propaganda in Vietnam

    May 6, 2014 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas

    If ignorance was bliss, you’d think more people would be happy. In the media, ignorance just seems to make people angrier, and thanks to the Internet, we all get to listen to them.


    A number of conservative outlets have featured a story like this one, “Obama Spending $2.7 Mil to Broadcast Communist Propaganda to Vietnam.” The article quotes from somewhere (no attribution or link):

    The Department of Health and Human Services is spending $2,797,979 on a study that brings television to more than a dozen remote villages in Vietnam to study its impact on their culture and reproductive behavior.

    And concludes:

    Can we have a study in which we take away money from government bureaucrats in the United States while using government bureaucrats in Vietnam as a control group to see which country goes bankrupt faster? Instead we’re funding the broadcast of Communist propaganda to rural Vietnamese villages like the anniversary celebration of the Communist Party.

    Disclaimer

    Because I’m trying to dilute ignorance here rather than fan its flames, a disclaimer is needed. I am neither a conservative, nor a liberal, a libertarian, a Presbyterian, a Rastafarian or believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I support public leaders who might serve the public interest, and oppose those who don’t. So, denizens of the Internet, remain in your basements and do not accuse me of loving Obama or hating Obama. Only four more hours to your meds anyway, be strong for me buddy.

    Golden Fleece

    A Golden Fleece Award was presented each month by Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, from 1975 to 1987, to identify what he viewed as wasteful government spending.

    One Award was given in honor of a $57,800 study of the physical measurements of airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the “length of the buttocks” and how their knees were arranged when they were seated. Another Award made fun of the money spent on insect sex.

    Basic research is often very important, and very easy to mock. The buttocks measuring was one part of data-gathering that led to safety equipment standards for aircraft. Fly sex research led to sterile screw-worms that were released into the wild and eliminated a major cattle parasite from the U.S., saving the cattle industry $20 billion.

    Back to Vietnam

    The media claiming the U.S. is funding Red propaganda, and/or just throwing away money, are, not surprisingly, wrong.

    Reading the actual grant from the U.S. National Institute of Health (for only $705k; not sure where the $2.7 million number came from), we learn that the purpose has little to do with Commies:

    Billions of dollars are spent worldwide on television campaigns to promote population health even though we lack clear evidence of a causal link between television and family formation and reproductive health. Although a substantial research literature documents television’s effects, existing research is primarily associational; making it impossible to establish a causal direction or to eliminate the possibility that a third variable is responsible for the observed associations. In defending these existing research problems, many note that because television is so widely available, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to randomly assign members of a target audience to comparison and intervention groups.

    The idea of researching the impact of something at the cost of maybe millions to better spend billions seems to make sense. The idea of finding a place without any TV that is also safe to work in and somewhat accessible means that isolated hill villages in Vietnam are exactly the kind of location you need.

    We’re All Right

    Weird conservative media, you are wrong about the Vietnam study. People who think they should write in and criticize me for liking or hating Obama, you are too shallow to get this is all not about “liking” a leader anyway, plus of course the fact that Obama himself had nothing to do with an individual NIH grant. In the spirit of a happy ending, I for one feel much better knowing the government is spending at least some of my tax money on basic research, and thus maybe a tiny, tiny, tiny amount less on drones and the NSA.

    A fella can dream, can’t he?



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  • Review: Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

    April 25, 2013 // 12 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq, Military

    There are ghosts in Washington that few will talk about, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, inside the State Department and the CIA, and at the White House, moaning “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Nick Turse, in his new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, awakens those ghosts and gives them a voice, and in the process has written one of the most important books about the American War in Vietnam. As America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits again torture, assassinations, mass killings and keeps secret prisons while all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public, that Turse’s book was published in 2013 is no accident.

    Kill Anything That Moves is a painstaking, detailed, minutely-cataloged 370 pages of the atrocities America committed in Vietnam . Like much of the scholarship of the Holocaust, Turse seeks to document in straight forward, simple language what happened so that no one will be able to someday pretend—as the men who run from the ghosts in Washington now do—that it never happened. To make clear his intent, Turse gives us a trail to follow, 85 dense pages of sources and footnotes.

    What Happened

    The slaughter at My Lai is the signature event for most Vietnam war historians (the massacre took place almost 45 years ago to date, on March 16, 1968), the single instance, the aberration, the time when a small group of poorly-led soldiers went rogue and gunned down civilians. There were photos this time. Everything else, TV and movies tell us, is an exaggeration, propaganda, the drunken and drugged memories of freaked out veterans who came to hold Jane Fonda in too high a regard.

    What really happened is Turse’s story. His book began with a different focus when as a graduate student in Public Health, Turse began looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. By chance an archivist asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes might be a cause of PTSD and directed Turse to the forgotten papers of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. That group had been set up by the military in the wake of My Lai to compile information on atrocities, not so much to punish the guilty as to “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse tells us the group’s findings were mostly kept under cover and the witnesses who reported the crimes were ignored, discredited or pushed into silence.

    Until Now

    Kill Anything That Moves is a hard book to read. You want to look away but finally turn the pages and read of mass killings and targeted assassinations of Vietnamese civilians, rape committed casually and coldly in sight of officers, sport killings and road rage incidents. Turse painstakingly documents each incident, in many cases starting with the War Crimes Working Group reports and then adding his own first-person interviews conducted in Vietnam with eye witnesses. Mostly aged, the witnesses speak calmly now, and Turse reports what they say without embellishment. Still, the ghosts are there and you half expect to see drops of sweat on the pages.

    But however horrific the many, many individual acts of brutality are to read about, Turse’s larger conclusion is even worse. Turse comes to understand that most of the atrocities were committed with official sanction, in fact, were committed because of U.S. policy that demanded body counts, number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. He writes, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.”

    Officers, seeking validation and promotion, made it clear in case after case that their troops must come back from the field with a high body count. Given that demand, standards of accountability were purposefully loose. Any Vietnamese man killed was labeled Viet Cong (VC). When that number was not enough, orders were given to sweep through areas and kill anything that moved or ran, man, woman or child, on the assumption that only a Viet Cong would run. When even that tally was insufficient, civilians were executed in place, the soldiers planting captured Chinese weapons on them to justify the ‘Count. Once reality became so flexible, soldiers lost touch with any standard, creating “rules” that allowed them to kill everyone—if she stands still she is a trained VC, if she runs she is a VC taking evasive action. If men are present the village is VC, if men are missing the village has sent its males off to fight with the VC and so either way, burn it all down.

    America’s actions were, in Turse’s words, “Not a few random massacres… But a system of suffering.” The deaths were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.”

    In short, the atrocities were not war crimes, they were policy.

    Iraq is the Arabic Word for Vietnam

    Nick Turse’s book wasn’t published by accident in 2013. While it details terrible, terrible things Americans did in Vietnam some 45 or more years ago, one need only open a web browser to see that the atrocities have not stopped—call them out now, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA prisons across the world, the black sites in Afghanistan.

    As the Iraq War sputtered to a close, at least for America, Liz Sly of the Washington Post wrote a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

    The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. It was true in Vietnam, and it will be true in Syria or the Horn of Africa or wherever we drag the fight on to next. Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also referenced the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the “control” of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Hearts, are missing. There are just too many.

    Accountability?

    Sly’s article quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying “when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard.”

    Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi (“Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones”), his point carries some truth. I cannot let this review of Nick Turse’s book end without asking the bigger questions outside of his scope as a documentarian.

    The issue is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.

    In this rare moment of American reflection Turse’s book offers, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Vietnamese, those Iraqis, those Afghans — and those Americans — killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America.

    Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is available from Amazon.com




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  • Why COIN Failed in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan

    July 3, 2012 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    My former colleague Bill Johnson, himself a veteran of multiple COIN interactions on both the military and civillian sides, offer this insight:

    The problem in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is not that COIN can’t work. The problem is that one can only counter an insurgency if a legitimate government, supported by the majority of the people but opposed by an insurgency, exists.


    The governments in each of these three cases were illegitimate, created and supported by force from the United States, after which the United States had it’s creation adopt the superficial trappings of democracy in order to have some claim on legitimacy. There was not in any case a legitimate government, and thus no insurgency–legitimate government is a necessary condition for an insurgency to exist.


    What existed in these cases was a legitimate government not to our liking (Vietnam), a power vacuum caused by the total destruction of the existing government (Iraq), and an illegitimate government which we toppled and replaced with another illegitimate government (Afghanistan). In none of these cases could COIN be properly executed. The conditions demanded by COIN theory simply did not exist.


    Our support of Colombia’s battle with the FARC is the closest we have come to actually putting COIN theory into practice, and we and the Colombians have had some success there. This is largely due to the fact that most Colombians support the government established by the Constitution the Colombian people approved in 1991. The sad part about this success story is that there would be no insurgency and no FARC if the United States would do away with its failed policy to ban drugs.



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  • Susan Rice: No More Vietnams, But in a Bad Way

    June 28, 2012 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    Susan Rice, our ambassador to the UN and someone on the short list to replace Hillary as SecState in 2013, continues to set new personal bests in terms of ignorant statements. Describing (in her acid riddled mind) what makes Obama’s foreign policy distinct from that of its predecessors, Rice mooed:

    We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover. It is not the framework for every decision — or any decision, for that matter. I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s.


    I could just throw out the old “Those that don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” line here and hit the bar early, but Rice’s remark is so idiotic that I’ll skip happy hour for now (the sacrifices we make for country).

    Tom Ricks starts us off:

    Just because you weren’t alive during the Vietnam War doesn’t mean you won’t go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences — that was LBJ’s recipe. It didn’t work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.

    Anytime anyone tells me that the lessons of Vietnam are irrelevant, that’s when I begin looking for a hole to hide in.


    Rice again now:

    What frustrated me about the 2004 (John Kerry) campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, ‘Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?’  And I’m thinking, ‘What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?’ 


    Ok Susan, you ignorant bonehead, here it is:

    Vietnam echoes through everything we do because we are repeating mistakes. We should not invade countries that do not pose a threat to the US. We should not be in wars without a coherent objective. We should not create governments unsupported by their people and then kill Americans trying to prop them up. We should not spend our money and lives abroad when we have problems at home that need those resources. We should not borrow money to fund wars in ways that wreck our economy. We should not piss off the rest of the world unnecessarily with wars of choice. We should not see America’s power solely as the rampant use of military force. We should express a little more humility toward the world and be seen as a little less of a bully. We should stop inventing straw men (communists, terrorists) that feed the military-industrial complex and distract us from the real issues facing America. We should not ignore the lessons of history because they seem politically awkward in an election year.

    Bonus: We should not employ as ambassadors to the UN people so ignorant of history and so ready to throw away lessons for political positioning. You are, to paraphrase Robert Reich speaking of the Clintons, “the arrogance of power combined with the inexperience of youth.”

    Susan, this blog has spent a lot of time drawing lessons from Vietnam, so have a look before you ejaculate dumbness again.




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  • State Department Won the Vietnam War

    May 18, 2012 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Remember the Vietnam War? You know, the one from Rambo, the war that was supposed to stop Communism from rolling Asia like dominoes? Fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here? Kennedy? Johnson? Nixon? Bueller? The US fought in Vietnam in one form or another from the late 1950’s until we gave up in 1975 and lost. Helicopters on the roof of the Embassy, hippies taking over the country, some history stuff went down, babies.

    Vietnam was America’s first modern counter-insurgency war. There are a lot of definitions of counter-insurgency (COIN), but it boils down to a war that can’t be won and isn’t fought in the traditional Red Guys clash with Blue Guys and the winner seizes territory way, like Private Ryan and Tom Hanks did in World War II. A COIN struggle is characterized primarily by a “hearts and minds” struggle, a multi-spectrum approach to winning the loyalty of the people by protecting them, helping them, establishing a local government, that kind of thing. The failure to do this in Iraq is the subject of my book, and the ongoing failure to do this in Afghanistan will be the subject of some other person’s book to come.

    If you check Wikipedia or ask the Vietnam Vet next door, you’ll find out that we did not succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. If you want to read the best book written about how COIN and Vietnam, it is Street Without Joyby Bernard Fall.

    One of the crucial elements of the failure to win the real war in Vietnam was the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program, run by the same State Department that flopped in Iraq. Formed in 1967, CORDS was headed by a State civilian, Ambassador Robert W. Komer. CORDS pulled together all the various U.S. military and civilian agencies involved in the hearts and minds effort, including State, USAID, USIA and the CIA (who tagged on the remnants of the Phoenix Program, just because). CORDS civilian/military advisory teams were dispatched throughout South Vietnam.

    So how’d that CORDS thing work out for ya’all? It failed in conjunction with the whole war effort. We lost the war. Nothing four Presidents said about Vietnam was true and tens of thousands of people died for no purpose. We did not win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the Looking Glass, according to the State Department’s slick self-congratulatory monthly magazine (thanks taxpayers!), CORDS “was a success” and in fact somehow contributed to the defeat of the Viet Cong in the Delta by 1972, where per the State Department, the wiley Commies couldn’t even muster a squad-sized action. It is true– read it all here in the State Magazine (p. 16) you’re paying for anyway.

    The article is just spiffy, using words like “swashbuckling” non-ironically to describe State’s men in Vietnam, and claiming in 1967 State’s Vietnam Training Center was “the center of things” (1967 was the freaking “Summer of Love” so State thinking their Training Center was the center of anything is beyond nerd land.) We learn that many FS men “enjoyed their tours.” In fact, US military officers “watched in awe” as the first State Department troopers deplaned, just like in that movie Platoon no doubt.

    Here’s a keen description of precisely how State won the Vietnam War (those in Afghanistan now, pay attention):

    [We] would pick a house at random, politely ask if we could come in and chat, and enquire about the perspective of the resident on everything from the state of the rice crop to the price of cooking oil to the honesty of local officials.

    Dammit! Why didn’t we know that before spending $44 billion and nine years trying to solve Iraq and win that war! All we had to do was “politely ask.”

    OK, fun’s over. Here’s the problem. If State is still clinging to the bizarre idea that it succeeded in Vietnam, and propagandizing its own employees with the same, what hope is there that they will ever make any progress about the failures visited upon Iraq, and the failures now ongoing in Afghanistan?

    Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it we’re told. But those who make up their own versions of history to fit present political needs are simply doomed in advance.



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  • Jeepers, If Only I was Vietnamese

    April 21, 2012 // 1 Comment

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State




    The State Department just can’t do enough for bloggers’ freedom overseas.


    Here is State social media superhero Alec Ross burning up the Twitter, for freedom:



    The news is less positive for bloggers inside the State Department. Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project wrote on Salon:

    (The State Department’s) actions are a transparent attempt to retaliate against Mr. Van Buren for his book—by trying to impose bureaucratic and constitutionally-questionable prior restraints on his blogs, evidenced by the facts that 1) Mr. Van Buren is being subject to disparate treatment (hundreds of State Department blogs flow out onto the Internet uncleared); 2) the State Department links to uncleared blogs it likes; 3) none of Mr. Van Buren’s writing or speaking has contained classified orpersonally identifiable information; 4) all his written works (including his book) contain the State Department disclaimer that they do not represent the views of the government; and 5) he has never misrepresented himself as an official spokesman for the State Department (instead, he speaks in the first person and uses bland designators such as “Author”).


    Tại sao là Alec Ross một kẻ ngốc như vậy?



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  • A Mini-Lesson in US Immigration History

    June 11, 2019 // 7 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas


     
    I am dying of stupidity reading progressive “takes” on immigration.

    Abolish ICE! Every country in the world that has the means to control its borders does so. The US is no different. Every country that can has rules about who it accepts and in what numbers. You, for example, cannot just pick up and move to Canada ’cause you wanna. The merit (points-based) systems progressive decry as fascism are used by “fascist” countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, across the EU, etc.
     
    But muh grandpa came to this country without on $1 in his pocket and no English and was welcomed!?!?!

    Our period of unfettered immigration into the US was brief, with any serious volume occurring from about 1870-1920 (Ellis Island opened in 1892, replacing the previous main processing facility in New York, Castle Clinton), and coincided with a huge demand for unskilled labor driven by industrialization, western expansion as we killed off the Native Americans and needed to fill their lands with farms, and the end of slavery coupled with efforts to not readily allow those freed slaves into the new economy. At the same time, horrible conditions in, serially, Ireland, eastern Europe, and Italy made waves of people available to immigrate into really horrid conditions waiting for them in the US.

    As for numbers, and the fear that the US is no longer “welcoming” immigrants, the numbers reveal the truth. The peak year for admission (adjusted for one-time special programs such as those in place post-Vietnam) of new immigrants was 1907, when approximately 1.3 million people entered the country legally. The number has hovered around a million a year for the past two decades. During the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s legal immigration was about half what it has been since. Illegal/undocumented immigration numbers have swelled dramatically since the 19th century as cheaper travel and rising prosperity across much of the world has made travel easier and more possible for many.

    We did not “welcome” your grandpa; we shunted him into slums and paid him as little as possible to work in dirty and dangerous jobs for us, all the while calling him kike, polack, greaseball, hynie, and the rest. No one cared about preserving immigrant culture; newcomers faced enormous pressure to abandon their native languages and learn English if they wanted better jobs. They could either isolate into ghettos or assimilate into the mainstream culture. The latter if they wanted to get ahead. Google how many Irish died digging the canals and building the levees around New Orleans. Read up on how immigrant children were worked in factories before you wail about “concentration camps” on the Mexican border that no longer feature sports programs.

    “Not who we are?” Bullshit, it is who we always have been.
     
    Those were unique historical circumstances and our (lack of) immigration laws in the period matched. The race-based restrictions which followed just happened to coincide with economic changes and eventually the Great Depression that required fewer unskilled workers. Racism played a part in deciding which immigrants to cut, but not in the decisions to cut immigration.

    In simple words: Most of what people believe about immigration is myth. Myth is a bad basis for policy. Immigration policy, like economic policy, defense policy, etc., is meant to help the nation. It is not a global charity (that’s refugee policy, a separate thing.) When immigration helped the nation, it was matched to our economic situation. The current immigration laws, which favor relatives of those already here regards of their skills and abilities, do not match America’s current economic need for highly skilled workers. We should adjust the laws to fit the current circumstances as we have done before.

    It is just too easy to forget history and apply 2019-think to what really happened. So please don’t.

     
     

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  • What Mayor Pete Won’t Tell You: The Role of Military Service in the 2020 Election

    June 8, 2019 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: 2020, Afghanistan, Trump

    What is the role of military service in the 2020 election?

    As another Memorial Day passed, Mayor Pete Buttigieg criticized Trump for reportedly considering pardons for several service members accused of war crimes, calling the idea “slander against veterans that could only come from somebody who never served” (those pardons never happened; fake news?) The 37-year-old Democrat mocked the president, saying “I don’t have a problem standing up to somebody who was working on Celebrity Apprentice when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan.” Mayor Pete defended NFL national anthem protests noting “Trump would get it if he had served.” He claims he “put his life on the line” for those rights.

    He gets away unchallenged with these shots because critical thought on military service is the third rail of journalism. But context matters. Pete Buttigieg did all of six months in 2014 as a reservist deep inside Bagram air base, mostly as a personal driver for his boss, locked and loaded inside a Toyota Land Cruiser. It is unlikely he ever ate a cold meal in Afghanistan.

    On the campaign trail, Pete refers to himself “as the first veteran president since George H.W. Bush.” Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Seth Moulton was a platoon commander in the initial company of Marines to enter Baghdad in 2003, returning for a total of four combat deployments. Tulsi Gabbard did two full tours in the Middle East, one inside Iraq. She volunteered to become the first state official to step down from public office to serve in a war zone, 10 years before Pete. So if you wanna measure for size, bro, the line forms behind Seth and Tulsi.

    Everyone at war has different experiences, and unless you’re the dude who held bin Laden’s still-beating heart in his hand (and then took a bite out of it), someone had it tougher than you. But Mayor Pete is milking it for all it is worth politically, stretching a short tour into civics lessons he suggests one just can’t get any other way.

    But if Mayor Pete is going to make much of his service as part of his public biography, and especially if he wants to invite comparisons among himself, other candidates, and other presidents, then his short military tenure cannot be treated as bullet-proof. As one vet put it, “If he’s going to use his combat time as a discriminator, then it gets to be evaluated.”

    Veteran (Bosnia, Iraq 2004-6, 2008-11, Afghanistan 2011-12) and now podcaster Pete Turner writes “I give Mayor Pete all the credit in the world for deploying. However, there is a difference in the quality and severity of the types of combat veterans. Mayor Pete is more of a combat tourist than a warrior. People with one short combat tour, with access to that delicious fresh baked bread they made daily at the Bagram Air Force base, need to ease up on their warrior status.”

    “He went to war, that’s commendable and honorable. But that’s where it stops. People with his pedigree of deployment acknowledge that they spent a short tour and barely got away from their desk. They certainly don’t lean on that service as a credential for presidential candidacy.”

    Mayor Pete, however, might be the first to suggest even a little service produces a better man than none at all, clearly his opinion of the man dubbed “President Bone Spurs.” Buttigieg, alongside the New York Times (who interviewed the aging daughters of the now-dead doctor who diagnosed Trump), has called that medical diagnosis a fraud and “an assault on the honor of this country.”

    Maybe so. But for those who like comparisons, current front-runner Joe Biden received five student draft deferments, the same number as Dick Cheney, and in 1968 when his student status was wrapping up, was medically reclassified as “not available” due to having had asthma as a teen. In his autobiography Biden describes his active childhood, being a lifeguard, and playing high school football. His Vice Presidential physicals mention multiple aneurysms. Asthma, no. There’s no record of the New York Times tracking down Biden’s dead doctor’s daughters to investigate medical draft fraud.

    If military service is important and Vietnam-era medical deferments open to question, maybe Mayor Pete should also be talking about Biden alongside Trump. And if you are learning about Biden’s multiple deferments for the first time, ask yourself why.

    Left out of all of this is context. American men of a certain age all had to make a choice about Vietnam. They made those choices not in the jingoistic context of 2019 when we all Support Our Troops and wave away concerns about righteousness with slogans like “Love the Warrior, Hate the War.” Instead, 60% of men in the Vietnam generation took active measures to qualify for a deferment, while up to 90% National Guard enlistments (domestic service instead of Vietnam) were draft-motivated. Trump’s (Clinton’s, Cheney’s, Biden’s, Sanders’, Bush’s, et al) story is “surprisingly typical of his generation,” wrote one historian.

    The Vietnam-era military was not a widely loved institution. Many veterans, at least when they spoke about it back then, were more ashamed than proud, and actively encouraged young men to avoid serving. Families were weary of sending sons to Vietnam, from where over 58,000 Americans never came home (compared to under 7,000 dead in the 18 years of the War on Terror and its sequels.) The military was wounded by failure in Southeast Asia, drugs, and racism. Vietnam was the era of fragging, soldiers killing their own officers, in numbers far lower than movies would have you believe, but which left officers living under threats far greater than any Lieutenant Buttigieg could conceive of in Afghanistan.

    Down one path or another more than 15 million men of Trump and Biden’s generation sought to avoid military service in Vietnam. So in that context Buttigieg should also mention Bernie Sanders, who applied for conscientious objector status until he aged out of the draft. Mitt Romney received both student and religious deferments to avoid Vietnam.

    When Bill Clinton’s student deferments ran out, he sought help to faux register with a local reserve unit, and then to hide his draft paperwork until he left for England. Clinton as president refused to discuss in detail his various maneuvers to avoid service, which allegedly included an attempt at renouncing his citizenship at the American Embassy in London. Clinton wrote to one man who purposefully delayed his case to thank him for “saving me from the draft.”

    Context matters. As the New York Times said when he was running for president, “Bill Clinton worked to avoid the draft, at times cleverly, but in ways that accorded with accepted common practice among others of his generation. Against that history, this Vietnam echo looks like an irrelevance that ought not distract New Hampshire voters from judging Bill Clinton on his merits… to single him out as some sort of devious draft-dodger does him, and the anguish of Vietnam, an injustice.”

    The Times’ 1992 point is more valid when talking about Trump than the hit pieces they write in 2019. During the Vietnam War-draft era, most who could afford college or to pay the right doctor could get a deferment. Others took a middle road, the George W. Bush‘s and Dan Quayle‘s who joined National Guard units and got credit for some form of service without the stain of Vietnam on their nice clothing.

    For those without money, failing their physical by gaining or losing substantial amounts of weight, or claiming to be gay, worked. Bruce Springsteen made his own success outwitting Army doctors a reflective centerpiece of his Broadway show. One hundred thousand Americans left for Canada, breaking the law to avoid service (President Jimmy Carter issued a blanket pardon to them.) Some 3,250 refused to cooperate with the draft and went to prison.

    In the end only 2.2 million men were drafted during the Vietnam War period out of an eligible pool of 27 million, meaning some 9 out of 10 found an alternative. And in the end no Vietnam vet (see John McCain and John Kerry) has ever been elected president, and two who dodged the draft were.

    Like hauling out old yearbook photos to sanctimoniously judge them in the Pure Light of 2019, Pete Buttigieg is wrong to compare his service to anyone but his peers, because the real questions didn’t end when the draft did in 1973. It would be more important for Pete not to use Vietnam-era actions as a hypocritical political cudgel, but to tell us why he volunteered to serve and why Obama, and now Booker, Harris, Warren, O’Rourke, and the rest did not. Though a draft didn’t force them to decide, they decided. Though they did not face the legal issues of an earlier generation, the more important existential ones – what do you owe your country, what is the value of service, who goes in your place when you stay home to focus on college and career – get sharper as they get even easier to dodge.

    The post-Vietnam candidates now seeking the presidency followed much the same path of privilege as the one Buttigieg selectively despises, but have done so without their choices being questioned. Maybe it’s time to do that.

    Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.

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  • Happy Hypocritical Memorial Day from Mayor Pete

    May 27, 2019 // 5 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: 2020, Trump


    “In his interview on ABC, Buttigieg criticized Trump for reportedly considering pardons for several U.S. service members accused of war crimes, calling the idea ‘slander against veterans that could only come from somebody who never served.'” (NOTE: These Memorial Day pardons of “war criminals” the media has been talking about for weeks have not actually happened. Check your fake news folder…)

    The 37-year-old Democrat then ratcheted up his attacks on Trump, mocking the president’s past role on the reality TV show Celebrity Apprentice in a another interview. “I don’t have a problem standing up to somebody who was working on Season 7 of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan,” Buttigieg said. He called Trump’s medical deferment for foot bone spurs during the Vietnam War “an assault on the honor of this country.”

    Pete has also defended those ancient history kneeling NFL national anthem protests, saying “Trump would get it if he had served,” explaining that military service is all about defending the Bill of Rights on a personal level. In his autobiography, Pete makes much of having spent time in “an imminent danger pay area,” basically the current official pay status classification for most of the mideast. On the campaign trail, Mayor Pete pitches himself “as the first veteran president since George H.W. Bush.”

    Hurrah!

    Mayor Pete Buttigieg did all of six months in 2014 as a reservist deep inside Bagram air base, mostly as a driver for his boss, all high speed, locked and loaded inside a civvie Toyota Land Cruiser. It is highly unlikely he ever ate a cold meal.

    Everyone who spent time in war had different challenges and experiences, and unless you’re the dude who held bin Laden’s still-beating heart in your hand (and then took a bite out of it), someone certainly had it tougher and rougher than you.  But Mayor Pete sure is milking it for all its worth politically, stretching a short tour as close to not being in the military at all into leadership and civics lessons he suggests one just can’t get any other way. He has stated he has “more military experience than anybody to walk into that office on day one since George H.W. Bush.” His service, to him, makes him uniquely qualified among all current candidates of both parties, and if you question it then well, maybe that’s un-American.

    The thing is if Mayor Pete is going to make much of his service as part of his public biography, and especially if he wants to invite comparisons between himself, other candidates, and other presidents, to draw lessons on leadership and courage from his experience, then his short military tenure cannot be treated as bullet-proof. He wants us to look. We’ll look. As one veteran put it, “If he’s going to use his combat time as a discriminator, then it gets to be evaluated.”

    Veteran (Joint Endeavor Bosnia, Iraqi Freedom 2004-6, 2008-10, New Dawn Iraq 2010-11 and Enduring Freedom Afghanistan 2011-12) and now podcaster Pete Turner writes “I give Mayor Pete all the credit in the world for deploying. However, there is a difference in the quality and severity of the types of combat veterans. Mayor Pete is more of a combat tourist than a warrior. People with one short combat tour, which meant minding a desk, with access to that delicious fresh baked bread they made daily at the Bagram Air Force base DFAC cafeteria, need to ease up on their warrior status. He’s clearly a combat vet, but discussing it, as he does, is cheapening his experience.”

    “Here’s the truth. If he was to go outside the wire, he’d be a liability to any patrol. I don’t mean to be unfair or unkind but, whatever ‘contribution’ he delivered would at best be forgotten the moment he stepped forward off the battlefield. He went to war, that’s commendable and honorable. But that’s where it stops. People with his pedigree of deployment acknowledge that they spent a short tour and barely got away from their desk. They certainly don’t lean on that service as a credential for presidential candidacy.”

    Mayor Pete might be the first to suggest even a little service produces a better man than none at all, clearly his opinion of the current president who the media has dubbed “President Bone Spurs.” Buttigieg, alongside the New York Times (who interviewed the aging daughters of the doctor who diagnosed Trump for its story), has called that medical diagnosis a fraud.

    Maybe so. But for those who like comparisons to Trump, current Democratic front-runner Joe Biden received five student draft deferments at the peak of the Vietnam War, same number as Dick Cheney, and in 1968, he was reclassified by the Selective Service as “not available” due to having had asthma as a teen. In his autobiography, Promises to Keep, Biden talks alot about his active childhood, his work as a lifeguard, and his high school football career. Asthma, no. His Vice Presidential physicals mention is multiple aneurysms, but are silent on asthma.

    If military service is important and Vietnam-era medical deferments open to question, maybe Mayor Pete should also be talking about Biden alongside Trump. And if you are hearing about Biden’s multiple deferments for the first time here, ask yourself why. Better yet, ask your favorite MSM person why not, perhaps after they’ve done their most recent “Candidate Bone Spurs” punch piece.

    Left out of the shallow jibes Buttigieg tosses at Trump (but withholds against Biden, against whom he is actually currently running) is context. American men of a certain age all had to decide what they were going to do about Vietnam. They did it likely unaware of how a young man’s decisions might affect an old man’s life. They also made their choice not in the post-9/11 jingoistic context of 2019 when we all Support Our Troops and wave away concerns about propriety and righteousness with slogans like “Love the Warrior, Hate the War.”

    The Vietnam-era and especially the post-Vietnam military was not a widely loved institution, and was actually despised by a wide swath of the country. Families were weary of sending sons to die in Vietnam, from where over 58,000 Americans never came home, compared to under 7,000 in the 18 years of the War on Terror and its sequels. Even those who served in the military of that era characterize it as a broken institution wounded by failure in Southeast Asia, drugs, and racism. Vietnam was the era of fragging, soldiers killing their own officers, in numbers far lower than movies would have you believe, but which left officers living under threats far greater than any Lieutenant Buttigieg could conceive of in Afghanistan. The draft which Trump and Biden avoided ended in 1973 and the U.S. military slowly clawed its way to again becoming a professional military under an all-volunteer system.

    But before that Bernie Sanders, also seeking the Commander-in-Chief job, did not go to Vietnam. He applied for conscientious objector status until he aged out of the draft.

    Bill Clinton received multiple draft deferments to stay out of Vietnam. When his student deferments ran out after changes in the law, Clinton sought help from powerful relatives first to falsely join a local reserve unit, and then to hide his draft paperwork until he left for study in England. Clinton as president refused to discuss in detail his various maneuvers to avoid service, which allegedly included an attempt at renouncing his American citizenship at the American Embassy in London.

    As the New York Times generously wrote of Clinton when he was running for president, “Bill Clinton worked to avoid the draft, at times cleverly, but in ways that accorded with accepted common practice among others of his generation. Against that history, this Vietnam echo looks like an irrelevance that ought not distract New Hampshire voters from judging Bill Clinton on his merits… to single him out as some sort of devious draft-dodger does him, and the anguish of Vietnam, an injustice.”

    The Times’ 1992 point is more valid when talking about Trump than the hit pieces they write in 2019 about him “dodging the draft.” During the Vietnam War-draft era, anyone who could afford college or to pay the right doctor could avoid the military with student and medical deferments, and many — including Trump, Biden, Cheney, and Clinton — did. Others took a middle road, the George W. Bush’s and Dan Quayle’s (George H.W. Bush’s vice president) who joined domestic National Guard units and got credit for some form of service without the stain of Vietnam on their nice clothing. A handful followed inner warrior-poet drives, and ended up drawing long from that experience — think Oliver Stone and John Kerry.

    But most significantly, about one hundred thousand of Americans left for Canada, breaking the law to avoid service. President Jimmy Carter issued an unconditional blanket pardon to all of those men on his first day in office as a controversial part of healing the divides in America following the Vietnam war. Alongside those hundred thousand men working today as gas station attendants and corporate CEOs, Trump, Biden, Cheney, and Clinton take their places. Indeed, in the end no Vietnam vet (with John McCain and John Kerry at the top of the list) has ever been elected president, and one who dodged the draft was. That’s what context looks like.

    Like hauling forward old yearbook photos from one era past to judge them in the New Light of 2019, Pete Buttigieg is very wrong to compare his service to anyone but his own peers. In that sense, let us remember Obama, Pence, Booker, Harris, Warren, O’Rourke, and the rest chose not to volunteer.

    Meanwhile, 2020 Democratic candidate Tulsi Gabbard did two full tours in the Middle East, one inside Iraq. In 2004, Tulsi volunteered to become the first state official to voluntarily step down from public office to serve in a war zone. One might better compare Tulsi, and Buttigieg, who had the option and chose to serve to others of their own post-Vietnam world like Obama, Booker, Harris, et al, who did not.

    And FWIW, I spent a full year in Iraq, stationed at two Forward Operating Bases.

    So if you wanna measure for size, Pete, the line forms right behind Tulsi…

     

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  • Lessons for Afghanistan: My Time in Iraq 10th Anniversary Edition

    April 18, 2019 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    I recently spoke with some college students. They were in fifth grade when I first got on a plane to Iraq, and now study that stuff in classes with names like “Opportunities and Errors: 21st Century America in the Middle East.” I realized about halfway through our conversation it’s coming up on ten years ago I first went to Iraq.

    I was a Foreign Service Officer then, a diplomat, embedded with the U.S. Army at a series of forward operating bases. I was in charge of a couple of reconstruction teams, small parts of a complex failure to rebuild the Iraq we wrecked. I ended up writing a book about it all, explaining in tragic-comic terms how we failed (those “Errors.”)

    The book was and wasn’t well-received; people laughed at the funny parts but my message — it didn’t work and here’s why — was largely dissipated by a cloud of government and media propaganda centered on The Surge, David Petraeus’ plan to pacify the Sunnis and push al Qaeda away while clearing, holding, and building across the country, apparently to make room for ISIS and the Iranians to move in. Meanwhile the new American president, elected in part based on his “no” vote to go to war in 2003, proclaimed it all a victory and started bringing the troops home even while I was still in Iraq. When I got home myself, my employer from not long after I was taking classes called “Opportunities and Errors: America in the Middle East Since WWII,” the U.S. Department of State, was unhappy with the book. Over a year-long process State eventually pushed me into early retirement. My career was history.

    People asked in line at Trader Joe’s and in interviews on semi-important TV shows “Was it all worth it to you?” and I always answered yes. I wasn’t important, I said, the story was. We’re making the same mistakes in Afghanistan, I ranted at cashiers and pundits, and there is time to change.

    See, my book wasn’t aimed at cataloguing the failure in Iraq per se, but in trying to make sure we didn’t do the same thing in Afghanistan. The initial title wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The early drafts were pretentious scholarly stuff, outlining our mistakes. Harvard Business School-like case studies. Maps. Footnotes. It would have sold maybe five copies, and so my editors instead encouraged me to write more funny parts. NPR’s Fresh Air actually added a laff track to my interview. They were all right, and I figured I’d get the lessons across with humor more effectively anyway. In such situations you have to think that way. You can’t believe what you went through didn’t matter and keep getting out of bed every morning checking if it was yet Judgement Day.

    I now know officially it did not matter. It was pointless. SIGAR shows I accomplished nothing.

    SIGAR is the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a government oversight body that is supposed to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the billions of dollars being spent rebuilding Afghanistan but which has its hands full just recording a CVS-receipt length list of what’s wrong. Sounds familiar? SIGAR just released The 2019 High-Risk List which points out especially egregious things that will follow in the wake of any peace agreement in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:

    — Without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive.  [Peace] will come at an additional price that only external donors can afford.
    — There are over 300,000 Afghans currently serving in the security forces, most of whom are armed.  If, because of a loss of financial support, their paychecks were to stop coming, this could pose a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability.
    —  A failure to peacefully reintegrate as many as 60,000 heavily armed Taliban long-term would threaten any peace agreement as disaffected former Taliban who may have been expecting a peace dividend may return to violent and predatory behavior.

    — Effective policing will require a force that gives citizens the presumption of innocence, rather than anticipating and taking preemptive offensive operations against perceived threats… There is no comprehensive strategy for a competent civil police force backed by the rule of law.

    — Failure to effectively address systemic corruption means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted and, at worst, will fail.

    — The lack of sustained institutional capacity at all levels of government undermines the country’s development and ability to address the production and sale of illegal drugs. The opium trade plays a significant role in the Afghan economy and it is difficult to see how a peace accord between the Afghan government and the insurgency would translate into the collapse or contraction of the illicit drug trade.

    — If the U.S. reduces its presence in Afghanistan but feels compelled to provide significant financial support for reconstruction, there may be little choice but to provide a greater proportion of funding as on-budget assistance. But if that road is taken and conditions are lacking, we may as well set the cash ablaze on the streets of Kabul for all the good it will do.

    That last line really got me; in my book I’d written “While a lot of the money was spent in big bites at high levels through the Embassy, or possibly just thrown into the river when no one could find a match to set it on fire…” Had SIGAR read what I’d written or was the joke just so obvious that we’d both come to the same punchline ten years and two countries apart?

    A former State Department colleague is on her fourth (or fifth?) tour in Afghanistan. She likes it over there, says Washington leaves her alone. Her job has something to do with liaising with the few NATO military officials still around. It’s pretty easy work, they’ve known each other for years.  She harbors no illusions, and in a sober moment would likely agree with SIGAR that after over 17 years of American effort, Afghanistan has almost no chance of survival except as a Taliban narcoland with financial support needed indefinitely to avoid whatever “worse” would be in that calculus.

    We all know but try not to talk too much about the over 6,900 U.S. service members, 7,800 contractors, and 110,00 uniformed Iraqi and Afghan “allies” who died for that, and its companion Iranian client state in Iraq. A tragically high percentage of veterans have also died since returning home of drug overdoses, car accidents (?) or suicide. Nobody really knows how many civilians died, or even how to count them. Bombs and bullets only? Hunger and cold? Abandoned kids and enslaved women? Do we count deaths in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and wherever too?

    Iraq wrecked me, too, even though I initially somehow didn’t expect it to. I was foolish to think traveling to the other side of the world and spending a year seeing death and poverty, being in a war, learning how to be mortared at night and decide it doesn’t matter I might die before breakfast, wasn’t going to change me. In the military units I was embedded in three soldiers did not come home, all died at their own hands. Around us Iraqis blew themselves up alongside children. Everyone was a potential killer and a potential target, sides appearing to change depending on who was pointing the weapon even as we were all the same in the end. I did this once, at age 49, on antidepressants and with a good family waiting at home for me. I cannot imagine what it would have done to 18 year old me. And I had it easier than most, and much, much easier than many.

    The only way to even start to justify any of it was to think there was some meaning behind it all. It didn’t do anything for me but fill my soul with vodka but maybe it… helping someone? A buddy I saved? No, I didn’t save anyone. The Iraqis? Hah, not one was better off for my presence. Maybe America? Please.

    Around the same time as the SIGAR report, the Army War College released its official history of the Iraqi Surge, a quagmire of dense prose I’m only about halfway through, but so far no mention of the impact of reconstruction. The theme so far seems to be the Army had some good ideas but the politicians got in the way. Fair enough, but they often misspelled Vietnam as i-r-a-q all through the book. The Army seems committed to calling things like suicide bombing and Shiite militias running whole neighborhoods as crime syndicates “challenges” instead of the more vernacular “failures.” That answers all questions about whether anyone will be held responsible for their work.

    The post-9/11 wars spread across three presidencies so far. Pick the thing you detest most about Bush, Obama, and Trump, and complain how it was never investigated enough, and how there weren’t enough hearings, and how he got away with it. And then I’ll disagree, for most everything that happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone uninvestigated, unheard, and unpunished. It’s all ancient history.

    All those failures have had no consequences on the most significant decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as a Nobel peace prize winner. Trump is criticized bizarrely both as a war monger and for talking about reducing U.S. troops in Middle East. The State Department ambassadors and senior leaders responsible retired, many to sweet university teaching jobs or think tanks. The generals found similar hideouts in pseudo-academia or as consultants; some are still in the military. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it, and that kind of thinking doesn’t do me any good anyway.

    Oh, and on April 8 four Americans were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan, including a New York City firefighter (9/11, Never Forget!) The incident occurred when an IED exploded in a vehicle near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. Taliban forces claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, which also wounded three additional U.S. servicemen.

    We all want to believe what we did, what we didn’t do, the moral injury, the PTSD, the fights with spouses, the kid at home we smacked too hard when she wouldn’t eat her green beans, all of what we saw and heard and smelled (oh yes, the smells, you know there’s a body in that rubble before you see him) mattered. You read that SIGAR report and tell me how. Because basically I’m history now.

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  • Julian Assange Will Die Alongside Your 1st Amendment Rights

    April 11, 2019 // 26 Comments

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

    (Reprinted from December 2018 following Assange’s arrest in London April 11, 2019)

    Accidentally disclosed information confirms the U.S. is actively planning to prosecute Julian Assange. What happens to Assange will almost certainly change what can be lawfully published in our democracy. This threat to our freedoms is being largely ignored because the Assange, once a progressive journalist, is now regarded as a hero-turned-zero. At stake? The ability of all journalists to inform the public of things the government specifically wants to withhold.

    A clerical error revealed the Justice Department secretly has filed criminal charges against Assange. Court papers in what appears to be an unrelated case used cut-and-pasted language from documents prepared previously against Assange.

    Though the new information makes clear prosecution is planned if Assange can be delivered to American custody, no further details are available. Assange is under scrutiny at a minimum for unauthorized possession of classified material going back to at least 2010, when Wikileaks burst on to the international stage with evidence of American war crimes in Iraq, and exposed years worth of classified State Department diplomatic cables. More recently, Assange has been accused of trying to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election with his release of emails from the Democratic National Committee server. The emails, some believe, came to Wikileaks via hackers working for the Russian government (Assange denies this) and are deeply tied to the claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow otherwise known as “Russiagate.” Less publicized in the media but of critical concern inside the U.S. government is Wikileaks’ publication of the so-called Vault 7 materials, CIA hacking and malware tools, which revealed American technical intelligence skills and methods. Assange has hinted on at least one occasion he may have “Vault 8” materials as yet unreleased.

    When Assange is prosecuted, on trial with him will be a key question concerning the First Amendment: do journalists actually enjoy special protection against national security charges? Can they publish classified documents because the national interest creates a 1A shield to do so? Or only when the government allows it?

    Under the current “rules,” you get caught handing me a SECRET document, you go to jail. Meanwhile, I publish to millions, including any Russian intelligence officers with Internet access, and end up on Kimmel next to Taylor Swift. I whisper “I’m a freedom fighter, you know” into Taylor’s moist ear and she sighs.

    Ask Edward Snowden, in dark exile in Moscow. Talk to Chelsea Manning, who spent years in Leavenworth while journalists for the New York Times and the Washington Post won accolades for the stories they wrote based on the documents she leaked. See how many stories today cite sources and reports, almost all of which are based on leaked classified information, stuff the government doesn’t want published yet accepts as part of the way journalism and the 1A work.

    Yet despite widespread practice, there is no law rendering journalists immune from the same national security charges their sources go to jail for violating. There is no explicit protection against espionage charges written between the lines of the First Amendment. It is all based on at best an unspoken agreement to not prosecute journalists for revealing classified data, and it appears it is about to be thrown away to nail Julian Assange.

    In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. Reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act but published anyway, even as the Washington Post wimped out. The Nixon administration quickly found a court to order the Times to cease publication after initial excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper.

    The Supreme Court then handed down New York Times Company v. United States, a victory for the First Amendment which allowed the Papers to be published, but an opinion which sidestepped the larger question about whether the 1A protects journalists publishing classified in favor of simply affirming the government couldn’t censor the news in advance. The Court left the door open for the government to prosecute both the leakers (by dismissing Ellsberg’s leaker case on technical grounds and ignoring his public interest defense) and the journalists who publish them (by focusing narrowly on prior restraint.) The Justices avoided saying the 1A offered a specific shield to journalists in matters of national security.

    The Pentagon Papers case has governed everything about national security journalism from that day until the moment the U.S. government finally gets Julian Assange into an American courtroom.

    On the source side, the Obama administration was especially virulent in prosecuting leakers. Trump continued the policy by throwing the book at Reality Winner. Both administrations made clear there was nothing to distinguish between taking classified documents to inform the public and taking them say with the intent to hand over secrets to the Chinese. On the other side of the equation, the journalists, the government (including, to date, Trump despite all the noise about attacking the press) has chosen not to prosecute journalists for publishing what leakers hand over to them.

    The closest step toward throwing a journalist in jail over classified information came in 2014, when Obama Attorney General Eric Holder permitted subpoenaing New York Times reporter James Risen regarding a former CIA employee. After much legal muscle tussle, the Supreme Court turned down Risen’s appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether the First Amendment includes an unwritten “reporter’s privilege” in the free press clause. The Court instead upheld existing decisions finding the Constitution does not give journalists special protections. The door was w-a-y open to throwing Risen in jail.

    But instead of becoming the first president to jail a journalist for what he published, Obama punted. Happy with the decision affirming they could have prosecuted Risen, with no explanation prosecutors asked the U.S. District Court to simply leave Risen alone. Risen’s alleged source went to jail instead for leaking classified. The unspoken rules stayed intact.

    Unspoken rules are useful — they can be read to mean one thing when dealing with the chummy MSM who understands where the unspoken lines are even if they need the occasional brush back pitch like with Risen, and another when the desire is to deep-six a trouble-maker like Assange. Julian Assange poked the Deep State — he exposed the military as war criminals in Iraq (ironically in part for gunning down two Reuters journalists), the State Department as hypocrites, laid bare the CIA’s global hacking games in the Vault 7 disclosures, and showed everyone the Democratic primaries were rigged. None of those stories would have come to light under the MSM alone. And if Assange does know something about Russiagate (did he meet with Manafort?!?), what better place to silence him than a SuperMax.

    The government is likely to cite the clear precedent from the Obama years it damn well can prosecute journalists for revealing classified information, and keep the established media happy by offering enough thin exceptions (natsec journalism groupies have already started making lists) to appear to isolate Assange’s crucifixion from setting broad precedent. Say, start with the fact that he wasn’t covered by the 1A outside the U.S., that his sources were Russian hackers seeking to harm the U.S. instead of misguided chaps like Ellsberg and Manning. Assange had no national interest in mind, no sincere desire to inform the public. He, a foreigner no less, wanted to influence the 2016 election, maybe in collusion!

    Shamefully, those stuck in journalism’s cheap seats are unlikely to side with Assange, even though they wrote stories off what he published on Wikileaks. They’ll drift along with the government’s nod and wink this is all a one-off against Julian, and those who play by the government’s unspoken rules are still safe.

    They’ll self-righteously proclaim Assange going to jail a sad but unfortunately necessary thing, claiming he just took things too far dealing with the Russkies, ignoring while the door to prosecute a journalist for national security has always been carefully left open by administrations dating back to Nixon, it is only under their watch that it may be slammed on the hands of one of their own whom they refuse to see, now, for their own misguided self-preservation, as a journalist. The Daily Beast’s take on all this, for example, is headlined a TMZ-esque “Unkempt, Heavily Bearded Julian Assange No Longer Has Embassy Cat For Company.”

    They will miss where previous cases avoided delineating the precise balancing point between the government’s need to protect information, the right to expose information, and the media’s right to publish it, an Assange prosecution will indeed create a new precedents, weapons for the future for clever prosecutors. It will be one of those turning points journalists someday working under new press restrictions will cite when remembering the good old days.

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  • Is Michael Cohen Impeachment’s Smoking Gun?

    March 1, 2019 // 11 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump


    While 8000 miles away in Vietnam the president of the United States practices nuclear diplomacy, Americans at home watched former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen stand up on his hind legs to beg for a reduced jail sentence.

    Cohen, testifying on February 27 before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform (he testified behind closed doors on Tuesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he will go back behind closed doors Thursday with the House Intelligence Committee), told Americans who think they already know what they think exactly what they wanted to hear: Trump is a vulgar conman, a racist, and a cheat. None of that is impeachable or criminal. Also, water is wet.

    The media is burying the lede: Michael Cohen did not provide any evidence of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, nor did he provide any evidence of collusion, active coordination or conspiracy with Wikileaks. Cohen’s accusation of a Trump crime while in office is at best an evidence-free rendering of an unclear violation of a campaign finance law usually settled with a fine. Any action going forward using Cohen’s testimony requires one to simply believe the words of Michael Cohen. That’s a big ask.

    Building a criminal case, or impeachment, around the uncorroborated testimony of a disbarred, convicted felon violating attorney-client privilege to beg for a shorter sentence seems weak. Absent corroborating evidence it is hard to see Cohen’s testimony leading to impeachment or criminal charges. It all sounds very dramatic and will be played as such by the media, but in the end is another faux smoking gun. There’s just not much meat on these bones.

     

    On Russian collusion, Cohen stated “Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But, I have my suspicions.” Cohen went on to claim he saw Don, Jr. tell his father some meeting had been set. “I concluded that Don, Jr. was referring to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting about dirt on Hillary with the Russian representative when he walked behind his dad’s desk that day.” Cohen presented no evidence the meeting Don, Jr. referred to was with the Russians, or maybe was with the guy redoing Trump’s kitchen. A defense lawyer would be laughing as she labeled Cohen’s “conclusion” speculation and uncorroborated supposition.

    The best the Democratic questioners drag out of Cohen over the course of over seven hours was “Mr. Trump’s desire to win would have him work with anyone,” when asked directly if Trump worked with Russia. Cohen did later deny the existence of the pee tape and anything else that could be used as blackmail. Not much to work with. Russiagate comes down to some Trump people noodling around in Moscow about a hotel that was never built, talking about meetings with Putin that never took place? Your big takeaway is Trump was asking about that inside his own organization until June instead of giving up following the progress earlier? That’s what you want to take to the American people as a case for impeachment, with Michael Cohen in an orange jumpsuit on a prison pass as your key witness?

     

    On business in Russia, Cohen claims Trump was “lying to the American people” during his campaign about negotiations to build a hotel in Moscow. Leaving aside there is nothing illegal about negotiating to build a hotel, and that neither Cohen nor anyone else has shown any evidence of all the Putin connections the media keeps insisting must exist. A review of Trump’s statements show what Cohen claims are “lies to the American people” about whether or not Trump had “business” in Russia would be seen by a defense lawyer as careful parsing of words; Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley concludes after his own parsing at worst Trump mislead by omission and even that requires one to dig into tweets where Trump used the present tense and not the past tense to describe things.

     

    On Stormy Daniels, Cohen showed a check for $35,000 from Trump to him, which was supposedly part of the total $130k paid to her to keep quiet about Trump and Stormy’s affair. The check does not show what the payment was for. The check does not have Stormy’s name on it. Cohen said it was part of the reimbursement for “illegal hush money I paid on his behalf.” A defense lawyer would chuckle at the idea that was “evidence.” It is a receipt for a crime only because Cohen now says it is. Under direct questioning, Cohen claimed there was no corroborating evidence beyond the 11 checks. He said he sent invoices to Trump for “legal retainer fees,” so don’t bother with the invoices as evidence because Cohen now says he lied on them claiming it was a retainer fee. Those 11 checks will total over $400k, because supposedly Trump rolled Cohen’s fee and bonus into the amount, so we just have to take his word for it that some of that money was for Stormy. Cohen said some of the checks were signed by Don, Jr. and the Trump Organization’s CFO. Apparently the checks are going to be used to implicate personally a person who did not sign the checks.

    Paying money as part of a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) is not illegal. If Trump had been just a businessperson who had an affair, there would be nothing to discuss. People legally pay other people to be quiet all the time. Legal services such as Cohen otherwise provided are a standing campaign cost (lawyers regularly obtaining discreet resolutions of issues that threaten the interests of their clients.) The alleged illegality comes from the supposition by Cohen that he can speak to Trump’s intent, that the NDA was not, say, to spare Trump’s marriage from new embarrassment, but in the text of the law “for the principal purpose of influencing an election” amid everyone already knowing Trump was a serial philanderer. Campaign finance laws require proof a person was willfully violating the law. Cohen’s testimony does not prove Trump knew the payments he was making were illegal. Prosecutors would have to prove that willingness somehow if they wanted to charge the president.

    Even then, that would make Trump at worst a conspirator to a contested interpretation of the Federal Election Campaign Act. At worst it is a de minimis legal violation the serious business of impeachment isn’t concerned with. It is hard to imagine impeachment hearings bogging down looking into intricacies of federal election law that otherwise confound second year law students.

     

    On Trump ordering Cohen to lie to Congress, Cohen said “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. In conversations… he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.” Cohen later referred to some sort of Trump “code” that was used to order him to lie.

     

    On Wikileaks, Cohen stated “In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Someone will need NSA intercepts to prove this true because Stone and Wikileaks deny it, and Cohen says there were no others present to corroborate.

    The question left aside is so what. In the larger picture, it represents limited passive knowledge on Trump’s part the emails will leak, as Cohen said Stone had no details on the upcoming content. It does not say the Russians did anything, it does not say Trump worked with Wikileaks. Stone, of course, is habitually full of crap. He had previously lied about having dinner with Assange. Even if the call was made, it remains a real likelihood Stone was overselling his access to Wikileaks. Julian Assange is a hard guy to get on the phone and would have no incentive to tip off a partisan hack like Stone and risk soiling his claims to non-partisanship. Even the New York Times has questioned how trustworthy Stone is.

    Cohen said the phone call took place July 18 or 19. Trump could have read on Twitter July 7 that Wikileaks had pending releases. Earlier, the Guardian on June 12, 2016, where Assange announced he’d be releasing more Clinton emails. The newspaper stated the emails will “provide further ammunition for Donald Trump, her Republican presidential rival, who has used the issue to attack her.” The Stone call, if it took place, was based on public knowledge. Pretty much anyone with a pulse in Washington anticipated more Wikileaks releases that summer of 2016. Cohen’s bombshell had been available online for almost three years.

    The emerging media bleat Trump lied in writing to Mueller about contact with Stone and thus, if Cohen is believed, committed perjury, is based solely on unconfirmed anonymous “sources.” No one outside the White House and Mueller’s office knows what Trump wrote in answer to the special prosecutor’s written interrogatories.

     

    So this is it? A saga that began in the summer of 2016, one that commanded a Special Prosecutor to investigate if the Russian government worked with the current president of the United States to help him get elected, that claimed that president was a Russian intelligence asset under the control of Putin, is going to hinge on the minutiae of campaign finance law? That is going to be lawyered into something leading to impeachment?

    As for the hearing itself, Democrats spent the day putting inflammatory words into Cohen’s mouth that he gratefully voiced to make good quotes. They focused on questions of Trump’s finances which will no doubt provide the hook for exposing Trump’s taxes. Republicans spent the time calling Cohen dishonest. Neither side distinguished themselves but gratefully no one on the dais made any specific Godfather movie references. The new POC Democrats in the House called most everyone else racists and made little virtuous speechlets.

    Cohen, for his part, referred to himself more than once as the son of a Holocaust survivor and sought victimhood throughout the hearing because he will miss his family while in jail. Cohen hurt his own credibility on multiple occasions claiming not to understand simple questions just as time ran out, allowing him to dodge responding. Chairman Cummings abetted this via his on-and-off again aggressive enforcement of time limits. Cohen refused to say he’d dedicate the millions he will most certainly make off book deals and commentary roles to charity, further reducing his credibility. He dangled he had hundreds of tapes of something, but produced none. Heaven help us when #BelieveCohen starts trending.

    It was going to be Comey’s testimony that took Trump down, then Papadopoulos was going to flip, or maybe Manafort or Flynn. There were tapes of something, a Russian spy with red hair who would roll over. Books by Comey and Clapper blowing the roof off things, the walls closing in again and again and again. And soon it will be Mueller time! Or may Southern District of New York time, because the media seems to be prepping us Mueller may not have much to say.

    It is all exhausting. We’ll soon enough see if voters feel like a dog with a mean owner always holding out a Scooby treat he’ll never let go of. Sooner or later that dog might say, I’m either gonna bite that SOB, or just get bored and stop giving him the satisfaction of salivating around him.

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  • After Jeff Bezos, Everyone in America is Now a Victim

    February 15, 2019 // 16 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas


     

    “I didn’t think we’d see this for a few more years, but this Bezos thing put us over the top,” said Department of Homeland Security Director of Victims Ronald Devine, accompanied by his support dog and her personal support kitten.

    “It’s 100% as of today. Every American is now classified — officially — as a victim.”
     

    Devine explained the final holdout were super-wealthy, white, straight, older men, led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos was once seen by most observers as victim-proof, given his fierce Caucasianess. Yet revelations this week he was not actually a philandering old dude caught sending pathetic nude pics to his younger trophy mistress while still married to the woman who worked beside him for decades while they built Amazon together, shocked a nation.

    “Bezos is a victim,” stated every blue-check, which includes all previously designated victim-Millennials. “His phone, we heard from Seth, was hacked by the Russians on orders from Trump because Bezos’ Washington Prime Post writes journalism about Trump, so Trump ordered the Russians to trick Bezos to take photos of mini-Jeff.”

    “And that did it,” said DHS Director of Victims Devine. “We had previously categorized only about 50% of the entire population as victims until we looped in all women except Melania, who social media feels sort of deserves it. Then it was the creation of ‘People of Color’ being victims, a super victim smoothie that ties together the whole Pantone scale from a Chinese billionaire to a Dominican guy delivering food.

    “Of course black folks were brought in after Black Panther told their origin story, same as Star Wars once did for white people. All immigrants and their grandchildren who write college entrance essays were entitled to victim status for years. Same for Native Americans, though the category now includes all older men who wear overly large turquoise jewelry and bolos.

    “We’d already counted all veterans and their grandchildren who write college entrance essays as victims. It once was just those Vietnam guys rocking handlebar mustaches down at the VFW who all needed to blame their drinking problem, their cheating problem, and their buying cars at 21% interest problem on something, but now anyone who did two years as a supply clerk at Fort Hood is in. You don’t need to even show any paperwork anymore; just get a Support the Troops sticker on your car, or, south of the Fairfax County line in Virginia, fly that POW flag in your front yard.

    “Most of the rest of Americans — I think it got us into the 90% percentile — made it to be victims when we started adding letters to being gay. In the old days we just had the guys from the drama club at Brett Kavanaugh’s old high school. The category jumped when LGBT became so many letters. LGBTQIA added queer, intersex, and asexual. We also have U for unsure, C for curious, another T for transvestite, TS or 2 for two-spirit persons, P for polyamorous, and O for other. The initialism LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual) covered most of California and parts of Austin.
     

    “Another step forward toward 100% victimization was a decision to merge ‘survivors’ and ‘community’ with ‘victims.’ There’s a ton of crossover you know. People who had a suspicious mole removed from their back now qualify as cancer survivors, and everyone that knows them forms a cancer survivor community supporting their struggle, see. And then once you could purchase that kind of thing by typing your credit card number into a GoFundMe, it was like the Big Bang of shared victimhood.

    “So really all that was left were super-wealthy, white, straight, older men. We at this office had been keeping an eye on them for some time, and thought they’d made the jump into victim status when Trump claimed avoiding sexually transmitted diseases was ‘his Vietnam.’ But for some reason that didn’t catch. Funny, given how nearly every super-wealthy, white, straight male of his generation would have been under that umbrella alongside those college deferments. Same as that Esquire article about American boys everyone flipped out on. Nonetheless, it is, once again I may add, Jeff Bezos who leads us into the future. Him being the victim, his very privacy lost, brings every single person in America into victim status. We did it, people. There still is that American Dream. This rejects the Trumpian view of the world.
     

    “So effective immediately, some changes. We’ve ordered millions of ‘Do Not Pet’ reflective vests for Americans to wear themselves to avoid unwanted touching at work. Otherwise, no more clothing with words on it. Every pet and most house plants are now officially designated as support animals. No more need to buy those fake ID cards for Rover off Amazon.

    “Things are gonna get crazy at the airport, because after the crew boards everyone with a branded credit card and local municipal employees in uniform, 100% of the remaining passengers are going to qualify for preboarding and extra time. We may need to create new, expansive forms of social media. I know one already being tested is called SJWMobster. I can imagine mandatory VLOGs. It’s difficult to see Joe Pesci’s career advancing, but there will be huge opportunities in sensitivity training. And we gotta add about 8000 words to the First Amendment to define hate speech so we can ban it. We can expect ‘raising awareness’ to become the number one major at America’s colleges, and setting up a GoFundMe our fastest growing job title.

    “What’s ahead? I think the new frontier in America is going to be celebrities, who have already been victims for a long time owing to the pressures they face earning millions of dollars and having to do drugs, using some of the new victim coaches out there to grow themselves into more varied categories of victimhood. There will be a lot of competition to book those who can tick the boxes in three or more categories.

    “We’ll be busy sorting out who we should be boycotting, given the competing victim statuses creating new categories of multiverse victims for nearly every piece of music, literature or film ever made. Here at the Department of Homeland Security we have already created a new sub-ministry of truth that is even now working through everything ever published to unoffend it double-quick. We may just close all the libraries and let Amazon decide what’s safe to read now that all victims finally have a voice.

    “With 100% of Americans enjoying victim totalitarianism, somebody is being hurt, retraumatized, triggered or disrespected right now as I speak, maybe just because I am speaking. How will we as a nation deal with that? I mean, it’s not like we can just laugh at all this, right?”
     
     

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  • John Kerry Is a Man of His Times (and That’s Not a Good Thing)

    January 31, 2019 // 18 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria


     

    Oh how easy it is to forget! John Kerry, fundraising for the 2020 Dems, write “Trump’s complete disregard for diplomacy has embarrassed our nation on the world stage” and “weakened the very foundation of our democracy.”

    Poor John Kerry doesn’t remember much about his own record. So, John, here’s something I wrote in 2013 to refresh your memory of what a hash you made of the world, including singing “Happy Birthday” to Vlad Putin during a USG shutdown.

    This one’s, again, for you, Johnny boyo!

     

    In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class.  Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?

    In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?

    If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East.  His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.

    Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!

    We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia

    Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.

    Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.

    All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…

    … in the Middle East

    If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.

    The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.

    Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.

    Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty.  He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”

    Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.

    State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.

    Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…

    … Everywhere Else

    Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.

    Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.

    After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.

    Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…

    … Entering Syrian Airspace

    The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)

    Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)

    Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.

    His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”

    But, But…

    As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)

    In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.

    Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.

    Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.

    Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.

    Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.

    The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.

    Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.

    The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.

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  • What if Political Journalism Really Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?

    January 25, 2019 // 11 Comments

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


     

    After a week in which Buzzfeed published the false claim Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, quickly followed by a tsunami of inaccurate reporting over a bunch of Covington high school kids and their MAGA hats, it’s time to ask: What happens if political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization?

    Journalism is the only profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The Founders assigned it a specific role in helping citizens carry out informed debate. And yet in the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush toward tabloidization, the goal of which is to do away with Donald Trump, not via informed debate but by any means necessary.

    The justification is America is on the precipice of 1933 so running Trump out of office is a moral duty. Trump is a Nazi, red MAGA caps the new Klan hood. Under such dire circumstances, media can no longer risk both sides being heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or chance unbiased reporting might inadvertently make Trump look good. Some journalists believe they were partially responsible for Hillary’s defeat, and live in fear some scrap of truth might accidentally abet Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin. The new standard is tabloid-level journalism, so every story can be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause. Objectivity is #Collusion.

    Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer run Elvis-is-alive articles, announce miracle cancer cures, and traffic in outrageous celebrity gossip. Sources are anonymous, conclusions spoon-fed, headlines bombastically out of line with the text. It’s OK in its place because absent a few blue haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believes the stories. We’re spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it is fun to be fooled anyway. The concern is with the tabloidization of real news.

    The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s claim documentary proof exists Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the Moscow Project. Tabloids use assumed narratives and prejudices – a cure must be out there to save Mom if only Big Pharma would get out of the way – and in this case the narrative chain is Trump wanted to build a hotel in Moscow so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset and so it all has to be lied about and so Trump has to be in on it.

    Lack of actual evidence has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years. Enter Buzzfeed, who sets the hook with something new: its mystery sources saw the evidence Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe said he personally saw it too.

    Same as with the miracle cure, to any objective person Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury! Trump can’t lie his way out of that! He’ll be out of office as fast as the paperwork can be processed! Impeach the MF!

    Legacy prestigious media outlets such as WaPo and the New York Times picked up the story, having learned how to hide behind the thong of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they can headline The Earth is Flat! at no reputational risk to themselves. In 2019 they are no longer responsible for what they (re)print.

    Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for the media and his fellow pols when he said “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front, ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.” One imagines with horror those words chiseled on a journalism building Clyburn funds at his alma mater.

    The only sort of problem is Buzzfeed’s story wasn’t true. It was shut down by a statement from the Special Counsel’s office in less than 24 hours, the first such rebuke ever issued, though to be fair, James Comey also stated some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong. The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source it otherwise deified as just a “dispute,” “push back,” a “controversy.”

    Buzzfeed’s specific reaction included a clumsy jujitsu of challenging Mueller to tell them exactly what he thought was inaccurate. They perhaps understood in the tabloid world truth has a viral-length expiration date, that truth is only what people are willing to believe anyway, including that magicians really can saw women in half on stage. Falsehoods are the work of bad sources, even though we’ll try again next week with basically the same story from new sources. All that matters is an infusion saying Trump is evil and that end justifies the journalistic means.

    Advocacy journalism, tabloid style, is not about pointing out real wrongs with an occasional correction issued. It is about teeing up tales to support a political goal. Let Buzzfeed open the door for WaPo to legitimize the story. Members of Congress then bypass the fuzzy source to cite the name-brand one (“according to sources” becomes “according to the Washington Post”) until Democrats want hearings into the Buzzfeed story Mueller’s office already made clear isn’t true.

    In the same week as Buzzfeed, a selective short clip of an encounter between some white Covington, Kentucky high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American (whom the media falsely lionized for days as a Vietnam vet), and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to watch the whole recording of the interaction to realize that was not true.

    Or the mass-proclamation conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video when no one was. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of false breaking news somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted, get fired or fire Mueller.

    Tabloid journalism for a political ends has assumed priority over reporting facts. People are being conditioned to overreact. Name calling is commentary. Prejudice and stereotyping are offensive when aimed left, allowed when projectiled by Pulitzer-winning columnists at Trump voters. Headlines can be less true than the text. Belief trumps truth. The ends justify the means when attacking a political opponent. Too much free speech plays into the hands of the authoritarians. The term “both sides journalism” is a now a negative one. Journalists have convinced themselves serving up the correct sort of political bias is equivalent to serving the nation.

    It’s sad some measure of the truth has to come from Whoopi Goldberg on The View, who wondered why the media rushed to judge the Covington teens. “Because we’re desperate to get Trump out,” co-host Joy Behar asserted.

    Political journalism adopting the standards and methods of the tabloids is a true threat to democracy. As one writer put it “let’s not underestimate the damage being done… people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”

    The Buzzfeed story, followed so quickly by the Covington high school story, should be a significant moment of reflection, when the media remember they play a critical role in our system. Yet there are few calls against the misuse of sources, the rushes to judgment, the purposeful dropping of objectivity, the loss of seeking out other perspectives, the problem of reporting wrongly too often, the slurring of editorial into reporting.

    Still no one asks why there aren’t mainstream “Sources: Trump is innocent” stories that later need to be walked back. No one demands as much emphasis on corrections as on the original false story. Instead, the standard response to being caught wrong seems to be either dig in as with Buzzfeed, or at most to delete a Tweet or two about the Covington mess, as if in the age of the Internet that makes something to have never happened.

    It is unlikely things will change, especially when this model of journalism is also good for a business where clicks equal dollars. The sad thing is craven economic self-interest is the least worst explanation for tabloidization. Democracy dies in the darkness? It’s in danger in plain sight.

     
     

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  • The Wall May Be a Waste, But It is Not a Crisis

    January 14, 2019 // 21 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Iraq


     

    Trump’s wall isn’t going to stop much illegal immigration. On the other hand, it is unlikely to hurt much of anything; it will most likely just be another waste of money. It is certainly not a Constitutional crisis over authoritarianism.

     

    There are currently some 700 miles of fence/wall/barrier along the 2,000 mile southern border, built in pieces under the Bushes and Clinton administrations, and maintained under Obama. Clinton even called his 1994 wall effort “Operation Gatekeeper.” There was little-to-no national opposition raised when the various walls were constructed, and no widespread movement to tear them down when Democrats held full control of the government in the early Obama years. No Russian leader stood on the border and declared to freedom loving people everywhere “Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, Other Mr. Bush, or Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!”

    Democrats in the Senate,including then-Senators Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed into law by George W. Bush. The law authorized a fence along about 700 miles of the border between the U.S.-Mexico border. By 2015, Customs and Border Protection had constructed 654 miles.

    There was certainly nothing on the scale of what we are hearing today, with Nancy Pelosi calling Trump’s plan to add another 234 miles of fence/wall/barrier “immoral… not who we are as a nation.”

    Maybe she forgot the beloved Abe Lincoln was an actual railsplitter, a person whose job it was to create rails for fences. The wall meanwhile wasn’t immoral in the 1990s and it wasn’t immoral a year ago when Democratic senators negotiated a compromise Republicans rejected for a wall in exchange for legislation on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

    So what’s different in 2019? Via the New York Times: unlike the other parts of the existing fence/wall/barrier, the part Trump wants to add will be “a symbol of hate and racism.” How can one tell? Different construction? A sign? Why isn’t Trump’s part just another brick in that existing wall? What’s the message conveyed by the unwalled half of the border still left after Trump’s part is built?

    The president wants something and the other side doesn’t want him to have it. Think of this all as a prelude to the 2020 campaign, including the fierce commentary storm enraging everyone. The media even has us debating whether “walls” as a concept work; do or don’t people sometimes build walls around their (gated) communities for protection, some ask with great seriousness. WaPo ran an Op-Ed criticizing all walls, from medieval times to the present day.

    Silly media. Like the shutdown, this is not about walls. Every government shutdown is about brinkmanship. And brinkmanship is risky business, because it demands someone must lose and compromise is off the table. That’s not always a good idea when one side holds a trump card. The president’s is he may declare a “national emergency” (there are also less dramatic “declarable” options) which he feels would allow him to reprogram funds to pay for his contribution to the fence/wall/barrier. Within his narrative, it will play as decisive – someone had to solve the impasse – and as an antithesis to whatever people expected from the midterms’ Blue Wave. “No wall, no deal,” Mike Pence declared. “We’re going to keep standing strong, keep standing firm.”

    That sounds all scary, even authoritarian, and you will read articles about how it is unconstitutional or a crisis or an impeachable offense. One outlet called this a “Pandora’s Box” that could even lead to Trump shutting down CNN and Facebook.

    It’s not. Declaring a national emergency is at times necessary, at times bureaucratically convenient, and at times rough politics. Shutting down government over a policy dispute is always a cheap move. Trump and the others involved will be judged by the voters. But that’s about it, folks.

    Here’s a list of the current 28 standing national emergencies. See if you can find some that rise to the level of what any normal person thinks of as an emergency that couldn’t be dealt with except by the president using extraordinary powers. For example, Obama proclaimed Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela as a national emergency.

    Funny thing: the September 11 national emergency, still in force today, was used to have the military do some domestic construction work, the same thing anti-wall pundits claim is now illegal under Trump (other laws also suggest Trump can use the military in this manner.) What if Trump used the existing 9/11 emergency again for whatever he wants, same as Bush and Obama did, instead of declaring a fresh emergency? Maybe that would wake Americans up.

    Now if you still want to talk about misuse of executive power, you may want to look at the Constitution. The document doesn’t say much about walls, but it does limit the power to declare war to Congress. Nobody has done much about that misuse of power, as every president since WWII started new wars without any declaration and in most cases without even a head nod out of Congress. To make things clear after Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973, a bit of executive power-limiting legislation that has been fully ignored ever since.

    Leaving aside the gross fig leaf of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that has been waived over every American invasion, special forces incursion, regime change, drone attack, bombing campaign, reconstruction project, and police action in the last 17 years and still counting, there has been more debate given to the wall than much of any of the conflicts around it.

    Certainly more anger and angst has been spewed alongside the wall, and the waste of money it represents. Trump wants $5.7 billion to build it! That is all of about 1/7 of the yearly cost of the war in Afghanistan, and of course that war has run on at $45 billion a year for 17 years. Anybody want to talk about that money being wasted? Maddow? Pelosi? Ocasio-Cortez? Bueller?

    And for the media, who discovered via “fact-checking” Trump exaggerated the terrorist threat on our southern border, where were you when every facet of American foreign and domestic policy was driven by two administrations using this same lie?

    Apparently all the fears about abuse of power center on a couple of hundred miles of wall in the desert; wars in deserts further away now barely make the news. Spare us the hand wringing over crisis, abuse of power, and unconstitutionality. If anyone really wants to talk the talk on those topics, let’s reopen the debate on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as part of the negotiations to reopen the government.

    That all of that is ignored while the nation is on edge over a slice of wall tells you what this is all really about: 2020.

     
     

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  • Looking out the Window at 2019…

    January 2, 2019 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump

     

    I got up on January 1 and hurried to look out the window. Those medias made so many predictions during 2018, each one tagged with “Just wait!” that I had to see how many came true.

     

    • No flying cars, hoverboards, home sex robots or time machines for 2018. Again. Dammit.
    • Trump did not resign, get impeached, or go insane. He was not indicted, arrested, forced to quit, run out via the 25th Amendment, or jailed over the Emoluments Clause.
    • It never really became “Mueller Time.”
    • Nobody fired Mueller. There was no Saturday Night Massacre.
    • Mattis quit in protest, but only because Trump said he wanted to stop a war.
    • The U.S. did not go to war with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or anywhere else. None of those countries invaded America. We’ll have less troops deployed in 2019 than in 2016.
    • The Constitution, at least the parts Obama and Bush left intact, was still in place. The Rule of Law and the press, too. No troops in the streets, no economic devastation, Alaska was not sold back to Putin.

     

    With such an abysmal, sad, and completely wrong record of dire predictions, you’d think the media folk would dial it back a notch as we enter the new year. You would of course be wrong.

    I picked up my New York Times and learned despite being absolutely wrong on all of the above predictions and more, one writer proclaimed 2019 to be the Year of the Wolf, warning “It will be a year in which Donald Trump is isolated and unrestrained as never before. And it will be in this atmosphere that indictments will fall, provoking not just a political crisis but a constitutional one…  our very system of law is at stake.” Holy moley! There’ll be no more laws working pretty soon it says.

    But none of that matters, because this article says we may need to “accept the notion that life as we know it may cease in 2018” because Trump. I got to that one a bit late, because it’s already 2019 and life as we know it has not ceased. Whew. Close call.

    Salon.com knows what Mueller is up to somehow, and says the walls are closing in, but it’ll be in 2019, not last year like they said a year ago, so make a note of that. It’s because Salon just found out “Russian infiltration and sabotage of the 2016 election and Trump’s subsequent obstruction of justice are hardly the only potential high crimes and misdemeanors likely to be investigated by the new Congress.” Golly, that is worrisome. It seems to have something to do with porn star Stormy Daniels and things which happened before Trump was actually elected. Imagine how notable it will be to impeach a president for stuff he did before being president. I hope the Founders thought about that one.

    Now some guy labeled as a “former Bush advisor” is even more specific. He says “the self-professed supreme dealmaker will use his presidency as a bargaining chip with federal and state authorities in 2019, agreeing to leave office in exchange for the relevant authorities not pursuing criminal charges against him, his children or the Trump Organization.” You have to read all the way to the end, but the former Bush advisor who wrote this widely-linked article had the job of regional administrator of Region 2 EPA under the Bush administration and executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, so you know he knows this legal stuff inside and out.

    Another insider, America’s Lawyer Michael Avenatti, tells us Trump, Jr. is already indicted, but see it’s a sealed secret indictment that only Avenatti knows about because he knows stuff. He’s challenged Don, Jr. on Twitter to deny this and there was no reply. So you know what that means.

    MSNBC, which has been predicting the demise of Trump since day one, started the New Year with senior shouter Joe Scarborough “Calling for 25th Amendment, Trump’s Presser Show’s He’s ‘Obviously’ Not Fit for Office.” Obviously!

    Oh, and there might be a military coup soon. “There’s a lot of talk in the active ranks right now about these continued assaults on general officers and the military,” retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling told CNN. “Make no mistake about it, it is being discussed in the active ranks about what is occurring with the president and how he’s treating the military.” Maybe he’s right, because Maggie Haberman of the NYT said on Twitter so you know it’s true “In ways big and small, unencumbered retired senior military officers have questioned Trump’s fitness to serve in the last few weeks.”

    A lot of people seem to feel it’s gonna hit the fan with the military in 2019. A professor at the Naval War College writing in the Atlantic says “the president has opened a Pandora’s box” with his criticism of the military, warning “If Trump continues on this path — and he will — we could face the most politicized and divided military since Vietnam, or even since the Civil War.” Wow, the Civil War, that was a bad one, right? The funny thing is how all the people whispering about a military coup seem to avoid saying that is a bad thing, you know, with democracy in danger and fascism and all.

    But before the coup, that impeachment thing is lit. A USA Today op-ed laid out “damning evidence” Trump attempted Russia collusion in plain sight in 2016, before even getting not elected by the popular votes. I guess Mueller missed this damn evidence, so I hope someone staying in a hotel brings him a copy of the paper so he can check this out. Plain sight no less!

    The Times must know stuff, too, because they wrote an article called “The Inevitability of Impeachment” and that word (I checked) means it definitely will happen.

    Even Lindsey Graham knows 2019 is going to be the end, because he warns “President Trump’s loss in wall battle could be ‘end of his presidency'”

    To make things very clear, Politico just says it in a headline: “Yes, 2019 Is the Year You Were Worrying About.”
     
    So holy patootie, this is all really serious! It looks like all the stuff the many medias said was gonna happen in 2017 2018 is actually going to happen in 2019 you guys! Remember, you heard it here first.
      

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  • Seeing the Promised Land: Springsteen on Broadway, a Review

    December 18, 2018 // 10 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Democracy, Economy

    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show finished its 236 performance run in New York, and arrived on Netflix December 16.

    It is extraordinary. It is an autopsy of us, a public service, a political rally, a tally of what we need to do next as a nation. A man confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, tells us about an America we still might be able to become, and opens his heart about what it means to be closer to the end than the beginning.

    I saw the show live, an early winner of the ticket lottery. The Netflix version of the same show (and album, DVD, etc.) is a simple recording of what we all saw in the theater. No backstage footage, no interviews, no B-roll of Bruce grimly driving around his hometown. Someone was smart enough to focus the cameras and get out of the way. Over the year and a half run, Bruce moved a few things around a bit ,a nd added two songs, Long Time Coming and Ghost of Tom Joad. Otherwise, the show stayed pretty much the same.

    Politics is missing from the show and politics is present in nearly every line. While there are references to “the current state of affairs” and admonishments against giving in to those who probe at our differences for their own benefit, you don’t hear the name Trump, same as you didn’t hear Reagan, or Bush, or much of Obama during Bruce’s long career. Instead, you hear about the people those presidents left behind, those once the American Dream and now just what happened to it.

    Bruce signals early it is time to make amends, via spoken passages pulled from his autobiography interlaced with his music. I’d heard something like this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs admitted what they’d done, the people they’d hurt, and sought redemption. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem. Bruce is pissed off now singing, no, shouting the lyrics. He seeks amends by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away.

    So he took the song back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and later, politicized by Ron Kovic, wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial who was sent in his place.

    Springsteen’s politics are bigger than one passing president, same as his vision for us. He professes we need a conscience, not a party affiliation, to make America great. So the words of a nation turning its back in the 1980s on those who built it double for the words of a nation turning its back on some of its most vulnerable citizens in 2018.

    The lack of empathy which caused us to abandon factory workers in the Midwest isn’t all that different from the lack of empathy that causes us to abandon people in need today. Some manipulative politicians tell us it is all different, that we don’t need to care about old white laborers, same as others tell us we don’t need to care about poor immigrants of color. There are no deplorables here, just Haves and Have Nots, and some who Took It All. Springsteen channels, mimics, and echoes the poets who came before him and understood it, too: Whitman, Guthrie, Steinbeck, Agee, Debs, Dylan, alongside a little Holden Caulfield and Joe Dirt.

    Land of Hope and Dreams captures all this, with its signature line about a train called America carrying saints, sinners, whores, and gamblers borrowed from Woody Guthrie who borrowed it from John Steinbeck. We can be better, even if we never were better before. America’s greatness isn’t about romanticizing a past that never existed; we always pushed back against immigrants, always sent men and women to die for the wrong reasons abroad. This used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be a finite place. And so Bruce amends a key line from Promised Land to warn, changing “I believe in a promised land” from his records to “I believe there is a promised land.” The danger is always in thinking we cannot be better.

    Promised Land thus is an unexpected highlight of the show, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first trip across the great western deserts. Springsteen makes no secret the promise he saw in America then remains unfulfilled, and the answer is us. He finished the song aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so.

    Yet for its intimacy, much of what happens doesn’t seem like it was for us at all. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. Bruce’s adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring. You could imagine if it was somehow possible, he would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    A lot of this hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an eight-year-old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, the pain was as involuntarily present as the sweat on his forehead.

    The evening was as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowing him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now to take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. Everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time since it came out in 1975, but now, 43 years passed, we had grown old together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment. We heard it on 8-track, bootleg cassette, LP, CD, MP-3, DVD, YouTube, and Netflix and had to face, together, the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Age is omnipresent – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the song list; it’s telling a 69-year-old Springsteen chose about a third of the set from his youthful period forty years earlier. As he said on stage, there’s less blank paper left for us to write on. Maybe as a person, maybe as a nation. Maybe they are the same thing if we think on it right.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, the Broadway show is short, tight, maybe even a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    The weight of it all – the love lost, the hate and pain collected, a nation wavering on itself and its promise – feels heavier than it used to when there was more time. Now, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of. In a way, they always were.

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  • For Veteran’s Day: Understanding Moral Injury in Hooper’s War

    November 11, 2018 // 12 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.

    I’m lucky enough to have a friend with a boat. Sitting at the stern, I watch the boat create its wake, then as we speed away the wake fades just as quick. Thinking about the war doesn’t work that way. About the best I can hope for in real life is to be able to put what happened in a box. The box stays closed most of the time.

    Some guys try and keep it shut by making life meaningless—liquor for the old ones, drugs for the young ones, a little of both for the handlestache Vietnam vets in the middle. The Friday nights drinking with the boys become Wednesday mornings drinking alone in the bathroom with the door shut. Some let that run its course and just tap out.

    But absent a few orange plastic containers next to the bathroom sink, for me, I took my neighbor’s grandson out to the zoo, made dinner, went to work, all the time the curator of some secret museum. The memories don’t go away like the people do.

    If the box pops open, some people try to push such thoughts away, stopping with just their toes in the water, thinking they’ve gone swimming. But after a while I knew I had to go into the deep end, because only there could I confront the real monster: the essence of war is not men dying, the essence of war is killing. War isn’t a place that makes men better. Flawed men turn bad, then bad men turn evil. So the darkest secret of my war wasn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible. It was the visceral knowledge that I could be filthy and horrible.

    The part of Hawaii I retired to is peaceful. Some tourists, but not too many, little of the tawdry spank of Waikiki. Sometimes I get lonely for some noise though, and find myself over there, enjoying a little ice cream and a walk.

    For me the war is like a shirt I always know is there in my closet but don’t wear often. I’ll be absently out and step onto an unfamiliar path and it’ll be just the right crunch of gravel under my feet. My eyes will involuntarily lose focus for a second, and if I’m with someone they might ask, “Nate, everything okay?” and I’ll lie and smile, “Oh you know, just a senior moment.” But memory slaps me just the same way stirring up the ashes of barbecue coals turns them red. I’ve failed many times to remember a time when I had nothing particular on my mind.

    The Honolulu end of Waikiki beach is anchored by a Department of Defense hotel, run on taxpayer money as a low-cost vacation destination just for service people. The military is comical about telling them to “keep a low profile,” supposedly so they don’t become targets of the terrorists presumed to haunt these beautiful beaches. But of course you can tell. The buff bodies stand out against the fleshy look of the regular tourists. The odd-patterned tans—all dark brown faces with pale white everywhere else—betray a recent trip to the Middle East.

    I’ll sometimes nod to them, mostly out of politeness. I generally keep to myself the fact that we know a lot about each other. A few will nod back, maybe say a few words and leave you to fill in the silence, but I find the ones who talk too easily are generally part of what I call professional veterans, guys with little dirt under their nails who get a lot of free drinks and airline upgrades in a September 12 world. I’m grateful after meeting them for those portions of my stroll when there’s less time for my thoughts.

    Once in a while someone who fought some of the same kind of war I did is obvious—a missing hand on a 20-year-old, some thick pink scars. It could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, I guess, but I know that wasn’t what it was. I wonder what his friends thought the first time they saw him, or what his ex-girlfriend said, or what he thought being as scared to come home as he was scared to go to war. This is the guy who, after Wolf Blitzer moves on to the next story, cries trying to touch his daughter’s hair, and knows just because he changed from cammies to beach shorts that’s not a shortcut back into normal life. If you see these guys on TV, you always see them young and still strong, showing courage learning to use their new robo-prosthetics. You never see anything that shows what their life is like ten or forty years down the road.

    Out on the beach, some people won’t stop looking, like a 10-year-old’s focus on a a pile of Legos, and some won’t look at all, but either way this is all happening, like the wars did, simultaneously while other people are eating at Applebee’s and going shopping. It gets hard to keep it all in the same world. And you, sure, go ahead, you go on and use the term “unbearable pain” the next time you hit your thumb with a hammer.

    Of course, there are also those you don’t see, the boys and girls who bought the long zipper, the one that closes a body bag. Yes, Mrs. Mom, we took your son, but look, we gave you back a neatly folded flag. See, it’s in a triangle shape, representing the hats of American Revolutionary War soldiers, isn’t that interesting. And if you have a second child, and you call now, we’ll double your order.

    Me, we, they, you, I don’t know the right word to ever use, because it wasn’t just our side. I’d seen something on PBS saying that during the 1950s and early 1960s you could still see a few Japanese soldiers around the train stations, wearing bits of their old uniforms, some with crude prosthetics, begging, failed in the end by disregard. Young people, dressed in the latest western styles, passed by, eyes on the ground, embarrassed about men humiliating themselves in the midst of the post-war economic miracle. What if a visiting foreigner saw them, what would he think of Japan? Older people would slip the soldiers small bills, hoping if they had some money they would go away.

    A few guys ended worse off than the physically wounded, spending the weekends with their regular companions Samuel Adams, Johnnie Walker, and the cops. Get some sleep and have a drink, they were told, only don’t let it turn into too much of either one. Each bad thought seemed like a page that needed a twelve-ounce can of paperweight to hold it down. All we ever thought about was coming home; “If the army doesn’t kill me, I’ve got it made for life,” we said. We were naive; too many of us survived the war only to come back wanting to die every day.

    You learn to be alone in crowded places, deep in your own head. Imagine being on this beautiful beach and not caring to even look up and watch a father try to make his way across the hot sand balancing four dripping ice cream cones.

    They’d lost things whose importance they only recognized when they weren’t there. They’ve come to think today means nothing, tomorrow means nothing, and develop a sense that only things that already happened matter. Nothing has taste or color.

    My generation had no counselors, no clinics, no support groups. In my Ohio hometown, before the wife and I retired to Hawaii, every Memorial Day there’d be little flags first made in Iowa, then Hong Kong, then Japan, then Korea and now China and Vietnam—Vietnam, for gawds sake—on every porch. Half the people my age watching the parade then were vets in wheelchairs. I had a nice welcome home party when I came back, and plenty of good Veteran’s Days to try and use to subtract things from the parts of the fight I dragged along with me. But the underlying message was the same as in every war, whether delivered nicely or crudely: deal with the real stuff in private, we don’t want to know. You pack out your own gear, trooper.

    Drinking hurt, but for some it hurt less. Everyone learns it just sends your pain off to wait for you, but still it was something to look forward to, the first fizzy beer of the day tickling your 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. Pain can be patient, waiting for that one guy who had a little too much wine at a wedding and started talking about blood and brains in some alcoholic dialect until a couple of other vets walked him outside where he told stories from his knees for an hour which they alone could understand.

    A lot of this festers not out of what you saw and did, but the realization that what you saw and did really didn’t matter in any bigger picture and you had to make up some smaller picture to justify whatever. It should’ve had a reason. People say, “whatever you have to tell yourself,” but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be my age and scared of the dark.

    I came to think of it like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle. You couldn’t say exactly when, but at some point you couldn’t see the picture anymore. It’s the last drop of water hanging swollen on the end of a faucet. You want to know what it’s like to have a breakdown in the meat aisle at Safeway? We can tell you. Even so, we don’t want to be called victims and disabled out, and we’re not seeking some third party’s moral redemption. We just want to get this crap out of our heads.

     

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  • The People v. Trump: Is There a Case for the 25th Amendment?

    September 6, 2018 // 21 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    (This post originally ran in January, the last time “Use the 25th!” was trending.)

    The media is of one mind: Donald Trump is mentally incompetent and must be removed from office before he blows us all to hell. It says so on Vox, New York Review of Books, CNN, The Intercept, CNBC, The Nation, Bill Moyers, Salon, and the NYT. A new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, concludes “Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”

    The solution is in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The 25A creates a mechanism aside impeachment to remove an “incapacitated” president, and Trump’s mental state, some believe, qualifies him. Is there a case?


    Dr. Bandy Lee, one of the editors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, says yes. Her primary evidence is tweets Trump sent threatening Kim Jong Un. She really has no other ammunition: no doctor who says Trump is insane, including Lee, has examined him. No doctor that has examined him says he is insane. Third party anonymous accusations of incompetence are shot through with gossip. A book written by a Hollywood trash reporter is otherwise held up as critical evidence of the inner workings of the president’s mind.

    So is there a case without the tweets? Not really. Lee adds while Trump has not committed violent acts against himself or others, his “verbal aggressiveness, history of boasting about sexual assault, history of inciting violence at his rallies, and history of endorsing violence in his key public speeches are the best predictors of future violence” and thus concludes he will destroy the world. Lee also weakly points to Trump “being drawn to violent videos.” Oh my.

    We might instead look at the actual decisions Trump has made, and those of his predecessors. One president used nuclear weapons to decimate two cities worth of innocents, and a set of presidents squandered hundreds of thousands of American lives watering Vietnam with blood. Ronald Reagan was famously caught over an open mic saying he was going to start bombing the Soviet Union in the next few minutes. Another president lied about WMDs to launch an invasion of Iraq in part to avenge his dad. The same guy mocked North Korea’s leader as a pygmy. Obama said he “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North, knowing that meant Armageddon. Historical psychiatrists say half of our past presidents may have suffered some sort of mental illness. If Trump is dangerous as president, he seems to have company.

    But how can we know? Trump will never voluntarily undergo a mental competency exam, though courts can order people to submit. But even Lee, who met with Congressional representatives to press the case Trump is insane, admits this is unlikely to happen. “Many lawyer groups have actually volunteered to file for a court paper to ensure that the security staff will cooperate with us,” Lee said. “But we have declined, since this will really look like a coup, and while we are trying to prevent violence, we don’t wish to incite it through, say, an insurrection.”


    There doesn’t seem much of a case. Still, people arguing Trump is insane and must be removed from office point to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution as just what the doctor ordered.

    The Constitution did not originally lay out (Article II, Section 1, Clause 6) what happens if a president dies or becomes incapacitated. It was just assumed the Vice President would serve as “Acting President.” The 25A, passed after the Kennedy assassination, created the first set of rules for this sort of situation.

    The 25A has four short subsections. If the presidency goes vacant (for example, fatal heart attack), the vice president becomes president. If the vice-presidency goes vacant, the president chooses a new VP. If the president knows he’ll be incapacitated (unable to carry out his job, for example, due to scheduled surgery), he can voluntarily and temporarily assign his duties to the vice president. If the president is truly incapacitated (unconscious after an assassination attempt) and can’t voluntarily assign away his duties, the VP and cabinet can do it for him, with a two-thirds majority confirming vote of the House and Senate.

    In the minds of the “Trump is Insane” crowd what matters most is that never-used fourth subsection, the incapacitation clause. People claim because Trump is insane he is unable to carry out his duties, and so Mike Pence, et al, must step in and transfer power away from him today. Trump would legally exist in the same status as Grandpa Simpson in the nursing home, and Pence would take over. Among other problems, this thinking imagines the 25A’s legally specific term “unable” means the same thing as the vernacular “unfit.” An unconscious man is unable to drive. A man who forgot his glasses is unfit, but still able, to drive. The 25A only refers to the first case.


    The use of the 25A to dethrone Trump is the kind of thing non-experts with too much Google time can convince themselves is true. But unlike much of the Constitution, where understanding original intent requires the Supreme Court and a close reading of the Federalist Papers, the 25A is modern legislation. We know the drafters’ intent was an administrative procedure, not a political thunderbolt. The 25A premises the president will almost always invoke succession himself, either by dying in office, or by anticipating he will be unable to discharge his duties, as in 2007 when George W. Bush went under anesthesia for his annual colonoscopy and signed things over to his vice president for a few hours.

    The reason the 25A is not intended to be used adversarially is the Constitution already specifies impeachment as the way to force an unfit president out against his will, his unfitness specifically a result of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The people who wrote the 25A did not intend it to be an alternate method of impeachment or a do-over for an election.

    It has to be so; the Constitution at its core grants ultimate power to the people to decide, deliberately, not in panic, every four years, who is president. Anything otherwise would mean the drafters of the 25A wrote a back door into the Constitution that would allow a group of government officials, many of whom in the Cabinet were elected by nobody, to overthrow an elected president who they simply think has turned out to be bad at his job.

    Accusations of mental illness are subjective, unprovable in this case, and alarmist, perfect fodder to displace the grinding technicalities of Russiagate. Denouncing one’s political opponents as crazy was a tried and true Soviet and Maoist tactic, and a movie trope where the youngsters try to get the patriarch shut away to grab his fortune. We fear the mentally ill, and psychiatric name calling against Trump invokes that fear. “The 25th Amendment would require, for mental incapacity, a major psychotic break,” said one former Harvard Law School professor. “This is hope over reality. If we don’t like someone’s politics we rail against him, we campaign against him, we don’t use the psychiatric system against him. That’s just dangerous.”


    People saying the president is mentally ill and the 25A is the cure know they have no rational basis for their position. They know the 25A is not a work-around for impeachment proceedings they are unlikely to see. They are aware they are unethically trying to medicalize bad leadership, damning it with the taint of mental illness. They know Mike Pence and Trump’s own cabinet will never sign off on a power transfer, and they don’t want Pence in the Oval Office anyway. They know this is all kabuki, liberal fan fiction, a shadow play. The talk of mental illness and the 25A is simply political sabotage ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.

    Trump’s time in office is finite, but what happens around him will outlast his tenure. It is dangerous to mess with the very fundamentals of our democracy, where the people choose the president, replacing that with a kabal called into session by pop psychologists. This is an attack on the process at its roots; you yokels voted for the wrong guy so somebody smarter has to clean up.




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  • See Ya, John

    August 26, 2018 // 15 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy




    It’ll always be too soon, won’t it?

    Glorifying McCain as a war hero allows us to imagine away the sins of Vietnam by making ourselves the victim. He encouraged unjust war in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and more as a cornerstone of his career.

    When given the chance, he sold out and took Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate, enabling a change in the GOP and political discourse we are still paying for and he is responsible.

    As a victim himself of torture, McCain stood mostly silent when America tortured, finally mouthing some mild public platitudes while allowing the coverup to hide what we did. The American public knows 10x as much about McCain’s own torture as we do about what was done by American torturers to other human beings. Honor is not allowing torturers to go unpunished. Duty is not helping a coverup. Country deserves better from someone who knows better.

    “But I believe he thought it the right action to take” is not something I think you’d be willing to say to the millions of relatives of the millions of war dead victims of McCain’s lust for war. Shall we go to Vietnam and tell them? Libya? Iraq? Easy to overlook all those bodies and all those orphans in dismissing McCain as a man of conviction. Honor? He immediately dumped the wife who waited for him while he was a POW for multiple affairs. McCain voted with Trump 83% of the time, kinda an odd score for a maverick. He wanted to be president bad enough – for his own glory – that he brought an idiot like Sarah Palin on as his VP choice, pure pandering to the trogs of the dark side his party. In his final act of faux bipartisanship, McCain planned for and set up his own multiple funerals as platforms for people to glorify his own image and mock Trump. Classy AF.

    McCain allowed himself/profited from becoming a symbol and a myth. He positioned himself as a maverick and independent while towing the imperialist line for decades. I respect the things he endured as a prisoner. But his is a public life such that one can’t separate the individual out from the larger story at this point. I understand it is catechism to say only nice things when someone passes, but as long as people are going to turn McCain into something he wasn’t it seems useful to speak a little full-spectrum truth alongside that.

    I’m sorry for his family, but the America he claimed to serve is served better by the truth than another politicized shadow of the truth.

    Things that will be clearer someday: McCain voted with Trump. Millions of children and other civilians are dead and dying still today because of his advocacy for war. There is a meaningful difference between courage in surviving for oneself and courage to do brave things for others when the risk is a choice. When you are in a position to stop torture and don’t, and later in a position to expose torture and won’t, you are one of the torturers, too. RIP, Johnny. I’ll see you in a few years in hell.


    (The photo is of McCain with Ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in Benghazi. McCain died with that blood on his hands.)



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  • Five Bad Arguments to Restrict Speech

    August 20, 2018 // 31 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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  • American Credibility Requires a Turning Point on Trump

    July 25, 2018 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Trump



    I remember when as an American diplomat I realized my government was no longer credible. We may be at that same point in the Trump presidency.


    My moment was in 2006, in Hong Kong, where I was assigned to the American Consulate. It had been a difficult few years as an American diplomat, as crimes against humanity under the George W. Bush administration were being talked about in government circles, even if they had not yet been acknowledged publicly. America was torturing people. American invaded Iraq under a blanket of lies. And America opened a prison at Guantanamo. It was there the United States held Omar Khadr, and the Canadians wanted him out.

    Omar Khadr was a 15-year-old Canadian grabbed off the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2002, believed to have killed an American soldier. After learning the child had been tortured, the Canadians wanted him transferred to their custody for his own safety, and in 2006 ordered their diplomats globally, to every American foreign service post, to make that demand (a demarche in diplomatic language.) I had never heard of Khadr before, but sitting there hearing from the Canadians how he had been treated I realized America had no credibility left when, among other things, it criticized Saddam Hussein for harming his own people as a secondary justification for the Iraq invasion.

    At the table in far-away Hong Kong we knew none of us were going to free Omar Khadr, but the Canadians did their job and I did mine, pre-written talking points all around. We knew each other, and our kids went to the same school. So informally I also heard “we may not be able to work with you anymore on a lot of things if this fails.” Canada had sent troops to Afghanistan, withheld them from Iraq under American criticism, but the message was now a step too far had been taken, and while routine business would continue, they were probably going to wait on any big stuff until George W. Bush was out of office (Khadr was released to Canadian custody in 2012, and freed in Canada in 2015.)


    I am hearing from former colleagues in diplomacy and intelligence Helsinki may have been a similar moment, requiring now a resolution of some sort in what is known as “Russiagate” to maintain credibility in America’s international interactions. Trump has more than two years left in office, some say six, far too long to wait out given the number of global issues requiring international cooperation.

    As a diplomat you represent your own complicated country, and all sides understand that, hence the careful use of pre-written talking points over the fate of Omar Khadr. But from the Secretary of State on down, credibility is a crucial tool in getting things down. Can you be trusted, not just personally, but to accurately convey what Washington wants to say to its allies, friends, and those it negotiates against? If you explain an American policy today, and the other side acts on that only to find the president tweeting out something else, however close your relationship may be personally with your counterparts, across the table you become a non-entity. How’s your daughter doing in school? Fine, just fine, let’s have lunch Tuesday, but please don’t ask me to support your UN resolution.

    If I was sitting in an embassy job today and was asked informally by an ally to explain the president’s remarks in Helsinki, I would stumble for coherence. I know those foreign diplomats are reading the same media I am: a columnist in the New York Times calling Trump a traitor, an article in New York Magazine speculating Trump met Putin as his intelligence handler, a call by a former Central Intelligence Director to impeach the president, former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke speculating Trump was meeting with Putin to receive his next set of orders, a former intelligence officer warning “we’re on the cusp of losing the American constitutional republic forever,” or maybe just the parsed criticism of Trump from within his own party.

    And alongside of all that, an indictment of Russian military personnel for hacking into the Democratic National Committee servers, the details released at a time that can only be read as as attempt to disrupt whatever initiatives Trump planned to pursue with Russia, followed by an arrest of a Russian agent timed to bookend the Helsinki summit. Some overseas will perceive those acts as a power struggle within the American government.

    There is a lot in the air. In the face of all that, after what at best can be called a bizarre performance by Trump in Helsinki, how can American diplomats assure their counterparts they know who is in charge, that what they claim is American policy actually is policy, and that… that… in some way the president of the United States is not more sympathetic to an adversary than to his allies? No American diplomat today can answer to those points. It was thus unsurprising Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had little to say in Helsinki.


    America’s global needs cannot wait out a Trump presidency, nor do they appear able to wait out whatever investigative process has been underway through two administrations. American intelligence began looking into Russiagate two years ago, with little substantive action taken by the Obama administration. The process has continued on the intelligence side undisturbed, along with new efforts by various parts of Congress, and by the Special Counsel. The multiple threads do not appear driven by a sense of crisis, and that is wrong.

    There have of course been far worse moments in American history: the presidents who watched helplessly as the storm over slavery broke into Civil War, FDR and the Japanese internment camps, Nixon bombing Vietnamese civilians and prolonging the Vietnam war to help get himself reelected, and George W. Bush setting the Middle East aflame.

    But we are here now, and Helsinki says either present the best possible evidence after two years of effort Donald Trump or his close associates actively worked with the Russian government, and thus remain beholden to it, or make it clear that is not the case. Getting things done in the world requires credibility, and it is now time to set aside chasing indictments that will never see the inside of a courtroom, those concerning financial crimes unconnected to the campaign, and a clumsy series of perjury cases. Post-Helsinki, we — America’s diplomats, its allies, its people — need to know who is running the United States.




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  • Why I Support Julian Assange (And Why You Should Too)

    July 19, 2018 // 15 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy



    This weekend I joined a number of people in an online vigil in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.

    People ask why I did it; Assange is at best imperfect in who he is and what he does. But supporting him transcends him, because the battle over the prosecution of Assange is where the future of free speech and a free press will be decided. Even if you think Assange doesn’t matter, those things do.


    Assange is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. In 2010 he was a hero to opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others called him an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Now most of Assange’s former supporters see him as a enemy of the state and Putin tool for releasing the Democratic National Committee emails. Even in the face of dismissed charges of sexual assault, Assange is a #MeToo villain. He a traitor who hides from justice inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, or a spy, or some web-made Frankenstein with elements of all of the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words generous, warm, or personable rarely are included in their descriptions. But none of that really matters.

    Support is due because Assange ends up being the guy standing at a crossroads in the history of our freedoms – specifically, at what point does the need for the people to know outweigh laws allowing the government to keep information from view? The question isn’t new, but becomes acute in the digital age, where physical documents no longer need to be copied one-by-one, can be acquired by hackers from the other side of the world, and where publishing is far removed from the traditions, obstacles, safeguards, and often-dangerous self-restraint of traditional journalism.


    A complex history precedes Assange. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret U.S. government-written history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. No one had ever published such classified documents before, and reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act. A federal court ordered the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. In the end the Supreme Court handed down a victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States and the Times won the Pulitzer Prize.

    But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, law professor Steve Vladeck points out “although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause… The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.”

    The Supreme Court left the door open to prosecute journalists who publish classified documents by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from exercising prior restraint. Politics and public opinion, not law, has kept the government exercising discretion in not prosecuting journalists, a delicate dance around this 800 pound gorilla loose in the halls of democracy. The government meanwhile has aggressively used the Espionage Act to prosecute the whistleblowers who leaked to those same journalists.


    The closest things came to throwing a journalist in jail was in 2014, when the Obama administration subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen. The government accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen, information it said appeared in his book State of War. After a lower court ordered Risen under threat of jail to testify and disclose his source, the Supreme Court turned down Risen’s appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and an infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether there existed a gentlemen’s agreement under the First Amendment for “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the free press clause.

    In the end the government, fearful of setting the wrong precedent, punted on Risen. Waving the flag over a messy situation, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Risen wasn’t called to testify and was not punished for publishing classified material, even as the alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, disappeared into jail. To avoid the chance of a clear precedent that might have granted some form of reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight. The key issues now wait for Julian Assange.


    Should the government prosecute Julian Assange, there are complex legal questions to be answered about who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world. There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist, and over whether a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald has written about and placed online classified documents given to him by Edward Snowden, and has never been challenged by the government as a journalist or publisher. Both men enjoy popular support, and work for established media. The elements of fact checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and in writing context around the classified information, were all present in the New York Times’ case with the Pentagon Papers, and are present with American citizens Risen and Greenwald. Definitions and precedent may be forming.

    Assange is an easier target. The government has the chance to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that they may seize this case where they have backed away from others in the long-running war of attrition against free speech and the press.

    Assange isn’t an American. He is unpopular. He has written nothing alongside the millions of documents on Wikileaks, has done no curating or culling, and has redacted little information. Publishing in his case consists of simply uploading what has been supplied to him. It would be easy for the government to frame a case against Assange that set precedent he is not entitled to any First Amendment protections simply by claiming clicking UPLOAD isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to the national defense without authorization, would apply. Guilty, same as the other canaries in the deep mineshaft of Washington, DC before him, no messy balancing questions to be addressed. And with that, a unique form of online journalism would be squashed.


    And that really, really matters. Wikileaks sidesteps the restraints of traditional journalism. Remember in 2004 the New York Times held the story of George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program until after his reelection. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times suppressed a story on wiretaps of Americans when asked by the NSA. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists work in self-censoring mode, “obsequious journalism.” Meanwhile Assange has made mistakes while broadly showing courage, not restraint, under similar circumstances. The public is better informed because of it.

    Wikileaks’ version of journalism says here are the cables, the memos, and the emails. Others can write about them (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange a traitor), or you as a citizen can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools never before available until Assange and Internet created them.

    If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party, as a journalist or not, under the Espionage Act, the government can turn that precedent into a weapon to attack the media’s role in any national security case. On the other hand, if Assange can leave London for asylum in Ecuador, that will empower new journalists to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable.

    Freedom is never static. It either advances under our pressure, or recedes under theirs. I support Julian Assange.




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  • Julian Assange and the Future of a Free Press (Long Form)

    July 18, 2018 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy



    This weekend I joined a number of people including Dan Ellsberg, John Kiriakou, Scott Horton, and Caitlin Johnstone in a 38 hours online vigil in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. People ask why I did it, because Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organization are at best imperfect in who they are and what they do. But those imperfections are both of interest and do not matter. Supporting him transcends him, because the battle over the prosecution of Assange is where the future of free speech and a free press in the digital age will be decided. Even if you think Assange doesn’t matter, those things do.

    Supporting Julian Assange and Wikileaks is complicated. In 2010 a hero to then-opponents of American imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan while being labeled by others as an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning, today most of Assange’s former supporters from the left see him as a enemy of the state for allegedly working with Vladimir Putin to leak the Democratic National Committee emails. Many who opposed Assange’s work from the right now support him for helping defeat Hillary Clinton. Assange is a traitor who runs from justice, or a journalist, or a hero, or a spy, or some Frankenstein with elements of all of the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words generous, warm, or personable rarely are included in their descriptions.

    Assange’s biography is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. After Wikileaks’ release of a half million highly classified documents in 2010, including evidence of war crimes and thousands of State Department internal cables, Assange was accused of sexual assault in Sweden under ambiguous circumstances. He was questioned there, but never charged or arrested, and left for the UK. The Swedes decided to continue their investigation, but instead of exercising options via Interpol to question Assange in the UK, instead insisted their inquiries could only be made on Swedish soil and requested the UK return Assange against his will. The British arrested Assange, though he was released on bail. Fearing the whole thing was a set-up to extradite him to the U.S. via Sweden, Assange jumped bail. Fearing the same faux process would see Britain send him to the U.S., Assange then obtained asylum, and later citizenship, from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. After claiming for years they could never interview him outside of Sweden, the Swedes reversed themselves and interviewed Assange in London in 2016. They soon dropped the charges. Britain meanwhile still plans to arrest Assange for failing to appear in court for an eight year old case that basically no longer exists, and will not assure him safe passage out of the UK. Assange has been living inside the Ecuadorian embassy for over five years.

    Contrary to popular belief, embassies are not the sovereign territory of their owners. However, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified a custom that has been in place for centuries when it established the “rule of inviolability.” This prohibits local police from entering an embassy for any purpose without the permission of the ambassador. This is why Assange is safe from arrest as long as he stays within the walls of the Ecuadorian embassy, and of course in their good graces.

    The idea of a lengthy stay inside an embassy for asylum is not new. The longest such episode was that of Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who spent 15 years inside the American Embassy in Budapest, protected from the Soviet Union. In 1978 Russian Pentecostalists broke into the American Embassy in Moscow, demanding protection from religious persecution. They lived in the embassy basement for five years before a deal sent them to Israel. In 1989, Chinese dissident Fang Li-zhi resided in the American Embassy in Beijing for a year before being allowed to travel to the United States. More recently, in 2012, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guang-cheng spent six days in the American Embassy in Beijing, before then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton negotiated his safe passage to the U.S. The irony is in all those incidents, the United States was the protector. America today instead looks petty and mean standing alongside Soviet Russia and Communist China in pressing hard against one man aside the broader wave of history.

    Should some process deliver Assange into American custody, he would be charged under the Espionage Act, a 1917 law used aggressively by the Obama administration to prosecute whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning, and by the Trump administration to prosecute whistleblower Reality Winner. Under the Act, Assange would be prohibited from offering a “public interest” defense; his unauthorized possession of classified materials alone would ensure a guilty verdict, in that the Act does not distinguish between possession for journalistic purposes to inform the public, and possession say with the intent to hand over secrets to Russian intelligence. Assange, as with the others prosecuted under the Espionage Act (Edward Snowden would face similar circumstances on trial in America), would be found guilty and simultaneously be denied the chance to defend himself based on a free speech/public interest defense. The Espionage Act was created long before anyone coined the phrase Catch-22, but it seemed to have that spirit in mind.

    But support for Assange, as for Snowden and other whistleblowers yet unnamed, is due because the stakes go far beyond one person’s rights and freedoms. What happens to Julian Assange will set precedent regarding free speech, freedom of the press, and the publication of classified and suppressed documents in pursuit of an informed public and representative accountability for many years to come.

    The Espionage Act has a sordid history, having once been used against the government’s political opponents. Targets included labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was, in fact, sentenced to 10 years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself. The Nixon administration infamously (and unsuccessfully) invoked the Act to bar the New York Times from continuing to publish the classified Pentagon Papers.

    Assange poses a dilemma for the United States in its ongoing push-pull in balancing the power of the government to protect classified information (rightly or wrongly), the clear guarantees to free speech and a free press in the First Amendment, and the broader concept of the need for an informed populace to challenge their government and make a peoples’ democracy work in practice.

    At what point does the need for the people to know outweigh any laws allowing the government to keep it from view, such that someone may expose information, despite its classification? If punishment appears necessary, should the thief be punished, should the journalist who publishes it be punished, or should neither, or should both? The questions become acute in the digital age, where physical documents no longer need to be copied one-by-one, and where publishing is far removed from the traditions, obstacles, safeguards, backdoor pressures, self-restraint, and occasional deep subject matter knowledge of traditional journalism.

    A complex and at times ambiguous history precedes Assange. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The Papers were a 7,000 page classified history of the Vietnam War prepared under the order of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. We know now McNamara, while publicly supporting the war, was privately consumed by doubt, and ordered the Papers written as his act of contrition.

    The risks for journalists were huge — no one had ever published such classified documents before, and the senior staff at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act. The Nixon administration found a court to order the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed in June 1971, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. Things got so dicey the Times’ outside counsel actually quit the night before his first appearance in court, claiming the newspaper, his own client, had indeed broken the law.

    Despite such pessimism, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act, though his case was dismissed for gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering without the underlying issues being addressed, most prominently Ellsberg’s defense he was morally compelled to leak the classified information to the Times, claiming “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public.”

    But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck is careful to point out “Although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause… The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.”

    In its simplest form, the Supreme Court left the door open for the government to prosecute both the leaker who takes the documents (by dismissing the case without setting a precedent) and the journalists who publish them (by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from exercising prior restraint.)

    What has happened since has been little more than a very delicate dance around the 800 pound gorilla in the halls of democracy. The government has aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers under the Espionage Act (The Obama administration prosecuted eight whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, more than all previous presidential administrations combined) while choosing not to prosecute journalists for publishing what the whistleblowers hand over to them.

    In one of the first of a series of attempts to make journalists reveal their sources, former Fox News reporter Mike Levine stated the Justice Department persuaded a federal grand jury to subpoena him in January 2011. The demand was that he reveal his sources for a 2009 story about Somali-Americans who were secretly indicted in Minneapolis for joining an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia. Levine fought the order and the Department of Justice finally dropped it without comment in April 2012. Call it a failed test case.

    The closest things came to throwing a journalist in jail over classified information was in 2014, when Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder gave federal prosecutors permission to subpoena New York Times reporter James Risen regarding a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. The government accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen, information it said appeared in his 2006 book State of War. Holder issued the subpoena in line with his July 2013 Department of Justice guidelines on seeking information from the news media. That guidance sought to circumvent a court precedent being set by providing limited, discretionary protection for the media in some civil and criminal proceedings following scandals involving the DOJ seizing phone records and emails of reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News.

    Risen refused to comply with the subpoena, which would have required him to disclose his source. After a lower court ordered Risen under threat of jail time to testify, the Supreme Court in June 2014 turned down Risen’s appeal. That left him facing a choice to reveal his source or go to jail. The Court’s one-line order gave no reasons but effectively sided with the government in a confrontation between securing evidence in a national security prosecution and an intolerable infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether there existed a sort of gentlemen’s agreement under the First Amendment for “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the free press clause. By not making a new decision, the Court effectively upheld the existing decision by a federal appeals court finding that the Constitution does not give journalists special protection from the law.

    That decision was more or less in line with the ambiguous way the Supreme Court has always looked at the unwritten special protections for journalists. The only real ruling on what special rights the media may hold under the free press clause came in 1972, in Branzburg v. Hayes. The Court decided reporters were not shielded from grand jury subpoenas, asserting judges must strike a “proper balance between freedom of the press and the obligation of all citizens to give relevant testimony.” From time to time lower courts have chosen to interpret that phrase as meaning there is indeed some sort of unwritten balancing test concerning the media, while other courts have read the same words to mean media should be compelled to testify.

    In the end of the Risen case, the government, fearful of setting the wrong precedent and confident it otherwise had the evidence to convict Jeffrey Sterling, punted. Waving the flag noblely over a messy situation, Attorney General Holder announced “As long as I am attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Federal prosecutors asked the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia to “exclude James Risen as an unavailable witness” and said the jury “should draw no inferences, favorable or unfavorable” based on his absence as a witness.

    Risen didn’t testify, and was not punished for publishing classified material by the government’s choice to back away from his case. The alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, was thrown into jail for over two years. In 2015 Google turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a federal warrant.

    No court precedent was set. The door was left open. To avoid a clear precedent that would grant journalists a reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight. While the balancing question of the “public interest” has been poked at in other contexts, no one has shown where the balancing point is between the government’s need to protect information, a citizen’s right to expose information, and the media’s right to publish it. That all waits for Julian Assange.

    Should the government bring Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange, there are complex legal questions to be answered about what if any First Amendment protections if any apply. Assange is not an American citizen and was not under U.S. jurisdiction when his actions regarding classified documents occurred. Is the fact that Wikileaks’ servers reside outside the United States and thus outside the protections of the First Amendment controlling, or does cyberspace lack such boundaries? By the way they chose to bring their case, government attorneys can influence how legal precedent is set on those matters. And if the United States can prosecute someone under those circumstances, any other government could demand foreign reporters anywhere on earth be extradited for violating their laws.

    The question also exists of who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world where thousands of files can be uploaded to a site instead of waiting for printing presses to run off copies. There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist, and over whether producing a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and The Intercept, who have for years been writing about and placing online highly classified documents given to them by Edward Snowden, have never been challenged by the government as “journalists” or “publishers.” The elements of fact checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and in writing context around the classified information, were present in the New York Times’ case with the Pentagon Papers, and are present with Risen and Greenwald, et al. All involved are American citizens.

    Almost none of that applies to Assange. He has written nothing alongside the millions of documents on Wikileaks, has done no curating or culling, and has redacted information at times and not at others. Publishing in his case consists of simply uploading what has been supplied to him to a website. It would be easy for the government to frame a case against Assange that set precedent he is not entitled to any First Amendment or reporter’s privilege protections whatever they may be — clicking UPLOAD isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) in the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to the national defense without authorization would apply. Guilty, same almost all of the leakers, whistleblowers, data thieves, hackers, and other canaries in the deep mineshaft of Washington, DC before him.

    And that really, really matters. Wikileaks sidestepped the restraints of traditional journalism to bring the raw material of history to the people. Never mind whether or not a court determined disclosure of secret NSA programs which spied on Americans disclosure was truly in the public interest. Never mind the New York Times got a phone call from the President and decided not to publish something. Never mind how senior government officials are allowed to selectively leak information helpful to themselves. Never mind what parts of an anonymous technical disclosure a reporter understood well enough to write about, here are the cables, the memos, the emails, the archives themselves. Others can write summaries and interpretations if they wish (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange and his sources traitors), or you as an individual can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind about what the government is doing. Fact checks? There are the facts themselves in front of you. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools and freedoms never before available until the Wikileaks and Internet created them.

    Allowing these new tools to be broken over the meaning of the words journalist and publishing will stifle all of the press. If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party under the Espionage Act, the government can then turn that precedent into a weapon to aggressively attack the media’s role in say national security leaks. Is a reporter, for example, publishing a Signal number and asking for government employees to leak to her in fact soliciting people to commit national security felonies? Will media employees have to weigh for themselves the potential public interest, hoping to avoid prosecution if they differ from the government’s opinion? The government in the case of Assange may see the chance to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that they will seize this chance where they have backed away from others. The Assange case may prove to be the topper in a long-running war of attrition against free speech.

    In mid-2004, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau uncovered George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program, but the New York Times held the story for 15 months, until after Bush’s reelection. Executives at the Times were told by administration officials that if they ran the story, they’d be helping terrorists. They accepted that. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times similarly gave in to the NSA and suppressed a story on government wiretaps of Americans. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists have gone into a self-censoring mode, practicing “obsequious journalism.”

    Assange, and those who follow him in this new paradigm of journalism and publishing, have made mistakes while broadly showing courage, not restraint, under similar circumstances and the public is better informed because of it. In the words of one commentator, “WikiLeaks liberates the right to free speech from authorities that restrict access.” Along the way the 2007 release of the Kroll report on official corruption in Kenya affected a national election, while in 2009 Wikileaks exposed the moral bankruptcy of Iceland’s banks. A 2011 Amnesty International report pointed to the role of leaked documents in triggering revolutionary global uprisings. The BBC said Wikileaks revelations were a spark for the Arab spring.

    “This is the biggest free speech battle of our lifetimes,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is the moment when we will see whether publishers can continue to freely distribute truthful political information online.”

    I support Assange because he is someone who fell into a place and time where crucial decisions will be made. Allowing Assange to speak now, and to travel unfettered to Ecuador and permanent asylum will allow others after him to continue to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable. Prosecution of Julian Assange can only come from a nation which fears the noise of democracy and prefers the silence of compliance.



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  • Trump, Privatization, and the Passion of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

    April 15, 2018 // 28 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas, Trump

    As some seek to further privatize veterans health care, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, sacrifices will have to be made. Let’s hope few fall on the veterans themselves.


    Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin once held the title of least controversial Cabinet secretary in the Trump Administration. He was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 100-0, and for most of his time in office enjoyed broad bipartisan support as he sought to reform veterans’ health care.

    That all changed for the lone Obama Cabinet holdover when Donald Trump sacrificed Shulkin on March 28 in favor of White House physician Rear Admiral Dr. Ronny Jackson. Though pushed out ostensibly over a damning ethics report, Shulkin’s story is really one of whether or not further privatizing health care for veterans is the right way to fix a damaged institution. Shulkin being pushed out is a big story that has been both understated and oversimplified in the press as mostly just another episode of the Trump chaos soap opera.

    Shulkin himself pulls no punches. “I believe differences in philosophy deserve robust debate, and solutions should be determined based on the merits of the arguments. The advocates within the administration for privatizing VA health services, however, reject this approach,” wrote Shulkin after his dismissal. “They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”

    Despite the quick-fix appeal of privatization in the face of a VA clearly not meeting fully the needs of its population (Shulkin took over the VA in the wake of a report citing a “corrosive culture that has led to poor management, a history of retaliation toward employees, cumbersome and outdated technology, and a shortage of doctors, nurses and physical space to treat its patients”), is a system morphing toward “Medicare for veterans” the answer?

    In its simplest form, privatization means that instead of seeking care at a VA facility at little-to-no charge, veterans would be free to visit any health care provider in the private sector, with Uncle Sam picking up most of the tab. The VA would shift from directly providing care in its own facilities to become the insurance company of dreams. In many cases long waits to access a VA facility would diminish, veterans in rural areas would most likely have less of a travel burden, and patients could better match their needs to a provider. The latter could be especially important to LGBTQ veterans. It’s hard to argue against choice.


    The issue is money. According to one report, moving vets to private providers would double spending in the immediate term. By 2034, the cost of VA health care could be as high as $450 billion, compared to a baseline of less than $100 billion. And even those numbers may be too low; as Vietnam-era vets require more expensive end-of-life care, and as waves of veterans from the past 17 years of the War on Terror enter the system, costs will rise. The challenge is clear; between 2002 and 2013, the number of annual VA outpatient visits nearly doubled to 86.4 million. Hospital admissions — the biggest driver of costs — rose 23%.

    Under any calculus veterans health care is big money and proponents of privatization want to pull as much of it as possible into the commercial sector. But where would the money come from? Major veterans’ organizations opposing additional privatization worry disability benefits and other core VA programs such as education would be cut back. Others speculate a privatized VA system would quickly go the way of civilian insurance, with limited networks, increased co-pays, and complex referral systems, all as a way of passing increasing costs on to the patient. As for many under Obamacare, vets would be caught in the gap between being able to have insurance, and being able to afford health care. Choice can come at a price.


    The specialized needs of many veterans are part of the reason for the specialized veterans’ health care system. Despite much justified criticism, the VA serves the needs of many of its patients well. In the critical area of psychology, VA performance was rated superior to the private sector by more than 30%. Compared with individuals in private plans, veterans with schizophrenia or major depression were more than twice as likely to receive appropriate initial medication treatment. RAND concluded separately “the quality of care provided by the VA health system generally was as good as or better than other health systems on most quality measures.”

    The VA also has expertise in prosthetics, burns, polytrauma, and spinal injuries rare in civilian life. The VA has a lifetime relationship with its patients, leading to broader implementation of preventive care and better integration of records. These advantages could be lost as more choice under a largely privatized system could result in significantly less choice at the VA in areas where it matters most.

    The risk is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as increased privatization will inevitably mean shuttering some VA facilities. The solution lies in a system which pairs the best of privatization with a reformed government-run veterans health care system. Paring off some services into the private sector while retaining those unique to the VA, all to the satisfaction of Congress, demands an administrator with extraordinary bureaucratic skills. The Trump administration was very likely wrong when it decided Shulkin was not that man.

    Though painted as a solid opponent of privatization, as he was fired Shulkin was already pushing the VA to further privatize its audiology and optometry programs. He oversaw change that led to 36% of VA medical appointments being made in the private sector. Shulkin’s Veterans Choice Program (VCP) allowed access to private doctors where the VA couldn’t provide specialized care, when wait times exceeded standards, or when travel to a VA facility represented a hardship. Shulkin was advocating for the program’s expansion when both his funding and his tenure ran out.

    The VCP program was consistently underfunded, in part due to the unpredictability of month-to-month expenses that will plague any privatized system. However, some of the underfunding was political; one holdout was Senator Jerry Moran. Moran wanted the program tapered off in lieu of his own bill calling for the greater leaps into privatization Shulkin remained skeptical of.

    As Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary, Dr. David Shulkin was an experienced medical administrator who had specialized in health care management at some of the nation’s largest hospitals. The new secretary nominee, Dr. Ronny Jackson, is a fine Navy doctor who has served two presidents, but comes to the job with no experience with an organization the size and complexity of the VA, already the government’s second-largest agency.


    Questions will be asked at what will no doubt be contentious confirmation hearings about whether Jackson can rise to the challenge, or if privatization advocates will take advantage of him to rush ahead with their own preferred changes, to their own financial gain.

    Hanging in the balance? Nine million veterans who rely on the VA for life-sustaining care in return for the sacrifices they have made.




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