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Living in Society

Afghanistan Persists

War is Not Healthy

The headline in today’s Washington Post was “Afghanistan to be ruled under sharia law, Taliban commander confirms.” No surprises here. What did we expect if not that?

As the coronavirus surges in the county where I live, people have become more isolated. If we don’t stay on media constantly, we are checking it often and the news about Afghanistan is grim.

NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel began yesterday on Twitter by tweeting, “At kabul airport, military side, more order than before. Evacuations picking up. Seeing more Afghan families being taken through. Planes taking off. Base well guarded.” That was reassuring news midst the media claims of “chaos” in the country. I am deeply skeptical about media claims.

Someone asserted, “the reason all these people are stuck in Afghanistan right now is because the visa program that was created to get them here was purposely shut down by Donald Trump and Stephen Miller.” Like most Americans, I don’t recall enough of the last administration to remember this. What I do remember is the national news media, for the most part, gave Trump a pass on any hard questioning. This is being resolved by President Biden saying he assumes responsibility for the mess. Exiting our long-standing war was never going to be easy. Four presidents made the problems we see, and all of them are culpable for where we are today.

I don’t want to write about Afghanistan, yet it is on everyone’s mind. There is no avoiding the conversations, so we have them. It is not what we want to be talking about, yet we are considering a lock down again, leaving home only to exercise nearby and to secure provisions. We are stuck talking about what dominates the national news media.

A few people in the public eye take some of the pressure from us. Heather Cox Richardson writes an almost daily newsletter which explains what’s going on in the news from a historian’s perspective. Justin King, who goes by Beau of the Fifth Column, reacts to the news on YouTube almost daily from the perspective of a “Southern journalist” and former military contractor. Octogenarian and former CBS news person Dan Rather publishes an almost daily newsletter in which he brings perspective to news events. None of these writers are perfect and I suppose each has their issues. The calm demeanor with which they put things in perspective, what they choose to get upset about, and what they publish goes a distance to bring perspective to a cyclone of news that is terrible more because the reporting is inept than because events in Afghanistan are concerning.

Afghanistan persists and it is difficult for Americans to get a grip on it. Partly this has to do with the bubble in which most of us live our lives. What seems clear is the news media plays an active role in creating a narrative about ending our war. Some of these narratives are not accurate. Many of them distort the view we get of what’s going on on the ground there. Some of them are plain false. It is difficult to understand the relevance of daily events. Not all daily events presented by the news media are relevant.

As Afghanistan turns again to sharia law it is assured Westerners will not like it. To the extent our culture penetrated Afghan society, it will create problems for local citizens with the Taliban in charge. What is our responsibility? Like it or not, we have to stop propping up values that are not shared by locals and as effectively as possible withdraw our military from the country. We also need to protect those who supported us over the last 20 years. From Iowa it appears President Joe Biden is doing that. It’s messy, yet we have to support him in this endeavor.

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Living in Society

Inscrutable Afghanistan

Detail of White House photo of President Biden and Vice President Harris.

I want to understand the draw down of the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. I want to be assured people who assisted U.S. personnel during the conflict get proper protection. I want to feel like the 2,448 deaths among U.S. soldiers and more than a trillion dollars were not wasted. As Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote, “You can’t always get what you want.”

There are no brilliant takes. The situation in Southeast Asia is too complex for that. What I present instead are my reactions to what I am seeing and hearing from my perch in Iowa.

My friend Ed left a voicemail to call him on Sunday. When I did the next day we talked for 15 minutes and agreed we had to support President Biden’s decision to end the war. After Ed, me, and eight others organized the Iowa Chapter of Veterans for Peace we protested our endless war in Afghanistan many times–in rallies, in letters to the newspapers, and by bringing speakers to Iowa to discuss this war and other U.S. military engagements around the world. Either one wants the war to end or one doesn’t. Either choice can get ugly.

I listened to President Biden’s speech Monday afternoon. It was a good speech that addressed the issues from the perspective of someone who knows U.S. foreign policy better than any president since George H.W. Bush. A couple of things stood out.

  • “Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.”
  • “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”
  • “I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
  • “I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past — the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of U.S. forces.”
  • “Our current military mission will be short in time, limited in scope, and focused in its objectives: Get our people and our allies to safety as quickly as possible.”

Biden’s speech is unlikely to convince the naysayers. There is no hope for them anyway.

Before the speech I received an email from U.S. Senator Joni Ernst. She “fervently disagreed” with the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Among things she said was this: “Women and girls who were just starting to enjoy their freedoms are again faced with oppression and subjugation by a ruthless Taliban regime.” What of that?

The concern is the Taliban will re-establish a caliphate which will repress Afghan citizens, forcing women into traditional roles. It is a legitimate concern. However, if Ernst valued the “freedoms” of women, she would support a woman’s right to choose right here in Iowa. Instead, in early 2020, she joined an amicus brief with 206 other members of congress calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its decision in Roe vs. Wade. The hypocrisy of conservatives like Ernst is thick.

The way President Trump negotiated the draw down of U.S. Troops and equipment created an opportunity for the Taliban to resume control of the country. By releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including key leaders, President Trump set the stage for the group to organize to retake the country. The negotiated ceasefire created an environment for the Taliban to approach members of the Afghan army to gain their support. In the end, the Taliban demonstrated competence by using what they were given by the Trump administration. While the international media drew a picture of chaos in Afghanistan, describing a “backlash” to U.S. execution of the withdrawal plan, the Taliban knew exactly what they were doing and effectively, mostly peacefully, ousted the U.S. backed government.

Where does this leave my desire to understand Afghanistan? Unsatisfied. I recall that throughout history others have had the same problem, going back to the Persian empire of Darius the Great. Seven months into his first term, President Joe Biden recognized the challenge of Afghanistan. With our mission there long accomplished, he did what three previous presidents would not. He initiated withdrawal of U.S. forces and, for now, closed the embassy. It was the right thing to do.

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Living in Society

In the Mix Again

Iowa City Community Band float in the July 4, 2021 Coralville parade.

I walked in the Coralville Fourth of July parade with two different groups: the first half with the Johnson County Democrats, and the rest with The People’s Coalition for Social, Economic & Environmental Justice. It was the first post COVID-19 vaccine social event I attended with people I know.

Regulars from previous years were missing, notably the World War Two veterans from Veterans for Peace, but also many my age or older. My cohort is stepping back from parade walking, even though there was a trailer with straw bales for anyone who wanted to sit during the two-mile route. Ambient temperatures reached the high eighties, so it was probably best for septuagenarians and older to stay indoors.

The community was out in force. Coralville is diverse and much different from the rest of Iowa. I enjoy the informal socialization that is part of walking in a parade.

Group photo of the Johnson County Democrats at the Coralville parade. Photo from Zach Wahls.

It is positive the Democrats are transitioning to younger people. State Senator Zach Wahls will turn 30 in a few days, and State Rep. Christina Bohannan just turned 50. State Rep. Dave Jacoby was the oldest of the state legislators present at 65. The contingent was made of about half elected officials and half local political activists. Our presence was less than it has been during general election years.

The People’s Coalition is comprised of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Veterans for Peace, PEACE Iowa, 100 Grannies for a Livable Future, and other peace and justice friends. A characteristic of our local activities is collaboration when working on projects. I’ve been with Physicians for Social Responsibility since I was on the board of health, served on the board of PEACE Iowa, and am a charter member of our Veterans for Peace chapter. It was good to catch up with old timers like myself.

T-shirt I wore in the July 4, 2021 Coralville parade.

I received many compliments for the t-shirt I wore. I bought it from J.C. Penney for pride month yet didn’t attend any public events at which to wear it. The messaging, “love is love,” was very popular at the parade. People said, “I like your t-shirt,” multiple dozens of times. I said thank you when I could and Happy 4th of July. Someone shouted out, “go gay people!” I’m not sure what the sincere statement of support meant but acknowledged it.

It’s hard to say if I will attend future parades. I made it through yesterday and it was enjoyable. As long as that’s the case there is a reason to participate.

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Living in Society

Questions About Our New War With Iran

Photo Credit: Des Moines Register

At 3:15 a.m. CST my phone rang. It was an international call from Jordan. I don’t know anyone in Jordan and the caller did not leave a message.

I know a few people who travel in the Middle East from time to time. None of them stood out as a person who might be calling the morning our country assassinated Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, as a target of opportunity at the Baghdad airport.

I had not heard of Soleimani so I found and read Dexter Filkins Sept. 23, 2013 New Yorker profile. However this decision was made, intentionally or not, the U.S. Government kicked the beehive of Shia efforts toward hegemony in the Middle East. We will likely be stung by this extrajudicial exercise of American military force.

There is not enough information despite the rapid response of social media. The vacuum generates questions:

Why didn’t the president inform the gang of eight of the imminent assassination? Given the prominence of the target in Iranian and Middle East society he should have. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was clear he hadn’t.

Why didn’t the administration seek an authorization for the use of force from the U.S. Congress? According to Pelosi, there is no existing authorization relative to Iran.

When will the president address the public on what he did and why?

Was this assassination retaliation for the recent attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad or part of a long-term plan to enter war with Iran?

What will be the consequences for U.S. interests in the region? Iranian officials have already stated publicly there will be revenge for the slaying. We can expect them to act with thoughtful reserve and to think outside the box.

Who will replace Soleimani in the established and future operations for which he was responsible?

What was the benefit to U.S. interests of elevating Soleimani to the status of martyr?

There are a lot of questions, few answers, and a grim pall has been cast over this Friday in Iowa.

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Sustainability

What Veterans Said On Veterans Day

Veterans for Peace

A post from Nov. 11, 2010.

Ed said we should wage peace and call it Armistice Day instead of Veterans’ Day.

“Frustrated because the population is so easily convinced that war is patriotic,” said Tom.

Jacqueline spoke about being in the Women’s Army Corps and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and said, “get in touch with our legislators.”

Sam said, “Contact our legislators and make it clear that we want out of Afghanistan.”

Alan was dismayed at our age and that “young people were absent.”

Conversation around the table at Hy-Vee’s free breakfast for all veterans centered on whether proof was required for the free meal for veterans at Applebees.

Tom said to his Facebook friends that are veterans, “Guys, thanks for serving. Have a great Veterans’ Day.”

Another Tom replied, “Thanks to us all the recognition we’re getting now is long over due. Thanks to all of us, regardless in the war zone or not we fought some type of war while serving and give praise to all men in uniform. God Bless and have a great day we all deserve it. S. looking sharp in that uniform Steve.”

A lot of us had our photos taken by the press and were interviewed.

Paul read the names of Afghanistan civilians who have been killed in the war.

Some didn’t speak, but just carried signs.

John asked for the e-mail address for Senators Grassley and Harkin to ask them to ratify the New START Treaty.

Bob talked about the potential Veterans’ National Recovery Center proposal for homeless veterans and asked for our help.

John said, “Peace is patriotic, and spread the word.”

James said, “Stop the wars.”

Faith said, “Have good success and I will help.”

Ralph said, “our list is our witness” and “we need gender balance on the board.”

“We need to get mad and have to be unhappy about the way the world is going,” said Dick.

Rose said we should “teach our children that peace is not a sissy thing.”

Bill said, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Martha said, “We didn’t pay attention in the Korean war. If we did, we would not have been at war again after.”

Ed said, “People didn’t love peace enough. Did not wage peace enough.”

Another Bill said “we should support active duty resisters.”

Karen said, “I agree with Bill.”

~ The author served in the U.S. Army from January 1976 until November 1979 with three years stationed in an infantry division near Mainz, Germany.

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Sustainability Writing

Patriotism

Still in Service

Patriotism does not belong to a political party. Veterans pay attention to where the country is going, engage in public discourse, and believe it is our responsibility to do so.

Patriotism, concerns itself with ethics, law, and devotion to the common good. As a young Army officer, I understood the meaning of patriotism in three words, “duty, honor, country.”

There is a new form of patriotism that is unacceptable: patriotism that proclaims “country first.” New patriotism concerns itself with moral responsibilities toward members of “our” group and by definition diminishes responsibilities toward non-members. New patriotism manifests itself in English only legislation, poor treatment of battlefield casualties, and blindness to the effects of war on foreign populations. New patriotism can accept extreme poverty, famine and the genocides in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and Myanmar. New patriotism asks, “what’s in it for me?” without regard for the impacts on the rest of society.

My uniform doesn’t fit, but I keep it in a trunk with my fatigues, compass and decorations. From time to time I get out my compass and am reassured that patriots will never lose their way in this complex and changing society. It is up to us to speak out and watch over the country, just as we did on diverse and distant borders long ago.

Our country needs us now as much as ever.

~ From a letter to the editor submitted to the Daily Iowan on Sept. 29, 2008.

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Sustainability

My Lai 50 Years Later

Coralville Public Library, June 15, 2018

After a shift at the farm I drove to the Coralville Public Library to see the exhibit about the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968.

Created by Mac MacDevitt, and sponsored by the Chicago chapter of Veterans for Peace, the exhibit consisted of a couple dozen tall panels with text, photographs and analysis related what happened over several hours during the Vietnam War.

My Lai, and Nixon’s pardon of William Calley, led to my personal participation in the anti-war movement while I was in high school and college, and then to my enlistment in the U.S. Army in October 1975.

Like any reasonable person I found the military action which killed men, women and children to be morally reprehensible and believed as a society we could do better than the soldiers of Charlie Company. My response was to make changes in the military through my participation.

Calley was the only person convicted of murder during the operation, although it is clear other crimes were committed. Nixon’s pardon reinforced what was commonly believed among service members — that Calley was “just following orders.” While I was in officer training school at Fort Benning, Georgia we debated the efficacy of Charlie Company’s actions that day. My peers sided with Calley.

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness,” wrote Italian philosopher George Santayana.  “When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As I stood in my dirt covered jeans, T-shirt and farm shoes looking at the pastel panels I remembered My Lai. Society hasn’t forgotten about My Lai, its context in the Vietnam War, and the cover up afterward. The next generations never learned about it.

One role for veterans is to help us remember what happens in war. My Lai was the military at its worst. We can and should be better than that.

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Sustainability

Hand on the Button

Nuclear Spring in Sioux City

What do U.S. nuclear abolitionists do when the administration has no plans other than vaguely stated goals of “modernizing the nuclear complex” and spending money on a missile defense system that has never been proven to work?

Focus on a long term strategy toward the goal of nuclear abolition, using the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a hook and the consequences of nuclear war as the message.

It’s a tough row to hoe because the United States and other nuclear states stand in opposition to the ban treaty promulgated at the U.N., now open to signature.

A colleague in the nuclear abolition movement reported July 14 from New York:

The emotional electricity in the room was palpable. Everyone could feel that history was being made in Conference Room 1 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. And when the vote tally came in, it was followed with a roar of approval in the room. Bucking intimidation from the nuclear-armed superpowers, 122 nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons with one vote “no” and one abstention. It’s official: nuclear weapons are illegal!

I’ve never felt hopeful about the ban treaty because President Obama and his successor both indicated they would modernize our nuclear complex, investing more than a trillion dollars. President Trump’s recent statement while taking questions at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey is disappointing on multiple levels.

“We are going to be increasing our budget by many billions of dollars because of North Korea and other reasons having to do with the anti-missile,” Trump said. “As you know, we reduced it by five percent, but I’ve decided I don’t want that. We are going to be increasing the anti-missiles by a substantial amount of billions of dollars.”

Modernization is not really his decision because the Congress must appropriate funds for it. It’s the normal checks and balances designed into our government by the framers of the constitution. However, what is in President Trump’s control is launching a nuclear war within a few minutes at his sole discretion. That can and should change.

Once accepted without vocal opposition, the president having his hand on the nuclear button should be challenged. No president should have sole discretion to unleash a human Armageddon that could end civilization as we know it.

There is chatter in the news media that President Trump won’t complete his full, four-year term. The better bet is he will and will mount a formidable campaign for re-election. Republicans in the Congress won’t impeach, and the 45th president won’t resign.

We shouldn’t be distracted by the hope this presidential term will soon be over. Regardless of who’s president, if the U.S. doesn’t sign on to the nuclear weapons ban, as it currently appears we won’t; if we won’t fulfill our obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which we are a party; others should be included in any decision to use nuclear weapons.

That change is something nuclear abolitionists can and should work on now.

To learn more, click on Martin Fleck’s report from the UN here.

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Living in Society Sustainability

It’s Not Memorial Day

It’s Not Memorial Day

We can end the witch hunt because it’s been found in the person of Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer.

I had hoped our first female speaker would be different from other politicians. Those hopes were dashed as she proved herself otherwise in pandering to the sizable Iowa veteran population.

In her May 19 legislative newsletter she wrote as if it were for FOX News,

With Memorial Day right around the corner, I encourage everyone to take a moment to reflect on the service and sacrifices that our veterans and active duty members of the military make each and every day.  Please also take some time to recognize those that protected us and kept us safe who are no longer with us.  It truly takes a special kind of person to put their country and others above themselves and for that we thank each and every member of our armed services, past and present.  Thank you for your service and I wish everyone a safe and happy Memorial Day.

Nuts to her. It’s not Memorial Day.

Had Upmeyer made her statement in support of Armed Forces Day, which was the next day, it wouldn’t have caught my attention. President Truman led the effort to establish a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank our military members for their patriotic service in support of our country. In that context, Upmeyer’s statement may have been appropriate. Instead she politicized military service.

I take offense to Upmeyer’s thoughtless muddle because it casts a polite if patriotic fog over the fact of increasing militarism under President Trump. Not only is our country considering ramping up our 15-year war in Afghanistan, fighting a proxy war in Yemen through Saudi Arabia, and working to isolate Iran, we have forgotten the fact that real people serve in the military and put their lives at risk for this failing foreign policy. Under the 45th president there will be more war dead.

The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. It’s not to thank veterans for their service. It’s not to thank currently serving military staff. It’s not to reflect personally about highway safety or being happy. Those are political calculations. Memorial Day is to participate as part of a community in honoring our war dead.

One hopes that is something most Americans can agree upon.

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Sustainability

Civilians Should Control Our Military

Woman Writing Letter

Civilian control of the military is an American value our president doesn’t appear to share.

A report last Friday from the American-led military coalition in Iraq indicated scores of non-combatant civilians huddled in basements for protection had been killed in U.S. bombing raids with as many as 200 casualties.

During a 2015 interview on NBC, candidate Trump made his intentions regarding Islamic State and their assets clear.

“With ISIS, you kill them at the head. You take the oil,” he said. “That’s where they’re getting their money. If you bomb the hell out of it, you bomb the hell out of it. You’ve got to stop their wealth. They have tremendous wealth.”

It is one thing to destroy the economic assets of the Islamic State and quite another to kill civilians as coalition forces attempt to drive them from Mosul.

The official government position is that rules of engagement with enemy combatants have not changed with the new administration. At the same time, coalition partners indicate the rules have been relaxed. In the fog of military explanations the truth is obscured.

If the report is true, we know why. It’s because the president turned our wars over to his generals and shouldn’t have. The president’s disregard for civilian control of the military is evidenced by the fact the Congress had to pass a law to enable former Marine Corps General James Mattis to become Secretary of Defense.

Our president should be hands-on when it comes to our wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. There is little evidence he is and innocent people are paying the price.

~ A letter to the editor of the Solon Economist