Archive for November, 2008

Today we went to Target and to the mall. We weren’t Christmas shopping; we needed some workout clothes for my wife and her grandmother wanted to buy her a dress. The lack of shoppers shocked me. Target showed no signs that today was Black Friday, and the mall barely seemed to register an uptick. I know this didn’t happen everywhere–people were trampled to death at a Wal-Mart in a consuming frenzy–but in Plano, Texas, the richest community in the country, this was the Blitz Day that wasn’t. I wish that I believed the bodyblow to consumerism came from the Buy Nothing Day push. I’m almost 100 percent sure that the shopping no-shows stayed home due to the economic crisis.

The Washington Post today brought to light another of the bad effects of the economic crisis: it’s driving people into the military.

Some of the largest investment firms on Wall Street are gone. The country’s auto industry is on the verge of collapse. Banks are shedding jobs. But in these doom-and-gloom times, there is someone who’s hiring: your local military recruiter.

The economic downturn and rising unemployment rate are making the military a more attractive option, Pentagon officials say. In some cases, the peace of mind that comes with good benefits and a regular paycheck is overcoming concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which any new enlistee is likely to join.

This phenomenon has a name: The Poverty Draft.

The majority of military recruits come from below-median income neighborhoods…We have decrepit schools, bad housing, limited job options and poor healthcare.  Despite our serious needs, the government spends more money trying to convince us to join the military than on basic human needs like education.

The pentagon dropped $13,000 recruiting each person who enlisted.   Compare that to the $1,115 that is spent on education per student,   and you’ve got a pretty clear picture of the government’s priorities.

…They’re promising college tuition, job training, and adventure.

In 2004, 71% of black recruits, 65% of Latino recruits, and 58% of white recruits came from below median income neighborhoods .

What recruiters don’t tell us is that 75% of blacks & 67% of Latinos report experiencing racial discrimination in the military.  They skip over the fact that 1 out of 3 women in the military reported being raped.   They never mention that the college money is difficult to come by- only 16% of enlisted personnel who completed four years of military duty ever received money for schooling.   They don’t say that the job skills they promise won’t transfer into the real world.  Only 12% of male veterans and 6% of female veterans use skills learned in the military in their current jobs.   And of course, they downplay the risk of being killed while on duty.

By the way, that rape statistic cannot be overstated:

Rape is almost twice as frequent [in the military] as it is among civilians, especially in wartime.

And:

Rep. Jane Harman cited Veterans Administration statistics that one in three women in the military has been sexually assaulted. She said the prosecution rate of those accused of raping fellow military service members is abysmally low. Of the 2,212 reported rapes in the military in 2007, only 8 percent of the cases ended in court-martial of the perpetrator, while the rate of prosecution in civilian courts is 40 percent.

Two of the Poverty Draft’s primary recruitment tools are the promise of money for college and training for a good career after military service:

As a Soldier, you can take advantage of the Montgomery GI Bill and the Army College Fund to pay for your college education. Depending on how long you enlist with the Army and the job you choose, you can get up to $81,756 to help pay for college. All you have to do is give $100 a month during your first year of service. If you select the Army College Fund, the total amount is combined with the MGIB.

And:

Many Soldiers use their experience in the Army as a foundation for a career in the civilian world. Depending on your MOS, your training and leadership skills can be easily transferable to many careers like computer technology, communications or law enforcement.

The problem is…you probably won’t get your benefits at all, and the average payout is only 2,151 bucks, hardly enough to pay for college.

Just over half of the veterans enrolled in the Montgomery GI Bill have never seen a penny in college assistance, and the average net payout for all veterans who signed up has been only $2151. Some veterans receive much more assistance but many receive nothing – either because they were ruled ineligible when they left the service or because they are routinely denied benefits even though they are eligible. There is currently a backlog of requests for benefits and the VA (Veterans Administration) which administers the benefits is underfunded and overwhelmed.

And regardless of whether you actually get the benefits, you pay $1,200 dollars out of your first year’s pay to fund the program. Let me repeat: you start off $1,200 in the hole when you enroll, and then hope you fulfill enough qualifications to get benefits to overcome your initial debt.

In addition to the difficulty in getting even a paultry sum to help fund college, you probably won’t be able to use the skills learned in the military in your civilian job:

[O]nly 12% of male veterans and 6% of female veterans surveyed made any use of skills learned in the military in their civilian jobs.

The purpose of the military is to make other people die for their country–if you join the military, regardless of what a recruiter tells you, you will be called upon to kill other people–and possibly other Christians–for the state. If you are a Christian, you will have to choose between your duty as a soldier and your duty as a follower of Christ, because make no mistake, Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount:

38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

These are tough economic times, and the military knows that presents a prime recruiting opportunity. But you don’t have to kill to stay afloat–alternatives exist.  And, if you’ve already joined the military but now oppose war and other violence, people want to help you get out.

The tragedy in India continues to unfold today. India’s leaders already insinuated that Pakistan might be responsible. Pakistan’s leaders warned India’s leaders not to burn their good will by reflexively blaming their traditional enemies, especially at a time when Pakistan’s new leaders offer things like forswearing a nuclear strike on India. Two scenarios or a combination look more likely than a foolish and pointless Pakistani-pushed terror operation:

1) Jihadists groups seeking to blow apart a thawing of relations between India and Pakistan. Aside from undermining the rationale for the existence of militant jihadist groups in India, a thaw in relations would free more resources for Pakistan to turn on the jihadists within Pakistan.  And that’s a problem for them in more than one respect: first, the ability to flow back and forth across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border allows insurgents to escape U.S./NATO forces whose operational mandate restricts their ability to fully pursue insurgents into Pakistan. Second, al-Qaida has decided its new focus is Pakistan (hat tip Noah):

Pakistan has replaced Iraq as al Qaeda’s main focus, and the terror group has stepped up its efforts to destabilize the nuclear-armed South Asian nation, according to a senior U.S. military commander.

“Iraq is now a rear-guard action on the part of al Qaeda,” said Gen. James Conway, the head of the Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview. “They’ve changed their strategic focus not to Afghanistan but to Pakistan, because Pakistan is the closest place where you have the nexus of terrorism and nuclear weapons.”

Increased tensions between Pakistan and India would leech military resources toward the India/Pakistan border, giving insurgents a freer rein to work to destabilize Pakistan. A fight with India would also inherently destabilize Pakistan, making it an easier target.

2) Disaffected Muslim groups native to India lashing out against being left behind. Fareed Zakaria:

I think one of the misconceptions we’re seeing so far is the assumption that these attacks were aimed primarily at foreigners. Look at their targets. The two hotels they attackedthe Taj and the Oberoiare old, iconic Indian hotels. It used to be true that these places were affordable only by Westerners. But this is no longer true, and it’s one of the big changes over the last ten years in India. The five-star hotels today are filled with Indians. Businessmen, wedding receptions, parties…these are real meeting places now, and even those who cannot afford to stay there often pass through the lobby…

One of the untold stories of India is that the Muslim population has not shared in the boom the country has enjoyed over the last ten years. There is still a lot of institutional discrimination, and many remain persecuted. There’s enough alienation out there that there are locals who can be drawn in to plots. That tends to be a pattern, from Madrid to Casablanca to Balisome hard-core jihadis who indoctrinate alienated locals they can seduce.

What’s also new and different about this was that it involved suicide attackers. There have been planted bombs in the past. But this is a different level than we’ve seen in India.

Zakaria’s gut lends creedence to #1:

An Indian businessman who says he heard the attackers said he didn’t understand the language that the young men were speaking. That means that it wasn’t Hindi or Urdu… most Indians would recognize the major languages even if they couldn’t speak one of them. But most Indians would be unfamiliar with what’s spoken in parts of the Kashmir. That’s a source of much of the terrorism. My guess is that ultimately this will turn out to be some outside jihadi groups who might also recruit among disaffected Muslims locally.

Whether this turns out to be the case or not, the situation is very dangerous.  A fight between India and Pakistan would be a nightmare.  Let’s keep the victims, the violent, and the leaders of both countries in our prayers.

The scripture for the Eucharist for Thursday:

Luke 21:20-28

20 ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.* 21Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. 23Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

This passage is not about a “rapture.” I agree with N.T. Wright’s reading of this text.  Paraphrased briefly by the Girardian Lectionary:

…[This] is a crucial passage for Wright’s entire presentation of the Historical Jesus, since he paints Jesus as a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet. But he differs from Schweizer in thinking Jesus expected the “end of the world” or an imminent “Second Coming.” Rather, Jesus correctly prophesied that continued reliance on military rebellion would result in the destruction of the Temple and end of Jewish life as they knew it…

…[T]his kind of prophetic language was about real-time events of ‘earth shattering’ implications. The ‘Son of Man’ language from Daniel is enthronement language about being vindicated, not some cosmic event of an end-time coming. The Book of Daniel is about Israel’s vindication of the successful Maccabean revolt against Aristarchus Epiphanies IV, told in the language of Israel’s coming vindication against Babylon.

In our passage from Luke 21, what has been interpreted as talking about Jesus’ Second Coming is interpreted by Wright as enthronement imagery because Jesus’ prophecy about Jerusalem, which begins this passage, has been vindicated in 70 AD.

Jesus warned his contemporaries to abandon their budding violent nationalistic agenda against Rome and trust his agenda of nonviolent, self-sacrificing love for enemies.  This passage serves as his warning…God’s visitation was at hand for Jerusalem, and if they insisted on putting into practice the myth of redemptive violence–the true religion of Babylon–then they would reap their own destruction. When you tangle with the supremely violent, you’d best not let them set the terms of the conflict in their favor via violence.

Note that in Afghanistan, the U.S. does its best to ignore Jesus’ truism. From Reuters:

Afghanistan has suffered its worst violence this year since U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, with at least 4,000 people killed, around a third of them civilians.

AFP, emphasis mine:

Despite the efforts of nearly 70,000 international soldiers, attacks from insurgents are at a record high this year and the growing violence has given new impetus to efforts to find other ways out of the insurgency, including peace talks…

The NATO chief said peace talks with the insurgents was an Afghan issue.

“I would, of course, applaud reconciliation,” he said, adding that military warfare would not end the insurgency in Afghanistan.

And yet, the now-and-future U.S. Secretary of Defense wants to send 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan to end the insurgency. That’s about two-thirds of the number of troops the U.S. has in Afghanistan right now.  “Military warfare will not end the insurgency,” say Karzai and NATO; “It’s clear there is a need for more [troops] to try to deal with this increased security problem,” says Gates.

That makes no sense.

The simple fact is that America has become so infected with militarism that “American solutions” and “military solutions” mean the same thing. In the grand scheme of things, the U.S. doesn’t “do” diplomacy:

Let’s put the size of the State Department Foreign Service in perspective. The U.S. active-duty military is 119 times larger than the Foreign Service. The total uniformed military (active and reserve) is 217 times larger. A typical U.S. Army division is larger than the entire Foreign Service. The military has more uniformed personnel in Mississippi than the State Department has diplomats worldwide. The military has more full colonels/Navy captains than the State Department has diplomats. The military has more band members than the State Department has diplomats. The Defense Department has almost as many lawyers as the State Department has diplomats.

The United States accounts for about half of worldwide military spending. We maintain hundreds of bases around the globe. We spend almost six times as much as the next nation on ‘defense.’ We lead the world in arms sales. The United States in the 20th century fell for the Old Lie: that violence can bring safety, that violence saves. We do not trust Christ for his nonviolent, self-sacrificing agenda of love for our enemies.  If our dollars tell us anything about our civil religion, it’s that our civil religion isn’t Christian; it’s Babylonian.

We might consider the other Eucharistic reading for today:

‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling-place of demons…

…for your merchants were the magnates of the earth,
and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.

…And in you* was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.’

American Heroes

Posted: November 24, 2008 in Uncategorized
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Friday night I landed back in Austin after a week in D.C.  I was not prepared for travel back to our old stomping grounds. My wife and I lived in D.C. for five years while I worked on Capitol Hill, and in a lot of ways it still feels like home. I made the mistake of watching CNN on the JetBlue flight into Dulles; OBAMA–Transition to Power dominated their coverage.   Surrounded by epic monuments, interesting, earnest conversation, our old friends and the evidence of coming Change, I started to question our decision to leave.

In the depths of nostalgia, I somehow thought a walk to the White House would be a good idea. Thank goodness.  At the White House, I met Robin.

Robin mans a peace display in front of the White House

Robin mans a peace display in front of the White House

I’d walked by Robin’s display several times while living in D.C. but never paid too much attention. It’s a large, yellow plywood pair of signs with stenciled letters that say things like “Say no to nuclear weapons or have a nice doomsday!” Photos of the victims of war and other violence pepper the displays, and whomever stays with the display sits between them to keep the cops from hauling them away. It’s a lonely vigil.

As I walked by the signs for the umpteenth time, Robin said, “Hey buddy.” We struck up a conversation. It turns out I’d been passing him by without saying hello for years…around 16 years.

My grandparents used to live outside of Amarillo, Texas, across the railroad tracks from Pantex, the final assembly point for U.S. nuclear weapons. Across the dirt road from their house was the Peace Farm, about 20 acres of land used as a base by anti-nuclear activists protesting Department of Energy activities at the plant. Robin used to live there.

Robin and his friends manned that lonely post out in front of the White House for 25 years. Out there in front of the heart of Americanism, they sit through rain, heat and freezing cold to keep the reality of war visible in a town that loves to pretend it’s a glorious, manly, pain-free adventure. Not many people appreciate having their fantasies torn to pieces. He told a joke, and then admitted he tells jokes to keep depression away. The lines of his face and the lack of expressiveness on his brow hinted at years of fighting a long defeat. Yet here he was, in the cold, politely waving away offers of warm coffee. Heroism…not the flashy kind, hinted at through edifices dramatically lit at night, but the kind that fights on after one’s hope of victory died.

We shared a “terrorist fist jab,” and I left. On the way to the Metro stop, I passed the American Legion headquarters.  “For God and Country,” the inscription read. Sometimes you betray one to serve the other.

Inscription on American Legion HQ

Inscription on American Legion HQ

Exactly

Posted: November 15, 2008 in Uncategorized
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I’m no conservative, but The American Conservative nailed it:

Nobody wants to recall what Americans believed back then. That’s OK: I’ll remember it. People thought that Saddam was “connected to” 9/11, and his agents were going to poison our water, nuke our cities, and gas our subways. At least they claimed to believe all that unlikely James Bond stuff. I don’t think they really did. There was just so much revenge momentum after 9/11 that it had to burst out somewhere. Everybody wanted payback. It’s natural. But most of the time, in your average democracy, cooler heads are in charge. Not this time. Bush and his team were foaming at the mouth far more than the average citizen. It was like a crazed sheriff trying to talk a lukewarm mob into a lynching frenzy. With the help of people who should have known better—I’m looking at you, Colin Powell—he got his way.

“I don’t understand anyone who would call themselves a Christian, let alone a Catholic, and could vote for someone who’s a pro-abortion candidate,” said Ted Kelly, 64, who volunteers his time as lector for the church. “You’re talking about the murder of innocent beings.”

A priest in South Carolina wrote a letter to his parishioners warning them that they place their immortal souls at risk if they take communion after having voted for Barack Obama because there was a viable “pro-life” candidate also on the ticket. Such support of a so-called “supporter” of abortion constitutes, in this priest’s words, “material support of intrinsic evil.” The gentleman quoted above attends the priest’s church.

This may expose my inner Super Protestant / Anabaptist, but I take issue with the magical thinking implied in this priest’s warning. Communion is not some magical ceremony that will unleash destructive power upon unworthy participants. Mass isn’t an Indiana Jones movie.

Communion is a shared meal (commune-al!) in which we remember Christ’s sacrifice for us. Scriptures indicate also that it had an economic / class element as well, in that it self-consciously transcended both. But I have never understood church leaders who feel the need to inject fear of hellfire and damnation and magical curses into the shared meal, the Messianic banquet.

The priest’s letter infuriates me most when I juxtapose what it said with what it didn’t say. He took the time to threaten parishoners with damnation for supporting an opponent of abortion bans, but ignored both candidates support for the use of military force and its attendent murder of innocent bystanders. Like the man said, “You’re talking about the murder of innocent beings.” This is an awfully large blind spot.  If you’re not willing to go the full distance with Christ on opposition to violence in all circumstances, then you should at least be willing to follow the very simple instruction of not trying to help a neighbor with the mote in his eye until you get the log out of yours.

The letter also illustrates an inappropriate preoccupation with what the government should do to reduce abortions. The government does not directly generate supply for abortions. Pregnant people who don’t want to be pregnant generate the demand for abortions. The government can outlaw a thing, but when demand remains, supply remains. Remember Prohibition? Now imagine in every speakeasy was a hidden room with a “doctor” and a bent coathanger.

I said the government does not directly generate supply for abortions, but it can indirectly influence abortion through the effects of its policies on poverty rates. Poverty rates and abortion rates are tied together. Reduce poverty and you reduce abortions.

I long for the day when the scaremongers at least threaten your soul for not supporting the most anti-poverty, anti-war candidates, and when the church starts to understand it must stop ceding its responsibility for serving others and passing along its values to the state.

I will rest easy tonight knowing my slumber is defended by hundreds of mass-murder devices in the hands of capable, well-referenced, moral and competent people. Or not. (Hat tip to Danger Room)

The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., failed its nuclear surety inspection after inspectors found problems with wing’s Maintenance Group and its personnel reliability program, which monitors who can work with nuclear weapons, an Air Force official said.

The 341st is one of three Air Force wings that maintain the nation’s Minuteman III nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Inspectors found minor deficiencies with the way security forces protected the weapons storage area during the inspection, said an Air Force officer briefed on the inspection results who asked to remain anonymous.

Earlier this year the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., failed its NSI after problems were found with its security forces. Those problems have since been corrected, said 5th Bomb Wing commander Col. Joel Westa.

Task forces charged with critiquing the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise — including one led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger — have consistently faulted the service’s nuclear inspection regime.

“Over the past 10 years, inspection pass rates point to anomalies that indicate a systemic problem in the inspection regime,” according to the Schlesinger report.

The existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of any regime threatens everyone, everywhere. Even the “good guys” are fallible. The Air Force’s poor nuke security record means we have poor assurances that we, and not some lunatic, will be in charge of picking which cities in which to slaughter whole civilian populations.

To quote the most famous political ad of all time (LBJ’s campaign, no less):

“These are the stakes:  to make a world in which all of God’s children can life, or to go into the dark.  We must either love each other, or we must die.”

Violence, even the weapons of ultimate violence, cannot prevent each of us from dying. The American nuclear arsenal serves as a talisman against the fear of other countries, of their ability to harm us, to end our lives. The cruel twist in the story is that we are so afraid of death that we’ve created tools to ward it off that may kill all of us.