Archive for May, 2010

Any frequent reader of this blog knows that I have maintained a somewhat obsessive focus on the Afghanistan war over the last two years. If there’s a long break between posts that touch on Christian nonviolence, it’s because I’m writing furiously about Afghanistan, and if there’s a long break between posts in general, it’s usually because I’m too busy working on the Rethink Afghanistan project at work to write at all. I’m in one of those periods now, and the only reason I’m writing this post at all is because I’m awake at 4:30 a.m. after too much caffeine and a mid-day nap. This is how I operate: I become obsessed with a topic or a project to the exclusion of others, and if I don’t watch myself, I’ll run myself completely into the ground working on it.

I guess it’s a good thing I was never into drugs or alcohol.

Lately, I’m doing a better job putting my life back into balance. I am back in the gym regularly, I’m doing a better job getting out and about in the morning (I work from home from noon to 9 p.m.), and I’m taking care of the yard work as a way to get some sun and physical activity during the day. These have been very happy adjustments to my routine.

I am in the midst, however, of a more somber readjustment: my wife and I are leaving our church community. Nothing specific has happened, and we’re not leaving in a fit of pique or with hard feelings. Our rector is an extremely kind and caring priest, and is a wonderfully talented public speaker, and we’ve found the community to be very welcoming. However, we do have a very strong disagreement with what we perceive as the pervading attitudes about the permissibility of violence–in particular, violence in service to the state. My wife and I came to hold very strong feelings about the uncompromising nonviolence at the core of Jesus’ ethic to the point that it’s an article of faith for us.

Our rector understands our views, and I believe he sympathizes greatly with them. In fact, he’s been extremely supportive of our efforts to start an Episcopal Peace Fellowship chapter, and of our recent nonviolence training. He’s encouraged us to keep pushing the issue and to keep holding meetings and leading classes on the topic. The problem, though, is that our church community is divided on the issue, and we definitely perceive ourselves to be in the minority. And, unfortunately, this dynamic seems to hold throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. As I wrote earlier:

Those of us who many would label as “peace activists” are constantly cautioned to go slow, to be diplomatic, to think carefully before we speak to our brothers and sisters, and [as far as I know] rare is the instance when those who disagree with us on these issues are urged to do the same. We are constantly subjected to patronizing head-patting in the form of “wouldn’t it be nice if the world worked that way” preaching and commentary.

As much as I’d like to take my rector up on his invitation to continue the soul-changing work of raising a flag for nonviolence in a church community where that philosophy is foreign, I need some place to rest inside a community where that ethic is the norm. There has to be a time and place during my week where I don’t have to be taking the ramparts for my ethical convictions, where I can commune with others who believe as I do that the early church had it right when they spoke unequivocally against violence, even violence in service to the state.

Simply put, we need rest and support. Everyone involved in any kind of activism needs the same.

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$1,000,000,000,000.00

As of today, that’s how much we’ve spent just in direct costs so far on the stupid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One trillion dollars, gone. And we’re just getting warmed up…there are trillions more in future direct and indirect costs coming.

These two wars mutilated our economy. There’s no other way to say it. We’ve taken a huge amount of wealth and done things with it that damaged the economy. People are out of work and hurting today because we chose to launch two wars that aren’t worth the cost.

The most glaring example of this dynamic is the use of hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to invade and occupy Iraq, which led to higher oil prices, which hit taxpayers again in their pocketbooks.

Many other examples exist: We pay to train American kids to kill in Afghanistan. We pay to ship them overseas where they die or get injured. We pay for medical care for the survivors. Their families lose both the wounded’s income and often lose additional income when loved ones reduce work hours to stay home and care for the wounded.

The list of these vicious cycles goes on and on. In all cases, our government actually charges us for the privilege of having an even harder time making it in this tough economy.

Actually, it’s worse than that. The government charges us for the privilege of having a tough economy in the first place.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s (CEPR) Dean Baker:

“In standard economic models, defense spending is a direct drain on the economy, reducing efficiency, slowing growth and costing jobs. …[S]tandard economic models…project that the increase in defense spending since 2000 will cost the economy close to two million jobs in the long run.”

Baker’s point in his article was that groups that scream about potential “job loss” from government “interference” never put that “loss” in any context. Government spending does stimulate economic activity during a downturn. The question is, how stimulative is one type of spending versus another? So let’s make sure we’re playing fair and put this in some perspective in terms of job creation.

It turns out that, excluding tax cuts for consumption, war spending is the least stimulative type of government spending.

An October 2007 study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) found that per $1 billion invested in the following fields, you create wildly different numbers of jobs:

  • Defense: 8,555 jobs
  • Construction for home weatherization/infrastructure: 12,804 jobs
  • Health care: 12,883 jobs
  • Education: 17,687 jobs
  • Mass transit: 19,795 jobs

So if you take $1 billion in taxpayer dollars and spend it on war versus on building energy efficient homes and other infrastructure, the opportunity cost for that spending is 4,249 potential jobs. Spending it on war versus mass transit costs you 11,240 potential jobs.

Now consider that $1 trillion is one thousand billion. Because we’re spending so many billions–now trillions–of dollars on these two wars, we’re losing hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of potential jobs.

PERI concludes that:

…[B]y addressing social needs in the areas of health care, education, education, mass transit, home weatherization and infrastructure repairs, we would also create more jobs and, depending on the specifics of how such a reallocation is pursued, both an overall higher level of compensation for working people in the U.S. and a better average quality of jobs.

These lost potential jobs aren’t even the whole picture. We also lose the fruits of spending that money in more productive ways, which, according to the National Priorities Project, include:

  • 188,536,667 Students receiving Pell Grants of $5550 OR
  • 8,139,680 Affordable Housing Units OR
  • 461,193,337 Children with Health Care for One Year

But hey, at least these wars are working out well for BP, right?

Had enough? Help us get people talking about the cost of these wars by playing using our new Facebook app to show us your trillion dollar plan, and share it with your friends.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the Battle-God, great, and his Kingdom –
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

–Stephen Crane, Do not weep, maiden for war is kind.

According to The New York Times, 1,000 U.S. troops have now died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Here is this wide altar, Afghanistan, on which our empire leaves its tribute to the true god of all empires. One thousand of the young, blown apart by rough-made bombs buried on roads to nowhere, shot by snipers, or worse, by their own.  One thousand sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, mentors, students, friends, husbands, wives, lovers. A thousand goats led into the wild to appease the spirit of the wilderness, the maker of weapons, sent to the desert for our impurities.

Often we elevate troops who die far up on a pedestal in our national mythology. I think this is a mistake. It obscures why people join the military, it obscures what we’ve lost, and it prevents us from thinking critically about the choices we make that lead to their deaths. When a thousand of our people go into the dark, we should ask what led them there, what they hoped to gain and what we hoped to gain from sending them.

In 2006, the Pentagon found that when asked their main motivation for enlisting, 61.9 percent cited a reason other than “service to country,” a figure that the RAND Corporation’s Beth Asch cautioned could actually be higher since new recruits often cast their decision in idealistic terms. While “service to country” was the main reason for the plurality of recruits, skills acquisition, adventure, money for education, benefits, travel and pay were the other top reasons, listed in descending order. We also know that when the economy is in the tank, military recruitment increases. (I note, though, that the reason for enlistment may not remain their motivation to continue in military service, and that membership in a community in danger and under pressure tends to radically alter one’s orientation toward the group. So, someone who joins for economic reasons may not remain in the service for that reason alone, or at all.)

To say that troops join the military for economic reasons is not to degrade them. Supporting a family is not a selfish cause. But that little detail – that Private Smith died in a dangerous job that she took to support a family – is fraught with human connection and tragedy, and we lose that if we over-idealize what led them to the battlefield. The same is true if they just joined the service to escape a mind-numbing routine, or to overcome a criminal record, or to cut ties with a past.

All this is to say that portraying our troops as selfless warrior monks of virtue fails to honor the truth about the lives that ended in Afghanistan. These men and women were generally not burning with a desire to suppress their hopes and dreams so that the rest of us could have our hopes and dreams. They had their own plans, their own purposes, their own desired futures for themselves toward which military service was a step, and very few of them included dying on a battlefield. Their lives had their own meaning independent of the lives and “freedom” of the survivors. Obscuring their desires in an over-bright halo also obscures the futures that we lost with them.

We did not lose sacrificial lambs, born to die on our behalf. We lost the doctors, the lawyers, teachers, pilots, writers, mechanics, all of the potential for achievement which many of them hoped to unlock through the skills and opportunities they hoped to gain from their time in the military. We lost fathers, mothers, bedtime stories and a comforting, rock-solid presence in the bleachers at their kid’s sporting events. We lost them spoiling their grandkids. We lost the entire life of the person they would have become and all the gifts they would have given the human race.

Putting these troops so high on the pedestal that they “died for you and me,” high enough where their sacrifice is just shy of a crucifixion, also conveniently obscures our role in killing them. We all know the rhetoric we can expect to hear as we whistle past this marker: “It’s up to us to make sure they didn’t die in vain.” Empty-headed exhortations to “support the troops.” Support, as in, “do not gainsay the purpose for which power-holders are willing to see them die.” Don’t say anything that would upset these troops on the way to the killing floor.

I’m reminded of the dialogue in Monster’s Ball, where Billy Bob Thornton harangues Heath Ledger for vomiting while escorting a prisoner to the gas chamber: “You f***ed up that man’s last walk! How would you like it if someone f***ed up your last walk?!” The condemned deserve a placid walk; don’t let on what’s really happening here.

Similarly, the support we’ll be urged to give today will be the kind that doesn’t disturb the walk of the 1,001st troop. But let’s be honest, here – those who will spout this kind of rhetoric are at least as concerned with our disturbing the consciences of those who set the policies for which the soldiers died (or those of their constituents). Any bets on whether these exhortations and these policies come from the same people? How convenient is the demand: silence for the sake of the victims protects those who sent them to die.

Now is not the time for silence. One thousand Americans are dead in Afghanistan in a war that’s not making us safer. One thousand people are dead, and many others are wounded and deranged, because we continue to choose military action as the solution to a political problem. Al-Qaida is long gone from the country. The arterial wealth of our nation is gushing out in trillion dollar spurts. All this is obscured behind the glow of the sacralized dead, a glow that, we are told, will vanish if we question the purpose of the ritual and the plans of those who ordered the sacrifice.

One thousand American troops are dead in Afghanistan.

Look past the false sacred glow with which the power-holders will try to cover the dead, and by association, their policies.

See the field where a thousand corpses lie.

Remember the real people who lie there, and remember the real people on their way to join them.

Defend them from the Battle-God.

End this war.

President Obama told reporters on May 12, 2010, that “we’re beginning to reverse the momentum of the insurgency” in Afghanistan.

According to his administration’s own report given to Congress last week, that’s not true. The insurgency is growing in size and capabilities. Simply put, the president’s continued troop increases aren’t working.

It’s time to change course. Tell your Member of Congress that you want an exit timetable for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The president’s assertion was more fully fleshed out by Undersecretary for Defense Michelle Flournoy before the House Armed Services Committee last week:

“We’ve seen other positive indicators in the last year, as well. Of the 121 key terrain districts identified by ISAF in December 2009, 60 were assessed as sympathetic or neutral to the Afghan Government. By March, 2010, that number had climbed to 73 districts. Of the 121 key terrain districts identified by ISAF in December 2009, 60 were assessed as sympathetic or neutral to the Afghan Government. By March, 2010, that number had climbed to 73 districts.”

That’s a statistic in the sense of a “lies, damn lies, and statistics” statistic from the Defense Department’s “Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan (PDF),” delivered last week to Congress. First, note that they surveyed an additional 28 districts in March compared to December. But here’s the real meat: between December 2009 and March 2010:

  • No district at all shifted to being “supportive” of the government. In fact, no district was classified as “population supports the government.” The number of districts where the population “supported the insurgency” did increase from 7 to 8, however.
  • The number of districts classified as “sympathetic” to the government increased by 10. What Flournoy didn’t point out, however, was that the number of districts classified as “sympathetic” to the insurgency increased by 14 over the same period.

By my count, that puts the administration in the hole by 1 additional district “supporting” the insurgency and 4 additional districts “sympathetic” to the insurgency.

Twenty-nine districts are sympathetic to or support the Afghan government. Forty-eight are sympathetic to or supportive of the insurgency. Forty-four are neutral. Violence is up 87 percent.

That’s called failure.

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Last week, the military published an ironically titled “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” that wrapped blunt admissions of strategic collapse in typical Pentagon happy talk. Short version: Violence is up 87 percent (p. 39), the insurgency has population sympathy/support in 92 of 121 key regions, and local support for International Security Assistance Force’s mission in the toilet (p. 38-39). Oh, and we’re killing more civilians, too. Oh, and Marja is crumbling under NATO’s feet. But worry not! Unnamed senior administration officials tell us, “We are on the cusp! Moving in the right direction!”

Anyone who bothered to read the report could see right through this silly bit of P.R. work. But senior administration officials and elected Democrats can’t be bothered with such petty details as mission failure. They have neocons and neolibs to sop and hippies to punch. Thank G-d for talking-point-laden CODELs!

Here’s TIME’s Joe Klein, quoting an unnamed senior administration official:

McChrystal’s optimism is based on information that he cannot share. …”The counterterrorism effort has broken the momentum that the Taliban built up over the past few years.”

Here’s U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri), paraphrasing General McChrystal from his latest razzle-dazzle CODEL:

Speaking from Pakistan before returning home, Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said the United States is making progress but that tough challenges remain. He said Gen. Stanley McChrystal…told Carnahan and fellow members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the trip that the tide may be turning.

“He believes that they (the Taliban) had lost momentum and that we have an opportunity … but we’re not there yet,” Carnahan said.

Here’s U.S. Rep. Michael McMahon (D-New York):

McMahon said U.S. military leaders, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal…told him and other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the “new counter-insurgency strategy is taking hold.”

“They are seeing progress,” said McMahon…and praised the “marriage of military and civilian support” forces.

McMahon plans to vote for that $33 billion supplemental war spending bill, by the way.

These Democrats would have better served constituents and taxpayers had they stayed home, read the reports that they mandated the military provide them, and applied their critical thinking skills rather than getting a Potemkin-village tour from the military. Instead, though, they opted for a little war tourism and spent a nice afternoon regurgitating the talking points given to them by the military over which they supposedly have oversight authority.

Recall that in December 2009, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn gave a presentation, The State of the Insurgency [h/t Wired’s Danger Room blog], that described insurgent momentum:

“Organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding”

Now see this assessment from the list of insurgent strengths from last week’s report:

The Afghan insurgency has a robust means of sustaining its operations…A ready supply of recruits is drawn from the frustrated population…Organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding. …Insurgents’ tactics, techniques, and procedures for conducting complex attacks are increasing in sophistication and strategic effect. (p. 21)

See all that “broken,” “lost” momentum? Me neither. The list of insurgent strengths listed on page 21 of last week’s report is almost identical to the list of strengths on slide 16 of Flynn’s December presentation. The insurgents’ momentum apparently carried on such that the report authors could cut and paste its description from the December 2009 report.

There’s a major set of votes coming up on $33 billion in new war spending to fund President Obama’s latest massive deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and on U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D-Mass.) bill to require an exit strategy. But, it looks like many Members of Congress can’t be bothered to do their homework or question the happy-talk handed to them during their tourist stops in Kabul. While the military is cutting and pasting its reports together, some Members of Congress are cutting and pasting their talking points.

Fantastic.

I’d like to remind my readers that in September 2009, McChrystal said:

“Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

For those who are counting, that was almost 9 months ago.

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