Pat Tillman, The Skeptical ‘Warrior’ And ‘Hero’

The Pat Tillman who is the centerpiece of Jon Krakauer‘s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman is a familiar, often admirable, archetype: the ‘warrior’ who wants to fight, to win glory, but who doubts the moral standing of the domain in which he will exercise his courage and skills, and as such, his own standing as a hero. This kind of soldier finds deeply problematic all those aspects of military life which are the subject of critique by those on the ‘outside’: the fascist discipline, the endless chickenshit (so memorably described by Paul Fussell in Wartime), the dubious justification of deadly violence, the quiescent acceptance of political atrocity. This ‘warrior’ finds, in the company he keeps, the best and worst humanity has to offer; his companions are not the bravest, the best, or anything like that; they are, instead, in the diversity they embody, perfectly ordinary. The battlefield promises sublimity, but it is also a zone for stupidity, cowardice, treachery, and the worst humanity has to offer. This ‘warrior’ sees it all; takes it all in; and continues to fight, to support his ‘brothers in arms.’ He remains conflicted; not for him the simple clarity of those who obey orders and care for little else. His inconsistency is a familiar one; we are all afflicted by it. We know we can despise something one moment, and yet still be unable to tear ourselves away from it, because of a conflicting commitment.

Tillman, an NFL player who signed up for the US Army after 9/11 because he wanted to ‘do something,’ to ‘fight for the right thing,’ found, almost immediately, that the military was not what he imagined it to be, that the wars he would fight were not the ones he imagined them to be. Yet, he fought on, unwilling to back out and quit even when he had the chance to do so–his contractual commitment called for a three-year stint, and he would complete it, despite his increasing disgust at the conduct of war, at military manners and ways of being. Given the conflict that seemed to be an ever-present aspect of his life in the military, his life’s end seemed grimly appropriate: Tillman was killed, in Afghanistan, by ‘friendly fire’ and his death was covered up by a military and administration keen to use his death for its propaganda value, to cover up any of its own operational, tactical, and ultimately, moral, shortcomings.

There will be more wars in our future, and many more soldiers will die fighting them. They will continue to fight alongside the ‘dregs of humanity’ and the ‘best their nation has to offer’; they will be led by clowns and geniuses alike; they will kill innocents. And  they will include, in their ranks, soldiers like Pat Tillman (and Bowe Bergdahl.) They will be caught up in the rush, but they will find time to step back and cast a quizzical glance over it all. Reading about them is useful, especially in the American context; we are a nation that fights wars all the time; we should know who fights for us, and what is on their minds. We should expect to find humans in all their complicated glory.

 

Hannah Arendt On The Rehabilitation Of George W. Bush

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, p. 144-145, [1963], 2006), Hannah Arendt, making note of Heinrich Himmler‘s ‘change of heart’–as German defeat loomed in the Second World War–with regards to the Final Solution, as he considered suspending the mass killings at Auschwitz, writes:

It was about at this time that a “moderate wing” of the S.S came into existence, consisting of those who were stupid enough to believe that a murderer who could prove he had not killed as many people as he could have killed would have a marvelous alibi, and those who were clever enough to foresee a return to “normal conditions,” when money and good connections would again be of paramount importance.

George W. Bush is making a comeback, and he is being welcomed back with open arms. He has defended the media, under fire from Donald Trump as the ‘enemies of the people,’ he has bemoaned the ‘racism’ present in the American polity’s discourse; he has received hugs from First Ladies; he has been talked up by stand-up comics and liberal talk-show hosts. Welcome back, Dubya; we missed ya. (Even though you walked back your ‘criticism’ of Donald Trump.)

Love means never having to say you are sorry.

Apparently, we love George W. Bush, a mass murdering war criminal, who oversaw torture on his watch, who having bided his time during the Obama Presidency, has now chosen to speak up during the Donald Trump years, all the better to take advantage of an ostensible dramatic contrast with a crude buffoon. George W. Bush remembers only all too well that the scorn that that is now directed at Trump was once sent his way; he is grateful for the cover our Great Orange Leader has now provided him, especially as he count on the fawning admiration of the same commentariat and pundit class that saw fit to deem Donald Trump ‘presidential’ once he had provided proof of his ability to read a prepared speech for television and indulge in the oldest political clichés of all time, that of paying homage to ‘our troops.’

It is unsurprising that George W. Bush’s stock would rise on stepping down from the Oval Office. Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is sui generis and ab initio (and any other Latin phrases you’d like to deploy to make the same point), that all is unprecedented, extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump. (To his credit, Trump has not as yet ordered illegal war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ‘furriners,’ though he might be sorely tempted to do so, given the standing ovation on Monday night.)

Why wouldn’t we forgive and forget? All the better to prepare ourselves for the next unprecedented moment in American history. The loss of memory is the best way to ensure novelty.

Waterboardin’ Brothers: The ISIS And The US

Over at The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi writes on the inhumane treatment the ISIS meted out to those they held hostage (some of whom, like James Foley, were subsequently beheaded). Of particular interest to all Americans should be her descriptions of their torture techniques:

The story of what happened in the Islamic State’s underground network of prisons in Syria is one of excruciating suffering. Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding….At one point, their jailers arrived with a collection of orange jumpsuits….they lined up the French hostages in their brightly colored uniforms, mimicking those worn by prisoners at the United States’ facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They also began waterboarding a select few, just as C.I.A. interrogators had treated Muslim prisoners at so-called black sites during the George W. Bush administration….Within this subset, the person who suffered the cruelest treatment…was Mr. Foley. In addition to receiving prolonged beatings, he underwent mock executions and was repeatedly waterboarded. Meant to simulate drowning, the procedure can cause the victim to pass out. When one of the prisoners was hauled out, the others were relieved if he came back bloodied.“It was when there was no blood,” a former cellmate said, “that we knew he had suffered something even worse.” [italics added]

If ‘waterboarding‘ is now a distinguished member of the American lexicon it is not because the US, as defender of human rights and exporter of freedom, has undertaken a bold, morally inflected campaign to stamp out its usage. Rather it is because its use as an ‘enhanced interrogation technique,’ as an instrument of foreign policy, and the subsequent failure to punish those who indulged in it has become the starkest recent instance of American hypocrisy in a domain which can ill afford such displays.

A hypocrite easily provokes rage; a sanctimonious, blustering, bullying hypocrite provokes an effusion of bilious resentment, which cannot be suppressed for too long. It all too easily finds expression in violence.  This resentment need not be confined to the socially disenfranchised, the poor, the usual subjects of concerned theorizing; instead, even those considerably more fortunate in life may find themselves infected by its virulence. Perhaps we should be a little less surprised than we profess to be that such a motley crew finds itself attracted to the fulminations of the ISIS. Its activities promise them release from the febrile anger that surges through them–no matter how barbaric.

Let us then, gaze upon the evidence before us, of where we have been brought, of how far the mighty have sunk: a prominent arrow in the quiver of one of this world’s most depraved political entities is a torture technique it has borrowed from those who loudly proclaim their perennial standing as arbiters of the world moral order. The long road to moral perdition that began with the declaration of an illegal war against Iraq in 2003 is finding, now, its wholly expected terminus–a rendezvous and commingling and hail-brother-well-mets with those that were supposedly the antithesis to our thesis.

The ‘Historic’ Statue Toppling That Wasn’t

In his essay ‘The Toppling: How the media inflated a minor moment in a long war‘ (The New Yorker, January 20, 2011), Peter Maass provides, by way of context and background, a useful deflationary account of the famous toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. The statue’s downfall had always had a stage-managed feel to it, even at the time; Maass’ account makes clear it was a journalist’s event through and through, with few Iraqis in the square, and even those outnumbered by war correspondents, cameramen and the like, and cheering only when the cameras  panned to them.

The over-the-top, prematurely celebratory response–of the Bush administration–to the statue’s toppling, part of the delusional description of the war, one made especially poignant by our knowledge now, of the mayhem that lay ahead for Iraq, was egged on by the media:

The powerful pictures from Firdos were combined with powerful words. On CNN, the anchor Bill Hemmer said, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history . . . indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself.” On Fox, the anchor Brit Hume said, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen. . . . This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.” One of his colleagues said, “The important story of the day is this historic shot you are looking at, a noose around the neck of Saddam, put there by the people of Baghdad.”

The invocations of ‘seminal,’ ‘indelible,’ Berlin Wall,’ ‘power,’ ‘historic,’ in these breathless descriptions of ‘ a minor moment in a long war’ are galling. They serve as good evidence for a thesis I have privately entertained for a long time: rare is the journalist who does not self-servingly succumb to the temptation to describe a reported event in precisely these terms because doing so increases their sense of self-importance as well. After all, if it’s a historic, momentous, seminal moment, then aren’t the journalists reporting on it carrying out equally momentous work, equally deserving of their place in history? Perhaps they should be written about next, made the subjects of detailed reportage, praised for their presence at The Event?

Descriptions like those cited above are thinly veiled exercises in self-glorification.  This was never more clear to me than during the Monica Lewinsky affair.  Then, confronted by one breathless television reporter and talking head after another, it rapidly became clear to me that what they all seemed to be desperately hoping for was an impeachment of a US president on their watch. Imagine: the memoirs you could write, detailing your role in the coverage of this ‘crisis’, the blow-by-blow accounts you could detail  of every manufactured twist and turn, every ‘intervention’, every skillful and perceptive and brilliant report you provided, as you expertly shepherded The Event and its actors towards its final, earth-shattering conclusion. I was there; this is what I saw.

It’s hard, apparently, to not want to be part of the story.

Big Business and its Friends on the US Supreme Court

An academic study conducted by Lee Epstein, William Landes and Richard Posner confirms something many of us have only intuited till now:

[T]he business docket reflects something truly distinctive about the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. While the current court’s decisions, over all, are only slightly more conservative than those from the courts led by Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and William H. Rehnquist, according to political scientists who study the court, its business rulings are another matter. They have been, a new study finds, far friendlier to business than those of any court since at least World War II.

In the eight years since Chief Justice Roberts joined the court, it has allowed corporations to spend freely in elections in the Citizens United case, has shielded them from class actions and human rights suits, and has made arbitration the favored way to resolve many disputes. Business groups say the Roberts court’s decisions have helped combat frivolous lawsuits, while plaintiffs’ lawyers say the rulings have destroyed legitimate claims for harm from faulty products, discriminatory practices and fraud.

Whether the Roberts court is unusually friendly to business has been the subject of repeated discussion, much of it based on anecdotes and studies based on small slices of empirical evidence. The new study, by contrast, takes a careful and comprehensive look at some 2,000 decisions from 1946 to 2011.

Published last month in The Minnesota Law Review, the study ranked the 36 justices who served on the court over those 65 years by the proportion of their pro-business votes; all five of the current court’s more conservative members were in the top 10. But the study’s most striking finding was that the two justices most likely to vote in favor of business interests since 1946 are the most recent conservative additions to the court, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both appointed by President George W. Bush.

The Supreme Courts’ pro-business orientation finds its most vivid expression in its ruling in an antitrust class action brought against Comcast by its subscribers who had charged that ‘the company had swapped territory with other cable companies to gain market power and raise prices.’ Justice Scalia ruled that plaintiff’s evidence did not permit them to proceed as a class; that they should pursue instead, individual litigation unlikely to be attractive to trial lawyers because of the smaller damages involved (thus effectively ensuring such litigation would not occur):

Plaintiffs’ lawyers…say class actions are the only way to vindicate small harms caused to many people. The victim of, say, a fraudulent charge for a few dollars on a billing statement will never sue. But a lawyer representing a million such people has an incentive to press the claim.

“Realistically,” Professor Miller wrote, “the choice for class members is between collective access to the judicial system or no access at all.”

So the Supreme Court’s rulings making it harder to cross the class-certification threshold have had profound consequences in the legal balance of power between businesses and people who say they have been harmed.

Furthermore, by reaffirming Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which had also thrown out a class-action suit, it further narrowed the scope of class-action suits and made them even more unlikely in the future.

All in all, a grand slam for big business.  Dubya is gone, but not forgotten.

Ten Years After: War Criminals Still Walk Free

You call someone a ‘mass-murdering war criminal’, you best not miss.  And so, when I use that term to describe the unholy troika of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–as I have in the past–I should have very good reasons for doing so. Fortunately, that isn’t hard to do: a pretty systematic case for the appropriateness of that description can be found in this piece by Nicholas J. S. Davies–author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq, a book length development of the same argument. Many others have made similar cases; googling ‘Bush war crimes’ , ‘Cheney war crimes’ and ‘Rumsfeld war crimes’ nets a pretty decent catch; similarly, crimes committed at Gitmo–torture, abuse and murder–implicate a host of other folks too: former deputy assistant attorney general John Choon Yoo, former assistant attorney general Jay Bybee, and former counsels Alberto Gonzales, David Addington and William Haynes, for instance. (And of course, the prosecution of the war did not just hurt Iraq–and kill Iraqis–it hurt the US–and killed Americans too–as Juan Cole points out.)

This description can no longer be considered hyperbole. At the very least, even if one grants the highly offensive premise than an Iraqi life is worth less than an American life, it is clear a war conducted on false pretense–an illegal exercise of executive power–sent thousands of Americans to their death. Just that bare fact should convict the prosecutors of the war of mass murder.

So, what’s left to do? You could ask for prosecution of the criminals by the US justice system but the Obama administration has made it clear there will be no movement in this direction. That is entirely unsurprising, given the blending together of the national security policies of the two administrations. This obliviousness to the compelling moral logic of the war crimes case against the Terrible Trio should not however, blind us to the fact that,

[I]t is also a well-established principle of international law that countries who commit aggression bear a collective responsibility for their actions.  Our leaders’ guilt does not let the rest of us off the hook for the crimes committed in our name.  The United States has a legal and moral duty to pay war reparations to Iraq to help its people recover from the results of aggression, genocide and war crimes….

Turns out therefore, it is not enough to say ‘it was the Bush folks wot did it’ and do our best Pontius Pilate impression.  The responsibility for the Iraqi war is the American people’s.

PS: The killing hasn’t ended yet in Iraq:

Iraq closed a painful decade just as it began: with explosions reverberating around the capital.

Beginning in the early morning Tuesday with the assassination of a Ministry of Finance official by a bomb attached to his vehicle and continuing for hours, the attacks were a devastating reminder of the violence that regularly afflicts Iraq. And they somehow seemed more poignant coming on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the American-led invasion, which is being marked in the West by new books, academic studies and polls retesting public attitudes a decade later.

By midmorning, the familiar sight of black smoke rose above a cityscape of palm fronds, turquoise-tiled mosque domes and squat concrete buildings. By midafternoon, the numbers stacked up: 52 dead and nearly 180 wounded in separate attacks that included 16 car bombs, 2 adhesive bombs stuck to cars, and 1 assassination with a silenced gun.

Ten Years After: The Anti-War March of Feb 15, 2003

Exactly ten years ago, I gathered with hundreds of thousands of others, on a freezing cold day in New York City, to take part in an anti-war march. I was still hungover from a friend’s book party the previous night. We marched, got corralled into pens, felt our extremities freeze, jousted with policemen, lost friends, made new ones, read angry, witty, colorful banners, shouted slogans, marched some more, and then finally, late in the evening, exhausted, numb, hungry, finally stumbled off the streets. (In my case, straight into a bar, to drink a couple of large whiskies. Yes, the hangover had worn off by then, and my rapidly dropping blood circulation seemed to call for rather vigorous stimulation.)

The march ‘didn’t work’: it was perhaps the visible zenith of the anti-war moment; an illegal, unjust and cruel war kicked off five days later. (I joined another protest march on the night news of the first bombings came in; it was pure unadulterated misery in cold, freezing rain, one only made barely palatable thanks to the running induced by attempted escapes from over-enthusiastic baton-wielding policemen.) Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans would die, and the next stage of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld nightmare began. Whatever its ramifications for the US, those for the Iraqi people were much worse: sectarian warfare would be the least of them.

I learned several important things that February 15th, ten years ago: massive mobilization of anti-war sentiment was possible some seventeen months after 9/11; a government committed to war is perhaps the most intransigent of all; policing of demonstrations was entering a new restrictive phase, one in which the First Amendment would be merely paid lip service and in which protest was to be as attenuated as possible. The first one was heartening and awe-inspiring; I learned later of the massive amount of organizing that the march required. The latter two were harbingers of further atrocities to come. (I also learned protective clothing for winters needs to be considerably enhanced if sustained, long-term exposure  lies ahead; I had worn long-johns, a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat, and I was still frozen after merely thirty minutes outside.)

Ten years on, war continues. The spectacular shock-and-awe bombing raids, the rumbling tanks, are gone, replaced by special forces operations and silent drone attacks, conducted from the US and felt far away. But non-combatants continue to die. The motivation for the war remains mysterious; the expenses for it steadily pile up, bankrupting budgets and national priorities. Two presidents got themselves elected to second terms using as a central campaign prop, the promise that they would pursue war as vigorously as possible. The Constitution took a battering; torture was defended; ‘rendition’ entered our vocabulary; war criminals were let off, and we were urged to move on. Veterans came home, sometimes in body bags, sometimes in wheelchairs; some committed suicide, others went off to try to adjust to ‘normal life.’ In their case, as with the dead children and civilians, we were urged to look away.

All war, all the time. Ten years of it. I’ve seen better decades.