Sunday, March 17, 2013

We Told You So

No one likes a gloater.  No one likes to be on the receiving end of that smuggest of all taunts: "I told you so."  And decent people stay on their guard to avoid being on the giving end.

The tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, however, forces upon us a duty to say "we told you so" -- but for reasons having nothing to do with smugness or self-satisfaction.

The "we" in this statement includes everyone who spoke out -- in large and small ways -- against the rush to war.  We were denounced.  We were ridiculed.  We had our patriotism questioned.  But we were right.  Looking back, it is obvious that we were right.  More troubling, it was obvious then.

Sincere expressions of apology or embarrassment from prominent war cheerleaders have escaped my notice.  My own reading of the current zeitgeist is that too many Americans still refuse to accept or believe the breathtaking enormity of the fiasco.  Many in that same cohort, I fear, would not hesitate to support new wars in places like Iran, Syria or North Korea.  And this is why, regrettably, it is imperative to say "we told you so."  We need to keep saying it until the utter futility and immorality of using war as an instrument of international diplomacy sinks in with some critical mass of our fellow citizens. 

It was apparent immediately after the 9-11 attacks that we were going to lose our collective minds.  When the Department of Defense first announced the name for the military operations that would be launched in response to the attacks they called it "Infinite Justice."  In addition to evoking the worst conceivable form of war-crazed hysteria, it was a deliberate middle-finger to the world's 1.4 billion Muslims whose faith teaches that Allah provides "infinite justice."  Although the operation was renamed "Enduring Freedom" on September 25, 2001, it would take the sufferings and disillusionments of the war to bring the nation back to some modest sense of sanity and composure.

The costs of the Iraq War are incalculable.  It is not even possible to calculate merely the financial costs in dollars.  Historians of tomorrow will comb through the records of Congressional appropriations and guesstimate what the total outlays were to garrison and supply all those troops for all those years.  It must amount to at least hundreds of billions of dollars.  But those stupendous sums do not include the costs of medical care for wounded soldiers, interest on debts incurred to fund the war, billions wasted on failed reconstruction efforts and other grotesque boondoggles, and on and on.  A recent radio commentator who sounded well-informed on this question put the figure at $2 trillion.  That'll do as an estimate.  Even if it is off by 50% (which means the figure could be $3 trillion or $1 trillion) we are dealing with more money than the human mind is really capable of comprehending.  As one measure of how seriously this war warped our sense of reality, and as proof of our depravity and selfishness, we were unwilling to raise taxes a single nickel to pay for it all.  Instead we cut taxes, borrowed profligately, and passed the financial costs of our folly on to future generations.

But these are just the financial costs.  As sickening as they are, they are not nearly the worst of it.  The human toll in killed and wounded has been staggering.  The widespread killing of innocents -- a thoroughly predictable and warned-against feature of modern, high-tech, "surgical" war -- ought to have Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. hauled before an international war crimes tribunal.  When you launch a war of choice on knowingly false pretenses -- knowing that innocent people will be killed as "collateral damage" -- that's a war crime.  The brutalized and maimed survivors, whether friendly or enemy, have physical and mental scars that will never go away.

Added to these human costs, there is the violence done to our society, culture and civil institutions. 

Start will all the lying.  Trying to look back and assess the past ten years is like trying to look through a kaleidoscope of bad faith, shifting rationales, euphemisms, evasions of responsibility, distortions, calculated deceptions and cynical manipulations.  A couple of examples will suffice.

Remember the ridiculous "fly-trap theory"?  This was an idea the Bush Administration pulled out of its ass as a post-hoc rationalization for the war after the WMD pretense collapsed of its own hollowness.  The idea was that the war would attract all the world's worst Islamic terrorists to Iraq enabling the American military to "drain the swamp" by killing them all.  It was all bullshit but we mostly bought it because, as a country, we needed to keep lying to ourselves.

Or remember the way Pat Tillman's life and death were cynically exploited.  We now know that he was an atheist who studied Chomsky and became very disillusioned with the Iraq War after serving a tour of duty there and being tangentially involved in the Jessica Lynch rescue (another disgusting case of stage-directed war propaganda).   Within an hour of his death during an ambush in Afghanistan, possibly within minutes, his field commanders knew it was a fratricide.  The truth was known by the Army's highest brass within days if not hours.  But the myth of the All-American sports hero who gave up riches to fight and die in the line of enemy fire was too powerful a propaganda tale to resist.  So they lied.  Blatantly and brazenly.  After the truth came out, one of the Army generals most responsible for the lies -- a right-wing evangelical it turns out -- publicly insulted the Tillman family for their atheism.  Right-wing crone and scold Ann Coulter said on FoxNews that she "couldn't believe" Tillman was a Chomsky-reading atheist.  After reading about the whole sordid mess in Jon Krakauer's extraordinarily good book Where Men Win Glory, I felt an overpowering need to take a shower.

Let's see.  What else? The war made us into a nation that tolerates torture.  Too many of us positively champion it.  One of the most popular television shows of the war years -- Fox's "24" -- was little more than an apology for torture.  We now routinely spy on our own countrymen without warrants.  We engage in targeted "extra-judicial" killings from the air -- even of American citizens.  We maintain secret dungeons all over the world.  We refuse or fail to take care of the broken souls who return from the battlefield.  They are without a powerful lobby in Congress.  Their suffering is shamefully ignored and left to private charities like Wounded Warriors who are reduced to begging for donations from the very corporations in the defense sector who made a killing off the war.

We didn't even accomplish any strategic objective.  While history is always the final judge, we appear to have made matters much worse.  Did we succeed in securing Iraqi oil?  Nope.  In fact, tragic-comically, the Army was importing some 30 million barrels of oil per day during the height of this war to secure cheap oil.  Did we establish a counterbalance to the Iranian theocrats?  Nope, just the opposite.  Is Iraq a stable democracy -- a shining beacon to the rest of the Middle East?  Nope.  It is a democracy on paper only and a fragile one at that.  Saddam is dead, though.  So, that's pretty cool.

Those of us who opposed the war could see most of this coming -- if not in the exact details then at least in the broad brush trends the war would set in motion.  Among the most prescient was Chris Hedges -- the Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent, formerly with the New York Times, who was essentially run out of town after publicly lambasting the Bush Administration after the war began.  In a short but brilliant book he wrote just months before the war began (War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning) Hedges played Cassandra -- the prophet doomed to be tragically ignored.  Drawing on his experiences covering wars in El Salvador, the Balkans and the Middle East, including the First Gulf War, Hedges laid it all out for us.  War, he warned, destroys the culture, destroys truth, compromises a supposedly "free" press, turns the combatants into animals, injects society with the poisons of hyper-nationalism and hyper-masculinity, and kills a people's ability to see any humanity in "the other." And it ruins the economy, to boot.

Perhaps worst of all, when these inevitable catastrophes have run their course, memory itself becomes a casualty.  We want desperately to forget what we did.  We try earnestly to forget how war-crazed, blood-thirsty and all-god-damned-gung-ho we were when the war drums first started beating.  We absolutely cannot tolerate anyone reminding us.  As Hedges points out, it becomes impossible to question the cause without dishonoring the dead.  "How rude and crass of you to say 'I told you so.' I lost my son in Iraq!" (On the other hand, didn't one prominent Democratic supporter of the Iraq War once ask: "how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?")

I suppose it's nice that MSNBC, in its recent documentary "Hubris," has found it worthwhile to remind everyone of the through-and-through fraudulence of the Bush Administration's case for the Iraq War.  As a media outlet that is every bit the cheerleader for Obama and the Democrats that Fox News is for the GOP, I suppose it could not resist the temptation -- the ten year anniversary -- to pile on Bush, Cheney et al. one more time.  (They richly deserve it, of course.)  But how interesting that there is no mention of the role MSNBC played in squelching dissenting voices, most famously, by showing Phil Donahue the door when his show became insufficiently pro-war.  There were virtually no voices of dissent permitted in the mainstream press -- and that includes all of the 24-hour corporate-owned cable networks.  Journalists with unimpeachable establishment credentials like Chris Hedges who spoke out were ex-communicated.  Proving, I suppose, one of Hedges' main points.  It's a point that he is not the first to make.  Nor will he be the last:  truth is the first casualty of war.

We cannot let this happen again -- pipe dream though that may be.  And that requires us, regrettably, to say we told you so.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Open Letter to Sam Harris

Dear Mr. Harris,

In the Introduction section of your short e-book Lying, you recall wtih fondness how taking a college course called "The Ethical Analyst" accomplished "as close to a firmware upgrade of my brain as I have ever experienced."  A bit further on, you describe the experience of taking that course as "one of the clearest examples in my own life of the power of philosophical reflection."  I have had numerous similar experiences in my life -- mostly through reading -- and I can vouch personally for the view that new conceptual understandings can have truly profound effects on a person's entire approach to life, relationships, values, etc.  I think Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was getting at something similar when he reputedly said: "Man's mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to it's original dimensions."  So I want to first thank you for giving me more than one of those "eureaka" moments in your books, blog posts and YouTube lectures.  I have had this experience with numerous authors -- dead and living -- and it is one of the half-dozen or so things that I can say "I live for."

I read Lying today after receiving an e-mail from you announcing the fall release of a new hardcover edition of the book and inviting readers to submit comments or questions for your consideration.  The book left me in the uncomfortable position of having to confront -- once again -- a silent deception that I have been living in my own life for about eight years now.  Truth be told (!), I confront this deception just about every day of my life.  The dull but constant nagging it places on my every waking moment is of course one of the primary costs that lying places on all liars.  I often tell myself that I would much prefer to let the truth be more widely known.  But then I convince myself I have "good reasons" for maintaining the deception.

Some quick background.  I went to the Air Force Academy where we were all expected to live the Cadet Honor Code, which states: "We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does."  In my professional life, I am a practicing attorney in a very small law firm in Colorado Springs.  Lawyer jokes and bad apples aside, I can assure you that most lawyers take very seriously their "duty of candor" to the legal system and to opposing parties.  It is absolutely the case that our legal system is dependent upon truth-telling for its legitimacy. (For this reason, perjury prosecutions are extremely important -- even when (especially when) brought against powerful people for "politcial" reasons.)  Finally, I am actively involved with my son in the Boy Scouts of America.  We make a very big point in our troop of emphasizing the character development aspects of scouting, most importantly perhaps, the requirement that "A Scout is trustworthy."  Bottom line:  I have told my share of the white lies that we all have told in our lives.  And I can think of one major time in my life when I engaged in terrible dishonesty and betrayal of a sort that really hurt people I care about.  But for the most part, I think I can look at myself honestly (!) in the mirror and say: I do strive for the Boy Scout ideal of trustworthiness.

Ironically, it is in this very context -- Boy Scouting -- where I am dealing with the moral dilemma that I am writing to you about.

I am an atheist.  I am also a registered scout leader in my son's troop.  The Boy Scouts of America does not allow atheists to be scouts or adult leaders.  I have to keep my atheism to myself.  Yet, by merely belonging to an organization that requires its members to obey their 'Duty to God', my silence becomes a form of deception. 

You might be wondering: why would you want to be involved with an organization that does not accept such a fundamental aspect of your identity?  The answer requires that a distinction be made between what I like to call "big bad BSA," on the one hand, and the way Boy Scouts is experienced on the troop level (i.e., neighborhood level), on the other hand.  I am frankly ashamed of "big bad BSA's" policies against gays and atheists.  On the other hand, the day-to-day experience of Boy Scouting -- particularly as my son and I experience it on the troop level -- has been one of the great experiences of my life.  I can think of no better program for young boys.  My son and I have built a lifetime of memories in the eight years we have been doing this together.  He is maturing into an impressive young man.  Boy Scouts is a very big part of that.  The families we have grown close to in our scout troop are among the best people I have known in my entire life.  He is learning about citizenship, survival skills in the outdoors, a respect for the environment, leadership, honesty, and a host of other important skills and character traits.  What is not to love?

I am not ashamed to be an atheist.  Not by any stretch.  I do not even think I am all that "secretive" about it.  My relatives all know it.  My business associates all know it.  I strongly suspect most of the families in our troop know it.  I think the overwhelming majority of those families could care less.

As for my son (almost 14 years old), I very much want him to make his own choice in this area.  But his mother and I have given him no religious instruction of any kind and it seems fairly obvious that he finds both organized religion and the stories of the Judeo-Christian Bible to be more than a little odd (putting it mildly).  He and I are both more or less free to keep doing what we are doing in the troop.

So at this point, you might be wondering: what's the problem?  Here it is:  At some point, when my son is ready to make his Eagle Scout rank, he will be sitting in what is called a "Board of Review" in front of a panel of strangers from "big bad BSA."  They are going to ask him, point blank:  "So tell us how you discharge your 'Duty to God' in your day-to-day life." (Part of the Scout Oath).  "Tell us how you are 'Reverent' in your daily life." (Part of the Scout Law.)  I think about this moment in his life almost every day.  I even -- very briefly -- considered getting him involved with the local Unitarian-Universalist church just so he will have a response to those questions that will be both truthful and acceptable to the Boy Scouts.

Part of me wants him to lie.

How might I justify that?  On page 40 of Lying, you write that the temptation to lie is "often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior.  Often, there are good reasons why they would." (Emphasis mine).  But what if others will disapprove of our behavior (or opinions) for bad reasons? What right do they have to the truth in that case?

I think "big bad BSA" is flat wrong to have its policies against gays and atheists.  My son and I have invested eight years of our lives (including Cub Scouts) in the program at the neighborhood level.  He has about two more years to go before his Eagle rank.  I think it is flat wrong that BSA would deny him his Eagle rank over a matter of his personal conscience (much less over a matter of his father's personal conscience).  But I fear he will be denied his Eagle rank when the moment of truth (!) arrives.  I am fairly certain he will not lie about it.  But I have to be honest (!) and say again that part of me will want him to.

I don't suppose there is an "out" for this situation.