Saturday, December 31, 2005

And a Happy New Year to you all!

Don't get me wrong; I do indeed enjoy a party, and hardly ever turn down an opportunity to go to one.

But I've always seen New Year's Eve more as a time for reflection and nostalgia than wild celebration, kind of bittersweet: out with the old, in with the new, transitions, changes, auld lang syne, all that jazz. As a teenager, I did my raucous bit in going to Times Square, but nowadays it's more likely to be a get-together with old friends, as it is tonight (with a stop-off at my mother's place; they party rather early there).

I want to wish all of you a wonderful New Year's Eve, partying or no, wild or staid, late or early--and, more importantly, a wonderful New Year.

Let me have just a few words with you...

Since I've been blogging, every now and then I've heard from readers complaining to me that--well, there's just no good way to put this--my posts are much too long.

Recently I received an e-mail on the subject from reader David Foster, which was a model of succinctness:

Your blog is great, but I have only one objection...your posts are waaaay too long. Can't you condense your thoughts a little?

Therein lies a tale. Allow me to explain. Got a moment? (Or an hour?)

It's not as though I don't understand exactly what all these readers are saying. In fact, I would dearly love to be able to condense my thoughts--not just a little, but a lot. It would be a great thing all around.

I've noticed that many of the popular bloggers write quick and punchy. They say something in quick little jabs, and then move on. I like to read them, too--easy on the eyes, easy on the time. I think it's clear that more people are going to want to read something that doesn't take so much effort to plow through, rather than something so long and--yes, some would even say, so boring.

I've tried to shorten my posts, believe me. And every now and then I do write a short post.

But I have to admit that the majority of my posts range from somewhat long to superlong. They take work, and often a lot of that work is research.

So, why do I do it that way? I've asked myself that question many times. Am I a glutton for punishment--for both dishing it out, and for taking it?

The answer is as that I just can't write short and punchy, even if I set out to do so--at least, not very often. I think the reason is that the topics and the questions that most interest me seem complex; and the answers, likewise, complex. I want to explain, I want to explore many sides of a question, and in the process I want to make myself as clear as possible. I want to present the details that so fascinate me and give color and richness. I want to build a case.

Sometimes the details are the very things that drove me to do the research in the first place, and I want to flesh them out. Sometimes it's the most complete possible understanding I'm striving for (such as with my "change" series). Sometimes it's the story of an entire life--such as Paul Robeson. How can such a thing be told quickly? The evidence has to be amassed, just as the life has to be lived--slowly.

I think each blogger, each writer, has a niche and a specialty. Sometimes we don't choose them, exactly; they seem to choose us. And I seem to have chosen this one, or vice versa.

I hope that those of you who stick with me enjoy the journey, and I thank you for your patience and for your fascinating (and sometimes quite thorough!) comments.

There, now--that didn't take too long, did it?

[ADDENDUM: After reading many of the comments, I want to add two things. The first is that the original message from Mr. Foster seemed to me to be a basically friendly one (and one I even share, in a way). I never thought he was suggesting I turn the blog into a series of pithy sound bites, just some judicious condensation.

The second is to offer a hearty thanks to everyone who expressed appreciation for my posts--whether they read them all or not. If I do meander, I always try to do so with a purpose.]

Friday, December 30, 2005

To speak or not to speak: coming out as a neocon

This essay, which appeared at the American Thinker, is by blogger and sometime visitor Bookworm, of Bookwormroom.

It's entitled, "Confession of a Crypto-Conservative Woman," and it's on a topic dear to my heart: being a closet neocon (a neo-neocon, at that) in a true blue town.

Bookworm writes:

I was at a party last year when a woman I know suddenly burst out, “I hate Bush. He’s evil. I wish he’d just drop dead” – and everyone around her verbally applauded that statement.

At a lunch with some very dear friends, the subject of the Iraq war came up and one of my friends, a brilliant, well-read, well-educated man, in arguing against the War, announced as his clinching argument the “fact” that “Bush is an idiot.”...

This is me: I grew up in this same liberal environment and was a life-long Democrat. ..And then things changed: Although I realize that my journey to the right began before 9/11, there is no doubt that 9/11 was my moment to cross the Rubicon...I suddenly had to confront the fact that I was a neocon living in one of the bluest of Blue corners in America.

How did I react to my change? With silence. You see, having lived a lifetime on the Left myself, I instantly realized that my new outlook would not be greeted as an intellectual curiosity, to be questioned politely and challenged through reasoned argument.

Instead, I would be deemed to have gone to the dark side. After all, if Bush is evil, his followers must be evil too. ...I also knew from my years on the Left that the debate wouldn’t revolve around facts and the conclusions to be drawn from those facts...it’s the futility of argument and the personal animus behind political argument in Liberal communities that results in something I call closet- or crypto-conservatism. I further believe that this is a syndrome especially prevalent amongst women...

In a woman’s world, you don’t earn any social points for staking out an extreme position and defending it against all comers. Men might garner respect for doing so, and experience the exhilaration of battle along the way; women are more likely find themselves on the receiving end of some serious social isolation, and to find the road to this isolation stressful and frightening.

Did I mention how nice my community is? And how child oriented? I enjoy being well-integrated into this community, as do my children, and neither the kids nor I would function well in light of the inevitable social repercussions that would occur if I were to admit that, well, I kinda, sorta, well, yeah, I voted for “that man – that evil man.” ...I’ve also managed to confirm through talking to a few other conservative women I know who also live in liberal communities that they too keep their mouths shut about their politics...

The question I struggle with is whether I ought to elevate my political principles over my day-to-day needs. Currently, I don’t believe there is any benefit, large or small, moral or practical, to such a step...


I've quoted liberally (pun intended) from Bookworm's essay because I want to convey the full flavor of the dilemma she faces. It's one I understand only too well, and one with which I sympathize. I've written about it before, here (note, especially, the comments section). I know the ostracism of which she speaks, and I know how important social connection are, and what it's like to be looked at by supposed friends whose eyes are forever changed and distanced.

But, despite all that empathy for Bookworm, I have to say that I part company with her conclusion. Oh, it's not that I speak up all the time (if you look at that post of mine I previously linked to, you'll see that in fact I don't). I weigh each situation to decide whether it seems like a good idea or whether it seems like an exceptionally futile exercise, and try to act accordingly.

At social gatherings where I'm among strangers, people I'm not likely to meet again, I often don't bother. But with anyone who is a friend--close, or even not-so-close--sooner or later I feel the need to "come out" and declare myself.

Why? After all, I'm not that keen on combat, or on spinning my wheels in useless arguments. I like to have my friends and keep them, too; I'm not interested in attaining pariah status for the sake of being able to pat myself on the back for bravery.

But over the past couple of years I've spoken out to virtually every friend I have, and gotten quite a variety of responses. A few have stopped speaking to me, and that makes me both sad and angry. Many look at me ever after with "that look" in their eyes--at least, I perceive that look, and I don't think I'm imagining things. It appears that my relationship with them has changed in some subtle way, and not for the better; they now see me as strange and somehow not quite trustworthy or kindly.

Some tease me, as though they can't quite believe it's true and are trying to test things out in a light way. A few had extremely angry and rejecting outbursts at first, but then got over it--outwardly, at least. A couple of people have decided never to speak politics to me again, in order to preserve our friendship. Still others, to my delight, can have lucid and calm discussions with me on the topic.

There are really two reasons I've decided to speak out to friends. The first is personal--and perhaps self-indulgent, in a way. I'll call it, for want of a better name, integrity. Or perhaps that old liberal notion: authenticity. Or maybe honesty.

Call it what you will. The idea is that I can't keep as a deep dark secret something so important and basic to my way of thinking from people I consider my friends. Painful though it may be, if the friendship can't handle it, I'm willing to kiss the friendship goodbye. Because what sort of a friendship is it, if it's based on something so very fragile?

The second reason I tell friends is actually more important, because it's not about me. It's this: if I don't speak up, and if people like me (and Bookworm, and her other crypto-con friends) don't speak up and "out" ourselves, then it simply perpetuates the myths of those who consider The Other Side to be monstrous.

Yes, some will consider you an awful person if you tell the truth about your current beliefs. But your speaking up may make others wonder about their preconceptions. If Republicans and neocons and even liberal hawks are considered the absolute Other, they can continue to be demonized and typecast. If it's you, on the other hand, who's the neocon--and not some stranger--you, that nice mother down the street who bakes the brownies; you, the one with the jokes and the helping hand; you, who's always been so smart and so kind--then how can all of Bush's supporters be cruel and stupid?

It's easy to move through life in a liberal bubble if everyone around who disagrees is silent and invisible. The only way to change that is to challenge it by standing up, speaking out, and bursting the bubble. It's very difficult; but you may find, as I did, that most of your worthwhile relationships survive the blow, although many are never quite the same again.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

What hath monotheism wrought?

This will be a short riff--a mere sketch, really--sparked by a comment that was part of an interview in the NY Times Magazine, drawn to my attention by this post of Gerard Van der Leun's at American Digest.

A historian named Peter Watson, author of the recent Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud, is being interviewed by the Times:

Q: What do you think is the single worst idea in history?

WATSON: Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.

Q: But religion has also been responsible for investing countless lives with meaning and inner richness.

WATSON: I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.


I suggest you read Van der Leun's post, which skewers Watson so effectively and thoroughly that there's no need for me to even attempt to add anything to that endeavor (although Watson proves himself to be an enticing target by managing to be exceptionally condescending to both taxi drivers and the institution of the novel, which he says offers truths that "don't stay with you very long or help you do much"--speak for yourself, Watson!)

Although Watson is billed as a historian, his background is not as a historian per se, it's as a journalist and, of all things, a psychiatrist (he left the field way back in the 60s).

As Van der Leun points out, Watson is somehow ignoring the vast good that ethical monotheism has done in setting up our entire "inner-directed system of morals." It is indeed extraordinary that Watson can call it "the single worst idea in history," whatever suffering has been inflicted, at times, in its name.

What is going on here, besides the fact that Watson considers himself to be both an atheist and a fine fellow, and conveniently ignores the underpinnings of the society of which he is a member, and the fruits of which he enjoys? Well, although Watson shows himself in the short but decidedly unsweet Times interview to be both elitist and arrogant, my guess is that he's not quite as dumb as he sounds.

What I believe is actually lurking somewhere in the background of Watson's murky thoughts is a different but tangentially related idea, once that is worth discussing. That thought is the following: religions which teach that (1) they are not just the answer, but the only answer, and (2) this answer is the only one for everyone on earth, and (3) this answer must be spread not just by proselytizing but also by violence, if necessary, and (4) great rewards in the afterlife will be bestowed on those who spread that religion through violence--such religions are indeed responsible for a great deal of suffering on earth, past and present.

Right now, however, the list of religions that fit that description is rather short. In fact, the only one I know of happens to be Islam--in fact, only certain subgroups of Islam. But 'tis enough, 'twill serve.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Ten Worst Americans

It seems to be the time of year for Lists of Ten. The beautiful Alexandra of the beautiful blog All Things Beautiful has challenged bloggers to name the Ten Worst Americans of the past 230 years.

I might be able to come up with some better candidates than the following if I were to do a couple of hours' research on this. But right off the top of my head, these are my choices, take 'em or leave 'em (offered in no particular order):

(1) Benedict Arnold can't possibly be left off such a list. His name has become synonymous with "traitor," and his aim appears to have been money and self-aggrandizement, rather than any higher priniciple.

In this, Arnold seems to have something in common with...

(2) Aldrich Ames. Betrayal after betrayal, cold as ice. And the motive? Filthy lucre, and perhaps just the sheer thrill and gamesmanship of it all.

Very much like...

(3) Robert Hanssen, another long-time spy who seemed to thrive on the idea of spying and betraying.

And now we jump to...

(4) Father Coughlin, radio broadcaster and Fascist-admiring anti-Semitic bigot of the 30s. He'd fit right in today, I think, by the looks of this quote:

Stalin's idea to create world revolution and Hitler's so-called threat to seek world domination are not half as dangerous combined as is the proposal of the current British and American administrations to seize all raw materials in the world. Many people are beginning to wonder who they should fear most--the Roosevelt-Churchill combination or the Hitler-Mussolini combination.

But far worse were...

(5) lynch mobs. Murder, bigotry, and disrespect for the rule of law.

Speaking of murder, we have...

(6) Timothy McVeigh. Mass murderer, American terrorist.

And then there's our own American Brutus....

(7) John Wilkes Booth, who thought he'd be applauded for bringing down the tyrant Lincoln.

Someone who might have helped bring down a real tyrant, but didn't, was...

(8) Walter Duranty, Pulitzer-prizewinning liar, whose mendacity helped millions die under Stalin when the truth might have alerted the world to what was going on.

Speaking of mendacity (although of a much less consequential level than Duranty's in terms of lives lost) we have a personal unfavorite of mine....

(9) Michael Moore, another propagandist with a marked lack of devotion to the truth.

And, in the category of charismatic and destructive charlatans, there is...

(10) Jim Jones. His descent into madness and true evil cost the lives of close to one thousand people. If you want to learn how he managed to exert that sort of control over so many, read this extraordinary account of how it happened.

Top 10 things New Yorkers can do to stay sane in '06

I've been asked by Shrinkwrapped to come up with my suggestions for the "Top Ten Things New Yorkers Can Do to Stay Sane in '06."

I'm not ordinarily one for giving advice (I don't think people usually take it), nor am I a New Yorker any more.
But hey, I've been asked, so I'll give it a shot.

Some of the following are specific to New Yorkers. But most are for anyone (including the author: physician, heal thyself!):

(1) Don't believe everything you read in the NY Times. I was going to say "don't believe anything you read in the NY Times," but that would lead to insanity of a different--and more serious--variety.

(2) Walk more. Manhattan's a small place, actually. And when you take the subway, look around and take satisfaction in the amazing diversity that is America.

(3) If watching Bush makes your stomach churn with rage, turn off the TV. I used to do it back when I was a liberal, first with Nixon and then with Reagan. It got me through some hard times.

(4) Forget about trying to eat merely to fuel your body. Food isn't only sustenance. It is pleasure, entertainment, solace, etc., and trying to take that away from the equation will just lead to misery. Ask the Puritans.

(5) Don't try to protect your children from all hurt. It won't help them, and it's impossible, anyway. But don't you be the one to dole out the hurt unnecessarily. There's plenty that will come naturally; your task is to help them get through it.

(6) If you've sustained a loss, remember that grieving doesn't have a time frame. In fact, it can take many years, or even a lifetime. Loss changes you, and there's no going back, so don't expect to.

(7) Visit flyover country at least once. Maybe Kansas City, for some BBQ?

(8) Remember the words of Winston Churchill--almost any words of Churchill will do--but how about these, for starters: "Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm."

(9) When on vacation, turn off your cellphone and stay away from the computer.

(10) Do as I say, not as I do.

[NOTE: Here's the link to Shrinkwrapped's compendium of the psychobloggers' lists.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A story that's got everything: FBI monitors Moslem sites for radiation leaks

Why do I say this story's got everything? Well, let's see: (1) anonymous and totally unidentified sources as the conduit for all the information, check; (2) accusations of religious profiling, check; (3) vociferous Council on American-Islamic Relations protests, check; (4) spilling of the beans (by those anonymous sources) on a classified program designed to protect us from terrorists, check.

The story about radiation monitoring by the FBI originated in the US News and World Report of December 22. Let's look at the first paragraph of the original article:

In search of a terrorist nuclear bomb, the federal government since 9/11 has run a far-reaching, top secret program to monitor radiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, plus similar sites in at least five other cities, U.S. News has learned. In numerous cases, the monitoring required investigators to go on to the property under surveillance, although no search warrants or court orders were ever obtained, according to those with knowledge of the program. Some participants were threatened with loss of their jobs when they questioned the legality of the operation, according to these accounts.

As you can see, the sources--which are never identified any further--are referred to as "those with knowledge of the program," but are not characterized in any other way: not just their names are absent, but also exactly how many of them there actually are (the article seems to be saying two, as best I can tell), or what positions they hold. Likewise, the people allegedly threatened with the loss of their jobs are never identified (are they, perhaps, the same people as those informants?). This story is only the latest, of course, in a long line of security leaks that seem motivated in good part by the desire to embarrass the Bush administration.

Does anyone honestly think a story like this--which, in its present form, hardly rises above the level of a gossip column, and yet has the promise of playing fast and loose with our lives--is actually needed by the American public? That the leak and the printing thereof does us all some sort of service? Does anyone (other than the ever-victimized CAIR) really think this information, if true, represents a terrible intrusion into citizens' lives, Moslem or otherwise? Does anyone think it's really unreasonable? Does anyone think that the right of someone to not have a radiation monitor on their property (note, the article doesn't even say the devices were placed within buildings, it says "parking lots and driveways") trumps the public's right to protect itself from possible nuclear weaponry in terrorist hands?

The only even remotely disturbing part of the story (if true), IMHO, is the allegations of threats to people's jobs for refusing to cooperate because they think it might be illegal to do so. But it turns out the information about job threats seems to come from one unnamed source somewhere within the program:

One source close to the program said that participants "were tasked on a daily and nightly basis," and that FBI and Energy Department officials held regular meetings to update the monitoring list. "The targets were almost all U.S. citizens," says the source. "A lot of us thought it was questionable, but people who complained nearly lost their jobs. We were told it was perfectly legal."

So, one disgruntled employee is saying this. There's no mention of independent corroboration. And, plenty of people think it's perfectly legal to do this (see the comments section of the link, in particular), whereas the article only quotes one legal scholar who says it's illegal.

So, let's see: according to a single informant, people were asked to do something that is probably legal, and some (not all, mind you, but some) who complained nearly lost their jobs.

Nearly?? What does that mean? Does it mean somebody yelled at them? So not a single person (not to mention one named person, willing to go on the record) actually lost a job as a result of this?

And who were these people asked to do the monitoring? Were they FBI agents? And is this activity on their part something new? Well, tune into the last paragraph of the article--although I wonder how many people actually got that far:

Most staff for the monitoring came from NEST, which draws from nearly 1,000 nuclear scientists and technicians based largely at the country's national laboratories. For 30 years, NEST undercover teams have combed suspected sites looking for radioactive material, using high-tech detection gear fitted onto various aircraft, vehicles, and even backpacks and attaché cases. No dirty bombs or nuclear devices have ever been found - and that includes the post-9/11 program. "There were a lot of false positives, and one or two were alarming," says one source. "But in the end we found nothing."

Okay--so they were employees of NEST, an acronym for the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Support Team. Interestingly enough, the quote reveals that this group has been looking for such radioactive material for thirty years. And yet somehow we've survived this egregious assault on our civil rights by successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat. After all, Geiger counters (or whatever high-tech machine they use nowadays) are so very self-incriminating and invasive, aren't they?

So, now that we know that this has been going on for thirty years, where's the beef? In the present case, is the terrible crime of the Bush administration the fact that Moslem buildings such as mosques were being monitored, post-9/11? Quelle horror!

What would critics have the NEST team and the administration do? Not monitor anyone, and let the nuclear chips fall where they may (and then, if and when they do fall, criticize and investigate Bush for not protecting us? )

Or should they monitor everyone instead, in order to be perfectly PC? And ignore the fact that modern-day post-9/11 terrorists tend to be overwhelmingly Moslem, and that it's cost-effective and reasonable to monitor them more closely?

This is serious stuff, monitoring for nuclear weapons; not a game. Should it be sacrificed on the altar of refusal to do profiling, even if it's warranted? Do we need to avoid racial profiling at all costs? I certainly don't think so.

But--does this case even actually involve profiling? Just because some mosques were monitored, does this mean mosques were profiled? Officials deny it:

Officials also reject any notion that the program specifically has targeted Muslims. "We categorically do not target places of worship or entities solely based on ethnicity or religious affiliation," says one. "Our investigations are intelligence driven and based on a criminal predicate."

So according to "officials" (and surely, we shouldn't believe them; best to believe the anonymous tipster or tipsters), every mosque monitored (and I have no doubt that some were) was targeted because of specific intelligence about that site.

So, what are we to do if there's a tip that there's a dirty bomb or some other type of nuclear material hidden in a mosque? Not put some radioactive-detecting information on the street or driveway near it, for fear of the taint of profiling?

I don't know about you, but sometimes, lately, I feel I've fallen through the looking glass into bizarro world. Or maybe the MSM has.

[NOTE: Fausta has some thoughts on the subject, and a roundup of discussions around the blogosphere on the general topic of recent security leaks that affect the WOT. Likewise Michelle Malkin (scroll down for the portion of her post about the radiation monitoring story). And Shrinkwrapped has some reflections on the possible role of a self-destructive impulse in the leakers and their supporters.]

Monday, December 26, 2005

Post-election jaw-jaw in Iraq

So far, at least, the aftermath of the recent Iraqi elections seems to be--as Austin Bay writes--more jaw-jaw than war-war.

If even Reuters says so, it's good enough for me.

There's a lot of post-election sturm and drang, to be sure. And, as I've said before, the rebuilding of Iraq is a process inherently fraught with danger, and only time will tell how it works out.

But here are some interesting facts from the Reuters article:

While both Sunnis and Shi'ites have talked tough since the partial results came out, they have also been negotiating behind the scenes, and analysts say the main parties and coalitions are largely staking their claims for power rather than threatening to disrupt the process of forming a government.

President Jalal Talabani met secular and Sunni politicians in a bid to find consensus, and asked them to refrain from describing their opponents in inflammatory sectarian terms.

And in Najaf, Rubaie met the one man who has arguably more influence over Iraqis than any politician -- the country's most powerful cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose word is law to many in the 60-percent Shi'ite majority.

Rubaie said: "Sistani demanded that all parties should stay calm, should not resort to violence and should focus efforts on construction, economic development and securing services."


I wouldn't quite call that civil war--it actually seems relatively civil to me.

The article also states something that sounds pretty ominous:

There has already been an increase in shootings and bombings after the lull of the election period.

Now we'd all very much like to see the violence in Iraq end; I know I would. But, on reflection, this post-election "increase" appears to amount (so far) only to a resumption of the smaller types of violence that have been commonplace in the country, rather than the very large-scale bombs that seemed to be an almost daily occurrence for a while.

I don't think anyone expected the election truce from the "insurgents" to last indefinitely, unless the Sunnis had won some sort of lopsided victory (which would have been very strange and suspicious, considering they are a definite minority, and might have provoked violence from other sources). So far there have been no post-election bombings of the kind that wreak havoc on scores of people. Of course, we could see those resume any day now. But at this point the situation does not even begin to resemble an actual civil war.

Yes, there's plenty of violence and anger, as this more recent Reuters article details. And the article seems only too eager to tie all the violence into anger about the election, although only a small part of it seems to be, by my reading of it. But notice the following tidbit, nestled almost imperceptibly into all the rest:

But despite militant rhetoric, seemingly aimed at increasing their leverage, Sunnis are negotiating with others to build a governing coalition on the basis of the existing poll results.

So, is the "militant rhetoric" mostly strategic? Will the coalition actually be built, and will it hold?

At the risk of being redundant, I'll repeat: wait and see.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah

No, I'm not just being PC. Today is that rarest of days--both Christmas Day and Chanukah at the same time. So I get the opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday at once.

I'm giving myself the gift of light blogging today--but not light eating. And the gift of various festivals of lights, of course. But I wanted to give a gift to all of you, and so I decided to share an old family recipe.

It was brought over from Germany sometime in the mid-1800s, and was my favorite of all the wonderful treats cooked by my great-aunt Flora, a baker of rare gifts. She and my great-uncle were not only exceptionally wonderful people, but to my childish and wondering eyes they looked very much like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.

The name of the treat is lebkuchen, but it's quite a different one from the traditional recipe, which I don't much care for. This is sweet and dense, can be made ahead, and keeps very well when stored in tins.

Flora's Lebkuchen:

(preheat the oven to 375 degrees)

1 pound dark brown sugar
4 eggs
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
4 oz. chopped dates
1 cup raisins
1 tsp. orange juice
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. lemon juice

Sift the dry ingredients together (flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon).

Beat the eggs and brown sugar together with a rotary beater till the mixture forms the ribbon. Add the orange juice, lemon juice, and extracts to it.

Add the dry mixture to it, a little at a time, stirring.

Add the raisins, dates, and walnuts.

Grease and flour two 9X9 cake pans. Put batter in pans and bake for about 25 minutes (or a little less; test the cake with a cake tester to see if it's done). You don't want it to get too dark and dry on the edges, but the middle can't still be wet when tested.

Meanwhile, make the frosting.

Melt about 6 Tbs. of unsalted butter and add 2 Tbs. hot milk, and 1 Tbs. almond extract. Add enough confectioner's sugar to make a frosting of spreading consistency (the recipe says "2 cups," but I've always noticed that's not exactly correct). You can make even more frosting if you like a lot of frosting.

Let cake cool to at least lukewarm, and spread generously with the frosting. Then cut into small pieces and store (or eat!).

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Skating on thin ice

In other seasons, it's just a pond. A small and nondescript one at that, subject to some sort of algae-like scum in summer, and with a row of ducks on the side. It's located in the park where I frequently walk, so I get a good look at in all seasons.

In the last two weeks, since it's gotten so cold, it's been transformed into a classic winter scene--frozen, with skaters. They're here when the slanted winter light dazzles as it reflects off the snow, they're here when it's cloudy and a blizzard threatens.

These skaters aren't twirling dancing couples, or even singletons practicing their jumps. They're all men and boys--sometimes, very very tiny boys--playing ice hockey. That's what skating is really about in New England--playing a beloved and rough game, playing it hard, and playing it young.

You hear it before you see it--the echoing "thwack" of the puck being hit, and the indescribable scrunching sound of ice being thrown up by skates digging in for a sudden stop. They've brought two netted goals and placed them on each side of the ice, and I realize that this pond is perfect for this purpose, since by accident (or design?) it's almost the exact size and shape of a hockey rink.

It's been cold lately, very cold, but today it's warmer. Each day I've noticed--with some trepidation--a large sign by the pond that says, "Warning: Thin Ice!" The sign is on a post staked into the ground. There's a nail on the post, and hanging from it is a buoy with a long rope attached. If you fall in, the means to rescue you is right at hand--if the rescuers know what they're doing, and if they're very quick about it. There's danger here, and the danger is real.

I used to skate on ponds, too, when I was young. The pond of my youth was much bigger, and the borough park department used to come and test the ice and put up a sign--a red ball-- signifying it was okay to skate. When it wasn't, it was strictly forbidden, although every now and then you'd see a lone skater or two tempting fate.

But here, people seem less apt to rely on others to tell them what's safe and what's not. They figure they can get out of any jam. Sometimes they're even right.

This morning I'd been awakened, as I sometimes am these days, by a phone call from my mother. She was agitated and anxious. I'd gone to bed very very late, and was hoping to sleep longer, but no dice. Her caregiver wasn't there yet, she said, and the agency phone didn't answer.

But it was still a minute before her caretaker was even due to arrive; my mother is an expert at anticipatory anxiety, and as she's gotten older (in fact, very old) it's only gotten worse. And I'm trying to be more of an expert in patience, a hard lesson to learn.

So I tried to be gentle as I told her to wait, to wait a full half-hour, actually, and see if the woman wasn't just delayed. And I tried to reassure her that I had all the emergency numbers to call (she actually had them, too, but couldn't find them), and that in fact she is not helpless, even when alone.

I mentally ran through all the possibilities, including my going over there myself if the agency couldn't find a substitute. My mother called me one more time, eighteen minutes later. Again, I told her to wait out the full half-hour (twelve minutes more!), and then to call me and I'd fix things if no one arrived.

I'm not sure how it was that I chose a half-hour, but it turned out to be a good choice: the woman arrived twenty-six minutes late. I could hear the relief in my mother's voice when she phoned me to tell me the wonderful news: rescue! Rescue for her--and for me.

Sometimes we want that perfect assurance, that red ball that says there's no risk, all is well, everything is safe. But we know that's not going to be happening. So it's good to have the buoy and the rope close at hand, just in case, and to try to learn how to use them.

Friday, December 23, 2005

"The God That Failed"--and the lesser of two evils

As part of my "literary leftists" series, I've been doing research for a possible future post on Richard Wright, the black novelist and poet (and member of the Communist Party from the late 1920s through part of the 1940s), whose work I became familiar with as a young teenager by reading his short story "Bright and Morning Star," which had a powerful effect on me at the time.

One of these days I may write about Wright. But not today.

As so often happens, way leads on to way, and Googling "Richard Wright" led me to another discovery. Apparently, Wright wrote at some length about his membership in the Communist Party: what led up to it, and why he eventually repudiated it. The essay became part of a larger work, The God That Failed, that offers six such stories.

It became clear to me that this was still another book that had to go on my "change" reading list. The library obliged by finding a worn and tattered copy through Interlibrary Loan. It wasn't easy; the book doesn't seem to be standard issue in most libraries, and the one I finally obtained had, curiously enough, a stamp in front claiming it was originally the property of a no-longer-with-us air force base. Plus, the fact that I had somehow transformed the title of the book into "The Light That Failed"--which turns out to be a novel by Rudyard Kipling--didn't help the library much in its search. But I digress.

I haven't read the entire book yet--just a few passages, actually. I initially opened it at random, and it fell open to a piece by Arthur Koestler (Koestler's The Sleepwalkers is another old favorite of mine).

The background to the following (the very first passage I read) is this: Koestler, of Hungarian/Austrian/Jewish descent, was living as a young man in Berlin in the fading days of the Weimer Republic. He joined the Communist Party there, having been "converted" by his idealist readings of Marx and Engels. Here is how he describes the Communist Party's rigid position during an election in which Hindenburg was running against Hitler (and see this previous post of mine if you're interested in a rundown of how Hitler actually ended up becoming Chancellor):

We [the Communist Party in Germany] had refused to nominate a joint candidate with the Socialists for the Presidency, and when the Socialists backed Hindenburg as the lesser evil against Hitler, we nominated Thalmann though he had no chance of winning whatsoever--except, maybe, to split off enough proletarian votes to bring Hitler immediately into power. Our instructor gave us a lecture proving that there was no such thing as a "lesser evil," that it was a philosophical, strategical, and tactical fallacy; a Trotskyite, diversionist, liquidatorial and counter-revolutionary conception. Henceforth we had only pity and spite for those who as much as mentioned the ominous term; and, moreover, we were convinced that we had always been convinced that it was an invention of the devil. How could anyone fail to see that to have both legs amputated was better than trying to save one, and that the correct revolutionary position was to kick the crippled Republic's crutches away? Faith is a wondrous thing; it is not only capable of moving mountains but also of making you believe that a herring is a race horse.

This ideological purity and unwillingness to compromise was only a small part of the evils of Communism, of course. But it's an interesting description of how a rigid refusal to accept the "lesser of two evils" reality that sometimes is necessary in life is emblematic of many movements in many times--particularly, as I've written about before, pacifism. And the consequences can often be dire.

Koestler's disillusionment with Communism and final protracted leavetaking from it may be a story I'll tell another time. And Koestler himself is a figure of great controversy on a host of topics, including his interest in mysticism and psychic phenomena; as well as his attitude towards his own Jewish origins, and a book he wrote which ended up being used by anti-Semites to disown Zionism, although that was not his intent in writing it.

Koestler's later personal odyssey aside, there do seem to be some commonalties in these stories of leaving the fold. So far I've noticed an upbringing that predisposes to looking for idealistic and Utopian answers--sometimes a result of terrible hardship, sometimes a result of bookish naivete and relative privilege--and a swallowing whole of an ideology that is considered the answer to all problems (that's why the title of the book is "The God That Failed). Then there is some later life experience so striking and so terrible that it causes profound and lasting disillusionment.

When I look at myself and my own "change" experience, I consider that one big difference for me is that I have never swallowed any ideology whole. As a liberal, I had doubts, caveats, and hesitations; as a neo-neocon, the same. Sometimes trolls and critics here accuse me of naivete in believing there are simple answers that will inevitably fix everything. But I do not believe so at all. Rather, I believe all answers are complex and risky, but that can't keep us from our duty to try to choose what seems to be the best among them--even if sometimes that "best" is only the lesser of two evils.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Second draft and the al Durah case: evidence vs. advocacy

A while back, I wrote about the important job I thought Second Draft was doing in presenting facts and original material about controversial news coverage--and perhaps misrepresentations--of certain events in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Recently, Second Draft has taken on the Mohammed al Durah story.

If you go to the site, be prepared to stay a while. There are many links and a lot of material. I haven't yet looked at the new piece on al Durah in its entirety, although I plan to. But from what I've read so far (and I've read a good deal of it), it's absolutely riveting. And I say this as someone who was already quite familiar with much of the al Durah material.

Second Draft's Richard Landes has done an extraordinary job of assembling and presenting the evidence in an organized and thorough fashion. It reads like a court case--and, in a way, it is: the proverbial court of public opinion. Of course, that court has already been meeting for quite a long time, and the evidence from one side (the Palestinian side) has been given star billing so far.

As Second Draft's Richard Landes writes:

People who followed Middle East news in 2000 cannot forget the image of Muhamed al Durah, gunned down in a hail of Israeli bullets at the very beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada. The impact of this dramatic footage on global culture is close to incalculable. Its prominence goes far beyond any other image from this terrible conflict and its impact goes far beyond any of its other images, one of “the most powerful images of the past 50 years,” one of the shaping images of this young 21st century. One extreme claims that it reveals Israeli malevolence and wanton violence, deliberately targeting a defenseless child and killing him in cold blood. “In killing this boy the Israelis killed every child in the world” (Osama bin Laden). The other side claims that it was either staged or a snuff film that reveals the ruthless and paranoid nature of PA media culture… the first blood libel of the 21st century. Even-handedness – Who knows who did it? It’s a tragedy – doesn’t work here. If we hope to learn anything from this terrible event, it will come from examination. We put the evidence before you and the five possible scenarios with arguments for and against. Judge for yourself.

Second Draft's al Durah material has drawn fire from blogger Israpundit, who has criticized Second Draft for not having enough of an agenda; for not being enough of an advocate:

Second Draft should make the charge first to provoke maximum interest and then go on to prove it. It should not ask a question. It should start with an assertion it wants everyone to accept. "The French colluded with the PA to produce the biggest blood lible of the tenty first century with disasterous effect." Instead, you end it with "Judge for yourself". Right away you are showing your evenhandedness to allow for a difference of opinion. The story is not about the boy that became an icon but the lie and collusion that sunk "a thousnd ships" Don't waste this wonderful opportunity to make a point. Instead you ask a question.

Wretchard of Belmont Club has also offered some thoughts on the matter.

Here are mine:

There are thousands of sites for pure advocacy, but usually those end up preaching only to the choir. What Landes is trying to do here is far more valuable: he's trying to present a fair case, and let the reader be the judge and/or jury. A fair trial presents the evidence on both sides, and then a verdict is rendered. Fairness does not preclude judgment--on the contrary, judgment requires fairness.

There's no need to be afraid of this process, if one believes that truth is based on a critical evaluation of evidence. Perhaps, though, Israpundit may not have a great deal of faith in the public's critical thinking skills.

I have long thought that critical thinking should be taught far more; it's one of the most important--perhaps the single most important--skill to learn. But, just as I have faith in the jury system (however imperfect), I have a basic faith in people's ability to judge critically and well, if the evidence is clearly presented.

Perhaps the problem is patience; it takes a lot of time to look at the evidence, study it, evaluate it, and come to a conclusion. That's actually the basic process I followed myself in my post-9/11 learning (as my next "change" post will describe, whenever I manage to get it finished).

It's one of the most powerful processes on earth, especially when the evidence is so overwhelming that one ends up changing one's mind. Take it from me; I know.

But back to al Durah. In fact, Landes does come to some conclusions, here:

When all the anomalies in the evidence are considered, the odds that it was staged seem high. By contrast, any explanation that real injuries were recorded bogs down in so many contradictions that one must resort repeatedly to elaborate and unlikely explanations (e.g., all three cameramen ran out of batteries at 3 pm in the afternoon of a day where, till that point nothing had happened). The odds of such explanations are so low that only a true believer can, without hesitation, assert that things happened exactly as they were reported.

And then Landes offers some guesses as to why this news hasn't been widely broadcast:

Why if it's so obvious, haven't the media covered this alleged staged scene?
There is no simple answer. Partly it's the pack mentality. No one wants to break ranks, fearing ostracism by colleagues for contradicting the overwhelming consensus; and those who do break ranks, largely because they have re-examined the data, do get ostracized, even lose their access the public sphere (articles not published, exclusion from talk shows). Partly it's related to the media's intimidation by Palestinian and Arab political groups. Partly it's the power of suggestion so that even when people read articles claiming that it's staged, they still think in terms of the boy being shot. But at another level, as one of my students put it, "I'm afraid that if I admit that this is a fake, I'll be taking sides with the Israelis…" a sentiment that can move both someone committed to "even-handed level playing field" and a partisan for the other side. In the end, this case will remain one of the great mysteries - and hopefully one of the great shames -- of modern journalism. That it took five years, and recourse to the web to finally bring it to the attention of the public, that public which is committed to civil societies around world and who have and continue to suffer from the story's poison, represents one of the great failures of our time.


I certainly wouldn't be one to underestimate the power of reluctance to break ranks and leave the pleasant circle dance. But sometimes it just needs to be done.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

An Iraqi Iraq

Is the true meaning of these preliminary Iraqi election results unclear? You bet it is.

The trends as they appear so far: a majority of the members of the new Iraqi National Assembly have religious ties-- mostly Shiite (44%), but some Sunni (20%), too. Kurds comprise about 19% of the members, and Allawi's secular party has about half of that figure, although it's expected to pick up more as the expatriate votes are counted.

So, indeed, the majority of the assembly members will have religious ties, although there is no clear majority of one religious group over the whole.

But what does that mean in terms of policy?

In attempting to guess at the answer, I submit that these results are not too much of a surprise, nor are they something especially new. In fact, last year's election results were not all that dissimilar: 48% Shiite-affiliated; Kurds about half of that figure. The Sunnis, of course, had fewer than this time, since they had a lower participation rate. Now that the minority Sunnis have voted in greater numbers than before, it stands to reason they would be electing their own religious-based (rather than secular) leaders, just as a great many Shiites have. The secular parties did not do well in last year's elections, just as they did not do well in this year's.

It's easy to forget that, a year ago, many of the post-election cries in our MSM were, "Bush and the neocons are toast; religion triumphs in Iraq, and Bush's guys have fared very poorly." In fact, I myself had forgotten about those cries; I was reminded of them only by a fluke.

What was that fluke? Today, when I Googled "Iraq election results" to try to get some of the figures for the recent election, I found this article from the Washington Post, entitled, "Iraq Winners Allied with Iran are Opposite of US Vision." With a sinking heart, I read:

But, in one of the greatest ironies of the U.S. intervention, Iraqis instead went to the polls and elected a government with a strong religious base -- and very close ties to the Islamic republic next door...the top two winning parties -- which together won more than 70 percent of the vote and are expected to name Iraq's new prime minister and president -- are Iran's closest allies in Iraq.

Thousands of members of the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite-dominated slate that won almost half of the 8.5 million votes and will name the prime minister, spent decades in exile in Iran.


I actually read the entire article before I noticed something odd--the dateline: February 14, 2005. It was written nearly a year ago, and referred to the election of that earlier National Assembly--the one that hasn't done so very badly in drafting the recent constitution. (That's one of the beauties of the internet, by the way: "compare and contrast" is so easy to do it's almost unavoidable.)

So I take it all with the proverbial grain of salt. "Religiously affiliated" does not automatically mean extremist Iranian-style Ayatollahs or Afghan-style Taliban.

In fact, the Post article from a year ago was itself a bit confused on that score. After going on for quite some time about the close ties the new Shiite electees had to Iran (something that every one of the articles I've read on the most recent elections has reiterated, by the way), it makes the following about-face:

Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is a leading contender to be prime minister, reiterated yesterday that the new government does not want to emulate Iran. "We don't want either a Shiite government or an Islamic government," he said on CNN's "Late Edition." "Now we are working for a democratic government. This is our choice."

...U.S. and regional analysts agree that Iraq is not likely to become an Iranian surrogate. Iraq's Arabs and Iran's Persians have a long and rocky history. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Iraq's Shiite troops did not defect to Iran.


Another problem with the current election--although certainly not an unexpected one, either--are accusations of election fraud by the Sunnis. Will this lead to another boycott by Sunnis of the process of democracy, and a refusal to compromise and become part of the negotiations--all the way up to the possibility of civil war? Perhaps. But remember that there's hardly an election these days that doesn't seem to come with these bitter accusations, including our own. So, once again, all we can say is: time will tell.

Any realist has known from the start that it was going to be a long, rocky, and uncertain road to any sort of viable Iraqi democracy, and this is apparently part of that journey.

As Glenn Reynolds writes, in a roundup of links on the election:

Democratization is a process, not an event. We'll soon see just how far along in the process we've progressed.

And Gregory Djerejian of Belgravia Dispatch seems to agree--quoting Thomas Friedman, whose columns are no longer freely accessible:

My own visits to Iraq have left me convinced that beneath all the tribalism, there is a sense of Iraqi citizenship and national identity eager to come out. But it will take more security, and many more Iraqi leaders animated by national reconciliation, for it to emerge in a sustained way.

Unlike many on the left, I'm not convinced that this will never happen and that all of this has been for naught. Unlike many on the right, I'm not convinced that it will inevitably happen if we just stay the course long enough. The only thing I am certain of is that in the wake of this election, Iraq will be what Iraqis make of it - and the next six months will tell us a lot. I remain guardedly hopeful.


I found some of the comments at Iraq the Model to be of interest, too:

One commenter wrote:

Me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger.

Do the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish Sunni see each other as cousins? How do they view the Iranians, who are not Arab? Not Iraqi?

Maybe, even with the "discouraging" election results, these groups will band together to defend against outside pressures. Maybe that's what will stop the "inevitable" civil war.

There are probably too many factors involved to predict anything accurately - maybe the best thing to do for the present time is to just sit back and watch as things unfold.


And then there's this:

I'm not surprised at all that a society, having been crushed beneath the heel of a secular government for thirty years, takes its first chance in a democracy to overcompensate with a religious response.

Please keep in mind that Khomeni replaced the Shah, not through democracy, but by revolt. Iraq is a much more diverse nation that is going to look very strange to people for a while.

There is nothing to say that religious leaders can't operate successfully in a democratic process. This will no more split the nation into quadrants any more than any other election has in the past.

It is going to be okay. It was obvious that this government, for starters, was going to skew more toward the religious end. Nevertheless, it is a parliament, and is bound to have factions within the religious wing that can be allied with on certain issues.

Just because there are a lot of religious representatives doesn't mean they all think alike!


And I'll leave this comment as the final word:

As far as being a sister country to Iran, most of you are missing the boat.
Sistani is the largest most, influential Shia leader in Iraq (who happens to be Iranian) but he is not a fan of the Iranian political system. A matter of fact, he is a fan of democracy.

No, you will not see a US style democracy in Iraq but neither will you see an Iranian style theocracy.

Iraq will be uniquely Iraqi and will probably require decades to evolve.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Holocaust denial: it's catching

Baron Bodissey at Gates of Vienna has written a fascinating post comparing Iran's President Ahmadinejad to Hitler.

Oh, I know; it's become downright fashionable these days to compare all sorts of world leaders to Hitler--particularly President Bush. But Ahmadinejad really does exhibit parallels with Hitler, at least in his rhetoric, if not in his ability to fulfill that rhetoric by acquiring the vast territory Hitler conquered.

But the sad--and very ironic--fact is that it's no longer necessary to have Hitler's reach to be able to threaten a great number of Jews, due to the establishment of the state of Israel and the relative ease of acquiring nuclear weapons these days. Iran, of course, is very well-positioned geographically and militarily to represent a credible threat--if not now, then very soon.

Hitler had to go to great lengths to gather the Jews from their respective countries in Europe to murder them, but he was more than willing to make the effort. Today, however, thanks in great part to that effort of his, the Jews are more or less gone from Europe. They are also more or less gone from the Arab world, and from some of those non-Arab Moslem countries (such as, for example, Iran) in which they previously had a significant presence. Although Hitler didn't accomplish this directly, he had an indirect effect, since the ending of the Jewish presence in some of these countries was a result of the establishment of the state of Israel, which probably would not have been approved by the UN but for his Holocaust.

The upshot of it all is that the Jewish population of the Old World is now largely concentrated within the tiny confines of Israel, and if Iran gains atomic weapons it would be far easier to exterminate those Jews than it was for Hitler, although the consequences could be even graver for the world, since Israel itself has a nuclear capacity.

It's difficult to get the full flavor of how very important the extermination of the Jews was to Hitler. If you want to read about it in his own words and those of his confederates, here's a good place to start. The following is a tiny sample:

I hope to see the very concept of Jewry completely obliterated. [1939]

Europe cannot find peace until the Jewish question has been solved. …One thing I should like to say on this day [the sixth anniversary of his being appointed Chancellor of the Reich] which may be memorable for others as well as for us Germans. In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet and have usually been ridiculed for it. … Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshivization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. [1941]

Even though I was born not too long after World War II, statements such as these had always seemed to me to come from a far-off place and time--medieval and dark and very distant. Hitler was like some bogeyman or ogre in a fairy tale, shouting, "Fee fie foe fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!." In my lifetime, we already knew how WWII had ended--with Hitler vanquished, shamed and dead by his own hand, just as in the fairy tale the ogre perishes and the beautiful princess and prince (or, alternatively, the brave but humble peasant hero) are triumphant and live happily ever after.

But of course in recent years that happy delusion of mine that this was only "once upon a time," long ago and far away, has been revealed as just that: a delusion. Many theories have been advanced over the years for the strange and enduring phenomenon known as anti-Semitism, but the one constant is that it is relatively constant, cropping up over and over in varied guises and locations, waxing and waning rhythmically, but always reliably present.

So the words of Iran's President no longer surprise me with their resemblance to Hitlerian rantings. And it's no surprise, either, that one of Ahmadinejad's themes is Holocaust denial, although one would think it could just as easily be Holocaust approval.

Holocaust denial, always reprehensible, is somehow more understandable in Europeans than in someone such as Ahmadinejad. After all, Europe bears more of the guilt for the Holocaust; therefore it stand to reason that Europeans would have more motivation to want to wash their hands of any association with the Holocaust by declaring it a fabrication of those wily and nefarious Jews.

But Holocaust denial has spread to Arab countries, and of course to Iran. The reasons are not completely clear, but it seems to go with the territory of anti-Semitism itself. After all, if one desires to hate Jews and to blame them for all manner of evil, and at the same time one imagines there's a need to be sympathetic to victims (and to elevate the Palestinians as victims extraordinaire), then the Jews have to be discredited as victims. They must have no sympathy whatsoever in order to become the villains of the piece. And to do that one must deny that the Holocaust ever occurred--so that their re-victimhood may be safely contemplated, and with a clear conscience.

It's a sad and not-too-well-known fact that the development of virulent anti-Semitism in the Arab world, a 20th century phenomenon (which Iran now seems to have "caught"), was in fact a direct result of Nazi influence in the Middle East during the 30s (see this book by Bernard Lewis on the subject). So the resemblance noted by Baron Bodissey is not so strange, after all: Nazi propaganda is probably the underlying source of this sort of thing--both in the Arab world and, by a sort of contagious spread, in Iran.

Holocaust denial carries a special burden and irony for Holocaust survivors. The incredible Primo Levi, whose autobiographical book Survival in Auschwitz constitutes what I consider an indispensable work on the subject of the Holocaust, indicated as much. (By the way, if you haven't read it, I recommend it highly; his lucid and comprehensive essays read as though the most brilliant of sociologists had been sent to the death camps for the express purpose of studying them and writing about them with great clarity and insight.)

I don't have Levi's book in front of me as I write this, so I have to rely on my memory. But my recollection is that among the many nefarious Nazi mindgames that Levi chronicles was the following: those in charge would taunt the inmates of the camps by saying that none of them would survive to tell the tale, and that therefore the world would never know. Furthermore, they would add that, even if by some strange chance some did survive and tried to tell, they would not be believed.

So it seems that the Nazis may have understood about the possibilities of Holocaust denial. However, they still tried as best they could in the waning days of World War II to destroy the evidence of the camps as the Allied armies advanced. But they were unsuccessful; they ran out of time.

The Allies who liberated the camps made some documentary films of the horrors they found there, because they felt the need to prove what had happened. Some of these films were shown at the Nuremberg trial and some were shown in movie theaters of the time:

General Dwight D. Eisenhower anticipated that future generations might find it hard to believe the horror that they found when Nazi Germany was liberated by the Allies. He ordered that both the Ohrdruf camp and the Buchenwald camp be preserved for several weeks in the state in which they were found and German civilians in nearby towns were forced to visit the camps to view the piles of rotting bodies. American soldiers, newspaper reporters and Congressmen were also called in as witnesses to the Nazi atrocities. But it was the British who had the biggest impact on the public conscience when they released their newsreel film of Bergen-Belsen to movie theaters around the world in the last days of the war.

Of course, all that the liberating Allied soldiers saw was the end result of the death and work camps, not the functioning things themselves. Most of the Bergen-Belsen deaths they found were from a rampant typhus epidemic, for example; the death camp apparatus of most of the camps were no longer in operation by the time the Allies arrived, having been fairly recently abandoned. All that was left was whatever records the Germans themselves had kept, the physical evidence (the ovens, for example), and the stories of the survivors, who represented only an infinitesimal fraction of the number who had been killed outright.

Eishenhower was indeed prescient when he anticipated that future generations might find it hard to believe the horror of the Holocaust. He did what he could to document it. But the need to deny seems to be stronger for many people than the evidence (when I was Googling to find information about the films of the camps, for example, a plethora of Holocaust denial sites came up).

Some deny, I suppose, because they don't want to believe such horrors are possible. But many deniers have a different purpose for their denial, and it's a Hitlerian one, I'm afraid: to demonize the Jews once again, and to try to pick up where he left off in their annihilation.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Spy vs. spy: the wiretaps, the Times, and the firewall

I haven't written yet about the controversy over government wiretaps designed to eavesdrop on conversations with terrorists. That's partly because so many have covered the story already, and partly because I like to do a lot of reading on a topic like that before I venture an opinion, and I've been too pressed for time lately.

There are two separate issues, however. The first is the legality of the wiretaps themselves, and the balancing of our security needs with protection of our liberties. In times of war (and this is a time of war, in my opinion), it's always been a tricky problem to weigh those competing interests. The second issue is that of the outing of the details of the program (apparently by someone in the intelligence community), and the subsequent decision by the NY Times to publish the information.

If you want to take a look at what others have written on the subject, first let's hear from the lawyers: there's Ann Althouse, and Glenn Reynolds has a a good roundup of links. Next, Dean Esmay has some strong views about the leakers, and Baldilocks has a discussion of the role of Congress, as well as this interesting post, which concludes with links to other bloggers on the subject.

On the second issue, I see some historical roots for the Times's action, originating in those MSM glory days--once again!--of Vietnam: the Pentagon Papers. I believe that was the turning point in which the MSM began to see itself in the role of whistleblower on federal government excesses (especially in wartime), and it's never looked back. Now, even the hint of a possibility of an overstepping--even one directly related to the attempt to catch terrorists who do in fact threaten our lives--prompts the response: publish (never mind if we perish).

As for that famous intelligence "wall" that underlies some of the issues here, please take a look at this previous post of mine. It's a history of what led to the development of the wall. I think the information contained therein is extremely important, and can help in understanding the present controversy, which is just the latest incident in a long series of moves in an important chess game of spy vs. spy.

The latest variety of scam-spam

You know them, we all get them--those e-mails written in a sort of elegantly polite and yet utterly fractured English, attempting to prey in equal measure on the reader's sympathy, naivete, and greed.

I receive several almost every day. Usually, they've been correctly identified by Yahoo e-mail as spam, go directly into the bulk folder, and are deleted.

But every now and then one appears with a new twist that captures my interest for a moment before it goes down the spamhole with its brethren. Here's one that seems to be pitched either to the international anti-American sensibility, or to those "progressives" in this country who have a yen to help a supposed confederate of Saddam:

Dear Sir,

Before I proceed, may I humbly introduce my self to your good self, My Name is Mrs. Hajia lilian, an Iraqi refugee, my husband was until recently, one of the personal aid to the president of Iraq who was formerly overthrown out of power by American Government . Prior to this last serious crisis that is still ravaging in my country, which recently led to misfortune of our government and my late husband
position as the personal aid to the president, we were able to inherited the sum of US11 million.The funds were originally gotten from my late husband proceeds.My late husband was able to safe guard the fund with a very good diplomatic & Lifting Company


I'm not familiar with diplomatic and Lifting Companies, but they sound like a fine idea for protecting the money of a late "aid" to the exceedingly unlate "president of Iraq who was formerly overthrown out of power" by that nasty old American Government .

And now Ms. lilian seems to have decided it might be a good idea to consider sending that inherited 11 million in American dollars (inherited, perhaps, by way of the ever-gracious UN oil-for-food program?) right back to the good old USA, among other nations:

I have decided to contact you because I am interested in investing in your country which is investment friendly. Please kindly guide and assist me in making the right investment since I am also interested in buying a residential property as I will be moving my family over there as soon as every thing regarding technical and logictics details is worked out and ascertained to our respective satisfaction.

How fascinating! The former aide to Saddam's family may be coming here--right to the belly of the beast, as it were.

And, amazingly enough, there just might be something in it for me, risk-free. Will wonders never cease?

In view of your participation,I am ready to give you a good negotiable percentage for your assistance,or better still commit it into viable Joint venture projects,be assured that you stand no risk of any kind as the funds belong to me and my only survived son. As soon as I get your consent, we will quickly move this fund to your country for investment . However, upon your acceptance to work as my partner, I am here with my only surviving son Mohammed, I strongly believe that associating with you to embark on this and other business ventures will derive a huge success here after, please include you private contact telephone number and private e-mail when replying.
Yours Sincerely.
Mrs Hajia lilian


In all seriousness, what I find puzzling is that someone, somewhere, must be taken in by this sort of thing, because otherwise the scammers/spammers wouldn't bother to waste the effort. So, who are these people who are responding to Ms. lilian's requests? And in what protected universe have they been hiding all these years, that they're not onto the game?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Harold Bloom, super-literate, vs. and George Bush, semi-literate

I once tried to read Harold Bloom's book The Western Canon, in which he recommends a list of books that a person should read if he/she wants to be truly literate and well-informed in the tradition of Western civilization.

Tried, and failed, even though I happen to be a fairly voracious reader. How Bloom managed to take a bunch of inherently fascinating books and make them seem dull is a mystery I haven't quite solved. But I seem to recall dense prose and a generous dose of condescension.

At any rate, Bloom is now venturing into political waters. In Saturday's Guardian, his commentary on--who else?--George Bush appeared. Here are a few excerpts to give you an idea of the flavor of its typical conspiracy theories on the dark motivations and machinations of Bush and the Republicans:

At the age of 75, I wonder if the Democratic party ever again will hold the presidency or control the Congress in my lifetime. I am not sanguine, because our rulers have demonstrated their prowess in Florida (twice) and in Ohio at shaping voting procedures, and they control the Supreme Court. The economist-journalist Paul Krugman recently observed that the Republicans dare not allow themselves to lose either Congress or the White House, because subsequent investigations could disclose dark matters indeed. Krugman did not specify, but among the profiteers of our Iraq crusade are big oil (House of Bush/House of Saud), Halliburton (the vice-president), Bechtel (a nest of mighty Republicans) and so forth.

Bloom doesn't think much of Americans, either:

All of this is extraordinarily blatant, yet the American people seem benumbed, unable to read, think, or remember, and thus fit subjects for a president who shares their limitations.

Bloom clearly seems to think that Americans deserve Bush--we are that stupid. But Bloom is clear that we don't deserve some of our greatest writers:

[D.H.] Lawrence, frequently furious at Whitman, as one might be with an overwhelming father, a King Lear of poetry, accurately insisted that the Americans were not worthy of their Whitman. More than ever, they are not, since the Jacksonian democracy that both Whitman and Melville celebrated is dying in our Evening Land.

One gets the notion that Bloom thinks that America is also unworthy of the Great Bloom, although he's far too modest to say it straight out. And it's odd to see the word "Jacksonian" in this context, because the political impulse that Bush is implementing (and part of what Bloom is so against) is sometimes referred to as "Jacksonian," in the sense advanced by Walter Russell Meade.

Bloom may or may not have read Meade, but he certainly reads a lot of books--and he is certain that Bush does not. In fact, Bloom writes:

Though he possesses a Yale BA and honorary doctorate, our president is semi-literate at best. He once boasted of never having read a book through, even at Yale.

I'll draw the veil of silence on the rest of Bloom's essay (if you're interested, you can always follow the link and read it for yourself), except to say that the summary version is, "Bush stinks, and American has lost its way due to the evangelicals."

I want for a moment, however, to talk about those two sentences of Bloom's about Bush and books. They piqued my curiosity: whatever could Bloom be referring to? Did Bush really boast of "never having read a book through, even at Yale?"

The closest I could come to the origin of the statement was a joke Bush made at a dinner. Bloom's remarks seem to have been based on the following self-deprecating quip Bush made at a black-tie event prior to the 2000 election:

William F Buckley wrote a book at Yale. I read one.

Well, if I didn't know better, I'd accuse Bloom of a lack of reading comprehension. Or perhaps it's a lack of listening comprehension. Or maybe he just doesn't get the difference between a joke and a serious declarative statement; certainly, his works don't show an especially well-developed sense of humor, as best I can recall.

And what of Bush's actual reading habits, not his Bloom-imagined ones? Well, he seems to like his books long:

Married to a former librarian, Bush likes short speeches and, judging from a recent reading list (Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, Joseph J. Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington), lengthy books. Early in its first term the Bush White House established an authors lecture series, which enabled the president to pick the brains of David McCullough, Edmund Morris, Martin Gilbert, Bernard Lewis, and Robert Kaplan, among others. Bush has publicly acknowledged his debt to Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy, which distinguishes between "free" and "fear" societies, and exalts Ronald Reagan's moral confrontation with Soviet tyranny. A recent New York Times story described his admiration for Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

I'm not sure how these works would sit with Bloom--but they certainly qualify as books. In addition Bush, according to the same article, reads the Bible or the works of Oswald Chambers (a Scottish-born chaplain) every morning. With Bloom's emphasis on how the religious right is responsible for so many ills in America, I would have guessed that he'd be none too pleased with that reading matter.

But it turns out I'd be wrong. Here's Bloom's Western Canon, his list of essential books for the educated, literate person. It turns out that the Bible, King James version, is one of the first on the list. De Tocqueville doesn't get mentioned, but surely Bush should get at least a tiny bit of credit from Bloom for his Bible study? Seems not.

I'm not really sure why people such as Bloom fascinate me so. I think it's the way their deep knowledge in a certain specialized area (in his case, literature) combines with a failure to research much outside the range of that knowledge, and the resultant arrogance and ignorance they display without their even realizing it. Because they are smart and highly erudite in one discipline, and are used to pontificating within that discipline (and receiving praise and respect when they do), people such as Bloom often appear to lack the intellectual curiosity--and humility--to wonder what it is they don't know about other things, and to try to learn.

Well, you certainly can't say the same for Bush. In fact, au contraire, according to this excerpt from a mostly-uncomplimentary book about Bush, written by Jacob Weisberg:

Richard Perle, foreign policy adviser [says]: "The first time I met Bush 43 … two things became clear. One, he didn't know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn't know very much."

Weisberg cited the Perle quote in a way that was meant to be a put-down of Bush. But some might consider it a recommendation. At any rate, it's a trait that Harold Bloom might do well to emulate now and then.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Neomatrix

Apparently, word of my new and streamlined identity has reached the creators of the original Neo, of "Matrix" fame.

I've been informed by reliable but understandably secret sources that the Matrix Trilogy is about to become a quartet. A sequel is in the works, tentatively entitled "Neomatrix."

The plot is unknown as yet, and a release date has not been announced. But a prototype poster has been designed, and I've gotten hold of a clandestine copy. Remember, you saw it here first:



(Photoshopping courtesy of the inimitable Gerard Van der Leun).

My mother, five months later

Some of you may remember that my ninety-one-year-old mother had a stroke in late July.

How's she doing now? Fair. It's been a long, long five months.

In the beginning, she was able to move her left leg only a few inches--and very laboriously, at that. Her left arm could move better, but it was wildly uncoordinated. Asked to touch her nose with her index finger, she'd slowly and shakily approach the general region of her head; but her finger was far more likely to encounter an ear or her hair than the requested destination. When moving in any way--doing what are called "transfers," from bed to wheelchair, for example--she had to be helped with what I believe is called a "two-person full assist." That is, she was more or less limp, and two people had to support her weight.

It was dreadful for me to watch, still more dreadful for her to experience. And, although her speech was mercifully almost fully intact (only a slight increase in word-retrieval problems, but nothing out of the ordinary, really, for a person of her age), her memory wasn't so hot. And she was scared.

It wasn't always easy to tell if the memory problems were from the stroke itself, or from the overwhelming experience of having had it, and the resultant anxiety she felt about herself and her future. She was none too hopeful about that.

Never an optimist, she'd claim she couldn't use her arm at all, when clearly she could. A constant litany was the fact that she'd always need 24-hour a day care, for the rest of her life. I couldn't put a dent in this idea; if I even spoke of other possibilities, she'd become annoyed.

I know my mother better than to think pep talks would help--not that I didn't try, but the look she gave me would shut me up pretty quickly. The forced heartiness of the physical therapists and their constant, "You're doing so well!" would call forth eye-rolling and sarcasm worthy of a teenager from her.

Pretty early on I decided to give up on my mother's having a positive attitude--the main thing was to just get her to do it--whatever the "it" might be at the moment. For example, when she was in the rehab facility, she developed the habit of telling the physical therapists she didn't feel up to her exercises right now and to come back later. The therapists informed me that, if she declined too many days in a row, Medicare would stop paying for rehab and she'd be out on her ear and in a nursing home, utterly dependent. Knowing my mother, I decided to tell her. Her reaction? "Okay then, I'll cooperate."

And cooperate she did. Within weeks she was taking a few tentative steps with a walker. It was astoundingly gratifying to see her, almost as strange as if she'd mastered some rare and complex form of gymnastics. Her arm recovery was even more dramatic than her leg. I watched her persevere and put styrofoam pegs into a styrofoam board--it looked hard, requiring not only fine motor coordination, but force as well, and she seemed miserable. But she did it.

My mother's recuperative powers were starting to take hold almost in spite of herself. Although her attitude problem remained, it turned out that some of the staff really enjoyed her sarcasm and her refusal to sugarcoat the situation. By the time she left the place, after two long months, she had many friends who were going to miss her.

And she could walk with a walker, although only for about ten feet before tiring. Her arm was almost normal (although she still said it "didn't work"). As for transfers, she could do them herself, with someone standing near to cue her and remind her how it went, and to support her if she seemed wobbly.

The progress was immense, but there was a problem: she had a sort of amnesia for the events of the first few weeks after the stroke. And why would that be a problem? After all, who'd want to remember such helplessness and hopelessness? Well, it meant she couldn't evaluate the astounding progress she'd made. All she knew was that she still couldn't walk right; she didn't remember that at the beginning she couldn't even consider the concept of walking, much less do it.

Now she's been home--"home" being a lovely apartment in an independent living facility--for almost three months. She's progressed from 24-hour attendants (the situation she insisted she'd need for the rest of her life) to 8-10 hours a day, lessened at her own request. At a certain point, she'd confided in me that they were getting on her nerves, and she could do without them at night and a few hours during the day. Now she's almost careless about her transfers, even letting go of the walker on occasion as she performs them, balancing for a few seconds in the way she used to so long long ago, before the stroke: on her own two legs.

Every single thing is getting better, including her memory. She still can't get all the way to the elevator under her own power, and so she's wheeled down to activities and meals. But I have every hope that some day, probably within the next six months or so, she may indeed graduate to doing so on her own, and to only having help for perhaps an hour in the morning and then again in the evening.

Lately, I took over her checkwriting and financial record-keeping. It's not that she can't do both things--it's just that they caused her so much anxiety and worry that it was making us both crazy. And why all the anxiety about that? She is fortunate to have home health care insurance, but the balky insurance company has caused a cash flow problem that has increased her stress so much that it was affecting her health itself--not to mention my own psyche. The insurance company--ah, the insurance company! Two and a half months, and they have yet to make a payment--

But lately there's been a remarkable change in my mother. Both my brother and I have noticed it. There's a certain lightness in her voice, a lilt that means she's happier. When I call her now and ask how she is, she ordinarily says "Pretty good." She's reading, or going downstairs to an activity like a concert or a lecture, playing cards again. The caretakers have finally shaken down from a bewildering host of strangers who came and went with no pattern, hardly even staying long enough to allow her to learn their names, to just a few whom she likes and who like her.

And they really do like her. My mother is an intelligent and outspoken woman who, even now, exudes a sort of life force, an energy that comes across as much younger than her years. Her main caretaker seems to know exactly what to do, devising strategies to entice my mother to walk longer distances in the halls, getting her soup when she doesn't feel too well but making sure it's low-sodium soup, staying late one time when the next caregiver didn't show up to relieve her. Even my mother, who earlier on didn't have much praise for anyone she encountered (the best was usually, "She's OK, I guess"), phoned the agency to let them know how wonderful this particular caretaker is.

I can't praise these women (they are all women) highly enough. It often seems to me to be a thankless job. And it's true that it's a frustrating, low-paying, high-stress, sometimes infuriating (and even revolting) position. But the rewards must come from seeing the gratefulness of someone like my mother, someone who clearly doesn't give out those sorts of kudos lightly. In seeing the slow but palpable progress that is possible even in a woman of ninety-one (a few weeks short of ninety-two, in fact).

Just five months ago my mother left the land of lifelong robust health and entered the terra incognita of illness and disability--and it was a terra that held, for her, a great deal of terror. I'm not saying that at this point she's happy to be there; not by a long shot. But the terror has diminished. And now, when I remind her of all the progress she's made, she doesn't wave her hand and dismiss me anymore, or roll her eyes--she agrees.

Friday, December 16, 2005

See you tomorrow

I ended up being far more busy today than expected--and now I'm off to have some fun. So, no post today, see you tomorrow!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Let's hear it for the purple fingers of Iraq

Others are covering the news in great depth (I recommend, in particular, the entire front page of Mudville Gazette for a good roundup and links; as well as the horse's mouth, the one and only Iraq the Model).

But I have to add a word to express my own pleasure at watching the proceedings. I saw a bit on TV, and once again, the happy faces were a great joy. My hope is that stability and a democracy that preserves human rights will come as soon as possible to that long-suffering country.

Some time after the first post-invasion Iraqi election, I wrote a piece in which I reflected as follows:

When the authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." it was more an article of faith than anything else, because the right of liberty (and the desire for it) was not all that self-evident to most of the world. But the framers turned out to be prescient, because here is evidence that is so strong that I think it amounts to proof: human beings want and value liberty and self-determination. Even though these things are abstractions compared to basic needs such as food and water, they seem to represent another basic need, one of the human spirit.

It seems just as true today.

Jane Fonda and those "killing machines"

Michelle Malkin has a post entitled, "Baghdad Jane's Bloviations," excoriating our old friend Jane Fonda for these remarks (offered here in their entirety):

"Hanoi Jane" Fonda is claiming that ever since Vietnam, U.S. troops have been trained to commit atrocities against innocent civilians as a matter of military policy.

"Starting with the Vietnam War we began training soldiers differently," the anti-American actress says in an email to the Washington Post.

Fonda claims she learned of the policy switch in "secret meetings" she had with military psychologists "who were really worried about what was happening to our combat personnel."

One doctor, she insists, told her U.S. troops had been deliberately trained to be "killing machines."

"This began," Fonda maintained, "because the military discovered that in World War II and Korea, [U.S.] soldiers weren't killing enough."

"So they changed training procedures" to teach troops how to commit atrocities.

Still, the anti-war gadfly cautions, it's important not to blame the soldiers themselves for carrying out war crimes.

Recalling the "Winter Soldier" hearings that she and John Kerry staged in 1971, Fonda lamented: "When you put young people into an atrocity-producing situation where enemy and civilian are commingled, where the 'other side' is dehumanized, we cannot be surprised."

Anti-war vets now returning from Iraq, Fonda cautioned, should be listened to instead of being dismissed as "unpatriotic."

"We have not learned the lessons of Vietnam," she declared.


If you look at the trackbacks to Malkin's post about Fonda, a lot of bloggers are pretty enraged at her Winter-Soldier-redux remarks. And rightly so; I count myself among them. But it's no surprise that Fonda is singing the same old song, and trying to tie Iraq into Vietnam. I've already given my opinion on Fonda, here; so she's not really the subject of this post. The subject of this post is the substance of her remarks.

Because, strange as it may seem, Fonda is actually correct--at least, about part of what she's claiming. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially in the hands of Jane Fonda, and she draws the entirely wrong conclusions from that element of truth in her remarks.

What is she correct about? Well, she's got this portion right: U.S. troops have been deliberately trained to be more automatic and focused about killing.

And, just as Fonda claims, "this began, because the military discovered that in World War II and Korea, [U.S.] soldiers weren't killing enough."

And indeed, they "changed training procedures" to correct that flaw.

But that's where Jane parts company with the truth. She believes that this change is what led to atrocities in Vietnam. In fact, she's got the thing quite backwards.

It's certainly true that the phrase "killing machines" is a chilling one. But training members of the military to be more efficient and automatic at what they do is actually designed to make them more effective in a combat situation, to reduce psychological stress, and therefore to make atrocities less frequent, rather than more.

To understand this one must study the psychology of killing in war, a subject that until recently has been somewhat taboo (it's certainly not anything I, as a psych major back in the 60s, heard anything about).

But, just as Fonda states, it was discovered during WWII that:

...according to the military historian S.L.A. Marshall, as many as 80 percent of the American infantrymen he interviewed failed to fire their weapons in combat. Marshall attributed the low ''fire ratio'' to a mixture of poor training and a natural reluctance to kill. Even though his methodology has come under attack -- critics say his numbers are exaggerated -- his premise is generally accepted, and his book, ''Men Against Fire,'' is read throughout the military establishment. After it was published in 1947, the military revamped its training to make G.I.'s more comfortable firing at humans; soldiers shot at targets shaped like people rather than at bull's-eyes, for example. Today, Special Forces units make their training as realistic as possible, using pop-up targets with human faces, and setting off smoke bombs and small explosions to simulate the battlefield experience.

Dave Grossman, who spoke to me about ''the bulletproof mind,'' has written about the hidden logic behind military training. In his controversial book ''On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,'' he writes: ''It is entirely possible that no one intentionally sat down to use operant conditioning or behavior modification techniques to train soldiers in this area. But from the standpoint of a psychologist who is also a historian and a career soldier, it has become increasingly obvious to me that this is exactly what has been achieved.'' ...

Indeed, Special Forces officers openly discuss the use of ''stress inoculation'' -- in which they are exposed to heartbeat-racing drills that raise their threshold for staying calm. It doesn't mean Special Forces soldiers are immune to stress or the mistakes that stress causes, but it takes a lot more to rattle one of them than an old-time draftee....

Special Forces soldiers may develop cold-blooded reflexes, but they are also trained to know when not to kill. Targets that pop up during shooting drills include women and children who are not supposed to be shot. Being able to remain steady in combat doesn't just mean you will be a quick draw; it also means that you will do a better job of deciding when to hold your fire. As Grossman writes of the calibration of aggression: ''This is a delicate and dangerous process. Too much, and you end up with a My Lai. . . . Too little, and your soldiers will be defeated and killed by someone who is more aggressively disposed.'' Colonel King put it like this: ''Our guys have got to be confident in their ability to use lethal force. But they've got to be principled enough to know when not to use it. We're not training pirates.''


Exactly how does one train soldiers to be effective and yet principled killers? Operant conditioning is part of it. The goal of this process of accustoming military members to killing in wartime is to reduce their psychological and physical stress/fear, in order to avoid panic. And why is this so important? Because it's this stress/panic reaction (as well as a number of other factors, to be discussed in a moment) that can lead to the commission of atrocities in war.

The training, as described by the aforementioned Colonel Dave Grossman (an expert in the field), is as follows:

Many people think killing is a natural act, but Col. Grossman argues that it isn’t. He discusses how new and innovative pop up targets, video-based firearms training simulators, and Simunition®-based training are used to facilitate overcoming this innate resistance. These devices are then combined with high repetition to condition a correct response even in the face of fear....

Sometimes, a deadly force encounter explodes without warning, or a fight can be so fast and furious that there is no time to think about which technique to use and how best to employ it. To survive, you must do what needs to be done – now. In order to react reflexively, yet responsibly, and continue to fight no matter how impaired, you must have a set of conditioned responses ingrained into your mind.

Range training must be repetitive. When a pop up target of a bad guy appears (stimulus), you shoot (response). Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, and then a pop up target of a man holding a cell phone appears, you don’t shoot. The more realistic the target is, the better....

Realistic settings and situations, combined with live fire training using Simunition rounds will dramatically elevate your adrenaline to replicate how a real situation feels. The more you engage in this kind of training, the lower your heart rate gets as you become “inoculated” against combat, just as a vaccination will inoculate against a disease.


Stress is part of battle, and can never be eliminated. But too much stress leads to combat fatigue and ineffectiveness, and can also lead to atrocities. Therefore anything that reduces it is likely to reduce atrocities, not encourage them.

In this article there is a very lengthy discussion of the ways in which stress can lead to both casualties and to violations of the rules of war--that is, atrocities and war crimes. Here's a very brief summary:

Examples of misconduct stress behaviors range from minor breaches of unit orders or regulations to serious violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and perhaps the Law of Land Warfare. As misconduct stress behaviors, they are most likely to occur in poorly trained, undisciplined soldiers. However, they can also be committed by good, even heroic, soldiers under extreme combat stress.

The most famous example of combat stress being a contributing factor in the commission of atrocities was, of course, My Lai in Vietnam. My Lai was an occurrence with many elements that came together on one terrible day to cause a true war crime (in the following, I've taken the information mostly from this article, which is part of a military training course. Also, by the way, nothing in the rest of this post should be construed as an excuse for atrocities in general nor of Mai Lai in particular; it's offered as an explanation only).

Some of the non-stress factors leading to My Lai were part of the Vietnam War itself: the emphasis on body counts, for example; confusing, complex, and poorly understood rules of engagement; the one-year rotation making for lack of cohesive and experienced units.

Enemy tactics were another factor implicated in the mindset that led to My Lai (some of this may sound familiar to those who've followed the current "war on terror"):

The Viet Cong conducted a guerrilla war that can best be described as "clutching the people to their breast." They disguised themselves as civilians, hid amongst civilians, often fortified villages (with noncombatants being the vast majority of the population), and even used civilians of all ages and both sexes (little children, women, and old men, included) for logistical support, intelligence, and to plant mines and booby traps. There was widespread belief among American soldiers that the Viet Cong would use the type of civilians mentioned above to throw grenades. An expert on the Vietnamese army remarked that "the Vietnamese communists erased entirely the line between military and civilian by ruling out the notion of noncombatant."

One could say that these strategies on the part of the Viet Cong seemed almost designed to call forth atrocities on the part of the Americans, if possible--and if one said that, one would probably be correct:

A member of the Viet Cong would later confirm that: "Children were trained to throw grenades, not only for the terror factor, but so the government or American soldiers would have to shoot them. Then the Americans feel very ashamed. And they blame themselves and call their soldiers war criminals." It was not rare for small children to wave an American patrol into a booby trap or minefield. Additionally, the Viet Cong would use women and children as lethal ploys or ruses to lead Americans into deadly ambushes. Female Viet Congs were just as effective as their male counterparts, especially in sniper fire. In other words, the civilians were not exactly sitting out the war. American servicemen soon grew wary and suspicious of all Vietnamese.

Yet another huge factor was the terrible stress that C Company in particular, the unit involved in My Lai, had been under:

C Co. was fully deployed in Vietnam by the second week of December 1967. Task Force Barker was activated on 1 January 1968 to take over military operations in the Quang Ngai Province (a province that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Viet Cong). C Co.’s first casualty comes from a booby trap on 28 January 1968. The following month, on 25 February 1968, C Co. walked into a minefield. CPT Medina kept his head and, after three died and twelve suffered serious injuries, managed to lead his soldiers out. The soldiers of C Co. blamed the Vietnamese villagers nearby who failed to warn them of the minefield and booby traps.

1LT Calley, who had just returned from leave, saw the helicopters transporting the dead and wounded. 1LT Calley also noticed that, from that point on, the attitude of his soldiers toward Vietnamese children had changed -- they no longer gave them candy, and kicked them away. According to one account, 1LT Calley could hardly restrain his satisfaction when he said "Well, I told you so." Prior to the minefield incident, Task Force Barker had failed on two separate attempts to trap the 48th LF Bn in the Quang Ngai Province. During the second attempt, A Co. came under heavy automatic and mortar fire coming from My Lai 4., the second time in a month that Task Force Barker had encountered resistance from around the hamlet of My Lai. Its company commander is among the fifteen wounded, five other soldiers died.

After the minefield incident, C Co.’s esprit de cops and morale sagged and eventually vanished. They went down to 105 soldiers. To make matters even worse, on 14 March 1968, SGT George Cox, an NCO well liked and respected by the soldiers of C Co., an NCO with a reputation for looking after his soldiers, was killed by a booby trap while on patrol. Since arriving in Vietnam three months earlier, C Co. had suffered twenty-eight casualties, including five killed. All the casualties were caused by mines, booby traps, and snipers.


It takes little imagination to see that C Co. had been undergoing terrible psychological and physical stress--being blown up by mines and booby traps without ever getting a chance to fight back and engage the unseen and mysterious enemy, or to defend themselves. And, since in their minds they had reason to suspect the villagers were cooperative--or even instrumental--in the setting of those booby traps and mines, the stage was set for the massacre, which represented not a disciplined and cohesive force of trained fighting men, but an explosion of frustration and rage by a group that was highly stressed and poorly prepared for what they faced, as well as subject to weak and inadequate leadership.

The idea that training the military to be more automatic in its responses and less stressed in combat is hard to accept; it seems so cold and brutal. But, once understood, I think it's clear that courses working towards that end, such as Grossman's, actually lead away from more My Lais, not towards them.


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