September 22nd, 2009
September 22nd, 2009
A new paper — Torturing the Brain: On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’ – in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science: Science and Society makes the case that torture or “enhanced interrogation” techniques are a very poor way to obtain intelligence as stress interferes with memory. To a psychologist, this is a no-brainer. The fragility of memory is one of the fundamental findings of cognitive psychology. Memory is reconstructive, combining what happened with current thoughts and concerns.
An Associated Press story on the study quotes me on this:
Report: CIA interrogations informed by bad science
By Pamela Hess
WASHINGTON — Prolonged stress from the CIA’s harsh interrogations could have impaired the memories of terrorist suspects, diminishing their ability to recall and provide the detailed information the spy agency sought, according to a scientific paper published Monday.
The methods could even have caused the suspects to create — and believe — false memories, contends the paper, which scrutinizes the techniques used by the CIA under the Bush administration through the lens of neurobiology. It suggests the methods are actually counterproductive, no matter how much suspects might eventually say.
“Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or enhanced interrogation,” according to the paper in the scientific journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
In the paper, Shane O’Mara, a professor at Ireland’s Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, wrote that the severe interrogation techniques appear based on “folk psychology” — a layman’s idea of how the brain works as opposed to science-based understanding of memory and cognitive function.
O’Mara told The Associated Press on Monday he reviewed the scientific literature about the effect of stress on memory and brain function after reading descriptions of the CIA’s Bush-era interrogation methods. The methods were detailed in previously classified legal memos released in April.
O’Mara did not examine or interview any of those interrogated by the CIA, a fact noted by the agency in commenting on his work.
“The CIA’s former interrogation program was conducted pursuant to legal guidance from the Department of Justice. It produced intelligence on which our government acted to disrupt terrorist operations. Those are facts. The author of this study did not, to my knowledge, have direct contact with individuals who had been part of the agency’s high-value detainee program,” said CIA spokesman George Little.
O’Mara said that in general, “The assumption is that the (methods) are without effect on memory, or indeed facilitate the retrieval of information from memory.”
But overwhelmingly, scientific literature shows the opposite: Chronic stress and trauma — the likely result of the CIA’s methods, particularly for long-term prisoners, according to O’Mara — can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain that integrates memory.
O’Mara’s findings reflect the review of scientific and medical literature on the effect of acute stress on memory and cognitive function.
“We’ve known for quite a while that stress radically impairs cognition. We know memory is very fragile to begin with,” said Stephen Soldz, president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a professor at Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. “It’s just amazing that this has not been taken into account.”
Dr. Scott Allen, an internist and Brown University associate professor, is reviewing literature for the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights and told the AP he has yet to find studies that would support the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques.
“In fact what I’ve found is it seems like it would be a poor strategy,” Allen said.
The list of techniques the CIA used included prolonged sleep deprivation — six days in at least one instance — being chained in painful positions, exploitation of prisoners’ phobias, and waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning that President Barack Obama has called torture. Three CIA prisoners were waterboarded, two of them extensively.
Those methods cause the brain to release stress hormones that, if their release is repeated and prolonged, may result in compromised brain function and even tissue loss, O’Mara wrote.
He warned that this could lead to brain lobe disorders, making the prisoners vulnerable to confabulation — in this case, the pathological production of false memories based on suggestions from an interrogator. Those false memories mix with true information in the interrogation, making it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fabricated.
Waterboarding is especially stressful “with the potential to cause widespread stress-induced changes in the brain, especially when these are repeated frequently and intensively,” O’Mara wrote.
“The fact that the detrimental effects of these techniques on the brain are not visible to the naked eye makes them no less real,” he wrote.
The paper also asserted that forcibly exposing prisoners to what they are afraid of — the CIA got approval to use a suspect’s fear of insects against him — is actually a method used to cure phobias. The insects were never used, according to the government.
A 2006 Intelligence Science Board report on interrogation also noted possible negative effects of certain methods. For example, isolating suspects can be beneficial to interrogation because it shakes prisoners’ confidence and expectations, but extended isolation can significantly and negatively affect the ability of the source to recall information accurately, according to the report.
The board, created in 2002, provides independent advice to senior intelligence officials on emerging scientific and technical issues of special importance to intelligence work.
1 comment September 21st, 2009
Ann Jones recently returned to Afghanistan and, in a new piece, dissects the myth of the Afghan army as a fighting force.This is the force that Senator Levin and others want the US to build as our colonial surrogates in the Afghan occupation.
A few excerpts:
The soldiers receive training in exchange for pay. It is so successful, that the same people go through the process again and again:
What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn’t the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to “operate independently,” but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?
My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of “Basic Warrior Training” 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.
In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it’s a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin — the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets — and many are undoubtedly Taliban.
The Taliban take advantage of US-supplied military training opportuinities to learn about their enemy:
Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post that the Taliban now regularly use very sophisticated military techniques — “as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army’s Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments.” Of course, some of them have attended training sessions which teach them to fight in “austere environments,” probably time and time again. If you were a Talib, wouldn’t you scout the training being offered to Afghans on the other side? And wouldn’t you do it more than once if you could get well paid every time?
Such training is bound to come in handy — as it may have for the Talib policeman who, just last week, bumped off eight other comrades at his police post in Kunduz Province in northern Afghanistan and turned it over to the Taliban. On the other hand, such training can be deadly to American trainers. Take the case of the American trainer who was shot and wounded that same week by one of his trainees. Reportedly, a dispute arose because the trainer was drinking water “in front of locals,” while the trainees were fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramazan.
There is, by the way, plenty of evidence that Taliban fighters get along just fine, fighting fiercely and well without the training lavished on the ANA and the ANP. Why is it that Afghan Taliban fighters seem so bold and effective, while the Afghan National Police are so dismally corrupt and the Afghan National Army a washout?
Not that they need the training:
When I visited bases and training grounds in July, I heard some American trainers describe their Afghan trainees in the same racist terms once applied to African slaves in the U.S.: lazy, irresponsible, stupid, childish, and so on. That’s how Afghan resistance, avoidance, and sabotage look to American eyes. The Taliban fight for something they believe — that their country should be freed from foreign occupation. “Our” Afghans try to get by.
They are now being given weapons that likely won’t work for them, in order to make US weapons manufactorers rich:
Earlier this year, the U.S. training program became slightly more compelling with the introduction of a U.S.-made weapon, the M-16 rifle, which was phased in over four months as a replacement for the venerable Kalashnikov. Even U.S. trainers admit that, in Afghanistan, the Kalashnikov is actually the superior weapon. Light and accurate, it requires no cleaning even in the dust of the high desert, and every man and boy already knows it well. The strange and sensitive M-16, on the other hand, may be more accurate at slightly greater distances, but only if a soldier can keep it clean, while managing to adjust and readjust its notoriously sensitive sights. The struggling soldiers of the ANA may not ace that test, but now that the U.S. military has generously passed on its old M-16s to Afghans, it can buy new ones at taxpayer expense, a prospect certain to gladden the heart of any arms manufacturer. (Incidentally, thanks must go to the Illinois National Guard for risking their lives to make possible such handsome corporate profits.)
Finally, Jones cations against learning the wrong lesson:
One small warning: Don’t take the insecurity of the Afghan security forces as an argument for sending yet more American troops to Afghanistan. Aggressive Americans (now numbering 68,000) are likely to be even less successful than reluctant Afghan forces. Afghans want peace, but the kharaji (foreign) troops (100,000, if you include U.S. allies in NATO) bring death and destruction wherever they go. Think instead about what you might have won — and could still win — had you spent all those military billions on food. Or maybe agriculture. Or health care. Or a civilian job corps. Is it too late for that now?
Read the whole piece here.
September 21st, 2009
The Dayton Daily News contains an article on Col. Larry James, who seems to be confused why critics want him investigated for violating professional ethics and for possible war crimes.Evidently, the fact that he claims to have “Fixed Hell” at Guantanamo while simultaneously having no power or influence or abuses there might help him understand. Or perhaps the fact that Guantanamo was Hell before, during, and after the time he was there “Fixing” it might help. [BTW my latest writing on James is here.]:
Retired colonel puzzled by Guantanamo critics
WSU dean said he was sent to the detention center in Cuba to clean up the abuses there, which he feels he did
By Jim DeBrosse
During an interrogation at Guantanamo Bay in April 2003, an Army psychologist watched while MPs pinned a detainee to his knees and then repeatedly slammed his upper body and face to the floor up to 30 times. A contractor who also witnessed the abuse said “the floor was shaking” from the force of the blows, according to a 2008 investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee released in April.
The psychologist “believed that the technique was appropriate, approved, applied properly and was common practice in the teams.” The interrogator told the Senate investigator he agreed.
Col. Larry C. James, now retired from the Army, was the leader of the team of five psychologists assigned to Gitmo interrogators. James, who didn’t testify, says he never witnessed that incident nor any other abuse involving a health care professional during his deployments at Guantanamo from January to May 2003 and June 2007 to June 2008.
James, 52, a recipient of a Bronze Star Medal for his military service in Iraq and now dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University, has been under fire for several years by psychologists and human rights advocates. They doubt the effectiveness of his reforms at Gitmo and question whether he may have turned a blind eye to abusive practices there or perhaps even helped set abusive policies.
In the colonel’s defense
By his own statements, including those in his book “Fixing Hell,” James said he was sent by the Army “to clean up the abuses” at Gitmo and later the Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq.
James said the worst abuses at Guantanamo occurred in 2002, before he arrived, when interrogators terrorized prisoners with guard dogs, resorted to waterboarding and withheld medications. “You have to understand the context” following 9/11, he said. “The nation had been attacked 6 to 8 months before, and the pressure from (the Bush administration) was to get intelligence, get intelligence, get intelligence.”
Kathy Platoni, a Centerville psychologist and Army Reservist who counseled soldiers at Gitmo from 2003 to 2004, has been a defender of James. Although she didn’t meet him until he arrived at Wright State, she said, “I will back him to the hilt.”
To suggest that James or any psychologist was involved in torture or inhumane treatment of detainees is “absurd and offensive,” Platoni said. On the contrary, she said, military personnel at Gitmo were often subject to abuse from prisoners, who frequently hurled bodily fluids, excrement and insults from their cells.
Complaints against James
Trudy Bond, a Toledo psychologist who has taken legal action against James, said documents and media reports show that “torture and abuse of detainees never stopped at Guantanamo.” Bond has filed complaints against James with the state psychological boards in Ohio and Louisiana where James holds licenses. Both boards have declined to investigate, saying there is not enough evidence.
With the backing of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights organization in New York, Bond went to court in Louisiana to force the state board to investigate James. The court dismissed the case in August, saying Bond had not exhausted the board’s administrative process. Bond and her attorney have appealed in federal court.
For several years, members of the American Psychological Association have been embroiled in debate over the role James and other military psychologists may have played in detainee interrogations under the Bush administration. Bush critics in the APA charge that the White House used the supervision of psychologists and other health care professionals to legitimize interrogation techniques outlawed by the U.S. Constitution and the international Geneva Conventions. Their presence was supposed to prevent permanent physical or psychological harm.
In June 2007, 350 members of the APA signed an open letter to then-APA President Sharon Brehm asking the association to investigate James and other members of the APA who served at Guantanamo Bay. The letter alleges that “psychologists played an integral role in the development, justification and implementation of abusive interrogation techniques.” Brehm declined, but the association later changed its ethics code to ban involvement in specific forms of torture.
One claim: To support their claims, APA activists point to a July 13, 2003, e-mail from the Gitmo commander to Army superiors, a weekly update that also was forwarded to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at his request. The e-mail said that Lt. Col. Luie “Morgan” Banks, a Ft. Bragg psychologist who trained U.S. soldiers in how to resist torture, had been brought to Gitmo to offer advice to interrogators on how “to fracture… detainee resistance to cooperation.”
The commander’s e-mail, cited by Senate investigators, said Banks provided “very valuable insights.”
James’ response: Having known Banks for more than 20 years, James said his colleague has been unfairly blamed by critics who allege he developed ways to turn around Army torture survival techniques and use them for breaking down detainees. “We were both adamant that torture and abuse were the wrong way to go” for effective interrogations, James said.
James is bringing Banks to Wright State on Oct. 7-8 as a presenter in a workshop, “The Psychology of Terrorism,” on ways to prevent the development of the terrorist mind-set and defend against terrorist psychological tactics.
Another claim: Critics also have noted that James was the chief psychologist at Gitmo when a 16-year-old Canadian detainee, Omar Khadr, alleged he had been abused. In a court affidavit, Khadr said interrogators threatened to send him to Egypt so he would be raped, cuffed him in painful positions for more than an hour, forced him to sit and stand in shackles repeatedly and, when he faltered, lifted and dropped him to the floor.
Finally, when he urinated on himself, they poured pine oil on the floor “and dragged me back and forth through the mixture of urine and pine oil,” Khadr said. The treatment was repeated two weeks later, he said.
James’ response: James said he was never involved in the interrogation of Khadr and that he spent “95 to 98 percent” of his time at Gitmo tending to three other juvenile detainees at Camp Iguana. The adult detainees — those Khadr’s age and older — were kept in a separate camp called Delta.
Getting to the bottom of it
Deborah Popowski, a research fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said it’s been difficult “to get to the bottom of James’ role” at Guantanamo because the claims in his book often conflict with Army documents. She said a standard operating procedure issued at Gitmo in February 2003 shows James may have had a role in developing abusive behavioral management plans, or BMPs, for detainees.
According to the document, BMPs were designed “to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process” by “concentrat(ing) on isolating the detainee and fostering dependence of the detainee on his interrogator.” That included isolating incoming detainees for 30 days — including youths — and longer at the discretion of the interrogator.
Popowski said the procedure was issued following James’ arrival at Gitmo. Further implicating James, she said, a 2002 draft of procedures for psychologists said developing behavorial plans was one of their “mission essential tasks.”
James said he had nothing to do with the behavioral plan for isolating detainees. “The warden and his staff wrote that,” he said.
While he had the authority to set policy for his small team of psychologists, James said he could not set policy for the entire camp. “I wish I’d had the kind of power (my critics) say I had,” he said. “It would have meant a big raise in pay.”
New York psychologist Steve Reisner, who treats survivors of torture, also said there are still too many unanswered questions about James and the role that all health care professionals played at Gitmo to let it go.
“When the position of health professional is turned away from the welfare of the individual and aligned with the interest of the state to abuse the individual,” Reisner said, “that is such a travesty of ethics that I have to do all I can to oppose it.”
Puzzled by his critics
James says he can’t understand why a handful of critics persist in seeking an investigation of his actions. “No matter what third party, objective review board or person, they’ve all come to the same conclusion — there’s no probable cause,” James said. “There’s no detainee, there’s no guard, there’s no psychologist who’s come forward and said, ‘With my own eyes, I’ve seen Dr. James do X, Y or Z.’ ”
A place at Wright State
James came to Wright State in August 2008 following his retirement from the Army. He was living in Honolulu and looking to enter academia when a friend told him about the position at the school in Fairborn, he said. “It’s been a very good fit,” he said.
Wright State officials issued a statement this week that the search committee had been aware of James’ military service at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. “Dr. Larry James is a respected Board-certified psychologist who was selected as Dean of the School of Professional Psychology (SOPP) after an extensive review that included a careful examination of his academic credentials, professional accomplishments, and character,” the statement said.
1 comment September 20th, 2009
US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has an important piece in the National Jaw Journal:
This would be a routine criminal matter if the targets weren’t former high government officials.
By Sheldon Whitehouse
The prosecutor is often first presented with a case as a “corpus delicti” — a bullet-riddled body in the street, for instance. That ordinarily is enough to justify investigation. Through investigation, the evidence may prove that there was not in fact a crime (it was a suicide or an accident) or that the fatal acts were privileged or enjoy a legal defense (self-defense or justifiable shooting by an officer of the law). But one begins by investigation.
The judicial branch (which, under Marbury v. Madison, has the ultimate duty to determine “what the law is”) has determined that waterboarding is torture (see U.S. v. Lee, decided in 1984 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit). The Bush administration has admitted to waterboarding captives. The corpus delicti of that crime exists. For there to be investigation now is unexceptional.
The only exceptional thing is the parties involved: the former vice president of the United States, his counsel David Addington, Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) lawyer John Yoo and their private contractors Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell, psychologists who designed the torture program. But in America, high office does not put one outside the law. Indeed, it borders on unethical for a prosecutor to refuse to investigate the corpus delicti of a crime because of concern as to where the evidence may lead.
With the corpus delicti present, a prosecutor looks to see whether theories of criminal liability can be eliminated by evidence the investigation reveals (a suicide note in the pocket, a police officer’s convincing description of a “clean shoot”). But as long as a viable theory of criminal liability remains, the investigation continues.
Hence the question: Looking only at the evidence that has become public so far, is there a viable theory of criminal liability arising out of this corpus delicti, the torture of America’s captives?
There is substantial evidence of legal malpractice by lawyer Yoo. His opinions were even withdrawn under the Bush administration, and they are the subject of an unprecedented internal investigation by the Department of Justice. For one thing, the precise case on point was overlooked. The analysis is bad enough that it could be a sham. Investigation would reveal whether this was the result of incompetence, ideology or instruction.
There is substantial evidence of a back channel between Addington and Yoo. It is not yet clear what information or instructions passed along that back channel. It does appear to have sidelined regular chains of reporting, including the attorney general. Investigation would determine whether this was communication or conspiracy.
There is substantial public evidence of exceptional access provided to the private contractors. They were allowed to repeatedly interrupt and ultimately compromise one of the most productive interrogations in our fight against terrorism. As contractors, they were outside the military and government chains of command and reporting and thus were potentially a means of direct secret access between the White House and the torture chamber. Investigation would reveal whether this was abused.
There is substantial evidence that the waterboarding went outside what was approved by the OLC opinions. The opinions themselves disclosed this fact. A Senate Armed Services Committee investigation disclosed evidence of abusive interrogation techniques being used to establish a link between al-Queda and Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. That purpose is not one for which abusive techniques were allowed. A recent Washington Post article reported that, after 83 waterboardings over four or five days, a detainee “was broken” and the team unanimously concluded that “he was cooperating,” yet headquarters insisted that waterboarding continue for 30 more days. If true, this would appear to violate the OLC legal requirement “that a terrorist attack is imminent” and “the subject has actionable intelligence that can prevent, disrupt, or delay this attack,” before waterboarding can take place. Investigation would determine whether these apparent violations of OLC’s restrictions were in fact culpable.
None of this evidence creates a complete case, yet. But it suggests theories of criminal liability that are not foreclosed by the evidence so far. Put these elements together: actual torture under our existing laws, the possibility of actual knowledge that the OLC opinions were phony, conduct outside the restrictions even of those opinions and a possible improper motive outside of legitimate national security concerns. That’s a theory of criminal liability, and it has not yet been eliminated by the evidence. From a prosecutor’s perspective, the stonewalling we have seen — aggressive assertions of executive privilege, refusals to cooperate with inspectors general, cover stories that don’t withstand scrutiny — raises suspicions further.
When the evidence is all in, it may prove that all the conduct surrounding American’s descent into torture was proper, protected by good-faith legal defenses. But it’s too early to responsibly reach that conclusion. Investigation is what allows such a conclusion to be reached.
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) is a former U.S. attorney.
September 20th, 2009
A new research study by independent researcher Gregory Paul finds religious belief declines with increased living conditions, especially economic security. Seems he has rediscovered Marx’s position that religion is the heart of a heartless world.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the US, one of the most insecure industrialized countries, without even universal access to medical care, is also one of the most religious.
Is religiosity beneficial in affluent first world nations?
Contact: Gregory Paul
In recent decades, scholars have discussed the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs. Some hold that religious beliefs confer benefits to individuals’ abilities to cope with their life experiences; others propose that religious beliefs and identities facilitated the successful survival of human groups and their competition with other groups for land and other scarce resources.
As some nations become increasingly secular, one may wonder what role religious beliefs play for those living in technologically advanced societies. Advocates for religious systems often argue that these beliefs are instrumental in providing moral foundation necessary for a healthy, cohesive society – a view shared by Benjamin Franklin and Dostoyevsky.
In a follow up to his 2005 paper, Gregory Paul argues that high religiosity is not universal to human populations, and it is actually inversely related to a wide range of socio-economic indicators representing the health of modern democracies. Paul holds that once a nation’s population becomes prosperous and secure, for example through economic security and universal health care, much of the population looses interest in seeking the aid and protection of supernatural entities. This effect appears to be so consistent that it may prevent nations from being highly religious while enjoying good internal socioeconomic conditions.
National level statistics suggest that strong mass religiosity is invariably associated with high levels of stress and anxiety, which are created by impoverishment, inequality, or economic security, related to high levels of societal dysfunction. These relationships are largely consistent when the United States, an outlier amongst advanced democracies in the high level of both religious belief and social decay, is removed from the comparison.
The belief held by some scholars that strong religious belief is the universal human condition deeply rooted in our psyches, may be false. Also contradicted is the hypothesis that evolutionary selective forces have played the leading role in determining the popularity of religion. Environmental conditions appear to exert great influence on the degree to which religious beliefs are held. The popularity of religious belief may be a reflection of a psychological mechanism for coping with the high levels of stress and anxiety resulting from adverse social and economic environments.
Because creationism can be popular only when religion is widespread, extensive disbelief of evolutionary science is also associated with the dysfunctional societal environment, which encourages the conservative, scriptural based theism that favors special creation. Large scale secularization is the only method proven to suppress creationist opinion to well below majority status.
The findings also have strong implications for consequential political debates, such as the current tussles amongst politicians and interest groups over health care reform in the United States. This may be seen as part of a larger ideological battle between those advocating for progressive government policies leveling health and economic outcomes and social conservatives who oppose the secularization associated with such outcomes.
The study, The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions, appears in the current issue of Evolutionary Psychology and is accessible at: http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP07398441_c.pdf
September 20th, 2009
UPDATE: THIS VIDEO WAS REMOVED FROM YOUTUBE. I HAVE OBTAINED ANOTHER LINK FROM A DIFFERENT SOURCE:
A must-watch to give insight into today’s politics:
Find more videos like this on DramaTube
2 comments September 20th, 2009
Meritocracy lives, in the minds of the blessed:
“I remember back in the late 1990s, when Ira Katznelson, an eminent political scientist at Columbia, came to deliver a guest lecture. Prof. Katznelson described a lunch he had with Irving Kristol during the first Bush administration.
“The talk turned to William Kristol, then Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, and how he got his start in politics. Irving recalled how he talked to his friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, who secured William a place there as both an undergrad and graduate student; how he talked to Pat Moynihan, then Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, and got William an internship at the White House; how he talked to friends at the RNC [Republican National Committee] and secured a job for William after he got his Harvard Ph.D.; and how he arranged with still more friends for William to teach at Penn and the Kennedy School of Government.
“With that, Prof. Katznelson recalled, he then asked Irving what he thought of affirmative action. ‘I oppose it,’ Irving replied. ‘It subverts meritocracy.’ “
[H/t Andrew Sullivan.]
And a reminder of what “merit” there was:
A few months ago, my blogging colleague Robert Farley pointed out that “in the modern configuration of the conservative media machine, Kristol occupies an unparalleled central position of power . . . Right-wing journalism and punditry is absurdly nepotistic; everything depends on relationships, (and) Kristol always seems to be” at the center of these relationships.
Farley went on to observe that this central position made Kristol difficult for other conservatives to attack, “even though Kristol played an important role in many of the most disastrous elements” of the George W. Bush administration and the John McCain campaign.
Maybe we would benefit from a little less “meritocracy.”
September 20th, 2009
In a new piece, Tom Engelhardt reminds us what our country has become:
Is America Hooked on War?
By Tom Engelhardt
“War is peace” was one of the memorable slogans on the facade of the Ministry of Truth, Minitrue in “Newspeak,” the language invented by George Orwell in 1948 for his dystopian novel 1984. Some 60 years later, a quarter-century after Orwell’s imagined future bit the dust, the phrase is, in a number of ways, eerily applicable to the United States.
Last week, for instance, a New York Times front-page story by Eric Schmitt and David Sanger was headlined “Obama Is Facing Doubts in Party on Afghanistan, Troop Buildup at Issue.” It offered a modern version of journalistic Newspeak.
“Doubts,” of course, imply dissent, and in fact just the week before there had been a major break in Washington’s ranks, though not among Democrats. The conservative columnist George Will wrote a piece offering blunt advice to the Obama administration, summed up in its headline: “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan.” In our age of political and audience fragmentation and polarization, think of this as the Afghan version of Vietnam’s Cronkite moment.
The Times report on those Democratic doubts, on the other hand, represented a more typical Washington moment. Ignored, for instance, was Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold’s end-of-August call for the president to develop an Afghan withdrawal timetable. The focus of the piece was instead an upcoming speech by Michigan Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He was, Schmitt and Sanger reported, planning to push back against well-placed leaks (in the Times, among other places) indicating that war commander General Stanley McChrystal was urging the president to commit 15,000 to 45,000 more American troops to the Afghan War.
Here, according to the two reporters, was the gist of Levin’s message about what everyone agrees is a “deteriorating” U.S. position: “[H]e was against sending more American combat troops to Afghanistan until the United States speeded up the training and equipping of more Afghan security forces.”
Think of this as the line in the sand within the Democratic Party, and be assured that the debates within the halls of power over McChrystal’s troop requests and Levin’s proposal are likely to be fierce this fall. Thought about for a moment, however, both positions can be summed up with the same word: More.
The essence of this “debate” comes down to: More of them versus more of us (and keep in mind that more of them — an expanded training program for the Afghan National Army — actually means more of “us” in the form of extra trainers and advisors). In other words, however contentious the disputes in Washington, however dismally the public now views the war, however much the president’s war coalition might threaten to crack open, the only choices will be between more and more.
No alternatives are likely to get a real hearing. Few alternative policy proposals even exist because alternatives that don’t fit with “more” have ceased to be part of Washington’s war culture. No serious thought, effort, or investment goes into them. Clearly referring to Will’s column, one of the unnamed “senior officials” who swarm through our major newspapers made the administration’s position clear, saying sardonically, according to the Washington Post, “I don’t anticipate that the briefing books for the [administration] principals on these debates over the next weeks and months will be filled with submissions from opinion columnists… I do anticipate they will be filled with vigorous discussion… of how successful we’ve been to date.”
State of War
Because the United States does not look like a militarized country, it’s hard for Americans to grasp that Washington is a war capital, that the United States is a war state, that it garrisons much of the planet, and that the norm for us is to be at war somewhere at any moment. Similarly, we’ve become used to the idea that, when various forms of force (or threats of force) don’t work, our response, as in Afghanistan, is to recalibrate and apply some alternate version of the same under a new or rebranded name — the hot one now being “counterinsurgency” or COIN — in a marginally different manner. When it comes to war, as well as preparations for war, more is now generally the order of the day.
This wasn’t always the case. The early Republic that the most hawkish conservatives love to cite was a land whose leaders looked with suspicion on the very idea of a standing army. They would have viewed our hundreds of global garrisons, our vast network of spies, agents, Special Forces teams, surveillance operatives, interrogators, rent-a-guns, and mercenary corporations, as well as our staggering Pentagon budget and the constant future-war gaming and planning that accompanies it, with genuine horror.
The question is: What kind of country do we actually live in when the so-called U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) lists 16 intelligence services ranging from Air Force Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency to the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Agency? What could “intelligence” mean once spread over 16 sizeable, bureaucratic, often competing outfits with a cumulative 2009 budget estimated at more than $55 billion (a startling percentage of which is controlled by the Pentagon)? What exactly is so intelligent about all that? And why does no one think it even mildly strange or in any way out of the ordinary?What does it mean when the most military-obsessed administration in our history, which, year after year, submitted ever more bloated Pentagon budgets to Congress, is succeeded by one headed by a president who ran, at least partially, on an antiwar platform, and who has now submitted an even larger Pentagon budget? What does this tell you about Washington and about the viability of non-militarized alternatives to the path George W. Bush took? What does it mean when the new administration, surveying nearly eight years and two wars’ worth of disasters, decides to expand the U.S. Armed Forces rather than shrink the U.S. global mission?
What kind of a world do we inhabit when, with an official unemployment rate of 9.7% and an underemployment rate of 16.8%, the American taxpayer is financing the building of a three-story, exceedingly permanent-looking $17 million troop barracks at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan? This, in turn, is part of a taxpayer-funded $220 million upgrade of the base that includes new “water treatment plants, headquarters buildings, fuel farms, and power generating plants.” And what about the U.S. air base built at Balad, north of Baghdad, that now has 15 bus routes, two fire stations, two water treatment plants, two sewage treatment plants, two power plants, a water bottling plant, and the requisite set of fast-food outlets, PXes, and so on, as well as air traffic levels sometimes compared to those at Chicago’s O’Hare International?
What kind of American world are we living in when a plan to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq involves the removal of more than 1.5 million pieces of equipment? Or in which the possibility of withdrawal leads the Pentagon to issue nearly billion-dollar contracts (new ones!) to increase the number of private security contractors in that country?
What do you make of a world in which the U.S. has robot assassins in the skies over its war zones, 24/7, and the “pilots” who control them from thousands of miles away are ready on a moment’s notice to launch missiles — “Hellfire” missiles at that — into Pashtun peasant villages in the wild, mountainous borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan? What does it mean when American pilots can be at war “in” Afghanistan, 9 to 5, by remote control, while their bodies remain at a base outside Las Vegas and then can head home past a sign that warns them to drive carefully because this is “the most dangerous part of your day”?
What does it mean when, for our security and future safety, the Pentagon funds the wildest ideas imaginable for developing high-tech weapons systems, many of which sound as if they came straight out of the pages of sci-fi novels? Take, for example, Boeing’s advanced coordinated system of hand-held drones, robots, sensors, and other battlefield surveillance equipment slated for seven Army brigades within the next two years at a cost of $2 billion and for the full Army by 2025; or the Next Generation Bomber, an advanced “platform” slated for 2018; or a truly futuristic bomber, “a suborbital semi-spacecraft able to move at hypersonic speed along the edge of the atmosphere,” for 2035? What does it mean about our world when those people in our government peering deepest into a blue-skies future are planning ways to send armed “platforms” up into those skies and kill more than a quarter century from now?
And do you ever wonder about this: If such weaponry is being endlessly developed for our safety and security, and that of our children and grandchildren, why is it that one of our most successful businesses involves the sale of the same weaponry to other countries? Few Americans are comfortable thinking about this, which may explain why global-arms-trade pieces don’t tend to make it onto the front pages of our newspapers. Recently, the Times Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker, for instance, wrote a piece on the subject which appeared inside the paper on a quiet Labor Day. “Despite Slump, U.S. Role as Top Arms Supplier Grows” was the headline. Perhaps Shanker, too, felt uncomfortable with his subject, because he included the following generic description: “In the highly competitive global arms market, nations vie for both profit and political influence through weapons sales, in particular to developing nations…” The figures he cited from a new congressional study of that “highly competitive” market told a different story: The U.S., with $37.8 billion in arms sales (up $12.4 billion from 2007), controlled 68.4% of the global arms market in 2008. Highly competitively speaking, Italy came “a distant second” with $3.7 billion. In sales to “developing nations,” the U.S. inked $29.6 billion in weapons agreements or 70.1% of the market. Russia was a vanishingly distant second at $3.3 billion or 7.8% of the market. In other words, with 70% of the market, the U.S. actually has what, in any other field, would qualify as a monopoly position — in this case, in things that go boom in the night. With the American car industry in a ditch, it seems that this (along with Hollywood films that go boom in the night) is what we now do best, as befits a war, if not warrior, state. Is that an American accomplishment you’re comfortable with?
On the day I’m writing this piece, “Names of the Dead,” a feature which appears almost daily in my hometown newspaper, records the death of an Army private from DeKalb, Illinois, in Afghanistan. Among the spare facts offered: he was 20 years old, which means he was probably born not long before the First Gulf War was launched in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. If you include that war, which never really ended — low-level U.S. military actions against Saddam Hussein’s regime continued until the invasion of 2003 — as well as U.S. actions in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, not to speak of the steady warfare underway since November 2001, in his short life, there was hardly a moment in which the U.S. wasn’t engaged in military operations somewhere on the planet (invariably thousands of miles from home). If that private left a one-year-old baby behind in the States, and you believe the statements of various military officials, that child could pass her tenth birthday before the war in which her father died comes to an end. Given the record of these last years, and the present military talk about being better prepared for “the next war,” she could reach 2025, the age when she, too, might join the military without ever spending a warless day. Is that the future you had in mind?
Consider this: War is now the American way, even if peace is what most Americans experience while their proxies fight in distant lands. Any serious alternative to war, which means our “security,” is increasingly inconceivable. In Orwellian terms then, war is indeed peace in the United States and peace, war.
Newspeak, as Orwell imagined it, was an ever more constricted form of English that would, sooner or later, make “all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended,” he wrote in an appendix to his novel, “that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought… should be literally unthinkable.”
When it comes to war (and peace), we live in a world of American Newspeak in which alternatives to a state of war are not only ever more unacceptable, but ever harder to imagine. If war is now our permanent situation, in good Orwellian fashion it has also been sundered from a set of words that once accompanied it.
It lacks, for instance, “victory.” After all, when was the last time the U.S. actually won a war (unless you include our “victories” over small countries incapable of defending themselves like the tiny Caribbean Island of Grenada in 1983 or powerless Panama in 1989)? The smashing “victory” over Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War only led to a stop-and-start conflict now almost two decades old that has proved a catastrophe. Keep heading backward through the Vietnam and Korean Wars and the last time the U.S. military was truly victorious was in 1945.
But achieving victory no longer seems to matter. War American-style is now conceptually unending, as are preparations for it. When George W. Bush proclaimed a Global War on Terror (aka World War IV), conceived as a “generational struggle” like the Cold War, he caught a certain American reality. In a sense, the ongoing war system can’t absorb victory. Any such endpoint might indeed prove to be a kind of defeat.
No longer has war anything to do with the taking of territory either, or even with direct conquest. War is increasingly a state of being, not a process with a beginning, an end, and an actual geography.
Similarly drained of its traditional meaning has been the word “security” — though it has moved from a state of being (secure) to an eternal, immensely profitable process whose endpoint is unachievable. If we ever decided we were either secure enough, or more willing to live without the unreachable idea of total security, the American way of war and the national security state would lose much of their meaning. In other words, in our world, security is insecurity.
As for “peace,” war’s companion and theoretical opposite, though still used in official speeches, it, too, has been emptied of meaning and all but discredited. Appropriately enough, diplomacy, that part of government which classically would have been associated with peace, or at least with the pursuit of the goals of war by other means, has been dwarfed by, subordinated to, or even subsumed by the Pentagon. In recent years, the U.S. military with its vast funds has taken over, or encroached upon, a range of activities that once would have been left to an underfunded State Department, especially humanitarian aid operations, foreign aid, and what’s now called nation-building. (On this subject, check out Stephen Glain’s recent essay, “The American Leviathan” in the Nation magazine.)
Diplomacy itself has been militarized and, like our country, is now hidden behind massive fortifications, and has been placed under Lord-of-the-Flies-style guard. The State Department’s embassies are now bunkers and military-style headquarters for the prosecution of war policies; its officials, when enough of them can be found, are now sent out into the provinces in war zones to do “civilian” things.
And peace itself? Simply put, there’s no money in it. Of the nearly trillion dollars the U.S. invests in war and war-related activities, nothing goes to peace. No money, no effort, no thought. The very idea that there might be peaceful alternatives to endless war is so discredited that it’s left to utopians, bleeding hearts, and feathered doves. As in Orwell’s Newspeak, while “peace” remains with us, it’s largely been shorn of its possibilities. No longer the opposite of war, it’s just a rhetorical flourish embedded, like one of our reporters, in Warspeak.
What a world might be like in which we began not just to withdraw our troops from one war to fight another, but to seriously scale down the American global mission, close those hundreds of bases — recently, there were almost 300 of them, macro to micro, in Iraq alone — and bring our military home is beyond imagining. To discuss such obviously absurd possibilities makes you an apostate to America’s true religion and addiction, which is force. However much it might seem that most of us are peaceably watching our TV sets or computer screens or iPhones, we Americans are also — always — marching as to war. We may not all bother to attend the church of our new religion, but we all tithe. We all partake. In this sense, we live peaceably in a state of war.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt
September 18th, 2009
This morning I posted Jeff Kaye’s latest article Air Force Doctor Gets Medal for Serving on Rendition Torture Flights. This reminded me that I never posted notices of other recent important articles of his, Racist Article in Spy Journal Calls for Killing 100,000 Muslim “Zealots” and CIA Experiments on U.S. Soldiers Linked to Torture Program. All well worth reading!
September 18th, 2009
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