Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memorial Day and America's Terrible Love of War

Umm, NO. This is nothing to be proud of
So once again we find ourselves in the midst of the Memorial Day holiday weekend. And, in among the beer, barbecue and auto racing is the endless sanctimonious pandering and soldier-worship. The capacity of Americans to love war and warfighters is beyond comprehension, and requires an amazing suspension of historical understanding. The mythology, of course, is that American military might has stared down threats to freedom, liberty and our very way of life for hundreds of year. The reality is smaller, and very much uglier than that.

Start with America's unique geographic advantage. There are no border wars, no wars of territorial expansion, no violent disputes with neighbors. Unlike Europe, Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, even Latin America, there are not a lot of competing nations on the North American continent. And with two oceans providing a massive buffer, there is just no easy access to an invading army. So risks to the American national system have been overstated for years. You can make the case that the fascist threat to global order represented by the Axis nations in World War II justified the cost and effort the US made, but at the same time any rational reading of history leads to the conclusion that the Soviet Union won the war, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atrocious war crimes.

Almost no living war veterans have any claim to 'protecting' America, Americans or our freedom. The last war that can be remotely justified was Korea - it was the North Koreans that invaded, and there were a lot of Americans trapped in the Pusan Perimeter. To what extent it needed to go as far as it did can certainly be debated - after the Inchon landings, the UN forces rolled up the NorKor forces, and they could have stopped at the 38th parallel and it all would have been over.

After that, there's not a lot that America has done that can be truly admired. Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan - these were wars we chose to fight, against armies that had NO capacity to attack us, for political and economic reasons rather than the more honorable 'protecting freedom'. It's perfectly fair to say that American soldiers had no part in the decision making process, and were merely following orders, and that they may have often acted bravely and honorably, but those facts alone are not a sufficient basis for us to be 'grateful for their service'. In fact, their actions in illegal wars of choice have killed hundreds of thousands of innocents, destroyed lives, families, cities and entire nations, and resulted in more misery and chaos than existed previously. We should not hold them responsible, but we damn sure shouldn't be 'grateful for their service'.


Note: I'm putting this on my blog rather than on, say, Facebook in order to avoid the kind of kneejerk internet arguments that I'm just not interested in having anymore. If you think I'm unAmerican or Socialist or something worse, that's fine - comments are open on the blog. Feel free to make your case. But in general, the most dangerous, warlike rogue nation on earth today is the United States of America, and you're going to have to defend aggressive war as policy.

Oh, and I'll remind you that the findings of The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which followed World War II, called the waging of aggressive war "essentially an evil initiate a war of not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Unbearable Pointlessness of Climate Change Denial

But the science is still in dispute
The American political right has, as we all know, staked out quite a radical position on climate change. They simply deny the science. Either they deny that the climate is changing, or they at least accept the measurements but deny the logical mechanism of causality, thereby arriving at the conclusion that there is nothing that can or should be done. Some have gone as far as to claim that there are benefits to a warmer planet, a position that blindly overlooks all the non-temperature related effects of a warming climate.

But why do they do this? You have to remember that their primary constituency is corporations and the wealthy, so anything they do must be seen in the light of how it benefits or challenges the business and investment community. And the answer to this question is simple: Corporate Profits. Any effective approach to carbon pollution mitigation is going to a.) drive up the price of fossil fuel based energy and b.) reduce consumption of fossil fuels. Both of these outcomes will certainly have a negative impact on many corporate bottom lines. The reality is that this is a feature, not a bug. The whole point is to increase the cost and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels - that will immediately reduce current levels of carbon pollution and bring renewable energy closer to cost parity with traditional energy sources, making them more attractive to build in the near future.

In one sense, this position underscores the calculated hypocrisy of the American Political Right. When they want to create deficit panic in order to justify further cuts in government spending, they relentlessly invoke the burden this economic debt will place on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren. But the worst impacts of climate change will occur two to three generations in the future, and they demonstrate an even greater cravenness by denying the scientific consensus and insisting that the scientific validity of the greenhouse effect is still unsettled. But it actually takes some effort to actually understand the vile calculation represented by this contemptible policy. Left unchecked, Climate Change will, directly and indirectly, kill billions. It will essentially reduce the capacity of the planet to support a population larger than a certain level. What that level is cannot be calculated (although it can reasonably be estimated), but it is certainly billions below today's population.

The important thing to remember is the entire debate is disingenuous. To whatever extent educated men and women with conservative ideologies actually believe that the consensus of climate science today is false simply doesn't matter - that is not the debate we need to have. That is the debate we are having because they have (correctly) calculated that as long as we're arguing over the science we won't be debating taking action on the science. This tactic is right out of the classic conservative playbook - arguing one or two steps up the decision chain to keep from ever having to debate the merits of the actual question. They classically do it with economics - by arguing relentlessly that spending and deficits are inherently bad and/or dangerous, they don't have to argue about entitlements - they can preempt the conversation by simply claiming that 'we just can't afford' to fund them.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Internet Killed God

And there are fewer liars than there used to be
Lots of talk about the latest Pew findings on religion in America. And it's pretty much all good news. Fewer Christianists, fewer Christians, fewer participants and fewer believers overall. As toxic as religious mythology is to modern societies, its decline can only be welcomed and its ultimate demise will remove one more barrier to a community wherein the Human species can actually live together in peace. There have been many explanations and justifications for hatred and warfare, and we're a long way from solving all of them, but once the millstone of religion is removed from around society's neck, we'll all be substantially better off.

But what's the cause of this trend? How is it that suddenly religion is getting the treatment it so richly deserves? I submit that there has always been only one narrow path to sustain such ridiculous and unsupportable beliefs - early childhood coercive indoctrination - and all it took to break that generational cycle of 'faith through fear' was a global instant communications platform. That's right - the internet is more powerful than god. It allowed scattered voices of reason, from Dawkins to Harris to Hitchens to Hawking to Maher to Jillette, to point out that the emperor not only was naked, he was imaginary. It allowed us join in, to mock and blaspheme and argue, pointing out the obvious flim-flam involved in these just-so stories. It permitted - even encouraged - the one thing that religion could never allow its adherents to do - to question their faith. To ask why an all-powerful god who created the universe cares who I fuck? To ask why if god loves humans so much, why he made a world with so much disease and misery? To ask why, if god demands that we believe or suffer eternal torment, he doesn't make matters simple by appearing every few years to assure people that he's actually something that deserves belief.

The internet is a safe place for people to ask questions that would get them shunned by their families and communities. It's an opportunity to learn how  much humans actually know about the universe and our place in it. And while the religious leaders, with so much to lose in terms of wealth and power, push back against science and modernity, the internet provides an offsetting voice, a voice that says you don't have to KNOW, you just have to ask basic questions. And as Penn Jillette points out so effectively, once you ask those questions you are effectively an atheist. Religious mythology requires you to believe without question, to KNOW without evidence - once you are no longer certain, you are no longer a believer.

By enabling fully democratized two-way and one-to-many communications, the internet has created a global platform where communities could grow unshackled from geographic constraints. Rational, secular voices can be heard in the most oppressive, theocratic communities, and with that people can begin to question their indoctrination. Instead of just asking their families, neighbors and clergy "what do we know?", they can ask the whole world "HOW do we know?" And at that point their lives change for the better, and the world changes a little bit more.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Sinking of the USNS Card

The attack on the Card was quite successful
Quick. When was the last American aircraft carrier sunk in combat? If you're thinking sometime late in the second world war, it would make sense, but surprisingly, you'd be wrong. On May 2, 1964, fifty one years ago today, two Viet Cong commandos sunk the USNS Card in the Port of Saigon. Five American civilian workers died, and an escort carrier that had survived years of combat against German submarines in the North Atlantic lay on the bottom, in fifty feet of murky water.

USS Card was an Escort Carrier - a small aircraft carrier with a small complement of aircraft, primarily intended to provide air support for convoys of merchant ships. She served this role quite successfully in the North Atlantic in World War II, battling German submarines and sinking nearly a dozen of them in three cruises as the flagship of Task Group 21.14 in 1943.

After WWII, she was decommissioned, but in 1958 was recommissioned as a Utility Carrier (CVU). By that time she could no longer support air operations - the jet aircraft of the day required catapults to launch - but was still useful for transporting fully assembled aircraft across the ocean. As USNS Card, she was operating with a civilian crew under the Military Sea Transportation Service, and was soon designated to ship combat aircraft to the burgeoning buildup in South Vietnam.

Tied up alongside the pier in Saigon Harbor, she made an enticing target. And sure enough, Viet Cong irregulars led by Lam Son Nao swam out to the ship with two large explosives, planted them on her hull outside the engine compartment, and returned to shore safely. They both exploded, killing five sailors and ripping a huge hole in the hull, flooding the engine room and sending the ship to the bottom.

Although the Viet Cong celebrated the attack as a great victory, the Americans refused to acknowledge the sinking, claiming the Card was only damaged. They dispatched a team of US Navy divers led by founding Navy SEAL Roy Boehm, and in an amazing feat of engineering, they were able to re-float the ship in only 17 days. At that point she was towed to Subic Bay for repairs, and she re-entered service in December. USNS Card was ultimately retired from service and scrapped in 1970.

There's no grand point to make here - this is just a piece of US Naval history that very few Americans know. Although it IS a reminder that for all their own destructive capacity, aircraft carriers are huge and vulnerable. The US doesn't typically fight wars against modern first world near-peer competitors with 21st century weapons, but you can rest assured if at some point we DO go to war against a modern, capable force we will certainly lose one, and probably more than one carrier.