Friday, March 30, 2007

Bush 41 and helping Saddam stay in power

Below is an excerpt, posted on AlterNet (http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/49864/), of a book entitled "Web of Deceit:The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush" by Barry Lando. It details how American forces were ordered to withhold all assistance from the uprising that occurred in Iraq in 1991, right after Desert Storm, after the United States encouraged the Iraqis to rise up. It is a interesting and heartbreaking insight both on the brutality of Saddam Hussein (he had doctors and nurses executed to prevent rebels from receiving medical attention) and how complicit America was in the continuation of his regime (assuming the veracity of the reporting).
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Though Saddam Hussein has been dispatched, the trial of his confederates continues in Baghdad. In the next few months, the Special Iraqi Tribunal will be hearing evidence against almost a hundred of Saddam's former officials, charged with the slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites following the abortive uprising or Intifada of 1991.

Because of the way the Tribunal has been run, it's highly unlikely there'll be any mention of U.S. complicity with that slaughter. In fact, President George H. W. Bush was very much involved.

It was he who in February 1991, as American forces were driving Saddam's troops out of Kuwait, called for the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow the dictator. That message was repeatedly broadcast across Iraq. It was also contained in millions of leaflets dropped by the U.S. Air Force. Eager to end decades of repression, the Shiites arose. Their revolt spread like wildfire; in the north, the Kurds also rose up. Key Iraqi army units joined in. It looked as if Saddam's days were over.

But then George H. W. Bush blew the whistle. Things had got out of hand. What Bush had wanted was not a messy popular uprising but a neat military coup -- another strongman more amenable to Western interests. The White House feared that turmoil would give the Iranians increased influence, upset the Turks, wreak havoc throughout the region.

But the Bush administration didn't just turn its back; it actually aided Saddam to suppress the Intifada.

The Uprising Smashed

When Saddam's brutal counter-attack against the rebellions began, the order was given to American troops already deep inside Iraq and armed to the teeth not to assist the rebellion in any way -- though everyone knew that they were condemning the Intifada to an awful defeat. Thanks to their high-flying reconnaissance planes, U.S. commanders would observe the brutal process as it occurred.

At the time, Rocky Gonzalez was a Special Forces warrant officer serving with U.S. troops in southern Iraq. Because he spoke Arabic, he was detached to serve with the Third Brigade of the 101st Infantry when the ground war began. There were about 140 men in his unit, which was stationed at Al Khadir on the Euphrates, just a few kilometers from Kerbala and Najaf.

Rocky was one of the few Americans who could actually communicate with the Iraqis. When the Intifada erupted, the Americans prompted the rebels to raid the local prison in Kerbala and free the Kuwaitis who were being held there. "We didn't think there was going to be a lot of bloodshed," said Gonzalez, "but they executed the guards in the prison." Prior to the uprising, the rebels had also been feeding intelligence to the Americans on what Saddam's local supporters were up to.

From their base, Rocky and his units watched as Saddam's forces launched their counterattack against the rebel-held city. Thousands of people fled toward the American lines, said Gonzalez. "All of a sudden, as far as the eye could see on Highway Five, there was just a long line of vehicles, dump trucks, tractors -- any vehicle they could get -- coming to us in streams."

"The rebels wanted aid, they wanted medical treatment, and some of the individuals wanted us to give them weapons and ammunition so they could go and fight. One of the refugees was waving a leaflet that had been dropped by U.S. planes over Iraq. Those leaflets told them to rise up against the regime and free themselves."

"They weren't asking us to fight. They felt they could do that themselves. Basically they were just saying 'we rose up like you asked us, now give us some weapons and arms to fight.'"

The American forces had huge stocks of weapons they had captured from the Iraqis. But they were ordered to blow them up rather than turn them over to the rebels. "It was gut-wrenching to me," said Gonzalez. "Here we were sitting on the Euphrates River and we were ordered to stop. As a human being, I wanted to help, but as a solider I had my orders."

Ironically, according to a former U.S. diplomat, some of the arms that were not destroyed by American forces were collected by the CIA and shipped to anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, who at the time were being clandestinely backed by the U.S.

A Shiite survivor of the uprising later said he had seen other American forces at the river town of Nassiriya destroy a huge cache of weapons that the rebels desperately needed. "They blew up an enormous stock of arms," he said. "If we had been able to get hold of them, the course of history would have been changed in favor of the uprising, because Saddam had nothing left at that moment."

Indeed, Saddam's former intelligence chief, General Wafiq al-Samarrai, later recounted that the government forces had almost no ammunition left when they finally squelched the revolt. "By the last week of the intifada," he said, "the army was down to two hundred and seventy thousand Kalashnikov bullets." That would have lasted for just two more days of fighting.

In his autobiography, General Schwarzkopf, without giving details, alludes to the fact that the American-led coalition aided Saddam to crush the uprising. According to his curious reasoning, expressed in another interview, the Iraqi people were not innocent in the whole affair because "they supported the invasion of Kuwait and accepted Saddam Hussein."

Iraqi survivors of the Intifada also claimed that U.S. forces actually prevented them from marching on Baghdad. "American helicopters landed on the road to block our way and stopped us from continuing," they said. "One of the American soldiers threatened to kill us if we didn't turn back." Another Shiite leader, Dr. Hamid al-Bayatti, claimed that the U.S. even provided Saddam's Republican Guards with fuel. The Americans, he charged, disarmed some resistance units and allowed Republican Guard tanks to go through their checkpoints to crush the uprising. "We let one Iraqi division go through our lines to get to Basra because the United States did not want the regime to collapse," said Middle East expert Wiliam Quandt.

The U.S. officials declined even to meet with the Shiites to hear their case. As Peter Galbraith said, "These were desperate people, desperate for U.S. help. But the U.S. refused to talk to any of the Shiite leaders: the U.S. Embassy, Schwarzkopf, nobody would see them, nor even give them an explanation."

The stonewalling continued even when evidence that Saddam was using chemical weapons against the rebels emerged. "You could see there were helicopters crisscrossing the skies, going back and forth," Rocky Gonzalez said. "Within a few hours people started showing up at our perimeter with chemical burns. They were saying, 'We are fighting the Iraqi military and the Baath Party and they sprayed us with chemicals.' We were guessing mustard gas. They had blisters and burns on their face and on their hands, on places where the skin was exposed," he said. "As the hours passed, more and more people were coming. And I asked them, 'Why don't you go to the hospital in Kerbala,' and the response was that all the doctors and nurses had been executed by the Iraqi soldiers, 'so we come to you for aid.'"

One of the greatest concerns of coalition forces during Desert Storm had been that Saddam would unleash his WMD. U.S. officials repeatedly warned Iraq that America's response would be immediate and devastating. Facing such threats, Saddam kept his weapons holstered -- or so the Bush administration led the world to believe.

Rocky's suspicion that Saddam did resort to them in 1991 was later confirmed by the report of the U.S. Government's Iraq Survey Group, which investigated Saddam's WMD after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and concluded that Saddam no longer had any WMD. Almost universally ignored by the media, however, was the finding that Saddam had resorted to his WMD during the 1991 uprising. The "regime was shaking and wanted something 'very quick and effective' to put down the revolt." They considered then rejected using mustard gas, as it would be too perceptible with U.S. troops close by. Instead, on March 7th, 1991 the Iraqi military filled R-400 aerial bombs with sarin, a binary nerve agent. "Dozens of sorties were flown against Shiite rebels in Kerbala and the surrounding areas," the ISG report said. But apparently the R-400 bombs were not very effective, having been designed for high-speed delivery from planes, not slow-moving helicopters. So the Iraqi military switched to dropping CS, a very potent tear gas, in large aerial bombs.

Because of previous U.S. warnings against resorting to chemical weapons, Saddam and his generals knew they were taking a serious risk, but the Coalition never reacted. The lingering question is why. It's impossible to believe they didn't know about it at the time. There were repeated charges from Shiite survivors that the Iraqi dictator had used chemical weapons. Rocky Gonzalez said he heard from refugees that nerve gas was being used. He had also observed French-made Iraqi helicopters -- one of which was outfitted as a crop sprayer -- making repeated bomb runs over Najaf.Gonzalez maintained that, contrary to what the ISG report said, many of the refugees who fled to U.S. lines were indeed victims of mustard gas. "Their tongues were swollen," he said, "and they had severe burns on the mucous tissue on the inside of their mouths and nasal passages. Our chemical officer also said it looked like mustard gas." Gonzalez suggested that local Iraqi officials, desperate to put down the uprising, may have used mustard gas without permission from on high. "A lot of that was kept quiet," he said, "because we didn't want to panic the troops. We stepped up our training with gas masks, because we were naturally concerned."

Gonzalez's unit also passed their information on to their superiors. "There was no way that officers higher didn't know what was happening," Gonzalez said. "Whether those reports went above our division, I have no idea." Gonzalez's former commander turned down my request for an interview. At the time, few subjects were more sensitive than Saddam's potential use of WMD. It's difficult to believe that reports from Gonzalez's unit weren't flashed immediately up the chain of command in the Gulf and Washington.

There were other American witnesses to what happened. U.S. helicopters and planes flew overhead, patrolling as Saddam's helicopters decimated the rebels. Some of those aircraft provided real-time video of the occurrences below. A reliable U.S. intelligence source confirmed that such evidence does indeed exist.

On March 7th, Secretary of State James Baker warned Saddam not to resort to chemical weapons to repress the uprising. But why, when the U.S. was notified that the Iraqi dictator actually had resorted to chemical weapons, was there no forceful reaction from the administration of the elder Bush?One plausible explanation--denouncing Saddam for using chemical weapons would have greatly increased pressure on the U.S. President to come to the aid of the Shiites.

Instead, the American decision to turn their backs on the Intifada gave a green light to Saddam Hussein's ruthless counterattack. General Wafiq al-Samarrai learned of the decision after Iraqi units intercepted frantic conversations between two Islamic rebels near Nassariya. One told the other that he had gone to the Americans to ask for support, and twice was rebuffed. "They say, 'We are not going to support you because you are Shiites and are collaborating with Iran.'" After hearing that message, al-Samarrai recalled, "The position of the regime immediately became more confident. Now [Saddam] began to attack the Intifada."

The repression when it came was as horrendous as everyone knew it would be.

"Women were being raped. People were being shot in the streets and just left to rot there." Zainab al-Suwaij recounted. "The citizens were forbidden to bury the bodies. Many of them were eaten by the dogs. The government ordered people out of Kerbala to take the road to Najaf. They were slaughtered and executed along the roadway. Many of those killed were teenagers."

As an object lesson to his people, Saddam Hussein himself ordered Iraqi television to record and broadcast scenes of the repression: appalling scenes of captured Shiites, some with ropes around their necks, being kicked and beaten and insulted, threatened with pistols and machine guns, a few pleading for mercy. Most of them, eyes downcast, are eventually dragged away to execution.

The Bush administration attempted to disengage itself from any responsibility. They were helped by the fact that there were no graphic news reports in the West of the slaughter that was taking place. U.S. intelligence agencies had their own accounts and explicit images, but they weren't sharing them with the press or the public. Anonymous government figures, wise in the ways of Realpolitik, were making statements such as, "It is far easier to deal with a tame Saddam Hussein than with an unknown quantity."

Because of Saddam's savage repression of the uprising, the ensuing U.N. sanctions, and the carnage unleashed by the 2003 invasion, at least one million Iraqis have probably lost their lives since 1991.

Imagine if, instead of blocking the Intifada, George H.W. Bush had given a green light -- without even sending American troops to Baghdad -- just sent the needed signals: met with rebel leaders, ordered Saddam to stop flying his helicopter gunships.

Granted there would have been a period of tumult. The Kurds might have achieved an autonomous or semi autonomous state, which is probably what they will wind up with. The Iranians would have certainly increased their influence through their Shiite allies, but probably no more than they have today.

Indeed, some in the Bush I administration were recommending that he do just that: support the revolt he had called for. They were overruled.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Report card on "The Surge"

Very well done piece by Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17778186/site/newsweek/?rf=snwnewsletter) reminding us that the only way real change in Iraq will come is through on-the-ground political change, and how much has -- and has not -- happened as promised.

It's still staggering to me that Sen. Carl Levin had to fight with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to even get a COPY of the benchmarks that were given by the current President to Iraq's leaders for review. Good Lord, is the current President that desperate to create his own reality from the podium that he's trying to hide the benchmarks from Congress?
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Zakaria: What the Warriors Cannot Do
It's time to call Iraq's leaders to account.
By Fareed Zakaria
Newsweek
April 2, 2007 issue - In the last weeks, the violence in Baghdad has moved from ghastly to merely grim, and we are told that the tide has turned. President Bush says the surge of U.S. troops is producing "encouraging signs." Many of his neoconservative supporters have been less circumspect. "It may well be that General [David] Petraeus is going to lead us to victory in Iraq," declared William Kristol last week. The obstacle now is apparently not in Iraq but in Washington, where Congress has been making efforts to bring American combat forces home. The president's spokesman Tony Snow describes these as recipes for "failure, not victory."

To speak of victory in Iraq might sound like a cruel joke. This is a nation that is now devastated, where 2 million people have fled, another 2 million are internal refugees, militias run large parts of the country and the government sanctions religious repression, ethnic cleansing and vigilante violence. What does "victory" mean in such circumstances?

When the president announced his new policy of a "surge" in January, I argued that it was likely to have a positive military effect. Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq, is all that he has been advertised to be: an unusually smart and strategic general. His first moves in Baghdad show that. He has begun securing neighborhoods and is trying to prove to Iraqis that U.S. forces will go after both Sunni and Shiite extremists (though the latter have mostly melted away). But by his own estimation these achievements, even if they expand, are not enough. "Any student of history recognizes there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq," he said recently. "A political resolution of various differences ... of various senses that people do not have a stake in the successes of Iraq ... is crucial." The new secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, echoed this analysis, explaining that the role of the U.S. military in Iraq was to buy time for national reconciliation.

It would seem reasonable, then, to measure progress not just by neighborhoods secured and militants killed, but in political terms as well. And as it happens we have a series of benchmarks that have been set out at various points by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government.

Just before the referendum on Iraq's Constitution in October 2005, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad brokered a deal that secured Sunni participation in exchange for the Iraqi government's promising to set up a committee to amend the Constitution to incorporate Sunni concerns later. This was to have been done four months after the formation of Iraq's elected government—in other words, by September 2006. Nothing has happened. When he took office, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced plans for an ambitious program of national reconciliation. Nothing has happened.

In January, after persistent inquiries from Sen. Carl Levin, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote to Levin setting out the benchmarks and timeline that the Iraqi government had signed off on. They included new election laws, the scheduling of provincial elections, laws on investment and oil-revenue sharing, the disbanding of militias, the reversal of de-Baathification and the granting of amnesty. In supporting the surge, Sen. John McCain also listed these goals as crucial to progress. But none of them has taken place. The revenue-sharing law has passed the cabinet but not yet moved through Parliament. The Los Angeles Times reported in February that Baghdad had abandoned plans to reverse de-Baathification. It quoted a U.S. official who said that the reform, far from advancing as promised, was "moving backward" and was "almost dead in the water." The amnesty law also appears moribund.

These two measures have historically proved crucial in almost any political process that has ended a civil war. Without some kind of amnesty and prospect for rehabilitation, there is little incentive for insurgents to lay down their arms and join the political process. Last week the Sunni vice president of Iraq urged his own government to begin talks with the insurgents, a position that General Petraeus has also taken.

There are less formal benchmarks that are also not being met. Maliki was to have reshuffled his cabinet to remove members who actively fomented civil war. That has not happened. The government was to finally start spending money in Sunni areas. That has not happened. Militias were to be demobilized. Instead, one of their most notorious leaders has been released from prison and publicly embraced by Maliki.

For four years President Bush has given Iraq's leaders unconditional support. They have not interpreted it as a reason to make compromises. In fact, talking to both U.S. officials in Iraq and Iraqi politicians, it appears that the chief reason there has been some movement on a few of these issues—the oil laws and noninterference in U.S. military operations, for instance—was the fear that Congress was going to force a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The Democratic bills in Congress have two features: timeline and benchmarks. The rigid timelines the House bill imposes are problematic because they give the United States little room to maneuver in a highly volatile situation. But the benchmarks to measure Iraq's political progress—prominent in the Senate bill—are entirely in keeping with the basic strategy being outlined by Gates, Petraeus and, indeed, Bush. The only difference is that this is a strategy with teeth. If the Iraqi government does not do what the administration itself has argued is crucial to success, then American troops should begin withdrawing. (There will still be a need for a reduced force to fight Al Qaeda, secure Kurdistan and prevent major refugee flows.)

Announcing his new surge policy on Jan. 10, President Bush said, "I've made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people." In a sense, Congress is merely following through on the president's promise.

Bill Maher on Bush and Co.

Reprinting Bill Maher's rant on the current President and his administration. I'm usually not a big Maher fan, but this is pretty good. This is the end of the rant, with Maher discussing the administration's leaking of Valerie Plame's name to the press.
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New Rule - Traitors don't get to question my patriotism. What could be less patriotic than constantly screwing things up for America? You know, it's literally hard to keep up with the sheer volume of scandals in the Bush administration. Which is why I like to download the latest scandals right onto my IPod. That way, I can catch up on this week's giant f**k up on my drive into work.

In fact, Bush has so many scandals he could open a chain of "Bush Scandal and F**k Up" theme restaurants. Hmmm, should I get the Harriet Miers Meatloaf, or the Katrina Crabcakes?

You know, not to generalize, but the 29 percent of people who still support President Bush are the ones who love to pronounce themselves more patriotic than the rest of us. But just saying you're patriotic is like saying you have a...

... big c**k. If you have to say it, chances are it's not true. And indeed, the Party that flatters itself that they protect America better is the Party that has exhausted the military, left the ports wide open, and purposely outed a CIA agent, Valerie Plame. That's not treason anymore, outing a spy? Did I mention it was one of our spies?

And how despicable that Bush's lackeys attempted to diminish this crime by belittling her service like she was just some chick who hung around the CIA. An intern really. Groupie if you want to be mean about it. No. Big lie. Valerie Plame was the CIA's operational officer in charge of counter-proliferation. Which means she tracked loose nukes. So, when Bush said, as he once did, that his absolute, number one priority was preventing terrorists from getting loose nukes, okay, that's what she worked on. That's what she devoted her life to. Staying undercover for 20 years. Maintaining two identities every God-damned day. This is extraordinary service to your country. Valerie Plame was the kind of real life secret agent George Bush dreams of being when he's not too busy pretending to be a cowboy or a fighter pilot.

CIA agents are troops. This was a military assassination of one of our own done through the press, ordered by Karl Rove. He said of Valerie Plame, quote, "She's fair game," and then Cheney shot her.

George Bush likes to claim that he doesn't question his critics' patriotism, just their judgment. Well, let me be the first of your critics, Mr. President, to question your judgment and your patriotism. Because let's not forget why they did it to her. Because Valerie Plame was married to this guy Joe Wilson who the Bush people hated because he busted them on one of their bulls**t reasons for invading Iraq. He was sent to the African country of Niger to see if Niger was selling nuclear fuel to Iraq. They weren't. It was bulls**t. And he said so. In fact, his report was called, "Niger, Please."

Valerie Plame's husband told the truth about their lies, so they were willing to jeopardize an entire network of spies to ruin her life. Wow. Even the mob doesn't go after your family.

Mark Twain said, "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." And I say Valerie Plame is a patriot because she spent her life serving her country. Scooter Libby is not because he spent his life serving Dick Cheney. Valerie Plame kept her secrets. The Bush administration leaked like the plumbing at Walter Reed.

In the year 2008, I really think that Hillary Clinton should run for president on a platform of restoring honor and integrity to the Oval Office.

The secret behind Oprah's "Secret"

My issues with Oprah "America's Conscience" Winfrey are pretty well known. I lost just about all respect for her when she looked into her camera and told America that she wasn't lucky at all, she deserved every cent that she has because she's so smart, so talented, and just so darn good.

Which is why it should surprise no one that "The Secret" is right in Oprah's wheelhouse. Attached is a nice piece from Courtney E. Martin of AlterNet (http://www.alternet.org/movies/49591/) going into detail about this very successful new self-help franchise.

The basic premise of "The Secret" is based on a book from 1910, and draws heavily from Christian Science theology. The basic premise is called the "attraction principle," meaning that if you think about good things, good things come to you. So, if you REALLY think about getting that Rolex watch, you'll get that Rolex watch.

Seriously. THAT is the philosophy that's selling millions of books.

Of course, the corrolary is problematic. If you're poor, or abused, or sick, it's because you don't want to be rich, safe, or well hard enough. In other words, it's your fault.

Bullshit. Bull. Fucking. Shit.

Pardon my language, but this kind of snake-oil peddled to the desperate among us is not only a disgusting exploitation of fear and uncertainty designed to make a buck, it's also horribly corrosive to society. Without re-writing the piece below, suffice it to say that "The Secret" elevates materialism over harmony and spirituality. There is no place for humility and acceptance of God's will in "The Secret."

There is great power in positive thinking, I am the first to acknowledge that. But to swindle people into thinking that they can control the universe with their thoughts - and lay blame for bad things at the feet of the victim - is not only counter-productive, but just plain obscene.

My friend didn't just die of cancer because he didn't want to live hard enough. My sister doesn't have a suspicious lump in her breast because she didn't want to be well hard enough. And how DARE you tell me otherwise, Oprah.

(In editorial fairness, I will admit that I have not read or consumed information about "The Secret" first-hand, and will be more than happy to retract the venom in this posting if the book addresses this issue. But I'm not holding my breath.)
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Through wildly successful viral marketing and a faithful fan base spreading the word, The Secret, a documentary film explaining the "law of attraction" tops Amazon's bestselling DVD list. The companion book of the same name -- and as far as I can tell, an almost word-for-word transcript of the film -- just had the largest reorder in Simon & Schuster history (2 million copies) and is #1 on the New York Times Self Help Bestseller list.

If you are one of like three people left who haven't heard about The Secret -- come on, it was even on Oprah -- let me explain. Australian talk show producer Rhonda Byrne read The Science of Getting Rich, a book written in 1910 by Wallace D. Wattles, in her darkest hour and discovered what she believes is the essential truth -- that "your current thoughts are creating your future life. Your thoughts become things." Translation: if you are thinking about how bad your life is, bad things will continue to happen; if you start thinking about great things, they will inevitably manifest.

Byrne went around with a camera and manifested her own motley crew of entrepreneurs, financial gurus, and pop psychologists -- including the king of the Chicken Soup for the Soul dynasty, Jack Canfield -- to attest to the truth of this claim. I have no quips with the power of positive thinking. There is sound research that confirms that envisioning yourself succeeding has a real impact on your performance, sports being the most prescient example. At a time when a violent, morally-messy war is going on four years and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, who doesn't need a good dose of wide-eyed idealism?

But idealism is not all the fast-talking "experts" behind The Secret are dishing out. They are also articulating a dangerous message about conspicuous consumption and distracting people from crippling systemic problems.

Both the film and the book are filled with promises about the secret's capacity to attract wealth and "things" -- fancy cars, huge mansions, Rolex watches -- into your life. For example, the book reads: "Make it your intention to look at everything you like and say to yourself, 'I can afford that. I can buy that.'" In a country where the average household consumer debt is $8,000, it appears most of us need no encouragement in pretending we have more money than we do.

John Assarof, founder of a company called One Coach, stars in a hokey reenactment sequence in the film in which he realizes that he has miraculously attracted his new, unconscionably large home into his life. As he is unpacking boxes beside his five year old son, Assarof pulls out his "vision board" -- on which he had pasted images of things he wanted to attract into his life years earlier -- and finds the exact picture of the mansion he newly owns. He explains, "I looked at that house and started to cry, because I was just blown away." His son asked, "Why are you crying?" and he answered, "I finally understand how the law of attraction works."

What is the message to this five year old? What is the message to us all? That the secret to life is the capacity to desire "things" without regard to the environmental or spiritual consequences? That these "things" will somehow satisfy that deep and most universal of desires -- to matter in the world?

I cringe when I think about copies of both the DVD and books flying off the shelves and into debt-ridden, exhausted, and hopeless folks' hands. It is not just the exploitation of their dissatisfaction with their lives that offends me, but the distraction that promoters of The Secret are creating from the very real, systemic issues undergirding poverty.

The book boldly and ignorantly states, "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts." Tell that to the 36 million Americans living in poverty. Even worse, tell that to the 3 billion people worldwide who live on less that $2 a day.

If The Secret's logic is to be believed, than those who are hungry are not envisioning food hard enough, those without running water aren't imagining the feeling of satiation with enough enthusiasm. It doesn't matter if you are born in the Sudan or San Francisco, according to The Secret's catch-all claim; you can always fantasize your way into "massive wealth."

This point of view neglects the effects of government policy, class, race, gender, geography, and a host of other systemic influences on the kind of wealth -- and life -- one is able to create. It is the good ol' American Dream delusion supersized into ridiculousness. Now you don't even have to work for your wealth, you just have to sit back and dream it into existence. No matter if you are from a poor family, living in a war zone, or a thousand miles from the nearest medical clinic.

In another particularly offensive sequence, Bill Harris, a teacher and founder of Counterpointe Research Institute talks about a gay student who was harassed about his sexual orientation by coworkers and strangers on the streets. Harris explained the law of attraction to the frustrated young man: "He started taking this thing about focusing on what you want to heart...what happened within the next six to eight weeks was an absolute miracle." All the harassment, reportedly, ceased.

Sure, those who look scared are sometimes picked out as easy targets by homophobic jerks with some self-hating steam to blow off, but that doesn't take the responsibility for harassment off of the harasser. This argument is tantamount to saying that those women who fear rape are asking for it.

The idea that people invite abuse or oppression with their thoughts is insulting. The Secret crew only acknowledges this interpretation briefly: "Often when people first hear this...they recall events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted themselves to the event. If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time...those thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time." I can't begin to imagine how offensive this claim must be to those who have lost family members under horrific circumstances, like the massacres in Rwanda or the events of September 11th.

If the creators of The Secret wanted to truly empower people, they would focus more on the part of their message that invites people to dream about their best, most joyful lives. This invitation is mentioned in the work, but feels sullied by all of the talk of covetous accumulation and innocent people essentially "asking for it."

The promise of future money is a surefire way to get people to spend money now. Perhaps the purveyors of The Secret see the money message as the sugar that makes the medicine go down, but it seems hypocritical for a group of people purportedly committed to enlightenment to dwell in the material.

I would never claim to know the secret to life, but I have a hunch it has something to do with love, community, joy, and purpose -- not the size of your mansion or the brand of your watch. Further, I think it probably has something to do with alleviating suffering and inequality, encouraging people to think about changing the systems which keep them poor or in danger, not internalizing their failures -- financial or otherwise -- as proof of their own anemic imaginations.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A new type of unprotected speech?

Interesting article by Daniel Abrahamson of AlterNet (), analyzing the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case. In reviewing the judges' questioning at oral argument, Abrahamson seems to think some judges are leaning towards making "drug speech" a less protected form of speech, because it could lead to Bad Things, namely teen drug use.

I'll believe the Supremes will actually do that only when I see it. Whatever else you may think of Scalia, I can't imagine the guy who wrote the anti-cross-burning opinion would stand for that kind of foolishness. But, I guess we'll see. It will definitely be interesting to see how the new Roberts-Alito court handles a legitimate free speech case.

Although, in all honesty, this case really could boil down not to a speech case, but a forum case. The student in question was not on school property, but there are two relevant points. One, the school was out that day for a "field trip," and two, the student himself was truant. So, this case will turn not nearly so much on the speech itself, but the status of the student.

But, still, it's free speech stuff. My absolute favorite. Enjoy.

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On Monday, March 19, the Supreme Court heard a case concerning the scope of student speech in public high schools. The case, Morse v. Frederick, involved an 18 year old high school student who was punished by school officials for displaying a banner on a sidewalk across the street from his school. The banner was destroyed and the student was suspended because officials believed the banner, which read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," touted a pro-drug message in violation of the school's anti-drug policy.

The case has the potential to impact a wide swath of student expression. The Court, however, could walk a narrower path and carve out as undeserving of constitutional protection just one type of speech: drug speech. Based on the justices' questioning at oral argument, it appears that a majority of the Court may be inclined to refashion the Nancy Reagan's mantra "Just Say No" into "Don't Even Say It," when it comes to student speech that references drugs.

One of the most disturbing features of the Supreme Court argument was the fact that most of the justices appear to believe that because drugs in high schools are a scourge worth combating, student speech about drugs -- and by extension drug policy -- is likely to encourage student drug use. The justices, in other words, equated student speech about drugs with drug use itself, and a majority may permit school administrators to censor the former in the hopes of snuffing out the latter.

But this conflation of speech and conduct is unwarranted and dangerous. It was telling that the very same Ken Starr, who argued in favor of student censorship appeared on the Supreme Court steps for media interviews along with former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey who, a decade ago, warned physicians who spoke about the potential medical benefits of marijuana that they "sent the wrong message" to youth. McCaffrey was so convinced that physician speech would incite adolescent drug use that he threatened to punish doctors who recommended medical marijuana to their sick and dying patients. The federal courts struck down McCaffrey's plan because it violated doctors' First Amendment rights. Studies now show that adolescent marijuana use is actually lower in those states that protect the cultivation and use of marijuana for medical purposes.

To date, neither the government, nor schools nor the media have succeeded in crafting messages that actually prevent the use of alcohol and other drugs among students. As the independent U.S. Government Accountability Office found, after investigating the most widespread prevention program of all time, there is "no significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and students who did not." The GAO also panned the Drug Czar's billion dollar Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, concluding that the now infamous TV and radio spots, including those equating adolescent drug use with terrorism were "not effective in reducing youth drug use."

These facts are not an argument about the futility of prevention education, but rather about the futility of censorship. What should matter most is that the message actually induces its audience to engage in less harmful behavior. History has repeatedly shown the opposite: that censorship has been ineffective in advancing governmental interests.

School censorship of speech about drugs is a profoundly bad drug abuse prevention strategy. A student sitting at a personal computer can retrieve 22 million websites by typing in the word "marijuana" into a search engine -- with those of the White House Office of National Drug Policy and Drug Policy Alliance, organizations advocating disparate policy views, among the first appearing. As those who study adolescent drug attitudes recognize, strategies that deny that students' right to hear a range of opinions -- from friends, adults or the media -- do not work. Nor do those that discount students' intelligence and experience, or that lack candor and credibility. In short, curtailing student speech bears no reasonable relationship to reducing drug use.

Students are especially affected by -- and distinctly qualified to speak about -- a number of drug policies that are the subject of intense debate: the lengthy sentencing laws that incarcerate hundreds of thousands of parents, siblings and friends; the mounting data impugning random student drug testing; widespread racial inequities in the enforcement of drug laws; and the increasing difficulty grandparents to obtain adequate pain relief. Students have a unique perspective on many of these important issues and society has a strong interest in hearing from them.

A Supreme Court decision saying that because adolescent drug use is bad adolescent discourse about drugs is unworthy, or less worthy, of constitutional protection would be a serious blow to First Amendment principles. But such a ruling would also enshrine in national law a needlessly cynical view of the abilities and responsibilities of high school students to discuss timely, albeit controversial matters. It is irresponsible to ignore what high school students actually think, know, and believe about drugs or to punish them because high school officials do not like what they have to say. We do so at our peril.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

US and Iraqi generals - the full-spin zone?

Interesting article by Truus Bos from NBC's WorldBlog (http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2007/03/19/94397.aspx), describing the dichotomy of American and Iraqi generals talking about how safe parts of Baghdad are ("It feels like walking around in Istanbul," said one major general. "I invite you to go and look for yourselves!") and how dangerous, chaotic, and lawless the city actually is. It's an interesting companion to the ABC poll that came out earlier this week finding that over half of Iraqis believe they were better off under Saddam.

But, of course, give "the Surge" six months, and everything will be just all peachy-keen. Right?

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Last week several generals, both Iraqi and American, made a point of describing how certain areas in Baghdad, especially some markets and shopping districts, were reviving due to the security crackdown.
"It's one of the ways we can measure success. Shops are re-opening their doors, market stalls are full of fresh fruit and vegetables, and people are flocking to these places to do their shopping because they feel safe," we were told. "It's a real sign of things returning to normal, especially where we've created pedestrian zones by blocking the streets off to vehicles, so car bombs have no access."

"It feels like walking around in Istanbul," said one major general. "I invite you to go and look for yourselves!"

"Let's go shopping," I quipped to our translators, which caused a mixture of hilarious and nervous laughter. I wasn't serious of course, because although it may be safe for local Iraqis to walk around a market, anyone looking Western is still a likely target for kidnappers and other criminals.

Not so fast
So we tried to get a military escort to one of these places. No luck this past weekend, military units which might have been able to escort us were busy with more important things. I asked one of our Iraqi producers to go with our local crew.

They voiced some concerns, but mainly about traveling to the area, so we decided to send some Iraqi security men with them to watch their backs.

We decided to go to Shorja market, Baghdad's most popular central shopping district, which has been bombed several times, including by a large truck bomb which killed 137 last month. It was turned into a pedestrian zone and was the area that the major general described as feeling like Istanbul now.

But the next day, Saturday, our cameraman, told me he checked with a friend who lives near Shorja market, where he was going to film, and he told him there are snipers operating in the area.

A man with a camera on his shoulder is an attractive and easy target. We cancelled the shoot and decided to wait until the military had time to go with us.

Hard to document signs of success
The next day, Sunday, a man tossed a hand grenade into a group of waiting workmen at Shorja market. One man was killed, another wounded. The suspect escaped. We considered ourselves lucky we weren't there.

Then on Monday, someone left a bomb behind the preacher's podium in a small mosque situated among shops at the same market and set it off after the prayers, killing eight and injuring 32. It's as if the culprits want to destroy any signs of normality and stop any claims of success.

And for us, it’s becoming even more difficult to go out and document the signs of progress and normality the U.S. military say are out there.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Why torture is bad - the US Counterinsurgency Field Manual

Some fascinating historical reasons why you don't torture people (as if the current ones weren't good enough), from the military's own Counterinsurgency Manual, written by current Iraq war top dog Gen. David Petraeus. The similarities to what we've heard from the current President and his administration are downright spooky.

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During the Algerian war of independence between 1954 and 1962, French leaders decided to permit torture against suspected insurgents. Though they were aware that it was against the law and morality of war, they argued that:

This was a new form of war and these rules did not apply.
The threat the enemy represented, communism, was a great evil that justified extraordinary means.
The application of torture against insurgents was measured and nongratuitous.

This official condoning of torture on the part of French Army leadership had several negative consequences. It empowered the moral legitimacy of the opposition, undermined the French moral legitimacy, and caused internal fragmentation among serving officers that led to an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1962. In the end, failure to comply with moral and legal restrictions against torture severely undermined French efforts and contributed to their loss despite several significant military victories. ... France eventually recognized Algerian independence in July 1963.

...

During Napoleon's occupation of Spain in 1808, it seems little thought was given to the potential challenges of subduing the Spanish populace. Conditioned by the decisive victories at Austerlitz and Jena, Napoleon believed the conquest of Spain would be little more than a "military promenade." Napoleon's campaign included a rapid conventional military victory but ignored the immediate requirement to provide a stable environment for the populace.

The French failed to analyze the Spanish people, their history, culture, motivations and potential to support or hinder the achievement of French political objectives. ... Napoleon's cultural miscalculation resulted in a protracted occupation struggle that lasted nearly six years and ultimately required approximately three-fifths of the Empire's total armed strength, almost four times the force of 80,000 Napoleon originally designated.

The Spanish resistance drained the resources of the French Empire. It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon.

Friday, March 16, 2007

How Not to Win the "War On Terror"

Interesting article from Michael Hirsh of Newsweek (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17630160/site/newsweek/page/2/) discussing Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his confessions to being part of the plan for 9/11 and a number of other terrorist attacks around the world. Hirsh's point is that by abandoning the rule of law in our handling of KSM, we have allowed ourselves to be dragged down to his level. Instead of showing the true strength of freedom by giving KSM his day in court, our current President has surrendered to fear and allowed us to become the very evil that we are supposed to be fighting.

Hirsh said it well, in referring to the current President placing us in a situation of perpetual war. If you try to use metaphoric "war on terror" as an actual justificiation for the limitiation of freedom, then you will inevitably end up in the place we have been brought.

22 months to go.

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How Not to Win the War on Terror
The KSM case points up what’s wrong with the way the Bush administration fights terrorism. How the next president can do better.
WEB-EXCLUSIVE COMMENTARY
By Michael Hirsh
Newsweek
Updated: 1:14 p.m. CT March 15, 2007
March 15, 2007 - The abrupt reappearance of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM)—and his brazen comparison of himself to George Washington—four years after the alleged 9/11 mastermind was captured in Pakistan should provoke some serious self-examination in the minds of Americans. The first question we need to ask ourselves is: does the Bush administration have any clue any longer how to fight the “war on terror” legally? The next question should be: can’t our next president, whoever he or she turns out to be, do any better than this?

Let’s hope so. Because if there is even a shadow of a doubt that the United States is losing the battle for hearts and minds to the self-confessed murderer of 3,000 people—that would be KSM—then something is very wrong. Let’s get one thing straight: despite his touching claim that he doesn’t like to kill “kids,” KSM is a very bad man. Most people frankly wouldn’t have much of a problem if he were waterboarded or beaten to an inch of his life in a dark room somewhere—which is almost certainly what happened to him in one of the CIA’s secret prisons.

But the fact that four years to the month after he was captured—near Islamabad in March 2003—KSM is just beginning the process of being deemed an “enemy combatant” at the “Combatant Status Review Tribunal Hearing” at Guantanamo Bay shows that something is indeed very wrong. The Bush administration has argued, with some legitimacy, that this is a new kind of war in which new rules are needed. Fair enough. But should it really require all this time, such a complicated series of court decisions and legislative maneuverings, to decide what those rules are?

The issue that the administration confronted after 9/11 was what to do with evil people like KSM. The Bush team decided that this was a war rather than a criminal matter—and a war unlike any other. Therefore, none of the previous rules of war, like the Geneva Conventions protections, applied, in their view. That left culprits like KSM in a legal limbo for four years while they were ferried around to secret prisons, long after their intelligence value had been milked dry (a process that by the estimate of most interrogators should take no longer than a year). Even some CIA officials were privately upset by this, fearing that the agency would be the fall guy in the end (they were right). “Where’s the off button?” one retired CIA official said to me two years ago, in February 2005, before the military tribunals that KSM and others are being judged at—at long last—were created. Lawyers for the agency “asked the White House for direction on how to dispose of these detainees back when they asked for [interrogation] guidance. The answer was, ‘We’ll worry about that later.’ Now, we don’t know what to do with these guys.”

John Sifton of Human Rights Watch says the case of KSM and other key detainees—as well as some who are likely innocent—shows that the Bush administration has simply never defined what kind of enemy KSM is. Sifton adds: “This really is an example of how the war paradigm for counterterrorism—that it is only armed conflict—has backfired. Now we have a man comparing himself to George Washington. It might have been more appropriate to just call him a criminal and indict him in federal court, to say, ‘You’re no warrior, you’re no George Washington. You, sir, are a criminal'.”

Scott Horton, another prominent human-rights attorney, agrees. Had the case been handled properly, KSM’s confession to plotting 9/11 and many other actual or planned terror acts could have made him a “showcase defendant” for America’s cause, rallying support and allies around the world. “He could have been charged within six months of his detention and prosecuted in a proceeding, which would have added to the reputation of our country for justice,” says Horton, “and would have supported the righteousness of the cause of going after KSM.”


Instead, the legal black hole is only getting deeper. The transcript released Wednesday night indicates that KSM’s references to his previous treatment are all carefully redacted. Sifton and others say the redactions clearly indicate that KSM was referring to his secret interrogations—during which he might well have been physically abused. The question of whether such dubiously extracted testimony could be used in any legal proceeding will probably prolong his case for years to come. (Once KSM is determined to be an enemy combatant, he is expected to be tried.)

Sifton notes, accurately, that the administration has been wildly inconsistent over the past six years. Some terror suspects are held without recourse to habeas corpus at Gitmo; others have been prosecuted in the U.S. courts. In one case involving a Pakistani father and son living in New York, Saifullah and Uzair Paracha, the two have been treated completely differently. “The young Paracha is in federal prison. The older is at Gitmo,” said Sifton. (The father, Saifullah, was arrested in Bangkok; his son in the United States, both on suspicion of agreeing to help an Al Qaeda operative sneak into the United States to carry out a chemical attack.) “There are no principles guiding this. It would be fine if the “war on terror” were just a metaphor, but it’s not,” says Sifton.

Now America finds itself with too few allies in fighting the war on terror, often reviled abroad for its inattention to its own standards of justice. Worse, Washington is sometimes identified with the terrorists themselves in the minds of some people around the world. Why? Perhaps KSM said it best in his broken English at his hearing. “Same language you use, I use,” he said. The Americans, he declared in his rambling statement, “said every law, they have exceptions, this is your bad luck you been part of the exception of our laws … But we are doing same language … Never Islam give me green light to kill peoples. Killing, as in the Christianity, Jews, and Islam, are prohibited. But there are exceptions of rule when you are killing people of Iraq.”

“Same language you use, I use.” This, more than anything, is an indictment of the way the Bush administration has conducted this fight since 9/11. To paraphrase Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” if we cut down all the laws to get at the devil—as the administration has done against Al Qaeda—then we will find ourselves without protection. This legal and conceptual void has cost America its high moral ground—ground that was so hard-won through so many honorably fought wars (with lonely exceptions like My Lai) during our history.

The Bush administration has maintained from the outset that it could give no quarter to the terrorists, and that unusual methods were required to extract information from suspects in order to pre-empt another attack. But now, by letting KSM and others remain in legal limbo and gradually expanding his definition of the war on terror to include all Islamic “extremists”—among them Hezbollah and Hamas—President Bush may have condemned us to a permanent war. A war in which we are, again, waging an uncomfortably lonely fight, since almost no other country agrees on such a broadly defined enemy.

The next American president will be well advised to replace the “war on terror” with the kind of coordinated effort that the fight always should have entailed. In other words, the hunt for the culprits of 9/11 was never simply a war or a criminal manhunt. It was always both, a hybrid covert-war-and-criminal roundup—one in which clear legal rules should have been set to brand terrorists like KSM as outlaws in the international system. The Geneva Conventions should have been applied; suspects should have had lawyers; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment should have been expressly prohibited. Only if the next president sets the rules more clearly and does a better job of discriminating who the enemy is can we have any hope of winning.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A review of FOX News' attempt at comedy

Interesting post by Steve Safran from LostRemote.com (http://www.lostremote.com/2007/03/03/fox-newss-failed-attempt-at-comedy-so-what/) about the "1/2 Hour News Hour," which from most reviews is accurate in the sense that it DOES last 30 minutes, but pretty abyssimal as a comedy attempt. The basic point of the article is that it is failing not because it is conservative, but that it's not funny. Moreover, why in the world would we expect a news channel to deliver good comedy?

Of course, it should be remembered that FOX News is NOT a news channel. That was the whole point of FNC when it was first aired. FOX News is an unabashed spin machine, an organization dedicated to presenting a particular ideology and viewing the events of the world solely through that lens.

That, in and of itself, is not inherently wrong. What is so wrong about FOX News is its' insistence to refer to itself in Orwellian double-speak as "fair and balanced" when it clearly, from it's birth, was intended to NOT be objective.

Indeed, FOX News mocks the very concept of objectivity in journalism. The hallmark of journalism, the Mason-Dixon line between the news and the editorial departments, is the concept of objectivity. The reporter has a duty to present the story in as unbiased a manner as possible and let the viewer/reader reach their own conclusions.

"We Report. You Decide." FOX News gets the slogans of journalism right, they just refuse to practice them. It scoffs at the NEED for objectivity, at the thought that it is possible to report on facts without providing the "spin," the thought control for how to digest and interpret those facts.

And the advent of FOX News has hastened the slide of the "mainstream media" away from journalism and to the "infotainment" we currently receive from the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs, and Nancy Grace. Worse, we see now the echo chamber trend. People now have the opportunity to listen to only those voices they agree with, and have their own opinions reinforced. That trend leads to the conclusion that the "other side" is something that can be ignored completely. It also leads to mistakes in one's own logic being undiscovered or, worse, magnified.

See, for example, the current President's war council of advisors.

When FOX News was born, it took advantage of the shoddy state of American journalism and the "liberal bias" mantra repeated by conservatives so much in the previous 20 years that people assume it MUST be true, a la Goebbels' "big lie" theory.

So, FNC's comedy show is no threat to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The sad part is, the "FOX News" effect on television journalism as a whole will live much longer. Unfortunately, the legacy of Edward R. Murrow is Bill O'Reilly and "The Situation Room."

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What is it about failed comedy that makes people so angry? Fox News’s “1/2 Hour News Hour” certainly ceases to be funny immediately following one’s reading of its moderately clever title. So? Why, exactly, are people so steamed about this show? Why are the reviews so gleefully bad? And while we’re on the topic - why on Earth do people continue to insist upon the notion that comedy is somehow politically biased?

There is room in the distributed media world for all kinds of information, bad comedy included. And “1/2 Hour News Hour,” awful as it is, is no worse than plenty of sitcoms or an “SNL” or two. Sure, Ann Coulter joking about how she would invade whatever un-invaded countries would be left once she and Rush took office is stupid and plays into every anti-American stereotype. So? She’s Ann Coulter. That’s her name, her act and her brand. Can we uniformly agree upon that point now and get on with life?

There are plenty of giant targets in the media and politics. There is room for more shows like “The Daily Show.” That “1/2 Hour News Hour” is as bad as it is should encourage people: it’s proof that making a consistently hilarious and sharply satirical program like “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” is a lot damn harder than it looks.

Then there’s this: “1/2 Hour News Hour” is not an “answer” to Jon Stewart. You know who the answer to Jon is? Jon. Yes, Jon makes fun of President Bush. Absolutely. Jon lets the prez have it, two fists, full-on. But I didn’t see Jon giving John Kerry a pass in ‘04. And he ain’t exactly going easy on Hillary and the Dems now. Among my prize collections in my DVD case is The Daily’s week of shows from the Democratic convention in 2004, right here in Boston. It was not exactly a lefty lovefest.

Comedy is neither liberal nor conservative. It should just be funny. “1/2 Hour News Hour” is not funny - and not in a “That’s not funny - that’s inapropriate, sick and politically incorrect” sort of way either, which usually is funny. No, it’s just not - you know - funny.

So?

Let’s put this into perspective: A news channel has failed at comedy. So? What if Nick Jr. failed at a nightly newscast? With so much surrealism on the news networks right now, isn’t a news comedy show redundant? You want a good news channel comedy show? Just cut down the day’s coverage and rerun it. That’s pretty much what Jon Stewart does anyway. You already have a comedy show - it just needs some editing.

The angry and vitriolic among us will not be convinced to become neither engaging nor quiet. So? Let them enjoy themselves. If they are sure there’s a liberal media conspiracy, feed into that. Tell them we have meetings. With cashews. If they are absolutely certain that Brian Williams spends his every waking hour trying to bring down the capitalist system from within, send them a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book and inscribe it: “With Kisses, Brian.” And when they post that “1/2 Hour News Hour” is a work of utter comedic genius, tell them you couldn’t agree more - and that all shows should use laugh tracks to bring home that very point.

“Comedy Isn’t Pretty” was the title of one of Steve Martin’s albums. (Ironically, one of his less funny albums, too.) Failed comedy is even less pretty. So?

Another misrepresentation of Iraq?

Interesting story from MSNBC.com (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17571978/) talking about the bombing of the mosque at Samarra as the "day everything changed" in Iraq. Before that, according to the current President, things were going along well in Iraq. Then, al Qaeda-led forces blew up the mosque, and unleashed all of this sectarian not-quite-a-civil-war unpleasantness. Thus, the administration can argue, all of the violence in Iraq really is a creation of al Qaeda, and Iraq really is the central front in the Global War on Terror/Struggle Against Radical Extremism.

(By the way, anyone else notice how this administration loves to find days where "everything changed?" 9/11 changed everything, the bombing of the mosque in Samarra changed everything. Could it be because if something "changes everything" then it's easier to unhinge what you want to do from historical analysis and persepective, like the neocons in the current President's administration are desperate to do?)

The article discusses whether the bombing was really such a sea change, or whether it was just a reflection of what was happening already. Some argue that the sectarian violence and tensions had gotten so bad that, if it wasn't the mosque bombing, it would have been something else that started the violence we see in Iraq currently.

The current President's administration needs the perception to be, however, that things were going well, but the al Qaeda-backed bombing changed things. If that's the spin, then the surge makes some sense, as a means to undo the damage done by al Qaeda and get Iraq back on the path to freedom and democracy.

The article quotes experts on both sides, some saying that the violence we see now was brewing already and would have boiled over in some way, others saying that the mosque bombing was really a unique catalyst. (Although it is interesting that there's no one who isn't on the payroll of the U.S. government who is taking the position supporting the current President).

However, given this administration's history of spinning the facts, making false or blusterous claims, and callously trying to manipulate public opinion in an attempt to bolster support for the war, I think it gives a fascinating lens through which to consider the question raised by the article. Enjoy.

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WP: War's tipping point debated
Administration says event increased violence; many Iraq experts disagree
By Thomas E. Ricks
The Washington Post
Updated: 7:49 a.m. CT March 13, 2007
Feb. 22, 2006, is the day the Bush administration says everything in Iraq changed.

Before that day, military and administration officials frequently explain, Iraq was moving in the right direction: National elections had been held, and a government was forming. But then the bombing of the golden dome shrine in Samarra derailed that positive momentum and unleashed a wave of brutal sectarian violence.

Even now, more than a year later, the president and other administration officials cite Samarra as a turning point -- "a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal," President Bush called it in a March 6 news conference. "One of the key changes in Iraq last year," said White House spokesman Tony Snow in January.

Many Iraq specialists and defense analysts contend that this narrative of the mosque bombing is misleading, yet also revealing of how U.S. strategy in Iraq has evolved. Experts say the attack did not begin a civil war but rather confirmed the ongoing deterioration and violence in Iraq -- conditions the White House and the generals had resisted recognizing. In that sense, the bombing destroyed much more than the shrine: It also demolished the positive view of progress in Iraq, leading military and administration officials to a more pessimistic perspective, and eventually to a new U.S. strategy.

'Gasoline on a fire'
Samarra was not a major turning point in the war, said James Miller, a former Pentagon policy official. "The evidence on the record makes that not credible," he said. "The mosque bombing was just gasoline on a fire that already was burning pretty well."

No one was killed in the dawn bombing, which shattered the gilded roof of one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, located about 65 miles north of Baghdad. But in the following days, a wave of sectarian violence swept across central Iraq, killing hundreds.

The U.S. military had planned to begin drawing down its combat force in Iraq sometime in 2006, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a congressional committee last month. "We did not because in February of last year, the golden mosque bombing and all the sectarian violence that ensued from that, we realized by around June that we were not going to be able to come down," he said.

Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency specialist in Middle Eastern security issues, agreed. "I do not think things were going well before the bombing," said White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The insurgency was not controlled. Incident levels were rising."

Since 2003, violence in Iraq has increased at a steady pace, with some slight dips each winter. The increase continued last year, reaching an average of about 5,000 acts of violence a month. By the time of the shrine bombing, about 2,287 U.S. troops had died in Iraq; since then, that number has increased by 903.

Reflection or cause of civil war?
What the official narrative does not consider, said Ahmed Hashim, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, is that civil war was well underway before February 2006. The mosque bombing should be seen as "a reflection of that, not a cause," he said.

Asad Abu Khalil, a political scientist at California State University at Stanislaus, said it is characteristic of foreign occupiers to seize upon one episode and point to it as the moment that undercut all their good efforts. "The golden dome merely focused and intensified a conflict that was already taking place," he said. "If the bombing of the golden dome did not take place, some other bombing would have occurred."

The view that U.S. strategy was working before the bombing in Samarra leans on the assumption that the elections at the end of 2005 were a sign of progress, noted Carter Malkasian, who has served three tours in Iraq advising the Marines on counterinsurgency techniques. At the same time, he observed, the country was fracturing -- with growing support for insurgents, an increasing number of attacks on U.S. forces and deepening Sunni unhappiness with the Iraqi government. "In the end, stability was so weak that it only took the mosque bombing to break it apart," he concluded. "If the golden mosque hadn't done it, another bombing probably would have."

Even some in the military say their colleagues and commanders have misinterpreted the significance of the mosque bombing. "You have to understand the dome incident as being as much a manifestation of the weaknesses in our strategy and operational approach in Iraq than as some sort of causative tipping point," said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek, a veteran of the Iraq war.

'Tipping point'
But the majority of military officers interviewed stood by the view that the shrine attack was the turning point in the war.

The impact of the bombing cannot be overestimated, said Army Lt. Col. James A. Gavrilis, an officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served with Special Forces in Iraq. "The mosque bombing was a tipping point. . . . Sectarianism was a problem before, as it is now, but the bombing was a catalyst for increased sectarian violence."

Iraqi Shiite leaders have also cited the impact of the bombing. "The explosion of the holy shrine pushed the country into blind violence, in which tens of thousands of innocents were killed," said Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, in a statement last month. "No one knows but Allah when this tragedy will be over."

Before the attack, said an Army officer, "you could feel the changes and sense we were moving in the right direction." But after it, he said, Shiites were infuriated. "It was the catalyst that caused the Shiites to strike back hard and ramp up the cycle of sectarian violence," he said.


Another Army officer, a strategy expert, said Shiites had waited patiently to see if the United States could provide for their security. The bombing convinced them that it was not possible, he said, and they then turned to Shiite militias for protection.

But White, the former DIA analyst, said the bombing primarily changed the way U.S. commanders viewed the war they were waging. After that day, it became much harder for them to argue that there were enough troops, because the U.S. military was given the mission of containing Shiite militias, on top of its existing missions of countering the insurgency and training Iraqi security forces.

One Army officer who recalled buying into the optimism of late 2005 and early 2006, when he was a commander in Iraq, said that in retrospect, the situation was far worse than he and others understood it to be. He said it was the Samarra bombing that led him to believe that Iraq was indeed caught in a civil war. "What Samarra came to mean for me was a defining point in time, almost like a teaching point, where the real face of the Iraq war became clear," he said.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The cost of war, part II

Heartbreaking post by Stacy Bannerman of The Progressive, from AlterNet (http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/48788/), detailing the effects of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder on at least one military family. That part is sad enough, but there's an interesting nugget in the middle of it that doesn't get nearly enough attention. Bannerman, as a vocal opponent of the war, discovered that her husband was threatened with "adverse career consequences" because of his "vocal spouse."

Fits right in with the stories of soldiers being ordered not to talk about the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed and other VA facilities. Or the current President forbidding the taking of pictures of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq. All we need to do is talk about repainting hospitals, they tell us, and everything will be SO much better.

Pray for peace.

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I was folding fliers for a high school workshop on nonviolence when my husband, a mortar platoon sergeant with the Army National Guard 81st Brigade, walked into my office and said, "I got the call."

We hadn't talked about the possibility of him being deployed for months, not since President Bush had declared, "Mission accomplished." But I knew exactly what he meant; I didn't know then what it would mean for us.

We weren't prepared, and neither was the Guard. The Guard sent him into harm's way without providing some of the basic equipment and materials, such as global positioning systems, night vision gear, and insect repellant, that he would rely on during his year-long tour of duty at LSA Anaconda, the most-attacked base in Iraq, as determined by the sheer number of incoming rockets and mortars, which averaged at least five per day.

Unlike active duty military, the National Guard had no functional family support system or services in place. While the Guard was scrambling to get it together, my husband was already gone, and I was alone, just months after we had moved to Seattle.

Twenty-four hours after Lorin boarded the plane for Iraq, I hung a blue star service flag -- denoting an immediate family member in combat -- in the front window. Then I closed the blinds, hoping to keep the harbingers of death at bay. They still got in, through the phone, the Internet, the newspaper, and the TV.

Each week, I heard of a friend's husband or son: wounded, maimed, shot, hit, hurt, burned, amputated, decapitated, detonated, dead. A glossary of pain. I checked icasualties.org all the time, cursing and crying as the numbers rose relentlessly, praying that Lorin wouldn't be next.

I got involved with Military Families Speak Out, which is exactly what the name suggests: an organization of people with loved ones in uniform who are adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq. We were breaking the military's traditional code of silence by publicly protesting this war, and the pushback was intense, particularly for military wives. I was ostracized by the women married to men in my husband's company, and my husband was reprimanded by his superior officers. I was an "unruly spouse," and Lorin could "expect adverse career consequences."

I thought being forced to serve in a war based on lies was itself an "adverse consequence." I said as much during an interview on Hardball with Chris Matthews, which just happened to be broadcast on the big-screen TV during lunchtime in the mess tent at Anaconda. Lorin didn't see it, but approximately 5,000 of the troops he was serving with did. He heard about it for weeks, but never asked me to stop. He had his own questions and concerns about Operation Iraqi Freedom.

During the run-up to the war, when 76 percent of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, we protested in the streets of Spokane. But he was contractually bound and committed to his men. He clung to what he'd been briefed on regarding the Guard's mission in Iraq, which included building schools for kids.

Two months into his deployment, I got a call from him, and he said, choking up, that there was an "accident." Two Iraqi children were dead because he gave the order to fire a couple of mortar rounds. Several weeks later, he phoned again, his voice flat and emotionless, to tell me that the men he had dinner with the previous night had been killed by the same Iraqi soldiers that they were training six hours earlier.

Days went by without any communication -- anxious hours, restless nights. I swerved between anger and fear.

His e-mails were sometimes delayed, or returned to him as undeliverable, with portions blacked out by military censors. The ones that got through asked for more homemade treats, baby wipes, batteries, movies, and magazines. One missive informed me about rockets landing next to the trailer where he slept ... while he was in bed. Another ended abruptly because he was under attack.

Lorin spent hours loading coffins onto cargo jets; I spent days on red alert.

Finally, the phone rang with the news that my husband was coming home, after nearly a year in Iraq. They didn't tell me he'd bring the war with him.

He'd been back for almost two months, but he was still checking to see where his weapon was every time he got in a vehicle. He drove aggressively, talked aggressively, and sometimes I could swear that he was breathing aggressively. This was not the man I married, this hard-eyed, hyper-vigilant stranger who spent his nights watching the dozens of DVDs that he got from soldiers he served with in Iraq. He couldn't sleep, and missed the adrenaline surge of constant, imminent danger. The amateur videos of combat eased the ache of withdrawal from war, but did nothing to heal my soldier's heart.

At a conference on post-deployment care and services for soldiers and their families, a Marine Corps chaplain asked, "How do you know if you're an SOB? Your wife will tell you!"

Har-de-har-har-har. The remark got the predictable round of applause from the capacity crowd, which, with one exception, wasn't living with anyone who had recently returned from Iraq. I was that exception, and it infuriated me that this was a joke. The Pentagon's solution for the constant stress endured by those of us who felt bewildered and betrayed was: "Learn how to laugh." With help from the Pentagon's chief laughter instructor, families of National Guard members were learning to walk like a penguin, laugh like a lion, and blurt "ha, ha, hee, hee, and ho, ho."

Emotional isolation is one of the hallmarks of post-combat mental health problems. The National Guard didn't conduct follow-up mental health screening or evaluations of the men in my husband's company until they had been home for almost eight months. Nearly a year later, in August of 2006, my husband was informed of his results: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was obvious that he was suffering, but when I brought it up, he parroted what the military told him: "Give it time."

Time wasn't a panacea for Jeffrey Lucey, Doug Barber, or the dozens of other Guard members and Reservists who have committed suicide after serving in Iraq. Time hasn't helped the hundreds of homeless Iraq War veterans wandering lost in the streets of what military families are assured is a deeply grateful nation. Time is most definitely not on our side.

My husband has served his time with the Guard. He's got more than twenty-three years of actual service, and almost twenty years of "good time" that qualifies him for retirement benefits.

But then he learned about a few loopholes. Now, if he serves as a member in good standing for 364 days in a year, instead of 365, that year isn't credited as time served toward his retirement. If he's deemed irreplaceable -- he's one of a handful of mortar platoon sergeants who've seen combat -- the Guard can retain him for several more years after his contract expires.

He is surprised by this, but I'm not. I no longer expect that the Department of Defense will keep its promises to the soldiers or their families. I don't pretend that the Pentagon will adhere to its policies. And I know from experience that "support the troops" is a slogan, and not a practice.

On January 11, 2007, the Pentagon discarded the time limit that prevented Guard members and Reservists from serving more than 24 total months on active duty for either the Iraq or Afghan wars. The Pentagon's announcement came in the wake of President Bush's decision to deploy an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.

The escalation contradicts the advice of top U.S. military officials. Although the majority of Americans are opposed to the "surge," most members of Congress are reluctant to block the supplemental appropriations request that will fund it, claiming that they don't want to abandon the troops. Congress has abandoned the troops for nearly four years. It is the soldiers, their families, and the people of Iraq that pay the human costs. The tab so far: more than 3,000 dead U.S. troops, tens of thousands of wounded, over half a million Iraqi casualties, roughly 250,000 American servicemen and women struggling with PTSD, and almost 60,000 military marriages that have been broken by this war. Including mine.

It was hard to reconnect after more than a year apart, and the open wound of untreated PTSD made it virtually impossible. Lorin is still the best evidence I have of God's grace in this world, but we just couldn't find our way back together after the war came home.

It's Not Just Walter Reed

A disturbing, but not surprising, story from the Washington Post talking about the poor condition of medical care for veterans throughout the system. The exposure of the rank hypocrisy of the current President who used the "support the troops" cudgel to keep the opposition quiet has failed to provide armor for the troops, failed to provide a coherent plan, and now failed to provide the basic medical needs for the injuries they suffered in Iraq. In other words, the poorly planned war had poor planning for those injured in the war.

Of course, if the plan was that U.S. troops would be greeted with roses and chocolates, then who needs hospitals in the first place?

Oops.

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Soldiers Share Troubling Stories Of Military Health Care Across U.S.

By Anne Hull and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 5, 2007; A01


Ray Oliva went into the spare bedroom in his home in Kelseyville, Calif., to wrestle with his feelings. He didn't know a single soldier at Walter Reed, but he felt he knew them all. He worried about the wounded who were entering the world of military health care, which he knew all too well. His own VA hospital in Livermore was a mess. The gown he wore was torn. The wheelchairs were old and broken.

"It is just not Walter Reed," Oliva slowly tapped out on his keyboard at 4:23 in the afternoon on Friday. "The VA hospitals are not good either except for the staff who work so hard. It brings tears to my eyes when I see my brothers and sisters having to deal with these conditions. I am 70 years old, some say older than dirt but when I am with my brothers and sisters we become one and are made whole again."

Oliva is but one quaking voice in a vast outpouring of accounts filled with emotion and anger about the mistreatment of wounded outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Stories of neglect and substandard care have flooded in from soldiers, their family members, veterans, doctors and nurses working inside the system. They describe depressing living conditions for outpatients at other military bases around the country, from Fort Lewis in Washington state to Fort Dix in New Jersey. They tell stories -- their own versions, not verified -- of callous responses to combat stress and a system ill equipped to handle another generation of psychologically scarred vets.

The official reaction to the revelations at Walter Reed has been swift, and it has exposed the potential political costs of ignoring Oliva's 24.3 million comrades -- America's veterans -- many of whom are among the last standing supporters of the Iraq war. In just two weeks, the Army secretary has been fired, a two-star general relieved of command and two special commissions appointed; congressional subcommittees are lining up for hearings, the first today at Walter Reed; and the president, in his weekly radio address, redoubled promises to do right by the all-volunteer force, 1.5 million of whom have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But much deeper has been the reaction outside Washington, including from many of the 600,000 new veterans who left the service after Iraq and Afghanistan. Wrenching questions have dominated blogs, talk shows, editorial cartoons, VFW spaghetti suppers and the solitary late nights of soldiers and former soldiers who fire off e-mails to reporters, members of Congress and the White House -- looking, finally, for attention and solutions.

Several forces converged to create this intense reaction. A new Democratic majority in Congress is willing to criticize the administration. Senior retired officers pounded the Pentagon with sharp questions about what was going on. Up to 40 percent of the troops fighting in Iraq are National Guard members and reservists -- "our neighbors," said Ron Glasser, a physician and author of a book about the wounded. "It all adds up and reaches a kind of tipping point," he said. On top of all that, America had believed the government's assurances that the wounded were being taken care of. "The country is embarrassed" to know otherwise, Glasser said.

The scandal has reverberated through generations of veterans. "It's been a potent reminder of past indignities and past traumas," said Thomas A. Mellman, a professor of psychiatry at Howard University who specializes in post-traumatic stress and has worked in Veterans Affairs hospitals. "The fact that it's been responded to so quickly has created mixed feelings -- gratification, but obvious regret and anger that such attention wasn't given before, especially for Vietnam veterans."

Across the country, some military quarters for wounded outpatients are in bad shape, according to interviews, Government Accountability Office reports and transcripts of congressional testimony. The mold, mice and rot of Walter Reed's Building 18 compose a familiar scenario for many soldiers back from Iraq or Afghanistan who were shipped to their home posts for treatment. Nearly 4,000 outpatients are currently in the military's Medical Holding or Medical Holdover companies, which oversee the wounded. Soldiers and veterans report bureaucratic disarray similar to Walter Reed's: indifferent, untrained staff; lost paperwork; medical appointments that drop from the computers; and long waits for consultations.

Sandy Karen was horrified when her 21-year-old son was discharged from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego a few months ago and told to report to the outpatient barracks, only to find the room swarming with fruit flies, trash overflowing and a syringe on the table. "The staff sergeant says, 'Here are your linens' to my son, who can't even stand up," said Karen, of Brookeville, Md. "This kid has an open wound, and I'm going to put him in a room with fruit flies?" She took her son to a hotel instead.

"My concern is for the others, who don't have a parent or someone to fight for them," Karen said. "These are just kids. Who would have ever looked in on my son?"

Capt. Leslie Haines was sent to Fort Knox in Kentucky for treatment in 2004 after being flown out of Iraq. "The living conditions were the worst I'd ever seen for soldiers," he said. "Paint peeling, mold, windows that didn't work. I went to the hospital chaplain to get them to issue blankets and linens. There were no nurses. You had wounded and injured leading the troops."

Hundreds of soldiers contacted The Washington Post through telephone calls and e-mails, many of them describing their bleak existence in Medhold.

From Fort Campbell in Kentucky: "There were yellow signs on the door stating our barracks had asbestos."

From Fort Bragg in North Carolina: "They are on my [expletive] like a diaper. . . . there are people getting chewed up everyday."

From Fort Dix in New Jersey: "Scare tactics are used against soldiers who will write sworn statement to assist fellow soldiers for their medical needs."

From Fort Irwin in California: "Most of us have had to sign waivers where we understand that the housing we were in failed to meet minimal government standards."

Soldiers back from Iraq worry that their psychological problems are only beginning to surface. "The hammer is just coming down, I can feel it," said retired Maj. Anthony DeStefano of New Jersey, describing his descent into post-traumatic stress and the Army's propensity to medicate rather than talk. When he returned home, Army doctors put him on the antipsychotic drug Seroquel. "That way, you can screw their lights out and they won't feel a thing," he said of patients like himself. "By the time they understand what is going on, they are through the Board and stuck with an unfavorable percentage of disability" benefits.

Nearly 64,000 of the more than 184,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have sought VA health care have been diagnosed with potential symptoms of post-traumatic stress, drug abuse or other mental disorders as of the end of June, according to the latest report by the Veterans Health Administration. Of those, nearly 30,000 have possible post-traumatic stress disorder, the report said.

VA hospitals are also receiving a surge of new patients after more than five years of combat. At the sprawling James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., Spec. Roberto Reyes Jr. lies nearly immobile and unable to talk. Once a strapping member of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, Reyes got too close to an improvised explosive device in Iraq and was sent to Walter Reed, where doctors did all they could before shipping him to the VA for the remainder of his life. A cloudy bag of urine hangs from his wheelchair. His mother and his aunt are constant bedside companions; Reyes, 25, likes for them to get two inches from his face, so he can pull on their noses with the few fingers he can still control.

Maria Mendez, his aunt, complained about the hospital staff. "They fight over who's going to have to give him a bath -- in front of him!" she said. Reyes suffered third-degree burns on his leg when a nurse left him in a shower unattended. He was unable to move himself away from the scalding water. His aunt found out only later, when she saw the burns.

Among the most aggrieved are veterans who have lived with the open secret of substandard, underfunded care in the 154 VA hospitals and hundreds of community health centers around the country. They vented their fury in thousands of e-mails and phone calls and in chat rooms.

"I have been trying to get someone, ANYBODY, to look into my allegations" at the Dayton VA, pleaded Darrell Hampton.

"I'm calling from Summerville, South Carolina, and I have a story to tell," began Horace Williams, 62. "I'm a Marine from the Vietnam era, and it took me 20 years to get the benefits I was entitled to."

The VA has a backlog of 400,000 benefit claims, including many concerning mental health. Vietnam vets whose post-traumatic stress has been triggered by images of war in Iraq are flooding the system for help and are being turned away.

For years, politicians have received letters from veterans complaining of bad care across the country. Last week, Walter Reed was besieged by members of Congress who toured the hospital and Building 18 to gain first-hand knowledge of the conditions. Many of them have been visiting patients in the hospital for years, but now they are issuing news releases decrying the mistreatment of the wounded.

Sgt. William A. Jones had recently written to his Arizona senators complaining about abuse at the VA hospital in Phoenix. He had written to the president before that. "Not one person has taken the time to respond in any manner," Jones said in an e-mail.

From Ray Oliva, the distraught 70-year-old vet from Kelseyville, Calif., came this: "I wrote a letter to Senators Feinstein and Boxer a few years ago asking why I had to wear Hospital gowns that had holes in them and torn and why some of the Vets had to ask for beds that had good mattress instead of broken and old. Wheel chairs old and tired and the list goes on and on. I never did get a response."

Oliva lives in a house on a tranquil lake. His hearing is shot from working on fighter jets on the flight line. "Gun plumbers," as they called themselves, didn't get earplugs in the late 1950s, when Oliva served with the Air Force. His hands had been burned from touching the skin of the aircraft. All is minor compared with what he later saw at the VA hospital where he received care.

"I sat with guys who'd served in 'Nam," Oliva said. "We had terrible problems with the VA. But we were all so powerless to do anything about them. Just like Walter Reed."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.