Monday, July 30, 2007

Success in Iraq

Several days ago, digby posted something along these lines: people who talk about how 'the president lost the Iraq war' or 'the democrats lost the Iraq war' or 'the media lost the Iraq war' are completely missing the truth, which is that from the beginning the war was doomed, being hubristic, illegal, insane, etc. I initially had a very strong response to this, which I have since reconsidered.

At first, my thought was that the concept of an aggressive war was illegal, and unjustified, and the intelligence used to promote it was fatally flawed, but the military plan could have been made to work. I remember when I was watching the TV coverage of the invasion, how they made this huge deal about how we had a revolutionary new way of waging war, officially dubbed 'Shock and Awe.' And as juvenile as that name is, it follows from the basic principle that we learned from Vietnam, which is if you're going to fight, use overwhelming force to crush the enemy as fast and decisively as possible. Don't pussyfoot around with slow escalations, and don't restrict the number of soldiers you bring in for political reasons. The way to win militarily is to use overwhelming force. Incidentally, this strategy can also help minimize infrastructure damage and civilian deaths, in theory; it's not guaranteed, but a short sharp battle has a chance of doing less damage than a prolonged campaign.

Looking at it now, it seems dreadfully ironic that the initial war, the one that was supposed to be over in just a few months, was planned with this strategy in mind, because obviously the occupation took zero notice of the information we took from Vietnam. In order to crush and hold a country the size of Iraq, if we wanted to follow the policy of overwhelming force, we needed something like 500,000 soldiers on the ground. If I recall correctly, proper counterinsurgency requires something like 1 soldier per 10 occupied civilians. What we had was much much less than that. Our invasion actually left a fair amount of Iraqi infrastructure- roads, electric grids, museums- intact, but it was destroyed in the aftermath when we eliminated the Iraqi government without replacing it with anything. The looting, as everyone knows, was horrific, and the state of lawlessness has continued to this day.

So when I first read digby's post, my thought was that if we had put as much thought into the occupation as we put into the invasion, if we had had 500,000+ troops and a high percentage of the soldiers on the ground were trained in the appropriate languages, if we had run the rebuilding efforts properly instead of corruptly, if we had policed the country instead of letting it fall into anarchy, if we had kept people secure from the beginning until there was a stable Iraqi government that could keep them secure, maybe we could have headed off the insurgency. If we had lived up to our rhetoric, maybe things would have turned out differently. But we didn't, and I guess we'll never know just how bad it didn't have to be.

After a lot of thought, though, I'm not so sure that anything we could have done would have made things turn out differently. Probably making and keeping the entire country safe, protecting people's ability to raise their kids and run their businesses and basically not turning the country into a wasteland would have made things somewhat better than they are... but I don't know that even that would be something that anyone could call a success.

I'm reading Tom Paine's Common Sense, and this quote struck me as rather appropriate:
I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and you yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then you are not the judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then you are unworthy the name husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.
So I think that if I can see how right Mr. Paine is when he says this about British abuse in the colonies, how can I expect the citizens of any country to love the United States when we come into their country and kill even one person and expect them to roll over and take it?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Peak Oil

Crooks and Liars has an interesting post today about peak oil. It's quite alarmist and panicky and includes the sentence "An apple will cost $7" as well as the phrase "post-industrial stone age." It almost sounds whacked out enough to make me think that it was written so as to make people disbelieve it. Although why something like that would be published on Crooks and Liars, I don't know.

Anyway. The comments thread is actually more informative than the actual article, as it contains these two excellent links, one to a National Geographic article on peak oil and one to this agriculture-something article. Also this slightly less excellent but funnier link to a British comedian I've never heard of, who actually has quite a bit to say.

Peak oil seems to me to be a no-brainer. The question is not whether its going to happen, but when; people who refuse to believe that the oil will eventually run out, after a long decline in our ability to process it out of the ground, are on the same level as people who refuse to believe that humans cause the extinction of other species or that human industrialization could possibly change the climate. Maybe when you've spent your entire life in the suburbs, it seems like suburbs are your natural habitat and nothing could ever have been different and nothing could possibly change, but really that isn't true. Its like the Discovery Channel special on the world before the dinosaurs: when fern-trees were the massively dominant species on land, they changed the air to the point that it was literally not breathable by modern humans, and there was so much oxygen that lightning didn't just light trees on fire, it made forests explode. It seems very obvious to me that a species that covers such huge percentages of the total land on this Earth is going to change the basic nature of the planet in very dramatic ways.

The one important question other than 'when?' is how bad this is going to be, specifically how fast the drop off is going to happen. The Crooks and Liars post makes it sound like everything is going to be going along all nice and easy and then the bottom is going to drop out, in the matter of just a few years going from $3/gal for gas to not being able to buy gas anywhere. But I think it will be softer than that, many decades before we're completely out; even the American fields that peaked in the 70s are still in production, some of them. As the National Geographic article points out, there are still lots of options for extracting oil from the earth, its just that the options that are left are quite a bit more difficult. But honestly, things might go very badly if thats the way the politics plays. The government controls our economy in this country to the extent that they could make this very difficult for us. If our politicians decide its politically expedient to live in denial, I imagine they could spin out our economy for years into the decline.

Even then, though, I don't think we're going back to the stone age. There are a lot of good options out there to replace oil; none of them are nearly as massive industries as oil currently is, obviously, and if all the oil in the world disappeared tomorrow, we would absolutely not be able to depend on solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, tidal, ethanol or biomass power. But just because things aren't that way today doesn't mean they can't be that way even, say, ten years from now. People say they can't imagine the changes that would have to be made in order for us not to be dependent on oil, but imagine a world where every cute little suburban house comes with solar panels all over the roof, that supplement the power you get from the power company's windmill fields. Imagine a world where you plug in your car every evening and then go to work in the morning as usual, maybe even buy yourself a little ethanol at the pump to supplement your electric-hybrid engine. Imagine a world where you don't have a lawn, you have a garden, because imported food is too goddamn expensive. Would the fundamental lifestyle changes really be so unimaginably great?

I'm not trying to pretend that it's going to be easy or smooth or anything, but I think it's going to be possible. It might be the end of American hegemony, but I don't think it's going to be the end of the human race.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Our shells simply cannot hold our insides in

Been sick the past couple of days- took 100mg of gabapentin for five days starting last Wednesday and by Sunday it finally caught up to me. That plus way overdoing it on Saturday- I was foolish enough to both go looking at wedding dresses with my cousin-in-law and go sit and watch a baseball game on the same day, I should have known I wouldn't have the energy- and I slept most of Sunday and Monday, with alternating periods of piercing headaches and nausea. I guess I should glad to know that yet another medication doesn't do jack shit but make me sick.

So I missed all sorts of things, including Gonzales' horrible Senate testimony and this interesting news about the corruption of the Oil for Food program in the lead up to the Iraq war, unfortunately implicating some of the most vocal anti-war politicians in Europe. I wish I could say I was surprised. People who practice politics for a living seem to turn out to be the worst sort of people, no matter what positions they espouse. I suspect its all the money floating around, not that I have it in me to be glad that I was never offered hundreds of thousands of dollars just to give my opinion to news cameras. Christ, I could use that kind of money.

What actually inspired me to post was this article in the the Weekly Standard, though. What a load of bullshit, it makes me want to punch the author in the face. The last thing the military needs is some smug columnist making up history and then pretending that the minority of soldiers who are conned by the administration's propaganda are somehow role models for us all. Fuck him. What we really need is someone- or preferably lots of someones- to get outraged about how Americas sons and daughters have been used as pawns, manipulated and then betrayed to their deaths by a man who has no idea what leadership is about.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Impending Doom

This kind of worries me. From what I've seen, which isn't all that much, the reactions of the people who know about it have been rather extreme. I guess that isn't all that surprising seeing how the other big news lately is that the Under-Secretary of Defense thinks that Sen. Clinton and anyone else who talks about anything to do with ever withdrawing from Iraq, or mentions anything critical of the war, is basically committing treason. Some people, including the guy I got the original link from, a poster at, think the Bush administration is laying out the groundwork for freezing the assets of people who dare to disagree with them in public. The more paranoid who responded compared these actions to the takeover of Germany by the Nazis in the 1930s.

I would be more skeptical if Glenn Greenwald hadn't just outlined for me the way the President and his cronies have been setting up a legal doctrine that prohibits prosecution of anyone in the executive branch, ever. Executive privilege is turning into a pretty scary beast pretty damn quickly.

So just in case the betrayal of the American Revolution is right around the corner, I'd like to say a few things.

President George W. Bush has betrayed the American people, and most particularly the American military, with his incompetence. He started a war that he should have known was a damned stupid idea, and he not only continued that war out of stiff necked pride and willful blindness, but he condemned America to a hugely wasteful disaster through his inability to run a practical operation. There were a lot of people pulling for this war, some of them for very bad reasons, and there is enough blame to tar the multitudes who had a hand in this farce. Certainly people like Cheney, Wolfowitz and so on are not blameless. But the ultimate responsibility lies with George W. Bush.

When you become Commander in Chief, Bush is fond of claiming, it means you can do any damn thing you want to. And that's true, in a limited arena. You have the power of life and death over every soldier the US can put on the field. Soldiers take a solemn oath to obey your commands, an oath hundreds of thousands of them would rather die than betray. President Bush has seen that as a liberating condition; he has claimed the power those oaths give as an absolute power, that frees him to do whatever the hell he pleases. What he has missed is the terrible responsibility that comes with that power. When you can order a good man to his death, you absolutely must be right. Your decisions must be perfect. Any mistake, even a well intentioned and carefully thought out mistake, damns you. The oath of every American soldier requires the President to take serious and sober responsibility for his orders. Not only must he try hard to get things right, he must also get them fucking right. And really, he hasn't done either.

More eloquent and accurate people than myself have outlined the case against Bush, so let me just say that I support it. He ought to be impeached; there are a dozen things to impeach him for, every one of them more significant and serious than the last impeachment our country undertook. This administration is so corrupt, so rotten and foul that no one who has ever worked for our current President should be allowed to work in a government position ever again. The stench of Bush's betrayal of my beloved country must be washed out.

I believe this because I believe in America. Not the swaggering Texan version of America that is nothing more than a group of people who are 'my' group of people just because they are, just because they live next to me and look like me and talk like me and I'm unable to grasp concepts larger than basic primitive tribalism. My America is an idea. An idea about a government that can be fair and just and designed for the benefit of every citizen, not just those few who happen to be rich and powerful. My America is place where there are no royalty, there are no kings, and the country is held together not by some personality cult but by a rational system of law. In my America, thought is not dangerous. Punishment is not meted out before a crime is committed, there is no state of emergency that can justify indefinite imprisonment and torture of those who have been convicted of no crime. In my America, you can speak without fear and be secure in your freedom.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

some thoughts on relating to pain

So I'm preparing to get in with a new doctor in the VA system here, since I moved across the country. I've been putting it off; it should have been one of my first priorities once we arrived, since I have a disability claim pending that needs a mental health evaluation done, and it's my responsibility to set that up since I canceled the one they set up for me in Oregon. They scheduled it for three weeks after I was supposed to move here, but still. But I've been putting it off, because of the enormous amounts of paperwork, and waiting around, and unnecessary doctor's visits, and driving into an unfamiliar downtown area to meet new doctors who don't believe there's anything wrong with me, that's involved in getting into a new medical system. I really really hate going to the doctor.

Not that VA medical care has been anything but quality. Really, all the doctors I've seen have been good doctors. Its just that my medical reality is so far removed from what normal people go through. Most of the time that doesn't bother me, because I don't live as someone else, I just live as me, so it doesn't really matter what other people go through. But going to the doctor means trying to describe what my life is like, and that brings certain things into focus.

The VA has a standard procedure for checking people in before a doctor's appointment. You're seen by a medical assistant who takes you through a list of questions, mostly pretty standard things, like, do you smoke? do you drink? when was your last menstrual period? are you pregnant/trying to get pregnant? what health issue are you here for? And they take your blood pressure and temperature and so on. One thing that they always ask you is to rate your pain on a scale of 1-10, and I can see how this is supposed to be helpful to them. I mean, clearly you can't tell how someone is doing just by looking at them, and they're trying to set a standardized scale for pain just like for anything else, so that they can deal with it consistently.

The obvious problem is that not everyone has the same reference points for pain. They tell you that 10 is supposed to be the worst pain that you're ever felt, but what if you've never felt severe pain? Not everyone has broken bones, or been burned, or gone through childbirth. So the scale is fundamentally flawed, and they acknowledge that, but want you to answer anyway. I tend to answer based on how my pain is affecting my functionality; my '5' is the tipping point of function, anything less and I'm in pain but coping, anything more and I really need to go lie down. This usually satisfies them, and I think that most of the time it conveys what I'm feeling pretty well.

The thing is, though, that my relationship with pain is so very different from someone who has pain only occasionally, that the whole concept of a scale fails to convey the things about my pain that are most important. I mentioned this to my therapist on one of my last visits to see her, and she immediately assumed that I meant that I just got used to being in pain, that I could deal better with higher levels of pain than other people because I was used to it.

This is true to a certain extent. There are a lot of little aches and pains that I ignore basically because I'm bored of paying attention to them. For example, sitting here at my computer typing, I don't register the aches in my finger bones, the nerve pain in my left shoulder, the twinge in my back, the stabbing at the base of my skull, unless I think about it on purpose- or I move in some way that highlights the pain. When I stand up to walk around the room, my feet burst into pain but it's not an event that I remember once I sit back down. I think that if you felt exactly the way I do now, after not feeling this way your whole life, you would notice. You would think, 'oh, I'm sick', or 'I must have hurt myself without realizing it'. You would call your doctor so you could see if you had arthritis in your hands, or a bulging disk in your back, or migraine headaches. But when you know that your pain is meaningless, that it doesn't herald some damage to your body, you get used to it. It becomes familiar, a non-event.

On the other hand, when pain is your constant companion, it is necessary to control it whenever possible for the sake of your sanity. Some lucky sufferers are able to do this with chemicals, but I am not. My only tool for controlling pain is my behavior. If the way I sit hurts my back, I change chairs, or stand up, or lay down. If the clothes I wear irritate my skin, I change them. If typing hurts my fingers, I stop. If standing hurts my hips and feet and knees, I find some place to sit down. This means I have to pay attention to what my body can tolerate, and react as soon as I can to pains that seem like they might grow. If you're walking down the street, and you stub your toe, it will probably hurt a lot, and you'll jump around holding your foot and make faces and curse. But then the pain will subside and you'll keep walking, and five hours later you won't even remember that you stubbed your toe at all.

If I walk down the street, with every step I take my pain increases just a little bit. By the time it gets to hurt even half as much as your stubbed toe did, I know I better quit, because if I don't it will have consequences for the rest of the day. My pain doesn't go away. I have to pay attention to it, manage it, even when it doesn't hurt as bad as its possible to hurt, because if I don't it will make me pay attention to it. Because pain is capable of making you a slave, drooling and whimpering, incapable of rational thought or memory.