May 26, 2015

A Meaningful Memorial Day to Remember.... But, What are We to Think of War?

I've been reading stuff on World War 1 and listening to Dan Carlin's podcast, Blueprint for Armageddon, as an unintended preparation for Memorial Day. What a wasteful, violent, ignorant, primitive species we are if you are to look at the way we slaughter each other. The history of the Great War (WW1, until... the 2nd WW came to eclipse it) is fascinating in many respects, and I do recommend learning about it. A good book on the subject is G.J. Meyer's  World Undone. Another great read is Peter Hart's The Great War. Both authors include testimonies and stories with lots of details about specific battles from the point of human experience. 

It's not enough to say, for example, that in the battle or Passchendaele (Belgium, WW1) there were 700,000+ casualties. It must be explained many of the generals didn't care for casualties as long as war of attrition was decided in their favor. They didn't even know the conditions of the battlefield. The wholesale massacres ordered by the leaders on all sides, the bravery of common soldiers (but also their insanity to fight in such a war), and how they died must be described in all its gruesomeness. Questions like, how many lives is an objective worth? Who is going to die for this and that?

War is a complicated affair, and it reveals lots of human traits--both cultural,  mental, and innate. Tragedies in their own right, created by leaders, circumstance, and people caught up in them. WW1 is also a time when warfare is changing for good and for ever. It's no longer man's physical might, face-to-face endurance test, and in relative smaller groups. The new technological advances have made machines (yes, including the "meat grinder" of the time, the machine gun) change everything. Unfortunately, the generals and war planners aren't ready for this. They still rely on tactics, wear old uniforms (many in bright colors, no helmets, with swords and bayonets), and many other obsolete ideas and practices.

Even the great masses of people on all sides of the conflict have a romantic view of combat, nationalism & patriotism, and war is something exciting for the boys to partake. The vast majority of accounts on all sides view the impending war as a romantic exercise. However, war now is becoming massive beyond any historical precedent. Never before humanity witnessed so vast armies clashing with the resulting carnage. The battle of Antietam--the bloodiest single worst case of casualties, of some 6,000 deaths and 20,000 injured in American history--is nothing compared to battles where  40, 50, 70 thousand soldiers would perish.

As the news media are filled with celebrations, memorials, parades, speeches, and all sorts of events around Memorial Day in the US, one thing is clear to me, that most of the wars are unnecessary and don't serve the interests of the vast majority of the people. I am not a pacifist, but neither a chicken hawk--the worst kind of bellicose. Sometimes it's necessary to fight to preserve a way of life, to stop aggression, save lives, advance civilization. But, it has to be a necessity not a choice; not the 1% chance Dick Cheney would take to send other people to die for stupid theories, and interests of the elites.

We see veterans today that have fought in ill-conceived wars, based on faulty judgment, if not outright lies. It's very difficult to say this, because how can you tell a veteran that they were simply used (abused) as a pawn in an unnecessary war, that they didn't fight to defend the homeland, or even defend freedom and export democracy?

Wars are very expensive too. It's not just the cost of buying, using, and replacing war machines, and troops. First, how do you place a monetary value on someone's life? Second, the costs of the injured (physically and mentally) last decades. The burden of all these costs, especially lives lost, are disproportionally borne by the lower classes. I also think that a militarized society--even a democratic one like ours--is greatly influenced when it gears itself for war, or is in perpetual state of alert. (This topic deserves a discussion on its own)

In all the coverage I've seen on this Memorial Day and in the past, the emphasis has been on recognizing the service and sacrifice of those who have served or are serving in all the armed forces. This is fine. Yet, it would have been good to hear something along these lines:

  • While having the best armed forces, peace and diplomacy should be our default mode
  • An army of peace (humanitarian missions) is often much more effective than a war army
  • Foreign policy based on human rights
  • Lives matter. Don't sacrifice our troops.
  • Preserving and enhancing human dignity and humane treatment should be standard US policy
  • Let's continue to remember the dead and the war survivors, but let's make it about the living, and the good life; this would include fewer expressions (and monuments) glorifying war.

May 1, 2015

Intellectual Honesty and Our Defective Politics

As I'm writing this, May day celebrations and demonstrations are taking place in many countries, where millions of people are basically asking for a better life. Now, of course the definition of a better life is not agreed upon--especially when it involves very different cultures--but, yet, there are common desires, like to have a long, healthy life, economic opportunity that leads to meeting human needs, freedom from oppression, choice, etc. The good life is desirable.

When we disagree about something, at least we have to agree on what we're actually talking about. Agree on reality first, before we evaluate the arguments for and against. It's OK for people to have different values and priorities. For me, for example, leisure and individual liberty is more valuable and a higher priority than money and material possessions. Although, I do need money and possessions to have a good life. This is true for everyone, even if the threshold varies depending on time, place, and subjective conditions.

Paul Krugman writes in this New York Times editorial that intellectual integrity matters; acknowledging mistakes, and having an open mind. Wanting to know the truth, the facts, should be a priority, but it isn't--not in the political, not in the economic, and even in the personal universes. Indeed, people get comfortable with an idea, a situation, an image, and then resort to confirmation bias, which becomes an ordinary response that often isn't even noticed.

I normally don't republish long quoted articles, but this one by Krugman deserves a longer mention. Go to the NYT page to read in its entirety.

The 2016 campaign should be almost entirely about issues. The parties are far apart on everything from the environment to fiscal policy to health care, and history tells us that what politicians say during a campaign is a good guide to how they will govern.

Nonetheless, many in the news media will try to make the campaign about personalities and character instead. And character isn’t totally irrelevant. The next president will surely encounter issues that aren’t currently on anyone’s agenda, so it matters how he or she is likely to react. But the character trait that will matter most isn’t one the press likes to focus on. In fact, it’s actively discouraged.

You see, you shouldn’t care whether a candidate is someone you’d like to have a beer with. Nor should you care about politicians’ sex lives, or even their spending habits unless they involve clear corruption. No, what you should really look for, in a world that keeps throwing nasty surprises at us, is intellectual integrity: the willingness to face facts even if they’re at odds with one’s preconceptions, the willingness to admit mistakes and change course.
And that’s a virtue in very short supply.
Times like these call for a combination of open-mindedness — willingness to entertain different ideas — and determination to do the best you can. As Franklin Roosevelt put it in a celebrated speech, “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
What we see instead in many public figures is, however, the behavior George Orwell described in one of his essays: “Believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.” ......

Just to be clear, I’m not calling for an end to ideology in politics, because that’s impossible. Everyone has an ideology, a view about how the world does and should work. Indeed, the most reckless and dangerous ideologues are often those who imagine themselves ideology-free ....

The press, I’m sorry to say, tends to punish open-mindedness, because gotcha journalism is easier and safer than policy analysis. Hillary Clinton supported trade agreements in the 1990s, but now she’s critical. It’s a flip-flop! Or, possibly, a case of learning from experience, which is something we should praise, not deride.

So what’s the state of intellectual integrity at this point in the election cycle? Pretty bad, at least on the Republican side of the field. Jeb Bush, for example, has declared that “I’m my own man” on foreign policy, but the list of advisers circulated by his aides included the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, who predicted that Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, and shows no signs of having learned from the blood bath that actually took place.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell no important Republican figure has admitted that none of the terrible consequences that were supposed to follow health reform — mass cancellation of existing policies, soaring premiums, job destruction — has actually happened.

The point is that we’re not just talking about being wrong on specific policy questions. We’re talking about never admitting error, and never revising one’s views. Never being able to say that you were wrong is a serious character flaw even if the consequences of that refusal to admit error fall only on a few people. But moral cowardice should be outright disqualifying in anyone seeking high office.

Think about it. Suppose, as is all too possible, that the next president ends up confronting some kind of crisis — economic, environmental, foreign — undreamed of in his or her current political philosophy. We really, really don’t want the job of responding to that crisis dictated by someone who still can’t bring himself to admit that invading Iraq was a disaster but health reform wasn’t.

I still think this election should turn almost entirely on the issues. But if we must talk about character, let’s talk about what matters, namely intellectual integrity.