Friday, June 25, 2010

On the McChrystal flap:

A couple of points force their way to my consciousness.

One: McChrystal's early judgment of Obama. He indicated that he felt the President was weak and intimidated in the presence of so many senior officers at an early meeting. This obviously laid the foundation for his later contempt of Presidential authority. I am inevitably reminded of Nikita Khrushchev's similar dismissal of Kennedy as weak and easily dominated. Both assessments were wrong and both men suffered for misjudging their opponent. [This actually points up a serious problem in the American military which I was pleased to see reflected in a recent L A Times editorial. More on this below.]

Lest any right wing extremist ever hear of this [yeah, that’s likely], let me point out that I am making a comparison only between the dangers of collecting bad intelligence data and underestimating your enemy, not saying anything about McChrystal's political inclinations. I find it sad that our nation is so polarized that I have to state that obvious fact.

Two: McChrystal's excellence as a military commander is surpassed only by his incompetence in dealing with the press and public, not to mention his superiors. Reminds me of Patton. One of the greatest generals of the war, feared more than any other allied commander by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) , Patton nevertheless managed to get himself fired more than once due to his in ability to accept his subordinate status and to make politically wise decisions. No, I don't think McChrystal's abilities rise to Patton's, but he is fine general in strictly tactical terms.

In summation, everyone needs to recall that McChrystal's actions were in direct violation of military law. The Uniform code of Military Justice prescribes a court martial for what McChyrstal did. The president did the right thing in not pursuing this option, but he could have done so.

Now to the issue of greatest importance. Anyone who is watching the Religious Right and the growing extremism which is seducing the Republican Party knows that the United States Military has become more and more political. The times editorial pointed out that until after WW II, many serving officers declined to vote in national elections. They felt that they need to remain pure in their service to their country and that to vote for a President would pollute that purity by making them partisan. Now that’s honor.

Today the military academies are struggling to end the prejudice in favor of fundamental evangelical Christianity and the pressure placed on plebes to join that sect and the Republican Party. This is fundamentally in contradiction to the most essential concepts of honor and duty as understood by our military for all its history. Yes, there are political and politicized generals, ranging for the mutinous [justifiably mutinous] revolutionary officers who wanted to rise up against Congress [some things never change], to political incompetents appointed by senators during the Civil War to the self serving presidential ambitions of McArthur, but the record as a whole is absolutely clear. Serving military officers must not become involved in politics.

The Times editorial indicated that much of the fault lies in poor training in this essential concept. I am certain that this is correct, but more fundamental is the leadership, both civilian and military. Flag rank officers lead by example. A politically motivated and directed senior officer demonstrates that this attitude is not only acceptable, but normative. Still, I feel the civilian authority is most at fault here. And more than anyone else I blame President Clinton.

When the military began to openly show contempt and disrespect to him, he needed to call in America’s military leaders and, as service men are apt to say, chew him some ass. By not forcing this issue and demanding the respect that the office of President of the United States demands, especially of it military, he gave covert permission to act in this manner. The rot was already present, but he permitted it to stay and therefore spread.

Once or twice, I happened to be around when Dad chewed him some ass. I hated it. Being a nonconflict sort of kid I thought Dad was being horrible. In retrospect, I realize that the officer who doesn’t at least occasionally dress down his subordinates, when justified, of course, will have no respect. While the President is not an officer, he is more, much more. He is the head of State, the representative of the American people. Respect is not optional. Obedience is not a decision to be made. If we permit these basic functions of a citizen army to become a choice, American will become another banana republic with every colonel dreaming of the day when he will El Presidente.

Do I fear for the Republic? Not at all. In my 6 decades plus as an
American I have only truly feared for our survival twice. One during the Cuban missile crisis, when I feared nuclear war would reduce not only our nation, but humanity to rubble and during Georgie Porgy's second term when the Religious Right looked like they would become the American ayatollah's who would decide who was and was not permitted to run for public office. Even during that second event, I decided there was nothing for fear unless Bush was replaced by another agent of religious oppression. When the Terry Shaivo case exploded and the Republicans began scrambling to lie their way out of their earlier extremist positions, I knew I had underestimated my fellow Americans. We will tolerate a certain level of abuse of authority, and no more.

When Obama replaced Bush, it was clear that I had done what I usually condemn. I allowed a brief political movement to seem to me to be a serious change in the nature of American democracy. My error.

All the problems we face are real and serious. I do not belittle them, but I am confident that we will solve them and that our nation will continue to inspire the world. No nation lasts forever, but we are here for the immediate future. Immediate future in this case means for this century at least, and I’d confidently bet on the next couple of centuries as well.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A continuation of the May 24th 2010 entry and comment by Bobby [keywords economics and Plutocracy]:

"ambit"--nice word. I'll try to remember that. Actually, I am not so anti-wealth as I may have seemed. My objection is that the rich have taken control of the government and intend to use it to adjust society to insure that their wealth is protected. This is presented as a function of free enterprise when it is the opposite. Freedom to succeed necessitates the freedom to fail.

I do not begrudge Bill Gates his wealth. I do begrudge the concept of a new aristocracy which is entitled to wealth, not by ability, but by birth.

As far as your concern not with , "income inequality in our country, but the poverty line and the portion of society below it." I am in agreement with you. The ancient Greek conceptualization of an enforced poverty is going too far. As you probably know, it was considered an offense against the gods and your fellow citizens to become too wealthy. A citizen who attained an excess of wealth, as perceived by his peers, was expected to donate that excess to the city in the form of public buildings or the maintenance of one or more soldiers for its defense. To fail to do so was to be seen as an outcast who thought of himself as superior to his fellow Greeks.

I believe instead that society, through its tool of government, needs to insure that the rules are equally and fairly applied to all citizens. No one gets a free pass to wealth or power, not even via your successful parent. Of course, it is human to provide for your children, and, of course, this means that being born to privilege will always have its effect. But this is different from a system which is fine tuned to keeping wealth in the hands of the select few and therefore, inevitably, out of the hands of everyone else.

What we need, then, is to insure that no one, especially children, are forced to go to bed hungry, or to shiver in the cold, or to be denied medical care. We also need to provide an excellent, tax payer supported, education system that reaches at least to Bachelor's level. This is not to deny the existence of private colleges and universities, which will, naturally, be used by the wealthy to give their offspring a boost up in the world. I don't think everyone has a right to wealth, only to the basic minimums which give one the tools necessary to have a fair chance at building wealth.

I have heard the statements that the mere existence of great wealth is a form of social obscenity. This assumes that if someone lives in a state of excess while others live in deprivation, the discontinuity is intolerable. I do not agree. Back in the early 90’s, I recall an author who declared that the only way to live justly was for everyone in the world to accept poverty. In his conceptualization, America, Europe, and Japan would need to accept a sharply restricted diet and life style so that the wealth could be evenly distributed among the world’s people. He acknowledged that everyone in the world would be poor, but felt that this was justified since everyone would be equally poor. [Anyone recall his name or that of his book?]

His reasoning was flawed in several ways. First, he ignored human self interest. Love or despise this drive, it is real and asking people to deny it is to ask them to cease to be human and to become some other species. What species, I can’t imagine, as this is an evolutionary force. Not a natural species then, but something engineered.

Second, he ignored the equal, or perhaps more powerful, urge to provide for and advance the interests of your own children and relatives. Even in social insects, it has been proven that what appears as sacrifice for the good of the hive is really sacrifice for the genes of your relatives. Again, he dreams, as utopians do, of over riding human nature for the sake of his vision of the ideal, or at least the much improved social order.

In short, he imagines that everyone will work for the benefit of others. First Worlders, he thinks, will struggle and sacrifice their own health to feed strangers on the far side of the globe. Utopians often fall into this trap. The simple fact is that we while are a social species and do care about the suffering of strangers, we care much more about ourselves and our children.

Finally, he ignores the fact that in the world he proposed, everyone becomes a peasant. Who is to create the wealth he wants to distribute? We are hugely wealthy because we eat so well, live so comfortably, have so much leisure. Eliminate these and everyone will be equally poor, but it will be the abject poverty of the third World made universal.

To sum it all up- The ability to accumulate wealth and share it with your offspring is the great engine of human desire and effort. Even macaque monkeys have aristocracies of inherited privilege. Moreover, there is a kind of trickle down effect, far weaker than that which St. Ronald of Reagan imagined. When society creates new wealth, a just society allows all members to have a fair chance at exploiting this source. The benefits are not automatic, but must be protected by governmental regulation--effective and nondestructive regulation. We must not allow guilt or an interest in social justice to strangle this natural and invigorating motivation. But, at the other extreme, we must provide a minimum of security and a maximum of potential to everyone, so that this motivation is universally available and utilized for the benefit of all humanity