Friday, March 20, 2015

The Truth of Bibi's Lie


Every time one thinks that the rabbit hole of U.S.-Israel relations has reached its nadir, something comes along to dig it even deeper. This past week’s election in Israel is the latest ‘something.’ In the weeks leading up to the elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu evidently feared that his mandate for a fourth term was in trouble, and he resorted to extraordinary expedients. First, he flew to the United States to give an impassioned speech to a cheering U.S Congress in the attempt to torpedo in advance the Obama Administration’s current attempts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, and to raise the specter of a new war. Still not satisfied, and fearing the desertion of his right-wing supporters, Bibi began to make desperate fear-mongering statements about the Palestinian threat: on the day before the election, he said openly what he had hinted at before, that there would never be a Palestinian state so long as he remained in office. Then he raised the fear level even higher, insisting that Israeli Arabs (who are citizens of Israel) were coming out to “vote in droves,” and indeed being bused to the polls by left-wing organizations intent on destroying the Israeli state.
            Each of these statements elicited a storm of criticism, both from President Obama’s White House, and from many European leaders, several of whom indicated that if Israel under Netanyahu was foreclosing the possibility of a Palestinian state—the core of U.S. policy for resolving the “conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians for decades—then the United States (and Europe) might have to rethink their policy of defending Israel, especially with vetoes in the United Nations. Nonetheless, Bibi plunged gaily onward, and when the election results were counted on Wednesday, he emerged triumphant once again. His fear-mongering and war posturing had apparently worked just as planned. The Israeli people, or enough of them to give him the victory, responded to the ‘security crisis’ he had evoked, and backed to the hilt both his racist remarks about Palestinian voters and his open repudiation of any idea of Palestinian statehood.
            But of course, that wasn’t the end of it. For Bibi Netanyahu is nothing if not a pandering, pusillanimous, prevaricating politician. Reading the alarm in both Israeli and foreign councils about what his remarks predicted, he knew he had to “walk back” what he had said so openly. And the walking back began almost as soon as he made his victory statements. He wasn’t going back on his commitment to Palestinian statehood, he insisted. He had merely said that conditions for that statehood, at present, were “not achievable.” As he said to ABC News, “I was talking about what is achievable and what is not achievable. We have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace.” Ah yes. Bibi wasn’t saying anything new (which he was, and only a craven press would let him get away with such open, outrageous lying): he was just re-emphasizing what he, and Israeli politicians, have always said: we need a partner for peace. We need someone we can rely on to uphold a peace agreement. And that someone would, naturally, be some brave quisling willing to ‘recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.’
            Ali Abunimah in his most recent book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, has some crucial things to say about this last idea: Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. This is because, Abunimah points out, this alleged “right” is really an insistence that Palestinians must not only give up their right to self-determination (a right that they, as the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, have greater claim to than the Israelis who are not indigenous, but rather immigrants from Europe, and indeed, colonizers of the land once belonging exclusively to Palestinians), but also their right to continue as a people at all. Here is how Abunimah somewhat ironically puts it:
            “Palestinian parents are trampling all over Israel’s right to maintain a Jewish majority by having children,” and their babies, by virtue of not being born to Jewish parents, are violating Israel’s right merely by living and breathing. Israelis themselves see the births of non-Jewish babies—whether to Palestinian citizens of the state or in the occupied territories—as an assault on their rights and on the very existence of Israel. The routine use by politicians and media of the term “demographic threat” to describe these babies attests to this phenomenon (p. 23).
So if the Palestinians, to have any chance of a ‘peace process’ leading to a state, are to give up their right to continue (reproduce) as a people, then who would inhabit such a state? If they are to agree to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, which, according to writer Joseph Massad, translates into Israel’s right “to colonize Palestinian land, occupy it, and discriminate against the non-Jewish Palestinian people,” then what kind of state, what kind of self-determination can that possibly lead to? The answer, of course, is: none at all. And that is precisely what Israel’s real policy has been for years, and what Bibi Netanyahu, in his desperation before last week’s election, actually let slip from the shadows.
            This position—official Israel’s longstanding and usually covertly-expressed opposition to ever granting the Palestinians a state of their own—has been analyzed and understood for years by most informed commentators on the so-called ‘peace process’ that U.S. negotiators have long promoted. I wrote about this recently in a blog called ‘Fake Process, Fake Peace’ (July 29, 2013), reviewing Prof. Rashid Khalidi’s brilliant analysis of the “peace brokering” done by several American administrations in his book, Brokers of Deceit. Some of what that blog included was the fact that, even in the most-heralded ‘success’ in the American effort, that of the 1978 Camp David Accords, the chief aim of Israeli leaders has always been to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state. In fact, even acknowledging that there is a Palestinian people was written out of the Camp David agreements; for in a January 22, 1978 side letter to Menachem Begin five days after the Accords were signed, President Carter agreed that,
            wherever the expressions “Palestinians” or “Palestinian people” occurred in the text, they “are being and will be construed and understood by you as ‘Palestinian Arabs.’” This was a term of art among those Israelis who denied that the Palestinians were a people. (6)

The seriousness of this denial was reinforced in a 1982 CIA memo (when Reagan was president) cited by Khalidi, which again refers to Prime Minister Menachem Begin:
“Begin asserts that the C[amp] D[avid] A[ccords] rule out the emergence of a Palestinian state. In Begin’s view, the agreements ‘guarantee that under no condition’ can a Palestinian state be created. In practice Begin effectively rules out any exercise of Palestinian self-determination except one that continues Israel’s preeminent position in the West Bank.” (19)

Most importantly, Khalidi made clear that this was the position of not only Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but “the enduring position of every Israeli government since.” So while there has been an almost endless procession of American “negotiators” diligently striving to forge a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine resulting in a secure state for each, this has all been a ruse—a way to drag out so-called peace talks endlessly, endlessly giving Palestinians and the world the illusion that a Palestinian state was right around the corner (as soon as knotty little problems like “facts on the ground” could be ironed out, or a “real partner for peace” somehow found).
            Now it can be seen how Bibi Netanyahu fits perfectly into this long and sordid sleight-of-hand. His real policy—which his fear of defeat forced him to let slip on the eve of the election—has always been the received standard policy of all Israeli politicians and the Israeli people in general. There can never be a Palestinian state, period. To the Zionist project, an independent Palestinian state sitting right next to Israel would constitute an ‘existential threat.’ The fact of Palestinians themselves, whether or not they inhabit a state, is considered an ‘existential’ threat—because ‘these people,’ these Arabs in ‘droves,’ keep having these babies which ‘violate Israel’s right to exist merely by living and breathing.’ Somehow, and this is what successive Israeli governments keep trying to buy time for with their lip-service to the ‘peace process,’ Palestinians must be forced to understand that their ‘right to exist’ does not rise to the same exalted level as the Jewish state’s ‘right to exist.’ Indeed, it does not rise to any level at all. It is, so long as the United States of America keeps supporting the rigged game called the ‘peace process,’ literally ‘nonexistent.’
            If all this were not clear before the past week’s Bibi Show, it certainly should be blindingly, revoltingly clear now.
Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Future Canceled


Not long ago (Jan. 15, 2015) I wrote a blog I called ‘Climate Depression.’ In that piece, I tried to express the truth as I understood it from the writings of Guy McPherson—i.e. that we are already, because of the CO2 our industrial civilization has put in the atmosphere, on a path to the extinction of most life we know and value on this planet. Together with what other scientists have been telling us about the accelerating extinction of species, the expanding poisoning of the soil and the oceans, the destruction of rain forests, and other insults to the web of life—the prospects for the future of life on Earth (the only planet we know of with life at all) seem grim indeed. It is for this reason that Joanna Macy in her recent book World as Lover, World as Self (Parallax Press: 2007), makes this statement:

The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time (p 151).

What Macy is saying is that not just her, not just me, not just scientists who measure it on their instruments, not just a few aware people on this planet, but EVERYONE is feeling the same uncertainty, anger, fear, and grief. We are all assaulted by the grim question—will there even be a future?—at every turn. We see the increasing severity of storms (including winter storms, which are only a more subtle form of the same crisis), the steadily increasing global temperatures (2014 was the warmest year, globally, on record), the steady melting of the Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheets and the snows and glaciers in the Andes, the Sierras, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the alarming evidence of methane seeps that could accelerate the whole warming process beyond even our worst fears. We see it, we see reports of it, and we tremble. We grieve. We mourn the loss of a livable planet for our children, our grandchildren, and all those who are scheduled to follow us but who, if the dire predictions prove true, may not follow at all.
            Unlike others, however, Joanna Macy does not stop there. She does not go along with the dominant paradigm which says, ‘just don’t think about it, don’t dwell on it, don’t bring everyone down by giving voice to your fear and your despair and your grief.’ No. What Macy says and promotes in her writings and her workshops is precisely the opposite: do give voice to your grief. Do not be ashamed of feeling what you do, for it is natural, adaptive and even healing to do so. Here is how she puts it:

When we mourn the destruction of our biosphere, it is categorically distinct from grief at the prospect of our own personal death.
            Planetary anguish lifts us onto another systemic level where we open to collective experience. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t apologize if you cry for the burning of the Amazon or the Appalachian mountains stripped open for coal. The sorrow, grief, and rage you feel is a measure of your humanity and your evolutionary maturity. As your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time. And it is an adaptive response (152).

Macy goes on to say that expressing our grief for the planet and for all the beings that our insane behavior of the past 300 years has put at risk of extinction is precisely what we need to be doing at this time. More of us. All of us. This is because the crisis of mass extinction

derives from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self. It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things. It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, corporations, nation-states, or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings. (152).

            If this—that the notion of the separate self is a delusion; that the self is actually more like some interactive process whose boundaries can hardly be named—sounds like something a Buddhist or a spiritual leader (like Pope Francis) would say, that is because it is. Joanna Macy is indeed a practitioner of Buddhism and her take on the crisis of our time is informed by her practice. But it is not just that. She also uses the systems theory of Gregory Bateson to shore up what might be dismissed as spiritual or religious or New Age mumbo jumbo. And what she uses Bateson to confirm is his idea (and many neuroscientists are now reaching similar conclusions) that the conventional notion of the “self” or “consciousness” cannot be reduced, as it normally is, to the “isolated subjectivity of the individual or located within the confines of the skin.” Rather, Bateson says that

“the total self-corrective unit that processes information is a system whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or what is popularly called ‘self’ or ‘consciousness’”….and…The self as ordinarily understood is only a small part of a much larger trial-and-error system which does the thinking, acting, and deciding.” (153)

For Macy, of course, this notion of a self-corrective feedback system involving self and other approximately coincides with her main point about the Buddha’s teaching, i.e., that self and world are not separate, are not individual entities where one or the other is primary; but rather, self and world arise together, or co-dependently (the doctrine is called paticca samuppada: dependent co-arising). They are inextricably intertwined and cannot be separated. Self acts on other just as other acts on self. Mind acts on matter just as matter acts on mind. Neither can exist without the other, nor is one the primary cause of the other (recent news about how the Big Bang may not really be the origin of it all, for there may be no origin, period, tends to fit with these ideas). Once this wisdom is felt or absorbed or seen into, one can no longer contemplate or even countenance doing damage to any other being or entity in the “outside” world, for there is no outside world. You grieve when you see a mountaintop being removed as much as you do when you observe birds and bees being poisoned by pesticides or helpless children being worked to death in gold mines or polar bears being starved because they can no longer hunt from the sea ice necessary to their being. You grieve because you know via your senses and every other mode of perception that you and they and all the beings of the past and those to come are ineluctably connected; are one web of life in which every part, no matter how small or humble, is necessary and critical to every other part and ultimately to the whole.
            Hence, for Joanna Macy, grieving for what we see and hear is happening to that web of life is not something to avoid, or deny; it is something to embrace, for it is only through facing it, through “being present to and owning our own pain” that we can begin to comprehend how much all our “selves” are intertwined and at risk with all others and, therefore, begin to find ways to change the way the world, in its ‘normal’ operating procedure, does them violence. Whether it will be in time to prevent the global catastrophe that appears to be bearing down upon us is not the point. Or not the only point. The point is to be alive to what is happening, to break open, and from that feeling of being part of that “great net from which one cannot fall,” to derive the courage to stand up to the deadly forces now in charge. 
            This is the healing message that Joanna Macy voices for us. And it is a courageous and healing message that, in the present state of things—with the ever-more-ignorant Sen. James Inhofe throwing snowballs in the Senate chamber to ‘prove’ that global warming is a hoax—is more necessary than ever. Take a look at her book. Give it to those who are young enough to get aroused. And take heart that there are indeed masses of people all around the globe who feel as you do and will, if we are very lucky, wake up before it’s too late and take the selfless (which is just another word for ‘heroic’) actions that are so necessary.
            In this regard, I would also recommend the most recent work of renowned Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo (his Stanford Prison Experiment has become the gold standard for investigating what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”), who has embarked on a new path—not investigating what makes ordinary people evil, but rather what it is that makes ordinary people heroic. Though it is not a simple idea or a simple effort, Zimbardo has stated its basic premise quite simply, and it accords with what has been outlined above:

Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_makes_a_hero/

That’s it precisely, and is precisely what is needed now to counter the dominant delusion of selfishness, of ‘looking out for number one’ regardless of the consequences to others be they animal, vegetable or mineral. One can only hope that Zimbardo and his colleagues are successful in promoting this paradigm shift among the young. For it is the young, after all, who are going to have the bear the real burden of the failure of the rest of us—our failure to realize what we truly are, our collective failure to act swiftly and courageously enough to rescue what’s left of the only home we have.


Lawrence DiStasi

            

Friday, February 6, 2015

Ukraine: The West's 'Proxy War' with Russia


The drumbeat for war coming to us about Ukraine is not good. Major U.S. figures, including John Kerry, Secretary of State, are now calling for the Obama administration to not only support the alleged Kiev government economically, but now militarily as well. In a Democracy Now piece aired on Feb. 4 (reprinted on ReaderSupportedNews.com), Emeritus Professor of Russian History Stephen Cohen affirmed what former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev said recently:

Gorbachev had it right. We’re in a new Cold War with Russia. The epicenter of the new Cold War is not in Berlin, like the last one, but it’s right on Russia’s borders, so it’s much more dangerous. You and I have talked about this since [last] February, I think. What I foresaw in February has played out, I regret to say: A political dispute in Ukraine became a Ukrainian civil war. Russia backed one side; the United States and NATO, the other. So it’s not only a new Cold War, it’s a proxy war. We’re arming Kiev. Russians are arming the eastern fighters. And I think, though I don’t want to spoil anybody’s day—I said to you in February this had the potential to become a new Cuban missile-style confrontation with the risk of war.

A new cold war with Russia. A proxy war, reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis when the two nuclear powers came to within a hair of igniting a nuclear conflagration that could’ve destroyed half the world. If anyone doubts that, consider the facts about that “proxy war” that Oliver Stone’s recent book and documentary, The Untold History of the United States, reveals. Unknown to the United States, the Soviets had hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons already up and operating in Cuba. Most generals and U.S. officials wanted to launch quick and devastating strikes against Cuba, but Pres. Kennedy opted for a less drastic measure—imposing a naval blockade to prevent ships from delivering what it thought weren’t there yet, the nuclear-armed missiles. But the tactical nukes on Cuba, along with troops to launch them, were ready to go; so were nuclear-armed Soviet submarines in the Atlantic. On October 27, 1962, American ships were dropping depth charges on these submarines, unaware they were nuclear, and nearly disabled one, K-19. Russian sailors were gasping for lack of oxygen. The captain in charge, Savitsky, decided that the war had already begun and ordered that his nuclear missiles be launched. Some higher power intervened, however, and the fleet commander, Vasili Arkhipov, refused to approve the order, preventing the launch. Within days, Soviet premier Khrushchev had contacted President Kennedy and opened phone negotiations, whereupon the two decided that nuclear war was untenable, and resolved the crisis with an agreement that the Soviets would remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for the Americans removing theirs from Turkey (as close to Russia as Cuba is to the U.S.). The crisis did end, though, in fact, Kennedy never followed through on his promise, and subsequent presidents refused to honor it. So it was really the Russians who saved humanity.
            Now we have, in the United States, what Stephen Cohen calls “the war party” agitating to take on the Russians again. One of these war mongers, Strobe Talbott (former Deputy Secretary of State, now president of the Brookings Institute, and, according to Cohen, the architect of the American policy that led to this crisis. He was “the Russia hand,” as he called his memoir, under President Clinton, when the expansion of NATO toward Russia began.) brought out a report that said this:

In the context of what is happening in Ukraine today, the right way to characterize it is an act of war on the part of the Russian Federation. This means that there is going on in Ukraine today a literal invasion, not by—it’s not a proxy war. It’s a literal invasion by the Russian armed forces. It’s a literal occupation of large parts, well beyond Crimea, of eastern Ukraine. And it is a virtual annexation of a lot of territory other than just the Crimea. And in that respect, this is a major threat to the peace of Europe, to the peace of Eurasia, and therefore a threat to the interests of the United States and, I would say, a threat to the chances of a peaceful 21st century.

Talbott, of course, was seconded by dozens of other ‘war party’ members (Sen. John McCain, as usual, indicating that he’s never heard of a war or invasion he didn’t like), and members of the state department’s war wing who also have been calling for more direct arms for the Kiev government. Cohen urges Americans to stop and think what this means. Basically, he says, they are claiming that Russia has annexed eastern Ukraine, which is “fundamentally untrue.” And supports this by quoting the State Department when asked if it could confirm that Russia has annexed eastern Ukraine? To which it responded, "No, we cannot." And yet, not ever acknowledging that it was the Kiev side who broke the September truce and began shelling Donetsk and Luhansk, the war party is still calling for war with Russia.
            You would think that so-called Russia experts would know a few things about the vast country called Russia. You would think they would know how sensitive every Russian must be about invasions of their nation by western powers—once in 1812 when Napoleon led his armies all the way to Moscow, destroying everything in his path including the capitol itself, only to be defeated by the Russian Cossacks who decimated his army as it retreated from the Russian winter; and again in 1942 when Nazi Germany’s armed divisions attacked on the Russian front, devastating cities and countryside, and killing millions of Russians who nevertheless fought back with inferior weapons and prevailed by tearing the guts out of that invading German army, and, contrary to the myth that America defeated the Nazis, counterattacked and brought Germany to its knees. (And isn’t it interesting that the two European leaders now on a diplomatic mission to Russia are German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande). You would think they, of all people, would know that any encroachment on Russian territory is seen by all Russians as a direct threat to their survival (and they have recent experience to substantiate this)—which is why Russia has always viewed the expansion of NATO as a threat to their existence. Which is also why keeping Ukraine in their orbit has always been so critical. It is the border country, the gateway to Russia itself, the gateway through which, in 1942, the Nazis drove their war machine, helped by the western Ukrainian collaborators whose descendant neo-Nazis formed much of the muscle for the coup that overthrew the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych (after, remember, the West’s agreement to allow Yanukovych to remain until elections in the Spring).
            Prof. Cohen acknowledges this point—that what has been driving Putin and Russia in helping the eastern Ukrainians is not their alleged intention to “revive the Soviet empire” but their zeal to “stop NATO encroachment.” Many other knowledgeable observers like Robert Parry and Prof. John Mearsheimer have made this same point. But the war party seems determined to continue and expand this encroachment, even up to and including igniting a hot war with Russia if necessary. It is the kind of insanity most of us had hoped was a thing of the past—the threat of nuclear Armageddon. But now it seems it’s only been hiding out and waiting for its opportunity. Already, we are informed that American General Ben Hodges, commanding general of American forces in Europe, has brought American troops to help train Kiev’s National Guard. He has also led U.S. troops to

Latvia for a military exercise, dubbed Atlantic Resolve, to train soldiers from Latvia, other Baltic countries and Poland. In addition, the U.S. brought more than 50 units of military equipment, including 17 armored vehicles, Stryker, that will stay in Europe.

Yes. These arms will stay in Europe indefinitely. For what? From all outward appearances,  the American military is making preparations for war with Russia. Prof. Cohen acknowledges this with no little fear and trepidation:

The American war party is on the march. You can see how close we are to, literally, a military confrontation with Russia. And there is not one word of establishment, mainstream opposition in this country.

And one of the ways war parties do this is to build up propaganda about the putative enemy. In the same way that we heard that Saddam Hussein was “the new Hitler,” Russian president Putin has become the Nazi madman’s most recent reincarnation. This is odd, because only a few months ago, he was the visionary leader who prevented President Obama from yielding to the war hawks’ demands to bomb Syria and President Assad for having used chemical weapons (another false charge, it now seems.) Putin resolved the crisis by arranging for Assad to agree to get rid of all his chemical weapons, thus eliminating the “red line” that Obama had promised could not be crossed. And a few years back, President G.W. Bush was boasting of his emotional and somewhat mystical rapport with the Russian leader, when he looked him in the eye and found a comrade. But now Putin is the new Hitler to be destroyed. And the corollary is that Russia must be brought to its knees once again—perhaps because it has managed to make itself indispensable, via its oil and gas reserves, to the Europe America wants dependent on itself. Hence Saudi Arabia’s increased production to bring down oil prices and bankrupt the Russian economy; hence the sanctions that have forced the Russian ruble into free fall. But will Putin and Russia yield to this kind of threat? It is not at all clear, and what history shows us is that Russia is most dangerous, and most resourceful, when it is attacked and fighting against long odds. For Cohen, this is unsettling indeed. Historians, he says, will look back,

—assuming there are historians to look back, because both sides are now mobilizing their nuclear weapons, as well. Russia has already said that if it is faced with overwhelming force on its borders, it will use tactical nuclear weapons. They’re nuclear small, but they’re nuclear weapons. When is the last time you heard a great power say that? We say—Obama, our president, says, "We’re modernizing our nuclear weapons." What does that mean? We’re redeploying them, pointing them even more at Russia. Why is this happening in the United States? I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of factors mixed in, a kind of ideological hangover from the old Cold War. But the demonization of Putin has become so extreme in this country, I do not recall—and I entered this field back in the '60s—the United States ever demonizing a Soviet communist leader the way our leaders do…

Somber words. Two major powers readying their nuclear arsenals for confrontation. Can this be happening again? But considering the lack of opposition in the U.S. at this time, considering the zealotry and insanity of the so-called “war party,” and the history of similar war partiers during the Cuban missile crisis, we shouldn’t dismiss Cohen’s words out of hand. We should do everything we can to warn, educate, and protest about what is shaping up to be yet another threat from the crazies in our world who, for whatever reason, seem to believe that violence, staggering violence against ordinary people, is the only way to preserve and expand their credibility, their manhood, and whatever else they think they have.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, January 23, 2015

SOTU Hoorahs for the Troops


Even for those of you who didn’t watch the State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, it will probably come as no surprise that the biggest, loudest, stompingest applause lines were those braying for our “heroes” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The assembled Congressional pooh bahs couldn’t cheer hard enough or long enough to demonstrate their appreciation, and of course, their conspicuous patriotism in supporting those who defend the ‘homeland.’ To cap it off, the Republican response was delivered by a plastic female clone named Senator Joni Ernst, who wasted no time informing us that besides wearing plastic bread bags on her shoes (just a poor Iowa girl like us), she had served for twenty-three years in the Iowa National Guard, with time in Iraq. Ergo, a woman and a super patriot to boot.
            Listening to all this, one would think that these hyper-nationalists would be falling all over themselves to demonstrate that not a single fighting hero would ever be abandoned by those sending them into danger. But one would be wrong. Just consider some of the cases found in NY Times reporter James Risen’s latest book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2014). What Risen reveals leads once again to astonishment and nausea at how truly scandalous was the conduct of that war from phony start to phony finish. The main point Risen makes is that the whole thing, including all the ancillary boondoggles connected with the overall ‘war on terror,’ was about making money—huge bundles of it, including pallets of hundred-dollar bills amounting to billions shipped by the New York Federal Reserve to Iraq on huge transport planes to disappear down the corporate gold mine that was Iraq. Here is how Risen sums up this initial caper to allegedly shore up the nation that ‘shock and awe’ had destroyed:

            Today, at least $11.7 billion of the approximately $20 billion the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] ordered sent to Iraq from New York is either unaccounted for or has simply disappeared (p. 19).

            But though this colossal waste of cash is breathtaking (just think how many schools it could supply, how many hungry kids it could feed), at least it didn’t directly affect the safety of the troops fighting the war. Other boondoggles were not as kind. Consider the fact, well known for years now, that Vice President Cheney’s company, Halliburton, and its then subsidiary, KBR, were given essentially no-bid contracts to supply the military with all the services that, when I was in the army, were done by we soldiers ourselves. A regular part of the service was KP, or kitchen duty, which everyone dreaded. So were laundry units and special units performing all the services and supply functions that a huge army needs to function. Not any more. In today’s privatized military, regular soldiers don’t do KP or any other kind of duty, including building army bases; nor does anyone else in the military. It’s all contracted out to private companies. And why? Risen provides the answer in one sentence: “KBR was the company that allowed America to go to war without a draft…It was the company that made it possible to prosecute wars of choice” (p. 143). Its personnel, over 50,000 of them, actually outnumbered the British Army in Iraq. Having gotten the government contract to provide military services by making a suspiciously low bid to beat out Raytheon and Dyncorp, KBR has since billed the U.S. government for upwards of $39 billion, refusing to even provide documentation for its billing. Risen gives them the same label given to the big banks, too big to fail; and why can’t they fail? partly because they provided after-retirement jobs to all those generals who were supposed to be monitoring their work. It was this—KBR’s virtual untouchability, even concerning the shoddy and often unsubstantiated work it provided—that led to real harm to American soldiers.
            Risen tells us the story of what happened at Joint Base Balad near Baghdad, one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, staffed by about 36,000 troops and contractors. Among its other duties, KBR operated the open burn pit at Balad, burning as much as 250 tons of waste a day through 2009. The trouble was, KBR didn’t separate its waste; rather, it simply burned everything, “from plastic bottles and food trash to computers, ammunition, oil, paint, medical waste, solvents, dead animals, batteries, appliances, and reportedly even amputated human body parts” (145). Balad was only one of several hundred such pits KBR operated throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, their daily black smoke spewing so much toxic particulate matter throughout the war zone that living under the poison brew became part of daily life for American troops. The Centers for Disease Control eventually tried to survey the possible damage, giving epidemiologist Steve Coughlin the job. By 2012, Coughlin had found a clear correlation between veterans exposed to the burn pits and those who had been or were being treated for asthma or bronchitis. The evidence seemed to show that KBR’s burn pits had, in fact, damaged the lungs of American soldiers. Several other studies found evidence to support this conclusion. War lung injury began to join PTSD and brain injury as one of the common medical problems of the modern military, so much so that beginning in 2008, hundreds of veterans brought lawsuits against KBR, “seeking damages for their exposure to the burn pits in Iraq” (147).
            The problem was, the VA (Veterans’ Administration) and of course KBR had powerful incentives not to find any linkage between burn pits and lung damage: if the VA found a linkage, then it would have to pay benefits to the vets who suffered from it. So the VA, according to Coughlin, suppressed the evidence he had compiled. When he called in the inspector general, his supervisors at the VA became more intransigent, at one point citing him for insubordination. Eventually, he succumbed to the stress, and resigned from the VA. Even more pointedly, KBR was fighting its liability on the legal front. In February 2013, a Maryland judge dismissed the veterans’ joint lawsuit against KBR because, he ruled, KBR was working on behalf of the U.S. government, and so “could not be held liable for the effects of its war-zone operations” (150). Though Coughlin eventually testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight, asserting that the VA had suppressed his evidence and manipulated data, at the time of Risen’s writing, Congress had done nothing; not even when one veteran, Timothy Lowery, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease after telling his son that he believed he had been poisoned by working in Iraq.
            Nor were burn pits the only liability attributed to KBR. In early 2008, Ryan Maseth was taking a shower in his army quarters in Baghdad. What was routine became a tragedy: Maseth was electrocuted and died while showering. Army officials at first suggested to his mother, Cheryl Harris of Pittsburgh, that it was her son’s fault: they said he had taken an appliance into the shower with him. A bit later they said her son’s death was caused by loose electrical wiring hanging down near the shower. Cheryl Harris didn’t buy either story, and eventually found that KBR, who had built the facility (hiring the cheapest workers it could get) where her son had died, had failed to update and ground the electrical wiring there. The death was then attributed by officials in Iraq to negligent homicide. But when this report got to Washington DC, the army’s Criminal Investigations Command reversed the finding, and informed Mrs. Harris that the death of her son had been “accidental.” Cheryl Harris continued to fight for justice in her son’s death, but KBR has refused to settle, at last report petitioning for its case to be settled by the Supreme Court. What this has revealed to Harris is that KBR is virtually untouchable:

            “After Ryan died…I was told by a military person [name withheld] that ‘KBR runs Iraq.’ Every ounce of my being didn’t want to believe that statement was true. Today, the CID confirmed that statement and I have an in-depth understanding of how KBR does run Iraq, and in a sense controls the US Army CID [U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command]” (p. 152).

            This and other instances cited by James Risen (himself under subppoena by the Obama Administration for refusing to reveal his sources in a CIA case) indicates the real hypocrisy at play on the night of the President’s State of the Union. Civilian officials fall all over each other in their race to demonstrate their zeal to support the troops, to celebrate their bravery and heroism, to take photo ops in their company. But when it comes time to actually pay for the damage they initiated, to hold to account the insider corporations they have indemnified from any responsibility (large contributions from such corporations seem to trump responsibility), they are the first to seek the exits. And the poor vets who thought their sacrifices were appreciated find out, once again, that the martial music may blare when the public spotlight shines, but in the dark night of their suffering, they are left silent, betrayed, and alone.

Lawrence DiStasi