Archive for May, 2008

Forget to Remember

Monday, May 26th, 2008

If the American people were at war, we would be marking Memorial Day not with barbecues and trips to the seashore but with remembrance and reflection. The holiday was conceived after the Civil War to remember the dead of both sides of that bloody conflict. It was not intended to celebrate conquest or militarism but to bring to mind the terrible costs of these anachronistic concerns. It’s meant to be a somber holiday, and it would be if lives were being sacrificed every day in defense of the nation.

Lives are being sacrificed, certainly, but not on the scale of war, nor are the current engagements supported by a congressional declaration. Soldiers are shooting people and getting shot, but it’s not war, just killing. Many of the fighters know this, and this knowledge would certainly intrude on the rest of us if, at home on Memorial Day, we couldn’t comfortably direct our collective gaze away from bullets spent and blood shed a world away by people we don’t know.

Memorials notwithstanding, people forget, and, in the 140 years since the first official Decoration Day, as it was called then, Americans haven’t been able to go more than a few decades without mlitary conflict. It’s not that we crave blood, but, rather, that leaders of nations (including ours) crave glory. And so instead of war, our leaders wage a conflict just intense enough to prove that kids will fight and die for them. Vanity is served, and more, as deadly diversion holds our attention while predators rob us. Modern armed conflict unfolds like a game and it’s played as a game, with young men and women deployed as playing pieces and live ammo to determine who wins. It’s a game leaders can play for years on end, with or without the cooperation of the general public.

From the combat veteran’s standpoint, it’s a lot less risky to fight for your country than to fight for your leaders. A soldier can get killed either way, but survival’s more complicated when he returns from a war the people at home didn’t want or care about. The last few crops of veterans learned this lesson the hard way. The survivors of Vietnam came home to jeers (masking shame), while the survivors of the current engagement find utter indifference (hiding behind feigned gratitude). Veterans’ morale is not much improved by Memorial Day observances.

In an atmosphere of “low-level conflict” waged without public support, Memorial Day must be anything but an occasion for remembrance. We can only pretend to grieve for the sacrifices of dead soldiers, as we are compelled to forget the rationale for their sacrifice and celebrate without reflection. And so this is a festive holiday and most assuredly not a time to remember. This holiday is a memorial in name only, and our curious way of observing it exposes our shallow commitment to soldiers and nation.

Slumming with NPR

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

References to Sadr City on National Public Radio seldom fail to mention that it is a “Shia slum.” They don’t call it an impoverished neighborhood or its residents a disadvantaged minority. Rather, they employ a slur, as they did again today, and a particularly disparaging one at that.To call it a slum is to imply that the people who live there are inferior to those of us who don’t live in such places. In our country, we have low-rent districts to house the unemployed and underemployed. The housing tends to be run-down and poorly maintained and, when conditions in a neighborhood are bad enough, we call it a slum. Twenty-first century conventional wisdom holds that people who are down-and-out are responsible for their own misfortunes. Accordingly, we don’t grieve much for residents of our slums, many of whom escape in due course.

Sadr City is another thing altogether. The residents have been systematically relegated to squalid neighborhoods–typically without sanitation and without public facilities–because they belong to a religious sect that is linked in many Arab minds to Persian culture. Iraqis who belong to their branch of Islam, which tends to be stricter and less secular, are deemed inferior by Sunni Muslims, who consider themselves more modern, more enlightened, more Arabic worshippers.

Things were tough when it was the Sunni government of Saddam Hussein that kept the Shia masses confined within the invisible barriers of what was known then as Saddam City. Things are even worse now, as our heavily armed occupation forces literally wall the people in with concrete and barbed wire.

Why do the writers at NPR News insist on referring to this section of Baghdad as a slum? Are they trying to tell us something about the residents? Do they want us to believe that the people who live in Sadr City–and there are over two million of them–are unworthy in some way? That they’re so far inferior to us that we needn’t worry about them any more than we would about rats in a sewer? Does NPR remind us that their neighborhood is a slum so that we can kill them without remorse? If so, it’s not working.

Millions for Bridge Collapse, Zero for Levee Failure

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

The state of Minnesota will put up $38 million to divide among 158 victims as compensation for losses sustained in last year’s collapse of a bridge under Interstate 35 in Minneapolis. Thirteen were killed in the accident, which was the result of structural defects.

To claim part of the award, approved by both houses of the Minnesota state assembly, the victims, many of them now pursuing civil lawsuits for negligence, will have to release the state from legal liability. The total comes out to about a quarter-million dollars per person, but a third of the money will be used to sustain victims with severe permanent injuries. Victims of the 9/11 attacks made a somewhat more lucrative settlement of potential claims against the federal government and the airlines.

Law buffs might reasonably wonder why victims of the levee collapse in New Orleans aren’t entitled to similar relief. They have received nothing except modest emergency assistance. The explanation might be that this is a much more populous class of plaintiffs. The amounts awarded to victims of lesser catastrophes, like 911, would pale by comparison, given the scale of the damage to New Orleans and its residents. The losses could run to astronomical amounts, equal to several weeks of war costs.

The flood victims’ claims are no less meritorious than those of the other plaintiffs. The negligence–if it was negligence and not deliberate malfeasance–is patent, at least as egregious as the misconduct of those who let the planes crash into the buildings and those who let the bridge shudder till it gave way. Most responsible authorities had long known that the levees couldn’t survive a severe hurricane, but nothing was done to prepare for that inevitable event. Worse, among the officials who neglected the levees were people who celebrated the displacement of New Orleans’ African-American underclass, leading many of us to believe that the flood was the result of purposeful neglect by racists.

In addition to the uncounted dead and missing (try to find reliable numbers on the flood’s toll in and around New Orleans), hundreds of thousands remain displaced in the diaspora. They had so little before the flood that the rest of us are encouraged to assess their losses as trivial. They have nothing now, and nobody is proposing that they be recompensed like the victims in New York, Washington and Minneapolis. Americans should be asking why.