March 21, 2004, marked the anniversary of the first death of an American soldier in combat in Iraq. The death count is now 600 and getting higher. Fifty-nine British soldiers have been killed.
Three days after this solemn anniversary, President Bush attended the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, D.C., as a guest, according to CBS News chief political writer David Paul Kuhn, of"the talking heads, the television powerful, the broadcast journalists." Our commander-in-chief there delivered a pre-scripted comedy routine, complete with slides, showing him looking outside White House windows and under a White House couch. He joked,"Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." He got lots of laughs.
On the same day in my economical Bed & Breakfast near the building in London that George Orwell used as the model for his Ministry of Truth, I read some day-old news that got no laughs in Great Britain. The Daily Telegraph reported on its front page that 14 British soldiers had been wounded, three seriously, in street protests in Iraq. A large color photograph showed two British soldiers in riot gear, their helmeted heads and upper bodies aflame after being hit by petrol bombs.
The number of U.S. military wounded in Operation Iraqi freedom and its aftermath now approaches 3,500.
Given such human cost, it is not unreasonable that some people should be concerned about the lack of judgment the president and his advisers showed in dreaming up and delivering this WMD skit. Readers of the Statesman responded strongly with letters to the editor. The fact that these jokes were not"off-the-cuff," but instead planned and approved, gives us cause to wonder whether the president's insulated inner circle understands how ordinary people might feel.
Of even greater concern, in my opinion, is the subsequent politicizing of this episode and the further trivializing of the issue of WMDs as the main reason for launching a pre-emptive military attack against Iraq. You may think I am being a stodgy moralist here and dismiss this whole matter as"a silly controversy" and politically motivated" cheap advantage grabbing," as liberal talk-show host Harry Shearer has. So let me explain.
Corpses, maimed bodies and veterans with wounded psyches are not political matters. Dead men and women no longer have a political affiliation. What the loved ones of soldiers who have died in action and what soldiers who will bear physical or psychological scars for the rest of their lives have to believe is that their sacrifice was worth it.
In a profile of Iraqi-war amputee Michael Cain in the March 8 New Yorker magazine, Dan Baum reports that Cain told him he had no regrets and would serve his country again. But Cain vowed that he would never let his son join the army.
Most poignant, however, is what veteran Steve Reighard, another amputee at Walter Reed Hospital, says:"I believed in what we were doing. If we hadn't gone to war, eventually we'd see chemical arms and those kinds of munitions in our streets." Reighard believes the WMDs matter. Why? As he tells Baum,"You, know, we kind of have to think that. Otherwise, this (missing arm of mine) is in vain."
In this, Reighard and Cain -- and bereaved mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters -- are no different than their counterparts in previous wars. Those who fight are dead serious about the reasons for their great sacrifice.
When Siegfried Sassoon, the British officer and poet in World War I, sensed that his men were suffering and dying abominably for no clear purpose, he protested by publicly refusing to fight until the British government explained its objectives clearly and set a timetable for either achieving them or ending the war.
While in London on leave, Sassoon saw a civilian music review where the chorus sang"the Kaiser loves our dear old tanks."
His poetic response to such obtuse civilian jocularity was savage:"I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,/ Lurching to rag-time tunes, or 'Home sweet Home',/ And there'd be no more jokes in music-halls/ to mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume."
Next time the White House wants to tell a joke about non-existent weapons, it should try it out first among the wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital -- and only then take it on the road.
Palaima is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at UT-Austin and a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman.
I had the above published in the Austin American-Statesman; and, unlike my 80-some other pieces over the last 5 years, it has met with almost unanimously positive response, especially from two recent vets who agreed that, like Cain, they did not question their own decision to serve, but they would never allow their children to join the military. That says lots about how they view the reasons for fighting in Iraq or anywhere, especially given how military service is now determined here in the United States.
The one negative was from a former student of mine, a minister, who kept coming back again and again to the issue of humor. He argues, among other things, that the president as commander-in-chief should fall into the category of active soldiers who, as the rich history of war accounts proves, resort to forms of dark, often cynical humor to deal with the horrors and hardship of life in the combat zone.
What do others think of this?
My piece tries to make clear that I do not think this is a political issue, or at least should not be. I think it is an issue of reverence, as defined by my colleague Paul Woodruff in his fine book of the same name. See P. Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). For a transcript of an interview with Bill Moyers, cf. http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_woodruff.html.
My op ed circles back to the White House, not for political reasons, but because the conscious decision of the president and his staff to devise and perform this skit reveals, in my opinion, an appalling lack of reverence for the dead and the maimed, physically and psychologically, in this war, which ironically is not an ‘official’ war and the active campaign portion of which has long been declared over. The White House are the primary agents in all these acts.
But the broadcasters in attendance are just as guilty. This is the point of my citing Sassoon, who had a deep and bitter hatred of politicians, privileged gentleman, women, the yellow pressmen, the clergy and the whole home crowd, who from their safe and ignorant positions could express humor, false patriotism, or ‘insights’ about the war and the soldiers who served.
The same kind of bitterness about the home front infuses the works of veteran and critic Paul Fussell, most recently his account of the American infantry experience in Europe in World War II, The Boys’ Crusade. And it is standard in Remarque, O’Brien, Hemingway. Pick a war and you find it.
But my minister friend argues that the event the president attended in Washington called for humor and the president was therefore just responding in kind and was doing what was called for by the occasion.
I feel very uneasy about that line of argument, because I essentially agree with Fussell and Sassoon. Some subjects should be taboo for humor except by the particular insiders who have the experience, aka have ‘paid their dues’, to merit commenting on the subjects in a humorous way. This applies to matters of race, gender, ethnicity, social status, religion and so on.
I then thought of the freedom of speech the ancient Athenian playwrights, tragic and comic, enjoyed in commenting on war. But given the universal male military service and constant experience of war in 5th-century Athens, the audience and the playwrights themselves were soldiers and formed an inner circle of just the sort I am talking about, a group that had the right to comment on their own experience with humor or satire.
The bitingly satirical jokes of Aristophanes about war and commanders or Aeschylus’ depictions of war in the Agamemnon or Seven Against Thebes is public therapeutic ‘insider’ humor. See Larry Tritle’s From Melos to My Lai and Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America for more on the setting for Athenian tragedy and comedy as a veterans' 'therapy'.
One last thing.
What Cain actually tells the New Yorker writer Baum about whether he (Cain) would allow his son to join the military is:"Fuck no. I'd tell him, 'I'll beat the shit out of you if you try it.'" That is quoted directly in New Yorker. I wanted that to be printed, and argued for it with the Statesman editorial staff, one of whom is a Vietnam vet, so I respect his opinion greatly. So it was edited out.
Still I cannot help feeling, more than thinking that this somehow proves Tim O'Brien's point that we civilians will never understand the experience of soldiers at war because we cannot deal with the word 'shit'.
Tom Palaima: Tired of Trashy Campaigning 09/11/04
The following appeared today. We could add to the overall strategy U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's proposed marriage amendment to the constitution. During Cornyn's senatorial race here in Texas, to which Rove was personally assigned by GWB, Cornyn played the race card against his opponent. Now on the national level the homophobic card is played first. Then Zell Miller plays the race card. The Swift Boat people play the 'nothing is true' card. And Cheney plays the fear and Anti-Islamic card. Giuliani plays the 'he was presdient when this blew up, so he must stay in office' card. and John McCain comes on board for the sake of his own 2008 ambitions.
Meanwhile GW plays the simple and humble and god-fearing white man of firm Christian resolve who will keep us safe. COMMENTARY Austin American-Statesman 09/11/04
Palaima: I'm tired of trashy politics, and I won't take it anymore
Thomas G. Palaima, REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR
Austin American-Statesman Saturday, September 11, 2004
Four years ago, I was asked to write a post-mortem on the 2000 presidential campaign. It appeared in the American-Statesman on the day after the election and was titled"The end of an uninspiring campaign." The drama of the Florida vote-count fiasco is what sticks now in most of our minds, but campaign 2004 has given me queasy feelings of déjà vu, so I checked back.
Sure enough. Unless things change, campaign 2004 will have the same effects as campaign 2000 - the rotten taste of elections run as exercises in advertising and packaging and spin; strong divisions encouraged and exploited among citizens of different political views, classes, ages, genders, sexual orientations, religions, income levels and regional backgrounds; and pandering to the selfish concerns of individual voters rather than encouraging thoughts about the common good.
This should come as no surprise, given that Karl Rove has masterminded the campaign for President Bush in both elections. Instead of exploring the real issues that should concern us, we are caught up in personality issues. Anyone remember all the senseless fuss about Al Gore's woodenness? Is President Bush really in touch with the working class because he wears an open collar, speaks English not so good and chops wood on his Crawford ranch? Is Dick Cheney really sure terrorists will attack us if John Kerry is elected?
Is single-mindedness of vision the mark of a good leader? Is it firm and unwavering determination to see policies through? Or is it a myopic inability to understand and adjust to complex and changing circumstances? Is flip-flopping a lack of commitment to values? Or is it the natural result of a 20-year career as a U.S. senator studying and voting on issues in an ever-changing world?
Back in the year 2000, I reported that David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, an appointee of Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton, had criticized both candidates for not addressing the staggering economic problems this country would face in year 2011, when the first baby boomers reach age 65.
Not only has that still not happened four years later - and conditions contributing to the economic disaster Walker predicted have only deteriorated - but we now are running a costly and bloody war - aka"mission accomplished" - with no end in sight. The annual federal deficit has hit an all-time record. Yet our conservative vice president breezily tells us not to worry. Next year's projected large addition to the deficit should not be record-setting.
What can we do? Here is my opinion, or rather that of Sam the Lion in"The Last Picture Show." We should all say firmly his true Texan words:"I've been around that trashy behavior all my life. I'm getting tired of putting up with it."
Let's accept that a candidate who attends elite Yale University and then volunteers to serve as a soldier anywhere in Vietnam is a manipulating careerist with no sense of duty. Let's accept that his later impassioned testimony before congressional hearings at a time when even the president of the United States was seeking ways of extracting us from Vietnam was cowardly and uncomradely.
Let's accept that former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes is a politically motivated liar. He does not now regret helping the other candidate, from the same educational and social milieu, avoid service in Vietnam by joining the Texas Air National Guard. And let's even accept that working stateside on a political campaign and being grounded for failure to perform routine National Guard duties showed courageous respect for the men being drafted, volunteering, serving and dying in Vietnam.
Finally, let's accept that flip-flopping with the American people about the motives for going to war in the Middle East showed honest resolve.
Let's put aside all that trashy stuff and ask the candidates and their handlers to focus on the real issues. We could start with two main sets of questions.
What is the economic picture for the next decade, factoring in the 2011 time bomb and the costs of the war in Iraq and the"unwinnable" war on terror? Where are the new jobs created by the Bush tax-cut trickle down going to come from, and what sorts of jobs will they be? How will we curtail the deficit?
What is the strategy for an"end game" in Iraq? What will the criteria be for any major commitment of troops and resources elsewhere? Will Congress have a say, or will this remain a unilateral decision of the White House?
And let's all just say no - to trashy campaigning.
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Here is a New Year's piece designed to make us wonder, in the manner of the famous chorus from Sophocles, at the hard-won accomplishments of humankind. It was co-written with a freshman at UT Austin. There is small hope for our world.
Palaima and Skelton: What it takes to bring us life's simple things
Tom Palaima and Christina Skelton, LOCAL CONTRIBUTORS
Austin American-Statesman Tuesday, December 28, 2004
If we are fortunate, as many of us in our bountiful country are, the season of Christmas and New Year is a time to wonder at the state of our lives and our world, and to notice small wonders that we normally overlook. If we are wise, we may see what matters and better appreciate how much we owe to the hard work and ingenuity of others.
We might learn from the most powerful people in our country. We might also learn from people who will be forever nameless. Recent events surrounding our secretary of defense have reminded us of how important the simple act of signing a letter can be. In writing officially to inform loved ones about the death of a soldier in service to our country, the time spent personally signing a letter conveys something humanly important to them. It brings reassurance that the same person of power who sent their soldier off to war has spent a few moments thinking about and sharing in the deep loss they feel.
Taking the time to write — i.e., to write down our thoughts and feelings with our own hands, to sign our own names as personal witness to what we have written — is a mark of our hard-won humanity. That so many of us have the tools and knowledge to do these things so readily is a marvel of the progress of civilization, science, labor, industry and education.
The next time you pick up a pencil to write a note, to draw or to make a simple mark, pause for a moment and think about the everyday miracle that is the pencil. In the long history of mankind, the pencil, more or less as we now know it, has been with us for just over two hundred years.
Pencil enthusiast Abdullah Ismail of Venus Pencil Company (PVT) Limited of Pakistan helps us feel the wonder of the pencil: "The ubiquitous, yellow (mostly), seven-inch . . . lead pencil (is) the simplest, most convenient, least expensive of all writing instruments. The wood-cased pencil is, perhaps, man's closest approach to perfection. The modern pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, write an average of 45,000 words and absorb 17 sharpenings. It is nearly weightless and totally portable. It deletes its own errors but does not give off radiation. It doesn't leak and never needs a ribbon change, isn't subject to power surges, and is chewable."
The pencil is also our first and truest friend in learning to write letters and words and to add and subtract numbers. It empowers us to look for and correct our mistakes. It helps us to work toward perfection in what we write and draw.
More marvelous than what the pencil can do is how and why this most democratic of all tools of communication even exists. If your pencil is already sharpened, take a look at the exposed wood now tapering down to the point. Keep looking. Rotate the pencil in your hand. See if you can detect the subtle differences in texture of the two pieces of wood that make up the pencil shaft. Then ask yourself, "How in the world did they cut and join the wood so precisely?" "How did they get that lead in there?" "Where does that lead come from?"
The lead is actually graphite. It was first mined for the making of the earliest pencils in 16th century England. The thin rods that made the modern pencil possible were developed in late 18th-century France and then in Germany (whence the Conté crayon and the Eberhard Faber pencil). They are a mixture of powdered graphite, water and clay. But the graphite has to be mined and processed, and that is hard and dangerous work.
If you are lucky, you can get someone like Professor Leon Long of the University of Texas Department of Geological Sciences to explain to you vividly how the graphite mine in nearby Burnet operated between 1900 and 1980. You can almost feel the blasting of big boulders from the open pit mining, the sweaty toil of loading and trucking, of rough sledgehammering and finer pulverizing. You do not have to breathe in and out all day long the particle-filled air of the processing rooms.
Much of the world's graphite is mined now in regions like Sri Lanka, Mexico, China and Brazil. Studies of miners in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1993 revealed that as many as one in 12 had clear symptoms of lung disease from carbon and graphite dust inhalation, despite work environment regulations imposed in 1972. The graphite pneumoconiosis is progressive even after exposed workers stop working in the hazardous mining and processing environment.
What Ismail calls the "ubiquitous pencil" can everywhere remind us of the hard-won cumulative progress of mankind and the large price many pay for the wonderful things that cost us so little and mean so much.
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