Veterans Day and the Truth We Won’t Admit

I appreciate the service of our men and women in uniform, and I thank them for it. I really do. But the shallow and bankrupt reflexiveness of our current troop-worship fetish leaves me more than a little cold. If we really respected our troops we wouldn’t be ignoring their healthcare. We wouldn’t be sending hem back to an unwinnable war in Iraq. In short, we’d be treating them like we actually gave enough of a shit about them to insure their sacrifices were actually worth the effort.

I think all this glorification of the military leads us to a place where we’re actually starting to believe our own propaganda, ignoring the very real limitations of military power, on glaring display the past 15 years. Let me put this as baldly as I can: we fought two long, brutal wars in its response to the atrocity of September 11, 2001. We lost both of them – revealing the biggest military machine in the history of the planet as essentially useless in advancing American objectives through war and occupation. Attempts to quash Islamist extremism through democracy were complete failures. The Taliban is still in control of Afghanistan and the only way to prevent the entire Potemkin democracy from imploding is a permanent US troop presence. In Iraq, we are now confronting the very same Sunni insurgency the invasion created in 2003 – just even more murderous. The Jihadism there has only become more extreme under a democratic veneer. And in all this, we didn’t just lose the wars; we lost the moral high-ground as well. The president himself, urged by Cheney and his lieutenants unleashed a brutal torture regime effectively crippling any moral authority the US has in international human rights.

These are difficult truths to handle. They reveal that so many brave men and women died for nothing. And so we have to construct myths or bury facts to ensure that we maintain face. But these myths and amnesia have a consequence: they only serve to encourage Washington to make exactly the same mistakes again. To protect its own self-regard, Washington’s elite is prepared to send young Americans to fight in a war they cannot win and indeed have already lost. You see the blinding myopia elsewhere: Washington’s refusal to release the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture merely proves that it cannot face the fact that some of the elite are war criminals, and that these horrific war crimes have changed America’s role in the world.

What infuriated me about the decision to re-start the Iraq War last August – by a president explicitly elected not to do any such thing – was its arrogance, its smugness, and its contempt for what this country, and especially its armed forces, went through for so many long years of quagmire and failure. Obama and his aides revealed that their commitment to realism and not to intervene in Syria could be up-ended on a dime – and a war initiated without any debate in Congress, let alone a war authorization. They actually believed they had the right to re-start the Iraq War – glibly tell us it’s no big deal – tell us about it afterwards, and then ramp up the numbers of combat forces on the ground. Remind anyone of the start of Vietnam?

I aim my scorn equally at Republicans and Democrats alike on this. While the Neocons are the loudest advocates, this is not just a Republican fixation. Just listen to Jon Stewart calling Samantha Power’s smug bluff last night:–2

When Stewart asks Power why, if the threat from ISIS is “existential”, the regional powers most threatened by it cannot take it on themselves. She had no answer – because there is none. The US is intervening – despite clear evidence that it can do no real good – simply to make sure that ISIS doesn’t actually take over the country and thereby make president Obama look bad. But ISIS was never likely to take over Kurdistan or the Shiite areas of Iraq, without an almighty struggle. And our elevating ISIS into a global brand has only intensified its recruitment and appeal. We responded, in other words, in the worst way possible and for the worst reasons possible: without the force to alter the underlying dynamic, without a breakthrough in sectarian governance in Baghdad, without the regional powers taking the lead, without any exit plan, and all to protect the president from being blamed for “losing Iraq” – even though “Iraq” was lost almost as soon as it was occupied in 2003.

My point is this: how can you behave this way after what so many service-members endured for so long? How can you simply re-start a war you were elected to end and for which you have no feasible means to achieve victory? And how can we parade around, parachuting in to football games and cheering flyovers when we’r sending another generation of our children to be killed and wounded in this lost cause?

The reason is that the leadership in both parties cannot help themselves when they have a big shiny military and see something they don’t like happening in the world. Now that they’ve decided to intervene in a civil war to suppress an insurgency they couldn’t fully defeat even with 100,000 troops in the country, when there no direct threat to national security, they can do just about any stupid thing they please. Worse, our political culture, asks no more of them, and shame on us, neither do we. The Congress doesn’t want to take a stand. The public, whipped in to a 24-hour news frenzy by a couple of beheadings just wants something – send in the troops we love so much! – and the president is happy to oblige. The voices that need to be heard – the voices of those who fought and lost so much in Iraq – are largely absent.

That’s why I found this op-ed in yesterday’s NYT so refreshing. A former lieutenant general in Iraq reminds us of the facts McCain and Obama both want to deny:

The surge in Iraq did not “win” anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans’ unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today’s stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fevered patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn’t go away. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents we battled for more than eight years simply re-emerged this year as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

To go back in and try to do again with no combat troops what we could not do with 100,000 is a definition of madness brought on by pride. It is to restart the entire war all over again. It makes no sense – except as political cover. I read post somewhere recently from an officer who served two tours of duty in Iraq, based in Mosul. He was talking about how he felt about ISIS taking over a city he had risked his life to save. I paraphrase: “Anyone who was over there knew right then that as soon as we left, all this shit would happen again. I’m not surprised. The grunts on the ground knew this, and saw this, but the military leadership can’t admit their own failure and the troops cannot speak out because it’s seen as an insult to those who died. And so we keep making the same fucking mistakes over and over again.”

At what point will we listen to those men and women willing to tell the ugly, painful truth about our recent past – and follow the logical conclusion? When will Washington actually admit its catastrophic errors and crimes of the last decade – and try to reform its own compulsive-interventionist habits to reflect reality rather than myth? Not yet, it appears, not yet. Americans don’t seem to be able to bear very much reality. And until they do, I won’t feel good about thanking the troops. To be honest, I feel more like apologizing.

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Keep Calm and Carry On

I’ve had CNN on in the background all day today (I’m working from home) and while I’m as transfixed by the unfolding terrorism story as everybody else, I think we all, especially the prattling commentariat, really need to take a deep breath. As ghastly, evil, overwhelming, and tragic as the events this week in Boston, Texas, and the Capitol mail rooms have been, it’s easy to forget enveloped in the wall-to-wall coverage that makes whatever our present catastrophe is feel like the most important event in the universe, how safe and secure Americans truly are by any rational standard.

Terror shatters us here precisely because the U.S. is not a particularly terrifying place compared to so much of the rest of the world. Take your pick, but you have to go pretty far down the list of places with more death, destruction, war, poverty, disease, or whatever else ails humanity before you find us in any category except self-absorption and Twitter use. And we don’t really live in a more objectively terrifying time compared other periods in the American past.

Who remembers Christmas, 1975? An explosion equivalent to twenty-five sticks of dynamite exploded in a baggage claim area at La Guardia airport, leaving severed heads and other body parts scattered among some two dozen corpses. No one ever claimed responsibility, no one ever was caught and pretty much the whole event has been forgotten. Life went on and no one anywhere said “everything changed.”

If not for 9/11, I would never have heard about September, 1920: the Wall Street bombing kills 38 and seriously injured 143. The bombing was never solved, although investigators and historians believe it was carried out by Galleanists (Italian anarchists), a group responsible for a series of bombings the previous year.

A brief perusal of this  Wikipedia article is a sobering, if oddly reassuring reminder that it has always been thus, just without the collective PTSD of 9/11 coupled to the 24-hour news cycle. Maybe those were less narcissistic times, but not now. Now, we let trauma consume us. Now, our desperate longing to know—to find easy, immediate answers—confines us, makes us frantic, reduces us to our basest instincts. I’ve already seen douchebags all over the internet – and yes, I know there are millions of them – blaming lax immigration laws for letting in refugees or promoting arming the population with AR-15’s. We have lost all sense of decency and proportion in our discourse, trying to find larger demons in the mundane evil of two terribly misguided young men. People with something to sell or some ideological axe to grind rush to make hay out of a tragedy that has taken an 8 year old boy, a young woman enjoying a spring day, a young woman studying far from her home in China, a young policeman watching out for our children while away at school, as well as all the survivors and other victims. Shouldn’t we be focused on their stories, on the ordinary and extraordinary stories of bravery of the first-responders? Are we going to be there to help with the rehabilitation of those who have lost limbs or worse? Why not deny these scoundrels their spotlight and instead exile them to that special circle of hell occupied by Tim McVeigh, Mohamed Atta, Eric Rudolph, and their ilk.

On an average day in America, 85 people are shot dead. There are now five dead in Boston, including one of the suspected bombers – over the course of five days. Nonetheless, we don’t yet know whether others could be involved, or the true scale of this terror plot. And authorities have to weigh excruciating risks – between over-reaction and under-reaction – in a fog of fact and fiction. They certainly deserve a break, and by any measure have done a fantastic job responding and hunting these killers down. What we do know is that the bombers had another pressure-cooker bomb with them as they sped toward Watertown last night. They could have terrorized us again, and the remaining asshole may still yet.

One thing I do know is that nothing really has changed, and we remain safe in our beds no matter, or maybe in spite of, the vast army of men who stand ready to do violence in our names. We should indeed keep calm and carry on. If Boston has shown us anything, it’s that the good will always outnumber the evil. There will always be many among us who run toward danger to help the wounded no matter the risk, that the heroes will always outnumber the evil perpetrators. We will soon enough know all there is to know about this particular tragedy, and most of will go on as before. What we owe the victims and each other is to remember them first, honor their memories and pick up the fallen to the best of our ability. We need to find a way to take the oxygen away from these attention starved psychopaths, find a way to make their pathetic excuses and grievances as forgettable as the hundreds of excuses for evil that have come before. Only when we utterly forget and ignore the perpetrators of this type of evil will we be rid of them. They deserve no less than oblivion.

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Is The US Military Becoming the Catholic Church?

This is as disturbing a story as I’ve heard on my morning commute in some time. The sheer scale of the crimes, the use of power and trust to coerce sex, the institutional cover ups. It will be a long time before I give the benefit of the doubt to the military if this is how they conduct themselves. Duty, honor indeed.


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We can no longer let the NRA dictate the terms of debate

I think this editorial from Scientific American sums up the false choice posed by gun rights advocates like the NRA. It’s time we let science and facts – I know many current Republicans don’t like science, but too bad – dictate how we manage gun violence, not the empty sloganeering of gun makers and purveyors of death.


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We should probably just kill orphans rather than let them be adopted.

It’s amazing to me how religious fundamentalists can twist adopting a child, a truly selfless and charitable act, in to an evil or somehow second class parenting arrangement. I wonder how Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas will treat these arguments in the challenge to Prop 8.

Apparently the new Pope feels the same way, that the adopted children of gay couples are “are discriminated against in advance, depriving them of growing up with a mother and father as God desires.” And what does Pope Francis call being an orphan with no parents at all?

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What Keeps You Up at Night?

The is a great site with articles by many of today’s brightest thinkers, scientists, and philosophers. Bookmark it, visit often, and feed your mind.

The article linked way down at the bottom has some fascinating thoughts about what we  should be worried about rather than what we do. Shark attacks? Lightening? Asteroids? Not so much.

Helpfully, here’s a summary for those of you too busy-lazy-disinterested to read the whole thing:

1. The proliferation of Chinese eugenics. – Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist.

2. Black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. – Nassem Nicholas Taleb

3. That we will be unable to defeat viruses by learning to push them beyond the error catastrophe threshold. – William McEwan, molecular biology researcher

4. That pseudoscience will gain ground. – Helena Cronin, author, philospher

5. That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist

6. Genuine apocalyptic events. The growing number of low-probability events that could lead to the total devastation of human society. – Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society

7. The decline in science coverage in newspapers. – Barbara Strauch, New York Times science editor

8. Exploding stars, the eventual collapse of the Sun, and the problems with the human id that prevent us from dealing with them. — John Tooby, founder of the field of evolutionary psychology

9. That the internet is ruining writing. – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist

10. That smart people–like those who contribute to Edge–won’t do politics. –Brian Eno, musician

11. That there will be another supernova-like financial disaster. –Seth Lloyd, professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering at MIT

12. That search engines will become arbiters of truth. –W. Daniel Hillis, physicist

13. The dearth of desirable mates is something we should worry about, for “it lies behind much human treachery and brutality.” –David M. Buss, professor of psychology at U of T

14. “I’m worried that our technology is helping to bring the long, postwar consensus against fascism to an end.” –David Bodanis, writer, futurist

15. That we will continue to uphold taboos on bad words. –Benhamin Bergen, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, UCS

Humanity, start worrying! Or, you can just accept it all, like Terry Gilliam of Monty Python, who said:

I’ve given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.


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Corporate depression

It will come as news to no one that corporations are complex and unwieldy beasts.   Considered by some, including our increasingly illegitimate Supreme Court (that’s a topic for another long post) to be ‘people’ with rights and privileges, they are increasingly the most protected of our “citizenry”. I would argue they are in fact highly predatory groupings of otherwise well-meaning people, driven tangentially by the incentives of the market and more specifically by the incentives of their top executives. And that dichotomy of incentives is what I’d like to explore today.

It has always fascinated me how a relatively simple objective in a CIO or CFO’s annual performance objectives like “reduce cost-of-goods-sold by 5%” or “meet top quartile industry benchmarks for network costs” can have so direct and profound an effect on people’s live while at the same time seeming innocuous and benign. Just a couple of folks, directing their teams to focus all their efforts to deliver “shareholder value” or whatever the consultant-speak bullshit du jour is at the time. Sure, lowering COGS increases profits and increasing profits are good, and nobody wants to pay more than their competitors for the same service. But costs include overheads, which are made up mostly of salaries and benefits (read: jobs), which in turn pay for people’s medicines, children’s shoes, future retirement savings, and Christmas presents. The human cost of the endless quarterly focus to increase profits has had a truly profound and unsettling effect when you look at how businesses are run today. Only those who set the goals – the already wealthy and successful lucky few at the top – get to decide what those measures and incentives will be, and rarely do they consider the implications for the rest of us.

Here’s an example of how this plays out. Our company’s first-half profit exceeded a record $4.5 BILLION dollars, and we are on track to beat that for the second half of the fiscal year. Let’s call it an even $10B for this year. Our CIO, my number one stakeholder, has been challenged to reduce his circa $300M annual budget by about 15% over the next two years based on a recent benchmarking exercise. Being a British company, our exec is not wildly over-compensated like some corporations, and I would guess that hitting this target will help him meet his objectives and maybe earn him an incremental $1M. Not small change, but no golden parachute either.

His incentive is clear: reduce his costs by $45M – or about 1/2 of 1% of our annual profit – and get $1M in additional pay. Fair enough, that’s what the company’s leadership has interpreted the will of the market to be, and that’s what they’ve told us to do. That $45M represents a rounding error to our overall performance, but it will have a real and devastating effect on hundreds of employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders of the corporation, many of whom are in fact also shareholders. What’s important to note is that even though the people affected are recognized as stakeholders and shareholders, their interests are 100% discounted to those of the few with the megaphone to drown them out. Bankers, analysts, executives, non-exec board members and the like are all given a priority that a regular (disposable) employee and their families are never given. All stand to gain, some a lot, some less so. But none are going to suffer 1 penny if the goal isn’t met. The company will turn in record profits and they will remain fabulously wealthy by any measure. The project manager in Chicago, not so much. The temp-to-perm contractor, even less.

So let’s say our CIO is successful and gets all of us to work extra hard and cut out those nefarious overheads. We are already planning some internal layoffs to close some of the gap, and undoubtedly suppliers who must reduce their costs will eliminate some jobs as well. Our CIO will meet his objectives, and he will get the extra $1M.  We will also meet our objectives but get exactly the same compensation based on company wide performance we would have gotten anyway. The incremental $45M has no material effect for 99.9% of employees. But in order to get his $1M in incremental bonus, he will have eliminated $45M in spending. That’s the equivalent of 450 jobs at $100k each. Those are the famous middle class jobs  – programmers, project managers, business liaisons, help desk manages – that drive our economy. These are the people who struggle to pay college tuition and day care bills. These are the people whose parents must move in with them as they age to avoid a Medicare nursing home. These folks are mostly middle-aged managers, like me, who will never recover their current earning power, never regain what little security they imagined they had. All to put $1M in some guy’s pocket and make a rounding-error-sized contribution to the company’s bottom line. And this is how the system stays rigged in favor of the wealthy and against the disposable employee.

Our CIO and CFO aren’t bad or venal people. I like most of the people I work with, but can’t abide what most are willing do as part of their perceived responsibilities. I like the idea of my job, but not what I’m asked to do to do it – in my better’s opinions – well. I like my vendors and the relationships I manage and the products I buy: technology is ever-changing and always on the cutting edge. Its fun and challenging and intellectually stimulating. I like the products my company sells, some perhaps too much, and I think we are in many ways exemplary corporate citizens. We’re generous. We’re responsible citizens in all the markets we operate in. We stop to help those in need before we help ourselves after a disaster. The good consciences of the individuals who make up our company comes through loud and clear in many different ways. But it all goes wrong when it comes to setting the incentives that drive our business behavior.

What good is slavish adherence to things like Sarbanes-Oxley if you don’t care about your own employees? What good is there in a rigorous and enviable ‘code of conduct’ when you can’t see the tragic consequences of a trivial decision to enrich the few? I have come to despise the ethics most companies stand for, which despite the lovely platitudes in the glossy annual reports, are bereft of both humanity and conscience in the most fundamental ways. I am no longer proud of what I do. I am not proud of what I have done in the name of profit. When a company can report $4.5B in profits for 6 months and still feel the need to lay off over 1000 employees (this on top of over 5000 in the last 5 years), we truly have lost what it means to be a good corporate citizen. While most of these jobs cuts have been (and will be) in the developed world – America and  Europe mostly – and have been replaced by jobs in the developing world – Africa, Asia, and Latin America – they are still unnecessary. At no time during or since the financial crisis set the brakes on the world economy has my company lost 1 penny. Did we have a few years of less-than-record profits? Yes. Was that to be expected given the global economy? Yes. Should it have resulted in thousands and thousands of lives disrupted with thousands more fundamentally damaged by ridiculous workloads and unrealistic demands in order to deliver farcical goals in order to deliver the aforementioned “savings” so two or three people could continue to get their millions in bonuses while literally ripping the food from the mouths of thousands of families? I think not.

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Nostra Maxima Culpa

I stopped believing organized religion offered anything of value in 4th grade, confronted by the intellectual and moral dishonesty of the clerics under whose care I was allegedly to be “educated.” I was never abused or hurt in the way these souls were, but what I saw and absorbed in 3 short years of Catholics school and catechism was the same insidious lie at the core of the child rape scandal that will hopefully one day bring the medieval theocracy of the church down: infallibility and authority are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. The Catholic church continues to exist for God only knows what reason, but it can never be for the creation of His kingdom on earth. That was obvious to this 11 year old. Maybe someday it will occur to the rest of the flock.

href=””>Nostra Maxima Culpa

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Yes, the Father of a Murdered Newtown Child Was Heckled by Gun Nuts – Little Green Footballs

Absolutely despicable.

Yes, the Father of a Murdered Newtown Child Was Heckled by Gun Nuts – Little Green Footballs.

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Write your congressman!

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