The First Duty

We have now sunk to a depth at which the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious. — George Orwell

No Sift for the next two weeks. The Weekly Sift returns on July 6.

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Discussion We Ought To Be Having. Beyond all the divisive nonsense lies a question Right and Left ought to be collaborating on: What kinds of things should government be doing?
  • The Next Time You’re in the Bookstore … look for Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru. He comes down hard on Blackwater, but finds a strange empathy for the guys carrying guns. Meanwhile, I suggest some beach reading.
  • The Spectrum of Crazy. Mainstream Republicans would like to a claim that a firm boundary separates them from the right-wing terrorists. But where is it?
  • Short Notes. Juan Cole on Iran’s election. Swine flu is a pandemic. The latest clever Republican wordsmithing. And more.

The Discussion We Ought To Be Having

It’s easy to make fun of the state of political discourse in America today. In both the major media and in our own conversations over coffee, we spend valuable time and energy talking about David Letterman’s jokes, Obama’s birth certificate, and the latest ridiculous thing Rush Limbaugh said. I do it too; it’s hard not to. This stuff is the junk food of politics. It gives you lots of quick energy, but does nothing to nourish our democracy. Even if you try to give it up, other people push it at you. (“Have you tried these barbecue potato chips? They’re fabulous!”)

So what should we be talking about? Where could Right and Left alike devote their attention to a meaningful discussion, one that could go somewhere? Last week I interpreted Obama’s Cairo speech in terms of rebuilding a center and depolarizing the America/Islam split. What would do the same thing for Right and Left in America?

It seems to me that the answer is obvious: We ought to be talking about the proper role of the public sector in our economy. That same basic issue shows up again and again in various forms: What should the government role be in health care? In banking? In rebuilding the electrical grid? In the transition to renewable fuels? In mitigating the consequences of global warming? How long should the government continue to own General Motors, and how active a shareholder should the Obama administration be?

In spite of all the polarizing rhetoric on both sides, there actually is a center to build up. Americans share a broad consensus about some basic principles, and our differences can be framed as differences of degree (that can be compromised on) rather than differences of kind (that can’t).

For example: Other than a negligible number of radicals on each side, Americans largely agree that we need a mixed economy. Some things the government should do directly, some things the government should stay away from, and some things should be done by private industry with greater or lesser amounts of government regulation.

The book I review in the next section examines a situation where we let the private sector go too far — mercenaries in Iraq. Military action and profit incentives don’t mix well. We want soldiers to be motivated by patriotism, by a sense of honor and duty, and by loyalty to each other — not by a big paycheck. And when military power gets misused, we need the kind of transparency you just can’t get in the private sector.

But even very far-Left liberals learned from the failure of the Soviet Union. The government does a bad job of innovating, of coming up with new products, of responding quickly to consumer preferences, and of converting to whole new models of delivering services. In a classic Adam Smith situation, where you have a bunch of commodities with a bunch of uses (none of which are matters of life and death), you can’t beat markets for allocating those resources quickly and efficiently. A lot of seed money to develop internet technologies came from porn — no government would have thought of that. One reason research in carbon-fiber materials is paying off is that people happily pay big money for ultra-light bicycles and tennis rackets and golf clubs. No one has ever been quite that excited to pay their taxes.

Health care (which I promise to discuss in more detail when the Sift comes back in July) is a difficult issue precisely because it combines both aspects. Medical emergencies are like hostage situations: “Do what we say or someone you love will die.” The free market is absolutely the wrong model here. You’re in no position to negotiate. You need to trust your doctors and believe they have your best interests at heart — not make allowances for their salesmanship or take the buyer-beware attitude that a market requires.

But routine-care delivery resembles retail. Subtle changes in technology or social preferences or skilled-to-unskilled salary ratios might completely transform the best way to deliver particular kinds of care. If some guy thinks he has a better way to manage chronic pain or do basic prevention or follow-up care for wounds or whatever — why not let him try, and profit or fail depending on his success?

We need to have a national discussion about where the borderline should be: What needs to be public? What is better kept private? Both Right and Left have a case to make. We could be having that discussion across the board — it’s in the background of almost every domestic issue we’re facing.

An article in the journal Open Medicine compares the U.S. and Canadian health care systems:

Available studies suggest that health outcomes may be superior in patients cared for in Canada versus the United States, but differences are not consistent.

Or, as Matt Yglesias summarizes: “Canada’s is probably slightly better, almost certainly no worse, and definitely cheaper.”

The NYT editorial page is also promoting that health-care article by Atul Gawande that I told you about two weeks ago. They claim President Obama is making his staff read it.

Matt Yglesias defends the value of the public sector.

The Next Time You’re at the Bookstore …

… look for Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru. This is a current-history book that reads like an action novel because Fainaru

  • got assigned by the Washington Post to investigate a fascinating topic: the “security contractors” carrying guns in Iraq
  • got “lucky” (in the journalistic sense) when a horrifying event happened right under his nose
  • had the insight to see the parallels between his own psychology and that of the mercenaries he was covering
  • had the sense to make himself a character in the story he wrote.

When he gets to Iraq, Fainaru finds himself hanging around with Crescent Security Group, maybe the most slipshod group of mercenaries in the business. They live in Kuwait and “commute to the war” as Fainaru puts it. They guard convoys going into Iraq.

The group’s medic wears an EMT hat, but explains that he isn’t really certified: “They made me the medic because I’ve read a lot of books. I just haven’t gotten around to taking the tests.” The rules-of-engagement are … well, there aren’t any really. Just don’t lose the convoy, and shoot them before they shoot you. Those are the Big Boy Rules, not the wimpy rules that the Army and the Marines have to live by.

If you end up shooting somebody you shouldn’t have, well, that’s a shame. Fortunately there’s nobody in a position to punish you for it, because security contractors are exempt from Iraqi law and not covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. You should file a report about it. Or not. It doesn’t really matter.

Fainaru rides with the talkative and endlessly charming Jon Cote’. Cote’ served a tour in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne, then went home and tried to be an accounting major at the University of Florida. It didn’t work out. After the blood and explosions of war, the sights and sounds of student life barely registered. He thought it would be idyllic — Florida, the girls, the parties. But nothing was a matter of life-and-death there, so why do it? He found himself taking bigger and bigger risks until he got arrested for doing motorcycle tricks on a main drag while drunk. Coming back to Iraq as a mercenary — it got him out of a bad situation and would soon get him out of debt, plus it put him back in a world of life-and-death. So it was a win all around.

Fainaru is 21 years older — exactly, they have the same birthday — but he sees a lot of himself in Cote’. War correspondents also get addicted to blood and explosions. Fainaru had spent in a lot of time in Iraq before coming home to cover safer stories — and it didn’t work out for him either. He didn’t have to return to Iraq, but he wrangled a way. Like mercenaries and unlike soldiers, war correspondents aren’t there for their country or to save anybody’s life or freedom. They can tell an idealistic story about the people’s right to know, but really it’s about fame and fortune. And blood. And explosions. War is not pleasant, but it’s very real — and after a while, nothing else is.

Then a subplot cuts in: Fainaru abruptly goes home for one last trip with his brother and his Dad, who is dying of lung cancer. The brother has his own drama going: He’s been covering the Barry Bonds steroid scandal. He published some confidential grand jury testimony, and he’s about to go to jail if he doesn’t reveal his sources, which he’s not going to do.

The trip may have saved Fainaru’s life. While he was gone, a Crescent convoy got hijacked and several of the mercs were taken, including Cote’ and the medic. We know the story in detail because two mercs survived in the most random way possible: The insurgents threw their captives into an SUV when they heard the Army coming, and the SUV wasn’t big enough for all of them.

The convoy hijacking is a story of screw-ups. Half of a typical Crescent crew is Iraqi, and they pick them up at the border. Except the Iraqis didn’t show up that day — maybe they were tipped off. Crescent should have cancelled right there, but the convoy was half across the border by the time they figured out what had happened. Turning around would have been a mess, and the run to Basra was usually tame, so they went for it. A few hours later they were hijacked by a group of Iraqis that probably included some disgruntled former employees, who were way underpaid compared to the Americans.

Nobody claims responsibility or asks for ransom. The official investigation starts late because Crescent forgot to register the convoy with the authorities. And nobody seems to be working all that hard to find the missing mercs — not Crescent management and not the military. Soldiers (who are also way underpaid compared to the mercs) strangely are not that wild about risking their lives for guys who live by no rules and then yell for help whenever they get themselves in trouble. Who’d have thought?

Fainaru starts hanging out with the families — mercenaries have families, it turns out: parents, brothers and sisters, children, and a lot of ex-wives. For reasons of their own, they love these guys, and they’d like to know what happened to them. It takes a long time, but eventually they find out. It’s not a happy ending.

I started reading Big Boy Rules out of good intentions. I thought it was a subject I should know something about. But then I got pulled in by the story and characters, and I ended up learning about mercenaries almost by accident. But the book actually does contain a lot of information. For example, Fainaru provides the first coherent explanation I’ve ever heard about how Blackwater got so far out of control: It was a token in the turf battle between State and Defense. Early on, Don Rumsfeld outmaneuvered Colin Powell, and the State Department got shut out of any significant role in Iraq. But Blackwater fell under State’s jurisdiction, because their main contract was to guard diplomats. So when the generals had complaints about Blackwater, State wasn’t inclined to listen. And that meant that Blackwater was virtually unsupervised.

Fainaru does a good job of painting a complex reality. He has little doubt that the contractor system is inherently corrupt, and that the contracting companies are war profiteers. Killing people is just not a business that private industry ought to be in. But he is ambivalent about the mercenaries themselves. They are exploiting the situation for their own profit, but are simultaneously being exploited for someone else’s profit. Few of them manage to save much money, and most don’t even have a clear idea of what they’d be saving for. Many of them die — how many? no one counts because no one really wants to know — and some are just broken and tossed aside.

Fainaru never says this explicitly, but I think he believes that when Jon Cote’ got caught doing drunken wheelies in Florida, he should have been offered help — not a gun and a big salary. Maybe he would have found some other way to get himself killed. But maybe not.

If I’m going to be gone for two weeks, I have to suggest some beach reading. For a few months now, I’ve been chomping down Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels like salted peanuts. They’re action mysteries with a heavy dose of weapons and tactics. But unlike Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan, Child is a real writer and Reacher is an interesting character.

The Spectrum of Crazy

Two weeks apart, we’ve had the murder of late-term abortionist Dr. George Tiller and an attack on the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Most of the Right would like to claim that these are unpredictable acts by lone-wolf crazies. And that’s even true up to a point: There’s no sign of any broader conspiracy to carry out those specific attacks.

In a broader sense, though, the spectrum of right-wing craziness stands on a slippery slope. At the far end you have the Scott Roeders and James von Brunns — people who appear to have carried out acts of right-wing terrorism. One step closer to the mainstream are the web sites and blog commenters who think that the Roeders and van Brunns are heroes.

One more step brings you to the people who wish for violence without threatening to do it themselves, like whoever took out the ad saying: “May Obama follow in the footsteps of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy!” Here we find Southern Baptist pastor Wiley Drake, who was Alan Keyes’ vice president on the American Independent Party ticket last fall.

Drake thinks Tiller’s murder was the answer to his prayers. He wants to revive the practice he calls “imprecatory prayer” — praying for God to harm your enemies. “It is in the Bible,” he says, “and we are proud to say as Southern Baptists that we believe the Book.” (Hmmm. Didn’t some minor character in the Bible also say: “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you.”? But that’s a plot twist from the second half of the Book, so maybe Drake hasn’t read that far yet.)

When radio host Alan Colmes asked Drake who else was on the wrong side of his prayer list, Drake replied: “The usurper that is in the White House is one, B. Hussein Obama.”

Colmes: Are you praying for his death?

Drake: Yes.

Colmes: So you’re praying for the death of the president of the United States?

Drake: Yes.

Another step gets you to the people who don’t advocate or even root for violence explicitly, but provide justification for it. When Bill O’Reilly repeated denounced Tiller as “the baby killer”, he didn’t ask anyone to stop Tiller by violence. But how big a leap was that? The folks (like Alan Keyes) who keep pushing the “birther” conspiracy theory (that Obama actually isn’t president because he wasn’t born in this country) — what solution are they advocating? When you combine Obama-usurper rhetoric with charges that he’s secretly a Muslim who hates whites, is ruining our American values, is about to take away our guns, and is conspiring with ACORN to rig the census and fix elections — well, what is a heroic young man who believes all that supposed to do, exactly?

One step further in brings you to mainstream Republicans who use Biblical/apocalyptic code words to pander to the crazies in a deniable way. At the recent Republican fund-raising dinner, master-of-cermonies Jon Voight advocated “staying the course to bring an end to this false prophet, Obama.” If some warrior-of-God decides to bring an end to Obama with a sniper’s rifle, I’m sure Voight will express a completely guiltless sense of shock, if he sees a need to comment at all.

Take one more step and you arrive at Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and countless other big-name mainstream Republicans who attended the dinner: They applauded Voight. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said he “really enjoyed” Voight’s remarks.

I’m with Paul Krugman on this:

Yes, the worst terrorist attack in our history was perpetrated by a foreign conspiracy. But the second worst, the Oklahoma City bombing, was perpetrated by an all-American lunatic. Politicians and media organizations wind up such people at their, and our, peril.

Like Frank Rich, I’m waiting for some Republican leader to stop pandering to the violent and take a stand for sanity. John McCain did so a couple of times late in the 2008 campaign. Fox News’ Shepard Smith is doing it now. But who else?

And that’s the real problem: Not the fringe nutjobs, but the mainstream voices who tolerate and exploit them. We don’t need to censor the Birthers any more than we needed to censor the people who thought that Bush conspired in 9-11. But mainstream Republicans who wink and nod at this craziness are playing with fire. How many people will have to die before they stop?

Charles Krauthammer continues to advocate a polarized, Manichean world. To him, Obama’s efforts to reconstitute a center internationally represent “a disturbing ambivalence towards one’s own country.” Krauthammer also feeds the false-prophet rhetoric:

Not that Obama considers himself divine. (He sees himself as merely messianic, or, at worst, apostolic.) But he does position himself as hovering above mere mortals, mere country, to gaze benignly upon the darkling plain beneath him where ignorant armies clash by night, blind to the common humanity that only he can see.

Not that Charles would advocate striking down such a self-aggrandizing ruler. Of course not!

Scott Bateman animates Newt’s bizarre warning about Druids-under-the-bed or Stonehenge-in-your-closet or something.

Short Notes

The source I’m following about the Iranian election is Juan Cole. Cole believes the election was stolen, and that (in spite of protests) the regime will get away with it — for now. “But the regime’s legitimacy will take a critical hit, and its ultimate demise may have been hastened, over the next decade or two.” Real change, he suspects, will have to wait for a generation of leaders who never knew the Shah.

It’s official: Swine flu has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Not all conservatives buy the party line on Sotomayor. Daniel Larison, for one.

The Plum Line blog has identified another one of those clever Republican name-changes (like changing the estate tax to the death tax). The photos of detainee abuse that the ACLU is trying to get released — they’re terrorist propaganda photos now.

The new name goes a long way towards denying what the photos are: pictures of things that actually happened. We’re not trying to prevent our enemies from telling lies about us; we’re trying to cover up what we did.

In a move that will undoubtedly endear them to factory workers across the country, right-wing yakkers Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt are urging a boycott of GM now that the U.S. government is a majority shareholder.

Meanwhile, GM’s former Saturn brand has been bought by Penske, which plans to subcontract the whole car-making part of the business. Seriously. And the Chinese own Hummer now.

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  • Burr Deming  On June 15, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    So Reverend Drake prays for the death of our President. A friend of mine had this to say: “I would like to be a Christian, but I can't think of anyone I want to see assassinated.”

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