Waging Peace

Memorial Day has always been troublesome for me. While it is good and right that we honor those who have given their lives for our country, we must also reconcile the inherent contradiction of waging war to make peace. We must honor our warriors without celebrating our wars. We must find a way to accommodate both our better and lesser selves.  We must indulge our heritage at the same time we question it, so that we might forge a new legacy.

The United States is a nation born from war during the American Revolution and waged its most deadly war against itself in the Civil War.  Victory in World War II made the U.S. a superpower.  It is natural then that war has been encoded on the DNA of American identity. There is no nation on earth that wages war more effectively than the United States; but should this be a source of pride, or evidence of a national character flaw?  While many argue passionately and forcefully that a strong military makes a strong nation, and that our fathers fought so we wouldn’t have to, the last fifty years or so reveal a different picture, raising important questions of morality and intelligence.

There is no question that taming the Kaiser, defeating Hitler, and victory over Hirohito’s Japan were great accomplishments.  The conquests of madmen must be put down.  However, since World War II, our wars have too often been waged on faulty theories of dominoes and contagions (Vietnam), and politicized intelligence (Iraq).  Waging war has become, for too many, preferable to waging peace.  It has become too easy to start, and nearly impossible to finish.  When Osama bin Laden’s small band of terrorists attacked us on 9/11 the immediate reflex was war.  And, while there was no enemy state to wage war against, we quickly adapted to our predisposition by calling it a “War on Terror.”

We are now realizing how difficult it is to wage war against a tactic.  Our profound differential power advantage—using more troops with bigger and better weapons—has proven surprisingly ineffective against organic and asymmetric networks whose greatest weapon is virulent mysticism.  I wonder how much better off we might be today if the fallen towers in New York had been cordoned off as a crime scene, instead of becoming a springboard to war seven thousand miles away?  I wonder if we might object more loudly if we reinstated a compulsory draft?  I wonder if we shouldn’t require citizens to spend one month each year in service to their country?  I wonder if we should endure more than wasted time and minor indignities at TSA checkpoints to awaken our better selves?  Might we get smarter faster?

The War in Afghanistan is now officially America’s longest war.  Our men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve both our support and our courage.  In this case, the courage to bring them home.  It is time to rethink what we are doing, how we are doing it, and, most importantly, why?  What do we possibly think we can accomplish by sacrificing more blood and treasure?  Are villagers in the Swat Valley really a threat to our homeland?  Do we really believe bin Laden will invade America or conquer our allies?  When will we stand up, summon our common sense, and declare this war absurd?

On this Memorial Day, as we honor those who died in service to our country, let us also refrain from romanticizing the wars America has fought.  Let us never forget the horror that war visits upon those who fall in its path.  War produces many more victims than heroes and paves an uncertain road to stability and prosperity, let alone peace.  Both the victor and the vanquished are seldom better off.  I look forward to the day when we can drive by a cemetery on the last Monday in May and see fewer flags and fewer tears.  I hope that someday we not only honor the fallen, but we also celebrate our new differential advantage: our capacity to wage peace.

By |2017-05-25T21:00:40+00:00May 30th, 2010|General|0 Comments

Seven Unspeakable Truths

Americans live in a state of deceit and denial inculcated by the insidious accumulation of entitled thinking that has reached a tipping point beyond which the destruction of social order and national power is certain.  Like children without rules or boundaries we have become tempestuous and, in more cases every day, violent.  We still have the capacity to identify the truth but lack the courage to speak it.  Our leaders, including President Obama, will not speak these truths.  I will.

There are seven truths—things I am certain of after significant study and deliberation—that America must face if we are to maintain our position in the world, even if only in relative terms.

  1. The wars we have chosen to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan are unwinnable; we must move expeditiously to extract ourselves from the center of this quagmire and deploy a strategy of offshore balancing to contain terrorism while, at the same time, develop new sources and forms of energy to become energy-independent.  If we don’t, we will find ourselves at the center of a much larger confrontation beginning in the Middle East (probably between Israel and Iran) and spreading from there.
  2. The obligations of our government to supply public goods, particularly Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, are financially unsustainable—even if we radically reform our healthcare system—which isn’t going to happen.  Debt is not power.
  3. Our critical national infrastructures including transportation, power grids, and water supply systems are rapidly approaching a period of catastrophic failure that will cripple our economy more than the current financial crisis.  When main street fails, it’s over.
  4. Climate change is a reality, notwithstanding the unfortunate apocalyptic grandstanding by Al Gore and a few rogue scientists, but the orthodoxy of environmentalism is wrong.  We must find new ways to conserve and produce energy that allow economic growth to be sustained.  We must do this for the environment and, moreover, for our national interest; for our health and security.
  5. Within twenty-five years the dollar will no longer be the world’s reserve currency.  We must move expeditiously to begin the process, region-by-region, of migrating to a common currency—the ‘globo’—to protect us from non-US currencies being used against us and to mitigate the inherent instability produced in a global financial system populated (currently) by 178 different currencies.
  6. Our primary and secondary education system is broken.  Today, we are maintaining our global edge on the back of our superior universities. While our students catch-up because they have access to college, unlike the developing world (especially China and India), this will change.  We must immediately move to improve the quality of teachers and reduce the burden of unions and bureaucrats. Parents, teachers, and communities must wrest control of this system, which is in rapid decline.
  7. The absence of a liberal immigration policy, which has always been the lifeblood of America’s capacity for self-renewal, will lower our replacement rate and increase our dependency rates to levels that will produce demographic-induced collapse.  If you want a preview, look at Japan.

Rival interests do not defeat great powers; they collapse at their own hand.  In America, we have the knowledge and the means to maintain our position in the world and to secure our future for many generations.  If we do not face each and every one of these truths, we will fail.  Let the real discussion begin.

By |2017-05-25T22:26:36+00:00February 21st, 2010|General|0 Comments

Lyle Lovett Begs the Question

Lyle Lovett’s poetry, sung with a rasp that suggests he’s had more than one dusty ride in the back of a pickup, tugs at the soul of America—reminding us of a heritage that must silently wonder what-the-hell we Americans are doing today.

My wife, daughter, and I, enjoyed Lyle and his Large Band at Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Texas on Thanksgiving eve. Lyle—a national treasure—performed at Bass Hall, a Texas treasure. It was the end of a long tour for Lyle and his band, and it was brilliant. They sang, played, told stories on each other, and reminded us of those who had passed on. One lyric, however, stood above the rest.

In Natural Forces, the title song of Lyle’s new album, Lyle asks the question we should all stop and consider as we watch tens of thousands more troops line up for deployment to Afghanistan. He sings,

And now as I sit here safe at home

With a cold Coors Light and the TV on

All the sacrifice and the death and war

Lord I pray that I’m worth fighting for …

As we debate the decisions of our president and military leaders, invoking patriotic rhetoric and thumping the bible of American exceptionalism, those of us who stay home with our “cold Coors Light and the TV on” have a duty too. Let’s make sure we are worth fighting for.

By |2017-05-27T16:08:15+00:00November 28th, 2009|General|0 Comments

America’s Growing (In)security State

The United States has arrived at a precarious position in its pursuit of national security; finally the world’s predominant military power—a goal that took fifty years to achieve—it must face a new reality: the rest of the world has adapted and effectively changed the rules of the game.  The arms race is over.  The brains race is on. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) delivered by brainwashed, networked, religious radicals, or controlling another nation’s debt, are just two mind-based examples of new power strategies.

Today’s battles will be won or lost in new venues; in the hearts and minds of populations who have become free agents and/or the financial balance sheets of rivals.  In the development and distribution of clean fuels and/or the deployment of untraceable computer viruses.  Networked power is replacing the uniformed coercive power of states, and the US is stuck in an old, increasingly irrelevant narrative—debating troop levels and slinging invective in partisan debates; dithering or deliberation?  Freeing ourselves from our own trap will determine whether the US stays on top, or joins the short, albeit impressive list of former super powers.

The debate today ought to be about the questions not the answers. As the world adapts asymmetrically to America’s predominant power, will the decisions we make today make a difference?  As culturalist, Robert Wright, points out, should we “kill the terrorists” or “kill the terrorist meme?”[1]  Should we be investing in bigger bombs and more troops, or fuel independence and smarter networks?  We must rethink our debates and question all the old ‘givens’ from our Cold War mentality.

Our military industrial complex is obsolete. We must build an intelligence complex that is both effective and highly adaptive if we are to succeed in a world where the enemy is unseen and alliances are self-executing based on instantaneous calculations of relative benefit.  And, we must realize that the power of attraction now trumps the power of coercion in a new game of paper, rock, scissors, and fire.

[1] Robert Wright, “Who Created Major Hasan?” New York Times, November 22, 2009.
By |2017-05-27T16:12:02+00:00November 23rd, 2009|General|0 Comments

The Dark Side of Religion

When things don’t make sense—and as ‘rational’ humans we need them too—we make them make sense.  Our mental health depends on it.  When reason doesn’t provide answers we invite faith to fill the void. This is, at a cognitive level, one of the principal functions of religion.  We accept what our theistic traditions offer to reconcile knowns and unknowns and justify our response to a complex world that too often defies reason.

In David Brooks’ column in the New York Times (10 November 2009) titled “The Rush to Therapy” he points out “The stories we select help us … to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore others. The most important power we have is to select the lens through which we see reality.” Mr. Brooks gets that part right, then he chooses the wrong lens—of Judeo-Christian American exceptionalism—through which he interprets the case of Army Major Nidal Hasan, the shooter at Fort Hood, Texas.

Army Major Nidal Hasan, is an American Muslim and, undoubtedly, a murderer.  He suffered demons we may never fully understand.  Islamic extremists who wage violence throughout the world may have radicalized him.  While we have much more to learn about his story, those with their own agenda or point of view have preemptively written it.  Hasan and his victims have become fodder for our relentless pursuit of a truth that fits our preferred narrative, which serves our innocence while reconciling dissonance to keep us sane. In his column, Brooks writes his version while criticizing those who wait to know more.

Mr. Brooks proceeds by outlining the danger of “malevolent narrative” that has “…emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world … that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other.”  He then offers criticism of those of us who chose restraint over judgment in the case of Major Hasan, producing a “shroud of political correctness [that] settled the conversation” and characterizes it as “patronizing” and a “willful flight from reality.” He claims evidence that proves Hasan “chose the extremist War on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.”  In so doing, Brooks reveals his lens of Judeo-Christian American exceptionalism.

Mr. Brooks’ narrative about Islam waging war on Christianity and Judaism could easily be exchanged word-for-word by a columnist at al-Jazeera to criticize moderate Muslims who exercise restraint—crafting an inverse narrative of Christianity and Judaism’s war on Islam.  But Brooks, who is blinded by his lens of exceptionalism, totally, and uncharacteristically, misses this.  He could have led us forward to a higher level of understanding—pointing to the dangers inherent in all religions that allow us to not only make sense of the world, but which also justify violence, oppression, and murder.

All religions claim they are religions of peace.  Few meet the standard.  Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not among the few.  As long as we believe our particular religious traditions are exceptional—that rise above all others—we will forever remain in the same trap as Brooks, feeling better in the moment and forever in danger.


By |2017-05-27T16:19:33+00:00November 10th, 2009|General|0 Comments

Trillion Dollar Decisions

There are two trillion dollar decisions bouncing around our nation’s capital these days: healthcare and Afghanistan.  While each significant in their own right, they are chapters in a larger story: the re-definition of American identity.

Ironically, one initiative intends to improve and save lives while the other wages death and destruction—achieving as yet unspecified objectives.  Both cost about the same within their projected ‘lives’ per the Congressional Budget Office and estimates leaking out of the Pentagon and the White House. While no one is suggesting it is an either/or choice—the sublime notion of fiscal discipline notwithstanding—these choices illustrate what is likely a transformational time in American history.  Do we continue to assert our hegemony in the global system (with or without the cover of national security), or do we turn inward and take care of our own house?

Even if we succeed at each—admittedly a foolish assumption—even if we actually take our healthcare system back from the stranglehold of the health insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies, state-based fiefdoms, malpractice attorneys, et al, and achieve affordable, accessible healthcare for all; or that we crush al-Qaeda, the Taliban, build a democracy in Afghanistan, or whomever/whatever it is we’re fighting for today, is it worth two trillion dollars and thousands of lives?  Are hegemony and/or healthcare the right priorities?  What about education, energy, climate change, economic development, scientific research, human rights, international law, or the dependability of the global financial system (to name a few other choices)?

The larger issue is what makes a nation powerful and successful today—cherished by its people and envied by the world?  Which of the laundry list of initiatives collectively succeed in meeting this standard?  Which America will emerge in the next five years, ten years? What does it mean for our children and grandchildren? Will there be any trillions left for them to spend? Will they even be spending dollars?  Are we staring at the sunset of the American empire or its re-birth?  Do our leaders understand the enormity of the moment?  Is Obama the next Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, or Reagan; presidents who transformed our national identity and kept the American dream alive?  Or, are we destined to fumble our way recklessly forward toward a crisis where we are defined by powers, elements, and interests beyond our control?

The moment is Obama’s, notwithstanding the march of members of congress to the lectern to grab their seconds of fame, or the pundits who fan the flames of absurdity to claim the title of last loudmouth standing.  They will still be there second-guessing everyone when this sequel is written.  It is time for Obama to sit alone and contemplate the larger issue: how to keep America on top, cherished by her own and envied my many more, keeping the American dream alive.  The answer may or may not include healthcare and Afghanistan.


By |2017-05-27T16:29:04+00:00October 30th, 2009|General|0 Comments

Afghanistan: Let’s Get Real

History suggests, and our own experience confirms, that waging war in Afghanistan is a fool’s bet.  Two great powers have come before us and failed: the British in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th.  We went there eight years ago with a defined mission: destroy Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda base of operations responsible for terrorist attacks on the United States. We failed, perhaps because we decided Saddam Hussein and Iraq were the larger threat (or satisfied other ambitions), yet we failed nonetheless.

We now have 69,000 troops in Afghanistan. By all accounts, including most recently that of Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, we are failing still.  The government we supported to replace the Taliban, which we displaced prior to taking on Iraq, is corrupt and unable to maintain security. Afghans view the Karzai government as illegitimate. The Taliban has taken control of the border areas with Pakistan and virtually all areas outside the capitol of Kabul. And, al-Qaeda operations now flourish in Pakistan—a state with 50 nuclear warheads. As a Taliban commander recently claimed in an interview with Richard Engel of NBC News, there is little difference between us [Taliban] and al-Qaeda: “We both want to kill Americans.” Yet, the only Americans they have killed since 9/11 are the ones we have placed there, in harms way.

Many argue the reason to commit more troops (40,000 more is the latest estimate by General McChrystal) is to, as Senator McCain argues, “protect the 69,000 who are there.” Others predict that not finishing the job means more 9/11s. But wouldn’t coming home better protect those troops? Is prevention of terrorist attacks less expensive than expanding efforts at counterinsurgency 7,000 miles away? And, what is “the job”?

The mission today has not been articulated beyond a stubborn resolve to “never give up.”  No compelling argument has been made that defeating the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan will stop, or even curb the activities of terrorists—of those who hate us (for whatever reason).  Even once those definitions and arguments are successfully made, a critical decision must be made: is it worth more troop fatalities and billions of dollars?  Are there better opportunities to invest the talents of our troops and financial resources?  Does it serve the best/highest interests of the United States of America?

Absent a fully articulated plan and cost/benefit analysis that proves more compelling than addressing other objectives like healthcare, education, alternative fuels, etc., perhaps we should set our stubbornness aside and come home.

By |2017-05-27T16:36:19+00:00October 7th, 2009|General|0 Comments
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