Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Macro View

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Today I am going to switch to a more "elevated" perspective to draw attention to a world issue that greatly concerns me.  At first it might not seem to have relevance to my own personal journey I am documenting here in this blog.  But I will weave the threads together later in my writing.

I am deeply concerned about the civil war in Syria and what I see is yet another inevitable march to involvement by the United States that could ultimately unleash consequences as unfortunate as what have been experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I am no seasoned debater but I do have a good capacity for listening and dispassionate analysis. 

While attending the Monterey Institute of International Studies between 2009 and 2011 I was required to take a course in global politics to better understand the world in which we live and the foundation for the current day system of international law.  One of the primary questions we addressed early in the course was the concept of the nation state and its capacity to meet the needs of its own citizens.  The present day system of nation states derives its foundation in large measure from the Treaty of Westphalia.  This treaty serves as a primary foundation for the system of international law that would develop in successive centuries.  The Treaty of Westphalia helped give rise to the related concept of national sovereignty.

War as a phenomenon of human interaction has changed significantly over the last century.  Whereas nation states were previously a common initiator of aggression it has become increasingly true that many conflicts of the most recent decades involve what are called non-state actors.  Non-state actors may include terrorist organizations and militia who do not answer to the government of a nation state.  I would even wager that powerful corporations could be accurately considered non-state actors.  Given the incredible power that a small number of corporations exert on life in the West it would be a mistake to underestimate their power.  The recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are excellent examples of conflicts in which non-state actors have played a significant role.  And now here we are again as we witness the appalling events in Syria.

One argument frequently appearing in the media is a moral argument.  The appalling use of chemical weapons against his own citizenry is being used as justification to launch a strike against Syria's Assad.  I completely agree that it is morally wrong to use chemical weapons against your own citizenry.  We have international law that speaks directly to the issue of chemical weapons (Chemical Weapons Convention).  When a state not only fails to meet the basic needs of its own citizenry but actively employs measures to oppress, injure or kill its people there is indeed a serious problem.

Despite all the ink being spilled about Syria I find it difficult to take an informed position on the debate of a United States strike against Syria because (as I believe happened before in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan) the debate is being focused around certain narratives and issues to the unfortunate exclusion or minimization of others.  I find this most unfortunate.  I don't believe Assad should be allowed to harm his own people.  And I do find the argument that doing nothing could send an unfortunate message to other repressive regimes around the world that harming your own people is acceptable has some merit.  But here is one of my primary concerns.  What about all the suffering going on in the United States?  

Our nation and our quality of life was greatly harmed by the economic crisis that began in 2008.  Millions of Americans lost their jobs.  The economy is supposedly recovering but it will likely look very little like it did before 2008.  And one reason our economy is hobbled and our citizenry angry and anxious is the reality that we seem more able to find money for conflicts in foreign states than we are to feed children who are hungry within our own borders.  When will this stop?

What advantage is there to following the Westphalian concept of the primacy of the nation state when a nation fails to protect and support the long term health and needs of its own citizens?  Shouldn't the needs of a nation's own citizenry come before those of a foreign state?  If not, what significant advantage is there to citizenship within any state?

Let me be clear that I am not arguing for a new and permissive isolationism.  I do agree that something should be done regarding leaders who harm their own people.  I am also not so naive as to believe there is some simple solution to the present issue in Syria.  It is furthermore also true that we must have an effective foreign policy since a nation's capacity to meet the needs of its own citizens is best served through a combination of domestic and foreign policies.  We need to know something about the people who live beyond our borders.  And I personally believe we ought to cultivate a healthy curiosity about and relationship with the world beyond our borders.  A life devoid of curiosity is a limited one indeed.

I believe we as a nation have far too many pressing issues at home to address.  We have one of the most ineffectual and ridiculous Congresses in recent memory.  We have a party (the GOP) so committed to scorched earth governance tactics that some members of said party are willing to shut down the federal government as a way to harm the President's ability to successfully pursue his stated agenda as well as pander to their own misguided base.  I ask you this question: How is it healthy to live in a nation that always can find money for foreign war and conflict but cannot seem to function well enough to meet its own citizens' most basic needs?

And so what does all this have to do with PTSD?  There are a few connections to be made clear.  One unfortunate reality is the system of care focused specifically on the needs of veterans (who often have PTSD) is already severely strained.  For example, in the last several years non-combat related suicide has become a serious issue in the Army.  And then there is the grotesquely sad reality of the many veterans who come back alive from Iraq and Afghanistan but are so severely wounded that they will never again be able to make a substantial contribution to society.  If the United States launches any sort of military action in Syria we risk becoming involved in a conflict (short term) and possibly entrenched in a complex situation (long term) that could ultimately produce a whole new generation of conflict wounded people.  The need for short and long term treatment for those afflicted by PTSD would grow larger than it already is.  Have the costs of these potential outcomes been assessed with any degree of sobriety and seriousness?

Secondly there is the broader reality that resources spent abroad cannot be spent at home.  There are millions of Americans who live daily with PTSD.  As any rudimentary research on PTSD will show the condition can develop in response to a number of events other than the chaos and horror one expects to witness in armed conflict.  The demographics of our nation are moving in the direction of massive change.  With the Baby Boomer generation set to begin retiring in massive numbers in the next ten to fifteen years we will witness new extraordinary demands placed upon our already less than stellar health care system.  How can such domestic demands be realistically met if the United States yet again involves itself in a conflict outside our borders where there is no clearly wise strategy but ample opportunity for error, unfortunate escalation and ultimate disastrous consequences?  Our politicians would be wise to consider the policy issue of unintended consequences as they debate the issue of Syria.  And they would be very wise to consider the long term consequences.

I myself would like to live in a nation where the needs of its own citizenry take greater precedence than they appear to at present.  We have many people who serve within local, state and federal government positions who would take a similar stance.  Such people are loyal and reliable American citizens who find what is happening in Syria horrible but are also acutely aware of the pressing need we have to take care of our own.

And yet the drums of war are vibrating yet again.  I shudder to think what Pandora's box may open if the United States launches a strike within Syria.  From what I can see the benefits are minimal and the risks very large.

Later in the evening....

I dug up a short paper I wrote for a class I took at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.  What follows below makes my point well I do believe.  I wrote this in the autumn of 2009.

The Cost of a Myth
A Post-Modern Perspective on American Culture and War
Are you worth more dead than alive?  Well publicized events of America's cultural and political life might lead a person to believe our mainstream culture actually prizes life over death.  Consider the wrangling over abortion provisions that recently slowed progress on the House of Representatives' efforts to create a landmark health care overhaul bill.  Many Americans have very strong feelings on abortion.  Indeed, some people are so pro-life they destroy life as an expression of their respect for it.  A man responsible for the murder of a Wichita, Kansas abortion doctor recently expressed no remorse for his actions.  He cited the imminent danger to unborn lives as justification for the murder.  Taking life to preserve life apparently did not seem to be a contradiction in his own mental calculus.
Yet you can also learn much about a person, people or nation by what is not often openly shared.  America, all appearances to the contrary, espouses a culture of death.  Murder makes money.  Peace does not.  In his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges explores the statecraft of war.  He asserts all participants in the modern practice of war are defiled, regardless of position or intent.  Hedges worked as a war correspondent for many years and thus witnessed the cold cruelty that leads human beings to murder both adults and children as well as military enemies and civilians.  Hedges argues that the state legitimizes and subsequently prosecutes war (often quite easily with a large degree of impunity) by employing a number of techniques including destruction of the evidence of its inevitable horror, marginalizing dissident voices and revising history itself.  The common theme contained in these strategies is control of information.  The dead "become pieces of performance art" for use as state propaganda.
Any well educated statesman with a post modern perspective will affirm that power and knowledge are indeed intimately intertwined.  To gain and maintain the former you must know how to manage and cultivate the latter.  When information harmful to a reputation might possibly emerge, controlling knowledge is a paramount strategy.  The United States military is certainly aware of the power of knowledge.  To be otherwise would risk the American public's tolerance of war and its inevitable destruction.  Our culture's glorification of war necessarily requires a distorted understanding of what war is, and what it does to all it consumes.
Consider the eight year long conflict in Afghanistan.  Let us put aside all questions as to what the United States' motivations are for being there and whether the mission itself is a viable one.  Let us concentrate solely on the consequences.  Have you ever noticed how frequently American military deaths are repeated in media reports, and how comparatively infrequent are reports of the greater number of personnel seriously injured?  What ultimately becomes of these people and their profoundly altered futures?  Indeed, if our nation possesses such reverence for life, where is the widespread interest in the current lives of these personnel who survive?  If we care so much for life, where is our interest in these individuals' futures?
The paucity of data on the war injured can be appreciated by the name of one site that offers it:  According to the site, the number of troops seriously injured compared to the number killed is three and seven times greater for theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively.  Data from more well known sources is equally sobering.  A recent New York Times article provided an estimate that the costs of sending additional American troops to Afghanistan averages to $1,000,000.00 per soldier per annum.  The high cost is due in part to transportation and equipment costs for each soldier.  Regardless of what choice President Obama ultimately makes regarding the American presence in Afghanistan, the costs we have already incurred, and will continue to incur, are enormous. 

There is a saying that ignorance is bliss.  But we are ignorant of what our military personnel endure at our own peril.  We are truly burdened by this ignorance.  Long after the Afghanistan question is somehow answered, we here in America will be confronting the consequences.  Consider the many soldiers afflicted with PTSD.  But there is a still darker story, and this one comes from Iraq.  Consider the horror of depleted uranium.
The Depleted Uranium Citizens' Network of the Military Toxics Project provides data on the exposure of American military personnel to depleted uranium during the Gulf War of 1990-91.  The Gulf War was the first major conflict to feature the use of depleted uranium (DU) in weaponry.  The Army Environmental Policy Institute, in response to a Congressional requirement, generated a technical report on the environmental consequences of DU use.  The Depleted Uranium Citizens' Network reviewed the report and determined that "its conclusions are inconsistent with its creditable scientific statements."  The Network further states that "DU is a deadly substance from which soldiers, the public and the environment must be protected beforehand, because no technology can afterwards adequately mitigate its effects."  DU weapons later became available on the world market.  Does the glory of war include radiation poisoning?  America unleashed the pain of radiation related illness by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.  How can we tolerate the Department of Defense allowing our military personnel to be exposed to radioactive material?
Yet the horror widens still more.  For truly stomach churning material, read an article recently published by Justin O'Connell entitled "Copenhagen Treaty: Premises and Motivations."  The United States Department of Defense is recognized therein as "the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous wastes than the five largest US chemical companies together."  How can the largest polluter of the world simultaneously successfully provide for the security of a nation?  Have you heard of a greater contradiction?
A truly sustainable state is one that ensures the security of its own people.  And yet a sustainable state will also wisely recognize the need to provide a certain baseline of care and security for its military and security forces that ensure its own existence.  And on that second measure, the United States has a long distance to go.

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I invite you to accompany me as I document my own journey of healing. My blog is designed to offer inspiration and solace to others. If you find it of value I welcome you to share it with others. Aloha!