Well, Look At Us

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Every single day in my hometown, and without much incident, close to a million people get out of their beds, bathe, eat something and get themselves to work, or school, or somewhere else they believe to be worth getting to.

Some climb, (granted, with fingers crossed, perhaps), onto our city’s public transit system, called MUNI, or the regional transit system, called BART, or onto AMTRAK, or Caltrain, or into employer-provided buses, or their own cars, or bikes, or even walk; again, mostly without incident, to speak of. Now, MUNI can be insanely crowded, late and filthy. By all rights, there could be riots on the rails every day about some offense or other but there are just not. Mostly, my fellow San Franciscans and I get on, get off and get about our business.

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We go to workplaces and schools and studios and stores to buy food – or maybe eat out with our friends and families on Sunday nights, or special occasions. We’re productive, hardworking people, just like most people in most cities are, trying to do well by ourselves, our families and succeeding generations.

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In my hometown, we residents and our families originally come from places all over the globe – China, Russia, Italy, England, Cameroon, Indonesia, Cambodia, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Japan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and even Greece, like my family did. We’re Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Sikhs, Muslims and Druids. And, miracle of miracles, there’s no faith-based violence to speak of – not even much evidenced expression of faith-based hatred, anger or enmity. And this isn’t because there’s no overt expression of religious belief or practice – there are more places of worship in San Francisco than bars (If you know anything about this city, you know that is a significant statistic.) – as some would have you believe.

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And we’re people of all genders and sexual orientations and identities. And – witness any public gathering – widely diverse aesthetics as well.

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This city – any large and diverse city – only works because we collectively agree to accept, appreciate, and even celebrate the diversity in which we live and pretty much let other people get on with their own lives as they themselves see fit.

(Go in peace, my brother.)

The fact that we try, day in and day out, is both extraordinary and startlingly common to all modern cities of any scale.  The fact that it works and has worked here for over 150 years, without widespread insanity and violence, day in and day out, is nothing short of absolutely miraculous.

There’s a lesson in this, for those who care to hear it.

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Tortured Or Obedient?

My father, a veteran of the Second World War, spoke very infrequently about his experiences in the war. The engine room of a ship in combat was simply a place I don’t believe he much wanted to revisit. Memories of one of his stories, however, still gives me chills.

His ship was assigned to pick up surviving Marines after the horrific battle for the South Pacific island of Peleliu. My dad described the Marines as, in his own words, living ghosts: withdrawn and disconnected, starving and thirsty, filthy, wandering aimlessly about the ship, unable to speak, shaking, staring blankly into the air.

It didn’t help that Peleliu was a complete disaster: a ‘victory’ that came with a very high cost in lives and, as it happens, no real military value.

I’m reminded of my dad’s story whenever I think about our nation’s recent military actions in Afghanistan, a mission that is literally bleeding away our nation’s resources, cannot hope to succeed (whatever that would even mean in this context) and is of dubious military value in any event.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Afghanistan has been repelling and outlasting invaders for millennia. Most recently before our arrival, Afghans bled the army of the Soviet Union to near-death during its 10-year occupation. Today, Afghans are already preparing for the day American forces depart by arming themselves and their militias to the teeth and setting up militia-led and, in some cases, Taliban-led de facto local and regional governments. In many cases, according to recent reports, these governments are more accepted and more efficient at providing services than the elected Afghan national government.

Over the long term then, what, exactly, have we accomplished through our sacrifice of blood?

Understand, I’m not in any way criticizing the men and women of America’s armed forces. The problem lies considerably higher in the chain of command. Our soldiers, sailors and Marines were put into an untenable and dangerous situation because our leaders lacked firm goals and adequate knowledge and understandings of the context. Further, they continue to be sacrificed because our leaders are more concerned with their own egos than the lives of our service men and women.

Those in our armed forces pay the price, sometimes the ultimate price, for the stupidity, fecklessness and ego of their masters.

As he contemplated the cost of war, author and scientist Jacob Bronowski mused:

‘There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.’

Just like their predecessors on Peleliu, the men and women in our armed forces are being turned into ghosts, whether obedient or tortured, for nothing of real value.

Our leaders should be ashamed.

Completely and Precisely Wrong

[PLEASE NOTE: The following photograph is disturbing. Some readers may wish to avoid.]

Earlier today, the Los Angeles Times published photos of American soldiers posing smugly and triumphantly with the dead bodies of their adversaries in Afghanistan. They, and the many other photos the LA Times chose, out of propriety, not to publish, are appalling, disrespectful of the dead, debasing of humanity. Not to excuse the behavior, but these are exactly the characteristics that can come out in people who are in protracted military conflict situations.

These photos, along with those of American soldiers cavorting in “humorously” sexualized positions with their prisoners, from inside Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, paint a horrendous picture of American forces, their commanders and their mission, their disrespect for our adversaries and their Islamic traditions.

And, as one would expect, the statements of response from the Pentagon were swift and furious. But the most intense condemnations were directed, not at our soldiers’ behavior, but at the Los Angeles Times. The spokesperson for Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, said his boss was “disappointed that despite our request not to publish these photographs, the Los Angeles Times went ahead. The danger is that this material could be used by the enemy to incite violence against U.S. and Afghan service members in Afghanistan.”

Dead wrong, Mr. Secretary.

It is absolutely not the publication of these photographs that will incite violence against America and Americans. It is not even the fact that these horrific photographs exist. What incites violence against our men and women in the armed forces and against our nation is the fact that some of our servicepeople treat our adversaries as playthings and, frankly, the fact that our forces are still in Afghanistan.

Do you really want to end the violence against Americans in Afghanistan, Mr. Secretary? Bring our men and women home. We have no business being there. But because it is impolitic to state the plain truth – namely, that our mission in Afghanistan is both fruitless and endless – you create a false issue around the LA Times’ publication of these photographs.

In this matter, sir, you are not only wrong, you are shamefully so.

Top Five Things You Don’t Want to Hear Your Pilot Say

[Courtesy of Captain Clayton Osbon, JetBlue.]

5. ‘Let me in! Let me in!’ while pounding on the other side of the cockpit door.

4. ‘They’re going to take us down! They’re taking us down! They’re going to take us down!’

3. ‘Say the Lord’s prayer! Say the Lord’s prayer!’

2. ‘I’m not responsible for this plane crashing.’

1. Anything to do with al-Qaeda, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or bombs.