Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

From this morning’s New York Times:

The U.S. military said “there may have been collateral damage” in Kunduz. Doctors Without Borders said its hospital had been hit. President Obama offered his condolences for the deaths.

Reading that a few minutes ago, I recalled a piece I wrote eight years ago.

Here it is.


If you haven’t seen The Third Man, put it on your list of essential videos. (It’s better on a big screen, of course, but it’s almost sixty years old. You’re not likely to see it at the cineplex.) Even it you have seen it, it’s worth a second or a third viewing.

What brought that to mind was trying to sort out an old adage: “The first victim of war is truth.” It’s crisp, pointed and relevant to the moment. But as happens with so many anonymous truths, it works better as metaphor than as political fact. The problem — for me — is in that word “victim.” Who or what is a “victim?”

Orson Welles — title character in The Third Man — takes Joseph Cotten for a ride on Vienna’s enormous ferris wheel. When they get to the top, Welles assures Cotten he is not about to kill him. Just wants his old friend to look down, two hundred feet below them, at people going about their everyday chores.

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

Victim. A curt, sharp-edged word. Brutal, yet efficient. Been around, according to the reference books, for six hundred years, remarkable longevity in a language as fluid and variable as English. And its original meaning endures: “a living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice.”

No wonder governments are reluctant to talk about “victims.” The living things sacrificed by governments are not goats or pigeons or lambs. Goverments sacrifice people. The victims of governments are people. Dead ones.

Imagine citizens of a country at war, a war begun by their own government. If they stopped to think, they might notice that they too — the citizens — are people. Just as their government’s victims are people.

Wait a minute. Are those victim-people somehow the same kind of thing as us citizen-people? Is it really a good idea kill them?

That’s why we have “casualties.” Casualty is less frightening than victim, less severe. Casualties don’t have to be dead: a person slightly injured in battle is a casualty. Business can be a casualty, as can prosperity or reputation or art. At its core is that easy-going word, “casual.” Casualties may be inconvenient, but they don’t really hurt anybody. Necessarily. Very much.

Still farther removed from human life is “collateral damage,” which sounds innocuous, or at most trivial. You know.

We destroyed the bridge. Unfortunately, we also loosened a few bricks in the chimney of a nearby home.

Look at the core of this phrase, however, and you find “collateral.” Co-lateral. Side by side. Co-incidental. Often as not, co-valent. A brick knocked loose from the chimney. A child knocked loose from life. Collateral damage. Not victims, though. Not victims.

But I was talking about truth. Let us reserve “victim” with its staccato consonants for the humans who perish. “Casualty” will do for abstractions, even so human an abstraction as truth. (A Google search for “truth as victim” returns about fifteen thousand hits. A search for “truth as casualty” returns nearly five times as many.)

If truth is the first casualty, what is the second? The second — and it may take a moment to make this clear — the second casualty of war is courage. Moral courage. Courage to say the king is naked, to say there’s a man behind the curtain, to say the President is lying, to say we need not to go to war. Difficult things to say, even if we do believe them, because the king, the President, the man behind the curtain will call us cowards. Will call us appeasers. Will call us traitors.

Our friends, who know as well as we do that the king is naked, our friends will not tell the king to put on some pants. They will play along with the fiction because they do not want to be called traitors.

And our politicians. Courage in public life? Look to see who among them actually spoke against the invasion of Iraq or, if they were in a position to, voted against it. See who among those who were deluded the first time around have repudiated their earlier support for the war, and now say it was a mistake.

See who among them is willing to say that a war now with Iran would be a mistake, that we should not and must not begin yet another murderous adventure in the Middle East. See who among them has courage.

My impression so far is that not very many have it. Courage, you see, is the second casualty of war.

Stuff Happens

Stuff happens.

That’s what the man said.

Jeb Bush said it last night, when asked about the Oregon shooting and President Obama’s renewed call for legislation to monitor, if not control, access to firearms.

The actual quote, as reported in The New York Times was “Look, stuff happens…. There’s always a crisis, and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not always the right thing to do.”

If it had been GW I’d have assumed that, as with so much else during his administration, the man simply had no clear idea what was happening and was letting Cheney run the country. But Jeb was advertised as the bright, thoughtful, intelligent Bush.

Maybe it’s genetic.

Or maybe, considering the Trump bandwagon, Jeb is just looking for a quick exit.

Stuff happens might do it.

Conscientious Objector? No.

Two items, the silly one first and then the serious one.

First, did Pope Francis summon Kim Davis in order to thank and encourage her stand as a conscientious objector?


She was invited, along with many others, to a brief meeting with Francis, a routine activity in the Pope’s travels. She was invited, not by Francis, but by the Rev. Carlo Maria Vigano, a church bureaucrat who has been a fierce opponent of any same-sex activity beyond football.

Second, does she even qualify as a conscientious objector?

Again, the answer is no.

If you are a conscientious objector you refuse to obey an order, do so knowing the consequences and willing to accept those consequences. It is much like — may be considered a version of — civil disobedience. The point there is the same. You do not make a point by breaking the law. You make a point by accepting the consequences of that law-breaking.

Davis served a few days in jail then returned to her position and tried again to break the civil law for which she was jailed. That makes her, not a conscientious objector, but a serial miscreant.

Energy alternatives

Much discussion and debate and double-talk about our looming energy crisis.

Everyone except coal billionaires — and their minions and spokespeople[1] — agrees we can’t continue burning coal. The exceptions of course, their protestations notwithstanding, know the truth as well as anyone. They however count on retreating to high-country enclaves when water and peasants start to rise.

Oil? That’s the next step on the coal spectrum, natural gas the step after that. Barely worth considering in this argument.

Ah, but we still have nuclear power. Nuclear power, which poses as be-all and end-all of energy production. Do, however, consider the implications of end-all when embracing a force whose dangers and costs we are only beginning to appreciate.

What’s a life form to do?

What about solar energy, wind power and water power?

We know some of the perils associated with water power: floods, forced dislocation of communities, disruption of water flow to homes and farms. We have yet to fully consider others, such as collapse of geological features when billions of tons of water are suddenly cached on top of them.

Wind and solar? Am I the only one who fears still more disruption of weather systems when we begin to harness winds and solar radiation in vast quantities in arbitrary locations?

Still, there may exist other possibilities. We can’t deal with those right now because we don’t know what they are. At least I don’t know what they are. When clever persons identify them, demonstrate their utility and efficacy, I believe we will discover that what is true about those we know will prove true about those we do not yet know.

And that is this.

There is no free lunch.

We cannot extract or adapt or harness or convert without paying a price. And I believe that problem is irresolvable.

  1. Spoke as a verb comes from speak. A spokesperson is one who speaks for another. Spoke also is a noun: a rod connecting a hub with an outer perimeter. Think of the Koch brothers as hub and yourself as part of the outer perimeter. Or imagine a spider’s web, its function and what lies at the center.  ↩

Good Business Practices

Volkswagen is terribly sorry about the mess. You know, programming an emissions-control gizmo so it would work only during test sessions, as might be run during a vehicle inspection. Out on the road though, hang on baby, diesel goodies coming your way.

They did it for the customers’ benefit, you understand. Would have cost VW an extra $350 a vehicle to include full-time emissions control. Adjust that for profit margins and wrapping and packing — or whatever the term is in the automotive trade — and it could have bumped the sticker price up by, and I’m guessing here but it won’t be far off, close to a thousand dollars.

Oops? The Bug now costs a thousand more? Maybe I’ll see what Fiat has to offer. Or GM.

So as good business practice demands, VW continued for eight years to hoodwink the public and inspectors. Now it’s going to cost them a big hit in market image and upwards of 25 billion dollars in repairs and fines.

And us? We are breathing air that is just that little bit more polluted than we thought it was. (Pay attention. Basic argument coming.)

Volkswagen was not alone in this scam. How many times have we found out some large corporation had rigged the game, doctored the books, switched the bait, bought off the regulators. And then when the shit hit the fan — as occasionally it does — how many times have they pleaded ignorance or missed communication, how many times have they cried they were being mistreated when ordered to clean up the shit and pay restitution to those shat upon?

Compare the life style of an ordinary Bangladeshi who’s forced to live and raise a family in the muck, with that of a corporate CEO whose multi-million dollar condo is fifty stories above it.

In one frustrating way, it’s the difference between Ralph Nader and Donald Trump.

Sometimes, just a touch…

Francis’ foray into the wilds of North America — who wilder than us, really — had moments of good and not so good and sort of in-between. But that was as reported by the omnipresent and omnivorous media, never a source to be trusted. (I speak as one who spent many years as a part of those media.)

I have great sympathy and admiration for the man. He is trying to drag a fifth-century global dragon into an awareness of if not an acceptance of the time in which it now resides. A task surely beyond the powers and patience of anyone.

No need to catalog the obsolescent trappings he’s trying to jettison. They surround him — and willy-nilly, us — everywhere we go.

But now, from his last day in town, a picture. An image, here with careful analysis, which makes the whole event much more than a media circus side-show. Go take a look.