Reading as a dangerous activity

I made a pretty serious mistake in reading this morning. It was an article by Andrew Bacevich at TomDispatch, one of the sites I recommend in the side bar. So why, you may reasonably ask, was it a mistake to read something which — presumably — I would recommend that you read?

Well, it was all in the timing. See, I had just finished reading a very good book, The Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer. Good as in scary good. Because it will — in retrospect anyway — scare the pants off you. Why? Here’s a lift from the NYTimes review.

Anyone wanting to know why the United States is hated across much of the world need look no farther than this book. The Brothers is a riveting chronicle of government-sanctioned murder, casual elimination of “inconvenient” regimes, relentless prioritization of American corporate interests and cynical arrogance on the part of two men who were once among the most powerful in the world.

Which brothers? John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen.

The book came out more than three years ago, and clearly for all that it is well-written, carefully documented and widely available it seems to have made no significant impression on anyone connected with the US Government.

The mistake reading Bacevich? He only emphasized so many of the horrendous parts of The Brothers. Nonetheless — or maybe it should be “therefore” — I suggest you read one or the other. Both if you can, but not too close together. Enough to make your head hurt. And if I may say so without veering into religiosity, to make your soul hurt as well.


We all read the news today…

There was something surreal about the President announcing he had ordered missile strikes on a foreign country because he had seen images of children killed by sarin gas.

Not to diminish the horror of any innocent death but honestly, what does it say about us — our leaders, our politicians, our columnists and all the rest as well — that one child dying in a gas attack can prompt a heavy missile attack on a foreign country, while another child drowning while trying to escape the same madness which provoked the missile attack does not prompt a humanitarian reassessment of our immigration policies?

The official state… you name it

I planned to write a short essay about this, but it would have to refer to an item in the Guardian, and honestly, I can’t do better than to quote the original.

The Texas state dish is chili, its tree is the pecan and its fish is the Guadalupe bass. And soon, Texas may have an explosive addition to its set of official symbols: plans are afoot for a state gun.

Though Texas lawmakers through the years have seen fit to designate dozens of symbols, including an official pollinator (the western honey bee), cooking implement (the cast-iron Dutch oven) and shell (the lightning whelk), they have not yet given the seal of approval to a weapon, despite the state’s famous fondness for arms.

But a resolution to make the cannon the official state gun passed through a senate committee hearing on Thursday, the first step to the plan becoming law.

Another proposal in the current legislative session calls for the 1847 Colt Walker pistol – “the most powerful black powder pistol in existence” and used in the Mexican American war – to be recognised as the official handgun of Texas; another suggests the Bowie knife, named after Jim Bowie, who died in the Battle of the Alamo, should be the official state knife.

“There’s room for all three, there really is,” said Don Huffines, the Republican state senator who authored the cannon resolution. Hand-to-hand combat was given an acknowledgement of sorts this week, when the legislature made Chuck Norris an honorary Texan (he was born on the wrong side of the Oklahoma-Texas state line).


There’s more, of course. Help yourself.



The Old Lie

I wrote a version of this nearly eight years ago.

I meant it then, I mean it now.

We cannot casually justify then simply apologize for killing innocents.

I’m writing this for myself. You’re welcome to read it, but don’t feel obligated. It gets long-winded and obscure. Perhaps I’ll return and revise it, but it’s a picture of where I am right now.

Shortly after 9/11, we knew who and where the culprits were: The leaders of al-Quaeda, holed up in Afghanistan with permission of the Taliban. Understandably, the national blood was up; retaliation was inevitable.

Neither “right,” nor, as it turned out, “defensible.” But “inevitable” it was.

What was wrong with the retaliation, as we carried it out? The same thing that was wrong with our invasion of Iraq, the same thing that is wrong with our ongoing operations now in Afghanistan. We are killing innocent people.

There must be some answer to it, this raining down of death on civilians, this “collateral damage” which totals in the millions today, surely in the billions since military forces discovered how to combine airplanes and gunpowder. I’ve tried for years to wrap my head around it, and can show for the effort little more than empty aspirin boxes.

Does religion help? Can it? I long ago gave up on the Catholic Church for dependable, consistent moral guidance, but I did grow up in it, was educated in it through high school, and kept a tenuous connection to it well into my thirties. Willy-nilly, it is deeply embedded in me, just as it is in all of contemporary Western moral philosophy. So it was a reasonable place to begin research on that invisible line between right and wrong, insofar as war is concerned.

Reasonable, but frustrating.

The Vatican has an extensive and easily-accessed website, with what passes in an ecclesiastical setting for straightforward answers to difficult moral questions. There’s quite a list of sections dealing with the Fifth Commandment: You Shall Not Kill. These two seemed most relevant:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”

This last one actually precedes the other; I put it last because it was the most difficult to parse. It means — and I come to this from what follows as much as what went before — that killing someone else in self-defense does not violate the prohibition against murder. It is all right to kill in self-defense.

Of course, there is bickering about that as soon as we get back to that looming terror, “collateral damage.” As much sense as I can make of that comes from an exchange of letters in the New York Review of Books, concerning the death of civilians in Palestine — a very civilized debate between scholars and generals over the use of force — which included this footnote:

According to Michael Walzer, the Double Effect doctrine, derived from Catholic moral theology, holds that when you are attacking a military target (hence a legitimate target), you are not morally blameworthy for collateral damage (the second effect), even if you know with certainty that the attack will cause the damage, so long as you don’t intend the damage and so long as it is not disproportionate to the military value of destroying the target. In Just and Unjust Wars (1977), Walzer proposed a revision of this doctrine, to which the authors refer: that it isn’t enough not to intend the damage, it is morally necessary to intend that the damage not occur, and then to take positive measures, including measures costly to yourself, to avoid or minimize the damage.

If you are interested in hair-splitting over the spilling of innocent blood, that exchange of letters in NYRB, and the articles which precede it, make fascinating if grim reading.

The conclusion I come to is the same one which has been grating on my conscience for at least half a century: War is once in a while inescapable, yet it is always wrong. War, in theological terms, is a sin.

It’s not a startling conclusion, nor is it profound or unique. If you have come this far, grappled this long with my logic and my prose, you deserve a reward. It is this. A couple paragraphs from an essay by Chris Hedges, which reaches the same conclusion with harsher and harder-earned research. His title also is, “War is Sin.” Go read the whole thing.

War exposes the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. It rips open the hypocrisy of our religions and secular institutions. Those who return from war have learned something which is often incomprehensible to those who have stayed home. We are not a virtuous nation. God and fate have not blessed us above others. Victory is not assured. War is neither glorious nor noble. And we carry within us the capacity for evil we ascribe to those we fight.

War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans, calls for sacrifice, honor and heroism and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just…. It promises to give us an identity as a warrior, a patriot, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.

But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion and pain, an unchecked orgy of death. Human decency and tenderness are crushed. Those who make war work overtime to reduce love to smut, and all human beings become objects, pawns to use or kill…. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions that fill our days. It lets us see, although the cost is tremendous.

The title of the post comes from a Wilfred Owen poem, Dulce et Decorum Est.

If it walks like a fascist…

Art, literature, history, politics.

Also, grief and humor, graphic novels, childhood trauma, Art Spiegelman and Si Lewen. You may not know Lewen. Read on. You will, and be better for it. And Philip K. Dick, he’s in there too. All of which incorporates our immediate grotesqueries, but then, what doesn’t?

Here’s a quote from Spiegelman to get you started.

I’m finding more and more that I’m really interested in Sam Beckett. I just keep returning to him as some kind of bedrock—“can’t go on, must go on, will go on.” Godot is called a tragicomedy, and I’ve been thinking about that word a lot, because it doesn’t mean tragedy and then comedy; it’s trying to conflate them into being one word, so that these things are simultaneous. Looked at one way, from an Olympian point of view, it’s hilarious! And from another point of view, it’s an absolute tragedy, with all of the depths of meaning that that has.

I’ve been trying to focus on my own writing, on the rambling poem-like things which suddenly capture my attention and my energy. But what I write there also works, as if magically driven, to the immediacy of our world, our people. Some of those, sooner or later, I’ll put up here as well.

You have been warned.

If you aren’t already pissed off…

Bear with me a moment. This whole spying-disrupting-electing-bugging-dissembling-swaggering-accusing thing makes my head go funny inside. And hurt. Really hurt.

Wading through or trying to walk around in as much of the story as the rational mind can assimilate, I come down at last to one question. Well, to a lot of questions, but one of them seems obvious and I don’t understand when it hasn’t been asked before.


  • The Russians did in some manner attempt to influence the 2016 Presidential election.
  • Several individuals and committees and boards of inquiry have been probing the extent and possible consequences of that Russian interference.
  • Said individuals/committees/boards are in agreement that something happened but they can’t report on what they have found out.
  • They also agree that they have not had access to all presumably extant information.


Somebody or somebodies somewhere are sitting on and apparently refusing to tell what they know. Rather, what they knew and when.


Somebody knew some very important shit way back probably as much as a year, information pertinent to and possibly destructive of our democratic processes.

  • So how come aforementioned somebodies did not speak out back then?
  • Is it not the purpose of gathering national intelligence to apply what is discovered to the advantage of the nation?
  • Why, to cut to the chase, did various security agencies not inform us: the public, the press, the government what was going on?

And right this very minute — 10:42 AM MONDAY — with the sort of timing you find only in the most cheesy of spy novels, comes a bulletin from The New York Times. FBI Director James Comey has “publicly confirmed an investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election and whether associates of the president were in contact with Moscow.