The Graduate Record Exam in history I took at the end of college had trick questions about Canada--tricks because we knew nothing about Canadian history. A collective effort to come up with a list of great moments in Canadian history missed the mark.
Today looking at the situation in Ukraine, it strikes me that Americans are in the same factual fog. We know little about the historical or political forces at work in Ukraine. Our understanding of Russia and Putin is being made in the headlines. Europe's dilemma eludes us.
Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have been shuttling between Kiev, Moscow, Belarus and Washington dealing with a major EU crisis. The potential for continent-wide conflict may seem remote as long as the battle is beetween Kiev and Eastern Ukraine (with its unmarked Green Men and their tanks,etc). The European, especially the German, effort to keep the peace is rooted in a long history of conflict that the Germans may understand (and regret) more than most. One hundred years ago in the opening days of World War I, the Germans destroyed the Second Russian Army at the Battle of Tannenberg; not the first time or last time that Germany and Russia destroyed one another.
In the meantime, here in the U.S. our congressional foreign policy team of McCain and Graham call for arming Ukraine. President Obama has spoken of supplying defensive military equipment, which sounds benign enough until it becomes clear that this could include anti-tank weapons, etc. Those who have a handle on the bigger issues point to the danger of nuclear confrontation. At the recent Munich Security Conference (where McCain pooh-poohed Merkel's peace efforts) experts on the nuclear situation of Russia and the U.S. raised the alarm not only about the frayed relations between the two nuclear powers but about the fact that the "red phone," a staple of the Cold War, is no longer connected.
Spiegel Online has a report on the nuclear discussion at the Munich Conference.
If you have the time: A video of Ambassador Jack Matlock: "The Mistakes We Made with Russia and How to Stop Making Them. Matlock was ambassador to Soviet Union, 1987-1991 during critical moments in the agreements between the U.S. and Russia over the break-up of the Soviet Union. Sobering.
“In the event of a nuclear attack, which of these items would be the most helpful? Rank them in order of importance.”
This was one of the first worksheets I remember from elementary school. There were about twenty illustrated items. My classmates and I were perplexed. Sure, we had probably watched a filmstrip that mentioned the Geiger Counter, but none of us could remember what it did. And why would we want a broom? Would we be that concerned with the tidiness of our fallout shelter?
IT WAS ABOUT 1983. That same year, the Russians shot down a Korean civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan; the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a lengthy warning about the buildup of nuclear weapons; and on September 26, a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel secretly saved the world from accidental Armaggedon. But more about Stanislav Petrov later.
Growing up in the early 1980’s, not far from North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) and the Air Force Academy, the Cold War was a hot topic – even for kids. Popular videos on the burgeoning MTV network, such as Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” satirized and lamented the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Dads took their sons to see “Top Gun” in theaters, and we cheered when Russian MIGs were splashed in the ocean. “Red Dawn” was always checked out of the video store. One of my favorite books, still there in my parents’ house, was titled “Great Warplanes of the 1980’s.”
KIDS TODAY don't have the same fears. They don’t know that the broom is to sweep nuclear fallout off your friends.
The globally-aware college students that I teach don’t think about nuclear annihilation. Environmental degradation? Yes. Terrorism? Yes. Economic inequality? Yes. Racial injustice? Absolutely. But if they think about nuclear weapons at all, it’s in the context of who might acquire them – namely, North Korea or Iran. The notion that the arsenals of the already nuclear-armed states should be at the center of moral concern seems outdated, like referring to music videos being shown on MTV.
The fact is, the nuclear capabilities that already exist have grown in power beyond human comprehension, and there have been enough “close calls” regarding their deployment to warrant the gravest of fears. In recent years, many influential voices have made the case that – regardless of whether nuclear weapons ever made us more safe – they certainly no longer do so.Read more
Obviously the biggest recent story of "religion, politics & culture" -- Commonweal's "specialty" -- occurred in Paris in the last week. There have been a number of intelligent comments and more are needed. Martin Marty lists a number of "obviously's" in his regular online "Sightings" column as well as a number of links to other views. My only quibble is with Marty's use of the word "simply" in describing the murderers as "simply evil." The murders were simply evil, but murderers are almost never simply anything. To his links I would add Ross Douthat's online comment on January 7.
Thirteen years ago this month we set for Cuba on a large cruise vessel with a salt water pool called the SS Universe Explorer. Fidel Castro was still its president, and the relations between Cuba and the United States President Obama has just “normalized” were still very much not normal. It was December 2001, and Havana was the last stop before Miami at the end of our semester-long journey sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh called Semester at Sea. (We weren't supposed to call it a cruise; the captain preferred "voyage.") University students took classes in between stints in 10 ports from Kobe, Japan, to Salvador, Brazil. The program obtained special educational permission to take the Universe Explorer and its six hundred American university students into Cuba. A high school student at the time, I tagged along with my dad, a history professor.
The students were thrilled to go where few Americans could. When we got to Havana, it felt like we’d stepped in a time travel machine that only did half the job, mingling the 1950s with the turn of the millennium. The graffiti in Spanish, “Down with Batista!” and “Long Live Free Cuba!” looked impossibly new, though it wasn’t. But it was the cars I remember most: the old Ladas, Studebakers and Buick Specials punctuated by newer Japanese and Korean cars which were evidence of pockets of new money, from somewhere. These mid-century cars radiated glamour, even if they are falling apart, as did the art deco buildings. Pastel paint on buildings peeled and some houses crumbled slowly, propped up with timber. At the Hotel Ambos Mundos, you could take an open elevator to the room in which Hemingway stayed, preserved with a typewriter. In the lobby, a pianist played “As Time Goes By,” a detail I remember because I noted it in my journal, but now seems a little on the nose.
At the University of Havana our hosts presented a documentary about Fidel Castro, and from the little I knew about history at the time and from what the documentary indicated, he came across as a decent guy. After the film, students from the university joined the American students and I don't know who started it, but soon dozens of us, Cubans and Americans, were arm in arm singing John Lennon's “Imagine” as we climbed the campus plaza’s stairs to a reception. My teenage knowledge of geopolitics was awfully thin, so I was piecing together what I was supposed to think about what I was seeing. I remember our tour bus drove by what was clearly a neighborhood of shacks with tin roofs and a low-walled perimeter. "What's that?" someone asked the bus's tour guide. She replied, pretending she didn’t see it, "What's what?"Read more
The Senate Intelligence Committee's "Torture Report," the 500-page report which summarizes a 6,700 page classified report, was released today.
Even for those of us who follow the torture beat closely, this report contains significant new information and corroboration of previous suppositions. Among the most alarming findings is that a minimum of 20% of tortured detainees were wrongly detained, some in blatant cases of mistaken identity.
My own research on torture in U.S. detention facilities has emphasized the religious aspects of abuse ("The Secret Weapon" and "Disgrace"). And though today's report does not contain as much along these lines as did the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report in 2009, it does analyze assertions made by CIA Director Hayden in 2007 about the role of religion in "enhanced interrogation."
Hayden argued that the CIA’s experience with detainees and “their particular psychological profile” necessitated interrogation so burdensome that the detainees would consider themselves released from their religious obligations:
Perceiving themselves true believers in a religious war, detainees believe they are morally bound to resist until Allah has sent them a burden too great for them to withstand. At that point — and that point varies by detainee — their cooperation in their own heart and soul becomes blameless and they enter into this cooperative relationship with our debriefers.
… it varies how long it takes, but I gave you a week or two as the normal window in which we actually helped this religious zealot to get over his own personality and put himself in a spirit of cooperation. (485-86)
In case you missed it: last week, in collaboration with Frontline, ProPublica published its must-read investigation of "Firestone, Charles Taylor, and the Tragedy of Liberia." Here's how it starts:
HARBEL, Liberia — The killers launched from the plantation under a waning moon one night in October 1992. They surged past tin-roofed villages and jungle hideouts, down macadam roads and red-clay bush trails. More and more joined their ranks until thousands of men in long, ragged columns moved toward the distant capital.
Men in camouflage mounted rusted artillery cannon in battered pickup trucks. Thin teenagers lugged rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Children carried AK-47s. Some held long machetes.
The killers wore ripped jeans and T-shirts, women’s wigs and cheap rubber sandals. Grotesque masks made them look like demons. They were electric with drugs. They clutched talismans of feather and bone to protect them from bullets. In the pre-dawn darkness, they surrounded Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
They loosed their attack on the sleeping city. Artillery slammed into stores and homes. Mortars arced through thick, humid air that smelled of rot. Boy soldiers canoed across mangrove swamps. As they pressed in, the killers forced men, women and children from their homes. They murdered civilians and soldiers. Falling shells just missed the U.S. Embassy, hunkered on a high spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
A new phase of Liberia’s civil war had begun. It would whip savagely out of control over the next decade. More than 200,000 people would die or suffer terrible injuries, most of them civilians — limbs hacked off, eyes gouged out. Half the country’s population would become refugees. Five American nuns would be slaughtered, becoming international symbols of the conflict’s depravity.
Orchestrating the anarchy was Charles Taylor, a suave egomaniac obsessed with taking over Liberia, America’s most faithful ally in Africa. For the attack that October morning, he had built his army of butchers and believers in part with the resources of one of America’s most iconic businesses: Firestone.
Today the New York Times is featuring on its homepage a video “retro report” on the murder of American churchwomen Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan in El Salvador in December 1980. The report is titled “A Search for Justice,” and the tagline reads: “Nearly 35 years later, the case continues to take surprising turns.”
The video is just over thirteen minutes long and is variously disturbing, heartbreaking, and enraging, with footage of the discovery of the women’s bodies; of family, colleagues, and officials speaking of the women and of efforts to identify the murderers; and of Ronald Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick (“the nuns were not just nuns but activists”) and Secretary of State Alexander Haig (“perhaps they ran a roadblock”) suggesting that the women were culpable in their own rapes and executions. The report also reminds us of the involvement of two U.S. administrations in supporting the right-wing military government at whose hands the women were killed; of the reluctance of the Reagan administration to pursue an investigation; and of the fact that the two generals ultimately identified as having issued the orders had since “retired” and were living legally in Florida (one having received the Legion of Merit award from Reagan). There’s also a clip, in the early part of the video, of Maura Clarke’s 1980 interview in the U.S., just prior to her return to El Salvador, and for all of the report’s painful reminders and revelations, it’s her simple statement that also should be noted: “In my work, it has been very much trying to help people realize their own dignity, to realize the great beauty that they have.” You can watch the video here.
General Martin Dempsey, head of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs, has seemed to me a prudent and cautious observer when it comes to U.S. military action. His recent calls for more special forces in Iraq seemed ahead of President Obama on the issue, though on Friday the White House announced more boots on the ground (as advisors). So I was taken aback with General Dempsey's remarks at a recent presentation at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
He commended the Israeli Defense Forces on the measures they took to protect civilians in the attacks on Gaza. Between 2,100 and 2,200 Gazans were killed (513 were children) and between 10,000 and 11,000 were wounded. (the UN calculates that 70-75 percent were civilians; Israel says 50 percent). Still a lot of people were killed or wounded.
Dempsey goes on to say that he has sent a team of U.S. military to study "lessons learned" on the IDF's protection of civilians living in Gaza. The concluding sentence: "...I can say to you with confidence that I think [the IDF] acted responsibility—although I think Human Rights Watch just published a report that there were civilian casualties. And that's tragic, but I think the IDF did what they could.
What lessons will the U.S. military learn? Stay tuned. General Dempseys' full remarks after the break; the whole transcript of his conversation here.Read more
It goes without saying that the worst tragedy of Syria's war is the loss of life and liberty. Those with the power to ameliorate suffering must do so. But academics and other scholars of the region don't have that power, and instead they have been developing their own means of trying to help Syria. The past two years have seen a dramatic expansion in efforts to track Syria's cultural heritage.
Cultural property -- monuments, buildings, artifacts, museums -- is not superficial ornamentation of a nation's identity. Rather, nations use cultural heritage to understand their pasts, bolster their spirits during times of conflict, and imagine their futures. For these reasons, archaeologists and historians of Syria, whether professional or amateur, have built up an impressive infrastructure for the acquisition and dissemination of information.Read more
Three knowledgable and connected Times reporters, Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Landler, write today:
....Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East.
Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser during Mr. Obama’s first term, said the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a “farce,” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”
Should that story have been written a week ago? They note one element that I have thought and argued about over the last few weeks: What are "the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East." Story here, NYTimes, 9/11!
UPDATE: Can Obama's plan work? Skeptics right and left. Lobe Log
Five years ago I wrote two articles for Commonweal about religion at Guantanamo. The shorter follow-up dealt with Rasul v. Rumsfeld (and Rasul v. Myers), in which the plaintiffs appealed in part to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
At that time, courts ruled that Guantanamo detainees are not "persons" under RFRA:
Congress legislated against the background of precedent establishing that nonresident aliens were not among the 'person[s]' protected by the Fifth Amendment ... and were not among 'the people' protected by the Fourth Amendment.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Janice Rodgers Brown admitted she was troubled by the finding.
Accepting plaintiffs' argument that RFRA imports the entire Free Exercise Clause edifice into the military detention context would revolutionize the treatment of captured combatants in a way Congress did not contemplate. Yet, the majority's approach is not much better. It leaves us with the unfortunate and quite dubious distinction of being the only court to declare those held at Guantanamo are not "person[s]." This is a most regrettable holding in a case where plaintiffs have alleged high-level U.S. government officials treated them as less than human. (italics added)
She further argued that Congress did not foresee a situation like Guantanamo: "prolonged military detentions of alleged enemy combatants were not part of our consciousness." She wrote that "Congress should revisit RFRA with these circumstances in mind."
It is also true that Congress did not foresee large for-profit corporations as persons protected by RFRA. With the new, expanded definition of 'person' post-Hobby Lobby, lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees have thus filed a Temporary Restraining Order in the D.C. District Court.Read more
SOS John Kerry is quoted in a NYTimes story by Michael Gordon (war correspondent) thus: "BAGHDAD — Winding up a day of crisis talks with Iraqi leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the Sunni militants seizing territory in Iraq had become such a threat that the United States might not wait for Iraqi politicians to form a new government before taking military action."
If we take military action, why would Maiki and his Shiite government become more inclusive? In any case, what is the U.S. interest in supporting either Shias or Sunnis? What interest do we have in favoring one religious group over another.
Update: You can now watch Andrew Bacevich on Moyers & Company below.
Two weeks ago, Andrew Bacevich’s essay “The Duplicity of the Ideologues” appeared on our site. Beginning Friday online, and on PBS through the weekend, Bacevich will be featured on Moyers & Company, where he’ll be discussing the situation in Iraq and issues of U.S. foreign policy he raised in his Commonweal piece. You can check your local listings here; in the meantime, see the preview of Bacevich’s appearance below. (And see “The Duplicity of the Ideologues” here; it’s even more worth [re]reading in light of events since it first appeared.)
The exchange of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo was heralded Saturday morning as a breakthrough in negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sunday and Monday, the exchange is getting head winds from Congressional Republicans. Mike Rogers (R. MI) claims the exchange was illegal and against U.S. policy of trading with terrorists. We will certainly have more of this. And we will have more criticisms on the grounds that Bergdahl walked away from his unit on purpose. Bergdahl is now in Germany for medical treatment and probably won't be heard from for a long time.
President Obama will be criticized through the November elections, but he probably made the right decision for Bergdahl. And maybe he made the right decision for the Taliban prisoners, at least two of whom have been at Guantanamo for over a decade. If Congress won't let the president bring Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. for trial, what better way to dispose of them. They have been sent to Qatar where it is said they will be banned from traveling for a year. Maybe the Qataris will pension them off and they will live there ever after.
UPDATE: June 6: The Times's Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, gives a rundown on some of the media coverage and responses from the Times's news editors.
Events over several decades in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans remind us that upheavals in the present looking to the future also summon the past. Ukraine is a case in point.
A reminder of its past is captured in the phrase, "fascist riffraff," shouted by Russian-speaking Ukrainans against the Ukrainian-speaking groups now in charge in Kiev. It summons the Russian memory that the parents and grandparents of the current protesters fought with the Germans against Russia in WWII. Putin and Company's charges of terrorism and extreme nationalistism refer to this history. As prior dotCommonweal posts have noted Ukraine has been part of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Luthuania as well as Russia. It is a borderland as the geo-politicians like to point out. It is also Bloodlands as historian Timothy Synder called it in a history that examines the war between Hitler and Stalin; both engaged in the mass killings of Ukrainians and other inhabitants of the borderlands before and during the war.
In the meantime, here is a brief assessment of the dangers all around: New Yorker
In the State of the Union, President Obama said he would veto any effort to increase sanctions on Iran. Previous White House threats seemed a bit oblique, now his direct threat has pulled some Democratics back from the brink of voting for the "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act" introduced by Senators Mendez (D.) and Kirk (R.). Rand Paul, one of the few Republicans to stand back from supporting the bill, now opposes it. All to the good.
Paul Pilar, senior fellow at Georgetown and The Brookings Institutions as well as a former CIA officer, has a long memory. He enumerates all the ways over the years in which relations with Iran have come under fire, and not just for their nuclear program. In the National Interest. He expects that as negotiations continue other and older reasons to bring down Iran will emerge.
It’s a shame that the term “War on Christmas”—demeaning to both the gravity of war and the spirit of Christmas—is now associated with efforts to display overtly religious symbols in public places during the month of December. As Mollie’s recent column suggested, might the hawkishness with which Christmas Warriors are picking these fights hinder their cause? And moreover, isn’t this term a bit patronizing to those who have or are currently fighting in real wars?
For our throwback today, we’ve reached deep into the archives for this December 1925 editorial, “The Will to Peace.” Perhaps it’s just semantics, but the War on Christmas—with its talk of picking fights and engaging in battle—seems to directly contradict the greeting of peace offered at the Incarnation:
“Peace!” is the ideal enshrined at the core of all pomp and circumstance with which men surround the feast of Nativity. “Peace” was the one message heaven had for earth at the moment the veil was withdrawn and a “great company of angels” was seen by the poor hinds who lay awake watching their flocks on the hillside.
Written between world wars (though at the time, the editors believed they were eight years past the war to end all wars), this editorial concludes with a plea to hold out for peace that cannot be achieved through battle or force:
The world, in a word, can have peace, old Rome’s way or God’s way. It cannot have both. The first is the easiest, for the state is still supreme, and a word will set battalions and batteries on the march, and battle-ship propellers revolving. The second is the hardest, for hearts are not changed at an official word, and a city is taken easier than a spirit conquered.
Militant moral warriors fighting the modern War on Christmas might try their hand at peacebuilding this holiday season. They could take a cue from those in the trenches—that is, those actually fighting in a war on Christmas Day—whose famous ceasefire in the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a model worth imitating.
In 2000, our editors wrote: “Will Nelson Mandela ever stop astounding and humbling the world by the force of his moral vision and the transformative authority of his personal courage and conviction?” The question was in response to Mandela's efforts to end Brundi's civil war, but it expresses what has been said in so many of the tributes in the week since his death, in wonder over how much he was able to accomplish. Commonweal over the years chronicled Mandela's fight against apartheid, his imprisonment, and his release and subsequent election as president of South Africa. But we'd like to single out this brief item our editors composed after Mandela's 1990 U.S. tour. Read it here.
Thirty years ago Friday, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin came to Fordham University to deliver a follow-up lecture on the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” [.pdf], a presentation in which he introduced his formulation for a consistent ethic of life [.pdf].
I was a freshman at Fordham in December 1983; dealing for the first time with end-of-term papers and final exams, I did not attend the lecture. But it was big news on campus (and off), its key passages highlighted in the official student paper and discussed in my theology, philosophy, and political science courses in the semesters to come. To an eighteen-year-old recently compelled by the 1980 proclamation from President Carter to register for the draft, and made further anxious (like many of my classmates) by the belligerence of the Reagan administration’s nuclear-weapons rhetoric—limned with references to scripture—Bernardin’s wedding of issues made sudden, stunning sense. A pro-life position consisted of more than focusing singularly on abortion; it also meant opposing what he called “the moral and political futility of nuclear war” and directing states “against the exercise” of capital punishment. A formulation like “consistent ethic of life” provided shape for inchoate railings against what I was beginning to think of as the injustices of the day, coming along in time for the moral and political awakening common to first-year students. I still remember the weather (pouring Bronx rain) and how my mother drove the seventy miles from New Jersey to hear Bernardin in person, a basket of all my younger brothers’ laundry in the back seat because the washing machine had broken down and she needed to stop at a Laundromat on the way home.
That’s my personal reflection, in service of directing you to a more thorough and informed discussion over on our website. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of Bernardin’s lecture, we’ve asked four contributors to reassess his idea for a consistent ethic of life and to comment on its influence and its relevance today. Lisa Fullam, David Cloutier, Robert P. Imbelli, and Cathleen Kaveny are the participants in the discussion, “Consistent Ethic of Life, Thirty Years Later,” which you can find here. Once you’ve read it, come back to this post to share your comments.
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