Archive for May, 2010

Memorial Day 2010

May 31, 2010

Passchendaele - 1917

Memorial Day, begun in the United States immediately after our Civil War, commemorates our war dead. Originally known as “Decoration Day”, observance expanded after World War I and became an official United States holiday after World War II. According to at least one historian, the first commemoration of the war dead came when a large group of black citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, went into a Confederate prison camp, discovered a mass grave of Union soldiers, disinterred them, and placed each in a grave of his own.

Passchendaele before (top) and after (Bottom) the Third Battle of Ypres

Sometimes confused with Veterans Day, Memorial Day now commemorates the U.S. soldiers who died in uniform. Veterans Day is the day we honor all our veterans, even ones never close to a battle. Some of those may even resemble the colonel E. J. Liebling wrote about during WW II:

Military petulance is usually in proportion to the distance from the firing line and in inverse ratio to the probability of the officer who is being petulant ever getting there. “We have a war to get on with!” this colonel said, fiercely biting the olive out of a martini.

Don’t get Liebling wrong. The soldiers who serve but never see combat do important jobs and make significant personal sacrifices. And given that the day when humanity forswears war seems far, far off, active duty military people are as necessary to the Nation as our First-Responders who arrive to save us from crime, fire, and accident – even though we are complete strangers to them.

Chateau Wood (1917)

But on Memorial Day – that day commemorating war dead – it is well not to lose sight of the fact that those war dead died in places made ugly by warfare and often far away from their homes. They died for their comrades; they died for us. Most were young, all were scared, and none wanted to die.

That is why we chose photos from WWI for today’s post. Color photography would have made no difference. I’m certain those places in Europe looked just as horrifying and ugly in color as they do in black and white and millions died there. That most were not Americans is a distinction without a difference. We salute them all.

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The photo of the young men from Australia in Chateau Wood was taken by Frank Hurley in 1917. The aerial photograph of the village of Passchendaele was taken by a British photographer whose name is likely lost to history.  The photo at the top, taken by William Rider-Rider of the Canadian Army, is a view of the Passchendaele battlefield through which the Canadians fought in 1917.  All the photos are in the public domain.


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The Gulf of Mexico Disaster

May 21, 2010

NASA photo of the visible portion of the Gulf of Mexico disaster

Let’s see. First, British Petroleum (BP) told us the Gulf of Mexico disaster was spewing oil at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day. It used that number, of course, because “5,000 barrels” sounds like less than “210,000 gallons” which was BP’s estimate of the flow of oil out of their well.  That’s what is known as “public relations.”

Now they tell us that the straw they inserted into the flow last weekend to divert some of the spewing oil up to a ship on the surface has been a big success. That’s because, BP tells us, it is gathering 210,000 gallons or 5000 barrels a day.

Of course, any dolt can look at the video stream we’re finally allowed to look at, and see that the diversion straw is catching only a small amount of the oil gusher, about as much as you would catch if you inserted a drinking straw into your fully flowing garden hose.

Obviously BP was lying when it told us the leak was 210,000 gallons a day or it is lying now when it tells us that it is diverting 210,000 gallons a day into a ship.

Worse, the U.S. Government seems complicit. We would have expected that from the Bush Administration – the two men running the government in those years were oil men after all – but not from the Obama Administration.

Two possibilities exist: Either BP thinks we’re too stupid to notice that the lie changed or BP is too stupid to remember yesterday’s lie today. Either possibility is frightening.

Jesus Sees . . .

May 17, 2010

Sailing to the Supreme Court

May 12, 2010

Nineteenth century American lawyer Robert Ingersoll once wrote, “If the world ever advances beyond what it is today, it must be led by men who express their real opinions.” Ingersoll lived in a more sexist time. Today he would have written “men and women who express their real opinions.”

Which brings me to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

Apparently, Solicitor General and soon-to-be Justice Kagan has spent her adult life and career studiously avoiding ever publicly revealing an opinion about anything. David Brooks of the New York Times had a perceptive piece about that yesterday, placing General Kagan in a milieu of young people who, possessed of an admirable and clear-minded ambition, began trimming their sails early in their careers in order to serve those ambitions.

Nothing is wrong with selecting and maintaining a supremely clear-headed goal in life and sticking to it. Nor are mid-course corrections anything out of the ordinary. All ships that sail the seas make mid-course corrections. No sailing ship ever gets where it is going without occasionally “tacking” and “wearing” and otherwise trimming her sails.

USS Constitution

However, a ship that does nothing else but trim her sails, never gets anywhere.

That is a challenge for people who end up on the Supreme Court. A lifetime spent avoiding issues is poor training for the Court. It becomes an internalized habit, poorly suited to the job of judging. And, one assumes, that General Kagan has not spent her life trying to become Justice Kagan simply so people will call her, “Justice Kagan.” Presumably, she wants to do something after arriving at the Supreme Court.

The problem is, we have no clue what that something might be, nor can we know whether, after a lifetime of trimming, she knows how to sail anywhere. Perhaps the president knows, but he won’t be telling us. The modern confirmation process consists of senators making boring speeches disguised as questions and the nominee mouthing as many empty platitudes as she can summon while the president studiously avoids saying anything at all.

What we do know is, for the second time in a row, President Obama, lacking the stomach for a confirmation fight, missed the opportunity to put on the Court men and women who did not trim their sails just to get on the Court.

Again a Democratic president timidly surrendered the legal dialogue to conservative, activist firebrands; depressing liberals and progressives. Perhaps worse for the long-term health of the Nation, young idealistic law students all over the nation are taught to keep their mouths shut if they want judicial careers. No matter what your politics, in the end, you have to admit that the Nation is well-served when men and women in public life express their real opinions. That such bright, well-qualified people as General Kagan feel it necessary to hide theirs is a commentary on our times. It remains to be seen if either she or the president can escape their “trimming” habits and do something that truly “advances the world” during their time of power to do so.

I chose the “sail” analogy deliberately so I could paraphrase something that progressive Professor Pamela Karlan – who I wanted nominated and still do – once said. This isn’t a precise quote but it’s close, “Of course, I would like to sit on the Supreme Court, but I wasn’t willing to spend my life trimming my sails to get there.” A great many progressive lawyers across the nation were of the same mind and many possess the intellectual firepower, convictions, and legal skills that are the progressive equivalent of conservatives Scalia and Roberts.

But those lawyers, and Professor Karlan, won’t sit on the Supreme Court. They spend their lives expressing their real opinions.

Unlike General Kagan or the man who has nominated her to the Supreme Court.

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The photograph of the USS Constitution under sail was taken by Navy Journalist 2nd Class Todd Stevens and is in the public domain.

Here is more from David Brooks and Gail Collins on this subject. If you agree with the last two paragraphs – as I do – it’s time to start writing senators, presidents, and would-be presidents. In the meantime, in order to save any dwindling chance I have of sitting on the Supreme Court, I’m off to Svalbard.

The Finest Legal Mind in America

May 7, 2010

Blogging recently about the newest – as yet unnominated – Supreme Court Justice, I mentioned that Gerald Ford’s single announced criteria for his Supreme Court selection in 1976 was “the finest legal mind in America.

General Kagan

Of course, presidents don’t really look for the finest legal mind in America. They look for someone who is smart and confirmable. For many reasons, which you can read here, the pundits are predicting that President Obama will follow suit by picking someone safe and that someone will be Solicitor General Elena Kagan.

If he does, I won’t be able to hide my momentary disappointment. If he picks her, and some news outlets are already reporting this afternoon, that he will, it means that yet another Harvard trained lawyer and another East-coast denizen will sit on the Court. Every member of the Court will have gone either to Harvard or Yale for law school if General Kagan is the pick.

Judge Thomas

Recently, Chief Justice John Roberts was asked about the fact that all the members of the Court went to elite law schools. He responded, “That’s not true. Some of them went to Yale.”

Better for President Obama to pick either Judge Sidney Thomas of the Ninth Circuit or Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. Thomas is a westerner and Granholm is a politician and the Court sorely needs both.

Governor Granholm

But, if President Obama had any nerve and wanted to pick the finest legal mind in America, he would nominate Professor Pam Karlan of Stanford. He won’t though. She’s not a safe pick. She’s openly gay and – worse – openly liberal. Too bad, because she probably really is the finest legal mind in America today. Not only is she smarter than Justice Scalia, she is even smarter than Justice Scalia thinks he is.

Professor Karlan

At least now, Professor Karlan and I have something in common. Neither of us is getting picked for the Supreme Court.

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UPDATE: By now you know that President Obama chose the safe, expedient Ivy Leaguer Elena Kagan as his nominee to the Supreme Court. Here is a thoughtful piece by David Brooks on her career, demonstrating the difference between General Kagan and Professor Karlan. Kagan avoids taking public positions at all costs, while Professor Karlan once said word to this effect: Of course, I would like to be on the Supreme Court but I have been unwilling to trim my sails for my entire lifetime to get there.”  Apparently Kagan was willing to trim her sails in service of her ambition. In that, I suppose the President found much in common.

Kent State

May 4, 2010

Forty years ago today I became a Democrat; I became a progressive; I became a liberal. I didn’t start out that way. Born and raised in the rural West, I started out conservative and it had not worn off by May 4, 1970, when the government murdered four students and shot nine others on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University. Two of those dead kids gunned down by the Ohio National Guard were protesting President Nixon’s decision, announced four days earlier, to send American troops into Cambodia and Laos.

The other two were walking to class.

Even today, forty years on, I am filled with the emotions of that day: Stunned disbelief that such a thing could happen in the United States of America and powerless rage that it did.

It took a lot to propel me past my conservative upbringing. The only daily newspaper that reached the little town which formed me was owned by a family active in the John Birch Society. The president of the state’s largest university was believed to be a communist, even though he was born and bred on a ranch not eighty miles away. To most, Martin Luther King was a communist agitator and Bobby Kennedy was unspeakably awful. And, most people in my town believed that the only sensible policy in Vietnam was to, “bomb the gooks back to the stone age.”

Perhaps I would have escaped that mind-set even without the Kent State murders, but they added rocket fuel to the journey.

M-1 Rifle Carried at Kent State

I  thought by now that I would have achieved, if not Olympian detachment from those days, at least a short distance from which I could reflect on them more dispassionately, but it hasn’t happened. Impotent rage sits on my shoulder today, just as it did forty years ago. Somewhere my brain knows that two Democratic presidents made the decisions that got us into the Vietnam War and that all but one Democratic senator voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and that Richard Nixon truly did have the responsibility of doing what he could to minimize casualties, given his decision not to end the war quickly.

But the intemperate, foolish governor of Ohio had no such responsibilities. For that matter, neither did the governor of my state who called out the National Guard and sent them to my campus four days later. (Or not. He denies having done it.) The authorities here decided to allow all students to accept passing grades for the semester and go home. Many did, defusing the local crisis. But I didn’t. A  friend and I had a bet that semester about who would get the highest grades so we stayed. Besides we both paid for our college educations out of our own pockets and wanted to get our money’s worth. (As for the contest, we could have left early: It was a tie.)

President Nixon Explaining the Cambodia "Incursion"

As for the National Guard on my campus, I offer eye-witness testimony that they came with bayonets fixed. I assume, but don’t know, that they – like the Ohio National Guard – had been issued live ammunition as well. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I see in the official history of the guard here, they were sent to quell the “student riots.” Odd. I don’t remember any “riots”, although I do remember protests.

I need to be clear: I was never a member of that vociferous, misguided minority who took out their rage about the Vietnam War on those brave young Americans who fought it. Two friends and one relative died there, another received a Bronze Star, my sister confronts to this day the aftermath of what she endured there, and I know and have known many others who served honorably and well in Vietnam. The war and the murders at Kent State were no more their responsibility than mine.

Vietnam Womens' Memorial

America suffered almost as many casualties on President Nixon’s watch as on Kennedy’s and Johnson’s combined. I thought then and think now that Nixon drug his feet far, far too long. He ran promising to end the war and he should have ended it in his first year in office. Not a whit of world history would have changed and a great deal of death and human suffering would have been avoided. (Of course, when the country elected him, it did not yet know that he was a congenital liar.) Nobody knows for sure how many Vietnamese were killed in their civil war into which we stumbled and bumbled, but fewer would have died had we departed in 1969 instead of waiting for that last degrading exit from the roof of the American Embassy, thirty-five years ago last week.

I know that the universe is not in the business of justice; I know that other students were murdered before (Orangeville) and after (Jackson State); I know that other, far worse atrocities have been committed; but Kent State was my personal awakening atrocity and still I rage and still I wonder: How could such a thing have happened in the United States of America?

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Most of the photos taken that day in Ohio are still in copyright and while I imagine that the photographers, both student and professional, would not mind if I used their photos under “fair use” exceptions, I choose not to. But the photos are widely available and here are links to several that illustrate the folly of that day. Here you’ll see an unarmed, flag-waving student while guardsmen kneel seconds before opening fire. Here is the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by John Filo of the young lady kneeling over one of the dead and screaming. The closest student was at least 30 yards away and one of the kids killed was at least 400 feet away. No student was armed.

For more on the events leading up to that day and the day itself, see this page and its links.

For Vietnam War casualties, the Wikipedia page seems reliable.

The photo of the M-1 rifle is in the public domain. It is one of the rifles carried that day by the Ohio National Guard that now resides at the Smithsonian. Not every artifact in the Smithsonian is glorious.

The photo of the Vietnam Womens’ Memorial is by MBisanz. For more on the 265,000 women, all of whom volunteered for service in Vietnam, go here.


Cary Out

May 1, 2010

I don’t make this stuff up and I don’t “photoshop.” What you see is what you get.  On their behalf, I can report that they spell “chile” correctly, so don’t be too hard on them.