The Admonition Against Murder

The Admonition Against Murder

Danny Chen was a soldier in the US Army until he allegedly committed suicide this past October while on guard duty in Afghanistan. Eight of Chen’s fellow soldiers are now facing courts- martial in Afghanistan for exposing Chen to extreme forms of physical and emotional harassment that allegedly led to Private Chen’s taking his life with a single bullet. Charges against the 8 soldiers range from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter. A thorough treatment of the case can be seen at Democracy Now (http://www.democracynow.org/2012/1/9/death_of_private_danny_chen_military). Much, if not all, of the harassment and abuse that Chen suffered was related to his background as a Chinese-American. Much of the so-called hazing was horrific! No one in a command position intervened to stop the harassment in Danny’s case!

 

Not long after the revelations of Danny Chen’s case, came the YouTube video of four US Marines urinating on the dead bodies of enemy fighters in Afghanistan. While the video caused an uproar with some viewers, according to The New York Times “some military blogs have filled with reader comments supporting the Marines in the video” (“Reprehensible Behavior Is a Risk of Combat, Experts Say,” January 13, 2012).

 

Michael Newton, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School, commented on the incident in The Times article: “…international laws of war and the American code of military justice are intended to instill discipline in troops and set boundaries for what is acceptable in combat.”

 

In the same article, Alex Lemons, a Marine and veteran of the Iraqi war observes that “American troops…who either urinated on insurgent bodies or manipulated them for photographs, like putting them in ridiculous poses,” could be  “disgusting,” but “cathartic.” The latter turns the importance of international and military law on its head!

 

The Times article discusses the desecrating of human bodies in war from a historical and literary perspective with a reference to The Iliad, “when Achilles drags Hector’s lifeless body behind his chariot before the eyes of a shocked and despairing Troy.”

 

Perhaps the urinating incident in Afghanistan is what those of us far removed from the battlefield get with the use of embedded reporters as has been the case in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If a reporter wants to go along, then he or she will get along. It just may be, however, that the international rules of war and military justice are routinely cast aside in war, regardless of whether or not a member of the media is present. Some veterans will readily admit that these rules and guidelines for behavior in war are ignored by most.

 

 

I arrived at Fort Gordon, Georgia in October of 1969 for basic training in the Army. I was a member of the National Guard and had just begun the six-month training cycle required of all Reservists and members of the National Guard. The vast majority of drill sergeants in the unit I was assigned to were Vietnam veterans. The unit to which I was assigned for training was integrated with Guard and Reserve units from around the country along with a sprinkling of draftees. Most members of the Reserves and Guard sought protection from the military draft during the Vietnam War.

 

From the very beginning of basic training, with its modest demands on physical stamina, one Reservist from Brooklyn, New York stood out among the group. He was obviously ill-prepared for the physical demands of basic training. He was immediately singled out by the drill sergeants and made to appear as both a fool and incompetent because of the lack of physical prowess. The harassment was unrelenting and took place during marches, and during the physical exercises that took place on the grounds at the back of the barracks. When the company was not taking part in activities that required physical exertion, the soldier from Brooklyn was further harassed by drill sergeants. Belittlement in front of the entire company of soldiers and name calling were routine. It is inconceivable that both the lieutenant who was in charge of the company, or the company commander, were unaware of what was going on on a daily basis within a few feet of the company headquarters.

 

Basic training took about 2 months to complete. While the rest of the company planned to return home for the holidays, the soldier from Brooklyn now looked forward to repeating the entire basic training cycle in a special training brigade when the rest of the company returned to Georgia for advanced individual training.

 

All of these years later, what impresses me is how other soldiers reacted to the Brooklyn soldier’s torment at the hands of drill sergeants. Some would walk over to where he stood near his barracks and offer him support and solace. Others, afraid of being “tainted” by associating with the soldier, stayed clear of him and remained silent. I think many just wanted to get out of basic training and go home. No moral or ethical issues clouded or troubled their minds. Of all of the distressing sights I remember from these particular incidents regarding the soldier, was when he broke down and cried in front of others from the company. That was wrenching to see and must have been traumatic in the extreme for him! It is not a great leap of the imagination to fathom how dehumanizing the enemy to the status of “Charlie” or Gook,” as was the custom during the Vietnam War, could lead to the horrors of Vietnam or the experiences of the soldier from Brooklyn.

 

Every religion carries with it the admonition not to kill. (The admonition not to kill is also especially strong within the humanist tradition.) Military training and war attempt to squelch that rule by relying on the young and impressionable and covering its objectives with the wide brushstroke of patriotism. The latter works the same with all nations. In John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden, the reader is introduced to the proposition that even in the “wilderness,” that we as a species are relegated to, we still have the choice to act morally when we are confronted with the age-old conflict of Cain and Abel.

 

Over four decades later I met a veteran who had just completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan as part of the Army. He seemed fairly well adjusted until the topic of killing as it related to The Ten Commandments came up during a discussion. (The veteran brought the issue up.)  He volunteered information spontaneously. In that regard, he spoke of how difficult it was to reconcile the admonition against killing that he had learned as a child with what he had been taught in the military and with what he had encountered while on active duty. This moral repulsion against killing is perhaps as old as humanity. The guilt associated with taking a life is “hardwired” into our psyches. War does not change that reality. A short time later we had another informal conversation. He spoke about how difficult it was for him to adjust to civilian life after experiencing battle and how he had sought and received help at the Veterans Administration with the issues of his psychological distress and post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

Although the incidents I recall here are very different, the fact that military very often places a far-reaching range of stressors on the individual hardly needs amplification. The results can often be deadly, as allegedly was  the case with Danny Chen. They can be life altering as they were and are in the cases of the soldier from Brooklyn of so long ago and the soldier I met recently who had returned from battle in Afghanistan. And they can be reprehensible as is the YouTube video from Afghanistan! Whether a person was drafted, as was often the case during the Vietnam War, or joined out of a sense of patriotism or duty, as is often the case for a war such as in Afghanistan, the consequences of military service can extend far beyond the battlefield and lodge themselves in the human mind for a lifetime, both for the soldier and for those deemed the enemy by the nation.

 

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

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No Guarantees in the Goldilocks Zone

No Guarantees in the Goldilocks Zone

Published in CounterPunch January 18, 2012

In the opening lines of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic War of the Worlds (1898), the narrator observes: “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s [sic] and yet as mortal as his own…” What’s truly unbelievable regarding Wells’ observation is that just over one century later the Kepler spacecraft was launched into orbit with its mission to discover Earth-like planets in our region of the Milky Way galaxy. So far, the telescope has discovered several planets in what astronomers call the habitable zone or Goldilocks Zone of distant solar systems. According to scientists, it’s just a matter of time until planets are located that are in that zone orbiting around a distant star that is neither too hot nor too cold to sustain life. With the right amount of stardust and water, a few additional variables like the probable atmosphere and size of these planets need to be determined to make a guess about whether or not life in some form may be sustainable on them. Whether life is common or uncommon throughout the universe, it almost certainly exists in some form. If life someday is found in faraway places, how sophisticated are those societies and how do they deal with the conflicts of living in some distant place? How are conflicts resolved?

My brother and I were returning from a trip to Montreal in the spring of 1970. I had just returned from basic and advanced training in the military and had a few days off until I resumed my work as a junior high school social studies teacher. We returned to the US by way of the highway that pierces the heart of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Although it was mid April, the mountains still firmly held onto their snowpack as was common then. Fastened to a hillside, enveloped in an early-morning shroud of fog was a sign proclaiming the first celebration of Earth Day. As we drove down through the middle of the state the environmental movement was in its infancy. The antiwar movement was still at its zenith, and I was more concerned about issues of war and peace, although I recognized the importance of the environment. The searing images of villages being burned, bombed, and napalmed in Southeast Asia allowed uneasy connections to be made between war and the environment. Agent Orange would hammer home those connection years later!

But, in 1970, the world’s average temperature had not yet climbed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The planet was still a few decades away from heating up more than it had done in the previous 400 years! The Arctic Circle had not heated at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Glaciers and mountain snows had not receded or disappeared, as was evident on the drive through central New Hampshire. Coral reefs were not dying in response to increasing sea temperatures. And finally, extreme weather events were just that: extreme and not routine. Rain often fell softly and for short periods of time. Humans had not let carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels heat up the atmosphere to record, unsustainable levels. And, there were no environmental destruction deniers! Anyone who thinks that Republicans and Democrats are any different needs to take a hard look at both parties’ records on the environment. Since both parties are the parties of wealth, any substantive commitment to limiting and reversing carbon emissions is a pipe dream. Despoiling the Earth is immaterial to political parties  in search of dollars.

As I commute to work on the long drive from Western Massachusetts to upstate New York, I often wonder how the people in the SUVs whizzing by me came to accept it as their entitlement to drive such environmentally dangerous machines. I don’t wonder, however, how people have been so easily hooked on the song of the sirens of consumerism.

In terms of war, humans were just at the cusp of making civilians the primary causalities of conflict a mere 100 years ago. War would meld with technology, producing awful consequences! Despite evolving rules of war, here are some of the rounded out figures for wars of the past two centuries. The Napoleonic Wars (merely an arbitrary place to begin) accounted for millions of soldiers killed. The estimate of civilian deaths during that conflict between 1799 and 1815 were about 600,000, and that figure is “just” for civilians killed in France. The US Civil War was grotesque in terms of loss of life and grotesque battle wounds! Between the North and South a total of about 600, 000 lives were lost including more than 100,000 Union deaths related directly to combat and wounds, while the South suffered about 94,000 combat deaths. The Spanish American War of 1898 produced about 70,000 combat and combat-related deaths for Spain and about 7,000 casualties for US troops. World War I was another machine for mass murder with deaths in the millions, the highest casualties suffered by Russian, French, British, Italian, German, and Austro-Hungarian troops. World War II was the deadliest world war with a death toll of between 62 to 78 million. Of that figure, 40 to 52 million were civilians. Then, history witnessed smaller wars such as in Korea and in Vietnam. Korea produced about 7 million casualties among soldiers and 3 million civilian deaths. Vietnam saw about 1 million killed in the North and a like number of war dead in the South (many note that the number of dead in that war was higher by millions). The US suffered about 58,000 dead.

Without adding in war and war-related deaths of the past forty years in places as diverse as Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and New York City, to name just a few, a reader easily may conclude that despite very specific rules governing military engagement between peoples and nations, that we are, at least in general, a murderous species. Greed, the lust for power and influence and empire, and tribal and ethnic hatreds, are the fuels to this fire of murder!

Whether driven by a feudal, a communist, or a capitalist system (or “simply” by  terror), our species has gained the uncomfortable notoriety of allowing mass murder to take place irrespective of political, tribal, ethnic, or economic systems! The list includes (at least in fairly contemporary terms) Armenia, Germany and Eastern Europe, Cambodia, Darfur, and Rwanda, not to mention politically motivated purges large and small to punish the opposition or to eradicate an indigenous people. Both genocide and purges are often the hallmark of the species!

Another hallmark of our species’ behavior is the conflict between the haves and have-nots.  In the US, the gap between those who have lots of money and those who don’t has grown exponentially over the past three decades. The top 10 percent of the population own 80 percent of the wealth and the bottom 90 percent only own the remaining 20 percent. Incomes of the top 1 percent during the same period grew 275 percent. The poverty level rose to 15.1 percent of the population in 2010, up from 14.3 percent in 2009. That’s a whooping 46.2 million people (out of a total population of about 307,006,000). An amazingly high 22 percent of those living in poverty were under the age of 18 that year.

So, occupying the Goldilocks Zone doesn’t guarantee that life will go on without serious complications for a species. Perhaps there are better and worse civilizations where the Kepler telescope has and will train its sights. Maybe some are just about the same as the Earth. Nevertheless, as a species, we could do much, much better than spilling the blood of so many of our fellows. We could alleviate the pain and suffering of millions of others. And, we could actually save the planet from cataclysmic environmental destruction! Goldilocks survived by being cautious. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from that children’s tale?

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

A Book of Verse

A Book of Verse

I unpacked your graduation gift of British and American poetry for the last time

Its blue cloth cover on the mantle of the fireplace

My fingers softly tracing your inscription

Now, cascading thoughts of forty-three years occupy my mind

Your youthful beauty and fine intelligence

Your innocent love

Rollicking days at the ocean

The gooseflesh on your slender arms after an April baptism

Picnic in the park beneath the statue of the pankratiast as tulips and daffodils and mothers with young children emerged from winter’s hibernation

A million, million scenes raised by an exponent

And all that is left are thoughts and a single book of verse resting on the mantle bookcase.

Robbed in “Little Rhody,”* or the Wrath of the Neoliberals

Robbed in “Little Rhody,”* or the Wrath of the Neoliberals

Published in CounterPunch January 6-8, 2012

This past fall, both my wife and I were beaten up in Rhode Island! We weren’t physically harmed, but part of the pensions we had worked a combined 58 years for were stolen from us by a law passed by the General Assembly. The law had been championed and  proposed by the general treasurer of the state and signed into law by the governor.

Since we no longer live in Rhode Island, and I seldom follow news there, I learned of the proposed pension cuts while parking my car at the community college where I teach in upstate New York. A security guard whom I greeted every morning in the garage communicated the news to me, having heard a report in the national media on the pension system in Rhode Island.

I knew that the labor movement had been active in places like Wisconsin and Ohio over the past several months trying to stem the tide of attacks against collective bargaining rights and the pensions of current and former workers in those states. The anti-union and anti-worker movement is not new, with so-called right-to-work laws having been passed in states across the US with the intention of limiting the rights of workers won during and since Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Rhode Island is a strange place politically. Nepotism is an accepted way of doing business in the state and the political environment reflects that reality. Contrasted against the stilted political apparatus is the state’s stunning natural beauty at its seashore and the significance of the state’s colonial history.

Both the state’s general treasurer, Gina Raimondo, and its governor, Lincoln Chafee, represent the 1 percent in America. Raimondo representing high finance (by way of past employment before becoming general treasurer), while the governor represents “old” Rhode Island money and a storied political family. The cry of possible state bankruptcy would become the hallmark of the battle to strip pension benefits from those least able to defend themselves against the power of the state and often living hundreds or thousands of miles away. The whole episode would play out as a shoddy experiment in social Darwinism!

As the fall of 2011 matured, I received mailings from the Employee’s Retirement System of Rhode Island, of which Raimondo, as the state’s general treasurer, is also chairperson. Even with the seriousness of what was at stake in terms of pensions for about 66,000 current and retired state and municipal workers in the state, I had to laugh out loud when the communications from the state began with congenial greetings. Raimondo had successfully campaigned on the platform of pension “reform,” and she was about to deliver on that promise.

I began writing furiously and often in opposition to proposed pension cuts in the bill before the General Assembly and voiced my opposition to the bill on the website that the University of Rhode Island’s School of Business had created to deal with comments on the bill. Not a single letter I wrote was published in the Providence Journal and I was never contacted about my critical comments about the bill on the university’s website.

More and more upset, I contacted the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Rhode Island. Each president of his respective organization was supportive and already had spent years dealing with pension issues in the state. A previous pension law had taken away pension benefits to current workers in the state by increasing worker contributions to the pension system and increasing the number of years a worker would have to labor for a pension. After the current pension bill was passed in Rhode Island, these organizations could not represent retired workers in any legal battle to win back their lost pension funds. In Rhode Island, the bill eliminated (to take effect in 14 months) what’s known alternatively as the cost-of-living allowance or the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). The latter amounted to an annual 3 percent adjustment to my pension to help meet inflationary pressures in the economy. It was now gone with a simple signature. The state, under the new pension law, has the option of paying out a COLA in several years if the state’s investment portfolio performs well.

As the fall wore on, I was forced to miss (because of the demands of my teaching schedule) a demonstration at the Rhode Island State House attended by thousands of those protesting the proposed pension bill. Local protestors associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement attended the protest as well.

How much of a mess the retirement fund in Rhode Island was in prior to the current pension law’s passage is debatable. At the end of the decade of the 1980s, an early retirement incentive was passed that allowed workers within the pension system to use all sorts of questionable past employment experiences to qualify for pension credit. A summer of work as a lifeguard could be applied to the system for early retirement. Debacles like the latter, coupled with Rhode Island’s penchant for nepotism in official matters, lent itself to the slow deterioration of the system. The Great Recession of 2007-to the present may have done the rest. An acquaintance calls the pension system there a giant Ponzi scheme. General Treasurer Gina Raimondo claims that the state will save $3 billion because of  the pension law. I know I will receive a smaller retirement benefit, as will many retired workers across the nation as their pension funds crack and crumble under the strain of The Great Recession and unbridled greed of the wealthy.

Nationally, the Social Security Administration published the study in 2009 “The Disappearing Defined Benefit Pension and Its Potential Impact on the Retirement Incomes of Baby Boomers.” The study compared traditional defined benefit (DB) plans with defined contribution (DC) plans from 1980 through 2008. DB plans pay a lifetime annuity, while DC plans establish an investment account owned and controlled by employees (often with employer contributions). DC plans are generally more risky than DB plans, but the recession and attacks against workers may change the nature of that debate. The study combined an analysis of both public and private pension plans in both categories of pensions. The study found that through the years of the study DB plans fell from 38 percent to 20 percent, while DC plans rose from 8 percent to 31 percent among private pension holders. The study concluded that pension changes by employers would create losers among  baby boomers born from 1961 to 1965 (“last-wave” boomers) and hurt “first-wave” boomers (those born between 1946 to 1950) generally less. The study also found that “last-wave” boomers would lose more in retirement income than “first-wave” boomers, much of the loss accelerated by membership in demographic groups whose lifetime earnings are generally less than “first-wave” boomers. Those groups that would be hurt most would be high school dropouts, minority groups, and those who are unmarried. The most startling conclusion of the research states: “Finally, as policymakers consider proposals to improve the solvency of the Social Security System, they must recognize that the shift from DB to DC pensions means that Social Security will increasingly become the only source of guaranteed lifetime benefits of which most retirees can rely.” Indeed, with the drop in once guaranteed benefits from Rhode Island’s pension system, I will need to tap into those potentially threatened Social Security funds!

The Social Security Administration’s study does not consider, however, the collapse of pension funds due to businesses’ wrongdoing or the effects of The Great Recession on retirees.

Nationally, as The Great Recession continues for millions of people, the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) paid out $5.6 billion to stakeholders because of 147 failed pension plans across the nation during fiscal year 2010. PBGC’s deficit rose by 45 percent during that period to $23 billion. Astonishingly, PBGC has $102.5 in obligations with only $79.5 in assets. If the track record of The Great Recession on Wall Street is an indicator, that deficit will be foisted on the heads of the working class and middle class!

When I think of my years of teaching service in Rhode Island, I recall the innumerable students I helped while serving in several capacities within the educational system. I remember winter mornings driving with white knuckles resulting from my grip on a car’s steering wheel while attempting to negotiate ice and snow-laden roads. When I retired, I signed an agreement that I thought was a legal document that guaranteed benefits for the years I had worked, but law, as it turns out, is politics by just another name.

I also remember my years as a political activist, years that gave an entirely different flavor to the decades that I lived in the state. There were years protesting against wars and injustice. There were winter days standing with others out in front of the federal building in Providence and marches through the streets of that city that dated back to the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. There was the chilling hate-filled remark of a neighbor commenting on my attendance at, and writing about, the latter: “Hitler should have killed all of the Jews!” But in spite of all of this, somehow I thought that all of this counted for something. That, however, would not be the case. The US has long been the world’s only superpower and the engine of the economic system of globalization. Rhode Island is but one small cog in that system, but it’s where many changes took place in my life. And it’s where I wrongly thought equity and economic justice might prevail in some small way!

*Little Rhody is the nickname for Rhode Island.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.