Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

November 4, 2017

The Military Myth

By David K. Shipler

            At a rest stop in Vermont recently, I fell into conversation with two men staffing a table set up by a veterans’ organization. One, about my age, had been an officer on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam during the war. So we compared notes. I’d been an officer on a destroyer at the same time, but in much safer places, half a world away in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
            “Thank you for your service,” he said. No need for thanks, I replied. I had cruised to exotic ports, loved being at sea, and benefitted from responsibility placed on me at a young age. “But you put yourself in harm’s way,” said the other guy, who’d been in the army. I shook my head. I was never in harm’s way, I told them. I was in more harm’s way as a journalist later, in a couple of war zones, Vietnam included. And I served my country much more significantly reporting important news than sailing on a ship through peaceful waters.
            But American society has adopted a narrow view of service. At least superficially, in the pageantry that accompanies sporting events and various public expressions of patriotism, the men and women in uniform are celebrated. Rightly so, in many cases. But what about the civilians—providers of humanitarian aid, human rights observers, news correspondents who have also risked, and lost, their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the mission of assisting victims and informing Americans?
            During the recently broadcast series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, citizens who had sacrificed a good deal to oppose the war emailed among themselves, and sometimes spoke and wrote publicly, in wounded complaint that their contributions to the country had been virtually ignored or, worse, given a negative cast by the filmmakers.
            “Their portrayal of the anti-war movement is pathetically weak, two-dimensional and, at some points, deliberately biased,” wrote Ron Young, a veteran himself—not of the military but of practically every major protest effort in modern American history, from the civil rights movement on. He resisted the draft and carried letters to American POWs in North Vietnam. But neither he nor others whose deep principles led them to confront imprisonment or seek exile in Canada are cited for the dangers they faced, much less for the heroism they often displayed. Hardly any of their stories are told in the Burns-Novick series, Young lamented.
 At some level, America today seems bent on correcting its disparagement of the military during the war in Vietnam. While returning soldiers were not as widely vilified as popular legend would have it, some passed through pockets of resentment, even from fellow veterans of earlier wars. Interviewing Vietnam vets for his book Enduring Vietnam, James Wright heard of some American Legion posts, populated mostly by men who fought in World War II, that were less than welcoming to newcomers off the battlefields of Vietnam. One young man told Wright that he and two other Vietnam vets “went drinking almost every night, usually at the American Legion. The members never said hello to us or asked us to join the Legion, and this is a very small town, they knew who we were.”
The failure to win the war was a major factor. “I know these boys have done all they could and they’ve been brave,” said a veteran of World War II, “but still they broke that old winning mold.”
Indeed, to be ruthless about it, the vaunted US military has not won a significant war since 1945. (Grenada doesn’t count, Korea ended in stalemate.) Partly because we have not had to fight since World War II for our own survival, partly because the nature of most warfare has morphed into indigenous insurrection propelled by non-state actors, the high-tech, high-explosive American arsenal has missed its real targets. We can obliterate whole cities to conquer territory occupied by the Islamic State (killing lots of civilians in the process), and we can pulverize the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in Baghdad and Kabul. We can deploy deadly drones in far-flung parts of Africa and Asia that most Americans don’t consider at war with the US.
But the grainy work of eliminating rebellious militias and constructing peaceful civil societies is beyond our military capabilities. So we stop short, and the chaos continues. Then, these days, we hail our returning and fallen troops for their heroism in defending American freedoms. I’m sure they would have liked nothing better than to be defending American freedoms, if that were really so.
  The country now stands at a curious intersection of regard and indifference toward the military. On the one hand, the flags are carried by those in uniform before baseball and football games, the national anthem with its martial theme is sung (and used by some as an occasion for protest), and the president surrounds himself with generals who are seen as bulwarks of sense against the bellicose Trumpist impulses.
On the other hand, nearly half of American voters did not seem to care last fall that Trump had avoided military service, said he knew more than the generals about defeating the Islamic State, denounced Sen. John McCain for being taken prisoner in Vietnam, and insulted the parents of a Muslim-American soldier who had died in combat. Nor do Trump supporters appear bothered by his insensitive remarks to the widow of an African-American soldier, killed in an obscure mission in Niger, that “he knew what he was getting into when he signed up.”
If honoring the military is supposed to be so sacred to political conservatives, the duty seems about as sacred as the Christian creed is to evangelicals who adore Trump as he lies, corrupts, and brags about being a sexual predator.
            Integrity would be refreshing. If we want to trumpet the idea that troops are sent to war to defend American freedom, then we should limit ourselves to wars that defend American freedom, and then win them. And if we want to count our heroes, we should include not only Americans who make war but also those who sacrifice to make peace.

October 15, 2017

The Demolition Expert

By David K. Shipler

            You’ve got to hand it to Donald Trump. He’s gone from construction to destruction while scarcely missing a beat. After a real estate career doing deals to build hotels and resorts, he has not constructed a thing to advance the country since becoming president—not a coherent policy, not a beneficial program, not an international agreement, not even the ill-conceived wall that he promised falsely would be paid for by Mexico.
Instead, he relishes firing people and publicly undermines those who still work for him. He bulldozes the structures of government that protect Americans from dirty air, poisonous water, unsafe workplaces, corporate exploitation, inferior health coverage, and racial discrimination. He halts reform efforts in the criminal justice system. He introduces new toxicity into the country’s divides along political, ethnic, class, and racial lines. Years of progress are being rapidly reversed.
 He has driven wedges into our international alliances, made adversaries of friends, and set out to tear apart painstakingly negotiated agreements that promote trade and curb disastrous global warming. He has threatened to obliterate North Korea over its nuclear weapons, yet he simultaneously strives to torpedo the agreement that has suspended Iran’s rush toward such weapons. In the unlikely event that North Korea ever considers a deal with the US relinquishing its nuclear programs, it would have to doubt America’s trustworthiness, as Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry has said.
For Trump has shown the United States government to be unreliable in its promises abroad and to its own people. It has been erratic and unpredictable in a manner that erodes the rule of law, which requires legal stability and consistency.
Trump’s wrecking ball, which he wields with a self-satisfied smirk whenever he signs an executive order, makes it impossible for health insurers, patients, doctors, and hospitals to navigate with assurance through the complex finances of medical care. Business ventures that trade internationally, American farmers who export to Canada and Mexico, health services that treat women overseas, immigrants who seek an American life, foreign leaders who have depended on the American umbrella of protection and leadership, and myriad others can no longer count on the United States government.
This is deeply unsettling. The disruption reaches far beyond Trump’s intemperate tweets, his vulgar personal clashes, and his incessant lies. Mostly in the name of undoing everything with former President Barack Obama’s name attached, Trump seems indifferent to the harm caused to vulnerable people, from women in Madagascar who can no longer get contraceptives through a non-governmental organization dependent on US funds, to American voters of his who will now find their health premiums skyrocketing because he is merrily cutting off government subsidies. They will surely distrust government even more than they did before, when their alienation led to Trump’s victory.
Fortunately, he does not head a dictatorship, for he would be a cruel and vindictive autocrat if he had his way. He would not only urge that NBC stations’ broadcast licenses be revoked for news stories he dislikes; he would revoke them. He would not only call for an end to tax breaks for the NFL in retaliation for players’ kneeling during the national anthem; he would end them. He would not only denounce the critical media for “fake news” when it told unwelcome truths; he would close them down.

August 30, 2017

The Freedom to Hate

By David K. Shipler

            Perhaps alone among established democracies, the United States enshrines in constitutional law the right to preach bigotry. Canada’s Human Rights Commission can levy hefty fines for speech “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.” Australia’s Racial Hatred Act punishes expression and action likely “to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate” based on a person’s or group’s race, national, or ethnic origin. 
            Germany in 1985 became the first country to ban Holocaust denial. Further, anyone who “incites hatred against segments of the population . . . or assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population” is subject to five years in prison.
            Nazi symbols, anti-Semitic speech, and Holocaust denial are prohibited in at least 14 other European countries, plus Israel. The Czech Republic also bans the denial of communist crimes.
The constitution of post-apartheid South Africa, while guaranteeing freedom of expression, excludes from that protection “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.” The late Arthur Chaskalson, an author of the constitution and then South Africa’s chief justice, once explained patiently to me that his country’s oppressive racial history required constraints on inflammatory speech.
            Would this be a good idea for the United States? We certainly have a corrosive legacy of racism, now hailed by white supremacists who get a wink and a nod from President Trump. But other countries that have suppressed expressions of bigotry have not eliminated bigotry, which has just been driven underground to fester in darkness without vigorous rebuttal.

August 13, 2017

Bombs and Bombast

By David K. Shipler

            President Trump’s threats that the military is “locked and loaded” to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea are likely to be turned around by history as phrases of self-mockery. They will—hopefully—be on the same list of absurdities as “Mission Accomplished,” that huge banner hung on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as President George W. Bush spoke of victory in Iraq prematurely, in 2003. Or, remember President Lyndon B. Johnson’s swashbuckling call to US troops in Vietnam to “nail the coonskin to the wall?” As Michael Beschloss notes, it came long after LBJ himself, in 1965, had expressed serious doubts in private that the war was winnable.
            Trump’s hawkish generals—his chief of staff, national security advisor, and defense secretary—seem to know what he does not: that war with North Korea is also unwinnable, because even using conventional weapons alone, Pyongyang could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in Seoul and elsewhere within range of the North’s well-bunkered artillery. As American military analysts have noted, the North could send troops pouring across the demilitarized zone, and China would be tempted to enter the fighting. A nuclear exchange would be the Armageddon of the atomic age.
            Trump loves making grandiose (empty) promises and flat statements of tough-guy rhetoric. It’s been suggested that he’s still in real-estate mogul mode, figuring that starting a negotiation with a rash demand gets you a favorable compromise in the end. The trouble is, he sounds more like an unhinged Mafia chieftain than a sober United States president. In threatening North Korea’s annihilation, he reinforces the anti-American propaganda that has propelled Pyongyang’s painstaking acquisition of its nuclear capability.
As Jean Lee, a former Associated Press correspondent in Pyongyang writes in TheNew York Times, the North has schooled children to hate America and fear its aggression. So Trump’s rhetoric now plays into the hands of Kim Jong-un, who needs fear of attack and invasion to weld his people into a compliant mass beneath his dictatorship. Perhaps Trump also needs an outside enemy (in addition to ISIS) to shore up his waning support among Americans and distract from the special counsel’s accelerating investigation of the Russia affair.

July 13, 2017

Russia and the US: The End of Evangelism

By David K. Shipler

            Most Americans during the Cold War would probably have been stunned to learn that the Soviet Union, also known by Ronald Reagan as the Evil Empire, saw itself as a highly moral enterprise. It regarded its economic and political systems—centrally-planned socialism and the order brought by one-party rule—as the most beneficial for other countries, and it sought global influence not only to enhance its national security but also to spread its ideas of social justice.
            It goes without saying that the Soviet system of dictatorship and state-owned production was unjust in the extreme, especially for the little guy. But the Russians’ sense of righteousness was as fervent as the Americans’ reverence for free enterprise and pluralistic democracy. So, pursuing their mirror images of what was best for the world, both Moscow and Washington propagated their beliefs abroad with missionary zeal.
            The evangelical streak in Russian foreign policy ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the death of Marxism as a state ideology. True communism, never achieved, withered as a goal at home and abroad. Today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems driven only by a non-ideological impulse to protect its borderlands militarily, promote itself economically, and expand its international reach to recover its reputation from the humiliation of decline.
            The United States has also become less ideological in foreign policy, it seems, since President Trump took office. Defense of human rights and the spread of democracy—and even the promotion of capitalism abroad—have taken a back seat to an inchoate campaign of counter-terrorism. To that end, Trump finds no fault with his chums in the authoritarian regimes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example, but cites human rights violations in rolling back relations with Cuba.

June 7, 2017

The Unpredictable Wages of War

By David K. Shipler

            On the seventh day, after its dizzying six-day victory 50 years ago this week, Israel turned a corner from a sense of extreme vulnerability to a period of triumphalism. The armies and air forces of the surrounding Arab countries lay in shambles, the Goliath slain by the tiny Jewish state. Moreover, with Israel’s territory greatly expanded into ancient biblical lands, a hybrid of religion and nationalism found fertile ground. The movement then grew, even more than its adherents had expected, until it gained lasting power to shape the map for the next half century or more. 
            And that has saddled Israel with a moral and political burden. The euphoric victory in the Six-Day War brought a heady sense of Jewish self-reliance after a long history of persecution. But by holding onto the West Bank of the Jordan River, where Palestinian Arab residents have minimal say in how they are governed, Israel has undermined its democratic values and exposed itself to international condemnation.
To withdraw, however, would incur security risks and meet resistance from the religio-nationalist movement, which has gradually moved from the political margins into the cabinet. The movement calls the West Bank by its biblical names Judaea and Samaria, and regards it as the Jewish birthright, which Genesis says God gave to Abraham and his seed. The territory has been widely settled by religious Jews (along with secular Jews drawn there by housing subsidies). Many would have to be uprooted if a Palestinian state were to be created there under a peace agreement.
The outcome of a war, which seems obvious at the moment, can look simplistic in hindsight. Nothing of this conundrum was foreseen in June of 1967. Nor in 1973, when Israel nearly lost the Yom Kippur War, was it apparent that Anwar Sadat of Egypt may have felt that his near victory had burnished his warmaking credentials enough to then offer peace; he made a dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and followed with an Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Similarly, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which succeeded in driving the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the country, exposed Israeli soldiers to close-in attacks that eroded Israel’s image in the Arab world as a formidable juggernaut.

June 2, 2017

Trump's Embrace of Victimhood

By David K. Shipler

            One of the most significant passages in President Trump’s speech withdrawing from the Paris climate accord was this: “At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.”
            Laughing? If he actually believes that, then the lines provide a quick insight into one origin of his confrontational impulses. Being laughed at is to be humiliated, and a readiness to think that it is happening when it is not is a hallmark of an inferiority complex and an imagined sense of victimhood.
We have heard this before, as in Trump’s graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy: “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately—especially by the media.  No politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly.” Suffice it to say that Trump’s grasp of history is a touch shaky.
Victimhood is a major theme of the Trump Doctrine, and it’s what won him a good share of voters last November—working-class Americans who were, in fact, victims of an economy that had left them behind. In Trump’s rhetoric, however, the country as a whole shares their victimhood, as a victim of raping immigrants, rampaging terrorists, job-stealing trade deals, and the like. Now, to top it off, the world has been laughing at us.

May 24, 2017

The Ahistorical Donald Trump

By David K. Shipler

            There is an intriguing quality about President Trump, one that makes him a laughing stock at one moment, a loose cannon the next, and a breath of fresh air to many of his supporters. He is completely untethered to history—to the history of his own country, to the histories of other countries he deals with, to the history of carefully constructed US policy, and even to the history of his own pronouncements.
            He has no compunction about contradicting himself, as he has in recent days about Islam, and he seems content to address a problem as if it were a blank slate without a long background of messy complications. Unburdened by the expertise of scholarship or diplomacy—which he obviously didn’t tap for his Mideast trip—his statements to Sunni Arab leaders in Riyadh and to Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Tel Aviv and Bethlehem sound simplistic, devoid of all the hand-wringing doubts that specialists in the region would include.
That might be a good thing if it meant cutting past the burdensome histories that weigh down the region. You might call that creative naïveté. But it’s hard to see much prospect in Trump’s bumper-sticker approaches. Both sides want peace, let’s do a deal. All sides want to defeat terrorism, let’s blame Iran and ready our billions in American arms. Let’s give Arab despots the green light to suppress their domestic oppositions in the name of fighting terrorism. Let’s conveniently forget that the Saudi hosts developed Wahhabism from which al-Qaeda’s ideology flourished. Let’s not analyze the endemic, local wellsprings of radicalism but rather—as the writer Robin Wright has noted in criticism—portray it as some alien invasion that can be expelled “out of this earth,” as Trump urged the Muslim leaders gathered in Riyadh.

May 11, 2017

Politicizing the FBI

By  David K. Shipler

            The FBI has never been entirely insulated from politics, especially during the long tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, who in his 48 years as director (1924-72) compiled compromising dossiers on government officials and private Americans that gave him enormous leverage. His agency tried to provoke Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide by threatening to publicize the civil rights leader’s womanizing. It sent phony letters to wives of Black Panthers, purporting to be from their mistresses. It conducted surveillance of labor leaders, members of Congress, and at least one Supreme Court justice, funneling information to presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson. (During the 1964 presidential campaign, LBJ had the FBI report on the staff of his opponent, Barry Goldwater.)
            The road back to those days would be long and difficult, even with a President Trump who lacks ethical and constitutional brakes. But it’s possible, and Trump’s next moves will be telling. The first question is whom he’ll nominate to replace James Comey, fired just days after Comey requested more assets for the FBI’s investigation of Russian involvement in Trump’s campaign. The second question is whether enough Senate Republicans will demand that the new director be unassailably independent.
Because, make no mistake: Trump wants to swing his weight around as decisively as possible, and no more dramatically than in security and law enforcement. This is not only about covering up a Russia connection; it is to set the stage for draconian measures against Muslims after the next domestic terrorist attack, to emasculate investigations into police brutality, and to turn the power of the FBI against political dissent. Comey would probably have stood in the way. As bumbling as he was in his public disclosures about the Clinton emails, he was also known as a defender of the rule of law.
The FBI has a sordid history of hunting for phantom communists, keeping loyalty files on hundreds of thousands of Americans, wiretapping without warrants, and infiltrating and disrupting antiwar and civil rights groups—especially under what the bureau called COINTELPRO during the Cold War. Only in the 1970s, after the Church committee exposed the broad swath of wrongdoing, were protections imposed. These included restricting the FBI director to a 10-year term to preclude another Hoover phenomenon. But the position has no job security, obviously, since the president may fire at will.

April 30, 2017

Foreign Policy: The Magnetism of the Center

By David K. Shipler

            The forces of international affairs usually drive US presidents toward the political center. Wherever they may begin, on the left or the right, presidents tend to feel pulled toward a middle ground, a place of more moderation and hesitation than they might prefer. Confronted by the complexity of crisis and the pragmatic limitations of power, most—not all—end up pursuing centrist policies. These bear marked resemblance to those of their predecessors and successors.
            A question now is whether this happens to President Trump. He has staffed his key foreign affairs positions with relatively level heads whose pronouncements are more sober than his own. They often contradict Trump’s dogmatic, threatening tweets and the absolutist, sweeping pledges from his campaign. Trump himself careens from the absurd, scary, and impractical to a more reasonable zone of compromise. Where he will end up on a given issue is highly unpredictable and therefore unsettling across the globe. But his inconsistency also raises intermittent hopes that realities are penetrating policymaking.
            A president has more authority in foreign policy than in domestic affairs, since he commands both military force and diplomacy, and can move more quickly than Congress ever does in picking over budget provisions on the tax code, health care, environmental issues, the social safety net, and other government programs to benefit Americans. In that domestic arena, the center has no apparent magnetism for Trump. Despite the difficulties he faces with the Republican-controlled Congress on health care, for example, he is getting win after win for corporations over individuals, and might do so on his tax proposals. Whatever happens in Congress, his regulatory agencies are in the hands of extreme radicals of the right, whom he has installed to dismantle decades of progress.
 So if Trump begins to look moderate, and beguiles the American public to see him as such, it will be in the international arena, not the domestic.