Prediction for 2014: War Will Continue to Find A Way

“War is like love; it always finds a way.”  So wrote Bertolt Brecht, and when it comes to American politics and foreign policy in 2014, you can bet on Brecht being right.  There is no major anti-war party in the USA today.  Despite claims to fiscal austerity, Democrats and Republicans fall over themselves to fully fund the Pentagon and its ongoing wars across the globe.  Our misguided involvement in Afghanistan lurches into its thirteenth year with promises that it won’t end until 2024 at the earliest.  The only certainty for 2014 is more dead bodies, more casualties of war, more money wasted.

Barbara Tuchman, a historian who knew how to write for the educated public, was right in pointing out the persistence of folly in history.  A heavily militarized U.S. foreign policy is an illustration of that.  Our country continues to seek global dominance through militarized measures, perhaps because we’ve exported so much of our non-militarized economy to countries having cheaper labor. War and weapons are now are primary export.  That, and our desire for total information dominance that produced all of the abuses that Edward Snowden is revealing.

As we persist in war and weapons and surveillance, we’d do well to recall the words of John Bright, a British statesman who spoke about war and its dangers in the House of Commons in 1854. Here’s what Bright had to say:

“It is a painful and terrible thing to think how easy it is to stir up a nation to war … and you will find that wars are always supported by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, the people find were arguments they should not have listened to.”

When are we going to stop listening to arguments in favor of more wars and more weapons and more infringements of our rights, all justified in the name of “toughness” and “sanity” and “security”?

Sadly, not in 2014.

But if we’re truly looking to make meaningful resolutions for 2014, how about bringing our troops home?  How about building fewer weapons?  How about working to eliminate our nuclear arsenal? How about spying less and trusting more?

There are those that think that pursuing a less militant course is naive.  But what’s truly naive is the idea that constant warfare is consistent with any kind of enlightened democracy.

Let’s work together to ensure my prediction for 2014 is wrong.  Let’s find ways to stir up our nation to pursue peace.

John Bright
John Bright

Does Scrooge Reign in the USA Today?

Alastair Sim as Scrooge
Alastair Sim as Scrooge

W.J. Astore

My wife and I always watch “A Christmas Carol” around this time, the classic version with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge.  Before his redemption, Scrooge is the ultimate miser, a mean-spirited soul who refuses to give to charity since he’s already paying taxes to support prisons and workhouses.  For his fellow man Scrooge has no concern, arguing that those who can’t support themselves had best die “to decrease the surplus population.”

By all accounts, including his own, Scrooge is a successful man of business, always keeping a positive balance on his ledger sheet, even if he has to pinch pennies to do so.  Generous he is not; you might say he passes nickels around as if they were manhole covers.

His partner Jacob Marley, dead for seven years, restores Scrooge’s humanity with the help of three spirits.  Perhaps Marley has the best line when he screams at Scrooge: “Business!  Mankind was my business!”  The Spirit of Christmas Present also has a powerful scene in which he reveals two slack-eyed and wretched children under his robe, “want” and “ignorance,” and tells Scrooge to be beware of both but especially of ignorance.

So, in this season of generosity of spirit, how are we doing in the USA?  Does the skinflint Scrooge rule, or does the redeemed one?  Well, just one factoid.  Unemployment benefits are due to run out for 1.3 million Americans on December 28th.  What are the options for those in want of a job?  Are there no prisons, no workhouses?  Perhaps they had best die to decrease the surplus population.

Extending unemployment benefits for another year would cost roughly $25 billion.  A penurious America can’t afford that, right?  But the USA can afford $633 billion for the new Pentagon budget and its “overseas contingency operations” (a great euphemism for war).  We’ll spend roughly as much money on these “contingency ops” ($81 billion) as we will on federal funding of education. So much for the Spirit of Christmas Present and his warning about the price of ignorance

Heck, we can even afford $355 billion over the next ten years to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal (this money is separate from the budget for the Pentagon). At the same time, more of the unemployed will see their benefits cut.  According to an article at Counterpunch, “Another 1.9 million who were projected to continue benefits in 2014 will also now lose them. Emergency benefits that up to now included extended benefits from 40-73 weeks, will now revert back to only 26 weeks. This occurs at a time when 4.1 million workers are considered long term unemployed, jobless for more than 26 weeks. Knocking millions off of benefits will likely result in 2014 in even more millions of workers leaving the labor force, which will technically also reduce the unemployment rate.”

That’s one way to reduce the official unemployment rate: Leave the unemployed so disillusioned with their plight that they give up looking for jobs.  When the “long-term” unemployed stop looking, the government stops counting them.  Did I hear someone bark “Humbug”?

The more our country follows the benighted Scrooge — the more ungenerous we are to the unemployed even as we ladle out benefits to the rich and powerful — the more we should fear a visit from that most horrifying ghost of all: The Spirit of Christmas Future.

Peter Medawar’s “The Limits of Science”

Owen Hannaway
Owen Hannaway

W.J. Astore

Note to reader: I wrote this back in 1988 when I was a first-year graduate student in the history of science at Johns Hopkins University.  I took my first graduate seminar with Owen Hannaway, a distinguished professor of early modern science and alchemy.  He asked us to do a book review, and I chose Peter Medawar’s The Limits of Science.  I dedicate this article to the memory of Owen Hannaway (1939-2006), a distinguished scholar and a gallant man.

The Limits of Science is an intentionally short book dealing with topics in the history and philosophy of science. It consists of three different essays written in three different styles, yet it yields a general outlook on science which can be nicely summarized.  Sir Peter sees science as the most successful of man’s enterprises, but he is quick to observe that science has limits, although the growth of science itself is not self-limited.

Medawar first defines science.  Science, he says, is not a mere collection of facts but organized knowledge, knowledge that can be used to predict the behavior of the sensible world.  Medawar is careful to emphasize the difficulty of obtaining scientific knowledge, and the need for confidence based on trust within the scientific community.

Medawar then discusses whether there is such a thing as the scientific method and traces the development of different approaches.  Before the Renaissance, deduction in the form of the Aristotelian syllogism was used to advance science, while intuition and revelation were used to support science.  For philosophers in the Middle Ages, divine revelation guaranteed absolute certainty.  Francis Bacon lit a new path for enlightenment in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries through the use of induction.  Bacon’s new method was the development of general premises through the use of experimentation and the collection of observations.  The frontispiece of Bacon’s Novum Organum summed up the new ideal of Plus Ultra (more beyond): it depicted the pillars of Hercules with a biblical inscription (Daniel 12:4) prophesying the advancement of knowledge.

Medawar next examines deduction and induction and finds them lacking.  The chief difficulty with deduction is that it begs the question; it can only discover something already contained in the major premise, therefore it is not a way to new knowledge.  By comparison, a major premise arrived at through induction cannot contain more information than the sum of its known instances.  A theory consisting of a legion of facts summarized by an iterative inductive process can thus be overthrown by a solitary contradictory instance.  In sum, a deductive premise merely makes explicit information that is already present in the premise, while an inductive premise is no better than the sum of its parts.  Neither method leads to new knowledge.

Considering these arguments, Medawar sides with the conclusion of Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper that there is no scientific method.  The myth of induction as the method for scientific advancement, developed by John Stuart Mill and Karl Pearson in the nineteenth century, persists today mainly because it agrees best with the public’s conception of science and the scientist’s desire for a positive self-image.

What then is the catalyst for advances in science? Medawar adopts Shelley’s idea of poesis in poetry: creation through the act of imagination.  The source of scientific hypotheses is these flashes of vision, and it is these hypotheses which guide and limit further science.  Medawar clearly rejects the idea that scientific discovery can be premeditated and cites the role of luck in scientific discovery.  He carefully qualifies the role of luck by showing how the scientist places himself in a certain mindset amenable to luck through his studies and associations with other scientists.

Medawar’s last essay discusses the limits of science. His fundamental assertion is that science does not yield absolute knowledge, and he quotes Kant as support: “Hypotheses always remain hypotheses, i.e., suppositions to the complete certainty of which we can never attain.” Science’s goal then is not the absolute but the nearest approximation possible; the nearer the approximation, the better its predictive capability.

Continuing the discussion, Medawar observes that there could be either a cognitive inadequacy or a restriction arising out of the nature of the human reasoning process that limits the growth of science, but since any such limitations would be present from conception we would never know of them (just as we could never perceive the Pythagorean celestial music due to its continuous presence in our lives). Are there then limits of science?  Not if science is understood as the art of the soluble.  If something is possible in principle, Medawar states, it can be done if the intention is sufficiently resolute and sustained.

The one limit to science as Medawar sees it is that it cannot answer ultimate questions, e.g. “Does God exist?” Medawar goes on to say he is not indicting science; rather he is recognizing that these questions require transcendent answers, which neither arise from nor require validation by empirical evidence.  He actually takes this argument one step further and asserts these questions have no possible answers. (Medawar recognizes that Immanuel Kant felt the opposite; since somehow man’s nature drives him to ask these questions, Kant felt that answers necessarily exist.)

According to Medawar, the question of whether God exists is outside the realm of science; the leap of faith required for a belief in God is one he himself is unwilling to make.  Although Medawar did not personally believe in transcendent answers, he did feel that these answers had a usefulness measured by the peace of mind they bring people.

I bought this book because as a Roman Catholic I was interested in what a scientist had to say about the limits of science in answering ultimate questions.  Medawar confirmed my suspicions that science can play at best only a subsidiary role with regards to these ultimate questions and the religious beliefs they help spawn.

For anyone looking for an introduction into what science is, how it advances, and what questions it can and cannot answer, Medawar’s book is excellent.  Perhaps the one idea I am always left with after reading this book is although science has limits, as long as man retains his ability to create imaginative hypotheses and his inclination to ascertain whether his guesses correspond to reality, there will always be more beyond for intrepid explorers in the realm of science.

Professor Hannaway appended the following note at the end of my review:

“What do you think your reaction would have been if you had read a book by a scientist less sympathetic to the claims of religion?  Perhaps you can find one, read it, and then critically assess the arguments of Medawar.”

“Why do you think a famous scientist like Medawar was so concerned by such questions to write about them in this way?  Could you find out something about his life that might explain this?  Try sources like the Times obituary columns, Nature, Notes and Records of the Royal Society.”

That was Owen: always generous with advice, and always trying to spur you to dig deeper, to learn more.

Bonus Anecdote: I’ll never forget this saying of Owen’s: “Scotch is for after dinner.” The last time I saw him in Denver at a conference, I was really pleased to track down a glass of single malt whisky for him.  He was a wonderful man.

“Doin’ Right Ain’t Got No End”

Bill McKinney as Captain Terrill in "The Outlaw Josey Wales"
Bill McKinney as Captain Terrill in “The Outlaw Josey Wales”

W.J. Astore

President Obama’s recent ten-year commitment to Afghanistan (until 2024 and beyond) put me to mind of a line from The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), the classic Western starring Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood plays the “outlaw” who just wants to be left alone in the aftermath of a brutal civil war.  But another character, the vicious Captain Terrill, wants to pursue and kill all the Confederate irregulars who had fought against the Union.  In hot pursuit of Eastwood and a wounded confederate, Terrill rejects the idea that the killing will stop once the final two “outlaws” are dead.

“Doin’ right ain’t got no end,” Terrill coldly says.

That’s our government’s attitude in a nutshell: “Doin’ right ain’t got no end,” especially when the “right” involves killing outlaws.  No matter how many we kill, there’ll always be more to find. And in the brutally imprecise process of rooting them out and killing them, we’ll make many mistakes and harm many innocents, thereby creating many new enemies — and many more men like Captain Terrill.

Like Terrill, our government’s actions and attitudes have conspired to create a forever war, a score-settling exercise against outlaws that serves to perpetuate terror. We’re trapped in a cycle of violence that’s very much of our own making. We believe we inhabit an implacably hostile realm that supposedly hates us and our freedoms too, and by believing it, we make it so.

This neurotic state recalls a science fiction novel, Deathworld (1960), which I read as a teenager. Its author, Harry Harrison, imagined a world where the flora and fauna are relentlessly hostile to a certain band of can-do colonists, who reply in kind with Spartan-like warrior intensity and murderous brutality.

As impressive as these warriors and their death-dealing technology are, their actions merely beget more violence. Until an outsider visits and sees the situation for what it truly is, the colonists cannot perceive that it’s their own fear and violent natures which are driving their enemies to attack. Unless they change their implacably hostile mindset, their ultimate defeat is inevitable because their actions spawn new enemies and endless violence everywhere.

As the United States exercises its global power in the name of winning a war on terror, we are creating a death world of our own making. As long as we continue to believe we’re “doin’ right” in fighting an open-ended (and seemingly endless) war, Captain Terrill’s words will continue to render a harsh and endless judgment.

“Doin’ right ain’t got no end” – a tragic meme for a death world of our own making.

The Sandy Hook Martyrs — One Year Later

Memorial to the innocents killed at Sandy Hook elementary.  Photo by author.
Memorial to the innocents killed at Sandy Hook elementary. Photo by author.

W.J. Astore

Back in July, my wife and I visited the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass.  At the shrine, there’s a simple, moving, memorial to the Sandy Hook children (see photo above).

Rarely has the Biblical phrase, “Jesus wept,” been sadder or more appropriate.  Christ said to suffer the children to come unto me, for they are the kingdom of heaven.  How have we as a society lost this message?

Children are our innocents; they are also our future.  Yet far too many of them are mistreated–even murdered.

The Sandy Hook children are martyrs to an American society that is saturated in violence.  A society that claims to put its trust in God even as it resolutely ignores His teachings.

We have to do a better job of protecting our children from our all-too-violent tendencies.  As a friend put it, we need to do better than to hope our children are safe.  We need to know that they are safe.

We need to know because the agony of more lost innocents is too much to bear.

W.J. Astore

We Need an “All Quiet on the Afghan Front” (Updated)

The face of battle is ugly.  All the more reason why we need to face it
The face of battle is ugly. All the more reason why we need to face it

W.J. Astore

Beverly Gologorsky has an insightful article today at on the lack of references to America’s wars in U.S. contemporary fiction.  She traces this to social class: the fact that most troops come from the working classes, to which most contemporary fiction writers (and doubtless editors and agents and publishers as well) have limited exposure.

Doubtless she’s right about this.  The “all volunteer” military draws recruits mainly from rural, working class, hardscrabble areas.  The literati, the urban hipsters, tend to see this as “fly over” country: a cultural wasteland best to be avoided.  You won’t catch too many of them hanging around military posts in the Deep South.  And you certainly won’t catch them at a FOB (forward operating base) in Afghanistan eating MREs and dodging IEDs.

In other words, it’s not class differences alone that account for America’s dearth of fictional accounts that draw on America’s wars (whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere).  My sense is that most fiction writers nowadays simply know very little about war.  When they do try to write about it, they get important details wrong.  It’s also difficult in literary circles to defend writing about the military in a fair-minded and sympathetic way.  Within such circles, books with war-related themes are déclassé or otherwise suspect.  Far easier (and trendier) to write about gender/LGBTQ issues, or “Tiger Moms,” or relationships involving conflicted metro-sexuals … and probably far more remunerative as well.

When they do choose to write about war, thinking liberals have to defend themselves.  I have a friend, a civilian academic who writes prolifically about war, who has had to defend his choice of subject among his historian peers in academe.  It was very difficult for me, a retired military officer, to get any job in civilian academe (despite advanced degrees from Oxford and Johns Hopkins). Civilian academe wants very little to do with war and the military (except for accepting billions in federal funding for weapons research, of course).

Let’s face it: Among the literati, war and the military are suspect.  Good liberals don’t write about such things, except in the dismissive sense of condemning them.

So yes, class enters into it, but ideology does as well, a cultural smugness that previous generations of writers didn’t have because they in fact did serve in the military (Herman Wouk, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Howard Zinn, and so many others).  They had lived war and could in fact write honestly about it in an informed and critical way.

And that’s precisely what’s missing in American fiction: boldly critical, and powerfully heartfelt, writing about America’s wars today.  So far, there is no “All Quiet on the Afghan Front” to mobilize Americans against the horrors and waste of war.  I doubt we’ll ever see such a book.  And the lack of such books serves only to perpetuate our wars.

And that’s a tragedy.  We need honest accountings of war and its devastating effects, an honesty often paradoxically caught best by fiction.  Perhaps Gologorsky’s latest novel, Stop Here, will help.  She certainly deserves a salute for raising a vitally important issue.

Update (12/11): Two novels about the Iraq War and its impact on Americans came out in 2012.  I haven’t read them yet but have heard they are good: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain; and The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers.

A friend made the following great comment: “a good number of front-line memoirs/narratives by US soldiers as opposed to embedded journalists [have come out of Iraq and Afghanistan]–the thing is their tone differs sharply as a rule from the world war and Vietnam predecessors. It’s more “professional/experiential” than heroic/victim like Erich Maria Remarque or Henri Barbusee.”

I made the following reply to this comment:

Many of today’s war memoirs are more “there I was” stories — the military as part job, part adventure.  Which is probably class-based as well.  Soldiers drawn from the working classes are perhaps more prone to see the military as a skilled trade.  They want to show they’ve mastered the trade.  And they tell war stories like guys at work tell profession-based tales as well as colorful stories of hunting trips and the like.

When we relied on a draft (or when the Oxbridge set volunteered to defend king and country in WW1): Some of these men saw military service as something more exalted.  Less of a job and more of a noble deed.  And when they discovered how sordid war could be (and usually is), their disenchantment was more profound than that of the working classes, who thought of war from the git-go as another dirty job to endure.

This is painting with a very broad brush, but I think there’s some truth here.  We’re seeing fewer critical reflections on America’s wars from the troops because today’s troops lack the education/naivete of their social “betters.”  And the social “betters”: they know little about war and care even less.

Update (12/12): Another point stimulated by a reader’s comment: There was a general revulsion to war in the wake of WW1 (in Europe) and Vietnam (in the USA).  That helped to open the door for honest books about war written by veterans.  Most Americans today have no revulsion for war, partly because it’s not on their radar, and partly because everything they are shown in the media is positive or “balanced.”  Negative coverage of war is dismissed as unsupportive to “our troops.”

Put differently, Americans are in denial about the costs of war and empire.  Or we dismiss those costs as “necessary” for our defense.  Some of my students truly believe that, in the words of George W. Bush, we have to fight “them” over there else we’ll have to fight them here in the USA.

There’s very little sense of the true asymmetry of America’s wars today: the fact that we can strike with relative impunity anywhere in the world.  Media coverage portrays America as a fortress under siege rather than as an expansionist and interventionist empire.  Such coverage occludes the true face of war, especially its profitable side (consider US domination of the world’s arms trade, for example).

Update (12/23): I’ve finished “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and it was excellent.  It’s particularly strong on why men join the military (often the best of a series of not-so-good options) and why they fight and continue to risk their lives (unit camaraderie, codes of manliness and honor, sense of duty).  And it’s especially critical of the “fortunate sons” who never have to serve, especially those who are also willing to exploit the troops for their own aggrandizement and sense of well-being.  It’s not as brilliant as “Catch-22,” but it’s more accessible and it makes its points with verve and humor.  Its take-down of American football, especially the excessive patriotic pomp and sexual titillation of halftime shows, is especially fine.

STEM Education Is Not Enough

Sir Peter Medawar
Sir Peter Medawar

W.J. Astore

If you’re in education, you’ve heard the acronym STEM. It stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  As a country, the USA is behind in STEM, so there are lots of calls (and lots of federal money available) for improvements in STEM.  Usually the stated agenda is competitiveness.  If the US wants to compete with China, Japan, Europe, India, and other economies, our students must do better in science and math, else our economy will atrophy.

Here’s a sample rationale that can stand in for hundreds of others: “International comparisons place the U.S. in the middle of the [STEM] pack globally,” said Debbie Myers, general manager of Discovery Communications.  And for corporate managers like Myers, that’s not good enough when competition in the global market is both endless and the means to the end, the end being profit.

I’m all for STEM.  I got my BS in mechanical engineering and worked as an engineer in the Air Force.  I love science and got my master’s and Ph.D. in the history of science and technology.  I love science fiction and movies/documentaries that explore the natural world around us.

And that’s one thing that bugs me about all this emphasis on STEM.  It’s not about curiosity and fun; it’s not even about creativity.  STEM is almost always pushed in the US in terms of market competitiveness.  STEM, in other words, is just another commodity tied to profit in the marketplace.

My other bugaboo is our educational establishment’s focus on STEM to the exclusion of the humanities.  At the same time as the humanities are undervalued, STEM is reduced to a set of skills as mediated and measured by standardized tests.  Can you solve that equation?  Can you calculate that coefficient of friction? Can you troubleshoot that server?  Results, man.  Give me results.

Sir Peter Medawar, a great medical researcher and a fine writer on science, spoke of scientific discovery as an act of creation akin to poetry and other so-called liberal arts.  Nowadays, we simply don’t hear such views being aired in US discourse.  STEM as an act of creation?  As a joyful pursuit? Bah, humbug.  Give me results.  Give me market share.  Make me Number One.

If we as a nation want to encourage STEM, we should be focusing not on rubrics and metrics and scores.  We should instead be focusing on the joy of learning about nature and the natural world. How we model it, manipulate it, understand it, and honor it by preserving it.  STEM, in other words, must be infused with, not divorced from, the humanities.  Why?  Because STEM is a human pursuit.

As we pursue STEM, we should also honor our human past, a past in which we’ve learned a lot about ethics, morality, and humane values.  The problem is that STEM education in the US is often present- and future-focused, with little time for the past.

In American society, those with respect for old ways and traditional values are often dismissed as Luddites or tolerated as quaint misfits (like the Amish).  After all, Luddites aren’t competitive. And Amish quilts and buggies won’t return America to preeminence in science and technology.  The US as a nation has nothing to gain from them.  Right?

Here’s the problem.  We connect STEM to material prosperity.  We dismiss those who question all this feverish attention to STEM as anti-science or hopelessly old-fashioned.  But there’s a lot we can from the humanities about ourselves and our world.

To cite just one example: Consider this passage from Jacob Burckhardt, a great historian writing during the industrial revolution of the late 19th-century:

material wealth and refinement of living conditions are no guarantee against barbarism. The social classes that have benefited from this kind of progress are often, under a veneer of luxury, crude and vulgar in the extreme, and those whom it has left untouched even more so. Besides, progress brings with it the exploitation and exhaustion of the earth’s surface, as well as the increase and consequent proletarianization of the urban population, in short, everything that leads inevitably to decline, to the condition in which the world casts about for ‘refreshment’ from the yet untapped powers of Nature, that is, for a new ‘primitiveness’ – or barbarism.”

What a party-pooper he was, right? Most of what the US defines as STEM is about “material wealth” and “refinement of living conditions,” the very definition of “progress,” at least for those out to make a buck off of it.

Burckhardt was warning us that “progress” tied to STEM had its drawbacks, to include the exhaustion of the earth’s resources as well as the exploitation of human labor. Divorced from ethics and morality, STEM was likely to lead to “primitiveness,” a new barbarism.

Tragically, Burckhardt was right. Consider the industrialized mass murder of two world wars. Consider the “scientific” mass murder committed by the Nazis. (By the way, the Nazis were great at STEM, valuing it highly.)

In a democracy, STEM divorced from the humanities is not “competitive,” unless your idea of competition is barbaric. Disconnected from humane values, a narrow education in STEM will serve mainly to widen the gap between the 1% and the rest of us while continuing to stretch the earth’s resources to the breaking point.

Education in STEM, in short, is not enough. But you won’t learn that by listening to corporate CEOs or presidents prattle on about competitiveness.

For that wisdom, you need to study the humanities.