The NFL Draft: USA! USA!

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Being drafted in the first round is like winning the lottery

W.J. Astore

Nothing screams “USA!” like the NFL draft held yearly at the end of April, and I managed to watch a few minutes here and there across the three days of blanket coverage offered by ESPN and the NFL network (I also noticed the draft was in prime time on the Fox network).  The National Football League (NFL) puts on an extravaganza for the draft.  This year I caught a ceremony featuring the family of dead soldier; they “helped” to make a pick in the draft for the Dallas Cowboys.  The huge video screen featured the soldier (Captain Ellery Ray Wallace) who’d been killed, and the fans in the dome started chanting “USA! USA!” in homage to a man who must have loved the Cowboys when he was alive.  The spectacle of it all just made me sad, no matter how much the NFL tried to sell this and similar photo ops as exercises in helping grieving families to recover from the tragedy of losing a loved one in war.

As I wrote about last year’s draft, “I’m always dazed and amazed by the sheer work that goes into the NFL draft: the thoroughness of it all, the expertise on display, the active and informed involvement of the fans. Imagine if ESPN (or any media outlet, for that matter) covered America’s wars with the same commitment to detail and facts as is displayed yearly for American football!”

And as I wrote about the NFL draft two years ago:

If you’re not familiar with NFL football or ESPN coverage of the same in the USA, you should be, because it says much about the American moment.  The first round of the draft kicks off on Thursday night in prime time, followed by the second and third rounds on Friday night in prime time.  The draft concludes on Saturday with rounds four through seven, roughly 250 total picks …

Yet this quick summary vastly understates the coverage devoted to the draft.  From the end of the Super Bowl early in February to the draft itself at the end of April, coverage of the draft on ESPN is virtually non-stop, with innumerable “mock” drafts for each team and a parade of “experts” speculating about the prospects of each player and team. Exhaustive (and exhausting) is the word to describe this coverage.  Interminable is another one.

When Round One finally kicks off, it’s essentially a parade of soon-to-be millionaires. These players, selected from various college football teams, can count on multi-year contracts and signing bonuses in the millions of dollars.  ESPN and the NFL stage manages the selection process, turning it into an extravaganza complete with musicians, cheering (or booing) fans, and plenty of past NFL greats, along with the draftees and their families and friends. Coverage also includes shots of the “war rooms” of the various NFL teams as they decide which players to pick, which draft picks to trade, and so on.

The war room — isn’t that a telling phrase?

Indeed, let’s push that further.  Most red-blooded NFL fans would be hard-pressed to find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, but they can tell you all about their team’s draft picks, rattling off statistics such as times in the 40-yard dash, vertical leap, even the size of a player’s hands (considered especially pertinent if he’s a quarterback or wide receiver). What always astonishes me is the sheer wealth of detail gathered about each player, the human intelligence (or HUMINT in military terms).  Players, especially those projected to go in the first few rounds, are scrutinized from every angle: physical, mental, emotional, you name it.

With millions of dollars at stake, such an exhaustive approach is not terribly surprising. Yet even with a wealth of data, each year there are major draft busts (e.g. Ryan Leaf, selected #2 overall in the first round and a flop) and major surprises (e.g. Tom Brady, selected late in the 6th round as the 199th pick, meaning that not much was expected from him, after which he won four [now five] Super Bowls).  Results from the NFL draft should teach us something about the limits of data-driven “intelligence” in “wars,” yet our various military intelligence agencies continue to believe they can quantify, predict, and control events.

But again what wows me is the extent as well as the slickness of ESPN’s coverage of the draft.  As soon as a player is selected, ESPN instantly has video of that player’s college highlights, together with his vital statistics (height, weight, performance at the draft combine in various drills, and so on).  Video and stats are backed up by interviews with a draftee’s previous coaches, who extol his virtues, along with interviews with those “war rooms” again as to why they decided to draft that particular player and not another.  Once the draft is completed, teams are then awarded “grades” by various commentators, even though these players have yet to play a snap in the NFL.  (Imagine if your kid received an instant grade in college — before he attended a single class or completed a single assignment — based upon his performance in high school.)

But you have to hand it to ESPN: their coverage of the draft is an exercise in total information awareness.  It’s blanket coverage, an exercise in full-spectrum dominance. It’s slick, professional, and driven by a relentless pursuit of victory by each team (and a relentless pursuit of ratings by ESPN).

In 2016, I made the following proposal, in jest of course, but I repeat it here because I still think it’s telling:

Let’s put ESPN in charge of intelligence gathering and coverage [of America’s wars].  Just imagine if your average red-blooded American devoted as much attention to foreign wars as they do to their favorite NFL team!  Just imagine if America’s leaders were held accountable for poor results as NFL coaches and staffs are! America still might not win its wars, but at least we’d squarely face the fact that we’re continuing to lose at incredibly high cost.  Indeed, someone high-up in the government might actually be held accountable for these losses.

I know: It’s a frivolous suggestion to treat war like a sport.  But is it?  After all, America currently treats the NFL draft with all the seriousness of a life-and-death struggle, even as it treats wars with comparative frivolity.

Our wars are games and our games are wars.  Small wonder America continues to lose its wars while fielding some winning NFL teams.

Jacinda for President!

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Trump, America’s very stable genius, doing what he loves

W.J. Astore

My wife perceptively notes how the USA is sliding backwards.  Racism has new vigor even as science is rejected, e.g. climate change denial.  A woman’s right to choose is under attack.  Immigrants once again are openly subjected to prejudice and scorn.  Diversity of views and efforts at inclusion are rejected as so many exercises in “political correctness.”  Unions are being weakened and the working poor are attacked as lazy and irresponsible.  Life expectancy for many is declining, mainly due to suicide, opioid and other addictions, and illnesses related to poor eating habits and obesity.  War is perpetual and violence is never-ending.  Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer, a sign of “greatness,” at least to Trump and his followers.

Sexism, racism, prejudice, ignorance, scapegoating, the privilege of rich white men to say and do whatever they want: this is “greatness” to Trump.  The embodiment of fat cat privilege, Trump rides about in his golf cart and swats balls at his various “resorts.”  Indeed, America’s hard-working president, who said as a candidate he’d have no time for golf or vacations, has spent one-third of his presidency on vacation.  Mission accomplished!

Meanwhile, Democratic officialdom is looking backwards, not forwards.  The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) idea of progress is to bring a lawsuit against Russia, the Trump campaign, and WikiLeaks for the 2016 election.  This act will “fire up the base,” or so leading Democrats appear to think.  But it’s really sour grapes, a loser policy conducted by pols who remain out of touch with the pressing concerns of ordinary Americans (you know, things like health care, a living wage, and other issues associated with Bernie Sanders’s campaign).  If only America had a true Labor Party instead of a DNC that mirrors the Republicans while lacking their focus and ruthlessness.

Let’s face it: America needs a new leader, a fresh start, an unapologetic progressive, someone who’s smart but who also possesses empathy.  Someone on the side of workers; someone like Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand.

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PM Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand.  Yes, she’s pregnant and taking maternity leave after she gives birth.

Roughly half Trump’s age, Jacinda Ardern represents the future. Intelligent, principled, committed to her people, Ardern is refreshingly honest and frank. Imagine, for a moment, a truly progressive woman as president of the United States, one who has the courage of her convictions, one committed to fairness and equity in society, one untainted by big money, even one who’s unabashedly pregnant and who supports maternity and paternity leave for parents.

She’s got spunk too.  When she first met Trump and he had a snide remark for her, she replied that masses of people didn’t take to the streets to protest when she was elected.  As my Kiwi friend put it, “It’s the ability of Jacinda to not only represent her own party but pull together alliances that is impressive. Not only an arrangement with the conservative ‘New Zealand First’ party but also the Greens.”  She brings people together for the greater good — making concessions when she has to.  What a quaint concept.

America could use a woman like Jacinda Ardern as president. If only my Kiwi friends would let her emigrate! (Yes, sadly, she wasn’t born here so she couldn’t run, but let a man dream, dammit.)  Perhaps Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard will emerge as America’s Jacinda in 2020; aligned with Bernie Sanders, Gabbard has moxie as well as military experience.  But I wouldn’t bank on it.  The DNC, still with its collective head up its ass, isn’t seeing the future too clearly.

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Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii

My Dad’s Silver Dollars

W.J. Astore

My dad left me two silver dollars.  They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.

Here’s a photo of them.  Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.

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These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I.  (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.)  Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace!  It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).

In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.

Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s silver dollars, and I’m going to let him tell it:

“I have a silver dollar in my coin collection. Helen and I were courting at the time. At Nantasket beach [in Massachusetts] there was a glass container with prizes, candy, coins, etc. Also a crank on the unit which when turned controlled a flexible scoop. The idea was to work the scoop to pick up something of value. Well, I took a chance. It was like magic; the scoop just went down and picked up the silver dollar. I gave it to Ma as a remembrance. We’ve had it ever since.”

“The other silver dollar has a story also. A buddy in the service [Army] gave it to me for a birthday present [during World War II].”

After my dad died, these coins passed to me.  One is from 1922, the other from 1924.  I love the “peace” eagle they feature, though we know peace was not in the cards for long after the Great War.  And of course I love my dad’s stories of how he came to possess them.

When will America’s coinage next feature a tribute to the end of war and the promise of peace?

Technology Substitutes for Strategy in U.S. Military Operations

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Yet more weapons: The JASSM

W.J. Astore

Once again, the U.S. military has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, as well as a new weapon called the JASSM-ER, described as “a stealthy long-range air-fired cruise missile.”  According to FP: Foreign Policy, the latter weapon is “likely being closely watched in Tokyo, where military officials are considering purchasing the missile to give the country’s military a long-range strike capability against North Korean targets, Japan Times reports.”  In short, the U.S. military demonstrated a new weapon for an ally and potential client while striking a country (Syria) that has no way of striking back directly at the U.S.

Here’s a report from Defense Industry Daily on the weapons used:

April 16/18: JASSM-ER makes its combat debut The USAF has fired Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) missile in combat for the first time. 19 such missiles were launched from two B-1B Lancer bombers during last weekend’s sortie against Syrian chemical weapon research and storage facilities, and were joined by 57 Tomahawk missiles launched from US naval assets, as well as Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles from British and French warplanes. While Russian sources in Syria claim that Russian and Syrian air defenses managed to down 71 or the total 105 cruise missiles launched during the Friday night operation—claims Washington refutes—a report on the mission by the Aviationist reckon the newer missiles—in particular the JASSM-ER, SCALP and Storm Shadow—would have been highly effective against their targets. 

One thing is certain: business is booming yet again for Lockheed Martin.

Technology shapes thought even as it becomes a substitute for it.  It amazes me, for example, how the U.S. military threw technology at the “problem” of Vietnam in an attempt to “win” that war.  Everything short of nuclear weapons was unleashed on Southeast Asia, yet those brave people refused to surrender.  U.S. Presidents from Kennedy to Nixon were always sending messages through airpower and other forms of destructive technology, but the Vietnamese couldn’t have cared less about those “messages.”  They had one goal: expel the invader, unify the country, and they stuck to it despite all the high explosive, napalm, defoliants, electronic fences, and everything else inflicted upon them.

Americans tend to see technology as a panacea.  Even deadly technology.  So, for example, what’s the proposed solution to gun violence in the USA?  According to the NRA and our president, it’s more guns.  What’s the solution to violence in Syria?  According to the military and our president, it’s more bombs and missiles.  One clear winner emerges here: those who produce the guns, bombs, and missiles.

Tomahawks and drones and similar weapons are all about action at a distance. They incur no risk of harm to U.S. troops.  As a result, America’s leaders use them liberally to send “signals” and to add to the body count.  They strike because they can and because it’s relatively easy.  Action serves as a substitute for thought.  The only strategy is to keep blowing things up.

The U.S. strategy, such as it is, is defined and driven by Tomahawks and drones and related weaponry.  These weapons make possible “global reach, global power,” but they do not facilitate global thinking.  Promising decision or at least quick results, they lead only to more bodies and deeper quagmires.

The U.S. keeps getting bogged down in wars in part because of the faith the government places in technology.  So much is invested in military weaponry that it becomes a substitute for thought.

But there are no missions accomplished: there is only more destruction.

Why We’re Outraged by Poison Gas

I wrote this article back in 2013, when chemical weapons were used in Syria (a “red line” for Barack Obama, who was then the U.S. president). Five years later, chemical weapons have been used yet again, though it’s unknown whether it was on Bashar al-Assad’s orders. Any U.S. retaliatory strike should answer at least these four questions before going forward: 1) Who exactly was responsible for this chemical attack? 2) How will a U.S. military attack solve anything? 3) What vital U.S. interest is at stake here? 4) How will killing Syrian people with U.S. missiles or bombs serve any just cause?

Yet another U.S. military strike against a Middle Eastern country may make a few U.S. chickenhawks feel tough, but the risk of innocents being killed and yet more violence being spread in Syria and throughout the region outweigh the benefits. What are those “benefits,” exactly? Assuming Assad ordered the chemical attack, is he really going to be deterred by yet another U.S. missile strike?

Poison gas attacks are abhorrent, but so too is a rush to judgment. More U.S. bombs and missiles that only kill more people is not the answer here.

Bracing Views

Zyklon-B stockpile used by the Nazis in World War II (Image: USHMM) Zyklon-B stockpile used by the Nazis in World War II (Image: USHMM)

W.J. Astore

A good friend of mine wrote to me about chemical weapons/poison gas in World War I, and it got me to thinking about why we’re so outraged by the recent use of poison gas in Syria.

When you think about it (and who really wants to), there are so many bloody and awful ways to die in war.  Besides the usual bullets and bombs, the U.S. has used depleted uranium shells, white phosphorous, and cluster munitions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  Why, then, the outrage over gas?  And why was it banned after World War I?

I think it was because chemical weapons/poison gas proved both indecisive and inglorious.  If chemical weapons had produced decision on the battlefield, they would have been retained, despite their inglorious and wretched effects.  But their military utility proved limited…

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On Mercy

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Gollum/Smeagol, at war with himself, consumed by desire for the Ring

W.J. Astore

Mercy has been on my mind since re-watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  There’s a nasty little character known as Gollum.  Before he was seduced by Sauron’s ring (the one ring of power), Gollum was known as Smeagol.  Twisted and consumed by the Dark Lord’s ring, Smeagol becomes a shadow of himself, eventually forgetting his real name and becoming Gollum, a name related to the guttural coughs and sounds he makes.

Gollum loses the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  The Ring extends Bilbo’s life but also begins to twist him as well.  As Sauron returns to power in Mordor, he needs only to regain the Ring to defeat the combined might of the peoples of Middle Earth.  Bilbo passes the Ring to his much younger cousin, Frodo, who together with a Fellowship consisting of representatives drawn from men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as well as the wizard Gandalf, journeys to Mordor to destroy the Ring and vanquish Sauron.

Early in his journey to Mordor, Frodo says he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he’d had the opportunity.  (Gollum, drawn by the Ring, is shadowing the Fellowship on its journey.)  Gandalf sagely advises Frodo that Gollum may yet play an important role, and that mercy is not a quality to disparage.  As the Fellowship is separated and Frodo has to journey to Mordor with only his faithful friend Sam beside him, Gollum soon becomes their indispensable guide, and Frodo begins to pity him.  Frodo, by showing Gollum mercy, reawakens the good within him, calling him Smeagol and preventing Sam from hurting him.

But the corrupting power of the Ring overtakes Smeagol again, and Gollum reemerges.  Even so, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom.  On the brink of destroying the Ring, Frodo too becomes consumed by its power, choosing to use it instead of casting it into the fire.  Here again, Gollum emerges as an instrumental character.  He fights Frodo for the Ring, gains it, but loses his footing and falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying himself as well as the Ring and saving Middle Earth.

It was Bilbo and Frodo’s mercy that spared the life of Gollum, setting the stage for Gollum’s actions that ultimately save Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from Sauron’s dominance.  Without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom; or, if by some miracle they had, Frodo in donning the Ring would have been ensnared by Sauron’s power and executed by him.  If Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gollum is the anti-hero, as indispensable to Middle Earth’s salvation as Frodo and the Fellowship.

Another story about the role of mercy came in one of my favorite “Star Trek” episodes, “Arena.”  In this episode, Captain Kirk has to fight a duel with an enemy captain of a lizard-like species known as the Gorn.  It’s supposed to be a fight to the death, overseen by a much superior species known as the Metrons.  When Kirk succeeds in besting the Gorn captain, however, he refuses to kill the Gorn, saying that perhaps the Gorn had a legitimate reason for attacking a Federation outpost.  A Metron spokesperson appears and is impressed by Kirk, saying that he has demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something the Metrons hardly suspected “savage” humans were capable of showing.

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Capt Kirk fights the Gorn captain in “Arena”

Perhaps war between the Federation and the Gorn is not inevitable, this episode suggests.  Diplomacy may yet resolve a territorial dispute without more blood being shed, all because Kirk had the courage to show mercy to his opponent: an opponent who wouldn’t have shown mercy to him if their fates had been reversed.

Mercy, nowadays, is not in vogue in the USA.  America’s enemies must always be smited, preferably killed, in the name of righteous vengeance.  Only weak people show mercy, or so our national narrative appears to suggest.  But recall the saying that in insisting on an eye for an eye, soon we’ll all be blind.

The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind.  The cycle of violence continues with no end in sight.  Savagery begets more savagery.  It’s as if we’ve put on Sauron’s ring and become consumed by it.

Do we have the courage of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and even of that man of action, Captain Kirk?  Can our toughness be informed by and infused with mercy?

The Power of Hate and Fear

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W.J. Astore

Who are we supposed to hate today?  The Russians for allegedly throwing the presidential election?  The Chinese for allegedly stealing our jobs?  The North Koreans for allegedly planning our nuclear destruction?  The Iranians for allegedly working to acquire nuclear weapons?  The “axis of evil” for being, well, evil?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told Americans that the only thing they had to fear is fear itself.  However, recent American presidents have encouraged us to fear everything.  Let’s not forget the stoking of fear by people like Condoleezza Rice and her image of a smoking gun morphing into a nuclear mushroom cloud.  That image helped to propel America into a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003 that festers still.

One of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any movie came in the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.  The film version begins with the “two minutes of hate” directed against various (imagined) enemies.  Check it out.  Doubleplusgood!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KeX5OZr0A4

Especially disturbing is the rant against Goldstein, the enemy within.  Here I think of Donald Trump claiming that the Democrats are anti-military for not rubberstamping his budget, a dishonest as well as ridiculous charge, since both parties support high military spending.  Indeed, high Pentagon spending is the one bipartisan area of agreement in Congress.

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The top tweet is typical of Trump: Accusing Democrats of not caring about “our” troops

This is among the biggest problems in America today: the stoking of hate against the enemy within, e.g. “illegal” immigrants (rapists, gang members, killers, according to our president), Democrats who allegedly don’t support our military, rival politicians who should be “locked up,” protesters who should be punched and kicked and otherwise silenced, high school students who are dismissed as phonies and professional actors, and on and on.

Irrational fear is nothing new to America, of course.  Consider the fear of communism that produced red scares after World Wars I and II.  Consider how fears of the spread of communism led to criminal intervention in Southeast Asia and the death of millions of people there.  Massive bombing, free-fire artillery zones, the profligate use of defoliants like Agent Orange, the prolongation of war without any regard for the suffering of peoples in SE Asia: that behavior constituted a crime of murderous intensity that was in part driven by hatred and fear.

And when hatred and fear are linked to tribalism and a xenophobic form of patriotism, murderous war becomes almost a certainty.  When the zealots of hate are screaming for blood, it’s very hard to hear appeals for peace based on compassion and reason.

Anger, fear, aggression: that way leads to the dark side, as Yoda, that Jedi master, warned us.  Hate too, Yoda says, must be resisted, lest one be consumed by it.  Sure, he’s just an imaginary character in the “Star Wars” universe, but that doesn’t negate the truth of his message.

God is love, the Christian religion says.  Why then are we so open to hate and fear?