The Calamitous 21st Century

tuchman

W.J. Astore

We’re only sixteen years into the 21st century, but it seems like a “best of times, worst of times” kind of epoch.  It’s the best of times for the aristocracy of the rich, and the worst of times for the poor and disadvantaged, especially when they live close to or in war zones.

Perhaps that’s a statement of the obvious, except the gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow.  Their worlds, their realities, are so different as to be virtually disconnected.  This is a theme of several recent science fiction films, including the “Hunger Games” series (the Capitol versus the Districts) and “Elysium,” in which the privileged rich literally live above the sordid earth with its teeming masses.

Some of the big fears of our present century include the emergence of a “super bug,” a contagion that is highly resistant to traditional drugs.  We’ve overused antibiotics and are slowly breeding new strains of bacteria that modern medicine can no longer defeat.  Meanwhile, many people in the U.S. still lack health care, or they’re reluctant to use it because it’s too expensive for them.  And then there are the workers who lack sick leave.  They force themselves to go to work, even when sick, because they need the money.  How long before inadequate health care and sick workers facilitate the conditions for the spread of a plague?

And then there’s the contagion of violence and war.  America’s wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa are basically open-ended.  They are today’s version of the “Hundred Years’ War” between England and France, an on-again, off-again struggle for dominance that sprawled across two centuries.  In fact, America’s “war on terror,” with its “surgical strikes” and reliance on technology as a quasi-panacea, seems to be breeding new types of “super-bug” terrorists who are highly resistant to traditional techniques of policing and war.

In this effort, one thing is certain: No U.S. president will be declaring “peace” or even “normal” times for the next decade or two (or three).

Finally, let’s not forget global warming.  The Pentagon and the CIA haven’t.  Republicans may have their share of climate change deniers, but when it comes to the U.S. national security state, contingency plans are already in place for the disasters awaiting us from global warming.  Competition for scarce resources (potable water especially, but food and fuel as well) combined with more intense storms, widespread flooding, and much warmer temperatures, will generate or aggravate wars, famines, and plagues.

Are we living in a failed or failing world?

In “A Distant Mirror,” the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about the calamitous 14th century of plagues and wars and a mini-ice age in the northern hemisphere. We seem to be facing a calamitous 21st century of plagues and wars and a mini-hothouse age.  It’s a grim prospect.

The question is: Can we act collectively to avert or avoid the worst of these calamities?  Or are we fated to dance our very own 21st-century danse macabre?

Why Are PTSD Rates So High Among Veterans?

kalkriese_mask
One of the many masks of war

W.J. Astore

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a major problem among veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The VA government web site explains that “OEF/OIF service members are at risk for death or injury. They may see others hurt or killed. They may have to kill or wound others. They are on alert around the clock. These and other factors can increase their chances of having PTSD or other mental health problems.”  The site goes on to say that “Research on OEF/OIF Veterans suggests that 10% to 18% of OEF/OIF troops are likely to have PTSD after they return.” (OEF and OIF are acronyms for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

That’s a lot of veterans.  Hundreds of thousands, potentially.  Why is this number so high?  Is there something uniquely bad or intense about wars in Iraq or Afghanistan?  We can point to several factors, to include constant redeployments – four or five were not uncommon – on high-risk and high-stress missions, only to witness regress instead of progress.  Add to this the everyday shifts between secure bases and insecure field ops (as with air crews in World War II), direct electronic connections to home (which can prove discomforting rather than reassuring), and transitions from battlefront to homefront that are often too rapid for bodies and minds to adjust.  Finally, we’re witnessing better diagnosis (think of the “epidemic” of concussions in the NFL, which is much more about better recognition of the symptoms rather than an explosion in cases).  Small wonder there’s almost a pandemic of PTSD cases among the troops.

Are today’s troops not adequately prepared to handle the stresses of war?  Were warriors of the past somehow different?  A colleague, the classicist Steven Willett, explained that within ancient Greece there’s no direct evidence of warriors suffering from what we today term PTSD (though doubtless men suffered physical and mental anguish in the aftermath of brutal physical combat associated with Greek phalanxes).

In Willett’s words,

The evidence [of PTSD] is nonexistent because their [the Greek’s] emotional attitude to service and death for the state is not ours.  One way to appreciate this is to look carefully at the beautiful funeral sculptures set up in the Kerameikos of Athens after the first years of the Peloponnesian War.  Dead soldiers stand serenely in the confidence of having done their duty, perhaps with a favorite dog or horse by them, and the parents looking on never betray grief.  The emotional ambience is calm, the tears long shed, the family proud in its sorrow.  A lot of these funeral sculptures are available on line, but the best are in National Archaeological Museum of Athens.  The families and relatives of Spartan soldiers who had died [are] nobly celebrated, while those of the survivors almost mourned.  Think of Thermopylae.

It got me thinking anew about America’s current wars, and how these wars – unlike those for the Greeks – are not directly for communal defense.  Nor are America’s wars fought by communities, not when 99% of Americans exempt themselves from military service.  In Greek society, all able-bodied men believed it to be both duty and honor to wield shield and spear to defend their communities.  (Socrates was one of them.)  In America today, “support” for the troops often begins and ends with a bumper sticker.

Shared sacrifice for communal ideals: such common purpose doubtless acted as a cushion for the physical and mental blows inflicted in Greek warfare.  No matter the era, troops in combat see and experience horrible things, but the trauma is arguably easier to process when blows are cushioned by necessity, and softened by sacrifices shared within tightknit communal settings.

And that’s precisely what’s lacking in the USA today: a sense that our overseas wars are for a communal cause, for honored ideals held in common.  (Other than a vague sense of protecting the “homeland” from “terrorists.”)  The lack of a strongly held communal cause/purpose for our wars ultimately contributes, I believe, to PTSD rates among our returning veterans.  A sense of confusion – why did I suffer – what was it for, intensified by bitterness – my suffering wasn’t worth it – I killed people and saw my buddies killed and it was all for nothing, plagues the troops that our government sends to war ostensibly in our name.

The military historian Sir Michael Howard quotes Carl von Clausewitz on the larger meaning of war.  War, Clausewitz wrote, “cannot be divorced from political [communal] life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements [of political purpose and war] are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.”

If we want to lower PTSD rates, the easiest way is to stop sending troops to war, full stop.  And the second easiest way is to stop sending troops to pointless wars that are devoid of political or communal sense.  Wars that serve no larger communal purpose lack meaning.  And where meaning is debased, so too is our troops’ ability to deal with wars in all their horrors.

Bernie Sanders Won Last Night’s Democratic Debate

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Bernie Sanders makes a point to Anderson Cooper during last night’s debate

W.J. Astore

Last night, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton separately took questions from a “town hall” in Derry, New Hampshire with Anderson Cooper moderating.  Overall, both candidates did well, though I give the edge to Sanders (more on why in a moment).

Sanders came across as passionate on the issues and concerned for ordinary Americans.  He continues to speak of a political revolution, which to him doesn’t mean tumbrels to the guillotine.  It means getting more people involved in the political process, especially youth and the disadvantaged.  He spoke eloquently of helping others.  Memorable to me was his work to desegregate housing owned by the University of Chicago when Sanders was a student.  When asked why he fought against racist policies, Sanders said he’s always hated a bully – and always fought for fairness and equality.  He came across, in short, as an honest and decent man, a man of integrity, which is the word his wife used to describe him (she was sitting in the audience, and was asked to describe her husband with a single word).

Hillary came across as determined and competent and informed.  She tended to meander during her answers, coming across as somewhat of a policy wonk or a technocrat.  She rejected Sanders’ talk of a revolution, preferring to build on President Obama’s (and her own) legacy.  For example, she wants to put the finishing touches to Obamacare, rather than going for Sanders’ idea of a single-payer, “Medicare for all” system.  She spoke briefly of breaking the ultimate glass ceiling for women – her gaining the office of the presidency – and how that would inspire women of all ages.  She took her usual hardline on U.S. foreign policy, making no promises that she would reduce wars or for that matter spending on defense.

In sum, if you’re happy with the status quo, you’ll get plenty of that with Clinton.  If you want change, if you’re tired of a “rigged” economy and a corrupt political process, Sanders is far more likely to act in your favor.

Where I thought Hillary fell down was in her posturing as a progressive.  The millions of dollars she has accepted in speaking fees from banks and investment houses, she suggested, would have no impact on her policy decisions, which is simply implausible.  Powerful organizations don’t give political candidates big money without strings attached to it, and of course Clinton knows this.  It also seemed implausible when Clinton suggested she had not decided to run for president when she accepted those speaking fees.  As if her “doubts” about running absolved her of responsibility for taking big money from Wall Street.  It was all frankly unconvincing.

Hillary Clinton is a fighter.  She came across best when she spoke of the Republican right-wing attacks she’d had to endure over the last 25 years, and what they’d taught her about the political process.  Her footing was less secure when she had to relate to other people.  For example, a man suffering from advanced-stage cancer asked her about dying with dignity.  Bill Clinton, the “natural” as Hillary called him, would have turned this into an empathetic “I feel your pain” moment.  But Hillary got lost in the details, saying she would have to study up on the ethics of terminal care, the laws, the role of medical professionals, what other countries are doing (she mentioned The Netherlands), and so on.  As she tackled the problem in a wonkish way, she seemed to forget the person standing in front her.

In sum, Bernie Sanders is driving the narrative, not Hillary Clinton.  It’s Bernie who’s been talking about a rigged system, about economic fairness, about working for unions, about justice and prison reform, and it’s Hillary who’s been put on the defensive.  So lately Hillary’s been borrowing liberally from Bernie’s script.  She’s now talking about “the deck being stacked” against ordinary people, and how she’s going to fight for workers, and how much Wall Street is supposedly against her candidacy.

As Bernie has gained in the polls, as his message has begun to resonate, Hillary has responded by trying to be more like Bernie.  And it just doesn’t ring true, at least for me.  Advantage, Bernie.

 

The Yearly Federal Budget for Planned Parenthood: About the Cost of Two F-35 Fighter Jets

Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood
Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood

W.J. Astore

My wife and I were talking about the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood and how ludicrous it is in the grand scheme of things.  The Federal Government contributes just over $500 million to the budget of Planned Parenthood.  That’s the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters to support vitally important health services provided at 700 clinics across the country.  Talk about bang for the buck!

If a person playing with a full deck had to make a choice, which would she choose to fund: basic medical and information services for nearly three million Americans each year, or two underperforming F-35 jet fighters?  Indeed, for the projected cost of the F-35 program, you could easily fund Planned Parenthood for more than 2000 years!

Speaking of Planned Parenthood, it’s reassuring to know such centers and clinics exist, especially given how squeamish Americans are, generally speaking, about sex.  Planned Parenthood provides invaluable services at low cost, but I guess Congress prefers funding extraneous jet fighters at sky-high cost.

The true chart for the services rendered by Planned Parenthood is below, courtesy of Politifact.  The false chart had been used to suggest Planned Parenthood was increasing abortions and decreasing cancer screening services.  But a decline in cancer screening is due mainly to changes in frequency of pap smears, and abortion rates have held steady across time.  Note all of the other services provided, to include screening for STDs.

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Of course, phony charts and Congressional hearings are all about politics and hot button issues like abortion.  Hysterical opposition to Planned Parenthood is a cynical exercise in emotional manipulation by disinformation and scare-mongering.  The sad thing is how easily it gains traction in our country.

Even as Republican men (yes — it’s mostly men) beat their collective chests about Planned Parenthood, consider that the Federal Budget (discretionary) for FY 2016 is $1.168 trillion.  Recall that total federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a mere $500 million.  If this was shown on a pie chart, the budgetary piece for Planned Parenthood would not be a slice; not even a sliver.  It would be a flake off of the crust.

Compare this to defense spending, Homeland Security, and war funding, which constitutes more than half the federal pie (discretionary spending), and which a Republican Congress wants to increase.  Still think we should focus on flakes off the crust of the pie?

For shame, Congress.  For shame, all of us, for allowing our politics to be manipulated by liars, opportunists, and ignoramuses.

(Note: Planned Parenthood “provides sexual and reproductive health care, education, information, and outreach to more than five million women, men, and adolescents worldwide each year.  2.7 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers for trusted health care services and information.”  Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?  Except that it’s true.)