Thursday, April 24, 2008
Wary of Insularity
An Essay for the 2008 EO/Wheatstone Academy Symposium
While the current political cycle has sharpened our focus on the role of religion in the public square, we often fail to reflect on the role of the public square upon religion. Increasingly, when Christians engage others in public forums, we do so using tools that we did not develop. Whether through movies, music, or new media, we tend to start with a pre-existing cultural forms and incorporate the Gospel as best we can.
As communication theorist Marshall McLuhan argued, the tools we use to communicate a message can shape that message in ways we may or may not intend.* If this is true then Christians have a duty to critically evaluate the effect of our media choices on our message. Do our choices of media forms allow the message to remain Christian? Or are the tools with which we communicate at odds with the message of the Gospel?
If the medium affects the message, how will the Christian message be affected by the new media?
Joe graciously extended an invitation for me to contribute an essay for the Symposium, and the following is something of an answer to this question.
Wary of Insularity
Theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase and elaborated on the concept, that “The Medium is the Message” (TMITM). McLuhan in his lifetime created prolific and elaborate works, combining philosophy and a fair amount of artistic invention. After his death, his family, followers, and business associates have architected around McLuhan’s ideas an impressive edifice of business and educational resources.
I’ve never read McLuhan, but from years of exposure to the many ubiquitous riffs and references to TMITM, it resonates. If nothing else, this year’s Symposium compelled me to read enough background synopses of what McLuhan seemed to be communicating to understand TMITM, at least a little.
It’s a great organizing concept in thinking about creative and expressive acts, and the entirety of consequences that flow from them. Enough to know that I don’t think I’ll take Mark Federman up on his well-intended instructional curriculum for understanding McLuhan. My guess is that summaries like those produced by Federman and his colleagues at the McLuhan Program can convey in two thousand words 95% of the explicit content (if not the implicit media) that McLuhan attempted in two million. (I suppose that’s one way TMITM, too.)
That said, the Christian needs to confront the New Media, and how it might affect the Christian message. More critically, God compels the Christian to consider the fullest range of consequences that result from their own creative and expressive acts, and those of others. This remains true for the Christian, whether in the context of New Media, or in the old, established media of church traditions. I suggest it’s Scriptural.
As I understand him, McLuhan adhered to a definition of media that includes within its scope any extension of ourselves, any tool or utility of matter or expression. A hammer represents a media, as does language, or any act of expression that allows the “‘outering’ of our senses,” to quote Federman, or “anything from which a change emerges.” McLuhan thought of media in this sense as something that grows, and seemingly takes on a life of its own. Federman further asserts that, “since some sort of change emerges from everything we conceive or create, all of our inventions, innovations, ideas and ideals are McLuhan media.”
McLuhan’s conception captures the idea of the individual as a Change Agent, media as the action catalysts, and the message as any and all changes affected.
Many committed Christians will testify that, as a follower of Jesus, they experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, however imperfectly or inadequately that is oftentimes reflected in their walk and practice. For us, that means we acknowledge conflicting truths: that He who is in us, is greater than he that is in the world; that in our carnal nature, the old sinful man, we do what we do not want to do; and that the Spirit and our carnal nature remain in constant struggle. It also means that for us, the Holy Spirit can make our expressions in media a joint effort between us and God – if we let His will be done. Certainly this can be so with Christian use of new media.
The Internet as Medium
The internet serves as an excellent source of information. It makes a remarkable breadth of tools and resources available in ways both immediate, efficient, and amazingly adaptable to a tremendous range of uses. The simple acts of cut and paste, link and google have entered not only our lexicon, but the almost unconscious habits of increasing automation.
We live a wired, electronic life, often virtual, but seemingly more familiar than much of the natural, physical world. We discover, explore, and often thrive in networks of connection and community. Within these virtual communities, alternative media, new media, flourish and grow. The internet serves as an electronic commons.
Certainly the internet, the many new media outlets and the virtual communities they reflect, stand as vivid examples of the kind of phenomena that McLuhan sought to examine.
The virtual world of the internet creates a moral tension between traditional understandings of reality, and the evident, real consequences that derive from the “unreality” of virtual constructs. Still, the worlds reflected by the internet are merely some from all possible worlds.
And perhaps well reflective of McLuhan’s contemplations, the internet also creates many unanticipated consequences. The internet allows and encourages without much constraint a widespread exhibitionism, however seemingly anonymous. The internet represents the media greenhouse for all manner of crime, exploitation, manipulation, theft, confidence games, frauds and corruption.
Further, many people succumb to an intoxication with online virtual reality. They immerse themselves in activity, thought, the exchange of ideas, and all manner of social networking. Unfortunately, for too many, that community participation comes at the expense of any near equivalent with the physical, external, reality-based world. And it’s not just phenomena of youth.
Many people rely on online community as a crutch, or alternative to real world community. Anonymity and the artificiality, the “virtualness” of the online experience allows people to define themselves, structure their interactions and relationships on individual terms. They have control, power, or influence, in contrast to what they perceive elsewhere. Others just get wrapped up for a season, and sometimes lose perspective.
As a MILBLOGGER, I’ve seen and experienced this firsthand. I find myself so involved at times with online communities, that I lose perspective on how narrow and encapsulated that world can be. Not everyone, maybe not even a significant minority of people read Instapundit, or Real Clear Politics, or Daily Kos for those of a different bent, or even the estimable Evangelical Outpost, and surely not my blog. But many of us who dwell in that world are often confronted with puzzled looks and blank stares even at the mention of blogs or blogging. We are still a tiny microcosm of the online world.
But other than accessibility, visibility, and differences (perhaps) in societal constraint, how is this different than the physical, non-virtual world? Don’t we as Christians run the same risks of cloistering or isolation in the “real world?”
God’s Call to Evangelize
Jesus calls on his followers to go and spread his Gospel, the Good News of God having sent the world His son, so that whosoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus led by example, seeking out sinners, as they had most need of the Physician. He walked among the lost, He lived life among them, He sought to reach them, and healed those who sought His mercy. He celebrated weddings, provided wine, dined with tax collectors and gave encouragement to the shunned and ignored.
He went where many religious leaders of his day would not go, He exhorted against dead religious observance, and He decried the elevation of man and tradition over the timeless heart and commands of God.
God also admonishes His children to be of the world, but not conformed to it.
The Great Commandment challenges us to serve as vessels for what He has poured into us: that Greatest of all Loves that He has shown to us, we are to share with others. Not when they come calling, not when they make themselves acceptable in His eyes, not under conditions we consider ideal in time and place. Go, He said, and make disciples of all the nations.
I dare to presume He would intend us to make disciples in all possible worlds, the virtual as well as the physical.
Christian New Media
There are excellent examples of Christian use of new media, and flourishing Christian online communities. Leading ministries reach contemporary audiences with new media, and the sometime difficulties of finding Christian publications and resources have been erased thanks to the adroitness of Christian publishers and the explosion of Christian internet sites. Christian bloggers abound, forming communities and blogging collectives. Some, like EO, are making significant inroads in traffic and exposure. No doubt, they reach many unsaved, and start conversation and debate. Some of these, by search and curiosity, then yearning and yielding, eventually find faith in Jesus as their savior.
Christians evangelize with new media. They reach the lost. They start conversations. They create relationships, and trust. They provide comfort and encouragement. They share ideas. They build, fortify, and amplify each other in Christian collective expression. They share audience, and thereby extend networks and the relationships they enable.
In every sense, Christians inhabit virtual reality in all the ways they inhabit the physical world. They learn and make use of new and emerging tools. Many churches keep their sermons online. Christian music abounds in music sharing sites, and many Christian families are carrying around I-pods filled with praise and worship music. Christian online dating services have even emerged.
Just as Christians used radio, and then television, as a media for evangelism and outreach, so too Christians have taken to the Internet to attract seekers and searchers, to proselytize, to evangelize, and to more flexibly and creatively serve their congregations, physical and virtual.
Cloisters of Fellowship
Does that mean that any and all Christian use of the internet and new media is holy, righteous, or in keeping with God’s purposes? Of course not.
God’s people aren’t always very Godly. We fail our Creator, we fall short. Tragically, one of the most damaging ways we fail in our faith is that we isolate, we stick to ourselves, we focus inward, we shrink away from a difficult world, from dangerous and hurting people, and we turn away from the Greatest Commandment. Worse, many of us never see the slide from grace for what it is. We don’t acknowledge our failure of responsibility. We convince ourselves, just as the fallen do, that we’re pretty good, or good enough, or the good we do outweighs the bad, and certainly outweighs the good we never get around to doing.
In modest tribute to McLuhan, I devised a media (expression) of the all too common trajectory of Christian zeal for evangelism. Think of it as the Bell Curve of a too common Christian maturation process:
God’s Call upon the Christian
God’s Call upon the Christian to Evangelize
God’s Call upon the Christian
We start with an awareness, then acceptance of the reality of God.
We then hear God’s call to us.
We accept and acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, and by the Holy Spirit, begin to walk out God’s plan for our lives.
At its fullest expression, our understanding of God’s call leads us to evangelize, in fulfillment of the Great Commandment.
Sadly, some never make it that far, and the power of their faith ebbs like retreating tide. Even many who get there, retreat anyway.
The Cloistered Online
I submit that the greatest danger the internet and new media poses for the Christian (practitioner or evangelist) is the same danger posed by more traditional Christian community. Fellowships that turn inward, Congregations that self-serve, church bodies that exclude or separate or find more division with other Christians than unity, all of these stray from God’s call.
I don’t suppose this potential is any greater via new media than in the easier ways we isolate ourselves in the physical world. I certainly have witnessed enough isolation and cloistering behavior in churches to think the very act of stepping out online represents something of a hopeful sign, denoting an attempt to reach beyond the comfortable or known, seeking those who are lost.
In dialog such as those encouraged by Evangelical Outpost, and this Symposium, and the emerging communities of Christian bloggers, I also see a breaking down of denominational and doctrinal boundaries which have far too often stifled and stunted, than protected believers from error or bad doctrine.
I’ve read Catholic and other Orthodox church theologians, and serious students of Protestant faiths, and lots and lots of Christians who have tried to remain unaffiliated on doctrine, doing their part to confess the One Church of Jesus Christ.
We all bring a perspective of the faith experience, and if new media accomplishes little else, it encourages all of us to get out and about, and meet some of our neighbors. We walk past walls and through gates which in the physical world, remain tightly closed.
By seeking a broader, virtual community of Christ, we have the opportunity to more easily advance the purposes of God, and the advancement of His Kingdom.
That, and I kind of like the idea that God’s people can transmit the power of the Holy Spirit in the electronic dimensions of the internet. Not that He needs our help, not that He can’t find any way He wants, but there are far too many people who hide out in their virtual neighborhoods, hungering for freedom in faith, and the Truth that will set them free.
Monday, April 21, 2008
A Suit with Agenda
Here’s the AP background on the lawsuit, and the positions of litigants:
The lawsuit, filed in July by two nonprofit groups representing military veterans, accuses the agency of inadequately addressing a "rising tide" of mental health problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.MILBLOGGERS have long recognized this line of criticism against our military, the VA, and the Bush Administration. Much of what’s been written and press-released for the public has been filled was misinformation and distortions, if not outright fabrications. There’s been no “epidemic of suicides” in the military, and the suicide rate for the military is actually lower than the rates for non-military when like data sets are compared.
But government lawyers say the VA has been devoting more resources to mental health and making suicide prevention a top priority. They also argue that the courts don't have the authority to tell the department how it should operate.
The trial is set to begin Monday in a San Francisco federal court.
An average of 18 military veterans kill themselves each day, and five of them are under VA care when they commit suicide, according to a December e-mail between top VA officials that was filed as part of the federal lawsuit.
"That failure to provide care is manifesting itself in an epidemic of suicides," the veterans groups wrote in court papers filed Thursday.
Some of the reported distortions about a non-existent epidemic of suicides have been due to faulty data analysis, that fails to account for higher proportion of young women and particularly young men in military populations. So if these numbers are matched against equal distributions of non-military cohorts the results will skew and make the military suicide rates seems higher. Many reputable media outlets just make honest (but ignorant and amateurish) mistakes, but partisans have been seeking to manipulate and misrepresent reporting in this area.Now, these same have started some non-profit 501c organizations and launched a class action suit to hype their claims:
"We find that the VA has simply not devoted enough resources," said Gordon Erspamer, the lawyer representing the veterans groups. "They don't have enough psychiatrists."I would never in a million years claim that the VA is perfect, or deny that the VA is currently burdened pretty heavily with an influx of new Veterans seeking assistance.
The lawsuit also alleges that the VA takes too long to pay disability claims and that its internal appellate process unconstitutionally denies veterans their right to take their complaints to court.
The groups are asking U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, to order the VA to drastically overhaul its system. Conti is hearing the trial without a jury.
"What I would like to see from the VA is that they actually treat patients with respect," said Bob Handy, head of the Veterans United for Truth, one of the groups suing the agency.
Handy, 76, who retired from the Navy in 1970, said he founded the veterans group in 2004 after hearing myriad complaints from veterans about their treatment at the VA when he was a member of the Veterans Caucus of the state Democratic Party. The department acknowledges in court papers that it takes on average about 180 days to decide whether to approve a disability claim.
"I would just like to see the VA do the honorable thing," said Handy, who is expected to testify during the weeklong trial.
But I’m a disabled Veteran, who served in Iraq in 2005, and the VA of my generation has dramatically improved and demonstrates greater responsiveness than at any time in its history. If VUFT Founder Handy ever experienced the VA first hand back then, he can’t possibly think it’s not light years better today. If he thinks so, he’s lying, and what’s more, he’d know it. The VA during the years since Vietnam until the Gulf War was a failing institution, overwhelmed, under-supported, and trying to counteract the shameful embarrassment of how the US – our Government and our citizenry – treated Vietnam Veterans.
We had several Vietnam Vets deploy with us to Iraq, and the services, care, and attention they received from the Army and the VA quite literally brought them to tears on more than one occasion. At all levels of command, we encouraged soldiers to take advantage of resources, Mental Health and other medical services, that were available pre-, during, and post-deployment.
As a First Sergeant, I can adamantly declare that no soldier was left alone, to his or her own devices, leaders at all levels monitored their soldiers, and the VA made no less than half a dozen visits to our unit for post-deployment health reassessments. Our NY State Veterans Representatives, at the State, County and local levels, made every effort to assist soldiers and point them (and even push them) towards any needed services.
Some resisted, especially those who served in the National Guard as Active Guard Reserve (AGR) or State Technicians, fearful that a VA filing or claim or any treatment could jeopardize their employment. (I don’t think their fears were founded, everybody seems like they are looking out for our Vets, but I don’t blame them for being suspicious.)
Others soldiers just took the “tough it out” approach or minimized any problems they had. People who serve in the military tend to be stoic by nature, and place great value on self-sufficiency, sacrifice, and dedication to their mission. Sometimes that means they ignore symptoms, but if any did, it was in spite of a massive effort to identify soldiers for treatment.
I attended a couple of counseling sessions at the VA Vet Center, and I know guys that are being treated for PTSD. Things aren’t always great, they get frustrated, I personally think there’s a too frequent tendency to medicate rather than commit to counseling therapies, but I know that many need what the medications provide, at least in the beginning. Locally, many of the guys with real difficulties had big time difficulties before they came in to service, or have real personal difficulties. Several came to the VA now, with problems that originated in the Gulf War. I think we have some Vietnam Vets that likewise have aftereffects from Vietnam that are being stirred up with new combat experiences.
My initial VA claim took 8 months to process, and a second, additional claim took about 6 months. From what I’ve heard over the years, that seems like a pretty fast response, given the data gathering, medical evaluations, boards, and so forth.
Can the VA improve, or hire more psychiatrists, or better, psychologists and counselors? Certainly. But the idea that the VA has been somehow negligent, or that a class action lawsuit will help anything, is insane.
The AP report does a good job of presenting the VA’s explanation of where things are, and what are the causes of the massive mission they undertake:
The VA also said it is besieged with an unprecedented number of claims, which have grown from 675,000 in 2001 to 838,000 in 2007. The rise is prompted not from the current war, but from veterans growing older, government lawyers said.The lawsuit isn’t really about the Vets, or getting them better treatment. Because this generation’s Vets are being done right, by just about everybody involved in the process -- including partisan politicians and other opportunists trying to use the Vets to advance their agendas.
"The largest component of these new claims is the aging veteran population of the Vietnam and Cold War eras," the government filing stated. "As they age, older veterans may lose employment-related health care, prompting them to seek VA benefits for the first time."
Government lawyers in their filings defended its average claims processing time as "reasonable," given that it has to prove the veterans disability was incurred during service time.
They also noted the VA will spend $3.8 billion for fiscal year 2008 on mental health and announced a policy in June that requires all medical centers to have mental health staff available all the time to provide urgent care. They said that "suicide prevention is a singular priority for the VA."
The VA "has hired over 3,700 new mental health professionals in the last two and a half years, bringing the total number of mental health professionals within VA to just under 17,000. This hiring effort continues," they said.
About Veterans United for Truth
VUFT has a “five point philosophy,” that eerily matches Democratic anti-war talking points adopted since the end of the Clinton Administration (when presumably these concerned Veterans were A-OK with Clinton era military interventions, or Executive use of military force as authorized by Congress):
War only if our nation or its true allies are in grave danger.This is rich. Congress has abdicated, even renounced its Constitutional role and responsibilities for declaring war against US enemies. Instead, ever since Korea, the US Congress has preferred to vest authority in the President to deploy US military forces or conduct “police actions.” Congress likes it this way, so that if things go badly, they can deny any responsibility, play critic, and pillory the President.
Strict adherence to Article I, Section 8 - “The Congress shall have power … To declare war ...”
A decision for war is a decision for immediate and meaningful national sacrifice which must include relief, wherever possible, of the grave burden on the troops and their families.
Affirm the Powell Doctrine - troops must be totally prepared, must be sent in overwhelming numbers, and must know the truth of what they are fighting for, what constitutes success, and how they will exit.
Perpetual, timely, quality care for those who have borne the direct burden - the troops and their families - inclusion of these costs in the initial cost of war as part of the continuing national sacrifice.
Can anyone imagine demanding that Veterans be given assurances like those contained in bullets 3, 4, or 5? Forget bearing any burden or making any sacrifices. Our national security would always be held hostage to caution and cataloging, bean counting and fear.
VUFT tracks something they refer to as “US Incursions on Foreign Soil – 188 and counting.”
This list doesn’t include WWI and WWII, as those are presumably considered “good wars,” but it does include the War of 1812 against Britain. It also includes odd and distorted descriptions for our long deployment of military forces in the former Yugoslavia:
1993-1995, Bosnia, Active military involvement with air and ground forces.No mention of US peacekeeping forces that have been deployed continuously to Bosnia and Kosovo since the Clinton Administration. Perhaps they are omitted because a Democratic President initiated the missions, or that they’re called “peacekeeping.” I don’t see how these deployments are somehow different than others that are included on the VUFT listing. Unless of course you consider the possibility that VUFT adheres to a partisan political agenda, and only seeks primarily to discredit military operations initiated by the Bush Administration.
1995, Croatia, Krajina Serb airfields attacked.
(Cross posted at MILBLOGS)
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Vets on the Hill, Part 2
VFF summarized the event in an email:
Dear Vets for Freedom members:Eleven of us self-identified as residents of New York, and made or attempted visits with NY Senators Clinton and Schumer, and 27 Congressmen and women. VFF’s legislative staffers had made heroic efforts to arrange and schedule Congressional visits, but had very limited success. Sen. Clinton agreed to a scheduled appointment, which 3 staffers attended with seven or eight of us. Nine of the Congresspeople agreed to a scheduled meeting, but to my knowledge, only Buffalo area Congresswoman Louise Slaughter attended in person, all others were staff visits.
Yesterday was a great day for our country, and for Vets for Freedom. Not only did General Petraeus testify to incredible progress in Iraq, but Vets for Freedom was joined at a press conference on Capitol Hill by Senators McCain, Lieberman, and Graham; as well as Democrat Jim Marshall and two dozen other Senators and Representatives. Thirty media outlets covered the event, and a few of the sound bites are below:
"No one detests war more than a veteran ... you know better than any the consequences of defeat. My friends, we will never surrender to the extremists." - Senator John McCain
"Do not underestimate the contribution you have made on the political battlefield at home." - Senator Joe Lieberman
"You want to know who wants you to come home more than anybody? Al Qaeda because you're kicking their ass." - Senator Lindsay Graham
As the press conference concluded, over 400 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and members of Vets for Freedom descended on Capitol Hill, where over 300 meetings were held with their representatives in the Senate and the House. The message was simple: support the commanders on the ground and let the troops win!
Sen. Schumer’s office wins the dubious distinction of most disrespectful of the NY Congressional Delegation. Not only did his office refuse to respond (weeks or days in advance) to requests for a scheduled appointment, but then sent a very young female staffer when we appeared on Tuesday, to explain that the Senator’s office couldn’t possibly make same day appointments. Apparently he had pulled this same stunt in September, with the same (admittedly attractive) staffer.
This is contrast to a more politically-savvy Clinton, whose staffers sat patiently through about 30 minutes of all of us sharing our perspectives on why Congress should support General Petraeus, and continue to support our efforts in Iraq. The lead staffer did the only talking in the meeting, parroting the identical talking points that Clinton and other Democrats put out Tuesday and Wednesday in Congressional questioning of Gen. Petraeus. The was a Marine Officer serving as a Senate Fellow assigned to Clinton, which seemed impressive. She spoke to several of us after the meeting, and made a strong effort to communicate that she could be an important resource for Veterans, contributing insight and access to Sen. Clinton on Military and Veterans Affairs. She seemed a fine Officer and Marine, but color me doubtful.
Apropos of nothing in particular, one of the oddest visual contrasts I encountered was a small brochure for the Corcoran Gallery of Art displayed prominently in Sen. Clinton’s office, alongside other DC and NY area tourist brochures. The top half of the brochure was a picture of an Andy Warhol oil portrait, Mao (1973), of Chinese Communist Chairman Mao Tse Dung. I can’t decide if the placement was intentional or not, either a tweak for visitors by staffers, or a tweak of Clinton’s younger-year politics by a less admiring visitor.
We attended a morning appointment with Rep. Eliot Engel, a downstate Congressman with a solid record of supporting Israel, who voted to authorize Military action against Iraq in 2003, and who is considered “in play” on debates about the future of the Iraqi mission. His staff person, who dealt with Veterans issues rather than Iraq, was very polite and courteous. He declined to speak for the Congressman on Iraq specifically, but was very responsive and seemed genuinely interested in discussing (and questioning somewhat) our impressions and opinions about future US options.
Rep. Mike McNulty was just returning Tuesday from Albany, and his Chief of Staff was not available when we stopped by, but the office seemed genuinely responsive to a meeting later (that we didn’t squeeze in). Rep. McNulty is my Congressman, and was the only one of our Congressional Delegation to attend a welcome home for the 42nd “Rainbow” ID on our return from OIF III. McNulty has generally been very supportive of military, with a family member (his brother I believe) having served in Vietnam. McNulty is also retiring this year, and leading state Democrats are jockeying for his seat. No word – no sound – from any potential Republican contenders.
Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office committed to an appointment, which two of us attended. The staffer was one of several on Tuesday that was very aggressive in challenging our perspective with what would turn out to be Democratic talking points all week: What is victory? What would constitute victory? At what cost? How long should be continue? Iraqis need to do more, we’re in the middle of a Civil War, the Iraqi Security Forces can’t do the job, we need to use the “threat” of withdrawal or else the Iraqis won’t step up. We had an energetic debate, highlighted recent security gains, Iraqi political reconciliation, Iranian proxy war-making against US and Iraqi forces. He didn’t budge, but we had our say.
Overall, I developed some strong impressions about the whole political struggle in Washington, the role of VFF and other lobbying and special interest groups, the mechanics of how the influence, media, and public relations battles are waged.
First, the Veterans running and serving at the forefront of VFF – Hegseth and Zirkel, their staff members Arends and Grodin, writers and speakers Luttrell, Russell, Bellavia – are politically savvy and obviously well-connected politicos. I don’t fault them, I don’t feel used, but there’s no question we were carefully planned and orchestrated backdrop to General Petraeus’s testimony, and (largely) Republican-led efforts to leverage VFF as part of a larger effort to swing public support (and ultimately Congress) to continue to support the US mission in Iraq. They have some big time connections, getting face and media time in front of John McCain and Joe Lieberman, as well as President Bush in private session. Several VFF participants are running for Congress.
All over town, buses were spitting out numerous groups of lobbyists of one flavor or another, many very well healed and well dressed, organizations, trade groups, who knows what political organizations, or interest group non-profits like ours. They were all over Capital Hill. In meetings and conversations with the many staffers in Congressional offices, it is readily apparent that skilled politicians develop the ability to listen without hearing, to show concern and attention without expending any actual energy of thought, reflection or retention. Less skilled practitioners – like the lead Clinton Staffer – fidgeted or rolled their eyes, or went glassy-eyed. Well-trained and proven-for-success types made it look effortless. They must see a hundred people a day, or more. It’s a steady stream of patronage, advocacy, gawkers and tourists, with moments of backroom dealing thrown in. I even saw it in the faces of several of the Congressmen and women who spoke to us Tuesday morning, and they were in front of a friendly audience.
I don’t think I’d work that mission in a million years, but this is the reality of modern political life. All sides, all interests play this game. People talk past each other, knowing but not even caring that nobody is really listening, this is staged media event after another, all symbolic gesture and posture. We were part of it, in large part to confront and weigh against all the media circus and friendly media favoritism showered on war opponents, the Code Pinks and less deranged flavors.
It looks like we got good media, we did what we needed to do, we were “successful” at providing helpful backdrop to the fine efforts of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. I’m glad I went, and it was an eye-opener, for sure.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Vets in the Hill - Images
More to come.
Balance Against Iran
In important commentary today, David Ignatius at Real Clear Politics buttresses Petraeus and Crocker pointed testimony about Iranian trouble-making in
Fighting a war against
Somehow, the next president will have to fuse
I think Ignatius has this just about right, but I’d take it to the next logical conclusion. John McCain certainly recognizes the threat posed by Al Qaeda, as well as Iranian proxy sponsorship of terror groups, terrorists, and militia adversaries of both
Obama, on the other hand, never reveals a thorough understanding of the threats we face, or how seriously they threaten. I have great certainty that Obama would be more than capable of serving as proximate cause of a “weak
If the Bush Administration can be plausibly accused of over-simplifying threats and enemies to the point of caricature, its critics and opposition should be likewise accountable for thinking they can dispatch them like cartoon villains. To foreign policy neophytes like Obama, our sworn enemies will always act rationally, behave in farsighted self-interest, deal honestly, and respect conventional norms. (Or be quickly beaten or bombed into submission, if only a Brilliant Democrat takes on the task.)
Fatally for such who harbor these illusions, enemies in the real world are not so easily vanquished. Pity, Sen. Obama’s first hand experience with NY’s junior Senator, doesn’t better inform his understanding of adversaries in conflict.
Overplayed and Under-Sourced
Phillip Carter’s Intel Dump has been picked up by the Washington Post, where he posted commentary on yesterday’s Congressional testimony from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.
Phillip Carter is a Veteran of OIF who supports Barack Obama and serves in a quasi-official capacity as an advisor to Obama’s Campaign. He’s also been a longtime and consistent critic of our efforts in
I’d rather have someone like him blogging for the Washington Post than many other potential candidates, but still, I think Carter is the one overplaying his hand, here.
Carter’s take-aways up front:
They overstated the threat posed by al-Qaeda in
Origins of Violence
Carter asserts that Al Qaeda cannot rightly be held accountable for the lion’s share of violence in
The vast majority of Iraqi violence over the past five years has been caused a) by ethno-sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites; b) intra-sectarian fighting amongst Sunnis and Shiites; c) fighting over scarce resources (oil, fuel, water, food, control over ministries with responsibility for the same); and d) fighting by Iraq's homegrown Sunni insurgency and homegrown Shiite militias. AQI has played an important role as catalyst and spoiler -- stoking the fires of sectarian violence (as with the 2006 mosque bombing in
Clausewitz once wrote that the most important challenge for a commander was to visualize the battlefield -- because all plans and actions flow from his understanding of the situation. Our skewed visualization of
Carter summarizes the violence in a way that confirms that for Carter, Iraq has been a Civil War in the making from the start, and will devolve into sectarian violence under any scenario, resulting from any action we took to date, or will take – except of course, for the vague policy direction suggested by his preferred Presidential Candidate, Sen. Obama.
I would argue that Carter’s invocation of Clausewitz more accurately explains his (and Obama’s) “skewed visualization of
Al Qaeda aggressively sought to portray their terrorist plots and factions, as well as the resulting violence, as indigenous and homegrown. They created Iraqi puppets for what were otherwise foreign terrorist operations, all of which has been repeatedly revealed as designed propaganda in captured Al Qaeda documents. Yet, Carter acknowledges AQI as “catalyst and spoiler,” but relegates AQI to a minor, “supporting role.”
Yet even the example Carter cites, that of the 2006 Samarra Mosque bombing, undercuts his argument. That seminal event, engineered to create the impression of sectarian conflict, is widely regarded as having provoked much of the resulting violence, and that was just the most obvious example of years of steady provocation. That’s pretty central to the instability and violence of what happened, yet Carter fairly implies that it had no material impact, against intractable (and pre-existing) ethnic strife. No doubt Al Qaeda spinmeisters are pleased that analysts like Carter – and policy makers like Obama – have so thoroughly bought into their deceits.
Nor does Carter make any mention of Iranian war-and violence-making, or the degree to which
Carter also adopts another Democratic Party talking point, in claiming that other factors have led to the greatly improved security situation in
What about the massive flows of displaced people? And what to make of the relative importance of the political deals with Sunni and Shiite political leaders that have kept their partisans out of the fight? These have all had a massive impact on the security situation -- probably more of one than that exerted by
These are odd factors to juxtapose. In the first, Carter joins those who claim that a largely completed ethnic cleansing has moved warring ethnic groups far enough apart that they no longer are in (as much) conflict. Again, that is based on a premise that Sunnis and Shia, in their natural state, unmolested, will always be at war.
Based on my (admittedly limited) experience in
I find it also highly likely that the “political deals” that Carter dismisses could not have been possible within the degrading security situation that prevailed prior to the Surge of US Military forces.
Carter passes on another Democratic Party talking point:
Seeking a Strategy. So what is our strategy in
I can directly attest to this line of rhetoric as a Democratic talking point, as it was echoed all day long yesterday by Democratic Congressional aides as a rebuttal to the personal testimonies of Vets for Freedom members. If what Petraeus and Crocker have been presenting to Congress this past year doesn’t constitute a Strategy, and underscore what the Bush Administration and its critics alike assert would be victory – Iraq taking on the role as self-preserver of their own freedoms and nascent democracy – then no plan or conditions for victory can never be sufficiently articulated.
Competing Democratic Party Presidential nominees have been issuing these kinds of criticisms since our invasion of
Carter concludes, “We owe something more to our men and women serving in
I couldn’t agree more. The Nation and our elected officials owe much to Veterans who have served the country in combat in
Vets on the Hill, Part 1
Vets for Freedom hosted our Vets on the Hill event Tuesday morning, featuring Presidential Candidate and Senator (Sen.) John McCain. Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham also attended, along with other leading pro-war Congressmen and Women.
The VFF event was extremely well-organized, pulled together by an excellent staff led by Pete Hegseth, VFF Executive Director. VFF covered the travel expenses for over 400 Iraqi and
Hegseth and Thompson both made humorous references to Hegseth’s Basketball career under Thompson at
General Myers gave an excellent talk about courage and sacrifice, and was the first of many speakers Tuesday who said that, as we served our country in war overseas, so the country needed us to continue to serve, in the war for public opinion and policy here at home.
At 0700, we were bused to
Numerous mainstream media outlets covered the outdoor event, as did Amie Parnes for Politico:
Several hundred veterans stood in the cold drizzle Tuesday morning for a man they called their hero.
“You can have your Tiger Woods,” David Bellavia, a former Army staff sergeant, told the crowd of pro-Iraq veterans. “We’ve got Senator McCain.”
Milbloggers and their readers should be very familiar with Bellavia, a Silver Star decorated combat Vet who’s just published a gritty account of his combat experiences in House by House. His reference played off an earlier description of what it means to be a hero, and how often our society views sports figures as heroes and ignores those who risk all in service to their country. I found it astonishing, and gratifying, that John McCain waited patiently as both Pete Hegseth, VFF Executive Director, and Bellavia, gave short speeches before Hegseth introduced McCain. Bellavia is running for Congress, as are several other VFF members, and many people (including Hegseth) are suggesting Bellavia should receive a Medal of Honor.
Just as a quick aside, as Hegseth was amplifying on the Vets for Freedom mission and members, he momentarily could not come up with what was missing from his description of VFF members as Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines. By the time he recovered and added, “Sailors,” McCain had grimaced and made a gesture towards himself, much to the amusement of the Vets assembled.
Parnes summarized McCain’s brief remarks:
John McCain, (R-Ariz.) the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, did not disappoint. At a pit stop at the Vets for Freedom rally outside the Capitol before appearing on the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain, called Army Gen. David Petraeus "one of [
He also thanked the veterans.
“I just wanna say what you know so well,” McCain said. “No one detests war more than a veteran. But the veteran also knows the consequences of defeat means greater sacrifice and greater numbers who are wounded and killed. You know better than any the consequences of defeat.”
The 480 some VFF members present clearly appreciate the very pro-victory and pro-military stance McCain has always demonstrated, by Sen. Lieberman, who followed McCain, got us all fired up. As Parnes reported:
Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), who have both endorsed McCain's candidacy and joined him on stage, echoed his sentiments.
“Do not underestimate the contribution you have made on the political battlefield at home,” Lieberman said. “Do we want al Qaeda and
“No!” the vets screamed.
He followed that by asking if we wanted to win, and the response was deafening. That’s why we took the hill yesterday, to advocate Congress to let us do just that.
But Lindsay Graham got the biggest response with this one liner:
“You want to know who wants you to come home more than anybody?” Graham continued. “Al Qaeda because you’re kicking their ass.”
Just before the outdoor event concluded, Texas Congressman Sam Johnson, a fellow POW with McCain at the Hanoi Hilton, took his lkarge brimmed cowboy hat off and saluted those of us in attendance.
Then we headed on up the Hill to take the message to Congress: Let Us Win. More on that in Part Two, along with some photos.
Blackfive noted the VFF event yesterday, linking to This Ain't Hell, where Jonn Lilyea summarizes the event with video of the speeches, and plenty of good photos. (Better than the one’s I got standing in the front row. Beer to anyone who can find me.)
Newsbusters Kevin Mooney posts an interview with Hegseth.
Other blog coverage:
Monday, April 07, 2008
Prelude to Testimony
In the first, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute takes on antiwar (and thus Antiwar Party) talking points. They make easy work for Kagan, whose very lengthy takedown can be summarized thus: however else they can be characterized, the arguments against
What is Victory?
Kagan demolishes what equates to Democratic sophistry, the pretense that a withdrawal from
Yes, in the world as it is, whatever line we sell ourselves, there really is victory and there really is defeat, the two are different, and their effects on the future diverge profoundly. And yes, the reason we must continue to spend money and the lives of the very best Americans in that far-off land is that the interests of every American are actually at stake. [snip] Unless the advocates of defeat can show, as they have not yet done, that the consequences of losing are very likely to be small not simply the day after the last American leaves Iraq, but over the next five, ten, and 50 years, then what they are really selling is short-term relief in exchange for long-term pain.
Other highlights from Kagan:
The War Costs Too Much
Military spending has traditionally been a form of economic stimulus, and wars more commonly end recessions or depressions than start them. That’s not a good reason to start a war, but neither is it a good reason to lose one. The impact of the current war on the
The War Is Inevitably Lost, Recent Progress Notwithstanding
The credibility of many making this argument suffers from the conviction with which they declared early (and, in some cases, even late) in 2007 that no progress of any kind was possible.
Iraq is a made-up state: Iraqis hate each other, and only armed might can keep the peace.
The high degree of Sunni-Shi’a intermarriage in the mixed areas of Iraq, the large numbers of such mixed areas, and the increasing anger with which many Iraqis in those areas now denounce the idea of sectarian conflict all run against this argument.
Iraqis are not ready for democracy
As for the notion that democracy is incompatible with Islam, tell it to the hundreds of millions of Muslims in
The Anbar Awakening had nothing to do with the surge
This argument is a bit like saying that the French people, finally tiring of the Nazis’ occupation, rose up of their own accord in 1944, engaging in increasing partisan and insurgent activities culminating with the re-appearance of the Free French military units that liberated Paris — and that none of this had anything to do with the Normandy invasion, since the Free French movement and partisan activity within France predated that invasion.
Violence fell only because Moqtada al Sadr ordered a unilateral cease-fire
In addition to having to abandon any pretext of participating in Iraqi politics if he ended the ceasefire, therefore, Sadr also had to face the likelihood that well-informed
Now that the Surge Is Ending, We’ll Be Right Back Where We Started
The worst flaw in this argument, however, is that it naively assumes that the situation in
We Should Never Have Fought this War in the First Place
There are no do-overs in the real world. Deciding that we made a mistake in 2003 or that we don’t like what has happened in the intervening five years does not make it possible to hit some global rewind button and start again from scratch.
Is there really any question about whether or not al-Qaeda in
In the second piece noted above, Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham set the stage for Generalm Petraeus’s testimony by also highlighting the hypocrisy and error of many antiwar critics:
When Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress tomorrow, he will step into an American political landscape dramatically different from the one he faced when he last spoke on Capitol Hill seven months ago. This time Gen. Petraeus returns to
Senators Lieberman and Graham acknowledge the tragic and significant costs of our efforts in
The success we are now achieving also has consequences far beyond
It is unfortunate that so many opponents of the surge still refuse to acknowledge the gains we have achieved in
Lastly, Ralph Peters at the NY Post checked in with a military colleague in
Peters explains why
My source acknowledged that "the planning for
This officer doesn't paint over the cracks in the Iraqi house, but he's convinced that the
For myself, I watched the
Unlike the Brits, who faked it, the Iraqis went into the city and fought. Was their performance perfect? Of course not. But this is where the punditry got really interesting.
Many of the critics had previously lavished praise on the counterinsurgency manual that Petraeus midwifed. One of the most-quoted maxims from that document was T.E. Lawrence's admonition that it's better for our local allies to do something imperfectly themselves than for us to do it perfectly for them.
Well, the Iraqis stepped up to the plate. A few units folded. Others fought ferociously. They did what we said we wanted - and the critics raised the bar again. (Unfair criteria for success now may pose a greater obstacle in
And, by the way, it was Moqtada al Sadr, not the Iraqi government, who requested a cease-fire - after being urged by the Iranians to opt to let those militias live to fight another day.
This stage is set. Let’s see what happens in
Vets on the Hill
Do you know who the Vets for Freedom are? From their website:
Vets for Freedom is a nonpartisan organization established by combat veterans of the wars in
Our mission is to educate the American public about the importance of achieving success in these conflicts by applying our first-hand knowledge to issues of American strategy and tactics in
We support policymakers from both sides of the aisle who have stood behind our great generation of American warriors on the battlefield, and who have put long-term national security before short-term partisan political gain.
Vets for Freedom is the largest
That’s who we are, some 20,000 strong. Here’s what many of us will be doing in Washington DC tomorrow. An excerpt:
More than 400 members of Vets for Freedom will gather on Capitol Hill to hear words of support from various Senators—including presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)—before individual meetings with their legislators.
Tuesday’s gathering will provide a unique opportunity to get first-hand perspective from recent veterans who came from across the
I’ve been proud to serve on VFF’s National Leadership Team since receiving an invitation from co-founder Wade Zirkle. Pete Hegseth is the current Executive Director, and has acquitted himself with distinction, making numerous high-profile media appearances and keeping VFF energetically engaged.
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