Saturday, August 26, 2006

How many trips back do we need? Or want?

(Photo: Soldiers loading a crate of MREs to be sent to a food-aid mission in Afghanistan. AP photo, via Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Gregory Djerejian's Belgravia Dispatch consistently provides thorough and solid (if really, really depressing) analysis of events in the Middle East and of U.S. policy with regard to those events. Djerejian, just so you know, would consider himself to be a political conservative who was originally in support of the war in Iraq but, over time, has become bitterly disillusioned with the vacuous vision of the current administration, especially the Secretary of Defense (note that Djerejian is the sort of blogger who recognizes when a target has provided ample rope with which to hang himself; he just pays out the rope so we can see it, too). I think he would agree with me that our leadership has failed because it simply lacks the imagination or, perhaps, the willingness, to develop and act on contingency plans should, for example, the people stop strewing the streets with flowers and start strewing them with IEDs. I've also meditated on this notion in the past, some of you may recall, most recently here.

Anyway. In a recent post, Djerejian quotes from a couple of pages of Thomas Ricks's Fiasco, which lots of folks seem to be reading these days. Below the fold is something that caught my eye, along with some observations.

Dinner one night in January 2006 in one of the four big mess halls at the U.S. base at Balad offered entrees of baked salmon, roast turkey, grilled pork chops, fried crab bites, breaded scallops, and fried rice. The smiling servers standing behind those dishes were from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Soldiers who were still hungry could hit the two salad bars, the sandwich line, or a short-order stand. There were also two soup offerings and a dessert stand near the exit with chocolate mint and vanilla ice cream, banana pudding, pumpkin pie, cherry pie and yellow cake*. For those bored with the mess halls, there were a Subway, a Pizza Hut and a Popeye's, an ersatz Starbucks called Green Beans that served up triple lattes, and a twenty-four-hour Burger King. The abundance was such that military nutritionists were beginning to worry. In 2003, the average U.S. soldier had lost about ten pounds while stationed in Iraq for a year. "Now they gain that much," reported Maj. Polly Graham, an Army dietitian at Balad, the biggest U.S. base in Iraq...
. . . . In order to keep a volunteer force relatively happy and willing to come back for third and perhaps fourth tours, the Pentagon had to provide a high quality of life for its people. But classic counterinsurgency doctrine says that the only way to win such a campaign is to live among the people.

*This caused me to think back to Iraq's alleged attempts to buy yellow cake uranium from Niger; whether Ricks intends that or not, I can't say, of course.

Click on the link to Djerejian's post above to see what he follows these quotes with. But as I read this, I was struck by the ironic analogue between the repeated trips to the buffet lines and the multiple tours of duty that soldiers and reservists have had to serve: to keep them coming back for more, we need to make them WANT to come back for more.

But there is also, of course, a larger "we" which the title of this post alludes to: Us. The body politic. Laura Rozen, subbing for Kevin Drum at Political Animal, quotes from a Fred Barnes piece which would seem to suggest that, at least for some neocons, the argument is that, in order to distract voters from the mess the Middle East offers us, we need to more forcefully engage Iran--but, I would add, in ways that seem destined to exacerbate the mess we already have rather than begin to resolve it.

And, alas, the Barneses of the world may get their wish: Suzanne Nossel, also guest-blogging at Political Animal, notes that today's news from Iran is NOT good as regards their response to insistences that they not pursue a nuclear program. Though I'm suspicious, I don't pretend to know what Iran's intentions for its nuclear program are--but, some DO pretend to know when they don't either, not really. What's even more ominous about our ignorance, though, is that some of us have forgotten the lesson of gorging on faulty or just plain false intelligence on Iraq as a pretext for going to war there and, in the matter of Iran, seem intent on heaping up their (and our) plates again with more of the same. Einstein's definition of "insanity" seems especially a propos here.

But in keeping with the eating metaphor: Mrs. M. was telling me the other day about a documentary (can't seem to find it online to link to) she saw regarding a morbidly-obese (over 800 lbs.) man who had to be placed in a special facility in order to a) keep him alive long enough to b) get his weight down so his internal organs would begin functioning properly again. He was so obese that he was not merely bedridden, he couldn't even turn himself over in bed. This man had no medical condition that caused or contributed to his obesity; he simply had no self-control when it came to food. His weight, meanwhile, certainly caused or contributed to his diabetes, his difficulty in breathing, etc. So there he was, this man in this special facility who had flat out been told by doctors that he would die if he didn't get his weight down, and the film showed him STILL manipulating visitors into bringing him extra food.

I know, by the way, that I'm referring to this man in past tense. There's a reason for that.

What is especially maddening about this man was that there was nothing wrong with his body in terms of genetics or his endocrinological system. What happened to him, he brought upon himself via the choices he made. So too with us: there is nothing wrong with our ideals, with what we say we stand for. But it is the consensus these days among all but the most blindly-partisan supporters of the present adminstration that those ideals, to put it generously, have been poorly served these past six years. And what is beyond my poor powers of comprehension is why, when the whole world and, in particular, the very states and groups we say are our enemies, can see that our past approaches have created bigger, wider-ranging problems than the ones we had set out to solve in the first place, and why, when we refuse the counsel of even our friends and allies when faced with the failed results of those approaches, we seem intent on pursuing the exact strategies that put us in this predicament.

I don't know the answers to these questions. But I do know that I have had enough of this particular fare, thank you very much. Let's be afraid when we clearly have reason to be, rather than react to shadows. And let's let our representatives know, whether you like the ones who represent you or want someone else in his/her place, that we'd like for the kitchen to change its menu.

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(Cross-posted at Sine qua non's Journal (thanks again, N.))

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