Ken Burns’ “The War” will likely trigger a new round of Greatest Generation celebration and WWII retrospectives. It’s strange -- I haven’t really heard any of it yet, but it’s already exhausting me. Those thoughts, however, make me feel ungrateful and guilty -- so I go through a self-imposed Maoist self-confessional and grudgingly reaffirm both my gratitude and my own generation’s hopeless inferiority. That, in turn, makes me irritated again at the “greatest” generation. And so it goes.
Eventually I stop and ask -- why the hell am I thinking this? It’s World War II – history will probably remember it as America’s greatest collective achievement. After much internal debate, I think I’ve figured it out. My irritation about WWII worship has nothing to do with WWII. It’s about Iraq. It’s always about Iraq.
Let me say up front that I am not belittling our sacrifices or achievements in World War II. With the possible exception of ending slavery, winning that war is our nation’s greatest achievement -- the crown jewel thus far of the American experience. My frustration, then, isn’t with the war -- it’s with the political use of the war in modern times. Remember that the war itself is conceptually distinct from the modern political effects of WWII celebrations 60 years later. Thus, criticizing how people use (or think about) the war today in 2007 is not criticizing the war itself, or the soldiers who fought that war.
With that disclaimer in mind, I’m beginning to wonder whether the unambiguous celebration of WWII causes more harm than good. What bothers me is that many of the sentiments underlying modern WWII worship are the same that led our country to march blindly into Baghdad in 2003. Specifically, there are at least two ways WWII -- as conceived today -- is unhelpful in this respect.
First, it is a celebration of war. Wars, however, should not be uncritically celebrated. We should be solemnly grateful for the result, and we should honor the courage -- but these are different things than celebrating war itself. War is always a horrible thing, even when it’s absolutely necessary (as it was then).
Modern remembrances too often make the act of war seem more romantic than it is. If WWII taught us anything, it’s that we should try our best to avoid war. Its horrors and devastation were simply beyond words. But instead of seeing those horrors and resolving to stop war, many Americans today see WWII as a vindication of war itself. Because war was necessary in that instance, it becomes necessary in all instances.
When neocons (et al.) cite Roosevelt and Truman, they’re generally trying to use necessary war from the past as an all-purpose justification for wars everywhere “evil” lurks. Sadly, the public (at least when they’re scared) seems to agree. Mass acceptance of war as a foreign policy tactic was one reason the administration could sell Iraq so easily. The American people didn’t put up much of a fight.
Second, WWII (as conceived today) tends to reinforce the image that America is an unambiguously good actor. One of the most dangerous tendencies in American thought is to treat foreign policy as a morality play in which we represent the Platonic ideal of good. To be sure, I love America. I love Big Macs and Elvis Presley. I believe in our underlying institutions, and I’m thankful that I was born here. I love my parents too -- but it doesn’t mean they’re perfect. You can criticize your parents even while you love them. The same is true for America.
No matter what you think of America, it’s done some terrible things in its history -- even in WWII. Putting aside the atomic bomb, there’s the fire-bombing of Tokyo. And Dresden. Beyond the war, there's the fact that we had state-sponsored apartheid for practically all of our history. That’s not to say America doesn’t have its good sides too. Of course it does. The freedom to write this blog is but one example.
The point though is that we need a measured, more realistic view of our selves and our own goodness. We need more humility. The lack of humility -- i.e., our excessive self-confidence in our goodness -- is one reason why Iraq was such an easy sell. For too many people, when our military does it, it can’t be wrong. (This view often stems from conflating emotional attachment to individual soldiers with support of the broader military policy itself. It's important to keep these distinct though).
Again, WWII was a great achievement. But it doesn’t make war the answer, and it doesn’t make us unambiguously good. In fact, treating the war more realistically -- understanding its horrors -- is a greater tribute to our soldiers past and present than treating it like a simple morality play.
*[To be fair, Burns claims his documentary shows these horrors. My critique, however, relates to the public conceptualization of WWII, not so much Burns’ documentary.].
Whatever else it’s accomplished, the Myanmar regime is vindicating Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith’s argument in Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World. The book might as well been named The Empire Strikes Back. Contrary to the initial utopian ideas that the Internet would break down borders, Wu and Goldsmith argue that borders are still doing nicely, thank you. Essentially, world governments (e.g., China) have had little problem creating nationwide firewalls and generally reining in the Internet within its borders.
Myanmar is a good example. Based on my admittedly rough survey, the regime maintains control primarily by forcing Net users to register with one of two state-owned ISPs (see here and here). It’s also extremely expensive, so people rely on a small, easily controllable set of Internet cafes rather than home connections. Anyway, the upshot is that Myanmar controls the chokeholds, which allows it to flatly cut off service. Admittedly, some clever people are using proxy servers and other methods to evade the restrictions, but in general, the shutdown seems to be working.
What follows is pretty much pure speculation, so I’d encourage techies to comment. What I’m wondering is whether the United States – or, even better, international institutions – could set up emergency satellite-based broadband services in situations like these. An important benefit of satellite broadband is that it doesn’t need to connect with the existing telecommunications network. Like DirecTV, it just beams into the satellite on your roof, and then runs into your house. It’s not a very good service though, for a number of reasons. But in a situation like this, it’s better than nothing.
The problem of course is that residents don’t have satellites on their roofs. So here’s my question – could ships just off the border in international waters become “pirate” wireless broadband providers? Basically, the satellites above would connect to the satellites on the ships, which would then transmit signals wirelessly to, say, Rangoon. Assuming this is even possible, one immediate question is range. Because they use crappy spectrum, most WiFi and (to a lesser extent) WiMax services don’t extend very far. But if the ship networks used lower-frequency spectrum (the kind currently hogged in this country by television broadcasters), maybe that would help.
Just brainstorming here. If this makes no sense at all for technical reasons, please let me know. There’s also the prickly question of whether “pirate broadband” is an act of force, or otherwise violates international law. However, if legal (and prudent), mobilizing this type of service in response to an emergency would not only promote accountability, but would theoretically deter regimes by preventing them from hiding their actions from the world. Thoughts?
UPDATE: In the comments, Matthew notes that VSATs might be a good candidate (though obviously there are latency problems, etc.).
My source for White House press statements – K-Lo – comes through again. After the Senate’s SCHIP vote, Lopez dutifully sent out the following from the White House. It’s fascinating:
Today, the Senate passed a State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) reauthorization bill that fails to focus on poor children, and instead creates a new entitlement program for higher income households. In fact, the bill specifically eliminates the requirement that states enroll 95% of children in households under 200% of the federal poverty level.
The President will veto this bill because it directs scarce funding to higher incomes at the expense of poor families.
We encourage Congress to send the President a continuing resolution extending SCHIP so coverage for the children who rely on the program will not be threatened. We should take this time to arrive at a more rational, bipartisan SCHIP reauthorization bill that focuses on children in poor families who don't currently have insurance, rather than raising taxes to cover people who already have private insurance.
Note that the argument itself is a populist, Huey-Long, government-should-help-the-poor narrative. I mean, of course it’s a lie – that’s not the interesting part. The sun came up today too. What’s interesting is that the White House felt the need to cast its opposition in New Deal, liberal rhetoric.
As maddening as the veto will be, this press statement is actually reassuring because it means that progressives have won the larger fight. Although the White House is adopting an extremely anti-progressive position, they are conceding (implicitly) the larger progressive argument that government should do more to help poorer uninsured people.
The larger point here is one that Kevin Drum has made before (can't find link). People like to talk up the Goldwater resurgence, but the truth is that New Deal and civil rights-era liberals won all the big battles. And conservatives don’t have the stomach to take on these larger battles (nor the assumptions underlying them). National health care isn’t here yet, but the writing is on the wall. And when it comes, it will never leave.
When Uncle Ted Stevens famously called the Internet a “series of tubes,” many of you foolishly ridiculed him. While cleverly disguised as senile rambling, Uncle Ted’s visionary statement illustrates why Verizon’s text-messaging drama matters. Despite all its charms and complexity, the Internet (and communications networks more generally) still rely on old pipes and wires. For that reason, the net neutrality debate is, at bottom, a debate about infrastructure. Or tubes, if you prefer.
To understand Uncle Ted’s point, imagine that Congress was debating whether to privatize the federal interstate highway system. And let’s say that Rep. Joe Barton (R-Comcast) justified privatizing our roads on the House floor by citing the rich diversity on our highways. Regulation, Barton argues, is no longer necessary because multiple trucking companies compete for our business; multiple car companies compete; etc. This argument, however, ignores an important point. We have lots of trucks and cars because there are federal laws that secure access to the highway (i.e., the underlying network infrastructure). Competition on the top “layer” cannot justify eliminating the “lower-layer” regulation that makes this competition possible in the first place.
The same principles apply to communications networks. Yes, the Internet is a richly diverse place. But that competition was made possible by underlying common carrier regulation – i.e., access to the tubes. In the old Computer Inquiries proceedings, the FCC regulated and secured access to the underlying physical networks (i.e., the highway), but left the higher-level services unregulated. Thus, when people say that the Internet’s success stems from the lack of regulation, that’s completely and utterly false. The Internet exists today because of regulation.
This then brings us to Verizon. While it’s true that Internet services (and to a lesser extent wireless services) are competitive, all of those services depend on access to underlying physical networks (wires, etc.). And old networks at that. Voice and data communications – regardless of how novel or cool they may be – ride over old copper networks that trace back nearly a hundred years. Or, they ride over cable lines that most companies built decades ago. Both sets of “tubes” were built with government subsidies and monopoly protections. And for that reason, they’re impossible for a private company to replicate. (On an aside, what makes Christopher Yoo’s arguments so absurd is that he ignores these – and other – barriers to entry and pretends alternative communication networks will sprout up like lemonade stands).
It’s true that fancy new digital fiber lines are out there. But these lines do not (generally speaking) run all the way to your house. Your house has three lines running to it – a phone line (copper), a cable line (coaxial), and an electricity line. Because the latter is not even close to ready for prime time, you can (at best) get broadband either from the phone company or the cable company.
You may know all this already – what you may not know is that wireless service (the Messiah; the One, Godot, etc.) also depends on these old wires. Wireless needs wires. True, wireless service doesn’t need wires to connect to your device. But, to connect to the larger network, wireless towers purchase access from these legacy incumbents (almost always incumbent phone companies like Verizon and AT&T who inherited the legacy monopoly copper networks). What they purchase is called “special access” and it’s likely the most important telecommunications issue you’ve never heard of. Essentially, all wireless service – from WiFi to voice to WiMax – depends on these old legacy networks to provide service (networks the wireless providers can't replicate).
The 1996 Act tried to force the old monopoly providers to open their networks. The 96 Act, though, is pretty much dead – emasculated by the DC Circuit. When it died, AT&T and MCI were forced to sell out to the big boys (SBC and Verizon) because (among other things) they couldn’t afford special access. Again, the tubes mattered. It’s also no accident that the two biggest wireless providers (Cingular and Verizon Wireless) are affiliated with the two bigger copper incumbents – they need access to the tubes. Wireless needs wires.
This is getting technical, so let’s get back to the Verizon text messaging. Yes, text messaging is competitive (though not as much as you might think). But, what really matters is not text messaging, but the underlying networks it depends on – networks controlled by Verizon. Thus, it’s not troubling that a text messaging provider refused to deal with NARAL. It’s troubling that the network infrastructure owner did. Even if it’s a dumb thing to do, they still did it. And if you own the underlying infrastructure, it’s an easy thing to do in the absence of nondiscrimination laws.
Communications networks are the lifeblood of our economy. And I, personally, think the Internets are pretty cool. There’s simply too much at stake to leave the everyday administration of the greatest invention since the printing press to companies who (quite rationally) aren’t worried about anything but the bottom line. It’s not a matter of evilness, it’s a matter of incentives and externalities.
And so the lesson is clear – leave the Internet to Verizon, and they will screw it up. And there’s too much at stake to let them do that.
"Between January and August this year, Sweden took in 12,259 Iraqis fleeing their decomposing country. It expects 20,000 for all of 2007. By contrast, in the same January-August period, the United States admitted 685 refugees, according to State Department figures.
The numbers bear closer scrutiny. In January, Sweden admitted 1,500 Iraqis, compared to 15 that entered the United States. In April, the respective numbers were 1,421 and 1; in May, 1,367 and 1; and in August 1,469 and 529. (...)
When Tobias Billstrom, the migration minister, says, “Yes, of course the United States should do more,” you can feel his indignation about to erupt like milk boiling over. He notes that given the huge population difference, Sweden’s intake of Iraqis “is the equivalent of the U.S. taking in about 500,000 refugees.”
Of all the Iraq war scandals, America’s failure to do more for refugees, including thousands who put their lives at risk for the U.S., stands out for its moral bankruptcy. Last time I checked, Sweden did not invade Iraq. Its generosity shames President Bush’s fear-infused nation. (...)
A commitment has been made to process 7,000 refugees in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Visas for 500 Iraqis a year who worked for the U.S. have been promised. But these are velleities. Concern has been unmatched by results. Bush has never addressed the issue, an example of his Green Zone politics: shut out ugly reality and with luck it will vanish.
An aggressive American intake of refugees would suggest that their quick return to Iraq is improbable: that smacks too much of failure for Bush. Moreover, you have to scrutinize refugees from countries “infiltrated by large numbers of terrorists,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff opined recently.
The result has been “major bottlenecks,” in the words of a leaked cable from the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. Instead of the 7,000 Iraqi refugees supposed to get here this fiscal year, perhaps 1,600 will.
“The numbers are totally embarrassing,” says Kirk Johnson, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Iraq. “We can’t recognize a moral imperative any more.”
Imperative is right. People who risked their lives for America are dying or being terrorized because of craven U.S. lethargy. Others are in limbo. Bush now says “Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas.” That’s too glib; one may be waiting to be saved."
Sorry for the slowdown -- things should be back to normal shortly. In the meantime, Verizon has apparently decided that pro-choice text messages are simply too controversial to ride over their wireless networks:
Saying it had the right to block “controversial or unsavory” text messages, Verizon Wireless has rejected a request from Naral Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group, to make Verizon’s mobile network available for a text-message program.
. . .
The dispute over the Naral messages is a skirmish in the larger battle over the question of “net neutrality” — whether carriers or Internet service providers should have a voice in the content they provide to customers.
Don't know about you, but I'm pretty psyched to hand over control of the Internet to Verizon and Comcast (or, here in Texas, AT&T and Comcast).
In other news, the highway department banned trucks that carry condoms from federal interstate highways. The Post Office banned solicitations from the Democratic National Committee and refuses to deliver them. And the Washington state electric board (based in Redmond) prohibited electricity from being used for Apple and Google products.
There's a fascinating article in the NYT magazine today about the controversy over an honor killing in Syria.
"Fawaz later recalled that his wife, Zahra, was sleeping soundly on her side and curled slightly against the pillow when he rose at dawn and readied himself for work at his construction job on the outskirts of Damascus. It was a rainy Sunday morning in January and very cold; as he left, Fawaz turned back one last time to tuck the blanket more snugly around his 16-year-old wife. Zahra slept on without stirring, and her husband locked the door of their tiny apartment carefully behind him.
Zahra was most likely still sleeping when her older brother, Fayyez, entered the apartment a short time later, using a stolen key and carrying a dagger. His sister lay on the carpeted floor, on the thin, foam mattress she shared with her husband, so Fayyez must have had to kneel next to Zahra as he raised the dagger and stabbed her five times in the head and back: brutal, tearing thrusts that shattered the base of her skull and nearly severed her spinal column. Leaving the door open, Fayyez walked downstairs and out to the local police station. There, he reportedly turned himself in, telling the officers on duty that he had killed his sister in order to remove the dishonor she had brought on the family by losing her virginity out of wedlock nearly 10 months earlier.
“Fayyez told the police, ‘It is my right to correct this error,’ ” Maha Ali, a Syrian lawyer who knew Zahra and now works pro bono for her husband, told me not long ago. “He said, ‘It’s true that my sister is married now, but we never washed away the shame.’ ”
By now, almost anyone in Syria who follows the news can supply certain basic details about Zahra al-Azzo’s life and death: how the girl, then only 15, was kidnapped in the spring of 2006 near her home in northern Syria, taken to Damascus by her abductor and raped; how the police who discovered her feared that her family, as commonly happens in Syria, would blame Zahra for the rape and kill her; how these authorities then placed Zahra in a prison for girls, believing it the only way to protect her from her relatives. And then in December, how a cousin of Zahra’s, 27-year-old Fawaz, agreed to marry her in order to secure her release and also, he hoped, restore her reputation in the eyes of her family; how, just a month after her wedding to Fawaz, Zahra’s 25-year-old brother, Fayyez, stabbed her as she slept. (...)
In speaking with the police, Zahra’s brother used a colloquial expression, ghasalat al arr (washing away the shame), which means the killing of a woman or girl whose very life has come to be seen as an unbearable stain on the honor of her male relatives. Once this kind of familial sexual shame has been “washed,” the killing is traditionally forgotten as quickly as possible. Under Syrian law, an honor killing is not murder, and the man who commits it is not a murderer. As in many other Arab countries, even if the killer is convicted on the lesser charge of a “crime of honor,” he is usually set free within months. Mentioning the killing — or even the name of the victim — generally becomes taboo.
That this has not happened with Zahra’s story — that her case, far from being ignored, has become something of a cause célèbre, a rallying point for lawyers, Islamic scholars and Syrian officials hoping to change the laws that protect the perpetrators of honor crimes — is a result of a peculiar confluence of circumstances. It is due in part to the efforts of a group of women’s rights activists and in part to the specifics of her story, which has galvanized public sympathy in a way previously unseen in Syria. But at heart it is because of Zahra’s young widower, Fawaz, who had spoken to his bride only once before they became engaged. Now, defying his tribe and their traditions, he has brought a civil lawsuit against Zahra’s killer and is refusing to let her case be forgotten."
To add the final touch of horror to this story, Zahra was kidnapped because a friend of her father's told her that her father was having an affair, and that he would reveal it if she did not join him outside her house. That is how he was able to take her to Damascus and rape her: because she was herself trying to protect her family's honor.
Let me begin with the standard disclaimers, despite which I am certain that at least one commenter will complain that I am in some way attempting to justify the Iraq War, the surge, the presidency of George Bush, tooth decay, world hunger, dogs and cats living together or worse. In fact, I think the war was a mistake, I suspect that the surge is going to be insufficient to turn the tide in Iraq, and I have precisely zero brief for George W. Bush, let alone tooth decay, or worse. [Update: I will confess to being agnostic about dogs and cats living together.] I don't intend to support any of those things. I just want to try to explain a little about what can drive soldiers.
Several weeks ago I spent a few hours helping to offload 40 tons of flour from two flatbed trucks into storage containers. Our civil military guys brought it in to give to local villages to help them when they run short on food. Those guys spend most days on the road, delivering water and other necessities of life to the numerous tiny villages that dot the countryside in this part of Iraq. In a city east of here there's a new textile factory that will provide jobs to 50 townspeople, built by Iraqis using American dollars. I suppose a cynic would argue that the people wouldn't require this assistance had the U.S. not invaded, and maybe that's true. But that damage is done, and there are a lot of Iraqis that are living better lives because the civil military guys go out and try to learn what needs to be done to help these people.
My team is only tangentially related to that kind of operation. Our brief is trying to help the Iraqi Army learn to do a better job protecting the people. While reports from Iraq sometimes seem to suggest that every member of the Iraqi Security Forces is only looking to advance their particular faction, the fact is that, like people everywhere, you get all kinds. Some of them are doubtless just infiltrators. But we also work with men who want to see their country be more than just a hotbed of factionalism. While the idea that inside every Iraqi is an American trying to get out is asinine, the idea that every Iraqi is devoted to nothing but endless killing of everyone like him is equally so. There are a lot of Iraqis here who are risking their lives to make their country a better place. If we can help even one of them do so, there's something to be said for that.
I don't expect that we will make any big differences in Iraq. The government doesn't appear to be interested in doing anything but preserve its power base, and I don't know if that will change even if the U.S. does decide to actually pull out, which seems implausible in any case. I can't make the Iraqi government work any better. I may not even be able to do much to make the Iraqi Army work any better. But I can try to help those Iraqis who want to make their country better succeed in their own small ways, and I can take advantage of my own position to directly aid Iraqis it is in my power to help. It doesn't sound like much. It probably isn't much. But few of us are destined to make a big difference in life; if I can make a little difference, that has to count for something.