There are lots of things to be worried about. War, climate change, plaque buildup, unsanitized user inputs. But somewhere near the top of your list should probably be the thousands of nuclear weapons around the world that are one miscommunication or faulty electronics part away from unexpectedly killing many, many people.
On Saturday December 31st, President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, which authorizes indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens, among other things. The president's signature was accompanied by a signing statement noting serious reservations, saying "The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it."
For the moment, let's put aside the horrifying fact that such a bill was even earnestly discussed or advanced in Congress, or that indefinite detention without a trial of anyone is something we're willing to entertain as acceptable. Let's put aside the disturbing practice of folding fundamental changes to U.S. military and legal policy into what are essentially administrative budgeting conversations. And let's pretend that the president didn't sign such a groundbreaking bill on a holiday, a Saturday when most of the country was known to be preoccupied with celebrating the particulars of the Gregorian calendar.
All those things aside, President Obama still signed a bill that he says he disagrees with. That's fine if the bill says that unicorns might exist or that the White House will be painted green; sign it, put it in a file somewhere, work out the details later. But a bill that authorizes the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial seems like it deserves a lot more than the "I don't like it but I guess it's what we have to do" treatment.
Most of the media coverage this week seems to be glossing over the significant detail that the U.S. investment in Iraq, in terms of personnel and dollars, will continue. Instead of uniformed troops from the military, we'll have 15,000-16,000 people there in the form of other government employees and private contractors. We'll be spending almost $4 billion there in 2012. These numbers are lower than what we've been investing, but they are not small numbers, and they still represent a significant commitment on the part of U.S. taxpayers, let alone on the part of the soldiers still on the ground. We can't afford to start thinking or talking as though our involvement in Iraq is through.
It also seems appropriate that when we talk about the human life lost in the course of the U.S. presence in Iraq, we avoid artificial exclusions based on nationality. The story and cost of war is incomplete if you only recognize the count of killed and wounded on one "side" of any conflict. As we consider this particular milestone, let us reflect on the totality of what has been sacrificed, taken or destroyed along the way.
As much as I enjoy Barack Obama's oratory style and presence, there were few things in last night's State of the Union speech that stood out to me as any kind of departure from the typical talking points of this event, which are usually:
Sometimes, it's important to question the unquestionable. One area where I see that our culture has the most difficult time doing this is in talking about the funding of our military defense and public safety services. At a national/international level, it's the U.S. Military and private security contractors. At the state, county and city level, it's police officers along with firefighters and EMTs.
Lawmakers and executive branch leaders across the political spectrum are acutely aware that they'll never be criticized for "supporting the troops" that serve in these operations. In his recent speech updating the world on the status of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he also acknowledged the tenuous state of the economy, President Obama said that, "as long as I am President, we will maintain the finest fighting force that the world has ever known, and we will do whatever it takes to serve our veterans as well as they have served us." The finest in the world. Whatever it takes. These phrases mean something coming from the President of the United States.
A number of mainstream magazines and newspapers have recently published reports on the increasing threat of "cyberwarfare," the significant resources being devoted to fighting that "war" and what we're doing to protect the critical national asset that is our digital infrastructure.
Unfortunately, most of the responses (and the ones favored by the Obama administration) are focused on paying insanely large amounts of money to private contractors to create and deploy complex technological solutions in hopes of addressing the threat.
What advocates of this approach fail to appreciate is that (A) most of the actual threat comes from uneducated human operators of the technology in question, and (B) deploying homogeneous, technologically complex solutions often makes us more vulnerable, not less.
From the "I hope it doesn't happen but wouldn't be surprised if it did" department, I have some predictions and scenarios to throw out there about stuff that could happen sometime in the rest of 2008. I suppose this is mostly just a mental exercise for me, but maybe it'll spark some interesting comments/responses:
The price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in the U.S. will hit $6 a gallon sometime this Summer, and perhaps $10/gallon or more by the end of the year. Measures will be taken by the federal and state governments to temporarily alleviate the financial burden on some people, but nothing sustainable. Some people will not be able to get to work at all, while others will have to carpool more, take the bus, ride their bikes, and walk.
The U.S. will initiate military action against Iran, probably in the form of heavy air-strikes. There will be no clear notion of victory or desired outcome other than to significantly destroy the country's own infrastructure, especially targets related to nuclear facilities. This action might be justified to the American people by...
An apparent attack on one or more U.S. locations, resulting in significant loss of life or infrastructure.
The U.S. airline industry will significantly cut back or even cease flight schedules as we've known them, and air travel will (once again) become a privilege reserved for the rich and famous who can afford private flights. Any frequent flier miles you've accumulated will become worth near nothing.
Most grocery stores will significantly scale back their inventories and restocking schedules, and significantly raise prices on what remains. Obtaining food from non-local sources, even basic staples, will be difficult at best, and most communities will begin to take emergency steps to feed their residents.
Hey, look, I don't like the thought of these things happening any more than the next person, but perhaps there's some value in naming what might be, even if it seems a bit outlandish or gruesome. Maybe if we believe these things are possible, we might feel more prepared to prevent or deal with them if they do happen.
What do you think? Too cynical? Worse? What are some other scenarios?
As you're coming out of the movie 28 Weeks Later, you might be tempted to discuss the horrors of the events in the movie, the acting, the overwhelmingly and unnecessarily bloody gore, or the architecture in the London skyline. But I think we can all agree that the movie was, above all, a lesson in military and security strategy and a warning to future operations planners (especially those dealing with infectious viral outbreaks that turn people into flesh-eating zombies).
In my eighth grade English class, Mr. Sweeney asked us to write a persuasive essay and then deliver it to the rest of the class convincingly. The United States had just sent its military to the Middle East to expel the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait, and that was a hot topic of discussion and controversy. As a part of these events, the head pastor at my church had recently delivered a sermon on what constitutes a "just war." It was a good sermon - contemplative, balanced, and challenging without being preachy (beyond the normal degree to which a white man adorned in robes standing in an ornate pulpit speaking down to a congregation with an amplified and booming voice is "preachy"). Because I admired this man and trusted my church and had not yet at that point in my life encountered any other theories of war, I found myself thoroughly convinced that the use of force by my government in that case was justified. I thought it was a perfect topic to use for my own persuasive speech. Continue reading "Justifying war, values training for war makers"→