Friday, December 11, 2009

What I'd like to see is a massive national information project with regard to Afghanistan. That old, complex country is on the fast track to becoming our next Vietnam, and we, as a nation, tend to know almost nothing about the place. Which is folly.

Many things crippled our involvement in Vietnam, but chief among these was our general ignorance of the country and its people. A great example of what we were up against might have been drawn from the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The French thought that their isolated base could not be defeated because the only way the North Vietnamese could transport food and arms so far from Hanoi was by foot on mountain paths.

However, a soldier wheeling a bicycle over mountain paths can carry three times as much as one without a bike. The French failed to note an increase in the production of bikes, and the shortage of bikes in Hanoi, and so the North Vietnamese evicted the French from Dien Bien Phu. It was, as Bernard Fall put it, "Hell in a Small Place" for the French.

We, in our turn, failed to note this. We also failed to note that Japan had lost in Vietnam before the French. We failed to note that only a minority of the country favored Catholicism when we installed our Catholic puppet Diem. Most telling, however, was that we failed to note that Ho Chi Minh had tried to enlist our help after WWII, and been rebuffed. He was, if nothing else, a real pragmatist, and a Vietnamese patriot with whom we could have worked, had we had the foresight to do so. And then of course we failed to note Tet.

There is now a wealth of good books on the subject. Among the best is Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, which enumerates so many of the mistakes we made in our efforts in Vietnam.

My fear is that we, in our national ignorance of Afghanistan, are headed for the same kind of mistake there.

And so what I call for is a national mobilization of understanding. Whatever we do in Afghanistan, let's know the county as well as we can. Let's study it hard, in every classroom, every boardroom, every lunchroom. Let's not send any more of our boys and girls over there without a very sound and deep national understanding of the place and its culture.
I haven't written here for some time. Much has occurred in the interim. Why there is a statement that couldn't possibly be more understated.

For instance, Obama has decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Global warming is, according to the kooks, just an invention of a few bad apple science guys at the University of East Anglia. H1N1 has swept the globe and may again before it vanishes. Martha Coakley has won the Democratic primary for Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts. And we have had another kid.

What has struck me most about the situation I find myself in presently, with two children under three years of age, is that I am often at one playground or another, thrown together with other parents of young children, and we manage, without coaxing or uneasiness, to converse and share our experiences.

This is an odd feeling for me, because as a writer I spend so much of my time alone, isolated from other adults. Yes, I am with my children and family, but often I am not in meaningful conversation with other adults for days at a time. But playgrounds, and having kids, changes all of that. The fears and reserve that I feel in many other situations fall away at the playground.

Oh, look at that guy, I think. He's probably a grouch and a kook. But wait. He's pushing his kid on the swing, and look, his kid seems to like him all right. And kids know what they're doing when it comes to character judgement. So I think I'll say hello. And, by George, a conversation ensues about the efficacy of pychological treatment of war traumatized veterans.

Why doesn't that happen more? What is the problem with adults generally and our society, generally, that we are so shut down to dialogue and shooting the breeze? What are our fears - that others will judge us, or that others don't like us, might resent us, etc.? I am not sure. But I am sure that if we all took our kids over to Afghanistan to meet the Afghani kids on the Afghani playgrounds, there would be no problem figuring out how to converse, and without violence.

Maybe that's a crackpot notion, but I will stand by it. Think of our world from the perspective of our children, what they like, what's good for them, how we would like others to approach them, and the world we would like to build for them, and many of the complications that we adults place on the world fall away. Things get clear. Conversations become easy to have.

So, I say head to the playground immediately and don't leave until it's really time to go.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

[Daniel Robb, Dec.2, 2008] An Open Letter to the Big Three

After listening to the CEOs of the “Big Three” (Ford, Chrysler and GM) testify last month before the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate, I was struck by what Jon Tester, D-Montana, said. He said (and I paraphrase) that in his experience (as a farmer in Montana) light trucks get about the same dad-gum mileage as they did thirty years ago. His tone was one of incredulity.

My experience of trucks, as a self-employed carpenter in Massachusetts, has been similar. I typically haul (in my 1994 Toyota Tacoma ½ ton 4x4 pickup) about 300 pounds of tools to jobsites all over the state. Covering these tools is a cap which weighs about 250 pounds. The truck, which has no amenities other than windows, gets about 24 miles per gallon on the highway (in two-wheel drive) if I drive the speed limit.

This vehicle does a satisfactory job for me, except that it gets pretty lousy fuel mileage. Sadly, it gets better mileage that any other small (4 cylinder) 4x4 available to me.

Now, I know a few things: 1. My first car was a 1981 (German) VW Rabbit diesel that got 50 miles to the gallon on the highway; 2. Japanese (Toyota and Isuzu) small diesel pickups were imported to this country in the 1980s – a friend had a great Toyota 4x4 diesel truck then that got 32 mpg; 3. This country figured out during World War II how to build a Liberty Ship per day and how (with the help of our allies) to defeat Germany and Japan.

If in 1981 I could buy a German car that got 50 miles to the gallon, and if in the U.S. today I can buy a German car that gets 50 mpg with low emissions, and if in the U.S. it is possible to buy a Japanese Prius hybrid that gets 55 miles to the gallon in warm weather, why then can’t I buy a decent American-made pickup that will haul my tools across the state and get thirty-five miles to the gallon, or a car that will get 50 mpg? What happened to us?

I have to believe that between the 1. Shallow requirements of U.S. auto-fashion (fashion is a huge part of the auto-industry, in terms of how Americans want to dress themselves, in SUVs, or overlarge pickups, or whatever’s the rage); 2. The encouragements of oil-industry lobbyists; and, 3. Industrial hubris, the Big Three have somehow neglected to make the truck (or car) I want to buy. And that is a problem, because I am the guy they want to sell a truck to – the small potatoes yeoman farmer/builder/citizen.

Four years ago I bought a Toyota (used) because of Toyota’s reputation for reliability and longevity. In 60,000 miles (from 160,000 to 220,000 miles) I have had a thermostat (a thirty dollar part) fail on me. That’s it. Other than typical maintenance (new belts, brake pads, and oil changes), I haven’t had a single repair.

So where’s my incentive to buy an American truck that won’t outperform my Toyota? Should I do it out of patriotism? Perhaps. But I thought we were supposed to award outstanding performance, not mediocre performance, so I’m not sure that would be patriotic, really.

What I’d like the Big Three to do is this: Build me a truck that makes sense. A truck that a barely-making-it-small-family-farmer or carpenter can feel good about. Advertise it truthfully as tough-as-nails, long-lasting, easy-to-fix – a truck that our yeoman farmer forbearers would have driven. And while you’re at it, advertise real simple value as cool, rather than the macho crap you use to sell trucks now. Build my truck with a light turbo-diesel or hybrid drivetrain, 4x4 wheel drive, and let me get thirty-five miles to the gallon on the highway. All I want is an honest to goodness truck. I know that a country that can build a Liberty Ship in a day can get there.

Nothing will help America (or her security) more that to allow guys like me to get out from under the fist of big oil. In fact, I think you can do better than 35 mpg in the truck I want. I think you can get me 40 mpg. But I’d settle for 35. In two years, because my Toyota will have close to 250,000 miles on the clock then, and it might really be time for a new vehicle.
What Conservative Means in America, 2008 (This was penned early in the Autumn of 2008).
As a Democrat, I’d like to (and I am going to) take back some of the definition of conservative that’s been lifted (by light fingers) from me in recent times.
First, consider that the Dems. are absolutely the more Constitutionally conservative party, in terms of their desire to preserve any of our Constitutional rights which you care to name. I may have to admit that the second Amendment has been more fiercely fought for by the Republicans of late; however, it is clear to me that if one of these Bill of Rights is abridged, all are more susceptible, and I am personally a strong supporter of the second Amendment.
It is also clear that the remaining nine of the first ten Amendments have been far more zealously championed by the Democrats of late, particularly in light of the wrongs committed against the fourth and sixth Amendments by the Patriot Act, and by policy set forth by the G.W. Bush administration at Guantanamo Bay, at Abu Gharaib, and in the prosecution of the War In Iraq, in which lawful international treaties have been ignored, the writ of habeas corpus has been cast aside, and the practice of extraordinary rendition has left our standing among our international peers in tatters.
The Dems. are also clearly the more conservative party when it comes to national security, in particular with regard to conserving those natural resources which contribute to our national security. We believe in saving energy, in using our own renewable sources, and in so doing being stronger as a nation, less reliant on foreign oil, and so more secure within our borders. This is a fundamentally conservative policy.
It can also be argued that the Dems. are clearly more behaviorally conservative, in that we have a deep respect for the ways and beliefs of others, and want to live under a government that does not intrude into the living rooms or bedrooms of its citizenry. We believe that a man or woman’s home is his or her castle, looking for precedent in this to the magna carta, and we want to defend that right of the home, secure from the unlawful intrusions of big government.
We also believe in conserving the educational and intellectual resources of our nation, in that we believe it is good conservative policy to educate every American as well as possible, in order that the nation may be as great as possible, because (and precisely because) a highly-educated populace will keep and defend the Constitutional values which make this nation great, and will, individually, need little long-term help from the nation as self-reliant adults. An uneducated populace, on the other hand, is more likely to allow its rights to be abridged, will gradually lose control of its own destiny, and will be more easily manipulated by those who stand to make a profit on its back.
Don’t let the current "conservatives" fool you. What they’d like to do is: spend your money (by giving tax breaks to the very wealthy, but not to you); limit your freedom; limit your educational possibilities; limit your Constitutional rights; expand their own ability to take (by force) the resources of others when that can turn them a profit; and force all Americans to conform to a narrow version of what constitutes a good life.
However, I have hereby rendered the above paragraph moot, because, as I said before, I am taking back the name conservative for use by the Democrats, or by anyone who feels that their particular policy is conservative, in that it conserves something important, and isn’t a spend-thrift when it comes to our rights, our money, our security, or our natural resources.
In this, I would like to encourage us all to cast aside some of the truly tired labels that have been the flails of the past many decades of partisan politics in this nation, and to consider that it’s high time to redefine some of these words, or to cast them out completely. Might it be possible for a conservative to wish not to spend our natural resources profligately, not to threaten our Constitutional rights with flawed legislation borne of fear, not to bankrupt our government with ill-advised war, not to break our military with same, not to divide our country with partisan rhetoric, not to threaten our international standing by practicing torture? Could we, as a nation, decide that we all would like to conserve the nation, our rights, our freedoms, our high standards of education, our morality? Perhaps, deep down, we’re all conservatives.