Monthly Archives: March 2010

In Search of a Culprit

From the weird file: In 1995, a South Carolina man named Sonny Graham got a heart transplant, using the heart of a man who had committed suicide. He struck up a relationship with the man’s widow in 1997, and married her in 2004. And now he, too, has committed suicide.

So there are two common elements: the heart, and the woman. Who to blame?

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The Congressional Confederacy of Dunces

Democrats want to pass healthcare reform, but they don’t want to get caught voting for it. What a bunch of weasels! Tonight, in wrapping up their programs, both Glenn Beck and Chris Matthews castigated the cowardice of the Democrats. I think this, finally, is something nearly all Americans can agree on.

As I’ve said before, I favor the IDEA of universal healthcare, but I don’t favor what’s been presented, with all the special deals. I thought they had kind of started over after the Scott Brown election. But it sounds like the same mess.

I’m sure President Obama is totally frustrated with Congress. The “reconciliation” and “deem and pass” schemes look bad bad BAD, and Obama is forced into being an apologist for procedural shenanigans that he knows everyone views as pathetic. Thanks, Nancy and Harry. Your weak leadership has made a mockery of things and brought discredit to the President, who is nevertheless doing his best to try to sell a Big Mess.

Not that I like how the Republicans have behaved either. There’s enough stupidity to go around several times.

Brett Baier’s interview with Obama tonight on Fox was interesting. Obama walked all over Baier, as Presidents can do. Baier was well prepared, and he tried, so I’ve got to give him credit. Baier asked questions for which I wanted answers, but they weren’t forthcoming. Very disappointing. I don’t think the interview helped Obama.

Baier did ask one of the dumbest questions I’ve heard: “If healthcare doesn’t pass, does that diminish your presidency?” How was Obama supposed to answer that? “Yes, if it doesn’t pass, I’m toast.” Totally absurd question.

I want an up-or-down vote. Our divided country deserves that, especially with such a consequential bill. Instead, we’re getting a bunch of procedural scheming. If this is how we’re going to pass healthcare reform, I’m not in favor at all.

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Book: The Bottom Billion

Paul_Collier_The_Bottom_Billion_sm.jpg“The Bottom Billion” is a fascinating study of the poorest countries in the world. Paul Collier, a former official with the World Bank, is one of the world’s leading experts on African economies. He has worked with, and studied, the dynamics that keep a country down.

Collier says the previous paradigm was one billion people in rich countries and five billion in poor countries. But now, he says, “We must learn to turn the familiar numbers upside down: a total of five billion people who are already prosperous, or at least are on track to be so, and one billion who are stuck at the bottom.”

The bottom billion consists of people in 58 countries. “Their reality,” he writes, “is the 14th century: civil war, plague, ignorance.” Africa is the main problem, but some such countries exist in Central Asia.

Collier and his colleagues and students (he teaches Economics at Oxford) have done gobs of empirical studies which shed light on the problems of the bottom billion. Being a good academic, he warns you when he uses results which haven’t been subjected to peer review, and therefore shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

Collier examines four characteristics common among the bottom-billion countries.

1. Going through a civil war. The poorer the country when conflict starts, the longer it lasts. After going through a civil war, the risk of going through another one doubles. Only half of the countries in which a conflict has ended manage to make it through a decade without relapsing into war. The poorer you are, the great the risk of relapse.

2. The predominance of revenue from natural resources. Sierra Leone’s economy, for instance, is dominated by diamonds; politicians fight and maneuver to get their fingers in that pot. With so much attention focused on natural resources, other types of business are never nourished. The country becomes a one trick pony.

3. Being landlocked with bad neighbors. Many African countries have no access to the sea–Mali, Niger, Chad, Uganda, Zambia, Botswana, Rwanda, Burundi, and others. Landlocked countries rely on having good neighbors, who either provide access to the sea or provide a good market. Switzerland, though landlocked, is surrounded by its market–healthy countries like Germany, Italy, and France. But Uganda is stuck with Kenya, which has no incentive to build roads to Uganda and has too many problems to be a good market for anything produced in Uganda.

4. Bad governance and poor economic policies. Such countries can’t attract investment capital, because they are perceived as a poor risk. With no opportunities, educated, quality people leave to seek their way in other countries. Rebel or coup leaders, upon seizing power, put fellow soldiers into important government posts, with responsibility over areas they know nothing about, resulting in increased dysfunction and corruption.

Collier also hit other aspects of this subject, such as the use, and misuse, of foreign aid. And in a
surprising chapter, he presents excellent arguments for military intervention in
certain circumstances.

The book is filled with fascinating insights backed by statistical research. I gained a fresh and deep understanding of why bottom-billion countries tend to stay at the bottom.

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A Six-Minute Sermon? Are You Kidding?

Todd Rhoades wonders how we settled on 30-40 minutes as the typical length of a sermon. He asks, “Why do you speak the length you speak? Is it because it takes you that long to say what you need to say, or because you have that much time to fill?” The amount of valuable content, not the size of the time slot, should determine how long the sermon lasts.

Rhoades notes that we’ve changed so many things about church services–songs, order, attire, tone, etc. But we’ve kept the sermon length the same.

He mentions being involved with two online conferences where speakers were limited to 6 minutes–and they all came through. So, could a six-minute sermon work?

I’m reminded of a freelance magazine article I wrote 30 years ago about an experience helping a woman and her mentally-challenged son during the Blizzard of ’78, when we were stranded together in Denver. It started at 2700 words, but I couldn’t find any takers. So I cut it to 2400 words and sent it out again. Then 2000 words. Still couldn’t sell it.

I cut it to 1800 words, then 1500, then 1200, sending it out anew with each edition This stretched over a period of probably 5 years. I just wouldn’t give up on the story.

Finally, I sent a 1000-word version (about one-third of the original size) to a Mennonite publisher. The editor wrote back, “We like your article and would like to use it…if you can cut it to 800 words.”

So I did. They bought it and published it at that length. And it was the best version of the article. No fluff, no padding. Just the essential story, with a punch you couldn’t avoid.

So could a 30-minute sermon be packed into a 10-minute slot, or a six-minute slot? A six-minute sermon might actually take more preparation than a 30-minute sermon. I know it could be done, and it could be really effective that way. But, as Todd Rhoades says, it’ll never happen. We’re tied to the 30-40 minute sermon paradigm, and nobody’s gonna change that.

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Apple Tries to Control the Lowercase “i”

Apple went to court in Australia to prevent companies from using a lower-case “i” in product names, arguing that a “person of ordinary intelligence and memory” would assume any “i” product came from Apple. The case centered on DOPi, a brand of bags. Of course, DOPi backwords is iPOD, which makes it even more interesting.

It’s kind of like Lindsey Lohan suing over the use of the name “Lindsey” in a Super Bowl ad, saying that people would automatically think the ads refers to her. As if she’s a one-word brand, like Oprah or Madonna.

Apple lost the case. The court (actually, a trademark tribunal) noted a number of other “i” products, like iSkin and iSoft.

As a huge Apple fan, let me just say: Apple, get over yourself.

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A Values-Driven Counter-Insurgency

Moment-of-truth-in-Iraq.jpgAfter taking command in 2007, General David Petraus wrote a letter on “Values” to all of his soldiers.

“Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we–not our enemies–occupy the moral high ground…..

“Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary….

“In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. While we are warriors, we are also human beings.”

Sounds good–but does it work? Yes, it does. Michael Yon shows that over and over in his book, “Moment of Truth in Iraq.”

Early on, the American military tried to impose its will with brute force, the idea that, “All these people understand is force.” That didn’t work in Vietnam, and it didn’t work in Iraq. The Special Forces people, and men like David Petraus, knew that heavy-handedness would fail and only serve to recruit more insurgents. But the people in charge at the beginning, both civilian and conventional military commanders, didn’t  “get it.”

Petraus instituted what Yon describes as a “value driven counter-insurgency.” He writes:

“Some think all of this talk of values is a sign of weakness. But in a counterinsurgency, our greatest resource is not the overwhelming firepower we can bring to bear upon the enemy, or the high technology we can use to locate and identify him. Our most powerful weapon is our values.” In a counterinsurgency, he says, “The superior fighting force occupying the moral high ground holds a commanding position.”

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Book: Moment of Truth in Iraq

Moment-of-truth-in-Iraq.jpgSomeone compared Michael Yon to Ernie Pyle, the World War 2 reporting legend, and that got me interested in reading Yon’s book, “Moment of Truth in Iraq.” Yon, a former Green Beret, has spent more time embedded with combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other reporter. I like that kind of writing. And I loved this book. I learned much that I didn’t know, and have had to alter some of my views.

I wouldn’t compare his writing to Ernie Pyle, who wrote fascinating human interest stories about American soldiers in the midst of war. Yon does share Pyle’s admiration for American soldiers, and he gets up close and personal. He, like Pyle, lives with soldiers on the Sharp Edge. But the writing style is different.

Gen. David Petraus praises the book. “He’s fearless…provides a candid, soldier’s eye view…from the very unique perspective of being there with them for weeks and months at a time.”

Yon goes into battle many times and describes those firefights and the acts of valor he witnesses. I was deeply moved by many little vignettes. However, it’s not a sugar-coated book. He’s an objective reporter with no agenda to pursue or legacy to protect, so he points out warts when he sees them. But overall, I came away from the book thinking, “Wow, things are going a lot better in Iraq than I thought.”

Yon arrived in Iraq in December 2004, when things were going very badly and our civilian leaders were in the “State of Denial” described in Bob Woodward’s book. But over the next several years (Yon’s book was published in 2008), you see things turn around, particularly under the leadership of David Petraus. Yon doesn’t deal with the dramas surrounding the budding Iraqi government, and only tangentially with the US civilian leadership. Rather, his focus is on soldiers on the front lines, and how a change in approach–the application of counter-insurgency principles–made a vast difference.

And let me emphasize: the turn-around Yon describes occurred on George Bush’s watch (though mostly after Rumsfield left and Cheney was marginalized). Obama has wisely continued the approach he inherited.

yon150.jpgYon (left) superbly pictures the principles of counter-insurgency in action. You really need to see these principles lived out to appreciate them. Thomas Ricks talks about counter-insurgency theory in “Fiasco,” which ends just as David Petraus is taking over, and he describes a couple major success stories–one in 2003 when Petraus commanded the 101st Airborne in Mosul, and then later in Tal Afar (both of which were basically rogue operations by individual commanders who “got it”). But counter-insurgency principles permeate Yon’s book, and you can’t help but realize, “We should have been doing this all along.” Yon, as a Green Beret, was trained in these principles, so he understands what he’s looking at.

Some of the other things I took away from the book:

  • The perpetual lack of troops. We didn’t go in with nearly enough troops, and we’ve never had enough since. The surge helped (and we must be careful not to draw down prematurely).
  • Yon describes what we’re doing as a “values-driven counter-insurgency.”
    He criticizes brute-force tactics common earlier in the war, along with the
    torture and abuse of prisoners. He continually stresses the critical
    importance, in an insurgency, of occupying the moral high ground. I’ve
    read about this, but Yon gives vivid examples of the principle in
    action. This, more than anything (more than the surge), has turned
    things around for us in Iraq.
  • Al Qaeda’s brutality has turned the Iraqi people against it. Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, he says. Iraqis realize that the Americans, not Al Qaeda, have Iraq’s best interests at heart. He gives many examples of the senseless brutality of Al Qaeda (like baking an 11-year-old boy and feeding him to his parents). He also shows the many ways Iraqi citizens are now helping us (calling in or pointing out the location of IEDs, or emailing Google Earth maps showing where to find terrorists).
  • The Iraqi soldiers have gotten a bad wrap. Yon goes into battle with Iraqi soldiers, and talks to American soldiers who have fought alongside them. We’ve heard the negative stories, about Iraqis sitting on the sidelines while Americans do the fighting. But Yon describes well-trained Iraqis who never back down from a fight, and who are ferocious allies in fighting Al Qaeda. This is an undertold aspect of the war.
  • He points out that a hidden skill set of the military is how to run a city–invaluable knowledge in restoring normality in Iraq. He says that knowledge comes from running large military bases around the world, where officers must deal with water, electricity, sanitation, sewage, police, courts, prisons, fire, schools, and everything else that a city deals with.
  • Yon shows the sheiks uniting behind the Americans, especially in Anbar. We think of them as being religiously motivated, but Yon says, “Shieks are businessmen. Ultimately the sheiks of Anbar turned against al Qaeda because al Qaeda was bad for business.”
  • During the fierce battle for Baqubah, Yon describes how, throughout the battle, Americans worked with Iraqi civilian leaders to deal with city services even as they tried to subdue the city. “[Commanders] alternated between teatime, firefight, teatime again, while figuring out food distribution, firefight, raid, IED, collapse from exhaustion, firefight, teatime, while arguing about some water pipes, and then firefight again.”
  • Yon depicts American officers showing incredible wisdom in dealing with difficult situations, some in harrowing situations.
  • Yon dismisses the idea of partitioning Iraq into Kurd, Sunni, and Shia areas, as has been proposed. He argues that though these groups don’t get along, and don’t mind slaughtering each other, Iraqis consider themselves foremost to be Iraqis.
  • Yon also spent time with British troops in Basra, and tagged along with them into some ferocious firefights. He highly respects the British.

In September 2007, Yon returned to the States and was dismayed at the “tremendous gulf between what was actually happening in Iraq and what people in America thought was happening. It was as if the inertia of the bad news from the previous three years had made it impossible to take in new information.”

He had seen a transformation in Iraq which he describes as miraculous, but Americans back home seemed oblivious. Yon writes, “It was far too early to declare victory. But it was definitely time to declare serious progress.”

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Predators Always on the Prowl (in the Air)


The Predator unmanned drone is an incredible weapon. Some consider it by far the most effective weapon we have against Al Qaeda. You don’t hear much about the Predator successes, because they usually occur in remote regions of Pakistan where reporters can’t go. But Predators are constantly on the prowl, and constantly taking out Bad Guys.

The New Yorker has the best long-form reporting you’ll find anywhere, and Jane Mayer, who mostly writes on military affairs, has become my favorite New Yorker writer. Last October she wrote a lengthy feature (is there any other kind in the New Yorker?) looking at how we use the Predator. It was fascinating.

There are two Predator programs. The military version operates in Afghanistan and Iraq as an extension of ground forces, with 200+ drones. The CIA’s program is aimed at terror suspects wherever they can be found, but mostly in Pakistan; the program isn’t officially acknowledged, and the number of Predators is unknown.

The CIA strikes require the president’s approval. President Obama has dramatically increased  the number of Predator strikes, beginning with two strikes in Pakistan on his third day in office.

During his first nine months in office, Obama authorized more CIA aerial attacks in Pakistan than George Bush did in his final three years in office–over 40 strikes, or around one bombing a week. Those strikes had  killed up to 538 people (Predators leave a lot of collateral damage, but you’ve got to have mixed feelings about folks who hang out around terrorists). Multiple drones constantly fly over Pakistan, looking for targets.

She writes about four Europeans who tried to join Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and who “described a life of constant fear and distrust among the militants, whose obsession with drone strikes had led them to communicate only with elaborate secrecy and to leave their squalid hideouts only at night.” Wouldn’t you be uptight if you knew a silent, invisible Predator circling above might fire a missile into you at any moment?

One Taliban leader the Pakistanis wanted killed was targeted by 16 missile strikes before we finally got him. Those first 15 strikes killed 207-321 people, depending on your information source. So that’s an issue our military leaders wrestle with.

How many innocent people is it okay to kill? John Radsan, a former CIA lawyer, put it like this: “If it’s Osama bin Laden in a house with a four-year-old, most people will say go ahead. But if it’s three or four children? Some say that’s too many. And if he’s in a school? Many say don’t do it.”

That gives insight into the difficult decisions military leaders in a values-laded country must make regarding terrorists who cowardly hide among innocent people.

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John Roberts: Go At It

johnroberts.jpgI gotta agree with Chief Justice John Roberts in regard to the State of the Union Address–how it’s become a political pep rally. The justices sit there surrounded by hooting and hollering Congressmen, and are by tradition expected to remain stone-faced, expressionless–even as the President criticizes them for a recent decision.

Obama was wrong to criticize the Supreme Court in that atmosphere (and wrong in how he characterized their decision, apparently). And Roberts was right to say, “To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I’m not sure why we are there.”

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Glenn Beck and Jesus Wouldn’t Get Along

Glenn Beck wants me to leave my church. He said on his show:

“I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes.”

Anchor is spending four Sunday nights talking about issues of justice, particularly as it applies to people in our immediate community. But Glenn doesn’t think we should be talking about such things. They are, apparently, evil concepts.

According to Glenn Beck, “social justice” and “economic justice” are code words for communism and Nazism.

The thing that bothers me is, untold tens of thousands of gullible Christians dutifully absorb everything Beck says as the Gospel truth. And so, gobs of Christians will now oppose anything that speaks of justice…because Glenn told them to. They’ll even leave their church if the pastor talks about social justice…because Glenn told them to.

Glenn might benefit from reading the New Testament sometime, which is saturated with his evil code words.

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