Roundup: Media's Take
This is where we excerpt articles from the media that take a historical approach to events in the news.
David D. Perlmutter, associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and the author of Visions of War, in USA Today (May 4, 2004):
The military historian in me answers, "Stay tuned." In about 100 years, we experts will have it all figured out.
The problem with judging military setbacks in the very short term is that even eventually successful wars seldom go smoothly. Wars are not won by infallible leaders with picture-perfect plans. The victors are those who candidly admit mistakes, abandon failing strategies and recast war plans to fit new circumstances.
So merely being in a muddle is not a surprise. The Iraq war, still hot and still costing American lives, seems to be going badly. That fact has been underscored by the 137 servicemembers who died in Iraq in April -- the deadliest month yet for U.S. troops there -- and now by accusations that U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners. But all other wars in American history have at times appeared off track.
* The American Revolution, almost until its last days, was a series of disasters, minor victories and draws for the patriots. If George Washington had died or had been sacked before the crossing of the Delaware, today we would say he was a poor war commander.
* Likewise, the Civil War. Through most of 1864, Abraham Lincoln despaired of victory; many in the South thought Dixie could still win.
* In World War II, for months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese seemed unstoppable. Also, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was about the only political leader in the world who thought England could fight on alone against Adolf Hitler after the fall of France.
* Then again, in Korea, almost everyone assumed the war was over and won for America and its allies -- until 1 million Chinese soldiers argued otherwise.
* In Vietnam, there was no major battlefield defeat that U.S. politicians and military leaders could point to and say, "Hah, that's when the quagmire began."
In war, even the commanders don't see the big picture. There are so many variables -- many random -- that stymie the best-laid plans. Blunders and bad luck are common. The response is what matters. That's why every American squad leader knows his job is to "adapt, improvise, overcome." We, as a nation, must do the same.
These unexpected outcomes and unintended contingencies also teach us another lesson: Beware of experts. Historians, political scientists, military analysts and foreign-policy advisers can often tell why something happened. But we all make very poor prophets.
Corey Robin, in the Wash Post (May 2, 204):
In 2000 I spent the tail end of the summer interviewing conservative patriarchs William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol. I was writing about the defections to the left of several younger right-wing intellectuals and wondered what the conservative movement's founding fathers thought of their wayward sons. But Buckley and Kristol were less interested in these ex-conservatives than they were in the sorry state of the movement and the uncertain fate of the United States as a global imperial power.
The end of communism and the triumph of capitalism, they suggested, were mixed blessings. Americans now possessed the most powerful empire in history. At the same time, they were possessed by one of the most anti-political ideologies in history: belief in the free market as a harmonious international order of voluntary exchange requiring little more from the state than the enforcement of laws and contracts. This ideology promoted self-interest over the national interest -- too bloodless a notion, Buckley and Kristol argued, upon which to found a national order, much less a global empire.
"The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market," Buckley told me, "is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." Kristol confessed to a yearning for an American empire: "What's the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role?"
But because of its devotion to prosperity, he added, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. "It's too bad,"
Kristol lamented. "I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. . . to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world -- Africa in particular -- where an authority willing to use troops can make . . . a healthy difference." But not with public discussion dominated by accountants. "There's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what?" he said. "I think it's disgusting that . . . presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people."
Since 9/11, I've had many opportunities to recall these conversations. Sept.
11, we have been told, has restored to America's woozy civic culture a sense of depth and seriousness, of things "larger than ourselves." It has forced Americans to look beyond their borders, to understand at last the dangers that confront a world power. It has given the United States a coherent national purpose and a focus for imperial rule. A country that for a time seemed unwilling to face up to its international responsibilities is now prepared once again to bear any burden, pay any price, for freedom. This changed attitude, the argument goes, is good for the world. It is also good, spiritually, for the United States. It reminds us that freedom is a fighting faith rather than a cushy perch.
To understand this reaction to 9/11, we must examine the state of mind of American conservatives after the end of the Cold War. For neoconservatives, who had thrilled to the crusade against communism, all that was left of Ronald Reagan's legacy after the Cold War was a sunny entrepreneurialism, which found a welcome home in Bill Clinton's America. While neocons favor capitalism, they do not believe it is the highest achievement of civilization. Like their predecessors -- from Edmund Burke, Samuel Coleridge and Henry Adams to T.S. Eliot, Martin Heidegger and Michael Oakeshott -- today's conservatives prize mystery and vitality over calculation and technology. Such romantic sensibilities are inspired by questions of politics and, especially, of war. It is only natural, then, that the neocons would take up the call of empire, seeking a world that is about something more than money and markets.
Immediately following 9/11, intellectuals, politicians and pundits seized upon the terrorist strikes as a deliverance from the miasma Buckley and Kristol had been criticizing. Even commentators on the left saw the attacks as stirring a sleeping nation; Frank Rich announced in the New York Times that "this week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream."
What was that dream? The dream of prosperity. During the 1990s, conversative David Brooks wrote in Newsweek, we "renovated our kitchens, refurbished our home entertainment systems, invested in patio furniture, Jacuzzis and gas grills." This ethos had terrible consequences. It encouraged a "preoccupation with one's own petty affairs," Francis Fukuyama wrote in the Financial Times. It also had international repercussions. According to Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, the cult of peace and prosperity found expression in President Clinton's weak and distracted foreign policy, which made it "easier for someone like Osama bin Laden to rise up and say credibly, 'The Americans don't have the stomach to defend themselves. They won't take casualties to defend their interests. They are morally weak.' "
But after that day in September, the domestic scene was transformed. America was now "more mobilized, more conscious and therefore more alive," wrote Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine. Writers welcomed the moral electricity coursing through the body politic, restoring patriotism and bipartisan consensus....
The fact that the war against terrorism has not yet imposed the sacrifices on the population that normally accompany national crusades has provoked occasional bouts of concern among politicians and cultural elites. "The danger, over the long term," wrote the New York Times's R. W. Apple, "is loss of interest. With much of the war to be conducted out of plain sight by commandos, diplomats and intelligence agents, will a nation that has spent decades in easy self-indulgence stay focused?"
The Bush administration initially looked for things for people to do -- not because there was much to be done, but because it feared that the ardor of ordinary Americans would grow cold. The best the administration came up with were Web sites and toll-free numbers that enterprising citizens could contact if they wanted to help the war effort. But the numbers were for groups such as Freedom Corps, enabling volunteers to become rural health workers, or Citizen Corps, which bolstered household emergency preparedness and expanded Neighborhood Watch groups. Now, with the war in Iraq going awry, the administration talks less about active involvement from ordinary Americans, happy to settle for their tacit support instead.
We thus face a dangerous situation. On the one hand we have neoconservative elites whose vision of American power is recklessly utopian. On the other hand we have a domestic population that shows little interest in any far-flung empire. The political order projected by Bush and his supporters in the media and academia is just that: a projection, which can only last so long as the United States is able to put down, with minimum casualties, challenges to its power. We may well be entering one of those Machiavellian moments discussed by historian J. G. A. Pocock a quarter-century ago, when a republic opts for the frisson of empire, and is forced to confront the fragility and finitude of all political forms, including its own.
Bruce Bartlett, in the Washington Times (May 5, 2004):
When people vote for candidates, they are not just voting for an individual; they are voting for a party. I don't just mean in terms of control of the White House or Congress, but in a philosophical sense. The two parties have very different philosophies on various issues and when one votes for a candidate of a particular party, one essentially votes for that philosophy, regardless of the views of the individual candidate. No matter what that candidate may say or believe personally, over time they eventually are forced to conform to their party's philosophy if elected.
On tax policy, it is pretty clear what the two major parties think. Democrats believe the tax system should be used aggressively and systematically to equalize incomes. Those at the top must be brought down by high tax rates and those at the bottom should be lifted up by tax subsidies, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Republicans, on the other hand, generally believe the tax system exists mainly to raise revenue needed to fund necessary government services and should not be used to implement social policy. In principle, Republicans believe we should have a tax system that interferes as little as possible with economic and social decisionmaking.
Obviously, both parties fall far short of their own ideals. Nevertheless, one can assume tax policy will tend toward a party's philosophy that is given the power to make policy. So it is worth looking at specific tax policies to see how the two parties differ, and how they might act on a broad range of issues. A good example is the Alternative Minimum Tax.
The AMT grew out of testimony by Joseph W. Barr, Treasury secretary for about two months at the very end of Lyndon Johnson's administration. Just days before Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, Mr. Barr used his position to publicize that 155 wealthy taxpayers had avoided paying any federal income taxes in 1967 because of legal tax avoidance techniques. This was considered a scandal that demanded legislative action.
In the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which Nixon stupidly signed into law, the AMT was first imposed. The idea was that if people were too aggressive in using tax deductions, credits and exclusions, they should be punished, even if everything they did was perfectly within the law. For example, if someone put all their money into tax-exempt municipal bonds, the AMT forced them to pay federal income taxes, even though the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds was created intentionally to subsidize local governments.
It's also worth mentioning that everyone who buys municipal bonds pays a large de facto tax. This is because interest rates on municipal bonds are well below those on equivalent taxable bonds. Therefore, municipal bond buyers always pay a tax equal to the difference between such bonds and taxable bonds. This difference will about equal the average marginal tax rate.
In 1986, largely at the behest of Democrats, the AMT was broadened into its present form. Taxpayers calculate their taxes under the ordinary income tax and again under the AMT and pay whichever yields the higher tax.
Under the AMT, many deductions that are legal under the ordinary income tax are disallowed. One of the most important is the deduction for state and local taxes. As a result, the AMT tends to heavily hit residents of high-tax states like New York. Indeed, some analysts have taken to calling the AMT the "Blue-State Tax," since most of the states hit hardest by the AMT are those where the Democratic Party is strongest; i.e., those that voted for Al Gore in 2000.
The real problem is the AMT's income thresholds are not indexed to inflation or real income growth. As a consequence, many of those considered rich in 1986 are simply middle class today. This illustrates an important point about tax policy: Laws designed to soak the rich eventually hit the middle class.
Richard Pyle, Associated Press (May 6, 2004):
... From the Confederacy's notorious Andersonville prison of the Civil War to the Hanoi Hilton, where American POWs were held in Vietnam, military history is rife with grim stories of brutality, starvation and humiliation in captivity.
Few such tales stir such immediate and profound public revulsion and anguish as the recently disclosed mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
A key reason, say experts, is a built-in resistance among Americans to the idea that U.S. troops or other military pesonnel would so such things.
"We're always the white hats in military affairs, the ones who hand out the Hershey bars and pat the kids on the head, not the ones who sexually abuse POWs, so we don't believe it," says military historian Douglas Brinkley. "We love our armed forces so much - in a country that has no sustainable political heroes, we honor the military as the men and women of democracy."
In addition, said Brinkley, cameras were not present to record abuses of the past as they were at Abu Ghriab. "Only someone who's a real wingnut could not be aghast at those images," he said in a phone interview.
The mistreatment has brought to mind other grievous episodes involving prisoners of war.
Among them: the slaying of war chief Crazy Horse, who was bayoneted while in Army custody in 1877, the year after he helped lead the Indian victory over Lt. Col. George Custer's 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn.
The last time Pentagon officials were at such a loss to explain unsoldierly conduct involving prisoners was in 1969, when eight U.S. Special Forces members, including their commander in Vietnam, were accused of murdering a Vietnamese double agent by shooting him and dumping his chained corpse from a boat. The sensational "Green Beret Murder Case" ended before trial when then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird dropped the charges.
Another major uproar in Vietnam concerned the "tiger cages" at Con Son island prison, where political prisoners incarcerated by the U.S.-backed Saigon regime were confined and allegedly tortured. While there was no direct U.S. involvement in the reported abuse, the cages themselves had been built by RMK-BRJ, a Texas military contractor and antecedent to the Halliburton Co. subsidiary KBR.
But Americans also were subjected to "tiger cage"-type abuse; 29 captured by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam were held in primitive jungle camps that included cages. About half were killed or died in captivity, according to "Honor Bound," the most comprehensive book on the Vietnam POW experience.
Former Army intelligence specialist John Giannini, who spent a year interrogating prisoners in Vietnam, said Americans there did not mistreat captives, because "it was counter-productive; If you abused them, they would tell you anything, just to get you to stop."
All prisoners taken by U.S. forces in Vietnam were under Saigon's control, which proved helpful in interrogations, Giannini said in an interview.
"We knew the South Vietnamese abused them," Giannini said, "and the best way to get someone to talk was to say, 'Look, if you don't cooperate with me I will have no choice but to turn you over to the South Vietnamese. Don't force me to do that.'"
Along with the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai by American troops in 1968, the Green Beret and "tiger cage" scandals helped turn U.S. public opinion against the war.
The Vietnam incidents pale next to many prisoner-related atrocities of World War II, which including the 1942 Bataan Death March, in which 7,000 to 10,000 POWs died or were killed by their Japanese captors during the 55-mile trek to prison camps, and the Malmedy Massacre of dozens of captured GIs by Nazi troops at Malmedy, Belgium, in 1944.
Japan's particularly abhorrent record of mistreating POWs stemmed in part from its samurai-based warrior code, called "bushido," in which surrender was deemed dishonorable.
That code led to such incidents as the execution of eight American fliers captured at the South Pacific island of Chichi Jima in 1944, a story told in James Bradley's 2003 best seller, "Flyboys."
Years after the war, details also surfaced about the Japanese Imperial Army's Unit 731, which conducted grisly physical and germ warfare experiments on captured Chinese soldiers and civilians, Russians and some Western POWs in Manchuria from 1936 to 1945.
Some 9,000 were believed to have died before the laboratory's chief ordered
it destroyed in the last days of the war.