Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What's The Matter With Indonesia?

This is the kind of story that warms my heart. See, I love it when American journalists go abroad, their lips pursed, their heads shaking, wondering how Indonesia can survive.
Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim majority nation and has drawn praise for its evolution into a vibrant democracy. It's a country of more than 17,000 islands, with more than 300 ethnic groups who speak about 740 languages. But recent cases of persecution of religious minorities have led some to question whether Indonesia is still living up to its reputation for pluralism and tolerance.
The persecuted include atheists as well as minority Muslim sects, such as the Shia and Ahmadiyya. Hundreds of churches have been closed in recent years, including, most recently, 17 house churches this month in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia where Shariah, or Islamic law, is in effect.(emphasis added)
It's America's western, Christian heritage that makes it so much better than Indonesia, I think.

As soon as mainstream journalists start wondering the same thing about pluralism in America in the face of racist, religiously motivated hate and violence, I might be more inclined to hear about places like poor Indonesia and its prospects for survival as a pluralist society.

Monday, May 28, 2012

As We Remember

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? . . . How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? . . . T[he Nixon A]dministration has done us the ultimate dishonor. They have attempted to disown us and the sacrifices we made for this country.
John Kerry, 1971
During the 2004 Presidential election, John Kerry tried to distance himself from these comments, made in the passionate heat of anger he felt at the waste of life in pursuit of our on-going military operations in Vietnam. To this day, I wonder why. The questions, both at the time and subsequently, are the very questions we need to ask ourselves whenever we feel to urge to send our military as an instrument of policy.

Especially on this Memorial Day, as we remember those who, as Abraham Lincoln said, gave the last full measure of devotion, it might seem at the very least inappropriate, if not somehow dishonorable, to ask the question: Is it worth it? I understand the emotional turmoil that results from questioning the legitimacy of any military action; what if, it turns out, our men and women in uniform died for ignoble or useless reasons? Somehow, a verdict against the larger aims and purposes reflects upon those who died pursuing those aims.

The dead, however, are not silent. Anyone who has visited a cemetery on Memorial Day understands this. Standing above the bodies of those whose lives have been spent either on some distant shore, or perhaps even down the road - the military cemeteries in Virginia are a chorus of voices from the sons of the Confederacy - it is possible to hear the whispered question, "Was it worth it?"

I shall leave for the moment the judgment of the worth of any particular conflict. To say, whether at the time or later, that any war in which our troops participated may have been in pursuit of ends that were unjustifiable; or, perhaps, the means used to pursue certain ends were out of proportion to the stated objectives; to say these things is not a reflection upon those in uniform, who only carry out their orders to the best of their ability. Our troops, from the lowest private through the uniformed leaders of the various service branches, serve the Constitution and the civilians placed in offices of responsibility over them. We must always remember that questioning the propriety or wisdom of military action is a question of policy, over which the military has, at best, a consultative role. 

Furthermore, these on-going demands from the fallen should serve as a warning to we who bear the burden of living, knowing we are here in no small part because they are no longer. When confronted with a situation in the world in which the possibility of sending our military in to harm's way, the first voices we should heed are those silenced by previous such decisions. Can we, as a people, answer those demands with anything like honesty and integrity? Do we, perhaps, owe our dead an apology for sacrificing them upon various altars other than those of national survival or integrity?

Ours is a country where the government, recent rhetoric to the contrary, is not a stranger or alien presence. We the people, despite abundant lack of interest or understanding, are potentially the most powerful single interest group there is. Whether in a time of national or international crisis or, perhaps, in pursuit of some humanitarian aim, we start to hear cries to send in our troops, the first question we need to answer is whether we can look at the flag-draped coffins without fear they are testimony against our decision to end their life this way. These are hard questions, which is not an argument against their being asked. We live as we do today in no small part because so many men and women have died on battlefields, asking nothing but to be remembered. Today is the day we honor that most basic request; in remembering, we face the hard reality of self-government, of being a people who deserve the sacrifices they have made.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"A Hollow Military"

Last Monday, I wrote that, in regards to the imbalance of obligations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Gov. Romney was quite correct to point out that, already stretched and strained from wars fought on several fronts, the United States military continued to bear far too much of the relative burden in NATO. Today, I would like to say something about an entirely different aspect of his op-ed in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune.
We have a military inventory composed of weapons designed 40 to 50 years ago. The average age of our tanker aircraft is 47 years, of strategic bombers 34 years. Our Air Force, which had 82 fighter squadrons at the end of the Cold War, has been reduced to 39 today. TheU.S. Navy, at 285 ships, is at levels not seen since 1916. Should our air, naval and ground forces continue to age and shrink, it will place the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies at risk. With the United States on a path to a hollow military, we are hardly in a position to exercise leadership in persuading our allies to spend more on security. And in fact the Obama administration has failed to exercise such leadership. Quite the contrary; a multiplier effect has set in: The administration's irresponsible defense cuts are clearing the way for our partners to do even less.
The website offers both a ranking list, from largest military on down, as well as relative comparisons between any two countries on that list. The United States has the largest military in the world.

The M1A1/2 Abrams Main Battle Tank is, arguably, the finest tank in the world. While later models, especially the German Leopard and Israeli Merkava, and the newer Russian T-90 have certain advantages including being designed more recently, the extensive field experience has improved the performance of the M1-class tanks. Even before the previous decade's wars demanded the most out of our tanks, the M1A2 had extensively modified and improved the original design.

While the bulk of the US fighter squadrons, both Naval and Air Force, continue with the F-series fighters introduced in the 1970's, various limitations and problems with subsequent designs - from the B-2 Bomber's many failings, through serious problems with the F-22 Raptor made public by the pilots that fly them - as well as improvements in technology (for example, this declassified USAF assessment of Operation Iraqi Freedom, includes many firsts for a variety of the weapons platforms designed originally for use during the Cold War; page 15 even mentions "wartime employment of a Laser Guided Bomb by a B-52"; the B-52 Stratofortress is a grandpa compared to the current F-series fighters).

Let us consider Gov. Romney's comments regarding our "285 ship navy". The United States floats eleven aircraft carriers.  The next 29 largest military's have a total of 9; six of those are in the inventories of our NATO allies.  The Virginia-class fast attack submarine is a post-Col War design, and according to the website, it is also a stealth naval vessel. The Ticonderoga-class Cruisers are, according to this website, "the 27 most expensive cruisers and the most powerful surface combatants in service in the world."

These are just some of those old weapons systems, leaving our military hollow.

Our military is overstretched, to be sure. A decade of war has strained our resources, the life-span of a variety of weapons systems, but it has also shown how durable, reliable, and capable a variety of our weapons platforms continue to be, even after ten years of service. It may be possible to have a discussion of the stresses and strains of war, combined with financial collapse, and what possible responses to these matters might be. To say the United States is on the way to "a hollow military", however, just ignores the facts.

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