Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ghoulish Principles

It is truly sad how nearly every tragedy in modern society is immediately twisted to serve the purposes of ideologues.

The horrible shootings at Virginia Tech are a perfect example. Within hours of the story hitting the news, I saw arguments on both sides.

On one side, unsurprisingly, there are calls for additional gun control. If it had not been so easy for the killer to acquire guns, the activists say, then this terrible tragedy never would have happened. I suppose that might even be true, since it turns out that he did indeed purchase his weapons legally. But considering the amount of planning that he apparently put into this, and the ease of buying guns ILlegally, I really doubt that an extra law would have stopped him. Most of the laws I’ve seen proposed would CERTAINLY not have stopped him. Let’s assume that he stayed within the law. A ban on semi-automatic handguns would have forced him to use a revolver. A restriction on magazine sizes would have forced him to reload more often. Even a complete ban on handguns would merely have forced him to bring in a rifle or sawed-off shotgun…which could have been easily carried and concealed disassembled in a large book bag - then reassembled after he chained the doors shut. Would any of those changes have actually saved anyone?

On the other side, activists are calling for increased gun ownership and more freedom to carry them concealed. They point out that one sane person in the building carrying his own pistol could have taken the gunman down before he killed so many innocent people. Maybe it would have worked out that way. Or maybe it wouldn’t – I’ve seen multiple sources that claim that 50-75% of soldiers in a battle do not fire their weapons. Those numbers are for World War II and earlier – the military has since then added desensitization and conditioning to their training methods, and by the end of Vietnam got up to 90% of their forces firing when needed. That means that even in trained soldiers under direct fire, 10% of them are too frightened to pull the trigger. Maybe that one person with a pistol would have shot the murderer and saved lives…or maybe he would have missed and got shot himself…or maybe he would’ve missed and killed another bystander…or maybe he would have hidden somewhere and hoped he wasn’t found.

Or maybe there would have been several people in the building with guns. That increases the odds that some of them would have taken action…which leaves several people roaming the building with handguns out, looking for a shooter. What happens when two of these good citizens come around a corner and spot each other?

And in the meantime, if the pro-gun activists have their way, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of college students running around armed. It’s been awhile, maybe college has changed since I went – but I remember seeing numerous relationship breakups, the stress of Finals Week, depression and homesickness, and lots of drinking. How many additional murders and successful suicides would result from adding handguns to that volatile mix?

Obviously, there are good arguments on either side of the issue. But is this really the right time to argue it and the right example to use for support? Good public policy comes from a careful and rational examination of the issues and consequences. The immediate emotional reaction to single event is hardly the right mental state in which to design that policy – and the activists’ ghoulish attempts to use this tragedy to further their own causes makes me want to reject them all.

Edit - From what I've seen in the news, the Virginia Tech gunman was clearly an attention-seeker. I've seen two separate sources suggest that publicizing his name only encourages such behavior. That makes sense to me - accordingly, I have removed his name in favor of anonymous terms - "gunman," "killer," and "murderer."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Same Old, Same Old

I recently saw a quote from Bill Maher:
“I feel like the troops have this dysfunctional, abusive relationship with George Bush. The more he mistreats them, the more they seem to like him…why do they still like George Bush?”

Well, first off, not all of us do. The military is not some monolithic structure in which every member thinks alike – many of us disagree with current policies, and many of us voted against President Bush in one or both of his elections. But let’s set that aside for the moment. The real point is that this “dysfunctional, abusive relationship” is nothing new to us…and certainly didn’t start when Bush was elected. Where the public sees mistreatment of the military, we see nothing but status quo.

The newspapers report that Walter Reed is a disaster area, in desperate need of repair. We see our barracks rooms, with “work order submitted” tags on faucets and light fixtures, missing window screens and barely-functional air conditioning. We make copies of the weekly maintenance log for our trucks, so we don’t have to write “parts on order” over and over again. We see the worn carpet in our offices, the patches on our tents, the empty supply cabinets. Building 18 was a horribly extreme example, and the Commander and First Sergeant were quite properly relieved of duty – but it was a matter of degree, not something new.

We see that the outpatient clinics and the VA are mishandling paperwork, denying valid claims, and causing huge delays in processing. We remember that VA hospitals have ALWAYS been overfilled, underfinanced, and overloaded with administrators – look at any TV show that portrayed a VA hospital, anytime since 1970. We remember all of the paperwork our unit clerks have lost, the underpayments that took months to resolve, the overpayments that came out of our paychecks with no notice. We remember our spouses dialing over and over starting at 7:25 to try to get through when the same-day appointment line opened at 7:30…and giving up at 8:00 after 30 minutes of busy signals, because they knew the appointments would all be full.

We feel the shame of Abu Ghraib, cheer when the guards are brought to justice…and feel rage when we see their senior leaders escape unscathed. But we remember a Private in 1990 who left a round in his weapon, was caught when he cleared his rifle into a safety pit designed for that purpose, and it went off, and he lost a rank…and a Captain in the same unit who fired his pistol through the floor of a bus, and finished his deployment with a Silver Star. We remember junior Soldiers drummed out of the service for a DUI…and more senior Soldiers who were promoted within six months after getting one. We remember the shame of My Lai…and the further shame of the cover-ups…and the rage that the senior officers who set the command climate, and orchestrated the cover-ups were left out of the courts-martial.

We hear people screaming that we don’t have sufficient body armor, vehicle armor, mine-clearing equipment. We agree…but we know that despite the deficiencies, we are the best-equipped military in the world, better equipped than even U.S. forces in any previous war. And we mutter to ourselves, “The mission comes first,” and we go out to accomplish it.

We groan at the thought of extended deployments, keeping us away from family for an extra three months. But we remember our assignments and training from before the war, when a typical career could easily include three one-year tours in Korea, 18 months away from home in leadership or MOS training, half a dozen or more training exercises every year. Even without deployments, a 20-year career might require a cumulative seven years or more away from home. An extra three months is just more of the same.

I suspect, though, that the main “mistreatment” Bill Maher would bring up is sending us out to fight an unjust war. But war is our business. It isn’t our job to decide if the evidence of WMDs is sufficient to justify an invasion. It isn’t our job to decide if we have enough troops to do the job, or if our battle-focused training will still be effective when the mission changes to police work. We know better than to say “We’re just following orders,” but when our civilian leadership decides war is necessary, well, that’s a lawful order. We salute and move out.

We don’t see sending us to war as disrespect, either. If anything, President Bush and his advisors may have had too MUCH respect for us, overestimating what we could do, even when GEN Shinseki and others advised them of the facts. And while we realize that any politician is capable of lying, we see sincerity in President Bush’s statements of support. Anecdotes of his visits to deployed or wounded troops make the rounds, and his off-camera attitude seems to reflect his on-camera speeches. Anecdotes of other politicians make the rounds, too, and give the lie to their speeches of support.

Yes, we’re tired of deployments. We’re tired of poor support and mediocre medical care. We’re tired of getting shot at. We’re particularly tired of attending the funerals of friends. But none of this is really new to us, and none of it is only six years old. Don’t expect us to blame the current incumbent for problems that we’ve suffered for decades, through Presidents and Congresses of both parties. It isn’t our fault that none of you noticed until now.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Czar of Blame

I read today that President Bush is considering appointing a new “Assistant to the President” to oversee our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As is the current fashion, the press is calling the position “War Czar” – as good a term as any, I suppose.

At first I was confused by the idea. Don’t we already have somebody in charge? That’s the whole point of the military chain of command – SOMEBODY is in charge of everything we do. For the two wars, that would be the CENTCOM commander, ADM Fallon, though he’s certainly receiving guidance, advice, and direction from the Joint Chiefs, the SECDEF, and the President.

On further reading, though, I discovered that the problem is higher up. Yes, the military has somebody in charge, but the military isn’t running everything. The State Department has a big piece of it, and various other administrative agencies have their own fingers in the pie. As it stands now, the overall effort has suffered from infighting, as the separate agencies pull in different directions. Playing referee in the turf battles is apparently taking up too much of the President’s time, so he wants to put somebody in overall charge of the efforts, with power to issue taskings to these Cabinet-level agencies.

I see problems with that. First of all, it merely adds another layer to the potential for infighting – the War Czar will have the authority to issue orders to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, but only for issues regarding the wars. That leaves the agencies the “wiggle room” to refuse because obeying would “impact on other priorities,” or whatever. Instead of eliminating the petty arguments, it would simply add another voice to them. In addition, it gives the appearance of creating a “Super-Cabinet,” an additional layer between the President and his Constitutionally-mandated advisors.

Even worse, it attempts to solve the wrong problem. If these most senior advisors to the President, his own hand-picked Cabinet members, can’t work out issues through discussion and compromise in a spirit of cooperation, then why are they there? There shouldn’t be a need for someone to oversee those efforts and settle the fights, because we already have Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice to oversee the efforts – and they shouldn’t be wasting the time of their respective agencies in fighting each other. Bluntly, if they can’t settle things without a referee, then pick one of them and give her overall responsibility and authority. (I say “her,” because State is the senior Cabinet position – making Secretary Rice the easiest choice. But of course, the President could choose otherwise.) Or pick someone else already on the Cabinet to handle it – the position of Vice-President could certainly be given such authority without adding a new layer to the hierarchy. Or fire them both and get somebody in who CAN work and play well with others.

Of course, a cynic might see another motive to the whole exercise. By bringing in another person to take responsibility for the job, the President is adding another target for critics, redirecting the heat away from his Cabinet secretaries, his Vice-President, and himself. The position itself, much less the poor sucker…um, individual chosen to fill it, would be “expendable,” allowing the President to fire him for failing to properly implement Administration policy if (or when) it falls apart.

I note that at least three retired generals have turned down the job. All three were (obviously) long-term officers, successful leaders who retired after decades of honorable service in a field where “Duty to Country” and obedience to the Commander-in-Chief are nearly as ingrained as our habit of breathing. And yet all three said “no” when their President attempted to call them back to the service of their country – in fact, Gen. Sheehan’s comments sound more like “not just no, HELL, no!” I suspect that I’m not the only person to see that cynical side to the issue.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Foiled, Curses Again

I was reading Wil Wheaton's blog this weekend, and was briefly confused by one line – “…I swear to the FSM: why is it so _ing hard for these idiots to get the _ing story right?” After a moment of thought, I finally realized, to my amusement, that he was referring to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

That reminded me of something that has bothered me for years – how should an Atheist curse? Obviously, we have full access to profanity and scatology…but is it really proper for us to blaspheme? And if we do, does it really express the same depth of feeling as it would for a believer for whom it is a sin?

I’ve seen various treatments of the problem in Science Fiction – more as a way around censorship by the publisher than as a real prediction of future speech patterns. However, a good SF author puts a little thought even into those minor details. Larry Niven handled it at least three different ways in various books and stories. For instance, in his Known Space stories, people on Earth had converted the euphemisms we currently use to hide profanity into curse words themselves – “Censor that, what the bleep do you think you’re doing?” The residents of the Asteroid Belt, however, had a different environment to cope with. When living in space, anything that CAN go wrong, WILL…kill you. In such hostile conditions, the Belters made a joke-religion of Finagle and Murphy, so that every curse became a reminder to minimize the chance for disaster – “Finagle curse you, get that airlock closed!” Most interestingly to me was the choice he and his co-authors made in the Dream Park trilogy. In a near future where most of California has dropped into the Pacific, “Drown you!” becomes the vilest of curses. I can imagine Katrina survivors picking this one up in real life…

None of this really answers the question, though. I’ve heard of Atheists cursing to “replacement gods,” like Ghu, or Roscoe, or now, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Other fictional worlds create their own, like “By Grapthar’s Hammer” from Galaxy Quest or Thundarr’s “Lords of Light!” I’ve considered adopting “smeg” from Red Dwarf, or “shazbot” from Mork and Mindy – I’d look to Star Trek, but where they use it at all, they mostly use standard 20th Century words. Of course, the problem is that none of those alternatives leap to mind at the right time – when you hit your thumb with the hammer, what pops out of your mouth is what your parents said in similar circumstances when you were a baby…regardless of your conscious beliefs or intentions.

Just out of curiosity – does anyone out there know from personal experience how believers in other religions curse? Islam, Buddhism, Paganism, Communism? If you were brought up in one of those traditions, or have hung around with someone who was, add a remark.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Up Close and Personal

I’ve gone back to listening to podcasts lately during my commute. One of the several with which I am experimenting is Evil Genius Chronicles by Dave Slusher, which so far seems to frequently feature the music of Michelle Mallone. (In fact, I think the term “raving fanboy” is not out of place here…) Edit - I'm listening to old archives of the podcast and slowly catching up. The Michelle Malone focus was a short-term feature in Fall 2006...but I stand by the term "raving fanboy." I’m not particularly recommending either the podcast or the music (though her tunes are not bad) – but in an interview with Ms. Mallone, Mr. Slusher commented that his anniversary is coming up, and he’s considering paying her for a “house concert” for the occasion. This intrigued me.

A brief mention by the comedy music duo Paul and Storm on The Bob and Tom Show provided a description of such a thing – contact your favorite “indie” band directly, and have them perform in your living room. (Or garage, or backyard, or wherever.) With no cost for renting the space, minimal equipment requirements, and no promoter taking a middleman cut, the performers get to keep 100% of the money, which means they can afford to ask for less. Meanwhile, the host gets an intimate and personal show, shared only with his friends. The price per person will certainly be more than the cost of a ticket to a regular show by that same band, maybe even much more – but it may well be LESS than a ticket to a major band.

In this digital age, where independent bands are better able to publicize themselves without the aid of major record companies, this may become a very common thing. Tickets for Jimmy Buffett or Paula Cole () may cost me as much as $200 just to take my family of four to a huge auditorium – but if I can get a couple dozen friends together, we might all be able to enjoy the Minstrels of Mayhem (ahem!) or the O’Danny Girls in person…and sit close enough to see their faces without binoculars.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Is Anyone Surprised?

It appears my guess that the British sailors were abused and coerced into giving false confessions has been confirmed. I am gratified to see that the Royal Navy does not cave in to captors as easily as the Iranians claimed. However, the 15 sailors and marines – and their families – have my most profound sympathies for the experiences they endured. It is most unfortunate that the Iranian people will only hear the lies of their government, and not the truth now revealed.

I also feel sure that someone will soon compare the treatment of the British sailors to the treatment of U.S. prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. They will further compare the falsehoods the Iranians publicized to the errors (or possibly even lies) about weapons of mass destruction that led to our invasion of Iraq. Let me point out a few differences. Any mistreatment of our own prisoners has been used to acquire real intelligence, not as a publicity stunt, in an effort to defend our country. Those prisoners have not been exposed to publicity, nor required to betray their countries or beliefs in front of their own people and the world. And most important of all, the errors and evils of our government are regularly revealed to our citizens through a free press, providing the opportunity for our citizens to change our government in response.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Survival of the Nicest

I read an Atlas Society interview with Michael Shermer, the author of The Science of Good and Evil. Dr. Shermer made some comments that really clarified for me my own beliefs in rational ethics. I believe that ethics and morality can be explained through the basic mechanics of evolution.

For example, let’s postulate a lone hunter-gatherer – a caveman. (Creationists, you can play along, too – I don’t see a lot of difference between the lifestyle of my lone caveman and that of Adam’s son Abel. Or assume a less-famous person from 100 years after Abel’s death, if you prefer.) This one person is solely responsible for feeding himself. He has no one else to take care of, and is free to consider anyone else he meets as a victim to be robbed, or even as prey to kill. Survival of the fittest, right?

Wrong. Let’s further assume that his two nearest neighbors have banded together. If they’re hunting, they can watch one another’s back, or one can flush game while the other lies in wait. They can guard each other while sleeping. Most especially, they can come at our lone hunter from two directions if combat becomes necessary. A pair of partners is “more fit” for that environment, and is more likely to survive.

The same logic applies to larger groups – a small band can hunt larger animals, more easily defend against other individuals or groups, and may even be able to produce enough excess food to support a non-productive person. That person may be the old chief, too old to hunt, but still able to pass on his years of experience. Or a dreamer – who, in his spare time, comes up with fire, or the wheel, or the bow. The band can even continue to support the children of a hunter who dies…which means that his DNA lives on. Again, this more cooperative hunter is more fit to survive and reproduce.

And so on up to villages, cities, nations. A person who can function in and provide benefit to a society is more fit to survive and to pass his genes on to the next generation. Functioning within a society requires the ability to get along with people, and to obey the laws of that society – and in general, those laws are rooted in ethical and moral behavior.

This sort of reasoning applies to more than just grouping people, of course. A society that is rooted in ethical behavior provides more benefits to itself and to the individuals within it – making it superior in any competition between societies. A slave society cannot compete with a free society, because slaves are not as productive as freemen – and yet they still have to be fed and cared for. Admittedly, the slaves don’t cost as much to feed or maintain as their masters, but the extra cost of guarding them, chasing down or killing runaways or rebellious slaves, and so on, eats up extra resources – enough extra to make a free society more productive on a per capita basis. In other words, behavior that benefits a subgroup, but hurts the society as a whole, is NOT as competitive.

Communism would seem to be the endpoint of such societal evolution – after all, “to each according to need, from each according to ability” would be the ultimate in cooperative society. However, unlike the other advances I mentioned, Communism provides benefits to the society ONLY – it does not directly provide benefits to the individuals that comprise it. That “need and ability” equation means the individual gets the same reward for working hard or slacking off, for inventiveness and creativity or for mindless drudgery – and of course, working hard or creatively is tougher. To generalize again, behavior that benefits society, but hurts the individual, is also not as competitive. This is why the Soviet Union fell apart, and why China is still second in the world for Gross Domestic Product, despite having four and a half times the population of the U.S.

So once again, ethics and morality in general make just as much sense to a rational atheist as they do to a theist – albeit with some disagreement on what issues should be included. It isn’t much…but for the good of our society and ourselves, maybe that could provide some common ground.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Looking Through The Bars

There’s a couple things that bother me about the British sailors captured by the Iranians.

First, who really thinks that your average sailor knows where he is at any given point? Are they looking at road signs out there? No. The only people who really know where the ship is are the navigators and whoever they might tell at any given moment – the commander or duty officer, maybe a few others on the bridge. The vast majority of sailors on any ship just know that “we’re two days out from point A, on a 10-day cruise to point B.” They could no more point out their location accurately on a map than they could swim the rest of the way. Two of the displayed hostages, Capt. Air and Lt. Carman, may indeed have known their position. However, I note that THEIR televised statements include some weasel-words – Capt. Air said that they were “apparently” in Iranian waters, according to GPS coordinates supplied by the Iranians. Since the British government disputes the Iranian-claimed position in the first place, using a captive to parrot those same coordinates doesn’t lend much authority to them. In addition, it appears that at least three of the four hostages that have been televised (including Capt. Air) are Royal Marines, not sailors – and therefore MUCH less likely to have accurate knowledge of their position. (I’m not sure whether Ms. Turney is a sailor or marine – shockingly, I can’t find any reports that include her or Mr. Summers’ rank. I guess the journalists involved aren’t that concerned with the earned titles of mere enlisted folks.) In any event, these 15 sailors and marines were a boarding and inspection party sent over in a small boat launched from a larger ship - so they probably didn't know much about their position beyond "the target ship is THAT way, and our home ship is back the other way." And yet we are expected to take their claims of invasion and their apologies at face value?

The second issue concerns me even more, though. We in the U.S. military have a Code of Conduct that outlines the correct behavior for us if captured. (See especially Article 5.) I feel sure that the British forces have something similar. That code does NOT allow for us to make statements in support of our captors’ claims, or indeed to cooperate with them in any way. And yet 25% of the captives have been convinced to make public statements – including two officers, expected to set the example for more junior folks. Bluntly, if they were motoring their boat up river several miles inland and were captured while tying up to the Ayatollah’s personal dock, I’d still expect them to stay silent. What I’ve seen so far doesn’t look much like the results of coercion…but I really can’t imagine any other way to get that many military professionals from a single small group to simultaneously betray their country. (If you can think of one, no matter how outlandish, please post it in the comments!) If the current Iranian claim is confirmed, that all 15 have “confessed,” then that merely makes my point even more strongly. Any diplomatic actions the British or the U.S. consider should bear this in mind – the hostages are NOT being well-treated, no matter what they or their captors may say.

In any event, I strongly feel that the British government should hold out against this ridiculous state-sponsored kidnapping. Hopefully, Iran will back down under diplomatic pressure – that would be best for all concerned. But if they don’t, I believe that this act does justify a military response – and if they go into Iran, whether for a rescue or a full-blown attack, I believe that the U.S. should support them to the hilt. As they have for us, time and time again.