Tag Archives: war

First Impressions: Cauliflower Ears, Tom Waits, Bukowski, Camus, Military, and Atheism

redfrogAposematism is the use of warning coloration (e.g. RED) by animals to signal that they are not to be messed with. A red frog is telling the world: if you eat me, you will probably die. So, when I meet a red frog in the forest, I usually don’t put in my mouth. At the same time, it is very true, that if a beautiful princess was a frog that only needed to be kissed to realize her true form, she would probably be a red frog.

Color is just one of many qualities that animals use to make first impressions. Most such qualities they can’t control, except indirectly through the frustratingly slow process of evolution. Us humans on the other hand can make first impressions by things we learn to do with our face and more specifically: with our mouth (aka talking).

I’ve long ago learned that the person I believe to be is not always the person I appear to be on first meeting or even to friends of many years. I am, like everyone else, one giant misunderstanding. Philip Roth in American Pastoral puts it most beautifully:

“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”

And yet, despite all that complexity, over the years, I have develop certain positive prejudices. I will immediately make a connection with a person without knowing anything else about them if one of the following is true. In other words, I will have a drink with you and likely enjoy the conversation, if:

  • You have cauliflower ears. This means you wrestled or grappled. Anyone who has trained long enough to get cauliflower, has likely been taken to the limit of their physical and mental capacity, and in that process was humbled. A humble man is often a wise man.
  • You have competed extensively in a combat sport like wrestling, judo, MMA, jiu jitsu, etc. Or better yet, you’ve been in a lot of street fights. This is basically the same as the first point. You’ve been through some shit, and so much of the useless stupidity of ego is out of your system. You are not pretending to be something you are not. Anyone who’s been pushed to the limit, usually doesn’t see any value to pretend to be anything.
  • You saw combat (war) AND are an atheist (secular, agnostic, all the same). Some of the most real people I know are former Israeli military who don’t give a moment’s time to bullshit of any kind . Sometimes, if you are religious, the kind of brutal lessons you might take away from war are clouded by a kind of mystic relationship with a supernatural being. Soldiers, in my experience, are almost always good people, more real than most. But I’m a man of cold rationality and religion can often spoil a perfectly honest conversation.
  • You are a blue collar worker. A man who does manual labor is a man who doesn’t have his head in the clouds. The conversation is real and so is the drinking.
  • You like Tom Waits or Charles Bukowski. This means you live on the edge of normal, sticking to the outskirts of the room at a party.
  • You read more than one novel of Albert Camus or Fyodor Dostoevsky (and their ilk). This means you have a mind that is prone to bouts of existential dread. Prolonged thoughts over big life questions make for an interesting brain.

These are some “human colorations” that I have discovered for my own self. Everyone is different, and many of my friends (including my best friend) do no have any of the above qualities. Still, if you do, I’ll buy you a drink, and talk for a while.

How Will History Remember the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

I am 29 now, and despite the probably objections of those older than me, I have enough years behind me to see in my own life that “history” remembers results. Details, such as injury or death of nameless people and the financial costs of decisions are often washed away in the haze of time. On the other hand, daily life is all about those pesky “details”. So we have to be careful not to lose them as the decades pass. But no matter how careful we are, eventually it’s likely to be forgotten.

I’m a great admirer of the intellect and writing ability of Christopher Hitchens. But I have always listened to his defense of the Iraq war with a polite disapproving silence.

saddam-hussein-statue-fallingHis argument is: Saddam was an evil dictator. U.S. got rid of him. The end.

To Hitchens that very important result overwhelms the details: the cost of the war, the deception around its origins, the history of the Iraq-US relationship, the precedent it set for future wars, the policies of torture, domestic spying, etc, and the fact that there are a lot of other oppressive governments throughout the world that we do nothing about.

Something Hitches said in a debate on this topic caught my attention, and it’s why I wrote this note. He said as a closing declaration that history will remember the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only for the fact that we removed Saddam Hussein from power.

And in my usual disapproving silence I contemplated that statement. Perhaps he is right. History remembers results. And one of the only clear results of these wars is that Saddam was removed from power. Everything else is complex and drenched in uncertainty. The deaths, the money, the misinformation might very well be forgotten.

I am troubled by that thought, but I’m only troubled by it as much as I am when I consider how big the universe is and how small we are in comparison. This is the way of time and civilization. Most of the things of concern to us today, yesterday, and in the last century, will be forgotten and perhaps sooner than we imagine.

Women Can Now Be Drafted in the Event of War

united-states-female-soldierThe Pentagon is lifting its ban on women in combat. This means that women will have to register for Selective Service (along with men) when they turn 18.

For peace activists, and rational hawks, this is a great thing, because doubling the pool of people to be drafted means that we will be much more deliberative in any decision to engage in military conflict.

On the one hand it’s obvious that women who want to serve their country should be allowed to do so. I have no doubt that there are women out there that are heroic soldiers, good officers, and would make brilliant generals. However, it’s also clear that our society still largely holds to the idea of “protect the women and children”. So the thought that a draft would force women into combat is disturbing to many.

This makes me happy, because it means we would only engage in an nation-wide military conflict if it was absolutely necessary as determined through undoubtedly heated discourse by the public. Any countervailing force that protects the masses from falling into the trap of nationalistic fervor is a force for long-term progress.



Forget the Economy: How to Pick Who to Vote For Tomorrow

The “economy” has been widely hailed as the main concern on the minds of the American people. Unfortunately, the simple truth of the presidency (according to the constitution and according to modern reality) is that the president has very little power to affect the economy. His power in this domain almost exclusively rests with the bully pulpit: the persuasive power of the loudest megaphone in Washington DC.

The following are the powers and roles of the president as I see it, and how that effects who I’ll vote for tomorrow (Tuesday, November 6, 2012):

  • Nominate Supreme Court justices. To me, this is the biggest reason not to mess around with your vote and choose the party that best represents your views on policy, domestic and foreign. In the next four years, it’s possible that we will see 4 justices retire. Ginsburg is 79, Scalia is 76, Kennedy is 75, and Breyer is 74. Gibsburg and Breyer are left-leaning on most issues, Scalia is famously right-leaning, and Kennedy is often the swing vote.
  • Start wars without declaring them. On at least 125 occasions the president (throughout U.S. history) has deployed troops without authorization from Congress. In my book, this is where Obama’s cool and collected approach is very important. I hope, that if Romney wins, he has a similar approach. Even if I disagree with the decision, I hope the decision is made through a careful deliberation process that’s influenced by balanced reason and not blind ideology.
  • Bully pulpit: Really, most of the president’s power lies in the fact that we all pretend that he is important (because the media pretends he is important) and thus give him “power” by listening to him. He can use his giant megaphone to influence Congress, public opinion, and international relations. What’s very important to remember, however, is that this power of persuasion grows exponentially in a time of real crisis (such as a terrorist attack or a natural disaster). At those times, we tend to take off our partisan hats and follow the words of the commander and chief with loyalty and unwavering determination. Hence, we want to pick a president who is best in a time of crisis.

I have many friends who are voting for Obama and many who are voting for Romney (though I’m not speaking to them this week for fear of mutual destruction). I even have one friend who is voting for Gary Johnson, who despite being the goofiest politician I’ve ever heard, is quite brilliant. I’m personally voting for Obama, despite many of my objections to what I saw in the last four years, because:

  • I want to maintain a balance of left and right on the Supreme court.
  • I want less undeclared wars not more, even though both candidates I believe will be far more hawkish than I would like.
  • I want a president that the rest of the world likes, respects, and wants to work with. In poll after poll, Obama beats Romney about 80% to 20% in the rest of the World. The gap is biggest in countries that our close allies, except Israel which is one of the only countries where Romney leads (with a whopping 57% to 22%).
  • As a scientist, I am depressed at the blatant disrespect towards science in the Republican party. I’m not talking about global warming or stem cell research or evolution. I’m talking about fundamental scientific research. I wish this wasn’t so, but it certainly makes me lean heavily to the left on this issue, where science is rightful seen as the main force of progress and economic growth that made this country what it has come to be throughout the 20th century.

I try not to grow cynical about politics, but it’s damn hard… Please make sure you vote tomorrow, not for any reason, but because it may help spark a conversation with a friend about a political issue you both care about. Who knows, that spark might start a fire.

The Drums of War and Nuclear Terrorism

51% of Americans support military action to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon (source). 36% are against such military action.

The above statistics scare me. To me it shows that while Americans are tired of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are not tired of war in general. There is still a fundamental hope among the majority of Americans that good can overwhelm evil by hard military force.

For every word I write or speak on the subject, I make sure to read 10 more, and listen much more than speak. There are many very difficult moral, political, social, and financial questions here. How bad is it if Iran gets the bomb? How bad is it that China, Pakistan, and North Korea already have the bomb? What is the best way to prevent the bomb from being used anywhere in the world? Does the United States support Israel if it invades Iran?

The more I learn about war, the more anti-war I become. And the older I get, the more willing I am to stand up for what I believe. I am in support of having a large military but with an emphasis on defense, not preemptive offense.

I don’t want to write much more here today, because a blog is not the correct medium for such discussion. But this is simply a request that you keep your ears and mind open to the facts, costs, and ideas around war before you declare that you are for or against it.

Think not only of the short term, but the long term effects as well.

Pans 2012 Blue Belt Middle Weight Division Results

Josh Macin (pictured left with a super intense celebration face) won the blue belt middleweight division at Pans yesterday. I faced both him and his opponent in the finals before, and I imagine I will have to again. His opponent was Joel Hadden.

I think they both have a well rounded game, but I think Josh’s strength is takedowns and scrambles, and Joel’s strength is his spider guard or closed guard games. I know what it takes to beat them. And since they both beat me (in close matches) before, they sure know what it takes to beat me.

The main thing I remember from facing them is that the matches were good jiu jitsu. There was very little stalling and very little aimless expansion of energy. It was technique vs technique. And that’s a refreshing thing, especially at the blue belt level.

The other thing I remember is that their technique was backed by an intensity that only comes from a lot of confidence. That’s where lots and lots of drilling, positional training, and just plain old hard training comes in. I’ll have to step on the mat at Worlds in 2 months confident and ready for 6 minutes of war.

That said, off the mat, congrats to Josh for winning gold yesterday. I talked to him for a bit after our match last week, and he was a cool humble dude. Beyond everything else, these competitions build good character. Win or lose, I’m forever thankful for finding judo and jiu jitsu, because it really has made me a better human being.

The Whispers of War With Iran

Main Point: Suppose Iran will eventually get a nuclear weapon. Given that, how do we work towards peace in the Middle East? And no, war should not be “on the table” (maybe under it).

In recent news, interviews, books, the drums of war with Iran are beating. Top political leaders have gone from talk of sanctions, to talk of “all options are on the table”, and finally to explicit statements that if all else fails we must be willing to invade Iran.

What is the justification for such a preemptive war? It echoes that of the Iraq war: “we must prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”

“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” – Ehud Barak (Israeli Defense Minister) talking about Iran on Charlie Rose. For him, and many others in the Israeli government, a nuclear-armed Iran is the end of Israel. Moreover, he claims that if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, and then decides to invade a small state in the region (as Iraq did with Kuwait), the claim is no one will want to do anything about it.

Even if you believe everything Ehud Barak is saying, the common sense reality it seems is that most of the countries in the Middle East will gain access to a nuclear weapon eventually. That’s the reality from which all conversation has to begin.

It seems to me that there are no comforting answers here, but the hope has to lie in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. We have to confront the terror of a nuclear attack rationally.

I’ve asked this question before: what happens if a nuclear bomb goes off in one of the major cities in the United States? From the interview above and the many conversations I’ve had on this subject, it seems that people are not willing to even remotely consider such a possibility. It is spoken of as some infinitely horrible event that would destroy all of civilization.

Talking about it in such a way does two things. First, the fear of it is grows without bounds and leads to irrational domestic and foreign policy. Second, it increases the likelihood that the response to such an attack will lead to an even worse catastrophe than the attack itself would cause.

These discussions need to happen in the international community and every country in the world has to be heard, included, and an agreement reached.

Iraq Troops Withdrawal: Can’t Teach A Runner How to Complete a Marathon

Recently, NPR’s Talk of the Nation did a program on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. A female soldier (and trainer of Iraqi military) that just got back from Iraq called in and made a comment about the fact that most of the U.S. soldiers there believe that they’ve done all they could, and it’s time to go home. She finished with an analogy: “I can teach a runner how to run, but I can’t teach him the mentality needed to complete a marathon”.

I never know where to focus my criticism of the neocon foreign policy, because it’s fundamentally an emotional framework and thus doesn’t quite sit comfortably in the realm of reason. It lacks concrete goals and realistic plans of accomplishing those goals. ‘Eradicating terrorism” is not a concrete goal. “Establish democracy and freedom” is not a realistic plan. But most importantly it lacks the kind of empathy needed to understand the other side, the families in Iraq that are trying to live a peaceful existence day to day. What do they want? How do they see U.S.? Because we are only safe if they see us as the good guys: as a country that values the rights of every human being.

Bar fights (my own, and those I’ve watched) have taught me all I need to know about conflict. An eye for an eye escalates tension and transforms into generational hatred. There has to be room for “turning the other cheek”. Not always, but just often enough to give our animal instinct a chance to be pacified by reason.

People Killed On and After 9/11

suffering-in-war-iraq-soldier-cryingFirst and foremost, I would like to honor our soldiers: the men and women who have fought and are fighting for this country. Many of them have been killed, and many more have been wounded. From my experience, so many of them are good men, some of the best that our society has to offer (though sadly it is the war itself that often seems to shape the strength of their character).

I am strongly opposed to our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds of it leading to more terrorism in the long-term not less, and I will defend that point to anyone willing to have the discussion.

But on this 10 year mark since the attacks of 9/11, I would like to do nothing more than list some statistics on the number of people killed or wounded on and off the battlefield since the tragedy of that day. Also, I add some other casualty statistics for an absurdly horrific context. These numbers are impossible to comprehend, and whatever your view, this information will mean something different, but I ask only that you sit and think about the suffering that fills every crevice of our civilization and how the decisions we make can help alleviate a little bit of it here and there.

  • People killed in 9/11 attacks: 2,819
  • Firefighters, cops, paramedics killed on that day: 366
  • Iraq
    • American soldiers killed in Iraq: 4,474
    • American soldiers wounded in Iraq: 33,143
    • Iraqi civilians killed: 864,531
    • Iraqi civilians seriously injured: 1,556,156
  • Afghanistan
    • American soldiers killed in Afghanistan: 1,140
    • American soldiers wounded in Afghanistan: 3,420
  • Other
    • Women raped in U.S. per year: 90,000
    • Children that die from starvation per year: 3,000,000
    • Killed in WWII: 48,231,700
    • Killed by Black Death (14th century plague): ~100,000,000

The 40 Year Reign of Terror

In this talk, Christopher Hitchens provides a description (in the beginning) of what Saddam Hussein did to the Iraqi people in the 40 years that he had nearly unlimited power to do so.

Two things jumped out at me, where I had to stop the video, and sit in shock (removed temporarily from the comfort of my American life) lost in thought. First, he murdered and tortured thousands of children. Second, he used rape as a political tool of repression. Specifically, the common practice was to kidnap a daughter from the family of the targeted man, rape her, video tape it, and send the tape to the father. Just think about that. Think what it is like to live in a country like that. Think of the rage and fear you would feel in such a situation.

The long occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan has received a lot opposition and criticism (from myself included). It is the description of the above violation of human rights however that challenges me. Perhaps the overthrow / assassination of such men is necessary, and failure to do so is a moral weight that even a pacifist struggles to bare.

It also saddens me to think that the title of this blog post does not at all narrow down the list of dictators. The more oppressive the regime, the longer (it seems) it is able to hold on to power.