Bin Laden’s death, a different point of view

The American media’s orgasm over the reported killing of Osama Bin Laden is unseemly and ill-advised. Here is why I think that.


Our morning newspaper had a single-word headline in huge black type, over Bin Laden’s photo:


At least they put quotation marks around it, appropriate to indicate a mis-applied word. And such an important word, too, concerning which we Americans have a particular pride. The United States: nation of laws.

The killing of Bin Laden was, of course, no more “justice” than a lynching is. What was it? Justifiable, yes; revenge sweet on the tongue of Americans, yes; necessary, perhaps—if only to tie up a politically embarrassing loose end.

I recognize that it was an impossible situation. There is no place on this planet, except perhaps Antarctica, where this man could have had a safe and reasonably public trial. Even if the trial were held at Camp McMurdo, there would predictably be suicide bombers elsewhere, mass murders of the innocent, just because.

So it had to be death, not capture. But having done it, let us not revel in it. And we might have done it better.

We could at least have pretended that we killed Bin Laden “during the fire fight”. The President in his address saidAfter a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body”. And Obama is a famously careful and considered speaker. Admitting that it was a deliberate killing, not one necessitated by combat, is honest, but it will enrage Muslims even more.


The more we gloat, the more payback we will receive. No one should imagine that we have in any way made the US or the West safer by this deed. Islamic extremism is not a snake with one head to be cut off, or even two heads; as terrorism experts have endlessly told us, al Quaeda has for some years been a “franchise” with branches in many locations, and there are Muslims everywhere capable of low-budget, virtually impromptu, attacks. This is not like killing the political leader of an enemy nation; the root of the strife is no nation, but a religion.

Having killed Bin Laden we quickly disposed of his body to avoid the martyrdom issue; it might have been wiser to capture him, film his execution for later broadcast, and then drop the body in the ocean. He’ll be a martyr to many anyway, without doubt, and filming him alive and then showing his death would undermine the inevitable rumors that it’s all a hoax.

In matters concerning survival, clear thinking must be chosen over pleasing though misleading emotion. This is my effort.

The Palm PDA as pioneer e-book reader, and Ernest Shackleton, and war

Before the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, there was the Palm

I got my Palm some years ago, to help out my fibromyalgia-diminished memory. It was like a proto-tablet, on which I could take notes, write, outline, draw and paint well enough to illustrate notes, and keep a calendar and to-do list. There were all sorts of games for it, and apps to change the look of the interface. The one feature I thought I’d never use was the ability to read entire books on that tiny screen.

But it came loaded with a mystery by a popular author and, compulsive reader that I am, I took a look at it and found it quite easy to read. Fonts and font size were adjustable and later I got a third-party app that enabled me to change the background color to one my eyes found more comfortable. I’ve been reading on my Palm ever since.

It’s a small device, about the size of a pack of cards, and with an upgraded memory card it can easily hold 50 or 75 books in addition to all the other stuff. iSiloX, companion app to one of the readers, would convert text files to Palm format (.pdb), so all of Project Gutenberg was mine.

Like most people, I don’t find it pleasant to read text continuously on the computer screen for an hour, and I would never have printed out these copyright-free books, but to have them available to read any time I wanted on the Palm—that worked for me. Is it easier to concentrate my visual attention on the small screen than on the large one? I don’t know what the reason is, but reading the Palm is more comfortable for long periods whether by daylight or in a dark room.

Shackleton Palm.jpg

Some of what I’ve been reading in the wee hours

Although I’ve bought a few e-books and issues of sf magazines for the Palm, mostly I have read my way through free downloads, 19th and early 20th C. works from Jack London’s social fiction and reflections on his own alcoholism, to Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essays. I’ve found several good reads among women writers including novels like Wives and Daughters (1865), and North and South (1854), by Elizabeth Gaskell, and excellent short stories by Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Mary Austin, and Katherine Mansfield. The Woman Who Did (1895) by Grant Allen, is about a “New Woman” who dared to live her life as she wished, having an affair but refusing to marry the man, raising the child, with tragic results. Then there’s the wide range of popular adventure fiction, of which I’ve enjoyed works by such out-of-fashion writers as H. Rider Haggard, P. C. Wren, and Ouida, with titles like The Snake and the Sword, and Under Two Flags (both stories of the French Foreign Legion). All these have been enjoyable to read in themselves, and of course provide fascinating windows into life and attitudes, with the same sort of caveats that attach to judging our times by our popular fiction.

I’ve got some familiar big-C Classics on the Palm too, like Fagles’s recent translation of the Odyssey (a purchased e-book, I have it in print as well), Northanger Abbey and Tom Jones (haven’t been able to finish either one of these), a couple of Anthony Trollope novels (more readable, enjoyed The Warden), and a bunch of poetry. There’s a goodly selection of older sf to be found online as text files, and even some new sf books that have been made freely available by authors such as Cory Doctorow.

Views of Antarctic heroism, and of the world before ours

Just now my 2 am reading is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South, his account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17)—often known as the “ill-fated” Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their sturdy ship was trapped in pack ice for nearly a year, then crushed by the movement of the ice; the men lived on ice floes for some time since the current was taking them closer to land, but when the floes broke up under their feet, they took to 3 small open boats…and on it goes. The privation endured, the courage and resourcefulness shown, are astonishing. One aspect of human beings at their best.

Shackleton replica boat in pack ice.jpg

Replica of one of the expedition’s open boats, among pack ice.

And here too, are found glimpses of how differently some things were perceived.

Shackleton’s ship the Endurance left England just after the outbreak of what was to become World War I; at the time many thought it would be over by Christmas. I just read the part where Shackleton and a few companions reach South Georgia Island, having left the rest of the company slowly starving on Elephant Island, while they cross 800 miles of ocean in a small boat in order to send back a rescue ship. They are forced to land on the opposite side of the island from Stromness Whaling Station, and Shackleton takes the two fittest men on a 36-hour trek over glaciers and rocky peaks, without a map, to reach “civilization”.

The first thing Shackleton says to the whaling station manager, after introducing himself, is “Tell me, when was the war over?” It is May, 1916, and he cannot conceive that the war might still continue. The manager replies, “The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.” Later, after arranging for the other two men on South Georgia to be picked up, Shackleton and a companion hear details of the war. “We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad,” he says.

I’ve often read of how shocked and demoralized people of the time were by this unprecedented industrialized war that dragged on and on, by the use of poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery, and planes, and by battles such as the Somme, in which over one million men (on both sides) were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, over a 4 and 1/2 month period. British casualties on the Somme (in these same three categories) were 80% during that time; by November, 80% of the original men in a division were gone save for those lightly wounded who returned. The total advance of the Allied lines was 8 miles.

But this scene, in which men in such an isolated and inhospitable place learn all at once of the war, has a different imaginative impact. After all, the late 20th-century reader may be appalled by the Somme, but knows already of things as bad or worse: the Holocaust, Rwanda, visions of nuclear war. To imagine Shackleton learning about his time’s Great War suddenly, in one conversation, is to experience a little of how it was for those of his time.

Many well-educated young men with literary leanings joined up in 1914, and some of them wrote poetry while in camps and trenches. The early World War I poetry is of a high idealistic tenor probably not equalled by any war poetry since, because that war changed reality for everyone then and since. Never again, I hope, can anyone write something like this, about dead soldiers:

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

First stanza of 1914 III: The Dead by Rupert Brooke.

As I recall, Brooke died just as his attitude toward the war began to shift from public-school “play the game” patriotism to something more hopeless and grim. But many another British war-poet showed this change of reality that took place for his generation and those to come, including us. Things were never the same. Though it is long, I’ll reprint here one such poem:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The poem is Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen, written in 1915.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori (Latin) means “It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”. This famous quotation from Horace would have been extremely familiar to public-school boys, in that time when education always included the Latin language and literature as well as some indoctrination about the Empire. In 1913, the first line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, was inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Wikipedia), and the text and the sentiment were used to encourage enlistment and support of the war.

Indeed, Ernest Shackleton and his men (not one perished, incredibly) did emerge from the ice-bound wilderness “like men arisen from the dead” into a world forever changed.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918).jpg

Detail from John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918). This painting hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London; the canvas is over seven feet high and twenty feet long. It depicts soldiers blinded by gas being led in lines back to the hospital tents and the dressing stations; the men lie on the ground all about the tents waiting for treatment. (Source)

Helping National Guard and Reservists “re-enter” after deployment

Sometimes local news should have a wider audience across the country.

Our US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has earned great respect in this state for his humane principles and competence at building coalitions to get things done in DC. Here’s an example from the Oregonian newspaper on an issue that, typically for him, is not at all parochial but affects all of us deeply.

Sen. Wyden proposes extending Guard pay

The Oregon lawmaker wants to give soldiers returning from war 90 extra pay days

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

JULIE SULLIVAN, The Oregonian Staff

When Oregon Army National Guard soldiers returned from Iraq four years ago, fewer than half had a job waiting.

Employers wanted to help. Within a week, the Guard organized a reintegration fair that offered an estimated 500 jobs. But not a single soldier took one.

It was too soon.

“They are not ready to leave a combat zone and seven days later, go back to work,” Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell said.

State and federal officials say they’ve learned how to do it right. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wants to extend federal pay for National Guard and reservists for 90 days to ensure a “softer landing” when they return.

Oregon has posted some of the highest percentages of Guard members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 2,700 are training to deploy Iraq in July.

Unlike the regular Army, where soldiers return to their stateside military jobs and bases, the Oregon Guard and reservists scatter to hometowns. They lose their military salary, and more than $600 a month in other hazardous duty and separation pay.

When Oregon soldiers returned from Afghanistan two years ago, fewer than half of them younger than 35 had a job waiting. The younger the vet, the worse the outlook, with nearly 65 percent younger than 25 unemployed.

“About 79 percent returned to poverty,” said Sgt. First Class (Ret.) J.D. Baucom, a career assistance liaison for the Oregon Guard. He’s concerned in today’s economy those numbers are bound to get worse.

Wyden said paying the Guard for up to 90 days after they return would give them time to rebuild their lives before hitting a financial wall.

“We not willing to sit around and watch soldiers go from the front lines to unemployment lines,” he said.

Oregon has led in veterans’ advocacy. The Guard’s re-integration program — launched by wounded Alsea and Albany infantrymen in 2004 — is a national model. In 2007, the Legislature created a new veterans hiring preference for public employees. Now it is considering extending that preference from 15 years to a lifetime and granting 15 days unpaid leave to spouses of deploying soldiers.

Wyden’s bill covers returning soldiers so it would help only a fraction of the 350,000 Oregon veterans. He met former service members at the IBEW Local 48 in Northeast Portland on Tuesday morning in part to highlight job opportunities in the building trades. One federal program, Helmets to Hardhats, has put more than 1,757 veterans nationally into union apprentice programs. Across the hall, three young military veterans had found union jobs a good match on their own. They said that learning discipline, attention to detail and the ability to work in a team in the service has helped them apprentice as commercial electricians.

“I tried college, but I was working full time and going to school full time and that didn’t work,” said Craig Enneberg, 28, of Sherwood. “This works.”

Still, veterans advocates — and veterans themselves — told Wyden that a far more targeted approach is needed. Among the suggestions:

Reduce paperwork. “If we can’t get through the process, how we can we ask a 20-year-old from eastern Oregon who doesn’t know where to call?” said Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Maas, who manages career assistance for the reintegration team.

Connect veterans. Ret. Master Sgt. Mike Eschete, who recently graduated from Portland State University, proposed a mentoring program using military retirees. “They speak a different language and understand a dimension that is invisible to others,” he said.

Educate gatekeepers at agencies. “Put someone in that position who gives a damn,” said Erik Burris, a 12-year veteran of the Navy. Burris said one state employment specialist, Rene Garcia, helped him.

But little else has helped Burris in this economy.

The 41-year-old aviation structural mechanic and flight deck troubleshooter in the Navy has been laid off from four jobs in Portland since 2002. Wyden invited him to the Tuesday meeting. He arrived in a stylish blue shirt and tie, his carefully clipped hair and leather organizer in hand. He handed a reporter his resume.

After being laid off from jobs in quality control, sales, tech support and as a contractor at Intel he hasn’t worked since January 2008. He keeps applying, whittling his three-page resume into a one page “cram ad” and checking 12 job boards online a day. He does all the family cooking for his wife, Jeanmarie, and their daughter and keeps the kitchen immaculate in their “inexpensive” 900-square-foot Tigard apartment.

“Home is what you make it,” Jeanmarie says.

“You lose your pride and a little bit of yourself every time you get laid off,” he says. “And we have so much to give.”

2009 Oregonian

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