June 25, 2019 Last week, Elham Pourtaher, an Iranian graduate student at the State University of New York in Albany, wrote about how U.S. policies cause suffering and trauma far beyond U.S. borders. Her diabetic father, for example, is in danger of losing access to medicines because sanctions against Iranian
Say one thing about the world of sports: in some fashion, it invariably reflects developments in the larger world. It hardly matters whether the subject is war or inequality. Take a knee for a moment and think about that or, in the age of Donald Trump, think about the president whose bone spur problems have never stopped him from cheating at golf or promoting his golf clubs while in the White House — or, in fact, spending the odd day in the White House while he was promoting (and staying at) those golf clubs (and getting ferried from one “lock-her-up” rally to the next to denounce anyone on this planet taking a knee about more or less anything).
If only we could say goodbye to all that! Fortunately, we have TomDispatch’s jock culture correspondent (and former New York Times sports reporter and columnist) Robert Lipsyte who knows a thing or two about both sports and saying goodbye to all that. Since, in this ever-changing age of ours, there can be little question that, with the help of a group of Washington “terrarists” — no, that’s not a misspelling — including The Donald, we are heading for a goodbye-to-all-that future, it’s none too soon to consider what Lipsyte calls the Jockpocalypse version of the same. Tom
From the Ballpark to Team Trump
By Robert Lipsyte
A half-century ago, the sporting Cassandras predicted that the worst values and sensibilities of our increasingly corrupted civic society would eventually affect our sacred games: football would become a gladiatorial meat market, basketball a model of racism, college sports a paradigm of commercialization, and Olympic sports like swimming and gymnastics a hotbed of sexual predators.
The Cassandras then forecast an even more perverse reversal: our games, now profaned, would further corrupt our civic life; winning would not be enough without domination; cheating would be justified as gamesmanship; extreme fandom would become violent tribalism; team loyalty would displace moral courage; and obedience to the coach would supplant democracy.
Okay, I think it’s time for a round of applause for those seers. Let’s hear it for Team Trump!
Even as those predictions were coming true over the past two years, as a longtime sports reporter, columnist, TV commentator, and jock culture correspondent for TomDispatch, I waited with a certain dread and expectation for the arrival of the true Jockpocalypse, the prophetic revelation that Jock Culture had indeed become The Culture. There would be three clear signs, I thought, of this American sports version of a biblical Armageddon.
The first arrived last February, when a leading NFL owner was arrested, allegedly in flagrante delicto, in a Florida massage parlor before an important game. The second hit the news in March, when several dozen parents were caught spending millions of dollars to get their distinctly unathletic children admitted to elite colleges by masquerading as promising varsity sports prospects.
The third and most convincing sign came in April when the world’s greatest golfer tacitly endorsed the world’s greatest golf cheater. Admittedly, none of those signs was as blatant as ongoing outrages like the growing roster of young women athletes who had been sexually abused by their team coaches and doctors; the continuing corruption at the highest levels of European soccer (where anything goes financially speaking and, as the New Yorker’s Sam Knight put it, “The best leagues are awash in Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern sovereign-wealth funds, and Chinese conglomerates”); or the sexism of the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport in refusing to allow Caster Semenya, a South African runner with naturally elevated testosterone, to compete against other women unless she doped down her hormone levels.
Nevertheless, the three signs I’ve noted reveal how the worst aspects of Jock Culture have indeed transcended all the traditional borders of sportsdom, ruining for many, including me, the full enjoyment of sports. How can a moral person watch games in which players are damaged and exploited? How has sports, cherished as an innocent sanctuary, become such a “guilty pleasure”?
You can argue with obvious justification, historically speaking, that sports was never anything like the chaste Oz of our fantasies, whether you’re talking about foul play in the ancient Olympics, the 1919 World Series Black Sox game-fixing scandal, or the contemporary revelations of the widespread use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, especially in baseball, track, and bicycle racing, but those three signs I’m about to explore make, in the opinion of this sports writer, an even more damning case for the coming of the End of Days for sports as a sanctuary of innocence, joy, and pleasure of just about any sort.
Signs of the Jockpocalypse
Sign No. 1: My first instinct was to ignore the story of an aged widower, allegedly paying for some version of sex, who was scooped up after being caught on surveillance video at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida, during a local police investigation of alleged human trafficking for the sex trade. However, because it was Robert Kraft, the 77-year-old owner of the New England Patriots, one of the National Football League’s most powerful figures, I grew ever more curious — and not just because he had previously liked to flaunt girlfriends half his age or because he supported Donald Trump.
After all, it was on his watch as owner that the Patriots had drafted two players of highly dubious character. In 1996, the team drafted Christian Peter, who had been arrested eight times and convicted four times of assaulting women while a star defensive lineman at the University of Nebraska, the national collegiate champion. Kraft’s late wife, Myra, successfully demanded that Peter, who ultimately had a career with other teams and has apparently turned his life around, be let go.
Then, in 2010, the team drafted Aaron Hernandez, a dominant tight end at national champion Miami, which kicked him out after his junior year for drug use and violent behavior. He played well at New England, but in 2013 was charged with murder and convicted two years later. In 2017, he committed suicide in his prison cell. Later that year, Boston University researchers dissecting Hernandez’s brain diagnosed Stage 3 Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or severe brain injury.
It’s no stretch to associate Kraft with both the murder and the suicide. He was at the very least an important bystander in the “League of Denial,” the NFL’s longstanding attempt to dismiss and obfuscate the striking connections between the game and the traumatic brain injuries that turn out to afflict hundreds of its players. Almost all NFL players whose brains have been studied, which is only possible after death, seem to have suffered grievous trauma from the hits inflicted in that game. Since all of this is now known, any time you turn on professional football, one thing is guaranteed: you are watching sponsored, encouraged assaults on screen or, if you’re in a stadium, in person. And if that isn’t end times in action, what is?
Sign No. 2: Spending upwards of a million dollars or more to enhance the lives of kids seems like a highly worthy endeavor — unless, of course, they turn out to be your own kids and the money is being fraudulently siphoned to those who can get them into prestigious colleges through fraud. Think of it as the new Gilded Age of the twenty-first century, the one in which the rich only grow richer and the poor… well, their kids better actually be able to play sports damn well.
I’m thinking, of course, about the millionaire parents who bribed go-betweens to bribe coaches of minor college sports to help admit their kids to prestigious schools. As a sportswriter, it seems to me like the end of a long historical arc of sports corruption that began in the last century when coaches at wannabe powerhouse football and basketball schools first doctored high-school transcripts and then the college version of the same to admit potential star players and keep them eligible. (Famed Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne classically did that for his all-American George Gipp, better known from the phrase “win one for the Gipper.”) A successful team, of course, also gives its school a bump in applications and donations.
Recruiting is most obvious in big-time basketball because it’s quite literally written in black and white. Back in 1992, Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society, offered me these statistics: at NCAA Division 1 schools, 56% of the varsity basketball players are black; 7% of the students on campus are black; and 1.56% of the faculty is black. (Nothing much has changed since.)
When it came to the recent admission scandals, that perverted flipside of athletic recruiting, however, the racial mix was reversed — unsurprisingly, given who has the real money in America. The fraudulent future volleyball champions, tennis aces, and champion sailors were mostly white, and their parents were clearly no less desperate (and far better endowed) to get their children into their first-choice schools than the mostly African-American mothers I’ve met at the summer basketball camps run by sneaker companies as auditions for big-time coaches.
The colleges, in turn, proved themselves greedy for both the unpaid sports performers and the rich kids whose parents were ready to shell out box office prices to get in. As in the case of Robert Kraft, there will be some shaming, inconvenience, and fines for the wealthy, but undoubtedly little else. The players are the ones who, in the end, will absorb and have to live with the traumas.
Comeback for What?
Sign No. 3: To this sports writer, in the moment when a smiling Tiger Woods allowed Donald Trump to hang the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, around his neck, the Jockpocalypse was fully revealed.
The day after Woods won the 2019 Masters Tournament, Trump tweeted that he would bestow the medal to honor “his incredible Success & Comeback in Sports (Golf) and, more importantly, LIFE.” It was, of course, another chance for a president who undoubtedly thinks emoluments are hair conditioners to showcase his golf resorts. In the new normal, we’ve come Jockpocalyptically to expect nothing less from the shameless kleptocrat in the White House.
But what about Tiger, whom we sports types have known since he was a toddler hitting golf balls on TV? We watched his dad drive him relentlessly to stardom and dub him “the Chosen One.” Many fans were sympathetic, even sad, when he cracked up emotionally, physically, and professionally. And then cheered him on when, with extraordinary dedication, he made his way back. In the process, the golf industry was economically recharged.
But in this era in which championship teams and other athletes regularly reject White House invitations to protest the man who occupies the Oval Office, Tiger was hardly obliged by convention to accept the medal. Of course, he has a right to be a Trump supporter or to crave the award and the attention that goes with it. As we know — if we couldn’t have already guessed it — from a recent, acclaimed critical biography of him, Tiger is a selfish and morally challenged figure, distinctly in the presidential mode of the moment.
He is also, however, the leading face of the sport, which might lead you to think that he had a responsibility to uphold golf’s famously self-righteous posture on honest play, even when no one is looking. The sport regularly trumpets stories of players who call fouls on themselves, losing tournaments to preserve the game’s integrity.
And since integrity is marketed as the soul of golf, how can that sport — and its greatest player — ignore the barefaced dishonesty of the world’s most famous golf club owner on the course? As sportswriter Rick Reilly, who has golfed with Trump, describes the president in a hilariously depressing new book,
Thom Hartmann is a progressive national and internationally syndicated talk show host and the author of The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment. Talkers magazine named him America’s most important progressive host and has named his show one of the top ten talk radio shows in the country every year for over a decade. A four-time recipient of the Project Censored Award, Hartmann is also a New York Times bestselling author of twenty-five books, translated into multiple languages.
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By John Grant
President Donald Trump go soft at the last minute and decide the 150 Iranian souls expected to die in an attack that was “10 minutes away” should live? We’re told the planes were in the air when he had his magnanimous, humanitarian moment. It reminds me of the story told by Fyodor Dostoevsky about being in front of a firing squad as a young man, ready to die — when at the very last moment, a messenger arrives: “The Czar has
I remember well the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era. I was in it and it was distinctly in the streets, big time. I was typical, for instance, in traveling to Washington in October 1967 for a march on the Pentagon, which proved to be the largest antiwar protest ever staged to that point — a crowd so vast I had never seen the likes of it before. And I returned to the capital a year or two later for a far more chaotic antiwar demonstration in which I remember having to choose between staying with a bold friend eager to rush further into the tear-gas-laced streets around the Washington Mall or run for it — alone. (I reluctantly chose to stay.) And then there were all the little moments of work and opposition over so many years, the moments when you weren’t with crowds of people in those streets, but you were still focused on opposing that American war from hell.
And then, of course, I remember that second antiwar moment of vast crowds on a global scale in the winter and early spring of 2003, when I found myself once again marching with staggering numbers of other people against a grim American war, this time one still to come. It was already obvious, though, that the top officials of the Bush administration were intent on invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, no matter what. Still, I suspect the crowds of demonstrators then put even the Vietnam protests to shame. Strangely, however, when that war began and essentially didn’t end but spread, when it came to embroil, in one way or another, much of the Greater Middle East and then parts of Africa, when the Arab Spring broke out, Syria cracked open, and ISIS appeared — when, to use a phrase of former Arab League head Amr Mussa, it was clearer that we had passed through “the gates of Hell” in the Greater Middle East — it seemed as if no one in the U.S. was in the streets or anywhere else.
Yes, there were some places like TomDispatch that continued to focus on those never-ending wars and the chaos, death, displacement, and destruction they caused, but generally it felt — at least to me — as if, in a period of never-ending and disastrous conflicts across vast (and distant) stretches of the planet, the American public was nowhere to be found. That’s why, when I read TomDispatch regular Allegra Harpootlian’s take on the situation, I found a certain genuine hope there. No, there still isn’t an antiwar movement in the streets of America, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening, nothing is forming, nothing is brewing when it comes to our twenty-first-century wars from hell, not if you look in the right way and in the right places. Check out her piece and see what I mean. Tom
The Antiwar Movement No One Can See
Will It Put a Crimp in the War on Terror?
By Allegra Harpootlian
When Donald Trump entered the Oval Office in January 2017, Americans took to the streets all across the country to protest their instantly endangered rights. Conspicuously absent from the newfound civic engagement, despite more than a decade and a half of this country’s fruitless, destructive wars across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, was antiwar sentiment, much less an actual movement.
Those like me working against America’s seemingly endless wars wondered why the subject merited so little discussion, attention, or protest. Was it because the still-spreading war on terror remained shrouded in government secrecy? Was the lack of media coverage about what America was doing overseas to blame? Or was it simply that most Americans didn’t care about what was happening past the water’s edge? If you had asked me two years ago, I would have chosen “all of the above.” Now, I’m not so sure.
After the enormous demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the antiwar movement disappeared almost as suddenly as it began, with some even openly declaring it dead. Critics noted the long-term absence of significant protests against those wars, a lack of political will in Congress to deal with them, and ultimately, apathy on matters of war and peace when compared to issues like health care, gun control, or recently even climate change.
The pessimists have been right to point out that none of the plethora of marches on Washington since Donald Trump was elected have had even a secondary focus on America’s fruitless wars. They’re certainly right to question why Congress, with the constitutional duty to declare war, has until recently allowed both presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump to wage war as they wished without even consulting them. They’re right to feel nervous when a national poll shows that more Americans think we’re fighting a war in Iran (we’re not) than a war in Somalia (we are).
But here’s what I’ve been wondering recently: What if there’s an antiwar movement growing right under our noses and we just haven’t noticed? What if we don’t see it, in part, because it doesn’t look like any antiwar movement we’ve even imagined?
If a movement is only a movement when people fill the streets, then maybe the critics are right. It might also be fair to say, however, that protest marches do not always a movement make. Movements are defined by their ability to challenge the status quo and, right now, that’s what might be beginning to happen when it comes to America’s wars.
What if it’s Parkland students condemning American imperialism or groups fighting the Muslim Ban that are also fighting the war on terror? It’s veterans not only trying to take on the wars they fought in, but putting themselves on the front lines of the gun control, climate change, and police brutality debates. It’s Congress passing the first War Powers Resolution in almost 50 years. It’s Democratic presidential candidates signing a pledge to end America’s endless wars.
For the last decade and a half, Americans — and their elected representatives — looked at our endless wars and essentially shrugged. In 2019, however, an antiwar movement seems to be brewing. It just doesn’t look like the ones that some remember from the Vietnam era and others from the pre-invasion-of-Iraq moment. Instead, it’s a movement that’s being woven into just about every other issue that Americans are fighting for right now — which is exactly why it might actually work.
A Veteran’s Antiwar Movement in the Making?
During the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s, protests began with religious groups and peace organizations morally opposed to war. As that conflict intensified, however, students began to join the movement, then civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. got involved, then war veterans who had witnessed the horror firsthand stepped in — until, with a seemingly constant storm of protest in the streets, Washington eventually withdrew from Indochina.
You might look at the lack of public outrage now, or perhaps the exhaustion of having been outraged and nothing changing, and think an antiwar movement doesn’t exist. Certainly, there’s nothing like the active one that fought against America’s involvement in Vietnam for so long and so persistently. Yet it’s important to notice that, among some of the very same groups (like veterans, students, and even politicians) that fought against that war, a healthy skepticism about America’s twenty-first-century wars, the Pentagon, the military industrial complex, and even the very idea of American exceptionalism is finally on the rise — or so the polls tell us.
Right after the midterms last year, an organization named Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness reported mournfully that younger Americans were “turning on the country and forgetting its ideals,” with nearly half believing that this country isn’t “great” and many eyeing the U.S. flag as “a sign of intolerance and hatred.” With millennials and Generation Z rapidly becoming the largest voting bloc in America for the next 20 years, their priorities are taking center stage. When it comes to foreign policy and war, as it happens, they’re quite different from the generations that preceded them. According to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs,
“Each successor generation is less likely than the previous to prioritize maintaining superior military power worldwide as a goal of U.S. foreign policy, to see U.S. military superiority as a very effective way of achieving U.S. foreign policy goals, and to support expanding defense spending. At the same time, support for international cooperation and free trade remains high across the generations. In fact, younger Americans are more inclined to
Donald E. McInnis’s book, She’s So Cold, is painful to read. McInnis was the defense attorney for one of three boys falsely accused of killing one of the boys’ sister. Much of the book is recreation of police interrogations that were videotaped, and of a court hearing.
This was one of those cases the mass media love and for which they effectively convict the accused in the minds of the public. This was in 1998 in San Diego, and the original victim’s name was Stephanie Crowe. But there were more victims, including Stephanie’s brother, two of his friends, and the three boys’ families. The trauma willfully and knowingly inflicted on them by the police and prosecutors was limited by the fact that so-called “confessions” by two of the three boys were videotaped. I haven’t watched the videos, but reading them is like watching violence in slow motion.
Some — O.K. basically everyone — would dispute my characterization of police behavior as “willful and knowing.” But I think the facts speak for themselves, and that it reduces human beings to unthinking objects to suppose them completely unaware of the most extreme pretenses and manipulations they engage in. Two of the boys have been awarded multi-million dollar settlements by the government for, I assume, something other than a well-intentioned accident.
For anyone who has managed to avoid the many accounts of how false confessions are created, and protected from reality a belief in the impossibility or unlikelihood of false confessions, this book is an excellent introduction. On the day that 14-year-old Michael Crowe’s beloved sister was brutally murdered, police began subjecting Michael to days of lengthy interrogation, denying him contact with his parents, falsely claiming that his sister’s blood was found in his room, suggesting to him that he might have a split personality and have murdered his sister without being aware of it, and threatening him with horrible punishment unless he admitted to what he had unknowingly done despite having no memory of having done it.
To understand why any reasonably intelligent 14-year-old might be won over by days of this interminable badgering, and good-cop/bad-copping, one must consider fear, exhaustion, and above-all an extreme and irrational faith in the absolute honesty of police. That last factor, the faith in police, is ubiquitous, and most people reading this hold it themselves, so we’re not supposed to call it irrational. But this “confession” and many others like it would not have been possible without that faith.
The irrational beliefs at the root of the tragedy recounted in She’s So Cold are not held by the three innocent boys, but by the police, prosecutors, corporate media, and public at large. They begin with the irrational belief that an unsolved crime is a failure. If a crime is committed and there is no persuasive evidence of anyone’s guilt, then how is the lack of a solution a failure? Who could possibly be blamed for it? If a reasonable, even fanatically extensive effort is put into gathering evidence, as happened here, and no guilty party is identified, where’s the blame? But in our culture, there is blame for such a thing, and it is directed at police and prosecutors. This madness contributed not only to the extensive efforts to make three kids “confess,” but to the defense of them presented by their lawyers. Central to their lawyers’ case was evidence that someone else, a man named Richard Tuite, actually committed the crime. Had the lawyers been unable to both point out the lack of evidence against their clients and also do the job of the police by demonstrating the likely guilt of someone else, their clients might have gone to prison.
Another irrational belief system that police may or may not fully believe in, but which they certainly act on, is that whoever they have targeted is lying. So, in reading these horrendous interrogation transcripts, we recognize that the kids, and even some of their parents, will believe the most absurd assertions from the police, because the police are believed to always tell the truth (even when they tell you, for example, that you are possessed by a demon who murdered your sister without you knowing it), but the police will not believe the most credible statements by those they have targeted for guilt, because such people always lie, and even tell gratuitous and superfluous and self-damaging lies. In this case, Michael told the police that he had gotten up in the night and gone to the kitchen for a drink, and not noticed his sister’s dead body in the doorway to her room. Great resources were devoted in this case to the question of exactly where her body had been and whether Michael would have seen it. But, had he been her murderer, he might have simply not volunteered that he got up in the night for a drink.
When the police began subjecting two of Michael’s young friends to the same treatment, they similarly isolated the kids from their parents, except when they were able to manipulate parents into helping them. By suggesting to a father that the best course was for his son to implicate the other two boys, they gained a powerful ally, thanks to the father’s irrational belief that baseless statements from police officers were gospel. The police tried to play each of the three families against the other two, falsely claiming to possess secret evidence, and that the other sides were squealing, and so forth, while in fact never possessing any evidence against any of their three victims. The police used pseudo-scientific tests to pretend to know that terrified children who were telling them the truth were lying. The children went on telling the truth while explicitly agreeing that they would lie if that’s what they had to do. And that was called a “confession.”
Are we to suppose that the capacity for self-doubt and correction has been eliminated from the police and their hired experts? They claim otherwise. They claim to have been objectively and without desired outcome pursuing the truth. They claim not to have been seeking admissions of a guilt they already believed in. Either they are lying about having taken that open-minded approach, or they were fully in control of their faculties when they manipulated frightened young people into “confessions.” They can’t have it both ways.
And what about the prosecutor who looked at the same police work that the defense attorneys and a judge found unacceptable, and chose to attempt to put three kids in prison? She, Summer Stephan, is now the District Attorney in San Diego. McInnis claims that she must have meant well, while simultaneously expressing a lack of understanding as to how she could have possibly meant well. I believe that in our observations of human behavior we are often far too reluctant to see extreme altruism and kindness and also far too reluctant to see cruelty and heartlessness and even sadism. If you cannot explain cruel behavior as well-intended, why assert that it must have been so?
At the end of his book, McInnis recommends a couple of steps that would certainly help prevent repetitions of this horror story. One is a Children’s Miranda Warning that is lengthier than that now used (or not used) for adults and children alike. It explains what the current Miranda Warning means, and adds to it the right to have your parents present. Another is a children’s bill of rights. It is specifically a bill of rights of the accused, and it limits the time of questioning a child to 4 hours in a 24-hour period, and establishes numerous other rights. I would add to this the fact that the United States is the one nation on earth that is not party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that a child has the right “not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt.” Why not join the world? Why not back the full range of rights, including some that might protect kids separated from their parents and locked in cages by fascist border patrols?
Beyond the creation of such rights and their defense, I think children (and adults) should be taught why they need them and how to employ them. The belief in inevitable and universal police honesty should go the way of beliefs in the inevitable honesty of war propaganda or campaign promises or religious scriptures. People should be taught to think, to be skeptical, to believe what’s proven, to trust where merited, and to be comfortable not knowing answers to questions that have not yet been answered.
A new film by Will Watson, called Soldiers Without Guns, ought to shock a great many people — not because it utilizes a yet more gruesome form of violence or bizarre form of sex (the usual shockers in movie reviews), but because it recounts and shows us a true story that contradicts the most basic assumptions of politics, foreign policy, and popular sociology.
Bougainville Island was a paradise for millennia, inhabited sustainably by people who never caused the rest of the world the slightest trouble. Western empires fought over it, of course. Its name is that of a French explorer who named it for himself in 1768. Germany claimed it in 1899. In World War I, Australia took it. In World War II, Japan took it. Bougainville returned to Australian domination after the war, but the Japanese left piles of weapons behind — possibly the worst of the many forms of pollution, destruction, and lingering effects a war can leave in its wake.
The people of Bougainville wanted independence, but were made part of Papua New Guinea instead. And in the 1960s the most horrible thing happened — worse for Bougainville than anything it had previously experienced. This event transformed Western colonial behavior. It was not a moment of enlightenment or generosity. It was the tragic discovery, right in the middle of the island, of the largest supply of copper in the world. It wasn’t harming anyone. It could have been left right where it was. Instead, like the Cherokees’ gold or the Iraqis’ oil, it rose up like a curse spreading horror and death.
An Australian mining company stole the land, drove the people off it, and began destroying it, creating in fact the biggest hole on the planet. The Bougainvilleans responded with what some might consider reasonable demands for compensation. The Australians refused, laughed in fact. Sometimes the most apocalyptically doomed perspectives ward off alternatives with contemptuous laughter.
Here, perhaps, was a moment for courageous and creative nonviolent resistance. But people tried violence instead — or (as the misleading saying goes) “resorted to violence.” The Papua New Guinean military responded to that by killing hundreds. The Bougainvilleans responded to that by creating a revolutionary army and waging war for independence. It was a righteous, anti-imperialist war. In the film we see images of fighters of just the sort still romanticized by some all over the world. It was a horrific failure.
The mine ceased operating in 1988. Workers fled back to Australia for their safety. Mine profits were reduced, not by compensation to the people of the land, but by 100%. That may not sound like such a failure. But consider what happened next. The Papua New Guinean military escalated the atrocities. Violence spiraled upward. Then the military created a naval blockade of the island and otherwise abandoned it. This left behind impoverished, disorganized, heavily armed people with belief in the power of violence. That was a recipe for anarchy, so much so that some invited the military back, and a bloody civil war raged for almost 10 years, killing men, women, and children. Rape was a common weapon. Poverty was extreme. Some 20,000 people, or one-sixth of the population, were killed. Some brave Bougainvilleans smuggled medicine and other supplies in from the Solomon Islands, through the blockade.
Fourteen times peace negotiations were attempted and failed. A foreign “intervention” didn’t look like a viable option, as foreigners were distrusted as exploiters of the land. Armed “peace keepers” would have simply added arms and bodies to the war, as armed “peace keepers” have often done around the world for several decades now. Something else was needed.
In 1995 women of Bougainville made plans for peace. But peace did not come easily. In 1997 Papua New Guinea made plans to escalate the war, including by hiring a mercenary army based in London called Sandline. Then someone in an unlikely position suffered a fit of sanity. The general in charge of the Papua New Guinea military decided that adding a mercenary army to the war would simply add to the body count (and introduce a group he had no respect for). He demanded that the mercenaries depart. This put the military at odds with the government, and the violence spread to Papua New Guinea, where the prime minister stepped down.
Then another unlikely person said something sensible, something one hears almost daily in U.S. news media without it ever being meant seriously. But this guy, the Australian Foreign Minister, apparently actually meant it. He said there was “no military solution.” Of course, that’s always true everywhere, but when someone says it and actually means it, then an alternative course of action has to follow. And it certainly did.
With the support of the new prime minister of Papua New Guinea, and with the support of the Australian government, the government of New Zealand took the lead in attempting to facilitate peace in Bougainville. Both sides of the civil war agreed to send delegates, men and women, to peace talks in New Zealand. The talks succeeded beautifully. But not every faction, and not every individual, would make peace back home without something more.
A peace keeping contingent of soldiers, men and women, actually properly named “peace keeping,” led by New Zealand and including Australians, traveled to Bougainville, and brought no guns with them. Had they brought guns, they would have fueled the violence. Instead, with Papua New Guinea offering amnesty to all fighters, the peace keepers brought musical instruments, games, respect, and humility. They did not take charge. They facilitated a peace process controlled by Bougainvilleans. They met people on foot and in their own language. They shared Maori culture. They learned Bougainvillean culture. They actually helped people. They literally built bridges. These were soldiers, the only ones I can think of throughout all human history, whom I’d actually like to “thank for their service.” And I include in that their leaders, who — remarkably to someone used to seeing people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo on TV — were legitimately not blood-thirsty sociopaths. Also remarkable in the story of Bougainville is the lack of involvement by the United States or the United Nations. How many other parts of the world might benefit from such lack of involvement?
When it came time for delegates from around Bougainville to sign a final peace settlement, success was uncertain. New Zealand had run out of funds and turned the peace keeping over to Australia, which made many skeptical. Armed fighters sought to prevent delegates from traveling to the peace talks. Unarmed peace keepers had to travel to those areas and persuade armed fighters to allow the talks to be held. Women had to persuade men to take a risk for peace. They did. And it succeeded. And it was lasting. There has been peace in Bougainville from 1998 until now. The fighting has not restarted. The mine has not reopened. The world didn’t really need copper. The struggle didn’t really need guns. Nobody needed to “win” the war.
Yes, they’re now known as the “greatest generation,” while the generation that followed them is sometimes referred to as the “silent” one. In my own limited experience, however, those World War II vets, the ones I knew anyway, were remarkably silent about their wartime lives. My dad was one of them. Yes, he got angry at me when I went in on a half share of a used Volkswagen Beetle with a college friend. (It was German!) Yes, he refused to go to the single Japanese restaurant then in our neighborhood in New York City. (He had been operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma, fighting the Japanese!) Yes, he got mad if my mother or I went into the little grocery store on our block and bought anything. (They had, he insisted, been profiteers during the war!) But the war itself, his personal war, wasn’t a matter of open pride or stories told to his son. It was largely missing in action. Though he certainly sat through World War II movies with me when I was a boy, he never commented on them. (Since he said nothing, I assumed that the Hollywood heroics were the real thing.) As for that duffle bag in his closet with old documents, his mess kit, his dog tags, and other war memorabilia, he almost never opened it. Like many in that war generation, I suspect, he considered his experience (and himself) anything but “the greatest.”
The recent D-Day celebrations — and today’s piece about them by TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, whose new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, will be a must-read when it’s published in January — brought all this back to me so many decades after my father’s death. But I must admit that another set of thoughts came to mind as well. After all, one of this country’s most prominent former generals, David Petraeus, has called the still-spreading war on terror a “generational struggle.” At this moment, when some of the first babies born after the 9/11 attacks may already be heading for Afghanistan and our other war zones as 17-year-old members of the all-volunteer armed forces, one thing is certain: decades from now we won’t be celebrating the (briefly) triumphant invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 or the entry of American forces into Baghdad in April 2003 with moving ceremonies attended by global leaders of (almost) every sort.
We’re a couple of generations into Washington’s latest wars and yet it’s hard to imagine what monikers those generations might someday be given. Obviously not “the greatest” — not when so many years of war have, unlike in World War II, produced not a single bona fide victory. Of course, it’s not up to me, but one that comes to my mind might be “the forgotten generation,” because most of the time the wars they’ve fought in are largely forgotten or ignored here, even as they continue. In some sense, they might as well not have happened, never-ending as they are, and yet, of course, they’ve helped unsettle the planet, created refugees by the millions (reinforcing the populist right in Europe and this country), and spread terror groups far and wide. Or perhaps the post-9/11 volunteers among them should be called “the missing generation” since, at least in this country, their wars, and so their experiences remain essentially missing in action even as they continue. While you read Bacevich’s latest post on D-Day and the misuse of history give a thought to those still unnamed generations of soldiers and wonder why their wars never end. Tom
The Art of Shaping Memory
Knowing Whom to Remember and How to Forget
By Andrew J. Bacevich
How best to describe the recently completed allied commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France? Two words come immediately to mind: heartfelt and poignant. The aged D-Day veterans gathering for what was probably the last time richly deserved every bit of praise bestowed on them. Yet one particular refrain that has become commonplace in this age of Donald Trump was absent from the proceedings. I’m referring to “fake news.” In a curious collaboration, Trump and the media, their normal relationship one of mutual loathing, combined forces to falsify the history of World War II. Allow me to explain.
In a stirring presentation, Donald Trump — amazingly — rose to the occasion and captured the spirit of the moment, one of gratitude, respect, even awe. Ever so briefly, the president sounded presidential. In place of his usual taunts and insults, he managed a fair imitation of Ronald Reagan’s legendary “Boys of Pointe Du Hoc” speech of 1984. “We are gathered here on Freedom’s Altar,” Trump began — not exactly his standard introductory gambit.
Then, in a rare display of generosity toward people who were neither Republicans nor members of his immediate family, Trump acknowledged the contributions of those who had fought alongside the G.I.s at Normandy, singling out Brits, Canadians, Poles, Norwegians, Australians, and members of the French resistance for favorable mention. He related moving stories of great heroism and paid tribute to the dwindling number of D-Day veterans present. And as previous presidents had done on similar occasions marking D-Day anniversaries, he placed the events of that day in a reassuringly familiar historical context:
“The blood that they spilled, the tears that they shed, the lives that they gave, the sacrifice that they made, did not just win a battle. It did not just win a war. Those who fought here won a future for our nation. They won the survival of our civilization. And they showed us the way to love, cherish, and defend our way of life for many centuries to come.”
Nor was that all. “Today, as we stand together upon this sacred Earth,” Trump concluded,
“We pledge that our nations will forever be strong and united. We will forever be together.
This book does include powerful portraits of people sentenced to life in prison. It also includes a straightforward case for abolishing life sentences and creating a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. Like the death sentence, the life sentence is a rare and dying form of barbarism in the world. Unlike the death sentence, it is not fading away in the United States, where over 200,000 people are “serving” life sentences or “virtual life sentences” of 50 years or more. In a survey of 114 countries, those sentenced to life in prison in the United States outnumbered those in the other 113 countries combined. They also outnumber what the entire U.S. prison population was in 1972. One partial cause of this is the uniquely U.S. treatment of past crimes as highly determining sentences for new crimes.
Of those sentenced to “life,” a quarter are ineligible for any parole, and three-quarters are unlikely to get any. As with the sentence of “death,” the “life” sentence varies by state. Over 40,000 of the 200,000 lifers are in California, where they make up over 31% of all prisoners, tying Utah for the top percentage, while in Oregon 737 lifers make up only 5% of prisoners. The U.S. is virtually alone in the world in sentencing juveniles to life in prison. The U.S. is also a leader in failing to provide prisoners with activities, training, education, therapy, etc., and for all such programming, lifers wait at the end of the line. Lifers are also given far fewer rights than those sentenced to death (the death penalty legally requiring greater scrutiny), meaning that a higher percentage of lifers are almost certainly innocent.
Evidence of innocence in the U.S. “justice” system is largely the result of prosecutions during the 1980s, primarily for rape but also for murder, before DNA testing had come into its own, but when evidence (including semen and blood) was sometimes preserved, and when avenues for appeal were in some ways wider before the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (thanks, Joe Biden!) While most prisoners do not have anything that can be tested for DNA to prove their guilt or innocence, non-DNA evidence of innocence is also succeeding in many cases. There have been 2,467 documented exonerations out of that tiny fraction of the overall prison population for which some sort of evidence was available and an appeal was permitted. One study found that 6% of prisoners with DNA evidence to test turned out to be innocent. If you could extrapolate that to the whole population you’d be talking about 136,000 innocent people in U.S. prisons. In the 1990s, a federal inquiry found that DNA testing, then new, was clearing 25% of primary suspects.
Those sentenced to life are unlikely to have the attention and assistance sometimes available to those sentenced to death, but also less likely to have the resources available to other prisoners sentenced to shorter hells. Those sentenced to life are less likely to have been able to afford a good lawyer or even the bail needed to get out of jail and hire a good lawyer pre-trial, and less likely to have someone lining up housing and employment for them to qualify for parole.
Since 1972, 161 death row prisoners have been exonerated, often in large part because they had been served by incompetent lawyers. With all the attention and special requirements surrounding death cases, you can easily imagine the general run of lawyers provided to non-wealthy defendants facing life. The racist imbalance through all stages of policing, indicting, convicting, and sentencing has resulted in two-thirds of lifers being people of color.
Democratic candidates for president say they oppose the death penalty. They aren’t asked about life in prison. Opponents of the death penalty may believe that one must have life in prison in order to accommodate the vicious sadists whom you are denying the right to impose the death penalty. An alternative view is that you must get rid of the vicious sadism in order to achieve a sensible and effective justice system. Taking away the threat of the death penalty will take away a lot of horrible plea bargains, including by the innocent. Taking away the life penalty will proportionately reduce all sentences. That taking such steps, and investing instead in reducing the causes of crimes, will in fact lead to fewer crimes is strongly suggested by the successful testing of such an approach by virtually every other wealthy nation on earth.
The Meaning of Life reviews sentencing policies in a number of nations, and how they have been created. The chief difference seems to be that they have been created by professionals and social scientists trying to maximize positive outcomes, rather than by politicians operating in a culture fueled by mass media aimed at demanding rage and vengeance.
“The determination of sentence length,” Mauer and Nellis write of U.S. policies, “is hardly an outgrowth of a rational scientific process. If it were, then policymakers would be consulting research findings on issues such as the relationship between time served in prison and recidivism, whether prisons are ‘criminogenic’ and make individuals more likely to offend or whether people are more likely to desist from crime after going to prison versus being sentenced to community supervision. However, this is rarely the case. Instead, political calls for addressing ‘the crime of the month,’ often triggered by a high-profile crime, not surprisingly produce bizarre outcomes. Widespread three-strikes policies relied on the rules of baseball instead of criminological research.”
There has never, ever been the slightest mystery about the widely known fact that a society could put more into protecting the quality of the lives of children and young people and end up with less crime than mass incarceration can achieve. Even slightly rational gun laws would do the trick. But it goes beyond that. Among lifers, 79% witnessed violence in their homes as children, and more than half witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods.
Life sentences are costly in every sense, and counterproductive. They skew the whole prison system toward inhumane sentences. And they make undoing mass incarceration impossible. The evidence that they deter anything criminal is exactly as strong as the evidence that tearing up agreements Iran is complying with and threatening to bomb Iran deters Iran from something criminal. This has been understood for centuries, at least since Cesare Beccaria. To actually get tough on crime, one would invest in housing, education, healthcare, clean energy, parks, and transportation.
The perverse idea that elderly lifers will get better healthcare in prison is countered by the horrendous healthcare they get in prison and the moral imperative, and economic benefit, of providing healthcare as a right to everyone.
The Meaning of Life proposes a 20-year cap on sentences, going forward and applied retroactively. Lifers are no more likely to repeat crimes than other prisoners. The elderly have largely “aged out” of criminal activities. Individuals deemed to actually be threats to public safety can be placed in civil confinement. With a maximum sentence of 20 years, lesser sentences would need to be reduced proportionally. Some specific steps along the way: eliminate life without parole, expedite parole eligibility, expand prison programming, depoliticize and professionalize the parole process, establish a presumption of parole, expand compassionate release, and create a culture that is not afraid to be kind or to recognize the complexity of good and bad in all of us.