Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Anatomy of a Revolt

Via angryasianman I saw this Newsweek article about former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's take on the current rising up of retired Army Generals who are criticizing Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the (seemingly interminable) Iraq War and in particular, his blatant disregard for Shinseki's advice that the US needed more troops on the ground, and what Shinseki has said in the aftermath.

The reporters Evan Thomas and John Barry posit his behavior as a tension between the military code of ethics and reporting civilian masters, but it doesn't seem as if Shinseki has totally been keeping quiet This op-ed from a Pomona professor who was at a Shinseki speech on foreign policy quotes some excerpts that sure sound like fairly scathing indictments:

Military occupation: "If your forces are in Baghdad, you own it. And that means you own the water, the electricity, the public buildings — and public order. If the task is to create a secure environment, troops on the ground are needed."
There's an excerpt from an interview with Daniel Ellsberg, who ultimately leaked the Pentagon Papers which led to the end of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg was a former Marine officer and Pentagon analyst whose factfinding mission in Vietnam in 1965 led him to see that the war was all lies, that enemy casualty rates had been inflated. He has some things to say about what Shinseki should do, especially bringing documents to light on why the US needs several hundred thousand troops in Iraq versus the 130,000 that Rumsfeld felt were sufficient.

More than that, he talks about why more people in the Bush administration need to leak necessary information, that sometimes altough it goes against one's conscience, it is one's higher duty to one's countrymen and the Constitution to be a whistleblower. Apart from being wise words that complicate your thinking, they are beautifully written and well-balanced. He bemoans the belatedness of exposes like Richard Clarke's book "Against all Enemies" which he feels could have prevented the Iraq War from happening had the book and documents come out before the war:

I had information in my safe in the Pentagon from the weeks I started in August of 1964. I had information that we were being lied into a war. Although I was not against the war at that point, I was very much against the way I saw it was going to be prosecuted by heavy bombing. From the very beginning, I was against the bombing of the north. Again, I didn't object as I might have, because the president was facing a candidate, Goldwater, who in all sincerity was calling on us to enlarge the war. So I thought it was important that Johnson beat him, and it wouldn't have occurred to me to undercut the president at that time by exposing him as a liar. That's the way I felt.

But I don't admire my actions in retrospect. My conscience and prudence about my career told me to keep my mouth shut. But I was wrong. What I am saying is that conscience is so much socially constructed that even your own conscience should be looked at skeptically in situations of life and death. If you find you've been wrong, change the decision you made there. Change direction.

In reading his words, I think about the compromises I've made in my life, and whom I've harmed and owe a responsibility to tell the truth to. I work for nonprofit social justice groups, and to be honest, I've seen some maltreatment of employees like you wouldn't believe by some of the biggest names in the nonprofit arena. But I won't name names publicly because I know that the rightwing would simply use my criticisms as fuel to tear apart the larger movement. It doesn't mean that I don't wish the internal dissidents who want to increase democracy and improve the movement well, just that I've made partial peace with the fact that not all our leaders are good people. I don't like it, I don't want to directly work under them, and I hope never to act like them. But part of me can live with their cruddy treatment of employees as long as they are ACTUALLY making improvements in people's daily lives. This isn't to say that I don't hope or long for better from our progressive leaders, just that I've become accustomed to it, that my standards are being driven down. Also not to say that their employees aren't people since they obviously are as well, just that sometimes there's a broader good that these leaders who are crappy managers achieve. That being said, I want to stay the fuck away from them - as friends, coworkers, and bosses. So why do I cry when I read Ellsberg? Because on so many counts, he's right:

As I get older, I realize that people act according to their conscience most of the time. And it isn't always the right way to act. One's conscience is very much shaped by society. Very often people put obedience at the height of their conscience and values. Obeying the president as a matter of conscience. Keeping a promise, even when that promise turns out to involve you in participating in great social evils and war. Promises to keep secrets -- which of course are made many times in the government, and which I ultimately broke.

I have done a lot of lecturing -- for thirty years -- but for a long time, I didn't speak about whistle-blowing specifically because it seemed as though I was blowing my own horn. I was being defensive about what I did, or in effect, saying, "Do what I did." Most people in my audience were not in a position to be a whistle-blower ready to go to jail. But then I realized it is one of the most important actions a person can be called on to make. I now like to complicate the lives of people who hear me speak by encouraging them that they should not regard promises or expectations of obedience or silence as absolutely obligatory. The meaning of whistle-blowing is to warn people. Policemen were equipped with whistles. If there was a wrongdoer in the neighborhood, the policeman would shout, "Help me get him! Stop this man! Don't let him get away! Watch out! You're in danger!"

The thing that keeps people in line is very much like what they used to say to us in the Marine Corps: "You volunteered. You stepped over the line. Now you have to stay. That is the price of signing up in the Marines." I did observe combat enough. I was with the State Department in Vietnam using my Marine training. I walked with troops under fire in combat. And you see great courage all around you. Routinely. And that's taken for granted. A very small percentage of people get medals for it. Civilians somehow seem to think it is almost not right for them to risk their careers. Or to risk their family's livelihood and security.

To a large extent that silence is dictated by conscience. It's wrongful silence. But people say, "I signed an agreement." People really feel they are doing the right thing when they keep their mouths shut even when they see these things going on. They think that it would be bad for their company, or the president, if they exposed any of that. They are not lying with a guilty conscience to protect these people. They are doing it because they feel it is the right thing to do. So conscience isn't a totally reliable guide either. Where do you turn then? For example, Bush said, "God told me to strike the Taliban. And I did. God told me to attack Iraq and I did." My opinion on that is, "That wasn't God. It was a wrong connection." When you hear the voice of God telling you to do something -- in Bush's case, an unprovoked attack on another country -- get a second opinion. Look skeptically. Paradoxical as it may seem, even your conscience is not the last word, especially when it tells you to be obedient to leadership that is leading you astray or to keep their secrets.

So General Shinseki, consider making whatever documents you own public. Keep speaking up and speaking out and make our community proud. Don't be the silent modelminority who endures disrespect and abuse for the sake of it, or abide by some hidden code of honor. It's one thing to not want to be seen as a partisan critic (so don't campaign for Kerry or the next Democratic nominee if you don't want to) but you have a broader and greater obligation - to the American people, and to your former troops, to the Constitution - to NOT hold your peace. Because it's braver and more courageous to speak out. It doesn't make you a martyr, and it doesn't make you a publicity hound or media whore.

It rounds you out and makes you whole, and I know that the unfortunate reality of what's happenening in Iraq is bearing out your judgement better than any "I told you so." And I'm sure that you are far too classy to ever say those exact words to Rumsfeld but now that our esteemed leader who lacks judgement is considering taking on Iran -- well there's only so far anyone can push before nuclear war starts happening. And no one wants to forget the victims of Hiroshima, but no one on the world stage is currently better at destroying fragile tranquility than our dear Bushie. So I wouldn't be surprised if one of his off the cuff remarks precipitated the next global/nuclear war.

So General Shinseki and others, I beg of you - open the floodgates of whatever documents you have. It doesn't have to trace back to you, the American people can't handle another war. Join your fellow retired Generals who are voicing their thoughts openly.

One of these days I hope to put my opinions down in some non-anonymous fashion, maybe in a letter to the editor or in my resignation. At least I have the small comfort of knowing that not doing so isn't killing anyone, just maintaining the cover for those who parade around highminded ideals in a macro fashion but actually don't practice them in their micro personal spheres. I provide cover for hypocrites. Jeez, I hope that's not my epitaph.


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