Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Remembering the Lessons of Iraq

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 26 October 2011.

As a veteran of the Iraq War, I am in a reflective mood since it was announced that all American troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by Christmas. Having spent three Christmases in the region, I can appreciate what that means. I think often of the friends I know that served or are still serving there, and especially those that didn’t come back.

I look back over the entire 68-year span of military service in my family reaching back to my grandfathers. I try to think about what they would think. In the nature of war, some things will always be the same. But some things have certainly changed. We have to recognize that winning in modern conflict is just as much about international development as it is about military victory. To succeed, both tools must be applied together.

If we had known then what we know now, and had been willing to apply it from the beginning, the U.S. and its allies could have been more successful in Iraq. Hindsight is always 20/20. There was no plan in place to deal with what followed the initial successful military campaign. Relations between a thankful ‘liberated’ populace and their ‘liberators’ broke down quickly. Washington envisioned throngs of grateful citizens as when my grandfather arrived in liberated Italy, but instead my generation of soldiers received quiet suspicion and then resistance akin to my father’s Vietnam.

It took us a while to learn the lesson that building a school or fixing sewage lines was just as valuable to us militarily as taking a would-be jihadist off the street. The people often rewarded us with actionable intelligence when they felt we were improving their conditions sooner than they would when we locked down their neighborhoods and homes searching for insurgents. As we came to understand this, our efforts began to feel more like diplomatic missions than combat patrols. As military advisors to an Iraqi army unit, we measured success in our sector by the number of shops opening up just as much as by the number of terrorists captured or killed.

It took us many years of hard fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to learn these lessons. Yet, now it seems that some in Congress are ready to forget them. Those who send our troops off to war never learn the lessons of the people who had boots on the ground. They should at least listen to those who know firsthand. If military and international development spending are put on the cutting board, we will be forgetting the lessons we have paid so dearly in lives and money to learn.

Our troops have been brave enough to volunteer to fight for America come what may. Our Congress needs to respect that by being brave enough to find solutions to our fiscal problems that don’t put our security or our troops at risk. I think our veterans of Iraq and throughout the past 70 years would agree with that.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Globalization Has Traded Away American Jobs

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 18 October 2011.

Twenty years ago, America entered into decisions involving international trade with good intentions. Stemming from the belief that “A rising tide raises all boats,” America and other nations opened their doors for trade with one another in hopes that the result would be economic prosperity for all. Some nations have goods and services they desperately want to sell while others have the capital for investment and the income to consume. Open, free trade pays dividends economically and politically while promoting peace and stability. Unfortunately, these benefits are being outweighed today by the costs to workers in America and abroad.

Millions of Southeast Asians and Africans leave their families behind for years in order to travel to places like the Middle East where, though they find more opportunity than at home, they are often exploited and treated as second-class citizens. They often find the income they make in their host countries does not cover the costs incurred for travel, sponsorship, and visas to get there. Rather than improving conditions in their home countries, the economies of these nations have become dependent upon the “remittances” workers send home. Rather than helping these states grow and become independent, it has caused them to become even more dependent on foreign money.

Like many of their European counterparts, American businesses have abandoned the idea of manufacturing anything but high-tech goods in the U.S. for the much cheaper, unregulated, and union-free labor of places like China and India. This has been the trend for much of the last two decades, but the lack of industrial jobs is most apparent with the nation’s unemployment rate currently almost twice the average unemployment rate over the past 60 years. The evaporation of industrial jobs has led to deteriorating cities, towns, and entire swaths of American countryside (think Detroit). The upside of outsourcing American jobs was supposed to be cheap consumer goods. However, the benefits do not outweigh the costs, and the lack of disposable income leaves even these cheaper goods still out of reach for the nation’s unemployed.

America’s problems do not just lie within the realm of unemployment. You do not need to be an economist to see that the tremendous growth of China and India’s economies are fueled, in large part, by the U.S. money invested there. While the financial sector may profit from the outsourcing of American money, the majority of workers do not. This, in conjunction with the billions of American dollars sent to the Middle East annually for oil, displays the undeniable fact that our wealth is being siphoned away, and our strength as a nation is systematically decreasing.

If we don’t do something to fix this problem, our wealth and jobs will continue to drain away from us. Twenty years ago, our heart was in the right place. Perhaps today our heads need to follow suit.

Friday, October 14, 2011

America Needs Evolution, Not Revolution

I recently turned 30. Americans of my generation need a high school diploma to get a part-time minimum-wage job without benefits. If you want better, you not only need a bachelor’s, but probably a master’s degree. Even with these qualifications most workers change jobs every few years due to market conditions. Employers are not hiring now. Necessary costs and prices have gone up or remain volatile, while wages generally have not. It is increasingly hard to save for retirement and what many Americans have insufficient savings. With credit tight and interest and market returns low, nothing is working in our favor. For many, kids, houses, and vacations are outside the budget.

Our parents entered a workforce in which one didn’t need even a high school diploma to obtain full-time employment that provided for basic needs. Many were able to find work straight out of school or college. Often, they stayed in the same job for 30 years. Costs, prices, employer programs, and market conditions were such that many could afford a house, a car, kids, and a retirement, sometimes with only one spouse working or one only working part-time. Sometimes there was even enough for vacations or a fishing boat.

Our parents’ generation, as young adults, led a movement to change American society into one that offered more opportunities to more people than offered their parents’ generation. Americans wanted class mobility; they wanted the chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They wanted more economic freedom. They also wanted a system with a “safety net” that also guaranteed a minimum level of subsistence. The result was civil, women’s, and labor rights legislation, as well as increased Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs. Not everyone wanted all or some of these programs, but the majority did.

Today, our parents’ generation is battling to preserve a system that no longer works and are unwilling to make any sacrifices to fix it. Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of their own children. Their main argument is they were promised things, held up their end of the bargain, and are ready to collect. People of our parents’ generation hold every major position of power inAmerica, whether in elected office or the private sector. All the problems coming to the surface now were foreseeable and began and have grown on their watch, yet they’re unwilling to change anything even now to solve them.

The world has changed. Applying 1980s ideas to 21st century problems is a recipe for failure. The 1990s arguments between liberals and conservatives should have ended by now. What we need today is American pragmatism. We don’t need a 1960s people’s movement or to “go back” to 1950s values. These old battles are long over. We don’t need 20th century “revolution;” we need 21st century evolution.America can’t be a country led by ideologies that look back over our shoulder. To continue to lead the world today, we need to keep looking ahead. Right now, we’re stuck in first gear and going nowhere.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Push-Button Killing Does Not Make Us More Violent

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 6 October 2011.

The modern media splashes us with live, up close reporting from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, violent political and social unrest in places like Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, and the aftermath of terror attacks such as 9/11, the Bali bombing, and the mass killing in Norway. We are all familiar with violent and controversial movies, TV shows, and music lyrics. Video games are another violent and arguably more controversial new medium. Though there is virtually no strong scientific evidence to support it, many continue to argue that “gamification” and exposure to violence increase violent tendencies and “desensitize” us to violence, and that this has led to an overall increase in violence in our society.

Many approach the issue of violence in society from a false perspective. Some claim that violence is always wrong and has no place in society whatsoever. Others believe that violence has a place against those they disagree with. For still others, violence is the main tool through which they deal with the world.

Violence is a natural force, regardless of what people think of it. It has been with us for all of our history and isn’t likely to leave us anytime soon. The idea that violence is something that can and should be treated like a disease is na├»ve and false.

Most people have likely had a conversation with someone who asserted “it didn’t used to be like this” and they’ve gone on to theorize about where we’ve gone wrong, with movies, TV, and video games being the likely culprit. The fact is that the world today is no more violent (but no less violent) than it ever was. The difference is that news of violent acts that used to takes months, weeks, or days to travel to us reaches us instantly, sometimes in graphic video form, on computers and phones. And there are a whole lot more news outlets than there used to be. This has the effect of making one believe the world has gone mad. The truth is these things were always going on. We just hear about them all now almost instantly. It is both a blessing and a curse.

There has been much discussion about America’s use and the “collateral damage” of unmanned drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen and how “push-button killing” is desensitizing us from the results of military action. Drone strikes sometimes kill several untargeted civilians to take down a single military target. The U.S. killed 150,000 in Hiroshima. The Allies killed nearly 100,000 in Dresden. Sending U.S. troops into Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 service-members. I personally can’t think of a more “sensitive” way to conduct warfare, no matter which side you’re on.

Video games and movies are not responsible for violence in our society. We are responsible for it. Violence is in our nature as human beings. Instead of decrying the existence of violence, we should focus more on the reasoned, proportionate, and realistic controlled use of it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

We Must Do What's Best for the Nation

This article originally appeared in The Southern Illinoisan on 4 October 2011.

Military service runs in my family, like many American families. My grandfather and great uncles served in World War II or Korea, my father and uncles in Vietnam, and my cousin and I in Iraq.In my family, we serve because we owe everything to the opportunities America has provided us. Today I see a lot of flag-waving, bumper stickers and T-shirts with patriotic slogans.However, some opinions many Americans express seem to run contrary to this sentiment. Everyone loves America, but only to a certain point. Most Americans express undying devotion to America, until it requires some sacrifice on their part.

Americans like the benefits of government, but don't want to contribute to them. They enjoy the protection of our national security apparatus, but don't want to fund it. They want good roads, bridges and parks, but don't want taxes to fund them. They are upset Wall Street created this recession and got bailed out, but don't want new regulations because it may hurt their own wallets. They know we have to fix our debt problem, but don't want even a small tax increase, if only for the wealthiest 10 percent. They want all these things, but don't want to pay for them. Paying for stuff is seemingly "un-American."

The money should come from somewhere, but not from them and don't tax those with more because they might be among them someday. Americans still claim to love America. They do this because every American believes they are America, their lifestyle is truly mainstream American, and their beliefs and way of life are the American dream or the path to realizing it. If only the government and the rest of us would get out of their way. Every American is a little storehouse of strength and economic vibrancy just waiting to explode if only they weren't being held back by the others or the government.

No one is America. We are all Americans. This country isn't an idea; it's a nation. That means we must all do what is best for the entire nation, not just some of us, not just for ourselves.The system, services and the things we all need and cannot provide ourselves alone have to be provided for through contributions from all of us. Sometimes the monetary contributions won't be equal. This sometimes means those with more money have to pay for those with less. I and my family, like most Americans, are among those with less money. Others have paid more into the system. However, for three generations, men in my family have served America at war. My grandmother was a bookkeeper. My mother is a nurse. My aunts are teachers or worked with troubled kids. Though there are others who have paid more money in, the rest of us have contributed as much in kind to building America to have a place here. If we all love America, we have to start acting like it by treating our fellows Americans as such. We are all America.