Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Shadow and the Tree

"Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing."
--Abraham Lincoln

There's a wonderful story line in The Wire, which concerns the newly elected Mayor of Baltimore, Tommy Carcetti, who has to choose between getting five million dollars for the crumbling Baltimore schools, which would come at the price of personal humiliation, because he would be taking it from a Republican governor, who would free the funds but only on the condition the state would control their use, saying the Democratic city government could not be trusted to use it wisely. Carcetti spurns the money, to the disgust of his most valued aide, Norman Wilson. Later, Wilson drinks in a darkened bar with the former chief aide to the mayor Carcetti and Wilson had defeated. Wilson finds a sympathetic audience in his former rival and counterpart. "No matter how good they look at first," the aide tells Wilson, "They never stay that way." Wilson agrees, "They will always disappoint you."

Life is imitating art with the presidency of Barack Obama, as he has to make choices which disappoint his followers.

You can hear Lyndon Johnson on the phone if you listen to the Johnson tape explaining to his good friend, Georgia senator Richard Russell, why he is pushing so hard on the Civil Rights Act and on Medicare, so early in his term.

You're going to burn out, Russell tells him. Let things build naturally.

No, Johnson tells him, he's seen this in presidents before, when you are new to the job, you haven't made all that many enemies, but with each decision, you lose more and more friends. You have to get the most important things done first, because each thing becomes harder and harder, as you pile more boulders on your back with each new decision.

Bill Clinton should have listened to Johnson--he started with gays in the military. A just cause, no doubt, but not the most important thing he had to accomplish.

Obama began with heath care, which showed great judgment. He might be a young president, but he got the most important decision right: Start with the most important thing. Health care costs are dragging down American industry. Other countries take that burden off the backs of their private sector companies. General Motors runs its race with Toyota carrying a hundred pound back pack of health care costs for its workers.

Eventually, you have to get to the other things on the list and Afghanistan and Iraq are not even in second place. In terms of getting re elected, it's the economy, stupid. And in terms of remaining a military power, it's the economy.

But eventually, you have to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq. It's not urgent, true, but it's important. It's not urgent because politicians learned the Viet Nam lesson: You can rape another country, and you can send your own youth off to die, but you cannot do it with a draft. As soon as you involve the uninterested, parochial, ignorant folks who live in all the villages across the land, once you start reaching into the homes of mothers whose only real interest in life are their own children and homes, well then you unleash the furies.

The best way to wake insular American citizens to the harm their country is doing in some far off place is to pluck American children from American homes, from their automobiles, their first jobs, their girlfriends (and now boyfriends) and to send them off and return them in flag draped coffins. Then, those mothers who could not name the speaker of the house, or the senate majority leader, or the secretary of defense, then these blissfully ignorant people become a force and a movement.

So, the government has done the shrewd thing: They've made patriotism a financial proposition--fight for your country, join the military and you've got a steady income, the GI bill for education and housing once you're out, and all you've got to do is take a risk, a big risk, the risk of death in the field, but the body counts have been low. Ten years in Afghanistan and we've lost only a tenth of what we lost in five years in Viet Nam.

According the Marvin Kalb, in today's New York Times, Obama "would occasionally slip into an aide's office, lean on his desk and wonder aloud whether he was making the same mistakes Johnson had made."

As well he should.

A recent National Public Radio piece on girls in Afghanistan prisons brings home the problem. A thirteen year old girl's brother runs off with a neighbor's daughter. The neighbor is outraged, fires shots into the girl's house, stalks the family of this boy who ran off with his daughter. The girl's father offers the girl in marriage to this irate neighbor. The neighbor is placated. He may have lost his own daughter, but now he can acquire a sprightly young wife. But the girl runs away with her boyfriend, not wanting to marry a man who has grandchildren, a man who has terrorized her family, not exactly a potential soul mate. The girl is captured, and sent to prison. Her father shows up and tells her she has disgraced her family by refusing this husband who was selected for her. But she has a surprise for him. She has given birth, in prison, to her boyfriend's baby. He replies, she can still come home, but only if she kills the baby.

There's honor for you, Afghan style.

This is but one of many stories which illuminate why the United States of America has no business in Afghanistan. Maybe we did once, to seek out Osama, but that was a mission we could have done without building schools and libraries for the Taliban to blow up. And once Osama was dead, then we should pull out that strike force and come home and do it within weeks not years.

So why does Obama not do that? Why is he keeping our troops in country at a rate of 70,000 still in Afghanistan even after the 30,000 scheduled for withdrawal in December?

It can only be the Tommy Carcetti calculation. He does not want to be humiliated. Lyndon Johnson said he would not be defeated by a "Raggedy-ass, little fourth rate country." What he did not realize is you cannot bomb a country back to the stone age when they are already living in the stone age.

You have as a mission remaking a country in our own image, whipping a little American industry on them, as George Carlin would say. Problem is, you can build schools and other buildings, but you cannot change culture; you cannot change values for all the money and bombs in the world.

Obama and our generals now talk of "The Mission" in Afghanistan. Well, sure go ahead and tell us what that mission is. Do you re-educate that father about what he ought to do with his daughter? And are the lessons given in English?

Kalb tells us of Viet Nam "The defeat was a humiliation, and it stripped the country of its illusions of omnipotence. From boundless self-confidence, Americans descended into self-doubt."

I know history is one long argument, but I lived through those years, and so it's not history book history to me. I remember all that. I did not feel at all humiliated. I did not see America slink off in a funk and not go to work or not create an Internet or computers or a satellite system or GPS. I went on with my medical training, with great relief. Like all doctors in 1973, when I graduated I knew it didn't matter what my lottery number was. They drafted every single intern the day his internship finished and sent him off to Viet Nam. I was, with all my friends, on the launching pad.

But then the whole thing collapsed. The nation building was wrecked by the invading North Viet Namese army and helicopters lifted the last Americans off the Saigon embassy roof and I jumped for joy. I would not have to go to Viet Nam. My self confidence took not a blow. I never felt omnipotent.

Who are these people who lost self confidence? My brother served in Viet Nam. He never struck me as someone who felt omnipotent. When he returned, and Viet Nam collapsed, he did not skulk around. He was delighted. He was delighted to be home, alive, all limbs intact. He went out and led a very productive life.

In The Way We Were Robert Redford talks about how the passions of the moment wash away, once economies start asserting themselves. "Twenty years from now, we'll be giving them jobs and money and they'll take it because they will need or want the money, and nobody will even remember the way we were."

Our military may have felt humiliated, but I was, at best, just a fan. I was not in that fight. I had no dog in that fight. Like Muhammad Ali, I could say, "I ain't got no fight with them Cong."

Whenever you see words like "Humiliation," or "Honor" or "Self confidence," or "Reputation," your antenae ought to start flashing like a neon light: Bogus.

Nobody ever died of humiliation or lost honor.

Listen to those Lyndon Johnson tapes sometime. Johnson on the phone with Richard Russell, who sounds like a true Georgia cracker, accent so thick and slow he sounds brain damaged to the average New Englander. And Johnson asks his old, best friend, what he ought to do about Viet Nam. He doesn't want to be the first president to lose a war. And Russell, drawls, "Well, you know, Mr. President, them Cong is going to be there forever. They ain't got nowhere else."
"I know, " Johnson says.
"And we got to come out of there, eventually. We don't want to stay there."
"I know."
"Well, thing is, Mr. President," Russell drawls. "They know that too."


  1. So maybe those Southern crackers know something after all. Don't mistake slow talk for slow thinking - that's how they get you in the end!

  2. Having been born below the Mason Dixon line, I know of what you speak.

    My brother, who has lived in North Carolina for three decades tells about how he arrived at Duke and was struck how different, how pleasant discussions around the conference tables were. He can now slip into that slow Southern drawl at will and say, "Well, now, I am just so delighted to hear your views about this subject," and then they slip in the knife.

    So, yes, I take your point. They lull you and just when you let your guard down, they flash a left hook right to the jaw.