Friday, July 30, 2004
I continue to think much of the so-called left misunderstands the current regime.
Saturday, July 24, 2004
Dialogue: Kill the Empire! (Or Not) -- Paul Kennedy and John Lewis Gaddis discuss foreign policy and grand strategy
Here is a relatively clear summery of a neo-liberal defense of US empire.
Is this the answer?
Can we think of a good way to analyze what this fellow represents? how the conditions for his success emerge? and how he might be counterpoised?
Friday, July 23, 2004
Thursday, July 22, 2004
Guardian Unlimited | Guardian daily comment | Blairism is just Thatcherism softened for a soppier age
This is a useful piece of journalism and opens the question of how we might treat Straussism internationally. Stuart Hall said to me in Jamaica that he believes the age of Hayekian neo-liberalism is over; we more or less agreed this. The question concerned what else there is. Stuart felt the forceful presence of Thatcher, especially so during the ghastly Reagan funeral. This piece makes a nice link: why would the Tory, Blair, enjoy the neo-cons more than he might a progressive Democrat like Clinton or Kerry?
Lindsay and Ted Huters have been drawing b2's attention to this news for the last week.
China, U.S. Each Hold Major War Exercises
Some analysts say the timing of the maneuvers is linked to rising tensions over Taiwan.
By John M. Glionna
Times Staff Writer
July 20 2004
BEIJING — China and the United States are conducting separate military exercises this week in displays of might amid tensions between the mainland and Taiwan over the island's sovereignty, military analysts say.
The complete article can be viewed at:
Visit Latimes.com at http://www.latimes.com
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Monday, July 19, 2004
Five days in the life of an invisible war
The rebels attack because the marines are there. The marines are there because the rebels attack. In an extraordinary dispatch, foreign correspondent of the year James Meek describes life in a Catch-22 world where a human life is valued at $500, the mercury rarely falls below 40 and the daily carnage goes largely unreported
Read part two of the article here
Monday July 19, 2004
One morning earlier this month a fan turned too slowly to stir the air much in a dark little room in al-Karmah, a town west of Baghdad between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. In one corner of the room, a US marine corporal sat counting out new dollar bills, balancing them on the toe of his desert boot as he prepared each slender wad.
An armed American lawyer sat at a desk in a straight-backed chair, facing a succession of Iraqi claimants who took their place opposite on a two-seater sofa. The sofa put the claimants, dressed in long white Arab tunics - dishdashes - at a lower level than the lawyer, and they stretched to gain height, eyes flicking between the lawyer's face and hands. The lawyer wore a pistol strapped to his thigh, a flak jacket and glasses. He was sweating heavily. The claimants spoke little, and the lawyer's speeches were brief. What was said was translated by a marine interpreter. The interpreter was armed, too, with an M16 automatic rifle. Everyone in the room was scared.
"Coalition forces regret the loss of your brother," said the lawyer. His name was Captain Jonathan Vaughn. "We understand it is a great loss to your family. We wish to offer something to you by way of sympathy and sorrow to help your family to rebuild after the loss of your brother. My commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Buhel, has authorised me to pay you $500 as sympathy for your loss. We understand that it is not enough money and nothing can replace the loss to your family. We wish that this small gift will help in some way. Much of the money that we had previously, the coalition forces have transferred to your government to help rebuild. We wish the best for you and your family and your country as you do rebuild. Thank you very much."
Vaughn stood up and the claimant stood up. The corporal handed Vaughn the dollars and Vaughn gave them to the claimant, who took them. They shook hands and the claimant left. The transaction took less than a minute.
The marines don't like to call it blood money, but it is money paid for human blood spilled. A lot of blood, Iraqi and American, has been spilled in Karmah and Fallujah, in the heart of rebel country. The marines in this area have paid out roughly $3.5m in compensation for damage, death and injury since April. The money is paid at the local marine commanders' discretion, and since it comes from the same funds that buy fresh food or air conditioners for the commanders' troops, and since it is possible that at least some of the Iraqi casualties were part of the armed resistance to the American presence, the incentive to pay out is not great. There is a limit of $2,500 per death but now the marines are paying much less.
Vaughn is the lawyer for the 3rd battalion of the 1st marine regiment, "3/1". The fact that 3/1 only replaced the previous regional garrison, 1/5, a few weeks ago, may seem a trivial detail. To Vaughn and his comrades, it isn't. The marines now patrolling this hostile area are fresh out of California and have not been responsible for the deaths of any Iraqis yet. But naturally, in local Iraqi eyes, nothing has changed. In Iraqi eyes, they are still the same occupiers whose clashes with the resistance in Fallujah and Karmah in April and May saw many civilians die, alongside marines and mujahideen. It cuts no ice with the families of the dead and wounded that Vaughn is compensating them for the acts of his predecessors. And in Karmah, little reported in the world beyond, the war goes on.
Vaughn was dealing with a queue of 15 claimants. He comes from Cleveland, Ohio, and it was his 29th birthday.
Vaughn: (to claimant): Hassan?
Hassan: Salam aleikum.
Vaughn: It's a beautiful son you have. I'm glad he could make it today. How is your other son doing? (Hassan shows Vaughn a scar on the little boy's head.) Oh, this is the son who was injured? He's a very strong son. A very strong boy. We are sorry that your son was injured in these conflicts. It is the children of this war that suffer the most. I wish there was much more that our country could do for you.
Hassan: It is in God's hands.
Vaughn: My commanding officer has authorised me to pay you $250 for your son's injuries that he suffered. However, I'm going to offer an additional $100 for his future surgery to make sure he grows up healthy and strong.
Hassan: My house was badly damaged.
Vaughn: I understand that there was much damage through all this conflict. However, right now all I'm authorised to pay is to try to help your son recover from his injuries. We regret that we cannot do more for you. I offer this $350 to try to help your son. He is a strong boy and we look forward to him growing up in a free Iraq. Is that the last one? OK.
At home with India company
In the past 24 hours, Vaughn's battalion has taken its first serious combat casualties. The previous afternoon, two marines based in the town of Shababi, just south of Karmah, were injured by roadside bombs. The US military calls them Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs. The IED was detonated by a remote watcher, or "triggerman", as the last vehicle in the marine convoy went past. Both of the wounded had their eyes peppered with shrapnel. Because no US serviceman was killed, the Pentagon didn't put out a press release.
The men, who would ultimately be taken back to the US via the clearing house hospital at Landstuhl in Germany, were first taken to battalion headquarters, at a place called Camp Abu Ghraib - close to the prison, but not part of it. As I came out of the mess hall at the camp that evening, I passed a marine holding two M16s by their barrels. When I walked past I heard the marine say to a superior: "Bloody weapons." I thought it an odd, English sort of complaint for an American until I realised that he meant weapons with blood on them - they were the injured men's rifles. Overnight, not far from the camp, four marines from another unit were killed when an IED exploded underneath their armoured car. The armoured car, a powerful steel box on massive wheels, flipped over like a kicked Dinky.
Next morning, in the back of a Humvee in a convoy en route to Karmah, I tried to make conversation. The marines weren't talkative. The marine opposite me said he was the battalion chaplain's assistant. The chaplain wasn't allowed to carry weapons, he explained, but his assistant was. On my left was a young marine called Chris Reed, from Idaho. Was it his first time on a convoy?
"No, I've been on lots."
Been shot at?
"No, not yet."
"No, not much." He was tapping his fingers, though, on the receiver of his M16. Later, when I came to write this article, I was reading through the most recent Pentagon casualty press releases and saw that, four days after I spoke with him, Reed was killed in a non-combat road accident, along with three others. I think I shook his hand before we parted, but I don't remember for sure.
We drove on to Karmah. The unit of marines based there, a 200-strong group known as India Company, occupies the town's tallest building, which also happens to be its main school. They know this gives the townspeople another reason to dislike them, and they say they will move out before the school year starts in September, although it is not clear where they will go. For now the school has the character of a fortress under siege. Sandbags and their 21st-century equivalent, Hesco barriers - wheelie-bin-sized open sacks filled with sand - gird it. There are sandbagged observation points, and a mortar, on the roof, and a maze of concrete and razor wire at the entrances to the compound. A rocket, fired just after 3/1 moved in, left its imprint in the concrete. The showers, washbasins and toilets are on the far side of the schoolyard from the living quarters in the school classrooms. There is a strict rule that anyone crossing the yard, even to clean their teeth, dons helmet and flak jacket.
There is a common assumption that the US military, once settled for more than a few months anywhere, will feather its nest with creature comforts. This has not happened in Karmah. The marines live on bottled water and field rations and, at a time of year when shade temperatures reach into the high 40s and above, few of the rooms have air conditioning or fans. It might be some small comfort to the Iraqis, perpetually bothered by power cuts, to know that the marines at Karmah don't have enough power from their own generators to run anything beyond their essential battle operations, and rely for comfort, like the locals, on the Iraqi grid. The marines do punishing three-day spells of patrols, punctuated by a few hours sleep, then get trucked back to battalion headquarters for two days' rest. There is no drink, no drugs, and no fraternising with the people of Karmah. The marines have even been banned from decorating their helmets. Off duty they sleep, smoke, bitch, fantasise, read, dip (chew tobacco) and watch violent films on the big DVD in the common room: tired, middle-aged actors loosing off magazine after magazine of blanks at each other. In real life these days, the marines, tooled up as they are, don't do much shooting in Karmah. Their opponents are too well hidden.
Lieutenant Michael Deland, the stocky company executive officer with a pencil moustache, talked me through the recent attacks. A rocket hit the school on June 26. Next day another rocket flew over the building and landed in a house, injuring some Iraqis. On June 28, marines noticed a new roadside advertisement. Wedged into the hoarding they found a mine. On June 29, a car bomb exploded about 600 metres away. No one was seriously injured. On June 30, the marines found a suspicious car, cordoned it off, and sent for their bomb disposal team. As the team's robot approached the car, it exploded with the force, Deland reckoned, of three artillery shells, destroying the robot.
Captain John Green, a marine Harrier pilot whose job it would be to call in air strikes if the Karmah garrison got into serious trouble, took me up to the roof. The land around Karmah is a lush, flat pattern of date palm groves, fields, irrigation channels and dykes, working in the rebels' favour. They can watch convoys from afar, while the terrain makes pursuit difficult for the marines after IEDs are detonated. From the roof you can see a mosque and another school, where the marines found "a bunch of anti-American graffiti. It supposedly said, 'We beat the Americans in Fallujah and we'll beat them again.' So we painted over it. 'Kill the Americans,' it said. We painted over it."
Green said it was hard to be sure what the locals thought about them. Women would come out of their houses to wave, but there were contrary signs. "It seems to change every day, whether they like you or don't like you. They'll point to the soles of their feet. Make the evil eye sign. You'll raid their house, and they'll say: 'Why don't you stay for tea?'"
The fierce fighting of spring, in which hundreds of Iraqis - including women, children and the elderly - and dozens of American troops were killed, saw Fallujah become a no-go zone for US forces. The city was, in theory, to be policed by an Iraqi force, but the marines question whether the Iraqi force supports them. The decision to pull out of Fallujah was a political one, in the face of Iraqi and international revulsion at civilian casualties, which the marines feel has left them vulnerable. Some of the long-range rockets being fired at them, one marine officer said, come from southern Fallujah.
Karmah also saw ferocious battles, however, and the marines are in the middle of it. In one 14-hour firefight in April, the marine unit serving here at the time said they had killed 100 rebels. Journalists who visited Karmah at the time speak of seeing RPG rounds being unloaded openly by resistance fighters from trucks in the street. No one has done a count of the number of civilians killed and injured amid the mayhem but the number must have been high.
If Washington has decided US troops do not need to be in Fallujah, why do they need to be in Karmah, or Shababi, presenting targets for the rebels? It is a question with no obvious answer. Officially, India company is in Karmah to act as a surrogate police force until the Iraqi police and army, which they are helping train, are ready to take over. Yet at close quarters it sometimes seems to the outside observer that the marines' sole purpose is to protect themselves from, and pursue, a group of clandestine bombers whose sole reason for being is to try to kill the marines.
The road which curves north from Karmah in an s-shape, called IED Alley by the marines, is a case in point. India company devotes much of its scant resources, and exposes itself to great risk, keeping this road clear of IEDs. Yet the reason the road is infested with IEDs appears to be that the marines of India company spend so much time patrolling it, looking for IEDs.
Another day, another bomb
In the late afternoon of the day I arrived in Karmah, India company's 1st platoon rolled out of the schoolyard and headed through town towards open country and the s-curve. The platoon was heavy with firepower but was unlikely to get the chance to use it. Its most important weapons were protective. Besides flak jackets and kevlar helmets, the marines have been issued with blast goggles and black, tinted wrap-around glasses, which the troops hate but which might save their eyesight in the event of a bomb. Since last year, the half-dozen Humvees they were riding in had all been armoured, either with panels of the same composite materials used in flak jackets or with sheets of centimetre-thick steel. They offer protection, but only up to about the shoulder level. The marines riding shotgun in the back have their necks and faces exposed. In the front, the driver and passenger are vulnerable, too. The latest US army Humvees have blastproof windows and air conditioning to stop the occupants being boiled but the marine Humvees have heavy steel doors with holes cut in them for side windows.
Short of the s-curve the convoy halted and civilian traffic - which is heavy on this road - was stopped while an engineering corporal, Brandon Webb, went ahead, sweeping the flat dusty verge with a metal detector. Within a few minutes, he had found an IED: two 155mm artillery shells, buried a few yards apart and wired together in a "daisy chain" configuration so they could be detonated simultaneously. The platoon had arrived before the rebels had been able to wire the shells up to a remote trigger. Webb uncovered the shells with his foot then swept away the sand with his hands so that the bomb disposal team's robot could see them and marked their position with a water bottle and a Pepsi can.
"You're crazy, man," said Lieutenant Tim Strabbing, commander of the platoon. "I hope you have nine lives."
Strabbing, who spent two years studying Russian and Eastern European culture at Hertford College, Oxford, pulled his vehicles back from the IED while we waited for the disposal team. "We swept this road last night at 1800," he said. "We sweep it pretty much every day." The rebels are persistent with their bombs.
I asked about the marines' purpose here, and Strabbing acknowledged the dilemma. "Because we are here they shoot at US troops, and because they do that, we stay here, so I guess this negative cycle feeds on itself. The key is to decide when the Iraqi police can make enough order to stand on their own and we can stand back."
What would happen if the marines simply pulled back now, closer to Baghdad?
"All I know is Karmah, and I wouldn't feel comfortable now leaving Karmah to its own devices," said Strabbing. "I think right now our police forces in Karmah are not ready to step in and take that role. The Iraqi National Guard is a little bit better. The marines will patrol with the Iraqi National Guard. But on the other hand the police forces don't seem like they want to cooperate at all."
The tarmac had softened in the heat so that boots sank into it. When the parked Humvees moved, the Tarmac came away in strings, like toffee in a Mars bar. While we waited for bomb disposal, one of the NCOs, Sergeant Kevin Denton, led a squad off to investigate a suspicious-looking Mercedes parked outside a house across some fields. The owners of the house, and, it turned out, the Mercedes, were friendly in a nervous, over-eager kind of way. The car was clean. We sat on their verandah and the owners brought us glasses of chilled orange squash. The marines relaxed sufficiently to overcome their mistrust of the local water and drank the squash. They even took off their helmets. I asked Webb, who is 21, what he had felt when he had found the IED.
"Nothing bad really, at first, until I see it and then, it's like: O, God, please don't let it blow up," he said. Webb is married. His wife is in California. He told me then that he hadn't wanted to come to Iraq again. It was his second tour.
Webb joined the marines on September 25 2001. On the day before he joined, it was discovered he was partially colour blind. He had signed on to be an electrician. The marines made him switch to combat engineering. I asked if being colour blind wasn't a bit of a problem when dealing with bombs. "We're not here to clip wires," he said. The bomb disposal crew arrived, an hour and a quarter after they got the call. By this time civilian traffic was backed up for miles in both directions. "We come up and deal with one IED and an hour later we come back and they've put another one in there," said the head of the crew, Staff Sergeant Michael Clark.
"It's the terrain. The fucking canals. They can sit in the distance and see us. They've got powerlines to gauge distance and they can get away before we can reach them across the canals." A tracked robot whined out to the bend in the road where the IED was placed. Guided by a specialist with a joystick, the robot laid explosive charges on the artillery shells and came scurrying back. After a few seconds the charges were ignited with a white flash and the shells exploded, sending dust and shrapnel flying across the road and high into the air. We were some 200 metres away and still a cricket-ball sized lump of shrapnel fell from the sky on the other side of the road.
The traffic began to move again. The Iraqi drivers showed no curiosity; they had seen this so many times before. Some looked angry, others resigned. The marines have a standing order to wave and smile as much as possible but they get few waves in return, except from the small, yelling, grinning children by the roadside - and the marines don't know what they're yelling.
In my Humvee a young machine-gunner from south Texas, Lance Corporal Gregory Farias, and a sergeant not much older, Jeremy Dunagan, started talking about vacations and food. "We should just get a cow, man, and have a fuckin' barbecue," said Farias. "I could even eat a goat ... You know, my girlfriend, she can just take an onion and bite it like an apple."
"This would be a perfect spot for them to ambush us, man," said Dunagan. "RPGs. And talking about onions, there's one right there on the ground."
A minivan was parked 100 metres away among a group of houses. A man stood with children around him.
"If he slips an RPG out of the door, you'd better light him up," said Dunagan. "Light up" is marine slang for "shoot".
"I'm on it," said Farias, taking the safety catch off his machine gun.
"If they don't wave at you I think that's a sign they don't want us here," said Dunagan.
"Once, you remember, we were doing a convoy and there was some kid throwing rocks?" said Farias.
"My back is killing me, man."
"If my girlfriend's still with me when I get back I'm going to take her on a cruise to the Virgin Islands."
There was a terrifying yell from Sergeant Piano in the passenger seat. "Holy shit, it's a fuckin' sauna in here!"
"You fuckin' scared me, man," said Farias.
We passed a kid who made the thumbs down sign at us. Farias gave the thumbs up and a boy on the back of a passing pickup shouted proudly, in English: "No!"
"Oh my God, I'm gonna go insane!" yelled Piano. Yet it was getting cooler. A mist was forming over the reedbeds and there was a smell of fresh hay from where Iraqi farmers had been baling grass. We stopped one last time, to set up a checkpoint, before returning to Karmah. The sun had just gone down and the light shone horizontally across the land and it struck me, seeing Denton walking down the road without his goggles, what a good-looking man he was. The following day, his head was ripped open by shrapnel.
· Read part two of the article here
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
Five days in the life of an invisible war (part two)
Monday July 19, 2004
A bad day - and some good luck
That day, Wednesday July 7, started badly for India Company, and got worse as the morning went on. At seven, two artillery rockets fell about 500 metres from the school, and a unit of marines on standby went off in a futile attempt to find the firers. During their search, their convoy was hit by an IED. No one was injured. At about the same time, Lt Strabbing's platoon went out again to the s-curve to resweep for fresh IEDs planted overnight, and to fill in the holes from the previous day's explosions. Fortunately for myself and my two American colleagues, we had decided not to go with them. As the second Humvee in the platoon's convoy was approaching the old craters, a watching resistance triggerman detonated a freshly planted explosive device. The IED had been covered by an old car engine block and when the device exploded car parts flew in the air, making it look as if the Humvee had been obliterated.
"I'm surprised, to be honest with you, they survived," Farias told me later. He had been in the vehicle behind and had seen the explosion engulf his comrades. "If you saw it from my point of view it was a direct hit. It exactly broadsided that vehicle. We couldn't see the vehicle, we couldn't see past the smoke. All I saw was engine parts falling and at that point I thought that vehicle had just been demolished. Pieces. You know. I was thinking, 'Oh my God that vehicle is totally destroyed', and my first thought was they're all dead. They're all dead. But thank God, thank God, you know ..."
The driver of the stricken Humvee, a diminutive 18-year-old private called David Negron, who was barely out of puberty when George Bush became president, was only slightly hurt and kept his wits enough to drive the vehicle on beyond the blast zone. In the seat next to him, Sgt Denton - who had just rejoined the marines after several years out of uniform - was calling out for a medic. His head had been lacerated by shrapnel which had flown in through the open window-gap in the Humvee's armoured door and into the unprotected space between the top of his body armour and the rim of his helmet. Four others had been injured in similar ways. One private, Joshua Stedman, almost lost an eye, although doctors now appear to have saved his sight. One marine said he had gone up to the Humvee just after the explosion and seen Stedman laughing. He had a piece of metal sticking out of his jaw.
Corporal Webb, the engineer who had found the IED on this same stretch of road the previous day, was hit by a single fragment of metal in the back of the head, on the hairline. Making a hole 1.5 cm wide through skin and muscle, it bounced off his skull, driving pieces of bone 2.5 cm into his brain. The fragment lodged in Webb's neck four cm down from the bounce point where, doctors reckon, it might as well stay, as long as it doesn't bother him.
In search of an enemy
When the platoon returned to the Karmah schoolhouse after their casualties, they were pouring with sweat and dark with rage. They had interrogated Iraqis at a car workshop close to the blast site and many were convinced they had been in some way responsible, but they had no evidence. No one was arrested; the marines hadn't fired a shot. Captain Clark, the company commander, had the difficult task of assuring them righteous vengeance would be theirs, while reminding them that they couldn't just go around shooting people.
"Today, this wasn't necessarily a victory, but it could have been worse," he told the platoon. "You're going to want these guys so badly you can taste it, like acid in your mouth, but you've got to have proof of hostile intent. You've got to catch them red-handed. If that's the case, hopefully, they're dead. You've got to turn your frustration to focus. Don't make it doubt your motives and wonder why you're here. Our job's to find and kill these shitasses and look after each other while we're doing it."
Two hours later, the platoon was out on patrol again, this time on foot. The idea was to prevent them brooding on their losses, but it was a risky sort of distraction. We walked out of the schoolyard at 11.30am. The hours between 11 and four are the hottest of the day, and July is the hottest month in Iraq, which is one of the hottest countries in the world. I don't know what the shade temperature was - somewhere in the mid to high 40s - but we weren't in the shade. The heat and the light enveloped the platoon, bleaching the senses, tunneling vision. The tops of helmets became too hot to touch. Temples began to throb as if with a hangover. The heat and the fear silenced everyone after a minute and as the platoon walked forward, strung out on either side of a dirt track, the loudest sound was the rustling of the bordering green reeds, taller than the tallest marine, in the breeze. I was only carrying a flak jacket, a helmet and half a gallon of water; the marines were each carrying - in weapons, water, ammunition and gear - well in excess of a standard airline baggage allowance. Sweat trickled into the eyes and its saltiness stung. As fast as you sucked on the hose from the water pouch on your back, your body sweated the water back out. By the time we approached the farm, which was the destination for this patrol, the platoon, spread out across a field and moving towards some buildings set in a line of palm trees, looked as if it was re-enacting a scene from Vietnam.
The marines interrupted the farmer's family lunch. Suspicions aroused by an old ammunition crate, they searched the farmer's house, pulling heaps of mattresses down off a dresser. They didn't break anything, nor did they tidy up afterwards. They found two Kalashnikovs, half a dozen magazines, an ancient bolt action rifle and a plastic sack full of ammunition. The farmer had an ID card declaring that he was a member of the new Iraqi defence forces but no one had provided Strabbing and his men with the means to verify whether the card was genuine. In the end the lieutenant confiscated most of the weaponry, but didn't arrest anyone.
By this time he had other worries. Even though we could see the school just a couple of kilometres away, the heat was beginning to hurt the marines. Staff Sergeant Shawn Ryan, a powerful, tough, experienced marine with an apparently sun-resistant Mediterranean complexion, collapsed with heat exhaustion. This is not a minor complaint: it means the body's ability to prevent its core temperature rising above the narrow margin necessary to support life is breaking down. Ryan was put in the shade of a tree and an intravenous drip put in his richly tattooed arm to rehydrate him.
We walked back to the base past the site of that morning's bomb. The field next to where the explosion had happened was strewn with lumps of metal.
In the strangest way, the distraction worked. By the time the platoon came to debrief it was clear that the rage at the morning bomb had been displaced by hatred for the more recent enemy, the sun, and a sense of achievement for having survived it. But none of the marines had even seen the human enemy who tried to kill them that morning, let alone shot at them or arrested them, and there would be more IEDs to come.
"It's a snake eating its tail," said Captain Clark that evening. "We are here to help the people but it's difficult. If we left, would the IEDs go away? I think they would stop targeting us and start targeting the local authorities. It would be just another regime that ruled by intimidation and fear. If I didn't believe in the mission, it would be like Columbus not believing in Copernicus."
And did the men believe in the mission?
"The majority, yes. There are some that doubt. They never doubt their brothers ... the greater political picture is pretty irrelevant. All that really matters is boots on the ground. It's not so much the mission, it's the brotherhood, the camaraderie, before anything else."
Death and Doritos
Next day the platoon convoyed back to the battalion base for their two days off, via an hour's shopping at a Filipino-run military supermarket. Lt Strabbing and his marines queued in exhausted, sweat-encrusted silence to buy boxes of Mountain Dew, bags of fried pork skins and Doritos, chocolate chip cookies, copies of Maxim magazine and drinks coolers. In the shade outside I saw a marine from another unit, just in from up country, with a bag of cheese biscuits in one hand and a can of spray-on cheese in the other, mechanically feeding his dream canapes into his mouth.
The battalion base offers the chance to phone home, check email and eat cooked food, but not much else. The electricity is as erratic as in Kharma. In the evening darkness outside their cell-like, barracks lodgings, the young marines milled around, smoking, dipping and complaining.
"This theatre sucks," came a voice from the darkness.
"This is the worst episode of the OC ever," came another.
Another: "I just wonder why we can't come to an agreement with the fuckin' retards out there. If you stop tryin' to kill us we'll stop tryin' to kill you."
Another: "I'm serious. If I don't get to kill somebody while I'm here, it's a wasted deployment."
I sat with 19-year-old Farias, who told me why he'd joined up. "I'm just like my brother, he's always been into military movies, and explosions, and stuff like that. I've always been into explosions and, you know, just, just, uh, just action movies. I'm not a fan of comedy movies."
Farias is loyal to the US military presence in Iraq. He believes in the mission. He worships Bush and despises the conservative hate trinity of John Kerry, Bill Clinton and France. That doesn't mean he's confident about the way it's going in Karmah.
"It's really frustrating 'cause I mean we can't find these guys. They shoot at us all the time, they run away, we try to figure out who it is, we interrogate people - do they know who it was? No, nobody knows who it was, yeah? Ali Baba, the bad guy, nobody wants to tell us where they're at, you know, so we're basically on our own, trying to figure this out, trying to put this puzzle together, where they're at and you know it's frustrating 'cause we can't operate like we should be, cause we're more worried about getting blown up and trying to find these bombs at the side of the road instead of going on a patrol and trying to find these guys."
Just before we part, Farias grew a little more thoughtful and melancholy. "I don't want to get killed here," he said. "I don't want to die here. You know. This is the last place I'd probably ever want to die. You know, it's just - I want to go home. I want to go home, I want to see my family, I want to do everything I did, do everything I did, you know, when I wasn't here. I'm not necessarily scared to die. I'm scared to not do the things that I want to do."
Maybe that's what being scared of dying is? "I guess."
The hidden cost
A few days ago, I went to see Corporal Webb in Landstuhl hospital. The US military presence in Germany has been scaled back radically in the past decade - the budget airline airport where I landed west of Frankfurt still had the fortified aircraft shelters of its previous incarnation as a cold war US airbase - but Landstuhl, between Kaiserlautern and Saarbrucken, has never been busier. Under cool grey European skies, the green, rambling, low-rise blocks of Landstuhl look wonderfully trim and peaceful. Inside, immaculately clean and shinywhite, they seem half-deserted.The sinister hospital smell of disinfectant is curiously missing, too, but the rooms off the corridors are full enough of interrupted lives.
Marie Shaw, the Belgian Nato employee who runs the hospital's PR operation, said Landstuhl has seen 16,000 casualties pass through since the US began combat operations in Afghanistan in 2001. The majority were not combat casualties, though the proportion varies according to the severity of the fighting. "When we had the battle of Fallujah, we had a whole lot of battle injuries ... we had a thousand patients in one month," she said. "The body armour is being extremely helpful to the soldiers, but we're seeing a lot of injuries to the parts not protected by body armour ... our enemies have become pretty good at shooting for non-protected areas."
Most of the engagements and accidents that bring US military casualties to Landstuhl are never reported in the media, because of the Pentagon's policy of reporting only deaths. Even when there are deaths, no details of the incident are given beyond date and place, the names of the casualties, their units and home towns and the genre of unpleasantness - bomb, car crash, firefight. Had it not been for the presence of the Guardian and Newsday, the bomb which struck Cpl Webb and his comrades would have remained unknown to the wider world.
Webb still had a bandage round his head. Sitting up in bed, he talked a little slowly but was expecting to be home by today - his wedding anniversary - and to make a full recovery. He can walk unaided.
"I remember being in the back of the Humvee and we were just driving and then all of a sudden I couldn't see anything, and my whole body was numb, and I couldn't move," said Webb. "I couldn't move so I tried to talk. I yelled for help and the other engineer, [Private Jeffrey] Arroyo, was saying my name, saying I was OK and holding on to my hand.
"I knew something was wrong 'cause my head hurt really bad and they kept telling me not to go to sleep because I was trying to and they kept telling me not to and I had to look at them."
As a marine, Webb remains loyal, obedient, brave and reluctant ever to go to Iraq again. He is unlikely to be forced to return this year but he may have to go a third time in 2005 before his service runs out. "I was pretty ticked off about having to go back this time, but nobody wants to go back. They know what it was like ... Should we be there? We are doing something good, but I don't know. It's what the president wants."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
Joe and I discussed earlier not merely the fact that this series of Christian apocalyptic books has such a wide readership, but that it has supplanted the Silhouette Romances as the most purchased set of paperback titles in the US. I mentioned to Joe that this shift itself presented a question for Gramscian investigation. Joe adds that we must not fall into the romance of believing the readers of these books represent some utopian possibility, but that Gramsci would have read such popular materials to mark a decline of the nation.
Sunday, July 18, 2004
Friday, July 16, 2004
Ruins of the Colonial Aesthetic
Thursday, July 15, 2004
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Forthcoming by Tony Bogues
Critical Secularism: A Re-Introduction for Perilous Times
Monday, July 12, 2004
NEWS ANALYSIS: THE INTELLIGENCE
Bush's Pre-emptive Strategy Meets Some Untidy Reality
By DAVID E. SANGER
Even as President Bush turns his doctrine of pre-emptive action against powers threatening the United States into a campaign theme, Washington is
using a far more subdued, take-it-slow approach to the dangers of unconventional weapons in Iran and North Korea.
There are many reasons for the yawning gap between Mr. Bush's campaign language and the reality. One of the most important is woven throughout
the searing, 511-page critique of the intelligence that led America to war last year, released Friday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The report details, in one painful anecdote after another, misjudgments that the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies made as they put together
what the committee called an "assumption train" about Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. That same train powered Mr.
Bush's own justification for a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein, down to his now-discredited argument that the Iraqi leader was developing
unmanned aerial vehicles capable dropping biological weapons on American troops in the Mideast, or perhaps even the United States itself.
The sweeping nature of that report is already fueling a new debate over
pre-emption, on the campaign trail and among the nations the United States
must convince as it builds its case against North Korea and Iran. On
Sunday, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence
committee, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the urgency of those
problems meant there was not much time to fix the intelligence community.
"Let's do it very quickly," he said, "because in a dangerous world, if
you're going to have a policy of pre-emption, whether it be North Korea or
whether it be whatever threat we face," including a possible terror attack
on the United States before the election, "we have to get it right."
Mr. Bush's aides say other countries are citing Iraq to make the argument
that America can never again be sure it is getting it right and thus must
back away from the pre-emption doctrine enshrined in Mr. Bush's 2002
"National Security Strategy of the United States."
China has been the most outspoken proponent of this view, suggesting
publicly that the administration cannot be trusted when it asserts that
North Korea has secretly started up a second nuclear weapons program ? one
based on enriching uranium. Administration officials say the Chinese are
exploiting the Iraq findings for political convenience, because finding a
solution to the North Korean problem will be far simpler if the evidence
of a uranium program can be ignored.
"It hurts us, there is no question," a senior aide to Mr. Bush conceded on
Friday, as the Senate report was published. "We already have the Chinese
saying to us, `If you missed this much in Iraq, how are we supposed to
believe that the North Koreans are producing nuclear weapons?' It just
increases the pressure on us to prove that we are right."
Iran is making a parallel argument. It admits ? even boasts about ? its
efforts to enrich uranium, which it hid for 17 years from international
inspectors until the evidence became overwhelming last year, forcing the
country into a reluctant confession. Now the Iranians argue that the
United States is riding another "assumption train," this time racing to
the conclusion Iran's real goal is making a weapon, rather than seeking an
alternative way to produce electricity.
In the cases of North Korea and Iran, the basis for the American charges
is far stronger than it was in Iraq: Inspectors have seen and measured
fissile material in both nations, and visited facilities capable of making
Yet so far, the International Atomic Energy Agency ? which in retrospect
largely got it right in Iraq ? has declined to back the United States. "We
all think the American assessment is probably right because there is no
other good explanation for the Iranian activities," one senior
international diplomat involved in the search for evidence in Iran said
the other day. "But we still don't have the smoking gun." He said that
after the Iraq experience, "We need smoking guns more than ever."
In public, Mr. Bush's language about responding to threats is as black and
white as it was before his administration's case about the threat posed by
Mr. Hussein began to crumble.
"September the 11th, 2001, taught a lesson I will never forget," Mr. Bush
said recently while campaigning in Cincinnati. Using a line that often
turns up in his stump speech, he continued: "America must confront threats
before they fully materialize. In Iraq, my administration looked at the
intelligence and we saw a threat."
But, in noncampaign contexts, Mr. Bush says there are many ways to disarm
a country, and on Monday he is going to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory
in Tennessee, a center of nuclear weapons technology, to speak about his
counterterrorism strategy. Oak Ridge is the repository of the centrifuges,
raw uranium and other nuclear equipment that the United States shipped out
of Libya this year, in the most conspicuous success story yet of how to
disarm a country without attacking it.
Mr. Bush is urging Iran and North Korea to follow the same path. So far,
neither has indicated it would. And so far, the president's aides say, Mr.
Bush has purposefully avoided making the kinds of threats that he made to
Iraq. One reason is a military reality: Iran could strike back against
Israel or American forces in the region, and North Korea could inflict
huge damage on Seoul, the capital of South Korea.
But Mr. Bush's position on Iran and North Korea may also have something to
do with election-year politics. His challenger, Senator John Kerry of
Massachusetts, has made clear that he will make a major issue of both the
intelligence failures and what he termed in a recent interview the
administration's "foolhardy rush" to embrace a pre-emptive attack against
The Democratic Party platform is expected to include a sentence declaring
that the "doctrine of unilateral pre-emption has driven away our allies,"
and Mr. Kerry argued in the interview that while he would reserve the
right to act pre-emptively, he would never make it a core doctrine of
American foreign policy.
Mr. Bush and his aides argue that would be a huge mistake. In the old
understanding of pre-emption, they argue, a country could see an army
massing and then decide whether to strike in advance. In the age of
terror, there would probably be no such obvious warning. Mr. Bush sees
that as a reason for broad presidential latitude. But it is more unclear
than ever before how any president can make that judgment with an
intelligence system that is widely viewed as badly broken.
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Sunday, July 11, 2004
Experts in Sex Field Say Conservatives Interfere With Health and Research
By MIREYA NAVARRO
or years, Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based organization devoted to
adolescent sexual health, says, it received government grants without much
trouble. Then last year it was subjected to three federal reviews.
James Wagoner, the president of Advocates for Youth, said the reviews were
prompted by concerns among some members of Congress that his group was
using public funds to lobby against programs that promoted sexual
abstinence before marriage. Although that was not the case, Mr. Wagoner
said, the government officials made their point.
"For 20 years, it was about health and science, and now we have a
political ideological approach," he said. "Never have we experienced a
climate of intimidation and censorship as we have today."
Mr. Wagoner is among the professionals in sex-related fields who have
started speaking out against what they say is growing interference from
conservatives in and out of government with their work in research,
education and disease prevention.
A result, these professionals say, has been reduced financing for some
programs and an overall chilling effect on the field, with college
professors avoiding certain topics in their human sexuality classes and
researchers steering clear of terms like sex workers in the title of grant
applications for fear of drawing attention to themselves.
"Programs almost have to hide what they do," said Richard Parker, a
professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.
"We have a major challenge ahead of ourselves."
Professor Parker is also a co-chairman of the International Working Group
on Sexuality and Social Policy, an association of researchers and other
professionals, which released a report two weeks ago citing examples of
what it called sex policing under the Bush administration. The report
cited, for example, changes in factual information about sex education and
H.I.V. transmission on government Web sites as well as questioning by
members of Congress about research grants approved by the National
Institutes of Health.
Conservative members of Congress and groups defend the new scrutiny,
saying some research on sexuality is frivolous and a waste of taxpayer
When Representative Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, wanted
to stop the National Institutes of Health from spending $1.5 million on
studies he said were wasteful and unnecessary, he pointed to what he
described as research on the sexual habits of transgender American Indians
and "people's reaction to being aroused when they're in different moods."
The spending had been vigorously opposed by the Traditional Values
Coalition, a group that represents churches primarily. Andrea Lafferty,
executive director of the coalition, said her group's intention was to
challenge research grants that "don't pass the straight-face test."
"There's an arrogance in the scientific community that they know better
than the average American," Ms. Lafferty said.
Mr. Toomey's effort to cancel the grants through legislation failed in a
House vote last July.
Though many professionals in the sexuality field are reluctant to speak
out for fear their government financing will be affected, some have
started denouncing what they regard as attacks on science and public
In May, the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and
Therapists called the Bush administration's increased financing of
abstinence-only programs at the expense of comprehensive sex education a
violation of children's human rights.
"Over 40 percent of 15-year-olds are sexually active and they're not
getting information on how to protect themselves from pregnancy and
diseases," Barnaby B. Barratt, the association's president, said in an
In June, Nils Daulaire, the president of the Global Health Council, an
international group of health care professionals, denounced the Bush
administration's decision this year to drop $367,000 in financing for the
council's annual conference, which he said was the first time the federal
government had withheld sponsorship in more than 30 years.
Mr. Daulaire said in a recent speech in Washington, "It's time to say to
those who would stifle debate and dialogue, and to those in power who
would allow them to prevail, Have you no shame?"
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, Bill Pierce,
said the government pulled the financing because the council could not
demonstrate that the money would not go to lobbying efforts, which he said
would be an illegal use of federal money.
But Mr. Daulaire said that anti-abortion groups had objected to the
participation of speakers from the International Planned Parenthood
Federation and other groups that back abortion rights.
Mr. Wagoner, who said there was no reliable evidence that abstinence-only
programs work, said his Advocates for Youth organization had to cut
programs in black colleges and among gay, lesbian and transgender young
people that sought to prevent H.I.V. infections and other sexually
transmitted diseases and suicides.
Mr. Wagoner's group was not the only one to face new reviews. Last year,
the Center for Aids Prevention Studies at the University of California in
San Francisco was among four grant applicants for which Republican members
of Congress sought unsuccessfully to rescind financing after it had
already been approved.
One of the center's studies proposed to look at drug use and other risky
behavior among female Asian sex workers at massage parlors in San
Francisco to develop culturally appropriate efforts to prevent drug abuse
"We were amazed that there would be an interference with critical science
that's trying to save people's lives," said Cynthia A. Gomez, a
co-director of the center.
The additional scrutiny is also affecting government agencies. Last
February, a stinging critique of the administration's use of scientific
information by the Union of Concerned Scientists included a testimonial
from Margaret Scarlett, an epidemiologist who left the federal Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention in 2001 after 15 years with the agency
because of what she called "an unheard-of level of micromanagement in the
programmatic and scientific activities of the C.D.C."
In an interview, Ms. Scarlett, who now works as a private health
consultant in Atlanta, said she was disturbed by the trends in the agency
to promote condoms as ineffective in preventing disease, to omit
information about contraception on Web sites and to oppose new financing
for comprehensive sex education programs.
But Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the centers, denied any bias, saying that
the agency's decisions were guided by honesty and ethics. "Scientific
integrity is really important here," Mr. Skinner said.
Several House members who have questioned certain grants, like Mr. Toomey,
Joe Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Mark Souder, Republican of
Indiana, did not return calls, with their aides saying the congressmen
were too busy to comment.
Some professionals in the sex field noted that not all the news was bad.
There is still increasing government financing on sexuality, some said,
and access to information about sex is at an all-time high because of the
Internet. Still, some see long-term damage for the study of sexuality.
"The next generation of researchers is not going to pick this topic,"
Professor Parker of Columbia said. "Students basically say they're afraid
of being a target and not having the possibility of career advancement if
they choose to go into this area."
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Using Opera's revolutionary e-mail client: http://www.opera.com/m2/
Saturday, July 10, 2004
Scientists Say White House Questioned Their Politics
July 9, 2004
By KENNETH CHANG
In a report released yesterday, a scientific advocacy group cited more instances of what it called the Bush administration’s manipulation of science to fit its policy goals, including the questioning of nominees to scientific advisory panels about whether they had voted for President Bush.
Administration officials said that the conclusions of the report, issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists, were “wrong and misleading.”
Dr. Kurt Gottfried, an emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University and the chairman of the scientists group, said that the administration’s actions could cause researchers to leave the government.
“You can destroy that in a matter of years and then it can take another generation or two to get back to where you were in the first place,” Dr. Gottfried said during a conference call with reporters yesterday.
Dr. Gerald T. Keusch said that frustration led him to resign last year from the directorship of the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Keusch said the procedure for appointing members of advisory panels changed markedly with the change of administrations in 2001.
Dr. Keusch, who became director in 1998, said that before Mr. Bush took office, he proposed candidates and if the director of the National Institutes of Heath approved, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration invariably signed off on the nomination. But under the Bush administration, he said, Secretary Tommy G. Thompson’s office rejected 19 of 26 candidates, including Dr. Torsten Wiesel, a Nobel laureate.
Dr. Keusch said that when he questioned the rejection, he was told that Dr. Wiesel had signed too many statements critical of Mr. Bush.
Bill Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that Dr. Keusch was the only institute director to complain about the process and that Mr. Thompson was the one responsible for the appointments.
“That’s what we do and that’s how we do it,” Mr. Pierce said. “This is the responsibility of governance.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists, whose views often run counter to those of the administration, issued a 34-page report describing Dr. Keusch’s experience and other instances that it said illustrated the administration’s injecting politics into science. The scientists issued an earlier report in February, and 62 prominent scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, signed an accompanying statement.
Wednesday, July 07, 2004
We also asked several times about the books our hosts and their colleagues were reading, in other words, about the recent books having an impact in China, which we should know about, possibly review, or add to our calculus. We have made no progress so far on this bibliography except for one work that QS mentioned.
We need to think of how to proceed. Shall we contact individuals? Draw upon papers? What? Do we still think this is important?
Monday, July 05, 2004
Finally, here are those few titles. Sorry for the delay.
1. Strauss, Leo. On Tyranny (including the Strauss-Kojève correspondence). Chicago, 2000.
2. Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing. Chicago, 1952, 1980.
3. Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago, 1950, 1953, 1965.
4. Strauss, Leo. Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. Chicago, 1930, 1997.
5. Strauss, Leo & Joseph Cropsey, eds. History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed. Chicago, 1963, 1987
6. Drury, Shadia. Leo Strauss and the American Right. St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
7. Deutsch, Kenneth & John A. Murley. Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime. Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.
Paul A. Bové
Editor of boundary 2
Professor of English
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Sunday, July 04, 2004
The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Letter From a Deportee: Your Country Is Safe From Me
I post this because the issues involved are the same as those challenging the right to publish translations from Persian. Of course, they also involve the issues of GCS' freedom of thought conference at Columbia last spring.
Saturday, July 03, 2004
Lindsay Waters, "Chernobyl for the Life of the Mind: By turning universities into a production line, the US is hampering innovation," TIMES HIGHER
Published: 11 June 2004
Times Higher Education Supplement, London
By turning universities into a production line, the US is killing
innovation, says Lindsay Waters
While we were sleeping, the American university has been corporatised, turned into a version of a Ford Motor factory with the professors as assembly-line workers doing more and more mindless activities to the point of exhaustion. It is a development that has lessons for universities elsewhere.
It has been the genius of Americans to be able to mechanise every human activity, from harvesting wheat to butchering beef, but automation is hurting the heart of the academic process - publication. Winning tenure in the US is the most serious goal for the academic. Over the past 50 years, the emphasis on publication has increased. As the administrators know, it is a dog-eat-dog world for those in charge of universities as they seek to prove to funders and taxpayers that they run an efficient operation with high productivity that is empirically verifiable.
Sociologist Talcott Parsons predicted in 1973 that governing the university with an unchecked bureaucratic mentality would wreak havoc, pitching social scientists and scientists against humanists. What he failed to predict was that the humanists would conform with the emerging emphasis on the empirical sciences. Universities have come under increasing assault as the US has turned politically more conservative. The result has been that the radical ideas from 1960s France turned out to be very easy to turn into a professionalised discourse in need of endless refashioning in print.
From the 1970s, administrators and administrated learnt to collude in the production of the appearance of productivity: there has been much great scholarship, sure, but it all risks sinking under the mass of dross. Fear of arcane theorising and the encouragement to speed the process led some departments to develop the practice of not reading the writings of tenure candidates but depending on the fact of publication and the perceived prestige of a publisher's name to guarantee the value of the product.
Numbers became king. The tragedy is that the semblance of innovation became the poison to kill innovation. When tenure review is done right – with university colleagues in command - the process inspires innovation by opening those colleagues up to new ideas. When the tenure decision is outsourced to people in university presses and hastened by deans concerned only with numbers, the chance to develop new ideas does not occur. This is Chernobyl for the life of the mind.
For the humanities, especially, the effect is devastating because the humanities are first of all about judgement. When publications cease being complex media and become, rather, objects to quantify, then all the other media that humanities study lose value.
The corporatist demand for increased productivity has drained publication of any significance other than as numbers. The US university has been one of the greatest institutions America has wrought, taking the European university and transforming it into a place where an experimental attitude has prevailed in the arts and sciences and the doors have been open to all. The Bush government has sought to close the doors of the university, but the long-term problem has been the way those in the university have closed their minds by setting in place procedures that hamper innovation.
The solution is for departments to take back self-governance. This will mean giving up lazy ways of granting tenure by numbers. Giving that up will necessitate more debate inside departments about whose work and service merits tenure. I write from China, where the government hopes to develop several world-class universities by following the US model of hyperproductivity. It is time we examine that model and revise it before more harm is done.
Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press. His book Enemies of Promise is published in the UKnext week by Prickly Paradigm Press.
Lindsay Waters è l’“Executive Editor for the Humanities” della Harvard University Press: in altre parole è colui che, dopo aver consultato gli esperti, decide se un libro di critica letteraria o di filosofia può essere pubblicato dalla sua casa editrice. Ha scritto un volumetto per mettere sotto accusa il sistema accademico americano, nel quale un insegnante universitario è costretto a “pubblicare o perire”: a scrivere e far uscire decine di saggi o di libri, oppure essere impietosamente licenziato. Il sistema, sostiene Waters, è imposto dagli “amministratori”, i burocrati che in America sostituiscono il Ministero: ha prodotto una proliferazione abnorme di pubblicazioni che non aggiungono nulla di nuovo né al sapere né alla percezione estetica o critica; un affidarsi delle Facoltà umanistiche alle decisioni delle University Presses per la valutazione delle carriere nei vari Dipartimenti, con totale abdicazione a quell’esercizio del “giudicare” che dovrebbe essere primario per gli umanisti e i critici; un basarsi su considerazioni quantitative anziché qualitative; un appiattimento sui criteri delle scienze più o meno esatte. Waters conclude fra l’altro: “Il cosiddetto libero mercato – che è tutto fuorché libero – non è un concetto da considerare cornice ultima per il libero gioco delle idee”.
Consiglio la lettura di questo aureo libello a tutti coloro che hanno a cuore lo studio della letteratura e delle arti, le facoltà umanistiche, le riforme universitarie. Impareranno che imitare l’America (e l’Inghilterra) non è sempre auspicabile, che i tempi lunghi sono necessari alla ricerca e all’elaborazione del pensiero critico, e che la valutazione dei professori universitari è faccenda oltremodo delicata, da non demandare né agli studenti né agli editori. Tutti, infine, potranno utilmente riflettere, in maniera comparativa, sulla natura e gli scopi dell’apprendimento, dell’insegnamento e della ricerca in campo umanistico. Perché è chiaro: se Harvard piange, Roma Milano Firenze e Palermo non ridono. A Roma, ci si interroga da trentacinque anni sulla scuola e sull’università nel contesto di una società enormemente mutata. Si decide giustamente di cambiare ambedue per adeguarle ai bisogni di un paese nuovo e armonizzarle agli ordinamenti europei. Ma si fa una scommessa sacrosanta sull’università di massa senza investirvi un solo centesimo, anzi provvedendo a tagli spaventosi. Si impone un ordinamento degli studi assolutamente identico ai corsi scientifici, tecnici e umanistici. L’Italia, sedotta dalla formulazione pseudofinanziaria, adotta dagli Stati Uniti il sistema dei “crediti”, ma senza regolarlo, talché gli studenti si ritrovano a dividersi pazzamente fra mille moduli di poche settimane ciascuno, rimanendo costantemente indietro rispetto al ruolino di marcia: come nel vecchio ordinamento. In alcune Facoltà si deve per forza concedere agli allievi la possibilità di sostenere l’esame su un dato modulo per i due anni successivi: contro la natura stessa del modello modulare. Il modulo non prevede né l’obbligo di frequenza né un limite al numero degli iscritti, delle quali cose i professori e gli studenti americani e inglesi (ma anche finlandesi, per dirne una) rimarrebbero inorriditi. Talune Facoltà richiedono invece, per un modulo da quattro crediti, un limite bibliografico “compatibile con cento ore di lavoro globale”. Risultato: i docenti di materie umanistiche non sanno più come calibrare l’insegnamento né come coniugare con esso la propria meditazione critica e la propria ricerca; i discenti imparano sempre meno. Docenti e discenti sono depressi, furibondi, confusi; i talenti di entrambe le categorie vanno sprecati; il futuro della cultura umanistica è minacciato, con conseguenze nefaste per l’anima di un paese che su di essa ha costruito immagine e tradizione ovunque invidiate.
Perché non immaginare, invece, un sistema dove pubblicare e insegnare non voglia dire, per i professori, agonizzare? Dove apprendere significhi, per gli studenti, non solo sopravvivere, ma vivere? Forse basterebbe prevedere, accanto a una università che allarga il numero dei propri utenti e quello totale dei “laureati”, un potenziamento delle strutture pubbliche d’eccellenza. Non solo quelle destinate all’ultimo livello, il dottorato di ricerca, ma anche quelle che fin dall’inizio degli studi, dal triennio, selezionino per merito aiutando con apposite borse gli allievi bisognosi; che incentivino i professori migliori con condizioni di lavoro e di salario migliori. Cinque scuole normali superiori, distribuite sagacemente sul territorio e appoggiate ad atenei già esistenti, adeguatamente dotate di mezzi, sponsorizzate da privati ed enti locali, consentirebbero forse al paese di sfruttare appieno l’ingegno e le ricchezze che possiede.
Lindsay Waters, Enemies of Promise. Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, Chicago, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004, pp. 89, $ 10.