Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Note to regular readers

Most days over the next few months on the Mainsteaming Torture bookapalooza and road trip, regular posts will appear here daily. We're not rushing and will usually find internet access. But if there is nothing new here for a day or two, just figure we're momentarily off the grid and will be back.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A child soldier in the Great War

One hundred years ago, you didn't learn about impending wars through your cellphone and the internet. You didn't find out that war had come because you were under "shock and awe" bombardment. Both news and war came more gradually. Stevan Idjidovic (The Snows of Serbia ) was about 15, an ethnic Serb whose native agricultural village was located within the territory of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. This weak polyglot state contained speakers of 26 recognized languages and several mutually hostile branches of Christianity, plus not a few Muslims. We would barely recognize the remains of the "Holy Roman Empire" as a state in the modern world. But on July 23, 1914 this complex kingdom issued an insulting ultimatum to the adjacent Serbian monarchy, demanding something close to unconditional surrender in response to the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo the previous month. As the Austrians and their German allies had anticipated, the Serbians would not capitulate, their Russian allies mobilized in their defense, Britain and France joined in with their Russian ally, and what became know as "The Great War" (World War I) had begun.

The assassination and Austrian mobilization only made young Stevan more conscious of his Serbian ethnicity. The unsettling events drew him back into musing on the mythologized epic of his people.

In my schoolboy way I kept thinking , “If Tsar Lazar had won on Kosovo Field, there would not have been a Vidovdan; Serbia would have continued as a kingdom and Serbs would not have migrated into Austrian lands as my forebears did; no opportunity would have been created for Austria to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Archduke Franz Ferdinand would not have been assassinated this day by a Serb.”

But where was this new war? The men of his village were mobilized into the Austrian army, but members of his family were too old or too young to have to go.

The appearance of a plane in the sky did not alter what seemed to be a rather strange war with nothing happening since the declaration of war over ten days ago. I did not have the courage to ask Father how one starts a war for fear of showing my immaturity or adding to his obvious anxiety with such an infantile question. ...

[The Austrian army was unexpectedly thrown back from Serbia.] ... in spite of the hasty retreat, the Austrians had enough time to round up a few of the enemy on their way and bring them along for the purpose of hanging them, perhaps to ease their frustration over the defeat. On hastily erected primitive gallows near the cemetery, we came across the gruesome sight of six dangling bodies. Slightly swaying in the breeze were the bodies of five old gray-haired Serbian peasants and a young Serbian peasant woman. Undoubtedly this atrocity was intended as a warning to all the Serbs on the Austrian side of the river. We cut the bodies down later and gave the nameless victims of this brutal act a decent burial. ...

[Later that month, they buried Hungarian soldiers killed by Serbs.] The dead were Magyar soldiers and Roman Catholics, and our Orthodox priest’s prayer would not have been of any help.

But after about a month, war came to Stevan's village:

We could not understand why they were burning our Serbian village; we had been loyal subjects of the Empire for generations. "They are going to kill us," repeated Cika Krana .... We were all terrified by the realization that the village was being put to the torch and the people were being shot by our own soldiers. ...

... I happened to be the only male of adult size in the group. "You, come here!" I heard the Croat sergeant speak, his gaze fixed on me. As I was about to step forward I heard Mother plead "Oh don't, please don't," as she clutched my arm. I was afraid to step forward but realized I had no alternative. I broke loose from Mother’s grip and stepped forward facing the sergeant. He was about my height with blond hair and a well-groomed mustache, his steely blue eyes fixed on me. "What are you?" he demanded sternly, meaning what nationality was I. I was on the point of telling the truth but checked myself; I kept silent, realizing he wanted me to say, "I am a Serb".

... His rage was mounting and, raising his right hand, he struck a savage blow on my left ear. "This will teach you how to obey."

With my back turned to the soldiers, I walked away slowly and apprehensively. About halfway to the street corner a rifle shot rang out behind me and I stopped dead in my tracks. A bullet whizzed by me hitting the soft road ahead of me, raising the dust. I assumed it was meant for me, but why had it missed? I wheeled around. Instantly I learned that the bullet was not intended for me. There on the road I saw my father staggering slowly in my direction, bent over in pain.

The family pulled both Stevan and his dying father away. Soon he realized that his only hope of escaping would be to swim the River Sava to Serbian territory.

... I discarded everything except my underwear and my broad brimmed hat. This done I wasted no time and plunged into the cold water. ... I had hardly swum two hundred feet from shore when I heard the crack of rifle shots close by. ...

... It is said of the dying, or of a man about to die, that they experience flashes of memories of their whole life. Nothing of the sort happened to me. On the contrary, I was thinking of how my body would be eaten by the fishes. The volleys of bullets continued to splash around me. ...

Observing the [Serbian] shore as I came closer, I shuddered at an unbelievable sight. In the calm waters of the bend the current had deposited hundreds of bodies of Serbian soldiers who had fallen at the battle of Cevrntija two weeks earlier. Frightfully bloated and closely packed, the bridge of bodies extended out from the shore some twenty feet. There was no stench that I noticed, but the bodies did create a barrier to reaching the shore. ... With my head above the surface I figured the only way out of this was to dive underneath the bodies and go for the shore. Holding my breath I submerged and propelled myself slowly toward shore till my hands were digging into mud below and my back was feeling the weight of the bodies above. Heaving up through the bodies, I frantically pushed myself toward the bank and into a thicket of willows. I felt exhausted.

While catching my breath I wondered whether I had really made it. Having disturbed the closely packed balance of the corpses, I saw a few drift loose and begin their journey down the river. I was still lying hidden with my face buried in the willow thicket, trying to regain my strength, when a commanding voice boomed down from above me. “Come on up here!”

Stevan's escape had been watched by a Serbian patrol -- he was taken in by the Serbian army and made a soldier. Over the next 15 months he survived skirmishes, a bout of typhus and hideous privation in snow and often without food. The Serbs were ground down by better equipped Austrian and then Bulgarian forces; their "allies," Britain and France, were little help. At length

the Serbian High Command ... considered how desperate the situation was and, in view of the state of its troops: hungry, barefoot, weak and wounded and, above all, lacking food, equipment and ammunition, made the remarkable decision to avoid battle and to make a total retreat over the mountains across Albania to the Adriatic ... This decision was communicated to the army and the people by a proclamation of the High Command on the 26th day of November, 1915 ...

At this point the Central Powers began celebrating the destruction of their small enemy. On November 28th the German High Command notified the world: “... with the flight of the scanty remnants of the Serbian Army into the Albanian mountains, the great operations against it are concluded.” An eminent Austrian historian then theorized that most of Serbia would be given to Bulgaria and the remnants to Austria. ...

And so began the Serbs' harrowing trek over rugged mountains to the sea.

... the expansive plain outside Pec, crowded with men, wagons, guns, automobiles, oxen, and horses, was a multicolored scene that, had it not been so tragic, might have been taken for a gigantic fairground. Evidence of suffering from hunger, exposure and disease was widespread among the soldiers, many of whom were wounded, as well as among the civilian refugees.

One wondered how many were marked for death tomorrow. The civilians--old men, women and children--would die by the hundreds. Hundreds had already died along the route thus far, dropping along the roads from exhaustion and other causes, fighting to the last breath and never asking for any help. When the time came they were left where they fell, without mourners or burial. The survivors pushed on, deep in their own thoughts. There were poignant scenes like the dead mother and child in each other's arms lying in a muddy ditch, or the lone child left dead by the roadside unmourned by passersby.

Death was all about us in groups and in singles to such an extent that its throes held no meaning for us any longer. Though the death toll was overwhelming in the first stages of our retreat, the worst was yet to come. For while the supply of food had been meager so far, it was to be virtually non-existent on the route over the mountains. ...

... Soon, as we crossed a stone bridge, the road shrank into a three or four foot wide trail . The narrow trail was cut in the side of a sheer cliff three or four hundred feet above the Pecka Bistrica stream. There was no lip at all ; the earth simply ended and space began. Soon after we entered into this narrow defile, called Rugovo Gorge, we witnessed the first casualty when a pack horse slipped down over the precipice. Over on our left, looking westward, Mt . Koprivnik surged up from a broad base, its peaks wrapped in fog. To the right Mt. Paklen, the “Mount of Hell,” soared almost vertically and its snowy summit was hidden by clouds.

It had stopped snowing and the fast-descending darkness had caught us on the narrow, ice-covered ledge. That night we spent in terror. We picked a convenient place against the cliff offering the best possible place of safety during the night. However, taking care of ourselves in this situation was simpler than taking care of the horses and oxen inextricably mixed with us. ...

Stevan and most of his unit survived this death march, staving off hunger through some hunting successes and a little barter with Montenegrin and Albanian peasants. They were billeted on the island of Corfu and fed by French and English ships. One day Stevan received perhaps the most amazing surprise of his unimaginable war:

Inside the big tent I faced the Major and our clerk, Sindjic, both smiling. Putting me at ease, Major Kovanovic spoke:·"I suppose you are wondering why I want to see you. I have good news for you. You are going to be sent back to school." I was not quite sure I had heard him correctly. The Major continued: “Our High Command has issued orders to take all boys under the age of eighteen out of the army and send them abroad to school.” (I was not yet seventeen). “Too many boys have been lost in this retreat,” he said, “and we have to save the rest of you for the future of our country.”

And so it came to pass that Stevan Idjidovic was shipped to Oxford University in England to study Forestry for the duration. Serbians and their allies fought on, finally making a breakthrough on the Macedonian front. After the war, it was estimated that the Serbian forces suffered 25 percent casualties, higher than any other combatant nation.

So far as his mother and siblings knew, Stevan had died in the war, like so many others. They treated his return in peacetime much like the appearance of a ghost. But that's another story.

I cannot recommend this gripping tale highly enough. Insofar as we have any images at all of the horrors of World War I, they tend to be of mud-filled trenches spread across France and Belgium on the "Western Front." Just maybe we know of the misbegotten slaughter of Australian and New Zealand troops at landings at Galipoli aimed at the Ottoman Empire. The war in the Balkans remains obscure in our imaginations, as the Balkan nations themselves tend to, a region of strange historic antipathies and unfathomable carnage. Perhaps if we knew a bit more about the lives and feelings of these peoples, we'd not be so taken aback by more current developments.
Stevan Idjidovic [later amended to "Stevens" for American consumption] was my uncle by marriage. My aunt and Stevan's son-in-law edited this little volume, faithfully and deftly. I suspect the original was more florid. English was, after all, late on the list of Stevan's many languages.

I did not know him in any significant way. My mid-American parents never stopped thinking of him as an exotic. I doubt he felt any connection to them. He felt prickly to me as a child -- that is not perhaps surprising in a man of his difficult trajectory to Buffalo, NY in the '50s. Here's Stevan with one of his daughters in that time.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Of executions and of Christians

If John McCain says it, he probably knows it when he sees it, at least in this case:

"I believe in the death penalty for certain crimes. But that is not an acceptable way of carrying it out. And people who were responsible should be held responsible," he told Politico. "The lethal injection needs to be an indeed lethal injection and not the bollocks-upped situation that just prevailed. That’s torture."

On Arizona's brutally fouled up execution last week. TPM

Let's hope this latest "botched" killing moves us closer to ceasing to seek justice through more killing.

That horror aside, it wasn't a good week for the death penalty. A federal judge, appointed by George W. Bush no less, declared California's dysfunctional death sentences unconstitutional.

The state has placed hundreds of people on death row, but has not executed a prisoner since 2006. The result, wrote Judge Cormac J. Carney of United States District Court, is a sentence that “no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

That sense of uncertainty and delay, he wrote, “violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

Let's hope this holds up. Will state Attorney General Kamala Harris, a death penalty opponent, appeal this ruling? So far she's not saying.

Longtime Sacramento political pundit Dan Walters has suggested that the California death penalty is "dying of old age," just like more sentenced inmates than are ever close to being killed by the state.

Clearly, polls show, support for capital punishment has waned. A 2012 ballot measure to abolish it failed, but very narrowly, and afterward, [Governor Jerry] Brown said he had voted for it.

Brown and a liberal Legislature would not counter Carney’s ruling by speeding up executions, and a ballot measure to do it probably would fail.

I certainly hope he is right.

With all this good news, it seems a little churlish to take issue with some of the coverage of Judge Carney's decision, but I feel I have to. In the "Christian" section of the Examiner, MJ Kasprzak includes this odd sentence:

There are several compelling reasons ... that this ruling by a George W. Bush-appointed judge should be lauded by more than just anti-capital punishment advocates among Californians or even just Catholics among Christians.

My emphasis. Apparently Mr. Kasprzak is unaware that most mainline Protestant denominations have been advocating an end to the death penalty for a generation or more. That includes United Methodists -- the largest of these churches -- also the Presbyterians, the Evangelical Lutherans, the Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ. Southern Baptists support the death penalty, but American Baptists do not. Now maybe the people in the pews aren't all ardent evangelists for their denomination's position, but then again, neither are many Catholics. But unless you use a cramped definition, most U.S. Christians belong to churches that oppose the death penalty.

Approximately 78 percent of U.S. residents are Christians according to the Pew Forum. Catholics -- whose church authorities strongly oppose capital punishment -- make up nearly 24 percent of us. Mainline Protestants (largely abolitionist about the death penalty) are another 18 percent. Black Protestants who are often (though not always) highly suspicious of racial bias in capital sentencing are another nearly 7 percent. It's true that the 26.3 percent of us who are Evangelicals belong to churches that are more likely to support the death penalty. But the preponderance of us who are Christians very likely belong to religious bodies that have discerned that putting offenders to death violates our moral commitments.

Mr. Kasprzak is erasing an awful lot of Christians from his coverage.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: Harney Peak, SD

At The New Republic, Rebecca Leber reports on "The Hidden, Horrifying Impacts of Climate Change." That headline is annoying link-bait, but the article catalogs some real perils.

Like this one:

Insects wipe out forests
The mountain pine beetle, which is as big as a grain of rice, and spruce beetle have damaged more than 42 million acres since 1996. Though invasive insects would still pose a threat without climate change, they especially thrive in mild winter conditions, moving into higher altitudes and exploding in population when otherwise they would die during winter. Drought hasn’t hurt the invasive insects, either, leaving dry trees with weaker defenses. It’s not just the pine beetle: The hemlock woolly adelgid threatens 19 million acres of eastern hemlock forests.

Here's some of the pine beetles' work on the slopes of Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The 7200 foot mountain is billed as the highest peak between the Pyrenees and the Rockies.

It offers breathtaking terrain.

Custer State Park rangers are fighting the beetles, but it is hard to see how they can stop the invasion.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Let's take note of small victories; no U.S. troops to Iraq!

Would you believe that the House of Representatives just voted (370-40) to direct the President under the War Powers Resolution

to remove United States Armed Forces, other than Armed Forces required to protect United States diplomatic facilities and personnel, from Iraq.

Not too shabby for all the struggling peace activists who've been keeping the heat on our Congresscritters.

Win Without War, a leading force in the legislative agitation, described the victory:

“Today the House of Representatives made clear that they stand with the American public, who do not want to go back to war in Iraq. By passing H. Con. Res 105 overwhelmingly, the House also sent a strong message to President Obama that there is no authorization for any escalation of US military involvement in Iraq.

The challenges in Iraq are deeply complex and there is simply not a way for America to bomb our way to a solution. While we continue to welcome the President’s opposition to sending combat troops, we remain concerned that over 800 American military personnel are currently in harms way in a nation increasingly embroiled in a violent sectarian conflict. After nearly 13 years of trying to solve such challenges militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, with little success, the American people simply do not support another war in the Middle East. Instead, we hope today’s clear message against military escalation will encourage the President to double down on diplomatic efforts and a robust humanitarian response.”

For us all, let's remember that foreign policy is how we allow our government to treat people in other countries. That's a useful lens to remember to apply to U.S. initiatives, if in doubt.

Unusual truth telling

By way of TPM and the Black Hawk County IA Democratic Party.

This is particularly good because the label is unexpectedly accurate. Reagan may, or may not, have been personally a "racist." But he absolute was a white supremacist in the sense that his policies disproportionately hurt people of color and cemented structures of government that perpetuated advantages for white citizens. That's what you get when government itself turns against regulation of business and protection of the rights of workers to organize.

Friday cat blogging

Some cats, like some people, make a career of being beautiful.

Katy is one these.

Iris, on the other hand, practices unobtrusive wariness in dark surroundings.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Evidence that this is a strange country

So after driving all the way across the country, we enter New York and what do we see? Apparently the Empire state has decided it can't stop drivers from the hazardous habit of texting while in motion, so it is now providing pull-outs.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rebecca Gordon has been talking about torture again

The author of Mainstreaming Torture just doesn't stop. The Bookapalooza rolls on.

She'll be in New York on Sunday:

Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, New York City
Sunday, July 27 • 7:00 p.m.
172 Allen Street
New York, NY 10002

She'll be in the Boston area on Tuesday:

Porter Square Books
Tuesday, July 29, 2014 • 7:00p.m.
Porter Square Shopping Center
25 White Street
Cambridge, MA 02140
Book talk and signing

and several events in New England the days after.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Good news about Obamacare

The New England Journal of Medicine reports that an awful lot of us are benefitting from Obamacare:

"Taking all existing coverage expansions together, we estimate that 20 million Americans have gained coverage as of May 1 under the ACA," the authors wrote. "We do not know yet exactly how many of these people were previously uninsured, but it seems certain that many were."

They reached the 20 million total this way: 1 million adults under age 26 enrolled in their parents' plan; 8 million enrolled in private coverage through the insurance marketplaces; 5 million enrolled in private coverage directly through their insurer; 6 million enrolled in Medicaid.

That's one hell of a lot of people whose security is somewhat greater because, if they get sick, they have some chance of getting appropriate medical care without going bankrupt. Not too shabby.

Meanwhile, hospitals are hurting in states that have taken the Supreme Court's invitation to evade covering many of their poor people when the judges made expansion of Medicaid voluntary, according to Forbes.

The moves against expansion are “beginning to hurt hospitals in states that opted out,” a report last week from Fitch Ratings said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human services has said Medicaid enrollment in the 26 states and the District of Columbia that agreed to go along with and implemented the expansion by the end of May “rose by 17 percent, while states that have not expanded reported only a 3 percent increase,” HHS said in an enrollment update for the Medicaid program.

“We expect providers in states that have chosen not to participate in expanded Medicaid eligibility to face increasing financial challenges in 2014 and beyond,” Fitch said in its July 16 report...

Uh oh -- will the medical establishment push Republican governors and legislators to get on with insuring their people? Time will tell.

The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision allows some employers to refuse to cover their insured employees for some or all birth control methods. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has ordered that companies that want to limit their workers' coverage must inform the workers.

Employers that intend to drop coverage for some or all forms of contraception in the wake of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision must notify employees of the change, the Obama administration said Thursday.

The notice was posted on the Department of Labor website as a new "frequently asked question" about the Affordable Care Act, the health care law passed in 2010 and still being implemented.

That's only sensible: you don't want employees thinking a medical necessity they expect to have covered is excluded. But also, if a corporation wants to argue it has a religious exemption that enables it to avoid giving people the full coverage their neighbors get, it should at least have to tell the affected workers that their insurance has been limited in accord with the boss' opinions.

UPDATE: You might know that the day I would point this news out, a federal court would use highly tendentious "reasoning" about Congressional intent to try to kick the underpinnings (the subsidies) from under the system and collapse Obamacare. This isn't over -- there are many months of appeals ahead. We'll get to see whether the judicial branch is really willing to take the opportunity to access medical care away from what is estimated to be 4.5 million people.

Here's a map that shows how much premiums would rise if the courts decide to play this game of kick the poor people.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Evidence that this is a strange country

A candle casts a warm glow on a restaurant table of an evening.

But the light's fluctuations seemed just a little too even to come from a real flame. That suspicion was right.

What's in it for the restaurant that encourages use of the battery operated candle? Cost of real candles? Staff time to light, extinguish and replace them? Clean up costs when customers play with dripping wax? We'll never know.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Isolationists, interventionists, liberal apostles of nationalism -- can't we do better?

On Friday, the New York Times reported:

Iran, the United States and the five other countries negotiating the future of the Iranian nuclear program have agreed to a four-month extension of the talks, giving them more time to try to bridge major differences over whether Tehran will be forced to dismantle parts of its nuclear infrastructure, according to a statement released early Saturday in Vienna by all seven nations.

The same day, I attended a session at Netroots Nation titled "Iran: Diplomacy or War?" Heather Hurlburt of Human Rights First opened the session by pointing out that much as any of us might have hoped that the Iran talks would be extended rather than have them collapse, none of us could have guessed that this potentially momentous affirmation of the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to what the powers consider Iran's nuclear threat would fall below the threshold for major news. She opined this might be a good thing, muting some resistance in both the US and Iran.

In general, the panel -- which included Ilya Sheyman from, Ali Gharib from the Nation and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut in addition to Hurlburt -- applauded President Obama's combination of sanctions with diplomacy in our dealings with Iran. They take for granted that the United States must take the potential Iranian bomb as a vital threat, though they don't say just why. They were all concerned that the Democratic national security policy establishment needs to develop some approach to the rest of the world that is neither isolationist nor interventionist.

On the one hand, that sounds sensible. Certainly talking is better than shooting our adversaries. And a war-weary United States has zero appetite for military adventures.

But the discussion struck me as essentially surreal. Don't any of these people understand that the United States has next to zero legitimacy with many of the peoples of the world? In the Middle East, we are both perpetrators and enablers of horror. In Latin America, we're the cruel mega-state to the north which ratifies authoritarian coups (as in Honduras in 2009) and spreads our drug war, spawned by our appetite for narcotics, across the continent. Even in Europe, we're the arrogant superpower which affirms our right to spy on all and sundry. A United States which imprisons children fleeing violence and locks Muslims convicted of no crime up for over a decade in Guantanamo simply has no claim to be a beacon of freedom, democracy, or rule of law.

Obama has -- on his better days -- has dragged the country away from its xenophobic crusading mode. But after decades of support for "anti-communist" dictators and schools of torture, it's no surprise that in the eyes of most of the world, we're more a rogue elephant than a model nation. Democratic foreign policy wonks seem as unable to acknowledge this simple truth as are Republicans.

Fortunately, in another NN14 session, Sara Haghdoosti suggested an alternative frame within which progressives can think about national security and foreign policy. Try this on mentally:

Foreign policy is how we allow our government to treat people in other countries.

That seems a far preferable way to look at the world. Simple, democratic (small "d") and to the point. The point has to be how to live on this planet together, peacefully, for the good of all. Anything else is simply stupid.

You can learn about BERIM, Haghdoosti's project on Iran, and sign a petition supporting diplomatic solutions to conflict at this link. The graphic is from the BERIM site.

Screams from the silence: #GazaUnderAttack

Israeli memo to journalists:

As part of Hamas’ strategy of hiding behind the civilian population it has frequently exploited journalists as human shields, deliberately putting them at risk of injury or death.

Israel is not in any way responsible for injury or damage that may occur as a result of field reporting.

And this, from Gaza City:

This occupation, this massacre, is protected by a silent world. 

Dr. Mona El-Farra

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