I liked living in Portland some. It had its good parts–a living downtown, the remains of an industrial background to where you could get things useful done, but I didn’t care much for its inhabitants, far too many of whom were mentally constipated white people who were happy to do retarded white people things. Like pass their own property tax limitation measure in ’96, a knockoff of California’s Prop. 13, fully aware by then of how badly Prop.13 had crippled California’s schools and economic future, and had inflicted gross tax inequalities on the young at the benefit of their parents’ generation. Didn’t matter to those bozos. Portland is still coasting on its Tom McCall reputation from the ’70’s, and the longer I lived in the state the more I wondered how a progressive Republican ever managed to get political power there and do all the worthwhile things he did in his day. With its severe drawbacks (shitty weather and unpleasant inhabitants) I can’t recommend it as a place to live for very long. Oregonians are near as full of themselves and their state as Texans are, for a lot less reason. One of the state’s great drawbacks, one that isn’t apparent or ever talked about by the residents there, is how much the timber industry still runs that state. This despite the gross decline of the timber industry in size, employment, you name the measure timber is bad sick.
Only newspaper in the state is the Portland Oregonian, which is about as sorry a paper as most daily monopolies are everywhere else in the US these days. Just as the Oregon state legislature is still run behind the scenes by the timber industry, so is the Oregonian. So back in 2000 the Oregonian began beating its chest about a huge and important investigative series it was about to run about the eco-terrorist threat and movement. Probably a month of promo articles ran, and once the series ran the staff there about dislocated themselves patting themselves on the back in the editorial pages about their bravery and derring-do in running these dreadfully important articles about this critically ignored issue that affects us all so greatly. Did that for the entire three-day run of the series, and continued it for about a week afterwards, too.
Three-day series of articles that had a quarter of the front page leading to two full facing pages midways in the front section. Articles obviously had a lot of effort put into them, but they were as obviously blowing a molehill into a mountain. Proof of this came towards the end of day 2’s article, wherein the fact was let drop about the total economic damages caused by eco-terrorism in the entire of the United States in the past two decades. Figure was something like 10 million dollars, which spread out over two decades means that the annual economic damages of eco-terrorism are less than the economic damages caused by McDonald’s Happy Meal’s wrappers’ litter. I busted out laughing when I read this number, and then picked up the telephone and called up the Oregonian.
I got kicked upstairs to the managing editor quicker than normal when I told the operator that I wanted to discuss the big ecoterrorism series. Managing editor gets on the line, and I praise her paper’s efforts on this issue, and say how rare it is that a newspaper these days spends the amount of effort on a story as the Oregonian did on this one, and how pleased I was to see that. That was the set-up; the hook, set, was when I went on to say that I’d heard a Reuters report yesterday about how the United States Air Force bombed a series of targets in Iraq yesterday, and you know I don’t see how those bombs didn’t kill and injure a bunch of Iraqis, persons I have no conceivable quarrel with–and you know, your article today said that there hasn’t been a single person ever killed or injured by eco-terrorism, Ms. Managing Editor–and you know your article said that the sum total of economic damages done by eco-terrorism wasn’t but $10 million over two decades here in the US, and I couldn’t see the bombs from three dozen jet bomber sorties not costing one hell of a lot more damages than $10 million that one raid alone, and hell I bet it cost us the US Taxpayer more than $10 million just to deliver that ordnance. And you know, there wasn’t a single word about these air raids in your newspaper, Ms. Managing Editor, and I can’t recall ever reading a report in your paper about any of the dozens of raids we’ve been doing to Iraq for the past several years, and why is it that eco-terrorism rates this much newspaper space and these air raids and their destruction and death don’t rate a single mention, not a single word ever in your paper?
Lengthy spell of silence from the other end of the phone, which is always a good sign that you’ve hit home. The managing editor finally said, well, that’s a real good question you’ve got there, Mr. White. How about writing an op-ed about it?
Of course I said yes, and I happily went off to the Multnomah County Library, a quite good public library. The reference librarians were most helpful, but I couldn’t find word one in any United States government publication about what we’d bombed in Iraq for the preceding nine years. Tombstone type press releases about the air strikes saying that targets in Iraq were bombed yesterday, with no real details. Presumably all the air raids got press releases afterwards? No way of telling. I’d hit a brick wall, and the only way around it was going to be with some Congressional assistance.
I played dumb and called up two different Congressmen–they never asked if I was in their district–and both Senators’ offices. Both the Congressmen were liberal Democrats–Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, and one senator was liberal Democrat, Ron Wyden, and one was Conservative Republican, Gordon Smith. I told them all the story of my having an offer of op-ed space in the Oregonian and my needing to do research on what the US had been bombing in Iraq for the preceding nine years, that I was sure that the information on the post-air strike bomb damage assessments would have everything I needed, and seeing as every air raid has a BDA done on it afterwards, what I needed was available somewheres in the Pentagon and would you please request that information for me, because maybe you might be interested to know too. Inevitably the reaction from the staffer, no matter what the party persuasion, was one of “Well, that information is classified, and we can’t get it for you.” The liberal Democrats’ staffers said it immediately and nicely and sincerely enough; Gordon Smith’s said it in as ugly and threatening a way as I’d ever been talked to by an elected official, with a clear implication of get lost now behind it. With the liberal Democrats I made an argument that they at least considered, that the information couldn’t be all that classified because hell anybody can travel to Iraq and see for themselves if they wanted to, and it isn’t like the Iraqis don’t know what in their country we’d been bombing either. This argument got nowhere with Gordon Smith’s staff. I got promises from the Democrats to look into the matter.
Numerous followup letters ensued. The one to Gordon Smith, personally, wherein I took his staffer to task for her ugliness (which is sort of bad for an elected official) and her not paying attention to the fact that I had a promise of op-ed space from the Oregonian’s managing editor (He told you what? And you told him what? You dumbass!) got me a rather nice and apologetic letter from his senior office staffer, with promises of assistance. Nothing showed up in my mailbox, and I had a lengthy series of letters, mostly unanswered, to all of the offices, for the next SEVEN MONTHS. I did get told by more than one office that my request had been submitted and that they were waiting to hear back so thank you very much for your patience. Normally the Pentagon rolls right over for a Congressional request, particularly a Senatorial one, and I began to have my doubts that they’d any bothered with forwarding my request, or if they had, they were all slacking and lazy and not doing any followup.
Then one day a letter showed up in my mail from Central Command, McDill Air Force Base, Florida–Office of Freedom of Information Act Requests. I opened it and read the very short letter addressed to me from this Staff Sergeant in the FOIA office there which told me that the information I requested was available, but that the copying costs were going to run me ten thousand dollars and some, so if I would be so kind as to submit payment for same they’d get them sent out to me. Otherwise just have a very nice day and thank you so much.
I was quite pissed off. Ten thousand plus dollars for this information? The letter written by a Staff Sergeant? Sheeyit that shows how little my request–my Senatorial request no less–rated to Central Command, getting sloughed off on the lowest-ranking NCO in the office. I stayed pissed off for about two weeks until the lightbulb went off, and then I picked up the phone and called that Staff Sergeant in the FOIA office.
The Staff Sergeant was quite nice over the telephone. He and I had a good chat about the military medical system and the problems he was having with it and getting the right care for his kids on account of problems with his now-separated and soon to be divorced wife. I told him that in regards to my request I of course did not have ten thousand dollars to spare right now or in the foreseeable future, but that maybe he could see about turning up a Reader’s Digest Condensed version for a whole lot less money–there had to be summaries, fairly brief summaries for the senior staff officers out there somewheres, and that was probably all I needed. Additionally, I asked him to look and see who else requested the information already–a historian or Congressman or some news agency or reporter–and if he could tell me who already had the information I could call them and ask them if they’d mind sharing it with me. The Staff Sergeant said he’d get to work on it and that he ought to have answers for me in about ten days.
Two weeks later I phoned CentCom again and spoke again to the Staff Sergeant. The Sergeant explained to me that he hadn’t found any summaries and he didn’t think that there were any. Additionally, he’d looked all the way back to 1991, and he hadn’t found a single request by anyone ever for the information I was asking for. I was astounded, and quizzed him good on that point, but he was firm, and said that I was the first person to ever ask CentCom about what exactly the United States (and our junior partners the Limeys) had been bombing in Iraq for nigh on a decade. All I could finally say was: Wow. Now that’s news. There’s my story, Sergeant. Could you please put that in a letter to me and I’ll be most grateful.
A month went by and I was about to pick up the telephone and give the Sergeant a reminder call and then 9-11 happened and I knew that I wasn’t ever going to get that letter.
For a couple of years afterwards I made it a point to quiz media types, academics, and historians that I’d meet about this, and ask them just why I was the only person who ever asked this question–why didn’t any of them ever ask it? I’d ask them if something wasn’t wrong with American democracy–and for that matter, British democracy, that these two countries could have this war going on in the background, a low-level war on autopilot, and not a single elected official, reporter, editor, or academic ever bothered to wonder just what our war was doing to the people and country we were fighting.* Invariably the newsmedia types would get personally quite offended at my pointing this out to them and would look at me like I was some sort of rattlesnake and would try and back away from me as fast as they could. Persons in politics–staffers, never got to quiz any elected official–were bored and resigned by my asking this, and had a ‘what do you expect?’ attitude. Academics didn’t believe me when I told them this story, and would, after some gasbagging on their part, suggest that I should go to graduate school somewheres and work on answering just that. Regrettably I never had the opportunity to point out to them that I had too much gray hair on my head to want to bother to go to grad school and besides, why would I want to hang around a bunch of people so dull and out of it they missed something this obvious, and how my hanging around this same dull crew supposed to get me closer to an answer? **
So without really meaning to, and not knowing exactly what it means, (which is usually how discoveries go) I stumbled across a great sociological/anthropological/political science truth, a deep truth, about how things are in this world of ours. The world’s preeminent military power can bomb another country for a decade and every single person living in it, and for that matter the entire of the rest of the world, is too incurious and unoffended by it to bother investigating the details of it any. We have, here in the US and the UK, accepted permanent low-level war as a normal state of affairs, and the war itself, and that state of affairs, simply isn’t of import or interest to the English democracies’ governments’ legislatures. Nor is the war or the permanent state of war of interest to any arm–print or broadcast, mass or elite, of the Fourth Estate. Academia and the intelligentsia are blind to it as well. As in Orwell’s 1984, a state of permanent war–a much lower level of permanent war than 1984’s, but a permanent state of war nevertheless–is accepted mostly unquestioned throughout Eurasia I mean the modern advanced countries, by everyone, literally every single person, in them.
But as with any real discovery, many new questions are raised by it, probably more than are answered by it. The first question is why Congress is happy with this situation. What we have here is Congress having completely yielded its most critical power–the power to engage the country in a war (and the real possibility that you can lose a war has been forgotten, it seems, here in the US; and that sort of naivete is generally lethal)–to the Executive. Additionally, everyone on the inside of politics will tell you that the real nitty-gritty of government isn’t so much writing laws as it is overseeing how they are implemented and working. This isn’t what we get taught in high school but the textbook writers (and the newspaper writers) just don’t know better, and don’t realize that legislative oversight is the routine maintenance, the regular oil changes, of representative government. Congress’ failure to ever inquire once about the details of a war and its killing and destruction that it funds shows how dead this essential function is in today’s United States, and United Kingdom both. Is that the case with the rest of the world’s representative democracies? And if it is, why is that?
So where is the intelligentsia on this issue? In theory, the intelligentsia’s key role is to be the conscience of society, to fearlessly ask the hard questions about us and our actions and make us stop and think about ourselves and our actions and maybe have us doing better because of that. Well, this is one hard question they sure missed, every last one of them. If nobody in the intelligentsia ever bothered to ask for the basic details about a decade-long air war on autopilot then there is something quite wrong in their approach to our world and the events going on in it. First place I’d look is at their lack of curiosity, which isn’t something you’d expect them to lack. I never saw much sign of inquiry and curiosity when I was at the university; Americans don’t seem to have much of it in their personal makeup no matter what their book reading habits are. But there is something else afoot in intelligentsia’s academic branch, and that is in their urging me to go to graduate school. Back before my hair went gray, whenever I or any of my friends would say something intelligent or clever around attorneys in approximately our age cohort, the general response of the attorney was to tell us that, why we should go to law school. I always ascribed this answer to guilt feelings on the attorneys’ part–at some deep subconscious level they felt that every intelligent and clever person should be a part of their obnoxious and largely criminal enterprise to where they personally wouldn’t feel so bad about what they did for a living. After all, if everyone clever and with it is doing it it can’t be that bad, can it? I can understand why attorneys in their 20’s and 30’s think like this, as they are new to it and still might have some human instincts left. But as attorneys get older they become hardened and cynical, or quit, or become alcoholic, or some combination of all three, and stop making this fundamentally insulting offer to the young and clever. Now for academics to take up this attorney behavioral trope is puzzling. Why are academics feeling guilty about themselves and what they do like attorneys do?
And where were the traditional voices of conscience and morality–the churches–during this decade (now pushing its second decade) of permanent war? Well they are on the sidelines, of course, but why? How many people can the US Government kill, and how much treasure can be squandered on a fundamentally irrational and immoral small scale war fought for domestic political grandstanding and showboating reasons before religious leaders, and even the ordinary concerned religious layperson, say anything? (See our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the answer there.)
And where is citizenship in this country of ours, that I alone of the three hundred million of us asked these questions, and fought as hard as I did against the willful obstruction I faced? How deep is the alienation between citizens and their government? Do people now see their responsibilities as citizens as anything more than paying taxes, working, and consuming material goods? Sam Rayburn, the canniest Congressional leader in recent history said that Congress was a fairly good mirror on who the American people are and what they know and think about things. Well, judging from its job performance here Congress is blind and deaf and lazy and incurious and unprofessional and is much too deferential to executive and military authority and power. Doesn’t say much good about us, because dammit I don’t think old Sam was wrong, either.
Is representative democracy dead, or doomed, that a state of permanent war is accepted unquestioned by the two leading democracies’ governments and peoples and key institutions? Or, seeing as nobody in the rest of the world seemed interested enough in this question to ask it, is it some sort of indication of a gross lack of curiosity and human empathy throughout the entire world? If that is the case, is the human race in fact ready for democracy? It is certainly going to take a lot more people than just me to keep this nonsense from happening twice. We are also going to have to come up with some new and different and better means of mass communication than what we’ve got now to where stories like this one don’t get buried and ignored. If anyone else has any ideas, I’m all ears.
*It must be pointed out that nobody else anywhere in the entire world, particularly the rest of the world’s politicians, newsmedia, or academics, ever bothered to ask this question either. This doesn’t say much good about them, either. And if there is some other way of getting this information about what we bombed and what our bombing did than going to Central Command and getting their BDA’s, I don’t know what it is, because the Republic of Iraq wasn’t inclined, near as I can tell, to ever release this information, as they were always notoriously close-lipped about their military actualities. Leastwise I never heard back from them ‘cuz I wrote them too.
**I did get to tell Theodore Lowi, Mr. Mainstream Political Science USA, that I’d sooner slice my dick off with a dull dime than go back to college again. The fact that he just kept talking away after my telling him that just shows how little attention he was paying to me, and probably everyone else at UT that day.