Sunday, July 27, 2014


Why do we fight wars?  The cop-out answer shunts the blame to our genes invoking some genetic predisposition to aggression. It is a circular reasoning.  It is innate these advocates claim because we always fight wars so it must be in our genes.  That is not good science. Humans also cooperate and form communities that go beyond the family and extend to national identity.  Is it in our genes then to cooperate? The same circular reasoning can be used to justify this.  Also, there is no known aggregate of people who are all rugged individualists to support an alternative theory.  I would use a different argument about the social construction of wars. Take the case of Sweden.  Until the early middle ages they were Vikings and terrified other European shores with raids that were wantonly aggressive. After they were Christianized they shifted to wars with Russia and lost Finland to the Russians. They converted to Lutheranism during the Reformation and under King Gustav Vasa they had numerous wars against Denmark, the Baltic States, Poland, and Russia. Under Charles XII they marched their way south until they were defeated by the Russians. Charles XII returned and attacked Norway only to be killed in 1718.  A century later they joined the countries fighting Napoleon’s army. From 1814 on they have not been involved in any war.  There was no mega-mutation or population shift and mixture that brought this about. It was not biology but social policy of the Swedish government that rejected war and saw Sweden’s future in manufacturing and providing for the welfare of its citizens.  The same can be said for the Swiss. They organized into Cantons that joined in 1386.   Many of their young men made a living as mercenary soldiers hired by other countries to guard their palaces. In 1506 the Papacy employed the Swiss Guards to protect the Vatican.  In 1798 the French invaded but peace was restored after Napoleon’s defeat.  During the Reformation civil war broke out with Protestant against Catholic and erupted episodically until 1847 when the Swiss Republic established its constitution.  Since then Switzerland has maintained its neutrality, but unlike Sweden, it chose to establish universal military training for all its males. This made the prospects of fighting Switzerland a costly one and the Swiss have enjoyed more than 150 years of peace since then.   
              I would argue that the biggest obstacle to a world without wars is patriotism.  All countries indoctrinate their citizens, celebrate their heroes for military victories of the past, and revere those who died in fighting for their country.  For some who are indoctrinated, criticism of military options for foreign policy is bordering on treason.  It took a Civil War to overthrow slavery in the US which was established in the South as a way of life.  It may take a world war with nuclear weapons killing half or more of the world’s population to make the survivors do what the Swedes and Swiss recognized.  Living in peace is a better option than the disruptions caused by war.  I hope that just as most countries gave up slavery without a civil war, a generation will emerge that looks on war as a moral failure as antiquated as rooting out and persecuting  witchcraft or purchasing slaves to do hard, life shortening,  or unpleasant labor.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Nedra and I like to watch the news and we mix MSNBC, PBS, CBS, CNN, and an occasional switch to Fox News, especially when no other news is available. That gives us a nice spectrum of opinions and I find it helpful to know the spin that each commentator gives on a lead story. As I watch the current crises in Ukraine and the Gaza strip I am reminded of a similar range of opinions on the Iraq war.  We are not privy to the debates that take place in our presidents’ cabinet meetings.  We usually start off united and enthusiastic for a war, especially if there is a provocation.  For Iraq it was Sadam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction for first the atomic bomb that wasn’t and second for the mobile poison gas units that were show cased at the UN by our duped ambassador.  As the momentum for war was urged by the neocons and war hawks in the Bush administration, I listened to their spin. The war would be over in a few weeks.  We would use precision bombing that only hit military targets. Guided missiles would spare putting pilots at risk. Once Hussein’s army was crushed (one general called its army “laughable”), the liberated people of Iraq would throw flowers at our soldiers as they marched through Baghdad.  That last image touched my memory.  I thought of the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy (accidentally) kills the wicked witch by throwing a bucket of water on her (to put out a fire on the straw man set by the wicked witch), the witch melts and dies.  Her army that terrorized Dorothy and her companions, then turns to her and shouts out “Hail Dorothy!” and the soldiers kneel as they adore her.  I felt then that this is how foreign policy is shaped in our childhoods.  We have a fairy tale image of our virtues and strengths and of our enemies’ evils and flaws.  We do not have fairy tales with shades of grey. What depresses me is that fairy tales are not limited to one country. It is a universal childhood theme of good versus evil. Stepmothers are wicked. Ogres exist. Justice prevails.  It is when the war ends or the war drags on or the casualties are seen and the mistakes are made that the shades of grey — what we call reality – set in. Those murky accompaniments of war disturb us because they do not fit the fairy tale expectations that accompany the start of war.  Instead of a “Hail Dorothy” moment we hear “Get out of Vietnam” or “Get out of Iraq” or “Stop the War” or “Hey, hey, hey, LBJ, how many people have you killed today.”  Instead of invoking “light at the end of the tunnel,” the puzzled war hawks invoke “the fog of war.”  They feel that they and their nation were betrayed by unpatriotic protesters who sabotaged their dreams.  They do not feel that they were betrayed by their fairy tale image of yet another controversy in a war saturated world. 

Monday, July 21, 2014


About 50 years ago I read a column by I. F. Stone. He said “All governments lie.”  That idea has never left me and I think of it whenever a controversy or war erupts.  It was reinforced when I did the research for a book on Agent Orange which I shelved.  I read hundreds of declassified documents and I also attended an International Conference on Agent Orange in Ho Chi Minh City.  I learned that a major reason for classifying documents as secret is not to prevent an enemy to know our plans but to shield our government from embarrassment. Thus in the early phase of the Vietnam War when we were still advisors and not participants, we arranged for US trained South Vietnamese pilots to use our planes modified for spraying but had these painted with Vietnamese identification.  We could then pretend that this was a Vietnamese operation. When I visited the War Museum the North Vietnamese built after the war, its exhibit on the war included some misleading representations of the effects of Agent Orange, including a picture of a child with advanced retinoblastoma in one eye.  No data supporting the incidence of exposed and unexposed populations was used.  The data was misleading but I can understand why Vietnamese would want to blame Agent Orange for any child born with a birth defect. At the conference when I pointed out the low frequency of birth defects among non-exposed populations in a paper presented on Agent Orange and birth defects and why the US and Europe and other industrialized nations have incidences ten to one hundred times higher, he said this was because Vietnam had virtually no industrial pollution.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that most of the data was compiled by self reporting from parents who would claim exposure to Agent Orange if they had a child with a birth defect. Today’s reports on the Ukrainian disaster with a Malaysian plane shot down likely by Russian trained missile operators reflects Stone’s insight as we listen to each side blame the other for an event that should not have happened had more thoughtful people been in the decision making process. Similarly it is small comfort in wars to victims of “surgical strikes” if innocent families are trapped in their neighborhoods to be told that “every effort” was made to avoid civilian casualties.   If they are not “precision bombings” then we invoke another lie.  We say it was to save more lives that would have been lost if we didn’t ….[fill in the blank: kill the Jews in death camps before they destroyed our German culture and way of life; drop the bomb on Hiroshima to end the war and spare American lives; cluster bomb Coventry and London to break the will of the British people; fire bomb Tokyo and break the will of the Japanese people]. The list of rationalizations is quite large.  A corollary of Stone’s comment is “the first casualty of war is truth.”  What is remarkable is how effective lies are in convincing the public that its government is righteous and our sacrifices are both noble and necessary.  It works with the same certainty as Lucy pulling the football as Charlie Brown tries to kick it in Peanuts.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Why is Libertarianism such an appealing economic and political movement?  As I understand it, the movement began with the publication by Herbert Spencer in 1855 of his book Social Statics. I read that book as background for a chapter in a book I wrote in 2002 called The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea. Spencer believed the state is the enemy of the individual. He opposed all government activity except for protecting a country against foreign invasion.  He rejected the legitimacy of the Monarchy. He believed all colonialism was wrong because it held other people in subservience to a conquering state.  He opposed all public education because he felt the function of state supported education is indoctrination of loyalty to the state and its policies.  He felt all education should be autodidact with children learning to use libraries to educate themselves.  He opposed discrimination against women and felt they had the right to divorce, owning property, and competing with males for any job they took an interest in.  He believed people (not government) should provide insurance for their health, retirement, police protection, fire department protection, and accidents.  Companies should pay for roads, harbors, and other infrastructure and not use the state to do so.  He felt no licensing should be issued by states or organizations.  You would be assessed by the quality of your work not by your degrees or training.  He included lawyers, physicians and engineers in this category. He also believed “unfit people” should not reproduce their kind.   As you can see, many Libertarians today would cherry pick what they like and drop other items from Spencer’s list.  It was Social Statics that led to the “social Darwinism” movement in the late 19th century, especially in the US.    

The problem I see with Libertarianism, then or now, rests on the assumption that just being born gives all babies an equal start.  Each is assumed to be master of his or her fate. Supposedly, rational infants will educate themselves and compete fairly.  He does not believe that wealth or social class or race or sex plays a role in who succeeds or who fails.  He offers the lawsuit as the response to cheaters.  Can you imagine filing hundreds of lawsuits each year (and paying for them) because about ten percent of humanity acts selfishly or deceptively or is ignorant of all the ways their actions have unintended bad outcomes?  After all, there would be no regulations in the free trade markets.  Toxins in your foods?  Sue me.  Clothes fall apart?  Sue me.  Your house collapses because it is shoddy work?  Sue me.  Your kid dies because there are no public health programs and you ate food I prepared with unwashed hands?   Sue me.  What if I can block each lawsuit with a dozen lawyers and you have nothing to speak of to pay for your lawyers?  What if I counter sue you for slander?   Is that the world we want?  How does Libertarianism differ from anarchy? 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


I enjoyed turning 83 on July 15, 2014.  Nedra and I celebrated with a dinner out (including a margarita with two straws) and she baked my favorite cake – an almond cake with a crispy icing and studded with raspberries.  That takes the edge off the reality of old age with its multiple insults of a less effective body; a feeling of being marginalized by the rush of the present and the recession of the past into history; and a foreboding of a truncated future.  That marginalization came to me when I learned my Life Lines column would shift from every other week to once a month.  I can’t complain because I have done that column for 17 years (over 400 articles) and I am grateful it will continue in its monthly schedule.  But what it tells me is that nothing lasts. Culture constantly changes.  It would be delusional to think of writing a column in the style of Montaigne, or Francis Bacon, or Addison and Steele, or Thomas Paine or T H Huxley. A new generation seeks a new way of saying things as it proves with introducing jazz then swing, then rock and roll, then rap.  In my life time I wrote letters avidly in my youth, did not use a telephone until I was in my 30s, wrote my first books with a fountain pen, shifted to a typewriter, and did not use a computer until the late 1980s.  Now I look at the doings of my relatives, friends, and former students on Facebook.  I regularly use email. But I do not Text or Tweet and I have resisted getting a cell phone so I can enjoy privacy while walking or visiting. I have experienced at least four generations so I have seen lots of changes in culture.  The experience is like driving an old car.  It eventually becomes elevated in status as an antique car (especially if lovingly restored) instead of being seen as a tin lizzy.  

I enjoyed reading The 100 Year Old Man Who Crawled out the Window and Disappeared  by Jonas Jonasson.  It makes sport of history and politics and its hero, Alan Karlsson, is like Inspector Clouzot in the Pink Panther films. I wish aging were as  humorous or as free of decrepitude as the novel portrays it. But wouldn’t it be a dreary world to live without some illusions?