Saturday, June 26, 2010

America's Bleeding Ulcers

That's how Stanley McChrystal described the aftermath of his recent campaign in Marjah: a "bleeding ulcer." Even the General himself does not count Marjah as a win for our side. So our country now has two open sores, both potentially lethal, to contend with: the war in Afghanistan, which after ten years of bleeding men and resources, we are STILL losing, and the oil spill, which continues to make its suffocating assault on the Gulf.

This week, however, the story of the wrenching separation of Stan McChyrstal from his job as commander-in-chief of the war in Afghanistan managed to temporarily upstage the news from the hemorrhaging Gulf. The question on everybody's mind was, what on earth prompted McChyrstal, who is no dummy and certainly knows the unbending rules of military protocol, to diss his civilian counterparts in Washington and to allow his aides to make mocking comments about them to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine? Didn't he realize that the sarcastic little caper might just cost him his job? Well, it seems that McChrystal and his aides and the reporter were all stranded for a week in Paris because of volcanic ash, and they ended up carousing together, while waiting for a plane to get them to Berlin, en route back to Afghanistan. Paris is not exactly a beloved haven for military jocks. And make no mistake, unlike David Petraeus, McChrystal IS a jock. Petraeus, by contrast, is much more politically refined and savvy. Both are good at what they do.

So, was this a deliberate and calculated insubordination by McChrystal and his gang, or was it merely (as David Brooks suggested in one of his recent columns), the sort of barracks-style "kvetching" that soldiers routinely engage in, admittedly usualy below anyone else's radar? Brooks feels that we just lost a good man because of our "culture of exposure," which has become more obsessed with inner soap operas than with job performance. The media circus has compromised our privacy, he claims, chased good people from public life, and most of all, it has elevated the trivial over the important.

Is that the simple explanation for what happened? if McChrystal is right about Afghanistan really being a bleeding ulcer, then perhaps he did not want to be officer-in-chief of a doomed enterprise. This was always supposed to be "our last. best shot," according to Obama, when he sent McChrystal in to take charge of the COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy, and so far at least, it isn't working. You may have noticed, if you follow these things, that the big summer offensive in Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, has been "postponed" until Fall. We'll have to see if it happens then, or not.

Generals don't like to lose wars. It is not far-fetched to think that perhaps at some level. McChrystal wanted to be relieved of responsibility, so as not to be blamed for the inevitable defeat. I've always thought he seemed like a neat guy, so I'm sorry to see him go--though obviously, we should all be going along with him. Maybe he can take up knitting for a while--nothing permanent, you understand.

As for the other, ever-advancing, bleeding ulcer in the Gulf, on June 25th the US government doubled its official estimate of the amount of oil spewing to 2.5 million gallons/day, or the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez spill every four days. Five thousand feet beneath the surface of sea a bizarre scenario continues to play out. Fourteen submersible robots work day and night to help contain the leak. The video cameras of the gushing hole are attached to them. They are pilot-operated by men in special recliners sitting on land and using eleven monitors, DVD video recorders, a sonar screen, and joysticks they can move around. The robots help to hook up fluid connectiors, hoses and plumbing, install new oil recovery systems, and build the relief wells. All fodder for the next James Cameron film or video game producer. The robots also collect data and monitor the scene, but they cannot work in hurricanes. According to a super user on Huffington Post, once the borehole collapses--which every expert says is what is actually happening--it won't matter how many robots you have or whether relief wells are drilled or not.

On a more jolly note, I went to see The Karate Kid last week. It's really good, and the scenes in the middle of the movie where Jackie Chan takes the kid to a Buddhist temple high up on a mountain in China are truly extraordinary. As a former tai chi practitioner (for ten years, I was mesmerized by the woman standing in one-legged crane pose on the claw of a stone dragon located at the edge of a cliff--while simultaneously hyponotizing a live cobra. Any mistake or startle, and she would either be bitten by the cobra, or fall a million miles down the mountain. That scene alone was worth the whole movie. It should become the inspirational logo for our terrible times.

My friend Bill Rutherfoord writes in response: "Well, I think it's clear that neither Obama nor anyone else can convincingly pretend the damage in the Gulf region is reversible, and I agree with you that the near term I expect to see conditions dramatically worsen, and like it or not, for some, crane pose on a precipice may be the best available prescription for concentrating the mind in our present eco-apocalyptic game of Stare Down the Cobra."

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