Drone Debate, Killing “Clean,” Volunteer Army, and National Service

New Orleans    Stick with me on this, brothers and sisters, because I swear there is a ironclad connection welding all of these pieces together:  drones, the draft, and national service or killing “clean,” the volunteer army, and social equality, if you prefer.

Suddenly, there is a bit of kerfuffle about our unmanned, million dollar drone killing machines that we guide from remote control, game like stations, and swoop down on presumed bad guys, terrorists, and innocent civilians sometimes all over the world.  This new global war capability seems lawless to many, given that there is little authority or accountability involved, which is prompting some to suddenly cry, “oh, my,” and demand a special court or some kind of review on this awesome exercise of raw power.

Is this sincere?  I doubt it.  In the post-Viet Nam world over the last 40 years, we like our killing clean and quick.  We can’t handle a slough whether in the swamps of Southeast Asia or deserts of the Middle East or deserted highlands of Afghanistan.

Well, that’s not really true, is it?  With no draft pinching the toes and the future of most middle class families and virtually no one among the upper ups, in fact in the good ol’ USA, we’ve proven that we many people can get much more exercised about their time in line at airport security and the outlines of their body scans as they play their small part in the “war on terror,” than about the body count in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The real issue that is forcing these wars to finally come to something somewhere between retreat and withdrawal is really more about the huge price tags involved and our crippling recession more than the human toil, so unevenly distributed among the volunteer army of minorities, women, and the working class desperate for employment with more meaning than McDonalds and Walmart.

A friend recently raised with me the issue of universal national service.  What happened to that?  Certainly the proposition had been a core of the Clinton platform and was the inspiration behind Americorps which still continues to this day, and the controversial, though popular rise of programs like Teach for America still speak to a strong heartbeat for such service.  We lost the trail during the Bush terms to the uniform of the day, but even President Obama spoke of the need for such service though we have only seen it evinced in such programs as delays and forgiveness of student loans for nonprofit work in some circumstances.  In a somewhat perverse neoliberal twist, Obama essentially incentivized some level of service, rather than moving forward on the equity inherent in a program of universal national service.

Reading about recent political developments in Israel, where military service is mandatory, was interesting because the issue of equality of service, and the sacrifice it entails, is so entrenched that exemptions from such service, even for religious reasons became a national election issue, because there was inadequate equity.  Given the widening gaps and disconnects within American society, it is impossible to argue that some form of universal national service, whether teaching or the military or rebuilding the urban core or abandoned rural communities, would not be a huge social good with deep and lasting benefits to society and our future.

Instead we continue to punt on core issues.  We celebrate our young college dropouts who flee to Silicon Valley and high-tech centers to reap their millions and create the next Googles, Facebooks, and, yes, drones to allow us to live in total denial neither recognizing our country or ourselves any longer or carrying much in any real way about the world and the footprints we are leaving there.

Politically, it would seem that national service would be something where both parties could find easy agreement.  Unfortunately, there is neither a citizen campaign for such service with any traction.  Nor, more meaningfully in these times is there a donor base for decreasing inequality, especially if it means that the sons and daughters of those same donors would be put in the vast melting pot for a year or two of their youth and the country’s benefit.

Keeping everyone’s hands clean and on separate, disparate paths may allow us more time with our head in the clouds, but it won’t build this country or a better world.  We’re proving that every day with blood.


Every Friday in Bil’in is Demo Time for Iyad Burnat and the Gang on the West Bank

Palestinians and Israeli left-wing activists try to break down a section of Israel's separation barrier, during a protest to mark the 5th anniversary of protests against Israel's West Bank separation barrier in the West Bank town of Bilin near Ramallah, Friday, Feb. 19, 2010.

Atlanta     Fred Brooks, an old comrade, and now professor at Georgia State, asked if I would be interested in hearing a visiting speaker, Iyad Burnat, who was a Palestinian organizer of nonviolent protests on the ever controversial West Bank and happened to be giving a talk at Kennesaw State at the international conflict resolution center up there.  The meetings that were bringing me to Atlanta were later in the afternoon, so, always dangerously curious, why not?

Burnat’s talk focused on the continuous struggle waged by the Palestinian olive farmers in the small town of Bil’in to live and work under the Israeli occupation hemmed in by the wall.  In the beginning there was a screen shot projected above him which showed a map around the town.  The green line to the left of the screen was the older United Nations demarcation of territory for the Palestinians.  The red line some three kilometers farther inland, splitting the Bil’in portion of the map was the wall erected by the Israeli’s to facilitate the wildly polarizing “settlements” we read about constantly in the news.

Never having been in this area of the Middle East, I was taken by two things as Burnat scrolled through his pictures and YouTube video taken of their regular Friday protests and demonstrations.  In my mind the “wall” was similar to the enormity of the wall being built along the Rio Grande by the United States in order to try to convince Mexicans to stay in Mexico, and that is a 16 foot, concrete and steel monstrosity, permanent, imposing, and so out of place that it seems bizarre.  The “wall” we were seeing in Bil’in was often a rickety looking chain link fence with barbed wire on top with a Hogan’s Heroes look about it.  The “wall” was all about the ability of the Israeli Army to hold the line in a very, very personal way.  The other surprise was that the pictures of the settlements in my mind’s eye had been rural compounds.  The pictures of the settlements around Bil’in were multi-story, modern high-rise structures that from a distance would have seemed at home on a California hillside.

The actual video that composed the bulk of Burnat’s presentation was depressing in every way.  A ragtag, but spirited and imaginative crew of protestors, largely composed of peace movement Israeli supporters and foreigners from all over the world with a smattering of local Palestinians, still willing to brave the almost predictable certainty of arrest and detention for their nonviolent protest, would march or demonstrate near the wall chanting for peace until the bored appearance of the Israeli Army squad would stop and scatter them with tear gas or dismantle their props or cut them loose from the fence or whatever the protest specialty de jour might be.  The predictability of the players and the parts almost made these protests seem more media charade than real life drama until, virtually without provocation there would be smoke and, way too often, blood, with protestors falling, hit by USA-made tear gas canisters or rubber bullets.

After eight years of their commitment to nonviolence and every Friday protests, the people of Bil’in count as their victory some small progress is moving the “wall,” and from what I could hear, that’s about it.  They were buoyed in their efforts by constant and growing support from the Israeli peace movement and the excitement of international visitors from former US-president Jimmy Carter and others, even while their local base seemed increasingly marginal.  When I told Burnat, I admired their steadfast commitment to this tactic, but was curious about their real strategy, he replied in several ways.  First, he argued essentially that “hope” for change was their plan.  Sadly, hope is never a plan.  When pressed, he offered a practiced and pat response that they were “farmers not politicians.”  When I rejoined that “protest was a political act; you’re no longer farmers,” he gave some more effort to the answer, which was basically that their only plan was what was available to them as a “voice” for their predicament.  Their plan was the protests.  It’s about all they have, it’s what they know, so it’ll have to do, really whether it was getting anything else done or not.  They had to struggle against the occupation, so this is what they would do.

I could get that easily enough.  Some of his other answers undercut the purity of the position he was trying to stake out.  In answering questions from the audience rather than sticking to the “we’re farmers not politicians line, he offered opinions about the Palestinian Authority which denigrated them for not being “on the ground” despite what he had showed us of his own base in Bil’in.  He also was negative about the recent United Nations parliamentary and diplomatic breakthrough in terms of delegate status which they won by an overwhelming vote of countries throughout the world virtually isolating the positions of Israel and the United States as recalcitrant.  Once again his argument was that it did not change things on the ground, but that misses the point that major campaigns and victories are won by employing a multitude of tactics and strategies.

I walked away shaking my head.  What a mess we have in the Middle East and sadly there seems no “conflict resolution” in sight.

Iyad Burnat


Looking at Occupy and the Arab Spring

AADERT Conference

Springfield   Looking at the connections and contrasts between the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy Movement was an irresistible topic for the 20th conference of AADERT (African and African-American Development, Education, Research, and Training) at Springfield College.  In fact anything that seeks to look deeply at social movements and learn from them counts as irresistible in my book, so I’m clearly not an unbiased guide.  Nonetheless 150 students, professors, activists, and men and women of the African diaspora assembled in the rain at the newish Flynn Union Center for the discussion all day on Saturday.

Listening to others from the diaspora, it did not seem to hold that distance had made hearts go fonder or certainly more secure.  Long time expatriates and exiles from Somolia, the civil wars of Liberia and Ethiopia, and elsewhere had to be judged from their remarks as highly skeptical of the real likelihood for reform and democracy arising from the Arab Spring.  Even less controversial issues like using the internet still reverberated with fears of security and surveillance 7000 miles away and in another world.

I had to heed the perspective since the Organizers’ Forum delegation’s visit to Cairo has been both inspiring and depressing as we both joined friends in hope for the future and the excitement of Tahrir Square and tried last fall to parse the views of mostly secular presidential candidates, none of whom have now survived to the runoff in recent Egyptian voting.  Were I talking to our friends on the Young Revolutionary Council now, I would imagine they are disaffected and uncertain whether to boycott the election completely with a choice between a member of the old Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or hold their eyes and vote for the Brotherhood in hopes they can make a difference.

My own remarks focused on the elements of movements and how they could be identified in each of the movements by shining a light that revealed the hands behind the curtain.  I also tried to look at the contributions of each.  Interestingly, asking people to raise their hands less than a handful had any real knowledge or involvement with Occupy, further making my point about the somewhat elite nature of the movement attacking elites.  [See my remarks soon in Social Policy).  It was fun to be challenged to look at both of these major events together, even though the results are also still out in the jury on both of them.   The highlight for me was a woman at the end of the questions & answers, who said she just had to say something and then told a story of being doorknocked in Springfield by an ACORN organizer a couple of years ago, then getting together with her neighbors and winning – it was magical!

Almost as interesting to me was visiting with a class of Human Services graduate students and their professor, Dan Russell, in between sessions.  These were hardened veterans of real work in the trenches of the caregivers with experience  in unions from SEIU to Steel, and real cynicism and trepidation about whether their voices mattered and whether it was worth them speaking up and raising them when they saw injustice.  It goes without saying that I made my best, impassioned plea.  Their assignment had been to read some of my recent blogs, so it was fun to find some real traction with my remarks about the need for even the lonely voices in the jury box to speak truth to justice about the erosion of both mercy and justice in our criminal system.

Hope is not a plan, as I reminded the AADERT crowd, but persistent and committed work and events like these and the dialogues they produce still keep the heart light with expectation.   After my remarks a young man came up, stood in line to speak with me when it came to his turn, said he was from Monrovia, Liberia, and he wanted to know how he could join ACORN and help.  Now that’s a plan!