The Nation

Trudeau’s Sandbox

Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau had a terrific idea which he introduced in his Sunday strip. Explaining that the public is "increasingly disconnected from the troops," in part because it has become increasingly dangerous for reporters to cover the war, Trudeau created a milblog for troops to "report on themselves" in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Sandbox offers soldiers a forum to share "… the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd."

"I think the wars are just too remote for people's minds," Trudeau said. "They see two, three minutes on the evening news, maybe, if they don't look away."

Visit the site for authentic, first-hand accounts of soldiers' experiences. Here are some excerpts from recent posts:

"Tadpole," serving in Special Ops in Afghanistan, posts: "While I was home on leave recently, all the talk on every news channel was about the 10-year-old murder case of a little girl, hardly any mention of the war at all. When there is mention of the war, it's almost always of Iraq. Many people seem to have forgotten about Afghanistan altogether. Many of us over here feel like the forgotten bastard step-children of war. We get the leftover equipment, and very little recognition."

Staff Sergeant Emily Joy Schwenkler writes from Baghdad: "It is extremely hard to be here and not question the people and events that led to our being here. I don't question my own personal choice to be here. I ran, not walked, to my local recruiter with the desire to serve my country…. But there is no "winning" here. I can see the signs that our government is beginning to realize the same thing, beginning its modern-day version of Vietnamization…."

"Spc. O," stationed in Iraq, observes, "It's easy to say ‘WE have to go to war' if you're not WE, and it's easy to say ‘Bring home the troops' if they are not your brothers getting left behind on the return trip."

Zachary Scott-Singley describes his first Memorial Day after returning from Iraq: "The memories, and feeling that guilt for coming back alive while so many others have died, both soldiers and civilians. That was all I could think about that day: Why me? God, why did you let me live when you took so many others? But it wasn't God; it was us, mankind that did this."

Trudeau is relying on word-of-mouth to promote the site and is already pleased with the traffic. "We're in the odd position of not wanting to be too successful," he said. "We really don't have the resources to edit and post more than four to five submissions (and their comments) a day."

Check out what the troops have to say at The Sandbox. It's a great opportunity to hear from those making the greatest sacrifices and directly bearing the consequences of these wars.

Retail Workers Fight Back

Yesterday, more than 200 Wal-Mart workers held a demonstration in front of a Wal-Mart store in Hialeah Gardens, Florida. In the first significant protest ever organized by Wal-Mart employees in the United States, workers objected to managers cutting their hours, and to the company's insistence on employees' "open availability," as well as to a new, more stringent attendance policy. It's courageous of these workers, who are part of a Florida group called "Associates at Wal-Mart," to speak out publicly and demand better treatment. Let's hope their protest is a turning point in the fight for workers' rights at Wal-Mart, and that more workers will be emboldened by the Florida workers' example and begin to organize. Too much of the debate over Wal-Mart takes place without the perspective of the true experts -- the workers themselves.

Speaking of retail workers, the IWW's Starbucks campaign -- which I've mentioned on this blog before -- is growing, and having some encouraging effects. Workers have organized in New York City, and, this summer, Chicago. Last week, the company raised its Chicago workers' wages, increasing starting pay by thirty cents (to $7.80) and promising that if an employee gets a favorable performance review, her pay will go up to $8.58 after six months. New York City workers will make $9.63 an hour after six months on the job (and a favorable review), which means that the IWW campaign will have raised many employees' wages by nearly 25% in two and a half years. The company insists that the raise has nothing to do with the union, but that claim simply isn't credible. As Daniel Gross, who was recently fired for from Starbucks for union organizing, points out, the wage increase "isn't justified by macroeconomic factors, or by any factors other than the union. Real wages for other workers in New York City haven't increased by 25%, or anywhere near that!"

Of course, as Daniel points out, even with the increase, Starbucks workers do not make a living wage. He also stresses that the wage increase needs to be viewed in the context of Starbucks' anti-union campaign: "The company still doesn't recognize the union's right to exist." Starbucks still has a long way to go before the reality behind its counters matches its socially-responsible image.

Nuclear Illogic

Twenty years ago this month the world might have taken a different course. On October 11, 1986, at the Reykjavik Summit, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan entertained the idea that had long been unthinkable among the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union: a world free of nuclear weapons. Yet, despite the end of the Cold War and the development of relatively normal relations among the world's nuclear powers, the idea of a non-nuclear world seems more distant than ever. As the recently released report of the International Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction makes clear, even the limited goals of nuclear arms control and non-proliferation have been set back by the lack of leadership on the part of the United States and by the proliferation of new weapons states. Also worrying, the goal of nuclear disarmament no longer seems to animate the progressive community or the peace movement-- let alone figure into today's discussion of American national security policy.

But even as the idea of a non-nuclear world seemed more distant than ever, Mikhail Gorbachev was in New York speaking eloquently of his belief that there are always alternative roads to sanity. At a gathering at the Museum of Television and Radio's auditorium, the former Soviet President insisted that the major nuclear powers must abide, in good faith, by the Non-Proliferation Treaty's core obligations. That includes, he reminded the packed hall, pursuit of real nuclear disarmament leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Just hours before Gorbachev spoke to a standing ovation, the New York Times' lead story called our era a "second nuclear age." And the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on North Korea for its reported nuclear test.

Lost amidst so much of the coverage of today's nuclear threats is a full understanding of how we got where we are. That doesn't mean listening to Hardball or one of the cable show's foodfights about who lost North Korea (we know it was Bush); but, rather, it requires a clear understanding of the history of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, and what it called for. In a cogent "Talk of the Town" piece in the current issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll reminds us that the NPT "proscribes all but five countries--the US, Russia, China, Britain and France--from possessing nuclear weapons, in exchange for a pledge from the five to eliminate their own stockpiles at some unspecified future time." But, as nuclear weapons expert Joseph Cirincione argues persuasively in the Los Angeles Times, by "rejecting international treaties as the solution to proliferation" and "by clinging to our own nuclear arsenal and touting the importance of these weapons to our own security," Bush and his Administration have "sent the world a schizoid message: Nuclear weapons are very, very important and useful--but you cannot have them." As Cirincione explains, "This double standard is impossible to maintain."

Today Gorbachev speaks of the paramount need for political will and leadership to end the insanity of a nuclear weapons race. He speaks of what real security means--envisioning governments tackling global poverty, and the fact that simply providing access to clean water could save two million lives each year.

We've lost twenty years since two leaders envisioned an alternative world. Today, as Coll says, " the only solution is to engage in the daunting, dull and entirely plausible project of steadily making such weapons marginal, illegitimate and very difficult to acquirem inspired by a final vision of enforceable abolition." The NPT, as Gorbachev told the hall on Sunday, is a guide to such a moral and practical end--if only the major nuclear powers would abide by the agreement they signed onto.

CODA: No other major US media outlet I know of commemorated that moment, 20 years ago, when the world came close to a nuclear-free world. However, at thenation.com, following on this magazine's longstanding commitment to nuclear abolition, we published a Forum on the summit's anniversary (October 11) with leading figures of the nuclear disarmament movement at that time. Their incisive, sometimes passionate reflections on what went wrong --and how to put the issue of nuclear disarmament back onto the political agenda--should make us understand why we must never give up on saving our world from nuclear peril.

Former Regime Criminals or the Resistance?

Here's how the President described the enemy in Iraq at his press conference last week. "The violence is being caused by a combination of terrorists, elements of former regime criminals, and sectarian militias." "Elements of former regime criminals," aka "bitter-enders," aka "Saddamists," aka "Anti-Iraqi Forces." The "sectarian militias" may have been a relatively recent add-on, but this is essentially the same list, the same sort of terminology the President has been using for years.

In the last two weeks, however, rumblings of discontent, urges for a change of course in Iraq have been persistently bubbling to the surface of already roiling Washington. Suggestions are rife for dumping the President's goal of "democracy" in Iraq and swallowing a little of the hard stuff. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, for instance, reports (as did Middle Eastern expert Robert Dreyfuss at Tompaine.com a week earlier) that in two desperate capitals, Washington and Baghdad, rumors about possible future Iraqi coups are spinning wildly. People of import are evidently talking about the possibility of a new five-man "ruling commission," a "government of national salvation" there that would "suspend parliament, declare martial law and call back some officers of the old Iraqi army." Even the name of that CIA warhorse (and anti-neocon candidate) Ayad Allawi, who couldn't get his party elected dogcatcher in the new Iraq, is coming up again in the context of the need for a "strongman."

This was, of course, the desire of the elder George Bush and his advisors at the end of Gulf War I, when they hoped just such a Sunni strongman, who might actually work with them, would topple a weakened Saddam Hussein. Dreams, it seems, die hard. And, as if on cue, who should appear but former Secretary of State and Bush family handler James A. Baker III, a Bush Elder kind of guy whose bipartisan commission, the Iraq Study Group is, according to a leak to the New York Sun, considering skipping "democracy" in Iraq, minimizing American casualties, and focusing "on stabilizing Baghdad, while the American Embassy should work toward political accommodation with insurgents."

A political accommodation with the insurgents. Curious how word gets around. Sometimes a small change in terminology speaks volumes for future mid-course corrections. The other day, Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, gave a Pentagon press briefing. As part of his prepared introductory remarks (not in answer to some random question), he offered this list of "groups that are working to affect [the situation in Iraq] negatively":

"The first, the Sunni extremists, al Qaeda, and the Iraqis that are supporting them. Second, the Shi'a extremists, the death squads and the more militant militias. In my view, those represent the greatest current threats in Iraq. The third group is the resistance, the Sunni insurgency that sees themselves as an honorable resistance against foreign occupation in Iraq."

"The resistance"? "An honorable resistance against foreign occupation"? Where did those bitter-enders, those Anti-Iraq Forces go? Take it as a small signal -- noticed, as far as I can tell, by not a single reporter -- of things to come.

For more on mid-course corrections, check out Michael Schwartz's "9 Paradoxes of a Lost War" at my Tomdispatch.com website.

Africa's Poor Had The Best Week Ever

[Correction, 11/2/06: The percentage that AmEx Red donates to the Global Fund was incorrectly reported. See my note in paragraph 8.]

Africa's poor had, like, the best week ever. Not since the days of khaki colonialism has buying Africa been so sexy, so fashionable. Early last week, Madonna and husband Guy Ritchie swooped into the village of Mphandula in Malawi and adopted 13-month old David Banda. Price tag for this celebrity accessory du jour: $3 million to anti-poverty programs and $1 million to produce a documentary on the plight of Malawi's children, one million of whom are AIDS orphans (though little David is not, his father is very much alive and planned to reclaim the child until the Material Girl made an offer).

But don't worry, if an African baby is too pricey for you (and conjures up undesirable associations to Angelina Jolie or slavery), then you can buy Red instead. Launched this week in North America, Bono's campaign re-brands Motorola Rzr phones, Gap t-shirts, Armani sunglasses and Converse sneakers with the Product Red logo. Up to half of all profits will go to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS; a $199 Red Ipod Nano will, for example, lead to a $10 donation by Apple. Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Penelope Cruz, Christy Turlington, Chris Rock, Mary J. Blige and other celebrities have all endorsed the campaign. "Can a tank top change the world?" asks one Gap ad. In the UK, where AmEx Red donates 1% of all purchases to The Global Fund, the question was simply "Has there ever been a better reason to shop?"

Call me a curmudgeon but...Hello, hello? I'm at a place called vertigo. It's not that I think Bono's crusade has had a negative net impact on the fight against AIDS (though one could certainly make the case a la George Monbiot). And I'm not discouraging anyone who was already in the market for a $150 Gap denim jacket or Apple Ipod from buying Red. If you really need one, you might as well kick back a few bucks so that someone in Africa can live. But spare me the fantasy that shopping till you drop somehow affects radical change.

The perniciousness of this corporate consumerism masquerading as activism was best represented by Bono's partner in the Product Red endeavor, Bobby Shriver of the Kennedy clan who said to the New York Times:

"Gap in the beginning couldn't understand how they were going to make money. They wanted to do a T-shirt and give us all the money. But, we want them to make money. We don't want anyone to be thinking, ‘I'm not making money on this thing,' because then we failed. We want people buying houses in the Hamptons based on this because, if that happens, this thing is sustainable."

Aside from the sheer, murderous calculation involved (preserving the perception of corporate profitability at the cost of millions of dollars of charitable aid and thus at the cost of thousands of African lives), it's the whole notion that sustainability and success requires summer estates in the Hamptons that really rankles me.

Welcome to the gilded age of corporate empire or what its leading citizen Bill Gates calls "frictionless capitalism." In this universe there are no states, no rights to health care, no trade policies and corporate welfare programs that keep Big Pharma the most lucrative industry going. In the place of anything resembling citizenship we have consumer choices, "innovation" and above all brand marketing, which is even now in Product Red being cast as some sort of corporate largesse. ("Isn't it so great that the Gap and Apple would submerge their own brand identity," glowed many a business page article). Shopping is sharing, and the unprecedented accumulation of wealth squares entirely with "ending poverty" -- just ask Gates or Warren Buffet. In their world, fighting AIDS somehow never seems to query how Europe and the US underdeveloped Africa and how the continent's abundant resources are still exploited by the world's wealthy.

And as this smart blogger points out, the AmEx board is stacked with former and current CEOs and directors of major Pharma companies who waged a genocidal campaign against the generic production of AIDS drugs. At 1% of AmEx Red profits, absolution comes cheap these days, don't it? [Correction: According to Product Red CEO Bobby Shriver, AmEx Red donates "1% of a cardholder's bill" or roughly "40% of AMEX's gross revenue" to the Global Fund.]

So what's an MP3-stealing, cell phone-addicted fashion follower like myself to do? Here's my DIY solution that still involves shopping and branding. A red Sharpie marker costs about a $1. Go get one and mark up something you already own. A giant red A will suffice, I suppose, but don't be afraid to stretch your imagination. Then send $198 (or $149 or whatever you can afford) to the Global Fund. Or if you prefer an organization that does political advocacy instead of direct service, try HealthGap at the Mobilization Against AIDS. You may not be wearing the hottest shade of red, but your contribution will be significantly larger and cleaner.

Click on the links below or send checks or money orders to:

United Nations FoundationAttn: Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and MalariaDept. 344Washington D.C. 20055-0344


Mobilization Against AIDS(insert "Health GAP" in memo line)584 Castro Street, Suite # 416San Francisco, CA 94114

'The Truth Will Out'

In an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, Rep. John Murtha notes the "astonishing and unprecedented parade of retired US generals calling for a new direction in Iraq."

But last week in Britain it was an active general – and the new head of the Army at that – who joined the growing chorus of military officers criticizing the war in Iraq. Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt said that British troops should leave Iraq "sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems." And in a stinging indictment of the Bush and Blair administrations, he went on to say, "I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war-fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."

Dannatt characterized his comments this way: "Honesty is what it is about. The truth will out. We have got to speak the truth. Leaking and spinning, at the end of the day, are not helpful."

The response from British troops to this unprecedented candor was swift and positive. According to The Independent "… there was widespread backing across the Army… as soldiers of every rank praised General Dannatt for standing up to the government." One senior officer said, "It has been decades since someone senior actually stood up for us, the soldiers and their families." The Sunday Times estimated that 90 percent of the British Army supported the general's comments. And Colonel Tim Collins, "one of the most senior British Army officers in Iraq in 2003," said that Dannatt's statements were a "refreshing and very honest insight into what the army generally feels."

However, after "a flurry of phone calls" with Prime Minister Tony Blair's office, Dannatt seemed to backtrack. "When the job is done we will go, and I hope that will be sometime soon." He emphasized standing "shoulder to shoulder with the Americans." But Dannatt had it right at first – prior to backing down under political pressure. And those initial uncensored comments by Britain's top general will help achieve exactly what he had envisioned: "The truth will out."

What Garbage Tells Us about Iraq

Every now and then, a set of figures buried in some newspaper piece just jumps out and grabs you by the throat. When we talk about the situation in Iraq, it's usually about the powerlessness of the Iraqi government, or the number of insurgent attacks, or exactly what staggering number of civilians have died in the country since March 2003, or some other suitably large subject. We're not ordinarily thinking about or measuring anything by garbage. As early as July, however, we learned -- thanks to the head of Baghdad's municipal garbage services -- that one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq may not be policeman or soldier, but garbage collector. 350 trash men had been killed in the capital in a year.

This Friday a vividly well-reported page 8 story by Michael Luo in the New York Times elaborated on this. "Most of the 500 municipal workers who have been killed here [in Baghdad] since 2005 have been trash collectors," he cites the capital's deputy mayor as saying. Many have died from hidden roadside bombs or IEDs meant for passing U.S. or Iraqi Army or police patrols. Some of them -- trash men being, Luo informs us, largely Shiite -- have been murdered simply because they are easy targets in the internecine warfare now underway in the capital. In the process, Baghdad has evidently become little short of a city of stinking, fetid, disease-spreading trash, piles and piles and piles of it. This, it seems, has been one of George Bush's main liberating gifts to the Iraqi people.

But here was the passage (and set of figures) in Luo's piece that caught my eye. "[T]he city," he informs us, "is woefully ill equipped to deal with the waste of six million people. It has just 380 working trash-compacting trucks now, compared with 1,200 before the fall of the regime, said Kaabi, the deputy mayor. Most of the vehicles were destroyed or lost in the looting that seized the capital after the American invasion. He estimated the city needs 1,500 garbage trucks."

1,200 trucks before the invasion; 380 now. That catches about as vividly as anything I've seen what the American "reconstruction" program has really meant in that country. Well, as Donald Rumsfeld put the matter so memorably when the looting was at its height way back in the Spring of 2003, "Stuff happens."

Anna Politkovskaya

The killing of Anna Politkovskaya October 7 has rallied hercolleagues and fellow citizens in a way few recent events have. "Wemust all change the situation after this tragedy and stop the passivityof civil groups and the journalistic community," a Russian journalistfriend told me just hours before 3,000 people gathered in the heart ofMoscow to mourn her death and demand the government conduct an immediateinvestigation.

Politkovskaya's murder was shocking, but for anyone who follows Russianpolitical life today not surprising. As Oleg Panfilov, who runs Moscow'sCenter for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said upon learning of hermurder, "I always thought something would happen to Anya, first of allbecause of Chechnya."

I met Politkovskaya a few times, in Moscow and in New York. Herdemeanor--quiet, even shy--belied her role as a journalistenraged by the injustice and corruption she believed werestrangling her country. Since 1999 her unflinching investigativereporting on the brutality and corruption of the Chechen war had madeher the target of numerous death threats, but she never slowed down. Infact, when she was killed, Politkovskaya, 48, was at work on an articleclaiming torture of Chechen civilians by security forces loyal to theregion's pro-Moscow prime minister. Her reporting appeared in Russia'sleading opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independentoutlets left in the increasingly state- or oligarch-controlled media.

Some have blamed President Vladimir Putin for her killing. Among them isthe Washington Post, which pointed to "the climate of brutality that hasflourished under Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent himself." But that is farfrom a satisfactory or full explanation. Since 1992 forty-twojournalists have been killed in post-Soviet Russia--most in unsolvedcontract executions. Thirty of them occurred under Boris Yeltsin,Putin's predecessor. Indeed, Politkovskaya lies in the samecemetery where Dmitry Kholodov, who was killed during the Yeltsin yearswhile investigating military financial corruption, is buried.

Lost amid so much of the coverage is a sad irony: Politkovskaya wasmurdered on the twentieth anniversary of the unfolding of MikhailGorbachev's glasnost policy--which quickly led to an increasingly freepress. Perhaps reacting to the human costs of glasnost's rollback, theformer Soviet president (who recently became a shareholder in NovayaGazeta), called Politkovskaya's murder "a grave crime against thecountry, against all of us...[and] a blow to the entire democratic,independent press."

For those who wish to ensure that the Russian government act to ensure that justice is done, please see the open letter circulating in protest at the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. If you wish to add your signature, please reply to gavinmacfadyen@btinternet.com (he is the Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism at City University, and had been one of her supporters).

Dear Colleague,
This is a letter to protest the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. If you wish to join Seymour Hersh, Lowell Bergman and many others, please let us have your signature at your earliest.

"The assassination of Anna Politkovskaya has shocked and outraged journalists and all those committed to a free and independent press in Russia. Her murder has stilled a remarkable voice in Russian journalism. Her principled reporting of the crimes of the Chechnyan war, the misery of Russia's old, the infirm and the impoverished inspired reporters and readers around the world. But it was a dangerous pursuit.

Since 1993 over 40 journalists have been murdered and not a single killer has been convicted Since Putin assumed power in 2000, human rights organizations have reported that 13 journalists have been killed, and not one killer has been convicted.

These have included the popular television journalist and talk show host, Vlad Listyev, the American editor of Russian Forbes, Paul Klebnikov,and many lesser known reporters and writers.

Every year tens of journalists, both television and print have been harassed, beaten, arrested, kidnapped and some have been exiled. It was in this sinister world of oligarchs, the secret police and military for hire, Chechnyan terrorists, and organized crime from Moscow to Chechnya to London and New York, amidst Kremlin power struggles that Anna Politkovskaya wrote and wrotefearlessly. To the truth she brought a loud speaker.

Journalists, editors, everywhere join the The Centre for Investigative Journalism, for whom she spoke this summer at the Summer School at City University, in protesting this callous political assassination. It is perhaps not extraordinary that the Putin Government, despite protests around the world, waited days before condemning the killing. Putin himself was one of the main objects of her outrage at the brutality, suffering, corruption and incompetence he symbolized.

Now that Putin, after many international protests, has finally agreed to act, that government must be pressed to deliver on its promise to find and punish the guilty.

Journalists must wait now to see if anything happens at all or whether like so often in the past, the killers and those who hired them somehow vanish in confusion and mystery. "

Gavin MacFadyen, Director
Centre for Investigative Journalism, City University

Advocacy for Sale

Armstrong Williams. Maggie Gallagher. Doug Bandow. All of these people accepted money from the Bush Administration or big business, never disclosed it and then claimed to be independent commentators.

Add another to that list: anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Norquist, a longtime leader of the conservative movement, is hardly independent. But he also used the media to hump for his good buddy, Jack Abramoff. (And yes, we haven't heard the last of Abramoff. Just ask Rep. Bob Ney.)

Norquist helped Abramoff funnel Indian gaming money to anti-gambling Christian activists such as Ralph Reed. He helped arrange meetings for Abramoff with key Bush Administration officials. And a new report by the Senate Finance Committee shows how Norquist advocated positions beneficial to Abramoff clients, in places like the Washington Times, and then asked for donations to be made to his own organization, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR).

Only ATR enjoys tax-exempt status. Norquist's favors for Abramoff, the Senate report says, "appears indistinguishable from lobbying undertaken by for-profit, taxable firms."

Paging the IRS.