Existential Threats

[The following is slightly adapted from a comment written for a Facebook post, based on this article about President Obama’s December 6, 2015 speech, which for some reason Facebook would not allow me to post. Possibly because, at nearly 3,500 words, it’s too long. What can I say? I felt inspired. The comment that inspired me basically expressed doubt that Obama has put as much thought into “ISIS and the implications of radical Islam” as the article’s author thinks. I have adjusted some formatting and added some links.]

You may be right about Obama not thinking through the full implications of radical Islam, but the exact same can be said for people on the right who posit radical Islam as a threat to “Western civilization” (a fluid and undefined term if ever there was one) on a par with German fascism or Soviet communism. Lest this seem like a tu quoque argument, I’ll even concede that Obama might underestimate the short-term threat posed by radical Islamism, but only because I believe the proponents of the radical-Islamism-as-mortal-threat viewpoint drastically overstate its dangers—furthermore, by arguing for such an aggressive stance against it, they paradoxically serve its aims. Continue reading


What I’m Reading, February 24, 2015

The First Victims of the First Crusade, Susan Jacoby, New York Times, February 13, 2015

The message from the medieval past is that religious violence seldom limits itself to one target and expands to reach the maximum number of available victims.


Cultural ignoramuses portrayed President Obama’s references to the Crusades and the Inquisition at the recent National Prayer Breakfast as an excuse for Islamic terrorism, but the president’s allusions could and should have been used as an opportunity to reflect on the special damage inflicted in many historical contexts by warriors seeking conquest in the name of their god.


Thomas Asbridge, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London, commented in this newspaper that “we have to be very careful about judging behavior in medieval times by current standards.”

This issue is better judged from the other side of the looking glass. What we actually see today is a standard of medieval behavior upheld by modern fanatics who, like the crusaders, seek both religious and political power through violent means. They offer a ghastly and ghostly reminder of what the Western world might look like had there never been religious reformations, the Enlightenment and, above all, the separation of church and state.

Unreconciled History: Why even victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past, Michael Kinsley, Slate, February 13, 2015 Continue reading


What I’m Reading, February 16, 2015

The Tragedy of the American Military, James Fallows, The Atlantic, January/February 2015

This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.


This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them—has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm. But it is not. When Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a five-star general and the supreme commander, led what may have in fact been the finest fighting force in the history of the world, he did not describe it in that puffed-up way. On the eve of the D-Day invasion, he warned his troops, “Your task will not be an easy one,” because “your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened.” As president, Eisenhower’s most famous statement about the military was his warning in his farewell address of what could happen if its political influence grew unchecked.

At the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population was on active military duty—which meant most able-bodied men of a certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve). Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and other important and fallible institutions.

Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans “honor” their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military. Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military—nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits. As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.

The Surprising Thing People Who Resist Authority Have in Common, Krystnell Storr, Science.Mic, January 14, 2015 Continue reading


What I’m Reading, January 9, 2015

The Great Draft Dodge, James Kitfield, National Journal, December 13, 2014

During the Vietnam War, an average of 950,000 men annually had entered the military through conscription, according to a report by the nonprofit Human Resources Research Organization. The Nixon administration’s decision to turn off that spigot at a moment of defeat and vulnerability for the military was seen by uniformed leaders as a betrayal and as a purely political maneuver, designed to quell antiwar protests that had begun on college campuses with the burning of draft cards, and had spread throughout the country. If that was the plan, it worked: By eliminating the duty to serve, the shift to an all-volunteer force succeeded so spectacularly in pacifying antiwar sentiment that few observers at the time worried at what cost.

Critics of American Sniper Chris Kyle Threatened with Violence and Rape Fantasies, Hrafnkell Haraldsson, PoliticusUSA, January 4th, 2015 Continue reading


The Yazidis

You may have heard about the Yazidis in the news recently. I you’re not familiar with them or their culture, you’re not alone, especially among Americans. An article by Michael Smith in Vice* gives a brief overview of the Yazidis, their beliefs, and the possible reasons why the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL, hates them so much. Since their beliefs are so unfamiliar to the outside world, there is a long history of outsiders misrepresenting them, intentionally or not. I don’t actually know how much Vice gets it right, but the article is worth a look.

By Hadi Karimi (http://www.panoramio.com/photo/111356808) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

According to Wikipedia, the Yazidis “are a Kurdish ethno-religious community” numbering about 700,000, with about 650,000 living in Iraq. Sizable populations also live in Syria, Germany, Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. Their religion is linked by scholars to “Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions,” and is part of a tradition known as Yazdânism. ISIS has been trying to annihilate them, as Vice reports:

An entire people forced to abandon their ancestral homeland with only the shirts on their backs, they’re making the gruelling and perilous trek to refugee camps in Kurdistan, on foot through mountains and along desert dirt tracks. Many weren’t fortunate enough to escape mass executions at the hands of Islamic State militants, and thousands are still trapped up Mt. Sinjar in the baking heat with no food, water or shelter. Children and the elderly are dying in their droves.

As well as the attempted annihilation of an ethnic group, it’s also their religion IS want to destroy. One of the strangest survivals throughout the entirety of human culture, their faith has been viewed as so subversive and unsettling that it’s brought holy war and near extinction to the Yazidis throughout history. Continue reading


The World’s Policeman

King Abdullah wants the West (i.e. the United States, one presumes) to take action against ISIS/ISIL.

Because, apparently, his 200,000-man armed forces are busy.


U.S. Combat Deaths at Zero in March 2014, Suicide Rate Still Rising

March 2014 was the first month in more than ten years in which no U.S. troops died in combat. This moving photo was posted to Imgur last night:

No Karma Needed. I just wanted to share the fact that March 2014 is the first month in the last decade that had 0 American Deaths in the War on Terror. Hooah.

The good news was quickly followed, however, by a reminder of how far we have to go:

Good news indeed. Proud Army mom. However, a record number of suicides are taking place every month.

The number of suicides by American servicemembers exceeded the number of combat deaths in 2012, and the suicide rate has continued to rise since then. The number of suicides may have started outpacing combat deaths as far back as 2008. Continue reading


I’ll Take a Check, but You Could Just Set Up an Account in the Caymans for Me…

USMC-060115-M-7772K-062An official estimate of the cost of rebuilding Iraq, or whatever it is we did, was recently released by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR). Of the roughly $60 billion spent on reconstruction, it estimates that we wasted $8 billion. The Atlantic points out that this amounts to $1,500 of taxpayer money wasted per minute.

As we all know, quite a few people believe that their tax dollars should not go towards anything they personally morally oppose. This seems to only apply to women’s reproductive health in the minds of these particular people, but let’s expand the idea further, shall we?

  • The population of the United States, as of the Census Bureau’s estimate at 16:19 UTC on March 6, 2013, is 315,444,368.
  • Applying the formula devised by top Republican thinkers, the United States has 167,185,515 taxpayers.
  • I have paid federal income tax for numerous years, and I own my own business, so I know that I am part of Ayn Rand’s ruling class.
  • If we divide the total amount of money allegedly wasted in Iraq among all American taxpayers, it comes to $47.85 per taxpayer.
  • If we were to divide it among both taxpayers and everyone else, it comes to $25.36.

I have often made the argument that I want my money back from the Iraq war if we don’t have to fund government activities we morally oppose. To be honest, I thought the per-taxpayer number would be higher. While I set out to make a ridiculous demand for an untenable sum from the government when I started writing this post, ten minutes ago, I see that its purpose has, ahem, evolved. Any single government program is unlikely to affect any individual taxpayer’s bill very much. The numbers sound big, but there are also a lot of Americans.

That said, if the government were to send me a check for $47.85, or even just $25.36, I’d accept it.

This still does not address the concern about funding things that someone morally opposes. For that, I guess all I can say is that the government can’t make all of the people happy all of the time, and if your opposition is to other people having the realistic ability to control their own lives and bodies, I’m inclined to say suck it up.

Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Shane S. Keller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.