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Works and Days

The Good—Part III

March 30th, 2009 - 9:18 am

Ok—after those depressing six “bad” and “ugly” trends, here are three things that bring at least some optimism in otherwise trying times. 

The Good

1) Technology. For all the dangers and destruction inherent in access to instant electronic information and communication (cf. the subprime mortgage bundles and computer programs that accelerated  innate human idiocy), there often can be much good in such a radically egalitarian enterprise. Today’s peasant in Guatemala with a cell phone or a stop at an Internet café, has more knowledge of market futures at his hands than had aristocratic grandees of the 1940s.

I used to tote books and magazines on trips to do research and write contemporary commentary. Now? I can confirm in 10 seconds on the Internet that once again Sen. Dodd is not telling the truth or reread the Melian Dialogue of Thucydides in Greek, or learn what Sun Maid paid on free tonnage for raisins in 1982—whether in rural Fresno County or in a dingy hotel in Mexico. In a debate once, an audience member with his laptop in the first row was able to correct the record instantaneously during the question and answer period. In some sense, the many have gained an enormous amount of power, and, for good or evil, the old hierarchies are crumbling (Who cares whether the debater has a MD or law degree if he is stating things that can instantly be proven inaccurate?)

Most of us would be long dead without Westernized/globalized medicine—something we seem to forget in the near hysterical demonization of the US health care system. In 1979 an emergency operation and antibiotics saved me from a severed ureter cut by a staghorn calculus; in 2006 the degree to which Libyans had access to Flagyl, Augmentin and Cipro, and Westernized notions of surgical protocoal, saved my life after an operation for a ruptured appendix. Urocit-K (potassium citrate) alone provided relief from nearly weekly kidney stones.

All of us have similar stories of our own possibly short, unpleasant lives had it not been for brilliantly-trained doctors, courageous nurses, wonder drugs, and high-tech instrumentation. Unfettered reason, free speech, rationalism protected from zealotry and tribalism, and free-market capitalism have given us years of physical comfort and relief that premodern man could only dream of. Thousands of Western-trained doctors, researchers, and scientists daily provide us with breakthroughs that are making our lives far less nasty, solitary, poor, brutish and short.

I won’t deny that modern medicine—especially from my experience with lost family members undergoing failed regimens of chemotherapy—can be insensitive, misleading, and often excruciating painful. But by and large, American medicine has improved the lives of billions on the planet.

We forget how life has been transformed just from the 1960s alone. As a student, I used to drive a beat up car with spare points, plugs, an old alternator and starter replacement in the trunk. The clutch went out frequently—so I ended up at the side of rural highways quite often. In 1969 it was common to see California freeways littered with broken down cars; now it is a rare occurrence. I grew up with a father taking apart our dryer, washer, vacuum cleaner, and refrigerators almost monthly; today, they seem to run on autopilot.

In often insidious ways, technology is making daily life ever easier—and providing a much needed counterpoint to a culture and politics that get worse, as popular civility and wisdom vanish. (Wait! Some of you object: ease of life, affluence and leisure brought on by technology explain the end of the old cherished culture. It is not exactly so simple.)

2) Competent people. There is an entire nation of brilliant hardworking and uniquely gifted people within the United States like none other in the world—of all politics and beliefs. Critics of America fault our crime rate, growing illiteracy, and dismal education system (as I pointed out last time). But much of that pathology arises from America’s ambitious plans to educate, house, and take care of 300 million souls at levels found nowhere else in the world, amid all sorts of endemic poverty, the arrival of nearly 1 million illegal aliens per year (12-20 million already here), and millions more who have arrived legally in the last three decades abjectly poor from Asia, Africa, and South America. We notice our failures to ensure a massive equality of result in a generation, never the magnitude of the undertaking.

The fact is that one out of five Americans—an enormously large hidden nation of, say, some 60 million—is better educated, more innovative and optimistic than anyone else abroad. This meritocracy of the hyper-hard-working and talented—of all races, both genders, of varying ages, and no set religion—by and large, commits very little crime, follow the law, and pay their taxes without cheating. They’re either highly educated or magnificently trained by family and vocational schools in the various trades.

I have known brain surgeons who navigate through the mass of cerebral tissue to extract tumors without peripheral damage twice  a day. I’ve seen electricians weave a spaghetti ball of wires through massive houses as if done by second-nature. I have been astounded by farmers who can walk through a five- acre orchard of peaches, glance at the hanging crop on 620 trees, and then determine almost to the box how many hundreds of boxes of fruit can be harvested from the grove.

In other words, there are millions of impressive Americans, who get up in the morning at 5AM, go to bed at 10PM, avoid the bars, the drugs, the crime—and carry the rest of the country on their backs. My only worry is that those in Washington misunderstand this rare cohort, and so demonize them as the “wealthy,” as if they bundled subprime mortgages on Wall Street and took $10 million annual bonuses. What President Obama should be doing is allotting a mini-second timeout from all the Chicago demagogic rhetoric about the “rich and powerful”, the noble needy and victimized, instead to praise those who paid their mortgages without a hitch, aren’t late on their rarely used credit cards, pay their bills when they arrive, and thereby allowing by their code others to default without ruining the country.

He needs to thank this invisible nation for paying most of the taxes, for creating the wealth to pay for community organizers and politicians, for not costing the government billions for self-induced health problems, crime, parole, counseling, drug rehab, and all the other pathologies that instead garner our attention. We are lucky to have these brilliant Americans of the old school; in toto they comprise a nation larger than France or Britain, and more or less ensure that the world abroad does not completely look like Libya, Venezuela, North Korea or Iran.

3. Soldiers. We are protected by the most competent, judicious—and lethal—military in the history of civilization. The great tragedy of Iraq is that no one really credits our soldiers for doing the near impossible: they went into the heart of the ancient caliphate, took out a genocidal monster, stayed on to foster consensual government, endured often poisonous attacks from critics at home (Cf. Harry Reid’s the war is “lost”, the slurs from Durbin, Kennedy, Kerry, and Murtha that our boys were terrorists or analogous to Baathists, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc.), and triumphed at a cost less than during a major campaign in World War II (e.g., far less than say Iwo Jima, the Bulge, Okinawa, etc).

Today Obama was boasting that he could redirect soldiers to Afghanistan now that Iraq was quiet—as if in his mere 70 days he had anything to do with the bravery and skill that brought Iraq to its improving state, as if we’ve forgotten that he wanted all troops gone by March 2008, declared the surge a failure, and voted to cut off funding for the war. Iraq was won despite the politicians, contrary to the conventional wisdom, and largely due to the ingenuity of our soldiers.

What is the key to the success of our military, other than the traditional civic militarism as outlined in the Constitution and honed over two centuries of fighting?  I can think of five reasons why the 21st -century American military is so successful

1) There is an officer corps whose members are, to be frank, relics of an American past. They are ossified in amber as it were, and really do believe in passé things like honor, duty, country, God, sacrifice, and the continuation of the American experiment. Meet a Marine colonel, an Army major, an Air Force one-star, or a Navy captain and it is often as if you are talking to a younger version of your grandfather, as if we packed thousands of our best in ice around 1945, and then thawed them out in the 21st century. These odd men and women of the old breed will do almost anything as outlined in the Constitution to ensure that their country—you and I—is safe and continues on in perpetuity.

2) Our enlisted men have a rambunctious, upbeat attitude, if you will. This generation of youth seems unafraid, reckless even, and—despite the demonization in popular culture of the military, the male, physicality, etc—seems to pride in being on the cutting edge of danger. They are superb fighters. Few would wish to test the US Marines; the Marines or Rangers I had met in two visits to Iraq seemed to me far scarier than a masked al-Qaeda terrorist rambling on videos waving his scimitar. Indeed, they were scarier. Talking to a 20-year old Marine in Ramadi with bulging biceps, loaded down with 70 pounds of gear and weaponry, smiling as he lets on that he’s been up for 30 straight hours is a surreal experience.

3) The military has married intellectual life with command. Some of the brightest PhDs I have encountered are Army officers at the LTC and colonel level. The service’s recent efforts to send its best and brightest to graduate history and political science programs are paying real dividends. During the Anbar awakening, I watched a number of presentations by Army colonels on the Iraqi tribal system; they were often more sophisticated and astute talks than what I had usually heard as an academic at scholarly symposia. In short, we have some brilliantly educated and inquisitive—and outspoken—officers who do not see “book” learning at odds at all with Pattonesque audacity. (Now let us hope we can promote this new generation of colonels to generals.)

4) Technology. Something is changing with military technology. New applications and tools seem to be evolving at warp speed. The easily caricatured, clumsy massive industrial complex seems to be outmatched by near instantly created decentralized efforts involving new innovative new drones, body armor, and munitions. The soldier adapts to battlefield electronics as he does video games and the Internet. For all the slander directed at Donald Rumsfeld, few realize very early on he tried to articulate how new high-tech weaponry had added enormous lethality to military units, without a commensurate increase in manpower. When 90% rather than 10% of bombs and artillery shells hit the intended target it really does mean that in some situations (tragically not always in boots-on-the-ground counterinsurgency), technology can substitute for mere numbers. Technology has not redefined war—itself a human enterprise that stays constant as long as human nature remains the same—but it has surely accelerated its processes, and so far Americans have mastered it like none other.

5) The sinews of war. Someone at Wal-Mart must have taken over the logistics of the US military. Our troops are drowning in “stuff”. Mountain-high pallets of bottled water in the desert. Cat scanners in a tent city. On-line “cafes” amid the IEDs. 3,000-calorie dinners in the middle of nowhere. Bar-codes on everything from ammo boxes to boxes of plastic forks. We joke about this surfeit of things, and how it makes our military slow and plodding. In truth, they can go almost anywhere in the world, and in hours clone almost any landscape in America, from the sewage and power systems to the communications and food. There has never been any logistics remotely comparable to that of the present-day American military.

The real story of the last eight years is not really the political blunders in Iraq, but the ability of the military to adapt, change, and find victory when all said it was lost. In the dark days ahead, I suspect President Obama, once his soft-power initiatives to find peace with Iran, Venezuela, Russia, radical Islam, and Syria, begin to falter (I hope they do not, but suspect they will), will thank god he is commander-in-chief of the military we have. In his accustomed Novus ordo seclorum fashion, he talks always of the “mess” he inherited, never of the rare military he also inherited.

In short, many things are not all that bad.

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