Work and Days

War and Peace, Peace and War

The Nature of Our Enemies

Last week’s war-on-terror reports were blood-curdling: the Thyestean feast reported by Michael Yon, albeit second-hand, of al Qaeda in Iraq apparently serving up a son for lunch to his parents; the Johnny Torch image of the bomber in Glasgow still shrieking to Allah as he tried to ignite his gas cargo; the destruction of men, women, and children—and, Mycallesus-like, animals as well—in an Iraqi village. And all this in addition to the usual fare from Afghanistan to Baghdad to London to Thailand of beheadings, attempted car bombings, random executions, IEDs, etc.

Meanwhile, we in the West bicker whether Islam, radical Islam, or Islamism is at the heart of this—that is, those of the sane fringe at least argue, who don’t, Jimmy Carter-like, indict the US for bringing it all on ourselves by not talking to Iran, snubbing Syria, forsaking Hamas, marginalizing Hezbollah, being in Iraq, supporting the Jews, etc.

Apparently what gives these pre-modern fascist killers a pass from widespread Western censure is their purported impotency—as long as their grotesqueries don’t match 9/11 we have the luxury to blame-game Guantanamo, still puff up about the black hoods at Abu Ghraib, and spout off about Halliburton—while having latte uninterrupted by Ahmed and his suicide vest.

But should the latter be able to penetrate all of cowboy George Bush’s nightmarish anti-constitutional measures like wire-tapping the phones of terrorists, locking them up in Guantanamo, or pursuing them with provisions of the Patriot Act, then these measures will suddenly be reinvented as shockingly too little when all the “intelligence” made it clear that we were in jeopardy. Yes, I think after the next attack the media will go, without a blink, from the dangers of a police state and Gulag-US to the negligence of open borders and poor terrorist tracking.

Ag Mysteries

Few can figure out why almonds—over planted for years as farmers in California diverted to them from low-price vineyards, row crops, and stone-fruit—continue to be profitable. Everyone had thought there was a limit to Chinese, or is it Indian or European demand? Or that EU subsidies to Spanish or Greek growers would end almonds’ success? But year after year, the crop defies traditional ag logic by being continually planted—and continually being profitable.

In contrast, stone fruit like plums and nectarines keep losing money—even as more farmers leave the business. The same is true of Thompson seedless: fewer farmers, worse or static prices for wine, raisins, and table grapes.

There are eerie truths to scarce water as well. The more farmland that goes out of production in the irrigated San Joaquin Valley, the more water seems to become available for houses. I don’t mean that simplistically. Rather, each acre of vineyard that is uprooted seems to create an overall water surplus, despite the six or so houses that replace it. So the logic is terrifying: our beautiful eastern Central Valley, with its rich natural aquifer and Sierra snow-run-off, can in theory support 20-30 million people—as long as they don’t farm and the world’s richest agricultural acreage is paved over.

Change Coming

We will soon devote one of every four acres in corn to ethanol. And that most radical change will be interesting, despite the controversy over the energy needed to produce a gallon of corn-based energy. Corn prices are already rising for foodstuffs. Acreage from wheat, soy, or cotton is being diverted. Prices for meat, milk, and staples are climbing.

Is this a perfect storm of sorts for agriculture, in which sizable US acreage is diverted to fuel production, land is being lost to suburbanization, and farms are facing water shortages, all resulting for the first time in years of sustained high farm prices?

I remember only one such—very brief— period of the late 1970s and the hyper-inflation in which everyone suddenly wanted to get into farming, and land prices soared before crashing in the 1980s. It was a surreal time, bewildering to see farming magazines at the dentist office, strangers talking about farm profits, and real estate ads with exclamation points like “20-acre vineyard!!!! Buy now before the next rise!!”

A Greek Tragedy in the Making

Vietnam has been evoked so many times for Iraq that most snore when they hear it.

But the real parallels are the images of an orphaned war (Vietnam circa 1972-5) when the public had given up, the politicians had begun getting most troops out, and after Watergate, begun to cut off funds in a series of Congressional actions.

Few cared then to hear that the South Vietnamese government, corrupt as it was, was far superior to the alternative, or was viable in a way that late 1950s South Korea had become (compare the modern state there to the present alternative to the north), or that Saigon could evolve in a way Hanoi could not.

Much less did anyone want to hear of possible consequences of defeat and flight. Indeed, talk of camps, executions, and refugees were written off as right-wing scare stories. The last five years of Vietnam before the fall were largely the work of a small dedicated group of military people and diplomats who finally figured out counter-insurgency, had trained and supplied the South Vietnamese effectively, and very slowly drew down while providing air and material support—until the cutoffs.

Something similar is happening in Iraq. After a zillion evocations of “fiasco”, “mess”, and “disaster” any good news is either ignored or written off as Pentagon fantasies, all lost in the tragic weekly American body counts. “Civil War” is the party line. We may have “factionalism” in Gaza or “unrest” in Lebanon, but only in Iraq is there a full-fledged “civil war.”

In any case, by late summer, there will be enough Republican defections—Lugar, Domenici, Alexander, etc.—to shut down funding for the war. The Republicans may not vote for direct cut-offs, but there will be ways to get out of the way of the Democratic juggernaut that will ensure a veto-proof and filibuster-proof majority. Such is the natural way of democracies and no one can object to its expression of the undeniable anti-war sentiment of the present public. Whether this stampede will preempt Gen. Petraeus’s reports to Congress in September is the only suspense.

While few would believe there is any good news from Iraq, in fact, there is. Finally, we are mastering counter-insurgency, partly due to trial-and-error, partly due to the sheer exhaustion of the Iraqis who went through the embraces of Arab nationalism, ex-Baathism, and al-Qaedism that at various times fueled the insurgency. On occasion now, Sunni tribesmen for the first time are helping Americans and want a cessation of random violence. Kurdistan is by all accounts a success. The south will be infiltrated by Iran, given its Shiite population and proximity, but Iran itself is tottering and may be as destabilized by Iraq as it can destabilize Iraq.

In short, Gen. Petreus has gone right to the cancer in the Sunni Triangle, and for the first time we are starting to see real results. Another thought: just as the malignancy in Sunni Iraq is right where the Americans are now fighting, and Iraq itself—in addtion to being the Mesopotamian ancient caliphate and oil-shipping nexus of the Gulf—was the great malignancy of the Middle East under Saddam and the Baathists, the stakes are very high for the entire region.

Already Gulf States are lining up against Iran. The Arab presses are far more hostile to Hamas, Syria, and Ahmadinejad than are the Western media. And, again for the first time, there is a grudging Arab desire expressed to see Iraqi constitutional government succeed.

And now the Vietnam parallel again. Are we going to read books in the next decade with titles like “Triumph Forsaken” and “Victory Lost”, whose themes will be that the US had almost done the impossible by going into the worst place in the Middle East and, all at once, addressing Saddam’s reign of terror, Islamic fundamentalism, ex-Baathism, religious sectarianism, Iranian and Syrian infiltration, and seeing something far better emerge—and then at the climax quit in recrimination and despair over the terrible loss in blood and treasure?

Gen. Petraeus rightly talks of two clocks—Baghdad and DC time—for Iraq. But suddenly the DC hands just skipped a few hours, and we are five minutes to midnight. His dilemma: how to convey to the troops that their strategy and efforts are at last working, despite the increased panic at home, and to the Iraqis: keep joining us despite the fact we all may be leaving much more quickly than we have assured you.

Silent Sierra?

In the 1960s driving to the Sierra National Forest—about half way between California’s Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks—was a family event. Campgrounds over the 4th were crowded; the tiny store at Huntington Lake was packed, and Highway 168 was often jammed. My mother and father used to time our trips carefully to avoid the crowds, and bring up almost everything we could since facilities were rare and crowded.

But I’ve noticed a subtle change coming up there now—fewer people despite more cabins, stores and facilities. I hiked to some places in the Kaiser Wilderness over this 4th of July holidays: not a soul there. Lakes like Edison and Florence were empty; didn’t see anyone on traditional day-hikes to Nellie Lake and only a few to Twin Lakes. Even during the 4th Huntington Lake was not jammed as in the past.

I’ve asked a lot of people in the area about these impressions—businesspeople, rangers, cabin owners, backpackers—and all sort of agree that the Sierra if not less visited, is at least not as visited at the rate one would have expected given California’s increased population over the last 50 years in general, and the sudden explosion of greater Fresno area right below to nearly over a million people.

Some of the reasons cited are, of course, transitory: high gas prices, dry conditions, low water levels in some of the lakes. But most causes are not and I think are more long-term and permanent since the phenomenon seems true of the last decade. Better reasons are simply that a new generation has other things to do—not just things like theme parks such as Universal Studios and Disneyland, but cut-rate vacations to Cancun or Baja or even Hawaii and Europe.

Another factor are the billions of collective hours spent by millions of youth on video games and electronic toys; youth today seem happy enough to stay near the mall, Starbucks, and their video consoles and don’t know a pine from a fir, much less Sequoia Park from Yosemite.

A lot of old timers up here claim that the federal government’s 1980s conversion to radical environmentalism—not repairing back roads, not increasing camp sites, expanding wilderness areas, and a general sense of ‘leave nature be’ has made the mountains more an elite activity of the Sierra Club rather than open to Joe-Six-pack hopping in his SUV to race up for the weekend.

Whatever the causes, there are downsides for the local businesses, but upsides for those who do come. In little more than two hours from Fresno, one can hike anywhere in the million-acre plus Kaiser wilderness and see vistas of fifty miles or so of absolutely empty forests and mountains—after seeing almost no one on the road up, and literally no one on the camping trails.

Sometimes the complete absence of other humans can get a little iffy: went around a turn on a hike to the Devil’s Bathtub above Edison lake and saw a very large brown bear charging at a fast rate. At about ten yards away—I chose not to move rather than run—it jumped into a tree right in front of me and froze about 5 feet from the ground. Couldn’t figure out why—until I saw two cubs about twenty feet above her dangling on a limb: only then I decided to backpeddle and detour around.