Memorial Day Meandering

Poring over some doleful but absorbing statistics on U.S. military casualties in our wars going back to the American Revolution, I’m led astray from whatever purpose I had for early Memorial Day morning.

First distraction: It doesn’t seem right that most statistical roundups of American service personnel killed in our wars — like the one linked to above — exclude those who died in our many inter-war military operations. Here’s a separate Pentagon accounting of soldiers, sailors and Marines killed during operations between 1980 and 1996. The list includes:

Second distraction:
I reflect, as many have before me, that there’s hardly been a year in my lifetime — I go back to Eisenhower’s first term — that U.S. troops haven’t been active somewhere in the world. Here’s someone who’s come up with a politically loaded list of U.S. military-related actions, at home and abroad, going back to Wounded Knee.

Third Distraction: In exploring various sets of statistics on U.S. military casualties, I came across the Department of Defense accounting of fatalities among active-duty personnel from 1980 through 2010. (Unfortunately, I can’t find more recent definitive numbers.) In those 31 years, which span “peacetime” (there was just one death attributed to hostile action or terrorist attacks in 1980-81) through the height of the Iraq War (2007), the Pentagon says 48,834 active-duty personnel died. Here’s a breakdown of how they died:
Accident: 25,073 (51.3 percent of total).
Illness: 8,579 (17.6 percent).
Suicide: 6,911 (14.2 percent).
Hostile action: 4,814 (9.9 percent)
Homicide: 2,329 (4.8 percent)
Terrorist attack: 420 (.9 percent)
Cause undetermined or pending: 708 (1.4 percent)

The numbers look a little different if you isolate fatalities from ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent Congressional Research Service report broke down the causes of death for those two conflicts (including all phases of the Iraq War to date). Some 5,362 (78.5 percent) of the 6,830 deaths were sustained in hostile action; 1,041 (15.2 percent) were attributed to accidents or illness; 350 (5.1 percent) to suicide, and 52 (.8 percent) to homicide (about 25 deaths are listed as “undetermined”).

I find the “self-inflicted” death count most stunning, especially the fact it appears to be so much larger than fatalities suffered in combat. If you follow this issue, you know the number of veterans who take their own lives each year dwarfs the number of service members who kill themselves while on active duty. A Department of Veterans Affairs study published last year found 7,400 veterans committed suicide in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available.

Fourth Distraction: While embarking on my military casualty StatsQuest, hours and hours ago, I came across one particularly startling number in a VA document titled America’s Wars. Page 2 of said document includes a table of veterans and veterans’ dependents currently on VA benefits rolls (“currently” as of April 2017), listed by the war(s) in which veterans served.

The table shows there’s one person out there still getting monthly benefits related to service in the Civil War. Really? Is that possible?

Yes — it turns out it is. The recipient is Irene Triplett, daughter of a man who fought on both sides in the war. She reportedly gets a monthly VA check for $73.13 that goes toward paying for care in a North Carolina nursing home. The Wall Street Journal did a long feature on her and her family a few years ago. Irene Triplett had a very tough life; the piece is well worth reading.

National Geographic followed with its own story on the “fewer than 35” surviving children of Civil War veterans and details a couple of their life stories.

Conclusion of the foregoing.

Trump and Life in the Reality-Based Community

I’ve been thinking about a moment I think presaged the rise of Trump — whose latest non-reality-based utterance is here:

Ford says Trump’s right. That’s because the company had no plans to move the plant to Mexico.

I don’t think Trump’s thinking big enough here. There’s a lot more he could be taking credit for.

“Just got a call from the man in the moon. Since I won, he no longer plans to smash into Earth. Will join cabinet. Huge! #MAGA”

We here in the reality-based community mean that as an attempt at humor and comment — not a report of something that actually happened out there in the perceivable world. You know, suggesting something absurd as a way of casting light on someone else’s grandiosity and distortions.

That phrase “reality-based community” came to mind recently when thinking about our soon-to-be commander-in-chief’s frequent non-fact-based pronouncements. He’s got a talent, and many of us who thought we grasped what was going on underestimated its power and appeal.

Here’s the origin of that saying, “reality-based community,” which comes from a 2004 feature by journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind’s piece was examining how George W. Bush arrived at his instinctive certainty that the disastrous course along which he had launched the nation — the war in Iraq — was true and correct.

Along the way, Suskind reported, he met with a Bush aide who gave a glimpse into the president’s and the administration’s approach to governing:

“… Then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Of course, there’s an unspeakable arrogance to that dismissal of those imprisoned in the world of “discernible reality” — not least because of the implicit contempt for the hundreds of thousands of men and women deployed again and again to confront the deadly violence of that reality.

So now, we’re confronted with a similar but much more directly expressed arrogance and dismissal of discernible facts. I think the challenge is to keep your eyes open, to believe what you’re seeing, and to call out the illusions we’re encouraged to see as reality and the reality we’re urged to think is just talk.

Taking Care of Them

John McCain, tonight: “I know the veterans. I know them well. And I know that they know that I’ll take care of them. And I’ve been proud of their support and their recognition of my service to the veterans. And I love them. And I’ll take care of them. And they know that I’ll take care of them. And that’s going to be my job.”

Andrew J. Bacevich, last month: “Yeah. Well, my son was killed in Iraq. And I don’t want to talk about that, because it’s very personal. But it has long stuck in my craw, this posturing of supporting the troops. I don’t want to insult people.

“There are many people who say they support the troops, and they really mean it. But when it comes, really, down to understanding what does it mean to support the troops? It needs to mean more than putting a sticker on the back of your car.

“I don’t think we actually support the troops. We the people. What we the people do is we contract out the business of national security to approximately 0.5 percent of the population. About a million and a half people that are on active duty.

“And then we really turn away. We don’t want to look when they go back for two or three or four or five combat tours. That’s not supporting the troops. That’s an abdication of civic responsibility. And I do think it – there’s something fundamentally immoral about that.

“Again, as I tried to say, I think the global war on terror, as a framework of thinking about policy, is deeply defective. But if one believes in the global war on terror, then why isn’t the country actually supporting it? In a meaningful substantive sense?

“Where is the country?”

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Willing Patriots

John McCain is a magnanimous guy. He said tonight that after he wins the election this November, “we’re going to reach out our hand to any willing patriot” to put America “back on the road to prosperity and peace.” Remember, McCain’s war was the one in which we destroyed villages to save them. He wants to use the dynamite that blew up our house to put it back together again.

But the words that chill here are “any willing patriot.” Does that mean subscribing to the “bring it on” patriotism of Bush? The torture patriotism of Cheney? The “limitless executive power” patriotism of the entire Bush-Cheney wrecking crew? The “endless war” patriotism of McCain? Does that mean surrendering to the patriotism of ceaseless braying about the heroism and self-sacrifice of anyone in a uniform who goes along with the program without questioning the empty rationale or the moral bankruptcy of the undertaking?

Will McCain reach out his hand to the kind of patriotism that says, you’re wrong, senator–the policies you’ve embraced are killing the country we love, the only country we have for better or worse? In the frenzy of waving flags, in the midst of our military cult, I don’t see that sort of patriotic overture getting such a warm reception.

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Somewhere over there, beyond the horizon, beyond the four-buck-a-gallon gasoline and the foreclosure crisis and the campaign sniping over what it means to be rich and who owns how many houses, there’s a war on. To date this month:

18 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. Ten of those deaths are listed as “non-hostile.”

191 Iraqis killed, including 158 civilians.

18 U.S. and 24 other coalition troops killed in Afghanistan. Scores of civilians, too, judging from the latest reports.

My Rights, Ably Defended

It’s sort of like Mao said: Free speech grows out of the barrel of a gun. The latest reminder comes from General David Petraeus (a.k.a., the Lafayette of Iraq), who responded to a negative ad from this way:

“I’m not so sure the infamous MoveOn ad was smartly done, but I found Petraeus’s reaction today interesting: “Needless to say, to state the obvious, I disagree with the message of those who are exercising the First Amendment right that generations of soldiers have sought to preserve for Americans.”

A friend puts it better than me: “I grow so weary of that refrain, heard from the military any time any civilian even hints at criticizing these sainted men and women. If this stunningly stupid war had ANYTHING to do with preserving my right to free speech, I’d be a little more forgiving of the rhetorical ploy. But please, General, don’t insult me and don’t embarrass yourself.”

And the same also sends this, from Slate — “Lost Voices“:

“On Monday, while Gen. David Petraeus prepared to testify before two House committees about the successes of the surge, seven of his soldiers died when their transport vehicle overturned in a highway accident west of Baghdad.

“Two of those soldiers, Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, 26, and Sgt. Omar Mora, 28, were part of another group of seven—the seven noncommissioned officers of the 82nd Airborne Division who wrote a brave, well-reasoned op-ed in the Aug. 19 New York Times, calling the prospect of victory ‘far-fetched’ and appraisals of progress ‘surreal.’ ”

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Sales Call

By way of MK: Mark Fiore’s “My Pet Legacy.”

Stop holding your breath: Make sure you talk to your kids and grandkids about Iraq, because someday, they’ll have to talk to their kids and grandkids about it; it would be great if they could understand how we allowed this whole thing to get started. So now we’re waiting for The Report on how things are going Over There. It’s another exercise in our national game of “who are you going to believe — me or your own eyes?” We’re not having a national debate or even a discussion about this anymore. We’re the captive audience for a national sales pitch. The war’s proponents are marketing the war to the rest of us, the reluctant buyers, with the underlying argument that they’re selling the only product we can possibly buy and that, even if it looks, smells, and tastes awful and the price is outrageous, we’d better sign up for a lifetime supply if we know what’s good for us. And besides, interest-only financing is available. So sure, let’s go ahead and do it; it’s an investment in the future, we hope, and maybe we can refinance next year.

Low, low easy payments: Like most buy-now, pay-later schemes, this one’s the gift that keeps on giving. Somehow, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get ahead of the payments and the upkeep. How long can this go on? Well, you might ask Israel. Mighty on the battlefield. Stalwart for democracy. Prosperous and inventive economically. And utterly unable to free itself from the deserts of its victory in the Six-Day War (if it took six days, why is it still going on?). That has all worked out beautifully for everyone, including we, the people who have dumped more than $100 billion into the Israeli project in the last 40 years. The Palestinians have rubble aplenty to go with a feeble, corrupt and blinkered leadership, and the Israelis have a militarized “democracy” that can only limit the unrest on its fringes by isolating the Palestinians with walls and separate highways. It’s a beautiful picture. Consider us sold.

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U.S. Americans, Helping the Iraq

So by now everyone has seen or at least heard about our national dunce of the week: Lauren Caitlin Upton, the South Carolina beauty queen whose brain shut down when she was asked to weigh in on why so many Americans can’t find the United States on a map.

The transcript: “I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because … ah some … people out there in our nation don’t have maps and … ah … I believe that e-education such as in South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should … our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or, or should help south Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future. … ” (YouTube video here.)

Sure, it’s kind of a funny moment, though less so when you realize that Upton nearly won anyway (she still looked great in her bathing suit) and that when she was brought on NBC’s “Today” show — NBC’s parent company also owns the Miss Teen USA pageant — to talk about the faux pas, she was smothered with treacly understanding for her moment of difficulty. With three or four days to think about it, Upton came up with this answer: “”Well personally, my friends and I, we know exactly where the United States is on our map. I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t. And if the statistics are correct, I believe there should be more emphasis on geography.”

Yeah, finding your native country on a map — that’s a real geographical triumph. And on top of that, she’s heard of Iraq and South Africa and wants to help them. She’s practically ready for a cabinet position. Or a network news anchor’s job.

That thought occurs after witnessing Katie Couric’s performance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” this morning. Couric, who has piloted the “The CBS Evening News” into a death spiral, is in Iraq to a) cover the big story — the upcoming report on the effectiveness of the troop buildup and b) to prove she and her show are heavyweights.

Tragically, serious news consumers no longer expect the the major TV networks or their cable counterparts to be sources for more than the quickest, sloppiest (and in the case of Fox News, grotesquely spun) sketches of a story. On Sunday, Couric demonstrated the state of the art: With the obligatory Baghdad skyline shot in the background, she began with an overly general background statement about the state of affairs in Iraq, including a badly flawed summary of the history of the conflict in Fallujuah (she skipped over entirely the battle for the city in November 2004, probably the bloodiest single engagement of the war so far).

Then, she got to the meat of her report: She essentially parroted everything our commanding general and his briefers told her and showed her during her “reporting.” The lack of skepticism — not the political kind, but the natural journalistic kind that would demand to know what one isn’t being shown, what facts the general and his staff don’t want us to see — was breathtaking. To her minor credit, Couric allowed that she was seeing “what the U.S. military wants her to see.” But that didn’t stop her from concluding that “there are definitely areas where the situation is improving.” ( has a post on Couric’s performance, complete with video clip).

Me, I’ll take the South Carolina Fumbler over the make-believe newswoman. The Fumbler will do no damage in the end, unlike the faux journalist who drops in to tell us that things are looking up in Iraq without even the pretense of some independent fact-finding.

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Sunday Notes

What Iraq Needs: “In the history of Iraq, more than 7,000 years, there have always been strong leaders,” said [Sheik Muhammad Bakr Khamis al-Suhail, a respected Shiite neighborhood leader in Baghdad. “We need strong rulers or dictators like Franco, Hitler, even Mubarak. We need a strong dictator, and a fair one at the same time, to kill all extremists, Sunni and Shiite.”

–“A Thirst for Final, Crushing Victory,” Edward Wong, The New York Times

Hogwash (R.I.P. Fred): “Hogzilla,” the behemoth feral porker recently killed by an 11-year-old wielding a .50-caliber pistol — this is still a great country — turns out not to have been wild. And not to have been named Hogzilla. His former owner, who bought him as a present for his wife a few years back and sold him to the hunting plantation where he met his end, called him Fred.

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Guest Observation

“… The U.S. military announced that a total of 10 American soldiers were killed in roadside bombings and a helicopter crash on Memorial Day, making May [with 116 troops dead] the third deadliest month of the war [for the United States].” An Associated Press Iraq war roundup

“… Patroclus fought like dreaming:

His head thrown back, his mouth–wide as a shrieking mask–

Sucked at the air to nourish his infuriated mind

And seemed to draw the Trojans onto him,

To lock them round his waist, red water, washed against his chest,

To lay their tired necks against his sword like birds.

–Is it a god? Divine? Needing no tenderness?–

Yet instantly they touch, he butts them,

Cuts them back:

–Kill them!

My sweet Patroclus,

–Kill them!

As many as you can,


Coming behind you through the dust you felt

–What was it?–felt creation part, and then


Who had been patient with you


His hand came from the east,

And in his wrist lay all eternity;

And every atom of his mythic weight

Was poised between his fist and bent left leg.

Your eyes lurched out. Achilles’ helmet rang

Far and away beneath the cannon-bones of Trojan horses,

And you were footless … staggering … amazed …

Between the clumps of dying, dying yourself,

Dazed by the brilliance in your eyes,

The noise–like weirs heard far away–

Dabbling your astounded fingers

In the vomit on your chest.

And all the Trojans lay and stared at you;

Propped themselves up and stared at you;

Feeling themselves as blest as you felt cursed. …”

–From “War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s Iliad

By Christopher Logue, Copyright 1981

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