Monthly Archives: August 2007

Race, educational achievement, and affirmative action

According to a repot in Inside Higher Ed, the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association was focused on “new reseach designed to shift the debate” on affirmative action. The main point of this shift: repealing affirmative action, the new argument goes, is unfair not simply because it results in a drop of black and Latino enrollment at the top universities, but because this drop is not related to merit.

Robert T. Teranishi, assistant professor of higher education at New York University, said that his research was designed to counter the “blaming the victim” mentality in which he said people assume black enrollment declines suggest a lack of merit by black students.

The reality, he said, is that a new form of school segregation has taken hold in which in post-affirmative action California, the best way for a black or Latino student to get into a University of California campus is to attend a “white” high school.

Teranishi’s research focuses on California high schools and the relationship between attending high schools with certain characteristics and enrolling at a University of California campus. He started by noting that while California is famous for its ethnic and racial diversity (in statewide totals), 88 percent of high schools have a racial majority of one group. Of those schools, he said, 44.7 percent have a white majority, while 43.4 percent have a black or Latino majority. But among new University of California students, 65.3 percent come from white majority schools and only 21.7 percent come from black or Latino majority schools.

From there, Teranishi presented data showing educational inequities in the different kinds of schools, such as studies showing that the greater the proportion of black and Latino students in a high school, the fewer Advanced Placement courses that are likely to be offered.

The cumulative impact of these inequities is such that minority students who are admitted to top University of California campuses are more likely to have attended white majority schools than other schools. At Berkeley, for example, 48.9 percent of the underrepresented minority students admitted attended white majority high schools, while 33.6 percent attended high schools that were black or Latino majority and 17.5 percent attended high schools without a racial majority. At the University of California at San Diego, the percentage of new black and Latino students coming from white majority high schools is 52.6 percent.

Teranishi said that such data should shake up people who think that some pure idea of merit is at play in selecting the best students for top colleges. Is it fair to tell black and Latino students, he asked, that to have a good chance at getting into UCLA or Berkeley, “they need to attend a white school”?

Walter Allen, professor of higher education at UCLA, said that what the data suggest are that admissions systems supposedly designed to favor merit are in fact systems that “protect privilege” and end up ripping off black and Latino people generally — either as would-be students or as taxpayers. “The poor folks are subsidizing the educations of wealthy people,” he said.

A few things leap out. First, the blatantly agenda-driven nature of the research, explicitly — by the researcher’s own admission — designed to support a particular public policy goal (the defense of race-based preferences in college admissions). Second, the blatantly one-sided nature of the discussion at the conference (at least judging by Scott Jaschik’s account at Inside Higher Ed, no opposing viewpoints were presented).

And thirdly, I think the esteemed sociologists have the wrong idea about opposition to preferences. Few Americans regard “merit” as a completely innate quality that exists outside any social or cultural context, and the idea of innate racial differences in intelligence is generally quite unpopular among critics of race-based preferences. Most of those critics, such as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, have stressed the need to reform K-12 education rather than try to artificially remedy the educational achievement gap by lowering college admission standards for minorities.

Teranishi’s research (disputed by some people in the comments at Inside Higher Ed) is intriguing; but it hardly proves that the students who are being rejected by the top colleges are qualified for admission. The availability of advanced placement courses, and resources in general, is undoubtedly a factor; but there may be other reasons black and Latino students from majority white schools do better — such as a school culture more supportive of scholastic achievement.

Instead of renewing the call for crude racial-preference policies, it might be worth it to look at what those majority-white schools are doing right.

My own article on racial preferences, from 2001, can be found here.

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More on Hiroshima

Oliver Kamm returns to the subject of Hiroshima, and kindly mentions my blogpost. He also deals with the responses from some of his critics, and provides some context for the David Henderson article which I linked as a good example of the revionist views on the bombing.
D.M. Giangreco also sends along this interesting item from American Heritage magazine on newly discovered documents shedding light on Truman’s decision.

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Putinjugend: More bad news from Russia

I’m back for a visit to the op-ed page of the Boston Globe, with a column on “Nashi”, the rather sinister youth movement on the rise in Russia.

A couple of months ago on an Internet forum I frequent, a discussion of human rights in Eastern Europe turned to the brutal suppression last May of a demonstration in Moscow protesting the city’s ban on a gay pride march. Then came a remarkable response from a Russian forum participant, a 19-year-old university student from St. Petersburg: “RUSSIA THE BEST!!! AMERICA SUCKS!!!” she wrote in capital letters. “Next time write about the things that happen in your gay country, leave Russia alone!!!! Putin is the greatest president and we have the greatest history ever!”

I thought of that young woman when, shortly afterward, I read alarming reports about a new force in Russian public life: a youth movement called Nashi. The word is typically translated as “Ours,” but that doesn’t quite capture the nationalist, triumphalist overtones of the Russian name. “Nashi,” in Russian idiom, means “Our Guys” or “Our Kind”; it’s the “us” in us versus them.

“Them,” for Nashi, includes everyone from Americans to former Soviet republics that bristle at Russian diktat to Russians who don’t subscribe to Putin’s authoritarian vision of “sovereign democracy.”

Nashi was launched in the spring of 2005, largely in reaction to the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, where young adults played a key role in the massive street protests, sit-ins, and strikes that helped pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko prevail in an election dispute. With Nashi and several smaller pro-Kremlin youth groups, the Putin regime is hoping not only to co-opt political activism among the younger generation but to use it as a club against its enemies.

And make no mistake: While ostensibly independent, Nashi is a Kremlin creation. Officially, its lavish funding comes from pro-government business owners; it is widely reported that the group also receives direct subsidies from the Kremlin. Nashi activists land coveted jobs and internships in government agencies as well as state-owned oil and gas corporations. Putin’s top advisers have met frequently with the group’s leaders.

Last July, its two-week training program in a camp 200 miles outside Moscow, attended by 10,000 young men and women carefully screened for ideological fitness, was capped by a video message from Putin in which the president proclaimed Nashi a part of his team. Several days earlier, he had met with a group of Nashi “commissars” at his summer residence in Zavidovo.

Nashi claims to be over 100,000 strong; according to some reports, it has a core of 10,000 activists ages 17 to 25, with another 200,000 or so who regularly attend its events.

At the core of Nashi’s credo is personal loyalty to Putin, admired as the strongman who saved Russia from weakness and decline — and venomous hate toward the opposition and its leaders, such as chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. (Posters at the Nashi summer camp depicted Kasparov and two other male opposition figures as lingerie-clad prostitutes.)

Beyond this personality cult, Nashi champions the ideology of the Putin regime, which blends elements of the Soviet legacy and that of imperial Russia. Though officially secular, the movement has a Russian Orthodox wing. It promotes conservative social values and healthy lifestyles, condemning such scourges as draft evasion, drinking, smoking, birth control, and abortion. Its leaders speak of “freedom” as essential to the Russian people — but what they mean is freedom from outside interference and infringements on Russia’s sovereignty.

Propaganda is not the only weapon in Nashi’s arsenal. The movement offers paramilitary training that prepares members for breaking up opposition rallies (under the guise of combating “fascism”) and intimidating those who run afoul of the Putin regime. Last year, when the governor of the Perm region recklessly allowed a member of an opposition party to attend a youth conference, Nashi protesters picketed his offices until he apologized.

In April, the group’s protests against the Estonian government’s decision to relocate a memorial to Soviet soldiers turned violent: Hundreds of Nashi goons besieged the Estonian embassy in Moscow, unmolested by the police as they threw rocks, blocked traffic, and tore down the Estonian flag.

Some have compared Nashi to the Komsomol, the Soviet-era Communist Youth League. But in a way, Nashi is much more frightening. By the 1960s, the Komsomol was largely devoid of genuine ideological zeal, unless you count rote recitation of party slogans. Membership in the organization, while not mandatory, was practically universal, and joining it at 14 was largely a formality. Even Komsomol activists, with few exceptions, were interested in career advancement, not political causes. Today’s Nashi undoubtedly have their share of cynical careerists, but they also include a large number of true believers.

Perhaps more aptly, some Russian liberals refer to Nashi as “Putinjugend.” The movement’s brownshirt tactics certain evoke shades of Hitler Youth, as does the emphasis on physical fitness, clean living, and procreation for the Motherland. (At the Nashi summer camp, sex was encouraged as an answer to Russia’s demographic crisis, and 40 couples were married.) While the Nashi platform condemns ethnic bigotry, there is little doubt that if the Kremlin decided to single out an ethnic or religious minority as “the enemy,” Nashi would fall into lockstep.

I don’t know if the young Russian woman who posted that angry message on the Internet forum was a member of Nashi; but she certainly had the slogans and the mindset. If so, she speaks for a large segment of Russia’s new generation: a generation that is being taught to see national greatness in a bully state that inspires fear abroad and tramples the individual at home.

Many links on Nashi can be found here. By the way, for a charming Orwellian touch, Nashi’s full name is, “The democratic anti-fascist youth movement Nashi.” Fascist, in Nashi parlance, equals anyone critical of Putin.

I wondered how long after the appearance of my column it would take for someone to ask why I’m not being equally critical of the College Republicans. Not long at all. The analogy comes from paleocon Daniel Larison, who thinks that “a bully state that inspires fear abroad and tramples the individual at home” describes the U.S. government as much as the Putin regime. We’ll talk when George Soros (like Mikhail Khodorkovsky) is in jail on trumped-up charges of financial wrongdoing and when every news channel on American TV is reduced to an obedient mouthpiece of the government. I could list a few more “whens” here, but that’s an issue I’ll address in a separate post soon. (For the record, I’m not a fan of the Bush administration’s record on civil liberties; but I’m also not a fan of facile comparisons to Putin’s Russia.) Larison also asks what makes Nashi so important:

Putin theoretically has at his disposal the entire military, intelligence and internal security apparatus of the Russian government, so how on earth could a band of occasionally thuggish nationalist youths be of greater concern to someone who opposes Putin?

If you want to get exercised about the treatment of Estonia (whose own government’s removal of a Soviet war memorial started the whole fracas), you might focus on the massive cyber-war waged against E-stonia rather than the bussed-in protesters who threw rocks at an embassy. But there’s no anti-Nazi cachet in that. Drawing attention to Russian cyber-warfare would emphasise that these are not just some dusty bunch of old commie-Nazis, but represent something different. Writing an article about “Putin’s young brownshirts” is much catchier, because it allows the audience to avoid thinking.

I’m not sure why the two are mutually exclusive; I have, in fact, written about Russian cyber-warfare. As for why Nashi merits attention: in the past 15 years, Russia has developed at least something of a civil society that could, theoretically, serve as a buffer against the power of the state apparatus (at least as long as Russia has elections). Groups like Nashi are one of the ways in which this civil society is being co-opted and turned into an instrument of the state; especially dangerous in this case, because it’s young people, traditionally a group associated with anti-authoritarianism, rebelliousness, and the demand for freedom, who are being co-opted in this way.
Larison also trots out the idea (which has cropped up elsewhere, from paleocons and liberals alike), that Russia’s turn to authoritarianism is partly the fault of U.S. policies intended to “humiliate” post-Cold War Russia, and invites me to criticize those policies. I’d love to know what this “humiliation” consisted of; if there’s anything to criticize about our Russia policy, it’s the insistence on treating Russia as an ally and a democracy when it’s obviously neither. But that’s a discussion for another day. Whatever the cause of Russia’s authoritarian slide, the emergence of a state-blessed cultish youth movement whose members are all too willing to serve as goon squads for the government is a new landmark in that slide.

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More Beauchamp

According to Michael Goldfarb at The Weekly Standard, Beauchamp has recanted.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned from a military source close to the investigation that Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp–author of the much-disputed “Shock Troops” article in the New Republic’s July 23 issue as well as two previous “Baghdad Diarist” columns–signed a sworn statement admitting that all three articles he published in the New Republic were exaggerations and falsehoods–fabrications containing only “a smidgen of truth,” in the words of our source.

Goldfarb also quotes this statement from Major Steven F. Lamb, the deputy Public Affairs Officer for Multi National Division-Baghdad:

An investigation has been completed and the allegations made by PVT Beauchamp were found to be false. His platoon and company were interviewed and no one could substantiate the claims.

Could the Army investigation be a means of sweeping embarrassing facts under the rug? Sure. Could the military pressure a private into recanting a true story? Sure — though Beuchamp, at present, has enough visibility to be more protected from retaliation than the typical soldier. Be as it may, if the story recantation story pans out, it will no doubt breathe a new life into the story.

Meanwhile, Jeff Goldstein responds to my earlier post on the topic, and specifically to this part:

[W]hile I think the story of the boy who had his tongue cut out raises further doubts about Beauchamp’s credibility, it also points to the aburdity of claims that TNR editors were eager to publish Beauchamp because his writings put U.S. troops in Iraq in a bad light. (Unless, of course, one wants to claim that TNR and Beauchamp cleverly conspired to ensure that his first diarist piece focused on atrocity by the insurgents in order to avert suspicion of anti-Americanism — which is probably not too paranoid for a few websites.)

Asks Jeff:

Consider: is it really “paranoid” to suggest that a writer working to establish credibility would be careful to describe the barbarism of “both sides” (and aren’t we always told that what separates “us” from “them” is that we do not behave like them, making the subsequent barbarism of the American troops reported in Beauchamp’s follow-up pieces all the more pointedly ironic)?

In fact, isn’t it that juxtaposition itself that gives the pieces their pointedness and, to some, their poignancy?

The idea that war turns us into what we are fighting is the “literary” conceit being serviced by Beauchamp’s collection of essays — and in the aggregate, his pieces are, in my reading, intended to supply this practiced layer to the anti-war narrative embraced both by Foer and (if we can believe his other writings, or view his political affiliations as “significant” with respect to his literary output) Beauchamp.

Sorry — I find it hard to believe that Beauchamp sought “juxtaposition” between an essay published in February and an essay published in July. People weren’t reading his essays in a collection of books, they were reading them in a weekly magazine, and except for a handful who were paying special attention to the “Baghdad Diarist,” I doubt that most even remembered that the “Shock Troops” article was written by the same guy who wrote about the insurgents cutting out a kid’s tongue. If Beauchamp wanted “juxtaposition” between the atrocities of the insurgents and the dehumanization of U.S. soldiers to the point of becoming “just like the enemy,” surely he would have made it in one article, not two different essays separated by months. Besides, especially compared to an atrocity like cutting off a child’s tongue, the behavior Beauchamp imputes to U.S. soldiers hardly qualifies as “barbaric.”

Meanwhile, in the comments, “Jeffersonian,” who says he is a longtime fan of mine and defends me against some of the more spirited comments from his fellow posters, accuses me of being “disingenuous” in this case:

TNR obviously knew what Beauchamp was going to write before he did, given the nature of his oeuvre. Of the tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq, they just happened across this guy? … TNR picked STB for a reason, and it wasn’t because of his purple prose.

I appreciate the fan support, of course; but does “Jeffersonian” really believe that when TNR picked up Beauchamp’s first Diarist piece about the Iraqi boy mutilated by insurgents for talking to Americans, Franklin Foer knew in advance that Beauchamp would follow up with a piece chronicling bad behavior by American soldiers and that’s the only reason he decided to publish Beauchamp? Sorry, but that is paranoid, and it’s also the kind of demonization of “the other side” that I find so frustrating in political discourse.

As I recall, Beauchamp was recommended to TNR by his fiancee Elspeth Reeve, a staffer at the magazine. It’s not as if the magazine went looking for a soldier to write “Diarist” pieces. I do think that, to a large extent, Beauchamp was given a platform because he was someone the TNR editors saw as “one of us”: a guy with a background in creative writing and journalism, as well as a Howard Dean supporter. I think it’s also fair to say that the first Diarist piece, while not negative toward American troops in Iraq, showed them as mired in bleak and awful futility: at the end, Beauchamp reflects on his feelings of helplessness at his inability to protect the boy. So in that sense, it certainly fits into the current world-view at TNR. On the other hand, it could also be read as implying that if we withdraw from Iraq, we will leave the population in the hands of people who cut out children’s tongues to make a point.

Finally, I’m not sure why some of Jeff’s commenters think I’m helping “close ranks” in defense of TNR, or wondering what my reaction will be “if Beauchamp’s recantation is acknowledged and TNR still holds the articles as representative of the magazine’s journalism.” Where exactly is my defense of TNR? I said I believed that Beauchamp is a fabulist or at least a partial fabulist, and that TNR is wrong to stand by him. Nor did I ever say the story didn’t matter; I specifically said does, because I think journalistic integrity, particularly in reporting from a war zone, is important. I think they’re guilty of shoddy journalism, but not of trying to undermine the war. As far as I know, no anti-war blogs picked up Thomas’s piece or tried to trumpet his allegations before conservative blogs drew attention to the piece.

This is not to say that Beauchamp’s stories should have been left unchallenged — only to say that, even unchallenged, they would have been unlikely to have much tangible effect, good or bad.

Update, August 9: TNR denies Beauchamp’s recantation. The Weekly Standard stands by its story. The Army says its investigation has showed Beauchamp’s stories to be false. In the end, everyone will probably stick by their opinion.

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Hiroshima, moral purity and moral blindness

A thoughtful, poignant post by Shaun Mullen at The Moderate Voice (and in a longer version on his own blog, Kiko’s House) reminded me that today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Mullen opens with a heartbreaking image of human suffering — the death of a three-year-old boy who was outside riding his tricycle when the bomb hit. Then, he examines the arguments made in favor of Harry Truman’s decision to approve the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (avoiding the huge losses of both American and Japanese lives that would have inevitably resulted from a mainland invasion, freeing millions of people under Japanese occupation as well as hundreds of thousands of POWs in danger of death), as well as the arguments against it. He concludes:

[I]n my humble view, President Truman made the right decision in 1945 under circumstances so extraordinary that it is difficult to imagine them being replicated at some future time. I pray that I am not wrong.

Oliver Kamm, British commentator and liberal hawk, has a piece making the same argument in The Guardian, challenging the “alternative history” which claims that Japan was already on the brink of surrender and the nuclear bombs were dropped in order to intimidate Stalin’s Soviet Union. Writes Kamm:

Contrary to popular myth, there is no documentary evidence that his military commanders advised him the bomb was unnecessary for Japan was about to surrender. As the historian Wilson Miscamble puts it, Truman “hoped that the bombs would end the war and secure peace with the fewest American casualties, and so they did. Surely he took the action any American president would have undertaken.” Recent Japanese scholarship provides support for this position. Sadao Asada, of Doshisha University, Kyoto, has concluded from analysis of Japanese primary sources that the two bombs enabled the “peace party” within Japan’s cabinet to prevail.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often used as a shorthand term for war crimes. That is not how they were judged at the time. Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire – and for Japan itself. One of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties. The destruction of two cities, and the suffering it caused for decades afterwards, cannot but temper our view of the Pacific war. Yet we can conclude with a high degree of probability that abjuring the bomb would have caused greater suffering still.

Here, I will say that my knowledge of World War II is limited. I don’t know who is factually correct about the situation in the Pacific theater at the end of the war. (The revisionist case is made here by the Hoover Institution’s David Henderson.) The argument that the primary goal of dropping the bombs was to intimidate the Soviets doesn’t make much sense to me, given that after the war ended we allowed the Soviet Union to keep all of Eastern Europe, half of Germany, and the Baltics as part of its empire. If Truman mainly wanted leverage against the Soviets, he didn’t make much use of it. Some argue that alternative means of forcing a surrender, such as dropping the bomb on a military target first, could have worked. Others dispute that. I don’t know the answer.

On a purely instinctive level, I am of course appalled by justifications for the killing of about 150,000 civilians, many of them children. One cannot, if one is a normal person, justify such an act without doing violence to one’s moral sense. But are there times when the unspeakable is the lesser of two evils? Obviously, arguments that noble ends can justify terrible means can lead to some pretty dark places, and such arguments have also served countless tyrants and dictatorships as excuses for barbarism. The danger of becoming “as bad as the enemy” is real.

But the view that all use of terrible means is equal represents the opposite extreme: it is a kind of moral laziness that abdicates critical distinctions and context. Assassinating Hitler with a car bomb in the middle of World War II, even if the bomb also kills some innocents, is not morally equivalent to assassinating Martin Luther King. When some have the will to do evil things — enslavement, mass murder — there is generally no way to stop them except by force, and when one chooses to use force, terrible choices must sometimes be made. What if the only way you can stop a death squad is to destroy the camp that serves as its base, and you know that some members of this death squad have children living in this camp? (Neo-neocon has an interesting post on the subject from two years ago.)

I don’t dispute that even necessary violence, particularly when it kills innocents, damages the soul. I will even agree that we should all find it a little harder to live with ourselves when we pause to think that the victory over evil in World War II was bought with the lives of so many innocents, not only at Hiroshima but also in Dresden or in Tokyo, where the men, women and children killed by “conventional” firebombing were as dead as the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I also agree that it’s a sign of moral progress that such wanton slaughter of civilians is now considered off-limits as a war tactic, at least by civilized nations). Nonetheless, it was as clearcut a victory over evil as there has ever been in history.

And that’s why what truly shocked me was the responses to Oliver Kamm on the Guardian website. Not all the responses, to be sure; but many of the anti-Kamm posts were truly striking in their venom and their strident moral equivalency:

The funny thing is, Oliver Kamm demonstrates what Noam Chomsky said years ago about war crimes; war crimes are defined by the victors of the war and not be (sic) any objective standard.

You could argue, that Kamm is supporting terrorism: as several posters has pointed out, with the kind of logic he espouses, Al Qaeda is perfectly entitled to target civilians in order to end the WOT.

What a disgusting article. For me, the dropping of an atomic bomb on any town anywhere is entirely despicable. In my opinion it proves beyond a shadow of doubt that whilst Americans may be lovely people when they are getting their way, they will stoop to any depths to ensure their personal gain in the face of opposition. They will also, always hide behind “holier than thou” reasons for their contemptible behaviour.

Do you believe that what you wrote actually justify intentional killing of babies, women and old folks? If so, what is wrong with Taliban killings of Korean hostages? They just want to save their own people at the moment in Afghanistan prisons.

Yes, of course, Oliver, nuclear bombs save lives, so let’s offer our unique form of salvation to the Iranians. Zonist (sic) and neo-con interests and oil have nothing to do with it.

Only idiots, cretins and evil people try to rationalize dead babies. There is no cause worth this evil. If we use evil to defeat evil, we ourselves have become evil.

Wow. Americans are just shocking in their denial. By this sick logic the jihadis are completely justified when they attack American civilians in massive acts of terror – which I might add are mere blips in comparison to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We live in a sick culture, where 60 years have passed, and there isnt even a shred of shame with regards to this heinous crime. For the sake of our species – Boycott America.

this is a truly disgusting article by a truly disgusting war monger who has now become famous for constantly suggesting war and violence against brown, black and yellow people – Lebanon, Iraq and now a justification of nuclear weapons against Japanese,
next we will get an Oliver Kamm article that says drop a nuke on Bahghdad for the sake of the Iraqis and to save American casualities,
what is the different between Oliver Kamm and the guys with long beards who glorify jihad and say things like drop drop drop the bomb?

“Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome.”
The other side also did similar terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome which became war crimes.
It is the winner who decides what is or is not a war crime.

Apologists for Western war crimes are two a penny. But why would such a person imagine they were left wing?

Most people can justify anything, even killing millions of humanbeings as long as they are not among the killed.It is sad to read such an article in the Guardian

America has ever been a psychopathic bully ever since it’s first days and the genocide against the indiginous Americans. Why all these attempts to justify what was clearly a war crime greater than all others?

The demand of unconditional surrender is in itself a war crime. It convinced the Germans (the generals not least)that they would have to fight to the last man, since no mercy could be expected from the Allies. Germany was to be destroyed rather than merely conquered. The same with Japan.

The US has never learned the lesson of treating one’s enemies with grace and magnanimity once those enemies have lost–it is always vindictive, always demands unconditional surrender, complete acquiescence to US subjugation. The US and will destroy an entire country in order to prove a point instead of giving in to one very small, insignificant condition.

What is completely absent from these comments (and many others like them) is any awareness of things like the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March, or even the Holocaust for that matter; or of the fact that America’s supposed determination to “destroy” and crush her enemies manifested itself in rebuilding postwar Germany and leaving Japan with a political system that allowed it to prosper and become a strong economic rival to America herself. (There is also very little awareness that tens of thousands of German civilians died in British bombing raids.) A few commenters suggest that America should have allowed the Soviets to end the war by invading Japan, blithely unaware of the hell on earth that would have awaited the Japanese under Soviet occupation. This isn’t mere ignorance; it’s a profound conviction that only evil done by the West, and above all by “psychopathic bully” America, truly matters. Meanwhile, posters who point out Japanese atrocities in World War II are rebuffed with accusations of “the implicitly racist overtone [of] recounting the endless ‘savagery’ of the Japanese.”

When anti-Americanism becomes so extreme that it turns the U.S. into the bad guy of World War II, that’s truly frightening and depressing. Even one poster highly critical of American foreign policy today was moved to point out:

Now I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything in the defence of the United States, but there is a time for everything. The naivety of certain comments above is astonishing.

It is not racist to state that Japan during the 1940s was in the grip of a pseudo-religious nationalistic fever and would have fought to that last man rather than allow foreigners to invade their land. The inhumanity of the Japanese regime was akin to Nazi Germany. Had the situation been reversed and the Japanese had the bomb, there would not be a hamlet left standing in the United States.

It is difficult to imagine given the current American tendency of mindless warmongering, but there was a time when the US fought a just war, and there was unfortunately no alternative way of ending it to save hundreds of thousands of American lives and millions of Japanese lives.

Many of the Guardian posters were convinced that the real purpose behind Kamm’s defense of Hiroshima was to defend the use of nuclear weapons against Iran or Iraq today. I don’t know what Kamm thinks on the subject, but I do know that Shaun Mullen thinks it would be insane to use nukes in the War on Terror. So, the argument that the U.S. was justified in dropping the bombs in 1945 is not necessarily, folks, a transparent rationalization for incinerating Baghdad or Tehran in 2007.

As for whether the bombing was indeed the least evil of all available options: again, I don’t know. I’m sure there is room for legitimate debate on this issue. But that debate is almost entirely drowned out by hate and self-righteousness. The insistense on moral purity has turned to moral blindness.

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L’affaire Beauchamp: The sound of many knees jerking

The Scott Thomas Beauchamp brouhaha is a proverbial tempest in a teapot. The claims Beauchamp made (as the barely pseudonymous “Scott Thomas”) in his “Baghdad Diarist” New Republic article about American soldiers behaving badly are fairly trivial; the war in Iraq does not stand or fall on their truthfulness. Nonetheless, the blogosphere’s reaction to the story has been sharply divided along pro-war and anti-war lines almost from the start, and this across-the-board knee-jerk response is, perhaps, the most interesting (if depressing) aspect of the entire affair.

Right meme: it’s a liberal media conspiracy to besmirch the war effort by encouraging a leftist literary poseur to publish fictional or embellished stories painting soldiers as depraved sociopaths. Left meme: it’s a right-wing cyber-lynching of a soldier telling the ugly truth about the war. TNR’s announcement that it has confirmed the story to its satisfaction has not changed any minds.

There is no question that some of the right-wing rhetoric directed at Beauchamp and at TNR was indeed shockingly ugly, violent, and paranoid (Beauchamp was a leftist mole who had deliberately infiltrated the military in order to destroy it from within!). But the defense of Beauchamp from the anti-war camp seems misguided.

Factually, the critics have the point that the incident of mocking an injured woman occurred in Kuwait, not Iraq. And, unless more facts emerge, that’s it.

But the location is not a triviality in this instance. Beauchamp’s piece opened with a shocking tale of how he and a buddy publicly mocked a woman on their base in Iraq — a woman whom, he wrote, he saw at almost every meal in the chow hall — whose face was badly disfigured by an IED. After three soldiers told TNR fact-checkers that they did remember a loud conversation in which the woman was mocked within her hearing range, but it happened at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, prior to the unit’s arrival in Iraq, Beauchamp acknowledged the error. But was it an error? After all, with the correct location, the anecdote would not have fit into Beauchamp’s narrative. His point was that war messes up one’s moral compass, including his own. In this case, logic is on the side of The Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb when he writes:
TNR says in this new statement that “Shock Troops” “was about the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war.” But now we find out that Beauchamp hadn’t even gotten to Iraq when this incident allegedly took place.

For an analogy: Suppose a conservative magazine ran an article about the baneful effects of same-sex marriage on general attitudes toward matrimony. Suppose it opened with an account of a conversation overheard by the author on a college campus in Massachusetts, a few weeks after that state’s Supreme Court ruled that same-sex unions must be legalized, in which several college students favorably discussed polygamy and group marriage. Suppose some questions were raised about the accuracy of that account, and then it turned out that the conversation did take place — only it was a month before the same-sex marriage ruling and it happened not in Massachusetts but in Virginia. Would anyone consider that a trivial error?
Shakespeare’s Sister (Melissa McEwen) also thinks that Beauchamp deserves credit for coming clean about his error; but I’m not sure there’s much virtue in that, considering that three soldiers had already told TNR’s fact-checkers the incident had taken place on the base in Kuwait.
As for the other incidents chronicled by Beauchamp: Ace of Spades does a pretty convincing job of “fisking” the one in which a soldier wore a piece of a skull on his head. It’s clear that Beauchamp did not entirely make up the story; whether he considerably embellished it is a different matter. The final anecdote, about a soldier who ran over stray dogs with his Bradley fighting vehicle for a hobby, is confirmed inasmuch as it is in fact possible to target a dog with a Bradley; but the part about the dog being neatly severed in half with such a hit still seems highly dubious.
And then there is the curious matter of Beauchamp’s first diarist piece, “War Bonds” (subscribers only). In it, Beauchamp tells the horrifying tale of chatting with a friendly Iraqi boy while changing a flat tire, only to find out the next day that the boy, who called himself “James Bond,” had his tongue cut out by insurgents for talking to Americans. Some critics have focused on the improbability of Beauchamp’s claim that he was changing a tire in a “dark brown river of sewage.” But there are bigger problems with the story than that. How about, for instance, the fact that Beauchamp and the boy engage in pleasant chit-chat while standing in reeking excremental fluids that, according to the writer, swallow up the boy’s lower torso — and no mention is made of what, surely, had to be a suffocating stench?
Then, we get to Beauchamp’s account of what happened next. A private from his unit who had patrolled the same neighborhood brings him the news:
“… That James Bond kid you were telling me about–did he run around in an Adidas hat?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Those fuckers cut off his tongue.”

“What? Who?”

“Shia militia, the police, I don’t know. Apparently he had been talking to too many Americans.”

“No fucking way.”

“Yeah. Fuck them, man. I hate when this shit happens to kids.”

We didn’t go back to Little Venice for a raid or patrol or mission of any type for quite some time–maybe a month or two. But when we did eventually go back, I didn’t have to look very hard to find Ali. He was mixed in with the throng of children who waded up to our convoy screaming for us to throw them chocolate or soccer balls. Of course, he wasn’t screaming, but he was smiling and his hands were outstretched to catch whatever a soldier with a generous streak might be kind enough to throw athim. I wanted to yell, “Hey, James Bond! I hope you get to California!”–but I didn’t. I just watched him scramble for the soccer ball that went bobbing away toward an alley and out of my field of vision.
Now, I know that life in a war zone does strange things to people. Still, a boy is horribly mutilated by insurgents for talking to Americans … and a month or two later he is back on the same streets, hanging around Americans and waiting for handouts, smiling happily and sprinting after a soccer ball? He is not shunned by other kids, if only for fear of further retaliation? His family has not thought to keep him off the streets, or maybe try to get out of that neighborhood altogether? None of it rings true — though I’m certainly not denying that the insurgents could have done such a thing. I also wonder if it’s odd that no one else has reported on this incident. While there are plenty of horrible things happening in Iraq right now, a child having his tongue cut out is an incident that would stand out even against this grimmest of backdrops; and besides, this is exactly the kind of thing the U.S. military would publicize as an example of the barbarism we’re up against.
Of course, no one questioned that story because no one has a political or emotional stake in disproving atrocities by insurgents. But it does, for the reasons listed above, get a pretty strong reading from my B.S. detector. It would be interesting to see a follow-up investigation, though I’m not holding my breath.
So yes, I think there are good reasons to question Beauchamp’s accuracy, and neither TNR nor liberal bloggers are doing themselves any favors by coming uncritically to his defense. But conservative bloggers aren’t covering themselves in glory either when they stridenly insist that TNR gave Beauchamp a platform in a nefarious plot to smear and slander the troops. TNR is not some far-left rag that revels in spitting on American soldiers; it is a centrist magazine that initially supported the war in Iraq. Indeed, while I think the story of the boy who had his tongue cut out raises further doubts about Beauchamp’s credibility, it also points to the aburdity of claims that TNR editors were eager to publish Beauchamp because his writings put U.S. troops in Iraq in a bad light. (Unless, of course, one wants to claim that TNR and Beauchamp cleverly conspired to ensure that his first diarist piece focused on atrocity by the insurgents in order to avert suspicion of anti-Americanism — which is probably not too paranoid for a few websites.) I think Beauchamp wanted to write gritty, vivid, human-interest-rich accounts of the horrors of war, and TNR wanted to publish them.
On the other hand, I think it’s not entirely accurate to claim that Beauchamp’s piece had no larger implications beyond “some soldiers are jerks.” His whole point was that war turns good, caring people (such as, he modestly suggests, himself) into the kind of people who would mock disfigured women, desecrate human remains, and run over dogs for sport.
At the same time, if Beauchamp and his editors at TNR truly wanted to slander the troops, you’d think they would come up with something more damning and more significant than boorishness, macabre humor, and animal cruelty. These claims are so insignificant that it’s doubtful anyone had noticed them at all if the right-wing blogosphere hadn’t made a fuss about it. (I can’t see The Associated Press or Reuters running a news story headlined, “Serviceman makes shocking claims about U.S. abuses in Iraq: Soldiers mocked disfigured woman, ran over dogs.”) John Cole points out an amusing contradiction in a post by Matt Sanchez, saying that the soldiers on Beauchamp’s base have never heard of the “Baghdad Diarist” saga — and, three paraphraphs later, that this saga is “taken so personally” because of all the soldiers who have died in Iraq. One irony of this affair is that many conservative bloggers make it sound as if the reputation of American troops in Iraq would indeed be compromised if Beauchamp’s account were corroborated.

I also think Andrew Sullivan probably has a point when he speculates that one reason for the Beauchamp brouhaha is that, unable to discredit the real bad news coming from Iraq, war supporters have targeted the Beauchamp story as a weak link. There are also far too many on the right who do not want to hear, or to accept, any bad news about the conduct or the morale of American troops. Yet we know that the bad news is out there — even in a Pentagon report, issued last May, which found that fewer than half of the soldiers and Marines believed that Iraqi non-combatants should be treated with “dignity and respect,” that most would not report a team member for mistreating civilians, and 10 percent (not an insignificant number) admitted to such mistreatment themselves. One might add, too, that if conservatives want to get indignant at those who suggest that morally degenerate behavior is fairly “normal” for American soldiers in Iraq, they should have directed some of their ire at Rush Limbaugh when he suggested that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was just a way for American soliders to “blow off some steam” after being shot at every day.
But none of that changes the fact that a magazine like TNR (whose current issue, by the way, features a magnificent, poignant selection of photos from Iraq by freelance photographer Ashley Gilbertson) owes its readers real accuracy, not just a “close enough.” Truth in journalism matters; that’s why the Beauchamp saga is not entirely trivial. And even those who are rightly disgusted by the hysteria about “slandering the troops” should not overlook this fact. In the end, Beauchamp and his persecutors may well deserve each other.

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Blogging update: Still here!

For anyone still checking this page: Yes, I’ve been very bad about blogging. The reason I never announced my hiatus is that I never really planned to take one. In the past few months, I’ve found myself looking for new career directions after the end of my Boston Globe column; for this and many other reasons, the blogging fell by the wayside.

Now, I’m back with a spiffy new template, and I plan to resume blogging on a regular basis after Labor Day, with light blogging until then as the spirit moves me.

My apologies, and sincere gratitude, to all who have continued, patiently, to wait for updates.

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