Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mom's the word

Is anyone else as sick of the cult of Momism as I am?  Just wondering....  And plan to write more about it soon, because you can't spit without hitting a story about childbearing, child raising, child yearning,  breast feeding, child feeding, and the ego feeding of the me-me-me-me-mom who either wouldn't be complete without her young 'un or flaunts what a bad mother -- excuse me, mom -- she is because, well, because she wouldn't be complete without her young 'un (who -- surprise! -- can drive her nuts).

And now, God help us, we have "Tiger Mother" (points for 'mother' over 'mom') who, if nothing else, knows her PR.    I haven't read her book and limit my intake of the spate of commentary on it, but she seems to share a belief with other uber-moms that they can build a better child -- and live to write about it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The money hole of Iraq-Afghanistan

The total cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 to the present: $1.125 trillion.

(The  National Priorities Project Cost of War site breaks that down all sorts of ways -- per person or taxpayer in the U.S., per state, per city.  Ashfield, the tiny town I once lived in in western Massachusetts -- pop. about 1,800 -- is in for $9.4 million.)

Imagine what else we could have done with that money!  I mean it: let's imagine.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

not even a thousand?

WashPo's Dana Priest has once again done excellent work on digging into the spook world, including the tidbit that Homeland Security doesn't even know how much it's spent on state fusion centers, which were set up to prevent terrorists from slipping through the intelligence cracks (apparently large enough to drive a jet through).  What can be counted, kind of, are the government organizations at all levels which have been created, or shifted, to do counterterrorism work, since 9/11: 935.  "At least," says the article.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No comment

"I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda [Naval Medical Center] with no legs to be the result of any type of distraction."  Commandant General James Amos, on why he opposes dumping Don't Ask Don't Tell

Monday, December 6, 2010

In freedom's way

I’ve been sending out Freedom of Information Requests for the past 18 months to find out how much and what kind of information the government is keeping on Iraq Veterans Against the War.  Having come of age in the Vietnam era, I assume surveillance, if only  as a matter of course.  I haven’t gotten much back, but I’ve learned a few things so far:

- Everything seems to be going through Homeland Security.  That’s where my requests to the Army, FBI, and Secret Service ended up or got cleared (or not) for release. 

- Govt agencies don’t give up much.  What I’ve gotten usually consists of multiple blacked-out pages – redacted is the official term – with one legible paragraph or a reprint of a news article.  I imagine some poor slob sitting in a tiny, windowless room, fingers permanently stained with black Magic Marker from scratching over line after line of type.  Talk about death of the soul.  But said poor slob is very good; I can’t read what’s been blacked out, even when I hold it up to the light. 

- It takes a long time.  Agencies are supposed to reply within 20 work days and they usually do send a letter telling you they're working on it within that time frame.  It takes a lot longer to get the info, however.  Then there's my request as a journalist for a fee waiver.  DHS denied it in July 2009.  I appealed a month later.  After I emailed them in Feb. 2010, asking for an update, I was informed that they take these things in the order received and I was #497 out of 551 appeals.  I’m still waiting.

- The most material came from what’s known as a fusion center in Maryland.  Fusion centers aren’t physical places; they’re systems for sharing information among law enforcement agencies which were put in place post 9/11, and they’re nigh unto impossible to crack.  My break came when someone put me in touch with a U.S. attorney, who, I think, wanted to prove to me that he really was a friend of the First Amendment.  I sent him a FOIA request and got back a fat packet, including a 42-page compilation of intelligence reports.  It was all redacted, except for a reprint of a WashPo story about an upcoming antiwar march (2 pages).

- Which brings me to perhaps the only surprise I’ve found: It’s possible that Homeland Security has a sense of humor.  The 42 pager, titled, Virtual Roll Call, features on its cover the quotation, “We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know.”  That's attributed to Unknown.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wikileaks and Gossip Grrrls

Does it strike anyone else that the coverage of diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks is much more about their content than the two prior caches covering the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?  U.S. reporting on those centered on how eggregious the leaks were, how mendacious Assange was to hide behind the mantle of journalism (and, by the way, he may be a rapist), and how maladjusted prime-suspect leaker, Bradley Manning is.  Not a whole bunch on what the docs told us about what American forces are doing in those countries or what the bits and pieces add up to.  In fact, pretty good avoidance of anything like that.

Now, we're getting all the juicy chatter, gossip and snarkiness among  statesmen, which (forgive me, fellow free speechites) -- I'm not at all sure we need to know.  Yes, bureaucrats classify way too much stuff by reflex or laziness or desire to avoid embarrassment and, yes, much of what the government keeps secret doesn't need to be.  I haven't read this WikiLeaks dump in detail (don't you wonder who has?), but it's a safe bet that some of the information there should see the light of day, if only as a disinfectant.  (Further evidence of rot in the Afghanistan government comes readily to mind.) Secrecy allows governments to cover their asses, which in turn, allows for corruption.  I'm not convinced, as Charlie Sennott argues on Global Post, that exposing the cables will lead to less transparency, at least not in the long run. 

But I buy the argument that diplomacy is a work in progress and that confidentiality needs to be honored to some degree for negotiations to go forward. Besides, what are we really finding out here?  That some diplomat thinks Sarkozy is an arrogant prick?  Amusing, but not particularly enlightening, And is it really news that we piss Canadians off?

It is juicy and amusing and easy to digest and get indignant about.  Like, as opposed to stuff we need to get informed and indignant about.  So my complaint is that this new collection of leaks has given us the excuse to change the subject -- and change it from a subject that we need to talk about more (and, incidentally, that we could actually do something about).

I used to know a theatre costume designer who claimed that when she wrote her autobiography, she'd call it, "If the Song Doesn't Work, Change the Dress."  I vote for a change of key, not of wardrobe.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

update on Prudential and military beneficiaries

The day my story (below) ran in the Boston Globe, the judge referred the lawsuit for discovery, an early but significant step in the litigation process.  Meanwhile, David Evans at Bloomberg News (with the help, no doubt of Paul Sullivan at Veterans for Common Sense) continued to do his own discovery and it wasn't pretty.  In September, he reported that the deal between Pru and the VA was sealed with a handshake until last year, when it was finally put in writing, as the law requires, and that beneficiaries will be able to get a real lump sum payment now; i.e. a check, rather than a promise.  That development, coming so quickly after the bad press, implies that the VA knew all was not well.  Sullivan gave me indications that the VA and Prudential were very cozy, a separate vector that didn't make it into my story because of space limits.

Then, on Halloween (significant?), I got an email from Cristobal Bonifaz, one of the lawyers for the case, with the teaser that something very significant was about to happen, stay tuned.
     "Something good?"  I emailed back.
     "Very good," came the reply.
The next morning, the American Legion, an organization whose 2.5 mil. members should be too numerous to ignore (not to mention that it's the American Legion, for god & country's sake!) filed a friend of the court brief in support of the lawsuit.

Case No. 3:10-CV-30163-MAP in U.S. District Court for Western Massachusetts

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I'm not in favor of censorship, but

This listings that were here have migrated to their own site.  Please visit.  The door's always open.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Baby vets: get 'em while they're young

A brief notice in today's Boston Globe section about stuff to do around town begins, "Children can join the Sturbridge Militia and learn drilling exercises..."  Did no editor find this disturbing?  And is it really such a wild idea that the country can note the job veterans have performed without glorifying war?  I suspect a great number of veterans want to do that -- and learned how through the most inglorious of lessons. 

Truth Commission gets noticed

James Dao reports on the Truth Commission on his Atwar blog for the New York Times.  What a breakthrough it would be if it actually made it into the paper or paper's website.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Truth Commission on Conscience and War

The Commission is a group of about 50 religion-affiliated activists -- and me -- concerned with the moral life of soldiers.  (They kept asking whom I represented and I finally figured out that I represent skeptics of conscience.)  The report coming out of our gathering last March in New York will be presented in Washington, DC this Veterans Day.  Link to the commission site above & here's the schedule:

Nov. 10: 1:30-2:30 pm   Press Conference, National Press Club

Nov. 11: 5-6:30 pm    Testimonies and Conversations with Veterans
7-9 pm Interfaith Service for the Truth Commission

Nov. 12: 9 am-4 pm   Protecting Moral Conscience: A Teach-In on Selective
 Conscientious Objection

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mass. family at center of suit: Class action alleges Prudential unfairly profited from death benefits

By Nan Levinson, Globe Correspondent  |  October 4, 2010

Kevin Lucey was at the wake for his son, Jeffrey, a Marine who had committed suicide at their Belchertown home in the summer of 2004, when military officers presented him with a stack of forms to sign.

“I never read them. I just signed,’’ he said. “I wanted to get back to Jeff.’’

Three weeks later, Lucey received a kit from Prudential Insurance, which provides life insurance benefits to veterans on behalf of the federal government. He had the option of receiving the $250,000 payment in a lump sum or 36 monthly installments. Like most people, Lucey opted for the lump sum, and Prudential explained it had set up an “Alliance Account’’ in his name.

Still reeling from Jeffrey’s death, he asked his wife, Joyce, what she wanted to do about the money.

“I didn’t want to hear it,’’ she recalled. “I said it was blood money.’’

They stashed the kit in a drawer.

Several months later, on the advice of a colleague, Kevin Lucey decided to withdraw the money and invest it more profit ably elsewhere. The paperwork had included what looked like a bank checkbook, so he wrote a draft for the balance. Prudential took nearly a month to send the money, he said.

Only much later did he learn that Prudential had never deposited any money in his account, instead investing it as part of its general account and passing on only a small portion of the interest earned, he said.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Imagine you’re a soldier in the United States Army. A stretch, probably, since less than two percent of Americans join the military, but try. You served with a combat unit in Iraq for 14 months, but as you near the end of your active-duty time, you’re becoming increasingly uneasy about carrying a gun. You’re counting the months – less than six – till you’re out, when you learn that you’ll probably be redeployed because the Army is invoking the small print in your contract that allows it to retain you as long as it likes. What do you do?

The vast majority of soldiers suck it up and deploy, figuring that if they don’t go someone else will have to go in their place. Around 3,000 soldiers a year desert. Specialist Marc Hall composed a hardcore rap song titled “Stop lossed,” which ended up at the Pentagon. As a consequence, he spent over four months in jail awaiting court martial for what he considered his right to free expression. 

Friday, April 16, 2010

WikiLeaks video -- ho hum

The Boston Globe published my letter today -- and got my name wrong.
It occasioned lively reader responses, though of the predictable sort. Still, it shows me (if not book editors) that readers still care about these endless, pointless wars.

Indiscriminate shooting of civilians in Iraq
April 16, 2010

THE GUNNING down of two Reuters employees and 10 Iraqi civilians from a US Army helicopter, as shown in a “graphic video’’ posted on WikiLeaks (“Video shows ’07 US air attack that killed news photographer, driver in Iraq,’’ Page A2, April 6), is being portrayed as both an anomaly and the cost of war. While it was the ultimate cost to the journalists, whose camera was mistaken for a weapon, and to the Iraqis who arrived to help the wounded after the first round of shots, the incident is unusual only in that it has come to the public’s attention.
When dozens of US veterans of the hostilities in Iraq testified in March 2008 at an event called Winter Soldier, they presented documented evidence that suggested the killing of unarmed civilians was frequent, systemic, pervasive, and a result of official policy. They also testified that the rules of engagement, which the soldiers in the leaked video apparently followed, were contradictory, often changed, and loosely enforced.
So it’s not surprising that the indiscriminate shooting of civilians sounds like just another day’s work. You can hear how routine it is in the voices of the gunship crew as they prepare to shoot and then survey their handiwork. The video comes with a warning that the images might be disturbing, but what is really disturbing is how distant and surgical — how commonplace — such actions have come to seem.
Nan Levinsonnan

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

response to Massachusetts election 1/19/10

Where do we go from here? I'm moving to a state of denial. (postal code: NO)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You try to get out of the Army

Ever since Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood last month, the hunt has been on for a motive, preferably one the Army could have detected and thwarted and still be held harmless. It’s a long list, ranging from compassion fatigue to religious militancy, ineptitude to insanity, but it is clear that Hasan was desperate to avoid becoming one of the swarm of soldiers about to be sent to Afghanistan. This includes the possibility that he explored applying for conscientious objector, or CO, status, but Army officials counter that they have no record of any such attempt.
Of course they don’t.