Tag Archives: American politics

“All Hell Breaking Loose – The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change” by Michael T. Klare

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change

237 pages plus notes (69 pages) and index, 2019.

I had some difficulty reading this book, despite my very strong interest in the topic. The author, for good reasons, relies heavily on government generated reports full of acronyms and unfamiliar terminology. Maybe this is why to me, the writing seemed “flat” and dull. I was determined to read it anyway. It took me around 6 weeks. I need to return to the last chapter, “Going Green – The Pentagon as Change Agent”. I’m glad I persevered.

All Hell Breaking Loose is organized around increasing severity of military challenges, moving from humanitarian emergencies, which the military is excellently equipped (and quite willing) to handle, through three more categories of conflict (unstable states, global shocks and, most dangerous of all, great power clashes) up to domestic climate disasters and climate change threat to US military facilities. I had trouble focusing until I got to domestic climate disasters. Then I was reading about Hurricane Sandy and other storms that menaced ME and the people and places I love.

To me, the message about the future presented by this book can be summarized by one word – HARDSHIP. It will be difficult to live in a changed and changing world. Setting priorities will be challenging. Providing for human needs will be complicated. The only thing that will become easier is exploiting the resources of the far north, and already the Great Powers are bristling uneasily in the Arctic.

Complicating our understanding of the impacts of climate change is the fact that other things are changing at the same time. Two of the big things are globalization and urbanization. Globalization means America’s concept of “our interests” reaches further than before. How close are we to saying that “everything” that happens “everywhere” is America’s business?

I’m also trying to figure out how to factor in demography, the study of population, and the concept of a “demographic transition” that may be a one way street. See Empty Planet, which I wrote about on August 15, 2019. Another book I need to go back to! Recent news articles analyze the demographic transition in Japan and China.

All Hell Breaking Loose provides valuable perspective on the American military and its role in our culture. As an institution, it seems to me to be more far sighted than some other institutions, like our legislative system with its emphasis on the election cycle. Klare describes what he calls the “military’s strategic predicament”. Their job (described above as winning “great power clashes”) is to protect the US against foreign enemies by use of arms. What will happen when “too much” of the military is occupied with humanitarian emergencies and propping up failed states? What will happen when a concatenation of disasters prevents response to a serious military threat?

This book was published in 2019 but doesn’t take into account  the changes associated with the Trump presidency. Klare points out that the military has not backed off from dealing with climate change – they have simply changed their language, referring now to “extreme events”. How long will they be able to stay on this course?

Recent news articles detail a meeting held on July 20, 2017 at which US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other high officials attempted to tutor President Trump on the role of the military in foreign affairs. (See Washington Post, January 17, 2020.) The attempt failed. Trump angrily called the country’s highest military officers “dopes and babies”. “You’re all losers”, he told the generals. The meeting so shocked the participants that they agreed not to discuss it publicly, but (inevitably) information was ultimately released.

I wonder what would have happened if the meeting had been organized by Ash Carter, whose book I reviewed (twice) on November 11, 2019. I was impressed by Carter’s description of how he “managed” the announcement that all military restrictions by gender on positions and job titles were at an end. Could he have found a way to speak so that Trump would listen? I wonder what he would have recommended to the high officials who failed in “educating” the President?

As usual, I looked up author Michael Klare. He’s an emeritus professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts who has written an impressive number of books and articles. Neither his Wikipedia entry or his Hampshire College website is particularly up to date. He writes for The Nation and other periodicals. He’s covered a topic I’m interested in, the issue of undeclared wars. Before All Hell Breaking Loose, he published The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources in 2012.

I recommend this book and this author to those seeking insight into our current dilemmas, both political and environmental.

“Inside the Five-Sided Box – Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon” by Ash Carter

434 pages, published 2019. Includes notes and index.

Today is Veterans Day, a good time to think about the American armed forces, the Pentagon, and the military veterans among our friends and family.

Why did I choose this book from the recent arrivals shelf? And why did I keep reading, given its length and density?

  • First, I thought of it as an opportunity to understand war and militarism, facets of American life and culture which disturb me terribly. I am deeply opposed to war, and can only gain from understanding it better.
  • Second, I’m a citizen and a taxpayer, so the Pentagon acts in my name and spends my tax dollar. Again, I want to know what’s going on.
  • Finally, I’m curious about leadership. It’s a term so freely bandied about. Who is a good leader? How should leaders be selected? Trained? Deployed? I feel that I’ve witnessed and experienced both good and bad leadership, but sometimes I’m not sure who belongs in which category. I have only attempted leadership in very small settings…what’s it like in the major leagues?

As Secretary of Defense (2015 to 2017) under President Obama, Carter presided over the world’s largest organization, the United States of America Department of Defense. The Pentagon oversees both the armed forces and all the civilians that support them, and also provides advice to the President about all aspects of national security.

At Yale University, Carter studied physics and medieval history. The connection between physics and military science (in the nuclear age) is fairly obvious, but what about medieval history? Carter said he was simply following his own curiosity when he studied it, but he feels that it explains how Europe worked its way through the creation of “civilization”, finding ways so its population could live in relative comfort and order.

Carter is a clear and careful (and prolific) writer , and this is a thoughtful book. Carter divides leadership into two categories.

  • One, which he calls “reinforcement”, is finding the best in your underlings and supporting them with training, encouragement and responsibility.
  • The second, more challenging aspect is leading an organization in a new direction which is unfamiliar and unpopular. Consider the following:

Carter will be remembered as the Secretary of Defense who opened all military jobs to all service members, female as well as male.

  • First, he did his homework. He argues strenuously that his decision was based on data, research and the overwhelming importance military preparedness, NOT on political correctness or a desire for social experimentation.
  • He developed extensive plans for implementation of the new policy before it was announced, attempting to consider every possible problem and concern that could be raised.
  • He was open about the fact that the Marine Corps had wanted to maintain “male only” status for certain certain jobs, but asserted his larger responsibility to the President to chart the best possible course for the military.
  • Ultimately, his announcement was crafted and timed to minimize unproductive “second guessing”.

The process isn’t finished, but Carter set it onto a clear path.

Carter placed a high value on oral, written and media based communication, giving it an entire chapter in his book. He discusses “message” and “story” and the value of consistent repetition. He has used social media to communicate with American soldiers, and poses for selfies with soldiers in combat zones.

In his chapter about the defeat of ISIS, Carter uses a very obscure word, “deconfliction”. He uses it to describe our interactions with Russia during the fight against ISIS. Russia was not an ally, hence we were not “cooperating” with them. But both sides knew it was important to prevent accidental armed contact from leading to hostilities between the US and Russia. Hence, “deconfliction” provided patterns of unofficial communication to meet that goal. The word can be found at dictionary.com and its first reported use is listed as 1970. (Upon first reading, I thought Carter made it up!)

Carter makes clear the high value he places on diplomacy, including what he calls “coercive diplomacy”. It’s the “carrot and stick” approach, with high stakes. He feels that President Trump should have refused to meet the North Korean President Kim Jong-un until North Korea took very substantial, verifiable steps toward de-nuclearization. Kim Jong-un was “rewarded” without making any measurable change in support of American interests.  Carter recognizes the high value of symbolic gestures, like a visit from the President of the United States.

Speaking about current unstable geopolitical “hot spots”, Carter says the US will never invade and occupy Iran, as it would be ungovernable. He does not say the same about North Korea, though he states that war in the Korean peninsula would bring calamitous suffering to our South Korean allies.

This book is well worth reading. Even re-reading, but right now I’m looking for something lighter.

“The Tale Teller” by Anne Hillerman

The Tale Teller is subtitled “A Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito Novel”. Hillerman catches my attention so quickly and completely that I ignore the pings of my cell phone. (This is saying a great deal.)

Like her deceased father Tony Hillerman, who started writing his Navajo mystery novels in 1970, Ms. Hillerman writes about a few characters who start to seem like old friends. The trio featured in this book are familiar.

These books delve into various aspects of Navajo life. In The Tale Teller, history is crucial. The cultural element of witchcraft is also explored. What did it mean in the past? What does it mean to the contemporary characters we meet, who live in the dual worlds of reservation life and 21st century America?

All this is seamlessly woven into an exciting police procedural/mystery. Don’t miss it!

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

I wanted to write about this book BEFORE checking out reviews and other feedback, but it’s becoming more difficult every day! I just got a Facebook message from the man himself (Barack Obama) recommending the book, and offering a few other comments. He did not yet release his annual list of favorite books.

One of the first questions I was asked (by a friend) was whether Mrs. Obama had a co-author. There’s none on the title page. She mentions many people in her acknowledgements (which run to three pages and end, unpredictably, with a gratitude towards “every young person I ever encountered during my time as First Lady… Thank you for giving me a reason to be hopeful”). So, the answer is “no”. There was no co-author.

Michelle Obama emphasized one thing over and over. Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us matters. Much of her public speaking has involved telling her story – that of growing up on Chicago’s side, seeing her neighborhood change from diverse to decidedly minority dominated, wanting SO MUCH to achieve, to be approved of, to get high grades!

Once, when she was in high school, Michelle was asked (by a relative near her own age) why she talked “like a white person”. Surprised, she didn’t really answer. Her parents and other adult relatives had emphasized diction and standard usage. My guess is that Michelle Obama is functionally bilingual (in two forms of English).

So much of Michelle Obama’s life was spent “juggling”. Between being “too black” and “too white”, and everything else. Too tall. Too earnest. Too “pushy”. She found her path, but became, in many understandable ways, cautious. She was always aware of the balance she needed and/or wanted to strike.

I was interested in the First Family’s life in the White House. Michelle wanted her mother to join them, but Mrs. Marian Robinson was reluctant. She had lived all her life in Chicago. Michelle enlisted her brother Craig to help change her mind. Mrs. Robinson was able to occasionally evade the constant Secret Service presence. She slipped out of the White House to run errands. If someone said “You look like Michelle Obama’s mother”, she smiled politely and said “Yes, people say that…”

I get the impression that Michelle and the President didn’t play any games AT ALL with the Secret Service. They accepted the fact that the stakes were way too high for that.

We all wonder what’s ahead for the Obama family. Leadership is so urgently needed, but they deserve a break, at the very least a long vacation, and I wish them all the best in the future.

“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.

“Having Our Say: Women of Color in the 2018 Election”, a lecture by NJ Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver

Personal note! Living near a college (in my case, Stockton University) is an advantage. Something is always happening. In the past few weeks, I’ve attended three lectures. Unrelated to the University, I stepped out for one speaking engagement. I will blog about all of this. Stay tuned!

Institutional note! FIFTEEN years ago Stockton University initiated the Fannie Lou Hamer Human and Civil Rights Symposium. What a great program! Every Fall, a distinguished guest speaks about RIGHTS. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was an amazing example of a person who acted to expand human rights in our country.

Now to discuss the event and the featured speaker. Sheila Oliver was preceded by about 45 minutes of music, dance, welcome and introduction. It was interesting to note which earlier civil rights leaders were mentioned in either the introductions or Ms. Oliver’s presentation:

  • Shirley Chisholm
  • Coretta Scott King
  • Angela Davis
  • Mary McLeod Bethune
  • Eleanor Roosevelt

The auditorium was dark, so my note taking was limited. Ms. Oliver pointed out that in this election cycle, many women are choosing to run outside of the two major parties. The importance of state legislatures (when the US House and Senate are polarized and paralyzed) was emphasized.

I’m always curious how a leader is shaped by her education. Ms. Oliver mentioned A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens) and The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) as foundational for her, and also recommended Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, by S and E Delany.

Ms. Oliver was not long winded, but many students left before the Q/A period. Maybe shorter preliminaries would reduce this attrition?

The panel assembled for feedback and discussion was distinguished. I won’t try to cover everything said. The standout was Christabel Cruz of the Rutgers Center for American Woman and Politics. Emerging leader! She was the youngest panelist and the first (only?) speaker to address discrimination against the LGBTQ community. She is energetic and articulate and exactly the right person to reach out to millenials. After all, this event was intended to engage STUDENTS. I hope Ms. Cruz stays in New Jersey.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (Lingua Franca) and Allan Metcalf

A fringe benefit of my job is on-line access to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a must-read for college and university employees and anyone who supports or utilizes our strange and complicated system of post secondary education. The Chronicle covers everything from the fall of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina to classroom access for underserved student populations. Every day, there’s something worth reading, and I always check the column called “Lingua Franca”.

“Lingua Franca” is all about language, and offers blog entries from a dozen academics, all highly credentialed, opinionated and amusing.

The article that motivated me to write this review was published on September 9, authored by Allan Metcalf (English professor and forensic linguist) and titled “Who is Anonymous? An Extraordinary Writer”. The anonymous missive was published in the New York Times around September 1, talking about President Trump and the discontents of his highest advisors. Of course everyone wants to know the source. Personally, I’m astonished that a paper with the stature of The Times published an unsigned document.

Metcalf’s discussion relies on rhetorical analysis and a variety of forensic linguistic approaches. (I’ve read several popular works of linguistic forensics. Remember the Unabomber?) I realize that my education, which was strong on grammar, gave little attention to rhetoric.

No, Metcalf does not put a name to Anonymous. His conclusion? “…look for someone who is noted for her or his extraordinary command of language, who knows how to recruit the exact right words and deploy them artfully and memorably in sentences and paragraphs and whole essays. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, but he’s not eligible”.

Wow! That is high praise. I’m okay with leaving “Anonymous” alone for the time being, but I hope I live long enough to learn his or her identity.