Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup For 2011

Jon Swift was a satirist without peer in the blogosphere before his untimely death in 2009. Every year's end since then, blogger Bottachio has carried on Jon's tradition of posting a round-up of bloggers’ best self-selected work for the year.

Click here for the 2011 edition.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

This Just In: Barack Obama Kills Osama Bin Laden, Ron Paul Kills Iowa Caucuses

Barring a major development, this will be my last new (as opposed to recycled) post of 2011, and I thought I would go out with a bang as well as a bit of back patting.

While the Democrats and President Obama have not always covered themselves in glory, the bang is a one-word description of the historic mess that the Republican Party has made of things during the year. This is a toxic cocktail of disdain for the middle class and an open loathing of minorities, seniors, the poor and those in ill health who cannot afford health insurance. It is reflected in the words and deeds of the party's congressional leaders and most of the presidential wannabes as they slug it out in the few remaining days before the Iowa caucuses.

The pat on the back is because I have predicted early and often that despite a punk economy, the 2012 election would be Barack Obama's to lose. This is because while the GOP may be stuck on stupid, most Americans are not.

These realities are reflected in the latest CNN poll which reveals that Obama's approval rating has rebounded to a respectable 49 percent, the highest since it hit 54 percent as after he ordered that the Al Qaeda chief be taken out, while voters' approval of the occupants of the Republican clown car has plummeted from 49 to 43 percent. Worst yet for the GOP, voters by a 50 to 31 percent margin say they have more confidence in the president than in congressional Republicans to handle the major issues facing the country. Obama held a much narrower 44to 39 percent margin in March.

And, for what it's worth, the poll indicates that Obama remains personally popular, with three-quarters of respondents saying they approve of him as a person.

* * * * *
There was a major earthquake yesterday on the editorial page of Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, which is the closest thing to a war room for Obama-hating conservatives.

It is an indication of how badly the Republican Party has screwed up that the Journal, in belaboring the obvious, is noting that it's bad politics to raise taxes on 160 million workers and cut off jobless benefits to three million idled workers going into a presidential election year, would publish these words:

"The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.

"Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter, although he's spent most of his Presidency promoting tax increases and he would hit the economy with one of the largest tax increases ever in 2013. This should be impossible."

* * * * *
With the Iowa caucuses less than two weeks away, the Republican establishment is in open panic. This is because barring a miracle, and a political party so disdainful of everyone except the rich -- oh, and the smell of its own hole -- cannot expect anything approaching a miracle, although Republicans are certain to find coal in their Christmas stockings.

A miracle in Iowa for the party establishment would be a Mitt Romney victory, which is counter intuitive considering that he has consistently polled behind the Republican Flavor of the Moment, be it Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and now Ron Paul, and is widely viewed as a moderate in conservative's clothing.

While the darling of many Republicans, Paul brings almost as many skeletons to the table as Gingrich.

At a time when the global economy overall is outperforming the American economy, Paul wants the U.S. to withdraw from many world affairs. He is chockablock with other nutty ideas (and some very good ones that will make conservatives blow their stacks like legalizing marijuana and prostitution and ending aid to the thuggish Netanyahu regime in Israel).

Paul is against war, which conservatives are for, and he is against torture, which conservatives heart, and it is difficult to image the GOP walking the plank by nominating a candidate who published a racist newsletter for years and has deep associations with the lunatic fringe far right.

Even a victory in Iowa would not give Paul enough of a bump to win the following week in New Hampshire, where Romney has campaigned endlessly, but if the two contenders trade primary victories well into 2012 the chances of a dread brokered nominating convention grow.

Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of guys. You too, Michele.

Cartoon du Jour

Don Wright/Miami Herald

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Musings Upon Winter Solstice 2011

I've come to view late fall bird feeder activity as an indication of the severity of the coming winter and it looks like this winter will be . . . um, average.

The average snowfall at the mountain retreat is about 50 inches a year and there already was a freak one-foot snowfall in late October, so the average is likely to be topped if the pattern of January and February snows holds. But it also has been a warmer than average fall, so who the heck knows?

* * * * *
I heated with wood for something like 25 years and there is nothing -- I say nothing -- like padding around the house on a frigid winter morning with the stove, crank, crank, cranking away.

The aroma of the wood (black walnut in the fall, cherry and oak in the winter and Osage orange on the coldest nights), walls and floors warm to the touch, the heat insinuating itself under the skin, is wonderful in a primal sort of way.

That noted, coal heat is a close second, especially with the Pennsylvania anthracite rice coal that we have burned the last four winters. It is longer burning, has higher heat output and pollutes less than other coals.

The price of Pennsylvania anthracite hovers around $200 a ton, as opposed to upwards of $4 a gallon for heating oil, but the price is artificially high. This is because China, which is the largest coal producing country in the world, buys as much Pennsylvania anthracite as it can get its hands on because it so superior to its domestic coal.

* * * * *
Speaking of energy, we're nearing the one-year mark with our passive solar system, and in nine of the proceeding 11 months the Metropolitan Edison electricity meter has run backwards because we are producing a surplus and Met Ed has to pay us.

* * * * *
Another anniversary looms: The arrival of Jack and Nicky, brother-sister chocolate Labrador retrievers (photo, above right) rescue from an owner who could not really care for them.

Watching their metamorphosis from being cage bound to having a 40,000-acre wildlife refuge to romp in has been beautiful: The hind quarters of Jack, who is a massive 100-pounder, were atrophying, while Nicky was obese at 80 or so pounds.

But now Jack's awesome athleticism is on full display while Nicky has lost weight and endlessly chases her bigger brother and, when it is warm, swims in a nearby mountain creek.

* * * * *

And finally, these thoughts from a dear friend, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola
Estés, who lives in the Rocky Mountains:

"This is a great night and day: winter solstice; the time when the light comes back more and more for longer and longer glancing across Planet Earth to us, the Fire Star, that is, the sun, comes back to us. In our family the old people would put on their galoshes over their butchkors and bring in fresh and oh so cold water from the well pump outdoors and we would feast on something yellow, orange and/or red, the colors of the sun! most often the banana peppers, the lantern peppers and the cayenne hot hot hot peppers we’d canned in late summer and put up in shining glass Mason jars on the rough sawn boards in the dark cellar. Consume warmth to bring warmth was their backwoods homeopathy.

"You too, drink clean and eat fresh today, warmth to bring warmth . . . as here, winter is still deeply upon us. Yet . . . the sun, our sun, comes . . . "

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Failure Of Boehner's Leadership

The routine is now familiar: Senate Republicans are in rare agreement with their Democratic colleagues and the GOP’s House leadership is poised to do likewise, but then reverses field, prompting the party’s Senate leadership to renege on its commitment.

And so in less than 24 hours, House Speaker John Boehner, having said he approved of the short-term, bipartisan Senate measure to extend a payroll tax break and unemployment insurance, turned tail and said his colleagues (read the Tea Party) opposed the two-month extension, setting the stage for yet another bitter Capitol Hill showdown over Boehner’s preference to extend the tax break and unemployment insurance for a full year.

That had been the Democrats’ original intention, but it would have been paid for by increasing taxes on 1 percenters and closing tax loopholes, something that Republicans of course would not support.

And then there was a twist that Machiavelli would have approved of as the Senate adjourned and representatives chaffed at the bit to do the same.

Under fire from GOP senators, House Republicans prepared to vote today against the Senate measure, demanding that the Senate reopen negotiations over the benefits.

Democrats, however, understand that because of Boehner’s ineptness, they have (again) stolen a march on him and are firm that they will not return to Washington until the House passes the short-term bill, which Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated and voted for, along with 38 other Republican senators.

Rather than have a straight up-or-down vote today, Boehner will implement a procedural maneuver in which his caucus will “reject” the Senate bill while requesting to go to conference with senators in a single measure, protecting House members from having to actually vote against extending a payroll tax cut.

Many voters will know better than to fall for this flapdoodle, as well as the reality that if Congress cannot agree to an extension, a year-end tax increase would kick in, something that economists have warned could set back a fragile economic recovery.

Boehner had initially tried to persuade his colleagues that the two-month extension was good for the GOP because it contained a provision that would speed the decision process for construction of an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast known as Keystone XL. President Obama has threatened to veto that provision.

Cartoon du Jour

Walt Handelsman/Newsday

Monday, December 19, 2011

Yet Another Year Shot To Hell: The Best Of The Worst Of 2011 At Kiko's House

The planet has gone around the sun six times since Kiko's House baby-walked onto the scene, and the inexhaustible supply of rich material keeps coming in torrents, making practically every day an adventure in bathos, pathos, mythos and . . . uh, hathos.

Herewith some posts from the past 12 months in which I stuck my neck out. And as events would prove, occasionally got it loped off:

WIND (December 9) It is tempting to argue that the ongoing cage match between Karl Rove and the men who would deny him a Mitt Romney nomination is a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Tempting but demonstrably false because the party lost its soul years ago and the man most responsible is Rove himself. Rove, who is a terrific tactician but a lousy strategist, launched the GOP on a course of short-term gains at the expense of long-term viability when he engineered the nomination of the empty vessel known as George W. Bush. LINK.

(November 22) If you are of a certain age, the events of November 22, 1963 and the following days are deeply seared in your mind, but as yet another anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy comes and goes, those memories do not automatically flood our minds as they did in earlier years. Part of this, of course, is the passage of time, but it also is the fact that with the exception of Ronald Reagan, there has not been a serious attempt to take the life of a president in nearly half a century and most of us live under the comfortable illusion that it could never ever happen again. LINK.

SHOT (November 14) Anyone hoping that the election of the first African-American president in 2008 would usher in a post-racial era, putting our sordid racial past behind us once and for all, is bound to be bitterly disappointed. I happen to have known better, but it still is jarring when you consider how race is playing such a large role in the comical, ugly and tragic scrum known as the sprint to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. It wasn't supposed to be this way, but when the Republican Party effectively abandoned its outreach to blacks and extended a beefy hand to Southern whites who once had reliably voted Democratic, the die was cast. LINK.

(November 3) Shortly after midnight exactly one year from this Sunday the first voters will go to the polls in two tiny New Hampshire towns to vote in a presidential election that will be singularly significant in defining the course of American politics in the years to come. Before the sun sets in Hawaii on November 6, 2012, 130 million or so people will have voted on whether to give Barack Obama a second term or return to the White House -- and possibly the Senate, as well -- to the Republican Party. A year ago, Obama's chances of re-election seemed iffy, but the Republican Party has made four tactical decisions that virtually guarantee Obama will be a two-term president. LINK.

(October 21) After eight and a half deeply tragic years highlighted by the deaths of nearly 4,800 U.S. and coalition forces, at least 100,000 Iraqis and millions of people displaced, the Iraq war finally is over. Long story short, the president might as well have declared "Mission Not Accomplished" in bringing to an end the fool's mission fueled by neocon hubris that began with a March 2003 invasion on the dubious grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and a fledgling nuclear weapons program, and when those turned out to be bogus, the inane assertion that he was directly involved in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks. LINK.

BLACK ENOUGH (October 17) It is a testament to the progress that African-Americans have made that there is a black Democratic president and a black Republican who is contending for the nomination to run against that black president. But it also is a testament to the pettiness of political discourse today and the fact that people of color still are singled out when whites are not that Barack Obama has been criticized for allegedly not being black enough and that criticism has come from blacks as well as whites, including Herman Cain, the black Republican who would like to unseat him. As a guy who is plenty white, all of this Not Black Enough stuff has me confused, so since some of my best friends are . . . well, you know . . . LINK.

I mourn Steve Jobs' passing. He was an extraordinary innovator who also had a wonderful design sensibility that makes the MacBook Pro, among other Apple products, so visually stunning. But as someone who went online for the first time in 1992, I have a vivid memory of my life before them and while they have made my life easier in key respects they have not made it better. As I write this, the brains of the people around us who are addicted to text messaging are slowly but inextricably being rewired. Their ability to focus on the task before them, whether something as mundane as preparing breakfast or something as serious as driving on a busy highway at 65 miles an hour -- is compromised by their compulsion to text. LINK.

PERSONALITY? (October 3) I can recall only three presidents in the last 75 years whose force of personality -- charisma and all that -- was so powerful that it was their most effective governing tool. They would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and, of course, Barack Obama.
This tool, however, can be a double-edged sword. While all three presidents were able to accomplish a great deal, in the cases of FDR (the Great Depression) and Obama (the Great Recession and an obdurate opposition party) under trying circumstances, their personalities masked weaknesses. That was especially true of Reagan, who while talking the talk was a lightweight in several respects, and that is turning out to be the case with Obama.

GOP (September 27) I am still having a difficult time getting my head around this, but it appears that today's Republican Party is adamantly against abortions for the unborn, adamantly against health care for the newborn if their mother chooses not to have an abortion and lacks insurance, adamantly for letting an adult with serious health issues die if they lack insurance, and adamantly for executing people even under the flimsiest of evidence. Have I got that right? Yes I do, but the question arises as to how the GOP got itself tied in such seemingly contradictory knots. LINK.

(September 21) It was not until the 17th century that the Apaches of New Mexico began to adapt themselves to the horse. It was even later that the Comanches, long disparate and primitive bands of hunter-gatherers, would master the mustang, master the demanding skill of horse breeding, and in doing so master the buffalo. This was one of the great social and military transformations in history, Gwynn writes, and the Comanches become in effect a Native American superpower. LINK.

I have no idea when I found my voice as a writer. I just woke up one day and realized that I had one. That voice is familiar to readers of this blog: Edgy and fairly simple language and sentence and paragraph structure with an occasional 10 dollar word thrown in because, doncha know, sometimes a big or obscure word can make a sentence more interesting and sometimes even lyrical as it rolls through the reader's mind. LINK.

THE DAY THAT EVERYTHING CHANGED (September 11) September 11 is perhaps the third date in American history requiring no year, July 4 and December 7 being the others. It also is the only of the three that I lived through and like virtually everyone touched by the horrific events of that day, found my life changed forever. That is perhaps a rash statement for someone who was 75 miles from Ground Zero on that gloriously sunny morning and was blithely unaware that the earth had moved until I walked into the mountain retreat where I found my love cowering in bed, head between her legs and arms around her ankles, as the man on National Public Radio said something about a second plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. LINK.

(September 6) Ten years after the 9/11 catastrophe, the Bush administration cover-up of why the terrorist attacks were carried out despite the White House, CIA and FBI being repeatedly warned of them still holds. Not only has the final word not come out about this malfeasance of enormous and arguably criminal proportions, hardly any word about it has. The mainstream media has been complicitous in ignoring this cover-up and ancillary efforts to hide the truth, which is not to be confused with the rantings of so-called 9/11 Truthers but rather an effort to hide the serial negligence and incompetence that characterized the government response before, during and after the attacks. LINK.

(August 16)
First, how can you stimulate a moribund economy by spending less? Second, how can you create jobs without providing the stimulus to do so? Third, how can you ask middle-class taxpayers to do their fair share when the wealthiest Americans aren't doing theirs? Fourth, how can you assure future generations that the federal safety net will be reasonably intact when the GOP keeps trying to dismantle it? And fifth, how can America became great again not by uniting but by dividing? LINK.

(June 27) When did America become Rome? That is, when did it forswear
faith in its leaders and morality for greed and decadence? The comparison, of course, is somewhat previous as well as a time-worn cliche, but it works well enough for the purposes of trying to figure out why we are going to hell in a handbasket, abandoning our elderly and poor, imprisoning millions of citizens for the most trivial of offenses, suffocating the middle class, being trammeled by a powerful corporatocracy, as well as government by paralysis. LINK.

(June 13)
What the great Swedish murder mysteries have in common with classic murder mysteries is that they are deeply and grippingly psychological, pitting the fiendish murderer against the dogged investigator. But compared to a fuddy duddy like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or a hard-boiled period piece like Hammett's Sam Spade, Larsson's eccentric Lisbeth Salander has a steel-trap mind, a penchant for getting back at her enemies, and is positively hip with her arsenal of Mac Books, electronic eavesdropping devices and computer hacking skills. LINK.

(June 1)
It is a challenge to write about Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th century English writer and women's rights advocate whose life is overshadowed by her famous daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, among other works. The challenge is twofold: While Wollstonecraft would seem to be a founding feminist, she would not have considered herself such. And while this genius of a woman had great powers of observation, she could be extraordinarily dumb about her relationships with men. LINK.

(May 23)
Benjamin Netanyahu may eventually figure out that Barack Obama is not George Bush, who never seemed to grasp that Israel's survival depended on the U.S. and not the other way around. But Netanyahu may be a little too shrewd for his own good. Obama will not back down, as did Bush when faced with Israeli wrath, and I expect that the president will end up playing the prime minister as he has played other foes. This is a man who will not be Israel's stooge. LINK.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the news media when it comes to big stories and controversy. There was bound to be a controversy of some sort over the brilliantly planned and executed Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's palatial pad in Pakistan, and it has centered on whether to release photographs of the slain Al Qaeda leader and the White House's decision to not do so. As a citizen, I understand the rationale for withholding the photos. But as a former newspaper editor who had to decide on several occasions on whether to run an especially graphic photo I have been ambivalent. LINK.

Marable has written a long overdue corrective to Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is rife with factual errors and propounds the notion that he was a bad black man who redeemed himself. As Marable shows with scholarly insight, that leitmotif is not necessarily incorrect, but it is just one part of who Malcolm was, although his capacity at reinvention was rather amazing. This book does not reject Haley's view of Malcom entering the civil rights mainstream so much as make the case that Malcolm's travels and experiences led him to the embrace a kind of humanism. LINK.

SHOULDN'T GO AWAY (April 18) Rumors, innuendo and inconclusive photographs do not a true story make, but the fact of the matter is that three years after the birth of Trig Paxson Van Palin, there is no proof that Sarah Palin is his biological mother. Even though the mainstream media has been notably uncurious, this controversial story deserves to have legs because the former half-term governor turned author and reality show princess not only has not gone away, but she continues to inject herself into national politics and refuses to shoot down another rumor -- that she will run for president. LINK.

THE REPUBLICAN HEART OF DARKNESS (April 13) It has been over two years since Republicans last "governed," and that term should be used advisedly since the leadership styles of George Bush and Dick Cheney would hardly be recognizable to most of their executive branch forebears: A toxic combination of demagoguery, hubris and obfuscation that stole a march on FDR's most famous words: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Fear, in fact, has been the Republican Party's greatest weapon, but now the screw has turned and fear has become the Republican Party's enemy as it attempts to build on its House majority in the run-up to the 2012 elections. LINK.

HAS THE TEA PARTY ALREADY PEAKED? (March 30) As with any upstart political movement, the
spontaneous nature of the Tea Party is ebbing, its values are becoming co-opted, its candidates wreak havoc on non-Tea Party candidates down-ticket, and it is giving establishment Republicans fits because of its purity tests and social extremism. While Tea Partiers won the GOP some congressional seats and a statehouse or two in 2010, it will only hasten the party's slouch toward national irrelevance in the long run. LINK.

WHY THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD (March 28) It is convenient to invent an imaginary past when every home had a white picket fence in the front, a vegetable garden in the back and a shiny sedan at the curb, but there was an American Dream and it survived two world wars, a nearly decade-long depression and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Sadly -- and for me bitterly -- the American Dream is not merely on vacation because of a return to difficult economic times. It is dead. And while it is fashionable to blame feckless politicians and greed mongers for its demise, we all share responsibility as we take ever less responsible for our country, as well as ourselves. LINK.

THE MYTH OF NAMAZU & OTHER THOUGHTS ON THE NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN JAPAN (March 16) The Japanese spirit is strong. A core tenet of Shintoism is that nature is infinitely more powerful than humankind and that humans exists with the permission of the gods. The Japanese will rebuild, recover and perhaps embrace new myths, but I for one wonder as to whether a military adventurism that led their leaders to conquer much of Asia and ended in nuclear disaster was a forewarning of a second nuclear disaster because of another kind of greed. LINK.

THE CALCULUS OF WARFARE: HAVE MEDEVAC HELICOPTERS BECOME VALID TARGETS? (February 24) Unlike past wars and given that virtually every GI who is carried aboard a chopper in Afghanistan alive stays alive, might not these units be considered weapons in their own right? The producer of a compelling new documentary notes that there is only a certain amount that the public is prepared to lose in terms of human life, something that was borne out in Iraq as casualties rose and support eroded. But modern battlefield medicine has become so advanced that it is able to maintain morale at home because it keeps the kill numbers down in such a way that a war like Afghanistan becomes more sustainable. LINK.

OH THAT SILVIO 'BUNGA BUNGA' BERLUSCONI (February 21) The Italian people kind of remind me of the French without the fries. In awe of the past and pissing all over the present. But when it comes to prime ministers, the Italians have the French beat by a parsec. The latest guy to run Italy (and there have been governments since World War II) is a chucklehead by the name of Silvio Berlusconi, who actually has been on his third victory lap, but the current scandal involving him is so typically Italian that it could have been directed by Fellini. (Think City of Women). LINK.

BAMBOOZLEMENTS AKIMBO AS THE CURTAIN GOES UP ON THE GOP"S POLITICAL THEATER (January 18) The big engines of the Republican Party's mid-term Bamboozlement Express were a promise to cut $100 billion from the federal budget this year and repeal health-care reform. The promises were, of course, as empty as the party's Pledge for American and both deader than door nails even before newly minted Speaker John Boehner gavelled the House into session. If the budget-reduction promise was good political theater, the health-care reform offensive is worthy of a group Grammy. This is because . . . um, reality will once again rear its pug-ugly head. LINK.

WELCOME TO THE YEAR THAT THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN. AND AGAIN AND AGAIN (January 3) There will be no bigger nor more regrettable anniversary in 2011 than the 150th anniversary of the onset of the American Civil War, a conflict that rended a still young nation into two parts and took a horrific 620,000 lives before Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, his Union counterpart, four years later. The great difference between the Civil War and every other war in American history is that it is still being fought, in this case by a rag bag of organizations like the League of the South that are made up of Lost Causers, delusionists who many generations on remain so willfully wrong about the roll that slavery played in the destruction of their precious South. LINK.

Best Political Toons Of 2011

(Top to bottom) Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate;
Walt Handelsman/Newsday; Don Wright/Miami Herald;
Signe Wilkinston/Philadelphia Daily News; Tom Toles
/WashingtonPost; Lisa Benson/Victor Valley Daily Press

Friday, December 16, 2011

Secret Haditha Massacre Documents Are Fitting Coda To The End Of The Iraq War

That the true story of the 2005 massacre of 20 Iraqi civilians, including an elderly man in a wheelchair and women and children, has finally come out because an Iraqi was using transcripts of secret interviews with the Marines involved to cook dinner is a fitting coda to a nearly nine-year war that officially ended today.

The events in the town of Haditha in Anbar Province were a horrific aberration, but they are described in dehumanized and almost blasé terms by commanders in the province as, you know, typical of the chaos of Iraq.

Colonel Thomas Cariker, in one of the many lies told in the interviews, claimed the deaths were caused by "grenade attacks on a checkpoint and, you know, collateral with civilians."

Iraqi civilians are being killed all the time, explained Major General Steve Johnson, describing the deaths as "a cost of doing business."

True enough, but the initial response to the killings was to cover them up. When Time magazine, among other media outlets, published accounts of what really happened, the Marine Corps reluctantly charged eight men. One Marine was acquitted and charges eventually were dropped against six others on the grounds of conflicting testimony. The reality is that so many officers and enlisted men perjured themselves that it was impossible for Naval Criminal Investigative Service officers to make the charges stick. Meanwhile, one Marine is scheduled to go to trial early next year.

* * * * *

It is instructive to put the Haditha Massacre in the larger context of the war.

The massacre occurred on November 19, 2005 when Marines from 3/1 Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines opened fire on the civilians not because they had been fired on but in retribution for the improvised explosive device attack (photo, right) on a Marine convoy by insurgents that killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas and wounded two others, one severely when he was thrown from a Humvee and trapped under a rear tire.

The trial of Saddam Hussein had just gotten underway in Baghdad and the Al Qaeda insurgency led by Sunnis disenfranchised by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government in Baghdad was becoming more powerful and was killing and maiming GIs throughout Anbar. These attacks were among the first stirrings of a civil war provoked by the U.S. occupation that was to fully erupt the following February when the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra was destroyed in a Sunni bomb attack. Some 871 Americans were to die before 2005 was over, the third highest yearly death toll of the war.

The 400 pages of secret interrogations were supposed to have been destroyed as the last American troops prepared to stand down, but were found by New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt along with reams of other classified documents, including military maps showing helicopter routes and radar capabilities, at a junkyard outside Baghdad as an attendant was using them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp.

While the Marines and their commanders repeatedly perjured themselves, their accounts also reveal the extraordinary strains on ground troops in Anbar and their often painful encounters with a population they did not understand and in many cases made no effort to try to understand as the rules of engagement, dictated by the White House as its rationalization for the war kept changing, themselves kept changing.

Some Marines testified that they felt they were under attack constantly and to use force first and ask questions later.

"When a car doesn’t stop, it crosses the trigger line, Marines engage and, yes, sir, there are people inside the car that are killed that have nothing to do with it," said Sergeant Major Edward T. Sax, the battalion’s senior noncommissioned officer.

Sax testified he would ask the Marines responsible if they had known there had been children in the car. When they said no, he said he would tell them they were not at fault.

* * * * *

Haditha became a defining moment of the war. It sealed an an enduring Iraqi distrust of the U.S. and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted. While President Obama had been under pressure to make good on his 2008 campaign promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, it was that sense of American impunity that poisoned any chance of troops remaining without being subject to Iraqi laws and courts, a condition the White House and Pentagon have never accepted in any country where Americans are stationed.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's remarks today that the U.S. had secured democracy for Iraq as the American flag was lowered in a reinforced concrete courtyard at Baghdad’s airport surely rang hollow for many Iraqis.

The war has claimed 4,487 American lives, with another 32,226 Americans wounded in action, while as many as 100,000 Iraqis have been killed, millions wounded and millions more displaced.

While Saddam Hussein was a very bad man who happened to be taken out on the false pretense that he aided and abetted the 9/11 attacks, the man who succeeded him, Al-Maliki, is arguably just as bad as the pernicious influence of Iran grows and his secret police fan out across a U.S. "liberated" Iraq killing and kidnapping civilians who oppose his regime.

Haditha photos from Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Stand down ceremony photos by Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

The last of the several times that I have had the pleasure of being in the same room with Christopher Hitchens was at a university colloquium on the Iraq War. The indefatigable journalist-essayist had supported this fool's errand at its outset but eventually had come to oppose aspects of it, as well as feel deep guilt after he learned that a young California man had been persuaded by his writings to enlist and volunteer for Iraq, where an encounter with a roadside bomb extinguished a once promising life.

Hitch was tired and by appearances more focused on his next cigarette of the day and first Johnny Walker Black of the evening, so it was with some trepidation that I stood and announced that I was going to ask "the dread three-part question."

Perhaps five minutes had elapsed before he had galloped through his answers to the first two questions and I half expected he'd forgotten the third. But as he reached for a water glass on the dais and prepared to take a sip, he looked directly at me and with a twinkle of his legendarily mischievous eyes, said, "And to answer your last question, Mr. Mullen," bringing down the house.

* * * * *
As literary genres go, biographies of journalists tend to be tedious and autobiographies by journalists even more so. But Hitch, as he so often has done over a four-decade career of skewering the high and mighty (Henry Kissinger, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mother Teresa and God Himself, among others) tries to break the mold with Hitch-22: A Memoir and largely succeeds in his trenchant and witty way.

First and foremost, Hitch 22 debunks the notion that he is a flip-flopper. Indeed, he has changed his mind about a whole lot more in the course of human events than the average bear, and it is the private -- as opposed to public -- moments he shares that reveal why his thinking metamorphosized on this issue or that.

As well as his politics, which were forged in Oxford's International Socialist crucible in the mid-1960s where he availed himself of sex and rock 'n' roll, but not drugs, while striving to become "a serious person" -- a rebel with a cause who could rally a crowd with a bullhorn while speaking from an upturned milk crate outside a factory gate. He grew a lengthy rap sheet for being arrested at demonstrations, and remains enormously proud of that.

While Hitch's world travels, as well as hobnobbing with the leading political and literary lights of the age, are interesting, it is those private moments that elevate this bio above the journalist-contemplates-navel norm. Notable is the tragic story of his beloved mother, whom he later learned was Jewish, which led him on a quest to learn about her side of his family, many members of which perished in the Holocaust.

Hitch's travels inevitably led him to a long-term stay in the U.S., where he shed his ambivalent view of we Yanks fostered in part by his father's upset over the accidental introduction of American gray squirrels, which had soiled the English red squirrel gene pool. He fell head over heels in love with the "generosity and large-mindedness" of Americans, if not the soiling of their political gene poll and the vapidity of the American Left, and in 2007 he became a citizen.

Do not call Hitch a contrarian. Or gadfly, dissident or maverick, all of which he finds "somehow trivial and condescending, as well as over-full of self regard." What then to call a man who testified about "the frightful faults and crimes of the departed fanatic" Mother Teresa before a Vatican committee who was obliging Pope John Paul II's wishes to fast track her beatification? He concludes that "It actually is a pity that our culture doesn't have a good vernacular word for . . . someone who tries to do his own thinking."

Then there is Hitch's enviably voracious appetite for the Great Books of the past and not so past, and the often forgotten lessons that they impart on contemporary events. Despite my own insatiable appetite for these tomes, I regret to say that I have read a mere handful of the ones he draws upon.

I do have a few quibbles about Hitch-22.
As has been oft noted, Hitch was a notorious boozer at one time, conduct that he doesn't so much apologize for as dance around in a curious but flat section in which he asserts that he always has been on time for lectures and other commitments, was a little lit only during a single BBC interview, and admonishes young drinkers to not do so on empty stomachs or when depressed. Oh, and recommend that journalists not develop a taste for single-malt Scotch because it is hard to find in backward lands. 
And although he has been married twice, has three children and writes at length about sewing wild oats as a young man (including forays into bisexuality and a claim he shared two girlfriends with Bill Clinton at Oxford, although not at the same time), he pretty much clams up when it comes to his home life, although I would imagine his wives might well qualify for sainthood.

* * * * *
I would never favorably compare my chops to Hitch's although our careers as ink-stained wretches have coincided.

We both came of age in the turbulent Sixties, both cultivated a sense of outrage over official tomfoolery that the years have not diminished,
were lured into this Janus-faced profession for love and not money, always answered the bell when the Teletype machines in the wire room went nuts and reveled in the intoxication of "taking a taxi to the airport," as Hitch writes, "clutching a brick of traveler's checks with an exotic visa" in one's hand, as well as the thrill of being shot at the first time, quickly to be replaced by a more sober view of mortality and then relief when you board the plane for the trip home.

when faced with inconvenient facts that put the lie to a dearly-held view, we both have been willing to modify that view rather than talk ever more loudly like a child trying to drown out a mother's admonitions, as do too many of our peers.

A conspicuous exception that we both share is the creation of the state of Israel, which I would defend with my own Jewish blood (and presumably Hitch, as well) but have always and will continue to object to in principle because of my Grandfather Snellenberg's dictum that "Jews are citizens of the world, not a single place." The messianically bellicose Netanyahu regime has hardened my view.

On a finer point, I'm also with Hitch when he says that he could never write an obituary on anyone "until Minerva's owl had taken wing."

Besides which, I do not believe that any obit I wrote before the fact would have the impact of when the subject became a goner and their full measure could be taken, so I refused all such assignments. Three of my better written-on-deadline obits -- the power trio of Jerry Garcia, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Frank Sinatra -- prove my point.

Be that as it may, I was concerned that this review might somehow bend that rule.

Hitch has late-stage esophageal cancer, looks like a sixtysomething skinhead in his TV appearances these days, and admits that his prognosis is "very poor." So after blasting my way through Hitch-22, I was concerned that this review would be ipso facto an obit.

I hope, dear Hitch, that it is not.