Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Memo To GOP Wingers: Keep Your Goddamned Religion Out Of My Life

A new study puts a face -- and a particularly ugly one at that -- on what was been increasingly obvious for many years: Christian conservatives, the folks who use their God like a cudgel to bludgeon we heathens with their neanderthal social agenda, exert an inordinate influence on the Republican Party even if their numbers are relatively small and their agenda is outside the electoral mainstream.
This perversity is on display in that quadrennial scrum known as the Republican presidential primary as otherwise mostly sane presidential wannabes suck up to Christian conservatives to win their favor in primaries in states with outsized blocs of holier-than-thou voters because they can be easily motivated to turn out to vote, especially in the Deep South where they predominate, only to inch away from them and back toward the political center as the nominating convention rolls around.  (Exhibit A in this regard is the shameless Paul Ryan, who has done a 180-degree turn on abortion to appeal to Christianist primary voters.) 
And then, with the fall campaign underway, these wannabes abandon Christianists altogether.  George W. Bush did it in 2000 and 2004, John McCain in 2008 , and Mitt Romney took his turn in 2012, while the hapless eventual 2016 nominee will do it again on the way to likely slaughter under Hillary Clinton's sword.
The outsized influence that censorious Christian conservatives have on the GOP -- and by extension the national debate -- is starkly obvious in data compiled for the new American Values Atlas from 50,000 interviews conducted last year by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The institute quizzed people on the issues of same-sex marriage, abortion and immigration, among others, and analyzed the responses based on their religious faiths. 
Not surprisingly, white evangelical Protestants, who make up 18 percent of all Americans but an outsized 36 percent of Republicans, were the most conservative. But if you striped away this group, the results were starkly different.
Among all Republicans, 35 percent favored the legalization of gay marriage, while 58 percent opposed it. But without white evangelicals the spread is 45 percent to 47 percent, a heck of a lot closer to Americans in general, although you wouldn't know that given the way GOP congressional leaders suck up to white evangelicals.
On abortion, only 39 percent of all Republicans said that it should be legal, while 58 percent said that it should not be. Subtract those white evangelicals  and the spread is 48 percent to 49 percent, again closer to Americans in general.
On immigration, the religious group in which the fewest people (36 percent) said that immigrants "strengthen" the country were . . . you, guessed it, white evangelicals.  Among all Americans, the spread was 55 percent "strengthen" and 36 percent "burden."
We live in a golden age of cowardice.  People of all political stripes cower behind the flag in the name of an ersatz patriotism rather than defend true American values, and Democratic congressfolk cower when they should be defending their president and his signal accomplishments.   But they pale in comparison to Republicans who cower in the presence of intolerant Christianist nut jobs whose intolerance would be right at home with radical Islam.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Awful & Very True Story Of The Most Powerful Men In America & A Gang Rape

This is the story of how the three most powerful men in America were responsible for the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl, who was burned to a blackened char, and the murder of her parents and sister.

The enablers of these heinous crimes were President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick
Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who conspired to invade Iraq for bogus reasons, then starved the Army of the men and materiel to get the job done, which led to a lengthy occupation that triggered an Al Qaeda insurgency and a protracted civil war.

Journalist Jim Frederick describes the scene that Abu Muhammad came upon when he was summoned to his cousin's house on March 12, 2006:

"Abu Muhammad had seen what the insurgent death squads could do, but he had never witnessed anything like this. Each body was a different sort of travesty. Qassim, the father, was facedown in the far corner of the bedroom, in a lake of his own burgundy blood. His shirt was brightly patterned, striped with white, orange and brown. The front of his skull had been blasted off. Gore and large chunks of gray matter stippled the walls in a wide, V-shaped pattern. A large amount of Qassim's brain, about the size of a fist, lay nearby on an intricately woven rug.

"Not far from Hassim was Hadeel, just six years old. Wearing a bright pink dress, she was beautiful, her face almost pristine like a death mask, except that she was covered with blood, liters of it. It was everywhere, matting her hair, soaking her dress, covering her face in a thin dried sheen. A bullet fired from behind -- perhaps she had been running away from her assailant -- had blown the back right quadrant of her skull apart, A piece of it was lying several feet away, covered in skin and hair. Her hair band had been thrown across the room by the whiplash of the impact. In her right hand she was still clutching some plants she had just picked, a kind of wild sweet grass that Iraqi children frequently gather and eat for fun.

"Closest to the door was Fakhirah, the mother, wearing a black abaya and an emerald velveteen housedress embroidered with white flowers. She was lying on her back with her eyes wide open. Abu Muhammad thought his cousin might still be alive. He reached down to feel her pulse. Nothing. She was dead. He turned her over, and then he saw the hole. She had been shot in the back, but the rich, dark hues of her clothing obscured the full extent of her wound.

"Shaken, Abu Muhammad moved into the living room. There was Abeer, only fourteen years old. What they had done to her, it was unspeakable. Her body was still smoking; her entire upper torso had been scorched, much of it burnt down to ash. Her chest and face were gone with only the tips of her fingers sticking out from the purple scraps of her dress sleeves, recognizably human. The lower half of her body, however, was mostly intact. Her thin, spindly legs were spread and, rigid in death, still bent at the knees. She was naked from the waist down, her tights and underwear nearby."

Why dredge up a nearly nine-year-old incident in a war that effectively ended in December?

The answer is that today would have been Abeer Qassim Hamza's 23rd birthday. And that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have never been called to account for masterminding the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history. And never will be. Absent a deathbed confession, we cannot expect any member of this troika to acknowledge that the deaths of nearly 4,000 Americans, Abeer and her family and perhaps 100,000 Iraqis in all was because of their politically-driven neocon blood lust.

The vast majority of the soldiers sent to Iraq performed and behaved admirably, and that was true of most of the troopers in 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

There was only one other known atrocity of this magnitude in Iraq -- the Hadifa Massacre, and rapes and murders were extremely rare in Iraq despite the fact that they happen in every war and by one estimate U.S. troops raped 18,000 women in the European theater between 1942 and 1945.

First Battalion was assigned to the Triangle of Death, an area south of Baghdad that only weeks after the March 2003 invasion already was becoming the most restive hotbed of the insurgency. There were far too few boots on the ground to effectively deal with the task at hand, pleas for more troops went unheeded, and when commanders complained to the Pentagon about troop levels they effectively short-circuited their careers.

The travails of Bravo Company, home to the men who went on the rape and murder spree, were especially severe. They were physically isolated and had no knowledge of how their efforts were fitting into the war's broader strategy, let alone what that strategy might be.

The rape and murders were singularly heinous because they were so calculated. But to lay the entire responsibility for them on Private First Class Steven Green, who was the ringleader, and Sergeant Paul Cortez and Privates First Class James Barker, Brian Howard and Jesse Spielman is wrong because others up the chain of command all the way to the Pentagon and White House also were culpable.

By the time 1st Battalion deployed to the Triangle of Death in November 2005, the people whom Cheney had declared would welcome Americans with open arms were longing for Saddam Hussein. Iraq had become one big killing field with armed militias roaming the cities and countryside, and Shiites and Sunnis killing whomever they pleased at will.

The Georgia National Guard unit that the 1st Battalion replaced had become so cowed that it had stopped patrolling roads where IEDs (improvised explosive devices) had detonated, meaning that pretty much the entire area went uncovered as the guardsmen cowered in their barracks.

Despite boasts by Rumsfeld, that the troops in Iraq were the best equipped in the history of warfare, the conditions that 1st Battalion had to endure were deplorable.

As Frederick writes in Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent Into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, there was no chow hall or even a kitchen to cook meals except at Camp Striker, the battalion headquarters. At bases "away from the flagpole," in military parlance, all food was either MRE combat rations or hamburger patties and steaks that had to be grilled on storm
drains. There were no dishes or cutlery so the men had to eat MREs and grilled meat with their hands.

There was no electricity and no lighting that wasn't battery operated, no air conditioning during the day and no heat at night. There were no showers and no toilets, and troopers defecated into so-called WAG Bags, garbage bags with solvents inside that were tied off, thrown in a pit and burned. First Platoon's first major casualty was to be a soldier who suffered bad burns when he threw a match into a diesel fuel-soaked pit filled with the bags.

Humvees were inadequately armored and there wasn't enough body armor to go around, a situation that was not corrected until later in the war and only then because of an expose in a stateside newspaper. And there were no coordinated night recognition signals, resulting in troopers firing on the trucks of other troopers, sometimes with fatal results.

Then there was battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kunk.

"His reaction to everything was the same," a company first sergeant told Frederick. "If you lost a soldier, or if you had cigarette butts on the FOB [forward operating base], it was the same reaction. He would explode on you. He would just lose his mind, which made his whole leadership style just totally ineffective."

Said one captain: "If you continually crush their spirit, they are going to be timid, wondering if everything they do will earn them another ass chewing. It had an impact on the way those guys operated."

Kunk also whitewashed the reports he sent up to brigade headquarters.
"They would call three guys a squad," a first sergeant said. "But you can't turn three guys into nine unless you're lying."

"It's not like one little piece of information is going to lose the war," a company executive office said, "but when you see the cumulative effect of information becoming whitewashed in order to tell a story that a battalion or brigade commander wants to tell to their highers, then you got real problems. That's the more sinister side of it."

Meanwhile, the Iraq Army was useless and 1st Platoon troopers quickly came to loath the civilian population. The one member of the platoon who took a liking to Iraqis, becoming nearly fluent in Arabic as he got to know the locals, was called "an Iraqi cock sucker."

And the enemy was everywhere.

"What that company is going through would turn your hair white," an officer at Camp Victory in Baghdad told Frederick. "I'm only twenty miles away, and most of the people on Victory have no idea how bloody the fight is down there."

IEDs were cleared with the help of Iron Claw bomb-sniffing teams riding in massive armored vehicles, but as soon as a road was cleared it was reseeded by insurgents. The battalion resorted to parking Humvees at one- or two-mile intervals along a key road that was a resupply route, but the ideal relief in the form of Iraqi soldiers manning these checkpoints never came. They simply refused to operate in so dangerous an area.

The parked vehicles evolved into poorly defended Tactical Check Points surrounded by concertina wire where soldiers would be assigned for six-day intervals, further depleting the
platoon's patrol and combat power, and most troopers felt like they were school crossing guards when manning them. When six-foot cubed mesh baskets that when filled made excellent defensive barriers finally arrived, there were no backhoes to fill them.

It was at one such checkpoint at the edge of Mahmudiya that Steven Green helped hatch the plan to rape Abeer and kill she and her family.

With the Army strapped for personnel, Green had been granted a moral waiver because of prior convictions for drugs and other bad behavior when he enlisted in the Army, and by 2005 such waivers were granted to almost one in five recruits.

He was not a bad soldier, but he was crazy. He was a racist and white supremacist who was unable to control his impulses and railed about "niggers," Jews, northerners, foreigners and Iraqis. And he occasionally drooled, a childhood habit that he had not completely broken.
Green, who became the first former U.S. soldier to face the death penalty for war crimes in a civilian court because he had been discharged before he was arrested, had matter of factly explained to a journalist three weeks before the rape-murders that "I came over here to kill people."

By December, 1st Platoon was losing men at the rate of about one a week and an already fraying platoon that lived "outside the wire" -- a term for the outposts -- was unraveling quickly, while Bravo Company's 2nd and 3rd Platoons seemed to be humming right along with few problems. Frederick attributes this to those platoons outstanding sergeants and active efforts to combat the hate that 1st Platoon had succumbed to.

Iraqi civilians were now being beaten routinely by 1st Platoon troopers, drinking increased and became more open, and men would burst into tears while eating their lunches. And after being continuously told that they were screwups, Frederick said the platoon subconsciously decided to live up to its outcast status.

Meanwhile, none of the basics essential to maintaining morale and welfare of combat soldiers had been provided and officers and NCOs who complained about this state of affairs were
considered whiners.

Two platoon mates who had disobeyed one of Keck's orders and had taken off their helmets at one of the checkpoints were fatally shot in the head by an Iraqi civilian. This was followed by the deaths of two men in an IED blast and then two more in another blast. Later a forward operating base widely considered to be a firetrap burned to the ground because there were too few fire extinguishers.

The carnage prompted Green to tell Keck that "I just want to get out there and get some revenge on those motherfuckers. They all deserve to die."

"Calling them that is like calling me a nigger," interjected Command Sergeant Major Anthony Edwards, Keck's senior NCO. "This sounds like you hate a whole race of people."

"That's about it right there," said Green. "You just about summed it up."

Green had finally snapped.

"Most of the men by this point hated Iraqis and many would offhandedly opine that the whole country needed to be leveled, or the only good Iraqi was a dead Iraq," writes Frederick. "But only Green talked about killing Iraqis all the time. . . . Only he talked about burning them alive so they had to smell their own flesh cooking. Everybody was frustrated that the enemy was cowardly, but Green had a harder time accepting that this was simply the nature of this war: U.S. soldiers had to behave more honorably than the enemy. Why, he sincerely wanted to know, did Americans have to restrain themselves when the insurgents did not?"

Bravo's company commander sent Green to see a combat stress nurse who diagnosed him with Combat and Operational Stress Reaction, an Army term to describe the typically and usually transient stresses of warfare. The nurse noted Green's obsession with killing Iraqis and then sent him back to Bravo.

His next appointment with the nurse would be on March 20, eight days after the rape-murders.

On March 12, Green was pulling predawn guard duty in a gun truck at Tactical Command Post 2. He had been up for 18 hours. Two of 2nd Squads sergeants were elsewhere and Paul Cortez had been rotated in and left in charge although the sergeant was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"When I'm on guard next time," Green told Cortez and James Barker, "I'm going to waste a bunch of dudes in a car. And we'll just say they were running the TCP."

"Don't do that!" Cortez exclaimed. "Don't do it while I'm here. I'm supposed to be running this shit."

Barker agreed and said he had a better idea.

"We've all killed Hadjis [Iraqis], but I've been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches."

Cortez's interest was piqued, and so was Green's. They talked more about it as the morning wore on and Barker said that he had already picked the target -- a house not far from the checkpoint where a man and three women lived, one a teenager or in her twenties whom he thought was pretty hot. The family had an AK-47 assault rifle, which was allowable under Iraqi law, and he said he knew where it was hidden.

Witnesses were a problem, however, but Green said he would take care of that.

"You'll kill them, right?" Barker asked.

"Absolutely," Green replied. "It don't make any difference to me. A Hadji is a Hadji."

At around noon, the three men and Jesse Spielman sat down outside the TCP with a cardboard box as a table to play Uno. They drank Iraqi whiskey mixed with Rip It, a carbonated energy drink, and soon became very drunk.

Cortez finally said, "If we are going to do this, let's go before I change my mind." Cortez and
Barker would take the girl, Green would kill the rest of the family, Spielman would pull guard and Bryan Howard, who was newly arrived in the platoon, would stay behind and man the radio.

Some of the men changed into clothing that made them look like insurgents. Green grabbed a shotgun, Barker took Howard's M4 carbine and Spielman picked up an M14 rifle.

The targeted house was the home of Qassim and Fakriah Hamza al-Janabi. They were poor but dreamed of building a big family and sending their children -- daughters Abeer, 14, and Hadeel, 6, and son Muhammad,12, who happened to be at school that afternoon -- to university.

With the arrival of the Americans in Mahmudiyah and the quick deterioration of relations between the occupiers and locals, Wassim and Fakriah had become concerned about their daughters, whom they took out of school.

Abeer was of special concern. She had big doe eyes, a small mouth and gentle features. On the verge of womanhood, she was tall for her age and her fragile beauty was attracting a lot of unwanted attention. Soldiers would give her the thumbs-up and say, "Very good, very nice," and Muhammad had once watched a soldier run a finger down terrified sister's cheek.

By early March, the harassment of Abeer had become so bad that cousin Abu Muhammad told the family that he would take her to live with him at his secluded house. Abeer stayed there only one night, March 9 or 10, and Qassim came the next day to bring her back home.

Frederick describes what transpired in a few short minutes:

"Sneaking up to the dingy home, Cortez and Barker broke to the right around a small shack in the front. Spielman and Green broke left. Spielman and Green found little Hadeel and father Qassim in the driveway. Green grabbed the man and Spielman grabbed the girl and they marched them inside. Barker and Cortez cleared the house, checking the foyer, the hallway, and moving plast the kitchen, where Cortez stopped to grab the woman, Fakhriah, and Abeer. Green and Spielman entered the house while Barker continued with the sweep, checking the bathroom and the toilet room, the bedroom and the living room. Then he headed up the stairs to the roof, checked the roof, and went back down the stairs.

"The others had corralled the whole family into the bedroom. After they had recovered the family's AK-47 and Green confirmed that it was locked and loaded, Barker and Cortez left, yanking Abeer behind them. Spielman pulled the bedroom door shut and then set up guard in the doorway between the foyer and the living room while Cortez shoved Abeer into the living room. Cortez pushed Abeer down on the ground and Barker walked over to her and pinned her outstretched arms down with his knees.

"In the bedroom, Green was trying to get the man, woman and child to lie down on the floor. They were scared, screaming in Arabic. Green was shouting back, 'Get down, get down now!'

"Back at the TCP, Howard was trying to get Cortez on the radio, each time saying there was a convoy coming and they needed to come back. They never responded. No Humvees actually came during the ten to 15 minutes that they were gone, but Howard was panicked. [Private Seth] Scheller and he were out there all alone.

"In the living room, Cortez pulled Abeer's tights off. She was crying, screaming in Arabic, trying to struggle free as Barker continued to hold her in place. Cortez was masturbating, trying to get an erection. He started to make thrusting motions. 'What the fuck am I doing?' he later recalled thinking at the time. 'At the same time, I didn't care, either. I wanted her to feel the pain of the dead soldiers.'

"In the bedroom, Green was losing control of his prisoners. They weren't getting down on the ground. Terrified, they were yelling, and they weren't responding to Green's orders. The woman made a run for the bedroom door. Green shot her once in the back and she fell to the floor. The man, agitated before, now became unhinged. Green turned the AK on him and pulled the trigger. It jammed. He tried to clear it several more times, but it kept sticking. Panicking, as the man started advancing on him, Green switched to his shotgun.

"Green couldn't remember if there was anything in the chamber, so he pumped once and a full shell ejected. Then, Green said, 'I shot him the way I had been taught: one in the head and two in the chest.' The first shot blasted the top of the man's head off. He dropped backward to the floor as buckshot from the following shots continued to riddle his body.

"Then Green turned toward the little girl, who was spinning away from him, running for a corner. Green returned to the AK and tried to clear it again, and this time it worked. He raised the rifle and shot Hadeel in the back of the head. She fell to the ground. . . .

"As Green was executing the family, Cortez finished raping Abeer and switched positions with Barker. Barker's penis was only half hard. Despite all her squirming and kicking, Barker forced himself on Abeer and raped her.

"Green came out of the bedroom and announced to Barker and Cortez, 'They're all dead. I killed them all.' Barker got up and headed toward the kitchen. He wanted to look outside the window, see if anything was happening outside. As he did that, Green propped the AK-47 he was carrying against the wall, got down between Abeer's legs, and as Cortez held her down, Green raped her. . . .

"The men were becoming extremely frenzied and agitated now. Spielman lifted Abeer's dress up around her neck and touched her exposed right breast. Barker brought a kerosene lamp he had found in the kitchen and dumped the contents on Abeer's splayed legs and torso. Spielman handed a lighter to either Barker or Cortez, who lit the flame. Spielman went to the bedroom and found some blankets to throw on the body to stoke the fire. As the flames engulfing Abeer's body grew, Green, hoping to blow up the house, opened the valve on the propane tank in the kitchen and told everybody to get out of there."
The Iraqi Army began interviewing neighbors and family members the morning after the rape-murders. Some said that it was the Iraqi Army, others said it was the Americans and still others said that it was a family feud gone bad, while 1st Platoon said it was Sunni insurgents. The Hamza Al-Janabi family was buried in a nearby cemetery and there was little or no physical evidence beyond a few AK-47 shell casings.

On March 20, 2006, Green kept his appointment at the Combat Stress office in Mahmudiyah. He confessed to having recently thrown a puppy off of the roof of a house that was being searched and said that was no big deal. In subsequent meetings over the next few days, a combat stress nurse concluded that he wasn't registering the moral implications of what he had done.

She concluded that Green had a preexisting antisocial personality disorder, a condition marked by indifference to the suffering of others and recommended to Kunk the he be discharged. Even though Green had committed rape and quadruple homicide just 11 days earlier, the nurse's mental-health-status evaluation sheet that initiated the personality order discharge stated that his current potential for harm to others was "low."

Green remained at Mahmudiyah for a few more weeks for observation and processing. By April 14, he was headed back to the U.S. and was honorably discharged at Fort Campbell, Kentucky on May 16.

The cover-up of the rape-murders began to unravel in mid-June.

On June 16, the checkpoint where Green and the others had hatched the plot
was attacked and overrun. Specialist David Babineau was killed and Privates First Class Thomas Tucker and Kristian Menchaca were captured.

The bodies of the two troopers were found on June 19, and judging from a video shot by the insurgent abductors, both were eviscerated and half naked, dirty with caked blood and mud, just as one would appear after being dragged behind a truck. Tucker was decapitated and a man, after holding his severed head aloft like a trophy, placed it on Tucker's body. Al Qaeda in Iraq later said the attack and another one that took three lives was in retaliation for the rape of Abeer and murder of her family and the leader of AQI had slaughtered the two men himself.

While the search for Tucker and Menchaca was on, Sergeant
Tony Yribe remarked to Private First Class Justin Watt that "It just drives me crazy that all the good men die and the shitbag murderers like Green are home eating hamburgers."

"Murderers?" Watt asked.

Yribe told Watt about the rape-murders and that Green had confessed to him that he had acted alone. The less you know about it -- the better, Yribe had said.

Watt was horrified. He began obsessing on Abeer's father for reasons he didn't understand and couldn't sleep. When he ran into Howard he insinuated that something really messed up had happened in March. Convinced that Watt knew the whole story, Howard filled in many of the missing pieces and implicated Barker, Cortez and Spielman.

Watt called his father, who had been an airborne combat engineer in the 1970s, and asked him what he would do if his brothers in arms had done something really bad.

"You should let your conscience be your guide," his father had replied. "If it is as heinous as you say, you can't let your loyalty to your men get in the way of doing what is right."

Wanting to bypass what he believed would be a skeptical command structure, Watt revealed the crimes during a psychological health counseling session on June 22.
Meanwhile, rumors about the rape-murder began to percolate through 1st Platoon and eventually reached Kunk after two troopers went to their superiors.

While skeptical of the allegations, Kunk ordered an investigation. Then, a few days after the memorial service for Babineau, Tucker and Menchaca, the commanding officer called a kind of town hall meeting.

Frederick writes that Kunk began by telling them, with complete unconcern for the men who were brave enough to speak up, "You are right to think that there is a lot of suspicion and finger-pointing going on because [two men] came forward to tell the chain of command that five of your shitbag friends probably raped a girl and killed her whole family. And these guys are cracking, it looks like they are guilty."

"We thought we were going to get the 'Keep your heads up' speech," said one soldier. " . . . He just crushed us."

The four active-duty soldiers involved were arrested and were court martialed.

Barker pleaded guilty to rape and murder as part of a plea agreement requiring him to testify against the other soldiers to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to 90 years in prison and must serve 20 years before being considered for parole.

Cortez pleaded guilty to rape and murder as part of a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to 100 years in prison and must serve 10 years before being considered for parole.

Spielman was convicted of rape and murder. He was sentenced to 110 years in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years.

All three men are being held at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Howard was sentenced under a plea agreement to a dishonorable discharge. He served 27 months in prison for obstruction of justice and being an accessory after the fact.

Green was arrested as a civilian and was convicted in the U.S. District court in Paducah, Kentucky. In September 2009, he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in prison with no possibility of parole and was being held in the U.S. Penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona when he died in February 2014 from complications from hanging himself.
Kunk, who was investigated because of reports of numerous acts of complacency and a lack of standards at the platoon level, received a letter of concern, the least serious form of admonishment and one that carries no real punitive weight or negative long-term implications for an officer's career. Two of his NCOs received letters of reprimand.

Justin Watt, the whistleblower, received a medical discharge. He said that he has received death threats.
Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are retired and except for Cheney, are little in the news. All three have published memoirs that whitewash their roles in starting and utterly screwing up America's longest war.
Abeer's next-of-kin received a $30,000 check from the U.S. government in compensation for the rape-murders.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top): Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld; Abeer; Blood-splattered wall of the Al Janabi home; Map of the Triangle of Death; Tactical checkpoint where rape-murder plot was hatched; 1st Platoon trooper on patrol; Green, possibly with the shotgun he used in the murders; Barker; Cortez; Spielman; Watt; Babineau; Menchaca; Tucker; Green at sentencing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Republicans Still Not Ready To Take Back The Keys To The National Car

The Republicans' own big takeaway from their 2014 election victories was that they would now show Americans what governing was all about.  Ta da!  This boast was rather strange since the party has performed a sort of demented Kabuki theater in lieu of governing -- whether jointly with President Obama, Democrats or by their lonesome -- over the last six-plus years in making the case that it still was not capable of taking back the keys to the national car.  So it comes as no surprise that despite now controlling both House and Senate, it has been more of the non-governing same -- and perhaps even worse.
In the few short weeks since the 114th Congress convened, the Republican congressional leadership has thumbed its collective nose at governing -- which is to say making and administering public policy for the common good -- in sweeping aside bread-and-butter issues of concern to many millions of struggling Americans. 
It's version of "governing" has included:
* In its first act, stoking the Culture War fires by a proposing a draconian law outlawing abortions after 20 weeks despite the fact that 99 percent of abortions occur before then, and polls show a healthy majority of Democratic, Independent and Republican voters, including a growing number of woman GOP lawmakers, believe reproductive decisions should be left to the individual.

* Tying itself in knots by holding Department of Homeland Security funding hostage -- and risking yet another government shutdown -- by linking funding to rolling back Obama's executive actions shielding millions of wannabe Americans from deportation.
* Continuing to take endlessly meaningless votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which like the first 60 or so repeal votes have no chance of being enacted into law, while refusing (actually, being unable) to bring an alternative health-care plan to the table.

* Urging the Supreme Court to strike down subsidies for health insurance provided to millions of people in more than 30 states through the ACA while hypocritically criticizing the Obama administration because it has no plan to avert the hardships that would occur if they win in court.
* Embarrassing themselves by engaging in diplomatic thuggery by extending a unilateral invitation to Israeli Prime Minister and Obama foe Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, then lying through their teeth when the attempt to back stab the president blew up in their smug faces.

* Further embarrassing themselves by feeble criticism of the rebounding economy, including robust job growth, a signal accomplishment of Obama's presidency, by offering their own feel-good prescription: Restoring the 40-hour work week, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, and rolling back regulation of businesses.

* In a welcome break with conservative orthodoxy, some Republicans have belatedly discovered the issue of income inequality.  But these Republicans have no idea about how to confront the issue; it's merely viewed as a wedge to drive between Democratic liberal elites and poor working stiffs, as well as float the usual tax-reform flapdoodle.

Reaching across the aisle in search of compromise and consensus was long the professed goal of lawmakers, but that continues to be antithetical to Republicans.  Take the Homeland Security funding bill.  If the parties cannot work together, they are supposed to work separately, yet it has become even more obvious since last November that Republicans can't even work with each other -- witness the abortion bill and Netanyahu imbroglio -- and are imploding under their own obdurance. 

And with more power comes more responsibility.

"The Republicans are like Fido when he finally catches the car," Democratic Senator Charles Schumer remarked recently. "Now they don't have any clue about what to do."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Big Freaking Valentine From Our Friends At PennDOT

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has worked hard to become the most loathed government agency in the Keystone State -- inured to criticism, besotted with nepotism and determinedly stuck in the past.  
Despite having plenty of room to maneuver and no visibility issues, a PennDOT employee driving an immense plow truck more suitable for a mountain pass than a country lane, took out these mailboxes last week, the latest in a series of smash-and-run incidents on our road involving stone rows and fences, in addition to mailboxes, at the hands of drivers who seem to not give a damn or have anger issues.  Or perhaps both.
Then on Sunday, a plow truck dinged the mailboxes again and took a chunk out of a utility pole, not exactly a cool move with high winds and wind chills well below zero.
Asked this past year why PennDOT continues to tar and chip our road summer after summer (a throwback to when it was unpaved many years ago) rather than make badly needed repairs to holes and precipitous drop-offs on the road's shoulders that could swallow a small car, a road crew foreman offered his contemplative reply:
"Well, because that's how we've always done it."


Friday, February 13, 2015

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

'That Big, Fat Moon Is Gonna Shine Like A Spoon'

A full moon backlights an airplane on its final approach to the Los Angeles 
International Airport in this photograph by Associated Press ace Nick Ut.  More here.

Monday, February 02, 2015

A Former Marine, Man Mountain And Skinny Jewish Guy Walk Into A Bar

A wonderful consequence of the publication of my 2014 book -- There's A House In The Land -- has been getting back in touch with old friends, some of whom I had not heard from, let alone seen, in decades.  Take Simon Lipstein. (Please!)  Simon could not attend our gala book signing/band reunion late last year, but he did send along the following reminiscence of a trip to South America 42 years ago this month embarked upon by one of the main characters in my book, a dear friend and himself.  Read it and weep -- with laughter.
In 1972-73, Tom Daniels was into Eric Von Daniken's books and came up with the proposal that an expedition to Cuenca Ecuador would be a good idea because Father Crespi lived there and he had several gold artifacts and a meteorite described by Van Daniken.  I forget the significance of this stuff, but I think it was that, combined with the lines at Nazca in Peru, there'd be proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life.  Whatever, the expedition was planned for January 1973, which was convenient for me since I was working at the Newark News Stand at that time and when the University of Delaware was not in session, business was slow and I could take vacation.  So, I volunteered, fully expecting that Tom would lead us.

As it turned out, Tom had great ideas for the expedition but couldn't, wouldn't and didn't go.  Do you remember this at all?  Before I go on, if you don't remember, don't scroll down and just take a guess at who, among the Medford crowd went.

It was Mack and Beet.  Try to picture that trio: Mack still in Marine shape but a little shaggy; Beet weighing in at about 300 pounds with shoulder length hair and me at my full adult 5'7" and about 130 pounds.  The adventure began with having to drive to Miami in order to fly to Quito on Ecuatoriana Airlines, about the only one that serviced Quito.  Do you remember anything about 1973?  There was a gas shortage, alternate day gas sales depending on the last digit of your license plate, PSA's asking people to curtail driving.  Not us!  We took off for Miami in someone's station wagon, my memory is Catbird's, with probably 15 red 5 gallons plastic jugs of gasoline strapped to the roof!  Unbelievable!  The car was full: Tom, Catbird, Mack, Beet, me and at least two others who I cannot remember  What I do remember is that as the smallest guy in the car, I never got to it up front or next to a window.
* * * * *

As I remember it we drove straight through to the airport, but I could be wrong.  Someone may have known someone in Miami where we crashed for a night.  Anyway, we discovered at some point that we needed shots to get into Ecuador and Tom said we could get them in Panama City where we'd have a stopover on the way south.  So, off we went in a little prop jet, my first time out of the country (beside Canada and Mexico).  None of us spoke Spanish and I remember only a vague plan based upon what Tom would have done if he had gone. 

We landed in Panama City and went into the city to a hotel and explored around a little and somehow figured out where to get the shots.  Before leaving the airport, though, we learned that Ecuatoriana's fleet flew south on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and north on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and prayed for safe flights on Sundays.  So, we had an extra day in Panama with no plans, no idea of what there was to see there or do.  But, being the sophisticated resourceful men of the world we were, we found a bar, ate ceviche from street vendors and figured out how to take a day long train ride along the Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean and back, so we could kill our extra day.  That was great and Mack tapped into some local products that made the day unforgettable. 

So, on to Quito!  We land and the plan is to take a bus to Cuenca which is somewhere south of Quito, still in the mountains.  We take a cab to the "bus station" which is just a field with a bunch of school buses sitting around, randomly leaving and arriving.  Again, someone we find the right one and get tickets to Cuenca with no idea how far away it is, how long it will take to get there or really how we'll know when we get there.  Our backpacks go on top of the bus and on a balmy afternoon at 10,000 feet we get on board and get stared at by the entire busload of people, none of whom are as big as me and none of whom want to share a seat with Beet since the seats are their size, not ours.  We find seats anyway and off we go.  Spectacular views of the Andes as long as the daylight lasts, but after dark it gets really cold and our jackets are keeping our backpacks warm on the roof and we don't know how to ask for them or when the bus will stop so we can get them, so we suffer. 

Eventually, in the middle of the night, the bus stops at a cantina that is miraculously open as there is no radio or other way to communicate between the bus and the cantina.  We get our jackets and go inside to see what we can score to eat.  There's no menu, just apparently sopa (soup).  Well, that should be hot, or at least warm, so we go for it.  It arrives with a small piece of meat with a bone sticking out that could be a chicken leg, but doesn't really look like one.   We're cold and hungry, Mack is a Marine, Beet eats anything and I'm along for the ride, so we chow down.  Somewhere along the way we find out that a staple of their diet is guinea pig. 

We manage to sleep once we have jackets and wake up still high in the mountains and later in the morning arrive in Cuenca.  Its a beautiful town on the Inca Highway that continues on to Tierra Del Fuego.  We find a pretty good hotel and through a friend of a friend or something similar, make the acquaintance of a girl from Oregon who is teaching English there.  She shows us around town, introduces us to her students so they can practice their English on us and also act as our interpreters.  They know where Father Crespi's monastery is and take us there.  He does have some amazing stuff, but he doesn't speak any language that any of us or our interpreters speak, so its difficult to converse.  He also smells like he hasn't bathed since he took his vows, maybe he swore to poverty, chastity and stinkiness?  We saw a lot of the stuff that was in Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, including the meteorite and gold work.  We stayed in Cuenca most of a week, shopping, trying the local cuisine, and the teacher threw a party in her apartment the last night we were there and we coerced her into letting us sleep on  her floor as already our funds were running short.  She was paranoid that she would be disgraced if anyone knew we stayed there, but I think we pulled it off. 

* * * * *
So, then back to Quito by bus to catch a plane to continue our trip to Peru.  We had been given the name of a guy at the University in Quito who might be able to put us up for a night, so finding him was out goal.  We had our jackets for the overnight bus ride, but somehow we arrived in the middle of the night and had no idea where the university was in relation to where the bus field was.  I had some French from high school and U of D, and parsed together enough Spanish over those few days to ask "donde esta la universite?"  But Quito streets are up and down and not on a grid and there are no streetlights, so it was hopeless in the dark.  We asked a guy our age for directions and figured out from his answers that it was a long walk.  We got through to him that we needed a place to sleep and he seemed to offer the floor in his father's store.  So, off we went, hoping for the best.  We pass a corner with several people standing around, including one guy who is speaking English, so we ask him for some interpreter help and he confirms that our man is well intentioned, but that we have to get up and out at dawn before his uncle opens the store and that the university is that way. 

The next few details are partially speculative as I don't remember all of this.  We got to the university after a few hours sleep on a wooden floor.  I don't think we ever found the guy, but the food was more diverse and more identifiable.  We also discovered that we had another night to spend in Quito, so somewhere along the line we took a tourist bus to the Equator monument outside Quito so we could be assholes in the northern and southern hemisphere at the same time.  We splurged on a hotel room near the airport so we could was our clothes and get a good night's sleep.  I do remember the flight from Quito to Lima.  First the plane flew down out of the mountains to Guayaquil on the coast of Ecuador.  The mountains are jungly and dense, the coast is swampy and dense.  From Guayquil, the plane flew just off the coast to Lima.  Very nearly at the Peru/Ecuador border, the land changed from swamp to desert, showing the effects of the Humboldt current.  Still it was beautiful. 

And then there was Lima, a sprawling metropolis.  We still had nearly two weeks to kill, with plans to get up to Cuzco and Machu PIchu, then stopping at Nazca on the way back to Lima.  There was a vibrant community of travelers our age who were generally bumming around South America because it was cheap and easy to go from country to country.  We befriended a group of guys from France who among them were some who also spoke English or Spanish (no one spoke all three languages).  One way or another they were almost everywhere we were for the two weeks in Peru.  Lima was great, a large central square that was the meeting place for everyone traveling through and therefore a source of everything anyone needed including information on how to get around, where to eat and drink and stay.  But, it was also surrounded by government buildings and on our last day there, troop transports were guarding the square and tensions were high.  Time to hit the road again.
* * * * *

We headed to Cuzco first by rail to a town called Huancayo, I think.  That night, we again got a hotel so we could wash clothes in the bath tub and get some sleep.  Huancayo is served by rail because it isn't too high in the mountains, but from there to Cuzco it was back on the school bus.  But now we're experienced bus riders so we have some food and jackets and we can sleep sitting up.  Next stop is Ayacucho, after a day and a half ride, another middle of the night cantina, refueling from a tanker on the road and I still don't know how they set this stuff up.  We're riding through jungle and the roads are one lane with oncoming traffic, including trucks and other school buses, inching past.  There are animals on the bus, which is standing room only and again we have no idea how long the ride is.  We arrive in Ayacucho at night and figure out our next connection leaves in the morning, so we need a cheap room for the night.  This one was so cheap and in such a bad location that we blocked the door with the dresser.

We survive the night and its back on the bus.  This ride is again high in the mountains, with alpaca and other uniquely South American animals in the fields.  We're sleeping through the night, but I notice that the bus has stopped.  Not knowing the language keeps us from understanding why, but with morning we discover that the hours of rain during the night have generated a rock slide that blocks the road, which cuts across a steep mountain side with a river several hundred yards below.  There is a line of vehicles on our side of the slide and an equally long line of vehicles on the other side and crowds of people working both sides to clear the slide by rolling the rocks over the edge down to the river.  As scrawny as I am, I'm not much help, but Mack is a Marine and he jumps right in to the great appreciation of the crowd.  Then, out of the morning mist, a Beet arrives and a cheer goes up as though he can move the mountain by himself.  He can't and it takes hours to clear the road, repair it and for them to figure out who gets to go across the narrow crossing first. 

And so we arrive in Cuzco alive, muddy and tired.  Even in 1973, Lima was a huge city, trying to be cosmopolitan with bars, restaurants, high rise buildings and, of course, as the capital of Peru, government buildings and embassies.  Since it is also on the coast, there's a port and its just a big city.  In Ecuador, Quito was cute and Cuenca was quaint, or maybe it was the other way around.  None of the three was anything like Cuzco.  Cuzco seemed to be built of huge granite rocks and paved with smaller ones.  Its a tourist destination because it is the gateway to Machu Pichu, but it has a charm all its own.  The people seemed to be mostly local natives, Indians rather than descendants of the Spanish and very nice in comparison.  Yes, I have thought of retiring there in my wildest dreams.
* * * * *

Somewhere along the way we picked up Saulo, a Brazilian I think, who didn't speak English, but somehow we could communicate with him.  Together with him, we found a nice, low cost hotel room for all four of us.  Our plan was to stay a couple of nights, then go to Machu Pichu, then return to Lima  till the return flight to Miami.  We paid for the first night when we arrived.  We toured Cuzco for a couple days, reconnected with a couple of the French guys from Lima, learned to say "pollo con arroz" in the restaurants, and learned could get to Machu Pichu on the local train instead of the higher priced, more direct tourist train. 

When it came time to check out of the hotel, the owner wanted to charge us for the first night again, since he hadn't been there that night.  The language barrier sprang up as I tried to explain that we had paid for the first night when we arrived.  No one understands another language when they think they're being cheated.  Saulo intervened and I was able to make him understand, don't ask me how, and he was explaining to the owner that we didn't owe for the first night when the guy who was working that night  walked past our window.  I shouted to Saulo "I gave the money to him" in some form of pigeon Spanish, which he quickly translated so the owner understood.  My claim was verified and we were off.

The local train to Machu Pichu runs along the mighty Urumbamba River and makes many stops.  The tourist train makes no stops and people back then could take it to MP and get back to their rooms in Cuzco the same day.  So, the local train was crowded with locals and many people like us: traveling on the cheap, making friends on the way and enjoying the journey as well as the destination.  With Saulo's help, I had an extended conversation with a local guy who insisted that all of us were Communists.  There's only so much one can say with limited language skills, but the conversation was lively.  Each stop, each village was a little different and there were kids selling candy and sodas at each one.  Local color that the other train just blew through.

At Machu Pichu, there was a sturdy bridge across the river, it was a mighty river, and a little way up the hill a sort of roofed shelter with open sides where the backpackers could spread out sleeping bags on the dirt or on a couple of dozen bunks, or as I was lucky enough to score, hang a hammock from the poles of the bunks.  We were carrying a large pot and lots of people contributed to a stew that was shared for dinner, along with whatever else anyone was cooking or carrying.  There was a cantina a little further up the road and they sold beer to go, so that happened too.  Entertainment was provided by three Brazilians, two men and a woman, who spoke no English back sang a note perfect version of "Suite Judy Blue Eyes."

* * * * *
The next morning, well rested and well fed, it was time for the visit to Machu Pichu.  The site sits on a plateau about 1500 feet above the Urumbamba.  There's a road and shuttles navigating the switchbacks, but the Marine, the man mountain and the little Jewish guy needed to save money to buy souvenirs we'd spotted in Lima and didn't want to carry, so we began hoofing it straight up a dirt trail with Mack in the lead, of course.  Mack was silent, Beet was sweating and I was complaining, but after many a break we made it.  Wow!  MP is well known now so I won't repeat its history, but its worth the time and effort, no matter how expended, to see this place and imagine how it was to live there and hide out from the Spanish. 

Towering above MP is a pinnacle called Huayna Pichu.  There's a great picture of MP on its Wikipedia page taken from the top of Huayna Pichu that shows MP and the swithchback road beautifully.  Well, the intrepid threesome hadn't had enough climbing up to MP, so we took on Huayna Pichu.  The Incas had built a trail that included steps up the steepest parts of this climb, but, they were very small people and the steps were very small steps.  Certainly they didn't fit Beet's feet well and it was a tough climb for him especially.  The view from the top is worth every step.  The Urumbamba curves around the plateau on three sides and the Amazon jungle stretches away to the East, with the Andes on the other side.  And, in the heart of summer south of the Equator, its all green except for the rock.  Anyone who knows the three of us should take a moment to picture our 1973 selves clinging to the top of this spire with our mouths hanging open.  Check that one off the Bucket List.

It was time to head down, since even the walk back to the shelter would take a long time.  Of course we used the straight down dirt trail and spent another wonderful night in the community shelter with our international group of friends.  Many were leaving for further adventures in other South American countries, but our French friends were headed back to Lima, so we joined forces since they were not interested in returning the way we had come.  Instead, we would take a train to the through the town of Puno on the Bolivian border and the shores of Lake Titicaca, then south almost to Chile and the town of Arequipa.  Titicaca was beautiful, but it is so high in the mountains that there is almost no greenery.  In 1973, there was a heavy military presence at all border towns because of various rebellions and drug smuggling.  It was good to just move on. 

* * * * *
We left the train in Arequipa and had bus connections to make the next day.  We'd been on the road almost three weeks and I was exhausted, suffering from amoebic dysentery which is hard to avoid when eating local food.  I'd lost weight and my frame pack had gained weight.  Our frugal French friends almost never paid for lodging, so that night we bedded down with them on the concrete parking lot of a car dealership near the bus station.  Just what I needed.  During the night, some locals went through our packs, but we really didn't have much to lose.  We knew by then to sleep with our money and documents in our pockets.

Mack and Beet still wanted to see Nazca, but I didn't.  So, I retreated to Lima with the French and made plans to meet up with Mack and Beet in a couple of days in the Central Plaza in Lima, checking on the hour so neither of us was stuck in place all day.  To my delight, the bus back to Lima was a Greyhound style coach with comfortable seats and took less than a full day.  This was so close to American I could have cried if I wasn't so dehydrated.  True to their style, my French friends elected to bed down in a park in a residential neighborhood.  I awoke in the morning to the sound of footsteps coming toward us and quickly woke mes amis so they could speak for us all.  No problem, they were just checking that we were all right and that we knew we  had to get going pretty soon.  Okay by me.  We spent the day with a visit to the beach, then went to the movies to see Woodstock.  It was hilarious to see it subtitled in Spanish with every reference to drugs translated as estimulantes.  And Mike Donahue was there by the latrines as he is every time I see that flick.

Beet and Mack returned the next day and the meet went as planned.  We were seasoned travelers, so there was no sweat with loose connections.  We had enough money for a hotel near the Plaza, some good food and found the souvenirs we'd had our eyes on.  The French guys hung out with us and made sure we knew how to got wherever we wanted to go and got us to the airport on time.  The flight from Lima to Miami was non-stop and Ecuatoriana flies prop-jets on its long distance routes.  I couldn't believe there was enough fuel to get such a slow moving plane that far. 

* * * * *
The cultural contrast just landing in Miami was as stark as it could be after three weeks in the third world.  The crowd was friendly, but the customs officials were stern, unsmiling almost threatening jerks.  We had to uncap the frames on our backpacks so they could be sure we weren't smuggling anything.  No problem there.  The problem was that no one was there to pick us up.  I had a job at the News Stand to get back to before the university started up again, but Beet and Mack didn't. 
The Medford rolling gasoline bomb was not going back on the road for us.  Someone had a friend in Miami we could crash with and I called Mom for rescue: a plane ticket home if you want me back a work.  I left Beet and Mack there.  Mack went to the Keys, I don't remember what Beet did, but I didn't see either of them for a few months.  But, we were all back at Medford by Flag Day.