Sunday, January 27, 2008

Charlie Wilson and the Economics of War

Imagine for a moment that you consider yourself a pacifist, as I do. Then imagine that one day you find yourself inwardly cheering when you see a helicopter blown out of the sky by Islamic militants, and chuckling when the vanquished have the following toast proposed to them: "Here's to you, you mother****ers."

Such is the effect of the film, Charlie Wilson's War, in which the occupying Soviets are oh so evil, and in which the poor downtrodden Afghanis are oh so good and pathetic and heroic. Not to mention that a congressman and a CIA operative are somehow subversive radicals who manage to divert huge amounts of government funds into military aid without public notice. Yes, you even find yourself cheering for that.

The characters are so likable, and the story of protecting the weak from the strong is so compelling, that it is impossible not to go along for the ride. Never mind that the oddly reversed roles of the conflict made the Islamic radicals our allies in the Cold War, and that Osama Bin Laden (who is never mentioned) was among them.

There is an even more pointed moment, in case anyone hasn't got on board yet. After a scene in which Julia Roberts, as a wealthy Texan raising funds (and Cain) for Afghanistan, has to be asked to tone down the religious nature of her appeals, we jump to a montage of Soviet armor being destroyed to the soundtrack of "And He Shall Purify" from Handel's Messiah. Yikes! This makes "Onward Christian Soldiers" sound like a Boy Scout campfire song.

In a lot of ways the film only turns serious at the end. After the Soviet army has to admit defeat and leave, Wilson continues to push for aid to rebuild Afghanistan. But this task is not so easy as fighting a war, and he is unable even to get funding to construct some schools. The historic consequences are plain, and don't have to be spelled out.

There is a subtext, however, which I found interesting, whether it was intentional or not. In one of the planning sessions, the point is made that the hand-held anti-aircraft missiles that are being supplied to the Afghanis are a small fraction of the cost of the helicopters that they are bringing down. The ratio means that the "evil empire" can be vastly outspent, and for a bargain price.

Obviously the same math can work just as well when the shoe is on the other foot, as it is now in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan. Every time another suicide bomber detonates himself, the casualty rate is bound to tilt in his favor. And every roadside bomb that goes off exchanges a few dollars worth of explosives for a vehicle costing tens or hundreds of thousands--not to mention the cost in lives and caring for the wounded. The implication is that the sheer expense of modern weaponry is now a disadvantage to the side that is better equipped. As long as some influx of low-cost weapons exists, the cost to the stronger side will be hugely greater.

This is not necessarily to say that the United States is losing the fight for control of Iraq and Afghanistan; but it insures that the price of success will be enormous, as we are finding out--as the Soviets found out, and as we should have remembered from our own experience in Vietnam. Eventually, if our foreign policy demands continued military interventions elsewhere, the expense may have such a crippling effect on our economy that we will be forced to change our behavior in order to survive.

In short, military domination may have become too costly to work in the modern world. A huge and expensive army may be what you need to destroy another huge and expensive army, but it is not the right tool for controlling a population, or creating real social change. This trend is likely to become more pronounced as new technologies continue to make the old ones more vulnerable at lower cost.

And maybe, in the long run, that really will be something to cheer about.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Optons, Kindles, and eBooks

In his novel, Return from the Stars, Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem imagined a device called an “opton.” It was a “book” with a single page into which you would plug a small crystal containing whatever book you wanted to read, and the text would then appear on the page, along with places you could touch to display other pages. (You can read his description here.)

Sound familiar? As with much of the science fiction paraphernalia of a few decades ago (this one dates from the 1960's) the device has quickly popped into reality about a century ahead of schedule. Today's ebooks may not have pages exactly, but thinner and more flexible displays that would resemble them are already in development. And Lem failed to foresee that not only a book but a whole library could fit into a much smaller chip than he had in mind, and that the device would be able to wirelessly acquire new material for itself, and thus to function as a newspaper as well.

That last feature, of course, belongs to Amazon's new Kindle reader, the latest in a series of progressively better attempts to redefine the book for the digital age. I will refrain from giving yet another review of this device, because the Internet is crawling with them already. However, I have to share my experience with its chief competitor, the Sony eBook Reader, which came as a wonderful Christmas gift from my wife.

Sony's been in this game longer than Amazon, and this year's model has technical improvements over last year's. But they haven't done nearly so well at marketing it. Amazon may have done Sony a big favor here by “kindling” (you knew it was coming, didn't you?) interest in the concept. [There is also an impressive reader called the Iliad from iRex, a spinoff of Phillips, which boasts more bells and whistles but a price tag twice as high as Sony's.]

Which of these devices you prefer has more to do with how you like to select your reading material than what it is like to read on them. They both have comparable “epaper” screens that present black on off-white text which you read by reflected light, like a normal page. They have a resolution at least double that of a computer screen, making the text sharper and easier on the eye. Unlike computer screens, the legibility of these displays is actually improved by good light-- even sunlight--again, like a real page. And because they only draw power while the page is being drawn, they have unbelievable battery life--about 2 weeks even with heavy reading. You really don't even have to think about it, it's not going to die on you. And unlike trying to read on a laptop computer, your legs don't get hot.

In short, if you are at all interested in trying this new way to read, there is no longer any reason to wait for a better solution. No doubt the pages will continue to get bigger and more clear, and the devices will continue to offer new features, but they are already good enough for years of use. And there is plenty to read, even for free. Project Gutenberg alone could keep the most avid reader busy for many years, and publishers are getting more interested in putting out digital versions of current titles.

Which brings us to the subject of Digital Rights Management, or DRM, and the reason I prefer Sony's reader. DRM, of course, is how content providers (AKA publishers) will prevent you from passing along your used ebooks to friends, hospitals, thrift shops, and used bookstores, as you have been doing throughout the rest of your life. Henceforth, they hope, you will be satisfied to email a link to the book's web page to your friends, encouraging ever more sales. In exchange for this, they will discount the price you and your friends will have to pay for each copy.

Whether this brave new world will pan out as intended is still a matter of ongoing debate. Even though it rubs many the wrong way, myself included, I have to admit that if I am willing to pay half the cover price for a used paper book then I should be willing to pay something comparable for a new digital one. But it still bothers me that I won't be able to rush up to a friend, full of enthusiasm, and press it into his or her hands with the admonition, “You've just GOT to read this!”

I'm sorry, but an email suggesting that they hurry out and buy one is not the same. I guess we'll just have to get used to treating books the way we do movies.

The other downside of DRM is that it requires infrastructure that gets between you and the book. This comes in the form of software that has to be installed on your computer (in the case of Sony) to “authorize” you to download from their ebook store and control which devices, including your computer and your ebook reader, will be allowed to view the book. As we know, the best laid software “gang aft aglee,” so there has to be customer support, in the event your privileges are lost, to get them restored--which sounds a lot like having your voting rights given back after you are no longer a felon.

See, I have this nightmare. In it, I walk into my living room where all the books I've collected throughout my life, and have not culled out through periodic moving and cleanup, lie in state on their shelves, with a moderate degree of organization so I can usually find the one I'm looking for when I want it. But in this dream I select a book and open it, only to discover its pages are either blank or filled with gibberish. Frantic, I place a call to the bookstore (not the publisher), and find myself in tech support hell. It seems they no longer have a record that I ever bought that book (after all, it was years ago), so they are sorry, but I will have to buy a new copy if I want to read it again. Then I discover the same thing has happened to the rest of my library. At this point I wake up in a cold sweat.

Amazon has taken this a step further by electing to use a proprietary format for everything you read on your Kindle. That means, in case you're wondering, that if you have a PDF or text file you'd like to read, even a draft of your own novel, you have to email it to Amazon where, for the modest fee of ten cents per file, they will convert it for you and send it back. This puts my nightmare to shame – now I can't even read my own handwriting without permission!

Sony has been generous enough to let me read my own stuff, at least text files and PDF's, without paying extra for the privilege--at least so far. And this, combined with a lower selling price, makes their reader my preferred choice. [The Iliad does this too.] Though it lacks the Kindle's magical ability to grab Amazon's contents from thin air, at least I can plug it in and put whatever I want on it, including a wealth of free books from Project Gutenberg. Such a wealth, in fact, that I will have to write more about it in weeks to come.

Until then, happy reading, whatever the format of your choice.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Person of Conscience

Back in 2006 I had the opportunity of meeting Camilo Mejia, the US Army staff sergeant who famously refused to return to Iraq at the end of his leave on the grounds of conscience. He spoke to a small group of us at the Miami Friends Meeting, and once again I was greatly impressed by the quiet power of the truth when it is told.

As he talked, the story unfolded of how he was sent to Iraq after nearly completing an eight-year term of enlistment. So we noted that for eight years this dual citizen of Nicaragua and Costa Rica had voluntarily served his country of residence in a difficult and demanding role.

Suddenly, however, he and his unit were thrust into guard duty at a "detention camp" in Iraq. The first thing they were told was never to refer to their facility as a "prisoner of war camp." This, he later concluded, was because it didn't meet the international standards for such a camp. For example, there were no doctors at the facility, and few medical resources.

The second thing they learned was that the people in charge of the camp (whom they called "spooks") were not to be identified. These men were not in the military. They wore no insignias and had no names or titles. But they were in charge, and the army had to follow their orders. We can only speculate what shadowy agency of our government these people represented.

Mejia and the men under his command quickly discovered that their job in this facility amounted to torturing those interred -- at least those who had been identified as "armed combatants." (A classification, he explained, that might include a shepherd who kept a rifle to defend his flock.) Other inmates who were only "suspects" were merely kept captive, but those with the "armed combatant" designation were kept awake for days on end by being kept standing, by exposure to loud noises (imagine a heavy hammer hitting a concrete wall right next to your ear in a loud and echoing room), or by immersion in cold water.

Can you imagine being in cold water and not allowed to come out? Of course you can. Just think about lying in the bath until the hot water turns uncomfortably cold, how the skin shrivels up on the pads of your fingers. Or remember being in the swimming pool until it feels like time to get out and lie in the sun. Except you can't. How long could you stay there? How many hours? A day? Longer? What if you needed a bathroom during that time?

Our government is on record denying that it has used "torture" methods in its treatment of captives. I would suggest that anyone who believes that should try being subjected to the kind of conditions that prevailed in the camp where Mejia and his fellow soldiers were stationed. Then they should decide for themselves if those conditions amount to torture or not.

Of course, the prisoners were not the only victims of their treatment. Hundreds of young American soldiers were equally brutalized by being forced to commit actions that run counter to all standards of humane treatment and human decency. Mejia has said that he now feels that he let his men down by not working harder to oppose the situation they found themselves in.

Mejia did not immediately rebel against what he was ordered to do. While serving, he followed orders and did his best to insure that the men serving under him did likewise, while doing what he could to insure their well-being under exceedingly difficult circumstances.

His awakening of conscience was a gradual process that only began once he returned home on leave. He found himself failing to make travel arrangements to return to duty. A day went by ... another ... and then a day came when he realized he was not going back, that he had made a decision to object to what he was being asked to do.

Such an objection on moral grounds has long been recognized as a right of citizens in the United States, and is provided for by appealing for Conscientious Objector status, which is what Mejia did. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to a year in prison--which is, unfortunately, the lot of many others in our history who have claimed Conscientious Objector status only to be refused.

This moral judgment is no more or less than what the world thought the Nazis should have done instead of blindly obeying orders during World War II. And our professed ignorance of what is going on in Iraq (as in Guantanamo and elsewhere) is not unlike that of the German nationals who claimed "they did not know" what was being done to the Jews.

Well, after listening to Mejia's first-hand report, I have to admit that I do know. And now, having read this, so do you.

Want to know more? Look for his book, The Road from Ar Ramadi, or consult www.freecamilo.com.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Bones, and More Bones

Three Books About Los Alamos

A couple of years ago I spent an idyllic week in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at a writer's workshop. It was my first visit to that part of the West, and like many visitors I was taken by the quality and variety of the land and people. I'm used to Florida landscapes, which are wet and flat with a big sky. By contrast, the high desert was dry and mountainous with big land. Everywhere you looked the ground was sloping up to greater heights, making it possible to see clearly for sixty miles or more. Once, at dusk, a local resident pointed out the lights of three towns, each farther than the last and farther up the slant, one hovering above the other.

Of all the contrasts in the region, one of the oddest is the lurking presence of Los Alamos, birthplace of the Bomb, seeming so out of place amid the Indian pueblos, Mexican ranchos, and New Age spiritualists. I avoided it while I was there, having been told there was nothing to see anyway. But it must have stayed in my mind, because after I got back I found myself drawn to two novels set there, both of which perfectly captured the character of the region while dealing with fictional incidents that orbited around the Manhattan Project like moths drawing ever closer to a flame.

The first was called, simply and aptly enough, Los Alamos, by Joseph Kanon (Broadway Books, 1997). I'd never heard of the author, but the title jumped out at me from a used book sale. Turns out Kanon was a publishing executive and this was his first novel. It's basically a detective story. One of the project employees has been found murdered in Santa Fe, and a government investigator (our hero) is brought in to find out if it was only a crime, or something more sinister--i.e., espionage.

Which do you think it will be? Of course! But first, the Chandleresque hero, who was a newspaper reporter before he was drafted, has to do a lot of sleuthing, and a lot of getting to know the inhabitants of the project site, including Oppenheimer, the master of it all. Almost immediately he meets a woman (did you think he wouldn't?) who may or may not (what do you think?) have anything to do with the murder and possible espionage.

I'm making light of this, because there are certainly the predictable elements we expect--nay, demand--of our adventure novels. But it was much better than that. My comparison with Raymond Chandler was not facetious. The quality of the writing and the flawless evocation of the wartime milieu of the 1940's certainly called Phillip Marlowe to mind, as did the leisurely pursuit of the woman from flirtation to seduction to (naturally) love, and along the way, suspicion. And always, the backdrop of the land, the dry and diverse landscape, the odd people dotted about like seashells scattered on a beach, kept it real and intriguing, with the authentic texture of reality as a foundation.

I expected Robert Owen Butler to deal with this unique time and place in a completely different and perhaps more "literary" way, considering his track record, yet I found his Countrymen of Bones (Owl Books, 1994) to be strikingly similar to Los Alamos, and an interesting companion volume.

In this novel, a paleontologist has the misfortune to have chosen a site for his dig that is uncomfortably close to where the big bang is going to happen. He, too, has a visit from Oppenheimer, whose way of getting rid of him is to assign an assistant to speed up his work. As fate would have it, the woman he sends on this mission has another admirer, one of the scientists working on the project, whose infatuation soon takes on the pathological obsessive quality of some denizen of the novels of Jim Thompson. Indeed, you might have to consult Thompson's work to find a more suffocating immersion into a demented criminal mind.

As the inevitable triangle forms between the two men and the woman, an ancient burial site is slowly excavated, the bomb project with its looming deadline draws ever closer to completion, and the threat of violence builds to an almost unbearable level before it finally breaks, like a long overdue thunderstorm onto a parched desert.

So in the end we have two adventure tales, and oddly enough it is Butler's that has more to do with violent intentions and the motivations for them. Here again we are constantly reminded of where we are, as cars inch across the long dry land leaving clouds of dust in their wake, and the baked ground yields up its bones.

Inevitably, both stories have the same explosion coming before the end, as we know it must. The light of the new age has to burst in the night, and our protagonists must all bear witness to it from the vantage of their various points of view. I will leave you to wonder in which tale the bomb test claims a victim in a bizarre twist.

And then there is Oppenheimer, the man whose Faustian bargain with the government and the military has made him the Prime Mover of both stories. For more on him, I recommend the definitive biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. This book contains, so far as a book can, an entire life. But it, too, when the time comes, must in its way evoke that same landscape, the deserts and mountain trails, with Oppy making his way across it on horseback, the future of the world on his shoulders, and its dust in his mouth.