Archive | May 10th, 2020

Massive Backlog of Unpaid Jobless Benefits Leaves ‘A Nightmare’ for Millions on Brink of Financial Ruin

“I was finally able to sit on hold almost four hours. Then I got disconnected,” said one Arizona man attempting to apply for benefits.

byJake Johnson,

Unemployment forms are seen kept at a drive thru collection point outside John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah, Florida on April 8, 2020. (Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

An unprecedented avalanche of jobless claims over the past month due to the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed state governments’ antiquated unemployment systems and produced an enormous backlog of unpaid benefits, leaving millions of people on the brink of financial ruin with another rent payment due in just a week.

According to a Washington Post analysis published Thursday, “the economic carnage wrought by the coronavirus has resulted in a national backlog of at least 3 million unpaid jobless claims.”

“The figure reflects claims made by April 4,” the Post reported. “The true backlog is probably far greater, following the release of new federal data Thursday showing an additional 4 million people who filed for unemployment last week.” More than 26 million people in the U.S. have filed jobless claims over the past month, according to the latest Labor Department data.

“Perfect storm of unemployment benefit cuts and access restrictions so destabilized the foundation of the unemployment insurance program that we are now witnessing its dysfunction in real time.”
—Michele Evermore, National Employment Law Project

The backlog of benefits is most severe in Florida, where Republican political leaders have imposed punitive restrictions on unemployment insurance and refused to modernize the state’s crumbling technological infrastructure. More than 1.7 million Floridians have filed for unemployment since mid-March, but state data released Thursday showed that just over 108,000 people have received benefits.

“Those who have been paid represent just 6 percent of the total number of filings,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

As of this writing, the Florida unemployment website is down for maintenance and will not be back online until Monday, April 27. New applicants can still file for benefits, but those who have already submitted applications cannot currently check the site for status updates.

An anonymous adviser to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, blamed previous GOP Gov. Rick Scott for the state’s broken unemployment system.

“It’s a shit sandwich, and it was designed that way by Scott,” the DeSantis adviser said of the unemployment system in an interview with Politico earlier this month. “It wasn’t about saving money. It was about making it harder for people to get benefits or keep benefits so that the unemployment numbers were low to give the governor something to brag about.”

Anecdotal accounts from people in Florida and across the nation who are desperately attempting to obtain their benefits paint a portrait of a fragmented and deficient U.S. unemployment system, which is overseen by the federal government but administered by individual states with significant leeway to expand or restrict eligibility.

The CARES Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law last month, authorized a temporary $600-per-week increase in unemployment on top of the sum that states already provide, which varies widely state by state.

“I’ve gone on every day since and checked my application status,” one laid-off Florida worker who applied for benefits in late March told The Guardian last week. “Just to go on and get logged in takes sometimes 45 minutes to an hour. You have to keep hitting refresh.”

Jeffrey Swartz of Clarkdale, Arizona told The Arizona Republic Wednesday that his efforts to navigate the state’s unemployment system have been “a nightmare so far.”

“Today alone, I was finally able to sit on hold almost four hours,” said Swartz. “Then I got disconnected.”

The CARES Act is supposed to expand benefits to freelancers and gig workers, but many have reported experiencing significant delays in receiving payments.

“We still don’t know how we’re going to survive this,” Mekela Edwards, a Lyft and Uber driver in California, told Politico last week. “Me personally, I don’t know how I’m going to survive this.”

Li Zhou@liszhou

.@ella_nilsen on the challenges millions of people are facing when filing for unemployment insurance

“I have easily called an average of 100 times a day since I began the process” …52:56 PM – Apr 21, 2020

Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst and researcher with the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement Tuesday that a “perfect storm of unemployment benefit cuts and access restrictions so destabilized the foundation of the unemployment insurance program that we are now witnessing its dysfunction in real time.”

“We’ve reached the point where it’s too late to prepare states in advance for the massive tsunami of unemployment that is rocking the economy and state unemployment systems,” said Evermore.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Calif.) and more than a dozen other Democratic senators sent a letter to congressional leaders earlier this week demanding that the next Covid-19 stimulus package include additional funding to ensure that states have the resources to accommodate the surge in unemployment claims.

The senators also said federal digital resources should be made readily available to help state and local governments modernize their unemployment systems.

“News reports abound showing hours-long hold times for Americans seeking assistance with unemployment claims, small business loans and grants, and other emergency programs,” the letter states. “These federal programs, which are administered by the states, are of the utmost importance to American workers and businesses. They must be able to serve this skyrocketing need, per congressional intent in the CARES Act.”

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International Coalition of Public Health Advocates Denounces Any Big Pharma Effort to Profiteer Off Covid-19 Treatments, Vaccines

“Health is a human right. Medical knowledge is a public good. No one should be left behind.”

by: Julia Conley,

Larissa Vuitika, biologist, works during the virus inactivation process on March 24, 2020 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Photo: Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

Larissa Vuitika, biologist, works during the virus inactivation process on March 24, 2020 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Photo: Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

More than 250 public interest groups on Thursday urged global cooperation as scientists around the world work to develop treatments and a vaccine for the coronavirus, warning against “nationalistic” or monopoly-based responses to the pandemic which has spread to at least 177 countries and killed more than 186,000 people worldwide.

Public Citizen was joined by 254 groups including Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and Indivisible in calling on world governments to abide by several key principles as they search for medical breakthroughs to treat people diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and for a vaccine.

“There is real danger that access to medical breakthroughs addressing COVID-19 will be restricted by nation, by price, by limited production and fragmented supply lines, and by exclusivity and commercial confidentiality. We must prevent this—and help change medical innovation, health, and nationalism.” —254 public interest groups

“Open science, ramped-up manufacturing, fair pricing, and sharing of technology” must guide all efforts to develop effective treatments, the groups wrote—rather than secrecy and competition between countries.

“There is a grave danger that research efforts will be stymied and access for many patients to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines will be delayed by limited manufacturing capacity, commercial secrecy, and monopolies on key medical technologies, as well as by hostility to global cooperation,” said Public Citizen in a statement. 

Last month, the New York Times reported that efforts to combat the virus have become a “global arms race,” with “China, Europe, and the United States…[setting] off at a sprint to become the first to produce a vaccine” and President Donald Trump reportedly telling American pharmaceutical executives that a vaccine must be produced on U.S. soil to control the supply chain. 

“There is real danger that access to medical breakthroughs addressing COVID-19 will be restricted by nation, by price, by limited production and fragmented supply lines, and by exclusivity and commercial confidentiality. We must prevent this—and help change medical innovation, health, and nationalism,” reads the open letter.

The groups urged pharmaceutical companies and governments to commit to following four basic principles:

  • Innovation for all, with technology owners committing patents, trade secrets, know-how, cell lines, copyright, software, data, and all other relevant intellectual property to the public domain
  • Access for all, ensuring diagnostics, treatments, devices, vaccines, and personal protective equipment are priced fairly and affordably to healthcare payers and are free to the public at the point of care in all countries.
  • Solidarity and global cooperation, including coordination with the World Health Organization to organize platforms for the public sharing of data and intellectual property to rapidly scale-up production and mitigate shortages.
  • Good governance and transparency, with funders and technology developers ensuring that costs related to research, manufacturing, and pricing are published transparently.

The letter comes a month after a pressure campaign led by Public Citizen forced the drug manufacturer Gilead Sciences to withdraw a monopoly claim for remdesivir, a drug which is being tested as a possible treatment for COVID-19. 

The drug’s status as an “orphan drug,” usually reserved for medications that treat very rare diseases, would have limited access for many patients.

“Health is a human right. Medical knowledge is a public good,” wrote the groups on Thursday. “No one should be left behind.”

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The ‘Hard Hat Riot’ of 1970 Pitted Construction Workers Against Anti-War Protesters

The Kent State shootings further widened the chasm among a citizenry divided over the Vietnam War

Hard hat riot protestors
New York workers, angered by the Mayor’s apparent anti-Vietnam-War sympathies, wave American flags as they march in a demonstration near City Hall in New York City on May 15, 1970. (Associated Press)

By Angela Serratore


In the days after May 4, 1970, the date the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War, anti-war activists were galvanized. In demonstrations held across the country, the protesters mourned the deaths of their compatriots but also felt emboldened to continue the fight to end a war that had no end in sight. They sought to show the rest of the world (and themselves) that they weren’t alone—that millions of people agreed the war must end, and that the administration of President Richard Nixon be held accountable.

The next day, college students in New York City gathered with nearly 1,000 demonstrators to protest at the United Nations. In the wake of the massacre rapidly becoming a national flashpoint, Mayor John Lindsay, who had spoken against the war at the 1968 Republican National Convention, ordered the flag at City Hall flown at half-mast in the Kent State students’ memory. The backlash began soon after.

On May 6, protesting students at City College met resistance from a small group of construction workers, some of whom self-identified themselves as Vietnam veterans, a preview of what would come later that week. Two days later, hundreds of local students gathered in the morning for a memorial demonstration in Lower Manhattan, eventually moving towards Federal Hall, the historic site where George Washington first took the oath of office as President. At this spot, in front of a statue of Washington, the protesters reiterated their commitment to ending the war. Then, chaos descended on the peaceful scene, as nearly 200 construction workers arrived at the protest bearing patriotic signs and, according to a New York Times report on the incident, chants of “All The Way, U.S.A.” and “Love It or Leave It.”

The workers quickly pushed through a line of mostly indifferent police officers to get to the protesters, charging at, according to the Times, students who closely resembled the stereotypical longhaired hippie that had come to symbolize opposition to the war. About 70 people were injured in the scuffle. The construction workers marched on through the narrow streets of the Financial District towards City Hall, where they sang the Star-Spangled Banner and demanded that Mayor Lindsay raise the flags to full-mast; they eventually got their way.

Police officers and crowds during the Hard Hat Riot in Lower Manhattan, New York City, May 8, 1970.
Police officers and crowds during the Hard Hat Riot in Lower Manhattan, New York City, May 8, 1970. ( Leo Vals / Stringer)

Penny Lewis, professor of sociology at the City University of New York, argues that the event that would come to be known as the Hard Hat riot came to symbolize the ‘hippie versus longhair’ debate in popular culture. “Seared into our collective memory,” she writes in Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, “the image of hardhats assaulting antiwar protestors in May 1970 crystallized long-standing popular narratives about class, race, and protest in this country.”

But to leave it there, Lewis writes, is to miss that the Hard Hat Riot was more than just the straightforward narrative of ‘construction worker versus longhair.’ It was a convergence of genuine pro-Nixon sentiment, an administration eager to capitalize on a nation in crisis, and the dawn of a political realignment that would shape the nation’s direction for generations.

Born in 1918, Peter J. Brennan lived most of his life in New York City. Raised by a single mother after his ironworker father died of influenza, Brennan went to City College and apprenticed as a painter, and after serving in the Navy during World War II, was elected to a leadership position in his local painter’s union, and he quickly climbed the ladder of organized labor—by the late 1950s, he was president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and vice president of the New York State AFL-CIO.

Brennan, as one of New York City’s most prominent labor leaders, often clashed with Mayor Lindsay’s administration. A liberal Republican, Lindsay ran on a platform of progressive change for New York, and pushed for New York’s trade unions to adopt affirmative action and non-discrimination policiesMany union officials, including Brennan, saw this as an overreach on Lindsay’s part, and rank-and-file union members, who were overwhelmingly white, resisted integration. Brennan cannily used this paradigm to his own political advantage; he positioned the labor movement as anti-anti-war as a way to cleave its members away from other racially progressive platforms.

Days after the riot, Brennan asserted that the construction workers acted on their own volition, and not motivated only by a love for country and president.

“The unions had nothing to do with it, he said in an interview. “The men acted on their own. They did it because they were fed up with violence by antiwar demonstrators, by those who spat at the American flag and desecrated it.”

The Nixon administration likewise framed the counter-protest as a genuine, and organic, expression of support for the war. But in reality, the administration, in concert with New York labor leaders, had helped coordinate the counterprotest and several more that would take place throughout May. Both the president’s advisors and many labor leaders saw promise in putting forth the traditionally Democrat-aligned labor unions as a counteracting force to the rapidly growing number of anti-war protesters.

Several days before the eruption of violence in New York, Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman suggested to the president that construction workers, or ‘hard hats,’ be used to create conflict. Local shop stewards, according to sources who spoke out years later, specifically encouraged workers to counter-protest the May 8 demonstration, in some cases even offering them cash bonuses to do so.

By the time of Brennan’s death in 1996, obituary writers presented it as a given fact that he had personally helped orchestrate the melee.

Further demonstrations in the days after May 8 proved that many in the city did genuinely support the war. In The Ungovernable City, an account of Lindsay’s time as mayor, historian Vincent Cannato points out that some veterans and relatives of veterans found Lindsay’s personal opposition to the war offensive, while others felt anger about what they saw as disrespect on the part of anti-war protesters.

The riot got Brennan and other Nixon-friendly labor leaders invited to the White House—in Nixonland, writes Rick Perelstein, the president himself was overjoyed by the riot, even exclaiming “Thank God for the hard hats!”

Brennan, who clearly recognized the importance of the moment, presented Nixon himself with a white hard hat, which he called “a symbol, along with our great flag, of freedom and patriotism to our beloved country.” In the same moment, writes University of Massachusetts, Amherst historian Christian G. Appy, Brennan also pinned a small American flag made of enamel onto Nixon’s lapel, making him the first president to adopt the flag as part of his uniform. “The flag pin,” writes Appy, “was not an emblem of national unity, but a political badge as intentionally confrontational as the peace symbol.

Construction workers among a crowd at a counter demonstration against a student rally, being held in the wake of the Kent State shootings.
Construction workers among a crowd at a counter demonstration against a student rally, being held in the wake of the Kent State shootings. ( Leo Vals / Stringer)

After the “hard hat riot,” the pro-war demonstrations in New York continued. On Saturday, May 11, more than 150,000 supporters of Nixon’s policies marched in the streets, though many of the signs and chants indicated that the event was less a show of support for the war in Vietnam and more a direct rebuke of Lindsay’s mayoral administration—“Lindsay for Mayor of Hanoi” and “Lindsay for President of North Vietnam,” some signs read.

The riot ended up serving as a launching pad for Peter Brennan’s national career—he worked to deliver labor support to Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, and was rewarded with an appointment to the post of Secretary of Labor. Brennan took a not-small amount of credit for building political bloc of blue-collar social conservatives that would come to be known collectively as Reagan Democrats. In Nixonland, Perlstein writes about the significance of conscripting blue-collar workers into the anti-anti-war movement:

“But to extend to blue-collar workers the hand of cultural recognition—that was a different ball game altogether… the hard-hat ascendency set into motion a qualitative shift: the first concerted effort to turn the white working class, via its aesthetic disgusts, against a Democratic Party now joining itself objectively, with their Cooper-Church and McGovern-Hatfield amendments, to the agenda of the smelly longhairs who burned down buildings.”

Today, the hard hat Brennan presented to Nixon is enshrined in the the Richard Nixon Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, California. Upon handing it to the president, Brennan predicted what it would come to mean: “The hard hat will stand as a symbol,” he declared, “along with our great flag, for freedom and patriotism to our beloved country.”

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Catholic Clergy’s Decades of Child Abuse Exposed by Inquiry

By Ian Greenhalgh

[Editor’s note: Last month I reported on the tragic case of paedophile Catholic Cardinal Pell’s acquittal on a technicality. This was a very real tragedy for the victims and their families as Pell’s guilt was long established and he should still be rotting in a prison cell.

The response to my article was astounding both in it’s veracity and it’s hypocrisy as several supposedly Christian people attacked me in a most vile manner – so much for love thy neighbour…

One particularly delusional person insisted that Pell was the victim of a 2,000 year old Masonic conspiracy to defame the Catholic Church; another altogether less literate person in Australia even went so far as to claim he had spent 5,000 unspecified currency units on having me go away for good and accused me of being a ‘peter file’.

Now, after the publication of the report by a court of inquiry, we know that not only was Pell himself a paedophile, he also protected other paedophile priests on countless occasions over half a century. This should come as no surprise as the Catholic Church and the Vatican in particular, has long been actively engaged in similarly protecting the very many child abusers, rapists and murderers among the ranks of it’s clergy.

If there was such a thing as hell, you could be damn sure that a very warm welcome awaits these Catholic criminals among the serried ranks of Popes, Cardinals, Monsignors, Fathers, Nuns and other assorted child killers and rapists who earned themselves a permanent place in the fiery pits. Ian]

Cardinal Pell ‘knew of’ clergy abuse, says Australian royal commission

Cardinal George Pell knew of child sexual abuse by priests in Australia as early as the 1970s but failed to take action, a landmark inquiry found.

The findings on Cardinal Pell – an ex-Vatican treasurer – come from Australia’s royal commission into child sexual abuse, which ended in 2017.

Details were only revealed on Thursday. A court had previously redacted the report because the cleric was facing child abuse charges at the time.

The cardinal has denied the findings.

He said he was “surprised” by the inquiry’s report, adding: “These views are not supported by evidence.”

Cardinal Pell was convicted of child abuse in 2018, but last month was released from jail after Australia’s top court overturned his conviction.

What did the inquiry find about Pell?

In over 100 pages concerning Pell’s actions, the commissioners found the cardinal knew of paedophile priests both early in his career, and as he progressed.

In particular, the commissioners dismissed the cleric’s long-stated defence that he didn’t know about the actions of his former colleague Gerald Ridsdale. in the Victorian city of Ballarat.

Ridsdale is in jail for hundreds of child abuse offences – and is considered Australia’s worst convicted paedophile priest.

“We are satisfied that in 1973 Father Pell turned his mind to the prudence of Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps,” the commissioners said in the report.

“We are also satisfied that by 1973, Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy, but he also considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it,” the commission said.Image copyright AlamyImage caption Australian investigators (top right) questioning Cardinal George Pell via video link in 2016

Pell was involved in the decision to transfer Ridsdale, as well other suspected abusers, to different parishes, the inquiry said.

Since the 1990s, the cardinal has been criticised in Australia for his response to priest abuse within the Church.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse was set up in 2012, largely in response to allegations surrounding the Catholic Church.

In 2016, when Cardinal Pell testified at the royal commission from Rome, he apologised on behalf of the church and said it had “mucked things up”.

However he did not accept any responsibility for failing to report Ridsdale and several other suspected abusers. He claimed he had been deceived by other senior clergymen.

But in relation to one such claim, the commissioners said: “We do not accept that Bishop Pell was deceived, intentionally or otherwise.”

Australia’s royal commission inquiry found that the greatest number of reported abusers were in Catholic institutions.

The inquiry heard that 7% of the nation’s Catholic priests allegedly abused children between 1950 and 2010.

George Pell’s career

  • 1966: Ordained as a priest
  • 1972: Begins working in parishes in Ballarat
  • 1987: Becomes auxiliary bishop of Melbourne
  • 1996: Named Archbishop of Melbourne
  • 2001: Becomes Archbishop of Sydney
  • 2003: Appointed a cardinal by Pope John Paul II
  • 2014: Pell becomes Vatican treasurer
  • 2017: Charged with multiple child sexual abuse offences dating to the 1970s and 1990s
  • 2018: Convicted of abuse
  • 2020: Conviction overturneD

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Syrian Army sends large number of reinforcements to Daraa as major operation looms

For the second time this week, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has sent a large number of reinforcements to the Daraa Governorate, a source from the military told Al-Masdar News.

According to the source, the Syrian Arab Army has sent hundreds of soldiers to the Daraa Governorate amid preparation for a major military operation against the militant sleeper cells that have wreaked havoc against their forces.

The source said the Syrian special forces already arrived in Daraa shortly after the execution of nine soldiers in the town of Mazrib; they have cordoned off the area and now awaiting the green light to launch the operation to arrest the militants behind the kidnapping and murder of the military personnel.

Tensions have recently increased in the Daraa Governorate following the kidnapping and execution of nine soldiers at the hands of a militant sleeper cell operating inside the town of Mazrib.

The Syrian Army has demanded these militants behind the executions surrender themselves; however, thus far, they have refused to turn themselves into the security forces.

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Mass Unemployment Is a Failure of Capitalism


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The difficulties caused to workers by record unemployment during the pandemic are a product of capitalism. Most of the time, employers decide to hire or fire workers depending on which choice maximizes employers’ profits. Profit, not the full employment of workers nor of means of production, is “the bottom line” of capitalism and thus of capitalists. That is how the system works. Capitalists are rewarded when their profits are high and punished when they are not. It’s nothing personal; it’s just business.

Unemployment is a choice mostly made by employers. In many cases of unemployment, employers had the option not to fire employees. They could have kept all employed but reduced their hours or days or else rotated off-work times among employees. Employers can choose to retain idled employees on payrolls and suffer losses they hope will be temporary.

However, unemployment is received almost everywhere and by almost all as a negative, unwanted experience. Workers want jobs. Employers want employees producing profitable output. Governments want the tax revenues that flow from employees and employers actively collaborating.

So why has the capitalist system periodically produced economic downturns wherever it has settled across the last three centuries? They have happened, on average, every four to seven years. The United States has had three crashes so far this century: “dot-com” in 2000; “sub-prime mortgage” in 2008; and now “coronavirus” in 2020. Thus the United States conforms to capitalism’s “norm.” Capitalists do not want unemployment, but they regularly generate it. It is a basic contradiction of their system.

There are good reasons why capitalism produces and reproduces unemployment over time. It draws benefits (as well as suffers losses) from doing so. Reproducing a “reserve army of the unemployed” enables periodic upsurges in capital investment to draw more employees without driving up wages. Rising wages—and thus falling profits—would accompany investment surges if all workers were already fully employed before such surges. Unemployment also disciplines the working class. The unemployed, often desperate to get jobs, give employers the opportunity to replace existing employees with unemployed candidates willing to work for less. Unemployment thus operates as a downward pressure on wages and salaries and thereby a boost for profits. In short, capitalism both wants and does not want unemployment; it expresses this tension by periodically adding to and drawing down a reserve army of the unemployed that it continually maintains.

That reserve army exposes a stark reality that no ideological gloss ever fully erases. While unemployment serves capitalism, it does not well serve society. That key difference is most glaringly in evidence when unemployment is very high, as it is today. Consider that today’s many unemployed millions continue much of their consumption while ceasing much of their production. While they continue to take their means of consumption from socially produced wealth, they no longer produce nor thereby add to social wealth as they did when employed.

Unemployment thus entails wealth redistribution. Part of the wealth produced by those who are still employed must be redistributed away from them and to the unemployed. Taxes accomplish that redistribution publicly. Employees and employers, labor and capital struggle over whose taxes will fund the consumption of the unemployed. Such redistribution struggles can be and often are bitter and socially divisive. In the private sphere of households, portions of the incomes and wealth of the employed likewise get redistributed to enable consumption by the unemployed: spouses share, as do parents and children, relatives, friends, and neighbors. Working classes always redistribute their incomes and wealth to cope with the unemployment capitalism so regularly imposes on them. Such redistributions typically cause or aggravate many tensions and conflicts within the working class.

Many public and private redistribution struggles could be avoided if, for example, public re-employment replaced private unemployment. If the state became the employer of last resort, those fired by private employers could immediately be rehired by the state to do socially useful work. Governments would stop paying unemployment benefits and instead pay wages to the re-employed, obtain in return real goods and services, and distribute them to the public. The 1930s New Deal did exactly that for millions fired by private employers. A similar alternative to private capitalist employment and unemployment (but not part of the New Deal) would be to organize the unemployed into worker co-op enterprises performing socially useful work on contract with the government.

This last alternative is the best because it could develop a new worker-co-op sector of the U.S. economy. That would provide the U.S. public with direct experience in comparing the capitalist with the worker-co-op sector in terms of working conditions, product quality and price, civic responsibility, etc. On that concrete, empirical basis, societies could offer people a real, democratic choice as to what mix of capitalist and worker-co-op sectors of the economy they prefer.

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The Pandemic’s Catastrophic Hit to the Labor Market


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Temporary layoffs make up 78.3 percent of unemployment.

As expected, the April jobs report showed a catastrophic hit to the labor market stemming from the pandemic. The economy lost another 20,500,000 jobs in April after losing 870,000 jobs in March. This is an order of magnitude higher than any previous two-month decline on record. The unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent, up 11.2 percentage points from what had been a 50-year low of 3.5 percent in February. The employment-to-population (EPOP) ratio was down 9.8 percentage points over this period, as 25.4 million fewer people report being employed in April than in February.

There is some good news in this horrible picture, 78.3 percent of the unemployed are temporary layoffs, meaning they expect to get their old jobs back. That won’t always be the case, but this is much better than the opposite. In the same vein, people working part-time for economic reasons are up by 6.6 million since February. This means that many employers are keeping workers on with reduced hours rather than laying them off. Although, this doesn’t completely square with the fact that the average workweek is only down by 0.2 hours, less than 1.0 percent.

One item worth noting in this report is that unemployment has actually risen slightly more for whites since February than for blacks, with the unemployment rate for whites up 11.1 percentage points compared to 10.9 percentage points for blacks. This reverses the usual pattern in a downturn where black workers typically see much sharper rises in their unemployment rate, although this is probably not a positive story. In this pandemic, black workers are more likely to be classified as essential, which means they keep their jobs but are risking their health.

In the same vein, the unemployment rate for college grads has risen by only 6.5 percentage points since February compared to 13.7 percentage points for those with just a high school degree, and 15.5 percentage points for those without a high school degree. This reflects who is able to work from home in this crisis.

Job loss was spread across industries with every major sector seeing job declines that would be viewed as catastrophic in a more normal month. Most of the industries seeing sharpest hits are not surprises.

Restaurants lost 5,919,000 jobs since February, 48.1 percent of employment in the sector. Hotels lost 885,000 jobs, 42.3 percent of total employment. The airlines shed 139,000 jobs, 27.2 percent of total employment. Retail lost 2,152,000 jobs, 13.7 percent of employment in the sector. Interestingly, non-store retailers also lost jobs, with employment down by 6.1 percent since February. This presumably reflects safety considerations offsetting the effect of an increase in demand.

Health care saw another sharp drop in employment with jobs in the sector now down by 1,475 (8.9 percent) since February. This reflects a huge drop in elective procedures and check-ups. Employment in dentists’ offices is down 53.3 percent since February.

Manufacturing and construction have shed 1,364,000 (10.6 percent) and 1,008,000 (13.2 percent) jobs, respectively. Mining has lost 52,800 jobs, 8.0 percent of employment, but this figure is certain to increase if oil prices stay low.

On the other side, finance has lost just 265,000 jobs or 3.0 percent of employment. Waste services lost 13,000 jobs or 2.8 percent of employment. Workers in finance can work at home, workers in waste services are essential workers.

One perverse effect of this massive job loss was a huge jump in wages. The average hourly wage rose by 4.7 percent in April. This is due to both the disproportionate job loss in lower-paying sectors and also the shift within each sector as the higher paid workers are the ones most likely to keep their jobs. The average hourly wage in retail rose by 4.4 percent. In leisure and hospitality, it rose by 6.8 percent.

This is an unambiguously horrible report, but there is not much here that is surprising. The pandemic shut down large parts of the economy, so we knew that employment was taking a massive hit. The immediate economic problem is ensuring that people have the means to get through a period in which they will not be receiving a paycheck. The legislation passed by Congress does a reasonably good job, although the implementation has not been great.

The other big issue is how quickly we can get the economy moving forward. The good news here is the large percentage of workers who expect to be called back by their employer, but the steps by the government to contain the pandemic and support the recovery are less encouraging.

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Iraq Will be Hit Harder by Falling Oil Prices Than COVID-19 or ISIS


Photograph Source: L.C. Nøttaasen – CC BY 2.0

The shadowy figures of well-armed Isis gunmen can be seen making an attack in the plains of northern Iraq on an outpost held by paramilitary fighters loyal to the Iraqi government.

Some four of the latter are killed by a roadside bomb. Isis specialises in publicising its successful military actions online to show that it remains a force to be feared, despite the destruction of the so-called caliphate and the killing last year of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The appalling atrocities committed by Isis at the height of its power ensure that any sign that the movement is back in business creates a thrill of horror at home and abroad. But, while it is true that Isis has been launching an increased number of pin-prick guerrilla actions in Iraq and Syria in recent months, the effect of these can be exaggerated. The assaults are still very limited compared to what happened in the years leading up to Isis’s capture of Mosul in 2014, along with much of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Without the advantage of surprise this time around and with no military vacuum to fill, it is unlikely that Isis can resurrect itself.

Coronavirus appears to pose another dangerous threat to Iraq with its ramshackle public health system and millions of potential victims packed together. Iraq shares a long common border with Iran where Covid-19 is rife. Perhaps it is only a matter of time and the pandemic may yet devastate Iraq, but it has not done so for reasons that are obscure, but may include a young population and  stringent curfews.

This focus on Isis and coronavirus as the prime threats to Iraq diverts attention from an even greater danger that faces the country, as it does other Middle East oil exporters. In Iraq the threat is at its most acute because its 38 million people are only just emerging from 40 years of crisis and war.

Iraqis remain deeply divided and have the ill luck to live in a country that is the arena where the US and Iran have chosen to fight out their differences. It feels like a bygone era, but it was only in January that the US assassinated the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani with a drone at Baghdad airport and came close to war with Iran.

The problem for Iraq is simple but insoluble: it is running out of money as its oil revenues fall off a cliff, following the collapse in the oil price brought about by the cataclysmic economic impact of coronavirus. It derives 90 per cent of government revenues from the export of crude oil, but in April it earnt just $1.4bn when it needed $5bn to cover salaries, pensions and other state expenditure.

It cannot pay the 4.5 million people on the government payroll and another four million receiving a pension. This may not seem like exciting news compared to an uptick in Isis killings or the potential ravages of Covid-19, but it may prove more profoundly destabilising than either.

“The government has not paid pensions so far this month, though it keeps promising it will do so in a couple of days,” says Kamran Karadaghi, an Iraqi commentator and former presidential chief of staff. “They don’t have the cash.” Rumours are spreading in Baghdad that state salaries will be cut by 20 or 30 per cent. Immediate disaster can be fended of by borrowing and drawing down reserves, but there is a limit to how long these can replace lost oil revenues.

Iraq – and other oil exporters in the Middle East – will not get much sympathy internationally in a world suffering from lockdown and unprecedented economic turmoil. The future may be particularly bleak in Iraq, but the other oil states producers are under similar pressures. Indeed, the era of the super-rich oil producers that began with the great oil prices in the first half of the 1970s may be coming to an end.

The problem is that reliance on oil exports displaces most other forms of economic activity: everybody wants to work for the government because that is where the best jobs are. Private business becomes parasitic on a corrupt state to make money. Everything is imported and nothing is produced locally. A corrupt elite monopolises wealth and power.

Iraq has just acquired a new government headed by Mustafa al-Khadimi, a former intelligence chief who was a long-term opponent of Saddam Hussein, and who will now have to grapple with horrendous financial problems. One former Iraqi minister told me several years ago, that the only time he had seen an Iraqi cabinet really panic was not when Isis was battering at the gates of Baghdad, but when the price of oil had fallen more than usually sharply. This time around, the decline in the price is much worse than ever before from the point of view of the producers, and though the price has rallied from its nadir in April, there is little chance of its full recovery

Protests started in Baghdad in October last year when demonstrators demanded jobs, an end to corruption and better public services, such as electricity and water. At least 700 protesters were killed and 15,000 wounded. People did not believe they were getting a fair share of the economic cake then, and the cake is about to get considerably smaller.

The same anger is felt against predatory elites in resource-rich states from Angola to Saudi Arabia, but the elites are not alone in benefiting from the present system whereby anybody with the right connections – family, sect, ethnicity, political party – can get a job. Ministries become the cash cows of different interests. It would not take much for the protests to start again.

Isis is not the threat to Iraq that some imagine and a young population may not be vulnerable to coronavirus, but the knock-on effect of a prolonged drop in the price of oil brought about by the pandemic will be profoundly destabilising for the Middle East as a whole.

Posted in IraqComments Off on Iraq Will be Hit Harder by Falling Oil Prices Than COVID-19 or ISIS

From Wuhan to Baghdad with Donald Trump and George W. Bush

George W. Bush and Donald Trump
By Lawrence Davidson

I have been writing these analyses for 10 years. Really not a great amount of time, but enough that you see leaders ignorantly repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. You also notice that most of the media, and almost all of the citizenry, appear not to notice the repetitions. Just such a rerun is now playing itself out.

COVID-19 and the Wuhan laboratory claim

According to a New York Times (NYT)  article, President Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have begun pressing the US government’s intelligence agencies to come up with evidence that the COVID-19 virus originated in a Chinese lab in Wuhan – specifically, that city’s Institute of Virology. 

Let’s state up front that there is no reliable evidence that this is the case. As the NYT puts it:

Most intelligence agencies remain sceptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a non-laboratory setting, as was the case with HIV, Ebola and SARS.

This is also the opinion of Dr Anthony Fauci, the administration’s own top infectious disease expert.

What the president [Trump] is demanding is a world that accords with his personal needs. It’s the latter he expects the intelligence agencies to serve.

Alas, this is not what the Trump-Pompeo duet wants, or needs, to hear. What they want and need is something to support their already stated position that the COVID-19 virus is a “Chinese virus”. Thus, Trump told a reporter on 30 April that, while there were many theories about how the virus originated, he took the Wuhan lab contention seriously. He claimed that he had personally seen “intelligence that supported the idea” and that “we have people looking at it very, very strongly. Scientific people, intelligence people and others.” He then stated that he was “not allowed” to share the intelligence. Pompeo followed up in a 3 May ABC interview by describing the evidence as “enormous”.

It has also become apparent that Trump would like to tie the World Health Organisation (WHO) into the Wuhan lab theory. “Administration officials had directed intelligence agencies to try to determine whether China and the World Health Organisation hid information early on about the outbreak.” This seems to be the result of the president’s personal dislike of the WHO. He believes it has praised China’s fight against the pandemic more strongly than his own quasi-efforts. So annoyed has he become that he cut off US aid to the organisation in the midst of its fight against COVID-19 – an almost universally condemned act. 

In the end Trump seems to think that nothing less than evidence supporting the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory will help shift popular attention away from his own abysmal failure to react to the pandemic in a timely fashion. So, it doesn’t matter if the president is corrupting the intelligence agencies for personal political advantage, or that “the odds are astronomical against a lab release as opposed to an event in nature”. That is the state of our knowledge according to assessments based on science. What the president is demanding is a world that accords with his personal needs. It’s the latter he expects the intelligence agencies to serve.

Nuclear weapons in Iraq claim

Where have we heard this sort of demand before? Well, how about during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq?

Back in late 2002 and early 2003, George W. Bush was planning an invasion of Iraq. His public reason for doing so was the assertion that the country’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. The real reason went beyond that charge and involved a long-range plan for “regime change” in the Middle East – a thoroughly implausible goal. However, Bush’s initial, obsessive need was a way to rally the American people behind his planned war. Why Iraq? Bush seems to have had a hate-filled preoccupation with Saddam Hussein and a desire to finish the job his father began with the First Gulf War. Or, maybe, as he claimed, it was because God told him to do it.

At first he tried to connect Saddam Hussein to the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US. Though he never gave up on that stratagem, the lack of evidence made it difficult to shift popular attention – already fixated on Osama Bin Laden and Afghanistan – onto Saddam Hussein and Baghdad. However, the nuclear weapons gambit appeared to have more potential, not because there was any hard evidence for the charge, but because supposedly reliable witnesses, in the persons of mendacious exiled anti-Saddam Iraqis, kept whispering to Bush and others in the administration that the nuclear story was true.

So, what we had was (1) a US leadership cadre who were itching to revolutionise the Middle East; (2) informants who, in order to precipitate the overthrow of Saddam, were willing to tell the tale of alleged atomic weapons; and (3) a president with enough of a personal grudge against Saddam to use anything in support of his desire to invade Iraq.

Bush proceeded to put pressure on the US intelligence agencies to find evidence for the nuclear weapons claim. In essence, this pressure threatened to politicise and contaminate the White House’s normal source of intelligence. When the CIA and its military counterpart, the Defence Intelligence Agency, did not come through in this regard, Bush went so far as to create a shadow operation: the “Office of Special Plans (OSP)”, staffed mainly by right-wing amateurs, to find him a nuclear “smoking gun” that would justify invasion.

Simultaneously, the US insisted that the United Nations send in arms inspectors to scour Iraq for evidence of a nuclear weapons programme. None of this resulted in the required evidence. This so frustrated President Bush that on 19 March 2003 he launched the invasion of Iraq without any proven reason to do so. This, by the way, constituted a war crime under international law. The president did have the expectation that, once in occupation of the country, American troops would surely find those nukes. They did not. 

Bush ended up blaming his appalling mistake, which led to the death and injury of tens of thousands, on “faulty intelligence”. He never admitted that the intelligence at fault was his own. 


What do Donald Trump and George W. Bush have in common? They are both know-nothing Republican leaders. (You can get Democrats like this too. They are just less common.) They are know-nothing in the sense that neither of them know the difference between their own desires and objective reality. If Trump needs a Wuhan lab to shift blame from his own failings, then there must be a lab out there and it is the job of the intelligence agencies to find it. If George W. Bush needs Iraqi nuclear weapons to justify his obsessive desire to invade that country and depose Saddam Hussein, then they must be out there and it is the job of the intelligence agencies to find them. Both Bush and Trump, and a whole lot of their staff, were/are caught up in delusions. And, tragically, they both had/have the power to spread their respective delusion, like a “virus”, to large segments of a historically ignorant American public.

Now, if this writer can recognise the similarity between these two men and brand the connecting events described here for the delusional episodes they are, you would think that at least some of the media folks bringing us the “news” could do so as well. And maybe in the privacy of their offices and studies they do see the connection and its dire potential. But they are having a hard time translating that into public knowledge. One can only wonder why! As long as that is the case, most of the general public, focused on their local affairs, will not be able to recognise the danger such irresponsible behaviour represents, and will once more be dragged along in whatever perilous direction their present muddled leaders take them.

Posted in USA, China, IraqComments Off on From Wuhan to Baghdad with Donald Trump and George W. Bush

After 18 Memorial Days of the “War on Terror,” Will We Ever Learn?

U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers exit a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey during an operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on September 23, 2013.
U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers exit a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey during an operation in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on September 23, 2013.

BYErik Edstrom


“Every day is a copy of a copy of a copy.” That meme, from the moment when Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club offers a 1,000-yard stare at an office copy machine, captures this moment perfectly — at least for those of us removed from the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis. Isolated inside a Boston apartment, I typically sought new ways to shake the snow globe, to see the same bubble — the same stuff — differently.

Quarantine has entered a new season. The month of May has brought daffodils and barbeque grills. Memorial Day is just around the corner. And every Friday at 7:00 PM, residents in my neighborhood hang out of their windows to bang pots and cheer until they get tired (usually, about two minutes later). It’s a nice gesture to healthcare workers, a contemporary doff of the cap, but does it change anything? Perhaps it’s just another permutation of that old American truism: if you’re getting thanked for your service, you’re in a job where you’re getting shafted.

The war against President Trump’s “invisible enemy” spasms on and we’re regularly reminded that healthcare workers, dangerously ill-equipped, must beg for personal protective equipment. But this Memorial Day, the 18th during America’s War on Terror, our national focus is likely to shift, even if only momentarily, to the soldiers who are still fighting and dying in a self-perpetuating war, now under pandemic conditions.

Reflecting on my own time as a soldier deployed to combat in Afghanistan, I hope that Covid-19 causes us to redefine what “patriotism” and “national security” really should mean. My suggestion: If you want to honor soldiers this Memorial Day, start by questioning the U.S. military.

With this on my mind, and all alone in that apartment, I knew exactly where to look for inspiration.

The Journal

Just before deploying to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in May, 2009, I bought a journal. It was brown, faux-leather, and fit in the hip pocket of Army combat trousers. It wasn’t particularly nice — just something you might pick up at Office Max.

Nonetheless, my soldiers ribbed me for it. “Dear diary,” they snickered.

“No, no, this is a war journal,” I would reply, imagining such a distinction as sufficiently manly to overcome whatever stigma they had when it came to this self-appointed diarist.

At first, journaling was a distraction. I captured images of my platoon, a lovable assemblage of misfits and Marlboro men. But soon, that journal acquired a more macabre tone, its lines filling with stories of roadside bombs, shootouts, amputated limbs, and funerals playing out in a page-by-page street fight of scribbles and scratch-outs.

On a humdrum route-clearance patrol on our fourth day in-country, before the unit of soldiers we were replacing even had a chance to depart, my squad leader’s vehicle was catastrophically destroyed by a roadside bomb. We loaded four broken, bloody, ketamine’d soldiers onto an Air MEDEVAC helicopter en route to urgent care at Kandahar Airfield. (At this rate, I realized, my platoon of 28 would be wiped out within a month.)

I reassured the soldier who was most coherent that he was “going to be okay.” Truth was: I didn’t know. And what did “okay” in battlefield injury-speak even mean? A quadruple amputee with a pulse? Years of horrific facial reconstruction surgeries? Or maybe, with luck, merely a traumatic brain injury or a single leg amputation below the knee, which my wounded friends from Walter Reed Hospital called “a paper cut.”

For this soldier, okay turned out to mean broken bones and lacerations bad enough to send him home, but not bad enough to keep him there. He was stitched-up and sent back to war five months later. When he finally returned to America, in Oregon, he murdered and dismembered someone he didn’t even know in a bathtub. Then he stole the dead man’s car to rob a bank. He’s currently serving life in prison.

But such stories, however raw and urgent they felt, were small. We were, after all, just one platoon in a big, ugly mess of a war, committing acts of political violence against people we didn’t know for reasons we didn’t fully understand.

Although I was told that I’d be “fighting terrorism” in Afghanistan, most of the people our unit was killing turned out to be teenagers or angry farmers with legitimate grievances, people tired of America’s never-ending occupation of their land, tired of our country’s contemptuous devaluation of Afghan lives. And frankly, when I searched my own soul, I couldn’t blame them for fighting back. Had I been in their shoes, I would have done the same.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the U.S. military did not encourage me to think too much or too deeply about the morality of the war I was fighting. A popular military aphorism was: “stay in your lane.” And so I jotted down my real thoughts in private and continued with the “mission,” whatever that was, since there appeared to be no coherent plan or strategy, something fully substantiated when, late last year, the Washington Post released “the Afghanistan Papers,” secret and frank interviews by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan with top U.S. commanders and officials.

“Operation Highway Babysitter”

That brown journal of mine lived through a lot and, at the end of my deployment, it earned a just retirement at the bottom of a cardboard box — until recently, when, in the midst of self-isolation in the Covid-19 moment, I excavated it from its resting place and brought it into the light of day as if it were so many dinosaur bones.

The cover was a wreck, the pages, earth-stained and dog-eared. Nonetheless, my chicken-scratched entries were enough to reconstruct old, long-buried memories. Those pages cast into relief how far I’ve come. Physically, I’m 6,632 miles away. Temporally, I’m a decade older. But morally, I’m a completely different person.

The first two — distance and time — don’t add up to much. I’ve returned home. I’ve gotten older. But what about the third? Why do I look back on my role in that still never-ending war not as a hero or as a well-intentioned participant, but as a perpetrator? And why, now, do I feel like I was a genuine sucker?

In a sense, I already knew the answers to those questions, but I wanted to revisit the journey I’d taken by flipping those pages past coffee-ring stains and even dried blood. And here’s what I found: I crossed my moral threshold on a dusty road, a glum bit of terrain I watched over for 15 hours straight. The mission’s apt nickname, scrawled in that journal, was “Operation Highway Babysitter.”

It worked like this: we, the infantry, secured a road in Kandahar Province, allowing logistics convoys to resupply the infantry, so that we could secure the road, so that the logistics convoys could resupply us, ad nauseam and in perpetuity. Such a system was mockingly derided by my troops as a “self-licking ice cream cone.”

Despite the effort we put into stopping IED — that is, roadside bomb — emplacement, we neither stopped them, nor created anything that might have passed for “progress.” The problem with IEDs was simple enough: we could watch some of the roads all of the time or all of the roads some of the time, but never all of the roads all of the time. Wherever we couldn’t patrol was precisely where the next one would be emplaced.

Quickly enough, we saw the futility of it all, yet what alternative did we have? We belonged to the Army and so were destined to spend our Afghan tour of duty playing human minesweepers.

Ox, my platoon sergeant, internalized his frustration. During Operation Highway Babysitter, he cut a striking image of Oscar the Grouch,with a fat dip of chewing tobacco puckering his cheek. Just above that egg-sized wad was a small scar from a bullet fragment that had skipped off an Iraqi pavement during the 2003 invasion of that country. One could say that Ox carried the war with him in the most literal sense.

And if we weren’t getting blown up by insurgents, we were getting shot by the Afghan National Police. No kidding. One hot afternoon, an Afghan policeman, visibly high, shot my team leader, Brody, from six feet away with a machine gun. The 7.62 mm bullet hit him in the torso, a spot not covered by body armor. It was a negligent discharge and Brody lived, but my whole platoon wanted to murder that policeman. We didn’t, which seemed rather commendable.

Even as we became increasingly disillusioned, we remained soldiers, trained to execute, however ludicrous the task. If we had to stay in our lane, though, at least we wanted the satisfaction of fighting our enemy face-to-face. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been there, but the desire to fight hadn’t left us and, as it turned out, we got our chance on Halloween 2009 — a day caught vividly in that brown journal of mine.

The Sound of Revenge

A couple of hours into highway babysitting that day, our stakeout was interrupted by the sound of gunfire. We buttoned up the trucks and set out for danger. When we arrived, the shooting had stopped. All we saw were a few men — maybe farmers, maybe insurgents — in a large grape field. It was hard to make out what they were doing, but there were no weapons to be seen.

Armed only with speculation, there were no grounds (under the rules of engagement we lived by) to shoot them, so our G.I. Joe energy began to melt away and we were distinctly disappointed.

I concede that it’s a strange emotion to actually want to kill someone, knowing there will be no repercussions for doing so — except possibly praise and maybe even medals if you’re successful. What’s first degree attempted murder in the United States is just another day at the office for an infantryman in combat. In five months, however, my platoon had yet to run into a real firefight and we were aching to kill some of those responsible for the plague of roadside bombs that had decimated our battalion. We were amped, hungry for payback.

About 10 of us dismounted from the trucks. We moved into the field, using a V-shaped, wedge formation, hoping the Afghans there knew something about the resistance fighters. Fifteen seconds later our world erupted in gunfire. Machine-gun rounds cut through the grape vines, trimming the hedges around us. Immediately, I was mainlining adrenaline.

We pressed inward, shooting as we went, hoping to suppress the resistance fighters and gain fire superiority. Some of my soldiers hunkered down behind the remnants of a crumbly mud wall, others found what cover they could: a little ditch, a mound of earth, anything amid the grapevines.

I turned to my forward observer, Brock. “Can we get rotary-wing assets on station?”

“Roger. Two Kiowas. Ten minutes.”

Finally, real kinetic combat! I paused to look around. My soldiers were sweating profusely and sucking wind, but miraculously there were no casualties. The sound of the approaching OH-58 Kiowa attack helicopters, codenamed “Shamus,” confirmed our survival.

Jaws unclenched, lips loosened, eyes relaxed. My sweat-slick soldiers chortled with relief. Today, we live. We talked the birds on station, marking our position in the grape field with fluorescent VS-17 panels, visible from the air. The pilots acknowledged. Then the two Kiowas race-tracked around the grape fields, evidently spotting their targets because they released a salvo of rockets on a nearby village. They followed by strafing the area with their .50-caliber machine guns until they had expended all their ammunition.

My soldiers erupted in cheers and I felt smug.

The Awakening

It was evening when we returned to Forward Operating Base Wilson after that 15-hour patrol. I was haggard, worn, bleary-eyed. Ox walked over to me. I had given him the day off because the patrol schedule was killing us.

“Ox, how was the rest?”

“I didn’t do shit yesterday. Slept all day. It was great.”

“Oh, yeah? You heard about the big firefight we got into?”

“I heard you guys were in contact, so I went to battalion headquarters to watch the live video feed from Scan Eagle [an unarmed drone]. They had a TV screen so we could watch you guys in the fight.”

“You see how many guys were shooting at us, where were they located?”

“Nope. I showed up a bit late, but neither Scan Eagle nor the Kiowas could actually see the enemy.”

My heart sped up. “Well, what the fuck were they shooting at? We had no idea where the insurgents fled to — only a general direction.”

Ox offered a version of his nervous, graveyard-humor laugh. “Yeah, the helicopters didn’t have PID [positive identification] on anything. Scan Eagle was zooming in on some dead lady in a blue burka and the battalion XO [executive officer] said to Shamus, ‘What the hell are you shooting at?’ Shamus said, ‘Uhhhhh… we had reports of small-arms coming from this direction.’ The XO gets back on the radio to yell at the pilots, ‘Did you see weapons or have PID on anything at all?’ Shamus obviously didn’t, so the response was, ‘Uhmmmm… negative.’ The XO was pissed. He said, ‘Well, I’m looking at three dead civilians right now. Do you want to explain that?’ Shamus said, ‘Uhhhhh . . . I guess they’re enemy KIA [killed in action].’”

Anxiety turned to dread. How could they have made a mistake like that and then justified the dead as “enemy KIA”? I dropped my equipment in a heap inside my tent and walked to the company headquarters to fill out the debrief paperwork. First, I looked at the SIGACT (significant activity) whiteboard to see what the Army chose to report and it was vague indeed: small-arms fire, grid location, calling for helicopter air support. But the final column — the punch line — left me fuming. Its header was “BDA,” or “Battle Damage Assessment.” And there, in bold capital letters, was: “UNKNOWN.”

No mention of civilian casualties. The Army had covered it up. I felt urgently sick. Where was the honesty? Where was our morality? Where was the “integrity” — an Army value I was taught at West Point?

I wanted to give the military the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps logging the civilian deaths as “unknown” had been a clerical error, even if made at the exact moment when it would cover up homicide. But I had already given so many other incidents a pass. All the things that I’d let slide and tucked away suddenly shifted in their hiding places. Standing before that whiteboard, I felt a crisis of conscience. Repressing, forgetting, or deluding myself was no longer an option.

And that was my awakening, faithfully recorded in that brown journal still in my hands.

The Army never would investigate that incident either. It didn’t matter that I personally raised it with my battalion commander. I felt betrayed and ashamed of my once-boyish excitement for war. In places like Zhari District in Afghanistan, it was now clear to me that the prevailing truth was whatever the U.S. military wanted it to be.

The Price of Unquestioning Patriotism

When I returned home seven months later, I felt grateful but empty. Just about everything in America looked the same, which felt rude, given how much we had changed.

For those first six months after my return from war, thudding back slaps and free beers from well-meaning civilians numbed my sense of betrayal. But over time, I realized that all of this “thank you for your service” stuff was just a culturally ingrained reflex, like saying “bless you” to someone who sneezes. When it comes to our military, the mantra of the public is: thank, don’t think. To most of them, war — the war my friends died for — is elevator music. Perhaps Americans have generally forgotten that, almost 19 years after the Afghan War began, numbers, names, and percentages don’t go in the graveyard, people do.

I don’t forget.

While serving in the U.S. Army Honor Guard, I helped bury Tyler Parten, one of my best friends from West Point, in Arlington National Cemetery. Like so many other fallen American soldiers, he was a good and gentle man — not a violent man — and yet he died a violent death on a mountain escarpment in Afghanistan, according to an officer from his company.

I presented the folded flag to Tyler’s crying mother. After the family left, I looked around and noticed all the freshly dug graves that did not yet contain their occupants. And with more time and more wars, those headstones will become just like all the other headstones.

And here’s the thing with Memorial Day: my memories don’t resemble the tidy sacrifices that this country memorializes on that day each year. Soldiers know the slaughterhouse; America knows chicken nuggets — lifeless things processed and commoditized, marketed and sold on the cheap, and always worth whatever they cost.

Twenty-first-century American patriotism is crass, slippery, and gross. It isn’t about moral courage or speaking out; it’s about protecting and preserving corporate image and individual reputations. American patriotism is sad-button Facebook emoticons and 20%-off Memorial Day mattress sales.

But blithely tolerating a yearly moment of silence to think abstractly about dead soldiers — and assume that their deaths are part of an unfortunate but necessary exchange to preserve American-style “freedom” — is not enough. It never has been.

Soldiers and veterans don’t need priority boarding, 10% discounts at gimmicky chain restaurants, or a few crinkled bills stuffed into a charity’s coffee can. What they need is a nation that can find the courage and conviction to stop misusing their service. For 18 Memorial Days, the American public has been complicit in allowing our troops to be sent into a series of wars that everyone knows to be costly and self-defeating, while simultaneously maintaining the audacious idea that, in doing so, they “support the troops.”

Believe me, that’s not patriotism. The most intimate betrayal is to be sent to kill or die for nothing by your countrymen.

Maybe 2020 is the year when we finally look ourselves in the mirror and admit it — that we are really a nation of 330 million bumper-sticker patriots willing to sell-out future generations to pay for endless war, no matter who gets killed, as long as someone in the Pentagon believes they deserve it. Maybe this year the American public will finally realize that the war on terror drags on because the United States is perfectly arranged to give us that outcome, because Americans are not allowed to question the military or military spending. The act of doing so is taboo or, as I titled my new book, Un-American.

If we don’t like this reality, it should be our civic responsibility to change the forces that guide this nation. We must redefine what patriotism and national security truly stand for. To confront real threats to humanity — like climate change — we must grow in our capacity for cooperation, not conflict. Maybe 2020 will finally be the year.

After 18 Memorial Days, When Will We Ever Learn?

After an hour, I realized that I was still sitting on the carpet hunched over my journal. Yes, I had shaken the metaphorical snow globe. No, I did not feel better.

I thumbed through it one last time and a quote suddenly caught my eye: “These stupid people,” I had recorded one sergeant first class saying, “all they understand is violence and force.”

That did it. The journal went back in the box and I closed the lid. I got up, flicked off the light, and shut the door. As that door clicked tight, my mind returned to that quote: “These stupid people — all they understand is violence and force.”

I wondered: Was he referring to the people of Afghanistan or to us?

Posted in USA, AfghanistanComments Off on After 18 Memorial Days of the “War on Terror,” Will We Ever Learn?

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