TRNN viewers may remember a recent interview we published at the beginning of February in which Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez spoke with retired railway engineer Jeff Kurtz about a US District Court blocking railroad workers at BNSF Railway from striking over the recent implementation of an oppressive new attendance policy. Even if the story has faded from the headlines, the struggles railroad workers are facing have not gone away in the slightest, and workers and their families have reported that BNSF’s “Hi-Viz” policy has been a disaster for them and for the railroad industry. In this crucial follow-up report, Alvarez speaks with Jeff Kurtz and Ron Kaminkow of Railroad Workers United about what workers have been going through since the implementation of this new attendance policy and what can be done about it.
Jeff Kurtz was a railway engineer and union member for 40 years. He served as a union officer most of his career, including eight years as president of BLET Local 391 and chairman of the BLET Iowa State Legislative Board, where he oversaw safety and legislative matters for the union in the state for four railroads for 10 years. He retired in 2014 and served as state representative for one term in the Iowa House after winning the 2018 election in his House district. He now works in a volunteer capacity with Railroad Workers United and the local labor chapter of the Iowa Federation of Labor. Ron Kaminkow is currently serving as General Secretary of Railroad Workers United. Prior to hiring out as a brakeman with Conrail in 1996, he served as President of AFSCME Local 634 in Madison, WI. In 2005, Kaminkow helped to found Railroad Operating Crafts United (ROCU), an RWU predecessor. A former brakeman, conductor, and engineer for Conrail and later NS in Chicago, he formerly worked for Amtrak in Milwaukee and Chicago. He currently is working as an Amtrak engineer in Reno, NV, where he is the Vice President of BLET Local 51.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Pittman on Feb. 22 blocked the BLET (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen) and the SMART Transportation Division—the two unions opposed to BNSF’s planned Hi-Viz worker availability policy—from striking. Link
Coty Cecil was awaiting repairs on his RV in a West Virginia campground when Milton police started breaking into his home, refusing to show a warrant. Cecil was eventually charged with possession with intent to distribute and transporting drugs over state lines, even though the half-dozen pot plants found in his RV were grown in his home state of Michigan—where they are legal. While looking into the dubious circumstances of Cecil’s arrest, PAR investigated the finances of the small rural community and uncovered some intriguing details about the role policing plays as a revenue engine for the town.
WASHINGTON — For the first three years of President Trump’s time in office, his blunt-force view of the military was confined to threatening American adversaries: “fire and fury” if North Korea challenged American troops. A warning that he would “shoot down and destroy” Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. Billions spent to rejuvenate a nuclear arsenal he viewed as the ultimate source of American power.
His generals and admirals accepted a commander in chief with what they diplomatically dismissed as a “unique style” — and they welcomed the increase in military spending. His chief diplomats, while embarrassed, saw some utility in trying to force adversaries to the table.
Now, that tolerance has frayed. Mr. Trump’s threat to use the 1807 Insurrection Act to send active-duty troops on American soil against protesters has laid bare the chasm in the national security community that was forming even when he ran for office in 2016.
Back then it was only a limited group of “Never Trumpers” — establishment Republican national security professionals repelled by Mr. Trump’s description of how American power should be wielded around the world — who wrote and spoke of the dangers. He “lacks the character, values and experience” to be president, they wrote, and “would put at risk our country’s national security.”
This week, it was his former defense secretary, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a range of other retired senior officers who were saying in public what they previously said only in private: that the risk lies in the fact that the president regards the military, which historically has prized its nonpartisan, apolitical role in society, as just another political force to be massed to his advantage.
“There is a thin line between the military’s tolerance for questionable partisan moves over the past three years and the point where these become intolerable for an apolitical military,” said Douglas E. Lute, a retired three-star Army general who coordinated Afghanistan and Pakistan operations on the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and later became the American ambassador to NATO. “Relatively minor episodes have accumulated imperceptibly, but we are now at a point of where real damage is being done.”
“As that team walked across Lafayette Park with the president,” after the heavy-handed clearing of a peaceful demonstration, he said, “they crossed that line.”
By Thursday afternoon, there was only an uneasy truce, as Mr. Trump agreed to begin sending home from the Washington region some of the 1,600 active-duty troops — ordered from Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Drum, N.Y., to quell protests — that defense officials never wanted here in the first place.
But both sides expected the turmoil that began with nationwide demonstrations against the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in police custody to continue.
One general officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid punishment from his superiors, said on Thursday that he was hoping to make it through another day without having to cite his constitutional obligations to decline an illegal order. He said he would not be surprised if he faced such a dilemma in the coming weeks.
Former top officers were able to speak more freely.
“Right now, the last thing the country needs — and, frankly, the U.S. military needs — is the appearance of U.S. soldiers carrying out the president’s intent by descending on American citizens,” John R. Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, wrote in Foreign Policy. “This could wreck the high regard Americans have for their military, and much more.” Last year, 73 percent of the public in an annual Gallup poll reported either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, making it the highest of the institutions polled.
Military officials’ fears seemed to be borne out during the protests this week in Washington, where by Wednesday night those in uniform facing the peaceful crowd were no longer police officers or Secret Service but National Guard soldiers in camouflage. They stood on 16th Street near the White House in front of two Army transport trucks. Although they were not active-duty military troops, to the protesters they looked like them.
The crowd hurled obscenities and invective. “Fascists!” one person screamed. “Brainwashed!” another yelled.
“We don’t need military artillery to control a city,” Arianna Evans, 23, of Bowie, Md., said in a later interview. “We just don’t, not unless it’s goddamn Yemen.”
Senior Pentagon leaders worry that a militarized and heavy-handed response to the protests, Mr. Trump’s stated wish, will turn the American public against the troops, like what happened in the waning years of the Vietnam War, when National Guard troops in combat fatigues battled antiwar protesters at Kent State. The retired Sgt. Alan Kraus, a combat infantryman in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, said in a telephone interview that when he returned home from Vietnam, he hung up his uniform and never put it back on, lest he become the target of protesters in the street.
“The purpose of the military is to train soldiers to treat the enemy as inferior human beings or not human beings at all because that makes them easier to kill,” Sergeant Kraus said, adding that it was very hard to “unlearn” all of that training when the military is dealing with civilians.
Both Mr. Esper and General Milley have faced a hail of criticism since their walk across the park with Mr. Trump, and their ties to the president seem to be shifting back to the troops and the Constitution. Mr. Esper, a former Army officer and Persian Gulf war veteran turned Beltway lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon, seemed particularly stunned at what he had stumbled into.
When he told NBC News that “I didn’t know where I was going,” he was speaking narrowly about being unaware that he was headed to the church. But his comment seemed to apply more broadly: that he did not understand that he was symbolically embracing the use of American military forces — the National Guard, and not yet active-duty troops — to suppress peaceful protest. He did not help himself by declaring that same day, to governors, that the mission was to “dominate the battle space” in American cities, as if he were discussing an operation in Anbar Province.
For Mr. Trump, who avoided the risk of being drafted into the Vietnam War with a diagnosis of bone spurs, acceptance by the Pentagon has been key — to him and to his base. He celebrated the hiring of Gen. Jim Mattis as his first defense secretary, and then he went looking for other generals: Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, his first national security adviser; Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his second national security adviser; and Gen. John F. Kelly, his second chief of staff.
None of those relationships ended well. But it was Mr. Mattis’s decision to break his long silence, and to declare that Mr. Trump was “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” that broke the dam.
Mr. Mattis, as a student of the rise and fall of civilizations, added: “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battle space’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate.’” His critique, Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said on Thursday, was “true and honest and necessary and overdue,” a rare Republican break with Mr. Trump.
It was not until this week that the consequences of those differing views about the purposes of the military became evident to many Americans. Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, denounced the use of the military to support the political acts of a president who had “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country.”
“The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws,” Admiral Mullen wrote in The Atlantic. “The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.”
For many of these officers, the question was whether Mr. Trump was aware of that history. The Declaration of Independence, several noted, dwelled on the complaints that the King of England “kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislatures,” and tried to “render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.”
That is pretty close to what Mr. Trump did on Monday night when he declared that General Milley was “in charge” of what was happening in the streets.
It is not a role, it turns out, that most in his military want.
That’s Isaac Newton in William Blake’s painting, one of the major villains in Blake’s philosophy. Why? Because Newton was a modeler, a proponent of Science with a capital S, the most repressive force in the modern age.
I think Blake was absolutely right.
Our narratives of COVID-19 are all lies.
They are lies of a particular sort, political narratives that have a nugget of truth within them, but are told with bad intent. They are told this way because it works. Because the nugget of truth hides a deeper, unpleasant truth. And a Big Lie.
Some are narratives of the political left. Some are narratives of the political right.
They are all narratives of betrayal, meaning that they seek to excuse or promote policies designed for institutional advantage rather than the common good.
Clockwise from Donald Trump, that’s Fox’s Sean Hannity, the CDC’s Robert Redfield, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Harvard President Larry Bacow, the White House’s Larry Kudlow, and Vox co-founder Ezra Klein. They all get their moment of shame in our magnum opus on the ubiquitous institutional betrayals here in the early days of the pandemic age – First the People.
How do you recognize a political narrative of betrayal?
It’s always based on a model.
A political narrative of betrayal is always a top-down application of social abstraction, where a behavioral model is treated as the thing unto itself, falsely elevated as the subject and object of policy, rather than relegated to the analytical toolbox where it belongs. A political narrative of betrayal will always use “model” as a noun rather than “model” as a verb. A political narrative of betrayal always BEGINS with a prescriptive model of mass behavior – a model that by the most amazing coincidence serves the institutional advantage of the narrative creator – and ENDS with a forced fit to the individual citizen.
All political narratives of betrayal start like this, with a disembodied, modeled abstraction like
- “the American way of life” or
- “the economy” or
- “the market” or
- “public health” or
- “national security”.
An abstraction that is then defined for you in such a way as to logically require the willing abdication of your individual rights, first as an American and ultimately as a human being.
A political lie always starts by establishing a disembodied, modeled abstraction like “the economy”. From there, the political lie will then start talking about the “sacrifices” that we citizens need to make for this disembodied, modeled abstraction.
Nothing makes me angrier.
Nothing makes me angrier than a politician like Chris Christie, a man whose idea of personal sacrifice is a regular order of fries, shaking his finger at us and telling us how reopening the local Arby’s is just like fighting Nazi Germany, how OUR deaths then and now are a “necessary sacrifice” in order to “stand up for the American way of life.”
The American Way of Life™ does not exist. It’s not a thing.
What exists is the way of life of Americans.
Start with the individual American. Start with their political rights. Start with the citizens themselves. This is how a legitimate government acts in both words and deeds.
The government’s job – its ONE JOB – is to protect our individual rights in ways that we cannot do ourselves. That’s not an easy job. At all. There are trade-offs and gray areas, and clear-eyed/full-hearted people can disagree on how to accomplish that job. But it is the job.
Its job is NOT to create “alternative” facts like modeled seasonal flu deaths or modeled herd immunity or modeled COVID-19 deaths in nudging service to institutional goals. Its job is NOT to champion the rights of the politically-connected few and ignore the rights of the politically-unconnected many. Its job is NOT to deny the rights of any citizen in service to a politically convenient abstraction like “the American way of life” or “the economy” or “public health”.
When individual rights conflict in unavoidable ways or we are faced with an immediate and overwhelming threat to our system of individual rights, a legitimate government based on the consent of the governed may be forced to decide which citizens’ rights must be temporarily suspended. This is a legitimate government’s last resort.
Today it is our government’s first resort.
Today it is the first choice of our political leaders – White House and statehouse, Democrat and Republican – to decide which rights to prioritize and which rights to deny in service to THEIR conception of what society should look like. All wrapped up in a nugget of truth told with bad intent.
This is how an illegitimate government acts.
Model-driven Narrative #1
Whatabout the Flu?
- Political goal: COVID-19 threat minimization.
- Truth nugget: The seasonal flu is a nasty (and mitigatable) disease.
- Deep Truth nugget: We are shockingly blasé about all sorts of largely preventable deaths, and we warehouse our elderly parents in horrible places.
- Big Lie: This isn’t a big deal.
- Policy prescription: Wash your hands, boys and girls!
- Embedded model: Laughably inaccurate models of seasonal flu deaths, designed to nudge popular adoption of annual vaccinations.
As the US death toll mounts, this narrative fades farther and farther into the background of our collective memory, but “Whatabout the Flu?” dominated the early weeks of American policy debates. And while it’s easy to find examples of this narrative from the political right, let’s not forget that CNN and Vox were beating this drum as hard as they could when Trump was shutting down some flights from China.
People don’t believe me when I tell them that we don’t actually count flu deaths, that the numbers thrown around by the Dr. Guptas and the Rush Limbaughs are taken from CDC models of pneumonia deaths. But it’s true. Basically we count pediatric flu deaths and hospitalized adult flu deaths, multiply by six, and intentionally generate an inflated flu death total. Why intentional? Because you need to be nudged into taking your annual flu vaccine.
If we compare, for instance, the number of people who died in the United States from COVID-19 in the second full week of April to the number of people who died from influenza during the worst week of the past seven flu seasons (as reported to dethe CDC), we find that the novel coronavirus killed between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu. In other words, the coronavirus is not anything like the flu: It is much, much worse. – Scientific American (April 28, 2020)
On an apples-to-apples, counted deaths versus counted deaths basis, there is no comparison between COVID-19 and the flu. It’s pure narrative. Pure hokum. All based on a laughably inaccurate model. All geared towards the political lie of COVID-19 minimization.
Model-driven Narrative #2
- Political goal: Preservation of economic status quo.
- Truth nugget: Massive unemployment is devastating.
- Deep Truth nugget: Massive unemployment is particularly devastating to incumbent politicians.
- Big Lie: In the meantime, we can protect the olds and the sicks.
- Policy prescription: Hey, you’ll probably be fine! I mean … probably.
- Embedded model: Laughably inaccurate models of COVID-19 infection spread and severity, designed to nudge fantasies of V-shaped recoveries in the stock market and commercial real estate prices.
Again, it’s easy to find examples of this narrative from the political right, but let’s not forget that the most prominent national example of “Herd Immunity!” policy is driven by the leftwing Social Democrats – Green Party coalition in Sweden. Again, the politicization of these narratives is not a left/right thing, it’s a power thing.
It’s a high-functioning sociopath thing.
What do I mean by sociopathy and division?
I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill the old rather than the young, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if older Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.
I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill those with “pre-existing conditions”, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if chronically ill Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.
I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus hits certain “hotspot” regions, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if hotspot regions are lesser regions, as if we should think of Americans who live there differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are in “our” region.
And once you stop thinking in terms of trade offs, once you stop thinking in terms of probabilities and projected mortality rates and cost/benefit analysis and this expected utility model versus that expected utility model … once you start thinking in terms of empathy and Minimax Regret … everything will change for you. – Once In A Lifetime
Model-driven Narrative #3
Flatten the Curve!
- Political goal: COVID-19 threat maximization.
- Truth nugget: Lockdowns prevent a surge in cases which can overwhelm the healthcare system.
- Deep Truth nugget: When we’ve got everyone freaked out about staying alive, there’s no end to the crazy authoritarian stuff we can get away with.
- Big Lie: We can get R-0 down to zero.
- Policy prescription: You’ll find these ankle monitors to be surprisingly light and comfortable to wear!
- Embedded model: Laughably inaccurate models of COVID-19 deaths, malleable enough to serve the political aspirations of both the White House and their opponents.
Of the three politicized narratives, “Flatten the Curve!” has morphed the most from its original form, as its early success in convincing even Donald Trump that lockdowns were necessary to prevent a healthcare system meltdown gave both its White House missionaries and its state house missionaries free rein to use this narrative to fill a wide range of policy vacuums.
The original goals of “Flatten the Curve!” – to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases with the potential to overwhelm the healthcare system – were achieved. The flood in New York City crested … and fell. Other cities that seemed as if they might follow in NYC’s footsteps … did not. Mission accomplished! But in the grand tradition of other initially successful emergency government interventions (“Quantitative Easing!”, anyone?) “Flatten the Curve!” is well on its way to becoming a permanent government program.
Today, “Flatten the Curve!” has become the narrative rationale for a range of extraordinary executive actions – on both the left AND the right – that would make Lincoln blush. This is the narrative that will propel the Surveillance State into a permanent feature of American life. This is the narrative that will propel the final transformation of capital markets into a political utility. This is the narrative that will propel us into a war with China. If we let it.
If we let it.
Okay, Ben, how do we stop it? How do we turn this misbegotten process of political lying on its head? How do we reject top-down, model-derived policies and their narratives? How do we BEGIN with the biology of this virus and the rights of individual citizens and build a policy framework from THAT?
This virus is 2-6x more contagious/infectious than the seasonal flu (depending on environment), and 10-20x more deadly/debilitating (depending on whether or not your local healthcare system is overwhelmed). It hits men harder than women, and the old harder than the young. Those are the facts. They’ve been the facts since January when we first studied this virus. The facts have not changed.
Knowing these biological facts, what social policies would you design around THAT?
As a 56 year-old man in just ok physical condition, I figure I have a 1% chance of death or disability if I catch COVID-19 when my local healthcare system is in good shape, maybe 4% if my healthcare system is overwhelmed. Both of those odds are completely unacceptable. To me. Other 56 year-old citizens may feel differently. Other 25 year-old citizens may feel the same. Each of us has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the legitimacy of our government is predicated on preserving those rights for each of us. Liberty and justice for ALL … imagine that.
Knowing these foundational rights, what social policies would you design around THAT?
If you’ve read notes like Inception and The Long Now: Make, Protect, Teach and Things Fall Apart: Politics, you know that I am a full-hearted believer in acting from the bottom-up, in bypassing and ignoring the high-functioning sociopaths who dominate our top-down hierarchies of markets and politics. I still believe that.
But it doesn’t work with COVID-19.
The core problem with any rights-based approach to public policy is dealing with questions of competing rights. Under what circumstances could your right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness come into conflict with my right to life? Under most circumstances, neither of us is forced to compromise our rights, because we have the choice to NOT interact with each other. If my laundromat requires you to wear a mask to enter, but you think wearing a mask is an affront to your liberty, then the solution is easy: go wash your clothes somewhere else. And vice versa if I think your restaurant does a poor job of enforcing social distancing and food safety: I’ll take my business elsewhere.
Let me put this a bit more bluntly. I think that COVID-19 deniers and truthers are idiots. I think that people who minimize or otherwise ignore the clear and present danger that the biology of this virus presents to themselves and their families are fools. And there’s no perfect way to insulate their idiocy and foolishness from the rest of us. But if these idiots and fools want to take stupid risks alongside other idiots and fools, if their vision of liberty and the pursuit of happiness is to revel in some death cult, but in a way that largely allows us non-death cultists to opt out … well, I believe it is wrong for a government to stop them. Yes, there are exceptions. No, this isn’t applicable on all issues, all the time. But I believe with all my heart that if we are to take individual rights seriously, then we must take individual responsibility and agency just as seriously. Even self-destructive agency. Even in the age of COVID-19. Especially in the age of COVID-19.
There are three common and important circumstances, however, where this choice to NOT interact doesn’t exist, where the rights of yes, even idiots, to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as they understand it will inexorably come into conflict with the right to life of those who understand all too well the highly contagious and dangerous biology of this virus.
Only government can provide the necessary resources and the necessary coordination to resolve these conflicts of rights peacefully and without trampling the rights of one set of citizens or another.
You have no idea how much it pains me to say that.
It pains me because I think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that our government will do that.
Here’s how a legitimate government would deal with the three inevitable and irreconcilable conflicts of rights in the age of COVID-19:
Healthcare workers and first responders have no choice but to risk their right to life in caring for all citizens who are sick, regardless of the agency or lack thereof behind that sickness.
How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?
By mobilizing on a war-time basis to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to ALL healthcare workers and social workers and first responders and public safety officers and anyone else who must serve the sick.
Workers who believe that their employer does not provide sufficient protection against this virus have no choice but to risk their right to life in their return to work, as unemployment insurance typically is unavailable for people who “voluntarily” quit their job.
How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?
By providing a Federal safe harbor to unemployment claims based on COVID-19 safety concerns, AND by maintaining unemployment benefits at the current (higher) CARES Act level throughout the crisis.
All citizens who use public transit or use public facilities have no choice but to trust that their fellow citizens share a common respect for the rights of others, even if they may differ in their risk tolerance and private beliefs regarding the biology of the virus.
How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?
By mobilizing on a war-time basis to provide ubiquitous rapid testing in and around all public spaces, starting today with symptom testing (temperature checks) and required masking to limit asymptomatic spread, and implementing over time near-instant antigen tests as they are developed.
It’s just not that hard.
But it is impossible. Politically impossible.
So what do we do?
“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”
— Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)
We do what we can. We howl our discontent. We resist. We help our neighbors. We make. We protect. We teach. We keep the small-l liberal virtues and the small-c conservative virtues alive in our hearts and our minds.
So what do we do?
For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.
On Saturday, the Times reported that President Trump has requested paperwork that would allow him to quickly pardon several Americans who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, and who have become causes célèbres on Fox News. They include a former Green Beret who has been charged with murdering a man in Afghanistan and a Navy seal platoon chief who has been accused of murdering multiple people in Iraq, including a schoolgirl walking along a river, and whose trial is scheduled to begin next week. A third potential exoneree is part of a group of former Blackwater military contractors who were found guilty of murdering fourteen unarmed Iraqis in 2007. The Times reports that Trump is pursuing an expedited pardon process so that he can officially pardon these men over Memorial Day weekend.
To discuss what this decision would mean, and to understand the history of Americans wanting to place their own actions above the laws of war, I spoke by phone with Scott Shapiro, a professor of law and philosophy at Yale. Shapiro is the co-author, with Oona A. Hathaway, of “The Internationalists: How A Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World,” about the attempts after the First World War to institute a legal regime that would prevent a second one. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the most outwardly patriotic Americans have long been skeptical of military law, the message President Trump is sending the military, and the dangers of placing troops above the law.
When you saw the news that these pardons were a possibility, what was it that went through your mind? Were there historical parallels, or did it seem like we were in another era?
I thought, immediately, Oh, pardon the war criminals to own the libs—that this was an attempt to trigger me and people like me. The reason I say I’m a little bit surprised at myself for having that reaction was that there is a long history, especially among conservative thinkers, of mistrusting the laws of war and thinking that the prosecution and punishing of American service personnel for defending our country, but not being punctilious about the particular rules of engagement, is unjust and unfair. This brought to mind the My Lai massacre—that was as horrific an act as a violation of the laws of war as you get.
And yet William Calley [a lieutenant who led the Charlie Company’s massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai] was somewhat of a folk hero in the United States. The heroes of My Lai, who saved many civilians and reported Charlie Company for what they had done, were vilified by many in the political establishment. Nixon was incredibly upset that William Calley was being prosecuted. He only got three and half years [of house arrest, after Nixon had him removed from prison]. It’s not clear to me how different what Trump is doing is from what Nixon did in the nineteen-seventies.
When you say that there is a long history of conservatives being mistrustful of laws of war, do you mean both international ways of regulating what our troops can do in war, like some sort of world court, and also our own laws or the military’s own laws?
Yes. So John Bolton, for example, has waged a war on the International Criminal Court for many years, since the beginning of its existence, and spent an enormous amount of time when he was in the State Department going around the world, trying to get countries to sign what we’ll call the Article 98 agreements, which basically said that these countries would not coöperate with the court in prosecution of American service personnel, and then denied them foreign aid if they didn’t.
But his objection has been very much about the notion that an international tribunal will prosecute American service personnel. Whereas there is another strand that objects even to our own government, our own military, prosecuting our own service personnel, and there are several strains to it, some of them being understandable, some of them being quite reprehensible. When I say understandable, I think that there are arguments. I don’t think they carry the day, but let me just say that there are at least arguments that make sense.
So one of them is war is hell, and shit happens, and it’s very hard to hold soldiers to such high standards. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous expression, that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife,” comes to mind—the idea being that, if you’re in that situation, you can’t be expected to follow all the rules perfectly. There’s also the idea that there are too many rules, and that the rules are too constraining and that we’re tying, as they say, our boys’ hands. And it’s especially problematic in cases where there’s an asymmetry, where the U.S. military is fighting a group that doesn’t follow the rules. So it’s not just that we have a lot of rules, we’re fighting other militaries who are ostensibly bound by those rules, too. But, also, what do we do when they’re not following the rules, they hide among civilians.
Those, I think, are arguments that need to be taken seriously, and people have obviously debated them, and it’s not obvious what the solution should be in particular cases. I went and I watched a lot of the Fox News clips about these cases that it seems like Trump was responding to. And they sometimes use these arguments, but they also use the arguments like, “These are our guys and you need to protect them. They’re risking their lives for us and we have to protect them.” And it’s tribalism. Like, “These are our people and it’s ungrateful to turn on them.”
There’s also a sense, I think, that they’re killing terrorists, so what’s the problem? They’re eliminating evil people. And I think that there’s a particular Trumpian flavor to the assault here, which is that they’re attacking the integrity of the military-justice system much in the same way that Trump does when he attacked Mueller. The idea here being, Look, you can’t trust anyone.
Yeah. It’s particularly interesting to go after the military, which is, of course, the most trusted institution in the United States, about the worst people in the world, that is, the war criminals.
Trump had this aspect of his campaign where he would basically say, “I’m smarter than all the generals.” Do you remember that? Everyone remembers the McCain P.O.W. stuff, but there was this weird, understated, The military is not tough enough or smart enough anymore. It’s just another institution that’s been corroded with establishment figures.
And yet, one of the things that Trump has done is devolved a lot more responsibility down to the military, reversing the Obama scheme whereby military plans had to get extensive vetting by the political branches. So Trump is, on the one hand, saying, “I’m smarter than the military,” and yet, “Don’t bother me with this stuff. You deal with it.”
I assume, over time, the military has over all got better about investigating abuses within its ranks. Do you have some sense of even a hundred years ago, the period you wrote about, how much there was a system for investigating the American military for misbehavior?
So I can tell you that my colleague John Fabian Witt has written a lot about this. In “Lincoln’s Code,” he talks about how the system that we have now really evolved from the military commissions set up in the Mexican-American War and then the Civil War, whereby the U.S. military had to figure out what they would do with people who violated the laws of war.
And so, at least from the perspective of the U.S. military, we’ve been working on this for almost two hundred years—and, funnily enough, so much of the laws of war in their modern form was American-driven. It’s a classic example, I think, of Trump trying to undermine institutions that Americans helped create. So it’s this strange feature, but a lot of times there’s a sense that the laws of war are foreign impositions on the American military, interfering with our sovereignty, when in fact they were developed by the U.S. military as a way of enforcing military discipline.
That’s, in some sense, the general point that people misunderstand about the laws of wars: that they really have their origins in military discipline, that militaries around the world recognized the need to have constraints on soldiers for the sake of having a well-run military. And so it’s usually in the military’s interest for service personnel to be constrained in the way that they are. I would imagine that many military commanders are unhappy about this move.
Trump is often compared to authoritarian figures in history. He’s often been compared to Andrew Jackson. But to what degree does Trump remind you of a certain type that you’ve written about, which is someone from a hundred years ago having a certain isolationist streak, but also just a very warlike personality, with extreme jingoism and nationalism, and a contempt for or racism toward other countries and other people. This pardon news being paired with Trump’s apparent uninterest in a war with Iran was interesting.
Well, bellicosity and racism and Eurocentrism contributed enormously to imperialism and colonialism and genocidal wars of the past, for sure. What is interesting is that these attitudes normally led to war rather than what is happening with Trump, which is that it’s being matched with a kind of isolationism. My own view—and I obviously can’t substantiate it—is that the reason Trump is an isolationist is because I don’t think he wants to spend money on brown people. That is, I think he feels, Why are we spending our money and spending lives trying to bring democracy and improve Iraq, or Syria, or spending money on fighting in Iran, where we’re just going to have to pour money into that country? Here, the xenophobia and racism actually contribute to isolationism.
The America Firsters don’t want to get into World War Two in part because they think, Why are we trying to save the Jews? Why are we pouring money to protect these ethnic minorities in Europe when who the hell cares about them? There are definitely strong historical echoes.
I’m not trying to draw a direct parallel, but the America First types who did not want to get America involved in a war in Europe had no problem asserting the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere and insuring business interests in the United States were taken care of and expanded. And that would be my hunch about the type of war that Trump would be at least open to.
I think that’s right, though it’s hard to imagine what that case would be like. I’ve actually been surprised that Trump hasn’t said, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll just go take the money from them somehow.” I’m surprised that he hasn’t threatened some war in order to get the money back for the wall. He has said crazy things—“fire and fury”—about North Korea. Threatening a nuclear war is an outrageous thing to do. Saying, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll get it in some way,” doesn’t seem that much crazier. Of course, he seems to have no interest in Venezuela, so it’s hard to see what, exactly, the economic interests would be there. It’s so hard to know, and also tiresome to try to guess, what are you going to do next?
What are your biggest concerns, going forward, about what pardons like these would do?
I’m very worried about it. I think, historically, the origins of these rules emanate from military discipline and the sense that the military has to have control over soldiers and control their behavior and keep them focussed on the military mission at hand. And to follow the rules is extremely important for the success of the mission. The golden rule of counterinsurgency is, you want to make sure that you kill more terrorists than you make.
One of the cases that the New York Times reports about is pardoning this group of marines who urinated on deceased Afghans. Is it really helpful for our counterinsurgency mission for people to know that that’s what U.S. military personnel do, and the President just pardons it because it’s no big deal to pee on a dead Afghan?
There are so many ways that this is both an insult to the military and bad for the military. And the ironies of that are plenty.
Yeah, right. So there’s that. This is also really bad for morale. I’ve taught in R.O.T.C., I’ve taught these young officers in training, and they’re taught that these rules are super serious and that they really go to the essence of what it is to be an honorable officer. And then to have the President of the United States say, “Actually, the rules don’t really matter”—what does it do to their sense of what enterprise they’re participating in, No. 1? No. 2, how do they get their men to follow the rules if the Commander-in-Chief is saying it doesn’t matter? It’s just a recipe for disaster.
There are so many ironies here, but one of the cases that Trump is considering, based on the New York Times reports, is the case of the Blackwater military contractors. The Bush Administration tried so hard to get the Iraqis not to prosecute these people, because, they said, “Don’t worry, trust us. You can trust the American criminal-justice system. We’ll take care of it.” And they really held the Iraqi government at bay at a very difficult time with the idea that, We can take care of it.
Why would countries accept that going forward? They’d say, “Look what you’re doing.” So it’s not only bad from a military-mission perspective, but it’s also bad from the sovereigntist perspective. If what you’re really worried about is other countries exerting control over American service personnel, you’re giving them every reason to do it if you do this.
Or to want to create an international system where these things are taken care of, since America’s not going to take care of it on its own.
Yeah, exactly. It’s just more fuel for the people who say, “America has lost its moral way. We can’t trust them. We really need an international criminal court.”
I should also say that, for all these complex reasons of history and how Americans think of this stuff, at the same time, there’s probably a fairly simple thing going on, which is that, if this was not going on in Muslim countries, this probably would not have become a cause célèbre on Fox and the President might not be doing this.
Yeah. When Charlie Company mowed down men, women, children, old people, on the one hand, they were Vietnamese, and so, “Who cares?” But also, talk about historical parallels, after William Calley was convicted of murder, George Wallace visited him and said, “Look, I don’t see why we should be so upset about a soldier killing more communists.” And so, there is a way in which when you dehumanize and vilify a group, the fact that the military killed some more of them, well, how bad, really, is it?
“Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s,” the association’s president, Jim Neal, and the president of the children’s division, Nina Lindsay, said in the statement. “Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”
.. In the 1935 book “Little House on the Prairie,” for example, multiple characters espoused versions of the view that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” In one scene, a character describes Native Americans as “wild animals” undeserving of the land they lived on.
.. “There’s this subtle but very clear fear generated throughout the books,”
.. the books could be used to educate high school or college students, but were inappropriate for young children.