Saturday, November 28, 2009

Politics and Science Fiction

Paul Kantner and Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane released an album titled Blows Against the Empire in 1970. Besides the fact that it had an incredible lineup of San Francisco area musicians, it was also interesting because of its science fiction theme. Loosely based on Robert Heinlein's novel Methuselah's Children, the album was about a spaceship that had been hijacked by a group of revolutionaries determined to create a new world. If one considers the political milieu of the time the album was created, this desire for revolutionary escape had a certain poetic sense. The antiwar movement had failed to stop the US war on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and the black liberation movement was being murderously destroyed by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Richard Nixon and his henchmen were enhancing an already existing police state apparatus and, to put it bluntly, it looked like the revolution the Airplane had cheered on in their 1969 album titled Volunteers was nothing more than a failed dream. Kantner, like many members of his generation (including Jimi Hendrix), was an avid reader of science fiction. So, since it didn't look like the revolution was going to happen on Planet Earth, why not write a science fiction story where it occurred in the heavens? The album is a blend of musical styles, from a sweet rendition of the Rosalie Sorrels song "The Baby Tree" to the hard rock anthem "Mau Mau (We are the Amerikon) that begins the disc. However, the strength of the work lies in its story about the hijacked starship, the struggles within the crew after the hijacking and the eventual decision to begin anew and leave the old world of war and greed behind.

This past October was the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. The failure of that raid and the subsequent trial and hanging of Brown and most of his troops were some of the first salvos of the US Civil War. Brown's famous statement at the gallows that the "crimes of this guilty land (would not be) purged away but with blood" were some of the most prescient words ever written in US history. They were also a revolutionary call to arms that would propel that struggle against the stain of slavery out of the meeting houses and into the cities, fields, mountains and valleys of the United States.
As we approach the December 2nd anniversary of Brown's hanging, try to imagine an alternate scenario. John Brown and his troops did not get captured that autumn day in 1859. Instead, they made their way back into the hills surrounding Harper's Ferry and set up a camp. While militias and eventually US troops gathered in the towns around the mountain where Brown and his men were camped, a fire burned on the mountain like a beacon to all those men-white and black--who desired an end to slavery and a free nation of all men and women together. Instead of an insurrection fought by slavers and their allies designed to create a nation where the plantation and slave economy would continue to exist, there was an insurrection led by those wanting a nation where neither slavery or wage slavery existed. Now imagine this latter insurrection succeeding and creating a new nation based on these principles and calling itself Nova Africa.
This is exactly the scenario science fiction author Terry Bisson has created in his novel Fire On the Mountain. Bisson dedicates the book to the Black Liberation Army, among others. This edition includes a forward by Mumia Abu Jamal. Bisson was a member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committees during their campaign in the 1970s and 1980s against racism, apartheid, and the Klan and other racist groups in the United States. He is also the author of numerous science fiction works, including Voyage to the Red Planet, the sequel to the sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, and graphic adaptations of Robert Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon and Nine Princes of Amber.
Recently re-released by PM Press of Oakland, CA., this novel takes place in 1959 although with more technological advances. Many of those advances are directly related to the fact that Nova Africa is a socialist nation that has applied its technology to helping people instead of creating profits. There have been at least two wars with the nation formerly known as the United States and an uneasy truce exists between the current incarnation of that nation and Nova Africa. The protagonists include a Nova African anthropologist and her family, a historian at Harper's Ferry, and an adolescent slave boy that lived in Harper's Ferry during the period of Brown's time there who makes his appearance in the novel through a collection of papers he collected and wrote down as an old man.
The story takes place over a few days. The anthropologist, named Yasmin Abraham Martin Odinga, is delivering the aforementioned narrative to a museum at Harper's Ferry. It was the author's wish--her great grandfather--to have the narrative delivered and read on the July 4th centennial of the attack on Harper's Ferry which, for Bisson's book occurred on July 4th, 1859. She is late with the delivery due to an unexpected longer stay at a dig site she was working on in Africa. She is also pregnant and is picking up her teen daughter whose father died in a failed space mission a few years earlier. Bisson weaves this story in between the excerpts from Yasmin's great-grandfather's papers that describes both his adventures and observations during the time of Brown's raid and the subsequent success of the raiders in their struggle against the United States. The story moves rapidly and never stumbles. It is not only an interesting experiment in alternative history, but makes this reader wish it were true.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Judge Roy Bean Takes His Court to Manhattan

After several months of delay due to the legal concerns of his publisher American author Robert Coover published the novel The Public Burning in 1977. This novel is an often humorous and consistently biting commentary on the state of the US empire and the psyche that maintains it. It features (among others) Richard Nixon as the primary protagonist and narrator with occasional appearances from Uncle Sam as a Methuselahian superhero and Dwight Eisenhower as the latest incarnation of the American everyman. The entire tale occurs in the week leading up to the execution of accused atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and ends the night of their execution. Because it is fiction, Coover has moved the location of the execution to Times Square. The setting is possibly the most important aspect of the novel in that it portrays the execution not as the ultimate realization of justice but as a piece of national theater. It is a cathartic political moment designed to prove that the United States of America will not be undone by communists and other anti-American misfits, nor will it succumb to those who disagree with the natural order of things under American capitalism. This show is as much for the American people as it is for the rest of the world. No self-doubt is to be acknowledged when it comes to the American destiny. Coover's Uncle Sam character tells then Vice President Nixon as much in a vision: "We ain't going up to Times Square just to fill the statutorial law...," says Uncle Sam. "This is to be a consecration, a new charter of the moral and social order of the Western World...."
When I heard that Obama's Justice Department was going to try at least five of the alleged 9-11 suspects in New York City I couldn't help but think of Coover's novel. In the same way that the Rosenberg execution was a piece of political theatre designed to insure the US public that Washington had the over-hyped communist threat under control, this trial serves the purpose of convincing that same public that the terrorist threat is also being taken care of. During the trial and aftermath of the Rosenbergs, the US military was fighting a war in Korea and occupying a good portion of the world. Involvement in Vietnam on the side of the French was increasing and the ultra-right was relishing the publicity it had obtained thanks to Joe McCarthy and other anti-communist demagogues. Nowadays, the US military is fighting a war in Afghanistan, occupying Iraq and maintaining military bases around the world. The ultra-right is up to its usual publicity-seeking inanities and the economy is stumbling. It's time for a unifying event. Since (thankfully) attacks on the US homeland don't happen very often, the next best thing to rally the masses might very well be this trial.

Currently, there is a sideshow being whipped up by the rightwing that insists that the defendants should all be tried in military courts. Most of those not among that political minority disagree. The right has nothing to fear, however. Despite all the backslapping statements calling Attorney General Eric Holder's decision a triumph for the American way of justice, justice is not really the issue in these upcoming trials. No, what's at stake here for the empire reaches deeper than that. As far as the empire's guardians are concerned, these trials are about the very nature of the American future. Convictions (and most likely executions of the condemned) are essential to the continuation of the project. Doubt must be purged. Naysayers must be silenced. The attorneys that end up defending these men will be vilified. If the defendants are, by some fluke, acquitted, the jury will live in fear of their own countrymen for a long time. The court itself will be an armed camp reminiscent of the prison in Guantanamo where the defendants were held for years without trial. The effects of any torture endured by the defendants will lurk underneath every accusation and piece of evidence presented.
Given that New York is still one of the top media capitals in the world, don't look for a change of venue for these trials. The message here is not in the courtroom proceedings, but in the presentation of those proceedings. The Lady Justitia will be present, but the real force in this courtroom will be Nemesis, the god of vengeance. He has already made a difference, through the fact of the torture used by interrogators on the defendants. Getting the message that confuses justice with vengeance across will be the task of the media circus certain to ensue. The prosecution and their cohorts on the bench are depending on it.

From the trials in Salem to the hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs; from the deportations of the anarchists and other radicals during the Palmer Raids of the early twentieth century to the trials of antiwar and black liberation activists in the 1960s and 1970s, the history of the United States is full of these rituals of cleansing. It doesn't matter if there are any truly guilty among the prosecuted and persecuted. It only matters that the national soul is cleansed and thereby able to begin its mission again--the mission referred to by everyone from John Winthrop in his discourses written on the passage to the new world to every president that ended his addresses with the words God Bless America. The city on the hill is still being built--now on a planetary platform. First, however, we must rid ourselves of those who don't share our vision of that city but would tear it down. More importantly, we must get rid of the self-doubt among those citizens who think the cost is too high. Vengeance under the cover of justice is just the prescription demanded by Uncle Sam and his saints.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Barely A Peep...Escalation Unopposed

When school started in September 1969 I was attending a Catholic high school located twenty miles outside of Washington, DC. in Laurel, MD. My dad was in DaNang, Vietnam. The seniors at the school were facing an almost certain induction into the military and Richard Nixon had been president for almost a year. Some of the kids who lived closer to DC were working on the big demonstration coming up on October 15 -- the Vietnam Moratorium. The point of this protest was to bring the antiwar sentiment home to every town in the United States. In addition, there was a large protest scheduled for DC. The overall politics were liberal antiwar politics. A few of the nuns at the high school agreed with their efforts and got the school to hold a small meeting of its own. The first person who talked was an Army guy who said the usual Army stuff. Then a pacifist priest spoke. After the two talks and some discussion, those of us who wanted to walked to downtown Laurel and joined the small antiwar vigil taking place there. I don't remember if there were any hecklers, but there were around fifty of us against the war.
Like an acquaintance of mine who helped organize the Moratorium in College Park, MD wrote in an email yesterday: who today wouldn't take massive liberal anti war demos? Indeed. Reports this morning (October 15, 2009) from Washington indicate that Barack Obama is going to send 45,000 more US troops to Afghanistan. At this point it is not clear if this is the entire number or if it is just the number of combat forces. As the Washington Post revealed earlier in the week of October 11th, 2009, when Washington sent some 20,000 troops into Afghanistan earlier this year it did not announce that another 13,000 support troops were also sent over. If this ratio holds true that would mean that there would be closer to 70,000 more US troops in Afghanistan by the time this latest escalation is completed. These numbers would put the total amount of troops involved in the occupier's forces euphemistically called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) very close to 200,000.
200,000 heavily armed invaders on the ground. Untold numbers flying planes and dropping bombs. More sitting in bunkers in the North American desert launching drones aptly named Predator that kill fighters and civilians alike without an ounce of moral hesitation. An unknown number of mercenaries working under the title of contractor. Yet, there is barely a peep from the people of the nations whose men and women wage this pointless and immoral war. With the exception of a few protesters in DC and other big cities and a few thousand college students on twenty six college campuses around the United States, recent calls for protests against the war in Afghanistan and the continued occupation of Iraq went unheeded. The sight of young men and women in military camouflage and crewcuts wearing ISAF patches is becoming overly familiar to travelers in US airports. Yet, there is hardly a peep. The sight of parents crying on the television while their children are buried in caskets covered with the red, white and blue is not uncommon. If the news reports are true and at least 45,000 soldiers are preparing for their assignment to Afghanistan, these displays designed to inspire more such deaths will increase in frequency. All the while families tell themselves their children died for something like freedom when most of us know deep inside that no one but those who send them over there really know why the US military is even over there. When we the people are honest with ourselves we know it has to do with empire and conceit, but those reasons do o not make us feel good.
And there's barely a peep. Liberals and rightwingers in Congress line up behind the Obama who lines up behind the Pentagon and the industry of war. With the exception of a very few, the consensus is that the death and destruction must continue. The comfort of the empire's citizens must not be disturbed. It can not be said enough, the time to speak up is now. The orgy of death is set to increase. One can not add 50,000 more troops whose job is to kill and expect anything else.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Agitator Journalism: Remembering Ramparts

Many folks oriented toward the New Left in the 1960s and early 1970s have a story or two about Ramparts magazine. I personally discovered the periodical in a bookstore magazine rack in College Park, MD in late 1969. I was with a couple friends from high school. The November antiwar protests were over. My friends were buying some books for school and I was reading MAD magazine when I noticed the Ramparts cover. It featured Yippie Jerry Rubin wearing a bandolier and waving a gun. One of the featured articles was about the Pigasus campaign for president--a pointed spoof by the Yippies and others of the US presidential campaign in 1968. When my friends were ready to go, I purchased the issue along with a copy of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf and the latest issue of the local underground Quicksilver Times. A couple days later, I found out that the older brother of another friend of mine had several issues of Ramparts. Whenever I went to his house, I caught up on my reading while listening to his rock and roll collection.
Ramparts was a unique magazine in the annals of US publishing. Flashy, irreverent and replete with quality muckraking and commentary, it represented the unaffiliated segment of the antiwar and antiracist movements of the period. Originally begun as a liberal Catholic monthly in the early 1960s, by 1966 it was well on its way to being the primary journal read by those movement's adherents. A big reason for its popularity and journalistic success was its early editorial leadership of Edward Keating and Warren Hinckle and the dynamics between the two men. Never truly financial successful, Ramparts challenged the mainstream magazine culture of Time and Life while publishing articles quoted and referred to by establishment heavies like The New York Times.
Writer Peter Richardson, editorial director of PoliPoint Press, has recently published a history of the magazine. The only such history, A Bomb In Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, does a worthy job of documenting the important moments in Ramparts history. He tells about its gradual shift from the liberal Catholic magazine envisioned by its founder to a radical journal championing the left wing of the antiwar movement and the Black liberation movement. Focused primarily on the years when Hinckle and Keating ran the magazine's office, Richardson describes Hinckle's fundraising adventures, his flamboyant and outrageous style, the editorial debates over certain stories and the effect some of those stories had on fundraising and their targets. He also discusses the reaction of the US government and its agencies to Ramparts stories like the 1967 piece on CIA funding of the National Student Association and other supposedly independent organizations. Richardson details the arrival of Eldridge Cleaver on the Ramparts staff, examines the magazine's role in the antiwar movement and looks at its response to the growing feminist movement of the period.
Running behind Richardson's narrative about the magazine's editorial direction is another narrative about money. Rarely if ever showing a profit, Ramparts managed to publish for thirteen years. According to Richardson, much of this was due to Hinckle's fundraising efforst. Also, according to Richardson, it was Hinckle who spent a good deal of the money. The magazine actually closed down for a couple months in the winter of 1968-1969. When it came back to life it was run by two new leftists who would eventually become ultra rightwingers: David Horowitz and Peter Collier. It was this incarnation of the magazine that I was most familiar with. Indeed, my subscription ran from 1970 until the magazine's demise in 1975. Like the New Left itself, the Ramparts of this period reflected the ultra-radical sentiments of the period. It also attempted to address women's issues in a genuinely non-sexist manner. Like the Hinckle-Keating creation, Ramparts under Horowitz and Collier continued to attract topnotch writers, despite its inability to pay well or at all.
If there is a fault with Richardson's book, it would be his obsession with the relationship of the Black Panther Party to Ramparts. If anything, he over dramatizes the relationship while also overplaying it. One assumes that this is the result of his discussions with the aforementioned David Horowitz-- neocon activist and Panther hater. This obsession tends to distract from the overall evenness of the book and lends more credibility to Horowitz than he deserves. Despite this detraction, A Bomb In Every Issue is an important addition to the history of the period known as the Sixties and a worthwhile read. It serves as a reminder of the powerful possibilities of the printed word and an inspiration to those of us who believe that journalism can be entertaining, intelligent and threaten the status quo.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Into the Vapid : Consuming the Cultural Product

Britney Spears, American Idol, Desperate Housewives ... The material that passes for popular culture has never been so vapid. Indeed, it's almost too easy to ridicule this stuff sold to viewers and listeners the world around. There is no enlightenment involved in the merchandise presented to us by car companies, banks, and other commercial failures whose primary intent is to convince us that our future involves us spending our money on their products. Indeed, there is not even a pretense or supposition that there should be any enlightenment in the equation. So, we spend our time watching and listening to these entertainment products while we work out how we'll get that new car shown to us every ten minutes during the commercial break.
Trotsky wrote that "every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art." While one might be hard pressed to justify most television shows and most pop music as art, they are what pass for culture. Once, a conversation with a friend who worked as a college faculty member turned to the question of whether film and music reflected or created popular trends and thought. In other words, does the culture we absorb influence us or do we influence it. Naturally, there is no conclusive answer to this question and we did not reach one that day. However, there are some clear examples of each. To begin with, television shows like the quasi-fascist "24" and its less unnerving predecessors like the 007 series of films exist to instill a fear not only of the enemies of the state but of the state itself. Thusly, we are encouraged by these obviously propagandistic works to ignore or consent to whatever illegal and immoral actions taken by those who claim to protect us. Furthermore, we are subconsciously trained to identify the state's enemies as our own. Reality shows like "Cops" further this consciousness.
To substantiate the other side of the coin let me turn to the most popular rock band of all time, The Beatles. These young men arguably began as consumers who picked up musical instruments and replicated the music of their musical heroes, most of whom were bluesmen from the United States. They went on to become the most popular rock group of the 1960s and a cultural phenomenon with out parity. When the band grew their hair long and talked about LSD, were they propagandizing a new way of life or were they reflecting a way of life already in existence? To put it differently, did the Beatles and other rock bands lead the youth of the western world into the counterculture or did the counterculture consume the bands into its community? There is no clear answer to this, of course. The relationship was symbiotic at best and parasitic at its worst. Just like the later phenomenon of hip-hop, the streets created the music and the music in turn mutated, reflected and popularized the culture. Unfortunately, the aspects which were popularized were those that challenged the dominant system the least. In rock music that turned out to be the sex and drugs. In hip hop it turned out to be the sex, drugs and money. Politics and the sense of community were removed in favor of an individualistic pursuit of gratification. In other words, the capitalist ethos prevailed. This makes sense, of course, given that we live in a capitalist society and the companies that produce the music are instrumental players in that society's economy.
Even on the occasion where something truly remarkable that serves a purpose beyond titillation comes into the cultural marketplace--a phenomenon seen in cinema and music more than television--the coverage of the work and its creators is often trivialized if it is covered at all. This was brought home to me recently as I watched the coverage of the Golden Globe Awards at a friend's house. Little was said about the meaning of the films presented but thousands of words were wasted on the clothing worn by various actors and actresses as they walked around outside of the event showing off for the cameras. In the media coverage the following day, more print space was used describing people's clothing and who they were with than on the works that were nominated. When it comes to music, reviewers tend to delve a bit deeper. However, at the end of the year, it is usually the musical works that made the most money that are celebrated in the media events viewed by the general public. This usually means that the works with the least meaning are those which are publicized most. This in turn propels even more sales, leaving works of consequence to linger in the CD bins until they are dropped by the industry.
Books are quite similar. Hundreds, if not thousands of titles, are rarely acknowledged by the media, while certain authors monopolize the sales charts and the minds of the reading public. I see this phenomenon daily as a library worker. Thousands of dollars are spent buying books that read very similar to the last work by an author, while other literature is never ordered. Well-read people end up reading materials that not only endorse the thought processes of the dominant culture of consumption and alienation, but are convinced that they are consequently somehow more enlightened than those that don't read. Once again, we return to the question of which influences which. For example are second- and third-rate crime authors like Patricia Cornwell popular because people like her writing or are these authors popular because the advertising budgets behind them convince people that they should read them precisely because they are popular?
I'm listening to Jimi Hendrix's performance of "Machine Gun" from a concert he performed in Berkeley in May, 1970 while people rioted in the streets against the US invasion of Cambodia. This song is not only a prayer for peace and love. It is about the massacre of Blacks in the streets and Vietnamese in the jungle. It is also a cry for an end to greed and the wars it causes. It is a condemnation of the masters of war and a cry of defiance. I don't think it will be appearing in a commercial any time soon. Do you think Obama has this song on his iPod? Would it make a difference if he did?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Out of the Haze... Into the Darkness--Recalling 1979

I found myself in San Diego, CA. when 1979 began. Our traveling group of friends had left the environs of Santa Cruz a few months previous because we had been told that San Diego had lots of work. Once we got there, of course, we decided that the only work we really wanted was that of the temporary variety. Fortunately there was enough of that so if we wanted to work we could. My jobs included two weeks at the Buck Knife factory and a month at the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island helping build a computerized mechanism that retrieved parts for fighter planes.. Despite its beaches and the city's hip enclave of Ocean Beach, San Diego turned out to be a town of sailors, conservative old people, and a police force full of klansmen. It was not the place for folks like us. Of course, none of us knew this when we arrived except for R, who had spent some time there when he was in the Navy during the war. This time, R was there less than a week before he landed in jail for an open container. At the time, you could drink outside anywhere outside of downtown. R was holding an open can of beer one block inside of the legal definition of downtown the first time he was busted. After that first arrest, the cops busted and beat him nearly every weekend.
We had closed out 1978 with a Grateful Dead show in San Diego's Golden Hall. The music on the radio left a bit to be desired during this period of rock and roll and I could only listen to so much punk before I stopped hearing it. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the Dead Kennedys wildly anarchistic shows at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens and saw the Clash play at a financially disastrous music fest in Monterey in summer 1978. Without a doubt, it was their set along with that of Peter Tosh's that were the highlights of that weekend.
In February, Jimmy Carter brought US forces home from Nicaragua and broke off negotiations with the dictator Somoza. The Shah of Iran was trying to find a place to hide his family after being forced to leave Iran in mid-January. His money had already found a place to hide. Elvis Costello played a rapid-fire forty-five minute set in San Diego's Fox Theatre. They were forty-five of the best musical minutes I ever spent. They played their entire first album and a rock and roll standard or two barely stopping in between songs. The only complaint is I wanted more, but I don't know if Elvis and the Attractions had any more to give. Rhodesia continued its war against its black inhabitants, despite the growing desire of whites to negotiate a better ending than the one they feared. Afghanistan's left-leaning government was under fire from mujahedin who were being armed by Washington and Saudi Arabia. This decision would come back to haunt Washington in the years to come.
In early March, after winning a rent strike we had organized, most of us left separately for the East Coast where we met up at the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina. As fpr that rent strike, the moment I relished the most was when a local television news crew came to the building, interviewed a few of the tenants and then turned to ask the landlord some questions. He was a young dapper kind of guy who lived in La Jolla—a rich folks' paradise in the northern part of San Diego county. The first question he was asked was whether our charges of unhealthy and unsafe living conditions was true. This was after the television crew had filmed the water coming through the ceilings and buckets half-filled with rain water in over a dozen different apartments. His answer was that he would never live in a place like this. Even the newscaster on the six-o’clock news looked a little incredulous after that piece was broadcast. Like I said, we won the rent strike. The buildings were re-roofed and we got three months of free rent.
Sometime while we were enroute to the eastern seaboard, the nuclear power plant known as Three Mile Island suffered a partial core meltdown. The stories from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the plant's owners exposed their ignorance (and their assumption of our ignorance as well) in the face of impending disaster. A few days after the fiddlers' convention, the bunch of us went to a Dead show in Baltimore and--a couple days after that--to a huge antinuclear rally in DC. The Dead performed quite well like they did most of the time in those days. The rally was a bit lukewarm in its politics, but the performance by Bonnie Raitt made it worthwhile. Not long afterwards, we packed up a friend's VW bus and headed west. The route back to the Golden State this time around was through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and the Badlands. From there we headed into Utah and across Nevada. By the time we reached Winnemucca, NV. we could almost smell the Pacific and hear its waves calling us to what we regarded as home.
We arrived in Berkeley the day after the riots in San Francisco following the verdict for the ex-cop who killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone. The six of us spent a month or so looking for a place to live. Most landlords rejected any thought of renting to us as soon as they saw our scruffy lot. Eventually, we did find a place. After listening to the landlord, who happened to be the second largest slumlord in the Eastbay, tell us how hard it was to be rich, we got the keys and moved in. Six of us in three bedrooms. We weren't a collective so much as we were a collection of people. We celebrated our new abode with a case or two of malt liquor and a gallon of wine. Bob Dylan's live album from Budokan was the newest album on our playlist. Jimmy Carter made a speech about a national malaise related to Washington's defeat in Vietnam and the corruption and fascist tendencies that had been exposed by the Watergate bust and investigation.. The Sandinistas were our latest heroes as they fought their way towards an eventual victory in Nicaragua. Nicaragua's malaise was being wiped away by revolution.
Sure enough, a couple months later Somoza fled Nicaragua and the Sandinistas were the new government in that country. From all appearances, it seemed that the Nicaraguan people were for the most part happy with the change. Unfortunately, the next president of the United States would not share their enthusiasm. In Afghanistan, the US stepped up its support of a predominantly Islamist insurgency. On November 4th, Iranian students occupied the US Embassy in Tehran, beginning a countdown on evening newscasts in the US that would end only when the hostages were released immediately after Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in January 1980. The timing of the release of the hostages would eventually be shown to have been arranged by future Reagan officials who promised to work with the rightist elements of the Islamic revolutionary regime and re-arm part of its arsenal by transferring weapons through Israel.
As the year got closer to its end, Jimmy Carter presented the Carter Doctrine to the world. In essence, this doctrine re-emphasized that Washington would do whatever it took to protect so-called vital resources, especially those of the fossil fuel variety. Consequently, this meant Washington would be increasing its military presence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions. Sure enough, within days the Carter administration dispatched the carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and a battle group from the Philippines to the Persian Gulf. Moscow responded in its own way by dispatching Soviet troops to Afghanistan to defend its client government in Kabul. The Cold War was heating up again.
A few days before Christmas, while the sounds of Pink Floyd's The Wall reverberated in our apartment on Berkeley's Dwight Way from the building next door a friend walked in the door with a double album from the Clash titled London Calling. This album was not only the best punk album of the year. It was the best album, period. From the first cut called "London Calling" to the final cut "Train In Vain," this work had everything a rock album could hope to contain. Rebellion, reggae, and straight-out rock and roll. Armageddon, the street, and the essence of love. When our friends who didn't really like punk took a listen to this album, it changed their minds. Meanwhile, the hostages in Iran were still hostages and the wars of Afghanistan were beginning in earnest.
On a personal level, day to day existence during this period was pretty straightforward. No one was chasing the dollar or what passed for comfort in modern America. We had a car that ran most of the time, a roof over our heads, enough money for beer and pot and the occasional concert and record album. Our clothes were from the free box or second-hand stores. We ate lots of rice, beans and potatoes. Sometimes one of the permanent guests sleeping on our floor would buy us all a meal or some liquor as a form of payment for a place out of the weather. It wasn’t expected but it certainly was appreciated. We managed to come up with rent every month and kept the power on.
The 1980s were just around the corner. The beginning of the right wing counterrevolution was at hand. We were not ready for the darkness ahead.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Flashback to the End of a War That Really Did End

April 30, 1975. The war was over. Really over. This wasn't like the peace treaty all the leaders signed in 1973 that didn't really end anything. No, this time it was over. The television in the University of Maryland Student Union showed video footage of helicopters leaving the U.S. embassy roof with a few remaining GIs and other Americans inside while Vietnamese hung on to the sides. Meanwhile the Vietnamese whose side had won were celebrating the entry of NLF and Hanoi forces into Saigon, which was now Ho Chi Minh City.
My friends and I were exhilarated. A war we had known most of our lives was over. A war which seemed an adventure when I was a young boy playing Little League baseball and war games and had become a source of fear and anger as I grew older. A war which took friends of mine and killed some, made others killers and zombies, and forced all of us to grow up before we were ready. A war which took my father away from my family for over a year and had us wondering every day whether he would come back. And had me wondering if my brothers and I would have to go also. A war which showed Americans what America was really about. An America which wasn't pretty, or even honorable. A war which I had begun opposing as a 13-year old by flashing a peace sign and singing "Give Peace a Chance" while my dad was in Danang, and ended up celebrating the victory of America's enemy.
The night of the Vietnamese victory, Pat M. and I invited ourselves to a Student Association-sponsored banquet at the University of Maryland. Pat was a friend and reasonably well-known on campus as a rabble rouser. He had recently begun attending meetings of the radical group I was associated with--the Revolutionary Student Brigades. Once he and I realized we shared a fondness for pot and a passionate dislike of the system, we began to spend lots of time stirring things up. Our roles as campus instigators had made us friends with the more radical elements in the student government which was run by a member of Youth Against War and Fascism at the time. Consequently, we were often invited to members-only functions. If we weren't, most of the time we went anyway.
As for this particular dinner, the food was good, but the wine was better. So much better, in fact, we lifted a half dozen bottles during the post dinner speeches and headed out to the streets to celebrate. On our way to Route 1 and the strip of bars immediately off the University of Maryland campus we stopped at a friend's dorm room and drew up a banner reading, "Long Live the People of Vietnam", and scored a couple tabs of acid and a corkscrew. After all, this antiwar movement was about more than Washington's war against the Vietnamese. It was a war of its own against the consciousness that started the war in the first place. John Foster Dulles, Richard Nixon, LBJ. The fear of communism, sexuality and marijuana. Many of us against Washington's war for empire were fighting another war to make our world a place where fear took a backseat to joy.
By the time we made it to the street the acid was edging out the fog of the alcohol and providing a nice clarity to the night. Pat and I opened a bottle of wine each, spread out our banner, and shouted some revolutionary slogans about Ho Chi Minh and so on. After a half hour or so, another thirty people had joined us. By then we were spilling into the streets, drinking wine and smoking weed. Of course, the police showed up.
The funny thing was, they didn't do much. After asking us what was going on, they told us to stay out of the road and drove off. I'm still not sure what Pat and I told them but, whatever it was, it worked. In retrospect, I put it among those moments where the clarity of psychedelic thought patterns befuddles the linear thinker, the authoritarian, so much that they just don't want to bother with figuring it out. So, instead, they left it alone and hoped we would just go away. Later, we headed into DC to celebrate with a few hundred other antiwarriors.

A couple weeks later, Gerald Ford ordered an attack on Cambodia after the merchant ship Mayaquez was seized and released. A final flurry of killing from a vanquished nation. A decade later, Ronald Reagan was heralding CIA-funded right-wing contras in Nicaragua and Islamic mujahedin in Afghanistan.
Now US soldiers fight the mujahedin's progeny in a war that guarantees its continuation as surely as it spawns another generation of hate. The forces represented by Reagan were the beginning of a long march back to the world that the antiwar movement and counterculture thought it could change. It's not that I'm saying (nor am I convinced) that the forces of linearity and authoritarianism have regained the control they had before the 1960s. However, they certainly have learned how to accommodate and neutralize those strains in the US political and cultural spheres that challenged them so headily back then.
The Democratic Party, which funds every war that comes along whether it started under their watch or not, has become what stands for an antiwar movement in the US. Meanwhile, in the United States, the real opposition to imperial war speaks to an audience deafened by the false hope of an Obama nation.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tearing the Whole Building Down: The Dead in Greensboro, NC.

Sonic waves. Rock and roll sensibilities. Psychedelic blues guitar and rhythmic creativity that very few manage. Superlatives do not exist to describe the sonic treat that met the audience at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina the night of April 12, 2009. I rode from Asheville with a friend and a buddy of hers from high school to the concert. The anticipation was great, but no one knew what to expect. The typical Dead crowd was partying in the parking lot; the bazaar selling everything from beers and burritos to stained glass, t-shirts and intricately designed pipes (plus the stuff to smoke in them). The police maintained a constant but low profile. No major incidents in the parking lot. About an hour before the show I headed indoors. Bought a beer and wandered around, running into a couple friends from various locales.

Once the show began all bets were off. The band began with the song "The Music Never Stopped"- a rock and roll stomper dedicated to those who always hear the music, even when the band has packed and gone. Next was "Jack Straw," one of the classic Robert Hunter tales of the outlaw who is part hustler, part loser, and an essentially good guy who finds himself in situations that have nothing but morally ambiguous endings. The band's work in the first thirty or so minutes was tight yet meandering in the way that one expects a jazz combo to be on a great night. Or, it was like the Grateful Dead was on a good night when Jerry Garcia was still alive. Taking the honors from Garcia was Gov't Mule/Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes. Haynes is a blues and rock guitarist extraordinaire whose legend just continues to grow with each gig he plays. As the set progressed into the sometimes sarcastic, sometimes celebratory "Estimated Prophet" and then the Dead's paean to its fallen inspirations (from Beat legend Neal Casady to Jerry Garcia and beyond) "He's Gone," the music began to reach that space where the best Dead music has always gone. I can't tell you exactly where it is, but it's not of this earth yet is positioned firmly on the firmament the audience is dancing on. Finishing off with what might be termed the Dead's Top 40 hits, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir led the band and audience through "Touch of Grey" and "I Need A Miracle." Replete with the almost mandatory singalongs to certain songs and verses that each listener has hung their own special meanings to, the first set ended in a celebratory version of "Truckin'."
The rhythm section of Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart remain much more than a mere rhythm section. It's not just a backbeat, it's a melodic riff. This would become even more apparent in the second set when they took over the stage for close to half an hour when the rest of the band took their leave in the middle of a jam that began as soon as they hit the stage after intermission. The disco tinged "Shakedown Street" broke the ice and, while folks made their way to a place where security wouldn't insist they sit down instead of dance, the first strains of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" unleashed themselves from Haynes' guitar. From there it was back to the early psychedelia of the Dead's catalog. A jam that began with Haynes singing "Caution, Do Not Stop On Tracks" from the Anthem of the Sun album proceeded into a rhythm section performance that had its roots in the place in the human soul that resides somewhere between the Garden of Eden and the future we do not know. That's a mighty big space, but this rhythm crew can fill it like no other. Entwined in the rhythm section's recital were guitar notes that seemed to come from that space Sun Ra called the place. The rhythm section solo came back around with another hippie classic titled "Cosmic Charlie" from the 1969 album Aoxomoa and then bassist Lesh lent his vocals to "New Potato Caboose"--a song that sometimes sounds like it was written by Arnold Schoenberg after he attended a blues club on acid.
The set continued with a sonic adventure lifted from the first side of the 1975 Blues for Allah album. This series pf songs, which begins with the jazzlike "Help On the Way" slides into the instrumental "Slipknot" and releases itself in the anthemic "Franklin's Tower" with its directive to "roll away the dew." It was during this part of the concert that I was reminded of John Coltrane's album Ascension. The music that came from the stage in Greensboro during this segment came down in walls without dimensions. Walls that overwhelmed the structure they were meant to contain. Walls that crumbled from their own depth and breadth of sound. Walls that became waves of musical substance without limit. Walls that resolved themselves in the dance that "Franklin's Tower" insisted on.
And then, it was over. The band played the blues classic "Samson and Delilah" for an encore. This is a song that claims that "if he had his way, he would tear this whole building down." Although the Greensboro Coliseum was able to contain the Dead this evening, if they continue to perform as they did the opening night of their tour, there may come a time when no building can.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Daring to Struggle, Failing to Win: A Review of The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History: Volume 1: Projectiles For The People

Much has been written about the German leftist guerrilla group the Red Army Fraktion (RAF). Naturally, most of what has been written is in German. Most of what has been written (or translated into) English has generally been of a sensationalist nature and composed mostly of information taken from the files of the German mainstream media and law enforcement bureaucracy. The reasons for this approach include, among others, the nature of the RAF's politics. Leftist in the extreme, they lay beyond the realm of what can be expressed in media that exists to support the capitalist state. Add to this the criminal nature of their actions and the way lay clear for media coverage that ignored the intrinsically political reasons for the group and its acts. We see a similar type of anti-political coverage today when the capitalist media covers the actions undertaken by anarchists and others at international meetings of the capitalist governments and imperial defense pacts like NATO. By deemphasizing the politics of the protesters, the actions of the State seem to be a rational response to the average reader.
Although it is difficult to separate the RAF's theory from their actions--actions which included murder--if one does so they find an application of left theory that perceived the anti-imperialist resistance in the advanced industrial nations (First World, if you will) as just another part of the worldwide anti-imperialist movement. It was this conclusion that the RAF used to rationalize their attacks on US military installations in 1972 during their anti-imperialist offensive.. They did not believe the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) to be in a revolutionary situation, but justified their attacks via the argument that the US and other imperial forces (German and British) should be attacked wherever they were, not just in Vietnam or another country where they were engaged in overt warfare. This approach echoed the slogan popularized by the Weatherman organization in the US-Bring the War Home.

I lived in Frankfurt am Main, Germany during the period described in this book. I attended protests against the Vietnam War, in support of the burgeoning squatters movement (and against property speculation) in Frankfurt, against the Shah of Iran, in support of gastarbeiters rights and against the repressive regimes in Turkey and Greece. I also attended concerts and street festivals where the German counterculture mingled flamboyantly with the US servicemen and adolescents that abounded in the country then. When the IG Farben building and Officer's Club in Frankfurt am Main were attacked by the RAF, a serious security effort became part of our daily lives. School buses taking us to the American High School in Frankfurt were boarded by military police who checked our bags while other GIs used long-handled mirrors to check underneath the buses for explosive devices. German police and military set up shop at airports and train stations, holding automatic weapons. Autobahn exits were the site of roadblocks. Wanted posters featuring the faces of the RAF members appeared everywhere. The Goethe University in Frankfurt came under increased police surveillance, especially after the playing of a tape-recorded message from RAF member Ulrike Meinhof at a national conference there. A protest held against the US mining of northern Vietnamese harbors and intensified bombing of the Vietnamese people was patrolled by police armed with automatic weapons. Nonetheless, many of the protesters chanted "Fur den Sieg des VietCong, Bomben auf das Pentagon!" (For the victory of the NLF, bomb the Pentagon). The following day, the Pentagon was bombed by the Weather Underground.

Recently, PM Press in California published the book The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History: Volume 1: Projectiles For The People. This voluminous work includes virtually all of the communiques and theoretical pamphlets published by the RAF from 1970 to 1977. This period is considered the first period of the RAF--an organization that saw its original leadership imprisoned after the aforementioned bombing offensive against US military installations in Germany. These members were followed by another set of individuals drawn to the RAF mostly through support organizations that developed to protest the conditions of the RAF's imprisonment and their eventual deaths that many still believe were state-sanctioned murders. Over the next two decades , hundreds of others would join the organization to replace those imprisoned and killed. Besides the text written by the RAF, the editors have written an accompanying text that provides a take on the history of post World War Two West Germany that has been mostly unavailable to English readers.

The RAF was an intensely sectarian organization. They saw most of the rest of the German Left as revisionist or opportunist, unwilling to make the commitment armed struggle required. Besides invalidating the gains won by the autonomist squatters' movement and other independent groupings, this analysis ignored the fact that other approaches might have been more effective in the long term. By positioning itself to the left of all other leftist groups in Germany, the RAF insured its limited effectiveness. Once the State was able to capture its primary membership and literally isolate them in prisons, the RAF's purpose moved away from challenging the imperialists to one of staying alive inside a draconian and psychologically debilitating prison environment.
Indeed, as this book clearly demarcates, the bulk of the work of the RAF in the 1970s centered around the nature of their existence in prison. In what would become a harbinger of the future we live in, the German prison authority and its departmental ally the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) developed an architecture and series of mechanisms designed to destroy the minds of the RAF prisoners. Isolation cells painted completely in white where the neon light never went off. No contact with any human for months at a time. The use of informers and ultimately a trial held in a specially designed prison courthouse that took place without the defendants or their attorneys. In addition, laws were passed that criminalized not only the act taken by the attorneys to defend their clients but also the acts of any individuals who opposed the actions taken by the State against the RAF prisoners. Of course, this enabled the RAF to point out the unity of purpose between the right wing CDU-CSU West German government and the SPD (with obvious comparisons to the role played by the German Social Democrats after World War I when they used the rightwing militia known as the Freikorps to kill members of the revolutionary Spartacists). The special laws enacted against the RAF and its supporters contained many elements of laws now in existence in the US, realized most fully in the Patriot Act.
While the RAF was certainly successful in exposing the fundamental authoritarianism of the modern capitalist state through their hunger strikes and other actions, they did nothing towards rebuilding the anti-imperialist movement that the 1972 actions were conceived in. This created a situation where their developing analysis of imperialism and the struggle against it became essentially moribund. In other words, the repression by the German government and its allies was successful.
The editors of this work, J. Smith and André Moncourt, have created an intelligently political work that honestly discusses the politics of the Red Army Fraktion during its early years. Their commentary explains the theoretical writings of the RAF from a left perspective and puts their politics and actions in the context of the situation present in Germany and the world at the time. It is an extended work that is worth the commitment required to read and digest it. More than a historical document, The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History: Volume 1: Projectiles For The People provides us with the ability to comprehend the phenomenon that was the RAF in ways not possible thirty years ago.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pulling Karzai's Strings-Obama as Puppeteer

In November 1963, the US-sponsored president of southern Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was murdered by members of that country's military. The murder was (at the least) tacitly supported by Washington and was partially due to Diem's attempts to operate independently of Washington in regards to the war his military was fighting against Washington's enemies--the National Liberation front and the northern Vietnamese army. After a series of political machinations that included a stint by Nguyen Cao Ky as prime minister, a general named Nguyen van Thieu was named president after a show election in 1967. He was chosen because he would do Washington's bidding. His administration was known for its corruption and acquiescence to Washington.

In the middle of March 1970, while Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia was out of his country, the United States government engineered his removal from power. He was replaced by military strongman and CIA puppet Lon Nol. Sihanouk had consistently refused to allow US troops to operate in Cambodia. Simultaneously, he ignored the presence of Vietnamese troops fighting the United States military in Vietnam. Of course, this angered the Pentagon. Indeed, the United States Air Force had been illegally bombing the country of Cambodia for close to a year without telling the US public and much of Congress. Within weeks of the CIA coup in Cambodia, Richard Nixon ordered a ground invasion of Cambodia. That invasion was met with a massive wave of public protest across the US and much of the rest of the world. The protests resulted in the deaths of six students in the United States, untold numbers of injuries, and a national crisis that was only calmed after Nixon agreed to withdraw the ground troops.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the United States has put in place a number of men to lead that nation according to Washington's desires. Some of these men were appointed and were clearly pawns of Washington, while others came to power wearing a pretend cloak of legitimacy provided by elections controlled by Washington's occupation authority. All of their governments were known for their corruption. The current leaders exist at Washington's pleasure, even though they pretend otherwise. This is obvious from the backtracking done by the current Prime Minister al-Maliki regarding the withdrawal of US forces from his country. Back in December, much was made of the fact that he was insisting on a complete and unconditional withdrawal from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and a total withdrawal from the country by 2011. Recent statements by Mr. al-Maliki indicate that he is no longer insisting on this timetable.

I mention these governments and their fates in light of recent news coming out of Kabul, Afghanistan. According to many news reports over the past few months, Washington is growing frustrated with the regime of Hamid Karzai. If one recalls, the government of Mr. Karzai is a creation of Washington as much as those of Nguyen Van Thieu or Lon Nol. In other words, he owes his current position of power to powerful elites in DC, not to any people or factions in Afghanistan. Yet, he has spoken out repeatedly against US air raids in Afghanistan that indiscriminately kill civilians. Like the governments mentioned above, Mr. Karzai's government is rampant with corruption. History tells us that Washington is quite willing to look the other way when it comes to corruption as long as the crooks under their control do its bidding. Indeed, the very presence of US forces and money is part of the dynamic which encourages such corruption. Apparently, Mr. Karzai is no longer considered to be playing by those rules and attempts to unseat him are growing. According to reports out of European capitals, Washington intends to create a new appointed position in the Afghan government--a chief of staff or prime minister--that will be given the real power to carry out Washington's goals for the Afghanistan it wants to create. By creating this position and filling it with a man willing to do Washington's bidding, Mr. Karzai's presidency will be rendered politically impotent. Reports about these and other changes in Washington's Afghan strategy are currently being dismissed by Obama administration spokespeople. As for Karzai, he responded by saying (without irony) "Afghanistan will never be a puppet state."
I suppose Mr. Karzai should be grateful that he isn't being murdered like Mr. Diem.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over--Protest the Occupations and Wars of Washington


As Barack Obama's troop escalation begins in Afghanistan and talking heads debate how many more troops the US should send, the leadership of what was once the largest antiwar organization (UFPJ) in the United States rejected a call for a unified antiwar protest on March 21st, 2009. Instead, they issued a call to go to Wall Street on April 4th, 2009 and encourage the war profiteers to move "beyond a war economy," while toning down the demand to end the wars and occupations now to a demand to merely end them. Like antiwar organizer Ashley Smith told me in an email: "(That is) something Dick Cheney could support." The implication of this call by UFPJ is that now that Barack Obama and the Democrats are in power, there is no longer any need to protest against war. Not only is this incredibly naive, it is downright dangerous for the future of the world.


As anybody who has paid the least bit of attention to the nature of the US economy over the past century, its very foundations rest on the production of war and materials for war. Also apparent to those of us who have been paying attention is that the Democrats are just as responsible for this reality as the Republicans are. Just because George Bush and his administration were personally reprehensible and their arrogance and disregard for principles most Americans hold dear was as obvious as the nose on Pinocchio's wooden face doesn't mean that the policies of the Democrats are substantially different.

Consequently, the antiwar movement would be foolish to think they have a government of allies in Washington, DC now. There may be a more personable bunch of folks ruling the country now, but the odds of those folks pulling out of Afghanistan or Iraq now instead of later without a major push from the American people insisting that they do so are about as poor as they were under the Bush administration. The time for the antiwar movement to demand that the Obama administration end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is now, before its political ego becomes entangled in a military exercise that is ill-advised, poorly done, and just plain wrong.

Walking through New York's financial district carrying signs expressing a hope that the trillion dollar war economy will go against its profit margin because it is morally wrong to profit from death is not a bad thing. It might feel good and even change some minds, but it won't change the bottom line. And it is the bottom line that must be changed. Understanding this fact requires the antiwar movement to be united and specific. The demands are simple: Bring all of the troops back from Iraq and Afghanistan now. Not in 2010, or 2011 or 2012, but now. Both of these operations have gone on long enough, no matter what the generals tell Obama or the American people. Since the Pentagon hasn't been able to accomplish what it wanted despite being militarily engaged for close to a decade in both countries, it's high time that we insist that our timetable be put into effect.

Fortunately, a coalition has formed around this simple demand. The National Assembly to End the Wars and the ANSWER coalition have joined forces and are holding protests in at least three major US cities on March 21, 2009. Washington, DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be the sites of these protests. In addition to calling on the Obama administration and Congress to remove the troops from Afghanistan and Iraq now, the protests also address the issue of US support for the violent occupation of Palestine by Israel--another important issue that the UFPJ prefers not to highlight in their public calls to join their protest.

Unless and until the issue of Palestine is addressed in an honest and just way that does not merely echo the desires of the Israeli expansionists, things in the Middle East will remain volatile and dangerous. According to most public opinion polls, the majority of Americans understand this yet Washington continues to support Tel Aviv no matter what it does--murderous attacks on Gaza or illegal settlements in the West Bank, it doesn't seem to matter. The US money and weaponry continues to flow. Additionally, in the wake of recent election results in Israel, the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran (with at least tacit US support) grows stronger. Unless the US government is put on notice that this is beyond the pale, the current relative calm in the Middle East and South Asia will become a thing of distant memory.


It is not my intention to disregard or disrespect UFPJ's march on April 4th in New York. Indeed, if one can attend that protest and one of the protests on March 21st, please do. However, if one has to choose, the intentions of the March 21st protests are certainly more immediate and, if the world without war that UFPJ envisions is to ever occur, essential to that vision. After all, in order to move beyond the war economy, doesn't it make sense that we must end the wars/military occupations currently taking place? If we don't get this message out there, those who want to expand the war in Afghanistan and ultimately bring it into Pakistan on a much greater scale will assume they have the approval of the US public. The job of the antiwar movement is to let them know that this is not the case. March 21st, 2009 is the first national manifestation of this in the Obama era..

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Obama Bowing to the Masters of War?

The American people did not elect the Pentagon. They elected Barack Obama based a good deal on his promise to get US troops out of Iraq sooner rather than later. Since he was elected, Mr. Obama has hedged on this promise. Since he was inaugurated, the Pentagon and its civilian boss Robert Gates have hedged even more. Now, they insist, US troops should remain until the Iraqis hold a national election that is as of today not even scheduled. Then, even after that election is held, the departure of some US troops should depend on the outcome of the election. In other words, the Pentagon and Defense Department are telling Mr. Obama that no US troops should leave Iraq unless the election results meet the expectations of Washington.

This is exactly why Robert Gates should be removed from his position. Just like the American voters did not elect any of the generals pushing for a continued occupation of Iraq, neither did they elect Mr. Gates. His continued presence in the halls of official Washington is an ugly reminder of the destructive, disastrous and disavowed policies of the Bush and Cheney regime now in exile. It is bad enough that even if Barack Obama overrides the Pentagon and Mr. Gates and sticks to his sixteen month withdrawal plan there will still be around fifty thousand US troops in Iraq. This is because Obama's call to bring all troops home from Iraq that began his campaign somehow morphed into a call to bring home only those troops determined to be "combat troops." This categorization involves a constantly changing number of troops and is a definition that seems to fluctuate at the whim of Generals Petraeus and Odierno.

No matter what, it is not what millions of US voters voted for on November 4, 2008. It is also why those millions have no reason to give Mr. Obama an inch of slack on this issue. If he won't stand up to those men and women that insist on carrying out the policies of his predecessor, then Mr. Obama deserves to hear that from those voters. Democracy in the United States didn't end with Obama's inauguration. Indeed, the time to exercise one's voice and raise it in opposition to the actions and policies of the elected government is when it actually starts to govern. Unless the Obama administration is held to the fire on its promise to end the Iraq war and occupation within 16 months, it is unlikely that it will end then. Furthermore, the likelihood of all troops being out of Iraq by 2011 as promised in the Status of Forces Agreement signed in 2008 diminishes, also. After all, what motive would there be to end the occupation in 2011 if there is no demand from the American people that the Obama administration stick to its promises regarding Iraq?

Many US voters across the spectrum believe that Mr. Obama deserves a little time to establish himself as president. Give him a few months, they say. While this is a worthy and magnanimous gesture, it does not apply to the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of these operations have not achieved their stated goals and the continued killing of local citizens by US and their client forces will not achieve those goals in the future. To pretend otherwise is pure folly and defies the basic facts of the past eight years. A good part of the reason the violence in Iraq has died down lies with the expectation that US forces will be leaving soon. There are other reasons, including the security clampdown across the country and the sheer fact of a population exhausted from conflict, but a substantial reason for the lull in violence is the hope that with the US leaving there will come a new Iraqi sovereignty and some kind of genuine peace. This hope can die very quickly if the resistance forces inside Iraq come to believe that the US intends to stay.

As for Afghanistan, the seven years of US war and occupation of that land has done nothing but further destroy that broken nation's infrastructure, increase support for the Taliban, enhance the production of opium, and stifle the nascent movement for better treatment of women and children. That's just the obvious failures of this ill-informed mission. There was never a good reason to invade that country in the first place. The motivation for the original attacks was revenge, plain and simple. There was little or no connection between the thousands of Afghan civilians killed since that first attack and the forces that killed thousands in New York and Virginia, but the people in Washington wanted blood so they went after Afghanistan. There is no reason to continue the killing. It is time to stop. Washington can trade partners and install a new regime that won't criticize US air raids, but it can not change the fact that its battle in Afghanistan will drain the swagger from the US empire just as it has done to the Soviet and the British empires before it.

There are at least two antiwar protests coming up in spring 2009. If Barack Obama is not taking the path towards peace that he was elected to take by then, it is essential that those who voted for him with the understanding that US troops would be leaving Iraq (and not going to Afghanistan) attend at least one of these protests. That is what democracy really means.