This Week's Show •

Losing The Peace

Our guest David Blight reminds us that Americans are re-fighting the Civil War 150 years after it ended. Historians, he said, “buried the questions at the heart of the war” and lost the truer, harder ...

Our guest David Blight reminds us that Americans are re-fighting the Civil War 150 years after it ended. Historians, he said, “buried the questions at the heart of the war” and lost the truer, harder story. The young historian Kendra Field finds more “silence” on the forced black diaspora that came in the wake of the conflict and our brief experiment with racial democracy, which died along with Reconstruction. A century and a half after Appomattox, Blight says the cause of the war may still be lost:

The two great strands of legacies from that war and from Reconstruction are in race and the question of rights. Every time we think we’re finally getting over our race problem in America or we’re becoming something called post-racial, we get shocked to realize — no we’re not… We are living through a huge, new, modern late 20th, early 21st century revival of states’ rights. Especially at state level, state legislatures, but of course in our Congress. All you’ve got to do is look at the front page of the newspaper any day about any number of issues: resistance to Obamacare, resistance to the Environmental Protection Agency, resistance to any kind of new federal immigration law, resistance to the Interstate Commerce Clause, resistance to taxation…. What I mean by that phrase — that the issues of the Civil War are not really over and the war could still be lost — is that it’s the struggle over these issues that still could be lost.


 

We’re looking back 150 years to Appomattox, the famous site of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Grant, commonly identified as the end of the Civil War. But history’s the extension of war by other means — and a bitter fight’s ensued over the memory and meaning of that war ever since, according to Blight, with “Lost Cause” historians revising the image of the Confederacy and black scholars staying on the sidelines.

The historian Bruce Catton wrote about that supremely quiet moment of surrender and finality:

All up and down the lines the men blinked at one another, unable to realize that the hour they had waited for so long was actually at hand… It was Palm Sunday, and they would all live to see Easter, and with the guns quieted it might be easier to comprehend the mystery and the promise of that day. Yet the fact of peace and no more killing and an open road home seems to have been too big to grasp, right at the moment, and in the enormous silence that lay upon the field men remembered that they had marched far and were very tired, and they wondered when the wagon trains would come up with rations.

“The war is over,” Grant declared, but forebade his men from cheering, allowing the defeated Confederates to return home to work their ravaged land.

But Grant was wrong: the war continued on battlefields, in Southern resistance, in political violence, and in our memory.

So we’re asking, in the collective will for re-union, did we let big questions go unsolved? What about the true equality of blacks and white, of the elites and the poor who serve and reward them. We’re still haunted by the spirits of guilt and retribution, of anger and resentment — of two interdependent Americas that may also be incompatible.

At the 150th anniversary of the end of the civil war, who gets to tell the story of America’s defining tragedy?

A Walking Tour of Civil War Boston

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And get into the field trailing our producers Max Larkin and Conor Gillies on the abolition trail over Beacon Hill and around Boston’s great parks. It’s a proud part of this city’s history that drew on complex heroes — black, white, male and female: Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, William Monroe Trotter, Garrison, Sumner, and Phillips.

Head to our Medium page for more: 60 Minutes To Freedom: How To See The Civil War in Boston

September 25, 2014

America’s War of Ideas

In the run up to another war in the Middle East, after stalemate in Afghanistan and Iraq, what is it in the American DNA that makes us think it it will be different the next time? What is the story we continually tell ourselves about our indispensable nation that seems to cloud the facts on the ground?

In the run up to another war in the Middle East, after stalemate in Afghanistan and Iraq, what is it in the American DNA that makes us think it it will be different the next time? What is the story we continually tell ourselves about our indispensable nation that seems to cloud the facts on the ground?

It boils down to two poles of the American personality personified by two iconic Americans:  the rough and ready Teddy Roosevelt and his teacher, the pragmatist William James. Do we respond more to the dream of an indispensable nation with a monopoly on freedom, faith, and the high ground or the notion of pragmatic realism and restraint and the insistence on testing every idea by its results?

The historian Jackson Lears says the Roosevelt triumphal vision of America has itself triumphed: we go to war, and make decisions, based on a deathless dream of winning the day. We’re thinking through both sides of the century-old conversation in the person of Seth Moulton: Harvard graduate, Marine officer and veteran of Iraq, now on his way to Congress after a primary challenge that unseated the nine-term Representative John Tierney.

Hillary Clinton, at the start of her pre-election media blitz, says we’re failing to tell the American story. But just which story is it? Are we charging up San Juan Hill, or are we settling down and growing up?

September 18, 2014

Inside the Islamic State

We're looking inside the Islamic State: as a phenomenon and as America's latest enemy in the endless war on terror. Do we know who they are, or how we plan to defeat them? President Obama says they aren't Islamic and aren't a state. It's clear they're a dangerous mad storm of Arab anger armed, in part, with hand-me-down American weapons. Could this be the coming Caliphate that Dick Cheney warned us against? What if it’s blowback that his Iraq War fired up?

We’re looking inside the Islamic State: as a phenomenon and as America’s latest enemy in the endless war on terror. Do we know who they are, or how we plan to defeat them? President Obama says they aren’t Islamic and aren’t a state. It’s clear they’re a dangerous mad storm of Arab anger armed, in part, with hand-me-down American weapons. Could this be the coming Caliphate that Dick Cheney warned us against? What if it’s blowback that his Iraq War fired up? For a little perspective, let’s look back at the beginning of the Islamic State, known in 2004 as Al-Qaeda in Iraq:

This Week's Show • September 11, 2014

What’s Left of Liberal Zionism?

We're looking at liberal Zionism, enduring a crisis after a brutal summer in Gaza. It's prompted handwringing for American Jews and Israelis who are still looking for a way to peace, and still worried about the clash of democratic and Jewish ideals in the political culture of Israel.

We’re looking at liberal Zionism, enduring a crisis after a brutal summer in Gaza. It’s prompted handwringing for American Jews and Israelis who are still looking for a way to peace, and still worried about the clash of democratic and Jewish ideals in the political culture of Israel.

It’s a testing time for a moderate ideology in an age of extremes. In his new and controversial book, My Promised Land, the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit — perhaps the most prominent of the liberal Zionists writing today — begins his history in Lydda. The Palestinian town was evacuated of its 50,000 residents by Israeli force in 1948. Shavit concludes that this is where the problem of Zionism lies:

The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be. In retrospect it’s all too clear.

Where does this leave us in 2014? Two peoples, two claims to territory, two distinct histories — and no agreement. Is something like a liberal Zionism possible?

August 11, 2014

WWI: The War of the Century

This week we’re talking about the guns of August, fired one hundred years ago this month. And we’re wondering what kind of century we inherited from the First World War. Alongside power politics and industrial killing, there was a revolution in art, in the novel, in music and in antiwar ideas in exhausted Europe and over here.

Our question this week: How do we like living in the world that the Great War made? Leave us a message. This week we’re talking about the guns of August, fired one hundred years ago this month.

And we’re wondering what kind of century we inherited from the First World War. Alongside power politics and industrial killing, there was a revolution in art, in the novel, in music and in antiwar ideas in exhausted Europe and over here. This week, we’re talking with the historians about the causes and consequences of what you might call the war that poisoned a century. We’re still putting out fires that were set in 1914 — and it’s tempting to imagine that it could have gone differently.

This Week's Show • August 7, 2014

Andrew Bacevich: America’s War for the Greater Middle East

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a "vital" focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a “vital” focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

Andrew Bacevich, the military historian, veteran and professor of international relations at Boston University calls it America’s War for the Greater Middle East and says there’s no end in sight. This fall he’s teaching a twelve-week online course on the history of that long war: he begins it in the Iran hostage crisis during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, through stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the first Gulf War, then September 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jump into our timeline and suggest your own alternative policy approaches or argue the premise.

April 10, 2014

Are We Numb to Nukes?

We’re thinking our way through a plausible nuclear emergency with Elaine Scarry who reminds you – we’ve got a weapons monarchy in this democracy. How can we call it a democracy, the rule of the people, when there’s one man’s finger on the trigger that could destroy us all?
Eric Schlosser: Nuclear Nightmares
Cold Wars, and How to Survive Them
Richard Rhodes
Nukes by the Numbers

Guest List

Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, and author of Thermonuclear Monarchy, along with The Body in Pain and On Beauty and Being Just;
Hugh Gusterson, anthropologist, professor at George Mason University, and author of People of the Bomb and Nuclear Rites.

We’re thinking our way through a plausible nuclear emergency with Elaine Scarry who reminds you – we’ve got a weapons monarchy in this democracy. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin wall and a nuclear football still accompanies the president at all times,  nuclear missile silos still dot the great plains, and hundreds of nukes remain constantly on alert. How can we call it a democracy, the rule of the people, when there’s one man’s finger on the trigger that could destroy us all?

Other people have shown, without alluding to nuclear weapons, how odd the picture of Hobbes had gotten around the 1950s and beyond. He seemed to have been turned into a monster. And yet, if you look at the timing, that is the nuclear age, and he was made to serve that purpose. These things take many different forms, and if our structures of thermonuclear monarchy demand that we give up the Constitution, it’s not that an executive goes out and says  (except maybe Nixon), “Okay, now I’m saying let’s get rid of the Constitution.” That would be preposterous. But, people start giving all different kinds of accounts of why we don’t need to follow the Constitution. “Oh, that was something from several centuries ago,” “Oh, that was something associated with nation-states and we’re above thinking of nation states now.”

Now, sometimes, you do have executives willing to say, “Look, we can’t do things constitutionally because I have a lot of power here.” There’s the amazing moment when Dick Cheney said—and I cite this in the book—on a television program, in response to questions about torture in the Bush administration and Guantanamo, instead of saying, “You’re over-estimating executive power,” says, “You guys are not thinking clearly. What we did is nothing compared to the power the president has. Day and night, he’s being followed around with a nuclear briefcase. Don’t deceive yourself. His power is far beyond what you imagine.”

We seldom have people talking so candidly, and when they do, we think, “Oh that’s just a bizarre stylistic feature of Dick Cheney.” That’s not a bizarre feature; that’s a candid statement of fact.

Elaine Scarry in The American Reader

Take a look at Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto’s animated view of every nuclear test from 1945 to 1998 — no less terrifying because of its retro look:

 Reading List

• More of Elaine Scarry’s interview with The American Reader, and a feature on the book in Harvard Magazine;

• Hugh Gusterson’s audit on an Orientalist double standard in nuclear weapons:

The presumed contrast between the West, where leaders are disciplined by democracy, and the Third World, where they are not, does not hold up so well under examination. The governments of Britain, France, and Israel, not to mention the United States, all made their initial decisions to acquire nuclear weapons without any public debate or knowledge. Only in India was the question of whether or not to cross the nuclear threshold an election issue. Pakistan also had a period of public debate before conducting its first nuclear test… There also have been problems with U.S. command and control.

• Louis Menand’s review of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, “Nukes of Hazard,” The New Yorker, and an excerpt from the book;
• The Memory Palace (audio), “Babysitting,” a radio story on Donald Hornig, babysitter to the bomb.

 

 

By the Way • March 17, 2014

The Armor You Have

If you come to see the emblem of the police department of your small town on the door of a giant armored truck, you'll have seen the end of a long story — the story of America's lurch into and out of what's sometimes called, in Pentagon jargon, the battlespace. Consider the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected): in effect, an enormous armored truck.

This piece is a follow up to our March 13, 2014 show, “Will We Ever Get Over 9/11?”

If you come to see the emblem of the police department of your small town on the large door of an armored truck, you’ll have seen the end of a long story — the story of America’s lurch into and out of what’s sometimes called, in Pentagon jargon, the battlespace.

Consider the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected): in effect, an enormous armored truck. A typical model, the Navistar MaxxPro, weighs almost 38,000 pounds — not a tank, technically, but only thirty percent lighter than the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that charged down Iraqi highways in the Gulf War. You can tell an MRAP by its nautical-looking V-shaped hull, high off the ground, a small architectural change that diverts much of the force of explosions coming from below. (The innovation dates to 1960s and ’70s, to the colonial armies of southern Africa, of the 1960s and ’70s engaged in guerrilla warfare against rebels prone to laying mines.)

One Navistar MaxxPro now belongs to the police department of Madison, Wisconsin; there’s another in Watertown, New York. The Georgia communities of Waycross, Cartersville, Doraville, and Newnan each have their own large armored vehicles. In fact MRAPs and machines like them now appear in semi-official photographic tableaux on law-enforcement homepages across the country. Ohio State University has an MRAP; Virginia Tech has one that appears during athletic events, with the Nike “swoosh” logo and the words, “PREPARE FOR COMBAT” across the back. These vehicles look like bigger versions of the ones that gathered redundantly around the Arsenal Mall during Boston’s post-Marathon manhunt last April, and that roll back and forth down Storrow Drive on the Fourth of July.

We may forget that many of these vehicles were built for a military purpose: to endure the kind of explosive that is never detonated in the United States, to win the sort of war that we are supposed to have left behind.

The U.S. Department of Defense called a new wave of MRAPs into being in 2007 in an attempt to counter the improvised explosive device, or IED, which was still wreaking havoc on American forces in Iraq. This was fully two years after a frustrated army specialist—one of thousands who had been asked to prepare for IED attack by, at worst, affixing plywood and sandbags to his Humvee—confronted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a town-hall meeting in Kuwait. His question: “Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up armor our vehicles, and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” Rumsfeld’s reply may serve as the epitaph of the entire war.

Memos from the weeks following show Rumsfeld worrying aloud about armored trucks to Pentagon brass, but quickly he was reassured. No one, he was told, was going to be asked to travel around Iraq without sufficient armor: “They are simply going to change the tactics… That issue ought to be eliminated, one would think.” Two days later, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff, followed up: the Army would stick with the (supremely vulnerable) Humvee, while it considered whether to buy MRAPs and which ones. Over the next two years, IEDs would continue to kill and maim soldiers — 993 dead, more than 11,000 wounded — unless they were riding in MRAPs. According to one manufacturer, Force Protection, Inc., its model, the Cougar, was hit 3,200 times over five years, but only five of its passengers were killed. It is unclear who to blame for the slow trickle of these vehicles into the warzones through the end of 2006, but it is clear by now that many parties — Secretary Rumsfeld’s office, the contracted manufacturers, and military leadership — share responsibility for the protracted vulnerability of Americans at war.

It was Rumsfeld’s replacement, Robert Gates, who openly embraced the MRAP, ordering more than 15,000 vehicles by the end of 2007 and jumpstarting production. $44 billion was earmarked for the vehicle program in total. This allotment was for the most part separate from the more than $20 billion spent on the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the search for a durable high-tech solution to the roadside-bomb problem which is considered one of the wars’ great sources of waste. Together, the initiatives amounted to at least $64 billion spent in response to a weapon, the IED, that costs around $30 to make.

Across 2007 and 2008, IED and other violence dropped across the board in Iraq, following the surge in troop levels. It is not clear to what extent the late-coming MRAPs played a role, or what good effect they might have had on veterans’ lives or on the course of the American adventure in Iraq if they had been available in sufficient numbers from day one. There are now 10,000 and more of the vehicles in Afghanistan, the graveyard of Soviet tanks.

***

Now we are witnessing the transfer of these specialized, heavy-duty war machines to domestic law-enforcement agencies of varying size. Under the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, more than 13,000 MRAPs, once sorely needed and now denoted as “excess property”, have been offered to sheriff’s departments, prisons, and campus police for free or for the price of shipping. (Business Insider likened it to buying a preowned luxury sedan with 100,000 miles on the odometer.)

The acquisition program has alarmed both the ACLU, which began a “Towns Don’t Need Tanks” campaign last year, and a more extreme libertarian set online. When the website Infowars reported (erroneously) last year that the Department for Homeland Security was going to acquire 2,700 MRAPs for itself, some posted strategies for disabling the vehicles if they were ever put to use on American citizens in what’s called the “S.H.T.F.” contingency. Recommendations include tipping them over (they have a high center of gravity), leading them into holes hidden under leaves, and blowing them up using homemade IEDs.

Many of the officials acquiring the MRAPs admit the vehicles’ overkill aesthetic. But they’re also clearly pleased, both by their power to intimidate and by the fire-sale price. If they cost nothing, if they were going to be reduced to scrap metal anyway, they are post-consumer material. There can be no complaint of waste no matter how, or whether, the MRAPs are ever needed by the small-town police forces that inherit them. Sheriff Wayne Gallant of Oxford County, Maine (pop. 57,481), whose office received one Navistar MaxxPro, gave a shrug to the Bangor Daily News: “It’s just going to be a safety tool, it’s not going to be used as a patrol unit or anything like that… Maybe it will never be used.”

As soldiers waited in Iraq and Afghanistan, now we wait here — not for the armor-plated rescue vehicle, but for the emergency that could warrant its place in our lives.

— Max Larkin.

March 13, 2014

Will We Ever Get Over 9/11?

Are we getting over 9.11? What is it doing to our character, our culture, our Constitution? We’ve been through the flags-everywhere stage, the foreign invasion response, the big build-up of surveillance and eavesdropping, interrogation, with torture – all in the name of security, but do we have a word for the fear we sense inside the new Security State?
The Armor You Have
Pico Iyer: An Empire in Isolation

 

Guest List

Here’s an awkward question that may be urgent: Are we getting over 9.11?  Will we ever? Do we want to?  Is it a scar by now, or a wound still bleeding? Is it a post-traumatic-stress disorder?  What is it doing to our character, our culture, our Constitution?  After a monstrous attack on the American superpower, is there anything like those five stages of individual grief — some version of the famous Kubler-Ross steps: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance?  We’ve been through the flags-everywhere stage, the foreign invasion response, the big build-up of surveillance and eavesdropping, interrogation, with torture – all in the name of security, but do we have a word for the fear we sense inside the new Security State?  Do we have a word for the anxiety that a War on Terror can feed on itself forever? A decade and a half out, are we a different country?

We’re imagining this as an ongoing series, with conversations and podcasts to be added as we go. Have you any suggestions for people we should speak with? Writers? Historians? Critics? Your next-door neighbor?

Reading List

Osama expected to die by violence, as he did.  Sadly, he probably died a satisfied man.  In addition to alienating Muslims and the West from each other, as was his aim, he achieved so many other transformations of the order he sought to overthrow… He catalyzed two wars.  He bears responsibility for the death of thousands in the West and hundreds of thousands in this region.  The unfunded financial burden of the conflicts he ignited has come close to bankrupting the United States.  Indirectly, it is upending the international monetary system.  It has produced recession in the West.  Osama will have been pleased.

Podcast • March 13, 2014

Pico Iyer: An Empire in Isolation

On the matter of “getting over” 9.11, what would it take to “see oursels as ithers see us,” in Robert Burns’ prayer? Yesterday we spoke with the writer Pico Iyer. I think of him as our eyes and ears on the global culture. We put the question to him: How are we Americans looking to the rest of the world in this long post-traumatic time?

On the matter of “getting over” 9.11, what would it take to “see oursels as ithers see us,” in Robert Burns’ prayer? Yesterday we spoke with the writer Pico Iyer.  I think of him as our eyes and ears on the global culture. He had Indian parents, an English boyhood, American university education and now citizenship; he’s married to a Japanese woman, and his home base now is rural Japan, but his career is traveling to the far places – Somalia, Iran, Latin America on recent assignments.  We put the question to him: How are we Americans looking to the rest of the world in this long post-traumatic time?