The Biggest Worries of 2016

An empty dining room decorated in an opulent European style.

Optimism is to be cherished, but, given the state of the world, it may be a foolish indulgence.  The times call for levelheaded engagement, not the dreamy complacency that optimism breeds.  Faith in our political system, in the American people, or in the capacities of elected leaders: faith like that has yielded small rewards lately.  The glue of trust that valorizes American government is disintegrating.

That the US has fallen into troughs of mediocrity before (think of the Gilded Age culture Mark Twain pilloried) is one of the few thoughts that consoles me.

Our national capacities matter more then ever, given the dire condition of the world, our institutions, and many of our communities.  What can we bring to 2016’s daunting prospect, a prospect defined by several cosmic and worrisome possibilities?

1. World War Three?

If it breaks out, it will be a war like no other, as was also true of World Wars One and Two.  In fact, it may already be underway.  We may not know it, simply because we are in the same situation as those who lived through other world wars. We watch as an unconventional conflict erupts and spreads in a fashion that the world order is unprepared to protect itself against.  In Syria and with the Islamic State, aggressors are working with playbooks that defy borders and prevailing conceptions of war and nationality.  As in previous wars, the Middle East’s war-within-a war has geographic and strategic traits that have already begun enmeshing a widening set of parties, both psychologically and militarily.

2. The decline of national sovereignty

World order as we know it is based on the concept of the nation-state: that states and powers have boundaries, and that, within those boundaries, all are subject to a nation’s laws.  The international order and our concepts of war are built on the notion that nations are sovereign.  In the many parts of the world, the concept of the nation-state has allowed humans to live peacefully under the rule of law.

These days, the integrity of the nation-state and the inviolable nature of national sovereignty are losing salience.  A host of contributing forces, both economic and geopolitical, was strikingly evident in 2015.  While Greece’s economic crisis exposed the mutual discontents inherent in the great experiment known as the European Union, its member-states are increasingly fractious, as the incidence of terrorism and a massive influx of refugees from war-torn and dysfunctional parts of the world have highlighted their loss of internal control.

Global mobility has increasingly challenged the static bulwark of the nation state, but the world’s leading powers have also rained insults on its integrity. Whether it’s Russia in the Ukraine, or the US in Syria, the superpowers frequently allow their desires to override their respect for the sovereignty of nations that they dislike.  Their increasing resort to overt and covert interventionism mocks the concept of national sovereignty.  Even changes in technology–such as the increasing sophistication of air-to-ground warfare–have made it easier to ignore and violate the clear boundaries that formerly protected nations from one another and impeded a general descent into war.

3. Witchy weather

Climate change, global warming—call it what you will, it’s a major worry.  Unbreathable air; murderous landslides; droughts and forest fires; glaciers melting, oceans rising.  Whether you’re a scientist or a believer in the Biblical end-time, you may agree (while wearing shorts in winter) that ‘Old Mother Nature’ is trying to tell us something.  Resource exhaustion is how a planet’s inhabitants typically do themselves in.  With omens like this, why worry about bombs?

4. The twin bankruptcies of Chicago and Illinois

Chicago and the State of Illinois are bankrupt already.  They just haven’t admitted it yet because of the shame.  The most powerful people in our state, especially the state legislators and Speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan, will be remembered as the people at the helm when the ship went down.

Poor governance alone is to blame for Chicago and Illinois’s difficulties, for, ironically, both are richly endowed entities, with great human capital and masses of valuable resources and assets, including some of the world’s most productive farmland.  Illinois has one of the largest GDPs in the country, but it is saddled with a growing and inescapable debt load consisting chiefly of unmet pension obligations, the legacy of decades of corrupt and self-interested leadership.

The collapse of a major American city and its state AT THE SAME TIME has no precedent in US history.  History will remember and damn the leading politicians who for decades have written bad laws and abused the people’s trust.  Hold on to your hats, all Illinois!  2016’s going to be a bumpy ride.

5. A Donald Trump presidency

Beyond the well-aired controversies that Donald Trump inflames, his ascendancy portends chaos in the political realm.  Not only does Trump’s unwelcome prominence prove that the Republican National Committee has lost control of the party; it also shows the degree to which both parties and their personnel have lost touch with the sentiments of the electorate.  Whether Trump can convert viewers into votes remains to be seen, but if he polls well, we’re going to find out what happens when a candidate upends an entrenched national party.

Image: Carol M. Highsmith, Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island,
from this source.

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A war with an end

Massive crowds gathered around a replica of the Statue of Liberty near Philadelphia's city hall to celebrate news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918.
On this day, many nations pause to remember their war dead, the soldiers who have served and fallen, especially those who served in World War One.

What the US celebrates as Veterans Day began as a peace celebration on November 11, 1918, with the end of the pitiless conflict known as World War One.  The announcement that the war had ended with the signing of a multinational peace agreement, or Armistice, triggered massive spontaneous jubilees in many places worldwide.  In Europe, the States, Canada, even New Zealand and Australia, vast crowds gathered in the ceremonial centers of cities to cheer the end of a struggle that had cost the warring nations many millions of lives.

This marvelous photograph shows Philadelphians celebrating the word of peace that day.  Horrible as the war was, the photograph conveys a feeling of pride, even as it commemorates a sort of war unfamiliar to us today.  For World War One had a definite beginning and end.  When the United States entered the war on 4 April 1917, it was with a formal declaration of war from Congress.  President Woodrow Wilson had struggled to maintain a stance of neutrality toward the war for the previous two-and-a-half years, during which time public sentiment in favor of the war had gradually built.

Once the US had entered the war, there was a draft.  Over a million men were mobilized.  By the end of the war, 18 months later, American forces had suffered some 320,000 casualties, the majority being wounded, with tens of thousands being lost to death and disease.  Being at war demanded something from all society, taxing the economy to its limits and requiring sacrifice on the part of civilians, as the signs around the Philadelphia square suggest.

Hence the massive outpouring of joy when the war reached a definite end, and the blessed condition known as peace was attained for a time.

Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Click on the image to go to the source.

A foreign policy free of condescension

Map of Iraq war in progress (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The real-time war in Iraq. Click image to go to the changing map on Wikipedia.

A condescending view of other nations drives much of US foreign policy, but it shouldn’t.

The US doesn’t trust other nations and regions to take care of themselves, and it often acts according to its own notions of what other countries need.  It continues to do this as it racks up failure after failure testifying to the arrogance and futility of its approach. Continue reading

The Burial of the Unknown Soldier

Arrival of the remains of the unknown, November 1921 (Courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

In 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice ended World War One.

Some 1.2 million American troops were massed on the western front, in France.  In the last two months, they had aggressively and successfully battled German troops for control of the Argonne Forest.  This massive, culminating Allied assault, which compelled Germany to seek a negotiated peace, left some 26,000 Americans dead and another 95,000 wounded.  Their commanders knew an armistice was imminent, yet nearly 11,000 Americans were lost on the war’s final day.

Cruel as the costs of the battle were, American casualties in ‘the Great War’ (1914-1918) paled beside those of Europe.  France’s casualties alone totaled over 6.1 million, representing 73 percent of its mobilized force.  Of these, over a half-million were listed as prisoners or missing.  Britain’s casualties were more than 3.1 million, while Russia, which had mobilized 12 million men during the war (an astonishing number), saw 4.9 million wounded, 1.7 million killed.

Comprehending the magnitude of these losses and the nature and extent of the war’s damage was a social and philosophical struggle that would last for years.  The nations’ profound grief found expression in many forms.  Land and culture would long continue to bear the scars.

The war left soldiers without any recollection of their identity; it left psyches shattered from shell-shock, nerves damaged by gas.  Faces and limbs mutilated.  Corpses far too incorporeal to identify.  The war truly annihilated many combatants, depriving families the consolation of reclaiming their loved one’s remains.

In response, several nations moved to enact the symbolic burial of an unknown soldier in a ceremonial Tomb.  By interring a single anonymous warrior, they sought to honor and immortalize all who were lost and nameless.  The Tombs offered national recognition to numberless soldiers and their families, whose losses and sacrifices History had otherwise rubbed out.

Workers constructing the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington House.

In 1920, France and England were the first to bring such plans to fruition.  They interred their ‘unknowns’ in tombs at the Arc de Triomphe and Westminster Abbey.  The United States followed suit in 1921, bringing the remains of an unknown American soldier back from France for ceremonial reburial at Arlington Cemetery.  Workers labored for months, building the Tomb and a new Memorial Amphitheater too.

The ceremony was scheduled for November 11, which Congress declared should henceforth be known not as Armistice, but as Veterans, Day.  The coffin of an unknown American who died in the war’s last battle was randomly chosen from among four specially exhumed from the American cemetery at Meuse-Argonne.

The coffin of the unknown soldier aboard the USS Olympia (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Transported across the Atlantic in the U.S.S. Olympia, the body arrived at the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9.  General Pershing and other top brass received the body in an  elaborate disembarkation ceremony. The day was rainy.  The coffin lay on an upper deck under a tent of flags.

Lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia)

The body was taken to the Capitol, where, with the honors usually reserved for deceased presidents, it lay in state in the Rotunda, under a military guard.  President Harding (at right) and others (General Pershing, at left) came to pay their respects.  The bier was heaped with funeral wreaths, with more arriving every minute from all over the country.

Burial procession of the unknown, November 1921 (Courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

On Veterans Day, crowds clogged the streets, leaned from windows, and climbed rooftops, to witness the funeral cortege as it rolled by.  Six black horses pulled the caisson, at the head of a long procession that included President Harding, former President Woodrow Wilson, and ranks of the military.

President Wilson en route to the burial of the Unknown Soldier (Courtesy Library of Congress)

President Wilson rode in a carriage, even though he was an auto enthusiast and horse-drawn conveyances were by then an anachronism.

The Unknown Soldier's funeral cortege (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Crossing the Potomac into Virginia, the procession finally neared the grave.

Cameramen atop the Memorial Amphitheater (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Crowded atop the colonnade of the new amphitheater, cameramen documented the vistas, the participants, the pageantry, the scene.

President Warren G Harding beside the remains of the unknown soldier, Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, November 11, 1921 (Courtesy of the library of Congress via Wikipedia)

On a dais banked with flowers and festooned with funerary garlands, President Harding stood by the casket of the Unknown Soldier and addressed the crowd.

The Unknown Soldier being laid to rest (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Finally, the unknown soldier was laid to rest, while, beyond the crush of attentive mourners, a peaceful countryside stretched.

Some of the day’s events were even captured on film.

Hand-colored photographs are from the E.B. Thompson Collection,
courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr.

Film clip courtesy of historycomestolife.
All other photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress.

RELATED:
Faked Repatriation of US Military Remains Today, the Daily Mail (UK).

Peaceful co-existence

Modern life is war, © 2013 Susan Barsy

Peaceful coexistence: this is my prayer.

With respect to Syria:

1.  If the US is intent on avenging deaths from chemical weapons, it should be asking, “Why these deaths?” and “Why should we be the avenging party?”

2. If the US is seeking to punish those guilty of using chemical weapons, it should do so in a way that punishes only the guilty.  This would suggest using mechanisms set up for bringing to justice persons guilty of crimes against humanity, or possibly using covert means.

3.  If the US is seeking to reinforce the general prohibition against chemical-weapons use, it should use a strategy that will really achieve this aim.  Bombing Syria to cripple its air power (and hence its capacity to “deliver” chemical weapons) is a crude and doubtful means to achieve this aim.  Nor will bombing Syria have the effect of deterring Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

The United States has fallen into a bad habit of being over-active militarily.  Its leaders say it is in the nation’s interests to bomb Syria, that it will advance many sweeping aims, like making the US itself safer from chemical weapons attacks.  Instead, its interventions in remote countries have the opposite effect, sowing hatred and resentment in the hearts of foreign peoples–and justifiably so.

A courageous power would turn away from the temptation of easy violence, which Americans perpetrate readily, thinking it bears no cost to themselves.  The day the United States chooses to conduct itself as a nation among nations is the day it confirms its status as a mature and lasting power.

War Dead

The remains of American soldiers awaiting internment at Arlington National Cemetery (Photograph by E.B. Thompson, courtesy DC Public Library via Flickr Commons)

On April 6, 1899, Washington DC photographer E. B. Thompson rode out to the cemetery at Arlington, where the remains of several hundred officers and soldiers were about to be buried.  The men had died in the late war with Spain, a brief affair that both began and ended the previous year, bringing the US control of Spain’s former island possessions—Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—and the independence of Cuba.

The coffins represented a fraction of the 3,000 Americans who died, felled not so much by their adversaries as by tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever.

Now, belatedly, they were to be buried.  The coffins lay suspended over long trenches dug in a new section of the cemetery.  Many of the remains were unidentified, so coffins of the known dead were carefully positioned at the ends of the rows that would be most visible during the ceremony.  Thompson positioned himself near the presidential viewing stand and took this picture.  It is an image as raw as the landscape itself, the kind of grim tribute to the fallen that we hardly ever see.  It was colorized later.

A crowd of some 15,000 people, along with President McKinley and other dignitaries, gathered for the funeral rites.  A newspaper in New Brunswick, Canada, carried a full account of the proceedings.   The work of burying the coffins began after the crowd dissipated, a tough, tedious job that took several days.

Image: E.B. Thompson photograph, “Interment at Arlington National Cemetery,” 1899.
Courtesy DC Public Library Commons, from this source.