Nick Turse: When is a ‘base camp’ neither a base nor a camp?

Sometimes, to see the big picture you need to focus on the smallest part of it, as Nick Turse does in the latest of his dispatches on the U.S. military in Africa.  He takes a look at that military in Chad.  Yep, I said “in Chad.” At least 99% of Americans are undoubtedly unfamiliar with that landlocked African country and most of the remaining 1% have no idea that the U.S. military is already deeply involved in that (if you don’t happen to be Chadian) obscure land.

It’s easy enough to link the word “imperial” to the United States in a lazy fashion.  But if imperial has any meaning in the post-colonial twenty-first century, it certainly means that the (super)power in question has an active interest in attempting to control significant swathes of the planet.  In fact, there has never been a power, no matter how “great,” which has, in such a militarized way, tried to put its stamp of control on so much of Planet Earth.

It has, for instance, garrisoned the Greater Middle East from the Chinese border in Central Asia to the Balkans in an unprecedented fashion.  For decades, it considered the Pacific Ocean an “American lake” and garrisoned islands across it in a similarly unprecedented fashion.  Between 1945 and 1973, it fought two wars in Asia, at the cost of millions of lives, leading to a still-unresolved stalemate in Korea and a defeat in Vietnam; from 1980 to the present, it has fought a barely interrupted war in Afghanistan and since 1990, three wars in Iraq.  It has also conducted air strikes in countries ranging from Pakistan and Yemen to Syria and Somalia, intervened disastrously in Lebanon and Libya, among other places, and come to the edge of war (while launching a “cyberwar”) in Iran.  And that doesn’t even exhaust the list of conflicts.

In recent months, the U.S. has “pivoted” (the term of the moment) back to Iraq even as it has been quietly bolstering its already impressive military strength in a “pivot” to Asia.  At the same time, with a remarkable lack of publicity or media attention, it has begun pivoting into Africa.  Americans know next to nothing about this (unless they’ve been reading the last two years of reporting on the subject by Nick Turse at this site) and yet the U.S. military is now in one fashion or another involved with 49 of the 54 countries on that continent.

If you need evidence that Washington’s intentions are indeed imperial and that the White House and the Pentagon consider just about every patch of land on the planet to be the business of this country, and fertile soil for that military, then spend a little time “in” Chad today.  Once you’ve absorbed just how involved our military already is there, you can multiply those efforts across Africa, across the Middle East where they only intensify, and across Asia where they are also ramping up, and you’ll begin to take in a heavily garrisoned planet of war on which the U.S. remains (however haplessly) the unipolar power.  And tell me that, when you’ve considered the small picture and the big one, we’re not talking about imperial Washington. Tom Engelhardt 

The outpost that doesn’t exist in the country you can’t locate
A base camp, an authoritarian regime, and the future of U.S. blowback in Africa
By Nick Turse

Admit it. You don’t know where Chad is. You know it’s in Africa, of course. But beyond that? Maybe with a map of the continent and by some process of elimination you could come close. But you’d probably pick Sudan or maybe the Central African Republic. Here’s a tip. In the future, choose that vast, arid swath of land just below Libya.

Who does know where Chad is?  That answer is simpler: the U.S. military.  Recent contracting documents indicate that it’s building something there.  Not a huge facility, not a mini-American town, but a small camp.

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Michael Klare: The new Congress and planetary disaster

Looking for a little hope on climate change?  Believe it or not, it’s here and it’s real. And I’m not referring to the fact that, at least temporarily, oil prices have gone through the floor, making environmentally destructive “tough oil” projects like western oil-shale fracking and Canadian tar sands extraction look ever less profitable.  Nor do I mean the climate change deal that was just reached at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and is being called “historic.” It’s true that President Obama made a positive move at that summit, another symbolic gesture in its wake, and is promising more of the same in the future.  These steps to check the worst future depredations of climate change have been hailed as perhaps more transformational than they are.  Nonetheless, in the face of a new Republican Congress in which anti-climate-change hawks may outnumber war hawks (no small feat), this is well worth noting.

I’m talking, of course, about the potentially carbon-reducing long-term deal between the planet’s two major greenhouse gas polluters, between, that is, Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.  Both of them have been running “all of the above,” drill-baby-drill — or in China’s case dig-baby-dig and import-baby-import — energy programs to devastating effect. China, for instance, is slated to bring online the equivalent of a new coal-powered plant every 10 days for the next decade, even as it’s taken a leading position in developing solar power technology.

The steps agreed to in somewhat hazy language by the two presidents fall far short of what will be needed to keep this planet from overheating drastically, and yet they do at least pave the way for the first global climate change negotiations that might actually matter in a long while.  The genuinely good news, however, was none of the above.  It has to do instead with the thinking behind Obama’s Beijing decision.  The “architect” of the American negotiating position, months in the making, was presidential senior adviser John Podesta. And here’s what you need to know about him: he’s reportedly going to leave the Obama administration early in 2015 to run Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. This means that he’s essentially committed the leading Democratic candidate in 2016 to run her campaign on Obama’s gesture in China and whatever other climate change moves he plans to make in the coming year — on, that is, reducing carbon emissions.

As Coral Davenport of the New York Times explained recently, the thinking behind this is clear.  Despite the historically low-turnout 2014 midterm elections, Podesta — and the Democrats — are making a different kind of bet on 2016 based on polling figures showing that, among key presidential election year Democratic demographics (young voters, Hispanics, African Americans, and unmarried women), concern over climate change is rising in striking ways.  In other words, if you can tune out an election in which an aging 19% of the prospective electorate swept a whole crew of climate deniers into office and focus on deeper, longer-term calculations, something is happening, possibly generationally, that’s potentially big enough to change future elections.

It’s big enough, at least, to catch the attention of pragmatic political types in Washington, and may be the beginning of a tectonic transformation in this country.  Despite the power of Big Energy and the present hue and cry about “job destruction,” a “war on coal,” and all the rest, a rising climate movement could potentially transform our politics and our world.  No one who attended the enormous climate change rally in New York in late September could doubt that this was so, but that John Podesta has also been paying attention matters.  It tells us in a nitty-gritty way that sometimes the work of activists does pay off.

All those years in the (overheating) wilderness organizing and proselytizing, all those years when the mainstream media managed to look the other way, all those years when climate change activists in groups like 350.org had to struggle to avoid despair, may turn out to matter.  That’s the positive side of the picture.  Then there’s the other side, and it couldn’t be grimmer, as TomDispatch’s energy and climate-change expert Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today. Tom Engelhardt

Fossil-fueled Republicanism
The Grand Oil Party takes Washington by storm
By Michael T. Klare

Pop the champagne corks in Washington!  It’s party time for Big Energy.  In the wake of the midterm elections, Republican energy hawks are ascendant, having taken the Senate and House by storm.  They are preparing to put pressure on a president already presiding over a largely drill-baby-drill administration to take the last constraints off the development of North American fossil fuel reserves.

The new Republican majority is certain to push their agenda on a variety of key issues, including tax reform and immigration.  None of their initiatives, however, will have as catastrophic an impact as their coming drive to ensure that fossil fuels will dominate the nation’s energy landscape into the distant future, long after climate change has wrecked the planet and ruined the lives of millions of Americans.

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Laura Gottesdiener: A tale of two cities, post-bankruptcy

It was July 1987 and I found myself in a cool, dark, completely packed movie theater, perched on the edge of my seat.  The crowd was raucous, the mood electric.  That night, I didn’t care about popcorn or soda or candy.  I was still in grammar school.  I had never seen an R-rated movie in the flesh. And this was the R-rated movie to beat all R-rated movies — ultra-violent, unbridled expletives, even fleeting partial nudity. It narrowly avoided an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, for god’s sake!

I had been desperate to see RoboCop since Orion Pictures began a relentless ad campaign weeks before it opened.  Part man.  Part machine.  All cop!  Only because the stars magically aligned was I not relegated to waiting the usual year to watch it through the squiggly lines, scrolling screens, and snowy interference that typified 1980s cable pay-channels that you hadn’t actually paid for.

All these years later, for good or ill, some scenes I viewed that sultry night — and again and again afterward through pay-channel snow — remain firmly lodged in my brain.  Like the one in which police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is literally shot to pieces by the gang of criminals who rule the city of Detroit in what was pictured as a not-so-distant dystopian future. (The crucifixion!)  Or the scene at the police station shooting range leading to the big reveal: Murphy has been transformed into a cyborg cop and is being sent back to clean up the urban warzone that cost him his human life. (The resurrection!)

What really stayed with me, however, were the subversive qualities of director Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire, which poked fun at an imagined Reagan-era-on-steroids version of twenty-first-century America, complete with faux television commercials for a gas-guzzling luxury car that revels in its obscene size, a board game that trivializes nuclear terror, and a tasteless ad for an artificial heart clinic (in the days before real-world TV screens were overrun by ads for pharmaceuticals).  Then there were the news reports about U.S. troops fighting rebels in Mexico and a lethal malfunction of the Star Wars missile defense system.

What also stuck in my brain was Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, a malevolent mega-corporation — equal parts Lockheed, Halliburton, Cyberdyne Systems, and Soylent Industries — which plays an outsized role in the film.  A privatized prison profiteer and shameless peddler of military arms with plans to bulldoze the Motor City and construct a gleaming tomorrow-land in its place, OCP is making sky-high profits, while corporate president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) stands to make even more by lording it over a criminal syndicate that will provide drugs, gambling, and prostitutes to the million men building the new “Delta City” on the ashes of “Old Detroit.”

OCP has also entered into a contract with the beleaguered city to run local law enforcement and Jones envisions replacing the cops with battle droids known as ED-209s.  “After a successful tour of duty in Old Detroit, we can expect 209 to become the hot military product for the next decade,” he says during a slick presentation in the corporate boardroom.  But when ED-209 proves tragically dysfunctional during a test run, a young OCP up-and-comer undercuts Jones with his RoboCop program.  And since OCP runs the cops, they can repurpose the remnants of poor Alex Murphy’s bullet-blasted body to make their electric dreams come true.

Now, I could accept the idea of a cyborg cop that lives on baby food and moves with all the subtlety and grace of a 1960s electric can opener. But a privatized Detroit police force? Come on! There’s a limit to the suspension of disbelief.

Of course, I lived to see the real Detroit fall into abject decay, go bankrupt, and have its police declare the city unsafe for visitors.  “The explosion in violent crime, the incredible spike in the number of homicides… for officers trying to work 12 hours in such deplorable, dangerous, and war-like conditions is simply untenable,” said Donato Iorio, an attorney for the Detroit Police Officers Association in 2012.  It sounded like a statement straight out of RoboCop — and in some ways, so does TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener’s latest piece of striking reportage from America’s new urban wilderness.  Today, she takes us on a fantastic voyage through what Paul Verhoeven and my pre-teen self could only imagine — the real-life Old Detroit and Delta City: one being investigated by the United Nations for possible human rights violations, the other turned into a privatized, securitized, billionaire’s experiment in better living through dystopian surveillance.  Maybe she didn’t get to go on a ride-along with Robocop, but Gottesdiener’s arresting dispatch from the passenger seat of a private police force’s prowl car in the Motor City sure brings back memories of that future. Buckle up! Nick Turse 

Two Detroits, separate and unequal
A journey across a city divided
By Laura Gottesdiener

In late October, a few days after local news cameras swarmed Detroit’s courthouse to hear closing arguments in the city’s historic bankruptcy trial, “Commander” Dale Brown cruised through the stately Detroit neighborhood of Palmer Woods in a Hummer emblazoned with the silver, interlocking-crescent-moon logo of his private security company.

Brown rolled down the window to ask a middle-aged woman walking her dog whether everything was okay (it was), and whether she had seen anything out of the ordinary (she hadn’t). Satisfied, he continued on, guided by a futuristic tablet map of the neighborhood’s languid streets. These had become even more impenetrable last year when the bankrupt city paid for and constructed a series of traffic barriers on the community’s edges. On his right, he pointed out, was the Bishop’s Residence, a 30-room Tudor Revival castle originally commissioned by a family of fabulously wealthy automobile pioneers who later sold their company to General Motors.

“This is the part of Detroit that most people are not aware of,” Brown told filmmaker Messiah Rhodes and me. And indeed, the turreted neighborhood did look far more like something you would find in Detroit’s mostly white suburbs than deep inside the city itself.

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Shamsi and Harwood: An electronic archipelago of domestic surveillance

Let me tell you my modest post-9/11 dream.  One morning, I’ll wake up and see a newspaper article that begins something like this: “The FBI is attempting to persuade an obscure regulatory body in Washington to change its rules of engagement in order to curtail the agency’s significant powers to hack into and carry out surveillance of computers.” Now, wouldn’t that be amazing? Unfortunately, as you’ve undoubtedly already guessed, that day didn’t come last week. To create that sentence I had to fiddle with the odd word or two in the lead sentence of an article about the FBI’s attempt to gain “significant new powers to hack into and carry out surveillance of computers throughout the U.S. and around the world.”

When it comes to the expansion of our national security-cum-surveillance state, last week was just another humdrum seven days of news.  There were revelations about the widespread monitoring of the snail mail of Americans.  (“[T]he United States Postal Service reported that it approved nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.”)  There was the news that a “sneak and peek” provision in the Patriot Act that “allows investigators to conduct searches without informing the target of the search” was now being used remarkably regularly.  Back in 2001, supporters of the Act had sworn that the provision would only be applied in rare cases involving terrorism.  Last week we learned that it is being used thousands of times a year as a common law enforcement tool in drug cases.  Oh, and on our list should go the FBI’s new push to get access to your encrypted iPhones!

And don’t forget the reports on the Bureau’s remarkably creative attempts to cross various previously forbidden search and surveillance lines.  Last week, for instance, we learned that FBI agents impersonated a media outfit, creating a fake Associated Press article in 2007 in order to implant malware on the computer of a 15-year-old suspected of making bomb threats.  (“The AP said the plan undermined the independence of the press. The story also compromised its credibility to gather news safely and effectively, especially in parts of the world where its credibility relies on its independence.”)  Similarly, news tumbled out about a recent investigation into illegal gambling in which the FBI turned off the Internet in three Las Vegas luxury “villas” that belonged to the Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino and then sent in its agents without warrants as “repairmen,” in the process secretly making videos that led to arrests.

Call it just another week of ho-hum news about American intelligence and law enforcement outfits running roughshod over American rights and the Constitution.  And then, of course, there are those ever-expanding watchlists meant to keep you safe from “terrorism.”  As Hina Shamsi and Matthew Harwood of the ACLU point out, the web of watchlists on which Americans might now find their names circulating is staggeringly, redundantly vast and still expanding.  It essentially adds up to a post-9/11 secret system of identification, they write, that once would have boggled the American imagination but is now just an accepted part of the American way of life. Tom Engelhardt

Uncle Sam’s databases of suspicion
A shadow form of national ID
By Hina Shamsi and Matthew Harwood

It began with an unexpected rapping on the front door.

When Wiley Gill opened up, no one was there. Suddenly, two police officers appeared, their guns drawn, yelling, “Chico Police Department.”

“I had tunnel vision,” Gill said, “The only thing I could see was their guns.”

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Rebecca Solnit: Feminism and men

In my experience, when it comes to women, young men lie to each other in grotesque ways and those lies are foundational to what, at least in my youth, was men’s culture. My own learning curve on this was uncomfortable indeed and I’ve never forgotten it. In the early 1960s, I went to Yale, an elite all-male college. It was still a time when, if you were walking along a street with a friend and your hands happened to touch, you jumped as if electricity had shot through you and reflexively began to make jokes about “fags.”

My particular problem in those years when it came to male culture, women, and of course the topic of the moment, sex, was that I was experience-impaired and quite shy about that fact. Two alternatives were then available, or so it seemed to me: lie through my teeth and be one of the boys or keep quiet. I chose the latter option, not out of any essential purity of spirit but out of embarrassment, out of a feeling that I wasn’t really your basic man’s man. The result proved curiously educational, and deeply unsettling. I regularly sat through spiraling bouts of intra-male bravado in which guys pumped themselves up while denigrating each other (and above all women) by lying outrageously, and I did so in silence. The unexpected twist was this: that silence was sometimes mistaken for knowledge, for a deeper understanding.

Here’s one vivid memory of just how this worked. Yale’s residential colleges had courtyards and one day from our third-floor window I heard a roommate, returning from spring vacation, yelling from that courtyard that he was no longer a virgin, that he had “screwed” his girlfriend. He bragged ceaselessly about this for the next 24 hours, upping the ante on what he had done, and just how spectacular it all was, while others pitched in with their own tales of sexual bravado. I said nothing. Finally, clearly because I hadn’t joined in, he pulled me aside and told me the actual story of a desperately failed encounter, a nightmare for him and undoubtedly even more so for his girlfriend. It was hair-raising. Among other things, at that age I didn’t want to know how bad it could be (and keep in mind that, back then, information about sex was in distinctly short supply in the society at large).

All of this represented a truly poisonous system that was everyday life for boys. Until I grew up, until feminism came along, I wasn’t going to be privy to just what that culture felt like from the other side of the aisle, just how grimly those lies and the “truths” that went with them often played out in women’s lives, but at least I knew in a modest sort of way just how badly it all played out in my life. When I think of the online male trolls of the present moment, I imagine a modernized version of that grim male culture of self-inflicted lies running riot in a new world of social media which is open, at least, to the rest of us to see. It’s so much clearer now just how poisonous it is when young (and not so young) men lie ceaselessly to each other and everyone else at the expense of women. Such a system is also far more open to puncturing, and so to change, and it’s that reality which TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the bestselling book Men Explain Things to Me (just out in a new hardcover edition with two extra essays added), considers today — and thank heaven! Tom Engelhardt

Feminism: The men arrive!
(Hooray! Uh-oh!)
By Rebecca Solnit

What do the prime minister of India, retired National Football League punter Chris Kluwe, and superstar comedian Aziz Ansari have in common? It’s not that they’ve all walked into a bar, though Ansari could probably figure out the punch line to that joke. They’ve all spoken up for feminism this year, part of an unprecedented wave of men actively engaging with what’s usually called “women’s issues,” though violence and discrimination against women are only women’s issues because they’re things done to women — mostly by men, so maybe they should always have been “men’s issues.”

The arrival of the guys signifies a sea change, part of an extraordinary year for feminism, in which the conversation has been transformed, as have some crucial laws, while new voices and constituencies joined in. There have always been men who agreed on the importance of those women’s issues, and some who spoke up, but never in such numbers or with such effect. And we need them. So consider this a watershed year for feminism.

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Ann Jones: The missing women of Afghanistan

From the beginning, it was to be “Russia’s Vietnam.”  First the administration of President Jimmy Carter, then that of President Ronald Reagan was determined to give the Soviet Union a taste of what the U.S. had gone through in its disastrous 14-year war in Southeast Asia.  As National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski would later put it, “On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the [Afghan] border [in 1979], I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'” And with that in mind, the CIA (aided by the Saudis and Pakistanis) would arm, train, and advise extreme Islamist factions in Pakistan and dispatch them across the border to give the Soviets a taste of what Washington considered their own medicine, Vietnam-style.

It worked in a major way. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would later call Afghanistan “the bleeding wound” and, in 1989, a decade after the Red Army had crossed that border, it would limp home to a fading empire on the edge of implosion.  It was a classic Cold War triumph for Washington, the last needed before the Soviet Union stepped off the edge of history and disappeared… oh, except for one small thing: those well-armed extremists didn’t conveniently go away.  It wasn’t mission accomplished.  Not by half.  A taste of Vietnam for the Russians turned out to be only the hors d’oeuvre for a main course still to come.  And the rest of the disastrous history of what Chalmers Johnson would term “blowback,” even before it fully blew back not just on devastated Afghanistan, but on New York City and Washington, is painfully well known and not yet over.  Not by half.

As a result, when the Bush administration launched America’s second Afghan war in October 2001, whether it knew it or not, it was prescribing for itself a taste of the medicine it had given the Soviets back in the 1980s.  Think of it as the worst possible version of do-it-yourself doctoring.  Now, another 13 years have passed.  We’re three and a half decades beyond Brzezinksi’s urge to Vietnamize the USSR in Afghanistan and that Central Asian country is a basket case.  The Taliban insurgency is back big time; the Afghan army and police are taking horrific casualties, and you can bet that, with one eye on the collapsed Iraqi army the U.S. trained and armed, there are plenty of anxious people in the Pentagon when it comes to those Afghan security forces into which the U.S. has sunk at least $60 billion.  In the meantime, the “democracy” that the U.S. promised to bring to the country has experienced a second deeply fraudulent presidential election, this time with a vote so contested and filled with questionable balloting practices that the final count couldn’t be released to the country.  A new government was instead cobbled together under Washington’s ministrations in a way that bears no relation to the country’s constitution.

In the meantime, Afghanistan is rife with corruption of every imaginable sort and, worst of all, its only real success story, its bumper crop, is once again the opium poppy.  In fact, last year the country raised a record opium crop, worth $3 billion, beating out the previous global record holder– Afghanistan — by 50%!  On America’s watch, it is the planet’s preeminent narco-state.  And keep in mind that, in line with the history of the last 13 years of the American occupation and garrisoning of the country (with a possible 10 more to go), the U.S. put $7.6 billion dollars into programs of every sort to eradicate poppy growing.  So, once again, mission accomplished!  Today, TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, looks back at what those 13 years of “America’s Afghanistan” meant to the women whom the Bush administration so proudly “liberated” on invading the country.  And given its success in poppy eradication, how do you think Washington did on that one? Tom Engelhardt

The missing women of Afghanistan
After 13 years of war, the rule of men, not law
By Ann Jones

On September 29th, power in Afghanistan changed hands for the first time in 13 years. At the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as president, while the outgoing Hamid Karzai watched calmly from a front-row seat.  Washington, congratulating itself on this “peaceful transition,” quickly collected the new president’s autograph on a bilateral security agreement that assures the presence of American forces in Afghanistan for at least another decade. The big news of the day: the U.S. got what it wanted.  (Precisely why Americans should rejoice that our soldiers will stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years is never explained.)

The big news of the day for Afghans was quite different — not the long expected continuation of the American occupation but what the new president had to say in his inaugural speech about his wife, Rula Ghani. Gazing at her as she sat in the audience, he called her by name, praised her work with refugees, and announced that she would continue that work during his presidency.

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Studs Terkel on death and forgiveness in America

Studs Terkel, who put oral history on the American map with one spectacular book after another, was a small man who had a knack for making everyone around him feel larger than life. He taught me the first significant lesson I learned as a book editor — and he didn’t even know it. I stumbled into Pantheon Books in the summer of 1976, hired (on the basis of remarkably little) by André Schiffrin, who ran that pioneering publishing outfit. I had only the most minimal idea of what a book editor was or did, but on one thing I was clear: I was going to put new voices between covers. (I would later start calling them “voices from elsewhere, even when the elsewhere is here.”) I couldn’t have been less interested in well known or famous writers. I was, that is, something of a reverse snob.

Nonetheless, one day that first fall André came into my office with the manuscript of Stud Terkel’s memoir, Talking to Myself, which was to be published the following spring. He asked me to read it because Studs — he claimed — wanted my reaction. A longtime Chicago radio personality, who had even hosted an early, unscripted TV show, “Studs’ Place,” set in a fictional bar (the “Cheers” of its era), he was well known indeed. The first book he and André had done together, Division Street: America, had broken into bestsellerdom and neither of them had ever looked back.

Studs didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, so I didn’t take the request seriously until André returned a few days later to ask whether I had read the manuscript. I hadn’t. He said, “Please do. Studs is waiting anxiously.” Anxiously? That was hard to imagine, but when your boss insists… so I went home, read it, and two days later let him know what I thought. (What could you think, given that Studs was fantastic at what he did?) Soon after, he put me on the phone with Studs to tell him just how good it was and make a few modest, last-minute suggestions.

So many years later, I still remember that unforgettable voice (possibly the last on Earth out of which a cigar emerged) saying something like, “Do you really mean it, Tom?” What I’ll specifically never forget was the quaver in it, the shiver that seemed like a caricature of fear. After all, he was the best-known author I’d ever talked to and, as a young man with enough doubts of my own, it had never crossed my mind that a successful writer might feel vulnerable when it came to his latest work or give a damn about the opinion of a total nobody. In a way, that moment taught me everything I needed to know about the essential vulnerability of the writer and, thanks to Studs, I never looked back.

For years, André, who was his editor, would call me in to take a final look at his oral histories. (It was like sending in the second team.) Only after I left Pantheon did I became Studs’ primary editor. It was the experience of a lifetime. Just to give you a little taste of the man, I’m including excerpts from the only letter of his I still have, typed by hand, filled with X’d out words, and further hand-corrected in pen. It came with the first batch of rough interviews for the final book we worked on together, an oral history of political activism aptly titled Hope Dies Last. By that time, Studs was in his early nineties and still a human dynamo.  Maxwell Perkins, whom he mentions, was a famed editor who joined the venerable firm of Scribner’s wanting to publish vibrant young voices and ended up working with, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and most famously the novelist Thomas Wolfe who simply couldn’t stop writing, which meant that his books involved marathon bouts of editing. Here, then, are the first two paragraphs of that letter in his telegraphese.

“Post-election day,” Studs began. “A hell of a time to write about hope… The ton of stuff — good and less than good. Since what you have is the raw stuff — I have already tossed aside about 20 [interviews] — I shall, of course, begin my cuts shortly after you receive this messy letter.

“You’ll be my Maxwell Perkins, though you don’t wear a hat, and I’m your Thomas Wolfe, though a foot and a half shorter than he was…”

And here’s how he ended: “I’m eagerly looking forward to your reactions when you get this bundle. Horrified [though] you may be by its bulk, remember you’re my Maxwell Perkins. If it works out, I’ll buy you a hat.”

What a guy (even if I never got that hat)! I always considered it appropriately Studsian that the book preceding Hope Dies Last was his oral history of death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. Studs himself died in 2008. Circle has just been reissued in paperback with a new Jane Gross introduction by the New Press, the publishing house that André, who died last December, set up after he was forced out of Pantheon by Sy Newhouse, the right-wing owner of its parent company, Random House.

Given the grim panorama of death these days — from beheadings to pandemics — and the hysteria accompanying it all, I thought it might be both a relief and a change of pace at TomDispatch to turn back to Studs’ oral history of death, which as its editor I can testify is moving and uncannily uplifting. That, of course, is not as odd as it sounds from the man who was the troubadour for the extraordinary ordinary American. Thanks to the kindness of his publisher, the New Press, I’ve chosen two interviews from that book which stayed in my mind these last 13 years: the first focuses on an impulse that may be among the hardest to understand and yet most moving to encounter, forgiveness; and the second, from this country’s medical front lines, centers on a subject that, unfortunately, is still all too timely: the trauma deaths of young Americans from gunshot wounds. This is the only book I ever remember editing while, in some cases, crying. Tom Engelhardt

“You got into my heart violently, but you’re there”
Trauma, death, and forgiveness on the front lines of American life
By Studs Terkel

[The following is excerpted from the new paperback edition of Studs Terkel’s oral history of death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]

“The Other Son”
Maurine Young

In contrast to her husband’s introspective nature, she is outgoing, a large-boned woman, overflowing with gusto and ebullience. She frequently laughs out loud.

I’m a forty-six-year-old woman of Jewish-Gentile descent — my father’s a Jew, my mother’s a Gentile. My parents divorced when I was young, and I was raised by my stepfather — raised Catholic. He was a truck driver. My younger brother, Mark, became a truck driver. I went to public school. But I went to the Catholic catechism every Wednesday. I did the confirmation and all that kind of stuff. I got close to age twelve, thirteen, and I began to see what I was saved from. I was saved from Hell. But what Catholicism wasn’t teaching me was what I was saved to. They didn’t tell me how to live with God and experience a taste of Heaven on Earth, now. So I began to pull away from the Church. It just didn’t meet my needs.

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Rory Fanning: Why do we keep thanking the troops?

More than a few times I’ve found myself in a crowd of Vietnam veterans, and more than a few times at least one of them was wearing a curious blue or yellow t-shirt.  Once that shirt undoubtedly fit a lean physique of the late 1970s or early 1980s, but by the time I saw it modeled, in the 2000s, it was getting mighty snug.  Still, they refused to part with it.  On it was some variation of the outline of a map of Vietnam with bit of grim humor superimposed: “Participant, Southeast Asia War Games, 1961-1975: Second Place.”

I was always struck by it.  These men of the “Me Generation” had come home to the sneers and backhanded comments of the men of the “Greatest Generation,” their fathers’ era.  They had supposedly been the first Americans to lose a war.  However, instead of the defensive apparel donned by some vets (“We were winning when I left”), they wore their loss for all to see, pride mingling with a sardonic sense of humor.

Today’s military is made up of still another generation, the Millennials, representatives of the 80 million Americans born between 1980 and 2000.  In fact, with nearly 43% of the active duty force age 25 or younger and roughly 66% of it 30 or under, it’s one of the most Millennial-centric organizations around.

As a whole, the Millennials have been regularly pilloried in the press for being the “Participation Trophy Generation.”  Coddled, self-centered, with delusions of grandeur, they’re inveterate narcissists with outlandish expectations and a runaway sense of entitlement.  They demand everything, they’re addicted to social media, fast Wi-Fi, and phablets, they cry when criticized, they want praise on tap, and refuse to wear anything but their hoodies and “fuck you flip-flops” like the face of their generation, the Ur-millennial: Mark Zuckerberg!

At least that’s the knock on them. Then again, when didn’t prior generations knock the current one?

The National Institutes of Health did determine people in their 20s have Narcissistic Personality Disorder three times more often than those 65 or older and a recent survey by Reason and pollster Rupe did find that those 18-24 are indeed in favor of participation trophies unlike older Americans who overwhelmingly favor winners-only prizes.  Still, it’s a little early to pass blanket judgment on an entire generation of whom the youngest members are only on the cusp of high school.  The Millennials may yet surprise even the most cantankerous coots. Time will tell.

The Millennial military, however, isn’t doing the generation any favors.  Despite its dismal record when it comes to winning wars and a recent magnification of its repeated failures in Iraq, today’s military seems to crave and demand that its soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen be thanked and lauded at every turn.  As a result, the Pentagon is involved in stage-managing all manner of participation-trophy spectacles to make certain they are — from the ballpark to the NASCAR track to the Academy of Country Music’s “An All-Star Salute to the Troops” concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas earlier this year.

And like those great enablers of the Millennial trophy kids, so-called helicopter parents, the American public regularly provides cheap praise and empty valorization for veterans, writes Rory Fanning in TomDispatch debut.  A veteran of the war in Afghanistan — having served two tours with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion before becoming a conscientious objector — Fanning explores America’s thank-you-for-your-service culture, what vets are actually being thanked for, and why Rihanna’s hollow patriotism left him depressed.  His moving new book, Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America, captures his 3,000-mile trek through and encounter with this country, an unforced march meant to honor Pat Tillman and question the nature of our recent wars.

I don’t get to hang out with Vietnam vets as much as I used to, but late one night a year or two ago I found myself with a few of them in an almost deserted bar.  Having ducked out of the annual meeting of a veterans’ group, we ordered some beers from a Millennial-age waiter.  He asked if my 60-something compatriots were attending the nearby conference and they mumbled that they indeed were.  The waiter seemed to momentarily straighten up.  “Thank you for your service,” he solemnly intoned before bounding off to get the beers.  One of veterans — a Marine who had seen his fair share of combat — commented on how much he hated that phrase.  “They do it reflexively.  That’s how they’ve been raised,” I replied.  “I hope they wise up,” said another of the vets.  Time — as with all things Millennial — will tell. Nick Turse

Thank you for your valor, thank you for your service, thank you, thank you, thank you…
Still on the thank-you tour-of-duty circuit, 13 years later
By Rory Fanning

Last week, in a quiet indie bookstore on the north side of Chicago, I saw the latest issue of Rolling Stone resting on a chrome-colored plastic table a few feet from a barista brewing a vanilla latte.  A cold October rain fell outside. A friend of mine grabbed the issue and began flipping through it. Knowing that I was a veteran, he said, “Hey, did you see this?” pointing to a news story that seemed more like an ad.  It read in part:

“This Veterans Day, Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Rihanna, Dave Grohl, and Metallica will be among numerous artists who will head to the National Mall in Washington D.C. on November 11th for ‘The Concert For Valor,’ an all-star event that will pay tribute to armed services.”

“Concert For Valor? That sounds like something the North Korean government would organize,” I said as I typed Concertforvalor.com into my MacBook Pro looking for more information.

The sucking sound from the espresso maker was drowning out a 10-year-old Shins song. As I read, my heart sank, my shoulders slumped.

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Laura Gottesdiener: Adrift in oil country

Think of it as a Walrusgram written on the sand of a northwest Alaskan beach and sent to the planet.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic marine mammal aerial survey noticed them first, those 35,000 walruses that had come ashore in unheard of numbers because their usual sea ice has simply melted away.  The photos are dramatic.  You couldn’t ask for a clearer message from a species that normally doesn’t write out its thoughts on the subject of our changing, warming planet.

For those who prefer their science not from the walrus’s mouth (so to speak), there has been equally relevant news on the same subject lately from another species.  Think of them as scientists clambering ashore from a wounded world.  Only weeks ago, it was reported that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere had reached record levels in 2013 and, perhaps even more unsettlingly, that oceans and terrestrial plant life, both major “carbon sinks,” were absorbing less CO2 than in the past.  Now, we have news that the oceans have actually been warming significantly faster than anyone previously imagined.  The latest figures indicate that “the upper 2,300 feet of the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans may have warmed twice as quickly after 1970 than had previously been thought… [and that] the upper levels of the planet’s oceans — those of the northern and southern hemispheres combined — had been warming during several decades prior to 2005 at rates that were 24 to 58 percent faster than had previously been realized.”

None of this is good news, of course, not if you have any sort of investment in future generations living on a planet anywhere near as hospitable as the one we’ve been on for so long.  But talk about dissociation.  While those walruses were climbing out of the water and the scientists were reporting their latest grim numbers, in the American heartland thousands of workers shaken loose from other worlds have been heading for boom times in North Dakota and elsewhere in our fracklands.  There, the exploitation of previously unrecoverable oil shale and natural gas deposits via hydro-fracking has pundits bragging about this country as “Saudi America” and the president aggressively planning to make “the oil weapon” a central feature in American foreign policy.

Between the two worlds, the one producing ever more fossil fuels amid a let-the-good-times-roll spirit of triumphalism and the one slowly melting down under the impact of what those fossil fuels release into the atmosphere, there sometimes seems no connection at all.  Clear as the link may be, each of these worlds often might as well be located on a different planet.

TomDispatch’s Laura Gottesdiener had the rare urge to land on that other planet, the one most of us never experience that produces fossil fuels with such exuberance, and see just what we’re all missing.  Here’s her vivid report from the front lines of American fossil-fuel extraction. Tom Engelhardt

A trip to Kuwait (on the prairie)
Life inside the boom
By Laura Gottesdiener

At 9 p.m. on that August night, when I arrived for my first shift as a cocktail waitress at Whispers, one of the two strip clubs in downtown Williston, I didn’t expect a 25-year-old man to get beaten to death outside the joint. Then again, I didn’t really expect most of the things I encountered reporting on the oil boom in western North Dakota this past summer.

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Michael Klare: Washington wields the oil weapon

You remember. It was the oiliest of administrations. The president was a (failed) West Texas oilman. The vice-president had been the CEO of the giant oil field services company, Halliburton, and before taking office, when speaking at the Petroleum Institute and elsewhere, was known to say things like, “The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.” The national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, long on the board of Chevron, had a double-hulled oil tanker named for her. They were a crew with the global flow of oil and how to control it on the brain.  Just in case you forgot, and I know you haven’t, the new vice president had barely taken office and set up an “energy task force” to develop future policy that he himself would chair when a parade of top oil executives began arriving at the White House to meet secretly with it.

And then, after 9/11, came the assault on the oil heartlands of the planet. I’m sure you remember how, amid the chaos of a burning Baghdad, American troops were ordered to guard only the buildings of Iraq’s Oil and Interior Ministries, and… well, I don’t really have to review all of that for you, do I? Then, of course, Americans put into office the guy who swore he was going to end oil wars and attend to our global warming future instead — a fellow named Barack Obama who, everyone knew, would step into office without an oil slick in his head.

That was then and this is now. The Barack Obama of 2014 is essentially running a drill-baby-drill White House in a country where oil consumption is actually rising. His administration has been opening up ever more coastal areas to exploration and drilling from the East to the Arctic waters of Alaska, while encouraging the creation of a “Saudi America” in the American frack lands.  The result: a torrent of crude oil and natural gas and something else as well, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch’s indispensable energy expert, points out today. Buoyed by the country’s new energy wealth, our president has been putting oil to work abroad. He has been using energy as the spear of his already highly militarized foreign policy.  The result has been a sophisticated weaponization of oil that puts the energy mavens of the Bush administration to shame.  But let Klare tell you the whole grim tale. Tom Engelhardt

Obama’s new oil wars
Washington takes on ISIS, Iran, and Russia
By Michael T. Klare

It was heinous. It was underhanded.  It was beyond the bounds of international morality. It was an attack on the American way of life.  It was what you might expect from unscrupulous Arabs.  It was “the oil weapon” — and back in 1973, it was directed at the United States. Skip ahead four decades and it’s smart, it’s effective, and it’s the American way.  The Obama administration has appropriated it as a major tool of foreign policy, a new way to go to war with nations it considers hostile without relying on planes, missiles, and troops.  It is, of course, that very same oil weapon.

Until recently, the use of the term “the oil weapon” has largely been identified with the efforts of Arab producers to dissuade the United States from supporting Israel by cutting off the flow of petroleum. The most memorable example of its use was the embargo imposed by Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on oil exports to the United States during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, causing scarcity in the U.S., long lines at American filling stations, and a global economic recession.

After suffering enormously from that embargo, Washington took a number of steps to disarm the oil weapon and prevent its reuse. These included an increased emphasis on domestic oil production and the establishment of a mutual aid arrangement overseen by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that obliged participating nations to share their oil with any member state subjected to an embargo.

So consider it a surprising reversal that, having tested out the oil weapon against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with devastating effect back in the 1990s, Washington is now the key country brandishing that same weapon, using trade sanctions and other means to curb the exports of energy-producing states it categorizes as hostile.  The Obama administration has taken this aggressive path even at the risk of curtailing global energy supplies.

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Todd Gitlin: As the globe warms, so does the climate movement

Don’t call it a “march.” It was a “stand” — and a first stand at that, not a last one.  The People’s Climate March, billed as the largest climate demonstration in history, more than exceeded expectations and was an experience that has yet to desert me.  Its moment couldn’t have been grimmer in global warming terms.  That week, record-breaking concentrations of greenhouse gases were reported in the atmosphere, with the added grim news that the oceans and the forests, the planet’s major “carbon sinks,” were starting to absorb less CO2. Under the circumstances, I had the urge to do my bit to make the march huge and so organized a group of 16 friends and family members, ranging in age from 2 to 72. Marchers were to gather on New York’s Central Park West between 86th Street and Columbus Circle at 59th, where the event was to kick off at exactly 11:30 a.m.  At 11, when our crew arrived at 72nd Street, designated as a meeting place for children, families, and oldsters like me, the main route along Central Park West was already jam-packed and feeder streets like ours were filling fast.

On our small, ever-tighter stretch of cement was a typically heterogeneous crew sporting small dogs, a large penguin doll, a gazillion handmade signs, and a strutting, dancing drum-and-cymbal band. Amid cheers, music, and conversation, time passed and passed and passed. Though those younger than me were getting texts indicating that the march had set off in a timely manner, we didn’t move.  Not an inch.  And then it began to dawn on me. This demonstration was going to be so big, with so many people feeding into it, that “marching” for many of us would be an alien activity. As TomDispatch regular Todd Gitlin makes thrillingly clear today, we were quite literally in the midst of a genuine movement being born.  In fact, our crew, only 13 blocks north of the starting spot, didn’t even inch forward for more than an hour and a half after the official launch.

That’s what it turns out to mean to have 400,000 people crammed into a New York mile and cordoned off by the police (who control the streets, effectively imprisoning crowds).  By the time I reached the official beginning of the march at 59th Street, three and a half hours after we arrived, my legs were goners.  So, for another half an hour, I stopped with a friend, Peter Dimock, and watched the march pass in all its strange splendor and remarkable youthfulness, a kaleidoscope of floats and signs and costumes and performances spilling by, and still I couldn’t see the end of it. It’s the only demonstration I’ve ever attended where, officially speaking, I never began — and that represents a triumph of organizing and evidence of a growing concern for the state and fate of our planet.

Peter spent much of the march scribbling down what was on the panoply of signs around us, almost all made by individuals to express some urge about our degrading world, so many that his list of hundreds could make a dispatch in itself.  And yet he caught only a small fraction of the march’s signs.  Here are just a few of those to give you a taste of what may, as Gitlin suggests, have been a defining moment of hope in an otherwise grim era:

“Being Cool Has Never Been So Hot,” “Another Grandmother for Climate Justice,” “Our Planet is Not Something You Can Negotiate,” “I’m Sure the Dinosaurs Thought They Had Time, Too,” “Frack Off: Indigenous Women Leaders Leading Media Campaign to Defend Our Planet,” “Tax CO2,” “The Answer, My Friend, Is Blowing in the Wind” (with an image of a wind turbine), “Even Princeton” (sign held by one of a group of Princeton engineering and technology students marching together), “Don’t Panic, Learn to Swim,” “Evolve or Dissolve,” “Infinite Economic Growth (crossed out), Finite Planet,” “‘Natural Gas’ Is Not the Answer,” “There is No Planet B,” “I’m Marching for the Only Habitable Place in the Universe,” “Wall Street, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” “Save the Snowmen,” “We Did Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors. We Borrowed It From Our Grandchildren.” Tom Engelhardt

A change in the climate
The climate movement steps up
By Todd Gitlin

Less than two weeks have passed and yet it isn’t too early to say it: the People’s Climate March changed the social map — many maps, in fact, since hundreds of smaller marches took place in 162 countries. That march in New York City, spectacular as it may have been with its 400,000 participants, joyous as it was, moving as it was (slow-moving, actually, since it filled more than a mile’s worth of wide avenues and countless side streets), was no simple spectacle for a day. It represented the upwelling of something that matters so much more: a genuine global climate movement.

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Tom Engelhardt: Entering the intelligence labyrinth

Failure is success: How American intelligence works in the twenty-first century
By Tom Engelhardt

What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters.  You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities.  Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it.  Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of “spycraft” gains its own name: LOVEINT.

You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet.  You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order.  You break into the “backdoors” of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts.  You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies).  Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt.  Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.

You have put extraordinary effort into ensuring that information about your world and the millions of documents you produce doesn’t make it into our world.  You even have the legal ability to gag American organizations and citizens who might speak out on subjects that would displease you (and they can’t say that their mouths have been shut).  You undoubtedly spy on Congress.  You hack into congressional computer systems.  And if whistleblowers inside your world try to tell the American public anything unauthorized about what you’re doing, you prosecute them under the Espionage Act, as if they were spies for a foreign power (which, in a sense, they are, since you treat the American people as if they were a foreign population).  You do everything to wreck their lives and — should one escape your grasp — you hunt him implacably to the ends of the Earth.

As for your top officials, when their moment is past, the revolving door is theirs to spin through into a lucrative mirror life in the intelligence-corporate complex.

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William deBuys: Love affair in the back country

Without visiting it, the eighteenth-century French natural scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, propounded the theory that the New World was an inferior creation, its species but degenerate versions of European ones. “There is no North American animal comparable to the elephant: no giraffes, lions, or hippopotami,” he wrote. “All animals are smaller… Everything shrinks under a ‘niggardly sky and unprolific land.’” Thomas Jefferson, then-ambassador to Paris, was so incensed that he dispatched a revolutionary war hero and 20 soldiers to New Hampshire to bag a large moose and had it shipped to Buffon. So when Charles Wilson Peale uncovered the giant bones of an antediluvian creature he called a “mammoth” (a mastodon, as it turned out), it was a patriotic moment. No traces of such a giant animal had previously been found on Earth.  Americans clearly had bigger and better to offer than anything a European naturalist could point to. And for all anyone knew, somewhere out in the territories, in that great wilderness still to be explored, such beasts perhaps still roamed.

In the same spirit, while America had no great buildings or cathedrals, the country had something so much more magnificent than the most awesome of Europe’s places of worship. It had nature’s architecture, its “cathedrals,” in a wilderness unmatched in its wonders.

That was one remarkable American tradition. I represented another. Sometime in the spring or early summer of 1962, I decided to light out for the wilderness. Keep in mind that I was a kid for whom the wilderness was New York City’s Central Park and the wilds were the suburbs.  So it was an adventurous, if not daft, thing to do. My best friend and I took our bikes, boarded a train, and headed for Bear Mountain a couple of hours away. So many years later, I have no clue how the idea lodged in our heads or why, for the first serious biking trip of our lives, we chose a place quite openly labeled a “mountain.” Did we have no concept of “uphill,” having grown up in a remarkably flat coastal city? All I remember is that it wasn’t long before we found ourselves wrung out at the side of the road, wondering how we would ever get anywhere near our prospective campground. As so often happens, however, we were saved by the kindness of strangers. Someone took pity on us, stopped his truck or van, tossed our bikes into the back, and drove us to our destination.

We were finally in the cathedral of the woods. That night, we pitched our little tent, made a fire, managed to be scared by a bobcat whose glowing eyes we caught in the beam of our flashlight, and finally retired to sleep on ground crisscrossed by roots, only to be attacked by some giant, truly fearsome bug. (Think Mothra!) Yes, it’s true: in that cathedral I was praying for deliverance as the sun came up.

And don’t even get me started on the beach in California, years later, where I woke up sopping wet from the ocean dew, or the thousands of hopping bugs that advanced on my sleeping bag on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, or that night in a ditch at the side of some road in a scruffy backland when no one would pick up two young hitchhikers. As you’ll see today, TomDispatch regular William deBuys is quite a different kind of American. In fact, at this very moment, he’s on a raft joyously heading down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

And here’s the thing: as someone who wouldn’t be caught dead sleeping one more night in the wild, I genuinely celebrate deBuys and his ilk, who have had such a hand in ensuring that the great natural cathedrals of our American world will be there (we hope) for generations yet to come. His celebration of American nature, based on his own youthful experience lighting out for the territories, ranks among the special pleasures of what I’ve published at TomDispatch. Tom Engelhardt

The Wilderness Act turns 50
Celebrating the great laws of 1964
By William deBuys

Let us now praise famous laws and the year that begat them: 1964.

The first thing to know about 1964 was that, although it occurred in the 1960s, it wasn’t part of “the Sixties.” The bellbottoms, flower power, LSD, and craziness came later, beginning about 1967 and extending into the early 1970s. Trust me: I was there, and I don’t remember much; so by the dictum variously attributed to Grace Slick, Dennis Hopper, and others (that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t part of them), I must really have been there.

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Nick Turse: American ‘success’ and the rise of West African piracy

As American hysteria over events in the Middle East rises, news about whatever grim video the Islamic State (IS) has just released jostles for attention with U.S. bombing runs in Iraq, prospective ones in Syria, and endless confusing statements out of Washington about what the next seat-of-the-pants version of its strategy might be.  These days, such things are endlessly on the American radar screen.  On the other hand, the U.S. military has been moving into Africa big time for years and just about nobody seems to notice.  The Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) now annually engages in one kind of activity or another with 49 of that continent’s 54 countries.  Yet Americans know next to nothing about Washington’s “pivot” to a continent significant parts of which seem to be in a slow-motion process of destabilization that may be linked, at least in part, to U.S. military moves there.

Nearly everywhere in Africa, the U.S. military is in action.  However, except in rare cases, like the recent announcement of an “Ebola surge” in Liberia, you would never know it.  At the moment, for instance, according to the Associated Press, AFRICOM is “preparing to launch a ‘major’ border security program to help Nigeria and its neighbors combat the increasing number and scope of attacks by Islamic extremists.”  We’re talking, of course, about the other “caliphate,” the one in northern Nigeria announced by Boko Haram, an outfit that makes the militants of IS look moderate.  But that’s news you’re unlikely to read in this country, not at least until, at some future moment, things start to go really, really wrong. Similarly, U.S. drone bases are slowly spreading in Africa, but you’d have to have an eagle eye to notice it.  Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the “Pentagon is preparing to open a drone base in one of the remotest places on Earth.”  Tucked away, far from prying eyes, in the middle of the Sahara desert, the U.S. will now be cleared to fly drones out of “the mud-walled desert city of Agadez.”

It was typically incisive coverage of the shadowy doings of AFRICOM by Craig Whitlock, the one mainstream reporter who seems to keep an eye on American military moves there.  Other media outlets from Reuters to Air Force Times followed up with versions of the same story, but it all passed like a blip in the night.  If it caught your attention, I’d be surprised.

Still, if you’re a TomDispatch reader, Washington’s pivot to Africa and the expansion of U.S. air operations there won’t surprise you greatly.  After all, back in April, this site’s managing editor, Nick Turse, who’s had his eye on U.S. military operations in Africa for years, reported that, during a meeting for defense contractors, AFRICOM’s Rick Cook spoke about a future U.S. facility in Niger.  That country, Cook said, “is in a nice strategic location that allows us to get to many other places reasonably quickly, so we are working very hard with the Nigeriens to come up with, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a base, but a place we can operate out of on a frequent basis.”  Cook offered no information on the possible location of the facility, but Turse reported that contracting documents he had examined indicated that “the U.S. Air Force is seeking to purchase large quantities of jet fuel to be delivered to Niger’s Mano Dayak International Airport.”  And just where is Mano Dayak International Airport located? You guessed it: Agadez, Niger.

By the way, it’s not just boots on the continent and drones over it these days.  For the U.S. military, it’s also ships off the coast. But let Nick Turse tell you the rest. Tom Engelhardt 

Pirates of the Gulf of Guinea
In the face of rising maritime insecurity, AFRICOM claims success and Obama embraces a strongman
By Nick Turse

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

“The Gulf of Guinea is the most insecure waterway, globally,” says Loic Moudouma.  And he should know.  Trained at the U.S. Naval War College, the lead maritime security expert of the Economic Community of Central African States, and a Gabonese Navy commander, his focus has been piracy and maritime crime in the region for the better part of a decade.  

Moudouma is hardly alone in his assessment. 

From 2012 to 2013, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence found a 25% jump in incidents, including vessels being fired upon, boarded, and hijacked, in the Gulf of Guinea, a vast maritime zone that curves along the west coast of Africa from Gabon to Liberia.  Kidnappings are up, too.  Earlier this year, Stephen Starr, writing for the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, asserted that, in 2014, the number of attacks would rise again. 

Today, what most Americans know about piracy likely centers on an attraction at Walt Disney World and the Johnny Depp movies it inspired.  If the Gulf of Guinea rings any bells at all, it’s probably because of the Ebola outbreak in, and upcoming U.S. military “surge” into, Liberia, the nation on the northern edge of that body of water.  But for those in the know, the Gulf itself is an intractable hotspot on a vast continent filled with them and yet another area where U.S. military efforts have fallen short.

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Peter Van Buren: Back to the future in Iraq

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In it, he went after the war of that moment and the money that the U.S. was pouring into it as symptoms of a societal disaster.  President Lyndon Johnson’s poverty program was being “broken and eviscerated,” King said from the pulpit of that church, “as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war… We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.  I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”  Twice more in that ringing speech he spoke of “the madness of Vietnam” and called for it to cease.

Don’t think of that as just a preacher’s metaphor.  There was a genuine madness on the loose — and not just in the “free-fire zones” of Vietnam but in policy circles here in the United States, in the frustration of top military and civilian officials who felt gripped by an eerie helplessness as they widened a terrible war on the ground and in the air.  They were, it seemed, incapable of imagining any other path than escalation in the face of disaster and possible defeat.  Even in the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when there was a brief attempt to paint that lost war in a more heroic hue (“a noble cause,” the president called it), that sense of madness, or at least of resulting mental illness, lingered.  It remained embedded in a phrase then regularly applied to Americans who were less than willing to once again head aggressively into the world.  They were suffering from, it was said, “Vietnam syndrome.”

Today, almost 25 years into what someday might simply be called America’s Iraq War (whose third iteration we’ve recently entered), you can feel that a similar “madness” has Washington by the throat.  Just as King noted of the Vietnam era, since 9/11 American domestic programs and agencies have been starved while money poured into the coffers of the Pentagon and an increasingly bloated national security state.  The results have been obvious.  In the face of the spreading Ebola virus in West Africa, for instance, the president can no longer turn to civilian agencies or organizations for help, but has to call on the U.S. military in an “Ebola surge” — even our language has been militarized — although its forces are not known for their skills, successes, or spendthrift ways when it comes to civilian “humanitarian” or nation-building operations.

We’ve already entered the period when strategy, such as it is, falls away, and our leaders feel strangely helpless before the drip, drip, drip of failure and the unbearable urge for further escalation.  At this point, in fact, the hysteria in Washington over the Islamic State seems a pitch or two higher than anything experienced in the Vietnam years.  A fiercely sectarian force in the Middle East has captured the moment and riveted attention, even though its limits in a region full of potential enemies seem obvious and its “existential threat” to the U.S. consists of the possibility that some stray American jihadi might indeed try to harm a few of us.  Call it emotional escalation in a Washington that seems remarkably unhinged.

It took Osama bin Laden $400,000 to $500,000, 19 hijackers, and much planning to produce the fallen towers of 9/11 and the ensuing hysteria in this country that launched the disastrous, never-ending Global War on Terror.  It took the leaders of the Islamic State maybe a few hundred bucks and two grim videos, featuring three men on a featureless plain in Syria, to create utter, blind hysteria here.  Think of this as confirmation of Karl Marx’s famous comment that the first time is tragedy, but the second is farce.

One clear sign of the farcical nature of our moment is the inability to use almost any common word or phrase in an uncontested way if you put “Iraq” or “Islamic State” or “Syria” in the same sentence.  Remember when the worst Washington could come up with in contested words was the meaning of “is” in Bill Clinton’s infamous statement about his relationship with a White House intern?  Linguistically speaking, those were the glory days, the utopian days of official Washington.

Just consider three commonplace terms of the moment: “war,” “boots on the ground,” and “combat.”  A single question links them all: Are we or aren’t we?  And to that, in each case, Washington has no acceptable answer.  On war, the secretary of state said no, we weren’t; the White House and Pentagon press offices announced that yes, we were; and the president fudged.  He called it “targeted action” and spoke of America’s “unique capability to mobilize against an organization like ISIL,” but God save us, what it wasn’t and wouldn’t be was a “ground war.”

Only with Congress did a certain clarity prevail.  Nothing it did really mattered.  Whatever Congress decided or refused to decide when it came to going to war would be fine and dandy, because the White House was going to do “it” anyway.  “It,” of course, was the Clintonesque “is” of present-day Middle Eastern policy.  Who knew what it was, but here was what it wasn’t and would never be: “boots on the ground.”  Admittedly, the president has already dispatched 1,600 booted troops to Iraq’s ground (with more to come), but they evidently didn’t qualify as boots on the ground because, whatever they were doing, they would not be going into “combat” (which is evidently the only place where military boots officially hit the ground).  The president has been utterly clear on this.  There would be no American “combat mission” in Iraq.  Unfortunately, “combat” turns out to be another of those dicey terms, since those non-boots had barely landed in Iraq when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey started to raise the possibility that some of them, armed, might one day be forward deployed with Iraqi troops as advisers and spotters for U.S. air power in future battles for Iraq’s northern cities.  This, the White House now seems intent on defining as not being a “combat mission.”

And we’re only weeks into an ongoing operation that could last years.  Imagine the pretzeling of the language by then.  Perhaps it might be easiest if everyone — Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and Washington’s pundits — simply agreed that the United States is at “war-ish” in Iraq, with boots on the ground-ish in potentially combat-ish situations.  Former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren spent his own time in Iraq and wrote We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People about it.  Now, he considers the mind-boggling strangeness of Washington doing it all over again, this time as the grimmest of farces. Tom Engelhardt

Apocalypse Now, Iraq edition
Fighting in Iraq until hell freezes over
By Peter Van Buren

I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you’re gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”

I couldn’t do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it.  After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assured Americans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?

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Taylor and Appel: The subprime education scandal

We used to hear more often about those malignant institutions serving, or rather plaguing, the poor: the loan sharks who charged 100% or more per year in interest, the furniture or radios that ended up costing several times their value on the installment plan. Two or three decades ago, however, we didn’t think of an education as being part of the landscape of predation upon the poor. Now, as Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel explain, when it comes to a new crew of “for-profit” colleges, higher education has gone hyena and is tearing at the financial flesh of the poor.

Even mainstream institutions can be sketchy these days, if you look closely enough. Most liberal arts college programs give their students a vague, if exhilarating, sense that the best possible outcome of their vocation is practically an inevitability, and yet there are far from enough tenure-track jobs, top galleries, or niches on bestseller lists for all the people being educated.

Though people make it in all these fields, they are a tiny minority.  So many others pay their dues and get little for it, except whatever is inherently meaningful in their education, which won’t, of course, lighten their loan burden at all.

Once upon a time, it was different. The radicalism of the 1960s, for instance, should be chalked up in part to the great freedom of youth at a time when the fat of the land seemed inexhaustible and the safety net unbreakable. The two radicals I know who became wanted fugitives in the 1970s and then tenured faculty members (now retired with pensions) operated in a more forgiving era — and a more affluent one.

My parents believed that any kind of bachelor’s degree pretty much guaranteed your white-collar future, and that was a truth of their era. Thirty years ago, when I came along, it was already less of a reality; today, so much less than that. Still, the hangover from that conviction lingers. I went to California’s public universities as their golden age of nearly free and superb education was ending and got through college scrambling to the sound of doors shutting behind me. It was all part of the end of an egalitarian dream birthed and nurtured by the New Deal of the 1930s, the creation of social security in the 1940s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It’s now popular to say that, as president, Richard Nixon was to the left of Barack Obama, but what that means is that our society was then closer to a social democracy (and that since we’re really bad at talking about it, we’d rather focus our attention on figureheads).

Maybe communism was good for us after all, at least — as David Graeber argues — in scaring the powers that be into offering their own limited versions of equality and opportunity. California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, was the beginning of the end of that dream, arising as it did from the now-entrenched belief that what we have separately beats whatever we have together anytime. Taxes were portrayed as the nails that stuck every breadwinning Jesus to his own personal cross, rather than the way to keep roads and bridges and schools in shape, have safe drinking water and, like, a postal system and libraries (and also a giant military eating up more than half of the federal government’s discretionary spending). As the retreat into the private sphere began in earnest, people started forgetting how good, how secure life had been, while Republicans launched the mantra that future tax cuts would be a magical ointment capable of curing anything.

Part of the great work of Occupy Wall Street was to make some of the brutality of the current economy visible. People whose lives were being ravaged by housing, medical, and educational debt came out of the shame and the shadows to testify, while activists and homeowners took action against foreclosures and banks. From the beginning Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, was part of that movement and moment.  Her work there led to her involvement with Strike Debt and the fledgling Debt Collective. Now, she and Hannah Appel focus on the conditions that produced the perfect educational storm in the form of the private for-profit university/corporation. Rebecca Solnit

Education with a debt sentence
For-profit colleges as American dream crushers and factories of debt
By Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel

Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream — gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.

Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%. In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.

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Rebecca Solnit: What to do when you’re running out of time

Just when no one needed more lousy news, the U.N.’s weather outfit, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issued its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. It offered a shocking climate-change update: the concentrations of long-lasting greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) rose at a “record-shattering pace” from 2012 to 2013, including the largest increase in CO2 in 30 years — and there was a nasty twist to this news that made it even grimmer. While such increases reflected the fact that we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels at staggering rates, something else seems to be happening as well.  Both the oceans and terrestrial plant life act as carbon sinks; that is, they absorb significant amounts of the carbon dioxide we release and store it away.  Unfortunately, both may be reaching limits of some sort and seem to be absorbing less. This is genuinely bad news if you’re thinking about the future warming of the planet. (As it happens, in the same period, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, parts of the American public stopped absorbing information in no less striking fashion: the number of those who believe that global warming isn’t happening rose 7% to 23%.)

So consider this a propitious moment for a major climate-change demonstration, possibly the largest in history, in New York City this Sunday. As the WMO’s Secretary-General Michel Jarraud pointed out, there is still time to make a difference. “We have the knowledge and we have the tools,” he said, “for action to try to keep temperature increases within 2°C to give our planet a chance and to give our children and grandchildren a future. Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse for not acting.” As TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, points out, the pressure of mass movements can sometimes turn history upside down. Of course, the only way to find out if climate change is a candidate for this treatment is to get out in the streets. So, for those of you anywhere near New York, see you this Sunday! Tom Engelhardt

The wheel turns, the boat rocks, the sea rises
Change in a time of climate change
By Rebecca Solnit

There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system.  They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

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Tom Engelhardt: The great concentration or the great fragmentation?

Power drain: Mysteries of the twenty-first century in a helter-skelter world
By Tom Engelhardt

It’s possible I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong planet — and if that sounds like the first sentence of a sci-fi novel maybe, in its own way, it is. I thought I knew where I was, of course, but looking back from our helter-skelter world of 2014, I wonder. 

For most of the last several hundred years, the story in view might be called the Great Concentration and it focused on an imperial struggle for power on planet Earth. That rivalry took place among a kaleidoscopic succession of European “great powers,” one global empire (Great Britain), Russia, a single Asian state (Japan), and the United States. After two world wars that devastated the Eurasian continent, there emerged only two “superpowers,” the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They were so stunningly mighty and over-armed — great inland empires — that, unlike previous powers, they could not even imagine how to wage war directly upon each other, not without obliterating much of civilization. The full planet nonetheless became their battlefield in what was known as the Cold War only because hot ones were banished to “the peripheries” and the conflict took place, in part, in “the shadows” (a situation novelist John le Carré caught with particular incisiveness).

Those two superpowers divided much of the planet into mighty blocs, as the “free world” faced off against the “communist” one. What was left, often called the Third World, became a game board and sometimes battlefield for influence and dominance. From Havana to Saigon, Berlin to Jakarta, whatever happened, however local, always seemed to have a superpower tinge to it. 

This was the world as it was presented to me in the years of my youth and for decades thereafter.  And then, unexpectedly, there was only one superpower. In 1991, something like the ultimate step in the concentration of power seemed to occur. The weaker and less wealthy of the two rivals, its economy grown sclerotic even as its nuclear arsenal bulged, its vaunted military bogged down in an unwinnable war with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan (backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan), suddenly vanished from the planet.  It left behind a dismantled wall in Berlin, a unified Germany, a liberated Eastern Europe, a series of former SSRs in Central Asia fending for themselves, and its bloc partner (and sometimes-rival-cum-enemy) China, still run by a “communist” party, gunning the automobile of state onto the capitalist highway under slogans like “to get rich is glorious.”   

Full Spectrum Dominance on a Unipolar Planet

As with the famous cheese of children’s rhyme, the United States now stood alone.  Never before had a single power of such stature, wealth, and military clout been left so triumphantly solitary, without the hint of a serious challenger anywhere. Economically, the only other system imaginable for a century had been banished to the history books. There was just one power and one economic system left in a moment of triumph the likes of which even the leaders of that winning state had neither imagined nor predicted. 

Initially, Washington was stunned. It took the powers-that-be almost a decade to fully absorb and react to what had happened. After all, as one observer then so famously put it, “the end of history” had been reached — and there, amid the rubble of other systems and powers, lay an imperial version of liberal democracy and a capitalist system freed of even the thought of global competitors and constraints. Or so it seemed.

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