Monday, August 30, 2010

The Military and the President

New York Times ran a fairly long analysis piece by Peter Baker on the relationship between Obama and the military:

While Mr. Obama took three sometimes maddening months to decide to send more forces to Afghanistan, other decisions as commander in chief have come with dizzying speed, far less study and little public attention.

He is the first president in four decades with a shooting war already raging the day he took office — two, in fact, plus subsidiaries — and his education as a commander in chief with no experience in uniform has been a steep learning curve. He has learned how to salute. He has surfed the Internet at night to look into the toll on troops. He has faced young soldiers maimed after carrying out his orders. And he is trying to manage a tense relationship with the military.

Now, my first thought here is "Judy Miller" or "reporter depending far too much on interested sources." For one thing, the entire article reflects an attitude, one clearly wholly absorbed by our author, that military decisions are technical decisions, not political ones. This is clearly false, and was shown to be so in Vietnam--we don't win wars when we don't have the political will to fight them. The military knew this well--that's why the military leadership was always so reluctant to have us commit to foreign wars: they wanted to make sure there was truly a will to ride the thing out to its end.

But it's amazing how quickly things change after 8 years of fighting. The people in charge in the military now seem take continual war as a given, the only question is how to conduct it. Well guess what? That's not the only question, and it's the President's job to see to it that the other questions get addressed. Even if the wait might be "agonizing" for you. We won't be fighting in Afghanistan forever, and we're going to leave whether we "win" or not. Military leaders ought to wrap their minds around that reality.

My second thought on reading this piece was the seemingly eternal nature of it. Didn't the military also have its problems with Bush? And Clinton? And Carter? And Nixon?

It would seem to me that the problematic side of this relationship is the military side--they can't quite seem to come to grips with the idea that they serve a democracy, that military considerations are secondary to the interests of the nation as a whole as interpreted by its political leaders. The problem here ISN'T that Barack Obama didn't have a firm grasp on military protocol when he was elected (who did? who cares?). The problem is our military has gotten a bit big for its britches. They seem to have forgotten that they exist to carry out politically determined policy. And that the nation doesn't exist to support them.

Perhaps it's time to draw back and restructure the military a bit (read: officer purge) and start taking a look at just how self-interested and self-serving the Pentagon has become.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Detour into Pears

Sorry, I've been distracted from Pascal Boyer by a couple of other books, including Iain Pears' new one Stone's Fall.

I'm only 200 pages in (it's 800 or so, I think), but I can't remember a book that has so much reminded me of John Fowles' Magus, what with the sexual tension, the unlikeable narrator and the (seemingly) deep and complicated plot which blows our hapless hero through the novel.

Somehow, Pears doesn't seem to be able to pull it off quite as well, though. Fowles, perhaps, has an advantage in his era: there was a pretty certain meta-narrative (liberation!) to the 60s, one that he could write with and against as it pleased him. Pears doesn't really have anything like a stable matrix to write against.

And that sort of historical meta-narrative does seem to be a big concern for Pears (see Dream of Scipio, which by my reading is a fairly serious consideration of what it means to live in a decaying culture).

Also, I'm reading a advance review copy, so there are a number of mistakes and omissions that are bothersome to me. One thing that is amusing is the letter to reviewers from one of the publishers--this novel represents a "return to form" for Pears--the form of the Instance of the Fingerpost. And it is indeed a literal return to that semi-postmodern, genre-influenced door-stopper form, but the heavy implication is that we should have been very disappointed in Pears work between Fingerpost and Stone. I don't think we should be so quick to dismiss Scipio or The Portrait, both worthy reads, imo, if quite different from Fingerpost.

One fault of the novel can't be blamed on the lack of final editing: important plot elements that drop from the sky--perhaps all will be made clear though farther along . . .

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained

Just started reading this last night. I've never thoroughly read it before, just spent some time with it at the library and I thought I'd note here some of my responses as I read along.

A few notes before I set out:

1. This book tries to lay out many serious lines of argument regarding religion, assess them, and use them as seems fit. So, as I read along in the text I will no doubt be making caveats that Boyer himself makes later on in the book. So reading my notes on the book will require a certain amount of charity--both for me--because I just haven't gotten to that part of the book yet--and for Boyer--because I just haven't gotten to that part of the book yet.

So when I complain about a passage in Religion Explained, that doesn't mean that Boyer doesn't see the same point or that there is necessarily a huge gap between my understanding of religion and his. I'm more or less taking this book as a good launching place for intelligent discussion of where religion may have come from.

2. This is a pretty old book--copyright 2001--so there's no doubt more good data out there than this book reflects.

3. Boyer uses the concept of memes and I hope to line out some of the weaknesses of memes even as a heuristic device here. But I am decidedly biased against memes.

Anyhow, I hope to get a few passages from the book posted here shortly with a bit of critical analysis.