The Bowe Bergdahl outcome

Very shortly –  perhaps this week, the U.S. Army will sentence Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for deserting his unit in Afghanistan in 2009.  It will be interesting to see what Colonel Jeffrey Nance does with handing out punishment.  He’s in a difficult position even though Bergdahl has pleaded guilty to the charge. Guilt is not the issue.  What is creating the problem for the military justice system are the words of our commander in chief, President Donald J. Trump.

On the campaign trail a year ago, Trump said that Bergdahl was a traitor and should be shot.  Just a few days ago, commenting on the trial, Trump said he hadn’t changed his mind on what he thought of Bergdahl and what should happen to him. These ill-tempered remarks have put the sentencing judge between a rock and a hard place. Did Trump’s words place a requirement for a very stiff sentence? After all, the judge works for the president and is part of the chain of command. Civilian authority over the military is something all Americans have accepted since the beginning of the Republic.

Any way you look at it, Sgt. Bergdahl is a pathetic character. His attempt to make contact with the Taliban on his own while in the field made him a captive for five years. He was tortured by his captors and suffered great personal harm. Some of his unit mates were wounded as they searched for him in the belief that he had been captured. The final solution brokered by the Obama administration wherein Bergdahl was released in a swap of 5 Taliban captives seemed disproportionate in the extreme.

But Trump’s comments may have sabotaged any reasonable outcome to Bergdahl’s fate. Desertion in wartime is a serious charge. There should be very severe consequences for what Bergdahl did.  But how will the judge rule? Given how president Trump has publicly stoked the anger toward Sgt. Bergdahl, it is pretty clear that there won’t be a sentence that will satisfy most people. Bergdahl’s life is already ruined by his own actions. My view is that Judge Nance should dismiss the case as tainted by the incendiary words of a commander in chief who seems to ignore the consequence of what he says. Bergdahl should get a general discharge and be released from the military with time served.






The pain in Spain

We are once again witnessing the disintegration of a European country as Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of Spain flirts with secession. The disaffection has seethed for some time in the northeastern section of the country as Catalans have viewed the central government in Madrid with increasing anger. Catalonia is a prosperous region of Spain and provides the country with about 20 percent of its GDP.  Residents in cities like Barcelona don’t like the idea that they must pay taxes to support less prosperous sections of Spain. They have always felt that the central government does not appreciate or respect Catalan culture.  Part of this stems from the history of the region which was once an independent kingdom. There is a long history here and memories keep it alive. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the forces of General Franco devastated Catalonia which had been a republican enclave against fascism. For a long time under Franco, Catalan culture was repressed and people were not allowed to speak their unique language. While things have improved in the last several decades a large percentage (but not a majority) of Catalans want independence.

I visited Barcelona a couple of years ago and saw a vibrant economy and a population of prosperous and healthy people. Beautiful parks were everywhere. The pedestrian walkway called Las Ramblas allows one to walk from the busy harbor along a shaded mid-way with shops and restaurants. The magnficant cathedral created by architect Antoni Gaudi — the Sagrada Familia dominates the skyline. The city is a place of great beauty.

Now all that would seem to be at risk as a group of radicals have pushed the idea of independence to almost the point of no return. After a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish central government and the European Union, Catalans seem poised to take the final step toward dissolving their connection to the rest of the country.

Should Catalonia try and secede, they will face a central government determined not to let that happen. There have already been street demonstrations met by force with some injuries. Violence will only grow if reasonable people do not put the brakes on this movement.  Even if Catalonia could pull off an exit from Spain, where would it leave them? They would be out of the European Union and could not even apply to get in as a sovereign nation because Spain would veto their entry.  All of their trade agreements would have to be renegotiated. The economy would enter a downward spiral as jobs would be lost caused by international businesses relocating out of Catalonia. It would be a disaster.

There are historical precedents to predict just how badly a secession of this type will affect Catalonia. When Quebec made noises of leaving Canada in the 1970’s many businesses left their headquarters in Montreal moving to other Canadian cities. Jobs were lost. That province has not yet fully recovered from it. When Yugoslavia imploded as various cultural groups in that federation in the 1980s decided to go it alone, to pursue their own independence, it led to economic stagnation and eventually a bloody civil war. There’s been little recovery there. The Slovak region of the former Czechoslovakia has not done as well as its former partner since the break-up of the country into two separate nations 20 years ago.

I could add more examples. But the long and short of it is that if Catalonia doesn’t compromise on its demands for independence, there will not be a good ending to this problem. And it should not have come to this.

Military parades

President Trump has floated the idea that we should have a giant military parade, perhaps in Washington, D.C. or maybe New York, to show the world our military might. Thousands of troops marching, planes flying overhead, tanks and missiles passing a review stand. I think it is a bad idea.

We’ve seen a lot of film footage of soldiers on parade in other countries. It’s designed as a show of national might, usually staged to make a statement that the country is not one to be messed with. It’s also often a vehicle to prop up some ruling military dictatorship and keep the citizens in line. Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, and Beijing seem to be good places for this sort of thing nowadays. In earlier times, Berlin and Tokyo used to be the focus point for displays of military might, geared to impress the world. We all know how that ended. 

Washington and New York aren’t not the kinds of places to showcase the troops. True, there were marches of troops military hardware after some of our wars.  The one in 1865 that celebrated the end of the Civil War was a day and a half long.  Crowds cheered as soldiers marched in American cities after World War II. That was a proper time and place.  And in the two examples I’ve given, the troops were actually marching to be de-mobilized after victorious campaigns. They weren’t threatening anyone. Rather they were ready and eager to be civilians again.

President Trump’s call for a show of militarism by way of huge army, navy, and air force parades is not only wrong-headed but unnecessary.  Most countries, probably all, know of our military prowess. There is no need to make an overt show of it with goose-stepping soldiers and missiles. At our best, we have shown that we are a people who resort to military solutions only when provoked to the point where all other options have been exhausted. We can show that conversely, when we resort to a military solution without letting all of the efforts play out, things do not turn out well. 

When I was in the military, I remember liking marching. During boot camp, our drill instructor used to put us on the grinder to march for hours when we screwed something up. I actually enjoyed the measured cadence — boots all hitting the ground at the same time. It was no punishment to me. Perhaps Trump has a thing about the military and parades might would satisfy some of this need.  I’d prefer though to see him marching himself down Pennsylvania Avenue, perhaps holding the hand of his youngest son, who like his father and his older brothers, will never put on a uniform and be called to march in a military parade. 









The DACA Dilemma

President Trump’s move to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) has caused a backlash from supporters of the so-called “Dreamers” — those people who were brought here illegally as children. During the 2016 campaign Trump was quick to latch on to his base’s anger at what his supporters saw as an amnesty program for people who broke the law by coming into the country. He repeatedly said that he would immediately end the DACA program that he claimed had been illegally enacted by an executive order drafted by Barack Obama. Taking such a hard line helped him get elected. But once in office, he seemed to soften his position saying that he sympathized with the dreamers and they had nothing to fear. He has said that he has a love for these people and that he expects that things will turn out all right for them once Congress come up with a “responsible” immigration plan.  It’s no wonder that the individuals who are caught in the middle of this issue are confused by the mixed messages that have come out of the White House. An estimated 800,000 young people are in the crosshairs.

I’m guessing that I’m like most Americans when trying to figure out what to do about immigration. I recognize that we are a country made up of immigrants. My grandparents on my mother’s side were born in Italy. But it’s the “illegal” that stops me from supporting such things as local non-compliance with federal immigration authorities and sanctuary cities. I want the border secured. Obviously, each case is an individual matter and has to be considered as such. But by and large, I believe that if a person did not follow the lawful procedures related to entering this country, I don’t think they should be here.

That said, I don’t favor hunting down people and dragging them out of their homes and separating families. It is not only cruel but it is wasteful of manpower that could be doing more productive things. And I believe that these dreamers deserve the protection that Obama’s executive action gave them. When you look at the situation of a child who was brought to this country illegally, I can’t see a crime that could be ascribed to them.  Yes, the parents committed a crime. But the children did not. They had no choice and there was no criminal intent on their part. This is the only country that they know.

Shifting the responsibility of solving this conundrum to Congress seems the logical thing to do. It is the legislative branch of government that makes the laws, not the executive branch. The move also conveniently gives the president cover if that body cannot deliver a reasonable solution. He can deny that he was the one who was responsible for the fate of the dreamer program. While it doesn’t demonstrate a lot of  presidential leadership, it’s a politically safe strategy.  A deeply divided Congress, however, seems unlikely to come to any agreement on immigration reform in the near term and that leaves the dreamers in Limbo. And that is the real shame of it all.


Urban greenhorn

Recently I took some visitors from Europe on a tour of Boston. I shouldn’t say that I took them on a tour as I was just as much a tourist myself. I’m not a city person. Given a choice between New York City and a one bedroom cottage on a quiet lake in Vermont, I’d take the latter.  I figured though that my friends should at least get a taste of the “Hub of the Universe.” Rather than try and negotiate getting into the city myself, I enlisted my cousin who knows his way around Boston. He agreed to set everything up. I was along for the ride.

He agreed to pick up a one-day MBTA pass for each of the four of us. To do that, he had to find an outlet that would sell him the $12.00 “Charlie card.” The first place he went, a convenience store in Weymouth, the clerk said he couldn’t buy one because the computer was down. These ticket outlets aren’t just on every corner.  My cousin had to travel to Milton to find a 7/11 where he bought the four tickets. Strange as it may seem (and it certainly seemed strange to my European friends) when you buy the 24 hour ticket, the clock starts running when you give the money to the store outlet. Our tickets were stamped good from 6:36 p.m. twenty four hours later to 6:37 p.m. Think about this. If we had wanted to stay in the city for supper, our ticket would have expired before we got on the train home.  In Europe, you buy a day ticket from any one of hundreds of outlets and when you get to the station, you have it validated when you board so you get a true 24 hours to ride subways, busses, and trolleys.  In our case, we effectively got about 12 hours of use.  Yes I suppose we could have purchased our tickets on the day we were going into the city but that involved some logistics that made that option less attractive.  If the lottery can sell scratch tickets on every block, why can’t the MBTA do the same to make it more convenient?  As it was, when we got to the North Quincy T station, our tickets wouldn’t work. There was no MBTA worker or official to ask why the tickets wouldn’t work. After repeated tries to get the ticket to open the gates, (There are not any gates in European cities my friends commented. You have your ticket on you and if asked you must produce it or there is a big fine.) we did what a lot of people apparently do all the time. We “jumped” the gate. (Actually we went though on the coat tails of another passenger who held it open for us.)  My cousin had a Xeroxed copy of his transaction showing that our tickets were purchased for the day we were to travel so we were actually hoping that some T official would stop us so we could show it to him. But we saw no one. There was no one in charge.

Once the Red Line train rumbled into the station, it was like deja vu. I think the cars were the same ones that were new when I was a college student in Boston during the 1960s. The stations we passed through looked dingy and dirty. About a half hour later we were in the city.

The day in Boston was actually a good time. We did the Duck Boats, the Freedom Trail, the Public Gardens, Faneuil Hall marketplace, the old statehouse, etc.  We ate lots of food and enjoyed the crowds while watching some good street performers .  We got out of the city before our no-good tickets expired. I guess it didn’t matter. My friends really enjoyed the day.

The experience left me wondering what the purposes of public mass transit should be. Encouraging people to leave their cars at home should be one of them. Route 93 into the city was crawling along at about 5 mph with usually a single person in each of the thousands of cars. Wouldn’t these people prefer a clean, reliable and reasonably priced alternative to sitting in traffic jams every day? Would not a better transit system free up roadways so that we don’t have to build more highways every year that will, in a short time, become overcrowded themselves?  How much pollution and waste of resources not to mention time is wasted trying to get from one place to another? It seemed so obvious that moving people into the city could be done so much better. I can attest that when in Europe I constantly marvel at how good city and travel between major urban areas is. And yet, here we continue to pursue transit policies that actually discourage people from using public transportation. Just from the difficulty of purchasing a transit card to the old and dirty equipment on the different lines and the expense of parking, I had to conclude that people just don’t care enough to change the system.  I won’t be going into Boston again soon. It’s a shame.



Barry McGuire revisted

A bit over a half century, Barry McGuire released his “Eve of Destruction” song.  It fit those times. With lyrics like “handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,” “the eastern world, it is explodin’ violence flarin’, bullets loadin,'” and “if the button is pushed, there’s no running away,” we can get a snapshot of the world as it seemed to be in 1965.  A half century later, there are enough similarities in that song to our own time to make it appear that what was then — is now.

The other day the news carried stories of how Hawaii is prepping its citizens on what to do if a North Korean nuke drops into their neighborhood.  The Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight than it’s been in decades. The Mid-eastern world is aflame, much as it has been for as long as anyone can remember.  “You don’t believe in war but what’s that gun you’re totin”?”  Perpetual war seems a normal part of our contemporary existence. We’ve got violence flaring both here and abroad as individuals and nations move to arm themselves against potential aggressors.

“Marches alone won’t bring integration.” We may be more segregated today than we were in the 1960s in schools, the workplace, and in housing.  And the marches continue. “Think about the hate there is in Red China! Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama!” Red China may be gone but it’s been replaced by regimes that didn’t exist when McGuire wrote his song.  A black person traveling through the rural South today, still is at risk. When one looks at the hate displayed in shootings and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, Baton Rouge, Charleston, South Carolina, it’s clear that  the racial climate in America isn’t that much better now than it was in the 60’s.

“I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation.” Whether it is “fake news” or “alternative facts,” it does seem like the truth is much harder to pin down than it ever was. News channels and social media sites have created narratives that satisfy particular groups by reinforcing ideas that these groups want to believe. Rational evaluation and thoughtful discourse is difficult to find. Truth is now what you want to believe.  As a people we’ve become polarized socially, politically, and geographically. Anyone with an idea that we don’t like becomes an enemy. And through it all we maintain our self-righteousness and assured belief that ours is the only truth. “Hate your next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”

“And you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.”

Random thoughts – And a few questions.

Tell me if I am missing something here.  There is a very seriously ill child in Britain that has a possibility of getting experimental treatment in the United States. The money to move the child has been raised. There are American doctors who would like to give what is admittedly a long-shot option for the parents.  And yet the whole thing is tied up in British courts which have sided with a hospital’s decision that the eleven-month old boy should be taken off life support. The hospital claims that any additional kind of therapy would just prolong the child’s suffering. Right now it looks like they are not going to let the child out of the country for the experimental treatment.  Excuse me. Isn’t this a decision for the parents to make?  How can a court determine a child’s fate without the input of the mother and father?  I don’t get it. Maybe there is someone out there that has an answer to this one.

The dictionary defines the word “collusion” as “A secret agreement between two or more persons for a deceitful or fraudulent purpose.”  Donald Trump Jr. has said that his meeting during the 2016 presidential campaign with a Putin-connected Russian lawyer who supposedly had some dirt on Hillary Clinton, wasn’t collusion. I’m not sure that the meeting was fraudulent or deceitful, and I’m not even sure that it was illegal.  But it does raise some questions about the “Russian connection” that president Trump keeps denying. The fact that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was also involved in the meeting shows at the very least poor judgment.  If it isn’t collusion, then what is it? Any way one cuts it, there is an odor to it.

You’ve all seen pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers celebrating the taking of the city of Mosul. They do their victory celebrations against a backdrop of the city that looks like Berlin in 1945. It is a reminder of a famous statement made in Vietnam by an Army Colonel who stated that a peasant village had be burned to the ground to save it.  The shattered buildings and ruined infrastructure looks like anything but victory to me. I doubt all the people who lost their homes in the conflagration would disagree with me. It seems hardly anything to cheer about.

Finally, there is a front page story in Today’s Boston Globe about the big insurance company AIG. They cancelled a long term health care policy on an 80 year old woman who had paid premiums for years after she made a mistake in writing out her monthly check to the company. She was about $98 dollars short.  For that, AIG cancelled her coverage due to non-payment of a premium. Attempts to get AIG to let her correct her error were not favorably received by the company. She’s been dumped. According to her children, the woman is in the early stages of dementia and is headed for a nursing home. I wonder who is going to be on the hook for her care?  Apparently the higher ups at AIG have made sure it won’t be them.