Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Leonard Cohen on Travel

Leonard Cohen is such a favorite of mine, almost a guilty pleasure but even more so. He is the kind of close held thing that I cherish and don't tell others about. I would be too wounded if they didn't like it, or maybe my view of them would be diminished forever in the event they didn't appreciate or "get" him.

As a poet and songwriter, I knew his talents were supreme, but as commenter on the nature of daily life I hadn't seen much from him. This latest tidbit in a New York Times interview about his return to public performance stood out. Of course, he is talking about a very peculiar kind of travel known to touring performers, but I think it translates to a lot of jobs people do that involve a lot of travel:

“There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life” on the road and in the monastery, Mr. Cohen said. “There’s just a sense of purpose” in which “a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded,” and what is left is a “rigorous and severe” routine in which “the capacity to focus becomes much easier.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Grass - A Poem for Monday


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?Where are we now?

I am the grass. Let me work.

-Carl Sandburg

Commentary: This well known poem compels me not for the simple anti-war theme, but for its reflection on the fleeting nature of humanity. By evoking the names from horrific battles, the poet conjurs the great demons, but then, almost undetected, he contrasts the simple, mundane situation of a passenger on a train asking where they are, against the vanishing sweep of time. The grass stands for nature, or time, or a combination of all the forces of the universe that grind against us mortals, I am not sure, but under its slow, inexorable work, even the most terrible events bleed into forgotten history.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A poem for Monday

A real one this time. Instead of the popular habit of posting a poem for contemplation and spiritual enrichment on Sunday, as is popular on many blogs, I have decided to post poems for Mondays, to encourage a brief meditation in the midst of the chaos and industry of Monday.

For your quiet moment, on Monday:

"Strategic Air Command" - Gary Snyder

The hiss and flashing lights of a jet
Pass near Jupiter in Virgo.
He asks, how many satellites in the sky?
Does anyone know where they all are?
What are they doing, who watches them?

Frost settles on the sleeping bags.
The last embers of fire,
One more cup of tea,
At the edge of a high lake rimmed with snow.

These cliffs and the stars
Belong to the same universe.
This little air in between
Belongs to the twentieth century and its wars.

VIII, 82, Koip Peak, Sierra Nevada

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Inaugural Poem

For those who appreciated the very unique and talented Elizabeth Alexander, the inaugural poet, I offer my own humble scribble, from a tortured former Catholic (is one ever really former?), Andrew Sullivan would approve:

We ushered in Hope
And got rid of the Dope
Now let's see what we can do
About this idiot Pope.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Iraq makes it through another election

I have no inside information on the latest election, but I was on the ground for the 2005 rounds of elections in Fallujah, and can shed some light on what happened. As your sources noted, the Sunnis of Anbar province boycotted the first round of elections in January, 2005. Out of a city with an approximate population of 180,000, Fallujah saw 8,000 turn out to vote. What was never revealed, maybe until now, is that those numbers were significantly padded by the 4,300 Iraqi Army soldiers stationed in Fallujah. And these soldiers were nearly all Shi'a from Baghdad or Basra. So, in the end, less than 4,000 Fallujans actually voted in that first election.

The job of that first assembly, as you may recall, was to draft a constitution, like our Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Sunnis of Al Anbar, and especially Fallujah, realized quickly that their boycott had only resulted in ceding all the power to the Shi'a and the Kurds. So they decided to participate in the next round of elections. First came the constitutional referendum, which saw more than 100,000 Fallujans vote (nearly unanimously against it) in October of 2005. Then, in December, even more Fallujans, 130,000+ by the Iraqi Election Commission's reckoning, voted in the Iraqi National Assembly elections.

Setting the conditions to allow this election was the major objective of my unit at the time, and we all did everything we could to encourage the large turnout. But it seemed to me then, and still does, that this early emphasis on elections was certain to backfire. Our political leaders were selling elections as if they were a magical cure for all the problems of Iraq, that, simply by voting, Iraq would become like all the other democracies in the world. And this clearly was not the case.
Elections in the absence of stability might have even made things worse, offering false hope to the soon-to-be disillusioned Sunnis of Al Anbar. The riots and uptick in violence in Anbar province that occurred when the election results were announced (in early 2006) would seem to confirm this view.

Before the election I talked with a lot of Fallujans about what the election would mean to them and what they expected from it. To a man they were convinced that Sunnis were the majority population in Iraq and once they all voted, Sunnis would take their rightful place at the head of government. It was impossible to counter this idea. If I suggested that generally accepted figures by the U.N. placed Sunni Arabs at about 20% of all Iraqis they would dismiss it out of hand. Who gave you those figures? The Shi'a? Iran? I remember the old men saying, "How can this be? Look around you, everyone here is Sunni. Everyone I know is Sunni. You Americans are so naïve to believe everything the Shi'a tell you."

During these conversations, I recalled our training on Iraqi culture prior to our deployment. A professor from Georgetown University had warned us (mostly college educated officers) how different it would be to interact with illiterate people. Most people in Al Anbar could not read, she said, and therefore they had only their limited personal experience, and the words of their elders, to provide context to their reality. For a literate person, it is virtually impossible to comprehend how an illiterate person processes information. How true this observation turned out to be. The idea that our civilian leadership thought liberal democracy would spring up naturally in this environment still seems incomprehensibly foolish to me.

I think the folly of introducing "democracy" with the hasty election scheme was disastrous and foreseeable. Any serious student of geopolitics knows that the rule of law is the fundamental precursor to a functioning democracy - institutions, culture, accepted norms... need to be shaped and accepted thoroughly over generations. Our own democracy did not drop out of the sky in 1776, it was a product of centuries of British history. As the already sixty year rise of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, etc. reveal, the transition from rule of law to democracy occurs in different ways in different cultures, and typically takes several decades, not months.
As the recent election reveals, Iraq might very well be on that path of transition at last, but I hope our leaders finally understand that it will happen in Iraqi fashion, and will likely be a decades-long process. So hopefully we will ask ourselves whether we want to take the ride with them, or if we have found a good spot to get off.