Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book review: Charlie Wilson's War and Ghost Wars

Want to depress yourself? Read these two books. Charlie Wilson's War is the story of one Congressman's love affair with the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980's and possesses a certain jauntiness. It's not surprising that it got made into a movie as Congressman Charlie Wilson was colorful enough to be entertaining. Ghost Wars is the much more depressing report of the 20+ years of idiotic foreign policy, stupid covert activities, and bureaucratic infighting that led up to September 11, 2001. No one's ever going to make a movie about the United States kissing up to Saudi princes and Pakistani religious zealots and simultaneously ignoring warning sign after warning sign about the rising influence of religious nutcases all while relying on that over-funded black hole of bad intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency.

Charlie Wilson's War does some hinting at the flaming incompetence of the Central Intelligence Agency, but not too much. It's implied, not explicit, because author George Crile is obviously rather enamored of the spies hanging out at Langley. He's also seduced by Wilson's larger than life personality. He's not nearly as critical as he could have been about a Congressman who knew absolutely nothing about Afghanistan before deciding it would be a good idea to pour gazillions of dollars into the pockets of the mujahideen simply because they were fighting the Soviet Union. There must be something in the water in east Texas because the Congressmen who come from that part of the state all seem to be crazy, albeit in different ways.

Charlie Wilson was an alcoholic womanizer who was politically liberal in every area except one: Communism. He was rabidly anti-Communist. All it took was hearing that the mujahideen were trying to get the Commies out of Afghanistan and Charlie was on board. According to George Crile, Charlie managed to take what had been a low-level "let's annoy the Russians" operation that provided just enough assistance to the mujahideen for them to be a nuisance and turn it into a full-scale war that eventually culminated into giving a bunch of hardcore Islamic fundamentalist fanatics several thousand Stinger missiles. The CIA was quite literally handing over shopping bags full of hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars to various warlords about whom they knew very little. As I was reading this book and saw the descriptions of the multi-million dollar no-strings-attached handouts, I kept thinking that if the wingnuts really wanted to pay down the deficit and stop wasting government money, they'd push really hard for pulling the plug on all the spy agencies. It also made me wonder just how many pet projects various Congress critters have that they funnel money to without anyone bothering to question it much. Charlie Wilson's War made it sound like a savvy Congress critter could do stuff like saying, "Oh, by the way, how about giving the CIA another $10 million?" and it would get signed off on without a whole lot of hassle. This was the Proxmire Golden Fleece era -- why was Proxmire worrying about a few thousand here and there for oddball scientific research projects when the CIA was giving cash away by the bushel basket?

Okay, Charlie Wilson's War was depressing because it concludes by describing the way the U.S. government turns its back on Afghanistan almost as soon as the Soviet Union pulls its troops out. No aid money to help rebuild the country, and, even worse, any money that does go into the country goes to the most Islamist groups because they were also the most anti-Communist. The Soviet Union may have been crumbling, but the U.S. still wasn't going to do anything that might inadvertently help someone who had once been associated with the old Marxist regime. I finished reading Charlie Wilson's War knowing what happened next: the civil war in Afghanistan culminates with the Taliban coming to power, and the Taliban was headed by Mullah Omar, an ignoramus from the sticks who was the Muslim equivalent of an Appalachian self-taught snake-handling preacher. Although the word "taliban" has its roots in a Pashto word meaning "student" or "seeker," Mullah Omar was not a scholar. He was a fundamentalist who could just barely read Arabic and who possessed an extremely parochial view of the world. And, although he may have started off professing to be just a poor, unworldly preacher, he got seduced really fast by access to Osama bin Laden's money. That money, along with the palace bin Laden built, meant Mullah Omar was the guy who welcomed Al Qaeda to Afghanistan.

I learned a lot about Mullah Omar from Ghost Wars, a book that is guaranteed to leave the reader thinking, to put it bluntly, "oh shit, we are so fucked." Ghost Wars covers a much longer time span than Charlie Wilson's War. It begins with the Carter administration and the animosity being shown towards Americans in the Middle East and ends on September 10, 2001. The book won the Pulitzer for general nonfiction in 2005. It earned it. Ghost Wars was meticulously researched and provides a remarkably nuanced account of the persons and events leading up to Al Qaeda's attacks on September 11, 2001. Author Steve Coll does a yeoman's job of detailing the stunning incompetence of the CIA and the equally mind-boggling idiocy of various presidential administrations.

I don't think Steve Coll set out to argue that the CIA is astoundingly bad at gathering and analyzing intelligence. Over and over he describes the dedication and hard work of various personnel within the agency and different administrations. They want to do good work, but a combination of factors have the unintended consequence of various agencies figuratively shooting themselves in the groin over and over and over. The CIA's collaboration with the Pakistani intelligence service is the most egregious example of stupidity reigning supreme, but there are a lot of others. The U.S. government flat out refuses to recognize that the Saudis are not our friends. The Saudis tolerate the Americans, but repeatedly lie, stall, or sabotage American intelligence efforts. Ditto the Pakistanis. When the agents closest to the action tell higher-ups that the Pakistanis or Saudis are lying, upper management blows them off. Can't piss off the Saudis because they control oil, and can't piss off the Pakistanis because they've got The Bomb. So successive administrations decide to ignore inconvenient realities and keep right on pretending both countries are our allies. Pshaw.

The only thing Pakistan really cares about is its never-ending border war with India; they see the religious fundamentalists as helping with that border war (the madrassas can provide an endless supply of fanatical cannon fodder), so more and more Pakistani policy is driven by trying to keep the Muslim fundamentalists (the mullahs running the madrassas) happy. Within Afghanistan, there are a wide range of factions fighting the Soviets; the Pakistani intelligence service makes sure the overwhelming majority of American aid (dollars, weapons, whatever) goes to support the most extremist, the groups that will eventually emerge as the Taliban.

Then, once the Soviets are out of Afghanistan, the U.S. basically decides to ignore the area, decides to let the various factions fight it out in a civil war while pretending not to notice that Pakistan is actively helping the religious extremists. Pakistan rather naively believed they could control the extremists; by now they may have figured out they unleashed something that no one can control. There is still a small group within the CIA that is keeping an eye on various players (the nascent Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the different factions within Afghanistan) but that part of the world is viewed as fairly low down on the foreign policy list of priorities. The more astute analysts keep saying "bin Laden is a threat," but no one really believes them until 1998. Following the embassy bombings, the government as a whole starts paying attention to bin Laden, but agency turf wars, compartmentalization of information, and the unwillingness of anyone to face the reality that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were systematically providing false information meant that nothing much happens for the next three years. There's a lot of talking and fantasizing, but it really does look like the FBI, CIA, and the Defense Department spend more time taking potshots at each other than they do working on anything substantive.

In short, Ghost Wars is yet another book that depresses the heck out of a reader by demonstrating (again. as usual) that this country's supposedly elite intelligence forces actually have a lot more in common with Maxwell Smart and CONTROL than any of us would like to believe. Read it and weep.

[Pointless question: Now that I've badmouthed the U.S. intelligence agencies and used the words bin Laden and Al Qaeda multiple times in a post, I wonder how long it'll be before I end up on a no-fly list?]

Saturday, October 26, 2013


You hear about people rushing back into burning buildings to save cherished mementos -- wedding photos, family heirlooms, maybe some jewelry -- but a guy in Columbus, Georgia, apparently valued something most people wouldn't worry about. As reported this morning in the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
If your family is lucky enough to make it out of a burning home, it’s generally a good idea not to go back inside.
But Walter Serpit said he had no choice. The Columbus, Ga., man made sure all six adults and two children made it outside safely when smoke filled the family’s living room Thursday afternoon. Then, he went back in to get his beer.
Yep, his beer. My first thought was that the guy was an idiot. Granted, he freely admitted that he is an alcoholic so he probably had a stronger desire than most of us to self-medicate while watching his house burn down, but it was Thursday. The liquor stores were open. Now if it had been Sunday in Georgia, that would be a different story.

On the other hand, the story notes that Mr. Serpit grabbed several cans of his favorite beverage. If it comes in a can, it's probably close to qualifying as pure water, so why bother? It's a mystery. . .

Monday, October 21, 2013

Another nice Upper Peninsula museum: Jake Menghini

This past Saturday the S.O. and I drove down to Norway, Michigan, to attend a meeting of the Northland Consortium. The consortium is a loose organization of local historical societies and museums located in the central and western U.P. and northern Wisconsin. Meetings rotate around the region and generally feature a couple speakers in the morning and a field trip to the host museum after lunch. The morning meetings can turn kind of strange -- at this year's meeting I was treated to a lecture about how local historical societies and museums can't manage to do web sites or have Facebook pages because we geezers are all too technologically illiterate to figure out how the Intertubes work -- but the field trip part of the day is usually fun.
The Jake Menghini Museum in Norway began the way a lot of small town museums did: the core collection came from a hoarder collector who kept his stash in an old log building that he eventually referred to as a museum. At some point the city of Norway acquired the collection and decided to build a new museum on the edge of town at what had been the Anton O'Dill farm.
Francis turbine from the city of Norway hydroelectric plant. The museum director said it just showed up in front of the museum one day. She said one of the drawbacks of being owned by the city is that city workers will occasionally drop objects off with very little advance warning. She's lucky if it's just city workers: we have odd objects dropped off by the general public all the time with no advance warning and it's rarely anything as nifty as a reaction turbine. 
The museum is fairly new building and is large enough to have multiple life-size dioramas. I had some quibbles about some of the displays, but then I always do. 
For example, the room shown below cries out for a different presentation of the basket casket. I'd have placed it on a table and had a mannequin laid out in it so you'd know immediately what it was instead of kind of wondering just what the oversize object standing in the corner is. 
On the other hand, none of the spaces is very big. If they had actually placed it on a table, there wouldn't have been much open floor space left. I did, of course, suffer some serious object envy over that basket casket. As far as I can tell, the only things the local funeral homes have given the Baraga County museum are a notebook listing all the funerals held there over a 50-year time period and a couple vases. 
There was, of course, the obligatory space filled with miscellaneous clutter: sad irons, various cooking gadgets, odds and ends of tools, and what to me looks like the scariest juicer I've ever seen. The thing looks like a prop out of an early episode of Dr. Who. The museum is lucky enough to have a fair amount of land so has plenty of space for outdoor exhibits, including their latest acquisition, a sawmill:
The S.O. immediately began waxing nostalgic. He's familiar with this type of sawmill. He worked at a sawmill that used this same type of set up. He pointed out one mistake they've made in setting it up. If they wanted to be truly accurate, they need to add more track to the left of the saw in the photo above. 
The museum volunteers were making a verbal mistake, too, when they talked about the sawmill. They kept referring to it as "steam powered." Well, I'm not much of a mechanic, but when a device is labeled "diesel," I tend to believe that's what it is. Perhaps the original power source was a steam engine, in which case the volunteers need to make that clear in their descriptions. 
The museum does plan to put a pavilion over the sawmill to protect it from the elements. The other structure at the museum is a restored farmhouse. It's set up as a house museum, i.e., it's relatively uncluttered and an effort has been made to have it look as though people are still living there. The overall impression is early 20th century, but it hasn't been strictly curated to limit it to any particular decade. The kitchen, for example, includes a number of items that are clearly mid-20th century or later, but that's another minor quibble. Overall it's very nicely done and well worth visiting if a person happens to be passing through Norway on a day when they're open. Like most of the U.P. museums, they're only open in the summer and then only three days a week. And, despite the face*palm moment at the morning meeting when the subject of having an online presence came up, the Jake Menghini Museum does have a website:

Friday, October 18, 2013

Getting close to having turd breath

Given the penchant of the right wing to indulge in blacktracking, i.e., if President Obama is for something, they're automatically against it, it's not surprising that memes like this one are floating around the Intertubes. Another slightly ruder one is that if President Obama told people not to eat dog shit, all the Republicans would have turd breath in short order. Pshaw, you say, these memes are pure hyperbole. Not even hard core Tea Baggers are stupid enough to engage in insane behavior just because they can't stand President Obama.

Well, if you thought that, you'd be wrong. Over at the Daily Kos, FisherofRolando had a piece on the best Red State Comment of the Day. There was a gem about Sarah Palin's intelligence, but the best one came perilously close to advocating eating yellow snow:
Kentucky can go to hell in a handbasket. The people there are flocking to the ACA. We should bring to this fight the discipline of the union workers who hold firm on their strikes and suffer on principle. There can be no worse patriotic move right now than to sign up for Obamacare just to save a few hundred bucks a month. It will end up costing America much more than that. 
Yep. You read that right. If you decide you want to purchase health insurance through the exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act, you're being unpatriotic. How dare you decide your health matters! Stay away from health insurance because it's more important to demonstrate how much you hate Obama than it is to take care of your own health. And, here, while you're avoiding signing up for health insurance, enjoy your entree of canine feces (fresh off the sidewalk) followed by a refreshing yellow snow sorbet.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

I wonder what else the county is hiding?

The S.O. and I decided to play tourist the other day. Every so often this summer someone from out of state would wander into the museum and ask me about a place in Baraga County that I had to admit quite honestly I knew absolutely nothing about except maybe its general location. Baraga County is big (1,068 square miles) and mostly rural. There are lots of places in the county where I've never been and probably will never go so I don't view the fact I don't have personal knowledge of every scenic waterfall or interesting building as much of a problem. Still, I got asked about Pointe Abbaye often enough that my curiousity was piqued.

Pointe Abbaye is the peninsula to the northeast of L'Anse, although when people say Pointe Abbaye they're often referring to the actual tip of the peninsula, a site that is about 25 miles from L'Anse and is accessed by roads that become increasingly more interesting to drive. You know, the blacktop ends, the two lanes of gravel start shrinking down to one lane of dirt, and pretty soon you're asking that age old U.P. question: county road, logging road, or snowmobile trail? Turns out it is definitely county road all the way, as the photo below illustrates. If you look close, you can see that the fire number on the sign says "Pt. Abbaye Rd." It also makes it clear (especially when you look at a map) just where Pointe Abbaye got its name -- it's bastardized French reflecting the fact it's the point between two bays: Keweenaw and Huron.
And why is there a fire number you may ask? Well, it turns out that the 258 acres at the tip of the peninsula are a county park, and it has structures. Structures call for fire numbers. Granted, the two buildings consist of a pair of pit privies, but they are buildings nonetheless. They're actually rather well maintained pit privies -- they were clean. In addition, the parking lot was mowed, and the trash had been emptied recently. 

The sign indicated there were three hiking trails. We opted for the one out to the tip. It didn't actually look much like what I think of as a hiking trail; it was definitely a two track road with pretty recent tire tracks. When we got to the tip we found the reason for the fresh tire tracks: several guys fishing who had driven in and parked close to where the dirt disappears and the tip of the peninsula turns to bare rock. 
Considering that it was a Thursday in October and the park isn't particularly easy to get to, it was remarkably busy. Besides the fishermen, there were a couple of guys from Illinois who were probably going to camp for a night or two -- we met them walking out as we were walking in, and shortly after that they drove their car in from the parking lot to a rustic camp site off that looked to be about 150 feet or so off the trail and right on the lakeshore. Then, when we got back to the parking lot, we discovered another car with an out of state plate had arrived. The driver of that one asked if anyone was camping. We said yes, but they decided to check out the site themselves. I got the impression there were a couple other spots that were suitable for tent camping, but the place the first car had driven in to was probably the best. 
I asked the S.O. if he had known there was an actual park at Point Abbaye. Nope. Not a clue. I certainly didn't know it. There's nothing in the tourist literature we have at the museum, which includes a summer fun guide published by the local Tourist & Recreation Association to tell you it's there. The Backroads & Tourism Map put out by the Tourist & Recreation Association does include Pointe Abbaye as a place of interest but just says "An unmatched view of the Huron Islands and the Huron Mountains." Not one word about it being a park. If you Google "parks in Baraga County" a decent list comes up, but Pointe Abbaye isn't on it. There is also no signage whatsoever until you actually pull into the parking lot. The only thing that keeps you pointed in the right direction is seeing the road sign for Pointe Abbaye Road at the intersection with Townline Road. After that, it's a matter of just sticking with what appears to the most traveled road as it winds along the peninsula. 
When I Googled Point Abbaye I did learn that last year the county wasted money on having U.P. Engineers and Architects draw up a development plan for the park. Obviously, this means that they do occasionally admit publicly that the park exists. Not surprisingly given the penchant of consultants to always think big, the proposed plans had a price tag of several hundred thousand dollars because they included building a power boat launch in addition to creating about a dozen rustic camp sites. Idiots. The two -- power boats and tent camping -- are mutually contradictory. A kayak and/or canoe launch would make perfect sense and cost almost nothing. People who kayak also like to tent camp. Power boaters? Not so much, plus the noise from power boating would really trash the quiet atmosphere the park has now. It's so far removed from everything else that the only noises you hear are natural ones. I have no idea whatever happened with the development plans, but my hope would be that anything they do to Point Abbaye would be low key: put in a picnic table or two, maybe clear a couple more campsites along the lake shore, and maybe, just maybe, put up a road sign or two to let people know the park actually exists.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

It's Hell getting old

On top of all the usual downsides of aging -- less energy, brittler bones, mysterious aches and pains, gray hair, wrinkles, you name it -- getting older means sliding into the demographic where you get the advertising you really don't want to see. Your snail mail box starts filling up with insurance advertising and flyers from funeral homes. Being female doesn't stop your email from loading up with spam from "Canadian" pharmacies trying to sell you erectile dysfunction cures and solve your low T problem. And then the Internet in the form of Google and other search engines figures out your demographic niche and the pop ups and ads in the side bars go from being fairly innocuous to specifically targeting women of a certain age. And this appears:
You know, there are a lot of things I'd rather not think about as I get older. Butterfly body liners are one of them. In fact, this product is something I now wish I'd never heard of. Life can be depressing enough without knowing that, and I quote from the ads, "1 out of 5 women over the age of 50 suffer from anal leakage." Does the world really need to know that on top of suffering from hot flashes, gray hairs, wrinkles, vaginal dryness, and maybe wetting their pants when they sneeze, twenty percent of older women are walking around with leaking bowels? No wonder older men don't want to date ladies their own age.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

So what's the point?

The House of Representatives has voted unanimously to provide retroactive pay to furloughed federal employees when they return to work. This is a fairly clear sign they all expect the shutdown to end soon. So what's the point of the shutdown other than to provide sound bites and toss some red meat to the extreme right wing base back in the hollers and swamps of the deep South? I speak figuratively of the hollers and swamps, of course. After all, there must be a few Tea Baggers who live in perfectly respectable trailer parks or have family trees that actually fork. 

The government shutdown has now gone on for five days (counting today). What has it accomplished? U.S. prestige is plummeting globally. We're looking more and more like a banana republic, a third world nation that's going to end up about as influential on the world stage as the Maldives or East Timor if the extreme right wing keeps its posturing up much longer. The U.S. is really keen on telling other countries how to run their governments, but after this debacle why should anyone listen? 

The shutdown is also damaging the economy: in addition to the federal employees placed on indefinite furlough, contractors and concessioners are shut down, and businesses that rely indirectly on the government are also hurting. How many days can a guy who operates a hot dog cart in front of an office building go with no customers before he's forced out of business? Whatever the economic cost ultimately is, it's probably going to be more than the current estimates of approximately $300 million a day. 

Given that the Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010 and has been rolling out incrementally ever since, it truly baffles me as to what the Tea Party minority within the Republican Party hoped to accomplish with their last minute grandstanding. Their posturing is the metaphorical equivalent of standing right in front of a 1,000-car BNSF coal train that's already moving at a good clip and hoping to stop it on a dime. Not going to happen. At this point, all one can do is hope the clown car that's parked on the tracks gets flattened, but, unfortunately for the country, its occupants are probably going to emerge unscathed. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

When did they stop teaching civics in high school?

Words fail me. I feel the urge to do a rant about the idiocy currently happening in Congress, but I'm finding the depths of stupidity on parade render me speechless.

As an opinion piece on CNN notes,
For politicians in Washington, and for the American people, angry and frustrated with the increasingly partisan and dysfunctional government, the shutdown that started on Tuesday looks like a battle over domestic politics. For the rest of the world, the closure of U.S. government institutions says America is growing small, small-minded and unreliable. 
A small band of extreme right-wing politicians couldn't win the debate, or the vote, or the legal argument over health care, so they decided to close down the government instead. A system that allows that to happen is dangerously flawed and in urgent need of repairs.
It probably doesn't help my mood that when I do listen to the news or even talk with various acquaintances, I keep hearing the same old bullshit: the ACA was crammed down our throats, no one knows what's in it, the Obama administration is a tyranny. . . ad nauseum. How anyone could claim that no one knows what's in the Affordable Care Act when it was debated for over a year before it was passed in 2010 and it's been endlessly debated since then is beyond me.

Then again, when I read the local newspaper (another mistake I made yesterday) and see letters to the editor in which the writers basically brag about their complete lack of knowledge of how a democracy actually functions, I find myself hoping the zombie apocalypse happens soon.