Mojo - February 2007

The American People Badly Underestimate Iraqi Death Toll

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 10:09 AM EST

A new AP-Ipsos poll finds that Americans can accurately identify the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq, but badly miss the mark on the number of Iraqi civilians killed.

When the poll was conducted, the number of Americans killed was just over 3,100. Poll respondents guessed 3,000, on average. The number of Iraqis killed is a difficult question, but what we do know is that it's really, really high. From the AP story on the poll: "Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated at more than 54,000 and could be much higher; some unofficial estimates range into the hundreds of thousands. The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq reports more than 34,000 deaths in 2006 alone."

What do Americans guess? 9,890. Yikes.

But apparently even that badly inaccurate number is too high for an increasingly war-weary country. "Whatever their understanding of the respective death tolls," writes the AP, "three-quarters of those polled said the numbers of both Americans and Iraqis who have been killed are 'unacceptable.'" For an explanation for why the American public doesn't know how many Iraqis have been killed, look no further than the Bush Administration, which was exposed as systematically undercounting Iraqi dead by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Hit this link to read the obvious but damning allegation.

Mother Jones content on counting the Iraqi dead here and here.

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Disabled Iraq Vets Shortchanged, Already

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 2:40 AM EST

On Saturday the Army announced that its Inspector Generals Office has found 87 problems with the service's medical retirement system, including inconsistent training for counselors, inadequate record keeping and a failure to follow Defense Department policy. The announcement came after a yearlong probe where the IG's office talked with 650 soldiers and employees at 32 posts around the world.

Also this weekend we hear, via Army Times, that the Army is holding back disability retirement ratings to cut costs.

"These people are being systematically underrated," said Ron Smith, deputy general counsel for Disabled American Veterans. "It's a bureaucratic game to preserve the budget, and it's having an adverse affect on service members."

Turns out that the number of approvals for disability retirement have remained steady for the other branches—Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force—since 2001 but in the Army, where we are seeing the majority of casualties and the bulk of our 23,000 injured, "the number of soldiers approved for permanent disability retirement has plunged by more than two-thirds, from 642 in 2001 to 209 in 2005, according to a GAO report from last year.

The Army Times also points out that:

While the number of soldiers placed on permanent disability retirement has declined in the past five years, the number placed on temporary disability retirement — with medical conditions that officials rule might improve so they can return to work over time or worsen to the point that they must be permanently retired — has increased more than fourfold, from 165 in 2001 to 837 in 2005.

Compared to the overall size of the defense budget, disability retirement costs are relatively small, compared to what we are spending in theater. In 2004, the military paid more than $1.2 billion in permanent and temporary disability benefits to 90,000 people, the GAO said.

More on the hits our men and women in uniform are taking in Iraq, and everything else you might want to know about the Iraq War, in our Iraq 101 guide, here, and on newsstands later this week.

One for the Bizarro File

| Sun Feb. 25, 2007 7:26 PM EST

Not everyday that you see a CNN headline like this: "Genealogists: Thurmond's family owned Sharpton's kin."

The story is this: Genealogists commissioned by the Daily News discovered that Al Sharpton's great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by a woman named Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather. What I really want to know is, did the Daily News get a tip that there was a connection between Sharpton and Thurmond, or do they do genealogical studies of all prominent black Americans to see if their ancestors were owned by the ancestors of prominent white Americans? How creepy would that be?

Late Update: Answers from the WaPo story on the subject:

The genealogy study was produced by researchers for the Web site Ancestry.com. Daily News reporter Austin Fenner initially asked them to research his own roots. He then approached Sharpton and asked if he would permit an investigation of his family history as well, for use in a story. Sharpton agreed. Neither the Daily News nor Sharpton paid for the research.

Important Gay Rights Bills Likely to Pass This Session

| Sat Feb. 24, 2007 9:46 PM EST

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports today that two breakthrough bills for gays and lesbians are likely to be passed by the new Democratic Congress. Both possibilities have me on the brink of tears of joy, they are so overdue and yet still seem so implausible. The first is an employment discrimination ban. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) projects that the bill will even include gender identity—which, to have any teeth, it must, lest employers shift from discriminating against those who are queer to those who act queer (which it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they've long since done).

The only problem with this bill—and it's a major one—is that churches and small businesses would be exempt. Churches: Feh—I don't have the energy to wade into the constitutionally murky waters of whether they should be exempt or not. But small businesses, which is to say most businesses? Why should they be exempt? No one is talking about a quota; the issue is whether GLBT people are turned away from positions for which they are qualified.

The other bill would include GLBT identity among those covered by hate-crimes legislation. That's right, nearly 10 years after Matthew Shephard was executed there is no national hate-crimes protection for GLBT people, who make up 14 percent of all victims of hate crimes. If that's not reason enough to support it, here's what Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has to say: "It's taking us to the point where anyone who opposes the sexual behavior of homosexuals will be silenced." Now, he's probably exaggerating, but just for a moment imagine the utopia of not having to listen to the invented slanderous anecdotes and statistics about GLBTs groups like Perkins' generate. The sweet, sweet silence of it.

But before you let those tears of joy trickle down your cheeks, remember on whose desk the veto pen rests.

Bill Richardson Serious About This "Running for President" Thing

| Sat Feb. 24, 2007 1:26 PM EST

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has an op-ed in today's WaPo arguing that George Bush's refusal to use diplomacy early in his administration led to a nuclear North Korea, and that if we aren't careful we'll repeat our mistakes with Iran. Hard to argue with logic like this:

Rather than directly engaging the Iranians about their nuclear program, President Bush refuses to talk, except to make threats. He has moved ships to the Persian Gulf region and claims, with scant evidence, that Iran is helping Iraqi insurgents kill Americans. This is not a strategy for peace. It is a strategy for war -- a war that Congress has not authorized. Most of our allies, and most Americans, don't believe this president, who has repeatedly cried wolf.
...
No nation has ever been forced to renounce nuclear weapons, but many have chosen to do so. The Iranians will not end their nuclear program because we threaten them and call them names. They will renounce nukes because we convince them that they will be safer and more prosperous if they do that than if they don't. This feat will take more than threats and insults. It will take skillful American diplomatic leadership.

As I wrote a couple days ago, I totally agree. The funny thing about this is that it isn't just Democratic boilerplate from a presidential candidate. Bill Richardson knows diplomacy. Bill Richardson knows nukes. The man was U.S. ambassador to the U.N., negotiated with Saddam Hussein way back when, negotiated a ceasefire in Darfur more recently, and briefly ran the U.S. Department of Energy under Clinton. (All of this leads me to believe that Richardson, who is unlikely to get the nomination for president, would make an excellent Secretary of State.)

Florida Appeals Court Rules Against Girl Based On Fantasized Future Events

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 6:07 PM EST

In 2004, two Florida adolescents--16-year-old Amber and 17-year-old Jeremy--took digital photos of themselves nude and engaged in some sort of sexual contact. They then sent the photos from a computer at Amber's house to Jeremy's email address. Somehow, the Tallahassee police got possession of the photos, and both Amber and Jeremy were arrested and charged with producing, directing or promoting a photograph featuring the sexual conduct of a child. Jeremy was also charged with possession of child pornography.

Amber appealed the charge, believing she had the law on her side. In 1995, a Florida court ruled that two 16-year-olds could not be found delinquent for having sex with each other. Since Amber was engaged in legal sex, she and her attorney reasoned that the police had violated her guaranteed right to privacy.

Remember this (edited) exchange between Alice and the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass?

"Suppose he never commits the crime?"
"That would be all the better, wouldn't it?"
"Of course it would be all the better, but it wouldn't be all the better his being punished."
"You're wrong there, at any rate. Were you ever punished?"
"Only for faults."
"And you were all the better for it, I know!"
"Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for. That makes all the difference."
"But if you hadn't done them, that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!"

This month, a Florida Appeals Court voted 2-1 to uphold the charge against Amber. Writing for the majority, Judge James R. Wolf, speculated that both Amber and Jeremy could have eventually sold the photos to child pornographers or shown them to friends. He also said that transferring the digital images from a camera to a computer and then sending them via email created "innumerable problems" because the computers could be hacked.

Judge Wolf's reasoning must make every Florida parent with photos of their naked children a bit uncomfortable. After all, they might show the photos to friends, and those friends might even sell them to child pornographers. Or one might slip out a of parent's pocket or purse and be picked up by a stranger, who could then sell it to a child pornographer. And who knows how many parents with photos of their naked toddlers might become child pornographers?

Amber and Jeremy are too young to be listed on a sex offender registry, thank goodness, but there is no doubt that their privacy was violated, and there is no telling what kind of psychological effect this circus has had on them.

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Ahmad Chalabi Breaks My Spirit

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 2:51 PM EST

Like a monster that will not die, Ahmad Chalabi is back in the headlines. Apparently everyone's favorite Iraqi troublemaker has gotten himself a job leading the implementation of the surge from the Iraqi end. Story from the subscription-only Wall Street Journal site here, excerpts here.

I won't even bother with this, because I trust all of you know Chalabi's sordid history and because I've spent more brain-hours thinking about Chalabi in the last year than I care to count. But if you want to know why working with this character is bad, bad, bad idea for the American government, see all of the Chalabi entries in the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline.

Few Weeks of Anonymity Doom Presidential Campaign, Vilsack Goes Back to Lifetime of Anonymity

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 2:14 PM EST

We've all been a bit harsh on presidential candidate and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (Wonkette refers to him as "Tim Pete Tom Vilsack") because of his lack of name recognition, charisma, any chance at all of winning the nomination, etc.

Well, apparently we got to him. Vilsack decided that being the top presidential candidate from Iowa (but not the top candidate -- or even second -- in Iowa polls), was fun while it lasted but he's packing it in. Sadly, with the first candidate to exit the race also goes the most ambitious climate-change plan.

Newsweek: "Petraeus is Engaged in a Giant 'Do-Over.'"

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:37 PM EST

Scary, essential new reporting from Michael Hirsh of Newsweek:

Gen. David Petraeus's new "surge" plan is committing U.S. troops, day by day, to a much deeper and longer-term role in policing Iraq than since the earliest days of the U.S. occupation. How long must we stay under the Petraeus plan? Perhaps 10 years. At least five. In any case, long after George W. Bush has returned to Crawford, Texas, for good.

The previous general in Iraq, George Casey, was focusing on training Iraqi forces before he left his post, in a move designed to prep the country for an American departure. Under Casey's plan, reports Hirsh, "By 2008, the remaining 60,000 or so U.S. troops were supposed to be hunkering down in four giant 'superbases,' where they would be relatively safe." But under Petraeus's plan, the Army is setting up hundreds of "mini-forts" all over the country, right in the middle of some of the worst fighting. The idea that the Iraqis can take responsibility for their own security -- always a fallacy -- has been discarded. American servicemen and women are walking beats. The most dangerous beats in the world. "We're putting down roots," one former Army captain tells Hirsh.

This is the last thing Democrats -- who are trying to decide which way, not if, they are going end the war, both in Congress and if they were to take the White House in 2008 -- want to hear. Could the disconnect between what candidates are saying on the trail and what is happening on the ground in Iraq be any greater?

But ignore that for a second. It's like the 2006 elections never happened. In their rhetoric, members of the Administration acknowledge that politically, they can't get away with another long-term go at achieving stability in Iraq: the people have spoken, and they won't have it. For example, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked at a congressional hearing how long the surge was expected to last, he said, "I think for most of us, in our minds, we're thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years."

But the fact of the matter is that Petraeus has gone ahead and implemented a long-term strategy that is useless if we cut it off in one year or even two. It doesn't pay dividends that quickly. Don't get me wrong: I see the value in what Petraeus is doing. It's the proper way to fight an insurgency. But really, it's the proper way to prevent an insurgency, and the well-intentioned Petraeus and his genius-club of advisors are at least two years late to the scene. (An aside: "Civil Affairs" teams are a little-known part of the military. They are commissioned to do what Petraeus has the whole Army doing, and if they had been used from the beginning of this war, we could have avoided this whole mess. For more, consider "Waging Peace" by veteran reporter Rob Schultheis. It's an excellent read and is totally relevant to discussions how wars like this one should be fought.)

In the end, I suspect this will prove the Powell Doctrine right yet again -- Bush's war in Iraq is one long, painful lesson on how right Powell was when he said that foreign wars should only be fought if we have a clearly defined objective and exit strategy, the support of the international community, and broad support amongst the American people. Before, we didn't have clearly defined objectives or an exit strategy. Now that we do, there is no support amongst the American people for what Petraeus is doing, and with Congress looking to redraw the 2002 war authorization in order to more narrowly define what American troops can be used for in Iraq... it looks like even this worthy new plan from a worthy new general is just another path that ends in failure.

Wilberforce Be With You: The Christian Right Claims Amazing Grace

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:28 PM EST
amazing.gif

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery. But since Hollywood doesn't release new titles on Thursday, it's waiting until today to launch Amazing Grace, a new movie about 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. The flick, directed by Michael Apted (creator of the mesmerizing 7-Up documentary series) and produced by the studio that did The Chronicles of Narnia, is getting enthusiastic advance reviews. But nowhere is the film more highly anticipated than among conservative Christians, who see parallels between Wilberforce's moral battle and their faith-based campaign against sex trafficking. But Wilberforce's unlikely victory is also viewed as a metaphor for the Christian right's struggle to remake the culture. Presidential hopeful Sam Brownback was dubbed a "Wilberforce Republican" by the Economist, and has eagerly accepted the title. And check out this email appeal I recently received from Ted Baehr, who runs MovieGuide, an evangelical movie review site:

One man, William Wilberforce, was used by God to abolish the slave trade in England and bring about a reformation of manners.

Imagine what you and I can do together to redeem the media and save our culture! [...]

Because of Wilberforce's willingness to serve the Lord, a Victorian society where women and children were safe and where the Church was addressing social evils in creative ways saved a nation that was quickly falling into rampant paganism.

[...] you can help us bring about a moral reform in our nation that will set the captives free from the bondage and slavery of corrupt media.

This is the chance for the Church in our era to address social evils in creative ways!

Wilberforce has officially been recruited as a culture warrior. (BTW, MovieGuide gives Amazing Grace four stars, though it warns viewers that it contains "female cleavage.")

Of course, Wilberforce's story doesn't just resonate with religious conservatives. His against-the-odds struggle for social justice plucks liberal heartstrings as well—ours included. For a progressive interpretation of British abolitionism, see Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochshild's most recent book, Bury the Chains, which argues that the anti-slavery movement was "the first great human-rights campaign." As Hochschild explained when I interviewed him:

In a time that feels politically grim, especially for anyone in the U.S. who cares about social justice, I hope people will take heart from a story of folks who started a campaign at a time when it looked even grimmer. The idea of ending slavery seemed totally utopian, crackpot, wildly too idealistic. But they succeeded. And they succeeded in 50 years, in the lifespan of some people [...] They went through some very grim times, one of them being the long wartime period like the one we're seeing now. Wartime is bad news for progressives, and it was the same thing [during the Napoleonic wars]. So I guess to the extent that it's possible for a book like this to have any effect, I would just like to see it have the effect of making people working for justice today feel heartened and to know that any big struggle will always be a long one with many setbacks.

I don't see anyone calling themselves "Wilberforce Democrats" any time soon, but that's no reason to let the right lay exlcusive claim to the legacy of abolitionism, or even Amazing Grace. So take a break from your usual pagan film fare and see if it lives up to the hype. (And for you history buffs/Afropop fans, it's your chance to see Youssou N'Dour's silver screen debut as Olaudah Equiano.)