Saturday, July 31, 2010

America At War

"Restrepo," a documentary about American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan had a special showing in Santa Fe last night.
The film offers an unflinching look at what is going on in the lives--and deaths--of American soldiers in a war that most Americans at home appear to know little--and care less--about.
It's not an anti-war film--although any film that depicts what war really looks like seems to me to be by definition an anti-war film.
And while the film is riveting to watch, at the end of it I'm not sure what question it answered--or even what question it asked.
Unconnected to the movie, but not unrelated, was a report in the local paper yesterday, picked up from the McClatchy Newspapers. Written by Nancy A. Youssef, the piece reports on a 300-page Army report that studied rising rates of drug abuse and criminal activity among soldiers leading to record-high levels of suicide among troops.
Here's the money quote from the article and the report:
"As we continue to wage war on several fronts, data would suggest we are becoming more dependent on pharmaceuticals to sustain the force. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that the force is becoming increasingly dependent on both legal and illegal drugs."
About one-third of soldiers are on some kind of prescription drug; 14% are on pain medication; crimes committed by soldiers are up--50,223 offenses committed in 2009 compared to 28,388 five years previously.
And suicide rates are up to 20.2 per 100,000 population, above the civilian rate for the U.S.
In my local paper, that report appeared next to a piece that recorded the number of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan as having reached "at least" 1,122 military personnel since 2001.
Now back to the movie for a minute.
One of the more arresting images in the film isn't a battle scene.
It's a meeting between the major in charge of the U.S. outpost and the local tribesmen. He's explaining that he's the new guy in charge. He wants them to know that what happened under the previous commanding officer is old news; the slate has been wiped clean. He's a fresh start.
His promise to the tribal leaders is to help build the local economy. Jobs and economic development. Build a road that will open up their region for trade and new business. A chance for them to get rich!
They sit there and look at him and the looks on their faces seem to say, "What in the world are you talking about?"
It's not just a different language.
It's a different universe. Maybe a different century. More than a different culture. A completely different frame of reference, a different time frame, a different world.
After the film, the major in the movie and one of the film-makes answered questions.
The film-maker made the point that Americans have little connection with this war.
There is no draft.
Taxes haven't gone up to pay for it. We're just putting it on our national credit card.
Even the leak of documents through Wikileaks hasn't stirred up much in the way of comment.
We have a national disconnect between the wars we fight and the world we live in back in America.
Soldiers come home, young boys, young girls really, having been damaged and broken by their experience. They may be on drugs; they may simply have awful nightmares and bad dreams. They may be injured physically; they may be injured spiritually.
Our political leaders talk about taking care of our veterans; it's hard to know what really taking care of them would look like.
Jobs? Economic development? A chance for trade and business? A chance to get rich?
And what about the undertaking of war in the first place?
There's no national dialog about it, no conversation as to why we're there, what the price is we're willing to pay, or who has to pay that price.
The disconnect is almost total, except for the young people we send over to do the fighting and the killing and the dying.
Today, America is at war.
And if you don't go to the movies to see a documentary, you'd hardly know it here at home.
And that's a real tragedy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Case of the Missing Middle

(Let's see. Where was I before I took a little time off?)
For a variety of reasons, I just finished reading the wonderfully well-written biography of Henry Luce, "The Publisher" by historian Alan Brinkley. (And recommend it without any reservations!)
It's a great book with useful and important lessons about publishing, journalism, magazining--and America then and now.
And it's this last category that has me thinking.
One of the sources of Luce's success with Time and Life (in particular) was the rise of the middle class. Over a period of about four decades, the United States took shape as the middle class was created--and then, in turn, created America.
The middle class defined what it meant to be an American. What the aspirations of the average American were, what the values and habits were, the consuming patterns, the work styles, and even the shortcomings and failings.
Under Luce, Time produced newsreels, featuring what has since become an iconic (and much parodied) voice booming, "America goes to work!" or "America goes to war!" or "America thinks this or that!"
And back then, there was that kind of America--a kind of general consensus about what the country was, how it worked, what it stood for, where it was headed (with, of course, huge gaping holes in areas like racial equality, gender equality--things like that).
Luce and Time/Life could ride that wave, even help define and shape it.
Americans wanted to know what Americans thought; wanted to know what Americans looked like; wanted to know what it meant to be American. And Luce and his magazines could tell them.
In 2010, that's a tougher assignment.
There are more Americas.
And more narcissism. More interest in "me" than in "us."
But most significantly, we're witnessing the wholesale destruction of the middle class.
Over the last decade or so, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer--and the middle class has been ripped to shreds.
Globalization has cost America a wealth of middle class jobs.
The economic melt-down of the last 2 years has cost more. And has taken away the equity that many middle-class families had struggled to build up over years.
The middle-class, the glue that used to keep the country together, is losing its hold.
I saw this same problem at the city level back in the 1970s in Portland, Oregon.
Portland then was at a tipping point: it had lots of older, poorer residents, and lots of younger, single residents. What it was fighting for were middle-income families with children--the people in the middle.
It's the people in the middle who hold the whole thing together. In Portland's case, if the middle went missing, moved to the suburbs, the city would lose its demographic center. And so we developed "the population strategy"--a series of government policies and initiatives designed to get the people in the middle to vote with their feet, to stay in the city, to turn their backs on the suburbs.
Today, America faces the same challenge--only on a national level.
We need to have policies and initiatives that rebuild and resurrect the middle class.
In the 1970s, government programs had to have environmental impact statements filed before they could move forward.
Today we need "middle class impact statements" for federal, state, and local government programs--analyses of the impact on the people in the middle of spending programs, tax programs, education programs--the gamut of policies and initiatives.
Because, very simply, if the middle goes missing, those who are left at either end of the socio-economic spectrum will be unable to keep things from imploding.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb