Monthly Archives: March 2009

Quickie Note on Unions – and a Personal Update

Folks, the Neighborhood has been in a slight transition as Mr. D is currently looking for a new car.  Long and short of it, because of a mishap on the I-95 over the weekend, it has become important to find an alternate means of transportation.   I’m currently hopping between car dealerships, doing the usual rigmarole of sitting while the salesperson “speaks to the manager” while I twiddle my thumbs thinking of the most dramatic way to leaving on an overpriced Nissan.  Thus, my mind has been distracted as of late.

No matter, let’s dive into a subject near and dear to a knife-wielding Italian like myself–labor unions.  Ah yes, to return to a time when the stubborn district superintendent could be surrounded by swarthy toughs with chair legs and ball peen hammers.  Okay, so it was never like that in the education racket, but I can dare to dream.

The New York Post, in yet another salvo at New York’s teacher union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), ran a story about my old punching bag, KIPP academies.  It seems that the teachers in two of these academies have filed with the state to kick the UFT out of their schools, citing excessive meddling in school affairs without consulting the staff beforehand.  It appears that the union filed grievances on behalf of the membership without consulting the members first, even as the UFT has been representing teachers at the school for at least 12 years.

All of the facts have not been disclosed on this, but if what is being alleged is true, then the UFT has truly overstepped its bounds and acted in an authoritarian manner.  The membership must be, at the very least, consulted in any grievance that is submitted on behalf of the entire chapter or the entire union.  That is the point of a union–to act in the best interests of the membership, led at the pleasure of the membership. 

Do not take this as meaning that Mr. D is anti-union…far from it.  As much as capitalism inspires the best in us economically, politically and entrepreneurially, it often also inspires the worst in us socially.  Societal problems are seldom profitable, but without labor unions acting as a responsible counterweight to the demands of the management, capitalism itself can collapse in chaos and conflict. 

 Note that I used the word responsible; there are too many examples of labor overstepping its boundaries just as management has often abused working people.  The Teamsters are the prime example, especially their stormy relationship with organized crime.  Many early industrial unions joined radical groups like the Industrial Workers of the World, which advocated violent revolution.  The Communist influence on unions is also well documented.  The UFT may have also stepped into this category with this incident, although the facts have yet to prove this definitively.

My hope is that the UFT can solve this problem amicably with the membership…not for nothing, but those KIPP freaks and their chanting and slogans need a good pop in the yap.  At least the UFT dental plan can cover their lost teeth.

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Hollywood and History: the perils of film in the history classroom

cecil-b-demille_paramount-pictures-cropHollywood is truly the serial rapist of history–and it doesn’t use protection.  Ask my friend here, the great film director Cecil B. DeMille.  His record of historical rape could make you reach for a sharp object.  It would make the real-life Moses reach for a firearm, without Chuck Heston having to spot his NRA card. 

Like a serial rapist, Hollywood writers and directors seduce certain types, be it war heros, flawed minorities or enigmatic outsiders.  After gaining their confidence, they force their will on them–sappy plotlines, out-of-place romances, needless sidekicks, and set pieces that have nothing to do with reality.  After the rapists have had their fun, they make a point to display to the world how they humiliated these poor saps.  The result is reams of celluloid and digital memory cards of pseudo-historical nonsense.

Yet students today are obsessed with movies; they even read history like a storyboard at Miramax.  I make it a point to find movies that can augment lessons wherever I can.  Yet it is difficult to sort out the gold from the garbage.  You don’t want to spread Hollywood lies, but  history can often grind at a snails pace without special effects and a Hans Zimmer score.

Recently, I tied the Civil War to our local communities by spending a lot of time on the 1863 Draft Riots, the anti-war, anti-draft and anti-black violence that erupted in Manhattan in the week after Gettysburg.  It would have been great to have a movie with this, but my choices were both extremely flawed.  I had Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary History (1999) which covers the riots very well but in that slow, schmaltzy Burns style that puts kids to sleep.  I also had a real problem piece, Gangs of New York (2002), a disappointing film that has so many flaws too numerous to count, particularly since half a century of Five Points lore is squeezed into a few months in 1863.

I chose the documentary, and my students were not happy.  “Gangs” had a great violent scene about the riots, too.  I really didn’t mind the gratuitous violence.  What I did mind was the ridiculous preparation for a gang fight, where each gang is wearing similar colors and clothes–as if gangsters actually color-coordinated for the occasion.  That whole thing looked like a scene from The Warriors if it took place at Colonial Williamsburg.  So tough, the kids had to learn–and this time, it was boring.

In order to not get caught in a similar situation–and to save my fellow teachers in the neighborhood some grief–here are some flicks to avoid and some that can be used with the right lesson:


300 (2006) – NEVER use a movie that’s a retread of a comic book about a historical event.  This tasteless, unnecessary farce about the Spartan defense against the Persians at Thermoplyae in 480 BC has as much value as Hannah Montana.  Real Spartans would have made mincemeat of these bozos.  The Persians look like the villians in a Scientology cartoon.  Just thinking about this garbage makes me want to impale someone.

The Patriot (2000) – This one loses out on a number of counts.  The main character, Benjamin Martin, is a composite of three actual guerrilla fighters of the American Revolution, none of them nearly as virtuous as Martin.  The battle scenes, though life-like and action-packed, fall into gratuitous segments that only a self-loathing ultra-Catholic can bestow–like the guy getting his head ripped off by a cannon ball.  And what’s with the pussy-footing around the slavery question?  He’s a planter…in SOUTH CAROLINA…if he had no slaves, I assure you nothing would have gotten done.

Pearl Harbor (2001) – World War II never looked so precious.  Or clean, for that matter.  Yes, the special effects are worth seeing, especially if you have a great home theater system.  But it is yet another rape by the Hollywood establishment.  I’s see, the Japanese are sent home by the determined downtrodden sailor of color who weeps at his captain’s death as if he’s on the plantation.  Throw in a couple of good-looking all-American lads in Hawaiian shirts–both of whom are tipsy for the same gal–and you have the recipe for a massive distortion of the facts.

Gone With The Wind (1939) – Don’t get me wrong, this is a great movie…possibly among the greatest movies.  It was a classic, and continues to be a classic today.  Nonetheless, don’t use GWTW in the classroom as history: the story doesn’t even try to be accurate.  It’s also too long–your kids will be heaving a brick at you after the eleventh “fiddle dee dee” or so, which coincides with Clark Gables umpteenth smirk.

Any Biblical epic from the 1950s and 1960s, including C.B.’s old beauties Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) and Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) – Besides treading on the First Amendment, these fun films were not meant to show the ancient world as it was, but rather as Hollywood thought it should be.


Gettysburg (1993) – Perfectly suited for a classroom.  The film uses actual Civil War reenactors that are fastidious in their accuracy.  The violence is of the PG kind, which makes it classroom-suitable without being wuss-like.  Finally, who can find a better hero for kids than Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain charging his 20th Maine down Little Round Top?  It still makes me cry.

Glory (1989) – Another Civil War classic, Glory is a great film both because of its action and its unflinching honesty about racism on both sides of the war.  The whole film is really a ball of tensions and antagonisms that culminate in one brave futile charge on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.  Two talking points for the class–the relationship between the northern Boston black man and Denzel Washington’s runaway, as well as the Irish drill sergeant (“Oh look at this, Bonnie Prince Charlie! Are you a gentleman? Are you a member of Congress or something? Or are you the bloody Prince of Africa?”). He’s still a riot.

John Adams (2008) – This sweeping HBO miniseries is somewhat uneven, but the defining moments of this series are its first two episodes, which deal with the period from the Boston Massacre to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  Get the students to focus on the Preston trial, the trial of the soldiers involved in the massacre.  It opens up great discussions about justice, fairness, the use of violence, etc.

Gandhi (1982) – This is a film as big as India itself, and often as complicated.  Be VERY careful when using this movie, and be selective in the scenes you show–don’t worry, there’s lots of good material to choose from.  Definitely use the Amritsar massacre of 1919, as well as Gandhi’s march to the sea to make salt.  When it comes to more modern subjects, the authenticity of the background, costumes, etc. is not the issue, but rather the events themselves.  The scene where the Muslim and Hindu refugees get into a melee across the border is one example of this.  The film works because it sets a mood, a tone, that reflects the important events of the period.

The Right Stuff (1983) – This is similar to Gandhi in that it works best as setting a tone for an era–in this case, the beginnings of the space race in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Although it is long, the film is worth seeing, especially if you tie science lessons on space, rocketry, aerodynamics.  I would see this film in two shifts: focus first on the early jet pilots and test pilots after World War II, then look at the Mercury astronauts.  Note similarities and differences between them, especially their media attention.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so any other suggestions and comments are welcome.  At the very least, you can kill time on a Friday when actual work is the last thing on your mind.


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This Day in History 3/25: The 1911 Triangle Fire


Even though it’s sunny, it’s a little cloudier in the Neighborhood.

Today is a rather somber anniversary especially in light of the collective argument in this country about the role of government in people’s lives.

We can quibble all we want about how much of a role government should play in our everyday lives.  Yet those who wish government had no role in society should heed the 146 ghosts who haunt the Brown building (formerly the Asch building) in Washington Square in New York.

On March 25, 1911, the greatest industrial disaster in New York’s history occurred when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the above building.  Occupying the 8th floor of the building, the immigrant workers who worked there toiled under the most miserable conditions.  Fire escapes and safety procedures were nonexistent.  The heaping piles of cloth and thread made the entire floor a firetrap.  Exits were routinely blocked by rows of sewing machines, mostly to keep workers focused and to keep out union organizers.  In 30 minutes, 146 people were dead.  At least 41 of them died when, seeing that there was no hope, these women leaped from the 8th story windows to their deaths on the street below.

The fire highlighted working conditions in New York like never before.  Rich and poor were equally appalled at the carnage.  It was these workers, and many others, who fought for general strikes in 1909 and 1910 to organize reforms that would have saved many lives.

Yet even in this suffering, hope would rise.  Progressive reformers and Tammany Hall politicians, including State Senate leader Robert Wagner and Assembly speaker Al Smith, joined forces to finally right the wrongs that killed those women.  The 1912-1913 Factory Commission toured factories all over the state, and found equally wretched conditions in many of these places–if not more so.   The commission’s findings resulted in important reforms in workplace safety and workers’ rights, thus paving the way for the future social reform programs of the New Deal and Great Society.  A witness to the fire, Frances Perkins, who became Franklin Roosevelt‘s Secretary of Labor, recalled that the real start of the New Deal was March 25, 1911, the day the Triangle burned.

Today many people would argue  that Washington is overreaching its authority in instituting programs regulating banks and large investment enterprises–and there is a point here, to an extent.  When it comes to market downturns, the logical solution is to do nothing and let the natural rhythms of the market take their course.  Macroeconomics 101 should have taught us that.  Overregulation and overstructure, along with irrational greed, usually leads to market abberrations and speculative bubbles.  So the government probably has a boundary that it shouldn’t cross.

However, government is not like the “guns and butter” charts and graphs we had to painstakingly study in college (or cram through at the last minute, in my case).  The messiness of humanity, the suffering of people, and especially the fickle nature of an electorate cause government leaders to act less for the market than for the people, for good or ill.  Safety laws, social welfare and poor relief do not just happen by themselves, no matter what the monetarists say.  They were fought over and struggled and wrenched from a society that saw these “negative growths” as a hindrance, without seeing the long-term benefit.  Abuses are there, to be sure, and welfare reform and contraction are necessary.

Nevertheless, to those that believe social reform has no place in government, I would ask them to hear what the 146 ghosts of the Triangle fire have to say. Their suffering speaks for us all.

To find out more, read David Von Drehle‘s book about the fire.  My review of it is linked below:

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What to do when a baby drops an F-bomb: a primer on code-switching


You know the only people who are always sure about the proper way to raise children? Those who’ve never had any.” – Bill Cosby

The parent-teacher conferences are an amazing way to see parents and children interact with no supervision.  More often than not, it is the parents that need the correction.

Take this example: as I was walking down the hall to a classroom, I noticed a young boy with his little sister, a child of about 2, in a stroller.  Mom was sitting next to them, filling out forms and waiting to hear about Junior’s lack of focus for the umpteenth time.  The little sister then drops her sippie cup and climbs out of the stroller. As soon as little brother asks her to pick up the cup, I expected a little cooing sound, or a soft laugh from the little sister–the kind of sound most of us are conditioned to hear from toddlers. I heard the following:

“Fuck you!”

Boy did you hear it. She blurted that f-bomb so loud you could hear it over the Bruckner Expressway. The whole hallway, a sea of parents with children in tow, stopped in freezeframe, waiting to see which unfortunate soul will claim parentage of this potty-mouthed urchin. Mom was not only embarrassed, she quickly snatched the offending child and whisked them all into the classroom to hide from the shame.

Our natural instinct is to blame the parents, and with good reason. Kids are a sponge at an early age, soaking in the sights, smells and sounds of their environment. That a toddler could cuss with such ease says a lot about the home life and the level of discourse. We never could blame a child from, say, Senator Kennedy’s flock to display such behavior, although young Patrick picked up a lot from his dad–saucy language and all.

However, it is also the case that Mom, like many parents in the neighborhood, have a difficult time establishing limits on certain language in certain areas. If everyone in the building, and everyone on the block, dropped curses and slang like a walking hip-hop album, then it’s no surprise that kids will pick up on that. In short, many parents know little about code-switching.

Code-switching was a linguistic tool in use ever since immigrants settled in this country, although it was not studied in depth until the 1940s. It is a tool of both assimilation and identity for individuals that straddle cultural divides or socioeconomic divisions. The code being “switched” is the vocabulary and linguistic nuances used in everyday life. Translated into plain English, this skill allows people to speak one way at a business meeting, another way at home, and even another way with friends.

One group that has become almost synonymous with this is African Americans. The predominance of a black middle class in this country has led many researchers to conclude that code-switching is an integral part of their success. It allows black professionals to excel in the workplace while still maintaining cultural ties through family and friends.  

Even African Americans in popular culture have used code-switching. Don’t believe me? Ask Clair Huxtable, the stern but loving mother from The Cosby Show, played by Phylicia Rashad.  Notice how she speaks to outside adults and colleagues as an attorney–it is usually in a bland, friendly, almost stereotypically “white” manner.  Now wait until Theo gets in trouble with Cockroach again (a popular theme in the series) and you see a very different Clair, one that would probably ruffle the feathers of the starched suits at her law firm.

Naturally, code-switching has its critics.  Many “old school” educators charge that allowing the choice of codes between situations legitimizes what could be considered incorrect or “bad” English.  This permissiveness would then hinder children from studying “correct” English as displayed in the accepted annals of literature.  Never mind that most of the accepted “classics” came from vernacular English considered filthy in its time.   Parts of Beowulf (especially the beginning) consisted of jokes on farting and urine.  Most of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales reads like a medieval Spring Break (complete with free-flowing beer and public nudity).  Let’s not forget William Shakespeare–his raunchier plays make a Penthouse letter look like the King James Bible.

On the other hand, many critics contend that code-switching is just another form of racial heirarchy.  They contend that changing language to suit environments unlike their own is tantamount to “acting white” or worse–being an “uncle Tom.”  The simple fact that a person must change their language in certain situations places a value judgment on certain environments: the whiter the people in an area, the more “proper” and formal the tone and vocabulary. 

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this one.  Until culture changes otherwise, professional attire and etiquette is dictated by European norms in this country.  As much as individuals should strive to celebrate their identity, the needs of the marketplace dictate that a person must act in different ways in different areas.  As much as it would delight me, Snoop Dogg would not speak to a bank CEO in the same way he would to Dr. Dre.  Conversely, President Obama would not bust out into rap and black vernacular in a press conference.  If he did, I doubt he would have gotten anywhere close to his majority of votes he received in 2008.

There are cultural values that are universal, regardless of the code we use.  Disrespecting adults is not allowed in any language.  Abusing peers is not permissable in any language.  Much of what is considered “foul” language is common across socioeconomic and cultural divisions.  Like it or not, no child should be able to drop an F-bomb without some sort of intervention. 

In general, most of my students understand how to code-switch pretty well.  Walk into my school and you’ll see students addressing teachers politely, with a hearty “Good morning, Mr. D!” and so on.  In fact, the children who have difficulty in this regard are considered crazy or obstinate by their peers.  It also helps that the teachers themselves cultivate this in each classroom, which makes teaching and learning that much easier.

If I were a parent, I would introduce a child to code-switching early.  That way, the kid will not embarrass the parents by using coarse language when its inappropriate. 

Instead, the child can focus on more important things, like studying hard, or reading a book–or flinging an eraser at your friend’s head just hard enough to leave a mark.  Now that’s a marketable skill.


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Standards Revisited – A Response to E.D. Hirsch’s recent New York Times article

Given my political leanings, I am usually not a fan of the New York Times.  Sometimes the very mention of its name would give me bloodshot eyes and a thirst to torch a coffeehouse.

Yet today is an exception.  E.D. Hirsch, former teacher and now professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia, wrote an article in today’s New York Times advocating that the much-maligned standardized tests for reading comprehension be revised to include content necessary for a well-rounded education for the grade.  While I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Hirsch in the need for integrating content into literacy studies, there may be problems with children as they grow older, especially with new experiences.

Dr. Hirsch has been a pioneer in education since the 1970’s, when he introduced the concept of cultural literacy.  Unlike many conventional theories about reading, which stress sets of skills and strategies irrespective of the reading material, Hirsch believed that true comprehension can only be achieved through a combination of reading skills and, at least, a cursory background knowledge of the subject being read.  His Core Knowledge Foundation was founded to establish basic baskets of factual knowledge necessary for each grade level.  His work has been controversial in that he has often attacked more modern, ethereal educational methods that promote “critical thinking” in favor of a more rote, conservative teaching style.

In the Times article, Hirsch states that “The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.” Not only does this hinder growth in reading, according to Hirsch, but will also affect their achievement in content areas later in their schooling.

To that end, Hirsch posits a simple strategy: “If the reading passages on each test were culled from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts, the tests would exhibit what researchers call ‘consequential validity’ — meaning that the tests would actually help improve education. Test preparation would focus on the content of the tests, rather than continue the fruitless attempt to teach test taking.” Thus, an integrated curriculum would require standardized testing to be similarly integrated.

Hirsch is not alone in this thinking. In T.J. Willingham’s recent book Why Don’t Kids Like School?, he notes that critical thinking and problem solving cannot take place without factual knowledge.  According to Willingham, “Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator.  A calculator has a set of procedures available that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers…The human mind does not work that way…the critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.”

Hirsch does make an excellent point about testing: we are often wasting time with fruitless strategies when the test material is so random that true effective data is hard to retrieve from year to year.  It is important, therefore, that students have a base of knowledge that can be used as a springboard for understanding.  I see this in my own students.  I have had teachers and adminsitrators comment that my social studies instruction is often too slow and methodical–not necessarily aligned with Teachers College’s precious “Workshop Model”, a study in wasting time that is exalted to the point of orthodoxy.  My response is that you cannot often have group work when it comes to memorizing or understanding events and names and dates–I have to do the boring stuff before I can even begin to have students think critically.

It is frustrating when I see teachers ask children to give opinions on subjects when they haven’t the slightest clue what is going on.  It isn’t the kid’s fault–he/she was not prepared to think.  You have to give the brain something to think about before it can start working its magic.

However, I differ with Hirsch in his view of each grade having a basket of knowledge that is necessary for a well-rounded education.  Establishment of such a standard can either be too specific or too broad.  If, for example, a student acquires a very local body of knowledge, it will limit him/her in their future opportunities if that student chooses to see the wider world outside of the home community.  If that basket of knowledge is too wide, then he/she may miss out on detailed, focused content in areas that interest the student.  Thus, the establishment of content standards leads to inevitable questions of who sets curricula, who decides the standards, and whether or not these standards are useful to all children or just in that locality.

Finally,  I see critical thinking as a vital component that must be used with content knowledge.  It is important to have children gain a well-rounded base of knowledge, as Hirsch explains, but it is equally important for children to have ownership of that knowledge.  That ownership comes right after comprehension, as students begin to dissect and question the knowledge they have learned. If we are to create a class of independent thinkers and actors in our society, it is vital that we hone their thinking in tandem with expanding their content knowledge.

The Founding Fathers did not help to create this nation simply by knowing about Locke, Hume, Aristotle and other philosophers.  They used that knowledge to frame new arguments for concepts like liberty, democracy and government.  I agree that our children have a weak body of knowledge.  However, using a weak vessel for learning–the standardized test–as  a way to enhance that knowledge does not create a nation of thinkers.  It creates a nation of test taking trivia buffs.

America needs more than just a nation of professional test takers.

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The Many Styles of Principals

seymour_skinnerPrincipals are not necessarily the lynchpin of a school–just ask Seymour Skinner here, Principal of Springfield Elementary School on The Simpsons. Springfield Elementary runs in spite of its principal, not because of it.

However, a good principal can make a school an efficient, exciting and pleasant place to work in and to learn.  Bad principals turn into Seymour Skinner.  An indifferent principal can make a bad situation worse, or make a good situation better due to a staff that, unlike their leader, has a clue.

I got to thinking about principals and their leadership styles when I was listening to colleagues over the past couple of weeks.  Many feel that the problem is not overbearing leadership, but rudderless leadership–especially in maintaining morale among teachers.  There are incidents of infighting, gossip-mongering, and undercutting at any school, to be sure.  Yet it seems that in my school there are people out to make sure no one is outperforming the others, either through gossip, subterfuge or downright sabotage.  There is little, if any, response from the administration, although a similar attempt at dissinformation was tried by a disgruntled staffer years ago and was thwarted adeptly by the principal.

At first, I thought that this was an attempt to be “above the fray”, to re-focus energies on more important tasks, like children’s education.  However, I began to think of other systems that had infighting and gossip as a common practice. You wouldn’t believe it–Nazi Germany.  Hitler, for all his numerous faults, knew how to keep control of his minions.  There was no one office that answered to Hitler; Nazi government consisted of competing agencies of equal status and power that would compete and undercut each other for Hitler’s favor.   For example, to actually communicate to the Fuhrer, there was the Office of the Reich Chancellory, the Office of the Party Chancellory, the Office of the Presidential Chancellory, the Privy Cabinet Council or the Chancellory of the Fuhrer.  They all had the same job–keep the boss happy.  With such a chaotic situation among the lower managers, Hitler safely asserted his authority.  It is similar to “divide and conquer”, but it’s more like a pack of dogs trying to please their owner.

Now I’m not saying my principal is Adolf Hitler–in fact, he’s probably one of the better principals I’ve seen.  I have a good rapport with him, and he has genuine affection for the kids.  It’s just that his style can best be described as “soft authoritarian.”  While he makes a point to delegate authority and spread the workload, he makes it very clear who’s in charge–and the faculty know this.  Hence the undercutting and gossip; it appears meant to maintain control.

I hope that’s not the case.  Control and leadership are two different things.  Hitler may have been in control, but he was not a good leader.  His system lent itself to the most radical and extreme ideas, without any way to debate or discuss them.  Principals that attempt games with their staff can fall into the same trap–instead of the best and most innovative ideas, internal division can lead to stagnation, or radical changes with little foresight.  Principals in control are not always good leaders.

Educators cannot choose the administration of a building.  However, their actions are tied to the actions of the administrators.  This interaction is vital to the development of functioning schools.

Just don’t get too close.  Ask Mr. Skinner and Ms. Krabappel.

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This Day in History 3/19: The birth of the Iraq War


Collage of images taken by U.S. military in Ir...

Image via Wikipedia

Today we celebrate two things that really do not go together.  First, a happy birthday to a regular to the Neighborhood–and my little sister–PhDini, who’s blog Diagnosis Cuckoo can be clicked to your right.   Please read it; it’s just as informative and witty as my Neighborhood, only in a nicer setting.  Hopefully, all that sunny LA weather isn’t going to your head, sis.


Second, a less than happy birthday to the Iraq War, which began on March 19, at 9:34 PM Eastern (technically 5:34 AM March 20, in Baghdad).  At last count, 4,259 American soldiers have died and at least 31,000 wounded in the 6 years of occupation in Iraq.  With President Obama’s withdrawal program and re-focus on Afghanistan, it looks like we may see at least a partial ending to this mess.

I come to this anniversary almost on my knees in confession.  In the beginning, I was as gung-ho as any neo-con for the war, without thinking through (a) whether our intelligence was correct, or (b) what the subsequent occupation would look like.  Iraq had bought uranium cakes prior to our 1990 tussle, that we know.  But we now also know that the Departments of State and Defense had both informed then-President Bush either falsely or in an incomplete fashion.  Like the Keystone Kops breaking into the wrong house, Bush and the Bush-ites stormed in with half the info.  Next time, we should be electing Yalies that actually went to class.

Even though I am angry that I was lied to by my President, especially a President from my political party, I am even angrier about the slipshod conduct of this war.  How could the post-war occupation be so thoroughly mismanaged?  How were our supply lines so slow and badly run that our men and women lacked basic supplies in the field?  Why are our soldiers begging for things they should have as standard-issue?  Why were we so ill-prepared for urban warfare and local insurgencies?

I felt for the guy that called out Dick Cheney about the lack of armor on patrol vehicles–if that is the state of military affairs, we are a piss-poor excuse for a global hegemonic power.  Communities should not have to raise money to provide Kevlar vests to their local boys at the front.  There is no need to farm out military tasks to Blackwater or other civilian companies that operate not only outside of military discipline, but outside the code of military ethics.  Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines operate under a sense of duty and honor which I respect.  These companies have no parameters and no honor–they’re no better than the Mafia.

There is some good to come out of this.  Iraq is no longer under the thumb of Saddam Hussein, even though he was our guy until he got greedy and started messing with his neighbors not named Iran.  It looks like at least a skeleton of a functioning democracy is in place.  Iraqi forces are slowing replacing our GIs, even in the tough areas–though we currently are having a dickens of a time in Mosul (Hey Kurds!  Little help?)  My worry is whether or not Iraq can stand up on its own against a resurgent Iran and an Israel itching to fight someone.

I know it’s a morbid post today, but it is timely.  Hopefully, I only have to celebrate my sister’s birthday next year.

Thanks, and to all our men and women at the front: be safe, and get home soon.


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