Carelessness Kills

After initially denying responsibility for scores of civilian deaths caused by American bombing in Mosul Jidideh on March 17, the senior United States commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, has acknowledged that the U.S. “probably had a role in these casualties.”

Amnesty International said as many as 150 people may have died in the strike. Hundreds of other civilians have been killed in their homes by airstrikes, the group said.

Civilian deaths in Mosul.
Civilian deaths in Mosul.
Photo by Felipe Dana/Associated Press.

“Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside. The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, who carried out field investigations in Mosul.

In a recent interview, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of United States Central Command, said new procedures have made it easier for commanders in the field to call in airstrikes without waiting for permission from more senior officers.

As a consequence, some groups contend that US coalition strikes are now causing more civilian casualties than strikes by Russia are causing in Syria. Russia was accused of war crimes for its bombing of Aleppo, Syria, last year. There have been more than 1,300 reports of civilian deaths in airstrikes in March alone, around three times as many as were reported in February.

Is this part of a trend? It sure looks that way. Just yesterday President Trump relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the American military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia.

This new level of carelessness in conducting airstrikes is both callous and counterproductive. A strike supposedly aimed at the enemy which kills scores of civilians instead is an instant recruiting tool for ISIS. Not to mention wasteful, counterproductive and demoralizing for the United States and its allies. It’s also deeply immoral, in some cases veering extremely close, if not over, the line defining war crimes.

It’s just one more instance in which the new president’s “I don’t give a shit” attitude is producing widespread damage, this time producing a stark rise in innocent (and preventable, with more care taken) civilian deaths.

Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel from George Saunders, probably America’s premier short story writer, is nothing short of an event. It has reached #1 on the New York Times hardcover best seller list, and the Times has produced a ten-minute “immersive narrative short” based on excerpts from the novel. The book’s publication has been accompanied by a spectacular audiobook version with a 166-person cast. Lincoln in the Bardo has received very strong reviews, both here and in the UK. And, it is the author’s first novel, which is yet another reason why so many people are so eager to read it.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
A novel from America’s premier short story writer.

Saunders’s short stories are phenomenal works of art. I think “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” from Tenth of December, does as fine a job as anything I’ve read of capturing the pre-Trump American zeitgeist. In fact, all four of Saunders’s short story collections are believably absurd renditions of life in America in recent years, poignant and heartfelt, with great empathy for those who are struggling and savage satirical depictions of the powers that be. Many of the dazed and confused characters in these stories would have no doubt voted for Trump, believing (like their real-life counterparts) they had nothing to lose.

It’s a long way from Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, just as it’s a major transition from the concision of a short story, no matter how brilliantly rendered, to the larger canvas of a novel. Saunders used this analogy to describe the task: “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life making custom yurts and someone said, ‘Can you build a mansion?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I could link a bunch of yurts together.'”

But Saunders has done much more than string his yurts together. He has done extensive research on Lincoln at the time of the Civil War, and on the unexpected death of his beloved son, Willie. The quotes unearthed have been used strategically to propel the story, alternating with the narrative of his characters in the bardo (Saunders is a practicing Buddhist). These are extraordinarily well done.

There are three principal narrators, in addition to Willie Lincoln, and each is trapped, for reasons unique to him, in the bardo, unable to move on. They don’t want the same fate to befall Willie, so much of the narrative consists of their efforts to persuade the lad to leave his transitional state, in a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon. Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son, and his heavy responsibilities as President in a time of national emergency, contribute to the novel’s elegiac tone. This is very different from the atmosphere of most of Saunders’s stories.

The unusual way in which the story is told somehow reflects the transitional state in which it is set, and does so with growing power throughout the novel. The characterizations, both historically based and invented, are wonderful. This is a book you will remember and think about long after you finish reading it.

Global Humanitarian Crises

While the United States wrestles with its self-inflicted wounds regarding health care and other moral imperatives, the world at large is experiencing the worst humanitarian crises since 1945. Bad as Trumpcare promises to be, it’s not going to result in mass starvation (even if millions of poor Americans will have less money for food and healthcare alike). Yet some 20 million people around the world face imminent starvation and death, more than at any time since the end of World War Two.

Two thirds of the people of Yemen are at immediate risk.
Yemen, where two thirds of the population is in desperate need of aid and seven million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Photo: Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency.

America seems intent on tearing itself apart while much the world is coming apart, in ways that most of us cannot imagine.

Without collective and coordinated global efforts, “people will simply starve to death” and “many more will suffer and die from disease,” Stephen O’Brien, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the security council in New York yesterday.

Of course the UN has long been anathema to “conservative” Americans—one can easily imagine Bannon and Trump attempting to kick its New York headquarters out of the country. Yet for all its dysfunction, the world’s intergovernmental organization still provides a moral call to action that is genuinely altruistic and meaningful. U. S. “conservatives,” on the other hand, hate and fear the Other, both in this country and abroad. Twenty million people starving to death in Yemen and Africa? So what?

Yet the other half of America, the half trying to resist the destructive Trump takeover, still does care, by and large. Might I suggest a short pause from town hall confrontations and resistance marches, at least one long enough to write a check which will prevent a number of people from dying in the next week or so? The largest need is in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. And there is plenty of need elsewhere around the world as well, including the massive, ongoing refugee crisis.

Let’s not permit the mass starvation of 20 million people to become part of the world’s “new normal.” Please visit this page to select an aid organization and donate to do your part to help.

Writing & Technology

Mathew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016) will delight a certain kind of readership: those who, like myself, are interested not only in what a writer has to say but in the tools the writer employs to say it. Readers who are keenly interested in both literature and technology are undoubtedly a minority but I’d wager there are more of us around than you might think. Certainly word processing itself has been around long enough, and become mainstream enough, to warrant a history of its development.

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
A fascinating study of writers and the technologies they employ.

Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, does a fine job of describing how writers came to terms with (or chose not to come to terms with) word processing technology. In fact, as the author points out, word processing is just another point on the spectrum of writers’ methodologies. It did not replace longhand, nor did it completely replace the typewriter. Writers are a versatile lot.

Here are a few examples: George R. R. Martin, whose series Song of Ice and Fire became HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” writes with an antique word processing program called WordStar, using a DOS-era computer which is not connected to the Internet. (Philip Roth also used a DOS machine, in his case with WordPerfect.) Joyce Carol Oates, an incredibly prolific writer, sticks to longhand (and a typewriter).

At first, the ease and fluidity promised by word processing (for those writers who chose to embrace it) were thought to threaten literary quality. It was felt the machine and its software would wind up doing too much of the writer’s work. Some early adopters even tried to conceal their use of word processing because of the perceived stigma. The writer Gish Jen describes fellow students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop working at mainframe terminals and then deliberately “doctoring” their printouts—adding annotations by hand, rumpling the corners—before sending their work out for consideration. “Real writers,” their instructors said, used pencils or typewriters. Yet for Jen the personal computer (in her case an early Apple) overcame such prejudices. “Computers coaxed out of me an expansiveness the typewriter never did,” she said. “What came out … was not further from the human heart; it was closer. It was looser, freer, more spontaneous—more democratic, too.”

Kirschenbaum’s history runs the gamut from do-it-yourself personal computer kits to early Kaypros and Osbornes to the latest “artisanal” software tools like Scrivener. He nominates Len Deighton‘s Bomber as the first published (in 1970) novel written with a word processor, the IBM MT/ST. The book is nicely written, with an appealing tongue-in-cheek humor. If you’re at all interested in how writing gets put together, this is highly recommended.

License to Kill

Jeff Sessions, the unreconstructed right-wing Senator from Alabama with a seriously spotty civil rights record who has managed to become the U. S. Attorney General, announced yesterday that he will be “pulling back” on federal monitoring of police violence and civil rights violations. He said that such monitoring was “undermining” police effectiveness, by generating a lack of respect for the police and making their jobs more difficult.

In light of the conspicuous killings of unarmed people by the police captured on video in recent years, Sessions’s action is a gigantic step backwards. The action was not unexpected, however. Sessions had already gone on record as questioning Justice Department reports on policing in Chicago and Ferguson, MO, among other places. David Cole, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union who testified in the Senate against Mr. Sessions’s nomination, said that “thus far, all signs are that Sessions is playing to type.”

Autopsy drawing of Laquan McDonald
An autopsy drawing of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times, including several times in the back. Cook County Medical Examiner.

In Chicago, where the police were found to maintain their own interrogation “black site,” and where a white police officer shot a black teenager (who was armed with a small pocket knife and walking away from the police) 16 times, law professor Craig Futterman said the city “lacks a combination of will and the ability … to address those civil rights violations on their own.”

And it’s not just Chicago. Across the United States, whenever a police officer goes on trial for murder (this charge is rare) or manslaughter, the result is inevitably acquittal. Cops are venerated by much of the country and deified on the right; they can do no wrong. As soon as Black Lives Matter arose in response to numerous documented police killings of unarmed black people, it was swiftly countered with “Blue Lives Matter” and then “All Lives Matter.” And Black Lives Matter was widely blamed for harming police morale.

The lack of police accountability is harmful, even dangerous. Policing is an occupation that attracts more than its fair share of sociopaths and every department of any size is going to have cops who relish inflicting violence on the defenseless. The automatic acquittals whenever police officers do go on trial foster an air of immunity. Sessions’s withdrawal of federal oversight is only going to make matters worse.