Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The G.I. Bill and the veteran gap in CMR studies

A few weeks ago I wrote a post disdainful of a new reality show that I felt was taking advantage of America's current love affair with its veterans. That same week, friend-of-the-blog Andrew Exum wrote his weekly column at World Politics Review on the unhealthy and dysfunctional relationship  between the American people and its military. The crux of the problem, as Exum sees it, is that too many Americans engage in hero-worship with regard to its military instead of dispassionately examining the society's transactional responsibilities to an all-volunteer force. This is an important issue that should be addressed, but I think the answer should be different than the one Exum comes to.

Exum compares the war zone risks and compensation of soldiers to diplomats, aid workers, and civilian contractors (his conclusion is that all of these have the same risks, but the military enjoys much better compensation) before posing the following option on the nature of the military: is it a public service or is it a profession? The former would limit military compensation to that of similar public services such as police officers. The latter would limit compensation to a contractual situation more similar to the private sector, which by my interpretation means that benefits afforded the military but do not have a private sector equivalent are probably in excess of what the contract should entail. Obviously, the U.S. has come to a hybrid solution to this problem since the advent of the all-volunteer force. The question then is how to compensate the military under this solution. This is where I think there are some flaws in Exum's analysis of civil-military relations.

Fundamentally, military service is not like other public services in one significant way. Yes, other forms of public service entail risk to individuals' lives, limbs, and eyesight. However, the functional imperative of military service is to inflict violence upon our enemies and this is unique to the military (the functional utility of the military, i.e., SFA, HA/DR, etc, is not the same as its functional imperative). This is true of military service whether you're a cook or an infantryman - the latter may use force much more often but the cook is trained and expected to at times as well (in other words, I don't buy this load of nonsense on two societies within the military). Police forces may be authorized to use force in the execution of their functional imperative (maintain law and order), but it is not their primary or most desired tool. USAID workers are exposed to the same (or at least similar) risks and traumas as soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, but society not only does not expect them to inflict risks and traumas upon others, society forbids them from doing so by law.  This is not an insignificant difference in service as anyone who has had his enemy in his weapon's sights can tell you. So how do we compensate for this?

Before we begin to answer that question, we need to examine two more aspects of military service and civil-military relations. The first is the issue of professionalism and the two societies that do indeed bifurcate the military: officers and enlisted. For this, Samuel Huntington, in "The Solider and the State", a work that Exum himself called the canonical text on civil-military relations (and he's right), uses the term "professional" in a sociological sense (not in the "I do this well for a paycheck" sense): a vocation that requires expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. In Huntington's construct officers are professionals and enlisted are not according to the definitions he provides (which are much more involved than standard dictionary definitions - please read this section of the book before berating me for being an officer snob). Enlisted personnel are more like skilled craftsmen. There is a lot of merit to this argument, particularly around UCMJ authorities and the different education systems for officers and NCOs (although NCOs have made a lot ground in the past couple of decades in this regard). This important distinction is manifest in combat duties: officers are responsible for the management of violence and enlisted personnel are responsible for the acts of violence. Of course officers often pull triggers and enlisted NCOs independently manage violence, but these acts are borne of necessity on the battlefield and not their inherent responsibilities within the organization. The point of this discussion is that while military service is different public service because of the responsibility to commit acts of violence, society only expects enlisted personnel to commit those acts of violence. This must be a factor in calculating compensation for this unique public service.

The final issue we need to examine here is civil-military relations as it relates to veterans. Frankly, there is no "The Veteran and the State" (although I'd love to take a stab at it - hint, hint publishers...) to guide how society interacts with its veterans because of their previous military service. "The Solider and the State" deals almost exclusively with the interactions of the civilian government (and in a couple of places civilian society) and the military's officer corps. It was also written before our modern, all-volunteer force. Yet as it remains the capstone doctrine of civil-military relations, Huntington is our only guide.  We must infer civil-veteran relations based on our understanding of the nature of military service and how the military interacts with society. But that extrapolation can be difficult.

We have already established that the functional imperative of military forces is to exact violence on the country's behalf. We have an understanding of how civilian control, military expertise, and transactions between the two parties work in order to optimize military effectiveness for society. But we have no idea who owes what once these skilled craftsmen of violence are no longer in the military. Their very unique individual functional imperative for society no longer exists for them individually and their skills can translate very poorly to civilian society. Should society not be responsible for helping these men and women to essentially reprogram their functional imperative into an function that aids society in new ways? To reintroduce them into society where risks may exist, but the need to commit violent acts is not? Yes, they volunteered for this unique service, but military personnel cannot stay in service indefinitely (up or out!) or even until a natural retirement age in their 60s. Society does owe these men and women something to retrain them to again be useful to society.

The G.I. Bill is the most obvious example of reintroduction benefits for veterans.  Alex Horton of the Department of Veterans affairs wrote an excellent article this week in The Atlantic about the challenges of going to college after being in an Army at war. Horton focuses his article on the differences between war veterans and the "traditional" students who comprise the majority of the university body. But when I read his piece I was struck by how similar these two seemingly disparate groups are. They are starting from different points in life with different challenges, but they are all forging their minds and identities in ways that will define (in part) who they are and what they will do with the rest of their lives. In other words, how they will be useful to society for the remainder of their professional, productive lives. College is a moderately safe environment to acclimate to American society, for both 18 year-old kids and 32 year-old combat veterans. After what we've asked these service men and women to do - to commit acts of violence on our behalf - providing the opportunity to reintegrate into society in this way is a small price to pay to erase their previous utility (which obviously has no place in civilian society - and we should note that erasing utility is not the same as not recognizing their previous service) and create new utility, even if these types of benefits should not be unlimited. I'd rather it happen on the taxpayer's dime in a university setting than on the streets of some city.

And yet the G.I. Bill is a benefit that Exum seems to think should not be given to military veterans because no other public servants have the same benefit. As discussed, different service merits different benefits. Should the G.I. Bill be more limited than it is now? Probably, but not based on whether the veteran is a general's kid or not. Instead it should be freely given to our enlisted veterans - those whose purpose to society was violence - in order to reintegrate them into society. Former officers probably do not need it as their societal function was not committing acts of violence. They also probably do not need the G.I. Bill because they all already have a bachelor's degree, have more tangible civilian skills, and are at a social level that often negates the need for this type of societal reintegration.  The distinction is a bit academic of course, but we have little else from which to base our sense of fairness when determining the terms of compensation transactions.

With looming austerity all military benefits and compensation should be under scrutiny. Some benefits may decrease for future service members and veterans, remembering that our society has a contract with current members and veterans. When the public and our government examine these benefits in this understudied area of civil-military relations, they need to remember that military service is an unique form of public service that has no place in society after soldiers and Marines depart military service. They need to remember that the transactional costs and benefits are not just about fairness to the veteran, but the effects on society as a whole. Alex Horton and those he discusses in his article will most likely benefit personally from a G.I. Bill-funded degree. But society also benefits from paying for that degree because Alex Horton and his cohorts will probably be better integrated into society because of it. This is not about hero worship or praetorian guards. Veterans benefits are about taking care of individuals who fulfill a unique role in society and ensuring that they are able to provide new, useful roles to society.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Stars Earn Stripes: bad TV, worse morality UPDATED

This is your fault America. When television producers were looking to cut costs and introduced low-budget fare to the public in the form of reality television, you gobbled it up. It did not matter how asinine or offensive the show was: Operation Repo, Jersey Shore, Undercover Boss, Toddlers and Tiaras. The dumber the better. Continuing this streak of crapulence, NBC is now subjecting us to Stars Earn Stripes, where eight celebrities, of varying quality, conduct dramatized military and law enforcement activities under the tutelage of former special operators and SWAT officers as well as today's least-liked graduate of Hudson High School for Boys (my alma mater), retired General Wes Clark.

I will not critique the show in the usual sense (the L.A. Times and Washington Post have already done so), mainly because I refuse to watch this nonsense. There has been, however, push back against the show because many feel that it glamorizes war and treats it as sport instead of the serious, deadly business that it really is. From a petition making its rounds on Twitter today, the leftist activist group RootsAction wrote the following to NBC:
Your entertainment show "Stars Earn Stripes" treats war as sport. This does us all a disservice. We ask that you air an in-depth segment showing the reality of civilian victims of recent U.S. wars, on any program, any time in the coming months. 
Their assertion is not incorrect - Stars does treat war as sport which is the greater of two disservices to the public (the other being the quality of the entertainment they provide). As a veteran who has seen war as closely as one can, I think that Todd Palin jumping from a helicopter is a far cry from earning stripes and can only be interpreted as the fetishization of war. (Aside: Where are all of you non-commissioned officers? I'm sure you did more than this nonsense to earn your stripes.)  In spite of this, Stars Earn Stripes seems comparatively benign to other forms of war glorification. These eight has-beens may shoot weapons at static targets, but compared to modern video games where war is literally a sport, albeit digital, this show seems delightfully archaic.

This is not to give Stars or NBC pass. They are using war and America's current trust, nay, love of veterans and the military to make profit for themselves and their shareholders. I find this morally offensive.  Yes, the winner of the show's competition gets $100,000 to donate to their veterans/law enforcement charity of choice. But how many dollars were spent producing this show? How much will ad revenue bring in? I suspect the profits of a prime-time show on NBC will exceed $100,000. Good on them for doing something for charity, but I think they could and should do a lot more.  If NBC were to contribute all of their profits to veterans charity, and I strongly suggest that they do, this show would cease to be a morally reprehensible source of entertainment. It would merely be a reprehensible source of entertainment, which is exactly what you all seem to clamor for anyway.

Update: As I think about why this form of profit-making from war is so offensive to me, vice other forms such as video games or war movies, I think it has to do with the fact that this show is purely profit-driven. Realistic video games show war as it is: bloody and cruel. Whether gamers choose to acknowledge this lesson potentially learned is not the fault (or even design) of the games' makers. But the lesson is there. Likewise, movies involving war generally have some sort of political message: to support the troops or protest a particular war or war in general. Stars Earn Stripes has no political message, it has provides no lens through which to learn more about the horrors of war. It is about the military and what they do being totally awesome and profiting from providing that viewpoint. In other words, it provides no utility to society except for those few making a buck off of the worst experiences mankind must endure. That is what makes this show so morally reprehensible.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ohio and military votes: towards a warrior caste and unbalanced civil-military relations

The Ohio military voting issue that surfaced within the past week has raised some ugly politics and views. While reticent to wade into what is primarily a domestic political concern, this confrontation is pouring light into the dark corners of civil-military relations that we'll discuss shortly. But first a synopsis of the facts as they occurred.

Election Day in Ohio in 2004 was a disaster in that the state was obviously unprepared for the number of voters who came to vote. Some voting lasted until the early hours of the next morning and provisional ballots were improperly used, causing a significant number of them to be discounted. As a response (in part as well as for other reasons it seems), the State of Ohio opened up an early voting period for any voters in the days prior to Election Day in order to ease the burden on the big day and the potential for screw-ups (i.e., discounting valid votes). This option was used extensively since, particularly in the final three days before Election Day. However, this past year the Ohio House of Representatives passed a law that maintained early in-person voting rights in the final 3 days before Election Day only for Ohioans subject to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) - most of whom are military members and their families. This bill removed the right of all other Ohioans to vote early in person in the final 3 days running up to Election Day, cutting their early voting off on the Friday prior. To sum, every Ohioan had been able to vote early in person in the three days before Election Day until this year when the Ohio legislature changed the law so that only  military personnel and their families could do this. The Obama campaign, and others, have sued the State of Ohio to reinstate early in-person voting for all of Ohio, not just those subject to UOCAVA. Please read this, this, and this for more perspective (thanks to Hayes Brown - @HayesBrown - for providing the Slate link to get this started for me).

The response from Mr. Obama's political opponents can be most kindly described as misrepresenting the Obama campaign's lawsuit. The Romney campaign has billed it as an attempt to suppress military votes - suggesting that the lawsuit was attempting to remove military members' ability to vote early instead of reinstating all Ohioans' ability to vote early. The Romney campaign is supported on this position by a number of influential military-affiliated organizations, including the Association of the U.S. Army. Their argument is petty politics and they're using smoke and mirrors to attack the Obama campaign. Fine. There is a lot of political football in this, but that does negate the fact that the Obama campaign is in no way suing to prevent extra time for military personnel from Ohio to vote. It also has absolutely nothing to do with mail-in absentee ballots from overseas. This is the bottom line and these facts are not (should not be, rather) in contention.

At this point you're probably asking yourself why I'm going on about this on a relatively apolitical security blog. If you move beyond the pandering, obfuscation, and outright lying that passes for political discourse, this issue has given the darkest and most extreme voices of CMR a drum to beat upon. Congressman Allen West issued a statement in which he doesn't propagate the Romney campaign lie of disenfranchising military, but instead avers that what the President is trying to do is offensive:
how dare this President compare the service, sacrifice, and commitment of those who Guard our liberties not as special and seek to compare them to everyone else.
Poor use of the English language aside, a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives is saying the law in Ohio should stand as it is because those that serve our nation in arms are better than everyone else and should be given an edge. You can't even compare those in uniform to the rest of society. It seems that Mr. West believes service members deserve more rights, more democracy than those who do not serve. Don't think this is a prevalent viewpoint among many Americans, especially those who have or are serving? Right-leaning blog This Ain't Hell covered the Ohio voting issue along the same lines. This poem, ubiquitous among military/veteran Facebook pages and crappy PX art expos, explicitly states how much more important veterans are than other members of society. Or the old quote, too often mis-attributed to George Orwell:
People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
Thank God for those rough men or the rest of you weenies would have a rough go of it. All of those policemen, firemen, engineers, architects, sewage maintenance types, water purifiers and others who contribute to our way of life should, in contrast, apparently keep me up all night. Still think I'm reading too much into this? The Stolen Valor Act was an attempt to criminalize a narrow band of lying to prevent people from pretending to be a decorated service member or veteran and that such lies somehow diminish the acts of valor that really occurred. Read commentary on the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the Act and tell me it doesn't reek of men and women offended that others deign to pretend they are in this elite and protected element of society (and then read the comments sections of those and similar posts). I ask: why was lying about having advanced degrees or sleeping with members of the opposite sex or about your personal wealth not also outlawed? The only conclusion I can come up with is that they aren't special like the military and therefore not worthy of special protection.

There are a number of reasons why the public treats current and former military members and family as special, including their very real sacrifices over the past 10 years of war and Vietnam guilt. Some of that is warranted. But this pernicious belief that these self-selecting members of society are better, beyond comparison to rest of the country, and thus deserving of greater helpings of democracy than the rest is anti-democratic and antithetical to any reasonable theories of civil-military relations necessary to keep our society safe. There is a reason they are called service members - their volunteering to serve our society does not grant them more rights and privileges. Some remediation is necessary to repair inequities created by their service (such as veterans' healthcare and jobs programs), but their rights as citizens are not impaired.  Embracing acts that go beyond correcting inequalities and that instead promote the creation of a special caste of citizens with more rights is exactly the kind of attitude that could help foment a warrior caste that would in actuality upend the balance of civil-military relations. Huntington weeps and our country hurts for it.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Romney abroad: on culture, busts, and the categorical imperative of democracy

NOTE: I feel the need to introduce this post with a reiteration of the usual disclaimer. I'm not representing anyone else's views or analysis here but my own. I can't imagine why you would have assumed that I might be, but we don't normally veer into domestic politics and this post does so unabashedly. That said, I don't believe it's partisan, and I hope you'll evaluate the analysis as being up to the standards we typically uphold around here.

Mitt Romney’s recent travels abroad have caused a brief surge in commentary on the foreign policy and national security aspects of the presidential campaign. In this general category I include the re-animated flap over the Obama administration’s return to Britain of a Churchill bust that once graced the Oval Office; the sundry criticisms of the president for being “anti-Poland” in his Reset policy toward Russia; the hilarious and incredible suggestion that there are such things as pro- and anti-Israel camps among national politicians in America; and Governor Romney’s controversial and unsubtle suggestion that Israelis are rich and Palestinians poor because of something he failed to adequately explain but subsumed under the heading of “culture.”

It’s this last bit that has perhaps spurred the most discussion, if only because the rest is such well-trod ground. Social scientists and economic historians have criticized Romney’s claims in the press, both for oversimplification and for genuine factual errors. None of this will matter to potential voters, of course, who can’t be fussed to read the books that political candidates variously satirize, lionize, or otherwise caricature. By now we’re all very well acquainted with the fundamental reality of politics, which is that people don’t care so much about the truth as what their particular orthodoxy tells them is the truth.

But the “culture” comments – which are viewed as a gaffe by the left, but will likely serve as the sort of happily impolitic, plain-truth rallying cry so beloved by ignorant culture warriors of every stripe – are interesting for the way they distill right-wing ideology about ideas, circumstances, cause and effect in politics and history, and the triumph of one people over another. Put another way, what Romney said is the collectivized and nationalized version of basic conservative dogma: some people have good ideas, good values, good habits, and good personal qualities, and those people succeed in the world – including by getting rich – as a result. Be better, work harder, think the right way, and you’ll have a better life—it’s the foundation of the American Dream… isn’t it?

An admittedly amusing critical blog post on the Economist ignores the appeal of this thinking to a large segment of Romney’s base (and arguably to an even broader segment of the American electorate, including some voters who are currently undecided):
Comparing the income of the average Israeli to that of the average Palestinian, as though their prospects at birth had been equivalent and their fortunes today are largely the result of their own efforts and their "culture", is gratuitously insulting and wreaks damage to American diplomacy. Besides that, it's just wrong.
Wrong or right, this should sound familiar to those who have paid attention to other recent campaign imbroglios—most notably the “you didn’t build that” spat. With its efforts to paint the president as a socialist, a collectivist, an enemy of business, an impediment to Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit, the Romney campaign is catering to the sort of people who believe (against any and all evidence to the contrary) that personal success is far more attributable to hard work and right-thinking than to background, context, and circumstantial factors—including sheer good luck.

The entire American political and economic project is built around a shared commitment to this fantastical aspiration: that we can create a society that is so free, so fair, so basically egalitarian that the sole determinant of success and failure will be the quality of one’s ideas and one’s willingness to work. Left and right disagree, of course, about the various and competing merits of liberty and equality, and about whether the modern United States offers a sufficiently level playing field to permit pure freedom to fairly and effectively separate losers from winners. The important role played by American political and economic institutions and by the public goods that government has enabled are at the core of the Obama speech from which “you didn’t build that” has been so unceremoniously wrenched.

Romney understands this, of course, and his paean to the Israelis’ superior “culture” surely was founded on respect not simply for shared religious identity and classically liberal political ideals, but for the policies through which culture (and political culture) is mediated into economically productive activity. But he has a base to pander to, and that base includes a fair number of people who really do believe what Romney’s semantic imprecision made it look as though he actually meant: that Israelis are rich because they’re mostly Jews, while Palestinians are poor because they’re mostly Muslims.

But I digress a bit here. What we’re really dealing with is nothing more complicated than the most conservative (both in the literal and politically-partisan senses of that word) of all possible arguments: that the circumstances in which people and nations find themselves are fair and just, that they are a product of history’s implicit judgment (or fate’s, or God’s; Romney gave this one away in Israel when he referred to the “hand of providence”), and that as a result they ought generally to be left alone. What is is what ought to be. All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds! Israel’s triumph and prosperity is a validation of its goodness, to this strain of thought.

We needn’t look too far back in history for similarly conservative justifications of the status quo, and at least one bears in part an almost literally unbelievable similarity to Romney’s remarks in Israel. In his critical re-telling of Britain’s history abroad, Mark Curtis recounts a 1946 speech by a colonial administrator in Kenya who noted that
“the greater part of the wealth of the country is at present in [British] hands… This land we have made is our land by right – by right of achievement.” He explained to the Africans that “their Africa has gone forever,” since they were now living in “a world which we have made, under the humanitarian impulses of the late nineteenth and the twentieth century.” The Governor added: “We appear to Africans as being immensely wealthy and nearly all of them are in fact very poor… But these are social and economic differences and the problems of this country in that respect are social and economic and not political; nor are they to be solved by political devices.” Britain was in Kenya “as of right, the product of historical events which reflect the greatest glory of our fathers and grandfathers.” [Emphasis mine.]
One presumes that by characterizing inequality as “social and economic and not political” in origin, the governor meant to imply that social and economic change were a necessary precursor to the political resolution of the imbalance, or even that political arrangements were altogether irrelevant to it. (It takes no great imagination to see that this was wildly disingenuous. Britons justified their Empire with the perverse and thankfully obsolete rhetoric of the White Man’s Burden, but the practical administration of the empire was intended to head off the sort of independent political development that might threaten London’s essentially extractive relationship with the colonies, which were progressively liquidated as their economic value came to be outweighed by the complications and costs of their maintenance.)

Israeli conservatives and their American supporters view the matter of the Palestinian territories in a similar way: stop complaining about “occupation” and fix yourselves, as you’re the real cause of what’s wrong. Don’t tell us we’re responsible for your backwardness—look at how we’ve succeeded! We can talk about rights once you’ve built a properly liberal political culture and eliminated the extremist populism our own policies and attitudes help to perpetuate. And so it goes.

There’s intended irony in the parallel I draw between Romney’s attitude toward Palestinians and the British imperial view of Kenyans, considering the unhinged ramblings of Dinesh D’Souza and Mike Huckabee on the subject of President Obama’s alleged “anti-colonial ideology.” The author of a crypto-racist, pseudo-Freudian volume in whose telling the president’s position on everything from interior decoration to tax policy is foreordained by his father’s incontrovertible foreignness may assert that “my argument has nothing to do with the ‘birther’ claim,” but this is plainly untrue. As Amy Davidson notes in an excellent New Yorker piece on the aforementioned statuary controversy,  
[T]he shadow behind Churchill’s bust is birtherism, or its less conspiracy-minded companion, the conviction that Obama is, by virtue of his heritage, alien and un-American. This notion was most blatantly expressed by Dinesh D’Souza. […] This is part of a larger story about how Obama is really an anti-colonialist socialist who doesn’t like countries like Britain or America. In this telling, all that Obama keeps hidden about himself is exposed because he just can’t stand to look Churchill in the eye.
“Less conspiracy-minded” than a tale of document forgery is the belief that the President of the United States, driven by an un- and anti-American worldview, has repeatedly sought elective office in order to purposefully enact policies that would hamstring and damage a country that he secretly loathes? That even a writer unsympathetic to either narrative should describe them in this way reveals an unhealthy focus on the forms of criticism rather than their substance. To aver that the President is not legally an American is considered out-of-bounds to all but the most ridiculous figures in our political scene, yet it’s deemed acceptable and plausible for others to suggest not simply that Obama’s policies are bad for America, but that they are intentionally so!

A candidate for the presidency can’t say this, of course, lest he be made to look like a raving lunatic. Or worse, he may be accused of casting doubt on his opponent’s patriotism—and patriotism is a subject with which the American electorate simply will not tolerate you messing around. But he and his proxies and surrogates can insinuate as much, and this is exactly what both Bust-Gate and Culture-Gate are all about: boiling down complicated, ambiguous reality to proclaim an objective truth (Churchill was an unvarnished American hero! Israelis are comparatively successful because they think and act like Westerners!), framing that “truth” as an essentially American consensus, and then insinuating that the president simply stands outside this consensus. The message is this: Barack Obama does not share our American values.

You’ll note that I began this essay by referencing “the foreign policy and national security aspects of the campaign,” rather than simply “foreign policy and national security.” That’s because all of this has very little to do with other countries, or with advancing American interests, or with ensuring the safety of our people, a truth that’s made obvious by Romney’s adulation of foreign political figures (Churchill, Wałęsa, Netanyahu) whose own countrymen tend to view them with considerably more ambivalence. (The Republican often pays homage to Margaret Thatcher, which is risible when juxtaposed with his wife’s newfound enthusiasm about her Welsh heritage. The Iron Lady isn’t likely to have many fans in Nantyffyllon.)

Instead this talk of the special relationship is about – like everything else in the campaign – manipulating the feelings of U.S. voters by invoking code-words associated with the issues and seeding doubts about your opponent, signaling that I’m One of You and the Other Guy Isn’t. (This isn’t unique to Romney or to conservatives, as should be plain to see: the president’s campaign is largely based on the thinly-veiled assertion that his opponent is taking advantage of Regular People to further enrich the small minority of People Like Him.)

The code-words in foreign policy are simple to discern: victory, patriotism, American exceptionalism, American strength. Standing with the forces of freedom and democracy. Standing with those who Share Our Values. Standing with Churchill and Israel. Accept each of these elements wholeheartedly, without reservation or nuance, or be accused of enthusiasm for their Manichean alternatives: Defeat. Betrayal. Self-hatred. American weakness. Tyranny and terrorism. Appeasement.

Must it be this way? Surely the questions are not so simple, nor the answers so clear. Maybe D’Souza has done us all a favor by invoking the president’s alleged “anti-colonial ideology” instead of treating him as a “conventional liberal”; maybe we can pause and ask what exactly is so wrong with anti-colonial ideology? Are we only permitted to be anti-colonialists as private citizens, or as white people? Was not Dwight Eisenhower an anti-colonialist? Should we doubt the patriotism and integrity of that most eloquent critic of empire – a Serious Anti-Communist who wouldn’t be out of place on the list of Romney heroes – George Orwell?

And what of Churchill? His committed colonialism would surely find favor with D’Souza – in 1954 the prime minister wrote to Eisenhower that he was “a bit skeptical about universal suffrage for the Hottentots” – but he was far from uncomplicated. Does Romney name as “one of [his] heroes” not just the man who warned of “an Iron Curtain [that] has descended across Europe,” but the one who sat with Stalin and chopped up a continent on a slip of paper? What of the parliamentarian who introduced legislation creating a minimum wage and offering unemployment insurance? What about the man who supported eugenics, who wrote the prime minister in 1910 to warn that “the multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”? Or the budgeteer who prioritized solvency over military strength, championing adoption of the Ten-Year Rule, whereby the armed services took as an indefinite and continuous planning assumption that no major war would occur in the upcoming decade? Are those Churchills among Romney’s heroes?

Such two-dimensional comic-book likenesses as we find in Romney’s description of foreign countries and leaders are not only inaccurate, they’re insulting. They lay bare a truth most thinking people will already know, and one that is far more damaging to American diplomacy than returned artwork: unless you can raise money, give money, or vote, you are meaningless to a U.S. political candidate, and so your proud history will be rendered in finger-paint to influence those who can.

Why do we allow these caricatures to dominate our politics? Why do even our very best indulge them, much as they do the flag lapel pin and the simple-minded platitudes about Supporting the Troops? Because they fear the consequences of trying and failing to broaden the discourse, of trying to lead and being seen to lecture or pontificate or condescend, of alienating voters by unreservedly embracing knowledge and nuance. Because the greatest sin in our democracy is not to lie, but to lose.

The sad reality is that it doesn’t matter a damn whether Mitt Romney is right or wrong about culture, or Solidarity, or Churchill, or whether he tells Americans the truth about them or just a pretty story. And the reason is doesn’t matter is even sadder: because we’re stupid, and we’re easily manipulated, and because we don’t care.

L Paul Bremmer as exemplar UPDATED

Seriously. Any observer of the Iraq War should readily acknowledge the deleterious effect L. Paul Bremmer III had as the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Specifically his de-Ba'athification policy and the wholesale firing of the regime's military and police. I was in Baghdad the days these were announced and they were not good days. Previously, we had enjoyed significant security in Baghdad (I couldn't say the same about the Iraqis unfortunately) and what seemed to be widespread support of the people. The day the Army was disbanded saw the first of many thousands of attacks on the route from Baghdad into the airport, a grenade attack on a HMMWV that burned the vehicle to the ground with no U.S. casualties. Attacks against Coalition Forces only grew from there and a good amount of the blame for that lies with Bremmer.

Today Foreign Policy reported that Ambassador Bremmer has retired to Vermont as of 2007 to spend his days painting watercolors oil on canvas*. From an artistic point of view, the paintings are marginally interesting - not the best I've seen but certainly not worse than many of the so-called art I've seen for sale in recent months. The most important aspect of this is thus: a man who failed in his public service duties, failed on an astronomical scale, has removed himself public service and does not pundificate on public service matters.  I have nothing but disdain for what this man did to Iraq, based purely on his political ideology, but I respect that he acknowledges his failure and does not attempt to repeat his past mistakes. How refreshingly rare.  Good for you Mr. Bremmer.

Here are some other people, to picture but a few, who should follow Mr. Bremmer's example and give serious thought to moving to rural corners of the United States to take up the production of mediocre arts and crafts instead of doubling down on decade-old mistakes. Our country would be better off without your thoughts on how to run it - you have already tried and failed.

* The FP piece said he was doing watercolors. A closer examination of Mr. Bremmer's website shows he paints primarily with oil on canvas.

UPDATE: I may have jumped the gun here in praising Mr. Bremmer. Because I came across this today. Stick to painting Bremmer.