The folly of the next Afghan “surge”

The Folly of the Next Afghan “Surge”

The folly of the next Afghan “surge”
FILE – In this June 29, 2009 file photo, U.S. Army soldiers walk in a line at a reenlistment ceremony for a comrade in Baqouba, Iraq. New research published Wednesday, July 8, 2015 in JAMA Psychiatry shows war-time suicide attempts in the Army are most common in early-career enlisted soldiers who have not been deployed, while officers are less likely to try to end their lives. The study looked at data on nearly 1,000 suicide attempts among almost 1 million active-duty Army members during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, from 2004 to 2009. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)(Credit: AP)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

We walked in a single file. Not because it was tactically sound. It wasn’t — at least according to standard infantry doctrine. Patrolling southern Afghanistan in column formation limited maneuverability, made it difficult to mass fire, and exposed us to enfilading machine-gun bursts. Still, in 2011, in the Pashmul District of Kandahar Province, single file was our best bet.

The reason was simple enough: improvised bombs not just along roads but seemingly everywhere.  Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Who knew?

That’s right, the local “Taliban” — a term so nebulous it’s basically lost all meaning — had managed to drastically alter U.S. Army tactics with crude, homemade explosives stored in plastic jugs. And believe me, this was a huge problem. Cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to bury, those anti-personnel Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, soon littered the “roads,” footpaths, and farmland surrounding our isolated outpost. To a greater extent than a number of commanders willingly admitted, the enemy had managed to nullify our many technological advantages for a few pennies on the dollar (or maybe, since we’re talking about the Pentagon, it was pennies on the millions of dollars).

Truth be told, it was never really about our high-tech gear.  Instead, American units came to rely on superior training and discipline, as well as initiative and maneuverability, to best their opponents.  And yet those deadly IEDs often seemed to even the score, being both difficult to detect and brutally effective. So there we were, after too many bloody lessons, meandering along in carnival-like, Pied Piper-style columns. Bomb-sniffing dogs often led the way, followed by a couple of soldiers carrying mine detectors, followed by a few explosives experts. Only then came the first foot soldiers, rifles at the ready. Anything else was, if not suicide, then at least grotesquely ill-advised.

And mind you, our improvised approach didn’t always work either. To those of us out there, each patrol felt like an ad hoc round of Russian roulette.  In that way, those IEDs completely changed how we operated, slowing movement, discouraging extra patrols, and distancing us from what was then considered the ultimate “prize”: the local villagers, or what was left of them anyway.  In a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, which is what the U.S. military was running in Afghanistan in those years, that was the definition of defeat.

Strategic problems in microcosm

My own unit faced a dilemma common to dozens — maybe hundreds — of other American units in Afghanistan. Every patrol was slow, cumbersome, and risky. The natural inclination, if you cared about your boys, was to do less. But effective COIN operations require securing territory and gaining the trust of the civilians living there. You simply can’t do that from inside a well-protected American base. One obvious option was to live in the villages — which we eventually did — but that required dividing up the company into smaller groups and securing a second, third, maybe fourth location, which quickly became problematic, at least for my 82-man cavalry troop (when at full strength). And, of course, there were no less than five villages in my area of responsibility.

I realize, writing this now, that there’s no way I can make the situation sound quite as dicey as it actually was.  How, for instance, were we to “secure and empower” a village population that was, by then, all but nonexistent?  Years, even decades, of hard fighting, air strikes, and damaged crops had left many of those villages in that part of Kandahar Province little more than ghost towns, while cities elsewhere in the country teemed with uprooted and dissatisfied peasant refugees from the countryside.

Sometimes, it felt as if we were fighting over nothing more than a few dozen deserted mud huts.  And like it or not, such absurdity exemplified America’s war in Afghanistan.  It still does.  That was the view from the bottom.  Matters weren’t — and aren’t — measurably better at the top.  As easily as one reconnaissance troop could be derailed, so the entire enterprise, which rested on similarly shaky foundations, could be unsettled.

At a moment when the generals to whom President Trump recently delegateddecision-making powers on U.S. troop strength in that country consider a new Afghan “surge,” it might be worth looking backward and zooming out just a bit. Remember, the very idea of “winning” the Afghan War, which left my unit in that collection of mud huts, rested (and still rests) on a few rather grandiose assumptions.

The first of these surely is that the Afghans actually want (or ever wanted) us there; the second, that the country was and still is vital to our national security; and the third, that 10,000, 50,000, or even 100,000 foreign troops ever were or now could be capable of “pacifying” an insurgency, or rather a growing set of insurgencies, or securing 33 million souls, or facilitating a stable, representative government in a heterogeneous, mountainous, landlocked country with little history of democracy.

The first of these points is at least debatable. As you might imagine, any kind of accurate polling is quite difficult, if not impossible, outside the few major population centers in that isolated country.  Though many Afghans, particularly urban ones, may favor a continued U.S. military presence, others clearly wonder what good a new influx of foreigners will do in their endlessly war-torn nation.  As one high-ranking Afghan official recently lamented, thinking undoubtedly of the first use in his land of the largest non-nuclear bomb on the planet, “Is the plan just to use our country as a testing ground for bombs?” And keep in mind that the striking rise in territory the Taliban now controls, the most since they were driven from power in 2001, suggests that the U.S. presence is hardly welcomed everywhere.

The second assumption is far more difficult to argue or justify.  To say the least, classifying a war in far-away Afghanistan as “vital” relies on a rather pliable definition of the term.  If that passes muster — if bolstering the Afghan military to the tune of(at least) tens of billions of dollars annually and thousands of new boots-on-the-ground in order to deny safe haven to “terrorists” is truly “vital” — then logically the current U.S. presences in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen are critical as well and should be similarly fortified.  And what about the growing terror groups in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Tunisia, and so on?  We’re talking about a truly expensive proposition here — in blood and treasure.  But is it true?  Rational analysis suggests it is not.  After all, on average about seven Americans were killed by Islamist terrorists on U.S. soil annually from 2005 to 2015.  That puts terrorism deaths right up there with shark attacks and lightning strikes.  The fear is real, the actual danger . . . less so.

As for the third point, it’s simply preposterous. One look at U.S. military attempts at “nation-building” or post-conflict stabilization and pacification in Iraq, Libya, or — dare I say — Syria should settle the issue. It’s often said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Yet here we are, 14 years after the folly of invading Iraq and many of the same voices — inside and outside the administration — are clamoring for one more “surge” in Afghanistan (and, of course, will be clamoring for the predictable surges to follow across the Greater Middle East).

The very idea that the U.S. military had the ability to usher in a secure Afghanistan is grounded in a number of preconditions that proved to be little more than fantasies.  First, there would have to be a capable, reasonably corruption-free local governing partner and military.  That’s a nonstarter.  Afghanistan’s corrupt, unpopular national unity government is little better than the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in the 1960s and that American war didn’t turn out so well, did it?  Then there’s the question of longevity.  When it comes to the U.S. military presence there, soon to head into its 16th year, how long is long enough?  Several mainstream voices, including former Afghan commander General David Petraeus, are now talking about at least a “generation” more to successfully pacify Afghanistan.  Is that really feasible given America’s growing resource constraints and the ever expanding set of dangerous “ungoverned spaces” worldwide?

And what could a new surge actually do?  The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essentially a fragmented series of self-contained bases, each of which needs to be supplied and secured.  In a country of its size, with a limited transportation infrastructure, even the 4,000-5,000 extra troops the Pentagon is reportedly considering sending right now won’t go very far.

Now, zoom out again.  Apply the same calculus to the U.S. position across the Greater Middle East and you face what we might start calling the Afghan paradox, or my own quandary safeguarding five villages with only 82 men writ large.  Do the math.  The U.S. military is already struggling to keep up with its commitments.  At what point is Washington simply spinning its proverbial wheels?  I’ll tell you when — yesterday.

Now, think about those three questionable Afghan assumptions and one uncomfortable actuality leaps forth. The only guiding force left in the American strategic arsenal is inertia.

What surge 4.0 won’t do — I promise . . .

Remember something: this won’t be America’s first Afghan “surge.”  Or its second, or even its third.  No, this will be the U.S. military’s fourth crack at it.  Who feels lucky?  First came President George W. Bush’s “quiet” surgeback in 2008.  Next, just one month into his first term, newly minted President Barack Obama sent 17,000 more troops to fight his so-called good war (unlike the bad one in Iraq) in southern Afghanistan.  After a testy strategic review, he then committed 30,000 additional soldiers to the “real” surge a year later.  That’s what brought me (and the rest of B Troop, 4-4 Cavalry) to Pashmul district in 2011.  We left — most of us — more than five years ago, but of course about 8,800 American military personnel remain today and they are the basis for the surge to come.

To be fair, Surge 4.0 might initially deliver certain modest gains (just as each of the other three did in their day).  Realistically, more trainers, air support, and logistics personnel could indeed stabilize some Afghan military units for some limited amount of time.  Sixteen years into the conflict, with 10% as many American troops on the ground as at the war’s peak, and after a decade-plus of training, Afghan security forces are still being battered by the insurgents.  In the last years, they’ve been experiencing record casualties, along with the usual massive stream of desertionsand the legions of “ghost soldiers” who can neither die nor desert because they don’t exist, although their salaries do (in the pockets of their commanders or other lucky Afghans).  And that’s earned them a “stalemate,” which has left the Taliban and other insurgent groups in control of a significant part of the country.  And if all goes well (which isn’t exactly a surefire thing), that’s likely to be the best that Surge 4.0 can produce: a long, painful tie.

Peel back the onion’s layers just a bit more and the ostensible reasons for America’s Afghan War vanish along with all the explanatory smoke and mirrors. After all, there are two things the upcoming “mini-surge” will emphatically not do:

*It won’t change a failing strategic formula.

Imagine that formula this way: American trainers + Afghan soldiers + loads of cash + (unspecified) time = a stable Afghan government and lessening Taliban influence.

It hasn’t worked yet, of course, but — so the surge-believers assure us — that’s because we need more: more troops, more money, more time.  Like so many loyal Reaganites, their answers are always supply-side ones and none of them ever seems to wonder whether, almost 16 years later, the formula itself might not be fatally flawed.

According to news reports, no solution being considered by the current administration will even deal with the following interlocking set of problems: Afghanistan is a large, mountainous, landlocked, ethno-religiously heterogeneous, poor country led by a deeply corrupt government with a deeply corrupt military.  In a place long known as a “graveyard of empires,” the United States military and the Afghan Security Forces continue to wage what one eminent historian has termed “fortified compound warfare.”  Essentially, Washington and its local allies continue to grapple with relatively conventional threats from exceedingly mobile Taliban fighters across a porous border with Pakistan, a country that has offered not-so-furtive support and a safe haven for those adversaries.  And the Washington response to this has largely been to lock its soldiers inside those fortified compounds (and focus on protecting them against “insider attacks” by those Afghans it works with and trains).  It hasn’t worked.  It can’t.  It won’t.

Consider an analogous example.  In Vietnam, the United States never solved the double conundrum of enemy safe havens and a futile search for legitimacy.  The Vietcong guerillas and North Vietnamese Army used nearby Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam to rest, refit, and replenish.  U.S. troops meanwhile lacked legitimacy because their corrupt South Vietnamese partners lacked it.

Sound familiar?  We face the same two problems in Afghanistan: a Pakistani safe haven and a corrupt, unpopular central government in Kabul.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, in any future troop surge will effectively change that.

*It won’t pass the logical fallacy test.

The minute you really think about it, the whole argument for a surge or mini-surge instantly slides down a philosophical slippery slope.

If the war is really about denying terrorists safe havens in ungoverned or poorly governed territory, then why not surge more troops into Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan (where al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiriand Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin-Laden are believed to be safely ensconced), Iraq, Syria, Chechnya, Dagestan (where one of the Boston Marathon bombers was radicalized), or for that matter Paris or London.  Every one of those places has harbored and/or is harboring terrorists.  Maybe instead of surging yet again in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the real answer is to begin to realize that all the U.S. military in its present mode of operation can do to change that reality is make it worse.  After all, the last 15 years offer a vision of how it continually surges and in the process only creates yet more ungovernable lands and territories.

So much of the effort, now as in previous years, rests on an evident desire among military and political types in Washington to wage the war they know, the one their army is built for: battles for terrain, fights that can be tracked and measured on maps, the sort of stuff that staff officers (like me) can display on ever more-complicated PowerPoint slides.  Military men and traditional policymakers are far less comfortable with ideological warfare, the sort of contest where their instinctual proclivity to “do something” is often counterproductive.

As U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24 — General David Petraeus’ highly touted counterinsurgency “bible” — wisely opined: “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.”  It’s high time to follow such advice (even if it’s not the advice that Petraeus himself is offering anymore).

As for me, call me a deep-dyed skeptic when it comes to what 4,000 or 5,000 more U.S. troops can do to secure or stabilize a country where most of the village elders I met couldn’t tell you how old they were.  A little foreign policy humility goes a long way toward not heading down that slippery slope.  Why, then, do Americans continue to deceive themselves?  Why do they continue to believe that even 100,000 boys from Indiana and Alabama could alter Afghan society in a way Washington would like?  Or any other foreign land for that matter?

I suppose some generals and policymakers are just plain gamblers.  But before putting your money on the next Afghan surge, it might be worth flashing back to the limitations, struggles, and sacrifices of just one small unit in one tiny, contested district of southern Afghanistan in 2011 . . .

Lonely Pashmul

So, on we walked — single file, step by treacherous step — for nearly a year.  Most days things worked out.  Until they didn’t.  Unfortunately, some soldiers found bombs the hard way: three dead, dozens wounded, one triple amputee.  So it went and so we kept on going.  Always onward. Ever forward. For America? Afghanistan? Each other? No matter.  And so it seems other Americans will keep on going in 2017, 2018, 2019 . . .

Lift foot. Hold breath. Step. Exhale.

Keep walking . . . to defeat . . . but together.

http://www.salon.com/2017/06/30/the-follow-of-the-next-afghan-surge_partner/?source=newsletter

The Lords of the Flies: American Collapse’s Lesson for History and the World

My American friend Tucker stays late every night at his highly professional job every night and arrives early every morning. He’s not paid for it. He’s just expected to do it. I ask him, as someone who studies management and leadership, who tells him to. No one, he says. The expectation is just there. Lingering in the air, like an unspoken threat.

We often say that America is an experiment. But what is it an experiment in? Some will say “freedom”, but you can’t really say a country that’s been unsegregated for less than 25% of its history is an experiment in freedom. I think America is an experiment of a different kind. One that reveals a great truth about political economy to history and the world.

It is an experiment in the survival of the fittest.

America is a Darwinian organization. There are many kinds of organizations. Not all are Darwinian. Some are what I’d call Dionysian, like a nightclub. Some are Apollonion, aimed at achievement, like a great university. Only some are Darwinian — devoted to the survival of the fittest.

That phrase describes American history, don’t you think? First blacks and natives were dehumanized — they were “fit” only for hard labour, morally defective. Then immigrant whites of all kinds were too, “fit” only for menial jobs. Wherever you look at American history, you’ll see this idea of the survival of the fittest — all the way down to today, when the poor and weak are expected to simply and quite literally die in the streets, and the strong — the famous, the adored, the powerful — are rewarded by being allowed to take all. Why?

The idea behind all this — when there was a justification, that is — was that the rise of the fittest would somehow benefit everyone. It would yield superpeople: smarter, nicer maybe, stronger, better. Call it a trickle down theory of human potential. But it didn’t (that’s self-evident: every indicator of a good life is falling).

Instead, it yielded something else entirely: superpredators. What does the survival of the fittest yield in nature? It yields better and better predators. Evolution went from bacteria to jellyfish to sharks with giant teeth. The same is true in society. America has bred a new class of people: superpredators. They are congressmen who can throw tens of millions off healthcare without any moral concern. They are the super rich who watch a nation’s life expectancy fall and laugh. I’m not really judging them — OK, maybe a little. But mostly, I’m observing. And here’s what I see.

Remember my friend Tucker? America is a land ruled by little bullies now. Just think about it with me before you react patriotically. Americans are told by screaming bullies on the news what to think. They are hounded by bullying debt collectors owned by bullying banks. Their politicians who don’t represent them bully them into cowed submission, though they live the poorest lives in the rich world. They are bullied by bosses into overwork for little pay and almost no leisure time. It goes on and on and on.

The bullies, in turn, are ruled by bigger and bigger bullies. Until we get to the biggest bullies of them all — and right now, it’s painfully self-evident who they are. The biggest bullies. Superpredators. It’s not a coincidence. The experiment worked. But not in the way its architects intended. It didn’t end in superpeople.

Superpredators are what social survival of the fittest yields. Just as natural evolution yields sharks with bigger teeth. And when we look carefully, America is a society that prizes an evolutionary paradigm above all. People should “adapt” to “changes” in their “environment”. “Innovation”, “change”, “transformation” are all ways that the economy “evolves”. The result is a society that produces stronger, crueller, meaner predators.

But better predators are not people who are better human beings. So a “fitness criterion”, as biologists call it, some measure of selfish success, whether it is profit or baronial titles, isn’t sufficient to evoke human potential. Why not?

Do you remember William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? It’s one of my favourite books. And while you might think it’s about being kids being abandoned, I think there’s more to it. I think it’s a parable about the survival of the fittest. The boys kill Piggy — and that is when they lose their moral souls. Their little society, too, is Darwinian. Yet it doesn’t lead them anywhere but into the abyss.

Golding knew something that we have forgotten. Civilization, a process, a project, must — must — reject the Nietzschean idea of the survival of the fittest. It must prize greater things in human beings. The ability to dream, defy, love, forgive, create, rebel. That is where real human breakthroughs come from, whether in art, literature, science, or politics. That is where peace and prosperity, lie. To genuinely value human potential, life, possibility, is the opposite of the survival of the fittest.

Evolution is not a good answer to the questions of social organization and human potential. It can go in many directions. It can make dinosaurs, sharks, and only sometimes human beings with moral concerns. And even then the moral concerns of human beings must go against their evolutionary prerogatives, their animal spirits. Thus, when a quest for “fitness” makes carnivores of men, then society must be protected from it — not harnessed toit.

To apply the rule of the survival of the fittest to a society, to let evolution blinfly take its course, will naturally end in America. A land ruled by superpredators, where the average life has no hope left of fully living. The sharks, now that they have been bred, feast on the fish.

That is American collapse’s real lesson for history and the world.

Umair
June 2017

View story at Medium.com

The night they busted Stonewall

I was there when gay power came to Sheridan Square

June 28, 1969, was just another night in New York City. I had graduated from West Point only a few weeks earlier and was spending my graduation leave renting a loft down on Broome Street before I departed for three months’ training for the infantry officer basic course at Fort Benning, Georgia. I know . . . I know . . . what was a West Point graduate doing in a loft in SoHo? Well, truth be told, I was freelancing for the Village Voice that summer. I know . . . I know  . . . what was a West Point graduate doing writing for the Village Voice in the summer of 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War? Well, I had started writing letters to the editor of the Voice while I was still a cadet and the year before had published my first couple of pieces in the paper. It wasn’t such a bad fit.

The three founders of the Voice, Dan Wolf, Norman Mailer, and Edwin Fancher, had all been infantrymen in World War II, and in an interesting twist of circumstance, Ed Fancher had served in the 10th Mountain Division under my grandfather, General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., in Northern Italy near the end of the war. Still, a West Pointer writing for the Voice was  . . . unusual. But I was writing rock criticism — remember rock criticism? — and covering stuff that was all over the map. My first piece was on Christmas Day at the Dom on St. Marks Place with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm, soon to be made famous at Woodstock, and only the week before I had covered a Billy Graham religious revival at Madison Square Garden.

I wasn’t expecting to find a story when I left my loft at Broome and Crosby and walked toward the West Village, looking to spend the evening drinking at the Lion’s Head, the writer’s bar on Sheridan Square just off Seventh Avenue. It was a hangout for writers like Pete Hamill, then of the New York Post; Joe Flaherty, a former Brooklyn longshoreman currently writing for the Voice; David Markson, a novelist just making his mark; Nick Browne, the Lion’s Head bartender who covered the Village bar scene for the Voice; Fred Exley, who had just published the marvelous memoir “A Fan’s Notes”; and Joel Oppenheimer, the Village poet and graduate of Black Mountain College. Somehow I managed to fit into a scene that is still celebrated as a kind of golden age for Village writers with a drinking problem, or drinkers with a writing problem. Take your pick.

I was coming up Waverly Place from Sixth Avenue approaching Christopher Street when I saw the police car lights flashing. A cop car and a paddy wagon were pulled up in front of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar two doors down from the Lion’s Head, and uniformed policemen were hauling Stonewall patrons out of the bar and putting them into the back of the paddy wagon. A crowd had gathered across the street, and some of the arrestees were pausing at the door and pursing their lips, doing as best as they could to blow kisses to the crowd with their hands cuffed behind their backs. I stopped to watch.

The crowd was young, some of them very young, the Stonewall being known for its underage crowd. In fact, it turned out that the purpose of the raid was to bust a Mob blackmail ring being run out of the Stonewall. The Mob was using underage hustlers to entrap older gay men, mainly from Wall Street, and extract money from them. All the gay bars in the Village were Mob owned. There was a “morals clause” in the New York State Liquor Authority laws that outlawed selling alcohol to “immoral” persons, which the authority arbitrarily defined as gay people, so they wouldn’t issue a liquor license to bars catering to gays. The Mob was happy to oblige, however, setting up illegal bars like the Stonewall and selling overpriced watered-down drinks to gays without a license and paying off the cops to stay open. It would take several years after Stonewall until the authority issued its first license to a bar with gay owners, the Ballroom on West Broadway, followed quickly by Reno Sweeney on 13th Street.

But on this night, gay bars were still illegal, and as they did every time they busted one, the cops were rounding up and harassing the patrons. The crowd outside was loving it as they came out striking poses, but the cops weren’t loving it. This was not the way gay people were supposed to act when they busted a bar. They were supposed to come out of the bar in cuffs with their heads down, hiding their faces in shame. But not this time. This time they were vamping and calling out to friends in the crowd.

The cops started angrily manhandling the arrestees, shoving them out the door and quickly into the paddy wagon. The guys under arrest were back talking the cops, asking them what their problem was, which only got the cops madder. Some of the crowd started throwing coins at the cops, taunting them. Then the cops pushed a drag queen out of the door of the Stonewall. She was apparently well-known on the street and paused to strike a vampy pose, acknowledging the crowd, calling out to a friend that she’d meet him when she got sprung from the Tombs in the morning. One of the cops pushed her roughly with a nightstick. She said something to the cop, he swung at her, she dodged the swing, and two more cops joined in, grabbing her and roughly shoving her into the paddy wagon.

That was it. Coins rained down. The crowd, which was now probably more than 100 strong, yelled at the cops, cursing them. Someone threw a beer can, and more trash rained down. The cops menaced the crowd, telling them to disperse. They didn’t. When the cops moved on them swinging their nightsticks, the crowd pushed back. Someone picked up a cobblestone and threw it through the window. The crowd yelled and rushed the Stonewall. One of the cops slammed the doors to the paddy wagon closed, it sped away, and the cops ran into the Stonewall and closed the door. The crowd was yelling at the cops, daring them to come out. The crowd had gotten bigger.

The whole street in front of the Stonewall was filled. I got up on a trash can next to the 55 Bar to see better. Someone threw another trash can through the Stonewall’s window. Someone else tried to grab my trash can, but I pushed them away. A guy right next to me  lit a newspaper and threw it into the Stonewall window. I could see the cops inside struggling to put out the fire. Gay people were pissed off that the Stonewall had been busted and its patrons had been arrested and harassed by the cops. There was a riot going on. They weren’t going to take it anymore.

My friend the Voice columnist Howard Smith had gone into the Stonewall earlier to talk to the inspector in charge of the raid, Seymour Pine, and was trapped inside with the cops. The crowd kept throwing stuff at the Stonewall’s window. They pried a parking meter loose from the pavement and a couple of guys used it as a battering ram on the door, but the door held. The cops called for reinforcements and a few minutes later, maybe six cop cars came screaming down Christopher Street from Sixth Avenue. Cops jumped out swinging nightsticks and people started running, but they didn’t run far.

Some of them went around the corner of Seventh Avenue down West 9th Street and right on Waverly Place and came up behind the cops, taunting them with catcalls and curses. That split the cops, some chasing one group east down Christopher Street, some pursuing a crowd across the park, spilling onto West 4th  and Grove Streets. Now there were several hundred people in the streets, the word having spread to gay bars around the Village which emptied into the streets and more people joined the protesters. More cops arrived, sirens screaming. The crowd kept dispersing in every direction and coming back to the Stonewall. Nobody was in charge. The only thing everyone knew was that it started at the Stonewall, and they weren’t giving  up.

This went on for several hours until finally the cops got a sufficient number of reinforcements that they could hold the street in front of the bar and rescue those trapped inside. Jay Levin of the New York Post and I went over to the 6th Precinct around 4 a.m. I don’t recall the exact number, but I think something like 14 people were arrested. The cops wouldn’t give out any names, so my Voice story and Jay’s squib in the Post didn’t record who the heroes of Stonewall were. But they were there. I saw them. And I saw the gay people who poured out of the bars and clubs and  took to the streets.

The next afternoon, the Stonewall reopened with a sign in the window saying something like “We got nothing but college boys and girls in here.” By dark, someone had spray-painted “Gay Power” over the sign. Crowds gathered on the street and it was on again. This time, the cops called in the TPF, the Tactical Patrol Force, with their plastic shields and helmets and plexiglass face masks. A lot of good that did. Word had spread to the boroughs and Fire Island that there had been a protest at the Stonewall on Friday night and the crowd was huge. The TPF didn’t know the twisting, crisscrossing streets of the Village at all, so the crowd had a grand time taunting the cops and leading them down alleys like Gay Street and  Waverly Place and around the block.

About the time the cops arrived back at the front of the Stonewall and thought they had things in hand, a chorus line of protesters appeared behind them doing a kick routine, loudly singing, “We are the Stonewall girls!/ We wear our hair in curls!/ We don’t wear underwear!/ We show our pubic hair!” The TPF would wheel around and chase them, only to have another chorus line appear down the block singing out the same taunt. Soon tear gas canisters flew. People used wet rags and cups of water from hydrants to splash themselves and kept going. Every once in a while the cops would manage to grab one of the protesters and beat them with nightsticks and throw them in a car, but that only served to set off the crowd, which grew louder and larger as the night wore on. If the aim of the TPF was to disperse the riot and shame the gay people back into hiding, it didn’t work. By the wee hours, you could see gay guys walking home from Sheridan Square hand in hand. It was something you never saw on the streets until that night.

Sunday night the crowd was smaller and older, many people having arrived back in the Village from weekend places on Fire Island and upstate. The TPF tried to line up, blocking Christopher at Seventh Avenue, but other bars and businesses were open and complained, so they had to let people through. Occasionally, someone would throw trash at the cops and they would chase a group down the street, but there was no tear gas. The riot was over.

I spied the Warhol superstar Taylor Mead and Allen Ginsberg standing across Seventh Avenue and walked over. They had been out of town and wanted to know what happened, so I told them. Both longtime denizens of the East and West Village, they were amazed. Allen said he’d never been in the Stonewall and asked if I’d take him, so we walked over and went inside. The place had obviously been trashed by the cops, but the Mob guys had erected a makeshift bar and were back to selling overpriced drinks. Loud music was playing in the back room and people were dancing. Ginsberg asked me if I would dance with him, so we went back there and bopped around for a couple of songs and left.

Walking east across 8th St. toward Allen’s apartment, he continued to express amazement at what had happened. “The fags have lost that wounded look they always had,” he said of the people he’d seen on the streets. We passed couple after couple holding hands to Allen’s obvious delight. We reached Astor Place and as I turned south headed toward my loft, Allen called out, “Defend the fairies!” As I once observed elsewhere, as of that night, they didn’t need defending anymore.

As for me? Well, the brand-new second lieutenant of infantry went home to the loft and sat down and cluelessly wrote a story about how the “faggots” had rioted and asserted gay power for the first time. My piece, and one by Howard Smith, ran on the front page of the Voice that Wednesday. Jim Fouratt, who had been one of the protesters over the weekend and had quickly formed the Gay Liberation Front to give some political form to what he had clearly identified as a movement, held a demonstration in front of the Voice protesting my use of the word “faggot” to describe gay people. So the very first protest of the new gay movement was against me. The Voice committed to using “gay” from then on, and so did I. Gay power had come to Sheridan Square.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. He can be followed on Facebook at The Rabbit Hole and on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.

The emerging class struggle over health care in the US

29 June 2017

Following the announcement on Tuesday that the Republicans would be putting off a Senate vote on their health care bill until after the July 4 congressional recess, the Democrats and Republicans continued their stage-managed debate over measures that will have devastating consequences for millions of Americans.

The media’s presentation of a bitter feud over the direction of health care policy is a political fiction. The newspapers and television networks report on the statements of one or another lawmaker and his or her attitude to the plan recently unveiled by Senate Republicans as if this will have any real impact on the trajectory of ruling class policy.

The more decisive verdict was delivered on Tuesday by Wall Street, which saw its biggest one-day drop in six weeks after Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put off a Senate vote this week. The message was clear: the corporate and financial elite wants its money, and it wants it now. The health care measure includes a $700 billion tax cut for the rich—a down payment on the money to be freed up by depriving the elderly and poor of their health and even their lives.

The American ruling class is engaged in a form of social arson no less criminal or deadly than the policies that led to the Grenfell Tower fire in London.

McConnell responded on Wednesday by promising that a new version of the bill will be ready by Friday for a vote sometime in July.

Charles Schumer, the Democratic Senate Minority Leader from New York, reacted to the summons of the market by reiterating his call for a “bipartisan” solution, a mantra repeated by virtually all congressional Democrats. “Democrats are genuinely interested in finding a place where our two parties can come together on health care,” Schumer said. That Schumer gets more campaign money from the hedge funds and banks than any other senator, Democratic or Republican, is sufficient to demonstrate what type of child will issue from such a union.

Schumer did not comment on the apparent contradiction between his claims to be fundamentally opposed to the Republican plan and his calls for a bipartisan compromise. His position exposes the fact that the two sides share a basic agenda.

The Democrats assert that they want to “fix” Obamacare. What does this mean? They are not talking about expanding coverage to include the 28 million still without insurance under the Democratic plan, or increasing the inadequate subsidies, decreasing absurdly high deductibles and copays, and preventing the insurance companies from raising premiums. “Fixing” Obamacare is a euphemism for incorporating the demands of the insurance industry for even fewer restraints on their profit-making and tighter eligibility requirements for consumers.

The public has seen this type of political theater countless times, and the outcome has invariably been the same. The Republicans set the marker as far to the right as possible and the Democratic “opposition” results in a deal to impose new and more drastic cuts to health care and other social programs. The most significant and fraudulent of these dog-and-pony shows was the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, itself.

The Republican proposal is not in fact a “repeal” of Obamacare. It incorporates the structures set up by the Democratic measure, such as the exchanges for purchasing policies from private insurers, designed to more fully subordinate the health care system to the capitalist market and encourage the demise of employer-sponsored health coverage, placing individual workers even more at the mercy of the insurance giants.

The central purpose of Obamacare is to shift costs from corporations and the state to the working class, with health care increasingly rationed on a class basis.

The so-called “health insurance” that many people now have under Obamacare is, in effect, a transfer of funds to the giant insurance companies. Deductibles for lower-priced “bronze” plans now average more than $6,000 for an individual and more than $12,000 for a family. Deductibles for so-called “silver” plans (which make up 70 percent of the market) are on average more than $3,000 for individuals. In other words, after paying hundreds of dollars a month for health insurance, workers must pay thousands more before they begin to receive any benefits.

Corporations have been systematically cutting or eliminating coverage, encouraged by Obamacare’s coming tax on more “generous” employer-provided health care plans. More than 80 percent of employer-based plans now have an annual deductible ($1,478 on average, up 2.5 times since 2006). In countless contract disputes throughout the country, health care cuts are a central demand of the companies, invariably accepted and forced through by the trade unions.

The subsidized purchase of private insurance under Obamacare has created the framework—a voucher system—for dismantling what remains of government-provided health care. The American ruling class is setting its sights on the bedrock health care programs of the late 1960s—first Medicaid, the already grossly underfunded state-federal health insurance program for the poor, which will be effectively dismantled by the Republican bill, then Medicare, the health care program for the elderly. Behind these health care programs lies Social Security, the federal pension program wrenched from the ruling class through the explosive class struggles of the 1930s.

The hypocritical criticisms of the Republican plan by the Democrats and the various middle-class organizations that orbit the Democratic Party not only cover up for the reactionary character of Obamacare, they completely ignore the central issue: capitalism.

There is no solution to the massive health care crisis that does not take on the domination of health care by giant pharmaceutical and insurance companies, which operate under the ever-present whip of Wall Street and its demands for higher profits and dividends. These giant corporations must be expropriated and the wealth of the financial aristocracy seized to finance emergency measures to address the health care crisis and establish a system of universal health care, guaranteed as a basic social right.

Whatever tactical differences the Democrats have with the Trump administration on health care are entirely subordinate to their basic objective: escalating US military aggression in the Middle East and internationally. The hysterical Democratic campaign over alleged Russian hacking and Trump collusion with Moscow has as its central aim forcing a shift in administration policy toward a more rapid and comprehensive expansion of the US war for regime-change in Syria and a more aggressive policy toward Russia.

But as the Democrats well know, military escalation abroad is inextricably bound up with the intensification of austerity and class war at home.

In asserting its right to health care, the working class cannot allow itself to be drawn behind any section of the political establishment. It must proceed with its own methods—those of class struggle. The health care counterrevolution is generating enormous opposition, which is beginning to emerge in innumerable forms. Millions confront conditions that spell death or disaster for themselves, their parents and their children.

As the WSWS wrote earlier this month, “The interaction of objective conditions of crisis, both within the United States and internationally, and the radicalization of mass social consciousness will find expression in the eruption of class struggle. The decades-long suppression of the class struggle by the trade union bureaucracy, the Democratic Party and the affluent sponsors of various forms of identity politics is coming to an end. The social counterrevolution of the ruling elites is about to encounter an upsurge of the American working class.”

Emerging struggles against all of the deplorable conditions of life under capitalism—the destruction of health care, declining wages, unemployment, brutal working conditions, the attack on public education, mass indebtedness, the witch-hunting of immigrants—must be brought together in a common political fight against the Trump administration and both big business parties, based on a socialist and internationalist program.

Joseph Kishore

WSWS

 

How Privatization Could Spell the End of Democracy

ECONOMY
Between Trump and tech, never before have so many powerful people been so intent on transforming government into a business.

Brands: Amazon, Yelp, Uber, Hillary
Photo Credit: Jewish Journal

It’s a hot day in New York City. You’re thirsty, but your water bottle is empty. So you walk into a store and place your bottle in a machine. You activate the machine with an app on your phone, and it fills your bottle with tap water. Now you are no longer thirsty.

This is the future envisioned by the founders of a startup called Reefill. If the premise sounds oddly familiar, that’s because it is: Reefill has reinvented the water fountain as a Bluetooth-enabled subscription service. Customers pay $1.99 a month for the privilege of using its machines, located at participating businesses around Manhattan.

Predictably, the company has already come in for its fair share of ridicule. In Slate, Henry Grabar called it “tap water in a suit”. But while Reefill is a particularly cartoonish example, its basic business model is a popular one within tech. The playbook is simple: take a public service and build a private, app-powered version of it.

he most obvious examples are Uber and Lyft, which aspire not merely to eliminate the taxi industry, but to replace public transportation. They’re slowly succeeding: municipalities around America are now subsidizing ride-hailing fares instead of running public buses. And earlier this year, Lyft began offering a fixed-route, flat-rate service called Lyft Shuttle in Chicago and San Francisco – an aggressive bid to poach more riders from public transit.

These companies wouldn’t have customers if better public alternatives existed. It can be hard to find a water fountain in Manhattan, and public transit in American cities ranges from mediocre to nonexistent. But solving these problems by ceding them to the private sector ensures that public services will continue to deteriorate until they disappear.

Decades of defunding and outsourcing have already pushed public services to the brink. Now, fortified with piles of investor cash and the smartphone, tech companies are trying to finish them off.

Proponents of privatization believe this is a good thing. For years, they have advanced the argument that business will always perform a given task better than government, whether it’s running buses or schools, supplying healthcare or housing. The public sector is sclerotic, wasteful and undisciplined by the profit motive. The private sector is dynamic, innovative and, above all, efficient.

This belief has become common sense in political life. It is widely shared by the country’s elite, and has guided much policymaking over the past several decades. But like most of our governing myths, it collapses on closer inspection.

No word is invoked more frequently or more fervently by apostles of privatization than efficiency. Yet this is a strange basis on which to build their case, given the fact that public services are often more efficient than private ones. Take healthcare. The United States has one of the least efficient systems on the planet: we spend more money on healthcare than anyone else, and in return we receive some of the worst health outcomes in the west. Not coincidentally, we also have the most privatized healthcare system in the advanced world. By contrast, the UK spends a fraction of what we do and achieves far better results. It also happens to provision healthcare as a public service. Somehow, the absence of the profit motive has not produced an epidemic of inefficiency in British healthcare. Meanwhile, we pay nearly $10,000 per capita and a staggering 17% of our GDP to achieve a life expectancy somewhere between that of Costa Rica and Cuba.

A profit-driven system doesn’t mean we get more for our money – it means someone gets to make more money off of us. The healthcare industry posts record profits and rewards its chief executives with the highest salaries in the country. It takes a peculiar frame of mind to see this arrangement as anything resembling efficient.

Attacking public services on the grounds of efficiency isn’t just incorrect, however – it’s beside the point. Decades of neoliberalism have corroded our capacity to think in non-economic terms. We’ve been taught that all fields of human life should be organized as markets, and that government should be run like a business. This ideology has found its perverse culmination in the figure of Donald Trump, a celebrity billionaire with no prior political experience who catapulted himself into the White House by invoking his expertise as an businessman. The premise of Trump’s campaign was that America didn’t need a president – it needed a CEO.

Nowhere is the neoliberal faith embodied by Trump more deeply felt than in Silicon Valley. Tech entrepreneurs work tirelessly to turn more of our lives into markets and devote enormous resources towards “disrupting” government by privatizing its functions. Perhaps this is why, despite Silicon Valley’s veneer of liberal cosmopolitanism, it has a certain affinity for the president. On Monday, Trump met with top executives from Apple, Amazon, Google and other major tech firms to explore how to “unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services”, in the words of Jared Kushner. Between Trump and tech, never before have so many powerful people been so intent on transforming government into a business.

But government isn’t a business; it’s a different kind of machine. At its worst, it can be repressive and corrupt and autocratic. At its best, it can be an invaluable tool for developing and sustaining a democratic society. Among other things, this includes ensuring that everyone receives the resources they need to exercise the freedoms on which democracy depends. When we privatize public services, we don’t just risk replacing them with less efficient alternatives – we risk damaging democracy itself.

If this seems like a stretch, that’s because pundits and politicians have spent decades defining the idea of democracy downwards. It has come to mean little more than holding elections every few years. But this is the absolute minimum of democracy’s meaning. Its Greek root translates to “rule of the people” – not rule by certain people, such as the rich (plutocracy) or the priests (theocracy), but by all people. Democracy describes a way of organizing society in which the whole of the people determine how society should be organized.

What does this have to do with buses or schools or hospitals or houses? In a democracy, everyone gets to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. But that’s impossible if people don’t have access to the goods they need to survive – if they’re hungry or homeless or sick. And the reality is that when goods are rationed by the market, fewer people have access to them. Markets are places of winners and losers. You don’t get what you need – you get what you can afford.

By contrast, public services offer a more equitable way to satisfy basic needs. By taking things off the market, government can democratize access to the resources that people rely on to lead reasonably dignified lives. Those resources can be offered cheap or free, funded by progressive taxation. They can also be managed by publicly accountable institutions led by elected officials, or subject to more direct mechanisms of popular control.

These ideas are considered wildly radical in American politics. Yet other places around the world have implemented them with great success. When Oxfam surveyed more than 100 countries, they discovered that public services significantly reduce economic inequality. They shrink the distance between rich and poor by lowering the cost of living. They empower working people by making their survival less dependent on their bosses and landlords and creditors. Perhaps most importantly, they entitle citizens to a share of society’s wealth and a say over how it’s used.

But where will the money come from? This is the perennial question, posed whenever someone suggests raising the welfare state above a whisper. Fortunately, it has a simple answer. The United States is the richest country in the history of the world. It is so rich, in fact, that its richest people can afford to pour billions of dollars into a company such as Uber, which loses billions of dollars each year, in the hopes of getting just a little bit richer. In the face of such extravagance, diverting a modest portion of the prosperity we produce in common toward services that benefit everyone shouldn’t be controversial. It’s a small price to pay for making democracy mean more than a hollow slogan, or a sick joke.

Concentration of poverty in New York City neighborhoods on the rise

By Philip Guelpa
27 June 2017

Despite being elected on a campaign slogan invoking “Tale of Two Cities,” pledging to fight the extreme economic inequality in New York City, the mayoralty of self-styled progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio has presided over a marked increase in poverty and a continuing rise in the cost of housing. Far from lessening the divide between the two “cities,” which has been growing for decades, the segregation, both economic and geographic, between the city’s wealthy elite and the working class, has only intensified.

The rate of poverty and the concentration of poor people living in impoverished neighborhoods in New York City have both risen dramatically in recent years. These are the findings of a newly released study by the Furman Center at New York University— State of New York Citys Housing and Neighborhoods in 2016. During the period from 2011 to 2015, 1.7 million city residents were classified as living below the official poverty line, set at the absurdly low level of $24,036 annually for a family of four. This represents 20.6 percent of the population, up from 19.1 percent in the 2006-2010 time span. Other, more realistic studies have shown that nearly two thirds of the city’s population suffer from some form of economic distress. Thirty percent of the city’s children are officially poor.

The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. The percentages of New Yorkers at the upper and lower ends of the income range grew, while those in the middle shrank. Between 2000 and 2015, households earning less than $40,000 per year increased by nearly three percentage points; those earning more than $100,000 grew by about one percentage point, but the ones in between shrank from 36 to 33 percent. Clearly, those in the middle are predominantly falling into poverty.

According to the Furman Center study, the geographic concentration of people living in areas of extreme poverty, neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of the residents are officially classified as poor, had fallen somewhat since 2000, when it was 25.4 percent, to 19.4 percent in 2006-2010. This increased markedly, to 23.5 percent, from 2011 through 2015—a period of supposed recovery from the financial meltdown of 2008-2009. These are only the most acute examples. Nearly 45 percent of the city’s population live in areas of either high or extreme poverty (30-40 percent of the residents below the poverty line, respectively). Neighborhoods encompassing 16.5 percent of the city’s population, 1.4 million people, experienced a 10 percent increase in the rate of poverty, the study found.

Living conditions in these poor neighborhoods are appalling. In extreme poverty areas, serious housing code violations were registered at five times the city average and the employment rate was 20 percentage points lower.

Of the five New York City boroughs, the Bronx has the highest percentage of neighborhoods experiencing high or extreme poverty—52.6 percent.

One of the processes driving the increase in poverty is revealed by the report’s finding that the employment rate for the city as a whole increased by 2.4 percentage points between 2005 and 2015. Thus, while a slightly higher percentage of the population is working, the real value of their income is decreasing.

The Furman Center also found that as poverty is increasing, rents are continuing to climb, creating unbearable living conditions for a large portion of the city’s population. These are related phenomena. As the overall cost of housing continues to rise, relatively better off people are forced to move to poorer neighborhoods in search of more affordable rents. This, in turn, prompts landlords to raise rents in those areas, impacting existing low-income residents.

As an example, the study describes the case of East Harlem, a predominantly working class neighborhood in northern Manhattan. In 2000, the poverty rate was 37.1 of the population. It is now 37.5—again based on the absurdly low official poverty line. However, the number of residents with annual incomes of more than $100,000 has risen by more than 4 percent. Thus, while the overall percentage of people living in poverty is increasing, the economic spread between rich and poor is widening.

Simultaneously, rents in East Harlem are increasing at a rapid rate, with the monthly median rising $120 between 2015 and 2016 alone, putting extreme pressure on the already economically stressed residents.

Citywide, between 2005 and 2015, median gross rent increased 18.3 percent, while median household income for renters increased just 6.6 percent.

The acute lack of affordable housing is driving large numbers of people onto the streets. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of city residents spending the night in homeless shelters increased by 87 percent, to about 61,000.

The situation is not new, but is becoming ever more severe. Despite fluctuations, the general trend of increasing poverty and lack of affordable housing has been continuing for decades, but has accelerated in recent years as the global economic crisis intensifies.

The extreme economic inequality that exists in New York City is starkly illustrated by the fact that while nearly two thirds of the population experience some form of economic distress, with over a third living in deep poverty, New York has the second highest GDP of all cities in the world. And yet, despite this huge amount of wealth that could be used to address the crises of poverty and lack of affordable housing, the living conditions for the city’s working class continue to deteriorate.

These statistics and many more presented in the Furman Center report starkly illustrate the utter failure to address the huge economic disparity between the city’s rich and poor by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The two parties, regardless of who lives in Gracie Mansion (the official mayoral residence) or who controls the City Council, are the representatives of the city’s financial and corporate elite.

All of the myriad programs that have over the years been presented allegedly to combat poverty, the lack of affordable housing, and resulting homelessness have been predicated on the need to maximize the wealth of the ruling elite. These programs have utterly failed to improve the former, while definitely facilitating the latter. Indeed, conditions for the mass of the population have only gotten worse.

In just one of many examples, there was a sharp decline in the issuance of permits for construction of new housing units in 2016, following the failure to renew the 421-a tax incentive program. That program, while greatly benefiting developers and large landlords, had done nothing to reduce the critical lack of affordable housing.

The working class of New York is rapidly approaching the breaking point. Mass revolt against increasingly unlivable conditions may erupt at any time. The anger and frustration find no expression within the present political establishment. What is required is the building of a party that fights for a socialist program to expropriate the vast wealth of the city’s elite and employ it to benefit the great majority of the population.

WSWS

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