Tilting at Windmills

Bag ladies

Some years ago, I wrote about how the shoulder bag that most women were now wearing caused their bodies to tilt in a way that made their walk distinctly less sexy. For understandable reasons, this item found little favor among my female readers. But now I can say Im just thinking about their health. According to Dr. Jane Sadler of the Baylor Health Care System, If you think about how you carry a bag, its usually on one side and you kind of pull your neck to one side and lift your shoulder … It creates strain along the neck and into the nerves that exit the neck and down the shoulder.

This produces a pain in the neck for the women carrying the bagand
for the people standing behind them in security lines. According to a survey cited by Jennifer Harper of the Washington Times, todays women lug around twice as much junk as their mothers, including the iPod, cell phone, headset, laptop, multiple credit and identity cards, makeup bag, water bottle, and keys for the car, home and work.

A safe bet
Hillary Clinton has a good idea for inspiring a greater sense of urgency among Iraqi leaders to find a political solution to their sectarian antagonism. It is for us to stop supplying them with bodyguards. An Iraqi interviewed by the Washington Posts Jim Hoagland has an even better idea: to abolish the Green Zone entirely. Without bodyguards and a safe haven to conduct their fruitless squabbling, Iraqi leaders would be forced to either settle their differences or risk being killed themselves.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%The right way to do
the wrong thing

Although my own conviction is that our invasion of Iraq was always a terrible idea, and doomed to failure, one can at least argue that having many more troops available for the occupation and providing employment for young Iraqis early on might have given us a chance for success. Now that Bush is making a stab at doing what he should have done four years ago, I am reminded of the strategy followed in Vietnam after General Creighton Abrams replaced General William Westmoreland, whose bloody search-and-destroy missions had cost the lives of far too many Americans and innocent South Vietnamese. Under Abrams, the number of American casualties was sharply reduced, and we concentrated on killing not innocent civilians but Vietcong and North Vietnamese. If it had made sense for American combat troops to
be in Vietnam, Abramss policy would have been the best policy all along. The trouble is that putting combat troops in Vietnam was a bad idea and could not be redeemed even by the best strategy.

Kookoo for Kofi

Kofi Annan has been the victim of harsh and often unfair criticism, but a recent biographer, James Traub, in The Best Intentions, works hard to compensate. Indeed, one might say Traub gets carried away by his admiration for the former secretary general. He writes of Annans superhuman display of modesty, and describes him as trailing clouds of glory while clad in beautifully cut dark gray suits from Brioni, and speaks of his moral glamour as a spokesman for mankind who looked wonderful in a tuxedo.

Remembering Ford

I shared the warm feelings for Gerald Ford that were so evident in almost everyone during the week of mourning. There were very few discordant moments. A minor one that irritated me was the television commentators who insisted on talking over the music at the funeral, which was often as beautiful as their prattle was mindless. And I was troubled by the failure of so many congressional bigshots to interrupt their holidays to greet Fords body as it returned to Capitol Hill. It was especially desirable that Nancy Pelosi be there. If she is to have any chance of restoring the spirit of comity to the House, she must show a human side that has heretofore not been a conspicuous part of her public persona. Gerald Ford was first and foremost a man of the House. Tip ONeill would have understood, and he would have showed up.

But now for what upset me the most. It came during the National Cathedral service, when Henry Kissinger praised Ford for having done such a great job of rescuing our South Vietnamese friends when we fled Saigon in 1975. In fact, this was one of Fords and Kissingers great failures. They left behind hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who had been led to rely on us. The reason is that Ford and Kissingerand to an even greater extent, Graham Martin, their ambassador, and Thomas Polgar, their CIA station chief in Saigondid not want to face the fact that South Vietnam was going to fall. It would have been hard enough for us to pull off the rescue if the most careful planning had been done. You had to keep the South Vietnamese forces fighting to provide cover, even as they would have learned we were pulling out some of their countrymen.

Thats why Ive been writing about the similar situation that now confronts us in IraqI know how hard it will be to extricate our friends even if reality is faced. But if youre living in fantasyland, as Bush is with his insane efforts to make us successful, were not going to plan now. The truth is that Bush has gotten into such a mess that disorder is likely to prevail whenever we leave, so we have to plan now to rescue our friends even in the presence of chaos.

When we leave

Im glad to report that Ive been joined in this cause by some important alliesGeorge Packer in the New Republic (and I understand he has another piece on the subject planned for the New York Times Magazine), Senator Edward Kennedy in the Washington Post, Gina Chon and Joel Millman in the Wall Street Journal, and two alumni of this magazine, Robert Worth in the New York Times, and David Ignatius in the Washington Post. Worths piece (which was cowritten by Sabrina Tavernise) was sufficiently impressive that the New York Times made it its lead story on the front page. And Ignatius was devastating in his detailed account of the friends we left behind in South Vietnam, many of them to die at the hands of their communist enemies.

Lighten up

Religions generally tend to be short on humor. Im a Christian, but I wish Jesus had as much of Cervantes and Twain in his soul as they did of him in theirs. All this gets me to Islam, which, I must say, seems to me the most humorless of all religions. Even in a relatively tolerant Muslim nation like Morocco, a magazine editor and a reporter were recently convicted of defamation for printing what the Washington Posts Craig Whitlock describes as heard-on-the-street jokes about religion and politics. Whitlock gives this example: One bit featured prankster angels playing a joke on a companion of the prophet Muhammad by making him think he was destined to spend eternity in hell. As the holy man panics, he is interrupted by the punch line: Smile! Youre on Candid Camera!

Not exactly hilarious, but how could anyone find it offensive?

Who, when, where, and

On January 7th the Discovery Times channel featured a new documentary about the deaths of the Sago miners. Its description of what the miners and their families went through was heartbreaking. But it left me frustrated and even angry at the producers for their failure to look into what could have been done to prevent the disaster, or at least to save the miners after the explosion occurred. At one point we heard that miners frequently pounded on steel beams in the hope that the sound would carry to the surface, and there was a machine in nearby Pittsburgh that would have enabled those on the surface to hear the pounding. But the documentary did not say another word about why the machines didnt get to Sago. Nor was there any explanation for the fact that the emergency oxygen supply only lasted an hour, or for the lack of emergency communication equipment in the mine. This was sob sister journalism, and I hope it will remind reporters not only of their duty to report what went wrong, but also to find out why it went wrong.

Upwardly mobile

In writing my book Five Days in Philadelphia, I had occasion to reflect on the differences between the America of 1940 and of today. One difference that was relatively trivial, but still revealing, was that there were no stadium skyboxes in 1940. This meant that when people attended sports events, they watched together. By contrast, the privileged of today are ensconced in climate-controlled private boxes with other services devoted exclusively to them. But what I didnt know is that tax policy actually encourages skyboxes at college stadiums. According to Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal, the money the wealthy pay to finance skyboxes for themselves at college stadiums is deductible as a charitable contribution. Golden reports that this deduction has sparked a boom in skybox construction.

The inspiration factor

The other differences between now and 1940 continue to fascinate me, not just as historical curiosities, but as evidence of what we could be today because of what we actually were back then. Americans were willing to subject themselves to a military draft so that people from all social and economic classes would share the dangers of military service. People were willing to increase their taxes to pay for the war they feared was comingand to pay for that war, they raised their taxes to a top rate of 90 percent. The dominant Christianity found expression not in the current narrow-mindedness of the right, but in the generosity of Franklin Roosevelts New Deal. Of course, part of the reason for these differences was the people themselvestheir egalitarianism, their generosity, and their willingness to sacrifice for the common good. But part of it was that we had an inspirational leader, which is why Im fascinated by Barack Obama. Whatever his demerits, he is the only candidate who has the ability to inspire.

Embassy slaves

One long-hidden Washington scandal recently emerged in two news
stories. It is that foreign diplomats stationed in Washington, or at least some of them, practice slavery. They bring foreign nationals here as servants, and abuse them in various ways under the protection of diplomatic immunity and an American media that has been incurious for far too long.

But now we have two different items in the Washington Post. One story, by Henri E. Cauvin, describes the wife of a Kuwaiti diplomat, who, angry at an Indian servant, Mani Kumari Sabbithi, for a mistake made in preparing a meal, pulled Sabbithis hair and threatened to cut off her tongue, as the diplomat himself screamed at Sabbithi, pushed her to the floor, and knocked her out.

Post columnist Colbert King describes a Paraguayan woman forced to work seventy-seven hours a week for an official of the Argentinean embassy. King points out that the State Department routinely sides with employers in these cases, on the grounds of diplomatic immunity. King argues that employment contracts could come under the professional and commercial activity exception to diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. I hope Condoleezza Rice is listening to him.

The battle of the beds

Speaking of servants, Im reminded of a New York Times story about hotel maids that Ive been meaning to tell you about. Its author, Steven Greenhouse, describes how hotel maids have become victims of the amenities arms race that has been escalating among the nations fancier hotels. According to Greenhouse, several new studies report that thousands are suffering from arm, shoulder and lower back injuries. The main culprit seems to be what Greenhouse describes as the battle of the beds, in which superthick mattresses, plush duvets and decorative bed skirts have been added, and five pillows rather than the pedestrian three now rest on a king-size bed.

Having to lift 115-pound mattresses is bad enough, but Greenhouse adds that the maids are having to rush because they are assigned the same number of rooms as before while being required to deal with far more per room: more pillows, more sheets, more amenities like bathrobes to hang up and coffeepots to wash.

Bad math

Poor students are shortchanged by federal and state school aid policies, reports Nancy Zuckerbrod of the Associated Press. Guaranteed minimum amounts go to small states, so Vermont gets more money per poor student than do more populous states. And states that spend more money for education generally get more dollars for their poor students than the states with more poor students. Maryland, which has far fewer poor students than Arkansas, gets about 50 percent more federal aid per poor child$1,522, compared to only $1,009 for Arkansas.

Pondering Petraeus

Bushs new man in Iraq, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, displayed at least some aptitude for winning Iraqi hearts and minds when he was in command in Mosul in 2003. Later, however, he was in charge of training the Iraqi army. One has to ask the obvious question: If he had succeeded in that job, would more American troops be needed now?

Whatever keeps the coal coming

As we reported, Ronald Wooten, the new director of West Virginias Office of Miners Health Safety and Training, has a reputation as a company man. He did nothing to dispel that reputation when he recently described the Sago mine as a well-operated coal mine. During 2004 and 2005 it had an injury rate of more than twice the national average, and was cited for more than 260 violations by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, according to the Charleston Gazettes Ken Ward Jr. (Wards take on the Bush administrations mine-safety record.)

Polly-voo jihad?

In our last issue, we complained about the failure of the FBI and CIA to have enlisted enough Arabic speakers after 9/11 made the need obvious. Now comes Lieutenant General Keith D. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, to reveal, according to Washington Times reporters Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, that the NSA has a backlog of untranslated electronic intelligence leads on terrorists that has grown since 2001. Grown is the scary word. We knew that we were way behind in 2001. Now they tell us that were even worse off.

Alexander adds, [T]odays backlog is no longer confined to Arabic and its multiple dialects, but also includes a variety of other less commonly taught languages. He concludes that the translation backlog can prevent the timely distribution of key information to the NSAs customers. This is not comforting news. These customers are the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House.

Deprived in D.C.

With the latest federal pay raises, the average white-collar employee in
the Washington area is now making $86,791 a year. As I pointed out last month, 80 percent of Americans make less than that. And government employees enjoy far more generous health insurance plans, pensions, and vacations than do most Americans. So when they and their congressional alliesHouse Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is the most prominentstart moaning about their pay, they should realize that most of their countrymen are not going to find it easy to identify with them.

The chiefs complaint

Chief Justice John Roberts recently joined the complainers on government pay, in his case judicial salaries. It seems to me that this position is inconsistent with the traditional argument of conservatives like Roberts that employees should be paid according to what they produce. In the case of the Supreme Court, this would require not a pay increase, but a stiff pay cut. In 1986 the Supreme Court heard 175 cases. Last year, it heard just eighty-two and seems on track to hear even fewer this year.

Unimpeachable illogic

Bill Clinton was impeached for fooling around with someone other than
his spouse and lying about it, sins that put him in the company of most American males and a significant portion of American women. George W. Bush has gotten us into a war that has earned us the hatred of hundreds of millions of Muslims and cost us $350 billion so far; the wars total price will almost certainly ultimately exceed a trillion dollars, money that could have been used for humane purposes instead of killing. His war has cost the lives of more than 3,000 American soldiers, wounded more than 23,000, permanently maiming many of them, and killed 26,000 Iraqis in just the last twelve months. Yet he remains in office. Does this make sense?

A friend I met too late

Having recently become an octogenarian, I have to confess that I scan each days obituaries for evidence of those who have managed to live longer. In the process, I occasionally learn about people I realize I would have liked to know. I recognized one the moment I read the headline over his obituary: Edward V. Dorsey, 82; Preached the Word and Played the Ponies. Dorsey, a Marylander, received early education in the sport of kings from his uncle, who was a professional gambler, and there were tracks at Bowie and Pimlico and Havre de Grace, where he could have honed his skills as a youthful bettor. After serving in the Army in World War II, earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart during the Battle of the Bulge, he became a postmaster in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. A devoted Democrat, he drank Heineken beer because it was said to be John F. Kennedys favorite. When he retired from the Post Office he decided to become a preacher. For his theological education, he chose a seminary in Lexington, Kentucky, which just happens to be next to the Keeneland racetrack. As the oldest member of the seminary class by several decades, writes Joe Holley in the Washington Post, the mentoring he gave his fellow seminarians included how to lay smart bets.

In 1987, he became the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Princess Anne, Maryland, where his political proclivities found their way into his sermons but were forgiven even by his conservative parishioners because of his good humor. If only our paths had crossed.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.