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Posts For: March 13, 2007

The View from Parris Island

I just spent several days on a tour arranged by the Marine Corps Association, speaking to various groups of Marines at Parris Island, South Carolina, their East Coast recruitment depot, and at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, their main East Coast operating base. It was inspiring and educational in equal measure.

The educational part came from a meeting with the Marines’ newly formed Foreign Military Training Unit, part of the recently established Marine Special Operations Command. The Marines are, in essence, emulating the Army Special Forces by creating groups of eleven Marines (akin to the Green Beret A-Teams) who receive language and educational training and then journey to various parts of the world to train friendly military forces. The goal is to keep sending the same groups of Marines back to one country or region so that they can establish the personal relationships which are all important in this type of work. This initiative doesn’t get the headlines that the Marines receive for their heroic fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province, but, over the long term, it could make just as important a contribution to winning the struggle against radical Islam.

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I just spent several days on a tour arranged by the Marine Corps Association, speaking to various groups of Marines at Parris Island, South Carolina, their East Coast recruitment depot, and at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, their main East Coast operating base. It was inspiring and educational in equal measure.

The educational part came from a meeting with the Marines’ newly formed Foreign Military Training Unit, part of the recently established Marine Special Operations Command. The Marines are, in essence, emulating the Army Special Forces by creating groups of eleven Marines (akin to the Green Beret A-Teams) who receive language and educational training and then journey to various parts of the world to train friendly military forces. The goal is to keep sending the same groups of Marines back to one country or region so that they can establish the personal relationships which are all important in this type of work. This initiative doesn’t get the headlines that the Marines receive for their heroic fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province, but, over the long term, it could make just as important a contribution to winning the struggle against radical Islam.

The inspirational part of my trip came simply from having the opportunity to chat with so many outstanding warriors, current and retired. I never get tired of spending time with men and women in uniform, and Marines are, on average, some of the best. They are so dedicated, so selfless, so gallant—and yet they wear their accomplishments and sacrifices so lightly, in keeping with a military code that is supposed to give credit to the team, not the individual. Drill instructors at Parris Island work 80 even 100 hours a week for less than $20,000 a year. (At least their housing isn’t as bad as it used to be. The Corps has brought in a private developer to create nice, tract-style homes on the base.) Other Marines are in Iraq and Afghanistan risking life and limb for equally meager salaries.

And, however much civilian society may grow disaffected with the war in Iraq, the Marines stand ready to fight on—and on and on. I was chatting with one Marine captain, who has done a tour there (many other Marines have two, three, even four tours under their belts), and he told me that he and his peers have no desire to leave Iraq. Morale remains high, he said—a fact borne out by high reenlistment rates.

Marine recruiting is also running strong, even though all who sign up know that they will be heading “downrange” before long. This captain explained that the motivation for Marines isn’t so much that they support this particular war, although most do. It’s that a war is going on, and they feel the call to serve the nation. They don’t have to inquire too closely into the rights or wrongs of the conflict; they have been called upon to fight, and that’s all they need to know. The prospect of being killed or maimed isn’t a big deterrent. They know the risks they’re running, and many Marines I spoke to expressed amazement and disgust with the casualty-preoccupation of civilian society.

I admit to a bit of disenchantment when I traveled through Charlotte airport on my way home. Here I overheard the usual conversations of business travelers talking about market share and stock options and product rollouts. Somehow it seemed unworthy, even sordid, compared to the lives of duty, honor, country that the Marines lead.

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Why Chirac Won’t Need a Pardon

I see that commentators I respect, such as Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol, are calling for President Bush to pardon Scooter Libby. They make a very persuasive case, but I would be surprised if a presidential pardon is forthcoming—not, at any rate, until the legal process has run its full course. In an Anglo-Saxon democracy under the rule of law, it is always potentially damaging for a head of state to grant pardons, especially to friends, associates, or those who have served under him. Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.

In practice, this means that pardons are high-risk politics. The pardoning of Richard Nixon, however justifiable, severely damaged Gerald Ford politically. If Tony Blair were to be indicted for the “cash for honors” affair, he would have to resign; if he were convicted, he could expect no pardon. Even if the Queen were minded to grant him one, it would be political suicide for Blair’s successor to ask her for it.

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I see that commentators I respect, such as Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol, are calling for President Bush to pardon Scooter Libby. They make a very persuasive case, but I would be surprised if a presidential pardon is forthcoming—not, at any rate, until the legal process has run its full course. In an Anglo-Saxon democracy under the rule of law, it is always potentially damaging for a head of state to grant pardons, especially to friends, associates, or those who have served under him. Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.

In practice, this means that pardons are high-risk politics. The pardoning of Richard Nixon, however justifiable, severely damaged Gerald Ford politically. If Tony Blair were to be indicted for the “cash for honors” affair, he would have to resign; if he were convicted, he could expect no pardon. Even if the Queen were minded to grant him one, it would be political suicide for Blair’s successor to ask her for it.

In France, however, they do things differently. Compare the Libby case to that of Jacques Chirac. While in office, Mr. Chirac enjoys full presidential immunity. By announcing on Sunday that he would not seek re-election for a third term, the French president has, in theory, laid himself open to prosecution after he steps down in May. There may then be a brief window of opportunity during which the authorities could bring a case against the former president for any one of the dozens of corruption scandals that have tarnished his career ever since he was mayor of Paris in the 1980′s and 1990′s.

Chirac’s former prime minister, Alain Juppé, is only the most senior of several aides to have been convicted on serious charges. Last month Michel Roussin, Chirac’s chief of staff while he was mayor, had his appeal against a four-year suspended prison sentence quashed. Roussin, whom Chirac later promoted to minister, was convicted of running a six-year scam whereby politicians received kickbacks from public-school service contracts. The corruption that flourished under Chirac’s nose was on a huge scale, ranging from vote-rigging to putting hundreds of party cronies on the public payroll. There is plenty of evidence that Chirac enriched himself and his family, too, though he has always insisted that he was entitled to help himself to various slush funds.

None of these city-hall scandals, despite being public knowledge throughout his presidency, has deterred Chirac from provoking fresh accusations, notably over his connections with the regime of Saddam Hussein. And only last year he was implicated in the Clearstream affair, an attempt to smear his rival Nicolas Sarkozy.

It is true, however, that Mr. Chirac’s corruption scandals pale in comparison to those of his two immediate predecessors. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing notoriously accepted gifts of diamonds from the Central African Republic’s military dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa, while François Mitterrand not only protected his cronies, like Maurice Papon, from their Vichy pasts, but was implicated in several murky deaths, including the dubious suicide of François de Grossouvre. Neither Giscard nor Mitterrand was ever brought to account.

Even so, it is interesting that Jacques Chirac feels confident that no charges against him will be brought once he leaves office. Could it have something to do with the fact that he recently appointed Laurent Le Mesle, his personal legal adviser, to the post of chief prosecutor in Paris? Presumably the president expects that Le Mesle can be relied upon to protect his patron. All the chief prosecutor has to do is to sit tight for one month after Mr. Chirac leaves the Elysée Palace in May. If this impending bill, aimed at writing into law the de facto immunity sitting French presidents enjoy, passes, any charges relating to crimes committed while Chirac was president would have to be brought against him by June, after which he will be immune from prosecution. No pardon, no embarrassment. The French political elite certainly knows how to look after its own. L’état, c’est moi—et la justice aussi.

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Bookshelf

• Robert Graves, Good-Bye To All That (1929), and William Manchester, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War (1979). These are two of the best war memoirs of the 20th century, the first an account of World War I on the western front, the second an account of World War II in the Pacific. Graves’s book is more celebrated, perhaps because it’s been around longer, but I found Manchester’s volume to be better crafted.

The stories they tell are in many respects similar: sensitive, bookish upper-middle-class boys, one English, the other a New Englander, who grow up infused with patriotic ideals and a desire for military glory, then go off to war, get wounded, and return home disillusioned. The anger at the end of that journey has become a standard trope of World War I literature, but it is no less true of Manchester, who watched so many of his buddies turned to pulp by Japanese fire on Okinawa, the greatest bloodletting of the Pacific campaign.

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• Robert Graves, Good-Bye To All That (1929), and William Manchester, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War (1979). These are two of the best war memoirs of the 20th century, the first an account of World War I on the western front, the second an account of World War II in the Pacific. Graves’s book is more celebrated, perhaps because it’s been around longer, but I found Manchester’s volume to be better crafted.

The stories they tell are in many respects similar: sensitive, bookish upper-middle-class boys, one English, the other a New Englander, who grow up infused with patriotic ideals and a desire for military glory, then go off to war, get wounded, and return home disillusioned. The anger at the end of that journey has become a standard trope of World War I literature, but it is no less true of Manchester, who watched so many of his buddies turned to pulp by Japanese fire on Okinawa, the greatest bloodletting of the Pacific campaign.

Graves’s book has, I think, less artistic merit. It reads as if it were hastily written—as it was. (He dashed it off in eleven weeks.) The early parts about his upbringing and experiences as a junior officer in France are particularly strong. He provides a vivid evocation of trench warfare. But the book doesn’t stop when he is wounded at the Somme and sent home. The last third recounts his experiences convalescing, getting married, and trying to find work in post-war England. This section feels padded and less vibrant. His decision to divorce his wife and leave England comes as a surprise at the very end and is not well explained.

Manchester waited much later to write about his wartime service—more than three decades—and his book benefits from his greater maturity and hindsight. Goodbye, Darkness is framed around a trip he took in the late 1970′s back to the battlefields of the Pacific, seeking to explore memories that he had long repressed. The traveler’s account is interspersed with historical flashbacks—some of them his own experiences, others the experiences of other Marines. Manchester is absolutely unsparing in his account of himself. Readers may find that they learn more than they want to about his amorous fumblings and bathroom habits, but it gives his account the feel of unsanitized reality.

• Gordon Forbes, A Handful of Summers (1978). On a lighter note, this is a delightful memoir by a South African tennis player who was among the best in the world in the 1950′s but could not make a living at the game because the major tournaments (Wimbledon and the French, American, and Australian championships) were only open to “amateurs.” He ultimately quit the courts to sell lighting fixtures. Not a fate likely to befall Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake, or any other top player today.

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Your Organs for Your Liberty?

South Carolina state legislators are considering a bill that would allow prisoners in the state to have their sentences reduced in return for organ donations. Short of outright physical coercion, it is hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the principle of altruism and free choice behind the nation’s organ donation system.

The federal law governing organ donation seeks to prevent exactly this kind of pressure on potential donors. It prohibits any “valuable consideration” in return for organs, and advocates of the new South Carolina bill are trying to figure out how to word their legislation in a way that doesn’t violate that provision.

What they have in mind is profoundly unethical. Offering a reward for organs to a vulnerable population under the control of the state is an appalling violation of the dignity of these prisoners. Even proponents of voluntary markets in organs must see that this extension of their idea makes a mockery of the principle of uncoerced choice.

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South Carolina state legislators are considering a bill that would allow prisoners in the state to have their sentences reduced in return for organ donations. Short of outright physical coercion, it is hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the principle of altruism and free choice behind the nation’s organ donation system.

The federal law governing organ donation seeks to prevent exactly this kind of pressure on potential donors. It prohibits any “valuable consideration” in return for organs, and advocates of the new South Carolina bill are trying to figure out how to word their legislation in a way that doesn’t violate that provision.

What they have in mind is profoundly unethical. Offering a reward for organs to a vulnerable population under the control of the state is an appalling violation of the dignity of these prisoners. Even proponents of voluntary markets in organs must see that this extension of their idea makes a mockery of the principle of uncoerced choice.

And yet none of the legislators interviewed by the Associated Press seem to see a problem. The only thing holding them back is concern about violating federal law. One Republican state senator told the AP, “We want to make this work, we really do, but I want to make sure no one goes to jail for good intentions.”

The story offers a revealing glimpse into the attitudes that underlie a lot of our public-policy debates about medical research and medical practice. The fact that potential therapies are involved—that people could be healed—turns the argument into an emergency situation, where the rules of triage govern rather than the rules of sensible and ethical public policy. This is sometimes appropriate, but too often it causes a total loss of perspective and limits. The bill’s chief sponsor, Democratic state senator Ralph Anderson said, “I would like to see us get enough donors that people are no longer dying.”

This is an unusually terse and blunt expression of the utopianism behind our highest hopes for modern science, and of the dark side of letting that utopianism overtake our good sense. The rules of ethical policy making can be suspended, it seems, until people are no longer dying. But of course the tragic fact of human life is that people will always be dying. And for too many people in too many instances in our politics that seems to mean that when it comes to biomedical research and practice, the rules of ethics should therefore always be suspended, so that in effect there are no rules at all. This is no way to march into the age of biotechnology.

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