Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 20, 2007

Life Among the Fobbits

If you ask the average American what life is like for our troops in Iraq, the answer you get would probably be “a living hell.” It’s hard to conclude otherwise when the news media relentlessly focus on the two or three Americans (out of more than 150,000) who on average lose their lives there on any given day. This has led to the popular perception that our troops are in the line of fire 24/7. For many people, the present conflict probably conjures up lurid images from Vietnam-war films such as Platoon or Apocalypse Now.

There is no doubt that the combat is intense and the danger great for some of our troops: namely, those garrisoned at joint security stations or combat outposts. These installations are small, relatively exposed positions located in high-risk areas where conditions are fairly Spartan. The troops populating them, however, form a distinct (if slightly growing) minority. Life for most of our troops (and most civilian contractors) is considerably more comfortable and less dangerous.

Read More

If you ask the average American what life is like for our troops in Iraq, the answer you get would probably be “a living hell.” It’s hard to conclude otherwise when the news media relentlessly focus on the two or three Americans (out of more than 150,000) who on average lose their lives there on any given day. This has led to the popular perception that our troops are in the line of fire 24/7. For many people, the present conflict probably conjures up lurid images from Vietnam-war films such as Platoon or Apocalypse Now.

There is no doubt that the combat is intense and the danger great for some of our troops: namely, those garrisoned at joint security stations or combat outposts. These installations are small, relatively exposed positions located in high-risk areas where conditions are fairly Spartan. The troops populating them, however, form a distinct (if slightly growing) minority. Life for most of our troops (and most civilian contractors) is considerably more comfortable and less dangerous.

Baltimore Sun correspondent David Wood has produced the best account I’ve read yet of what most Americans in Iraq actually experience. These are the “fobbits,” who seldom—if ever—leave their giant, heavily fortified forward operating bases (FOB’s). As Woods notes from Camp Anaconda, a giant base housing 28,000 Americans north of Baghdad:

For fobbits inside the wire, after all, life is tolerable. The food is abundant, the showers have hot water and usually good water pressure, the $5 million gyms are open 24/7, as are the swimming pools, the post exchange, and the 745-seat movie theater.

There’s a Pizza Hut, a Green Beans coffee franchise, and a Burger King, but a Whopper and fries go for $5.50 and taste suspiciously like the stuff available for free next door at the immense chow hall (four steam-table entrees every meal; burgers, fries, onion rings, and pizza; double 40-foot salad bars and burrito bars; and cakes, pies, and Haagen-Dazs over past the mounds of energy bars, Gatorade, and Pop-Tarts).

“Biggest threat here is gaining weight,” huffed a beefy airman.

Pedestrians wear gym shorts, official T-shirts, and combat helmets, and carry a rifle along with a plastic bag of goodies from the PX, where you can get socks, censor-friendly magazines, and television sets, but no liquor. You can even order a car or a Harley Davidson here; pick it out from a catalog and have it shipped home from international dealers in Europe.

What Woods also captures is the ennui that builds in this slightly surreal environment, with almost no Iraqis and little real danger. He writes:

[T]he monotony slowly builds stress. Days stretch out in a haze of heat and dust. The chow hall menu rotates predictably—if it’s Thursday, it’s chicken-fried steak. . . . Every day pretty much unrolls like the previous one, whether your job is tracking convoys, logging inventory, or preparing the daily intelligence briefing for air crews. Families are close by e-mail or phone and sometimes too close: you can sympathize with a $700 brake job on the family car but you can’t do much about it. And there is the guilt of missing birthdays, graduations, and the unimportant events that make life precious.

And yet to balance against these stresses there is little sense of immediate accomplishment. Troops “outside the wire” can get a temporary high when they’ve killed some insurgents or made a town safer. (They can also get a temporary or not-so-temporary low if a buddy is killed or maimed.) For the fobbits, there is no such satisfaction. Which may be why I’ve found that morale is often higher among front-line units than it is among those who are objectively much better off—at least by civilian standards.

Read Less

The Fall of Antioch

Why did Antioch College fail? The announcement that the celebrated college in Yellow Springs, Ohio would be closing its doors in July 2008 sent a collective shudder through the academic establishment. Corporations go bankrupt, automobile manufacturers and commercial airlines go bankrupt, but not prominent colleges—and certainly not one founded by Horace Mann (1796-1859), the “Father of American Education.” In all the speculation about what went wrong at Antioch runs a distinct current of apprehension: it can’t happen again—or can it?

A consensus has already emerged that Antioch was the victim of its own progressive agenda. And indeed, from its inception in 1852, Antioch has been assertively progressive, accepting female students and—after 1863—black ones as well. During the 1920’s it established an innovative cooperative education program, giving students practical work experience. Later it was one of the first schools to abolish traditional letter grades in favor of “narrative evaluations.” It was this varied and intense liberal-arts education that produced such alumni as Coretta Scott King, Rod Serling, and Stephen Jay Gould.

Read More

Why did Antioch College fail? The announcement that the celebrated college in Yellow Springs, Ohio would be closing its doors in July 2008 sent a collective shudder through the academic establishment. Corporations go bankrupt, automobile manufacturers and commercial airlines go bankrupt, but not prominent colleges—and certainly not one founded by Horace Mann (1796-1859), the “Father of American Education.” In all the speculation about what went wrong at Antioch runs a distinct current of apprehension: it can’t happen again—or can it?

A consensus has already emerged that Antioch was the victim of its own progressive agenda. And indeed, from its inception in 1852, Antioch has been assertively progressive, accepting female students and—after 1863—black ones as well. During the 1920’s it established an innovative cooperative education program, giving students practical work experience. Later it was one of the first schools to abolish traditional letter grades in favor of “narrative evaluations.” It was this varied and intense liberal-arts education that produced such alumni as Coretta Scott King, Rod Serling, and Stephen Jay Gould.

Over the past decade, however, Antioch’s progressive politics became something of a national laughingstock. Accounts of its closing invariably cite its notorious rules for sexual conduct, which mandated verbal consent at each stage of escalating intimacy (helpfully explaining that “A person can not give consent while sleeping”). Less amusing was the commencement speaker chosen by Antioch’s class of 2000, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death for murdering a Philadelphia policeman and who delivered his commencement address from his cell on death row. National outrage over this event clearly contributed to plummeting enrollments. Only 125 students were accepted this year out of an expected class of 309. These declining numbers, and its relatively small endowment of $36 million, spelled the end of Antioch.

Of course, Antioch is hardly the only school to launch a sexual inquisition or to open its doors to embarrassing speakers: liberal-arts colleges such as Oberlin and Swarthmore similarly pride themselves on their progressive politics and activism. Nor is it the only school to teeter along on a woefully inadequate endowment (one thinks of perennially troubled Bennington). But somewhere along the line Antioch crossed a threshold, its radical aura drawing an ever more radical student body, which radicalized it still further, until the process became a death spiral.

A poignant op-ed in the New York Times by Michael Goldfarb, a student at Antioch from 1968 to 1971, illuminates the beginning of that process. “[O]ut there in the middle of the cornfields,” Goldfarb writes, “the only ‘bourgeois’ thing to fight was Antioch College itself,” and a devastating student strike in the early 1970′s “trashed the campus.” A year later, enrollments had fallen by half. Those who remained became increasingly conformist and homogeneous:

In two decades students went from being practitioners of free love to prisoners of gender. Antioch became like one of those Essene communities in the Judean desert in the first century after Christ that, convinced of their own purity, died out while waiting for a golden age that never came.

Perhaps that Essene sense of purity was there from the beginning. In a perceptive essay, Peter Wood of the Manhattan Institute calls attention to Horace Mann’s own verdict on the good inhabitants of Yellow Springs: “souls so small that a million sprinkled on a diamond would not make it dusty.”

Read Less

How To Counter the Taiwan Nuclear Menace

One of the problems commonly cited about gun control is that it keeps firearms out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, leaving the field to criminals, who by definition do not care about following the rules.

Does a similar dynamic exist in the nuclear realm? That certainly seems to be the case in Asia, where the U.S. has worked hard to halt the spread of these fearsome weapons.

Read More

One of the problems commonly cited about gun control is that it keeps firearms out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, leaving the field to criminals, who by definition do not care about following the rules.

Does a similar dynamic exist in the nuclear realm? That certainly seems to be the case in Asia, where the U.S. has worked hard to halt the spread of these fearsome weapons.

North Korea tested its first bomb last October. It may have been a partial dud; the evidence is unclear. Whatever the case, the U.S. has repeatedly stated that a nuclear-armed North Korea would be intolerable. But tolerating it we are. Pyongyang is thought to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and may be building more.

Communist China, not nearly as hostile as North Korea, but a potential adversary nonetheless, has a much larger arsenal. Some of its smaller devices appear to be copies of ours, the warhead designs probably obtained by espionage. At this point, we are doing nothing about Chinese nuclear weapons; we have no choice but to acquiese. But back in the early 1960’s when was China was in the throes of revolutionary chaos, the problem was worrisome enough for both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to contemplate a preemptive first strike to take out the fledgling Chinese nuclear program.

Pakistan is not now an adversary, but given its political instability, it is a lit fuse on a stick of dynamite. This basketcase of a country already has an arsenal of perhaps 100 weapons. If a nuclear device is detonated in anger in the next decade, or passed on to a terrorist band, my bet is that it will be one of these.

Then there is our friend Taiwan, a threat to no one, a stable and law-abiding country, threatened by its giant Communist neighbor, which has been engaged in an intense military build-up across the Taiwan straits. In the 1970’s, feeling increasingly isolated and vulnerable in light of Richard Nixon’s opening to Communist China followed by Jimmy Carter’s abrupt severing of diplomatic relations, the Taiwanese government launched a covert nuclear-weapons development program.

Fascinating newly declassified documents, some of them top-secret and just put on-line by the National Security Archive, a private research group, show that the U.S., particularly under Carter, came down hard, leading Taiwan’s premier to complain that Washington was treating Taiwan “in a fashion which few other countries would tolerate.”

Whether the U.S. pushed too hard can be debated, but the pressure did achieve the desired result. Taiwan today does not have nuclear weapons.

Should we applaud? If so, only with one hand. Most of the criminals in this particular neighborhood now have the guns while one of its upstanding citizens was successfully disarmed.

Read Less

No Pomp, Little Circumstance

One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.

Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.

But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”

Read More

One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.

Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.

But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”

These complexities will doubtless be explored at the upcoming Bard Music Festival, “Elgar and His World,” scheduled for a series of weekends this August and October at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The Bard festival features an uneven bunch of musicians, but fortunately it will include such accomplished chamber groups as the Daedalus Quartet and Claremont Trio, as well as the sublime solo violinist Jennifer Koh. Meanwhile, we may relish the many superb Elgar performances on CD, keeping in mind that a poorly performed CD—and there are many such of Elgar—can make any composer seem hard to listen to.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which the composer described as “just an old man’s darling,” was recorded with staunch restraint, flowing grace, and eloquent emotion by the cellists Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier, both conducted by Adrian Boult for EMI Classics. Elgar’s orchestral work Enigma Variations communicates a rare personal tenderness—the variations were inspired by some of the composer’s friends—along with a sense of the passionate heights and depths of human relationships.

Enigma requires a conductor of unusual psychological nuance and direct frankness, such as Elgar himself (although his recordings were hampered by primitive sound equipment) or his friend Adrian Boult. There is also a choice of 1950’s recordings by the great French maestro Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra in the studio; a live radio broadcast; and a surprisingly idiomatic outing with the Orchestre National de France on Music & Arts. And LSO Live recently released one of the best Enigmas ever, led by England’s current dean of conductors, Colin Davis.

Elgar also triumphed in larger-scale works like Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio set to words by Cardinal Newman about a man accepting his own mortality and the prospect of heaven. As conducted on CD by the composer Benjamin Britten with the tenor Peter Pears in the title role, or on an EMI recording with Janet Baker as the angel who guides Gerontius in his last moments of life, it is a work of brooding majesty. Achievements of this rank certainly ensure Elgar’s artistic immortality—whatever Her Majesty’s Exchequer might think.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.