Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Reading

Last Inspection — James Dao of the New York Times writes on preparing soldiers for the final journey.

Dover Air Force Base 05-26-13The soldier bent to his work, careful as a diamond cutter. He carried no weapon or rucksack, just a small plastic ruler, which he used to align a name plate, just so, atop the breast pocket of an Army dress blue jacket, size 39R.

“Blanchard,” the plate read.

Capt. Aaron R. Blanchard, a 32-year-old Army pilot, had been in Afghanistan for only a few days when an enemy rocket killed him and another soldier last month as they dashed toward their helicopter. Now he was heading home.

But before he left the mortuary here, he would need to be properly dressed. And so Staff Sgt. Miguel Deynes labored meticulously, almost lovingly, over every crease and fold, every ribbon and badge, of the dress uniform that would clothe Captain Blanchard in his final resting place.

“It’s more than an honor,” Sergeant Deynes said. “It’s a blessing to dress that soldier for the last time.”

About 6,700 American service members have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and almost every one of their remains have come through the Dover Port Mortuary. Yet only since 2009 have journalists been allowed to photograph coffins returning from the war zones, the most solemn of rites at this air base. The intimate details of the process have been kept from public view.

But recently the Air Force, which oversees the mortuary, allowed a reporter and a photographer to observe the assembling of dress uniforms for those who have died. A small slice of the process, to be sure, but enough to appreciate the careful ritual that attends the war dead of the United States military.

And enough to glimpse the arc of two long wars.

Housed in a partly unheated building before the wars began, the mortuary moved into a new 72,000-square-foot building in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq. Then, as the wars expanded, so did the mortuary staff: from 7 workers in 2001 to more than 60 today.

War also brought, for a time, unrelenting work. During the peak of fighting in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, 10 to 20 bodies arrived here each day, and embalmers often worked all night to get remains home on time.

“I have deployed to Afghanistan,” said Col. John M. Devillier, the commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. “But I’ve seen more war here.”

Furthering the Lie — Michelangelo Signorile on the Boy Scouts of America’s policy change: it empowers gay-bashing.

The ugliest lie about gay men is that we are likely to be predators and pedophiles, preying upon children. This twisted belief, backed by no facts but exploiting deep-seated myths and powerful fears about homosexuality, is still firmly embedded in our culture, as are lies about blacks, Jews and other groups demonized within our culture. It’s the lie that has kept many gay men from even interacting with teens and young children, fearful of being in the position of being wrongly accused of making sexual advances. It’s a lie that often inhibits organizing, depriving us of the intergenerational mentoring and self-esteem-building that is so important for any minority group that is discriminated against.

And it’s a lie that empowers bashers and draws blood on our streets.

The predator lie tells young boys, gay and straight, to be suspect and fearful of adult gay men. And the BSA, adopting a new policy allowing gay scouts but not gay scoutmasters, is now furthering the lie in more powerful way. The message from the BSA to a scout who might be thinking he is gay is that he better hope he isn’t because he will grow up to be a predator. The Boy Scouts is telling gay boys that they won’t be able to be trusted around children when they become adults and that they’ll be booted from the organization. Perhaps worse than that, the BSA is telling straight scouts that the gay scout who comes out to them, or whom they might learn about, will grow up to be a predator. And that is exactly the kind of vicious demagoguery that feeds discrimination and violence.

Many well-meaning people worked hard to get this change, and sometimes, in the thick of battle, anything that makes your opponents angry — and this change is surely not making the anti-gay, evangelical right happy — seems like a big win. Most of them see the change as falling far short but as a pragmatic, incremental step that they hope will lead to end of the of the entire ban soon. And true, scouts who learn they are gay and state that publicly, or who are outed by others, now may not experience being ejected by the BSA (though the details of all this still seem quite murky).

But continuing to ban lesbian den mothers and gay scoutmasters is sending a horrible message to American youth, including the scouts, gay and straight.

Don’t Give In — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on surrendering to terrorism.

I have not seen the video.

Not saying I won’t, but for now, I’ve chosen not to. To rush online and seek out cell phone footage of two fanatics with machetes who butchered a British soldier in London Wednesday, to watch them standing there, hands painted red with his blood, speaking for the cameras, would feel like an act of complicity, like giving them what they want, like being a puppet yanked by its strings.

Sometimes, especially in the heat of visceral revulsion, we forget an essential truth about terrorism. Namely, that the people who do these things are the opposite of powerful. Non-state sponsored terror is a tactic chosen almost exclusively by the impotent.

These people have no inherent power. They command no armies, they boss no economies, their collective arsenals are puny by nation-state standards. No, what they have is a willingness to be random, ruthless and indiscriminate in their killing.

But they represent no existential danger. The United States once tore itself in half and survived the wound. Could it really be destroyed by men using airliners as guided missiles? Britain was once bombed senseless for eight months straight and lived to tell the tale. Could it really be broken by two maniacs with machetes?

Of course not.

No, terrorism’s threat lies not in its power, but in its effect, its ability to make us appalled, frightened, irrational, and, most of all, convinced that we are next, and nowhere is safe. Here, I’m thinking of the lady who told me, after 9/11, that she would never enter a skyscraper again. As if, because of this atrocity, every tall building in America — and how many thousands of those do we have? — was suddenly suspect. And I’m thinking of my late Aunt Ruth who, at the height of the anthrax scare, required my uncle to open the mail on the front lawn, after which she received it wearing latex gloves.

I am also thinking of the country itself, which, in response to the 9/11 attacks, launched two wars — one more than necessary — at a ruinous cost in lives, treasure and credibility that will haunt us for years.

Doonesbury — Expensive graduation.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. The Boy Scouts is telling gay boys that they won’t be able to be trusted around children when they become adults and that they’ll be booted from the organization. Perhaps worse than that, the BSA is telling straight scouts that the gay scout who comes out to them, or whom they might learn about, will grow up to be a predator.

    Isn’t this about what I said? Though being Signorile, he’s a bit more -um, blunt.

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