Sunday, July 27, 2014
Jeanne Guillemin in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
Last week, six vials of smallpox virus were discovered in a disused closet at the National Institutes of Health, where they had lain, forgotten and misplaced, for over 30 years. Some of them were found to contain live specimens, meaning that this dangerous virus—once considered to have been eradicated from the face of the planet—had the capacity to infect and spread.
At nearly the same time, on July 16, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden, admitted to a Congressional committee that he was advised of a somewhat similar blunder at the CDC, more than two months after its discovery. (Members of the CDC had accidentally contaminated an innocuous strain of avian influenza with the dangerous H5N1 strain and shipped this unknown hazard to a less secure laboratory.) And not long before, dozens of CDC lab employees had been exposed to virulent anthrax bacteria.
These incidents raise doubts about government vigilance, with the case of the misplaced smallpox vials being arguably the most shocking, because the 1979 global eradication of smallpox is rightly celebrated as one of the most important public health achievements in history.
Once you know what plankton can do, you’ll understand why fertilising the ocean with iron is not such a crazy idea
David Biello in Aeon:
Call me Victor,’ says the mustachioed scientist as he picks me up from the airport on a brisk, fall afternoon in Germany. Victor Smetacek is an esteemed marine biologist, but he’s decided to spend his golden years on an ambitious new pursuit. He has devised a plan to alter the mix of gases in Earth’s atmosphere, in order to ward off climate change. He is, in other words, an aspiring geoengineer.
I came to the ancient city of Bremen to ask Smetacek about an extraordinary experiment he performed more than half the world away, in a forbidding sea seldom visited by humans. This sea surrounds the vast, white continent of Antarctica with a chilly current, locking it in a deep freeze. This encircling moat reaches from the surface waters to the ocean bottom, spanning thousands of kilometres. It is known as the Southern Ocean and it is famously dangerous on account of icebergs that hide in the gloom that hovers above its surface. The churn of its swells sometimes serves up freak waves that tower so high they can flip ships over in a single go. It is in this violent, lashing place that Smetacek hopes to transform Earth’s atmosphere.
Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:
One of the most profound and mysterious principles in all of physics is the Born Rule, named after Max Born. In quantum mechanics, particles don’t have classical properties like “position” or “momentum”; rather, there is a wave function that assigns a (complex) number, called the “amplitude,” to each possible measurement outcome. The Born Rule is then very simple: it says that the probability of obtaining any possible measurement outcome is equal to the square of the corresponding amplitude. (The wave function is just the set of all the amplitudes.)
The Born Rule is certainly correct, as far as all of our experimental efforts have been able to discern. But why? Born himself kind of stumbled onto his Rule.
Patrick Cockburn in The Independent:
Israeli spokesmen have their work cut out explaining how they have killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians, compared with just three civilians killed in Israel by Hamas rocket and mortar fire. But on television and radio and in newspapers, Israeli government spokesmen such as Mark Regev appear slicker and less aggressive than their predecessors, who were often visibly indifferent to how many Palestinians were killed.
There is a reason for this enhancement of the PR skills of Israeli spokesmen. Going by what they say, the playbook they are using is a professional, well-researched and confidential study on how to influence the media and public opinion in America and Europe. Written by the expert Republican pollster and political strategist Dr Frank Luntz, the study was commissioned five years ago by a group called The Israel Project, with offices in the US and Israel, for use by those "who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel".
Every one of the 112 pages in the booklet is marked "not for distribution or publication" and it is easy to see why.
Jon Holbrook in Spiked:
Although the word ‘rights’ appears in ‘natural rights’ and ‘human rights’, the two concepts are profoundly different. One seeks to restrict the power of government and the other seeks to expand it. Whereas natural rights seek freedom from the state, human rights seek the state’s protection and assistance. More importantly, and this is the point rarely appreciated by today’s human-rights industry, whereas natural rights made democracy possible, the human-rights discourse is securing democracy’s emasculation. Democracy can only thrive if three conditions are satisfied: (a) man is treated as rational, (b) the state is restrained and (c) politics is freed of legal constraints. Whereas the natural-rights advocate champions each condition, the human-rights advocate assumes the first condition is impossible and the next two are undesirable.
Tom Paine, an English radical who participated in the American Revolution, wrote Rights of Man in defence of the French Revolution of 1789. His celebration of natural rights was premised on his belief in human rationality. He noted that ignorance, once dispelled, could not be re-established – ‘[it] is only the absence of knowledge’ that could keep a man ignorant. He observed that while man ‘may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant’. Truth, said Paine, is so irresistible ‘that all it asks – and all it wants – is the liberty of appearing’. Paine’s recognition of man’s rationality led to his celebration of natural rights. For if truth needed only to be revealed in order to be supported, then man needed freedom to seek it, discuss it, promote it and act on it. Left to his own devices, man would find truth and cooperate with his fellow citizens to create a mutually beneficial society. With a human-rights approach, however, man is seen as less than rational. From this perspective, if man is left to his own devices, then all sorts of negative consequences follow: minorities tend to be oppressed by majorities; the weak tend to fall prey to the powerful; the vulnerable tend to suffer at the hands of the strong; and the poor tend to be exploited by the rich.
Kevin Telfer in The Telegraph:
Pakistani cricket: what a subject. What players – and what characters: the regal Imran, the street-fighter Javed, the mesmerising Qadir. Controversy and drama seems to surround the Pakistani Test team wherever and whenever it plays, be it in terms of spot-fixing, umpires, ball-tampering, on-field confrontations, sporting brilliance or terrorism.
Of all the world’s cricket teams, they are the least antiseptic and the most mercurial. Such, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But this encyclopedic work by Peter Oborne avoids these tabloid stereotypes – both in terms of the country’s most famous individuals who are the stuff of cricketing legend – as well as Pakistani cricket in general. It makes for a rich, fascinating and sometimes surprising read. Since its birth in 1947, the country of Pakistan has had an exceptionally turbulent and violent history. This forms the backdrop to Oborne’s carefully researched and meticulously constructed narrative, starting with the bloodshed of partition, all the way through to a modern Pakistan that is considered so unsafe following the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and umpires in Lahore in 2009 that the national side must play its matches in exile.
No More Clichés
That like a daisy opens its petals to the sun
So do you
Open your face to me as I turn the page.
Any man would be under your spell,
Oh, beauty of a magazine.
How many poems have been written to you?
How many Dantes have written to you, Beatrice?
To your obsessive illusion
To you manufacture fantasy.
But today I won't make one more Cliché
And write this poem to you.
No, no more clichés.
This poem is dedicated to those women
Whose beauty is in their charm,
In their intelligence,
In their character,
Not on their fabricated looks.
This poem is to you women,
That like a Shahrazade wake up
Everyday with a new story to tell,
A story that sings for change
That hopes for battles:
Battles for the love of the united flesh
Battles for passions aroused by a new day
Battle for the neglected rights
Or just battles to survive one more night.
Yes, to you women in a world of pain
To you, bright star in this ever-spending universe
To you, fighter of a thousand-and-one fights
To you, friend of my heart.
From now on, my head won't look down to a magazine
Rather, it will contemplate the night
And its bright stars,
And so, no more clichés.
by Octavio Paz
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Congratulations, Sean! Jason Socrates Bardi at the American Institute of Physics website:
The American Institute of Physics (AIP) today announced that Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology, is the winner of the 2014 Andrew Gemant Award, an annual prize recognizing significant contributions to the cultural, artistic or humanistic dimension of physics.
In recognizing Carroll, the AIP prize committee cited him “for extraordinary public outreach on particle physics and cosmology, as an educator, author, public lecturer, and consultant for TV and radio programs, and for his pioneering work communicating with a variety of international audiences using social networking.”
“Few people can make complicated topics like the nature of space and time as accessible as Sean Carroll does,” said Catherine O'Riordan, AIP vice president of Physics Resources. “He doesn't just inspire the public’s scientific imagination -- he provides the tools for his readers and viewers to answer some of life’s biggest, most fundamental questions themselves.”
Carroll (on Twitter: @seanmcarroll) followed his own curiosity to a career in theoretical physics and cosmology, focusing especially on the origin and constituents of the universe. He received his Ph.D. in 1993 from Harvard University, and has worked at MIT, the Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Chicago. He has made significant contributions to models of interactions between dark matter, dark energy, and ordinary matter; alternative theories of gravity; violations of fundamental symmetries; and the theory of time.
Mohammed Hanif at the BBC:
The life of a liberal journalist in Pakistan is not an easy one. Write about someone fighting a blasphemy case, or someone whose faith is considered heresy, and you may very soon find yourself in deep trouble.
Shoaib Adil, a 49-year-old magazine editor and publisher in Lahore, has many well-wishers and they all want him to disappear from public life or, even better, leave the country.
Since blasphemy charges were filed against him last month, the police have told him that he can't return home, he can't even be seen in the city where he grew up and worked all his life. It wouldn't be safe.
As a journalist, Adil has been a vocal critic of religious militarism. But the threat to his life doesn't come from the Taliban.
He is the victim of an everyday witch hunt by Pakistan's powerful religious groups - the kind of witch hunt that's so common and yet so scary that it never makes headlines.
For the past 14 years, Adil has been editing and publishing a monthly current affairs magazine, a rare liberal voice in Pakistan's Urdu media. Back issues of Nia Zamana read like a catalogue of human rights abuses.
The June issue's cover story, for example, reports on the murder of a human rights lawyer, Rashid Rehman in the city of Multan in central Pakistan. Rehman, defending a literature professor accused of blasphemy, was told in the court by the prosecuting lawyers that if he didn't drop the case he would not live to see the next hearing.
Sure enough, Rehman was gunned down in his office before the next hearing.
William Saletan in Slate:
After two weeks of protests and denunciations, it’s time to acknowledge that outrage won’t end the war in Gaza. The most plausible way to stop this cycle of violence is through internationally supervised demilitarization. Amid so much death and destruction that may seem utterly hopeless. But in fact, many of the tools we need are already in place. Here’s an analysis of the problem and how to fix it.
1. Gazans have no government to protect them. Every day, more civilians die in Gaza. Israel, the country that’s killing them, has agreed to cease-fire proposals. But Hamas, which controls Gaza (though many of its political leaders don’t even live there), rejects these proposals and continues to fire rockets into Israel. You can argue that the rockets justify Israel’s attacks or that they serve merely as a pretext. Either way, they get more Gazans killed.
The only way to make sense of Hamas’ behavior is to recognize that its goal is not to stop the killing but to exploit it. That explains why Hamas encouraged Gazans to stand atop targeted buildings and ordered them to stay in areas where Israel had issued pre-invasion evacuation warnings. It also explains why Hamas insists that Israel grant concessions in exchange for a cease-fire. Hamas thinks a cease-fire is a favor to Israel. Given the gross imbalance in casualties, that’s a pretty clear statement that Hamas thinks Gazan deaths should bother Israel more than they bother Hamas.
That is just the latest display of Hamas’ warped priorities. Another illustration is its tunnels. It has diverted hundreds of thousands of tons of building materials from civilian projects to tunnel construction. The tunnels to Egypt, which are largely for commerce, are rudimentary. The tunnels to Israel, which are for military attacks, are elaborate. Hamas cares more about hurting Israelis than about helping Gazans.
From More Intelligent Life:
The Big Question: we asked six writers, how many children should we have? David Benatar believes that the only way to prevent harm is not to have any
Millions of years of evolutionary history have programmed you to reject the notion that procreation is wrong. Bear this in mind if you rush to reject my argument, and to defend a deeply harmful practice. Morally responsible parents wish to spare their children pain. There are ways they can minimise the chances of their children suffering certain types of harm, but the only way to prevent harm altogether is to desist from bringing children into existence. Any child will, inevitably, suffer considerable harm. Privileged procreators in developed countries are inclined to respond that their children are likely to be spared the chronic deprivation, insecurity and violence that blight the lives of so many. This response ignores the discomfort, distress, frustration and unhappiness that characterise even the most charmed lives. It also ignores the appalling fates that can befall anybody. These include assault, devastating injury, degenerative disease and depression.
Nor can these fates be dismissed as improbable. For example, 40% of men and 37% of women in Britain develop cancer at some point. Add to these odds the cumulative risks of other terrible conditions and we find that the chance of escaping calamity approaches zero. It reaches zero if we include death. In creating a child you are ultimately responsible for its death, and for the ensuing ripples of bereavement.
“So much precious time goes by and it seems to me I get so little out of it,” Elia Kazan wrote to John Steinbeck in 1955. “I ask myself is this it? Is this why? Is this what I wanted to do? Is this why I accumulated what dough I have. I feel like a highly publicized meal ticket, some of the time, doing what the hell my wife and family and society expects of me and not at all — since I dont think originally enough — what I’d like to do. I can imagine great excitement to life again. But something prevents my going after it.”
Kazan’s sense of feeling aimless and artistically spent was rare for this relentless achiever, but certainly understandable. The letter was written when he was 45, midway through a life that would span almost another half-century. (He died in 2003.) But by this juncture Kazan had already amassed a momentous body of work in theater and film that testifies to his unstoppable drive and restless energy, qualities that spring from almost every page of “The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan,” a meaty volume edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin. (That “dont,” by the way, was Kazan’s: He couldn’t be bothered with properly punctuating contractions most of the time, as if life were too short for apostrophes.)
Atheists: The Origin of the Species seems to have been born out of frustration with these and other confusions perpetuated by the so-called “New Atheists” and their allies, who can’t be bothered to familiarize themselves with the traditions they traduce. Several thoughtful writers have already laid bare the slapdash know-nothingism of today’s mod-ish atheism, but Spencer’s not beating a dead horse—he’s beating a live one, in the hope that Nietzsche might rush to embrace it. Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren’t truly atheists. “The knowledge of contraries is one and the same,” as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists’ arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism). But even more damning is that such atheists appear ignorant of atheism as well.
For atheists weren’t always as intellectually lazy as Dawkins and his ilk. (Nor, to be sure, are many atheists today—Coyne accused me of “atheist-bashing” the last time I wrote about religion for Slate, but I really only bashed evangelical atheists like him. My father and sister, most of my friends, and many of the writers I most admire are nonbelievers. They’re also unlikely to mistake the creation myth recounted above for anything more than the dreariest parascientific thinking.)
The canon of first world war reminiscence was established early. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front blazed the trail, selling nearly 2m copies in 1929. An avalanche of testimonials followed, several – including those by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Vera Brittain, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) – having stayed in print ever since.
During the first postwar decade, the memoirs of politicians and commanders had filled publishers’ schedules, and there had been little market for the worm’s eye view. What the “war books boom” offered, in contrast, was witness testimony written from the perspective of the junior officer (or, in Brittain’s case, from that of a bereaved civilian and army nurse) that highlighted not grand strategy but ground-level chaos and suffering. The most enduring memoirists were skilled and often practised authors, who at the distance of a decade used literature as a tool of therapy, for themselves as well as others. In addition, they established a standard trajectory – from innocence to disenchantment, via black humour, horror and the grotesque – that set the mould for later testimony to conflicts ranging from the second world war to Vietnam.
Michael Inzlicht and Sukhvinder Obhi in The New York Times:
The human brain can be exquisitely attuned to other people, thanks in part to its so-called mirror system. The mirror system is composed of a network of brain regions that become active both when you perform an action (say, squeezing a rubber ball in your hand) and when you observe someone else who performs the same action (squeezing a rubber ball in his hand). Our brains appear to be able to intimately resonate with others’ actions, and this process may allow us not only to understand what they are doing, but also, in some sense, to experience it ourselves — i.e., to empathize. In our study, we induced a set of participants to temporarily feel varying levels of power by asking them to write a brief essay about a moment in their lives. Some wrote about a time when they felt powerful and in charge, while others wrote about a time when they felt powerless and subordinate to others. The selection process was random, so that each participant had an equal chance of being powerful or powerless. Next, the participants watched a video of a human hand repeatedly squeezing a rubber ball. While they watched, we assessed the degree of motor excitation occurring in the brain — a measure that is widely used to infer activation of the mirror system. This motor excitation was determined by the application of transcranial magnetic stimulation and the measurement of electrical muscle activation in the subject’s hand. We sought to determine the degree to which the participants’ brains became active during the observation of rubber ball squeezing, relative to a period in which they observed no action.
We found that for those participants who were induced to experience feelings of power, their brains showed virtually no resonance with the actions of others; conversely, for those participants who were induced to experience feelings of powerlessness, their brains resonated quite a bit. In short, the brains of powerful people did not mirror the actions of other people. And when we analyzed the text of the participants’ essays, using established techniques for coding and measuring themes, we found that the more power that people expressed, the less their brains resonated. Power, it appears, changes how the brain itself responds to others.
The War Works Hard
How magnificent the war is!
Early in the morning,
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places,
swings corpses through the air,
rolls stretchers to the wounded,
from the eyes of mothers,
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins . . .
Some are lifeless and glistening,
others are pale and still throbbing . . .
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children,
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky,
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters,
urges families to emigrate,
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire) . . .
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters,
accustoms young women to waiting,
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures,
builds new houses
for the orphans,
invigorates the coffin makers,
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.
by Dunya Mikhail
from The War Works Hard
publisher: Al-Mada, 2000
translation: 2005, Elizabeth Winslow
fromThe War Works Hard
publisher: New Directions, New York, 2005
Friday, July 25, 2014
Alexander J. Motyl in Foreign Affairs (image: Maxim Zmeyev/Courtesy Reuters):
This week also saw a major escalation of Russian military involvement in Ukraine; in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 13, about 100 Russian armored personnel carriers and other vehicles crossed from Russia into Luhansk province in Ukraine. Unlike earlier Russian deployments into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, these carriers were openly adorned with Russian insignia and flags. The flow of Russian tanks and soldiers into the area has since continued, and Ukrainian authorities estimate that up to 400 additional “little green men” (a term coined during the Crimea invasion for Russian troops without insignia) have infiltrated into eastern Ukraine’s Donbas.
Until yesterday, that escalation had gone relatively unremarked in Western media. But now, no matter who fired the missile, things are set to change. The downing of a civilian plane may conceivably qualify as a war crime, inasmuch as it entailed the unwarranted militarily destruction of a civilian target. At any rate, it was certainly an atrocity and an act of terrorism. And if Girkin -- an ethnic Russian who hails from Russia and who, by some accounts, is still an officer in the Russian military intelligence service, which would make him officially subordinate to Russia’s president -- really was involved, Putin might arguably be politically responsible for the crime.
Politically and economically, that couldn’t be worse news for Putin, who launched a charm offensive just last week at the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Putin, worried about the Ukrainian army’s rapid advances on insurgent positions, met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and convinced her to agree to negotiations with the insurgents. His efforts -- presumably deemed insincere by Washington -- collapsed on Wednesday when the Obama administration imposed new financial sanctions on several important Russian banking and energy institutions, including Gazprombank, Novatek (an independent natural gas producer), the Rosneft Oil Company, and the VEB Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs. Hours later, the Russian stock market took a nosedive and the ruble fell.
Putin might have managed to muddle along. Although most of the West has been deeply critical of Russia and its support for separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, European and American policymakers have been hesitant to impose the most severe sanctions and have seemed ready to move on to other foreign policy issues, such as Iraq and the war between Israel and Hamas. Even the Obama administration’s recent round of sanctions was not as far-reaching as many critics of the president would have liked.
But the Malaysia Airlines crash will force both the United States and Europe to come to terms with unpleasant realities.
Over at Philosophy Bites:
Is there a place for the sacred in contemporary life? Roger Scruton believes there is. In this discussion he explains his understanding of the experiences he calls sacred.
Richard Marshall interviews Pascal Engel in 3:AM Magazine [Photo: Claire Poinsignon]:
3:AM: As an epistemologist do you think knowledge is elusive because the term is empty, and would that be an approach developed out of your work on Ramsey’s principle, (which I’ll ask about in a minute)?
PE: I do not take knowledge to be elusive or empty. On the contrary, it seems to me to designate a bona fide natural kind, although not one which is easy to pin down. Unlike contextualists, I take expressions such as “knowledge” or “knows” to be invariant across contexts (although I do not deny a certain amount of context sensitivity in our epistemic terms). In the current jargon I am an insensitive invariantist. Unlike eliminativists about knowledge, among whom I count a number of experimental philosophers, I do not think it is an empty term. I do not think, however, that knowledge can be defined through a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. This I take to be one of the lessons of Gettierology.
This does not mean that there is nothing to say about knowledge and that epistemologists have to pack up and leave. Although knowledge cannot be defined in the strict sense of this term, we can still characterize it functionally, through its relationships with other notions, such as those of justification, evidence, reliability, or safety, and we can try to give explanations and theories about these notions. Thus it makes sense to ask whether internalism or externalism about knowledge are correct, whether reliabilism or evidentialism are correct, and to work out the best versions of these.
I also take it that , although the analysis of knowledge is basically a conceptual and a priori matter, we can learn a lot (although not everything) from cognitive science, ethology and especially from developmental psychology about what knowledge is. These issues cannot be dealt with only at the level of an account of knowledge in general, but have to be dealt with about particular kinds of knowledge depending on its sources (perceptual, inferential, testimonial, a priori) and of its domain (natural, scientific, moral, aesthetic). Perhaps there is no single account which works fully for all domains, but I take it that they have a number of traits in common (in this respect the shape of the issues is pretty much like for truth, which can vary across domains, but keeps a functionalist core)
Ramsey’s ideas about knowledge, which were in many ways pioneering, are perfectly consistent with this functionalist account.
Anne Fausto-Sterling in The Boston Review of Books:
Consider the case of Grady Nelson, a Florida man who was convicted of murdering his wife, Angelina Martinez. During the 2010 hearing to decide if Nelson should be sentenced to death, his lawyer showed the jury an image suggesting that Nelson had an abnormality in his left frontal lobe. At least two jurors were impressed by the evidence, shifting the voting balance toward life imprisonment. As much as I oppose the death penalty, the outcome raises some basic questions. Was the brain scan taken at the time of the murder, or, more likely, after years in jail? Could the brain deformations be linked to the murder? Scientifically, the introduction of this neural image was pretty lame, but the emotional impact was huge, and it carried the day for the defendant, who escaped execution.
Or what about the flurry of news stories this past December with headlines such as “Brain wiring in men, women could explain gender differences,” all reporting on a publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used neural imaging to produce average connectomes for brains of several hundred males and females.
Again, the images are compelling, but the science is not. First, neither the Proceedings article nor any other reputable research has tied specific wiring diagrams to variation in behaviors or cognitive skills. Just as with the fly larvae, the activity of differently wired networks can lead to the same behavior. Indeed, in an earlier study, the Proceedings researchers showed only small differences in the “big skills”—map reading, social cognition, spatial processing—that supposedly separate men from women. Second, the researchers do not assess the possibility that different experiences of gender might themselves produce differently wired brains. Did the young people in their samples play the same sports, have the same hobbies, wear the same type of clothing, or study the same subjects in high school?
H. Bruce Franklin in The LA Review of Books:
Teaching students in the 21stcentury — including the combat veterans, National Guard soldiers, and reservists in my classes at Rutgers University, Newark — I have to keep reminding myself that they have lived their entire conscious lives during America’s endless warfare. For them, that must seem not just normal, but how it has always been and always will be. Is that also true for the rest of us?
I had to rethink this question a few months ago, when I woke one day to discover that I was 80 years old. For more than half a century I’ve been involved in struggles to stop wars being waged by our nation or to keep it from starting new ones. Before that, in the late 1950s, I had spent three years in the US Air Force flying in Strategic Air Command operations of espionage and provocation against the Soviet Union and participating in launches for full-scale thermonuclear war. Some of these launches were just practice, but a few were real war strikes that were recalled while we were in flight just minutes before it would have been too late. (I recall with embarrassment that I never had a flicker of doubt about whether I should be participating in the start of a thermonuclear Armageddon.) And before that were four years of ROTC, which I joined during the Korean War, a war that had started when I was 16. From age 11 to 16, I had bounced right from the Victory Culture at the end of World War II into the repression and militarization of the early Cold War years.
So it dawned on me that living one’s life during America’s Forever War is hardly unique to those millennials I’m teaching. How many people alive today have ever lived part of their conscious lives in a United States of America at peace with the rest of the world? Would someone even older than I am have any meaningful memory of what such a state of peace was like? How many Americans are even capable of imagining such a state? I can remember only two periods, bracketing World War II, when I believed I lived in a nation at peace. And even these were arguably just childish illusions.