May 9, 2023

New PSA from the VA on Women Troops & Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t always been the best when it comes to providing adequate care to women veterans, so say advocacy groups, but recent efforts indicate that the VA’s traditional male-centric culture may be fundamentally changing. To help facilitate that cultural transformation, the VA’s Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group recently released this new public service announcement video. Watch it here:



With Friends Like These…

So first, our man in Kabul, Mr. Karzai, declares the U.S. one of his top three enemies, and now our man in Baghdad, Mr. Maliki, is publicly backing spiraling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as the U.S. slowly - too slowly in the opinion of some - backs away from Mr. Assad in disgust. Hell, even the Saudi king is condemning the Syrian leader. When the absolute monarch of the world’s only country in which women can’t even drive or appear in public alone says your regime is going too far, you’ve got problems.

We Americans really need to be zooming out and taking a long hard look at what exactly we’ve created in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, getting rid of the Taliban government in Afghanistan was a noble deed that dramatically changed the course of events in the region and even the world. But could we not have exerted a little more influence in the restructuring of post-Taliban Afghanistan so that its corrupt leader isn’t publicly calling the United States one of his top three enemies while we’re still there providing his security? Perhaps we could have insisted on more transparency within Afghanistan’s largest bank, now it’s most corrupt. Or perhaps we could have discouraged the creation of an “Islamic Republic” to replace the “Islamic Emirate” of Mullah Omar and the Taliban.

The same could also be said for Iraq. While the elimination of a brutal, bellicose dictator was also noble, even if we now disagree on whether it was ever necessary, allowing the creation of a corrupt and non-functioning Islamic government in Baghdad that is allied with Tehran to replace a corrupt but functioning secular government that hated Tehran might not have been the best course of action during the rebuilding of a post-Saddam Iraq. Since we basically built their new government from the ground up, writing many of their new laws and creating their new institutions ourselves, could we not have insisted upon a few things in the process - like maybe progress as opposed to regression?

Sometimes it feels like the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction in our conduct of international relations. Whereas we used to march around the planet and disregard local cultures, histories, and sensitivities, now it seems like we cater to them too much sometimes, especially to traditional patterns of behavior that are not truly endemic to a particular region or culture but rather to less developed societies generally (i.e., oppression of minorities, corruption, etc.).

When we defeated Germany and Japan after World War II, we occupied those countries, forcefully subdued their lingering insurgencies, reconstructed their governments, and set them on a course to become the dominant economic powers in their respective regions. Perhaps had our occupation and reconstruction strategies been a little less politically correct - with respect to both regional politics and domestic American politics - yet still respectful, both Iraq and Afghanistan might be in a much different place now - a better place. And perhaps, just perhaps, we’d be supporting our friends in Kabul and Baghdad instead of self-declared enemies.


Should a Post-Assad Syria Be Our Ally?

As NATO continues to forcefully suppress Libyan leader Mohamar Qaddafi’s ability to slaughter his own people, the world is largely standing by and watching while Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad does exactly that to in Syria. If the Syrian people eventually succeed in overthrowing their dictator, what incentive do they have to ally themselves with Western nations that simply stood by and watched their slaughter from web browsers and cable television clips?

I’ve written before on the dangerous lack of a consistent U.S. foreign policy throughout the Arab world. While we encourage and incentivize democratic reforms in Tunisia, we tolerate the harshest denials of basic human rights, such as allowing women to shop and drive alone, in Saudi Arabia. While we fiercely oppose an Islamic government in Egypt, we help create one in Iraq. And while we intervene militarily in Libya when its leader only threatens to slaughter his people, we stand by in Syria while its leader actually does.

The Arab people are not blind to the West’s disparate treatment of the various Arab nation-states of the Middle East. In fact, they are much more aware of it than we are, and it is a cause of significant anger and resentment on the Arab street. It significantly erodes our moral authority and weakens our prominent stance in the international community when we engage in such blatant hypocrisy.

After the revolution in Egypt that overthrew long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians took to the American television cameras on the streets of Cairo at the time to ask, “Where was the U.S.? Where was Barak Obama?” Of course it doesn’t matter who the current president is, but the inconsistent U.S. foreign policy and the lack of even an expression of strong moral support for the Egyptian revolution in the beginning are what those Egyptians were reacting to.

The U.S. is always in a precarious position when it comes to how much support to give to foreign protest movements. Almost certainly, we give covert support to most if not all of these pro-democratic movements, but that does not help the U.S. image abroad. Such help will be kept quiet even after a given movement has either succeeded or failed. But a balance must be struck, and we have not always succeeded in finding that proper balance.

There was a definite need to let the Egyptian people fight their own battle against their own dictator, and the first public trial of a former Arab leader by his own people is an historic accomplishment that the Egyptian people can be proud of. But perhaps the U.S. could have been a little more forthcoming with moral support for the revolution earlier in its development. That’s all the youthful Egyptian revolutionaries wanted, and it might have sped the end of the Mubarak regime and possibly saved some lives in the process. The U.S. eventually came around, but to many Egyptians it was too late for the U.S. to be given credit for actually helping.

We are at the same point now with Syria, except with much more dire consequences for the Syrian people. The pro-democracy, anti-Assad movement in Syria is being systematically slaughtered by the regime and its military forces, a step beyond what prompted us to intervene in Libya, yet neither the U.S. nor NATO is coming to their rescue. Will anyone blame the Syrians if they eventually succeed in overthrowing the Assad regime but are then sour toward the West for not being more helpful in that effort?

It’s a difficult position for the U.S. and the West to be in. We surely can’t get away with being involved in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria all at the same time. But nevertheless, our current hands-off approach to the escalating violence in Syria is not sufficient either, especially given our continued military aid to the Libyan rebels. Whatever the outcome of the Arab Spring in the end, our inconsistent policy toward the Arab states is sowing the seeds of yet another generation of anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in the region, but for a whole new set of reasons.


Impossible Standards for Political Candidates

The vicious nature of major political election contests today is creating a dangerous pathology for American democracy - the expectation of a record of infallibility in our candidates for public office. This qualification is not only unrealistic and unattainable, but even if it were it would not be a characteristic that I would want my own representative or leader to necessarily have.

Good leaders make mistakes, and great ones have often made numerous wrong turns over the course of their lives and careers. Talk to any highly successful venture capitalist about this and you will surely hear from most that failure at one or even several points in one’s life can actually be an asset, sometimes even a criterion, in the quest to earn their respect, and ultimately their funding.

They key is what you do as a result of bombing. Do you get discouraged and never take risks again? Do you make the same mistakes again, not having learned anything from the previous crash and burn? Or do you wise up and become a better person and a better leader and decision maker as a result?

Pundits and even ordinary Americans love to find any obscure statement or mistake that a candidate has made in the past - or even one that his or her staff or associates has made - and hold it against that candidate in a consequential political contest. But I want neither my local leaders nor the leader of the free world to have never made a mistake. In all likelihood, such a scenario would be the result of luck rather than skill, leaving the person in question quite delusional in the end.

We need to bring back some honesty and integrity not only to political offices, but also to the political process. One way to start doing that is to stop holding candidates to impossible standards, and to analyze past mistakes in the context of subsequent patterns of behavior and accomplishment.


The Search for a Cohesive U.S. Policy in the Arab World

The United States looses its credibility among global citizens when it carves out vastly different policies to guide its reactions to remarkably similar situations in the various nation-states of the Middle East. While the goal of “winning hearts and minds” is at the forefront of U.S. military and diplomatic strategy these days, there is a dangerous disconnect between that strategic goal and the tactics actually employed in dealing with the various governments of in the Middle Eastern region. And those differences in tactics combine to constitute a serious strategic error for U.S. interest in the region and around the globe.

While the events in Tunisia and Egypt happened so fast that it was honestly rather impractical for the U.S. to even consider intervening one way or another, by the time the crisis in Libya came around the Obama administration publicly adopted a policy of intervention in the domestic conflict based on the stated rationale that the people of Libya, largely peaceful protesters and demonstrators, needed protection from their own ruthless, fratricidal government. Yet when largely peaceful protests and demonstrations in Bahrain resulted in an equally vicious response from the Bahraini government, the “policy” of intervening in a domestic Arab conflict when the government turned violent against its own citizen demonstrators was quickly abandoned.

Likewise in Syria, when the Syrian people began boldly standing up to the brutal regime of Bashar al-Asad, the Syrian government began a systematic campaign of violence against the largely peaceful Syrian protesters and demonstrators. While American-backed military action against Libya rages on, under the stated policy rationale of protecting peaceful protesters and demonstrators from their fratricidal government, not one ounce of military might has even been threatened against the Bahraini or Syrian governments as a result of their similar domestic slaughters. Those governments continue to be given carte blanche by the Obama administration to violently subdue peaceful calls for democracy while Libya is being pummeled for the exact same offense.

I am not a fan of restraint when it comes to stopping the slaughter of peaceful demonstrators, and I believe that if we were going to intervene in Libya then it should have been much more decisive and, by now, conclusive. But I am also not a fan of a weak and inconsistent foreign policy in the Arab world and, frankly, an application of foreign policy that weakens our standing among Arabs in the long term. I am not arguing here in favor of intervention or non-intervention, but rather a consistent intervention policy that serves U.S. interests and yields long-term global goodwill toward the U.S. and the American people.

What good will it be to the U.S. in the end to finally help rid the Middle Eastern region of brutal and repressive regimes, only to still be resented by the people of those nations we helped because of our reluctance to do so in the beginning when it counted?


Take “The Troops” Off The Table in the Budget Battles

The political drama over a possible government shutdown last week caused quite a lot of anxiety among service members and their families because of the likely delay such a shutdown would case in their receiving their bi-weekly paychecks. The fact that this was even an issue is an embarrassing stain on our politics, and it should not happen again.

The budget battles will inevitably continue. Last Friday’s near-midnight deal only extended government funding for one week - ostensibly enough time to work out a deal on the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. In addition to the battle to finish out the budget for this fiscal year, now is about the time when the battle normally begins raging for the next fiscal year’s budget. And as soon as the FY2011 budget battle ends (if it ends), the FY2012 budget battle will begin.

So the partisan wrangling over budgetary issues will continue for the foreseeable future, but what should not continue is the uncertainty surrounding the defense budget. But even if Congress cannot agree on an overall defense budget, which is often one of the less contentious areas of the budget battles, funding for troop pay can and should be settled immediately and should not be held hostage again to partisan wrangling over other issues.

Service members and their families have enough to worry about. They already get paid squat. They have endured previously unfathomable numbers of deployments and family separations. The suicide rates have skyrocketed, and marital problems are rampant. Some of these issues require long-term attention and don’t have any quick fixes. But no one would argue that these men and women shouldn’t get paid on time, or that they should be be used as political pawns during the overall budget process.

This issue - the issue of military pay - can have a quick fix. Tackle the part of the budget that ensures that these men and women get the money they’re owed on time, and return to the squabbling over other issues after that’s done.


Libya, Ghadafi, and the Concept of Policy

Much ado has been made lately about the U.S. “policy” toward Libya. But policy is an overarching concept, and it is intended to be applied categorically across the board. The notion of a foreign policy towards one particular country is a bit like saying we have a national tax policy for one individual American.

Policy should not be idiosyncratic. If the United States has a policy of intervening to stop genocide, then it should intervene to stop every genocide, or have a good explanation why it is not stopping a particular genocide if it is its policy to do so. Likewise, a U.S. policy of preventing foreign governments from murdering its citizens should result in U.S. action anywhere a government acts to commit murder against its own citizens.

This is ostensibly the policy basis of U.S. actions against Libya. The Libyan government was bombing and otherwise murdering its own citizens in an attempt to halt a rebellion and insurgency, and President Obama and NATO elected to intervene to stop it based on an alleged policy. If this is truly U.S. policy, however, then we should see similar interventions elsewhere. Surely Libya is not the only government to threaten or bomb its own citizens.

No one would deny that North Korea, for example, has one of the most brutal regimes it he world. The North Korean government is known to murder its citizens who try to escape into China, hoard donated food supplies while its people starve, and even operate concentration camps within the country for political prisoners and their families.

Murder of civilians, starving citizens, concentration camps… aren’t these all policy reasons we have used to justify foreign interventions before? Indeed. So why have we not put a no-fly zone over North Korea? Or Sudan? The Sudanese government is widely known to have supported genocide against its own citizens in Darfur by arming regional militias. So why were U.S. or NATO or any coalition’s fighter jets not taking out strategic targets in Sudan?

I don’t necessarily have definitive answers to these questions, and I actually do support military intervention against Libya (and would have against Sudan). Rather, my role here has been to try to bring some clarity to an often misappropriated term - policy. It can really serve to delegitimize U.S. actions and intentions if we misuse that concept, as we do so frequently. Claiming that we are intervening in Libya because we have a “policy” of military intervention when a government is murdering its citizens leads many to question why we are not intervening in other areas when other governments murder their citizens. And those questions are legitimate ones.

Instead, we should be honest with the world, and with ourselves. We are intervening in Libya because Ghadafi is a nuisance and we believe the world - and Libya - would be better off without him in power.


Military Sexual Assault Not an “After School Special” Issue

Servicemember-on-servicemember sexual assault is becoming an increasingly public problem for the Department of Defense, and as more light is shed onto this once-taboo topic, the inadequacies of military leaders’ responses to this visceral problem are coming into sharper focus.

Every year I try to make it to the Army Soldier Show. Surprisingly, many people who have served in the Army have not even heard of this great touring event, and there really is not a comparable institution in the other service branches. But for those who know the Soldier Show, you know it’s a great experience with some of the Army’s finest talent singing chart-topping hits from the past year - often better than the original artists.

The production value of the Soldier Show seems to improve every year, and in 2010 it even included the broadcast of high-quality, mid-show commercials from the show’s inter-Army sponsor on gigantic screens on either side the stage. But in contrast to the show, the commercials left much to be desired. The production value and creative talent on display in these commercials were impressive, but like so many public relations campaigns these commercials left me shaking my head and wondering who on Earth thought this campaign would be a good fit for the audience being targeted.

Back then, I simply thought, “Pick your battles, right?” Now, however, I’m compelled to speak up. Why the change? The courtesy reinforcement of a bad idea indicates a more fundamental problem!

This afternoon, Susan Carbon, Director of the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice, delivered prepared remarks to the Army’s annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention (SHARP) Summit. Though the remarks contained platitudes that we’ve all heard and would expect, one thing stuck out for me.

About halfway through her speech, Carbon said, “I was so pleased to learn about the Army’s I. A.M STRONG campaign (Intervene.Act.Motivate) – this effort can go a long way to educate soldiers on the crime of sexual assault and how to intervene responsibly to help prevent sexual assaults from occurring.”

Then a little jingle popped into my head, prompted by her words -  “Intervene, Act, Moooootivate… Intervene, Act, Moooootivate.” The jingle was the same one from that commercial I had seen the previous year several times during the Army Soldiers Show.

But just as few would agree that all publicity is good publicity, my vivid memories of this commercial are by no means a credit to its creators or those who approved its use. Despite the seriousness of the topic, and my unquestionable sensitivity to this issue, the commercial elicited automatic mental mocking and eye-rolls due to its absurdity.

As I said earlier, the issue is not with the production value, which was high, or with the artist involved, as he was certainly talented. The real problem was that an entire team somewhere high up in the Army’s hierarchy must have signed off on this “campaign,” but the campaign looked and felt more like a clip from an After School Special than a serious message for the men and women of America’s armed forces.

This sort of campaign - a catchy pop-rap song with edgy graphics - would be perfect for a modern middle school audience, or perhaps even high school freshmen and sophomores, but it’s wholly inappropriate and ineffective for adults, many of whom have seen and experienced the carnage of war. The campaign concept is simply a joke for the intended target audience, and this type of mistake tends to do more harm than good because it elicits widespread mocking of the message.

Sometimes those involved in the creative process get invested in an idea or get stuck on a certain track, and they fail to see that the track is headed in the wrong direction. That’s not a reflection of the quality of the final product or of how hard those involved have worked. But working hard and having a fantastic final product simply aren’t good enough. You have to work smart too, and the final product has to be the right product for the target audience.

This is a message and an issue that needs all the help it can get right now. The problem is growing worse and many are still in denial about the true extent of the problem. The men and women of the armed forces don’t need out-of-touch bureaucrats (both civilian and active duty) creating and reinforcing not only unhelpful campaigns, but ones that actually worsen the problem by unintentionally making a mockery of it.


Facebooking the War in Afghanistan

So I’ll have to admit, I’m torn on this one. New York Times journalist James Dao has a new article out about internet and cell phone use and “Facebooking” by troops deployed to Afghanistan.

I’ve never been to Afghanistan, or to Iraq for that matter, so I am hesitant to criticize commanders on the ground in Afghanistan for allowing this unprecedented level of cellular and social media access in a war zone. But the disciplinarian in me is concerned that this trend dangerously allows problems at home to become problems down range - as if there weren’t already enough problems for deployed units to deal with.

I certainly understand the rationale for allowing such unprecedented levels of access to cell and social media services on deployment. Communication with and access to families and friends back home have to be significant morale boosters for many troops. Allowing troops to watch births via Skype reduces the expense and disruption of sending troops home for such occasions. And enabling them to monitor the daily or weekly routines of life back home via Facebook can alleviate the worry that results from the wandering of the mind and the problem of assuming the worst case scenario.

But that very same monitoring can also lead to the highly disruptive micromanagement of personal affairs back home. And as the widely under-acknowledged problem of adultery and infidelity is discovered or becomes suspected because of the availability of information, even circumstantial, the effects can wreak havoc on individuals, units, and missions abroad.

Furthermore, although commanders insist that cell phones and portable games are prohibited on foot patrols, the example of one service member paying more attention to his blackberry than to the horizon while on a vehicular patrol is equally disturbing. And as we all know, for every one case that is witnessed, there must be one thousand cases that are not.

I tend to agree that a deployment should be a focused period of time where the service member is largely disconnected from life back home. With proper pre-deployment family and personal affairs planning and shorter deployment cycles, achieving this mission-optimal state should be possible.

Read the original New York Times article here: Staying in Touch with Home, for Better or Worse


The Article You Need a Stiff Drink (or a Pill) to Read

This week, Jennifer Senior of New York Magazine published a piece that you just have to read, take some time to digest, and have a stiff drink (or one of the pills listed in the title) to fully absorb.

The mental health toll on service members after multiple deployments has become a more frequent (though not frequent enough) topic of media coverage and public thought over the past year, but most of this attention has come years too late. Much of the damage has already been done, and second and third order effects of it being ignored for so long have already appeared, such as missed diagnoses, wrongful attribution of symptoms to “personality disorders,” and the denial of disability benefits and proper healthcare to the veterans whose minds, lives, and bodies we messed up.

This in depth piece touches on just about every aspect of the growing military mental health crisis, from Post Traumatic Stress to suicides to homelessness and joblessness to readjustment issues to the impact of troop access to social media in Afghanistan. But as bad as the problem really is, the article ironically has a happy ending - sort of.

Read it here, and let me know what you think: The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War

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