Monday, January 14, 2008

Reading roundup

Some rather randomly assembled things worth reading that I've noted in the past week or so:

1. A new series has started at the New York Times called 'War Torn', examining the violent crimes committed at home by Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans.

This is an interesting topic, and many of the stories are indeed remarkable and sad. (I must also say that “Matthew knew he shouldn’t be taking his AK-47 to the 7-Eleven,” is one of the more striking sentences I've read in a long time.)

Concerns about 'brutalised' soldiers returning from the front lines to wreak havoc in civilian life is hardly a new issue, as the article briefly notes. Last year I saw a fascinating paper (scroll down to the second plenary speaker to see the abstract) by Clive Emsley at a violence history conference in which I participated on precisely this issue. He looked at concerns about returning soldiers and violence in England, Germany and France after the First World War.

In some cases, he found a great deal of concern about such violence (and some stories about ex-soldiers committing crime as a result of 'shell shock'), but relatively little evidence that there was anything remotely like a violence wave caused by veterans. (Obviously, in Germany, the role of Freikorps in causing post-war social unrest is an exception, but this was a special case.)

Worries about this sort of thing have nevertheless cropped up in individual cases.

Quite by chance, while looking for something else entirely last November, I ran across the following newspaper headline story from 27 July 1929:

Sidney Harle was alleged to have (and confessed to having) killed a child in circumstances that are not entirely clear. In any case, he claimed 'that he was not normal at the time, his mind having given way under the influence of drink, which is forbidden to him as the result of malaria and shell shock contracted during the war.'

Surprisingly, since it was a case of child murder, the tone of the article was generally sympathetic (thought this might have had something to do with the suggestion that Harle had to be rescued by police from an enraged mob and was then, allegedly, roughed up by French police themselves).

As the reporter explained:

The crime is undoubtedly a terrible one that has stirred public opinion here, but on reflection people are now inclined to extend sympathy to him as a victim of war conditions, and the authorities are being asked how it came about that a man with such a medical history was at large and able to settle in France when superficial examination by a doctor suffices to show that he is not normal and at any time liable to become a menace to those around him.

Perhaps it's not entirely the same as the stories in the Times, but it's not entirely different either.

It's a difficult issue: playing down the effect of the wars seems, in many of these cases, to risk ignoring the real trauma the perpetrators might have experienced in combat. On the other hand, one is wary of over-doing the 'brutalised veteran' angle, since, as one of the quoted experts notes, most veterans seem to manage some kind of normal post-war life. Very few are ticking time-bombs.

Furthermore, even in some of the quoted cases, the connection with between military service and the crime committed seems rather tenuous: some of them sound pretty...typical.

Moreover, the Times cites 121 confirmed cases of killings by veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, presumably since those wars began. Which sounds bad, maybe, until you consider there are about 16,000 homicides a year in the US.

This is not at all to detract from the individual tragedy in each case; but, so far--and even if the Times count missed a lot of cases--it seems as if we are far from an epidemic of war-related crime.

2. At Freezerbox, 'Megatons and Memory Holes' by Alexander Zaitchik takes a nice trip down nuclear-terror nostalgia lane by talking with Stanislav Petrov.

Who is Stanislav Petrov, you ask?

The occasion of our meeting was the 24th anniversary of a historic nightshift Petrov worked at the Serpukhov missile command center. What happened was this: half past midnight on September 26, 1983, the radar screen in the Serpukhov bunker showed several missile launches on U.S. territory. Petrov was the ranking officer on site. The protocol that he himself had authored dictated that he inform his superiors immediately. They, in turn, would have contacted the ailing, paranoid, and hawkish Soviet premiere at the time, Yuri Andropov.

With his computer screens beeping havoc, Petrov was forced to think fast. Under unimaginable pressure, he reasoned that because of the small number of launches, the alarm was likely false. "In a real first-strike, they would have hit us with hundreds of missiles," he said. And so he sat tight and never kicked the alert up the chain of command.

It was the right call. It turned out the alarm was the result of sunlight reflecting off low-altitude clouds above several U.S. missile silos. A satellite misread.
As they sometimes do...

Thank you, Stanislav.

3. Two interesting articles related to animal rights have appeared at the New York Times in the last month or so, and both of them highlight either difficult dilemmas or the dangers of unintended consequences. One is recent, the other I read quite a while ago and never got around to writing about.

A few days ago the New York Times wrote about the fate of horses that are shipped out of the US for slaughter.

In an apparent victory for animal-rights supporters, horse slaughter was virtually banned in the US last year. However, this has meant that many horses are being shipped to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. Good news? Bad news?


“It’s a step closer to the long-term goal of banning slaughter in North America,” said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. “There are fewer horses slaughtered.”

Indeed, even with the busy export to Canada and Mexico, the Agriculture Department estimates that 105,000 American horses were slaughtered in the three countries in 2007, down from some 138,000 the year before.

For many horses, though, export means hundreds more miles of strenuous transit in large trailers. “It’s difficult for them to keep their balance, they’re often crowded, they have no access to food or water while en route,” said Timothy Cordes, a senior veterinarian with the Agriculture Department.

Of particular concern to advocates is the treatment of the horses once they reach Mexico, to which exports have more than tripled. American protections simply do not apply there, Dr. Cordes said.

The American slaughterhouses killed horses quickly by driving steel pins into their brains, a method the American Veterinary Medical Association considers humane. Workers in some Mexican plants, by contrast, disable them by stabbing them with knives to sever their spinal cords, said Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

“My worst nightmare has happened,” Dr. Grandin said. “This is an example of well-intentioned but very bad unintended consequences.”

Another article from early December was extremely interesting. In 'Kill the Cat that Kills the Bird?', Bruce Barcott looks at the conflict of interest between cats and birds...or, actually, between cat lovers and bird lovers. The conflict between the animals themselves is real enough, but it's pretty straightforward: that between their respective human supporters not so much.

The story considers the plight of birds--many of them rare--living on the Gulf Coast near Galveston. On top of the other environmental challenges they face, these birds, it seems, have been subject to devastating predation from feral cats (though just how much of a problem this constitutes is debated).

The article opens with the actions of a locally renowned ornithologist, who, seeking to take action to protect the local birds (particularly piping plovers, an endangered species) shot a feral cat.

And was arrested and put on trial.

It's a fascinating article and there are, as the Dude would say, a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous.

Still, I have to say that I come down in the side of the birds (and the vigilante ornithologist) in this one. I like cats just fine, but it's not like they're about to go extinct or anything, unlike some of the wild bird species we're talking about.

And the argument that they're just doing 'what nature intended' is hardly convincing when not only are the cats only there because of human stupidity but, it seems, one of the most vociferous cat lovers in the story seems to be feeding them cat food.


4. Finally, and on a much different note, 'Château Scientology' at the New Yorker is well worth a read.

It examines the landmark building in Los Angeles where the 'religion'...well, does what it does:

Celebrity Centre is used for Scientology courses and for “auditing,” a mainstay of the religion, in which a person undergoes a guided talk-therapy session, usually while holding a device known as an E-Meter, which is supposed to measure one’s spiritual state. The goal is to eliminate “mental image pictures” associated with traumatic events; when a person is “Clear”—freed of all such associations—he can advance to the mystical and esoteric levels of Scientology. The path to becoming an “Operating Thetan,” or pure spiritual being (“thetan” being Hubbard’s word for the soul), is laid out in a table called “The Bridge to Total Freedom: Scientology Classification Gradation and Awareness Chart of Levels and Certificates.” Scientology is a technological religion and claims to have developed “exact, precise methods to increase man’s spiritual awareness and capability.” Completion of the Bridge takes years, and each stage requires a cash investment. An initial twelve-and-a-half-hour auditing session costs between six and seven hundred dollars, Greg LaClaire, a vice-president of Celebrity Centre, says. (Aspiring Scientologists can mitigate the expense by choosing to be audited by a fellow initiate rather than by a staff member.) In the Holiday 2007 Dianetics and Scientology catalogue, a deluxe Planetary Dissemination Edition E-Meter—billed as a “tool for Golden Age of Tech certainty,” to assist in “faster progress up The Bridge”—was offered, in “Diamond Blue,” for five thousand five hundred dollars.

It also has a restaurant, and there are...musicals. Gift certificates are no doubt available for the aspiring 'Operating Thetans' among your friends.

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