June 10, 2003

Elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction

Saturday, The Daily Camera cover story was the Washington Post article Bush Certainty On Iraq Arms Went Beyond Analysts' Views. I went to Technorati specifically looking for a conservative reaction to balance my own. A blog named Right-Thinking from the Left Coast looked promising.

Musings from a Hawk included this conclusion:

This, gentle reader, is the point of this post. This is the bone stuck in my throat. I am a huge fan of President Bush. I disagree with him in a few key areas, but by and large I think he's done a spectacular job so far. After eight years of Bill Clinton I have found Bush a man of integrity; a truly honest, sincere leader, who loves this country and is doing for it what he believes to be best. Assuming the recent reports in the media are true, how can I reconcile that beatific image of Bush with a man who would knowingly ignore his own intelligence apparatus and lie to the American people?

I wish I had the answers to my own questions but I do not. I find it astonishing that WMD have not so far turned up in Iraq, and a large part of me still honestly believes that one day we will be given the visual feast of news camera crews recording mountains of illegal, menacing weapons. But there is a nagging voice in the back of my mind that is -- unfortunately -- getting louder.

Even if the reports are true, and Bush knowingly exaggerated the WMD threat, I still think the invasion was justified. Bush is not a war criminal, no matter how much the rest of the world would like to see his head on a pike. If these accusations are borne out, and Bush did indeed grossly talk up Iraq's WMD capabilities, my opinion of the war against Iraq remain unchanged.

But I won't be able to say the same thing about my opinion of George W. Bush.

It probably won't come as a surprise that I completely disagree with Lee about the character of the President. I have surprised even myself with the bias I feel against him. Jeff called me on exactly this point some weeks ago while we were skiing. He asked what it would take to convince me that the war on Iraq was justified. "Would a stockpile of nasty weapons convince you?" I sarcastically joked that I would probably accuse Bush of having the evidence planted. But even joking about something like that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don't trust Bush and I know that it distorts my view of his and the Administration's actions. For that reason I'm glad to find someone who believes in the President so I can temper my own disbelief.

On the surface this war looks like a wild success. It's hard for me to compose arguments that I think would give any hawk pause. Part of me has been hoping for some disaster so I could exclaim "I told you so!" with righteous indignation. We humans, when presented with facts which conflict with our beliefs will sooner dismiss the facts than re-evaluate our beliefs. I've been trying to re-evaluate my beliefs, in light of Saddam's removal, but I can't convince myself that violence was the best solution. I must be human. :-)

I'm not surprised that the weapons haven't surfaced. In fact, I warned the administration ahead of time . I believe the weapons existed but slipped away just like bin Laden did in Afghanistan -- looting of darker Iraqi treasures. The war has accomplished exactly what it set out to prevent: putting nasty weapons into the hands of terrorist cells. The bad news for me is that I can only be proved right if something truly horrible happens. I hope I'm wrong.

I don't believe Bush and the Administration lied about the weapons, but I know they exaggerated. Propaganda is only effective if it is true, but it must also be one-sided. The Administration wanted a war. They believed it was the right solution. The would not have secured the broad base of support they needed if they'd just appealed to the humanitarian cause of liberating Iraq. The citizens of the United States had to be more scared of Saddam than they were of sending American soldiers into combat.

And so it was that Saddam was painted into an enormous demon with mysterious powers and the Marines painted as the knights who would slay him. The progress of the war demonstrated that Saddam was never the threat we were led to believe.

What I find most disturbing is how often I have seen this story retold. This has been a pattern in all the US military operations I have witnessed in my lifetime. The pattern is disturbing for it's incredible consistency. We demonize the leader of another country, create a classic Hollywood-style villain, and then present ourselves as the heroic rescuer. It's like we cannot exist without some Hitler-like bad guy from whom we can save the world. Libya, Iraq I, Iraq II, Serbia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua. Most of these leaders have deserved their villainy. But I am deeply concerned about the pattern of our thirst for violence. There are plenty of villains in the world, but I've never understood why one villain is selected over another. Even more disturbing is the rhythm of the war machine. It's like the System, our military System, is a vampire craving a bloody fix every few years regardless of who is in the White House[1] or who is in the Pentagon.

Most recently, two military interventions in a row have failed to meet two primary objectives: the apprehension of bin Laden and securing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This only reinforces my belief that violence is not only ineffective, but does more harm than good.

[1] For the record, I did object to Clinton's use of force in Kosovo.

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June 04, 2003

Life, death and aikido

A friend from the dojo, Debbie Kranzler, died from brain cancer just less than two weeks ago (May 22nd). She was only 44 and had been diagnosed only five and a half months earlier. Here are some disconnected thoughts that have been on my mind since her death.

I remember Debbie's answer to a new student who asked "Have you ever had to use it?"

"No. And that's the proof for me that it works ."

Debbie, and also Laurie Nusbaum, convinced me that aikido works early in my practice when I was still interested in that question. I'm substantially bigger than either of them. I had to come to terms with my own anxiety about attacking a woman. But it also felt like I would have been dishonest to attack them differently than I would attack men. But however aggressively I attacked I never seemed to give them much trouble. That helped with the anxiety quite a bit. :-)

There's something cool about a practice that requires you to connect with your partner in a very physical way. In many ways I don't know anyone at the dojo very well (it's a big dojo). And yet I regularly entrust my life to them. Anyway, somehow I found my entry to that kind of trust by attacking Debbie and routinely finding myself on the mat. Aikido works.

I remember something very small and also huge she did for me in my shodan [1] test. I was the first of three of us testing. I had finished the weapon-taking and randori [2]. I thought I was done. When the other two "finished" Ikeda Sensei called me up to demonstrate kumijo [3]. I had not prepared for this at all. In fact, I didn't even have my weapons with me. This was the first small thing she did. I was sitting next to her and she discretely lent me her jo [4]. As I was bowing in again I realized it could only go disastrously wrong if I continued. I took a deep breath and confessed to Sensei (and everyone else for that matter) that I did not know the kumijo. He allowed me to return to the line. It was a short distance back to the line, but long enough for me to set in on myself with strong words and self-condemnation. As I got back into line next to Debbie she said quietly to me "that was really courageous." The gentile overcame the strong. She applauded me and quietly dispelled my shame. [5]

I have been pleasantly surprised by the way our dojo has faced Debbie's death. She has been a central figure in the dojo for as long as I've been there. I have been surprised to witness a profound bond in this community and a sense that we grow closer in mourning our loss.

Thinking more deeply, it shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, aikido is a martial art and very much about life and death. Although we don't often talk about death, it's there in the thousands of years of military secrets that have evolved into this practice. O Sensei gave us a brilliant refinement to separate away the brutality and killing leaving an art emphasizing center and connection and balance and posture and movement and extension and breathing. These aren't just words or rhetoric. They map to specific physical experiences. In fact you really need to have the experiences to understand what the words mean. There's something that has not been emphasized in my training, at least verbally. All these elements are practiced in direct physical communication with a partner. Dealing with another human being in conflict is essential to the practice.

Tres Hofmeister Sensei was my first instructor almost fourteen years ago at the CU Aikido Club . For the past couple years I have been Julie Poitras-Santos' assistant there. Dave (Anderson?) was Tres' assistant and very good friend. Reminiscing with Tres after he taught a class at CU this Spring I learned that Dave died about ten years ago. Tres commented about how hard that was for him. He remembered Dave at the wake. I paraphrase here what I can remember.

Often teachers are even more instructive in their absence. Both Debbie and Dave -- and also Mark [Reeder, Debbie's husband] though he is still with us -- made a point of getting back on the mat in their last few weeks. We all have lousy days in our practice where nothing seems to work or our backs hurt or knees -- we question why we continue to practice at all. But we have those pains because we are alive. [Tres paused here for emphasis, I'll repeat it] We have those pains because we are alive. Every moment we have to practice is precious.

Indeed. Thinking about Mark's loss I've commented to Sarah that I want to have a lot time with her. Whatever might separate us, whether death or divorce or some other misfortune, I hope it will be a long way off. One thing death and the martial arts bring into focus is the profound beauty and frailty of life. Every moment we have is precious.

[1] shodan is first degree black belt
[2] rondori involves multiple attackers
[3] paired weapons practice with jo
[4] a jo is a short wooden staff
[5] The rest of the story of my shodan test: The other two people testing had also failed to prepare for the kumijo and kumitachi (paired sword practice). Ikeda Sensei could have failed all of us. Instead he gave us a little, but explicitly unspecified amount of time to prepare for the remainder of our test. "An important part of budo to always be prepared," he said. His point was well taken and he left us hanging just long enough for us to internalize that lesson. I think it was a week to ten days later when we finished our test. All three of us were prepared.

I can't leave out one highlight. I'm probably boasting, but my good friend Andy would be on my case for false modesty if I left out what he thought was the best part. Bill (who's last name escapes me) was my partner for the kumijo. We were demonstrating the first half of Saotome Sensei's kumijo curriculum. I felt like Bill was coming in awfully close. (Bill, if you happen to read this, I hope you don't find it offensive in any way. Just describing what I remember.) After we had demonstrated a few of the practices, Sensei warned us we were too close to each other. The next exchange involves a very big, sweeping counter-attack where the attacker must make a big and hasty retreat. Bill didn't get quite far enough back and I knocked his jo right out of his hands and almost into some of the people observing from the mat. "I told you," said Sensei. We were lucky no one got hurt. Andy was impressed. I don't want to be too full of myself. I think that's part of the point of that sweeping counter-attack.

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