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Stress and WaPo’s “5 Myths”

12:36 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Normally the Washington Post’s Sunday “5 myths” article is highly topical. Thus last week “Five myths about a government shutdown” had been ready to go several days in advance, in anticipation of Congress not being able to reach a deal so as to avoid a shutdown on March 27. Trouble was, Congress did reach a deal, and before last Sunday. No problem, WaPo simply whipped up “Five myths about Chinese hackers.” certainly a subject that’s been in the news, and ran it instead.

BTW, that’s not the only substitution the editors made for last Sunday. They killed a straightforward article about the media failures at the beginning of the Iraq War that had been assigned to Greg Mitchell, who has a book on the subject, in favor of a wishy-washy piece by their in-house media beat hack, Paul Farhi.

All this is why today’s offering, “Five myths about stress,” is surprising in two ways. First, while stress is certainly an issue in our times, it’s not on the front page. Second, the article is actually pretty good.

The author is Dana Becker from the Social Work Department of Bryn Mawr College, who has a lot of experience in psychotherapy and family therapy. She is also the author of a brand-new book with the intriguing title One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble With Stress as an Idea (New Republic review). Her introduction today notes that “stress” is everywhere and that everyone today including Drs. Oz and Phil is talking about the need to reduce it. Then here are the “myths”:

1. Getting enough sleep, exercising and eating right can reduce stress.

Here Becker notes that this statement needs to clarify that is talking about “stress” as subjective feelings, not objective conditions of life. For:

Eating her fruits and veggies, even if she can get them at a decent price in her neighborhood, won’t do much for the single mother who has three children, an hour-long, multi-bus commute and an angry boss who can easily find another employee if this one shows up late.

Well said imo.

2. Stress makes people more vulnerable to illness.

Not so, says an impressive article Becker cites, which analyzes 300 empirical studies that relate at least one objective measure of stress to at least one measure of the immune system. Its conclusion, according to Becker, is that “they didn’t find any evidence that stress makes otherwise healthy people susceptible to illness.” I’m not going to disagree.

3. Most people exposed to traumatic events develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Admittedly I don’t get out much these days, but this sounds suspiciously like one of the straw men that were a regular feature of the 5 myths articles I’ve written about prior to the piece two weeks ago, but was dispensed with there. I don’t know who really believes the proposition. And here Becker confusingly merges the question with the issue of whether or not PTSD is properly described as an injury or illness as opposed to a normal reaction to abnormal events. She seems to favor less pathologizing of such reaction without being definitive about it, although as to the question she claims that statistics don’t bear it out. Fine, I guess.

4. Men and women respond to stress differently because of genetic and hormonal differences.

This segment is largely a clever putdown of pop author John Gray (of Men, Mars; Women, Venus fame). Becker says he has “run amok” (without giving a citation) with research on mice which seems to show that the female hormone oxytocin helps mothers behave protectively toward their young when under stress, to claim that doing household chores and taking care of children is therapeutic against stress in women but not in men. To this she cites some authorities asserting that not all differences between men and women are hormonal, and says, “if Gray spent enough time in the kitchen, maybe his oxytocin would eventually follow him there.” Delicious.

5. If women learn to cope better with stress, they’ll be able to resolve work-family conflict.

Becker really lays into this one. Noting the deluge of advice middle-class women (whom she is careful to distinguish from low-income women who have always had to work) have received about “balancing work and family” since they went back to work in droves beginning in the 1970s, she correctly says that it’s not work and family that are in conflict, but work and workplace policies, or work and limited child-care options. She then concludes the article with:

If we stop treating stress — and women’s stress in particular — as the problem to be solved and instead work for the kinds of social and political changes that will benefit women, men and children, maybe then we can find a real solution for women’s “stress.”

It is true that Becker does not get into how the situation that needs to change is related to the profit motive in this article, but others can do that. To me it is sufficient that she handily demystifies the subject of “stress” (despite some lack of clarity on myth #3). I know I won’t have time for it, but her new book is one of the few I’ve heard of lately that sound like something I’d like to read.

Good show, WaPo (but don’t let it go to your head).

The Iraq Anniversary and the Washington Post

9:01 am in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Maybe the Washington Post has discovered that Firedoglake is on its case about the “5 myths” feature, after four articles (the most recent here) have pointed out that the series itself has a mythic quality.

Ahmed Chalabi

I say that because today’s entry, “Five myths about Iraq,” shows a marked development in the conception. The straw men that no one believes any more, if anyone ever did, are gone, as are the subtle distortions of what people actually believe that are easier to shoot down and the true statements that are only made to look false by shoddy reasoning. Instead, we get five statements this time that are actually believed by significant numbers of people, and that for the most part are actually false. There are still elephants in the room, which I’ll get to, but for the moment I’ll give DC’s paper of record its due.

And in honor of the occasion the paper has brought in a heavy hitter to write the article: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who was actually on the ground in the theater of operations and who has written an award-winning book about it. That is to say, his resume is star-studded all the way back to editor of the school paper at Stanford. (He is also now a big shot at WaPo itself, senior correspondent and associate editor, if anyone cares about that aspect.)

In his introduction Chandrasekaran explains that, no, the myths of which we speak are not about possession of WMD or Mission Accomplished within weeks of the invasion, but a set of beliefs of our own time, the 2010s, that need discussion. Here they are:

1. The troop surge succeeded.

That is, the 20,000 or so extra troops that were sent to Iraq in 2007 succeeded. The issue is certainly topical since in January Sen. McCain, who does think the surge succeeded, attacked then-nominee for Defense Secretary Hagel over it, wondering if the latter had rethought his opposition to the surge at the time. Of course whether or not it succeeded depends on your view of its purpose. According to Chandrasekaran this was twofold: “tamp down the bloody sectarian civil war and forge a political compromise among the three principal groups in Iraqi society,” and that characterization pretty much agrees with the Wikipedia article on the subject. In those terms our author asserts that the tamping down was only successful because of the confluence of other factors, such as the decision by key Sunni leaders to oppose al-Qaeda, whereas the attempt to forge a compromise simply failed.

From what I know that all sounds right, notwithstanding McCain’s view.

2. Iraq today is relatively peaceful.

I suspect Americans think this because the MSM are not reporting the violence that does occur. (Iraq is not sexy any more when the drones are in play elsewhere.) But our author gives a total of 30 deaths from various sectarian attacks over a three day period ending last Monday. Enough said.

3. Iraq is a democracy.

In practice, Nouri al-Maliki is in the process of consolidating his dictatorship, as Chandrasekaran details.

4. Iraq is in Iran’s pocket.

Read the rest of this entry →

AIDS and the Myth of WaPo’s “5 Myths”

1:08 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

The Washington Post’s weekly “5 myths” series is nothing if not wide-ranging. Recent subjects have included drone warfare, choosing the pope, and the currently active “sequester.” Of course that’s because the series is based on the topic of the moment in the public’s mind — or in the mind of that part of the public the paper would reach. This week it picks up on the news that a neonate in Mississippi evidently had the HIV virus completely removed from her body by immediate and massive doses of drugs.

And so we have “Five Myths about AIDS.” The authors are Craig Timberg, a WaPo technology reporter, and Daniel Halperin, a professor of epidemiology at the Ponce School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Puerto Rico (whose CV reveals continuous work in this area since his 1995 PhD in anthropology from UC Berkeley), who have also written a book together on the subject. (For the general context of the 5 myths series, see the beginning of this post.)

In their introduction the authors note the Mississippi case, and caution that despite the optimism they say it inspired, “a true cure is almost certainly years away.” Then they get right to the “myths.”

1. The case of the Mississippi baby means we’re close to curing AIDS.

I don’t know who has really thought we were, but let’s assume some have so as to let the authors make their point. They first say that some are skeptical that the infant was really infected, linking to an article which is salted with phrases like “if the report [of the curing] proves true,” but which never really says why it might not.

But their main point, apparently, is that the case is too unusual to serve as any kind of model. They say that even though infected pregnant women are now routinely treated to prevent the fetus from becoming an infected neonate, there are still many, many babies born with the virus. I suppose they mean that those cases will not have access to the treatment the Mississippi baby got, although they are none too clear.

2. AIDS is the leading killer of babies worldwide.

The series usually has at least one straw man, and here it is. I’m sure that most people know that it is classic diseases like malaria that kill the most children in poor countries.

Still, Timberg and Halperin cite useful statistics from UNICEF: 7 million deaths per year of children under age five worldwide, of which AIDS accounts for about 2%. We need to work harder on those other diseases, as they correctly point out.

3. Mothers with HIV should never breast-feed.

This has indeed been a fairly prevalent belief: A professional-sounding 2007 report puts the fraction of the world’s HIV-positive children who got the virus from breast-feeding at one-third, and recommends that formula be used wherever it is available.

Not so, say our authors. Admittedly, the infant’s risk of getting the virus from an infected breast-feeding mother is about 1% per month, but in the parts of the world where AIDS is most prevalent, the water you have to use to make formula can pose worse risks. Add to that the fact that mother’s milk is just plain better for babies than formula, and you get the result that breast-feeding is to be preferred, at least in undeveloped countries.

I’m no expert but it sounds right to me.

4. Drugs are the key to preventing HIV’s spread.

Here T&H first acknowledge the “success” of the Bush 43 administration’s PEPFAR program (without mentioning either name), now ten years old, in getting antiretroviral drugs to the developing world where AIDS has been rampant, linking to a glowing WaPo editorial from last month on the subject.

Here they neglect any mention of the widespread criticism over the ten years of the way the program has actually been carried out. This began even before the measure was enacted, with Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D- CA) attacking the policy that had the effect of requiring expensive brand-name drugs rather than cheaper generics, a policy that was enacted in spite of his complaint, although it was reversed after the first two years. Then there is the fact that some of the program’s funding has been siphoned off to promote ideologically driven abstinence-until-marriage promotions (which work about as well in the Third World as in U. S. high schools), or the fact that funded organizations have been required to sign an anti-prostitution pledge (on which see Michelle Chen’s FDL post from two months ago). And on it goes.

Perhaps T&H would say that all that is irrelevant, since they are concerned to downplay drugs as a means to end the epidemic. Instead, here they tout use of condoms, reduction in the number of sexual partners per person, and male circumcision. But, leaving the first two proposals aside, do they not know that circumcision is now a controversial procedure? As one comment in the thread following their article puts it, demanding circumcision to prevent AIDS is like demanding mastectomy to prevent breast cancer.

The authors round out their argument against this “myth” by saying that

in communities with easy access to AIDS drugs, risky behavior often arises because there is less fear of the disease.

But to me that sounds like saying I should forego eating because I might lose self-control and get fat. So as I said I’m no expert, but the intelligent layperson that I hope I am must conclude that the authors have singularly failed to refute this “myth.”

Rather, it sounds like what is needed to confront the still burgeoning epidemic is a massive program to supply anti-retroviral drugs, free from interference by ideologically-based organizations, coupled to be sure with an also massive educational program in third world countries (and in depressed areas of U. S. cities) about what HIV and AIDS are and what do do about them. And BTW, that is not what we are likely to get from the Obama administration: It reduced funding for the so-called Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria by 22.5% between the fiscal years of 2008 and 2011, and one hates to think of what might still come out of its management of the current sequester.

5. AIDS can’t be defeated.

Another one that I suspect few actually believe in the abstract. (A statement that it can’t be defeated by the current means of attacking it would find more supporters.) In any case, here the authors first acknowledge the current grim statistics: 34 million people are currently infected worldwide, and in 2011 there were 2.5 million new infections and 1.7 million AiDS-related deaths.

But, T&H say, we can be optimistic, especially because the infection rate has been falling. What needs to be done to make it fall further, they say, is to do more to curb infection rates and get medicines to those that are infected (in spite of downplaying this solution earlier in the article), and to follow the other measures they have suggested. They conclude with an aphorism:

In public health, curing diseases is great. Preventing them is even better.

At least to me, this updated version of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” falls flat.

Timberg and Halperin are experts (or at least Halperin is), and I’m sure their book on this subject is worth reading. But their effort here is flawed, whether due to their own lapses or the constraints that WaPo and its “5 myths” format force on them (it’s hard to say which, although the paper’s antipathy to Bush might have played a role in the confusion as to whether or not more drugs are a good idea). The discussion of breast-feeding seems cogent, but otherwise the article contains too many non sequiturs and ignores too many elephants in the room.

In the last analysis, the AIDS epidemic is a political problem. It can only be ended when politicians are forced to recognize that 1.7 million preventable deaths per year is unacceptable. Read the rest of this entry →

The Sequester and the Myth of WaPo’s “5 Myths”

3:53 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

For background on WaPo’s 5 Myths series, see my last post on it. The entry in today’s paper (but online since Thursday) is “5 Myths about the Sequester.” The authors are two frequent talking heads on outlets like the PBS News Hour, Thomas E. Mann of the liberal Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, the one member of the reactionary American Enterprise Institute who realizes that no one will listen to him if he just parrots its line.

The authors’ introduction gives the recent history involving “a near-default on the public debt and a ‘fiscal cliff’ that threatened a new recession,” and then says we face “another man-made crisis” with the across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect last Friday. Notice that this already adopts standard inside-Beltway jargon with “fiscal cliff” and “man-made crisis.” Then Mann and Ornstein get right to what they call separating fact from fiction on five points:

1. Blame Obama — the sequester was his White House’s idea.

After duly referencing Robert Redford Bob Woodward’s version of this charge offered the other day, M&O say it’s too simple. They claim that the idea emerged through 2011 negotiations between “the parties,” who proposed a super-committee to iron out a deficit-reduction plan, and a sequester as something “designed to be so potentially destructive that the supercommittee would surely reach a deal to avert it.” They say that O never envisaged the possibility that it would actually happen.

What this repetition of the conventional wisdom ignores is the statement by O’s advisor Gene Sperling himself, pointed out by FDL’s Jon Walker, that “the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues” (translation: force liberals among the Democrats to accept chained-CPI and other such attacks). Thus “Myth” #1 is closer to the truth than the authors acknowledge.

2. At least the automatic cuts will reduce runaway spending and begin to control the deficit.

Here the authors simply deny this Republican talking point, quoting a few numbers to the effect that the spending is not excessive. Why bother? Maybe because in the process they get to claim that, although spending on war-making defense has increased lately, “that pattern has slowed and will soon end. Additional reductions must be achieved intelligently, tied to legitimate national security needs.” Sure.

Notice that apart from that appeal to naiveté, M&O do not even hint at thr real truth: We need MORE spending, on infrastructure, on education, on green technology, on … , to get the economy going and to attack massive social problems. So they have successfully refuted Myth #2; big deal.

3. The amounts are so small, they won’t hurt much.

Here our erstwhile authors first quote the WaPo columnist I have called Baseball Fan to the effect that the $85B in cuts for this year amount to “only” 2.3% of the total federal budget, and then point out that (a) most of the federal budget is shielded from the cuts, and that (b) they must be applied to only a bit more than half of the fiscal year that remains. Further,

With little discretion about trimming areas such as aviation and food safety, layoffs and furloughs will interrupt services vital to the economy and public health.

That is, M&O are concerned with people who have enough money to fly and enough food to worry about its safety. I only wish we could say that those who lack those niceties will not suffer even more.

In short, it’s certainly a myth but the refutation is weak.

4. The cuts are so large, they will be catastrophic.

Here M&O simply claim that if one looks at the detailed estimates provided by the Obama administration the effects will not be “so immediate or dramatic,” although “damage will accumulate in less visible ways.” And we’re supposed to believe this why?

5. This fight is all about money.

That is to say, apparently, the sequester is truly for the purpose of reducing the budget deficit. Here the two-paragraph response is a thinly disguised polemic against the Republicans for “taking a meat ax to government as we know it” with the sequester and the upcoming threats to shut down the government and to refuse to raise the debt limit. The authors’ one substantive point is to say,

if the goal were really debt reduction, it would be easy to get a bipartisan deal that would lower the debt enough to meet the original target set by the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, with roughly a third coming from revenue.

I’ll give them that, but not the implication that it is only the Republicans who refuse to deal. Mann and Ornstein have not disproved the suspicion that O really wanted the sequester for the moment, to give him leverage in the negotiations that will unfold in the coming months to overturn it, so that he could strong-arm reluctant Congressional liberals into accepting cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Basically, the article is a mix of platitudes and airy abstractions; it does not recognize that there will be real blood in the coming months, with blame accruing to both parties. Read the rest of this entry →

Popes and the Myth of WaPo’s “5 Myths”

3:26 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

I know, I know. We’ve really hammered away at the subject at FDL since Papa Ratzi announced that he will relinquish the shoes of the fisherman at the close of business this coming Thursday. We’ve even had fun with it when Peterr volunteered to take the job. (I’ll support him in exchange for preferred access to that great Vatican library.) One might think it’s time to let it go. Still, after fetching my paper this morning I found that I couldn’t resist another entry.

As I’ve previously noted, every Sunday the Washington Post recruits an expert on some subject to write a column entitled “5 Myths about [the subject].” The item is printed on page 2 of the “Outlook” Section, next to another weekly feature on who had the “Worst Week in Washington” (today, former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.) and the continuation of one of the Outlook page 1 articles (today, a review of Al Gore’s new book by Chrystia Freeland). That is, it is sandwiched between the page 1 lead-ins of that article and typically two other generally unreadable ones, which are continued in the interior to share billing with other generally unreadable articles, and the back page consisting of WaPo’s chief book reviewer pursuing his craft (more on him another day).

The expert on the given Sunday typically gives an introductory paragraph and then lists the five “myths,” with a rebuttal of each. As it turns out, one or two of these so-called myths may indeed be such, but as often as not the item is a straw man that no one really believes, or is subtly distorted from what people actually believe to make it easier to refute, or is actually true while the “expert’s” argument is wrong.

Well, you guessed it, today’s column is “5 Myths about picking a pope,” by Thomas J. Reese, SJ. He is a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University who, although the paper does not say so, is something of a maverick within the faith: Upon Benedict’s election in 2005 he resigned the editorship of America magazine, after being thought (by guess who) too liberal on the hot-button issues of priestly celibacy and ordination of women. Should be interesting, right?

Let’s just see. Fr. Reese’s Introduction says he will treat “misconceptions” about the coming conclave that will choose the new pontiff, then he states these as follows.

1. Pope Benedict resigned, rather than remain in office until death, so he could influence the cardinals to elect someone like him.

Certainly some people have thought so. The rebuttal first cites the official line that the resignation is for health reasons, and quotes the Vatican spokesman who said the next day that Benedict will not interfere in the succession process. (There is one glaring error here, that he “is moving out of Rome,” but maybe this part of the article was written before the announcement of living quarters within the Vatican.) Then we have a primer on the formal process, then a note that the last time a pope tried to influence the succession, in the 6th century, the Roman Senate was up in arms. Finally, Fr. Reese says,

Benedict has appointed 57 percent of the cardinal electors (John Paul II named the rest), so they will most likely elect someone with similar views. In American terms, that means someone to the right of Newt Gingrich on social issues and to the left of Nancy Pelosi on economic issues.

Upon first seeing this I thought the last phrase was ludicrous, but then I remembered that Pelosi is caver-in-chief of the House Democratic caucus. Benedict has talked a lot about the scourge of poverty, so this point might be accurate. But what is left out here is of course that then-Cardinal Ratzinger is the man who nominated that 43% that John Paul II named, since he was the latter’s right-hand man.

The “bilan,” as the French say, is that while the rebuttal may be technically correct, Benedict knew that he didn’t have to have a formal say in order to get the type of guy he wanted into the office.

2. The next pope is likely to be African or Latin American.

I would have no problem believing that this one is a myth, but what Fr. Reese mostly argues against is the proposition that the next pope should be from the southern regions. He does begin by noting that most of the cardinals are still from Europe, so that “chances are the next pope will be European.” But the text then slowly shifts to noting the arguments of those who want an African, and finally ends with,

Both John Paul and Benedict railed against secularism and relativism in Europe but were unable to turn the tide. If there is a cardinal who can turn the church around in Europe and the United States, he deserves the job.

3. The cardinals will elect a brilliant theologian like John Paul and Benedict.

I hadn’t heard this one, but I guess some might believe it. Here the rebuttal begins with a claim that each of the last two popes was the most intelligent of the cardinals who were meeting at the time when it turned out they elected him. I have no idea whether or not that was the case. But then Fr. Reese once again shifts from what will or will not be to what should or should not be, although here his argument is more interesting. He says “The problem with most academics and intellectuals, especially philosophers and theologians, is that they have already made up their minds on important issues and rarely change them.” Spot on, in my experience. He says that the church needs, rather, some non-dogmatist who knows how to negotiate. Then:

Both John Paul and Benedict got into trouble because they were surrounded by people who thought the popes were the smartest men in the world. Such people are reluctant to challenge their bosses.

In particular, he says, if not for that factor someone might have told Benedict in 2006 that if he quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos denigrating Islam there would be protests.

Lots of luck with your wish here, Fr. Reese, but the Church, after all, is a hierarchy where the Pope is viewed as God’s representative on Earth.

4. Don’t expect big surprises from the next conclave.

Here the rebuttal is by way of example: the 1958 accession of John XXIII was thought ho-hum, but he “convened the Second Vatican Council, which transformed modern Catholicism”; John Paul II in 1978 was the first non-Italian pope in centuries. In conclusion, the next pope, once elected,

has no one from whom to take his cues. He has to think, consult and pray before each big decision. Where that will lead him is anyone’s guess.

This would seem to contradict the wish in #3 that a mechanism for getting sound advice be in place, but never mind. To me, the rebuttal hinges on what you mean by a “big” surprise. I don’t know enough about the Second Vatican Council to comment on how much of a deal it was, but not too many care whether a European pope is Italian or Polish. As the rebuttal itself notes, there won’t be “female priests next month,” but to me a big surprise would be something like an apology for the savage execution of the philosopher Giordano Bruno in 1600 or, to consider a more contemporary possibility, turning a whole bunch of child molesters over to the authorities of their respective countries for jailing. Nothing like that is going to happen.

5. It doesn’t matter who is elected pope; nobody listens to him.

Here the “rebuttal” again sidesteps (negation of) the stated factual proposition, this time to express a hope that the new pontiff will indeed be someone that people inside and outside the Church will listen to. He must be someone who can make Christianity live for people of the 21st century. To conclude,

In preaching the Gospel, the church needs to imitate, not just quote, great theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Both took the best thinking of their times — for Augustine it was Neoplatonism, for Thomas it was the writings of Aristotle — and used it to explain Christianity.

I know enough about what Aquinas actually did to correct the last statement somewhat: He read Latin translations of Arabic translations of Syriac translations of the Greek writings of Aristotle, rode roughshod over (Latin translations of) some of the Aristotle interpretations of the Persian philosopher Avicenna and of the Arab philosopher Averroes (granted that they also worked from translations), and somehow justified such notions as the Trinity (a concept of which the earliest Christians had no idea, according to at least one recent book). Still, one understands the wish, and the Catholic faithful will probably share it.

However, my interest in religion is not in practicing it. (Rather, it is in studying the history of religions, especially in the ancient world, and that is way off topic here.) Thus I don’t get too excited about such issues as whether or not there should be female priests. But I can’t help noticing that today’s “5 myths” piece, like those of other Sundays, ignores a lot of what is actually going on, such as, in today’s case, La Repubblica’s assertion the other day that Benedict’s resignation was connected to his receipt of a file noting a network of gay prelates inside the Vatican itself.

In that way, at least, we see again that WaPo’s notion that it is refuting 5 myths is itself a myth

Drones and the Myth of WaPo’s “5 Myths”

1:38 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Every Sunday the Washington Post recruits a purported expert on some subject to write a column entitled “5 Myths about [the subject],” which is printed on page 2 of the “Outlook” Section. This expert gives an introductory paragraph and then lists the five, with a rebuttal of each. As it turns out, one or two of the so-called myths may indeed be such, but as often as not the item is a straw man that no one really believes, or is subtly distorted from what people actually believe to make it easier to refute, or is in fact true while the “expert’s” argument is wrong. Let us see for this week, with the brackets filled in as “Obama’s Drone War,” and the “expert” one Mark R. Jacobson, a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and a former NATO official in Afghanistan.

Jacobson’s introductory paragraph reminds us that “new military technologies have always created strategic and ethical dilemmas,” going back to the 12th century. Of course this conveniently suggests a ho-hum quality to any objections to drone warfare, in advance of their being offered.

“Myth” #1: “Drones are immoral.” Here J. gives the obligatory denial that hardware has a soul (which no one has claimed for this case as far as I know) and states that any morality has to accrue to the people who operate the machines. Then, although several people have objected that drones increase the distance between killer and killed in comparison with manned bombers, thus making the kill psychologically easier, J. will have none of this. Instead, he says,

the psychological proximity can be closer for drone pilots than for other military personnel. Intense surveillance makes these pilots so familiar with their targets — when they sleep, eat and see their families — that some have reported difficulty reconciling that intimacy after they’ve pulled the trigger.

(emphasis added) Wow! How did the families get in there (see next “myth”). But notice that the operative word is “after.” This “refutation” concludes that the real moral issue is “targeting and transparency” and cites the administration’s release of that black paper, without noting its ambiguities that Kevin and others at FDL have written about.

“Myth” #2: “Drone strikes cause inordinate civilian casualties.” Here is the most mendacious of J.’s “refutations,” because it makes no mention of cases like the targeting of people going to funerals of those killed in previous strikes or attempting to rescue those attacked (see Kevin here). Instead it makes the standard point that more civilians are killed when “massive” bombs are used and notes a debate between NYT and the New American Foundation about how many civilian casualties have actually happened. J. does allow that there is a danger of the perception of drones as killing innocents becoming widespread, in which case the “larger strategic objective … could be at risk.” In short, if refutations like this one don’t work there is trouble for the War On Terror, and you can draw your own conclusion as to whether or not it’s at hand.

“Myth” #3: “Drones allow us to fight wars without danger.” I’ll concede this one. J. says that you are going to need the proverbial boots on the ground for reasons like gathering intelligence for targeting, and that one cannot “substitute targeting for strategy,” given that you still have to deal with local leaders.

“Myth” #4: “Drones are technologically complex weapons that only rich nations can afford.” To refute this J. observes that they are cheaper than conventional aircraft, and that 50 countries now have surveillance drones, if not yet the weaponized variety; he then blathers about whether or not there should be international rules for their use. But this is like claiming that nuclear weapons have “proliferated” because a few countries have a few, whereas the U.S. has enough that it could destroy the solar system several times over (granted that it would take time for them to reach the outer planets). Maybe lots of countries have drones, but the U.S. is the one with the real kill power.

“Myth” 5: “Obama will be remembered as the drone president.” That is, to cite what has now been widely mentioned, “King had a Dream; Obama has a Drone.” J. simply gives up trying to refute this one, and leaves it as an open question. He observes that the technology has advanced to the point of making it possible for Obama to have perpetrated many more strikes than Bush, and says that “it will remain critical” for Brennan and the White House to make a good case for their use. But during this argument he claims that:

In his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, Brennan emphasized his commitment to Congress’s oversight of overt and covert programs.

Yeah, right. As to the veracity of this comment, simply go to the search box at the top of the Firedoglake main page, enter “Brennan hearing,” click, and read as many entries as you have time for.

I will make one point in summary. Both the legitimacy and overall planning of the War On Terror are understood as given throughout the piece; only the character of the weaponry used is questioned to the extent that it is. That makes for an inadequate discussion to say the least. Read the rest of this entry →