September 17, 2010

My year of living Americanly: Mt. Rushmore

I used to think that if only I could go off to all the hot-spots in the world where American troops or “advisers” are stationed, then I would be able to understand American imperialism better and thus be in a better position to explain to my fellow Americans that, despite all its glittery promises and John-Wayne-style bravado, American imperialism is essentially a BAD thing — one that will come back to bite them in the [bottom].

But after spending many years going to places like Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Myanmar and sub-Saharan Africa, I have finally come to realize that perhaps it is even more important to trace all these imperial catastrophes back to their actual source — the Americans who stand by, do nothing and allow all this [dookie] to happen in the first place.

So I set out to explore and discover the belly of the beast itself — America. Whew! That’s a very big job.

Of course we all know that the real heart of America is in Branson, Missouri, but I haven’t been able to afford getting there yet. But I did go to Detroit, Michigan — and was totally impressed by the courage its residents are showing as they try to pull themselves back from the brink of economic disaster. You can almost hear the sucking sound there — as the wealth of cities like Detroit gets vacuumed away to desolate places like Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, and into the bank vaults of Wall Street.

And my main memory of Las Vegas was of its poor sweet over-worked cocktail waitresses — trying to look sexy when they have sore feet, hungry children at home and almost no chance of seeing sunshine except on their day off.

Then I went to Disneyland. Can’t get much more American than that. And in October I’m going to Boucher-con, the famous mystery writers’ and fans’ convention in San Francisco. And I also went up to Clear Lake last month — which isn’t clear any more. Nothing but algae. And I worked as a volunteer film extra in a bunch of Bay Area movies. That’s American too.

And now I’m going off to Mt. Rushmore. How American is that!

(Later — much later): Now I’m here at Mt. Rushmore — after having gotten lost at the San Francisco airport and having almost missed my plane to Rapid City. But I’m here now. And it was worth it. Mt. Rushmore is awesome. It is HUGE. And you just gotta love the Black Hills.

I also saw a monument to Chief Crazy Horse today. It’s about 20 miles away from Mt. Rushmore — but it’s even bigger yet. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt AND Lincoln could easily fit onto just the side of Crazy Horse’s head. The largest sculpture in the world, it’s been a work in progress for the last 62 years and they figure it will take another 60 years to finish it. When completed, however, it will take up the space of a whole mountain.

“Where is your land now?” someone had jeered at Chief Crazy Horse after he had fought and then surrendered because his people were being killed by the U.S. military and because the buffalo they needed to live on were also being slaughtered by the occupying forces in order to starve the tribes into submission. Crazy Horse had begun resisting the U.S. military occupation only after he had been given no other choice.

And Crazy Horse answered, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

PS: Speaking of the Afghan money pit and where dead people lie buried, Scottish journalist David Pratt has just written another article about Afghanistan that I think is essential to read if you want to have ANY concept of what’s going on over there right now.

Bush, Cheney, Obama and Petraeus, please take note — especially of the article’s last sentence. “The third message came from an old Russian friend and former intelligence officer in the Soviet army who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s and who now works as a security adviser there. It read: “It’s like the rerun of an old movie for me, the same blunders, the same tactical mistakes … but at least we knew when it was time to get out.”

Here’s the article in its entirety, with Pratt’s kind permission (as originally printed in the Glasgow Sunday Herald):

Now civil war looms for the lost cause that is Afghanistan:

We are losing the war in Afghanistan. It’s as simple as that. If I were a Taliban or insurgency commander right now, I’d feel pretty upbeat about the way things are going. While you’d be hard pressed to notice it – given all the papal hullabaloo – Afghanistan faces a crucial parliamentary election tomorrow.

This time around there has been nothing like the political fanfare emanating from Kabul, Washington and London, as happened previously when we were told Afghanistan was taking its first tentative steps towards democracy. The reasons are simple. First, the election will be riddled with fraud and corruption. Secondly, the Taliban will show once again it can strike with comparative impunity. And, thirdly, those international bodies, such as the United Nations, tasked with helping Afghans realise what free and fair elections actually mean have bottled it and bolted.

Sound familiar? It should, given that this time last year we faced much the same situation with the presidential vote. The significant difference on this occasion, however, is that everyone is keeping their political heads beneath the parapet in the certain knowledge that once again we will fail to deliver for the Afghan people and no-one wants to be blamed.

Every day in the news from Afghanistan, in the comments from our military commanders and the evasive doublespeak of our political leaders on troop drawdown and withdrawal, you sense the tide is changing. And all the time the Taliban are gaining at every turn. Indeed, the evidence on the ground already shows that, far from being on the back foot, the insurgents are advancing and holding territory in provinces such as Wardak and infiltrating the north of the country in places like Kunduz and Badakshan, turning what until now have been comparatively subdued regions into resurgent battlefronts. In all, it seems a case of one step forward and two back.

Today, it’s not so much a sense of mission creep as a creeping sense that the mission is lost. Take tomorrow’s election as a single example. In the aftermath of last year’s presidential vote, as many as 1.2 million votes were said to be illegal.

In its wake, the UN and others swore they would do better next time. Yet, according to Johann Kriegler, one of only two foreigners on Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission, over the next few days we can expect pretty much the same, if not more, widespread ballot rigging and intimidation than before.

And where do we find the UN precisely at the moment we need it most? Heading for the hills. Well, not the hills exactly, given that they’re full of Taliban, more a case of over the hills and far away. Throughout the past week or so, the UN has evacuated what it deems as non-essential staff for fear they might be in harm’s way from Taliban violence during the elections. In all, that’s about one-third of its entire international workforce in Afghanistan. Or, to use UN speak, a “reduction in its footprint”.

“We are going to be particularly careful as the Taliban have announced they will attack anyone involved in this election and we are very much involved,” explained Staffan de Mistura, the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan. Really? Well, perhaps you’re not quite involved enough, Mr de Mistura. Why is it every time we put the Afghan people through the rigours of the democratic process, instead of standing its ground, the UN sticks to its wimpish last in, first out approach that has characterised so many of its international missions?

To be fair, though, the UN is not alone in bending to Taliban intimidation: many other international election monitoring groups have also given up on full “observation” missions, rendering tomorrow’s ballot next to useless. This is bad news at a time when, more than ever, ordinary Afghans need reassurance.

That said, many already sense we have all but thrown in the towel and are doing nothing more than going through the motions of leaving without losing face. While in the country last month, almost every Afghan I spoke with, from Badakshan in the north, to the capital, Kabul, was desperately pessimistic about the future.

Already people across the country have picked up on our own faltering sense of political purpose, and are psychologically steeling themselves for what is almost universally accepted as the coming civil war once we’ve packed our kit bags and left. And we’re not simply talking about the Taliban here.

Around Kabul’s more “fashionable” neighbourhoods, extravagant new houses built on the enormous profits of the illegal drug trade are testimony to the financial and political power of war lords who run private militias and “security companies”. It is these often bitter rivals, not just the Taliban, that ordinary Afghans believe will plunge them back to the dark days of the 1990s when civil war laid waste to much of Kabul and paved the way for the rise of the Islamic extremists.

Having been there many times during those anarchic years, listening to Afghans today draw parallels with those times, I well appreciate their fears.

Speaking earlier this week about tomorrow’s election, Major General Nick Carter, who commands NATO troops in southern Afghanistan, described Kandahar as resembling Moscow in the 1990s, with “mobs, mafia and protection rackets” running madrassas, boarding houses and private security companies.

General Carter has every reason to be worried, given that it’s probably fair to say much of the country, whether under government or Taliban control, is threatened by a similar incendiary brew.

They say that the devil is in the detail. If that’s true, then perhaps the detail in three email messages I received over the course of the past few weeks gives some intimate sense of the prevailing attitudes to the war in Afghanistan and where the country might be going in the future.

The first was from a US Army helicopter ambulance pilot, whose unit I spent time with in the country. As his deployment comes to an end, he told me of the physical and emotional toll the war has taken on him and his comrades, and how much he now just wanted to go home and never see Afghanistan again. The second email was from a young Afghan woman, who described how men with guns – not Taliban – are terrorising the neighbourhood in Kabul where she lives.

The third message came from an old Russian friend and former intelligence officer in the Soviet army who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s and who now works as a security adviser there. It read: “It’s like the rerun of an old movie for me, the same blunders, the same tactical mistakes … but at least we knew when it was time to get out.”


June 30, 2010

Screw Iraq, Afghanistan & Gaza: Let’s invade Detroit!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 2:36 pm

Returning from the 2010 Social Forum in Detroit, I saw several soldiers at the DTW airport, waiting for their flights. And once again I was struck by the thought that every American soldier seems to be a whole autonomous unit unto himself or herself. Every American soldier truly IS an “Army of One”. Highly trained, efficient, skilled, confident and respectful — these men and women in uniform are just the kind of people that Detroit really needs to get itself out of its slump. And every other city in America needs this caliber of person too.

So please tell me why, exactly, are these walking human resources being wasted way over on the other side of the world when their dedication and skill sets and — let’s face it — salaries and healthcare benefits are so desperately needed here at home?

No, we don’t need our soldiers’ weapons skills in places like the Gulf Coast states or the Rust Belt. But we do need their dedication and heart.

We need the Marine Corps’ skill sets. “The few, the proud.” We really do. And we need that kind of bravery and willingness to get the job done here rather than there.

Second Marine Regiment in Al Anbar. Tarawa. “Keep Moving.” I was there. I saw for myself what our Marines can do to help re-build a country.

We need our soldiers’ ingenuity, dignity and courage here at home, helping to put America back on track — not over in Afghanistan, not over in Iraq and not even over in Gaza — where the corporatists who run America pay the cream of Israeli youth to do their dirty work for them, wasting their young lives being thugs to the brutal Occupation instead of being honorable men who refuse to shoot babies at point-blank range.

When I see a soldier at an airport, I just want to go up and hug him. Or her. You think that our boys aren’t doing a good job? Then go see Sebastian Junger’s new documentary movie “Restrepo” ( That’s the kind of ability and dedication I saw demonstrated again and again and again when I was in Iraq.

These guys are good.

But we need these men and women’s dedication and skills here at home, not over on the other side of the world.

And we need to be paying these men and women to be using their skill sets here, in America, in civilian life — in a job corps as well as a Marine Corps.

Screw bailouts for bankers, oil executives, Wall Street schemers and global corporations with no ties or loyalties to our country. They have done nothing with the money that Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama gave them except to use it to rip us off even more.

Let’s take back all that money — and give it to our returning soldiers instead. Let’s fill up ALL of our airports with returning soldiers. We truly need this lost generation’s abilities here at home. Now.

PS: While I was at the Social Forum representing the Free Palestine Movement, my booth was next to a booth manned by Peggy Logue and her husband. Logue is another dedicated Marine Mom. And she was selling her new book, “Skin in the Game,” all about her Marine son’s experiences in Haditha and her conflict between wanting to support her son’s efforts and her moral obligation to try to stop the needless bloodshed caused by global corporate wars. “Intense, raw, and profoundly honest, ‘Skin in the Game’ illustrates the human side of war and the daily struggle for peace.”

At the Social Forum, I also talked with Kyle Kajihiro, a representative of the American Friends Service Committee ( in Hawaii, and he told me how the entire Pacific Rim area has become just another highly-militarized “American Lake” — to the benefit of global corporatists, not us.

Screw that.

We need skilled men and women here at home, not hunkering off somewhere in faraway places like Guam or Okinawa, defending rich people’s interests — not ours — because that’s the only job that our young men and women can get.

PPS: The Detroit airport is the only airport I have ever seen besides, of course, the Norita airport near Tokyo, where all signs are printed in both English and Japanese.

June 24, 2010

Report from the Detroit Social Forum: Networking & sleeping around

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 8:23 am

I arrived at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit today — without a clue about what I was getting myself into. But it turned out to be a very amazing gig. Hundreds (if not thousands) of people were there, all trying to rack their brains for solutions regarding what to do about America’s numerous major problems. Plus everyone was networking like crazy. And the grandiose size of this vast event made past Teabagger conventions look pretty puny. I had NO idea that there were so many progressives still left in America.

And I too was out there networking like crazy and racking my brains — but mainly about where I was going to be sleeping tonight.

When people came up to the Free Palestine Movement booth where I was working today, first I would try to set them straight about what is really happening in Palestine. “Palestinians are basically just people like you or me, except for one big difference — they have the jackboots of the world’s fifth largest military machine slammed down onto their throats.”

“And why is that?”

If you ask me, it’s because American weapons manufacturers and their lobbyists keep goading Israel to keep on acting crazy; to keep on acting in ways that anyone with half a brain could easily see is going to totally piss everyone else in the Middle East off. So. Why do they keep doing these stupid things that obviously don’t work? Why? In order to create and maintain the perfect Endless War. You can’t sell guns if you don’t have a war. Duh.

Anyway, back at the booth. First I would cover all the salient points about what the FPM is doing to break the brutal blockade of Gaza — such as organizing ships and boycotts and divestments and perhaps even planning to fly an airplane loaded with humanitarian supplies into Gaza. The semi-crazy right-wing fundies currently in charge of Israel’s “Big Guns and F16s Department” wouldn’t shoot down an airplane with little old ME on board, would they? Don’t answer that.

Then, after I’d handed out all of my FPM brochures, I’d ask people where they were staying while at the convention. Here are some of the replies that I got:

1. “The Super 8 Motel.”

“How much does it cost?” I asked.

“It’s located way out on the freeway near Lansing, so it’s reasonable.”

“But how do you get there?”

“We rented a car.” Oh. Screw that. Too expensive for me and no place to park it here anyway. Next person.

2. “I’m staying in a church. In a sleeping bag. On the floor.” Oh.

3. “I live here in Detroit. I can bike over.” Lucky you.

4. “I’ve got a really nice room at the Regency.” Expensive. “But I’m sharing it with five other people so it’s not so bad.”

5. “We drove down from Canada. We’re staying with friends.” Rats. I have no friends in Detroit.

6. “I’m at the Doubletree. But my boyfriend is paying for it.” I shoulda planned ahead and gotten a sugar daddy. What was I thinking!

7. “We came up from North Carolina. The Victory Motel. Out on Route 94. $60 a night.” Yeah, and I bet that you have a car also.

8. “At the Clarion. $62 a night. No car. We take the 125 bus to the airport and then take a shuttle to our hotel.” How long does that take you? “Two and a half hours.”

9. A woman with a child had no idea where she was going to be staying. “We just got in from Ohio.” I felt her pain.

10. “Holiday Inn. Right down the street.” How much a night? “I’m not sure. I’m here with my parents.” I wish I had parents.

11. “I’m just down from Ann Arbor for the day. 45 of us chartered a bus.”

12. “In the dorms at Wayne University. 35 bucks a night. You get your own room.” I’m there! But when I inquired around, I unfortunately found out that there was no there there.

Then my friends said I could stay with them at the Code Pink house. Okay. But then Medea Benjamin got detained while crossing the border back in from Canada and the person detained with her was the one who owned the house here in Detroit and so that deal fell through.

Finally I decided to just go sleep on a park bench over by the river next door to Cobo Hall. On my way to the park, however, I saw some shuttle buses lined up to take conventioneers back to Dearborn. So I just got into the line. I’d never been to Dearborn before. And, once in Dearborn, I was lucky enough to find a cheap room for the night. And it is a good thing that I did too because it would have been like Dante’s Inferno out on that park bench because there is nothing outside my window right now except lots and lots of rain and brilliant and terrifying flashes of thunder and lightning.

But at least it’s not Operation Cast Lead.

PS: Perhaps you have noticed that without a car I have been pretty much stuck here in downtown Detroit, without many options. They don’t call this place the Motor City for nothing.

And when I finally did get onto that bus to Dearborn and hit the freeway, I noticed a lot of crumbling and deserted industrial buildings by the sides of the interchanges — but the freeways themselves were freaking works of art as they cut through Detroit like knives through butter. No neighborhood seemed to be spared. Freeways definitely take priority here.

And my experiences here in Detroit only fortify my opinion that without gas and cars, America is pretty much screwed. Without gas and cars, we are pretty much stuck wherever we are — be it in the inner city or out in the suburbs. We don’t have to wait for “terrorists” to come and blow us up. We appear to be pretty much doing that to ourselves without any help already, thanks to our crippling reliance on oil and cars.

“Don’t forget the Motor City….”

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