18 January 2010

A Remote Sensing of Optimism

God works in strange and mysterious ways. And, sometimes, he works through my television remote. The kids have been getting more difficult to put to bed recently. Maybe they're like dogs and earthquakes, picking up on strange pre-deployment vibes. Maybe they're going though some stage. Maybe they're just kids.

So the standard parenting procedure has at Fire Base Sherpa has been: put assigned kid to bed, read some books, say some prayers, and return to hootch and wait. Wait half-awake and bleary-eyed in front of FOX or PBS for the inevitable sounds of 3-to-5-second rushes, and for drinks and monsters and other night missions.

My kids move tactically, by the way, like little ninjas: "I'm up, Dad sees me, I'm down." They teach that at Happy Infantry Summer Camp.

So I'm waiting for my elder child to start her nightly insurgency--while, in a separate police action of her own, Household-6 is laying down covering fire and tucking in the little guy--and Bill Moyers Journal is on PBS. I normally watch Family Guy or American Dad on Sunday nights, but tonight, it's Bill Moyers. God is in the details, as they say. And my remote.

The Jan. 15, 2010 program--there's a full and free transcript here--is a three-cherries jackpot of Red Bull goodness: First, a "1984" and "memory hole" reference leading into an interview with the Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" and "The Wrecking Crew." Remember the name, folks: George Orwell. Don't call it a comeback.

Second, and more importantly for Sherpa's usual purposes, there was a low-key interview with low-key do-gooder (and former U.S. Army medic) named Greg Mortenson, who I'll get to in a minute. But I need to quote some of the Frank interview first:
THOMAS FRANK: [...] Those things have all sort of been dwarfed by the economic disaster and the wreckage on Wall Street. But I would say to you that all of these things that we're describing here are of a piece. And that they all flow from the same ideas. And those ideas are the sort of conservative attitude towards government. And conservative attitudes towards governance. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: That government is a perversion.

THOMAS FRANK: Government is-- yeah, government is a perversion. And to believe that the federal government can be operated, you know, with all of its programs, can be operated well and do things that are good for the people, is, as you say, is a perversion.
Take a knee for a minute. I'm a pretty conservative guy myself--maybe even tend toward the libertarian side of the spectrum. I don't see anything too scary in a premise that government is inherently flawed, as are all human endeavors. That said, I also like my system of government--I'm pledged to support the Constitution, after all--particularly when I look around the world for alternatives. But what caused me to nearly short-circuit Sunday evening was the pairing of the Frank interview (which was generally about the mess that We the People are in), and the Greg Mortenson interview (which was generally about the mess that the Afghan people are in, and how we can help them out).

Some long-dormant high-social-studies part of my brain suddenly clicked on, and I had this thought: While U.S. conservative domestic policy purports to be about decreasing national-level governance, much of conservative foreign policy purports to be about increasing the national-level governance internal to foreign countries. How can it be that so many American citizens say dislike their government, but think so little of attempting to nation-build other countries into our own image?

Heavy, man.

Greg Mortenson, author of "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones Into Schools," has been working in Afghanistan and Parkistan for the nearly two decades. His non-profit organization works with local leaders to fund and construct schools for girls. While he does not work with or advise the military, he has had occasion to meet some of the Top Brass on both the U.S. and Taliban sides of the conflict. Read the whole transcript, but there's some nicely understated words of optimism and purpose here, which might help citizen-soldiers talk with their families about What We're Doing Over There, and How We're Doing It. The italics are mine:
GREG MORTENSON: [...] We can't run democracy in secrecy. And it doesn't matter whether it's George Bush or Obama. That was one of my main concerns is-it's a big decision. The other thing is that there was no consultation with the elders or the shura in Afghanistan. Every province has three to five dozen shura. And these are elders. They're poets. They're warriors. They're businessmen, a few women. And they're not elected, but they've kind of risen up through the ranks. And these to me are the real people with integrity and power in Afghanistan. So when this decision was made to deploy troops, none, there was no consultation with the troo-- with the elders. And they felt very marginalized by it because, you know, want to go into another country, we want to be able to at least have a part and a say in it. And it's not that difficult. You can do it at a district level, or local level, or at a national level. It's, you know, I think half of diplomacy is just showing up. You know, we've got to actually just show up and start to talk and then maybe we could get somewhere.

BILL MOYERS: Clearly the militarily knows you know something they don't know. And why can't they know it?

GREG MORTENSON: Well ... good question, Bill. In "Three Cups of Tea" I was fairly critical of the military. And I mentioned that they're laptop warriors and there's no boots on the ground. But I can say now that they've gone through a tremendous learning curve. And I think in many ways the military really gets it. They, Admiral Mike Mullen, who's become a friend of mine, I've met him several times and we've spent time together. He says that the three most important things that our troops have to do is, number one, listen more. Number two, they have to have respect, meaning they're there to serve the good people. And, number three, that they have to build relationships. [...]

I tend to be an optimist. So here's the good news, Bill. The first thing is the number of kids in school has gone up ten times in the last decade to 8.5 million children. There's a central banking system in Afghanistan since 2006, which has been huge. There's a road building program, about 80 percent of the roads have been built now from north to south and east to west. It's like building a road from Minneapolis to Dallas and D.C. to-- or New York to LA. Now, that's maybe 70 percent of the way done. There are 80,000 troops trained now, the Afghan Army. The goal is 180,000. And some more interesting things are if you go into the district courts, you'll see the number of women filing titles and deeds for land ownership is skyrocketing. And I think that's a real important thing to note. I think the U.S., we're-- we've been far too busy in the last two decades trying to plug in democracy in the world. And you cannot plug in democracy. We have to build democracy.
A final fun factoid from the Moyers show regards the financial cost of the Afghan push. I've often seen bean-counter estimates of what it takes to train and equip a U.S. soldier, but I think this was the first time I'd seen a cost-estimate such as this: "It costs us a million dollars a year to keep one soldier there," Moyers said. "That's $30 billion for the new 30,000 troops."

How much democracy could you build for that kind of money? How many schools? Heavy stuff.

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