Love the warrior but hate the war, and other weekend ruminations

Also: Whom to blame for gas prices, kudos for the schools supe, Sound Transit's latest audit, and polygamy's free pass.
Crosscut archive image.

The Three Soldiers statue at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C. (David Bjorgen / Creative Commons)

Also: Whom to blame for gas prices, kudos for the schools supe, Sound Transit's latest audit, and polygamy's free pass.

Here are short takes for a long weekend. They cover, too briefly, matters that I have meaning to deal with at far greater length in recent days.

Memorial Day

I will attend a Memorial Day observance this weekend. No matter one's view of the present Iraq and Afghanistan interventions — or of any present or past military engagement — we owe tribute to the men and women who have died and been wounded to defend the rest of us.

I put in nearly seven years of active and reserve service as an Army enlisted man at a time when military service was obligatory. Before that, I spent two years in a University of Washington ROTC unit before dropping out. I spent not one moment in combat or in a war zone, although I did serve at the Pentagon at a time when nuclear war threatened. As President Kennedy famously said, life is unfair. During war, some are called to die; others never leave home.

With the elimination of a military draft more than 30 years ago, few Americans have served in the military or have even known someone who has done so. This is unhealthy and leads to situations, as in Seattle, where teachers, parents, and ordinary citizens call for banning of military recruiters from high-school and college campuses. Would they similarly ban recruiters seeking young men and women to become doctors, nurses, public-safety officers, teachers, and occupational therapists? The present-day military is performing splendidly, under difficult conditions, and is providing perhaps the best opportunity in our country for poor and minority kids to lift themselves.

Most U.S. interventions in the 20th or 21st centuries could have been avoided with a bit of skill and intelligence by our national leaders. The Spanish-American war was a jingoist, unnecessary venture inspired in part by an irresponsible tabloid press. Our involvement in World War I could have been avoided altogether. We were drawn into it, in part, by skillful British propaganda and outright disinformation. World War II — fought against cruel German and Japanese aggression — was a war that had to be waged. But strong diplomacy and mutual action by Western nations, before the war, might have stopped the aggressions before they began. Our WW II firebombings of German and Japanese civilian targets, and our use of nuclear weapons, would have resulted in war-crimes trials of American leaders had we been losers rather than winners of the war. The Korean War began after Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated publicly that Korea did not lie within the U.S. defense perimeter. We became engaged in Vietnam because of a complete misunderstanding of what was happening there. Our vital interests were never at stake there. Nonetheless, 58,000 American troopers died there and perhaps a million Vietnamese, north and south. Our role in Afghanistan, post-9/11, was unavoidable. But our intervention in Iraq, as that in Vietnam, was based on a faulty assessment of the realities there.

Animus regarding wars should be directed against the leaders who launched them. We owe honor to those who served and died while we lived.

Gas prices

No, folks, those high gasoline prices are not being caused by collusion among evil oil companies. They reflect supply and demand. Oil prices have doubled in the last 12 months. But this is not because of a speculative bubble, as in high-tech or housing, where prices have been bid up irrationally.

A recent International Energy Agency survey confirmed that we face a decade or more in which there will just plain not be enough oil on the market to meet current demand. Yes, OPEC countries could pump more. Yes, Western countries should do more to encourage exploration, development of new fields, and new refining capacity. But when you come down to it, there will remain an oil shortfall, especially as economies such as China's and India's drive toward higher growth rates.

The conclusions are inescapable. We do need to develop alternative energy sources: natural gas, still plentiful; solar; wind power; cleaner coal; and, yes, nuclear, if waste can be recycled as in France's breeder reactors. On the other side of the issue — conservation — market forces already are driving us in the right direction. Sales of trucks and SUVs are plunging; small-car and hybrid sales are rising. Truckers, cruise lines, airlines, and other oil users are taking rational steps to keep themselves viable in a new oil-price environment. Individual citizens will turn to car- and van-pooling and greater use of public transit.

Current noisemaking might shame some senior oil executives into limiting their own personal compensation. But the companies need their profits to bring more oil online. Price controls and rationing, World War II-style, would only make things worse by encouraging black markets and distortions.

Four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, or something close to it, will be with us for a while. Europe has lived with such prices for a long time. We also will need to get used to the reality that American economic growth and employment, over a several-year period, will be retarded by oil inflation. We will come out the other end. But cursing Big Oil now will do little to help us.

Kudos for the schools supe

We've been accustomed for more than a decade to never-ending reports of financial mismanagement, fractious School Board posturing, low test scores, high dropout and truancy rates, and time-wasting politically correct focus on race in Seattle Public Schools.

Congratulations to Supt. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, and the current School Board, for moving the system beyond these issues to common-sense policies aimed at enhancing teacher and student performance.

Goodloe-Johnson's new strategic plan, released this past Wednesday, May 21, is so sensible you wonder how it happened in Seattle. It stresses math and science teaching. It does not waste time complaining about the WASL but, instead, suggests ways to meet WASL and other academic benchmarks of student achievement. It tells teachers, principals, and administrators they will face more rigorous performance evaluations. It says that current slackness about high-school graduation rates will no longer be tolerated.

The school board will consider Goodloe-Johnson's plan June 4. It appears headed for approval. Right on.

Another Sound Transit audit

We received last week another taxpayer-financed mailing from Sound Transit. Titled "Time to Decide on Expanding Mass Transit," it began by stating, "Each year you spend more time stuck in traffic. ..." You know the rest.

The mailing listed public hearings scheduled for discussion to "help shape the Sound Transit Board's decision on the timing of a mass transit expansion measure and whether to move forward with a 12-year or 20-year package." As if those were the only two options. The options, as presently posited by Sound Transit, would give voters and taxpayers a choice between two multibillion-dollar plans, both focused on expansion of the behind-schedule, over-budget, uncompleted Seattle light rail system throughout King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties.

Incredible as it might seem, Sound Transit apparently is leaning toward putting one of the two packages on this fall's ballot — only a year after the similar Proposition 1 was thunderously rejected by voters in the three counties and when they are coping with a slower economy and higher tax burdens than in 2007.

It will come too late to affect any 2008 decision, but State Auditor Brian Sonntag has announced that he plans a second, more comprehensive audit of Sound Transit than the one completed last year.

The new audit will begin this summer and is scheduled for completion at this time in 2009. It will examine Sound Transit's long-term financial viability; its effectiveness in managing contracts, properties, and its own staff; and public communication. It also will explore the contentious issue of sub-area equity, whereby money spent in each of the three counties must be raised in those counties.

The audit is to cover the period between 2005-07, which would let Sound Transit off the hook for some of the worst of its prior blunders. But, if avidly pursued, it will not be good news for an agency already under deserved fire for unkept spending and operational promises. The audit will not explore the pluses and minuses of proposals for Sound Transit governance reform. Those proposals would give power to a directly elected body, accountable to voters, rather than leaving it in the hands of the present appointed board and staff. Those proposals deserve adoption now.

Footnote: As Sound Transit continues to campaign for light rail — the most cost-ineffective of all transportation options available to this region — a national report this past week listed this area as the one most deficient in the country in investment in needed highway and road infrastructure upgrades and improvements.

Polygamy catches a break

If you love polygamy, you no doubt are hailing the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals decision that Texas should not have removed recently some 460 children from a Mormon-offshoot polygamist sect's ranch there.

Utah and Arizona governors and attorneys general, over several decades, have given lip service to enforcing anti-polygamy statutes in their states but have never really cracked down on the practice. If you drive through northwestern Arizona and southwestern Utah, in particular, you will pass many dormitory-style dwellings too large for any single family. There are multiple reports of forced marriages of young-teenage girls to older men and of expulsions from their communities of teenage boys forced to leave so that men in their 40s and 50s could choose from a surplus of young women.

These are not just quaint people wearing frontier-era clothing, or the likeable sorts appearing in HBO's Big Love series. Women and children are being ruthlessly exploited in communities living outside the law and, often, receiving big public income subsidies. The latter fact might prove the most convenient way to break these cults' continuing flaunting of the law, a bit like nailing Al Capone on tax-evasion charges when other approaches failed.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of