Friday, July 9, 2010


Looking back over the postings in Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man, I realized none of them are very overtly political. Since I consider this blog a self-portrait, that fact is misleading. Actually, I spend a good portion of my time thinking about politics. However, I tend not to enjoy political discussion all that much. It seems to me they either end up being preaching to the choir or trying to score points against someone you have no intention of really listening to. In my experience political discussions close more doors than they open.

Obviously, I’m leading up to writing about politics and I am challenging myself to do it in a way that is personal and invites people in rather than slamming a door in their face.

I just finished reading Blackwater, The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. The gist of what Scahill presents is that Bush came into office with an agenda to “privatize” as much of the federal government as possible, including functions traditionally carried out by the armed services. This was an overt goal that Bush and his neoconservative administration claimed was based on their belief that competition in the market place results in more efficiency than central planning, that corporations, given a free hand, could do everything that government does better and cheaper, including defend the country. Bush, Chaney, and Rumsfeld stated all this before the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11. After that traumatic event, privatization of the military was put on a fast track so that by the time the US invaded Iraq the State Department and Department of Defense were set up to give out billions of dollars to private corporations to take over functions that had historically been performed by the armed services. Many of these contracts went to a new corporation named Blackwater founded by a man named Erik Prince. Prince was a very wealthy man with deep involvement in right wing political and religious causes.

Not surprisingly, like everything else about the invasion of Iraq, the move to privatize essential military functions went very wrong very quickly. However, it made the people who were awarded the contracts very rich. They profited mightily from the war even as it spiraled downward into chaos. Scahill, whose writing is clear and engaging, tells this story in great detail and with solid documentation. He makes it clear that privatization of the military is a terrible idea, on many, many levels.

My usual response to reading a journalistic expose like this, where powerful people are revealed to be doing terrible things to the rest of us, is anger. I certainly felt anger while reading Blackwater, but much more I felt sadness. I kept muttering to myself, “My poor country. What are they doing to my poor country?”

My most personal connection to the book came as I read about the recruitment and training of Hondurans as mercenaries to send to Iraq. Honduras had initially been part of the “coalition of the willing.” However, it quickly withdrew its regular army troops due to domestic opposition to the war. Despite this decision that the country would not take part in an unpopular war, by 2005 military contractors had set up training bases in the mountains outside Tegucigalpa and were recruiting the same soldiers that Honduras had brought home to go back to Iraq as contracted soldiers. Scahill reports that the Hondurans were paid about $1,000 per month, a small fraction of what people from other parts of the world were being paid to do the same work. So even as cannon fodder, Honduran lives aren’t worth as much as other lives.

I was in Honduras during this period. I had hiked in the mountains where the training base was located. I had no idea what was going on, but I had some contact with the Honduran military and had been thinking and writing about young soldiers.

From my Peace Corps journal- September 25, 2005:

I'm at a Honduran army base in the city of Siquatepeque to give a four-hour presentation on AIDS to the soldiers. This is part of an initiative of the Peace Corps to deliver preventative information to sexually active adult men. I'm at the base with thirty other participants of a “train the trainers” workshop. This is our practicum.

(The manual for the workshop is titled "Aqui Entre Nos... Ideas and Tools for Prevention of HIV/AIDS in the Adult Man." It is illustrated with my Platano Y Tomate drawings.)

We’ve divided up into teams of five and each team is presenting to about fifteen soldiers. I'm working with three Hondurans and another Peace Corps volunteer.

The workshop is fun. It is physically active, packed with games and exercises. The soldiers are having a good time. It has become clear that about half of them can't read or read very poorly. They have trouble counting off by fours. When presented with true or false questions it takes them awhile to realize that the answer will either be true or false. One game involves repeating a well-known tongue twister. Maybe a third of them never manage to say it correctly. They are young and small. Despite the uniforms and the berets worn low over one eye, they strike me as touchingly vulnerable. I'm told later that only the very poor enter the army at this level. If you have more money you can be an officer. These are poor boys from isolated villages a long way from home.

From Siguatepeque, where the Honduran army base is located, it is a twenty-minute bus ride to Comayagua where there is a large American army base. Comayagua is, not coincidentally, a center of prostitution. It is estimated that among prostitutes in Honduras the rate of AIDS infection is 30%.

I'm doing an activity that leads up to the condom demonstration. I ask them to line up in order from the oldest to the youngest with the youngest near the door and the oldest near the window. This relates to condom usage because we are going to give them a sequence of directions for the correct use of a condom and ask them to perform them in order. They like trying to get in order by age, but they can't do it. Two people will ask each other how old they are and stand next to each other, but it won't necessarily relate to the next two. Finally, an officer takes over and organizes them, but when I ask them to go down the line and say how old they are, several are out of order. They think this is very funny, especially the twenty-three year old down between the seventeen and eighteen year olds. Next I ask them to line up by how far their home is from Siguatepeque. Surprisingly they do better at this. There are some energetic discussions about which place is more distant, but in the end they all agree the order is right. I have no way of knowing. Finally, I ask them to form a line with the man with the biggest penis near the door and the man with the smallest penis near the window. The silence lasts three or four beats too long. Then they figure out it is a joke, start laughing, calling for rulers, and jostling to be as near the door as possible.

A young Honduran man named Melvin who came to the workshop with me from Sonaguera takes over and does the condom demonstration. It is soon obvious that many of the soldiers have never seen or handled a condom. They have trouble opening the tin foil packets. They can't figure out which side is up. We are using platanos for penises and they try to put them on with the roll facing the wrong way.

This is all done with great humor, not to mention homoerotic charge. Picture a room full of hot young Latin men holding huge green bananas and helping each other get rubbers over them.

I’m left with the impression that, while it would probably take any of these guys five minutes to get a girl pregnant or infect himself with HIV, their chances of getting a condom on in the dark in a state of excitement are pretty slim.

Perhaps because these boys are young enough to be my grandchildren, all of this strikes me as poignant and some how hopeful. There is so much to do and it needs to happen at such a basic level that it should be possible to make a difference.

I have heard that commercial sex workers charge one price for sex with a condom, but for a little more will let you go "carnita a carnita." At least now, if offered the choice, these soldiers can make an informed decision. That is progress. Right?

("Carnita" is the diminutive of "carne" so it translates as "little meat" or in the phrase for unprotected sex "little meat to little meat." However, the diminutive is used with terms of endearment so perhaps a better translation is "sweet little meat to sweet little meat." I have to admit I like that.)

From my Peace Corps journal – 10/10/05:

I sent out a group email today that described working with a group of Honduras soldiers. (The email was based on the journal entry above.) I wrote about my perception of them as vulnerable young men, poor, uneducated, a long way from their homes and the support of their families. This was an accurate description of my feelings as I stood in front of the group, talking about HIV/AIDS and hoping that the information, to some small extent, would make these young men safer.

However, as I was writing the email a couple of weeks later, another set of more complicated perceptions had crept in.

I’d been reading Inevitable Revolutions by Walter Lafeber. It is a detailed history of the long, sad story of the United States’ exploitation of Central America. For about 200 years now we have had one goal in Central America: profit. We have done anything and everything to keep the balance of cash flowing from South to North. Up until about the 1950’s if anything happened that threatened to interrupt our money making, we literally sent in the marines with few if any apologies or rationalizations. In the 1950s and 60s, in the context of the cold war, with the Soviet Union and China emerging as rival super powers, direct, armed intervention in the internal affairs of Central American democracies became harder to pull off. Our solution was to choose a right wing politician or general, covertly support him in overthrowing the legitimate government, buy him an army and auxiliary paramilitaries, train them at The School of The Americas, arm them to the teeth and turn them loose on their own people. Thus assuring that Central America was a “stable” place for US corporations to make big bucks. Due to this arrangement, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, especially during the 1980’s and 90’s, were tortured, “disappeared”, lined up on the edges of mass graves and shot in the back of the head, herded into churches that were then burned to the ground, dropped out of airplanes and helicopters, etc.

Inevitable Revolutions, among many other books, tells this history at much greater length, in minute detail, in more academic language, but there is no mistaking that this is the story.

The soldiers who did the killing across Central America must have been just like the sweet, not very bright boys I gave the AIDS workshop to. The victims of the killing were for the mot part poor and powerless, just like the killers themselves.

What is the greater sin, for a boy to be a murderer or to turn a boy into a murderer? I’m glad I don’t have to come up with the answer to that question.

(Speaking of great sin, John Negroponte was US ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s, but his responsibility for the process described above was much greater and included overseeing the US’ bloody role in Nicaragua and Salvador. In 2004 he was appointed ambassador to Iraq. Scahil suggests that his appointment was made with the goal of implementing the “Salvador Option”: getting Iraqis to kill other Iraqis.)

I read the last page of Blackwater and closed the cover. How can it be that this information is available in such an accessible form and nothing changes?

But maybe there is some reason to be hopeful after all. From the New York Times, June 8, 2010

WASHINGTON — Burdened by lawsuits, criminal investigations and negative publicity stemming from its private security work in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blackwater Worldwide is being put up for sale, the company has announced.

Blackwater, which changed its name to Xe Services and brought in new management last year in order to remake its image, is pursuing a sale in part because that overhaul has failed to change perceptions of the company, most critically inside government, which is its main customer.

Erik Prince, the former member of the Navy Seals and heir to an automotive fortune who founded Blackwater, said in a statement given to The Associated Press late Monday that making the decision to sell the company was difficult, but that he no longer wanted to deal with the intense criticism the business has faced.

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