From The Editor
Bill Girdner
Story Date:   
Beasts of War

     A birthday for a nation, like it is for a person, is a place to mark time. And this year, it seems like a time of great uncertainty.
     Late on Friday before the holiday, President Obama released numbers on civilian casualties from a subset of drone strikes, a military tactic he has championed. He also put in place a set of rules with the purpose of keeping those casualties down.
     In the morphing set of battlefronts and the increasing pace of soft target slaughter, it is easy to forget that there was a time during Obama's administration when mistakes and civilian casualties from drone strikes were regularly in the news.
     The 2009 drone strike on a wedding party in Yemen that killed 37 civilians gained such notoriety that it has its own Wikipedia page.
     To his great credit, Obama reined in those mistakes. The results over his tenure in office also suggest that drones are now used more frequently to kill individuals in cars and trucks rather than large groups on the ground.
     The change in tactics has inevitably led to less civilian carnage.
     Decades ago, when the Israelis pioneered the tactic of firing missiles at individual leaders while they were in homes or cars, my first reaction was, "That's assassination."
     At the time, the word assassination had a strongly negative implication. It was an individual action against a leader, either military or political, that took place outside the battlefield and outside the law. It was dastardly.
     Times have changed. Traditional Cold War rivalries still flare up, but they bring a bit of nostalgia for a more civilized test of national will that involved spies, planes, submarines and saber-rattling. War is now unconventional.
     In that context, assassinations are accepted.
     The release by the Obama administration of the executive order on drones last week coincided with the publication of a CNS story timed for the holiday weekend. It was about two buddies from the Vietnam War, with one successfully campaigning on behalf of the other for a long-deserved Purple Heart.
     The photo especially struck me. It brought back all the craziness of those times, the psychedelic culture alongside mass anti-war demonstrations alongside the hell of the war abroad.
     A Mexican-American stands in worn, wrinkled, green army shirt, with misshapen pockets. A black American stands next to him, bare torso, dog tags, beat-up light-brown shorts, a floppy green hat and dark-shaded specs. Behind them are massive, dull-colored, partially rusted armored personnel carriers.
     Those guys were the grunts, the workmen of the war, the draftees, the machine-gun fodder of political ambition and deception at home.
     In their distant, almost ironic, exhausted expressions, in the enormous, scarred beasts of war behind them, you can see the jungle war they are fighting, the hard, deadly work of killing in close quarters where days and nights ran together for months on end battling a skillful, relentless enemy.
     There were no drones. This was fighting on the ground.
     A few years back, there was a fair amount of revisionism coming from the Republican side, about how the war was winnable and it was only a lack of will that lost it. Anybody who lived through those times, who was subject to draft, knows what a travesty that argument is.
     You have not heard it for a few years now. But the Republican candidate to replace Obama is not far away when he commits a related calumny, criticizing John McCain for being captured by the North Vietnamese.
     At the same time, the opposing Democratic candidate is a hawk, an energetic promoter of military action abroad. She too seems to have forgotten what a dark time in America that was.
     While it seems like a far-off comparison, the long-running wars of the Middle East -- in their ceaselessness, in the creeping, ever-expanding human cost, in their intractability -- are starting to remind me of the Vietnam War.
     So many points between the two are inapposite, a desert war as opposed to a jungle war, a theatre spread across much of the globe as opposed to one limited to Southeast Asia, a constantly morphing enemy as opposed to a clear opponent.
     But it is the fact that it never ends.

Coyote Speaks
Robert Kahn
Story Date:   
My Campaign Speech to the Republicans

     It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Republican speechwriters.
     Refusing to budge an inch, Republican delegates with bait on their breaths took cold comfort this week from the longevity of speeches exposing their soulless wits.
     Faint-hearted, lily-livered cowards with no conscience at all, their action-taking whoreson knave cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war, though to give the devil his due, the green-eyed monster was already dead as a doornail.
     Good riddance.
     But I, with a heart of gold upon my sleeve, more sinned against than sinning, do not want to milk the Republican speakers' human kindness. If any. As it were.
     Umm ... Where were The Royal We?
     O, brave new world! Isn't our candidate's wife a dish fit for the gods!
     Hathn't he said so, for goodness sake?
     And if his tender lamb should be hoist on Michelle Obama's petard, to be a laughing stock all the livelong day, isn't love blind? And doesn't love play fast and loose?
     But lest I set your teeth on edge and send you on a wild goose chase, I confess: The 26 clichés I have squeezed in so far all come from William Shakespeare — except the first one. I stole that one from Chuck Dickens.
     Pardon me for having a memory.
     But in 1987 Joe Biden, then senator from Delaware, now vice president of the United States, was forced to drop his quest for the presidency when The New York Times showed he had cribbed a few sentences in a speech from Britain's Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock — and — brace yourself, my fellow Americans — from President Kennedy.
     Biden couldn't stand the heat from the press, and got out of the kitchen. (Cliché count so far: 30.)
     How the mighty have fallen. (2 Samuel: 1:25 (31)).
     Many moons ago (32: citation uncertain) I taught English for six years on an Indian reservation.
     It was an immense reservation, big as Rhode Island, and, thank God for small favors (33), miles away from cities of white men.
     I tried and failed to teach my students what a cliché is. They'd never heard my clichés. Those were the days. (34: U.S. copyright to Eugene Raskin.)
     By the way (35), Raskin stole the song "Those Were the Days" from Russian composer Boris Fomin, who died of tuberculosis in 1948, and the poet Konstantin Podrevsky, who died in 1930 after Stalin had him arrested as a counter-revolutionary for writing romantic songs.
     Even though Raskin had stolen the song, hook line and sinker (36), he sued a gefilte fish company for using the tune in a commercial — I am not making this up — and won.
     Then Paul McCartney bought rights to the tune from Raskin and — need I go on? (37)
     After Mary Hopkin made the song a hit in 1968, Raskin got a royalty check for $26,000 — for one month of sales — so, what the hell (38), he bought himself a house in Majorca, a sailboat and a Porsche and lived off the royalties for the rest of his life.
     Have I made myself clear? (39)
     Everyone plagiarizes all the time, though most of us don't know it. This is because most of the 7.2 billion human residents of Planet Earth stumble all their lives through other people's words.
     I do it myself. I wake up each morning clasping a metaphorical shovel to clear away the bullshit.
     So what's wrong with Republicans plagiarizing their betters for their own tawdry ends? (40)
     Nothing, I guess. Except their dishonesty and vicious threats when they're nailed for it. (41)
     Who they gonna sue? Shakespeare?
     What a loser he was ...

From The Courts
Milt Policzer
Story Date:   
Does Sex Matter?

     Does it really matter what sex you are?
     OK, I guess it does in a lot of situations, but should it matter when, say, you're applying for a passport?
     Should you be disqualified from travel if you check the wrong gender box?
     I wouldn't have thought so, but a person in Colorado had a hearing last week on his or her or its asserted right not to check a gender box on a passport application.
     It seems that the plaintiff, Dana Zzyym, claimed (s)he would be committing perjury if (s)he claimed to be either male or female because (s)he was born with ambiguous genitalia.
     Longtime readers of this column know that this is the kind of legal dispute that I absolutely love — expensive litigation over causes not worth fighting over for either side.
     On the one hand you have a plaintiff that could have just checked a box — any box — and gone on to international travel.
     I'm pretty sure TSA agents would not check his/her genitalia for accuracy. The court system is not clogged with gender identity perjury trials.
     On the other hand, we have a government that dearly loves to fight for rules, whether there's any reason for them or not.
     This is from a government brief in the case: "Allowing passports with sex markers other than 'F' or 'M' would compromise the department's efforts to prevent identity theft and passport fraud by upending the department's long-established system for validating the identity and citizenship of passport applicants and requiring the department to rely on less reliable and less uniform identification documents."
     Less reliable methods than, say, DNA testing, dental records, fingerprints or the really difficult option of examining faces?
     You wonder if they've considered looking at photos.
     And how exactly is this gender identity going to be verified? What happens after a transvestite checks the male box? Or a tomboy (or tomman?) checks the female box?
     If you have to strip at the airport to verify your genitalia, how do you decide whether male or female officers get to observe the results?
     Maybe TSA agents should strip first and let the passengers decide who gets to see them.
     You may want to leave a few hours early for your next international flight.
     I think we'd be better off if we stopped identifying people by gender. It's not important for most jobs — as opposing to, say, being able to do the job — and I could stop writing "her/him" and "his or her."
     (Quick geek aside: Go read the "Ancillary" series, starting with "Ancillary Justice," by Ann Leckie, to see what happens when you stop worrying about pronouns.)
     A more sensible identifier would be a badge letting everyone know whom you're willing to have sex with.
     You'd have an end to gay/straight awkwardness, and instead of arbitrarily banning transgenders or gay people from bathrooms, you could more usefully ban anyone with a badge saying "Turned on by people relieving themselves."
     While we're on the topic of identification, consider this sentence from the majority opinion in Veasey v. Abbott, the Fifth Circuit ruling on the Texas voter ID law: "(T)he evidence before the Legislature was that in-person voting, the only concern addressed by SB 14, yielded only two convictions for in-person voter impersonation fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade leading up to SB 14's passage."
     The court seemed to think this was evidence that in-person voter fraud is not a problem.
     But is it?
     After all, there's another interpretation: Voter fraud could be so successful that no has noticed it. There could be millions of fraudulent voters — which would explain how all those weirdos keep getting elected.
     A few industrious shape-shifting aliens could change the face (literally) of American politics.
     Think I'm kidding?
     Note the ominous hint in footnote 30 of the Fifth Circuit ruling: "He testified that this fact made his analysis 'stronger because it does not matter who is in charge of State politics or the political parties in power in Texas, whether they're Republicans, Democrats[,] or Martians ...'"
     It's in a footnote because we don't want the aliens to know we're on to them.