Category Archives: Travel

Victory in Mosul

 

Mission Accomplished

What does victory look like? Donald Trump bragged about how he had helped the Iraqi forces defeat ISIS (or ISIL or IS as it is sometimes called). For convenience I will refer to them all as ISIS.  ISIS as we all know is not an organization of Sunday school teachers.

I suppose such a victory is what my American friend was looking for when he called for the American forces to “take out Iran.”

Mosul is Iraq’s second most populated city. In June 2014, much to their surprise, ISIS  captured Mosul as the government forces, trained and outfitted by the Americans, collapsed at the mere sight of the fearsome  ISIS warriors. Much to the disappointment of the Americans, the Iraqi forces abandoned all that fancy and expensive American equipment largely without a fight. Years of American training, advice, and money, created security forces that at the first sign of trouble folded up and left their military hardware behind.

The Iraqi government was dominated by Shia Muslims. ISIS was dominated by Sunni Muslims.   That made for natural enmity. It was in Mosul that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” At the time the population of Mosul was 2.5 million people After ISIS ruled for more than 2 years those numbers dropped to 1.5 million.

ISIS had about 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul.  The estimates of their strengths varied widely. Many of them were not well trained and included teenagers, but because of their reputation for brutality they struck fear into the hearts and minds of Iraqis and westerners alike. Only the Kurds were keen on fighting them. About 10,000 were foreign fighters in including both Arabs and non-Arabs. The rest of ISIS fighters were Iraqi.

The Iraqi-led coalition that eventually drove out ISIS included about 100,000 Iraqi security forces, (ISF), 16,000 Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or PMU) 40,000 Peshmerga that included about 200 Iranian Kurdish female fighters from the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). It was estimated that Peshmerga and ISF outnumbered ISIS fighters by about 10-1. The Kurds did  most of the fighting for the American military, until the US abandoned them at the end of 2019. The world was notified of that abandonment by a tweet from President Trump and it shocked the world. The Kurds were more shocked than anyone else, even though many people told them not to trust the Americans.

The forces against ISIS were supported by many countries, including Canada, but most importantly the United States. The assault to recapture the city of Mosul really started in October of 2016. The coalition forces inflicted severe pain on ISIS in that effort and because by then ISIS was totally embedded in Iraq, the local population also suffered greatly. As the above photograph makes abundantly clear, the “victory” of retaking Mosul from ISIS came at a horrendous cost to the city and the people who lived there.

The UN stated that ISIS had taken tens of thousands of civilians to use as human shields in Mosul. Those who refused to go were executed. Life (and death) was simple in Mosul.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeted ISIS positions, and ISIL started tire fires to reduce visibility. Heavy fighting occurred in the city. The city was “won” back from ISIS by hard block-by-block fighting.  Before the battle to take back Mosul was over, it was estimated that it would cost more than $1 billion to repair “basic” infrastructure in the city. This process would likely take years. Again looking at the photograph above that is hardly surprising.

 The UN also estimated that more than 5,000 buildings have been damaged and another 490 were destroyed in the Old City. During the battle Amnesty International accused Iraqi, Kurdish  and United States forces of using unnecessarily powerful weapons including MOAB the so-called Mother of All Bombs, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the world. Both sides damaged many religious sites.

The US accused ISIS of using civilians as human shields. It was confirmed that this happened and was widely condemned by human rights organizations.  The International Business Times reported that ISIS had forced boys as young as 12 to fight for them and that ISIS had trained the children to behead prisoners and make suicide bombs. Civilians were shot and deposited into mass graves in the city. ISIS also carried out retribution killings of civilians for welcoming Iraqi and Peshmerga troops.

The presence of Iraqi forces with several militias with histories of human rights abuses caused various organizations to criticize the US led coalition forces.  The International Business Times reported cases of Iraqi security forces torturing and interrogating young children for information about ISIS. On March 17, 2017 a U.S. led coalition air-strike in Mosul killed more than 200 civilians.  Amnesty Internationals reported, “The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

Kurdish intelligence estimated in July of 2017 that the total number of civilian casualties at the time were 40,000. The largest portion of this loss of life is attributable to the unyielding artillery bombardment by U.S. supported Iraqi government forces. The US-led coalition forces were one of the significant sources of civilian deaths.

Thousands of people had been forced to flee the country as a result of ISIS attacks and bombardment by U.S. led coalition forces.  Of course, many of these refugees were children. The refugees were not welcome in the Us as part of his Muslim ban. All sides were accused of violating human rights laws. About one day after victory was declared by Iraqi forces, Amnesty International accused both sides of violating international laws. The Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S. were accused of carrying out unlawful attacks using explosive weapons and failing to take necessary precautions to prevent the loss of civilian life and in some cases including disproportionate attacks.

An Associated Press investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations, claimed that 9,000–11,000 residents of Mosul were killed in the battle. It blamed airstrikes and shellings by Iraqi forces and anti-ISIS coalition of being responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths. The coalition on the other hand has acknowledged responsibility for 326 deaths. ISIS was held responsible for killing one third of the civilians out of the death toll. Both sides were brutal. As I said before, savagery was the chief legacy of the war in Iraq, not democracy as George W Bush an dDick Cheney had envisioned.

Official victory over ISIS was declared in July of 2017, but that did not stop further heavy fighting as ISIS continued to resist in the Old City of Mosul.

It has been estimated that removing explosives from Mosul and repairing the city will cost $50 billion over the next 5 years.

This is what “victory” looks like. It’s not a pretty picture. Who is looking forward to another victory in the Middle East?

Iraq: The Chief Legacy of War is Savagery

As a result of my conversation with my American friend where he suggested the current foe, Iran, should obliterated, I have been thinking a lot about what succession war would look like. It is not obvious.

The Second War in Iraq started in 2003 and in 2017 Donald Trump bragged about how the Americans had defeated ISIS in Iraq. Of course he neglected to mention how most of the heavy lifting in that battle was done by the Kurds. Those were the same Kurds he shamelessly abandoned in 2019.

Originally that war was started to remove Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction with which he could not be trusted. Only the US and their friends can be trusted with such weapons. Later, when none of such weapons were found, the purpose of the war switched to defeating ISIS who had rushed into the country to fill the void left by Hussein.

But there is more to this story than victory. Ben Taub wrote a very interesting article for the New Yorker on what has happened in Iraq since ISIS had been defeated (more or less) in 2017.

To begin with, we must remember that the Iraqi government was installed by the Americans after they defeated Saddam Hussein and his army during the second Iraq War. Ever since then the US has been engaged in nation building in Iraq with pretty meager success. They have trained the military and police, since they did not want to keep Saddam Hussein’s Baathist security forces around for fear they would revive Saddam’s government. So really the Americans now own those security forces and the problems they have created. The US can’t really say it is not responsible and wipe its hands of the matter.

Taub described how a trial of Iraqi terrorists proceeded in 2018. After ISIS was largely defeated the Iraqis went on a rampage of revenge.  Taub saw dozens of suspected  terrorists who were crammed into a jail cell. Several of them had not yet seen a lawyer yet but were already dressed for execution.

Taub described the trial of one of those suspected terrorists this way:

“In terrorism cases, lawyers are usually denied access to their clients until the hearing begins. Shortly after ten o’clock, three judges in long black robes shuffled into Courtroom 2 and sat at the bench. Suhail Abdullah Sahar, a bald, middle-aged man with a thin, jowly face, sat in the center. There were twenty-one cases on his docket that day, sixteen related to terrorism. He quietly read out a name; a security officer shouted it down the hall to one of his colleagues, who shouted it to the guard, who shouted it into the cell. Out came a young man named Ahmed. A security officer led him to a wooden cage in the middle of the courtroom. Judge Sahar accused him of having joined ISIS in Qayyarah, a small town south of Mosul.

“Sir, I swear, I have never been to Qayyarah,” Ahmed said.

Sahar was skeptical. “I have a written confession here, with your thumbprint on it,” he said.

“Sir, I swear, I gave my thumbprint on a blank paper,” Ahmed replied. “And I was tortured by the security services.” Sahar listed Ahmed’s supposed jihadi associates; Ahmed denied knowing any of them.

“Enough evidence,” the prosecutor said. “I ask for a guilty verdict.”

Ahmed had no lawyer, and so Sahar called upon an elderly state attorney named Hussein, who was seated in the gallery, to spontaneously craft a defense. Hussein walked over to a lectern, repeated from memory what Ahmed had said, and, without requesting his release, concluded with a plea for “mercy in his sentencing.”

Ahmed wept as he was led out of the room. His trial had lasted four and a half minutes.”

And we should remember that the usual sentence for terrorist cases is death.

The second trial Taub observed lasted 8 minutes while the lawyers in the room yawned, cracked jokes, or closed their eyes. The Defendant said he was charged by mistake because his name was similar to that of someone in ISIS.

The trial of the third Defendant was a 23 year old from a village near Mosul who was charged with being a member of ISIS and again claimed it was a case of mistaken identity.

2 of these accused men had lawyer, which according to Taub was a good sign that they were innocent, since lawyers rarely wanted to represent guilty people because often after doing that the lawyers would be charged with being members of ISIS.  “As the lawyer spoke, the judges tended to administrative tasks. The trial was over in nine minutes. “I hate ISIS—they blew up my house!” the suspect shouted, in tears, as he was led out of court.”

In each case the prosecutor said: “Enough evidence—I ask for a guilty verdict.” It was the only phrase he uttered in court that morning. He did not have to do any more to get convictions from the judges even though many Defendants explained how they had been tortured into giving confessions.

One accused man had waited 4 years for his trial and then had a 3-minute trial during which time the judge paid no attention to his case. As Taub said,

 “The Islamic State has been mostly destroyed on the battlefield, but the war is far from over. Air strikes cannot kill an idea, and so it has fallen to Iraq’s fractured security, intelligence, and justice systems to try to finish the task. But, insofar as there is a strategy, it seems almost perfectly crafted to bring about the opposite of its intent. American and Iraqi military officials spent years planning the campaign to rid Iraq of ISIS, as if the absence of the jihadis would automatically lead Iraq toward the bright democratic future that George W. Bush’s Administration had envisaged when U.S. forces invaded the country, in 2003. But ISIS has always derived much of its dangerous appeal from the corruption and cruelty of the Iraqi state.”

As if this is not bad enough, we must remember that by far most of the young men and boys who were convicted of ISIS never made it to trial. They were disposed of without trials!

Ben Taub reported this way:

“Thousands of men and boys have been convicted of ISIS affiliation, and hundreds have been hanged. But, according to the senior intelligence official, these cases represent only a small fraction of the total number of detainees. “A few of the suspects are sent to court, but only to maintain the illusion that we have a justice system,” he said. (emphasis added)

 From 2014 to 2017, ISIS controlled about half of Syria and 1/3rd of Iraq. This territory was about the size of Great Britain. Millions of people lived inside this territory. Some of ISIS’s military leaders were former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. They combined a police state with what Taub called “the certainty of Jihadism.” He describe the situation in Iraq this way:

“The group blew up mosques and ancient archaeological sites, and pursued a campaign of ethnic cleansing through mass murder and sexual slavery. It conscripted local bureaucrats, doctors, and teachers, often on pain of death, and devoted enormous effort to radicalizing a generation of children and inuring them to violence, suffering, and loss. At the height of its success, in 2014, there was a real possibility that ISIS would capture Baghdad, and the Iraqi state would collapse. Now, more than a year after ISIS lost Mosul—its largest source of legitimacy, wealth, and power—hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering at the hands of their liberators. Anyone with a perceived connection to ISIS, however tenuous or unclear, is being killed or cast out of society.’

 Nothing is more dangerous than such incinerating certainties. Iraqi forces, supported and trained by America, were laying waste to what was left in Iraq. As Taub said,

 “Not long ago, I met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official who is deeply involved in counterterrorism operations. For three hours, over tea and cigarettes, he described systematic criminality within the security forces, detailing patterns of battlefield executions, murders in detention centers, and coverups organized by the state. He spoke as a witness, but also as a participant; although he is in a position to have stopped certain abuses, by intervening he would have risked incurring accusations that he is sympathetic to the group he has sought to destroy.

He believes that the Iraqi government’s response is as much a tactical blunder as it is a moral one; it plays directly into the jihadis’ narrative—that Sunnis, who make up a minority of the Iraqi population, cannot live safely under a government dominated by Shiites. “The reaction is one of vengeance—it is not well thought out,” he told me. “We rarely abide by the law.”

It is noteworthy that the conviction rate in Iraq is 98%.  I wonder how that compares with the regime of Saddam Hussein. I suspect the similarities are overwhelming.  The real problem, according to Taub is that “We’re deleting thousands of families from Iraqi society,” the official told me. “This is not just revenge on ISIS. This is revenge on Sunnis.”

This is the regime that Bush and Cheney thought would encourage all of the Middle East to jump on board the democracy train. This is the regime the Americans have spent billions (if not trillions) to uphold.  As Taub told the story:

“Nine years ago, two C.I.A. officers walked into an Iraqi prison and saw a hallway filled with hooded men, about to be executed for supposed affiliation with Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that gave birth to ISIS. “We were hammering A.Q.I., but the Iraqi government was just rounding up Sunnis,” one of the C.I.A. officers recalled. “And, for a moment, it worked.” But, instead of releasing the innocents, the Iraqi government sentenced them to death. “So, of course, they came back,” the officer said, of Al Qaeda in Iraq. “What do you expect? You literally killed their dads.”

 Now the people of Iraq are in the unenviable position of deciding who is better: ISIS or the Iraqi government?  It does not matter that the Americans have spent billions supporting the current Iraqi regime. Ben Taub has a significant warning for the rest of us:

 “Iraq is now entering one of the most delicate moments in its recent history. To the extent that ISIS functioned as a state, it was entirely predatory. But, by having lost on the battlefield rather than being toppled by its own depravity, the caliphate lives on as a fantasy of Islamic justice and governance which is measured against the corrupt reality of the Iraqi state. What is at stake, in this post-conflict period, is whether the Iraqi government can win over the segment of the population for whom ISIS seemed a viable alternative.

Of course none of this should surprise. This has happened around the world over and over again. The Americans back one side of a dispute, support them with equipment, training, and money and then discover, much to their surprise, that these “good guys” are just as bad as the regime they were to replace.   And again, much to their surprise the people they were saving were not very grateful. All too often this is what “success” in war looks like.

Wars in Iraq

 

 

I have been thinking a lot about the Wars of the United States in the Middle East.  There have been so many of them I have a hard time keeping track of them all. As I said in an earlier post on this blog, my American friend believes they should start another war, this time with Iran. He wants the Americans to “take out Iran.”

The first Iraq war was a response to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. He attacked a small country just because he could. He had been led to believe America would look the other way.  Until then Iraq  had been A US ally in the Middle East. I think some American describe Hussein this way: ‘He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.’ President George H.W. Bush had made the sensible idea of stopping the war as soon as Hussein was driven out of the country. Many in the US, particularly belligerent Americans, were disappointed, for they  thought The U.S. should have gone ahead and driven him from power too. But Bush senior stopped when his limited goal was achieved.  Regime change was not part of the goal. Limited goals are important.  Too often, political leaders forget that in the heat of the moment when they are seeking blood and fame.

Does anyone remember how the 2nd Iraq war started? President George W. Bush, the son of George H.W. Bush,  got America into the second Iraq war. No one was demanding it. In the American election that preceded it no one in the US was calling for it except some neo-liberals or neo-conservatives. It was not even an issue. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Vice-President and some like Donald Rumsfeld the Secretary of Defence wanted it. Just like John Bolton, Donald Trump’s recent security advisor, wanted war with Iran, Cheney wanted war with Iraq. They wanted “regime change”. Both thought victory would be easily attained.  After all the US was the most powerful country in the world.  They really believed that after a short war, the people of Iraq would thank the Americans for invading and removing a brutal dictator. This was hubris of the worst sort. We know what happened. A long war that right now, 18 years after it started, seems endless.

The Americans, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld, demanded that Saddam Hussein, their erstwhile ally, turn over all weapons of mass destruction. Inexplicably Hussein refused. How could he do that? Most Americans thought that was because he was hiding them. Well in time the answer was clear. He had none to turn over!  Dick Cheney was convinced he had them and they would find them, but they never did.  I remember hearing an interview with him where he confidently assured us those weapons of mass destruction would soon be found. So America went to war. This time only a few allies followed them, unlike the first War in Iraq led by the first George H. W. Bush where there was a broad coalition of supporting countries behind the US led attack.

When George W. Bush and his Vice-President Dick Cheney led America into the 2nd Iraq war they believed that after defeating Saddam Hussein a brutal dictator, the Iraqi people would welcome the Americans as liberators. After all, Hussein tortured and gassed his own people. They also believed this might lead the entire Middle East towards democracy. All they had to do was get rid of the oppressive dictator. It was simple! After he was toppled they fully expected the Iraqi people to embrace the Americans for delivering them from this cruel and vicious dictator.

But  in war  things are never that simple. As we all know, things did not work out that way. Not at all. War is a perfect time for humility not hubris.

The war was not over in May 2003 when George W. Bush was photographed aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier under a sign that read “Mission Accomplished.”  In fairness to Bush, at that time he had only declared that the major battles were over, but his supporters thought he was being too modest. Yet, he was photographed grinning broadly under that sign with a thumbs-up sign of approval. The initial battle only took a few days and there was remarkably little American bloodshed. The mighty Iraqi army had crumbled in a few days. Hussein had promised “the Mother of all Wars,” but it was an empty boast. Or was it? 18 years later we might have to say he had a point. At the time the Americans appeared to have reason for self-satisfaction. But again, it was not quite that simple. Wars seldom are that simple. The U.S. has been there ever since continuing what more and more looks like an endless war.

What has happened to the war in Iraq since supporters of George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in 2003? Do we have something to learn from that war?  I think so. Will we learn a valuable lesson? Listening to my belligerent American friends it seems unlikely.

My American Friend Wants to “Take Out Iran”

Shortly  after we arrived in the United States, President Trump ordered the assassination of one of Iran’s military leaders, general Qassem Suleimani, by an unmanned drone. It really was an assassination but they call it a “targeted killing,” because assassination is illegal in the U.S. You tell me what the difference is? I suggest there is none. The hit was clean. Well relatively clean. “Only” 2 others were killed. The driver of the General’s car and one other person, presumably his body guard.

Shortly after our arrival in Arizona, Chris and I joined some of our American friends around their backyard fire. Like me, they love fires. We had a pleasant chat. It got a little dicey however when we started talking about the assassination.  Usually I am better at avoiding controversy with my American friends. I am trying to be a good guest. Sometimes that is hard. Like today. But he made me do it.

My friend said if it was up to him he would “take out Iran.”  This seemed astonishing to me.  He said, the Americans had managed to kill Qassem Suleimani in a nice and neat operation.  If the Americans could do that, he said, they should take out all of the top military leadership. He seemed to think that somehow they could obliterate the entire military that way, leaving the country intact. He said he wanted to make it clear that he was not advocating bombing the entire country into the Stone Age as General Curtis Lemay had advocated for the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. But he did want to “take them out” as he called it. He made it sound like precise surgery. His wife got very upset at these statements. She called them “stupid.”

I told him that I did not think the American military could be that precise and that wars are never that neat and tidy. I thought America might be able to eventually overpower the armed forces of Iran, but like the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq this would probably drag on indefinitely too. Could the US really afford one more war? Why would this one be any better?

I reminded my friend how American was still involved in the War in Afghanistan 18 years after it started. I believe it is now the longest war in American history.

I reminded him that the United States had spent $6 trillion in the Middle East since 9/11.  I don’t know how many American soldiers have been killed. Thousands of Afghanis have been killed. Thousand of Iraqis as well. That is just two of the wars the US has been involved in.  Was it worth it? Think of how many schools could have been built for that money? How many hospitals. How many young people could be given a free education? How many people could be given free medical care?

What has the US accomplished with all these wars? Do Americans feel safer? Is the Middle East a safer place? The people in the Middle East hate Americans even more than they did 18 years ago. What was the point?

After the assassination the Iraq government has asked the Americans to leave, fearing that their country will be turned into a battleground between Iran and the US. That is not a paranoid concern.

This discussion with my American friend made me think  wars. Wars are brutal. And they never go as planned. They are never neat and tidy.

I thought about World War I–the Great War–where European soldiers battled each other in the muddy trenches of Europe for 4 years. That was a war that was started for no reason whatsoever.  A bunch of European countries arguing about who could exploit which colonial countries. Finally the war was called because every country was exhausted. By then millions were  dead for absolutely no purpose at all.

Then there was World War II.  In that war there were clear villains. Heroes were more opaque and well camouflaged. Again millions of people were killed. Yes the allies stopped a brutal dictator who was responsible for the death of millions, bu the legacy of these wars was a century of brutality. Savagery and brutality to which the world has since grown accustomed. Some historians have even suggested the the Nazis could not have ushered int he Holocaust without the cover of war. In any event, it delivered death on an awesome scale. After that such death and brutality  became matter of fact. All I am saying is the the cost of the war was incredibly high.

We sure should think twice about going to war. Cocksure claims like “taking them out” are extremely dangerous.

 

 

Being a Friend or being a citizen requires we think critically

 

Now that we have arrived in the United States I have to be careful. I am a guest here. Sometimes I want to criticize it. But America believes in free speech. They are in some respects fanatical about it. Yet they hate to be criticized. Sometimes that makes for a difficult dance.

I criticize the United States as a friend. I speak as a friend who is dismayed at how it has gone awry and strayed from the ideals of its constitution. Not that I worship that constitution. It is deeply flawed. For example, it tolerated slavery and discrimination against indigenous people. Yet it championed noble ideals too.

So I criticize the United States with love. I ask it to live up to its ideals enshrined in its own constitution. As I have said many times, I love the United States; I love Americans. But sometimes I have to be critical of it.

I am a Canadian, but like Canada is a friend of America, I am a friend of Americans. Canada has been a staunch supporter and ally of the United States. It has not followed it blindly. It accepted the American invitation given by George H.W. Bush in the first Iraq war to support the coalition led by the United States. That war made some sense. Saddam Hussein had blatantly invaded Kuwait.

The war in Afghanistan was a little different. It followed the attacks on 9/11. The US. had invoked the provision in the NATO treaty that an attack on one is an attack on all. As a result when it wanted to invade Afghanistan to attack the supporters of Al Qaeda Canada joined in.

However, when the United States, under George W Bush wanted to reinvade Iraq because of threats it felt from Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction, Canada did not join in that time.  I think Canada was right to dissent. This was not a time to follow blindly. This was a time to warn a friend that it was embarking on a big mistake. I think, with hindsight, that Canada was right. That war was brutal, futile, and meaningless because it was based on faulty intelligence if not outright lies.

When a person or a country sees a friend making a misstep the person or the country will stand up and warn the friend.

As a result of being a supporter of the United States Canada has also earned criticism. As I have said before, Canada is just the United States on valium. USA Lite. Sometimes Canada is a mouse trying to be a rat. Canada cannot claim to be virtuous just because it has no claws.

So I will look at the United States critically, just as I look at Canada critically. As citizens we have that duty. We must not accept all our leaders tell us without thinking critically. That is an abdication of our duties as citizens. That is not being a good citizen or a good  friend.

With that introduction I will make some critical comments of this great country that is allowing me to visit here.

Cowburnt: The American West

After leaving Amarillo Texas, heading southwest, we drove through cattle country. The first town in fact was called Hereford and claims to be the Herford Capital of the World. And it smelled like it too. It smelled like one huge feedlot operation, which is more or less what it was. A GIANT feedlot.

All of this reminded me of what Edward Abbey said in a famous article he wrote for Harpers Magazine in  1986.  Abbey did not appreciate cattle.  Like me, he did not believe that cattle were an adequate replacement for the bison that we lost. This is what he said about cattle:

“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunchgrasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cactus. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheatgrass. Weeds.”

Sometimes I wish Abbey told us what he really thinks. Of course he did not stop there. He described the American West of the cowboys this way:

“Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas.” These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.”

Of course as much as he hated cattle, he did not like cattlemen or ranchers or cowboys any more. He thought they did not respect the land, and to Abbey that was the big sin. He believed they had devastated the west all as a result of their greed.

“Anyone who goes beyond the city limits of almost any Western town can see for himself that the land is overgrazed. There are too many cows and horses and sheep out there. Of course, cattlemen would never publicly confess to overgrazing, any more than Dracula would publicly confess to a fondness for blood. Cattlemen are interested parties. Many of them will not give reliable testimony. Some have too much at stake: their Cadillacs and their airplanes, their ranch resale profits and their capital gains. (I’m talking about the corporation ranchers, the land-and-cattle companies, the investment syndicates.) Others, those ranchers who have only a small base property, flood the public lands with their cows. About 8 percent of the federal-land permittees have cattle that consume approximately 45 percent of the forage on the government rangelands.”

Abbey called the product of this desecration “a cowburnt wasteland.” And I have to admit much of what we drove through in and around Amarillo and Hereford Texas looked exactly like that. The land looked to me, a neophyte tenderfoot, overgrazed. That was why most of the cattle had to be fed as if they were on a feedlot. Abbey thought that overgrazing was as bad as strip- mining, clear-cutting, and damning of rivers.

Abbey also decried the false mythology of the cowboys of the west:

“The beef industry’s abuse of our Western lands is based on the old mythology of the cowboy as natural nobleman, the most cherished and fanciful of American fairy tales. In truth, the cowboy is only a hired hand. A farm boy in leather britches and a comical hat. A herdsman who gets on a horse to do part of his work. Some ranchers are also cowboys, but many are not. There is a difference.

There are many ranchers out there who are big-time farmers of the public lands — our property. As such, they do not merit any special consideration or special privileges. There are only about 31,000 ranchers in the whole American West who use the public lands. That’s less than the population of Missoula, Montana.”

Abbey also had little good to say about ranchers:

“The rancher (with a few honorable exceptions) is a man who strings barbed wire all over the range; drills wells and bulldozes stock ponds; drives off elk and antelope and bighorn sheep; poisons coyotes and prairie dogs; shoots eagles, bears, and cougars on sight; supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, povertyweed, cowshit, anthills, mud, dust, and flies. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how much he loves the American West. Cowboys are also greatly overrated. Consider the nature of their work. Suppose you had to spend most of your working hours sitting on a horse, contemplating the hind end of a cow. How would that affect your imagination? Think what it does to the relatively simple mind of the average peasant boy, raised amid the bawling of calves and cows in the splatter of mud and the stink of shit.

Finally he was unimpressed with the work ethic of cowboys. They claimed to be working hard all the time, but Abbey thought differently about them:

“Do cowboys work hard? Sometimes. But most ranchers don’t work very hard. They have a lot of leisure time for politics and bellyaching. Anytime you go into a small Western town you’ll find them at the nearest drugstore, sitting around all morning drinking coffee, talking about their tax breaks. Is a cowboy’s work socially useful? No. As I’ve already pointed out, subsidized Western range beef is a trivial item in the national beef economy. If all of our 31,000 Western public-land ranchers quit tomorrow, we’d never miss them. Any public school teacher does harder work, more difficult work, more dangerous work, and far more valuable work than any cowboy or rancher. The same thing applies to registered nurses and nurses’ aides, garbage collectors, and traffic cops. Harder work, tougher work, more necessary work. We need those people in our complicated society. We do not need cowboys or ranchers. We’ve carried them on our backs long enough.”

The American west–not quite what we thought it was.

Making a Big Splash in Arizona

 

We did not plan on it but we made a big splash in Arizona. After our first full day in Arizona, at about 9 p.m. a neighbour came and rapped on our door. Our door bells don’t work.  We found that out in a big way. We had not been introduced. He said water was pouring into his yard from ours.  How could that be?  Well it turned out water was gushing from our pool pump over the concrete fence into our neighbour’s yard. It was dark and we hd not noticed it. And he was not very impressed. In fact it was a volcano of water spurting about 10 feet into the air.

Of course I had no idea what to do about it. Panicking I ran to the back, picked up a flashlight, and, of course, could not figure out how to shut the pump off. I could not find a  water shut off valve or switch. Chris phoned the  owners in Oregon. Even though it was only about 8 p.m. in Oregon where they live, they were asleep when Chris called. They were not impressed either.  But the owner explained to us how to shut off the pool pump and mercifully the deluge stopped.

What a great introduction to the neighbourhood. It was not exactly  a beautiful day in the neighbourhood.

Mining Towns

 

As we drove to Arizona we listened to CBC radio. There was a story about Lynn Lake. In many ways it is a familiar story. It is a story about mining towns. And it happens over and over again.  A valuable mineral is discovered, a mining corporation or international conglomerate gets wind of it, scoops up the rights, usually along with some “incentives” from various levels of government, and establishes a mining town.

For a while the town booms. Everybody is happy. Everybody makes money. People move in to work in the mines, others to support the miners. Life is good. For awhile at least.

Then the industry collapses either because the rich vein of minerals is exhausted or prices drop so low it is no longer economical to keep the industry alive. Profits dry up and so does the town. The mining corporation of course, gathers up its chips and moves out. Ordinary people are left holding the bag, in more ways than one. People who owned homes in town find that their homes are worthless. No one wants to move in. Most want to move out, not in. Some die-hards want to stay. After all this is their home. They want to live there. Even though it no longer makes economic sense to stay. This can work for awhile, until the population is so low the town just can’t keep going anymore.

Then sometimes–as in Lynn Lake–remnant problems remain. Often these are environmental. The corporations leaves a mess behind. A mess that someone else has to clean up. This is what happened in Lynn Lake. According to the former Mayor who was interviewed on CBC, the contamination of the water was caused by tailings from the mine. A fund has been created from mining taxes but for some reason can’t be used to clean it up or pay for the Lynn Lake Water Treatment Plant upgrades that are required. So poor citizens in a dying town are left holding the bag. The townspeople don’t want to pay more for water they are told not to drink. That is understandable but who should pay?

I would say the polluter should pay. If that was the mining corporation they should pay, but often it is costly and time consuming to pursue legal uncertain remedies. The townspeople want the province to pay, but why should the province pay? I am all in favor of the collective helping out a group down on their luck, but does it really make sense to keep a town like Lynn Lake going? Is this going to be a classic case of throwing good money after bad?

The town of Lynn Lake now has a population of about 500 from a high of near 4,000. Now it has many abandoned houses. Such homes are not easy to deal with. There were at one time more than 230 abandoned lots in the town and 50 of those have vacant homes that are an invitations to rodents and vandals. They also pose a fire threat to the rest of the community. The town has taken to burning them down or pushing them, literally pushing them, to the dump. After that their foundations have to be covered up and sewer pipes closed. All of this costs money, for a community that does not have a lot of money.

Is this the best the mining industry can do?  Can it just cut and run without any heed to the consequences. Is this how our mining industry works. Often it seems that is exactly how it works. If so is it time to abandon the mining industry? I admit I don’t now squat. I just raise questions. Awkward questions.

Grandma Joy

I  had an extraordinary start to a new year (or depending on how you count, a new decade). The Watertown television station had a story about an 89-year old Grandmother, Joy Ryan, taking a trip with her grandson Brad Roy, around the US to visit each of the 61 National Parks and Monuments in the country. Today, she was filmed ecstatically rolling down a sand dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Her name was Joy and she was filled with irrational exuberant joy. Her grandson explained that in some countries where she has become known thanks to the social media, she is called Grandma Pleasure rather than Grandma Joy and she is not sure if this racy name is appropriate but she is accepting it. Grandma Joy. That’s what we need!

Today Chris and I bumped our heads together. She said it was a “meeting of the minds.” Wishful thinking?

As we headed south we loved the Pink and blue sky in the east, reminiscent of the same colours yesterday evening in the west. Beauty as the sun sets and then rises in the morning.

 

Each year when we travel south we do not meander. It pains me to admit that. Generally, we drive with determination to get as far south as fast as possible. We are trying to escape the cold. And I am always worried we will get caught in a winter storm. Last year that is what happened and we spent a day and half in Watertown. So meandering is not allowed.  Normally, that would be against my religion. Meandering is in my DNA. Straight lines don’t exist in nature for a good reason.

This year I persuaded Chris to allow one meander–we drove to Falls Park in Sioux Falls South Dakota. Last year I had seen a photographs of this fabulous waterfall in the city. This year I was determined to see it. One meander had to be permitted! To deny this would be monstrous. Chris graciously acquiesced.  Later she even admitted it was a good idea. That was because the falls were so beautiful. Neither of us had ever seen a waterfall in winter. This was a special treat.

To add a cherry on top of this Sundae of day, I was interviewed by local NBC television station. They showed up in the park hoping to interview people and unfortunately for them, I was one of the interviewees. They wanted to know what my New Year’s resolution was.  My resolution was particularly lame. It was to improve my health. When I watched the show on YouTube I was shown up by a little boy with a dog. The kid resolved on behalf of his dog that the dog would be potty trained this year. Now that’s a resolution!

This was a magnificent start to our holiday. This was the good life. We were filled with Grandma joy.

 

Religious Violence

Our first day on the trip was incredibly interesting. To me travel is about learning. I love to learn about new and interesting places and people.

There was a lot of news this weekend about violent attacks by so-called domestic terrorists in the U.S.  Both incidents were deliberate attacks on religious groups. One occurred in New York, the other in Texas.

In New York a man was accused of stabbing 5 people with a gruesome machete at a Hanukkah party at a rabbi’s home.  It left the Jewish community in Monsey New York reeling, not only because of this attack, but because this was the 13th attack on Jewish people in New York in recent weeks.

In Monsey there was another attack, about a month ago, when a 30-year old Rabbi was attacked  on his way to synagogue just before dawn. It seems like Jews are under attack. Why is that? The alleged attacker in the most recent incident had a journal at home that contained references to Jews, anti-Semitism, and Adolf Hitler.  Internet searches on a phone recovered from his car included repeated searches for “Why did Hitler hate the Jews” as well as “German Jewish Temples nears me,” and “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America.”  Clearly, he had a special interest in Jews. Yet he has no known history of anti-Semitism and  according to a family member was “raised in a home which embraced all religions and races.” They also claimed he is not a member of any hate groups.

New York Mayor Cuomo was quick to denounce the crime as “an act of domestic terrorism.” President Donald Trump tweeted referring to the stabbing as an “anti-Semitic attack.” Trump also said, “We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism.” Of course, Trump ignores the fact that he has enabled haters in the past by statements such as his equating White Supremacists with people who resisted their venomous ideology. He claimed there were “good people on both sides.” Statements like that gave encouragement to the White Supremacists.

In a city called White Settlement Texas near Fort Worth a gunman identified as Keith Kinnunen who was unknown to the police, attended a church service at the West Freeway Church of Christ Parishioner Isabel Arreola said she sat near the gunman. She had never seen him before and began to feel uneasy about him when she thought she noticed he was wearing a fake beard as a disguise. Then she saw him take out a shotgun and starting firing. Abruptly within seconds members of the congregation approach the gunman and in fact one of them shot him dead with one shot.  Arreola said “I was so surprised because I did not know that so many in church were armed.”

In September the laws in Texas were changed to permit weapons in places of worship unless the facility bans them. This church was reorganized once the law was changed and now Texans are praising the effectiveness of the new law. Church security became an important issue in Texas after a previous gunman walked into a church in Sutherland Springs 2 years ago and fatally shot 26 people and wounded 20 others.

This time Texan parishioners believe that the church responder saved “untold lives.” I don’t know if the new Texas law is good or not. I know I was surprised when Texans took that approach after the previous attack. But it seems to have helped in this case. I always think a bunch of vigilantes are about as dangerous as a lone wolf domestic terrorist.

What really interests me about these 2 incidents however, is trying to understand what is happening in houses of worship that is putting parishioners at such risk. I always tend to think this is an American problem because it is such a violent society. But similar incidents have occurred in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, German and elsewhere.  Why is religion leading so much to violence? Are the perpetrators also led by religious zeal? What is going on in modern society? Does anyone know? I wish I did.