Saturday, September 13, 2014


Commemorating 100,000 Italian soldiers who died in a single place in the Great War one hundred years ago, Pope Francis said, "War is madness."  

Though he said international use of force is justified to counter ISIL's aggression, he also suggested that World War III has already begun, but piecemeal, in a collection of massacres, crimes and destruction.

He was speaking at the largest monument in Italy, at Redipuglia.  "Humanity needs to weep," he said, "and this is the time to weep."

The identities of 60,000 of the Italian dead at Redipuglia are unknown.  But Italian officials did find the military records for the grandfather of Pope Francis, who fought in some of the 12 battles in this place, and survived.  His family later emigrated to Argentina, which is where the current pope grew up.

My grandfather Ignazio Severini emigrated to America in 1920. He had been called up by the Italian army in the Great War, what we now call World War I. He never talked about it to me.  I don't know where he was posted, and my grandmother's few stories were not about battle. But she did say he was posted to the north, which Redipuglia is.  My aunt told me that he had been gassed, and suffered effects from it for years afterwards.

So it is possible that Ignazio Severini was there.  Today, the current Italian minister of Justice, Paola Severino was present at the ceremonies.

 Wherever Ignazio Severini had been, he survived. Perhaps, my grandmother believed, because he was a tailor, and the officers kept him safe so they would look good in their uniforms. War is madness. Still, he experienced poison gas, so maybe not so safe.

 But he was not among those 100,000. He came home, married my grandmother and fathered a daughter, Flora, my mother.  The anniversary of her birth is today.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


In one of two New Yorker pieces loaded with healthy skepticism about US options in the Middle East, Philip Gourevitch concluded (referring to President Obama's speech yesterday):

"We can only wish that he succeeds—whatever that might mean. On this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we remember the wound that Al Qaeda dealt us, but we cannot forget the far greater toll of the self-inflicted wounds that America endured in the fever that followed. Obama had hoped to be the President who would bind those self-inflicted wounds and reposition us in the world. His previous caution was not simply a character trait; it was a sober response to the reality of our past interventions, of our wars that have begat more and worse wars." 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leadership in Today's World

In a brief and ultimately eloquent address to the nation, President Obama outlined international efforts to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the terrorist group he calls ISIL, refusing to use the name the media uses that supports their claim to be an Islamic state. (They aren't a state, he said, and they aren't Islamic.) White House detailed summary is here, and the full transcript is here.

All this follows a lot of sound and fury signifying hypocrisy and misplaced partisanship more than actual anxiety or alternate plan.  Or, their alternate plan turns out to be just what President Obama has been doing.  (Frank Rich:"They offer no strategy of their own beyond an inchoate bellicosity expressed in constructions along the lines of “we must more forcefully do whatever it is that Obama is doing.” That’s because Obama is already doing the things that can be done (and that some of his critics redundantly suggest)..."

The general idiocy behind the noise is summarized by Michael Cohen in the NY Daily News.  Meanwhile President Obama did what he said he would do: he got NATO to materially support and help develop a strategy (not only in the Middle East but the other foreign policy challenges in Ukraine and the Ebola epidemic in Africa.)

President Obama also insisted that further American support depended on Iraq forming a more inclusive government, which they promptly did, at least so far.  So he was able to announce more US air strikes to support Iraqi ground efforts to combat ISIL.

At the same time, he emphasized: "But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground."

It is important to state that this use of air power--which means deadly, ugly, killing bombing--does not include the kind of wholesale bombing of cities and civilians that the Shock and Awe Bushites ordered.  Targeted drone and piloted aircraft strikes are horrific, and sometimes go wrong, and sometimes kill innocents. They certainly raise legal as well as moral questions. But they are measurably different than the bombing of Iraq under both Bushes, and the bombings in southeast Asia in the Vietnam era.

As President Obama pointed out, systematic efforts to degrade and destroy terrorist organizations threatening the US have been ongoing.  This is a policy that not all of his supporters agree with, but he was forthright about it: "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order."

It is a pragmatic policy of countering present threats while pulling back from the larger practices that motivate new members of terrorist groups.  President Obama was equally forthright in affirming that he will follow terrorists into Syria as he followed bin Laden into Pakistan. "This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven."

But he also emphasized gaining meaningful international support, especially from the Arab world.  He will chair a session of the UN Security Council to mobilize more nations.

He ended with an eloquent summary of American leadership for the good, and affirmed his own optimism about the country now. "It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny. It is America -- our scientists, our doctors, our know-how -- that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so that they can’t pose a threat to the Syrian people or the world again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, and tolerance, and a more hopeful future."

Reaction  is starting to be registered, and the first meaningful moments will be whether Republicans in Congress can do more than carp and bellow.