The eerie thing about the Bush press conference on April 13 is how much he sounded like Lyndon Johnson. All the same arguments he made about staying in Viet Nam— no matter how grim it looked– are now presented by George W. Bush– in that same drawl– to justify staying in Iraq. He even has the beginnings of what some people used to call Johnson’s “shame-faced” expression.

You felt bad for Johnson (I did– a little) because it wasn’t through malice or greed that he got into Viet Nam. It was just plain stupidity.

That doesn’t mean Iraq is inevitably going to be like Viet Nam. I think it is fairly likely, but I’m not willing to give up entirely just yet.

But it does bring to mind a few interesting issues related to game theory.   What is game theory?  Suppose that you entered an auction in which you are required to pay even if you lose the bidding? At a certain point, you will realize that you are bidding more than the item is worth. But if you stop bidding, you get nothing. So you can’t stop.

In other words, suppose your soldiers are killed even if you don’t win the war? That’s what happened in Viet Nam. As the war progressed, the cost to the U.S. (in soldier’s lives) became higher and higher compared to the value of winning the war and stopping the spread of communism dead in it’s tracks. Therefore, the cost of losing the war also became higher and higher. Whereas the U.S. could have withdrawn relatively painlessly in 1963 (as John Kennedy seems to have intended), by 1965 the cost of withdrawing had become immense, and was growing larger by the moment. So Johnson felt he had no choice but to continue “bidding” it up. It took another eight years before Richard Nixon finally ended the bidding, and the U.S. lost the item (Viet Nam) and 55,000 lives.

So, if, in 1963, the U.S. public knew that it would cost 55,000 lives, they would probably have never tried to “purchase” the victory.

It would be hard to believe that the Bush White House is too stupid to realize that they are in precisely this kind of auction in Iraq. The more expensive the overthrow of Saddam becomes, the more unacceptable it will appear to be to withdraw. The more unacceptable it is to withdraw, the higher the U.S. must “bid”.

That doesn’t mean the U.S. should withdraw. Not necessarily. Not yet.

The U.S. could win this war. It could turn over political power to an Iraqi government at the end of June and establish a democracy in the heart of the middle east. All that oil will keep flowing for America’s SUV’s. Iraqi’s will start establishing new businesses and industries and enjoy the fruits of capitalism: new cars, wide-screen tv’s, personal computers, iPods… The country won’t be wracked by continuous civil war between the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds. There won’t be terrorists who perceive the democratic government to be a sell-out to the decadent west. Iran will mind it’s own business. Syria will block the border. Israel will be safe.

Or does that all seem rather unlikely to you now?

It is up to the American public, with an election coming up in November, to assess George Bush’s grip on events. Does the U.S. have a realistic chance of obtaining it’s objectives in Iraq? Or will it devolve into an endless cycle of violence, repression, retribution, and chaos?

I don’t think John Kerry has a viable alternative plan. That’s the nature of a quagmire. But Kerry will be hamstrung by circumstance. If he withdraws American troops, he leaves Iraq in the hands of violent, intolerant extremists, or, perhaps, civil war. If he stays, he may have to deal with increasing numbers of casualties and the inevitable comparisons with Viet Nam. I don’t see how Kerry can be a white knight on this issue. All the voters can do right now is punish the man who got them into this mess with an electoral defeat.

Nixon took over for Johnson in 1968. It took him 5 years before he could withdraw from Viet Nam, in 1973, with “peace with honor”. Shortly afterwards, South Viet Nam collapsed. Thirty years later, it’s easy to look back and see what should have been readily apparent at the time: all of the death and destruction of the Viet Nam War was for nothing.

The problem is that real U.S. objectives in Iraq are not the same as the objectives that appear to be at stake in public statements about the U.S. position. The U.S. claims that democracy and the freedom of the Iraqi people are at stake. I think that George Bush really believes it, but even George Bush’s friends admit he doesn’t think deeply about anything.

The problem is that the U.S. doesn’t really care about democracy or freedom in any other Arab dictatorship. The U.S. seems to smile fondly on the governments of Egypt and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and obviously has no interest in the victims of oppression in Sudan. So why does it care about it in Iraq? It doesn’t. The real objective, all along, was to depose Saddam, to punish him for having fought George Bush Sr. and for his arrogant refusal to allow the U.S. unfettered access to it’s alleged weapons laboratories, and, of course, to ensure a ready supply of cheap oil for the massive engine of the U.S. economy.

If these are the real stakes, the real thing that the U.S. is “bidding” on, it becomes clear that Iraq will not be free to choose, even in a supposedly free election, a government that is inimical to the interests of the United States. Any political party that declares itself to be opposed to U.S. interests in Iraq, will be declared to be an enemy of democracy, and will not be permitted to contest an election, even if a majority of Iraqi citizens appear to support it.

What the U.S. is doing right now, with it’s interim ruling council, is trying to ensure that the outcome of any future election will be to it’s liking, while appearing to represent the will of the majority of Iraqi citizens.

That may all be beside the point. The real question is, can the U.S. impose a democracy upon a nation that is unwilling to stand up for itself against the violent tactics of a minority of Islamic extremists? The general population of Iraq might prefer a democracy to an Islamic republic, but they don’t appear to be willing to fight for it. There are no demonstrations or rallies in support of the U.S., or the interim ruling council. The Iraqi policemen and soldiers the U.S. is training flee at the first sign of a mujahidin. There is no political party or leader with popular support to speak in favor of continued U.S. occupation. The members of the interim council that are friendly to the U.S. will be perceived to be stooges of the West, almost by definition.

It is fundamentally irrational for the U.S. to attempt to impose a democracy upon a nation that doesn’t want it badly enough to pay even a portion of it’s cost. If people are unwilling to fight for it now, why would they be willing to fight for it after the U.S. leaves and the Islamic fundamentalists have even more room to maneuver?

If the U.S. couldn’t plant democracy in Kuwait after liberating it from the first Iraqi invasion, why does it think it can plant democracy in Iraq? If our “friends”, the Saudis, have no inclination to hold democratic elections, why should Iraq?

If Libya now meets our standard of good world citizen….

It’s not going to happen. The U.S. can never leave. It’s going to get uglier and uglier as the U.S. is forced to aggressively defend itself against determined fanatical enemies.

My guess is that the U.S. will eventually begin to devise some kind of window-dressing, a strategy that would allow it to pull most of it’s soldiers out of Iraq without appearing to be surrendering the country to the forces of darkness and chaos. It may take five more years before they begin this process, and then another five years before it really gets under way. Some kind of Iraqi strong-man congenial to the U.S. will have to emerge, with the backing of the new Iraqi army. Radical Islamic movements will have to be violently repressed. Iran will grow interested.


The Lonely Sinner

There is a church in my denomination which has decided to try to be welcoming to gay members of the body of Christ. The rest of the denomination goes, “Amen, brother– what an opportunity to bring the ministry of the Lord Jesus to those depraved souls! May they all, the lord willing, repent and be welcomed into the body of Christ as former sinners.”

That isn’t exactly what they had in mind. What this church had in mind was to welcome practicing gay Christians to their fellowship, to accept them as fellow sinners, and to share communion with them.

So, in other words, these particular sinners are still sinning. Unlike the rest of us sinners who sin no more. But we wouldn’t say that, would we? Would you say that you don’t sin anymore, now that you are a Christian? I wouldn’t.

We don’t commonly tell people that we don’t sin. If we did, and if people believed us, then we would be comfortable reaching for the stones if we met someone who said, “I still sin.” No, no– we smile indulgently. We are all sinners.

If we all take a deep breath and count to three and speak the holy words, “I am a sinner”, we can all smile knowingly to each other…

…and then, when we spot a homosexual, shriek, “now there is a sinner.”

And then welcome him or her into full communion.

Of course, we do not.

So what on earth do we mean when we acknowledge that we are all “sinners”? I’ve been a member of a church for almost 50 years and I couldn’t tell you. I don’t think it means anything. I don’t think we honestly believe that we are sinners. We believe that we are righteous and virtuous and morally pure. We’re reaching for stones. We do it all the time. Nothing makes us feel more righteous and pure and holy than reaching for a stone.

If it doesn’t mean anything, what do we think it means when we say it? Do we think about that time we looked at someone we were not married to and wished for a forceful embrace? That time we were rude or mean to a colleague? Maybe our fantasies about owning a Hummer and crushing a few Corollas underneath those massive wheels? Or the fact that we didn’t give very much, last year, to help people less fortunate than ourselves?

The key difference between the sinner we acknowledge within our selves and the sinner we see in the homosexual is that we really seem to believe that our sins are over. Whatever it is we acknowledge having done wrongly, we seem to believe that we don’t do it anymore.

That’s also the peculiarity of sexual sins. When the preacher stands in front of a congregation and rails about the evil fornicators and homosexuals and adulterers out there– we can safely assume that he doesn’t mean me. We might be doing it, but it’s something we keep secret anyway and can safely assume no one else knows about it.

That’s why preachers would rather preach about those sins than about indifference or materialism or hard-heartedness or hypocrisy.

High School Uniform Benediction

St. Benedict’s is a new Catholic High School in Cambridge, Ontario. Here’s their website. Nice looking building, isn’t it?  [Ah… the website is gone.]

The students are nice-looking too. They all wear uniforms. The school promotes peace and healthy relationships. I applaud.

But I’ve never liked the idea of school uniforms. What’s the big deal? Why do some people have this compulsive need to tell people what they should be wearing?

I’ve heard the arguments in favor of school uniforms. Most of them essentially sound like this:

  • if we don’t tell students what to wear, girls will be sexually attractive and boys will want to have sex with them.
  • if we can’t tell students what to wear, how can we expect them to obey us when we’re telling them to do other things?
  • nobody will be fat any more, so everyone will be accepted by their peer group.

The other thing that annoys me about St. Benedict’s dress code is that they prescribe only clothes made by a certain manufacturer and sold by a certain vendor. The manufacturer is Denver Hayes and the vendor is Mark’s Work Warehouse.

What gives? It is understandable, if still somewhat bizarre, that a Catholic High School would tell its students what they may or may not wear to school, but why on earth should they require clothing made by a particular vendor?

Anybody with any common sense can see that the perfectly rational thing to do would be to specify the type of clothing– beige khaki pants, for example– and let students (or their parents) shop around for the best price.

Ah– but then little differences would be apparent. Five pockets instead of four. A slightly different shade of beige. No no no. Everyone must be EXACTLY alike.

Why do I have a suspicion that this deal was concocted by Mark’s Work Warehouse? Probably they claimed to be offering special pricing to the school if the school would guarantee that all students have to shop there. Probably there really isn’t any discount at all. Probably the items are now over-priced. Do you know of a single vendor that reduces his prices when he knows that he has no competition?

Hmmm. I also noticed that kilts are now banned. So much for the upside of school uniforms. There is a Catholic high school in Waterloo that requires kilts. I always found it somewhat ironic that the girls at this Catholic school were required to wear what looked to me like something we used to call “mini-skirts” when I was in high school.

What’s the point? I’ve heard uniforms defended, cleverly, as a way of reducing the peer pressure on kids. This is a “liberal” defense, to counter-act the impression that only militaristic conservatives want uniforms. (There is a link on St. Benedict’s web-site to a Catholic group that opposes the war in Iraq, so you can’t really accuse them of being “conservative”.)

Nobody has more expensive clothes than anybody else. Nobody has better brand names in their wardrobe. Our children will be judged by character instead of appearance. Is it true? Does it really happen? Are you telling me that there are no unpopular kids in schools with uniforms? That there is less bullying or cliquishness or self-righteousness? That people are more inclusive and fair and kind?

I don’t believe it. If anybody has a reliable study that shows that this really happens, I’d like to see it. And even if there was some reduction of bullying and harassment within the school, what about between schools? If uniforms are successful, won’t that mean, by definition, that kids from other schools, in different uniforms, become identified as outsiders?

In the meantime, I’ll continue to believe that good school spirit is the product of good schools, and good schools are the result of skilled, wise teachers, and wise leadership, but mostly the result of good kids.

St. Benedict students and staff are shy– I can’t find a single picture of anyone on the entire web-site.

How many rules do you need? Well, you start with the top and the bottom, shirt and skirt, and pants. Then boys start wearing jewelry. So you ban jewelry on boys. So someone says, “that’s sexist” because girls can wear earrings. So you allow earrings for boys. But some girls start wearing 2 or 3 earrings. So you ban all earrings on boys and girls. Then someone wears a nose-ring. You ban all jewelry. But what about our WWJD bracelets? Then the shoes– high heels, backless sandals, whatever. Then someone discovers that the rules don’t specify hair colour. For some reason, anal, militaristic apparatchiks get really upset with blue hair, so you have to add more rules. Then the length of the hair. Sooner or later, someone will shave their eyebrows or something, and you’ll have to ban that. And so it goes…

Yes, this sequence really does happen out there.

St. Benedict’s Dress Code:
Students are required to wear the charcoal gray uniform pants, the beige khaki pants, or blue or beige uniform shorts purchased through the school supplier. Only pants and shorts purchased from the school supplier will be acceptable;

At the bottom of the webpage is the motto:

St. Benedict CSS – A Celebration of People

… who all look alike.

Christian Home and School Magazine (March/April 2004) has a generally fawning article on school uniforms. A teacher claims that, “boys used to gather to comment on girls in the hallways, but now boys and girls are treating each other as equals…. that sexual edge is pretty much gone.”

Hmmm. I think I’ll remain skeptical. In a previous life, I used to be a boy and I can assure any teacher that nothing short of a Freightliner Express up the noggin is capable of preventing boys from thinking about the way girls look no matter what they are wearing.

To it’s credit, Christian Home and School gives some space to a Christian School in Calgary that decided against uniforms because they are associated with “elitist” schools in the city.