Tag Archives: war

The Disease of War

I recently read a disintegrating little paperback on my bookshelves.  It probably belonged to my father, who was a public health doctor, with a masters in public health from Columbia University.  The book, Eleven Blue Men, consists of twelve stories about mysterious cases of sickness and death that came under the New York City Public Health Department’s purview in the mid-1940s.  The stories were originally serialized in The New Yorker magazine.  My edition of the book, by Berton Roueche, was published in 1955.

The stories involve cases of superlative medical detection, and they describe the extensive efforts exerted by epidemiologists and other investigators to identify and contain the culprits.  Cases of botulism, tetanus, smallpox, psittacosis, leprosy, typhoid fever, and others are described in detail.  There is a chapter on antibiotics, including the discovery of penicillin from mold, and the methods by which it was mass produced during World War II.

The outbreak of smallpox in New York City in 1947, a most contagious and deadly disease, led to the most massive emergency vaccination program in history, with 6,350,000 people being vaccinated, including the mayor of New York, within 28 days.

A new disease, which came to be named ricksettialpox, began striking inhabitants of a specific apartment complex in the borough of Queens in 1946.  It took significant sleuthing and the inspiration of an exterminator to discover the vector, a mite that fed on mice.

In the case of leprosy, the author goes into the historical discrimination and cruel torture of lepers, and the Bible-based fear of the disease, even though it is extremely sluggish and only marginally contagious.

While the stories are dated, and many of the diseases now rare in the US because of better sanitation, nutrition, and vaccinations, the afflictions themselves still exist and crop up from time to time.  The World Health Organization officially declared smallpox eradicated worldwide in 1980.  Other killer diseases like polio or tetanus now are virtually absent from the US and other developed countries.  Antibiotics like penicillin have completely changed the face of bacterial diseases and their treatments.

Medicine has made extraordinary strides in the past century, but I wonder about diminishing returns.  I read in newspapers about the starving children in Yemen and Ebola in the Congo, where there are also ongoing armed conflicts.  I think about microbiologist Hans Zinsser’s 1934 book Rats, Lice, and History, in which the author claims the bacteria win every war.  Zinsser was the original author of the microbiology text still used in medical schools today.

So, while medicine may have advanced, the social disease known as war has not, and it’s as deadly as ever, if not more so.  The starving children in Yemen are civilian victims caught in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the US assisting the Saudis through arms sales and military cooperation.  There’s no medicine that cures starvation or unsanitary conditions.  Malnutrition, impure water, and stressful living conditions are breeding grounds for diseases like cholera, which, like Ebola, is transmitted through contaminated bodily fluids.

Eleven Blue Men softened my views on vaccines.  I can’t argue with vaccines for polio, smallpox, or tetanus, but I wonder about the proliferation of vaccines for an array of milder diseases, like influenza, which are generally self-limiting.  Vaccines themselves cause risks.  American children receive some 70 vaccines before they are 18 years old.

The medical clinics in Yemen are full to overflowing, but there’s little they can do for starvation.  Clinics in war-torn or infection-ridden areas may have vaccines or medicines, too, but they can’t provide the food, sanitation and clean water that do a longer-lasting and more effective job of preventing and healing disease.

When it comes to public health, the simplest measures are usually the best.  They have to do with sanitation, nutrition, and clean water.  In the case of civilian victims of war, the “collateral damage”–as the military likes to rationalize it–most of the trauma comes not from the bombs and bullets, but from the diseases that meet no resistance in debilitated populations.  It’s no wonder that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, at the heels of World War I, was the deadliest epidemic in history, killing more people in one year than the bubonic plague killed in the four years of the Black Death.  The flu epidemic killed ten times more people than the war itself.  The flu has not been that deadly since, but neither have the people been so lacking in resistance.

We don’t think of war as a disease, but maybe we should.  It’s a social disease, and no one is immune.

 

 

 

 

 

To Fight or to Win?

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Squire (left) and Speckles sparring through the gate, 2015

I wonder if some people just like to fight.  I don’t like it but grew up thinking it was necessary.  I don’t like competition of any kind, including competitive sports or games, but I live in a country where it’s anathema to admit it.

I’m an avoider who is more inclined to get caught up in other people’s battles.  Like the Greek god Chiron, the wounded healer, I’m the innocent bystander who gets injured by a mis-aimed arrow.  I don’t understand the purpose of martyrdom.  Did Jesus help anyone by dying on the cross?

My roosters like to fight, so I have to keep them apart.  They spar through the gate and attack the hardware cloth that keeps them from doing real damage to each other.  But I’m the one who suffers most if either of them gets hurt.  Son Speckles blinded father Squire in one eye before he knocked off his own spurs several years ago.  Now Squire has torn off his own back toenail and his toe may be broken.

Over the years, both have mellowed, and I wonder if either of them really wants to win.  If something happened to either of them, I believe the other would sorely miss the adrenalin rush they generate in each other.

I’ve worked with Vietnam veterans who complained of flashbacks and nightmares from combat duty.  After Vietnam, life in the United States seemed bland in comparison.  Some admitted to being “adrenalin junkies.”  Another man claimed to like being angry.  Is this the attraction of contact sports like football, or the intensity of war?  The emotional intensity of presumably “masculine” activities?

Our current US culture seems bent on fighting, arguing, opposing and otherwise disagreeing about everything from the climate to sexuality, but I wonder if there’s any purpose to it, except to fight.  Does anyone really expect to win, and if so, what would be resolved?

I recently read the book Fear:  Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward, about the Trump campaign and presidency so far.  The book’s title is based on a Trump quote, “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” from an interview with the author.  Essentially, the book says nothing new but it helps straighten out all the names and roles played by those close to the current administration.

The other night I finished reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie, an 800-page tome by David Nasaw, published in 2006.  Carnegie, who lived from 1835 to 1919, was a self-made multi-millionaire who was brutally competitive in his businesses but vowed to dispose of all his money to worthy causes before he died.  In his later years he became almost obsessed with the idea of world peace though arbitration.  However, a sizable portion of his wealth had been derived from government contracts to manufacture steel plates for battleships.  Later, his idea for a League of Peace may have inspired the League of Nations and later the United Nations.  He thought war barbaric, was outspoken in his views and used his wealth and fame to give unsolicited advice to presidents Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, as well as German Kaiser Wilhelm II, and notables in the British government.  He feared the arms race between the UK and Germany as early as 1905, beginning with the British Dreadnaught and other monster battleships, but could not establish traction for his ideas regarding universal disarmament or arbitration.  It appears the outbreak of World War I broke him, and he—a vociferous showman—went silent for almost four years.

Nasaw says that Carnegie was given to hero worship, and Theodore Roosevelt was his assigned disciple of peace, despite evidence.  History shows that Roosevelt was an imperialist and war hawk, who rode to glory in the Spanish-American War; as president he seized the land that became Panama through instigating insurgents against Columbia; and he volunteered for World War I when the US entered, although he was deemed too old at the time.  Roosevelt referred to “righteous wars,” and Carnegie replied that all warring individuals and nations believe their particular cause is “righteous.”

The current US President, Donald Trump, campaigned on the several issues regarding war, suggesting the US withdraw from Afghanistan, among other things, according to the book Fear.  However, he is surrounded by hawkish military advisers who apparently have convinced him to stay the course, at least for now.  He has received praise and criticism for his contentious approach to friends and foes alike.  His provocative demeanor invites retaliation from all those “righteous” warriors throughout the world.

There are those who believe refusing to fight indicates weakness or cowardliness, but history shows that fighting fire with fire only makes bigger fires.  Does anyone win in a war?  In Lincoln’s war, Carnegie was among those, like JP Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, who hired substitutes to fight for them, and they got rich off the war.  Who else benefited?  The slaves were freed, but slavery was already dying out, if Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln is to be believed.  DiLorenzo claims Lincoln wanted a war. Lincoln may have won the war, but he lost his life.  Some people would rather fight than win.

 

 

 

Like a Sphere in Flatland

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A man in my e-mail group asked to be excluded from my responses.  He said I was “negative” and “liberal.”  I had merely mentioned I don’t believe in war, that it is barbaric, institutionalized murder.  I said I don’t believe in standing armies, either.

It really hurt my feelings that he called me “liberal.”  Liberals don’t like me, either.  In fact, on the political continuum from the various “ism’s” at the extremes and including “liberal” and “conservative,” I don’t fit anywhere.  I feel like a sphere in Flatland.

For those who haven’t read this charming classic satire, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott (1884), it is well worth reading, and only 160 pages.   In it, narrator A. Square describes a planar world in which the social hierarchy is determined by how many angles you have.  When Lord Sphere makes himself known to A. Square, he is incredulous until taken on a visit to “Spaceland.”  His attempts to convince his fellow Flatlanders of the existence of a third dimension only gets him in trouble, and he ends up in jail for his lunacy.

Another image, maybe more appropriate to the linear liberal-conservative standard and its limitations, is of trying to assess the validity of a book by the scientific method.  The scientific method is the holy grail of modern scientific dogma, but it is limited by its linear approach. Scientists believe this makes it superior to other methods of assessing truth.

The scientific method presumes cause and effect, yes-and-no, good and bad, right and wrong.  It sneers at extraneous information, abstractions, symbols, and patterns. Logic is linear:  words must come out in sequential fashion.  Those who relate this to the left brain–the seat of verbal thinking and expression in most people–claim superiority of this hemisphere because of its lock-step method of reasoning.  The right brain is associated with symbols, patterns, dreams, and appreciation for art and music.

However, the brain is wired such that incoming sensory information travels through the thalamus, the pain center, then through the limbic system, the emotional center, before it reaches left or right brain.  In other words, every thought is colored by physical and emotional input before it becomes conscious.  Even the most logical and rational analysis is founded on emotional bias.

The scientific, linear mode presumes to be objective, insofar as is humanly possible, yet the choice of study subject is based on emotional factors.  The idea that artificial intelligence, with its binary code, can eventually surpass the human brain’s abilities discounts the spontaneous creativity of the right brain and its symbolic language of patterns and associations.

The recent preoccupation with what’s called “fake news” shows how easy it is to confuse the “rational” mind.  Misinformation, propaganda, distortions, opinion, gossip, libel, and slander have always been around.  Assumptions presumed to be factual have fallen apart over and over in light of new evidence.  The earth used to be flat, remember, and the sun revolved around it.  Now there’s a widespread concern that people don’t know whom or what to trust, with “trust” seemingly synonymous with blind faith in the source.

What is truth, after all, and does it matter?  If this trend leads to a greater tendency to question authority or formerly trusted sources, or to more critical thinking, it might result in the revolution in consciousness that some people imagine.  We will not achieve it through the scientific method, which requires an artificial situation that attempts to reduce variables to one.  In life there is always infinitely more than one variable to consider.  Thus, trying to place anyone on a linear political scale reduces her dimensionality to a pitiful caricature, but we see it all the time:  the blacks, the women, the illegals, the racists, the poor, the 0.1 percent, and on and on.  The so-called advocates, whether members of the identified group or not, posture themselves as knowing the condition, needs, and wants of the group.

Labeling of groups dehumanizes them, clumps them into an agglutinated mass of undifferentiated genetic material that serves only to concentrate emotion into an identifiable target for support or attack.  Advocates tend to use that emotionally laden grouping to promote their agendas, which may be personal or may be backed by yet other groups.

I can only know my own truth, and even that changes moment to moment or as soon as I turn my head.  Truth is a slippery little rascal.  Like a sphere in Flatland, or a book whose value defies the scientific method, I can see from above or below the plane, or even with the plane, but at least I know the difference between a line and a circle.  The scientific method might judge based on emotionally based standards of comparison, but patterns make no judgments and have no beginnings or ends, no cause-and-effect, and reveal no ultimate truth.

My dislike for war, and for fighting, compels me to avoid arguing, recognizing as I do that my choice is emotional, as is my detractor’s.  Energy goes out of me when I’m drawn into conflictual situations.  I believe this happens with others, too, but I could be wrong.  The relentless focus on competition and struggle, on differences cemented by stifling labels, only feeds the problems, generating parallel, linear, universes with no spherical perspective.

Fortune Tellers on the Payroll

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I was reading the Wall Street Journal the other day, circling predictive and speculative words, and thinking about the term “Know thine enemy.”  I wondered where it originated so Googled it to find it attributed to Chinese warrior Sun Tzu, in his classic work, The Art of War.   The translator of my copy, R. L. Wing, chose to translate the Chinese word “bing” as “strategy” instead of “war.”  He claims in the translation’s notes that he believes this choice is “most faithful to Sun Tzu’s intended objective:  the achievement of triumph through tactical positioning, without resorting to battle.”

 

Wing says it is not clear when Sun Tzu lived, but the work is now believed to have been written between 480 and 221 B.C., during the so-called “Warring States” period.  During that time, more than 300 wars were fought between the separate states of China against the Chou dynasty.

A conflict-avoidant coward like me would rather win than fight, so Sun Tzu’s philosophy speaks to me.  Especially now, when it fights rage all around, and I’m caught in the cross-fire, I keep tabs on those addicted to fighting, if only to stay out of their way.

So The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today and their ilk educate me about how the fortune tellers on the payroll subtly manipulate their readership through prognostication.  The addiction to prediction has become so entrenched that I had to start circling predictive and speculative words in news articles to grasp how prevalent it is.  Don’t take my word for it.  Just take note of words like “expects,” “will,” “ won’t,” “if,” “could,” “possibility,” “predicts,” “forecasts,” “thinks,” “believes,” and “suggests,” to name a few.

Predictions are dangerous, especially when they come from authority figures, who should know better.  They include economists, world leaders, government, doctors, “climate scientists,” and, of course, meteorologists.  Those making the predictions have a vested interest in being right, so contribute to the outcomes they expect.  Negative predictions, such as those coming from doctors, put binders on the future, like casting a spell on a vulnerable patient. Global predictions, about “the global economy,” or “climate change,” create unnecessary fear based on a few isolated and disconnected facts.  There is nothing scientific about predictions, no matter what the fortune tellers on the payroll say.

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War Toys

Definitions:

“US Allies”–The governments we are selling arms to today.
“US Enemies”– The governments we sold arms to yesterday.

The Wall Street Journal reported July 30 that the Pentagon has approved sale of 5000 Lockheed Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The move awaits Congress’ approval.

Because of Pentagon budget cuts, poor Lockheed and other war contractors (like Boeing and Montsanto) have been forced to look at “export markets” for their war toys.

Bottom line is the worst earth rapists also pay the highest dividends on Wall Street. It seems the socially conscious would choose to abandon Wall Street rather than occupy it.