Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Mother of All Storms

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

I am, as I have confessed here before, a hurricane junkie. It is one of my little obsessions, probably owing to the fact that one of my earliest childhood memories is of Hurricane Hugo roaring through the Piedmont. Even when a hurricane makes landfall on the North Carolina coast typically the storm has to travel over more than 200 miles of steadily rising land to reach Greensboro, by which point it is a mere tropical storm, good for maybe a day out of school, but not much more. Hugo, by contrast, came in by way of South Carolina and snuck into the Triad from the south, along an easier road. Thus it still posessed hurricane force winds well into the Piedmont. I remember rain and wind, a tree branch banging on my window, glass shattering. It was so long ago that it almost seems a dream.

A few days later, visiting my aunt at her home in the still mostly-undeveloped Adams Farm area, I saw a hole in the ground where I remembered a tree had been. I found the tree in question, one so big an adult coudn't fit their arms around it, at least a quarter mile away. The winds had been so powerful that they had ripped the massive tree out of the ground and thrown it like a matchstick. That strange fascination with hurricanes has stayed with me in every hurricane season since.

Hugo was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall near Charleston. Last night, when I went to bed, Katrina was a mere Category 3 with winds of 115 mph. The forecasters explained that, as it moved over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it would probably be a Cat 4 by landfall. Imagine my surprise this morning when I turned on the Weather Channel and heard that Katrina was a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 175 mph. 175 mph! Category 5! Only three Cat 5s hit the U.S. in the 20th century, and none had winds that high. Though the winds have come down slightly since, to "only" 160 mph, this is still the most powerful hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S. since we started keeping records. Naturally, it is headed for the worst-possible location (or rather the place where it could do the most damage), New Orleans, a city an average of 6 feet below sea level, surrounded on three sides by water.

The emergency mangagement official for the county New Orleans is in (I'm too lazy to look it up) said yesterday that if a Cat 4 made landfall in New Orleans, we could see up to 40,000 deaths. Even though I'm skeptical of that estimate, the fact remains that we have been exceptionally lucky in recent years. Last year's Hurricane Jeanne killed more than 1,500 people in Haiti. Hurricane Mitch, another Cat 5, killed more than 10,000 in Central America in 1998. The great Cat 4 Galveston hurricane that devastated that Texas city in 1900 killed more than 8,000 people. (Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm is an excellent account of the disaster that reads like first-class fiction, for those who are interested in learning more.)

We've been lucky recently. We've conditioned ourselves to believe that it can't happen here, that hurricanes are minor nuisances, more of an erosion hassle than anything else. As more and more people from other sections of the country move to the Southern coast, the odds that inexperiened people will decide to stick it out in a bad storm increase. If deaths have been relatively low during the last half-century or so, it would be unreasonable to expect that to continue for another half-century. If the most powerful storms on Earth have tended to steer clear of our major cities recently, only a fool would expect that state of affairs to continue. It is not a pleasant thought that Nature does not bend over backwards to accomodate us, that if we get in it's way, we will not get the upper hand. Catastrophes like Katrina are the price we pay for residing on this pale blue dot we call "Earth."

The mayor of New Orleans declared a mandatory evacuation of the city this morning. Yet, as I watch on TV, thousands of cars are still stuck in bumper to bumper traffic heading north. It seems impossible that everyone will be able to get out of harm's way; especially as harm's way has a tendency to move at speeds up to 25 miles an hour on a front more than 200 miles across. More than 10,000 people are said to be waiting out the storm at the Superdome, a designated "safe area." As if any area could be considered safe against winds of 160 mph! This has too much of a "Titanic" vibe. I have an awful sense of forboding about all this....

New Orleans is a city rich with culture and historical meaning. It would be a tragedy almost beyond reckoning if the New Orleans of riverboat gamblers, Mark Twain, and Louis Armstrong were to come to a crashing end tomorrow morning.

Watching the satellite footage of the monster approaching is truly disturbing. To be able to see a God's-eye view, in nice, crisp colors, of the buzz-saw of a hurricane heading for a major metropolitian area, to see disaster approaching and know that there is absolutely nothing you or anyone else can do to avert it: it almost makes one long for the days before satellites, where the first indication of a hurricane was when the winds started to blow. It gives you less time to prepare and evacuate, true (though this storm never gave New Orleans enough time to be fully evacuated, anyway). But to be cursed to be an impotent God strikes me as a worse fate. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

2:23 AM Update: Brendan Loy is staying up all night hurricane-blogging. His site is worth reading for blow-by-blow coverage of the storm. I'm going to try to catch a couple of hours' sleep. I do have classes tomorrow, after all. May God protect the peoeple of the Gulf Coast.

8:50 AM Update: Katrina made landfall at the mouth of the Missisippi as a Cat 4 hurricane with winds of only 145 mph. CNN says at least one levy in New Orleans has failed and flooding is occuring in the city. Oh, and the Superdome is now leaking and the roof is peeling off it, according to CNN. I hate to say I told you so....

5:00 PM Update 8/30: Well, CNN and the BBC are reporting that 80% of New Orleans is under water, in some places up to the rooftops, because two dams have failed. There are at least 54 dead in one county in Mississippi and the toll is expected to raise, possibly into the hundreds. No word yet on casualities in New Orleans, though according to the BBC, "an unknown number of bodies were seen floating in the flood waters of New Orleans.... The American Red Cross has mobilised thousands of volunteers for its biggest-ever natural disaster effort and federal emergency teams are being dispatched to affected areas. Damage estimates of more than $25 billion suggest it could be the US insurance industry's most expensive natural disaster ever."

What bothers me most about all this is the cavalier attitude the media adopted as soon as it became apparent that Katrina was no longer a Cat 5 and that the strongest part of the storm would not hit New Orleans. They immediately started downplaying the danger the hurricane still posed, filling people in it's path along coastal Mississippi and Alabama with a false hope. "Well, it looks like a ray of sunshine for the Gulf." "Things could certainly have turned out a lot worse." I wonder if we'll ever know if their complacency caused anyone to let down their guard and take chances that got them killed.

A final thought: Last night driving home from work, I saw that the price of unleaded at the pump was holding steady at $2.49, as it had for almost a week. Today, the same stations have raised the price to $2.69. A one-day jump of 20 cents at the pump, up to a record high of more than $70 a barrel, due to all the oil production and refinement along the Gulf being shut down.... Sure, it could have been a lot worse. But also certainly could have been a lot better!

Monday, August 08, 2005

Stand back..... or I will blow you up with my condom gun?

By: Ed

Well, planned parenthood golden gate chapter has released a cartoon on choice. Of course I was utterly shocked when I saw how one sided it was. *Sarcasm detector beeps twice*

I don't know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the gross neglect of fact (at least not to this extent) and lack of tact this had.

Click on "Meet PPGG's superhero for choice"

The cartoon starts out with Diana turning into the pro-choice superhero Dionysus (It is apt for them to use a pagan god). Suddenly she comes upon some, apparently high school, students being coaxed into abstinence. Of course the children are prepared for this bad version of a cartoon villains arguments against sex. In response to his crude arguments for abstinence only to prevent pregnancy and std's they say "Well we have contraception and I'm not planning to get an std."

I would love to see the office where that gets planned.
"Well Mr. Johnson we have you down for a 6 o'clock herpes on tuesday"
"Ooo.. um... thats not really good for me. Can I get a 10 o'clock HIV infection Friday?"
"Sure I'll just pencil you in"

Apparently the children still needed Dionysus with their steel trap minds though and so she comes and drowns the abstinence promoter in a trash can of lube. Next we go to an anti-abortion picket line, but not before Dionysus gives the three children a safe sex kit. "Go on now kids and have a good safe orgy."

"Pray for thy sins" is written on picket signs during the next part as these zombie-like protesters come closer and closer to Dionysus. She is careful to point out how they have a right to be there because of our constitution right before she blows the peaceful (though monster looking) protesters up with her condom gun.

Whats next? Why capital hill of course, where a conservative senator is cooking a stew with the Constitution, Bill of Rights and judgement in Roe v. Wade. After a quick cleansing in the stew though the senator decides he was wrong (this was all the stew, not that he was naked on a platter held up by a super hero taking her name from a pagan god).

The whole thing just digsuted me, but I wanted everyone to see it so click the link and let me know what you think.


Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Unnecessary Bomb

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

It was 8:15 during the rush hour commute in the heart of downtown when the bomb exploded. The plot had been years in the making; the bomb designed for maximum casualities. The intended target had been a major bridge over the river; instead, a hospital was at the epicenter of the inferno. In a flash, thousands of people disappeared, shadows on walls all that remained to show that they had ever existed. The culprits themselves escaped in their plane, a B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay. Sixty years after the terrorist attack, the survivors of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, have still not recovered.

"But wait a minute," you say. "Hiroshima wasn't a terrorist attack. Even if it was immoral, it ended the war, preempting a bloody invasion of the Japanese Home Islands and, thus, saved more lives than it killed."

That's the standard American excuse for Hiroshima. I learned it in school and believed it for a number of years. Unfortunately it is dead wrong on both counts. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago was not only immoral, not only an act of state-sponsored terrorism, it was also unnecessary. The latter may be the greatest tragedy of all.

The Thin Line

If you'll recall, this issue came up in an earlier post about terrorism. The best definition of terrorism that I can come up with is "an attack on civilian non-military targets," with war being "an attack on military targets." (I'm open to any other distinction between terrorism and legitimate wartime actions.)

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were primarily civilian targets. Each city had tens of thousands of civilian residents and comparatively little military value. The strategy in attacking these civilian targets was to wear down the resolve of the civilian population to continue to support their government's aggression. Make life miserable enough for the common people and they will tire of war. If that rationale sounds familiar, it was the same motive of the 9/11 hijackers and Eric Rudolph.

So, how did it get to the point where the U.S. targeted civilians in wartime? You have to understand the American psyche after Pearl Harbor. Government propaganda of the time portrayed the "Jap" as a sinister type of ape, not even human at all. This often happens in wars: the enemy is "dehumanized", "otherized", (the utlanning is transformed into the varelse, so to speek) so that it is not immoral to do unspeakably bad things to them. As Montesque observed about slaves, "It is impossible to suppose these to be men, for if we suppose them to be men, the suspicion would naturally follow that we ourselves are not Christian." Therefore, they can't really be men.

Remember also what every propaganda poster proclaimed: not "The only good Japanese soldier is a dead one," but "The only good Jap's a dead Jap." "Stay on the job until every Murdering Jap is wiped out!"Not to mention the ever-popular sub-human ravishing a chaste white woman posters. There is no underestimating the effect this kind of thinking had on Americans in the military as well as in Washington.

Add to this Imperial Japan's well-deserved reputation for atrocity (Google up "Rape of Nanking" or "Bataan Death March" for an eye-opening look at how the Japanese treated their defeated foes) and it is indeed not surprising that the military and political leadership had no qualms about targeting Japanese civilians. While no war is entirely a matter of good versus evil, most historians agree that the Axis forces were certainly far worse than the Allies.

Britain and the U.S. started bombing explicitly civilian targets fairly late in the war. By early 1945, residents of Dresden felt safe. Their city had no military value, no defenses to speak of, and had not been seriously attacked thus far in the war. Dresden was the cultural and artistic center of eastern Germany, a city swelled to overfilling with panicked refugees. Most of the city's inhabitants were civilians (the elderly, women and children), concentration camp inmates, and Allied POWs. The rumor that the allies intended to make Dresden Germany's post-war capital contributed to the calm--a calm which was shattered on the night of February 13, 1945 when British bombers dropped "incediaries" on Dresden. The city turned into an inferno as fires consumed most of the city at a cost of at least 25,000 civilian casualities. Kinda makes 9/11 look like the work of amateurs.

The next month, March 1945, saw the world's first major employment of napalm, as American bombers incinerated a quarter of Tokyo. As most of the buildings were wooden, they didn't stand a chance. The firestorm raged for days, completely destroying 15 square miles of Tokyo real estate and killing well over 100,000 civilians. Tokyo had military forces, to be sure, but a far greater number of civilians.

So, when the time came to decide where to drop the atom bombs in Japan, there was no discussion of sparing civilians. That moral line had already been crossed long before. The atomic bomb was simply viewed as acheiving what was acheived at Dresden and Tokyo with only one bomb, rather than thousands. More efficient. Less risk to American pilots. A win-win situation for everyone. Except the Japanese civilians. But they had already been factored out of the equation.

The grim truth is that the war was effectively over before the atomic bombs were dropped. As Doug Long [in italics throughout] reveals, "When Air Force chief General Hap Arnold asked in June 1945 when the war was going to end, the commander of the B-29 raids, General Curtis LeMay, told him September or October 1945, because by then they would have run out of industrial targets to bomb." Think about that for a moment: by September or October the Japanese would no longer have an industrial base. Without an industrial base, they could not continue to fight the war.

"While Japan was being bombarded from the sky, a naval blockade was strangling Japan's ability to import oil and other vital materials and its ability to produce war materials.
Admiral William Leahy, the Chief of Staff to President Roosevelt and then to President Truman, wrote, 'By the beginning of September [1944], Japan was almost completely defeated through a practically complete sea and air blockade.' Then in May of 1945 the surrender of Germany freed the Allies to focus their troops and resources on defeating the final enemy, Japan." The handwriting was on the wall. Japan's defeat was imminent. No invasion of Japan, with possibly hundreds of thousands of American casualities, would be necessary after all. Admiral Chester Nimitz and other military leaders were adamant that Japan was effectively beaten and that the atomic bombs were pointless.

So, why did Japan wait until mid-August to surrender? The Potsdam agreement, broadcast around the world, stated that the policy of the Allied forces remained to only accept Japan's "unconditional surrender". The Japanese interpreted this to mean they would not be allowed to keep their emperor, whom they worshipped as a god. Japanese Foreign Minister Togo stated in a July 12, 1945 message to Japan's ambassador in Russia that "as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender, our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort".

Due to the advanced codecracking capabilities of the U.S., a translation of this telegram was on Truman's desk soon thereafter. Thus, the Americans knew that the Japanese were really just fighting to keep their emperor. If Truman really wanted to end the war early, he would have done it now. But allowing the Japanese to keep their emperor would have meant something less than complete "unconditional surrender." It would have stipulated a condition. Ever since Pearl Harbor, the emperor of Japan had been made out to be the mastermind of all of Japan's aggressions, the byzantine nature of Japanese cabinet and military politics not being as well known then as today. Today we know that when Hirohito finally told his cabinet to accept the Allied terms for surrender, he was overturning all precedent, as the emperor was merely supposed to rubber-stamp the actions of the cabinet. Unfortunately, at the time, Hirohito was viewed in much the same way as Mussolini or Hitler. We hadn't granted those thugs immunity. The American people wouldn't stand for allowing Hirohito to remain in power.

So, to review: 1) the Japanese were willing to surrender before Hiroshima if they could be allowed to keep their emperor, 2) the Allies knew this, but decided to bomb to force "unconditional surrender", 3) the Japanese surrendered after the bombings, but on condition of being allowed to keep their emperor, 4) the Allies had no more nuclear weapons at this point so they wisely decided not to press the point and accepted Japan's "unconditional surrender."

Huh? Maybe I'm missing something here, but the atomic bombings don't seem to have accomplished much of anything beyond killing a lot of Japanese civilians (plus 22 American POWs at a camp in Hiroshima).

There may have been additional reasons for dropping the bombs. Perhaps Truman decided to drop the bombs to intimidate the Russians or stop them from overrunning Japan (though, much like the Germans had a few months earlier, the Japanese would surely have preferred to surrender to the Americans rather the Russians, so they probably would have surrendered before the Russians defeated them. Indeed the Russian entry into the war was so contemporaneous with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is difficult to tell which was the deciding factor in Japan's surrender.)

In the end, only two things seem clear: dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immoral and unnecessary. It killed far more lives than it saved and Japan surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the exact same terms it was willing to before those bombings. That is the sad legacy of Hiroshima: that thousands more people died needlessly in the last chapter of the bloodiest war in the annals of history.