Saturday, March 31, 2012

Welcome To (Pure & Unadulterated) Misogyny 101

Today, The Butcher takes a turn as a cultural historian and acquits himself with honor. The current Dumbo war on women began in 1972 and rages today across this land. Bottom line: a woman who votes for any Dumbo is a fool. If this is (fair & balanced) gender-specific misanthropy, so be it.

[x NY 'Zine]
Stag Party
By Frank Rich

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At the time, back in January in New Hampshire, it didn’t seem like that big a deal, certainly nothing to rival previous debate flash points like “9-9-9” and “Oops!” But in retrospect it may have been one of the more fateful twists of the Republican presidential campaign. The exchange was prompted by George Stephanopoulos, who seemingly out of nowhere asked Mitt Romney if he shared Rick Santorum’s view that “states have the right to ban contraception.” Romney stiffened, as he is wont to do, and took the tone of a men’s club factotum tut-tutting a member for violating the dress code. “George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising,” he said. “I know of no reason to talk about contraception in this regard.” The partisan audience would soon jeer the moderator for his effrontery.

Afterward, Romney’s spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom accused Stephanopoulos of asking “the oddest question in a debate this year” and of having “a strange obsession with contraception.” It was actually Santorum who had the strange obsession. He had first turned the subject into a cause in October by talking about “the dangers of contraception in this country.” Birth control is “not okay,” he said then. “It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

As we know now, Santorum, flaky though he may sound, is not some outlier in his party or in its presidential field. He was an advance man for a rancorous national brawl about to ambush an unsuspecting America that thought women’s access to birth control had been resolved by the Supreme Court almost a half century ago.

The hostilities would break out just weeks after the New Hampshire debate, with the back-to-back controversies of the White House health-care rule on contraceptives and the Komen Foundation’s dumping of Planned Parenthood. Though those two conflicts ended with speedy cease-fires, an emboldened GOP kept fighting. It had women’s sex lives on the brain and would not stop rolling out jaw-dropping sideshows: an all-male panel at a hearing on birth control in the House. A fat-cat Santorum bankroller joking that “gals” could stay out of trouble by putting Bayer aspirin “between their knees.” A Virginia governor endorsing a state bill requiring that an ultrasound “wand” be inserted into the vagina of any woman seeking an abortion.

It’s not news that the GOP is the anti-abortion party, that it panders to the religious right, and that it’s particularly dependent on white men with less education and less income—a displaced demographic that has been as threatened by the rise of the empowered modern woman as it has been by the cosmopolitan multiracial male elites symbolized by Barack Obama. That aggrieved class is, indeed, Santorum’s constituency. But, as Stephanopoulos was trying to get at when he challenged Romney, this new rush of anti-woman activity on the right isn’t coming exclusively from the Santorum crowd. It’s a phenomenon extending across the GOP. On March 1, every Republican in the Senate except the about-to-flee Olympia Snowe—that would be 45 in total—voted for the so-called Blunt Amendment, which would allow any employer with any undefined “moral” objection to veto any provision in health-care coverage, from birth control to mammograms to diabetes screening for women (or, for that matter, men) judged immorally overweight.

After the Blunt Amendment lost (albeit by only three votes), public attention to the strange 2012 Republican fixation on women might have dissipated had it not been for Rush Limbaugh. His verbal assault on a female Georgetown University law student transformed what half-attentive onlookers might have tracked as a hodgepodge of discrete and possibly fleeting primary-season skirmishes into a big-boned narrative—a full-fledged Republican war on women. And in part because Limbaugh pumped up his hysteria for three straight days, he gave that war a unifying theme: pure unadulterated misogyny.

The GOP Establishment didn’t know what to do about Rush. Conservatives had tried to make the case that the only issue at stake in the contraception debate was religious liberty—Obama’s health-care czars forcing religiously affiliated institutions (or more specifically Catholic institutions) to pay for birth-control coverage (which 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women use at some point, according to the Gutt­macher Institute) [PDF]. But the Obama administration had walked back that rule in a compromise acceptable to mainstream Catholics, including the Catholic Health Association. So what was Rush yelling about now except his own fantasies (videos included) about this young woman’s sex life?

The right’s immediate solution was simple: The best defense of Rush was a good offense. He was guilty mainly of a poor choice of words (as he himself said in his “apology”) and so was really no different from Bill Maher, Ed Schultz, and Keith Olbermann, among other liberal hypocrites who had used “slut,” “whore,” or worse to slime Republican women. It was an entirely valid point—and also a convenient distraction from Virginia’s vaginal wands, Congressman Darrell Issa’s all-male panel, ­Foster Friess’s aspirin-between-the-knees, and that ugly Blunt business in the Senate.

At the very top of the Washington GOP Establishment, however, there was a dawning recognition that a grave danger had arisen—not to women, but to their own brand. A month of noisy Republican intrusion into women’s health and sex organs, amplified by the megaphone of Limbaugh’s aria, was a potentially apocalyptic combination for an election year. No one expressed this fear more nakedly than Peggy Noonan, speaking, again with Stephanopoulos, on ABC’s "This Week." After duly calling out Rush for being “crude, rude, even piggish,” she added: “But what he said was also destructive. It confused the issue. It played into this trope that the Republicans have a war on women. No, they don’t, but he made it look that way.”

Note that she found Limbaugh “destructive” not because he was harming women but because he was harming her party. But the problem wasn’t that Limbaugh confused the issue. His real transgression was that he had given away the GOP game, crystallizing an issue that had been in full view for weeks. That’s why his behavior resonated with and angered so many Americans who otherwise might have tuned out his rant as just another sloppy helping of his aging shtick. It’s precisely because there is a Republican war on women that he hit a nerve. And surely no one knows that better than Noonan, a foot soldier in some of the war’s early battles well before Rush became a phenomenon. In her 1990 memoir about her service in the Reagan administration, What I Saw at the Revolution, she recalls likening Americans who favored legal abortions to Germans who favored killing Jews—a construct Limbaugh wouldn’t seize on and popularize (“feminazis”) until Reagan was leaving office and Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton emerged on the national stage.

GOP apologists like Noonan are hoping now that Limbaugh and Limbaugh alone will remain the issue—a useful big fat idiot whom Republicans can scapegoat for all the right’s misogynistic sins and use as a club to smack down piggish liberal media stars. The hope is that he will change the subject of the conversation altogether, from a Republican war on women to, as Noonan now frames it, the bipartisan “coarsening of discourse in public life.” That’s a side issue, if not a red herring. Coarse and destructive as sexist invective is—whether deployed by Limbaugh or liberals—it is nonetheless policies and laws that inflict the most insidious and serious casualties in the war on women. It’s Republicans in power, not radio talk-show hosts or comedians or cable-news anchors, who try and too often succeed at enacting punitive measures aimed at more than half the population. The war on women is rightly named because those who are waging it do real harm to real women with their actions, not words.

If that war were all about Rush Limbaugh—or all about abortion—it would be easy to understand and perhaps easy to file away as the same old same old. But a sweeping edict with full GOP support like the Blunt Amendment, which has nothing to do with abortion, indicates how much broader the animus is. The Republican Party in its pathological reaction to the rise of Obama has now moved so far to the right that it seems determined to turn back the clock to that supposedly halcyon time when Ralph Kramden was king of his domestic castle. Back then, as Santorum would have it, women just didn’t do things “counter to how things are supposed to be.”

For much of its history, misogyny was not the style of the party of Lincoln. For most of the twentieth century, the GOP was ahead of the curve in bestowing women’s rights. When the Nineteenth Amendment granting suffrage was ratified in 1920, roughly three-quarters of the 36 state legislatures that did so were controlled by Republicans. In 1940, the GOP mandated that women be equally represented in its national and executive committees—a standard not imposed by the Democrats until more than three decades later.

Barry Goldwater’s wife Peggy, inspired by a Margaret Sanger lecture in Phoenix in 1937, would help build one of the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood affiliates. Her husband favored abortion rights. “I think the average woman feels, ‘My God, that’s my business,’ and that’s the way we should keep it,” he said late in his career. Prescott Bush, the Connecticut senator who sired a presidential dynasty, was another Sanger enthusiast and treasurer for the first national Planned Parenthood fund-raising campaign. His son George, when a congressman in the sixties, was an ardent birth-control advocate and the principal Republican author of the trailblazing Family Planning Act of 1970. Capitol Hill colleagues jokingly nicknamed him “Rubbers.”

One loyal Republican woman whose political engagement began during this relatively enlightened time was Tanya Melich, the daughter of a state senator in ultraconservative Utah. Melich, who had passed out leaflets for Wendell Willkie as a child in the forties, had grown up to be a stalwart New York Republican and a 1992 Bush convention delegate. She was no fan of Democrats, who “stood for big government that obstructed individual freedom.”

Melich wrote those words in a memoir published in 1996. The book’s title was The Republican War Against Women. When it came out, it caused a small stir, but these days her eyewitness account of her party’s transformation seems more pertinent and prescient than ever. It gives the lie to the notion that a Republican war on women is some Democratic trope, trumped up in recent weeks for political use in 2012. Her history also reminds us that the hostility toward modern women resurfacing in the GOP today was baked into the party before the religious right gained its power and before recriminalizing abortion became a volatile cause.

The GOP started backing away from its traditional beneficence on women’s issues at the tail end of the Nixon presidency. Nixon had a progressive GOP take for his time: He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, appointed an impressive number of talented women, and in 1972 signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act to strengthen the policing of workplace discrimination. But, in a telling shift a few months earlier, he also vetoed a bipartisan bill enabling child care for the millions of mothers then rapidly joining the workforce. As Melich observes, it would have been consistent with GOP frugality if Nixon had rejected the bill solely because of its cost. But his veto was accompanied by a jarring statement that child care would threaten American families by encouraging women to work. The inspiration for this unexpected reactionary broadside came not from fundamentalist clergy but from cynical, secular political strategists eager to exploit the growing backlash against the sixties feminist movement, much as the “southern strategy” was exploiting the backlash against the sixties civil-rights movement.

This tactic preceded Roe v. Wade, which was decided in 1973. The new GOP was hostile to female liberation, period, not just female sexual freedom. The pitch was articulated by Newt Gingrich in his first successful congressional race in Georgia in 1978. His opponent, a state senator named Virginia Shapard, crusaded for the Equal Rights Amendment and bankrolled her own campaign. That uppity profile gave the Gingrich forces an advertising message: “Newt will take his family to Washington and keep them together; Virginia will go to Washington and leave her husband and children in the care of a nanny.” Newt won by nine percentage points. One of his campaign officials tied his victory to the strategy of “appealing to the prejudice against working women, against their not being home.”

This hostility to independent women was codified in the national Republican platform throughout the seventies. A 1972 plank supporting federal assistance for day-care services was softened in 1976, then dropped entirely at the Reagan convention of 1980. A 1972 stipulation that “every woman should have the freedom to choose whatever career she wishes—and an equal chance to pursue it” also vanished. The 1980 platform instead took a patriarchal stance, applauding mothers and homemakers for “maintaining the values of this country.”

By then the anti-choice extremists of the religious right had merged with the hard right to produce the GOP convention from hell in 1992 in Houston. As if Pat Buchanan’s legendary address calling for an all-out culture war were not crazed enough, the vice-president’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, declared that “most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women.” Women, in fact, had now fallen to a status lower than the fetus as far as this recalibrated Republican Party was concerned. “I can’t imagine a crime more egregiously awful than forcible rape,” said Congressman Henry Hyde at a convention platform hearing, before going on to add: “There is honor in having to carry to term, not exterminating the child. From a great tragedy, goodness can come.”

The indignities of the 1992 Republican convention and campaign were all countenanced by Melich’s own candidate, the former “Rubbers,” who had long since repudiated his past good works on family planning. In disgust, she and many other Republican women voted for Bill Clinton. In what would later be dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” four new women were elected to the Senate in 1992, all Democrats. The gender gap, which had made its first appearance in the Reagan ascendancy of 1980, kept growing during the Clinton presidency. Mary Matalin blamed the problem, much as Noonan does now, on faulty communications that confused the issue for women voters. Conservatives needn’t worry about “changing their message,” Matalin condescendingly advised in 1996, but should instead focus on “conveying it in ways intelligible to women.”

Such tactics didn’t close the gender gap, which would remain intact until the Democratic shellacking of 2010, when women split between the parties. Unsurprisingly, the gap has returned with a vengeance this year. A post-Blunt-Limbaugh March Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll found that in an Obama-Romney matchup, Romney was winning among men by six points and losing among women by eighteen points, giving Obama an overall advantage of six points. Male Republican political hands aren’t losing sleep about it, for they assume that the gals will quickly forget these silly little tussles over contraception. “Nobody thinks it will matter in a couple of months,” said Vin Weber, the former Republican congressman and current Romney backer. “If Rick Santorum is not the nominee,” said Whit Ayres, the GOP pollster, “all the attention to these issues is going to evaporate.” According to Virginia governor Bob ­McDonnell, the requiring of ultrasound procedures in states like his has nothing to do with all the tumult. “This constant focus on social issues is largely coming from the Democrats,” he said on "Meet the Press."

Whatever happens in November, there will be no Republican retreat in this war. Santorum is unlikely to be the GOP nominee, if he isn’t toast already, but his fade-out would no more change the state of play than if Limbaugh suddenly announced his retirement. What matters, and will continue to matter, is the damage inflicted by politicians and officials on women’s daily lives. Even a renewal of the once-bipartisan 1994 Violence Against Women Act is up for grabs in the current Congress.

The notion that Romney will somehow be more “moderate” on women’s issues than his opponents or party is not credible. The fact that he and his wife long ago supported Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts is no more a predictor of his agenda in the White House than the Bush family’s links to Planned Parenthood were of either Bush presidency. On policy, Romney and Santorum are on exactly the same page. Both endorsed the Blunt Amendment and the short-lived Komen defunding of Planned Parenthood. (Romney has called for the termination of all federal funding of Planned Parenthood.) Both men also want to shut down Title X—the main federal family-planning program supported by Nixon and then-Congressman Bush at its creation in 1970. Title X prevents abortions and unintended pregnancies by the hundreds of thousands per year, according to federal research. In addition to birth control, it also pays for preventive health care that includes cervical- and breast-cancer screening, testing for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, and even some abstinence counseling for teenagers. It would be overstating the case to say that the men running for president and running Congress in the GOP are opposed to all these services; the evidence suggests that such female concerns aren’t on their radar screen.

Republicans in state government are not waiting for a Romney presidency to gut Title X and act on the rest of their wish list. Rick Perry has already rejected Title X money for Texas, assuring that countless poor women in his domain will be denied access to all reproductive health care, from birth-control pills to Pap smears. In other states from Pennsylvania to Arizona, Virginia-style laws mandating government medical procedures on pregnant women have made serious advances. So have “personhood” laws, which hold the promise to make birth control and family planning as endangered as abortion rights. The moment the state declares a fertilized egg a “person” is the moment when the morning-after pill and IUDs, not to mention in vitro fertilization, become, by definition, illegal.

To believe that Romney will somehow depart from his party’s misogyny in the White House, you have to believe that everything he has said about these issues during the primary campaign is a lie. You have to believe that the “real” Romney is the one who endorsed Roe v. Wade when he was running against Ted Kennedy in 1994, and that all the Etch A Sketch–ing since then has been a transitory attempt to pander to his party’s base. But a look at Romney’s personal history suggests that the real Romney is the one before us now—the sincere exponent of a deeply held faith whose entire top hierarchy is male and that still denies women the leadership roles that are bestowed on every Mormon male beginning at age 12. (At least blacks were finally granted full equality in the Church of Latter Day Saints in 1978.) The widely reported examples of Romney’s own personal behavior in his church roles as ward bishop and stake president in the Boston area suggest that he had not only never questioned this ethos but completely internalized it. He seems impervious to vulnerable women in crisis and need beyond his own family.

In one of these incidents, he turned his back on a 23-year-old single mother, Peggie Hayes, who had been a Romney family friend and teenage babysitter, because she refused to obey his and the church’s preference that she give up a second, out-of-wedlock child for adoption. Even when Hayes’s baby underwent frightening head surgery nine months after birth, Mitt spurned her call to come to the hospital to confer a blessing on her child. A similar Romney episode originally surfaced in an anonymous first-person account published by a Mormon feminist journal, Exponent II, in 1990. A mother of four learned that she had a blood clot in her pelvis during a later, unexpected pregnancy, putting her own health and that of the fetus at risk. Romney visited the hospital where she “lay helpless, hurt, and frightened,” as she described it, only to tell her that “as your bishop, my concern is with the child.” The woman, who has recently identified herself as Carrel Hilton Sheldon, was enraged that he cared more about “the eight-week possibility” in her uterus than he did about her—and that he offered “judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection” at a time when she needed support from spiritual leaders and friends. In an interview with Ronald Scott, the author of a Romney biography published last year, Sheldon tried to be generous when looking back. “Mitt has many, many winning qualities,” she said, “but at the time he was blind to me as a human being.”

All of which is to affirm that George Stephanopoulos was addressing his question to the right candidate when he brought up the banning of contraception at that January debate. Santorum has always been completely candid about his view of women and their status; Romney was the one who had to be smoked out. Romney didn’t take the bait, but even so, his record is clear, and, unlike the angry Santorum, he has the smooth style of a fifties retro patriarch to camouflage the reactionary content. In this sense, his war on women would differ from Rick’s—and Rush’s—only in the way prized by GOP spin artists like Noonan and Matalin. He would never be so politically foolhardy as to spell out on-camera just how broad and nasty its goals really are. Ω

[Frank Rich joined New York magazine in June 2011 as Writer-at-Large, writing monthly on politics and culture, and editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. Rich joined the magazine following a distinguished career at the New York Times, where he had been an op-ed columnist since 1994. He was previously the paper's chief drama critic, from 1980 to 1993. As a theater critic, he was known as "The Butcher On Broadway." Before joining The Times, Rich was a film critic at Time magazine, the New York Post, and New Times magazine. He was a founding editor of the Richmond (Va.) Mercury, a weekly newspaper, in the early 1970s. Rich is the author of a childhood memoir, Ghost Light (2000), a collection of drama reviews, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998), The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson (with Lisa Aronson, 1987), and The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006). Rich is a graduate of the Washington, DC public schools. He earned a BA degree in American History and Literature from Harvard College in 1971.]

Copyright © 2012 New York Media

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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Only Mitt You Can Believe In

MLB spring training will give way to Opening Night/Day on April 4-5, 2012. A young man's thoughts turn to the National Pastime and a young reader of this blog out in the Valley of the Sun sent along a virtual thumbs up for Chad Harbaugh's The Art of Fielding (2011). This blogger promised to put e-book version in the queue for his bedtime reading. However, there's more to the beginning of the 2012 MLB season than just a baseball novel. Daniel Fromson took this blogger back to his first (and only) baseball mitt

and the traditional method for "breaking in" a new glove. First, the young blogger went to the only shoe repair shop in town and purchased a small can of Neatsfoot Oil. After oiling the glove, a baseball was inserted in the glove's pocket and then wrapped with rubber bands. After a couple of days, the still-oily mitt was "broken in," Unfortunately, this blogger's baseball experience was stillborn and the Rawlings Stan "The Man" Musial glove disappeared from this blogger's life. Now the Dumbos/Teabaggers are going to try and reintroduce a Mitt into this blogger's life. Thanks, but no thanks. If this is a (fair & balanced) call for a dunking "Mitt" in Neatsfoot Oil, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
The Glove That Would Change The Game
By Daniel Fromson

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Tradition or not, all sports will evolve,” the science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke predicted: even “the grand old game” of Ruth and Mays would be transformed by bionic-armed pitchers wielding lightweight, non-leather gloves. The cyborgs haven’t arrived, but their catching device has. It has spent the off-season in a display case at the Baseball Hall of Fame, whose curators think they might be witnessing a “historic moment”: the birth of the glove of the future.

Resembling a standard black baseball glove, it is composed primarily of synthetic microfibers. Only 30 or so were made last year, each custom tailored to the owner’s hand. Just a few pros use the glove—it is sold, through a personal Web site, for at least $300—but many early adopters consider it the best glove in baseball, and its inventor is exploring mass production. At the moment, however, his factory is the former living room of a friend’s house.

Scott Carpenter, the glove’s lanky 40-year-old craftsman, says that compared with bats and balls, whose design is more tightly policed by Major League Baseball, a better glove can radically change the game. It’s happened before. What looked like fingerless leather work gloves during the 1870s slowly morphed into the Wilson A2000, introduced in 1957 and still considered the prototypical modern glove. With a deeper pocket and an improved “hinge” between the thumb and forefinger, it could collapse like a set of jaws. Suddenly fielders could easily snatch balls from the air one-handed. “They say that’s a major reason why no one is likely to hit a .400 batting average again,” Carpenter says. Every present-day glove is a close descendant of the A2000. Except his.

The big innovation is Carpenter’s use of suede-like synthetics—matted polymer fibers pioneered by the footwear industry—that weigh less than half as much as leather. After a decade of tweaking, his glove, according to his tests, is five to 10 ounces lighter than any rival. A baseball, Carpenter points out, weighs about five ounces: “Imagine taping two baseballs onto the back of your hand, and what a difference that would make if you were fielding a bad hop.” Other advantages include breathability, durability, and memory-foam-like padding.

Carpenter’s design also sets his glove apart. Among the spools of thread, bolts of fabric, and antique sewing machines in his workshop lie plaster casts of players’ hands. He shapes a glove’s lining to account for every contour and joint. A perfect fit eliminates slipping and translates to better leverage. In addition, the entire glove is more curved than usual and has flared-out sides, all of which helps funnel a ball into the pocket.

Many players view this kind of change as the equivalent of asking grown men to buy T-ball gloves. (Synthetic gloves long meant only one thing: vinyl, the Fisher-Price kiddie car to leather’s Rolls-Royce.) “People were making fun of it left and right,” says Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Michael Schwimer, recalling his minor-league teammates’ reactions when he began wearing a Carpenter glove in 2008. “It was like, ‘Aren’t those the ones that come in the cereal box?’” Nonetheless, Schwimer says the half dozen or so pros who use the glove—mostly minor-league pitchers—agree that its performance is unequaled: once players give it two weeks, he says, they don’t go back.

Leather, Carpenter argues, has been in decline for years. Roger Clemens, he notes, popularized gloves with synthetic-mesh backs, which are now worn by stars including Alex Rodriguez and Roy Halladay. An updated Wilson A2000 contains synthetic microfibers. And in December, the MLB Playing Rules Committee quietly gave Carpenter informal approval to make synthetic gloves for major-league use during the 2012 season.

Contracts and endorsement money keep most MLB players tethered to well-known brands—for now. Large sporting-goods companies have been courting Carpenter, who is brainstorming ways to mechanize his tailoring process. There’s a recent precedent for a baseball-equipment revolution, Schwimer adds: bats made from maple, first used in the majors in 1997, have become more popular than their century-old predecessor, ash bats. “It takes forever for any change to occur. But when change happens, it happens really fast.” Ω

[Daniel Fromson is a former associate editor of The Atlantic, he has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Slate, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Washington Monthly, Tablet Magazine, and the website of Lapham’s Quarterly. He is also a beer columnist for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper. Fromson is a graduate of Yale University, where he studied English literature and nonfiction writing and was editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine.]

Copyright © 2012 The Atlantic Monthly Group

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Restaurant By Any Other Name Is A... Restaurant?

The earliest memory of a restaurant in this blogger's life was Jamie's Lunch in a small mining town in the West. The whitewashed building was long and narrow with a counter and stools opposite the door and booths to the left. The owner/proprietor was also the cook: Jamie Blankenship. In the mist of this blogger's memory, he was a heavy-set man in a white apron. 'Twas here that the young blogger had his first greasy-spoon burger and washed it down with Grapette. If this is (fair & balanced) gastro-nostalgia, so be it.

[x Intelligent Life]
Alphabet Soup
By Christopher Hirst

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Food and drink are no longer enough. Increasingly, restaurants also provide customers with a puzzle—why do they have such baffling names? Recent London openings include Karpo, which sounds like an intriguing cross between Kafka and Harpo Marx, but is actually the “Greek goddess of fruits of the earth”; 10 Cases, which might suggest a link with Sherlock Holmes but in fact refers to an idiosyncratic wine-buying policy; and the bar/bistro Soif, the French for thirst, but which some customers have taken to be a philosophical question—“So if...?”

At one time restaurants were almost always named after their founding proprietor—venerable survivors include Rules in London (1798), Keen’s in New York (1885) and Café Procope in Paris (1686)—but today the whole lexicon has been plundered. In those cities you can now dine in establishments named after an ancient dish of jellified pork (Brawn, in east London, serves food that is “honest and simple with a respect for tradition”), the ship on which Darwin developed his ideas about evolution (Beagle, which stresses it “is not named after the dog”, and aims for “creative American cooking”) and a man best known for beating naughty children (Au Père Fouettard, near Les Halles, where the manageress apparently “runs a tight ship”).

“Every new opening I deal with wants to have a catchy name,” says Maureen Mills of the restaurant-PR specialists Network London. “There are three rules: make sure it’s not rude, people can spell it, and it’s not in an obscure language.” After that anything goes, though customers might have to overcome an initial aversion at Skin & Bones in Portland, Oregon, or Virus in Ghent, where the food can be as bizarre as the name: I once ate muskrat there.

The word “restaurant” was originally a term for restorative broth. In the years before the French revolution, its meaning extended to the premises where soup and other foods were sold. One of the first Parisian restaurants was called Boeuf à la Mode, while today the hottest joint in town is Chateaubriand. (“Such a terrific name,” says Mills. “I don’t know why it wasn’t used before.”) Some names get used more than once—purely by coincidence, both Kent and Paris have restaurants named after the Roman food-writer Apicius, while in either New York or Perth you can dine at a Balthazar—named after a massive champagne bottle, or perhaps one of the three Wise Men. (The other two magi had equally ringing monikers. There’s already a Le Melchior in Cahors, south-west France, but Caspar is still up for grabs.) There was a third Balthazar, in London, though that changed owing to “trade-name infringement”. Its new name, Manson, has unfortunate connotations for anyone who was reading a newspaper in 1968.

But does it matter? “The name alone is not make-or-break,” says Richard Chinn, a senior strategist at the brand consultancy Wolff Olins. “But it can signpost a concept and make it easier for people to get some idea of the place.” Maureen Mills agrees. “Names like Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, or Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, act as mini press-releases: they tell you the name of the chef, and where he is. More casual places, such as Pollan Street Social, give the street address and get across the concept.” Others, though, give a street address, but not necessarily the right street address: east London’s North Road Restaurant is on St John Street, while its near neighbour St John Bread and Wine is actually on Commercial Road. Perhaps “Commercial Bread and Wine” wouldn’t have had the right ring.

Names come in clearly discernible waves. Single-word, minimalist abstractions—Sketch, Texture, Maze, Public, Alias—were fashionable in Britain and America in the mid-2000s. When Gordon Ramsay opened Aubergine in 1993, a restaurant named after a vegetable seemed odd, but it was followed by a whole green-grocery of fruit and veg, including Medlar, Quince and Tamarind.

A two-syllable, two-vowel-sound trend started with Nobu in 1994, picked up steam with London’s Moro in 1997, then avalanched in the 2000s: Cracco in Milan, Needoo in London, Noma in Copenhagen. They’re snappy but heading towards baby talk.

The word “kitchen” is much in vogue. Mills recalls that when Tom Aitkens opened Tom’s Kitchen in Chelsea six years ago, “his board of directors was concerned that it was too tacky, too informal. But it was perfect. Bistro, brasserie and café have all become over-familiar.” Now, with a Kitchin (the spelling comes from the restaurateur Tom Kitchin) in Edinburgh, a Kitchen Restaurant in Inverness, and a Kitchen W8 in London, you could argue that “kitchen” is edging towards over-familiarity.

Some kinds of names never go out fashion. Bad puns still have their grip—there’s Aunt Chiladas in Arizona, Thaitanic in London, Vin sur Vin in Paris (echoing the top mark of 20 out of 20, or vingt sur vingt), and a fish-and-chip shop in Goole, Yorkshire, called Frying Nemo. An equally timeless, but more bearable, approach is to raid the farmyard: The Spotted Pig in New York, The Potted Pig in Cardiff. And the king of all the animals is actually a bird: Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck (1995). He is “not 100% sure” where the name came from.

The most newsworthy new restaurant in Britain in the past 18 months was also Blumenthal’s. The name of his first venture in London, Dinner, was a reference to the historic gastronomy on the menu (“dinner” originally meant breakfast, before becoming lunch and then supper). But it’s one thing to be historical, another to feel natural. “I think it’s odd,” Mills says. “Having lunch at Dinner is weird.”

Which new openings have had winning names? Richard Chinn nominates three. “Nopi sounds immediately friendly and colloquial,” he says. “Polpo feels very friendly with an Italian element. Duck Soup instantly gives the place an edge.” He may have spotted a trend: all have names that are more memorable than meaningful. Nopi, an upmarket venture from the saladmeister Yotam Ottolenghi, takes its name from its location north of Piccadilly—though, unlike Tribeca in New York (which lent its name to Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill), it is doubtful whether any of the locals, except possibly an estate agent, use the term.

Russell Norman, the owner of Polpo, explains his thinking: “We wanted a word that was short, memorable and impossible to mispronounce. Polpo means octopus, one of my favourite animals, but that was coincidental. The shape of the word is more important than the meaning.”

Duck Soup’s owner, Clare Lattin, says the name came about “because we loved the daftness of it. When we realised we were next door to the Groucho Club, we nearly abandoned it. But in the end, we couldn’t think of anything else as good, so we stuck with it.”

Some names come out of the blue. While seeking inspiration for his new London venture in 1926, an Italian restaurateur called Pepino Leoni saw a poster for the 1925 film “Quo Vadis”. The restaurant that bears its name can still be found in Soho. In 2002, about to open a place specialising in French food, the British chef Henry Harris was forced into creative thinking by his signmaker. “He said if we didn’t come up with a name right then, we wouldn’t have a sign in time. So I put together a long list of French words, including a few writers as fillers: Beaumarchais, Molière, Racine…Going through them, we went, ‘Crap, crap, crap’ until we reached Racine and someone said, ‘Racine, of course, French for root. Absolutely brilliant.’ So there it is. Both interpretations are true.”

The restaurateur Will Smith explains the origin of Arbutus, in central London, thus: “We discovered there used to be an arbutus, or strawberry tree, around the corner in Soho Square. The name felt good and sounded great. It was a bit like naming a child. At first, people went, ‘Eh?’ but soon said ‘That’s interesting’ and accepted it. Also, arbutus fruit have a culinary application in Portugal, where it is made into a spirit.” So does Arbutus sell arbutus spirit? “No.”

Perhaps the ultimate in restaurant names is the latest venture from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. Though outposts of his empire have solidly geographical names such as Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art, this does not apply to the newcomer at 945 Madison Ave. It is called Untitled. This may sound unimaginative, pretentious even, but it is actually witty and apposite. Untitled is the restaurant at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ω

[Christopher Hirst is a writer and journalist probably best known for his witty 'Weasel' column in the Independent for over a decade. He was nominated for the Glenfiddich Best Food Writer Award in 2007. Chris regularly commentates on current food issues in the Daily Telegraph and Intelligent Life magazine. His new book, Love Bites: Marital Skirmishes in the Kitchen (2010) is a light hearted account of culinary exploration with his wife and the differences in approaches to cookery between the sexes.

Copyright © 2012 The Economist Newspaper Limited

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" Oy Vey, We're Toast!

The Supremes are going through the motions with their review of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that arose out the the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. There, a divided, three-judge panel struck down the most controversial provisions of the law. Both parties appealed different questions to the Supreme Court, and the Court split the case into three separate cases to handle each question separately. The result is going to either a 5-4 or (possibly) 6-3 decision against what the Dumbos/Teabaggers call Obamacare. Enough Kabuki theater, already! Medicare for everyone, not just geezers. Let the Dumbos/Teabaggers who shriek about protecting Medicare from the government be struck dumb by universal Medicare. If this is a (fair & balanced) phony war on universal healthcare, so be it.

[x The New Yorker]
Obamacare Supreme Court Case Is A Bad Joke
By John Cassidy

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Forgive me if a wry tone eludes me when it comes to today’s proceedings in the Supreme Court. As far as I am concerned the whole thing is absurd—yet another example of how America’s antiquated system of government, and its determined refusal to accept the economic realities of the modern world, is undermining its future.

Early on in this morning’s session, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the court, said that the U. S. government had a “very heavy burden of justification” to show that an individual mandate to purchase health-care insurance was constitutional. Really? Only if Kennedy and his Republican-appointed colleagues are willing to throw out economic logic as well as seventy years of legal precedent, which, judging by their harsh questioning of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr., they may well be.

The economics isn’t very complicated. The health-care industry, which makes up about a sixth of the economy, is rife with inefficiency, waste, and coverage gaps. In seeking to remedy some of these problems, the Obama Administration made a deal with the private-insurance industry—the same deal Mitt Romney made when he was governor of Massachusetts. On the one hand, the federal government barred the insurers from discriminating against the sick and the elderly, thereby raising the industry’s costs. On the other hand, the feds obliged uninsured individuals to purchase coverage, thereby expanding the insurers’ revenues. We can argue whether this was the best way to proceed. (At the time the bill was passed, I raised some doubts about how much it would cost.) But it was a straightforward instance of the central government seeking to redress the failures of the private market—something akin to imposing fuel standards on auto manufacturers, providing state pensions, and forcing banks to hold adequate capital reserves.

In a modern, interconnected economy, activist government policies to remedy market failures are essential. Rather than confronting this argument head-on, which would involve publicly defending the actions of the banks, the insurers, and the industrial polluters, the right has settled on a strategy of trying to undermine the government through the courts, where its pro-corporate agenda can be repackaged as a defense of ancient freedoms.

Thus the bogus constitutional challenge to Obamacare, and, in particular, the individual mandate. As my colleague Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in an excellent post this morning, the issue resolves around the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which gives the federal government the power to “regulate Commerce… among the several States.” Where does this power begin and end? In the famous 1942 case of Wickard v. Filburn, the Court said that the federal government’s authority extends to any activity that “exerts a substantial economic effect” on commerce crossing state lines.

The case involved Roscoe Filburn, an Ohio farmer who wanted to grow more wheat than he had been allotted under quotas introduced during the Great Depression to drive up prices. In deciding against Filburn and in favor of the Department of Agriculture, the justices pointed out that the actions of individual wheat farmers, taken together, affect the price of wheat across many states. That is what gives the federal government the power to limit their actions.

Under the Wickard v. Filburn standard, the individual mandate is clearly constitutional. If ever there was an industry that crosses state lines, it is health care. As the Solicitor General’s office noted in its brief to the Court on the merits of the case, health-care spending “accounts for 17.6 percent of the nation’s economy.” From a legal perspective, that is where the matter should rest.

But, of course, this case isn’t ultimately about the law—it is about politics. The four ultra-conservative justices on the court—Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas—are in the vanguard of a movement to roll back the federal government and undermine its authority to tackle market failures. The movement began in the nineteen-eighties, when the Federalist Society got its start and Ronald Reagan appointed one of its members, Scalia, to the court—and for thirty years it has been gathering strength.

Thus the creation of a new legal theory to sink Obamacare: the idea that while the federal government might well have the authority to regulate economic activity, it doesn’t have the right to regulate inactivity—such as sitting around and refusing to buy health insurance. Now, it is as plain as the spectacles on Antonin Scalia’s nose that opting out of the health-care market is about as realistic as opting out of dying. But necessity is the mother of invention. And, judging by his questions this morning, it is this invention that Kennedy has fastened on.

As I said at the beginning, it’s a bad joke—upon us all. Ω

[John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He has written many, many articles for the magazine, on topics ranging from Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke to the Iraqi oil industry and the economics of Hollywood. His latest book is How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities (2009).]

Copyright © 2012 Condé Nast Digital

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Watchwords For The Post-Afghan Era: "Don't Get None Of That $hit On Me"

At dawn's early light (9:00 AM), this poor old blogge presented himself for an ophthalmalogic exam. The nurse/vision technician (whatever) administered drops to dilate both eyes. For some reason, the poor old blogger didn't recover normal vision for nearly five (5) hours. However, if today's post teaches anything, it is that "James Givens" (pseud.) will be coming home from Afghanistan any day now. Run, don't walk, for the nearest exit. If this is (fair & balanced) war reporting, so be it.

[x The American Scholar]
Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace
By Neil Shea

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The soldiers around me were barely visible, but I could smell them. They had not washed for days, and a sharp musk of sweat and sleeplessness, tobacco and chemically mummified food, wove through the fields and orchards. It was after midnight, moonless, the stars brilliant but unhelpful. The soldiers wore night-vision goggles, but I did not, so I stumbled after their scent along the remote edge of a fading war, envisioning things I could not see.

Up ahead, in the stream of black shapes, were the American soldiers I had come to fear. They were men who enjoyed demolishing Afghan houses, men who shot dogs in the face. The pair who had embraced like lovers, one tenderly drawing the blade of his knife along the pale, smooth skin of his friend’s throat. There was a guy who’d let the others tie his legs open and mock-rape him, and there were several men who had boasted of plans to murder their ex-wives and former girlfriends.

We paused in the darkness. A line of Afghan soldiers shuffled past, also nearly blind without night-vision equipment. They moved into position for the coming raid, clumsy as boxcars, trailing their own earthy stink. I thought back to what an American Army sergeant had told me hours earlier.

“This is where I come to do fucked-up things.”

His face had been clear and smooth, his smile almost shy. It was a statement of happy expectation, as though Afghanistan were a playground. He was the de facto leader of a platoon I will call Destroyer, and although he is a real person, not a composite, I have heard his words in many variations, from many American combat troops. But he and some of his men were the first I had met who seemed very near to committing the dumb and vicious acts that we call war crimes.

We marched on, toward houses the soldiers planned to raid and doors that would soon be blasted open, toward men who would be ripped awake, blindfolded, and hauled away. The sergeant’s words rattled in my head. I hoped the men would not do anything terrible.

Since 2006 I have written off and on about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly all of my work in those countries has been done embedded with NATO, mostly American military units. Many times I have watched soldiers or Marines, driven by boredom or fear, behave selfishly and meanly, even illegally, in minor ways. In a few searing moments I have wondered what would come next, what the men would do to prisoners or civilians or suspected insurgents. And I have wondered how to describe these moments without reporting melodramatic minutiae or betraying the men who allowed me in.

Most soldierly stupidity does not amount to crime; most soldiers never commit atrocities. U.S. soldiers shooting at goats, for example, or pilots getting drunk on base, or guards threatening the lives of prisoners, all things I have seen, defy military rules and erode efforts to win hearts and minds. But how bad is it, really? Do we care? What is my responsibility when I see it? I have never found good ways to write about the subhuman wash of aggression and the small episodes of violence military men and women cycle through daily, or the choices they make in the midst of this.

We tend to ignore such problems unless they are connected to a crime. An editor at a major magazine once dismissed such unsteady subjects by saying, “Yes, but bad things happen everywhere.” Perhaps she was telling me to lighten up. She was also summarizing a national attitude toward the wars. I write about it now because what I witnessed with Destroyer, and other units, routinely and unquietly returns to me.

I joined the platoon last summer at the end of a weeklong mission designed to clear insurgents from a series of towns and valleys in central Afghanistan. In 10 years of war, I was told, NATO troops had never visited the region. Intelligence reports called it a Taliban stronghold, and commanders expected heavy fighting. Going in, many soldiers told me they believed they would die.

Destroyer and several other units had dropped into the valleys by helicopter at night. During the day, they pushed through a sun-killed landscape of rock and withered grasses, where it was Destroyer’s job to search for weapons caches and battle insurgents alongside a wobbly unit of Afghan National Army (ANA) troops.

Each night, the men slept in abandoned qalats (fortified residential compounds), or they moved into occupied ones, handed the residents some cash, and kicked them out. I met the soldiers at a qalat they had temporarily confiscated, a large, newly painted house. Tall walls enclosed a courtyard containing a small orchard, a garden, and a well. Several rooms ran along one wall, and the soldiers had moved into them, sleeping head to foot on floors littered with cigarette packs, candy wrappers, and food scraps. The place was heavy with a scent I would later follow through the night.

I first met Staff Sergeant James Givens, as I will call him, outside one of these rooms. I had been asking about a dog that lay on the far side of the courtyard beside a heap of garbage. Like many soldiers, I sought out dogs whenever possible in Afghanistan, hoping to pet them or play with them, searching for a reminder of home. No one was paying this dog any attention. A soldier told me with a laugh that it was sleeping, so I walked over and found the animal leashed and dead, killed by a gunshot.

“What dead dog?” Givens said, grinning. “He’s just takin’ a nap.”

A captain standing nearby asked rhetorically and perhaps for my benefit if it had really been necessary to shoot a pet. Givens laughed.

“Sir, we’ve left plenty of animals alive in this area.”

One of those bits of violence. I shifted gears and began doing my job, hanging out with Givens and his men, hearing their stories while we waited for dark and that night’s raid. The dog continued napping for another day until Afghan soldiers, preparing their dinner a few feet away, wearied of the odor and moved the carcass.

The men of Destroyer said that so far the worst-case scenarios had not unfolded. They had searched houses and outbuildings and found little evidence of insurgents. Fighting in the valleys and towns was relatively light; mortars now and then, some rifle fire. Across the entire operation only one soldier, an Afghan, had been killed. The Taliban had not mined the region with IEDs or dug into the hillsides in anticipation of a grand battle. Most Taliban, if ever they had been in the area, slipped away while the Americans and the ANA flooded in.

We sat on the patio in the late, hot afternoon, airing our foul, boot-pruned feet. The soldiers of Destroyer talked about how their house searches had become demolition parties. They shattered windows and china, broke furniture, hurled civilians to the ground. Earlier that day, they had blown up a building. They tornadoed through Afghan houses and left such destruction that their ANA allies at first tried to stop them, then grew angry, sullen.

“They were so pissed they wouldn’t hang out with us anymore,” Givens remembered. “They kept saying ‘No good, mistah. No, mistah.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, fucking good. Plate? Smash. Is this a drum? Smash.’ ” He laughed. “ ‘Oh, mistah, no.’ ”

I imagined the Afghan soldiers standing by, helpless, while Destroyer destroyed. I thought of attacks over the past several years in which Afghan policemen or soldiers had suddenly turned on their NATO allies and opened fire. Such betrayals have been increasing. Sometimes the Taliban claim responsibility for them, but often it seems the assailants have been taking revenge on foreign soldiers for some perceived insult to their honor. It was not hard to envision the seeds of such an attack sown in the ruts of Destroyer’s visit.

Slowly, the soldiers began adding more stories, and tales of the past week blended with memories of killing and destruction during other missions and battles, in Afghanistan and Iraq, during many tours of duty. The men’s voices fell over each other in a clatter of brutality and homoerotic jokes.

So I grabbed the chain and dragged it out and shot it again with the shotgun and, uhhhh, brains all over me …

Shut up, faggot. You never did that …

Man, even if you actually got to see some Afghan chick and she was hot, I still wouldn’t fuck her cause she’d still be from here, which means she’d still be covered with shit.

My last deployment, my platoon sergeant, he’d say, “Make sure nothing lives. Cows: Taliban food. Sheep: Taliban food. Donkeys: Taliban transportation. Kill everything.”

You know what? Fuck these people.

Spend time around soldiers and you realize a lot of this is part of the game, part of being a young man in war. Still, I sensed more anger and hatred than I had encountered before. Givens spun at its center like a black hole. He was in his mid-20s, charismatic and quick, a combat veteran. He threw down declarations like a hip-hop star—respect yourself and no one else; fuck bitches, get money—and the younger infantrymen revered him. Even officers appeared to defer to his humor, efficiency, and rage.

Platoons are often structured like high school cliques, and Givens stood at the apex of his, setting the tone and example. A list of characteristics scrolled through my mind as I listened to the men, traits I probably learned from episodes of "Law & Order," or Lord of the Flies. Pop-culture sociopathy. Sexualized aggression. The displays of wolves.

“This is where I come to do fucked-up things,” Givens said. “So I don’t do them at home.”

Sometime after midnight, Destroyer and its ANA partners left the qalat to raid houses in another village. They had cleared it earlier in the week but believed some Taliban might have returned. The air was cool and clear, the landscape washed in blue-black silence. The soldiers gathered in a cloud of whispers and scraping boots at the edge of the village, then pushed in.

A loud and bright discord of explosions, shouts as soldiers took a few prisoners. But the raid was otherwise uneventful, almost standard. The battlefield equivalent of a traffic stop. The men treated the prisoners with ordinary roughness, blindfolding, tying their hands with rope. Then we filed back through the darkness to the confiscated qalat. Soon, anyone who could folded into exhausted sleep. It was nearly 4 a.m.

On a concrete patio, I pulled my sleeping bag over my head, leaving my boots on and my legs uncovered, like a drunk. Near me, a soldier and an American civilian began interrogating one of the prisoners. I slid into a weird slumber, the day’s events, flashes of heat and light, merging in dreams to the rhythm of interrogation.

What did he do in Iran during those two years?

He’s not dead, he’s sleepy.

If I knew where the Taliban were I would personally show you.

My ex, that bitch. I got a plan to kill her.

Stop. He’s playing this game again. Where the fuck was he prior to that time in Iran?

Respect yourself and no one else.

War is small, opaque moments. In spans of wakefulness, I wondered how I could ever write about them, and where my power of perception failed. A cock crowed, the interrogation ended. Soon the desert sun rose above the qalat walls, and my sleeping bag warmed into a putrid cocoon. When I finally emerged, the prisoner lay near me on his back, hands still cuffed, blindfold held in place with a strip of silver duct tape. For a moment I thought he was napping, like the dog beside the trash pile. Then, slowly, he reached up and scratched his nose.

It was the last day of the long mission. After midnight helicopters would retrieve Destroyer and the other units working in the area. The soldiers waited in their rooms, killing time. Some men stripped off their stinking combat shirts and scrubbed each other’s backs with baby wipes. Others popped hard-to-reach pimples for their friends. Hygienic intimacy.

“Feels like it’s been a month,” a soldier said.

“I can’t wait to wash my hair,” said another, smoothing his dark mop. “Man, we fucked up some houses, shit.”

Givens laughed and leaned against his gear. He was slim, boyish, unscalded by his own anger. He hated Afghans.

“Yeah, we definitely made some Taliban out here,” he said. “It was like a week-long Taliban recruiting drive. And we had fun doing it. I love recruiting for the Taliban. It’s called job security.”

They passed around packs of Pine cigarettes they had “liberated” during the raid and taunted each other with gay jokes. On the walls the Afghan homeowners had hung posters and odd pictures torn from magazines. An image of a yellow sports car, a photograph of Mecca, an idyllic scene of a cabin in Austria or Germany. Dreams beyond war. Beneath them, the men tipped cigarettes onto the floor and lit detonation cord on the rug, burning black coils into the fabric. A few men retold plans to kill former wives and girlfriends. Givens and one of his close friends talked of blowing up the qalat as they left, a parting thank-you to the residents of the valley.

The mood in the rooms slowly darkened. It reminded me of parties years ago, in high school, after the drinking had gone on a long while. The shift in tone imperceptible at first. A gathering menace. Certain kids felt it, knew they would probably become victims. Some left, others drank more, while around them social rules faded and certain boys began testing their power.

The day dragged on, all of us waiting to leave, obsessed with our filth, thinking of showers, meals. Air Force fighters roared overhead and dropped 500-pound bombs near the qalat, the explosions thudding through our chests. In the courtyard, one of the prisoners sat cross-legged in the shade, his blindfold removed but his hands still cuffed. Someone had placed food and a bottle of water in front of him. Eventually Givens and another soldier sat down on the concrete and glared at him. He glared back.

“I think he remembers we were the ones who fucked him up last night,” the soldier said to Givens. “I think he’s starin’ at you.”

“Fuck him,” Givens said. “The only reason he’s still alive is because the United States of America holds 25 to life over my head.”

As I write, furor is waning in the United States over a YouTube video showing four Marines urinating on Taliban corpses. I don’t consider it too surprising, though some writers suggest it is a war crime. It was probably born in a hot moment, without much reflection. Beginner’s foolishness. The men of Destroyer did nothing like that in front of me. They shoved prisoners around, looted cigarettes, wrecked property—things we routinely dismiss in war. But I had seen and sensed enough, and they spoke of past deeds and future desires that leapt beyond the normal bluster of young soldiers.

In speech we give ideas life. I felt I was watching some of the men unravel toward serious crimes, if, in fact, they had not already committed them elsewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. Evil or atrocity often explodes from a furnace built by the steady accretion of small, unchallenged wrongs. Some men in Destroyer platoon had been drifting that way for a long time.

Of course, we require our fighters to be ready hurricanes, on-call combat machines. We want them held easily in check, and we expect light-switch control over their aggression. Yet the Afghan war no longer relies so much on combat. The mission is nuanced, and future success, even sane withdrawal, demands Afghan cooperation. Soldiers like Givens, so barely restrained, their switches unreliable after years of war, undermine this. But we have no good method for dealing with men who grow too dangerous. We vaguely hope their anger does not spill over, or come home. It is not simple. My own reaction to the men of Destroyer is difficult. I liked them. I still want to believe they were merely full of bravado.

In the qalat courtyard, a young specialist walked along the patio carrying a plastic toy cap gun, something he’d found in one of the rooms. Givens stood and went to him and smacked the gun out of his hand. Without a word he stomped it to pieces on the concrete.

I sat nearby with another sergeant from the platoon. I had noticed this man distance himself from Givens’s clique. Givens occasionally tried to drag him into things, but the sergeant steadfastly refused. We listened to the plastic crunch beneath Givens’s heel. It was funny, in a way.

“He is a hater,” I said to the sergeant, trying to joke. His face tightened.

“He’s bad. He’s real bad. He sees someone having fun with something, he just wants to kill it. I don’t want to have nothing to do with that.”

Givens and the specialist stood in silence, looking down at the spray of plastic shards. Then Givens picked up a stick. He stepped down into the garden. The specialist followed. Together they began swatting the heads off flowers.

The sergeant looked away.

“I don’t want to get none of that shit on me,” he said. Ω

[Neil Shea is a writer based in North Carolina. Shea grew up near Boston and worked as a wilderness guide before becoming a writer. He is an editor-at-large for the Virginia Quarterly Review and a regular contributor to National Geographic Magazine. He has also written for The American Scholar, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic Monthly, The Christian Science Monitor, and Inversionmagazine, among others.]

Copyright © 2012 Phi Beta Kappa

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