On Being a Veteran

Now that Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, and it’s unlikely that the US will find itself entrapped into large military engagements for a while ( at least until a generation or two retires and a new round of pugnacious policy bros descend upon Washington DC) the pipeline of civilians turned service-members turned civilians again is going to be reduced to a trickle.

Periphery

Whereas a post-9/11 military probably experienced an increase in breadth across American society in terms of socio-economic status, race, etc., the military will once again be dominated by legacy kids, small-towners, and southerners.  Most importantly, most of you will never meet or run across these people; they will probably retire or stay in the areas their final duty stations were in, or they’ll return to their former communities.

This is to say that the military will pass back into the shadows of the American psyche, back where the ugly stereotype persisted of the military being only the failed high school kids and crazies, only reaching public awareness when service-members do bad things or when the Twitterati decides that a military is, like, sooo passé in today’s cosmopolitan society.

Since I got out of the Army in 2007, I lived in DC for 4 years, and then moved to NYC where I’ve been since 2011.  DC actually has some veterans, though most people you’ll meet probably work in the periphery of military affairs: analysts, military groupies (of which there a lot), policy, advocacy.  NYC has virtually no veterans at all.  At NYU the main contingent of veterans is definitely in Stern Business School, so you know what that’s like.  I’ve been told there’s also a large group of veterans at Columbia’s business school and at my grad school’s competitor, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.  I don’t really hang out with any of them.  When I do see a veteran, he’s just visiting town on leave and recognizes my tattoo.

This is all to give you some background for what I really wanted to say, which is to respond in some sort of truthful way about what it’s like to be a veteran in today’s day and age.

In a Former Life

Being a veteran is something you sort of tuck away — it just has no relevancy to a civilian life.  What I mean by this is, no one you meet knows anything about the military, nor do they particularly care or like it.  If anything, people finding out you were in the military probably makes them feel some annoying twinge of responsibility to say “thank you for your service” or to exert a little extra energy to make sure your poor veteran is alright.  Or maybe there’s some fascination there: “I was gonna join, but…”

To me, I was lucky to have an Army job with lasting benefits to my personal and career competency — military intelligence — so I wasn’t hamstrung there the way some others might be.  But in terms of hiring I’m not sure that background imparts much of an advantage at all.  It’s unapproachable by most people who don’t know how that side of things works.  If anything, the insinuation of military intelligence smells of NSA, Snowden, massive surveillance, etc.  It’s as if people don’t even realize that nations collect on each other and that there are large forces at work 24/7, that not everything in the world is just hunky-dory, that legally-permissible wiretapping is a requisite for both intel and law enforcement.

This is the kind of disconnect that will really get to you — when something you really care about and worry about and wish to protect people for is completely taken for granted and even reviled.  A thankless job.

The Years We Spent Disconnected from the World

Day-in, day-out, I think the biggest impression that is left upon others from my veteran status is that I’m a little old for my position.  That is to say, those 5 years I spent wearing the flag on my shoulder and little hair on my head or face were 5 years that most people spend climbing the career ladder.  If it weren’t for 9/11, or for enlisting, I’d be a 31-year-old instead of 36, and that changes others’ views quite a lot, whether they realize that veteran status or not.

Just imagine this disconnect.  Most young kids turn into precocious young adults full of potential where they’re told they have the entire world open to them, then they claw their way to some sort of sustainable position and then they grow old and they hopefully reach contentment and/or have kids and grandkids so that in the end they can die happy.

Meanwhile, I knew some young adults who trained for battle, who trained how to kill and how to protect and how to serve, dying in some dust pit somewhere, or in some shitty barren wasteland, such that two service-members in Class A uniforms appear at their young spouse’s or parents’ door to inform them of grave news.  That dude who did my dentist checkup or that dude I did US weapons training with died thousands of miles away in a war zone and everyone else moved on.  Those dudes helped defend turf in some other country that we’ve since given up.  Those guys’ lives were cut way short in comparison.  My 5 years, which pales compared to the 10-25 years of military experience many I met in the Army now have, was spent getting to know THOSE people.

I hope most people who have lost friends on the job (military or other hazardous jobs) would tell you that the job itself isn’t quite as meaningful as being among brothers and sisters and being able to help them and live with them and work with them.  It doesn’t matter on a personal level so much that we gave back territory that we fought and lost blood and life and treasure for, as long as we cared for each other.  I mean you hope that in such a sensitive job as being a soldier, that you are asked to do things that really mean something, but you don’t always get to pick your battles.  It’s a valid argument to say that maybe the US handled Iraq completely wrong, but what we know now is not what we knew then and some of us enlisted right after 9/11 to go fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  What’s not valid is hearing criticism from people who willfully remain unaffiliated to anything so that they’re never called upon or held responsible for anything.  Lack of action can be wise at times and cowardice at other times.

In a post-military world, where everyone is essentially out for themselves, what’s missing is that sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps and real compassion for those you work with.  This generates some sadness, particularly for a former sergeant who was trained to always be improving and mentoring and living amongst his soldiers.

Thank God for families, and for being able to build them.  I’m on my way, there.

Outer Perspective

Anyway, back to the topic.  What being a veteran has left me with is an unshakeable confidence in my ability to self-assess, self-improve, and self-correct.  I’m happy I sacrificed my time for a greater good (the mere act alone proved to my internal self that I would do it, if called upon).  I also know what I’m not, and I hope I never try to act like someone I’m not.  I’ve seen great people, who sacrifice all their time to family and country.  Great people who are continuing to serve their entire careers in the armed forces.  Great people who serve in elite units as well as the worst-managed, poorly-financed units.

I hope I can identify good people from bad, and knowledgeable people from the willfully ignorant, and never stand in the way of people who do good for others, their community, and the world.  I know how far I can push myself and when I need to push myself harder.  I definitely became a man in the meaningful sense of the phrase because of being in the Army.  I saw how other people live, throughout the US and abroad.  I hope to retain that humility in understanding and respecting how other people live, even if they hate your guts just because of what you’re wearing or where you’re from or what you’re doing.

All this gets tucked away — I keep to myself mostly — but if I meet other veterans or others who have served in the line of fire (police, fire, State, USAID, DART, etc.) then it’s like being with old friends.  It’s a virtual community, as they say.  You can talk about things you can’t talk about with others outside the community.  It awakens a dormant part of my very vivid past, a past I care for very much and am very proud to have experienced.  It doesn’t happen often that I get to talk to other veterans, and not all veterans are good people, but it’s definitely at least some sense of feeling “at home”.

Perhaps one thing I’ve noticed after leaving the military is being able to identify really stand-up people in civilian life.  GREAT people!  The kind of person you know would excel in leadership, who cares for those around him, who makes others better, who pushes himself to his limits, who shows humility and empathy and sympathy to even the people he meets whom he stands nothing to gain from.  There aren’t many of these people but man, they shine out from the rest like the freaking Southern Cross.

With that afore-mentioned pipelines of veterans trickling to almost a stop, the virtual community of veterans is going to get smaller and that part of my life will get tucked away even further.  We all have virtual communities and past parts of our lives that make us feel like this, I suppose.  But like I said, what I took away from it — a deep love and appreciation and respect for my own limits and talents and vulnerabilities and strengths — will stay with me forever.

So that’s how I feel when someone asks what it’s like to be a veteran.  It’s a solitary experience, but I think other brethren will agree — there’s a richness there that can never be taken away and will always be compared against.

Analyzing US Veteran Gravesite Data with R

For the final project in Prof. Jake Porway‘s Data Without Borders: Data Science in the Service of Humanity class at NYU-ITP, I chose to work with the US veterans and beneficiaries gravesite datasets that have been published at data.gov.  The Department of Veterans Affairs in 2004 started working on a nationwide gravesite locator that allowed for this data.

Gathering the Datasets

The data is unfortunately aggregated only at the state level, but it at least is updated regularly, so I ended up pulling 51 .csv (comma-separated values) files from the site with the publish date of October 2012.  The categories found in the data:

d_first_name, d_mid_name, d_last_name, d_suffix, d_birth_date, d_death_date, section_id, row_num, site_num, cem_name, cem_addr_one, cem_addr_two, city, state, zip, cem_url, cem_phone, relationship, v_first_name, v_mid_name, v_last_name, v_suffix, branch, rank, war

Since we would have to apply what we’d learned working with the R language to our dataset, what I hoped was that I could use the gravesite data, which goes back to the 1800’s or even earlier, to see how where veterans end up being buried correlates with national population trends over time.  In other words, if many Americans are buried in California, does this mean more veterans are also going to be buried there?

I figured, since there were categories for branch, rank, and war, that I’d be able to find some logical correlations: many privates and junior-enlisted sergeants would have died, while fewer senior-enlisted and officers would have, in past wars.  I figured the d_death_year might correlate with dates for the US’s multiple wars, with deaths elevated during those time periods.

So I guessed that with 51 data sets, this would begin to fill up my system RAM (4GB on this MacBook Air).  Look at my memory usage!

I skipped the files for the US-owned territories and “foreign addresses” since I wouldn’t be able to find normalized population data for those.  I also cleaned up the dataset so it would return only the veteran, not his/her beneficiaries who may also have been listed in the data as being deceased.

Loading the Data into R

Given that I’m not very comfortable with R, I started out just loading the Washington DC dataset since it only has 986 entries in it.  Problem?  The download for the file didn’t work.  “ngl_washington%20dc.csv” was not found.  %20 is a URL-encoded representation for a blank space.  Luckily, getting rid of the %20 revealed the proper filename, “ngl_washingtondc.csv”.  I also found that the .csv files were not importing into RStudio immediately.  I’d get an error.  I would get something similar to an uneven rows error.  What I had to do for each of the states’ .csv files was to open them up first in Excel and then save them in Excel.  Excel would properly format the files so they could be imported into RStudio.

I tried to write my R code in such a way that it could easily handle the 51 states + DC via functions, but I ended up having 51 calls for each state.  I wish the datasets were integrated into one national file.  I also wish I knew in R how to make a variable variable.  So that if I wanted to pass “Texas” to a row name, I could do “t <- “Texas” and then “state_data${t}” or something similar to convert on the fly to “state_data$Texas”.  In PHP, you might do this with $stateData{$t} (I think) and in JavaScript or Python you’d use eval().  Not pretty but I didn’t know how to do it properly.

The next step was to break up d_death_date (which was in a variety of formats such as “1993”, “9/3/98”, and “07/11/1864”) so that I could extract the year.  I had to check for the number of characters in the string, then figure out if the year was 2 digits or 4.  If it was 4 digits, I knew the year for sure (e.g. “2008”).  If 2 digits, I figured that if it were less than “15”, then it was probably referring to the year 2000 and higher (lazy data entry).  If higher than “15”, it probably was assumed to be the 20th century.  Finally, I had to convert this result from a string result to a numeric so I could do math on it.

More below the jump…

Read More »

UAVs, Navy, Satellites, Battle Stars

This post, which I want to keep pretty short, feeds off my post on re-orienting national security priorities.

I read a fascinating paper provocatively entitled “How the US Lost the Naval War of 2015” (PDF), by James Kraska.

It takes a look at what is happening now as the US Navy flounders and the Chinese Navy quickly ramps up, and then suggests what might happen if China decided to sink the USS George Washington in 2015.

What fascinates me about this is that US Navy dominance is sort of seen as a given these days, something not worth worrying about, but naval supremacy has always been a significant factor behind any superpower’s reign of world affairs.  The US gladly took over the mantle of naval superiority and its positive externalities for world security after the United Kingdom found it in their best interest to ally with the US.  The Royal Navy’s battleship-style fleet did not transition well into the age of submarines and aircraft carriers.  The loss of the Suez Canal was a significant barrier, as well.

So the US took over after World War 2 and has since controlled the oceans.  This has enabled it to push an era of free trade and open water travel that has made it cheaper to ship resources than even to fly them, so much that the cost is almost negligent.  In terms of protecting capitalism, having the US superpower in control of the oceans has been incredibly successful.

Now the US focuses more on satellite/overhead imagery, and more recently, on asymmetric warfare.  Which has left several gaps in the American strategic security worldview.

The paper suggests that China could destroy a US carrier, which would have a psychological effect on Americans perhaps bigger than a physical effect, although with a Chinese contractor shutting down the Suez for “repairs” and China throwing up other roadblocks, this could delay the US in appropriately responding its massive, yet diffused fleet into the Pacific.  Control of the Pacific would shift as China’s neighbors, by sheer proximity, would be reluctant to move to counter China’s naval aggression.  What would the US be able to do?

It’s a fascinating paper although obviously it only looks at an American military perspective and not all the other factors:  economic, cultural, etc.

But it also makes me wonder why the US is so focused on a small group of jihadists when there are bigger fish to fry for continued American dominance.

1) It is in the US interest to ensure continued and unfettered control of the oceans, to ensure open trade, safe shipping lines, and access to necessary strategic hold-points like Guam, Hawai’i, Okinawa, Europe, and other navy bases.

Robert Kaplan is associated with the neo-cons but he is an excellent security historian.  What he says about US naval moves against China is that we should focus on building our presence so enmeshed with Pacific interests that China will be more inclined to ally with us than to try to displace us.  This is a strategy akin to the UK realizing it had to partner with the US after WW2, and akin to the argument that alienating Japan before WW2 would push them to attack the US for control of the Pacific.

Some quotes:

“None of this will change our need for basing rights in the Pacific, of course. The more access to bases we have, the more flexibility we’ll have—to support unmanned flights, to allow aerial refueling, and perhaps most important, to force the Chinese military to concentrate on a host of problems rather than just a few. Never provide your adversary with only a few problems to solve (finding and hitting a carrier, for example), because if you do, he’ll solve them.

“Andersen Air Force Base, on Guam’s northern tip, rep- resents the future of U.S. strategy in the Pacific. It is the most potent platform anywhere in the world for the projection of American military power. Landing there recently in a military aircraft, I beheld long lines of B-52 bombers, C-17 Globemasters, F/A-18 Hornets, and E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes, among others. Andersen’s 10,000-foot runways can handle any plane in the Air Force’s arsenal, and could accommodate the space shuttle should it need to make an emergency landing. The sprawl of runways and taxiways is so vast that when I arrived, I barely noticed a carrier air wing from the USS Kitty Hawk, which was making live practice bombing runs that it could not make from its home port in Japan. I saw a truck filled with cruise missiles on one of the runways. No other Air Force base in the Pacific stores as much weaponry as Andersen: some 100,000 bombs and missiles at any one time. Andersen also stores 66 million gallons of jet fuel, making it the Air Force’s biggest strategic gas-and-go in the world.

“Guam, which is also home to a submarine squadron and an expanding naval base, is significant because of its location. From the island an Air Force equivalent of a Marine or Army division can cover almost all of PACOM’s area of responsibility. Flying to North Korea from the West Coast of the United States takes thirteen hours; from Guam it takes four.

“”This is not like Okinawa,” Major General Dennis Larsen, the Air Force commander there at the time of my visit, told me. “This is American soil in the midst of the Pacific. Guam is a U.S. territory.” The United States can do anything it wants here, and make huge investments without fear of being thrown out. Indeed, what struck me about Andersen was how great the space was for expansion to the south and west of the current perimeters. Hundreds of millions of dollars of construction funds were being allocated. This little island, close to China, has the potential to become the hub in the wheel of a new, worldwide constellation of bases that will move the locus of U.S. power from Europe to Asia. In the event of a conflict with Taiwan, if we had a carrier battle group at Guam we would force the Chinese either to attack it in port—thereby launching an assault on sovereign U.S. territory, and instantly becoming the aggressor in the eyes of the world—or to let it sail, in which case the carrier group could arrive off the coast of Taiwan only two days later.

“During the Cold War the Navy had a specific infrastructure for a specific threat: war with the Soviet Union. But now the threat is multiple and uncertain: we need to be prepared at any time to fight, say, a conventional war against North Korea or an unconventional counterinsurgency battle against a Chinese-backed rogue island-state. This requires a more agile Navy presence on the island, which in turn means outsourcing services to the civilian community on Guam so that the Navy can concentrate on military matters. One Navy captain I met with had grown up all over the Pacific Rim. He told me of the Navy’s plans to expand the waterfront, build more bachelors’ quarters, and harden the electrical-power system by putting it underground. “The fact that we have lots of space today is meaningless,” he said. “The question is, How would we handle the surge requirement necessitated by a full-scale war?”

“There could be a problem with all of this. By making Guam a Hawaii of the western Pacific, we make life simple for the Chinese, because we give them just one problem to solve: how to threaten or intimidate Guam. The way to counter them will be not by concentration but by dispersion. So how will we prevent Guam from becoming too big?

“In a number of ways. We may build up Palau, an archipelago of 20,000 inhabitants between Mindanao, in the Philippines, and the Federated States of Micronesia, whose financial aid is contingent on a defense agreement with us. We will keep up our bases in Central Asia, close to western China—among them Karshi-Khanabad, in Uzbekistan, and Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, which were developed and expanded for the invasion of Afghanistan. And we will establish what are known as cooperative security locations.

“A cooperative security location can be a tucked-away corner of a host country’s civilian airport, or a dirt runway somewhere with fuel and mechanical help nearby, or a military airport in a friendly country with which we have no formal basing agreement but, rather, an informal arrangement with private contractors acting as go-betweens. Because the CSL concept is built on subtle relationships, it’s where the war-fighting ability of the Pentagon and the diplomacy of the State Department coincide—or should. The problem with big bases in, say, Turkey—as we learned on the eve of the invasion of Iraq—is that they are an intrusive, intimidating symbol of American power, and the only power left to a host country is the power to deny us use of such bases. In the future, therefore, we will want unobtrusive bases that benefit the host country much more obviously than they benefit us. Allowing us the use of such a base would ramp up power for a country rather than humiliating it.

“I have visited a number of CSLs in East Africa and Asia. Here is how they work. The United States provides aid to upgrade maintenance facilities, thereby helping the host country to better project its own air and naval power in the region. At the same time, we hold periodic exercises with the host country’s military, in which the base is a focus. We also offer humanitarian help to the surrounding area. Such civil-affairs projects garner positive publicity for our military in the local media—and they long preceded the response to the tsunami, which marked the first time that many in the world media paid attention to the humanitarian work done all over the world, all the time, by the U.S. military. The result is a positive diplomatic context for getting the host country’s approval for use of the base when and if we need it.

“The first part of the twenty-first century will be not nearly as stable as the second half of the twentieth, because the world will be not nearly as bipolar as it was during the Cold War. The fight between Beijing and Washington over the Pacific will not dominate all of world politics, but it will be the most important of several regional struggles. Yet it will be the organizing focus for the U.S. defense posture abroad. If we are smart, this should lead us back into concert with Europe. No matter how successfully our military adapts to the rise of China, it is clear that our current dominance in the Pacific will not last. The Asia expert Mark Helprin has argued that while we pursue our democratization efforts in the Middle East, increasingly befriending only those states whose internal systems resemble our own, China is poised to reap the substantial benefits of pursuing its interests amorally—what the United States did during the Cold War. The Chinese surely hope, for example, that our chilly attitude toward the brutal Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, becomes even chillier; this would open up the possibility of more pipeline and other deals with him, and might persuade him to deny us use of the air base at Karshi-Khanabad. Were Karimov to be toppled in an uprising like the one in Kyrgyzstan, we would immediately have to stabilize the new regime or risk losing sections of the country to Chinese influence.”

2) To reinforce naval supremacy will require control of the skies and space.  Orbital satellites provide significant communications for all American forces and commercial interests, and a satellite war would cripple American capabilities.

3) Protecting satellites and increasing outer space security will require something akin to George Friedman’s (CEO of STRATFOR) battle stars (read “The Next 100 Years”), large manned orbital stations that provide armaments and increased surveillance for protecting satellites, providing imagery and comms to the ground, and even shooting down rockets, planes, or attacking ground targets.  Friedman suggests 3 battle stars could be required, orbiting continually in line with the earth’s orbit to always provide overhead support in certain regions.

Says John Reilly in a fair review (read the rest) of George Friedman’s book:

“The section on the Third World War allows the author to wax techno-thrillerish on the matter of mid-21st- century weaponry. We learn a great deal about hypersonic weapons and their ability to blow up unsatisfactory objects anywhere on Earth in a matter of minutes. He has plainly thought a great deal about the military applications of space which, again, he views as an extension of Mahan’s strategy of controlling the world’s trade routes. We get a description of geosynchronous Battle Star observation-and-command stations. (He adopts the term “Battle Star,” without noting the implications of that term for his optimistic view of the military and civilian applications of robots of all kinds.) We also get an excursion to bases on the Moon that sounds not altogether unlike Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.””

4) UAVs will continue to improve in sophistication and lethality, and are already providing extra eyes for American border security (see San Diego), Afghanistan/Pakistan targets, and eventually everywhere.  They are rapidly getting improved optics, more dangerous armaments, higher altitudes, and more time overhead (like these UAVs that can hover instead of do racetracks).  UAVs will probably be complementing increasingly robotic android armies, taking humans off the front lines to be replaced with dispensable robots to do war-fighting and perimeter security.

These seem like very far-off strategic priorities but these must be driven by intentional funding, innovative projects, and understanding by the citizenry of their importance.  I am far more in favor of continued intelligence dominance by the US than I am of attempting to do neo-colonial counter-insurgency and nation-building abroad, when domestic security and international respect for governments would suffice in building networks against terrorist plots.

There are plenty of other questions, too, such as whether it would be bad for China to compete with us or take over the seas.  Or what the impact would be of increased naval presence in the Pacific (see below the long comment about Guam).  Or whether alternatives are viable (building floating bases instead of using land).  I’d like to see more discussion on all of that below, if you could take the time.

A Thought on Masculinity

Some of my old classmates from Georgetown met up to discuss Nick Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”, a couple weeks ago.  Most of the group was women, but among international development folks, there’s definitely a tribe of guys who are male feminists.

That is to say that we are men but believe that educating girls and having more of an equal balance of men and women in society and politics will by causation improve conditions for society’s well-being as a whole.

Singles Map, from Richard Florida's "Who's Your City?" http://creativeclass.com/whos_your_city/maps/#The_Singles_Map

I live in DC, the city with the highest proportion of highly-educated (and single) women in the country.  More girls are in school than boys now, and they are out-performing the boys.  What does this mean in the long run, if women are selecting the most fit mate?

And that introduces the Fight Club problem of future masculinity.  What qualities will be desired in a man?  Not too long ago, men derived their pride from fighting and being the bread-winners.  Now that many families combine two salaries, war is an undesired quality, and sports is an option only for the few, where will men go?  Will they have to re-commit to education and improve as well?

How long can men coast through life being more aggressive, stronger, and louder than women?  I would agree that men and boys get their way just through sheer force of nature much of the time, but in a world of equal gender proportions, how will this change?

Women are able to give birth, and are natural nurturers and protectors of societal fabric.  What do men bring?

Perhaps the future man will be fighting still, but instead for universal rights, for equal rights, for the diffusing of power.  Today’s programmers may become those who bring transparency and accountability to those who would rather have no part in it.  Today’s warriors may become tomorrow’s pacifists, who seek diplomacy and providing space for tomorrow’s tribes to be able to have their own identities.

And there’s always honor.  I always think of Gangs of New York, that much-panned Martin Scorsese movie about “natives” fighting immigrant Europeans for the five points of New York.  In it, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis) fights Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and slays him.  But Bill, as evil a villain as he is, later remembers his nemesis by saying, “I killed the last honorable man 15 years ago.”  “He was the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY2tbeP_K1M

He also expounded, “We hold in our hearts the memory of our fallen brothers whose blood stains the very streets we walk today. Also on this night we pay tribute to the leader of our enemies, an honorable man, who crossed over bravely, fighting for what he believed in. To defeat my enemy, I extinguish his life, and consume him as I consume these flames. In honor of Priest Vallon.”

Marine Staff Sergeant John Jones (see http://www.hbo.com/aliveday/bios/jones.html)

That is, even though they were enemies, at least Vallon was a man of principle and honor, and that was noble enough even for Bill to recognize.

And now we send another 30,000+ (mostly male) soldiers to Afghanistan, who’ve been fighting wars for almost a decade, to get maimed or killed.  That hidden class of warriors, who participate in almost a shunned profession, will bear permanent scars of a machismo past, unable to hide missing limbs and large burns on their bodies.

I hope that a noble place is found for them, and for all men.

Reorienting National Security Priorities

Below is my plan for reorienting American security priorities, which I think are currently misaligned, often conflicting, and outdated.  This is not a plan for innovation, or financial reform (which is one of the most pressing national issues), or for progressivism.  It’s a plan to increase the long-term durability of homeland security.

Politics, as I’ve learned in my brief 2 years here in DC, is something too complex for me to understand within the realms of my attention span.  What may seem like a good (or even easy) idea to implement has to be palatable to the seething mass that is Congress, and must please interest groups, and must come at an opportune time.  The horse trading, budget proposals and approvals, and distortions that are involved in any federal level issue are over my head.  That alone is part of the reason I’m inclined to start up a small business one day and avoid such bureaucratic nightmares.

Also with regards to politics, President Obama’s style appears to be to go out of his way to allow affected parties to kibbitz and argue and debate an issue until consensus is reached.  This is frustratingly evident for the Commander-in-Chief’s wait-and-see attitude towards the Afghanistan run-offs and having Afghanistan as a credible partner before deciding what to do next with troop levels.  It should not take a national debate to know that 1) any general in charge will press for continued war in Afghanistan and 2) Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.

My thoughts on President Obama’s style are that his job as an executive is not to dither (as Cheney would say), but to be a decider (as Bush the Younger would say). (that said, Cheney could have benefited from being more of a ditherer while Bush the Younger could have been more thoughtful in his decidering)

President Obama’s waiting can be seen as weakness, lack of certitude (does he really need to consider whether gays should serve in the military openly?), and lack of leadership.  Leaders lead through making tough decisions quickly, firmly, yet cool-headedly.  In the military, we were taught as sergeants and even as junior enlisted that making a bad decision is better than making no decision at all.  President Obama is coming up on 9 months in office and the people are getting impatient.

After having witnessed how DC works, I’ve noticed that when an Administration puts its weight behind a policy, or puts more funding into a certain area, businesses and non-profits react swiftly and with commitment.  If President Obama said tomorrow we are moving to solar power, even energy companies would play ball.  Scouts would immediately be hitting the phones and pavement to come up with the best contract proposals to win that money.  The argument that the nation has to be “ready” for change seems more obstructionist than realistic to me.  America is and always will be an unabashedly capitalist country that passionately desires chasing and obtaining the money.

Complaints that an active executive branch seems like a command economy/government  are crying wolf — companies and non-profits have no problem immediately shifting priorities.  Why should the government be less adaptive, less competitive?  So this gives me hope that an executive who makes forthright decisions would succeed in implementing this plan, regardless of the politicking that would follow it.

With these things in mind, I’ve tried to think of ways in which a current President could push through using executive powers a plan that would be hard for even Congress to stall.

1) Gays in the Military. First, the Commander-in-Chief should dictate that LGBTs (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) must be allowed to openly serve in the military.  This is justified to the Jacksonians by saying that we need all the talent and strength and volunteers we can get to fight today’s wars.  Once the word comes down, the heads of each service will find a way to implement the policy.  The “problem” of how to integrate LGBTs is not a reason to delay equal treatment of citizens willing to fight. [note:  it would be up to states to decide whether to allow gay marriages, correct?]

2) Universal Human Rights. Allowing gay servicemembers provides a well-publicized opening for which President Obama can reaffirm the American Dream for all people by promoting the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sure to please the Wilsonians (who are concerned with equality) and Jeffersonians (who are concerned with preserving individual freedoms and federalism).  Abroad, a nation that pugnaciously defends, once again, taking in your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, as the Statue of Liberty shouts forth, will be a siren call the way it used to be for people all over the world who believe in the idea of freedom and opportunity, of life, liberty, and happiness.

3) Ending “Wars”. The Commander-in-Chief should withdraw all occupation military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, thanking the military publicly for its professional service, but stating that America’s mission has changed and that he bears full responsibility for such a decision and no one else.  Programs and celebrations to re-integrate oft-deployed servicemembers back into society will strengthen long-stressed military families.

4) Drug Legalization. The President should legalize all drugs and fund rehab missions for addicts, heavily regulating drugs instead, including imports filtered from Afghanistan and south and central America.  This will cut the knees off drug cartels (Sinaloa, Juarez, La Familia) and enforcer organizations (Los Zetas) in Mexico, who are raising havoc for the Mexican government.

5) New Immigration Policy and Improved Border Security. President Obama, with fewer forces deployed, can focus his Department of Homeland Security and border resources towards an immigration policy that encourages highly-skilled immigrants to come to study, research, work, and live, and which allows more poor immigrants in than before, but with improved documentation.  The President should divert resources freed from Iraq and Afghanistan into helping secure Mexico both through a relaxed drug policy and through cooperative security to arrest drug cartel members.  Mexico is the soft underbelly of American superpower status and its well-being as a successful, secure, happy nation is in our national interest.  The Minute Men, who constitute a Jacksonian tradition in the southwest, should be lauded for their efforts in helping to watch the border, but with improved border security and accountability, their services won’t be needed as much and they can return to their normal lives.

6) Naval and Space Dominance. The Commander-in-Chief can re-assert the nation’s priority towards maintaining naval dominance.  The Commander-in-Chief and the President can look to the Earth’s orbit to assure future American dominance of outer space satellites and future space command platforms.  Much of the reason the US has gained global power is through its taking over full control over the seas from the British.  In the future, control of space will be of utmost importance to US commerce, intelligence, and security, as we are and will be heavily reliant on satellite observation and communication.  Hamiltonians will enjoy continued open-seas security for free trade, while the defense sector will enjoy moving into outer space for improved national security.  The US military will have a lighter footprint in sovereign nations, decreasing the threat of intractable insurgencies.

7) Downgrading Terrorism’s Priority. Terrorism as a long-term priority is not ranked high for the US internally, given the lack of proximity to terrorist-supporting failed nations.  However, its threat should be even more reduced once troops are redeployed from Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are considered backyards for the global insurgency.  Lacking a near enemy in the US, insurgents will turn to civil war and/or a problem for Iran, Russia, the Stans, India, and Pakistan.  Al-Qaeda will lose much of its rallying cry.  Just think:  could we return to days before the TSA security theater where we have to remove shoes, belts, and dignity at airports?

8) Energy Independence. American energy independence will further mollify Al-Qaeda’s support base.  Pouring money into solar power in particular, which comes to us in an infinite supply, must be our way forward.  Reduced reliance on foreign oil weans us off OPEC and in particular Saudi, an apostate kingdom as Al-Qaeda would refer to it.  Al-Qaeda sees Saudi as being propped up by America in order to be raped for its oil.  US independence from Saudi whim removes the US from the least-braindead of Al-Qaeda anti-American animus.

9) Make New Friends or Strengthen Old Friendships. Returning to being that of a more honest diplomatic broker of peace, the US can step up efforts to ally itself with key regional pivot powers like Iran, Japan,  and Turkey, who constitute influential geopolitical power upon large swathes of the globe.  Pakistan, where the real terrorist threat is, can be more of a priority for American security and diplomacy, since foreign fighters have been long supported by the Taliban and the Pakistani ISI.  It is in the US’s interest to decouple these organizations from Al-Qaeda, while at the same time helping Pakistan to secure its nuclear arsenal from political and physical instability.

The end result of all these moves is that we have a larger, more diverse population base of productive Americans and a fresh stream of immigrants to contribute to the innovation economy.  We have safer borders and a stronger base in North America.  We have fewer albatrosses around our neck so that walking softly and carrying a big stick, being an arsenal of democracy, will be in line with our modern national security priorities.  By downgrading terrorism as a priority, we force other nations to deal with their near-border insecurities, while improving our response to naval superiority, domestic terrorist investigations, immigration policy, and a decreasing drug war threat.

Is this possible politically?  The main problem is that these steps above, taken individually, would not make much sense.  But under an integrated strategy, these steps would make sense to all the political schools of thought that exist within the US.  The only people who would stand to lose from these moves are of course incumbent interests, such as defense contractors who profit from foreign wars, and the Republican party, which has lost its philosophical moorings and which functions right now as nothing more than obstructionists wanting President Obama to fail.

The irony is that the strategy above would actually appeal to fiscal conservatives and to social libertarians, since the wars would end, homeland security would reach less into our private lives, and federal agencies wouldn’t be so stressed for funding from supporting failing drug/terror/border security/diplomacy policies.  The conservatives would find their voice backed up by national policy.

And of course the progressives would benefit because they’ve also ended wars, reduced the pressures of the drug war in Mexico on immigration and jailing for drugs, and ensured a rhetoric of equality for all human beings.

As for the companies and Republicans, well, both will do what they’re supposed to do:  they will re-form around where the profit, financially and politically, is.

It is the American DNA to be fleet, adaptive, innovative, and competitive.  This is the security strategy to encourage that.

Health Care Ennui

Just a quick note on this; been busy settling in to my new place so I have a lot to say but not much time.

The health care proposal is grinding and painful to watch.  What’s worst about all of it is I think everyone knows that the system will still suck no matter what happens.  Such ennui is what I would blame for Obama’s polls dropping.  Of course the Republicans finally found a topic to nail away on him for.  That’s a pretty risky strategy on their part, but it has consolidated them a bit.

What I really want to say is that it seems ridiculous that we can’t even CONSIDER that health care in other countries might work better than our system.  Frontline did a great story on looking at health care systems around the world to see what they did, including Taiwan, which started from scratch, taking the best from different systems.

What’s also ridiculous is that the Republicans fight tooth and nail against universal health care, even though the military operates under that system for not only servicemembers but also for their families.  Yes, that most red-blooded system in America, the US military, uses SOCIALIZED HEALTH CARE paid by tax-payers!

Make sure you read/watch Bill Kristol telling Jon Stewart that military servicemembers deserve better care than American citizens.  Kristol, of course, has never served.

I miss the military medical care cushion.  So when my senior sergeants’ wives got pregnant, the Army paid for ALL of the costs associated with the pregnancy and delivery.  When my friends got sick or hurt, the Army took care of them.  Sure, some of the diagnoses and surgery were horrible, but the preventative care and defraying the costs that are associated with the medical system were superb.

It was wonderful to transfer to a new assignment on a new base, or deploy to Iraq, and NEVER HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT HEALTH CARE.  It was a centralized system (although not yet on an online database that you have control over, like what Google Health is trying to do) and you’d always be taken care of.

The best part?  Far less stress on everyone’s part, and the system wasn’t trying to make money off you.  Not wholly, but partially, the system also had proper economic incentives to make you healthier faster instead of trying to rape your pocketbook.

I’ve read that China used to have proper incentives:  if your health failed to improve, your doctor wouldn’t get paid.  How did this end up working out, I wonder?

I would like to see health care examined as a guarantee under citizenship.  I would hope that participating part of one’s identity and time to serve the government or military would confer upon that person the ability to receive a standard of health care so that he may be productive back to American society.  But right now, under a poorly regulated private insurer system, insurance dominates by reducing people to normalized baselines where abnormalities are punished (read NYTimes’ article on defining “health”):

“And then there is a larger question. How does “absence of abnormality” affect our perception of health? This construct is both too narrow and too broad. It’s too narrow because there is more to being healthy than striving to avoid death and disease. Health is more than a physical state of being; it’s also a state of mind.

“And it’s too broad because all of us harbor abnormalities. The construct drives the system to look for things to be wrong — a search that will be successful in most of us. We then feel more vulnerable. This induced vulnerability undermines the very sense of well-being and resilience that in many ways defines health itself. Viewing health as the absence of abnormality thus conflicts with the desire for a healthier society.

“Furthermore, the strategy has created a host of other problems: doctors who are overwhelmed by the number of ailments their patients allegedly have (and who are often distracted from the most important ones); doctors in training who are increasingly confused about who is really sick and who is not; lawyers who increasingly have a field day with the charge of “failure to diagnose”; patients who get too much treatment or lose health insurance because they been given a new diagnosis; and a frazzled, fearful public adrift in a culture of disease. Oh, and did I mention that it has been a disaster for health-care costs?”

Paul Krugman explains it right:

“The key thing you need to know about health care is that it depends crucially on insurance. You don’t know when or whether you’ll need treatment — but if you do, treatment can be extremely expensive, well beyond what most people can pay out of pocket. Triple coronary bypasses, not routine doctor’s visits, are where the real money is, so insurance is essential.

“Yet private markets for health insurance, left to their own devices, work very badly: insurers deny as many claims as possible, and they also try to avoid covering people who are likely to need care. Horror stories are legion: the insurance company that refused to pay for urgently needed cancer surgery because of questions about the patient’s acne treatment; the healthy young woman denied coverage because she briefly saw a psychologist after breaking up with her boyfriend.”

Until free market ideologues understand that productivity is a long-term affair and not just grinding more hours/day out of each employee for fewer wages, the resolution of the health care system in America will never take place.  Wellness, preventative care, and incentivizing health care providers and insurers to make sure people actually are HEALTHY…those are the goals we’ll end up building our system for.

One last note:  what if there were a private market of new incentive metrics?  Or maybe this could even be a joint program with the doctors’ associations and NIH.  What if we could come up with new happiness indices and measures of lifestyle health (how many times one exercises, how much one walks per day) that doesn’t penalize you in the context of what risk you pose to an insurer?  We have virtually no lifestyle metrics that aren’t being kept from us and which aren’t being used to hurt our viability for insurance or recruitment.  We need our own tools to measure our lives and form our own metrics of what we consider important to ourselves.

Some ways:  Nike+, FitBit, Galapag.us.

Thoughts?  I’ve about given up on the US seriously reforming health care.  It’s just not going to happen politically (we can’t even allow gays to openly serve in the military yet) unless a strong executive strong-arms it through — and that may not necessarily be a good thing.

US Forces "Volunteer" to Leave Iraq

It’s interesting to live through the times of American occupation of Iraq.  What the Bush Administration sees as a necessary move, not without its faults, that has eventually led to a nascent democracy, is nothing short of tragically comic.  What we see as “giving peace in the Middle East a chance” will in future history books be seen as imperial overreach, classic quest for respect, influence, and resources, and geopolitics.

It’s clear Americans long gave up on this “war” and no longer want any part of it in any sense except to support the troops, whatever that means anymore. (I suspect “support the troops” is akin to wishing a homeless guy well when you see him but walk on by nervously, hoping he doesn’t attack you).  It’s clear the rest of the world thinks our occupation of Iraq is foolish and naive, and some countries and non-state actors think it’s wonderful that we’re willingly spending blood and treasure on an endeavor that’s going to hurt us for decades to come.

It’s also clear that we’ve learned nothing about Islam, Arabs, history in the Middle East, the international system, or democracy as a result of meddling with Iraq.  Which is perhaps the most tragic thing, given that we’ve invested so much in the damn place.  But I guess when Madoff, the Big 3, big banks, and the Bush Administration take us for fools and we hardly put up a fight, we deserve the pains of our own negligence and ignorance.

So what’s going on in Iraq now?

The US and Iraq “agreed” on the terms of American military withdrawal from Iraq recently.  The full document of the agreement between the US and Iraq can be read on Scribd.

The US is required to leave all Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009.  It is then required to remove all military forces (in which the document goes into elaborate definition of what that consists of) by the end of 2011.  Which is still a full 3 years from now, I might add.

Sounds great, right?  Pretty simple and realistic?

Well, the Sadrists refuse to acknowledge the passing of this agreement by the Iraqi Parliament and Al-Maliki.  Their logic is that the deal would be legitimizing American presence in Iraq, and therefore they disapprove.  Juan Cole has a further breakdown of the various Iraqi parties’ takes on the agreement and on federalism vs. central government.

Real Iraqis do not want us in their country (although they do want security).  The only ones who want us there have interests in keeping us there.

Everyone knows this deal is a farce.  The US does indeed want to remove most of its troops, and thankfully through electing Obama, this seems more of a reality.  But there is no way the US is giving up too much of its military presence in Iraq.  It will continue to provide “technical advisors” and “trainers” for Iraq’s military, air force, and intelligence.  Intel and the central government will undoubtedly be strongly influenced by the CIA and other covert operations.  The US has built massive bases and is still working on a brand-new embassy.  These will require logistics, support, and maintenance.

Iraqis know that the US isn’t going away soon.  It may not be clear (even to Americans) what the US wants from Iraq, but it’s pretty clear nothing good or stable will come out of it.

Meanwhile, Iraq is not going to improve.  If someone says the surge worked, you can just stop trusting anything else they say.  Baghdad is “calmer” now because it’s been walled off and because ethnic separation has already occurred.  The number of troops that were added are not commensurate with numbers needed to be able to quell violence — through the rest of the world or through the rest of history.  It seems as though the US bought off the Sunnis to get them to play ball in getting rid of Al-Qaeda, who should have always been an unwelcome presence in Iraq.

People still don’t get why Bush was so bad.  This guy is dumb.  He is happy watching the illusion of elections and democratic government, but he has no understanding of what all that actually entails.  As long as people go through the motions of voting, he thinks it’s progress.  When it comes to what happens afterwards, like the election of someone he doesn’t like, or massive violence and calls of fraud, he doesn’t know what to do with it.

This is why we’re supposed to elect people who understand politics, regional sensitivities and political levers, and maybe even a little knowledge of economics.  It bothers me that people claim Bush is devious and sneaky; he’s clearly not.  He’s a well-meaning buffoon who’s a puppet of the long-time buddy network he installed underneath him (look at how long Cheney, Rumsfeld, Negroponte, et al have been in the game of Machiavellian imperialism).

He’s happy with Iraq, even though Al-Maliki’s Iraq is somewhat akin to a banana republic, without the bananas.  Al-Maliki is on shaky ground and you can bet as soon as he can, he’s going to wipe out any resistance within his government as soon as the US looks the other way (as he did with “former Ba’athists”, the new red-headed stepchild in Iraq and, more recently, with Sunni coup collaborators).  So if you’re Sunni, better watch out.  If you’re Iranian, welcome!  If you’re Kurdish, you’re hoping everyone ignores you so you can continue to slink on by and come closer to a modern Kurdistan.  Until Turkey decides it’s going to take the same opportunity to throw Kurdistan against the wall like Russia did with Georgia.

Doesn’t it piss you off that Bush is clueless about this stuff?  When has he talked about how the Sunnis in Saudi (his friends, I might add) and the Gulf states and Pakistan feel threatened by the strongly Iranian-influenced Iraq?  Bush has completely depleted all of our political capital and armament to do anything more in the Middle East.  The US public won’t stand for further meddling in the Middle East, and all the international players involved in the region realize that the US has no sway there once its military leaves.

In other words, it’s going to be a bloody, messy fight in the Middle East once we leave.  And we will watch cluelessly with our mouthes agape, wondering why those damn Ay-rabs can’t all just get along.  Al-Maliki and the Sunnis will go at it after we leave.  Any vacuum of power will invite Al-Qaeda and other global insurgency groups back in.

The irony is that it seems as though Iraqi politics is pretty interesting on its own, and the most powerful interests in Iraq (like, for instance, the highest grand cleric, Al-Sistani) are trying to push for a sovereign, independent, democratic government.  But the US is determined to be the “peacekeeper” and state-builder, so it’s decided to stay.  The biggest railroading issue in Iraqi politics is, of course, American occupation, but from our lens, we see it as keeping the place from descending into chaos.

As Bill Easterly, development economist, would call it, this is the white man’s burden.  We feel as though it’s upon us to fix everyone else so they can be perfect just like us.  We spend trillions of dollars on other countries, with no accountability from those who are affected by it, and let the automotive industry in our own country eat it.  Not that we should bailout the automakers, but we sure do wrangle a lot more with smaller amounts of money for our own peoples’ education and well-being than we do about the trillions spent fixing countries we don’t understand.

This shit is never-ending.  When will we realize that the best thing we can do is to not get involved?  Are you looking forward to two decades from now when we’re stuck with a bunch of damaged, hurting veterans and an Iraq situation that’s still chaotic?  This is the same stuff you read about in foreign policy history books where the colonizers drew arbitrary borders for entire peoples and then wondered why it didn’t work out.

I hope that this all will not happen, but the underlying currents of neo-imperialism, interventionism, paternalism, love for war and oil, and more, still run strong and are indefatigible in American politics, even after Obama’s being selected president.

Again, I have to be amazed at how we’re now willfully “leaving” Iraq under an “agreement”, which basically, when translated, amounts to us running with our tail between our legs now that the US public wouldn’t take it anymore (after even a Democratic Congress refused to answer the peoples’ wishes to withdraw).

Of course, the warmongerers (most of whom have never been in a combat environment) out there will call this cowardice and emboldening the enemy.  Well, too bad.  If employing the democratic support of your people to support your foreign wars is too difficult, then maybe the point is that the war isn’t actually worth it?  To argue differently is to question democratic rule by the people.  The flip side of that, if you are a pragmatic warmongerer, is that you shouldn’t start a fight you know you won’t be able to finish, even if you think it’s worth it.

I thought it was fitting that an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at Bush.  An educated Iraqi who’s in a professional line of work throws whatever he can, given the opportunity.  That’s about as much of a condemnation as you can get.  Bush may see it as bizarre and an outlier event, but that shows how out of touch he is with the world he should be the most powerful leader of.  I would venture to say that a high percentage of the people who saw the event (regardless of nationality, color, creed, etc.) identified instantly with the journalist and knew EXACTLY what he meant.

Are we going to be ready for the pent-up resentment and hostility that will come out after we “withdraw”?  History shows that it’s never pretty when the lid comes off a boiling political pot.  An Iraqi journalist got his ribs cracked and sustained other injuries.  Saddam was filmed during what was basically a Shi’ite execution.  And these events were under US supervision!

Underground Warblogging

Warblogging died in 2006.  It died when the military and US government decided that ANY servicemember’s content online must be approved through the chain of command, AFTER informing the command that that content MAY exist. (i.e. registering one’s blog even without posting content to it)

The message coming out of Iraq was warped after this decision.  Crowdsourcing what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan halted.  We had to rely on embeds and independent journalists (Michael Yon continues to be excellent), and of course, brutal, savage terrorist/insurgent attacks to figure out what was really going on.

I attended the senior Yahoo! fellow Gaurav Mishra’s talk at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy last week, on the subject of citizen journalism/media during the Mumbai Attacks.  You can read about Gaurav’s coverage of the Mumbai attacks on his own blog.  Gaurav talked about how people were now able to report instantly from the scene.

He had me say some words about my own situation, where I had to remove content from my web site to include photos from Iraq and my journal on my deployment to Iraq, after my command found out and I got in heaps of trouble for it.

This “war” is going to be over soon, yet not as quickly as I’d like.  But I guarantee you, when the smoke clears, there will be a TON of stuff coming online written by the troops on what has been happening over there.  That the military said we couldn’t post it online didn’t mean that soldiers weren’t still lying in their hooches, writing long rants on how fucked up or how successful it was over there to their loved ones.  Soldiers, Marines, and others were still snapping photos and taking video of what they saw.  All that stuff is out there NOW, but it is underground.

It will bubble to the surface once all these people feel that it is safe to do so.  You will probably see more books published again.  Few would be worth reading.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that they will have the ability to express themselves again.

About the best we’ve had lately is a book written by a pseudonymous former Army interrogator who decried US torture practices, and a 60 Minutes interview by a pseudonymous former Delta operator who said his team could have had a good shot at killing Osama bin Laden in the early stages of the “war” in Afghanistan.

Pseudonymity, anonymity…both are great ways to circumvent broken systems.

You can also expect revelations, scandals, and investigations to come soon for other related reasons.  The changing of the political appointees and DC guard will bring out exposés on the Bush Administration.  The financial crisis will expose the corruption in Wall Street (like the latest hedge fund/NYC investor scam).  Much of the rot that’s spread as a result of Dubya will get exposed.  I should add that it’s not that the Democrats are not a part of it too — the politicians all had their hand in the till.

The flood of information that people didn’t want you to hear is coming.

[

edit:  Newsweek just did a great story about Thomas Tamm, the guy who gave the New York Times a heads-up on the wiretapping scandal that would later emerge as a collage of different whistleblowers’ reports.  People won’t be as afraid to report, once the horrible Bush Administration leaves.

My buddy d14n wrote a blog post about Tamm also, and he verified the info on how and where to contribute to the Thomas Tamm Legal Defense Trust.

]

How Bush and Obama Have Shaped My Last Eight Years

Thankfully, the eight years of Bush rule are almost over.  It has been a dark period for the American soul, spirit, and Dream.  Here is a synopsis of the Bush presidency years as seen through my life, documented through my web site and blog.

Pre-Dubya

In 2000, my mind certainly wasn’t thinking about international terrorism, financial crises, gas prices, or the like.  According to my site’s news archives from 2000, when I was 22, the most important topics in my life at that point were Napster and the dotcom bubble.  The bubble had not yet burst, although it started having some rough days.  Oil was hovering around $25-40/barrel.  I had just graduated from college and went to Italy with my dad, and France with my mom.  The dollar was strong and the Euro would continue to get weaker until about 2002, facilitating American travel abroad.  I would daytrade the market for another year and a half.

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