Roundup (Jan 10, 2012)

I generally don’t do roundups, but below are a few things I thought worth sharing. If “a scholar is just a library’s way of making another library,” as Daniel Dennett put it, then this is what I’ve checked out lately.


Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology has begun a new series on anthropology and the evolution of human sexuality, titled: “The Long, Slow Sexual Revolution.” I’ve been looking forward to it for a few weeks since Greg first told me he was working on this, and I can say that the wait was worth it (and not just because he kindly cites some of my stuff from the Blank-ogamous series). He takes a *very* big picture approach, and what I liked most about it was that it stressed the need to confront the evidence while also keeping an eye on context and complexity, and avoiding overly simplistic narratives. As he wrote:

in summary, a flexible, even contradictory sexuality, which, although it confounds the simple description of human sexual ‘nature’, is actually an adaptive strategy given an animal that is going to have to adapt quickly and respond sensitively to shifting contexts (such as a large-bodied, hyper-invasive, wide-ranging mammalian omnivore).”

It’s a long read, but very thorough and well-written. And, it’s about sex.


From the Smithsonian, Top Ten Hominid Discoveries of 2011.


The December Newsletter of the organization Legacies of War mentioned that U.S. Congress increased the budget “from $5 million in 2011 to an incredible $9 million in 2012 – the LARGEST annual amount ever”  for the removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos. UXO remains an enormous problem in Laos, so this is welcome news. Though the amount of funds could always be higher, considering the magnitude of the problem, and the fact that most of the ordnance originated from U.S. planes.

NOTE: (Jan 12) Please see the discussion thread below.


John Tirman at M.I.T. had a couple of hard-hitting editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post that reflected on the impact that the United States’ wars have on civilians. In the second of these, “Why Do We Ignore the Civilians Killed in American Wars?,” he argued that: “There’s little evidence that the American public gives much thought to the people who live in the nations where our military interventions take place.” He is concerned mainly with the wars in Iraq (just ended) and Afghanistan, but notes that despite the fact that we Americans can be quite generous in the case of giving to others during natural disasters, we also have a long tradition of ignorance of – and indifference toward – civilian deaths in our wars overseas.


David Dobbs at ‘Wired’ had a thought-provoking piece, “Our Sickening Rush to See PTSD – and What It Costs Vets” on our misconceptions of mental health among soldiers.

Our culture’s obsession with PTSD, our reflexive painting of all combat vets as probably ruined by combat, is based on error and misconceptions —  and cruelly unfair to the veterans we think we’re helping by viewing as sick.”

Happy reading.

7 thoughts on “Roundup (Jan 10, 2012)

  1. Lots to think about there, Patrick. What immediately strikes me between the eyes — and maybe between other body parts — is #3 the magnanimous increase in the US contribution to clear up the deadly litter of nine years of non-stop bombing raids in Laos. I’m sure $12 million will greatly raise the honour of Old Glory in the world. Why that’s almost the cost of a whole US primary. It’s even the cost of almost 3 whole days of bombing during the 9 years carpet-bombing military campaign, supported entirely by the American tax-payer without his knowledge. It’s even one-tenth of what BP was obliged to put aside in 2011 for the compensation of Americans affected by an oil spill in Mexican waters. No doubt the widows, widowers, orphans and amputees of Laos will be appropriately and respectfully grateful.

    Now, about China….

  2. I agree with Robert. The juxtaposition of #4 and 5 is deeply sobering. The scale of action in Afghanistan and Iraq is definitely much greater than the public realizes, and the damage is not just those killed or injured immediately but the long-term effect of the war on these populations. There’s going to be so much scary unexploded ordinance, spent uranium ammo, heavy metals pollution and other issues in these countries for decades.

    Traveling to countries that have had conflicts can be so sobering; I think that the public in the US would be willing to support greater contributions if more saw first-hand how hard these countries have to struggle to recover, including dealing with wounds that can’t be healed.

  3. I agree with both of you. Our politicians, corporations, and public care too little about the impact our wars have on civilians or soldiers, while most of our media ask innocuous questions. The Legacies of War (LOW) organization is a good one, and they are excited for the budget increase as they should be, but they must feel it is a small victory.

    As Robert knows from the work of Mike Boddington and others, it’s been estimated that at the current level of clearance it will take something like 3,000 years to remove all the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos. The LOW people don’t like acknowledging that number because it makes the problem seem insurmountable, so they take a positive attitude when things move in the right direction, even if it’s just a baby step.

    No American should feel magnanimous about this increase, which is a drop in the ocean (that our military contaminated).

    Robert, you commented a while ago in another post that: “Man is sick and it will take more than a doctor of anthropology to cure him.” I think about that frequently, whenever something horrible or disappointing in the world comes to my attention (which is often). I wonder if optimism is inherently naive, or if it is the only way to go in spite of the many reasons not to be. Maybe Churchill had it right when he said:

    “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.”

    • Patrick, you and Winston Churchill are right: there isn’t much point in being anything other than an optimist. Let’s remember that Churchill (and I do think he is one of the true greats — along with Oliver Cromwell) was the right man at the right time doing the right job: fighting fire with fire. When that job was done, the English people for once demonstrated common sense and immediately voted him and his politics out, and the welfare state in. There is a time for optimism and a time for reparation. During the 30 year struggle in Laos, the revolutionaries never wavered in their optimism. They knew they would win and they did. After Dien Bien Phu, the French surrendered. Some kind of old-fashioned honour in that. Then America, uninvited and in ‘secret’, and in spite of specific UN decisions forbidding it, moved in with an entirely different form of blitzkrieg warfare. America did not surrender since it was never here (I say ‘here’ not ‘there’, ‘ich bin ein Lao’). Because the US (Congress) never fought a war here, the question of US compensation or reparation does not come up — any one of the thousands of Lao injured before or after the last bombs were deliberately dropped (they did not just ‘fall’) can seek justice and compensation from the Royal Lao Army or the Royal Thai Army (some 26% of the secret army forces were on loan from the Thai military). An alternative would be for an individual Lao farmer, alive but broken or blinded by UXO and probably illiterate and impoverished to sue the actual pilot who dropped the actual bomb that maimed him — and sue through the American legal system. Now, to imagine that succeeding really takes optimism. In the meantime, Australia, the nations of Europe so maligned in the US today, even China, Lao farmers themselves, and ‘sniffer dogs’ are doing the best they can to clear the lethal mess America would no doubt have already cleaned up… had it won.

      There is some small optimism re new technology locating UXO in order to speed clearance a bit faster than sniffer dogs and shovels, and it is perhaps with NASA-style technology that the US could help resolve the problem it caused. If a fraction of the effort, skill and money spent on developing smarter and smarter bombs went into smarter means of locating tiny cluster bombs and destroying them, I would join the optimists.

      Meanwhile, let’s remember that Man is merely in his childhood. It is only 11,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, only two thousand years since Man worked out how to make metal sharp enough to cut off a head at a single blow, and only 1,500 years until the next Ice Age. None of us will be around to see it, but I am optimistic that some form of life will welcome it in.

  4. Well, optimism only goes so far. Then we may revert to pragmatism. The USA, were it to admit it, does not have the money to clear up the messes from all of its previous wars. More important, it does not have the will, the inclination, the perspective of self-interest.

    At present, it costs the international community somewhere between about $50 and several thousand $ to clear a single item of UXO, using one of the official clearance outfits. Take an average cost of $100 and suppose that, as is claimed, there are 80 million unexploded cluster munition subunits (bombies) left here in Laos and forgetting the many other types of UXO, then the total cost of clearing will $8,000,000,000 (eight billion US$). In that light, the $9 million declared by the US government for 2012 is not going to go very far.

    So, optimism takes a dive and pragmatism kicks in.

    Throughout Laos, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of expert UXO clearance specialists. They don’t have any certificates. They have been doing it, in many cases, for decades and they can teach the official clearance people some tricks. They are the villagers who have had to learn how to do this job in order to grow crops and survive. And they are people who have found out that they can harvest these devices, and the many fragments of high quality steel from uxploded bombs, and supplment their small incomes somewhat handsomely. If the official clearance authorities were to seize on these skills, channel them, equip them properly, train them further, and support them with back-up, a sustainable clearance operation could be created that would cost the international community nothing beyond the $15 million initial investment in equipment, training and creating the support services.

    If that can happen, then pragmatism will revert to optimism.

    PS, harvesting UXO means harvesting high explosives and governments tend not to like the idea of such materials in the unlicensed hands of its citizenry.

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for commenting. You’re right. It’s true that the U.S. does not have the will to do more in Laos, or elsewhere, unless some ‘vital interest’ is at stake. And most of the population does not even have the awareness. “Where is Laos?,” most people would ask?

      I think about those dollar amounts and (optimistically) they seem in the realm of possibility. Fifteen million dollars is entirely feasible, even from private sources. Even eight billion dollars would be feasible, if the will was there. Our government came up with hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the financial industry, while our 2010 military budget alone was $698B, an 81% increase since 2001.

      It’s the will that’s missing. Rep. Mike Honda (a Democrat from California) once wrote that “we have a moral obligation to fix this problem” (UXO). Sadly, I’ve not heard much of that from other elected officials.

      • I should love to discuss with you where either sum – the pragmatic $15 million or the optimistic $8 billion might be found. The financial bailout came from self-interest – the self-interest of a remarkably few people and they are much the same bunch who secure such huge sums for the military (military/industrial complex) every year when any sober analysis of the threat would show that a small N American based security force is all that is needed.

        Here are two links which might enlighten you, if you have not seen them:

        The first shows that some 140 transnational corporate conglomerates effectively rule the world. When you look at the detail, you find that they are led by the financial powers. The second, which predates the first considerably, shows the linkages between these corporates, through the individuals that sit on their Boards of Directors. If each corporation has an average of 20 people on its Board, that is a total of 2,800 Main Board seats in the 140 corporations. But, the second article shows that there is considerable overlap. Most Directors sit on two or three Boards, so we might be down to 700-1,000 people who control the major corporate world. They could all meet together in one place at one time.

        OWS talked about the 1%. It is much smaller than that. Most of the 1% are, in fact, part of the 99% – if that makes sense!

        The most important thing about this is that these few people control everything. They control Congress, they control the US judiciary (to whit Citizens United), they control policy. And their interest is the survival of the few. For that, they amass vast fortunes, however those fortunes are held. There is no merit in giving any part of the fortunes away to activities that are not likely to enhance the fortunes further. And that, again, is pragmatism.

        Thank you for the opportunity to take poart in this debate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.