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Grandma Gets Her Gun: Read Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls Now, People

It’s not enough to say that Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls brilliantly pins down the day-to-day malaise of desert war–era military life: the boredom, the gnaw of fear, the uncertainty about what exactly the mission was.

Or that the book, which tracks 10 years (and two rounds of deployments) in the lives of three Indiana National Guardswomen, lays bare the perils and promise of the military’s shift to a mixed-gender force — there are tales here of harassment, of course, and the women are trained never to walk on their own bases after dark by themselves, but there are also triumphs of comradeship. Relish the moment, in Iraq, when single mom Desma interrupts some young men’s mess-hall bickering by flopping a dildo onto the table and declaring, “Mine’s bigger than all of yours, so shut the fuck up!”

Or even that Soldier Girls, rich in the private details of war, love, and family, is so often urgently moving, a potent examination of friendship and trauma, of the bonds between these three women who might not have related much to each other in civilian life — one’s a young mom, one’s a fiftyish National Guard lifer, one’s a college-bound Nader voter.

The power of Thorpe’s exhaustive, novelistic Soldier Girls is bigger than all of that. This is a heartbreaking portrait of an America whose wars are increasingly fought by moms and grandmothers — the title comes from the pink T-shirts offered by Guard recruiters.

Thorpe’s military reportage is compelling, scary, often hilarious. The women’s first deployment, to Afghanistan in 2004, percolates with surprising romances, spirited sex comedy, and touching camaraderie. Desma orders pink flamingos to decorate the tent she shares with Michelle, the liberal beauty who, during one stretch of training, was forbidden to wear T-shirts, as her body proved too distracting to the men around her. Their base, Camp Phoenix, was officially dry, but Michelle and Desma manage to kill time with booze and pot brownies, while Debbie, the gung-ho Guard lifer, set up an ersatz beauty salon in their tent. Debbie knew which female soldiers were getting lucky based on who asked her for a Brazilian. All three prove adept at their jobs and quickly come to relish the admiration and friendship of their predominantly male counterparts.

For all those highs, the women’s year in Afghanistan was also dreary and confounding. Michelle wondered at her curious job: repairing thousands of AK-47s discovered around the country, often leftovers from the Soviet era. These were then given back to the Afghans, leaving Michelle to ponder in later years where they eventually wound up — and who they might have killed.

A second deployment, to Iraq in 2008, proves much more harrowing. These were the dark days of that insurgency, which seemed forever to be in its last throes. The military banned women from combat, but Desma and Debbie both wind up assigned to truck-driving duties, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war. Debbie, a new grandmother, manages to swap for a new detail; Desma, a mother of three, spends the better part of a year “riding ass” in convoys, scanning every foot of road for suspicious trash or rock-piles or animal corpses — anything that could hide an IED. These late chapters will give you the sweats.

Thorpe writes just as affectingly of life back home, both before and after the deployments. (Occasionally, her prose thuds, especially as she hustles from one life to the next, but that doesn’t harm Soldier Girls — it’s the intimate specifics that matter.) The opening chapters are a tour de force of the realities facing downwardly mobile Midwesterners. Hippie alt-girl Michelle bops from broken homes with meth-addicted relatives to college courses she isn’t yet prepared for. She’s smart, and she knows she could be somebody, but rural Indiana offered no support for her. The economic calculus behind her decision to join the Guard makes a brutal sense — two weeks a year, one weekend a month, in exchange for college tuition — especially since she joined up in June 2001. Thorpe’s sensitive thoroughness makes these passages brisk, wrenching reading: She understands economic hardship, young people’s mood swings, and the way that the Guard offered Michelle the chance to thrive and rebel at the same time. Michelle is a likable, complicated figure, one who urges her bunkmates to vote against Bush, but also one who comes to respect their sacrifices — and who struggles, in later life, to share with non-vets the pride she feels in her service, even as she’s outraged by so many individual aspects of the wars and her deployments.

Even more arresting are the passages devoted to the women’s return to civilian life. All three suffer small collapses inside grocery stores. None know how to talk to people back home about it. One develops full-blown PTSD. Desma, driving in Indiana, spies a garbage bag on the road and skids out to investigate it. A cop spots this and pulls alongside her. “I’m so sorry!” she says. “I didn’t mean to freak out, but you don’t understand!”

He’s sympathetic, but he — like too many of us — couldn’t possibly understand. Thorpe’s wise, sad, beautiful book is a great place to start.

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Asking Why Some Enlist in Where Soldiers Come From

The strength of director Heather Courtney’s documentary as it follows a group of young, small-town friends on their journey from aimlessness to war is that, in laying out “where soldiers come from,” she adroitly maps out overlapping terrains: the material (brutal economic realities), the intangible (the mindset of her subjects), and how they feed one another. When 20-year-old fledgling artist Dom, unemployed, broke, and with no job prospects, enlists in the National Guard, he talks his group of friends, including 19-year-old self-described “sexy sidekick” Cole, into joining with him. The boys and their friends live in a small Michigan town where shells of factories lie rotting, parents are either unemployed or working multiple shitty jobs, and their youthful worldview is a combination of jadedness and naïveté. Courtney’s camera follows the crew from enlistment to basic-training to days in Afghanistan that swing between banal and terrifying; she builds genuine tension as we watch tanks roll down roads studded with hidden bombs. Much of what’s presented is familiar territory, but it’s the moments that fracture prejudices and expectations that stick with you, such as watching poor, disenfranchised white folk root for Barack Obama in the ’08 presidential election. Or when Dom, sitting in his bunk in Afghanistan, gives such a nuanced, compassionate read of the links between terrorism, poverty, and exploitation that your heart breaks for the boy and the Afghans he’s identifying with.

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In Conflict, A Soldiers’ Play

“Army strong. Direction weak.” That slogan could advertise In Conflict, a play adapted and directed by Douglas C. Wager from Yvonne Latty’s book, which re-creates interviews with members of the Marine Corps, U.S. Army, and National Guard—all veterans of Iraq. Not surprisingly, the soldiers’ actual testimony strikes the ear as more poignant and potent than most fictional treatments of the war (plays such as Embedded, Guardians, Sand, Palace of the End, etc.).

Wager doesn’t trust the script’s theatricality. He allows his cast—a game group of Temple University students—to present the monologues somewhat straightforwardly. Yet he fills the spaces between with embarrassing interstices: While the lights glow blue, green, and purple, the actors tote mess trays, perform quick-time marches, portray limping patients at Walter Reed, or content themselves with running and screaming. Bathetic music or video often plays.

Like many a Culture Project show, the production exudes an air of worthiness and complacency that leaves its audience unchallenged. The evening does include interviews with vets who support the war, but many of the speakers have choice words for the Bush administration, which they deliver while displaying the markers of post-traumatic stress disorder or terrible injuries. Small wonder that the military has discarded the motto “Be all you can be.”

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Dada Surf

Gone are the days when the theater caused uproars, riots, or the involvement of the National Guard. But apparently it can still kick you (OK, me) in the head—twice in one show (once by an animatronic dinosaur, once by a crowd-surfing audience member). Japanther’s performance piece (3-D) Dinosaur Death Dance posed plenty of threats, none of them particularly theatrical. Not the “comedic rock-opera” that P.S.122 had announced, this Performa co-production featured the post-punk Williamsburg band playing a typical set (unconnected lyrically or thematically), embellished with dancers, video, poetic ramblings, and the titular dinosaur.

As a noise-rock show, it was a delight—sweaty, dissolute, vicious. As a performance piece, it proved a yawn, full of overfamiliar elements and nothing Fluxus didn’t do better 40 years ago (or Dada 90 years ago). Not that the young crowd—hoodie-attired, tallboy-clutching—seemed to mind. They may well have thought themselves in the midst of something genuinely innovative. Japanther may know better. As they sing in “Challenge”: “Brooklyn, New York/That’s where we dwell/And to a lot of people/It’s a living hell/Full of frustration and poverty/But wait, that’s just how it used to be.”

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Border War: Conservatives Not Buying Call for Troops

Faced with drooping poll numbers and the erosion of his conservative base, President Bush attempted last night to carve out a compassionate middle ground on immigration. Bush spoke to the nation, calling for 6,000 National Guard troops to be deployed to the Mexican border, a beefing up of Border Patrols, ramped-up technological surveillance of the border, as well as a guest worker program. But whomever Bush was hoping to mollify with his speech, it was hard to find much enthusiasm in the reaction of conservative circles, pro-immigrant groups, and the commentariat.

Not that Bush didn’t try.

“Tonight I am calling on Congress to provide funding for dramatic improvements in manpower and technology at the border,” Bush said in his televised address. “By the end of 2008, we will increase the number of Border Patrol officers by an additional 6,000. When these new agents are deployed, we will have more than doubled the size of the Border Patrol during my presidency.”

Get real, said the right. “It’s hard to say what was most discouraging about the President’s miserable performance last night,” writes National Review‘s Andrew Struttaford, in the conservative magazine’s group blog, the Corner. “Was it the dishonesty (the non-amnesty amnesty, and the way that his opponents in this debate were characterized)? Was it the implicit admission of incompetence (he’s only now ‘discovered’ that the National Guard is, apparently, needed at the border)? Was it the economic illiteracy (the idea that there is a shortage of labor)? Or was it the refusal to learn anything from Europe’s disastrous ‘guestworker’ experience? Incredible.”

“General consensus around here is that Bush’s speech needed a lot more frickn’ cowbell,” wrote the Corner’s Jonah Goldberg.

Conservative enthusiasm for Bush’s proposals was so lacking that Fox News turned its focus not to the president’s proposals at all, but to Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean’s ready critique.

“Democratic Party chief Howard Dean accused President Bush and the Republican Party on Friday of exploiting the immigration issue for political gain by scapegoating Hispanics,” charged the conservative-leaning network.

And that’s from the pro-Bush camp.

Over on the left side of the blogosphere, the commentariat couldn’t decide if the real issue was Bush’s proposals—or the right’s reaction to Bush’s proposals.

“A very spirited and provocative debate took place among right-wing bloggers over the past week,” notes first amendment lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald. “The question under consideration: Should George W. Bush be impeached for his failure to stop the “Mexican invasion” and protect our nation’s borders?”

“After more than a little trying, I think I’ve finally gotten a handle on this immigration debate,” wrote Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo. “If I understand this right, ‘comprehensive’ reform is reform that is so comprehensive that it reforms the thing in question in every possible way at the same time.”

“Politics and policy make for strange bedfellows, especially when it’s all politics, and no policy,” Marshall adds.

Others tried to get into the mind of a White House trying to shore up its conservative flank.

“I know what they’re thinking at the White House,” writes Duncan Black, aka Atrios, at his blog, Eschaton. “We can have a lovely little ‘fake war’ at the border, one with all the cool uniforms, hummers, helicopters, etc… A war which is entirely safe. A war where there isn’t really an enemy. And the president can safely visit that war, prance around in his codpiece, yell things out a bullhorn while sitting astride a massive hummer.

“Ridiculous, but that’s probably the plan,” Black concluded.


Laura Rozen is a senior correspondent at The American Prospect, and blogs at warandpiece.com.

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Bush the Alien

Let’s get a couple of things straight about the immigration speech President George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office. His address had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.

The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the president’s right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base. Indeed, if the president were being honest, the newly mobilized troops would be taken off the federal payroll and moved onto the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.

They certainly aren’t going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding the undocumented. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes, low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans, and manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job.

I’ve spent oodles of hours and days on the border over the last five years, including many contacts and visits with the Border Patrol. I’ve yet to bump into a single one of the 350 National Guard already deployed on the border.

Of course, “sending troops to the border” sounds great—if you are among those who actually believe there is a technological or military fix possible for our busted-out immigration policy. That’s what Bush is hoping, at least. That conservatives who are fed up with him, especially on what they see as his failure to stop the human tide of poor people washing across the desert, will be revitalized by the manufactured fantasy of armed, crew-cut, uniformed young Americans standing shoulder-to-shoulder from Yuma to El Paso.

Chances are Bush’s border move will be no more successful than his management of the war in Iraq or his response to Katrina. The close-the-border faction of his own party is highly unlikely to accept Monday night’s sop. They know, just like the governors of New Mexico and California know, just as local law enforcement on the border knows, that Bush’s gesture is but a photo-op political stunt. They want the border closed, period. And their political representatives in the House – the Sensenbrenners and the Tancredos—are showing no signs of softening their resistance to both a guest worker plan as well as legalization path for the illegals already here.

And even those who bought the get-tough portion of the president’s speech also heard him endorse “comprehensive immigration reform” and a “temporary worker program,” precisely the sort of measures scorned and denounced as an “amnesty.” So much for placating the Right. Likewise, Bush’s dispatch of troops—no matter how empty and symbolic—contains enough reality to rankle the more liberal forces in the pro-immigration coalition.

In short, the president has now managed to alienate himself further from his own base as well as from some of his more reluctant and expedient allies on immigration. Heckuvajob, Dubya.

Bush’s plan may, however, provide some short-term benefit to some very nervous and endangered Republicans House incumbents, offering them some short-term political cover. But the longer-term risk seems enormous. A growing number of Republican strategists know that the Latino vote will loom ever more crucial in deciding which party will command governing majorities. And they are worried that the long-term damage of the president pandering to the anti-immigration forces could be devastating.

What a modern-age media spectacle was whipped up, by the way, over this totally forgettable speech. CNN treated the speech with all the gravitas of the launch of a manned mission to Mars, complete with a countdown clock and rolling all-day coverage. With boundless shamelessness, the all-news network ensconced the sputtering Lou Dobbs as one of its on-duty color commentators for this artificially constructed event, something akin to having asked George Wallace to objectively narrate the Great March on Washington. I don’t fault Dobbs, a modern-day Ted Baxter who has found a lucrative niche as CNN’s resident Minuteman. But, please, let us heap industrial amounts of shame on the babbling Wolf Blitzer who, repeatedly, deferred to Dobbs as if he were the font of all authority on this issue.

A phalanx of reporters will now head to the border, hoping to file feature stories on the newly arrived Guard members. And one can expect that the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense will accommodate the media spoon-feeding. The safe bet, though, is that this speech, in spite of the momentary cable hype, will soon evaporate into the mists of memory.

The truth be told, the totality of Bush’s speech was rather reasonable. Stripping away the political theatrics and the empty phrasing, and putting aside the undue emphasis on deployment of the Guard, the president did endorse the sort of bi-partisan reforms proposed by a coalition stretching from John McCain and the Chamber of Commerce to Ted Kennedy and the Service Employees International Union. And he called directly on both houses of Congress to finally agree upon and pass a bill that reflects that consensus.

Problem is that Bush should have been speaking out forcefully in favor of these moves ever since he raised comprehensive reform as a priority in his 2004 State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, he hid under his desk on this issue for the last two years. Only after the right-wing of his base rebelled and only after the pro-immigrant movement blossomed in the streets—that is, only after the White House was completely overtaken by events—did the president act.

And as usual, it was too little, too late.


Marc Cooper writes for LA Weekly. This column originally appeared on his blog, marccooper.com.

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After Katrina: The Smell in Dry New Orleans Now

Sunday, September 18, New Orleans—The smell in the dry parts of New Orleans is surprisingly bearable. It has hardly rained for three weeks now, so what you get is sour, pungent, with some petroleum, brackish with a tang of dead fish from the lake water, and even a hint of sweetness. That comes from the head-high piles of dead oak and pine and sycamore branches lining the sides of the streets, all turning burnt orange in the sun. This is the second day that business owners with permits are meant to be let in to Uptown, the Central Business District, and other non-flooded parts of the city.

National Guard checkpoints are flagging down each car, but by all accounts, people aren’t rushing back in droves. Interstate 10, the main route from the west, is open now and traffic is surprisingly light. The devastation has been capricious. One self-storage place close to the Causeway exit had its roof and walls peeled off, so people’s sports equipment and old lamps are hanging out for all to see.

Downtown is passably busy. The venerable Irish pub Molly’s at the Market is open and a place called Mojo’s up the block is frying up hamburgers, a smell that cuts pleasantly through the stronger stink here. A few hotels are operating too. Down by the Convention Center, the outside has been swept absolutely clean, but inside, nothing was touched; there are still chairs scattered everywhere, trash and piles of personal belongings. I read that the figures in the wax museum melted; maybe this will be the city’s new house of horrors.

I’ve returned with my parents to their house to clean up the fallen branches, try to patch up our roof and board up a broken window. At first, the residential streets of Uptown look absolutely deserted except for tree trucks, power trucks and Humvees. After awhile, humbler signs of life become apparent. The houses where people have returned, one of every three or four, have driveways cleared and refrigerators set out on the curb. For those who escaped major flood damage, the fridge is the hardest chore of all. Our neighbor found maggots in his.

Soon, I stumble on a neighbor who says he’s back for good. He’s clearing away branches as we talk over the rattle of a big generator on his front porch. “I don’t mind the heat. On the contrary, I enjoy it,” he says, clad in a long-sleeve denim shirt and work gloves and with sweat beading his upper lip. He has a working gas stove and a jacuzzi full of clean water. He’s just waiting for the PJ’s coffeehouse on Maple Street to open so he can get a cup of good coffee. “I put a sign on their door, saying, ‘Please Open.’ ”

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the lack of potable water is the Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen’s biggest concern with Mayor Ray Nagin’s proposed timetable for opening up the city, which would have had the French Quarter open by September 26. According to Jimmy, a repairman I run into on Magazine Street, they have another problem. “The cops are not happy with the idea of bringing people back in here,” he says. “It’s not safe at night.” He says that after the 6 p.m. curfew “you hear pop-pop-pop every night.”

Jimmy is doing some work at the Slim Goodies diner, one of the only businesses open on Magazine Street or, really, anywhere Uptown. The proprietor, Kappa Horn, and her sister Mary, who has the store next door, are staying with their mom on the West Bank and have been busy the past two days serving blueberry pancakes and roast beef sandwiches to the electricians, cops and the National Guard. “I said, let’s go back, everyone will be here,” Kappa Horn says, indicating the street with a sweep of her hand. “No one’s here.”

Indeed, that seems to be the story. Without power, without water, without schools, without a solid timetable for getting any of these things, it’s hard for many New Orleanians to think about returning to even the least damaged parts of the city just yet. People are hesitating at the brink, knowing that the hardest part—the rebuilding—is just beginning.

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Sleepwalking in Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The sleep walk in political Washington
continues this morning, with President George Bush trying to defend his lackadaisical response to Hurricane Katrina. He’s staging a bunch of photo ops in the hard-hit areas of the Gulf Coast, while federal officials say they are really very efficient and doing a great job. This place is la-la land.

Everybody’s taking off for the Labor Day weekend. You’d never know anything was going on.

But so much is, and it’s not limited to New Orleans.

In Mississippi, the Jackson Clarion Ledger reports
this morning that fuel shortages are horrendous throughout
the state with lines at the pumps stretching for
miles. Governor Haley Barbour says he thinks the
problem is not a real shortage but drivers topping off
their tanks.

Michael Barnett in his New Orleans blog called Interdictor gives some first hand reporting on what’s going on in New Orleans with the cops and military. The Interdictor spoke by cell phone to a citizen who provided this account of the National Guard in action:

“Although obviously he has no exact count, he
estimates more than 10,000 people are packed into and
around and outside the convention center still waiting
for the buses. They had no food, no water, and no
medicine for the last three days, until today, when
the National Guard drove over the bridge above them,
and tossed out supplies over the side crashing down to
the ground below. Much of the supplies were destroyed
from the drop. Many people tried to catch the supplies
to protect them before they hit the ground. Some
offered to walk all the way around up the bridge and
bring the supplies down, but any attempt to approach
the police or National Guard resulted in weapons being
aimed at them.”

Quoting the same citizen:

“Before the supplies were pitched off the bridge
today, people had to break into buildings in the area
to try to find food and water for their families.
There was not enough. This spurred many families to
break into cars to try to escape the city. There was
no police response to the auto thefts until the mob
reached the rich area—Saulet Condos—once they
tried to get cars from there. . . well then the whole
swat teams began showing up with rifles pointed.
Snipers got on the roof and told people to get back.”

Meanwhile, Mississippi is bracing for an influx of
storm victims heading north from New Orleans. The governor is asking the shelters to stay open to help. Jerry Mitchell, of the Clarion Ledger, reports that FEMA staff actually ran practice drills on how to handle a real-time disaster by acting out a worst-case scenario in which a fictional Hurricane Pam hits New Orleans.

There’s been more looting along the Gulf Coast, with
the Mississippi National Guard trying to stop it “If
our lives are threatened, we shoot to kill,” Major
General Harold Cross, told press there. “We don’t shoot to wound.”

The world must be fairly shocked by the U.S. handling of this mess. Agence France Presse reports, “Around 200 frightened
Japanese, European, and American tourists, who had been
thrown out of their hotel on Thursday morning, told
how police fired over their heads as they attempted to
get to buses to take them to safety.”

With people all over the country throwing open their
homes to stranded hurricane victims, the Dallas police
are telling people to be wary in accepting such
visitors: “I would suggest you know who you are taking
into your home,” Senior Cpl. Max Geron, a Dallas
police spokesman told the Dallas Morning News. “There
are so many reputable organizations, such as the Red
Cross, trained to help refugees that it’s best left in
their arms.”

And former Dallas Bar Association president Al
Ellis told the paper potential hosts better have
some safeguards. “I would want to see identification, a
driver’s license, something . . . hopefully, a photo
ID,” said Mr. Ellis. “I would probably ask questions
about who they are, who their family is, where they
lived, if they have family in other parts of the country.”


Additional reporting: Isabel Huacuja

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Bush, You Got Some ‘Splainin’ to Do

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On the fifth day after Hurricane Katrina struck, National Guard troops finally managed to get
themselves into downtown New Orleans.

FIVE DAYS.

How many people could have been saved while the government sat on its ass, we’ll never know. And that’s to say nothing of the people who might have lived had the federal government provided support before the storm, bussing people out of the city rather than leaving them to carry out the evacuation order on their own limited—or absent—means.

Imagine if this had been a terrorist attack. Think of all the money spent, of all the contracts let and new companies formed to help us preserve homeland security in the wake of 9-11. Of all the innocent people arrested and interrogated under the USA Patriot Act. In this disaster, the Department of Homeland Security was utterly useless—with the exception of the Coast
Guard, the one federal agency that actually rescued people in and right after the storm. The Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff ought to have the simple decency to resign. If not,he should be fired, and if Bush won’t fire him, then he should promptly be impeached.

As for the pathetic military response, the responsibility lies with Donald Rumsfeld, who runs the Defense Department. These two should be held accountable for their actions.

On 9-11 the government was unable to defend the U.S. But nobody was held responsible. There was no accountability. Is this to happen again?

Won’t the Congress for once stand up for the ordinary people of the nation? Or is that just too much to expect.

The National Guard is poorly equipped and poorly trained to handle any of this. Not only are its ranks depleted by the Iraq war, but its heavy equipment is gone overseas. According to one report, the Guard can only put together 35 percent of all the quipment,trucks,planes, etc., that it is supposed to have. The state Guards are so depleted they have to borrow from one another.

Although the government could have flown in the medical equipment and doctors to staff existing or makeshift hospitals, it didn’t move. Only at midday today ,did the AP  report, “Rescuers finally made it into Charity Hospital, the largest public hospital and trauma center in the city, where gunshots prevented efforts on Thursday to evacuate more than 220 patients. “We moved all of the babies out of Charity this morning,” said Keith Simon, spokesman for Acadian Ambulance Service Inc.

This is the United States. Rescuing babies from a natural disaster took five days!

All week doctors made do with battlefield triage, leaving the badly ill to die, while trying to save the younger and healthier people.

Dr. Richard Bradley, a professor at both the University of Texas Houston Medical School and Baylor College of Medicine, is assigned to the elite Texas Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue team. The team went to New York after the 9-11 attacks. And he has been in New Orleans since the hurricane. Here is what he had on his blog  yesterday. “We have been pulling thousands of people out of their locations where they are stranded and surrounded by water. There are so many stranded that
the military helos are actually sling loading food and water in to these people.

“There is no local government to be seen where we are—except for a few law enforcement types. Many of these guys are now carrying long guns. You may have heard about the civil unrest here—it’s so bad, even the Coast Guard rescue crews are carrying shot guns. Our Incident support team told us they have requested 200 armed National Guard troops to protect us today during Search & Rescue ops.

“The medical condition is bad. We don’t have any DMAT (Disaster Medical Assistance Team) support—we have been told they are all being used in Baton Rouge. Acadian Ambulance set up a triage area which somehow morphed into the city-wide evacuation center. It is located under an overpass on I-10. It is an amazing site. There are thousands of evacuees there. Some are uninjured and waiting to get on buses to go somewhere. Others are waiting hours for triage. Helicopters are landing in the grass at the rate of 2 – 3 per minute. They are full of evacuees. . . . Later today the unit was pulled from operations because conditions worsened. Once law enforcement improves, they’ll resume rescue operations. Is this really America?”


Additional reporting: Isabel Huacuga

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When the Levees Broke

“Due to a hurricane in the area you are calling, your call cannot be completed at this time.” It is approximately 48 hours into the destruction of my hometown. I have done little the last few days except comb the Internet for storm news and field calls from fellow members of the Gulf South diaspora. No one has sufficient information. There are reports of a rescue here, a woman swept away there, looting at the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas. Because of breaches in the levee, the water is still rising.

As residents of war zones and the Midwest probably know already, the national news is almost useless when you want to find out what’s happening to your own city. To take just one example, both The New York Times and CNN at first showed multiple dramatic shots of tall palm trees downed on Canal Street, the downtown hotel strip south of the French Quarter. They obviously didn’t realize that those were non-native, promotional trees, planted just a year or so ago. Meanwhile, the first detail that broke me down, out of all I’ve seen and read, was a casual note about oak trees felled on St. Charles. This wide avenue, the one the streetcar rolls down, is the jewel of the city, and the trees that shade it on both sides are spreading live oaks a hundred years old or more. I don’t know how many have fallen, but each one is like losing a tooth.

And all of this is like that crumbling-tooth dream: a haunting, incomprehensible sign that you are powerless in the face of Death and Nature. I am in the dark, splintered forest of my own fears following the crumb trail of the local paper, the Times-Picayune, and local TV, both of which have braved the flood waters and power outages to post what they know on blogs.

This is what most sources agree on. Power will be out for weeks. Add 90-degree heat to the refugees’ other woes. No one who evacuated is allowed back�maybe for months. Prisons and hospitals are being evacuated. There are many deaths but they have not yet been tallied. The Coast Guard, sheriffs, and miscellaneous authorities are still in that “golden 72 hours,” meaning enough people are alive to make rescuing them by boat and helicopter priority one. Twelve hundred have been rescued so far, and thank G*d for that, although right now they have nowhere to go. Priority Two, by the Army Corps of Engineers, is fixing the two breaches in the canal levees to the north of the city, which have allowed more water to pour in, meaning lots of things got flooded on Tuesday that didn’t get flooded Monday. Plan A, involving cargo containers full of sand, failed late yesterday. Today, more of these horrors will start coming to light.

If you’ve visited the city as a tourist or a conventioneer, most of the places you probably remember�the balconies of the Quarter, the mansions of the Garden District, and the leafy neighborhoods of Uptown�did not go underwater in the first deluge. They were all built a long time ago by rich people on marginally higher ground, so they were suffering only from downed tree branches and power and water outages until the levee breach started a second water flow. Counterintuitively, it’s better to be closer to the river, since that’s where the levee and the ground is built up.

On the other hand, New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward, home of Dirty South rappers like Juvenile and the Cash Money Crew, flooded up to the rooftops. As did Treme, just northwest of the Quarter, the home of the Treme Brass Band and Louis Armstrong Park. Jefferson Parish, the suburban land of Barnes and Noble and Old Navy, out to and including the airport, is swamped. Lakeview, a quiet, older northern residential neighborhood where a lot of cops live and people don’t lock their doors, is flooded too. And every hour that the levees stay open, the water will rise.

That is the physical damage as of now. Then there will be Katrina’s more far-reaching harm, caused by the ways in which the Gulf South is part of the Caribbean Rim. The city of New Orleans has a 34 percent poverty rate, triple the national average. It’s about 70 percent black. White flight, first to Jefferson Parish and then across Lake Pontchartrain, to the North Shore, has accomplished the desired aim of de facto segregation in the public schools, which are 93 percent black in Orleans Parish and some of the worst in the country. (My sister and I attended the two good public schools, Lusher and Franklin, which are little multiethnic magnet islands massively resented by the rest of the city.)

Knowing this, and that many of the neighborhoods destroyed were the poorest in the city, provides a little context for such incidents as Tuesday’s riot in the Wal-Mart parking lot, where even the cops were spotted lifting some electronics. Elsewhere, a looter shot a police officer in the head today, critically wounding him.

This stuff is bad and it’s only going to get worse. To belabor the obvious, a lot of the people who stayed did so because they didn’t have the money to leave. An estimated hundred thousand had no cars. Many didn’t have jobs in the first place, and now they don’t have homes, and there’s plenty of stored-up resentment to go around. The city government cleared out Tuesday night, leaving a sinking ship. Irony #1: The Wal-Mart free-for-all began when neighborhood residents were invited to a real giveaway of food and cleaning supplies, then started to help themselves. Irony #2: This particular Wal-Mart was built only a few years ago, over strenuous neighborhood objections, as the commercial hub of a mixed-income public-private housing development for which they tore down the decrepit St. Thomas projects. This renovation was widely credited with sparking a vicious outbreak of violence as displaced gang members searched for new turf. The same civic leaders who cut that deal will now be charged with rebuilding the entire city essentially from scratch.

Meanwhile, the city’s middle and upper classes have been forced away for weeks. For now, they are anxiously monitoring the destruction of their homes and wholesale trashing of their property values from Holiday Inns in Houston and Houma. A whole lot of people have roots and will come back and stay if it’s possible. But how many educated young people, new transplants, and boomer retirees will grab their insurance settlements and leave?

New Orleans has always exerted an extraordinary psychic pull on the rest of the country. But even if you have no friends or relatives or ex-lovers there, even if you’ve never tasted the oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s in the French Quarter (its wall blew in yesterday) or caught a Saints game at the Superdome (now a failing emergency shelter and the scene of at least two deaths), there are good reasons right now to be anxious, angry, or prayerful according to your bent.

An MIT meteorologist published an article in Nature last month that the Los Angeles Times said “concluded that the destructive power of hurricanes had increased 50 percent over the last half a century, and that a rise in surface temperatures linked to global warming was at least partly responsible.” This is not yet majority scientific opinion. But Katrina got big fast because the water it sucked up from the Gulf on its way over was warmer, not colder, than the rest, adding “high-octane fuel to the fire,” says The New York Times
.

Two months ago, Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu begged President Bush to come across with billions in federal funding to restore the state’s ravaged wetlands and dig a more natural path to the sea. She got half a billion. You’ve probably read by now how pure hubris, and the Army Corps of Engineers, have hastened this day of reckoning by reining in the river; the state loses 25 square miles of coastline a year.

Finally, thousands of National Guardsmen and women can’t be there to help their neighbors. Forty percent of Mississippi’s National Guard force and 35 percent of Louisiana’s are in Iraq, totaling around 6,000 troops. They took a lot of equipment with them that would be pretty useful right now�high water vehicles, Humvees, refuelers, and generators. A general warned early this month that this might be a problem in event of a natural disaster.

Of the 3500 Louisiana Guard troops who are on duty, many of them have just returned from combat. “Officials maintained,” said Reuters, “this had not hurt the relief effort in those states, hardest hit by the hurricane.”

But who can say, at this point? So much remains unknowable.

Last night, there was a shadowy, frightening report in the Times-Picayune about looters attempting an assault on Children’s Hospital, Uptown, with 100 sick kids inside. The paper said looters stood outside trying to break in the locked hospital, with flood waters rising: Governor Kathleen Blanco �has been told of the situation and has informed the National Guard. However, [spokeswoman Denise] Bottcher said, the National Guard has also been unable to respond.”