The Most Important US Air Force Base You’ve Never Heard Of

By: Norman Solomon

The overseas hub for America’s “war on terror” is the massive Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany. Nearly ignored by US media, Ramstein serves crucial functions for drone warfare and much more. It’s the most important Air Force base abroad, operating as a kind of grand central station for airborne war—whether relaying video images of drone targets in Afghanistan to remote pilots with trigger fingers in Nevada, or airlifting special-ops units on missions to Africa, or transporting munitions for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Soaking up billions of taxpayer dollars, Ramstein has scarcely lacked for anything from the home country, other than scrutiny.

Known as “Little America” in this mainly rural corner of Germany, the area now includes 57,000 US citizens clustered around Ramstein and a dozen smaller bases. The Defense Department calls it “the largest American community outside of the United States.” Ramstein serves as the biggest Air Force cargo port beyond US borders, providing “full spectrum airfield operations” along with “world-class airlift and expeditionary combat support.” The base also touts “superior” services and “exceptional quality of life.” To look at Ramstein and environs is to peer into a faraway mirror for the United States; what’s inside the frame is normality for endless war.

Ramstein’s gigantic Exchange store (largest in the US military) is the centerpiece for an oversize shopping mall, just like back home. A greeting from the Holy Family Catholic Community at Ramstein tells newcomers: “We know that being in the military means having to endure frequent moves to different assignments. This is part of the price we pay by serving our country.” Five American colleges have campuses on the base. Ellenmarie Zwank Brown, who identifies herself as “an Air Force wife and a physician,” is reassuring in a cheerful guidebook that she wrote for new arrivals: “If you are scared of giving up your American traditions, don’t worry! The military goes out of its way to give military members an American way of life while living in Germany.

That way of life is contoured around nonstop war. Ramstein is the headquarters for the US Air Force in Europe, and the base is now pivotal for using air power on other continents. “We touch a good chunk of the world right from Ramstein,” a public-affairs officer, Maj. Tony Wickman, told me during a recent tour of the base. “We think of it as a power-projection platform.” The scope of that projection is vast, with “areas of responsibility” that include Europe, Russia, and Africa—104 countries in all. And Ramstein is well-staffed to meet the challenge, with over 7,500 “active duty Airmen”—more than any other US military base in the world except the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

Serving the transport needs of war efforts in Iraq and Syria (countries hit by 28,675 US bombs and missiles last year) as well as in many other nations, Ramstein is a central pit stop for enormous cargo jets like the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster. The Ramstein base currently supports “fifteen different major combat operations,” moving the daily supply chain and conducting urgent airlifts. Last July, when Ankara gave Washington a green light to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base for launching airstrikes in Syria, vital equipment quickly flew from Ramstein to Incirlik so F-16s could start bombing.

But these days a lot of Ramstein’s attention is focused southward. The base maintains a fleet of fourteen newest-model C-130 turboprops, now coming in mighty handy for secretive US military moves across much of Africa. With its sleek digital avionics, the cockpit of a C-130J looked impressive. But more notable was the plane’s spacious cargo bay, where a pilot explained that it can carry up to 44,000 pounds of supplies—or as many as 92 Army Airborne “jumpers,” who can each be saddled with enough weapons and gear to weigh in at 400 pounds. From the air, troops or freight—even steamrollers, road graders, and Humvees—leave the plane’s hold with parachutes. Or the agile plane can land on “undeveloped air fields.”

With Ramstein as its home, the C-130J is ideal for flying war matériel and special-operations forces to remote terrain in northern and western Africa. (The Pentagon describes it as “a rugged combat transporter designed to take off and land at austere fields.”) In mid-2014, the itinerary of a single trip got into a fleeting news story when a teenage stowaway was found dead in a wheel well of a C-130J at Ramstein, after the plane returned from a circuit to Tunisia, Mali, Senegal, and Chad. Stealthy intervention has escalated widely in the two years since journalist Nick Turse found that the US military was already averaging “far more than a mission a day on the continent, conducting operations with almost every African military force, in almost every African country.”

The officers I met at Ramstein in early spring often mentioned Africa. But the base mission of “power projection” hardly stops there.

*  *  *

In the American foreign policy lexicon, peace has become implausible, a faded memory, a mythic rationale for excelling at war. An airlift squadron at the Ramstein Air Base, which proudly calls itself the “Fighting Doves,” displays a logo of a muscular bird with dukes up. On lampposts in a town near Ramstein’s gates, I saw campaign posters for Germany’s Left Party (Die Linke) with a picture of a dove and a headline that could hardly have been more out of sync with the base: Wie lange wollt lhr den Frieden noch herbei-bomben? “How much longer do you want to keep achieving peace by bombing?” Such questions lack relevance when war is perceived not as a means to an end, but an end in itself.

More than ever, with relatively few US troops in combat and air war all the rage, the latest military technology is the filter of the American warrior’s experience. When Ramstein’s 60,800-square-foot Air and Space Operations Center opened in October 2011, the Air Force crowed that it “comes with 40 communication systems, 553 workstations, 1,500 computers, 1,700 monitors, 22,000 connections, and enough fiber optics to stretch from here to the Louvre in Paris.” (Mona Lisa not included.) A news release focused on “the critical mission of monitoring the airspace above Europe and Africa” and “controlling the skies from the Arctic Circle to the Cape of Needles.” But the Defense Department didn’t mention that the new hyper-tech center would be vital to the USA’s drone war.

Ramstein receives visual images from drones via satellite, then relays the images to sensor operators and pilots at computer terminals in the United States. “Ramstein is absolutely essential to the US drone program,” says Brandon Bryant, a former Air Force sensor operator who participated in drone attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia for five years while stationed in New Mexico and Nevada. “All information and data go through Ramstein. Everything. For the whole world.”

Bryant and other sensor operators had Ramstein on speed dial: “Before we could establish a link from our ground-control station in the United States to the drone, we literally would have to call Ramstein up and say ‘Hey, can you connect us to this satellite feed?’ We would just pick up the phone and press the button and it automatically dials in to Ramstein.” Bryant concluded that the entire system for drone strikes was set up “to take away responsibility, so that no one has responsibility for what happens.”

The US government’s far-flung system for extrajudicial killing uses Ramstein as a kind of digital switchboard in a process that fogs accountability and often kills bystanders. A former Air Force drone technician, Cian Westmoreland, told me that many of the technical people staffing Ramstein’s Air and Space Operations Center are apt to be “none the wiser; they would just know a signal is going through.”

Westmoreland was stationed in Afghanistan at the Kandahar Air Field, where he helped build a signal relay station that connected to Ramstein. He never moved a joystick to maneuver a drone and never pushed a button to help fire a missile. Yet, in 2016, Westmoreland speaks sadly of the commendations he received for helping to kill more than 200 people with drone strikes. “I did my job,” he said, “and now I have to live with that.”

During his work on the drone program, Westmoreland developed “a new kind of understanding of what modern warfare actually is. We’re moving towards more network-centric warfare. So, orders [are] dealt out over a network, and making systems more autonomous, putting less humans in the chain. And a lot of the positions are going to be maintenance, they’re technician jobs, to keep systems up and running.”

Those systems strive to reduce the lag time from target zone to computer screen in Nevada. The delay during satellite transmission (“latency” in tech jargon) can last up to six seconds, depending on weather conditions and other factors, but once the signal gets to Ramstein it reaches Nevada almost instantly via fiber-optic cable. Permission to fire comes from an attack controller who “could be anywhere,” as Bryant put it, “just looking at the same video feeds as us pilots and sensors. He just sits in front of a screen too.” As Andrew Cockburn wrote in his recent book Kill Chain, “there is a recurrent pattern in which people become transfixed by what is on the screen, seeing what they want to see, especially when the screen—with a resolution equal to the legal definition of blindness for drivers—is representing people and events thousands of miles and several continents away.”

For all its ultra-tech importance, the Air and Space Operations Center at Ramstein is just a steely link in a kill chain of command, while a kind of assembly-line Taylorism keeps producing the drone war. “I think that’s part of the strength of the secrecy of the program,” Bryant said. “It’s fragmented.” Meanwhile, “We were supposed to function and never ask questions.”

Worlds away, the carnage is often lethally haphazard. For example, classified documents obtained by The Intercept shed light on a special ops series of airstrikes from January 2012 to February 2013 in northeast Afghanistan, code-named Operation Haymaker. The attacks killed more than 200 people, while only 35 were the intended targets. Such numbers may be disturbing, yet they don’t convey what actually happens in human terms.

Several years ago, Pakistani photographer Noor Behram described the aftermath of a US drone attack: “There are just pieces of flesh lying around after a strike. You can’t find bodies. So the locals pick up the flesh and curse America. They say that America is killing us inside our own country, inside our own homes, and only because we are Muslims.”

Even without a missile strike, there are the traumatic effects of drones hovering overhead. Former New York Times reporter David Rohde recalled the sound during his captivity by the Taliban in 2009 in tribal areas of Pakistan: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

But such matters are as far removed from Little America in southwest Germany as they are from Big America back home.

Continue reading at The Nation.

Waiting for Trump: Watching US elections in Tehran

By: Reese Erlich

As American hardliners scramble to see who can bash Iran harder, Iranians worry the power struggle for control of the United States government could undermine their nuclear deal with world powers, under which the toughest international sanctions have been lifted in return for Iran restricting its nuclear energy programme.

The Iranian government remains committed to implementing the deal signed last July, according to Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an associate professor of world and international studies at the University of Tehran.

“The parliament supported it,” said Marandi. “The Supreme National Security Council supported it. The leader supports it. The new parliament will definitely support it.”
But Marandi and many others worry that the US may renege on the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or otherwise seek to antagonise Iran. He cites the decision by the US Congress and Obama administration to require anyone who has visited Iran (or Iraq, Syria and Sudan) to apply for a visa to enter the US – including Iranian dual nationals living in Europe who may have been visiting family. Similar regulations don’t apply to people who have visited Saudi Arabia or other US allies.

Marandi says the new procedures violate the spirit if not the letter of the JCPOA. “It is discriminatory,” he said. “The irony is that the terrorist attacks that have taken place in the United States have been carried out by people from places like Saudi Arabia. But the restrictions are against Iranians.”

Iranian officials also worry about who may come to power in the US. Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have both vowed to cancel the nuclear agreement. Cruz said he would “rip [it] to shreds” on his “very first day in office”.

When in January the Obama administration secured the release of four Americans held in Iran in return for the release of seven Iranians imprisoned in the US, Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, denounced a “bad deal” that set a “bad precedent”.

“The US elections will definitely have a big impact,” said Hamid Dehghani, Middle East director of Iran’s foreign ministry. But he notes that to re-impose sanctions lifted under the JCPOA, the US would need the support of Europeans, Russians and Chinese: “The US doesn’t have the power to stand against the whole world.”

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, during an appearance in London prior to the elections, noted that American presidential candidates say one thing on the campaign trail but do another once in office. “I’m sure the next US president will not be able to tear up the agreement, because if we implement that agreement, it’s so good for everybody that nobody will see it in their interest” to tear it up.

Opponents in Iran of the nuclear agreement fared badly in elections on 26 February for both parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that selects the supreme leader. But they are far from silenced.

Continue reading at The Guardian or the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Writing on the Right Side of the Brain

By: Sheila Curran

In Jill Bolte Taylor’s lovely TED talk she holds up a human brain in her hands and shows us the vast crevasse between the right and left lobes. The right brain is the creative, intuitive part, while the left is the verbal and mathematical one. The left adds up columns and makes plans, the right hums along with music and forgets to pick up the dry cleaning.

For a year or two, I’ve been a right-brained cylinder trying to fit myself into a left-brained square. It all started with my work in progress, otherwise known as the apocalypse. The end of the world as we know it, or the end of my world. It had too many characters, all of them were connected and I couldn’t pull one thread of the story out without unraveling the remaining strands.

My usual process of writing a book is to find my way forward, as Doctorow put it, two feet in front of me, on a dark road. I need to place myself into someone else’s existence, bumbling along, tripping over obstacles, seeing the world from a very low angle. It’s not a bird’s eye view. More like a lizard, or an ant, a creature who controls nothing except which fork to take in the vast and confusing landscape of a new place.

I’ll descend into that world, find my way around, and things happen. Characters guide me, as if they were real. That doesn’t mean I don’t pull back and try to fix things later, but that’s the part of the process in which I’m fully engaged. I may not know where I’m going, but I am highly alert. I’m paying attention.

After writing three drafts of my present manuscript, all of which I saw as imperfect, I decided I must be doing something wrong.

I worked with a plot whisperer, who gave me wonderful ideas. I read several books, all of which illuminated the shape and structure of story. I took James Patterson’s online course. I did SAVE THE CAT diagrams until I wanted to strangle, not save, the poor beast. The more I read about other people’s processes, the more I came to doubt my own.

I became firmly convinced I must be doing something wrong, and the more I tried to take apart and put my book back together according to the rules, the less I was able to make anything I liked.

Things got so bad I recently considered giving up writing all together. I wasn’t someone who could create multicolored flow charts with page counts and formulas. I kept thinking if I just read enough, I’d find the key to creating the perfect story. I’d make a cheat sheet and by following its sublime directions, I’d soon find my way through to the end. That way, not one thing would be wrong.

Except.

After all these months and stacks and stacks of poster board drawings and scribbling on index cards, I’ve realized something about myself. It’s not working. It’s making me hate writing and hate myself for not being able to put one square in front of the other, piece by piece, in perfect order.

Years ago, when my son was floundering in junior high, I went to a seminar on learning styles, on how people think and learn differently. The psychologist talked about people who were “sequential” and those who were “global.” A sequential thinker decides to make cookies, pulls out the cookbook, checks to see if they’ve got the ingredients, and lines everything neatly on the counter. A global thinker opens the cabinet, decides to make cookies, begins the project, and discovers halfway through that she’s out of nutmeg.

If she’s got cinnamon, she improvises.

Sometimes the project’s better for the mistake, sometimes it’s not.

Anyway, the presenter was saying that if your child’s brain was severely to the global side of the spectrum, there was no point in making him or her do outlines of term papers, for example.

“They can’t,” he said. “Just let them read twenty samples of good papers and they’ll figure it out. They might start at the end, they might not know where they’re going, but they will get there.”

I remember thinking, “I wish I’d known this years ago.”  I was so relieved. I took heart from the man’s point. All of the teachers wanted the children to do outlines, and my bright son didn’t, couldn’t, seem to do that. Now I knew why, and better, I knew he’d find a different way to get to the end result. (He is, by the way, a brilliant writer and thinker, and graduated with a master’s degree from a top university. The psychologist was right.)

I’d forgotten this anecdote, or stopped applying its comforting suggestion to myself.

At this point, I’m not sure if I’ve run out of nutmeg, or something like baking soda.  I hope it’s not something that simply can’t be put in this late  in the game.

What I do know is this: beating myself up over not being able to do something I knew I couldn’t do in high school or college or graduate school is a really counterproductive strategy. As Sylvia Plath said, self-doubt is the greatest enemy of creativity. Comparing myself to people who write differently is just dumb, because we’re all different.

Besides, I didn’t get into this business to follow rules.

I don’t regret reading the books.  I’m hoping their ideas will slowly seep into my brain. But, much as I love the analyses of these incredibly left-brained writers, I have found myself back at square one.

I am wandering, I am wondering, I am reading novels and letting myself coexist with uncertainty. The more I do that, the better I feel, and the more like writing again.

So here’s to that. I’m going to allow myself to wander, to wonder, to let myself be the dreamer I’ve always been.  Maybe I’ll start at the end and work my way back, but I’ll do it from the ground up, and from inside the part of me that feels and hums along to the music, inside the part of me where everything is connected, and the world is an utterly beautiful, if somewhat indescribable, place.

Originally posted on Girlfriends Book Club.

Americans are leaving religion. Why are we still subsidizing it?

By: David Niose

The arguments for taxing churches have been around for many years, but there is reason to believe that America’s changing religious demographics will soon give them more traction. As more Americans abandon organized religion, many of the newly secular are unsympathetic to subsidizing religion via the tax code.

Recent polling shows that almost one in four Americans, and more than one-third of those aged 18 to 33, now claim no religious affiliation. Back when virtually everyone subscribed to a religious faith (the unaffiliated number polled in the single digits for most of the 20th century) an across-the-board tax break for all religions was arguably fair — or at least inoffensive. But times have changed, and so have attitudes about the extraordinary perks that churches enjoy.

Perhaps the most egregious example of religious privilege under the tax code is the so-called parsonage exemption. Under current tax law, “ministers of the gospel” may deduct virtually all costs associated with housing from their income. At its worst, the exemption subsidizes the unseemly: televangelists enjoying multimillion-dollar estates on the taxpayer dime. But even in a more ordinary context, the allowance represents an indefensible benefit running to organized religion, subsidized by taxpayers.

Another gratuity to churches is the real estate tax exemption, which denies cash-strapped municipalities revenue that could be used for public safety, road repairs and other services. Like everyone else in town, churches benefit from services provided by municipal governments, but in most areas are exempt from property taxation simply because they are churches.

Some will defend this extraordinary handout by arguing that churches do much good through charity work. Even if this were true — and it certainly isn’t the case for every church — it hardly justifies tax exemption. Many individuals and corporations “do good” as well but still pay their property taxes.

Moreover, relying on churches to provide social services is hardly the mark of an enlightened society. A homeless person who happens to be a non-Christian should not have to depend on a local Christian church for help. In a modern pluralistic society, public resources should be available for social services. Instead, in America we use the tax code to prop up churches under the pretext that religious charity is essential.

Any real estate owner expects to pay property taxes, and churches should be no different. If churches claim that they cannot afford to be taxed, one must question how they afford real estate in the first place. A typical church that owns property has hundreds of members or more who could join together to cover the tax bill. Maybe those that don’t have such membership and support shouldn’t own real estate.

As we reassess religious privilege in America, even the notion of having churches pay income taxes should be on the table. Critics say requiring churches to report income and expenses would somehow be an improper intrusion, but this argument fails under scrutiny. Such reporting, which virtually every person and organization in America does routinely, is minimally intrusive and no great burden.  It’s hard to see how such basic accountability would be detrimental to the public good, though we can be sure that religious leaders, from televangelists preying on society’s most vulnerable to the nation’s leading bishops, will argue otherwise.

As Americans increasingly gravitate away from organized religion, it only makes sense that public policy will follow suit. Government need not be hostile to religion, but neither should it bestow upon it special privileges. The nonreligious are now one of the largest categories of religious demographics and growing, and that means changes are on the horizon in the business of religion.

This piece was originally published on The Washington Post.

What Is A Balinese Village?

By: Diana Darling

1990. It is impossible to talk about Bali without sometimes sounding like a tour guide, because Bali is quite unlike any other place on earth, and very specifically so. It is also impossible to write about it in a fully factual way. The facts are too many, too contradictory, and finally too elusive. This, of course, makes it a rich terrain for anthropologists — and a much cushier one than, say, Chad. The study of Balinese society and culture is not exactly an industry, but it occupies hundreds of scholars all over the world; indeed Bali has been a subject of research and pontification for over a century. I am not a scholar — although at times something of an anthropological groupie — but I know that even scholars have trouble defining exactly what a Balinese village is.

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