Be a Hero on 805 Per Cent a Year; Casualties and Deaths in Iraq; It’s Mushroom Time!


The president went to Camp Pendleton, togged up in his nice new USMC tanker jacket with Commander in Chief sewn on the front. He got a gentler reception than his Defense Secretary received the same day a few thousand miles further east, in Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

As reported by AP’s Robert Burns, Army Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team (which is mostly made up of people from the Tennessee Army National Guard,) asked Rumsfeld why, “do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to uparmor our vehicles?” The question got an ovation from the approximately 2,300 soldiers mustered for Rumsfeld’s visit.

Flustered, the Defense Secretary got Wilson to repeat his question, then answered, “You go to war with the Army you have,” and “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and it can (still) be blown up.” The answers blew up in Rumsfeld’s face on the talk shows for the next few days.

No one in Camp Pendleton belabored the Commander in Chief with so sharp a query, as he thanked soldiers and families separated during the holidays. But there’s no shortage of reports about the anger over long deployments., as well as the steady toll of dead and wounded. To date 269 of the Marines based at Camp Pendleton have been killed in Iraq and many more wounded.

Bush lauded groups aiding families at the base, including a Camp Pendleton nurse, Karen Gunther, who with other Marine families started the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund to raise cash for families in financial trouble. He urged Americans to go to the Web site to offer support and donations.

Charity’s not going to solve a problem that jumps straight out of the pork barrel priorities of the Defense budget. Fortunes for the arms-makers, foodstamps for the grunts. Money sluices into the treasuries of defense contractors making those poorly armored tanks. Meanwhile an E-2 level Marine gets $1,337.70 a month. Married, this Marine gets a monthly housing allowance of $460.50 a month; unmarried, $289.20.

I was down in Oceanside, the town just south of Camp Pendleton, earlier this year, and as I pointed out then, you don’t have to drive more than a couple of blocks through Oceanside’s main drag before the economic realities uAmerican Empire become apparent. On the south side of the 4000 block on Pacific Coast Highway is a colorful store front with two big signs shouting “We Support Our Troops” and “Welcome Home Heroes”. But the biggest sign of all says “PAYDAY ADVANCE”. The other side of the road there’s a pawnshop, one of several in Oceanside, and there are several other store fronts offering advance loans for Marines who can’t make it to the end of the month.

“Being poor in America”, I wrote, ” which is a reality for millions who might once have called themselves middle class, means having to face debts each month, without any decent financial services and hence dealing with interest rates of around 20 per cent.”

Not long after, I got a politely instructive note from Carol Hammerstein of the Center for Responsible Lending. It’s not a matter of 20 per cent interest rates, Ms Hammerstein pointed out. “While this may be true of predatory mortgage lending, the rates are actually much, much higher for small consumer loans. For instance, payday lenders actually charge fees of about $15 to $20 per $100 borrowed. Because their loan terms are very short, usually two weeks, and they generally do not accept partial payments (by design), their annual interest rates actually start at about 400 per cent, and can exceed 1000 per cent.”

Payday borrowers mostly have no idea what they’re getting into. On the customer disclosure form the annual interest rate won’t carry a percentage sign. Just a number, like 805. A payday lending business plan, cited by Ms Hammerstein, advises: “Remember, in your response to clients’ questions regarding your fees [say] ‘We charge $15 per $100 advanced.’Sounds like 15%, but in reality, since it is an 8 day loan, the true annual percentage is 805%”

So the borrowers get caught, paying fees for no new money, week after week. Ms Hammerstein says her Center has found that payday lending is almost never for that one emergency stop gap loan. The payday lending business model is based on developing these lethal borrowing patterns. 90 per cent of all payday loans go to borrowers with five or more loans in a single year.

The Armed Forces recruiters target poor neighborhoods. The payday lenders target the Armed Forces. At Fort Bliss in Texas, Paul Fain wrote earlier this year in Military Money, “the Army Emergency Relief office estimated nearly one-tenth of the 10,000 active duty troops stationed there have had to undergo credit counseling because of payday loans and other debt problems.” Young soldiers and sailors, Fain went on, ” are the perfect marks for payday lenders for reasons beyond financial naïveté. Though they often live paycheck to paycheck, military personnel are paid regularly, never get laid off and face penalties for failing to repay debts.” Back to Oceanside. The enlisted servicemen and women hock stuff in the pawn shops and borrow against payday. The generals and the contractors buy up beach property and own stock in the institutions that bankroll the pawnshops. The military coming home from the war face rotten prospects in the service economy. The president was smart to make it a quick visit to Camp Pendleton. If, like Henry V in Shakespeare’s play, he’d moved among the Marines in disguise and listened to their worries, he’d have got a rude surprise. But in the fake world of TV News pr, “heroes” aren’t racked with worries like an 805 per cent annual interest rate.

Footnote: Just so you know, Military Money calculated that if you borrow $200 for two weeks from the bank under your overdraft protection, you probably pay back $235, which translates into an annual rate of 456 per cent, 65 per cent more than the payday loan rate for the same sum. Payday lenders aren’t the only sharks in the water, and sometimes they’re the only sharks prepared to lend to the small fry.

War Crimes and Casualties

In his fine piece on this site last week, “War Crime, The Human Toll” Paul Craig Roberts began thus:

“From March 20, 2003 to December 7, 2004 (approximately 21 months) the Pentagon says 1,280 US troops have been killed and 9,765 wounded in Iraq. The Pentagon’s wounded figure conflicts with the report from the US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, that as of Thanksgiving week the hospital has treated almost 21,000 Americans injured in Iraq. According to the hospital, more than half were too badly injured to return to their units.

“Assuming no escalation in the insurgency, a continuation of four more years of war would result in another 2,925 US troops being killed for a total of 4,205. Using the Pentagon’s wounded figure, 22,320 more US troops would be injured for a total of 32,085. Using the US military hospital’s figure, another 48,000 US troops would be wounded for a total of 69,000.

“Assuming the US is able to keep 138,000 US troops in Iraq during Bush’s second term, US dead and wounded (Pentagon figure) would comprise 26 percent of the US force in Iraq. Using the military hospital’s figure, US dead and wounded would comprise 53 percent of our entire army in Iraq. [The numbers drop a little, when we remember that the wounded coming into Landstuhl also include casualties from Afghanistan. AC.]

“At a minimum Bush is responsible for between 14,619 and 16,804 Iraqi civilian deaths during the 21 months since the invasion. (In U.S. equivalent terms, this amounts to between 168,820 and 194,053 civilian deaths.) Compiled from hospital, morgue, and media reports, these figures understate civilian deaths. In keeping with Islam’s quick burial requirement, many Iraqis were buried in sports fields and in back gardens during protracted US assaults on urban areas. This figure does not include the large number of Iraqi deaths from the embargo and US bombing for more than a decade prior to the US invasion.”

Following Roberts’ column we got this useful comment from Rachard Itani:

Dear CounterPunch,

No international economic or financial analysis comparing different countries would be understandable or meaningful without introducing the exchange rate variable. To make up a simplified example, an article that stated: “Exxon spends $3 billion on exploration and R&D while the the UK’s BP spends GBP2 billion” would provide little informative value to Americans unless one entered the foreign exchange rate variable into the equation, which would show the BP outspending Exxon by 30% at current exchange rates. Ditto for foreign aid, where the U.S. total of 9 billion dollars is less than that provided by Europe in percent of GDP terms. A final example would be the damage caused by an earthquake or typhoon in Japan: U.S. media will report the figure in dollar terms, not in Yen terms that would be meaningless to the average U.S. viewer or reader.

I believe the same rule should be adopted universally when analysts and journalists compare losses inflicted and sustained by U.S. forces operating overseas. Only by expressing the casualty rate suffered by the foreign population in U.S. equivalent terms would bring home to Americans the full impact of their government’s actions abroad. With this in mind, and taking into account that the U.S. population is 11.55 times larger than Iraq’s, I have taken the liberty of inserting the “foreign exchange rate” adjusted figures quoted by Mr. Roberts in his striking article. These “adjusted” figures (those quoted by Mr. Roberts multiplied by 11.55) express the number of Iraqi casualties in U.S. equivalent terms, an information that adds a further dimension to the reader’s appreciation of the war’s effect on the Iraqi population. In reality, given the different social organization of Iraqi society, the effect is even more shattering than the adjusted figures project. [We don’t include here Itani’s emended edition of Roberts, but you can do the math. AC]

Readers might also be interested in the following comparative figures, taking the same time span mentioned by Mr. Roberts (less than 2 years to date + 4 more Bush years): it took four years of war waging in Vietnam before U.S. losses totaled 1,864 killed in action and 7,337 wounded in action (1961-1964.) In less than two years, Mr. Roberts informs us that the U.S. has already suffered 1,280 KIAs and 21,000 WIAs in Iraq (taking the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl WIA figures as more credible than those brandied by the Pentagon.) For the first six years of war in Vietnam, U.S. losses were 7,917 KIA and 37,329 WIA. The extrapolated corresponding figures for U.S. losses in Iraq that Mr. Roberts projects for the same period of time are 4,205 KIA and 69,999 WIA. Given the difference in terrain between Vietnam and Iraq (jungle compared to desert) the comparison is more dramatic than it appears.

Mushroom: Clouds of Doubt

Here on the Lost Coast of Humboldt county, Northern California, it’s mushroom time. I walked up some old skid roads on Prosper Ridge last week with my neighbor Dan Austin, through the tan oaks and Douglas Fir. After three days heavy rain and a warm wind coming in from the south west mushrooms were popping everywhere: plenty of slippery jacks, some boletes, various LBMs (little brown mushrooms) and chanterelles. Dan has a keen shroomer’s eye. Peering through the tan oaks he’d give an excited cry and point. After a good deal of squinting I could see some raised duff, and the merest shimmer of the edge of a chanterelle under the leaves. Dan confines his interest to chanterelles, regarding all other mushrooms as probably locked in a close family relation to Amanita phalloides and the other noted killers. He looked dubious when I collected some russulas, just for the fun of trying to key them out later, using David Arora’s two endlessly instructive and delightful mushroom books, the pocket size All That the Rain Promises and More, and the mighty Mushrooms Demystified.

Did I have the shrimp mushroom, Russula xerampelina, with its red brown cap and chalky stem, or the rosy Russula (Russula rosacea)? Arora hails the shrimp mushroom as “delicious”, adding “this mushroom is vastly unappreciated, perhaps because it resembles the hordes of other russullas that litter our coniferous forests pass these up till you know the species better.”

I think they were shrimp mushrooms, but with mushrooming, there’s always that bottom line: only when you’re absolutely sure.

As Dan and I were walking down the road as twilight came on, Gary drove by in his car. “Look,” cried Dan. There ahead, up on the side where the bulldozer had cut the road into the hill years ago, there was a young beautiful chanterelle, frozen in the headlights.

Arora is sniffy about chanterelles as a gourmet mushroom. It’s true , they’re not as good as some of the Agaricus tribe, but I wouldn’t pass them up, any more than I would one of the edible slippery jacks. Now, if only I could train Jasper the Wonder Dog to root out the truffles.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.