Thursday, September 25, 2008

What can we learn from a Kibbutz?

KibbutniksHow many of us try to sketch a Utopian society in our heads when daydreaming? I know I do. What would that society require and what would it lack? Are there any models of past experiments that got it right or got it close? What can we learn from analyzing them?

A good place to begin is by recognizing that "Utopian" isn't the right word. There will be no Utopias in the future. So, if you're expecting a Candide-ian El Dorado where the very soil populating the earth amounts to limitless wealth then turn away now, my friend, you've come to the wrong place. In any future society there must be compromises. But what works the best? What should we fight for and what can we jettison? Let's look at the example of the Kibbutz.

A Kibbutz is a Jewish communal society in Israel dating back to the beginning of last century. All property is held in common with every Kibbutz member. Their community is voluntary to such a point that children aren't considered members until they are old enough to choose to become a Kibbutznik. All menial jobs such as cooking, cleaning the communal dining hall, toilets, etc. rotate among the community members in addition to their careers. Starting off as an agricultural collective the Kibbutz has evolved into a mixture of agricultural and industrial enterprises, contributing far more than it consumes. For example, only 2.5 percent of Israel's population are Kibbutniks yet Kibbutizm generates 33 percent of the nation's farming products and 6.3 percent of the manufactured goods. This affords the members universal access to education and health care, and with the expansion of neighboring cities the Kibbutizm offer outsiders these services free of charge as well.

Here we encounter our first paradox. Each factory and farming collective is structured from the bottom-up in a rigidly socialistic manner while the distribution of their commodities outside the commune occurs capitalistically. It is encouraging to see these industries out performing Capitalists, but they're still playing the same game. We can see this elsewhere in the worker-controlled factories of Venezuela where laborers sell their goods on the free market as well with similarly stirring results.

The polity within a Kibbutz also mirrors the ideal Anarcho-sydicalist model. Internal decisions are made through direct democracy during general assemblies where each Kibbutznik elects a work coordinator, treasurer and officers as well as appropriating communal funds. This level of participation may be one of the reasons why Kibbutzim are so successful.

Remember all property is shared which means more than just land and the means of production. To illustrate how deeply they hold this concept, imagine someone from the city sends a Kibbutznik a basket of cupcakes. At the next general assembly those cupcakes will be distributed equally amongst everyone. If a service is offered to just one member of the commune such as medical care he or she will catch flack for it at the next general assembly. Not only that but children are typically educated and for the most part reared by communal caregivers and teachers providing parents with the time to engage in chores or enjoy free time with each other. Whatever one's attitude is toward this arrangement the quality of communal schools are indisputably superlative. Surpassing both the private and public sectors, the education system on the commune engenders independence and critical thought. It is no surprise that a disproportionately large number of Israel's doctors, lawyers, actors, writers, and artists were educated on Kibbutzim.

The effects of a society devoid of private property alert us to another dilemma. According to two psychologists, Melford E. Spiro and Bruno Bettelheim, who studied the interactions of Kibbutzniks concluded that private property is equivalent to a sense of personal identity. Without it an individual finds it hard to enter into fulfilling intimate relationships. On the other hand, Kibbutzniks are expert at engaging in lower maintenance relationships with a larger number of people.

What do these facts reveal about how future societies should be organized? Volunteerism must be the underpinning of any new paradigm. Kibbutzniks do not believe a Kibbutz is for everyone and never proselytize their lifestyle. I subscribe to anarcho-sydicalism or a federation of rank-and-file managed trade unions in the same mold as the C.N.T. and the I.W.W. But that might not be for everyone either. Some are furiously independent and want to start a small business with a compliment of employees. Not my idea of liberty but in a truly stateless society that would be his or her choice. As for the thorny issue of property I grasp for some middle ground between communal property and private property otherwise known as usufruct. Usufruct says you own anything you're actively using (house, car, underwear) therefore the disparity in wealth might be slight but nothing like we have today.

The bottom line is I do not have all the answers but I'm still searching. DROs (Dispute Resolution Organizations) are appealing however they need to be worker-controlled in order for me to fully accept them. In any case, a true Anarchist society needs to purge itself of coercion. A noble foundation to build upon.

Seven Ages of Rock (BBC)

**This series is hosted by VEOH. You'll need to click on the "Watch on VEOH TV" button in order to see the entire episode. Don't worry, it's quite intuitive plus the series is superb and well worth the effort**

Episode 1: The Birth of Rock - Blues-Based Rock 1963

Online Videos by

Episode 2: Art Rock - White Light, White Heat

Online Videos by

Episode 3: Blank Generation - Punk 1973-1980

Online Videos by

Episode 4: Never Say Die - Heavy Metal 1970-1991

Online Videos by

Episode 5: We Are The Champions - Stadium Rock

Online Videos by

Episode 6: Left of the Dial - Alternative Rock 1980

Online Videos by

Episode 7: What the World Is Waiting For - Brit Indie 1980-2007

Online Videos by

Reunited, Loud and Finding the Love

My Bloody Valentine

MONTICELLO, N.Y. — Everyone entering the Stardust Ballroom on Sunday afternoon at the Catskills hotel Kutsher’s was urged to take a pair of earplugs, and for good reason: the music at the last day of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival here was loud and about to get louder.

The headliner was My Bloody Valentine, the 1980s Irish post-punk band that surrounded its heartsick songs with bristling layers of noise. It has released only two full-length studio albums; the second was “Loveless,” back in 1991. At the festival My Bloody Valentine was playing its first United States concert in 16 years, starting an American tour after blasting its way across Britain this summer. The band finishes a two-night stand at Roseland Tuesday night.

Earplugs were justified. My Bloody Valentine ended its terrific set with a version of “You Made Me Realise” that incorporated a flat-out 17-minute roar: Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher on guitars and Debbie Googe on bass scrabbling frantic, unremitting tremolos and Colm O Ciosoig battering his drums nonstop, with overtones and subtones rolling through the ballroom like tsunamis.

My Bloody Valentine had also chosen the other bands for Sunday’s festival lineup, and its tastes are not dulcet. The lineup included Dinosaur Jr., ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead, Yo La Tengo, Mogwai, Spectrum and Mercury Rev, all unleashing dense drones and formidable crescendos. That meant overdriven amplifiers all day long.

Mr. Shields, 45, who leads My Bloody Valentine, is soft-spoken and shy, and he rarely gives interviews. But he spent much of the festival amid the audience, eager to hear the music he had booked. Occasionally he was recognized by respectful fans. In a brief conversation a few hours before his band’s set, sitting on the hotel lawn, where he could smoke, he spoke about the re-emergence of My Bloody Valentine.

Formed in Dublin in 1984, the group developed its initial sound as a reaction against what other bands were doing, Mr. Shields said. Most were using the cushy sounds of flangers and chorus pedals; My Bloody Valentine, using an effect called reverse reverb, strove for something “ambient but upfront, with a dryness,” Mr. Shields said. Later the band would pile up countless other effects — loops, echoes, distortion boxes — creating the sonic onslaught that has been cited as an influence by virtually every collegiate or indie-rock band that knows how to set off feedback.

“Loveless” was difficult and expensive to make. Its songs are filled with emotional turmoil and enveloped in otherworldly sounds that had Mr. Shields recording in studio after studio, perpetually dissatisfied. The album’s cost has been estimated at £250,000, about $458,000, which helped to bankrupt its independent record label, Creation. “It was a very, very damaged time for everybody,” Mr. Shields said.

His band mates have described Mr. Shields as a perfectionist, and he was equally obsessive over what would have been the band’s third album, after signing with Island Records. Ms. Googe and Mr. O Ciosoig left My Bloody Valentine in 1995; Mr. Shields kept recording on his own. But in 1997, Mr. Shields said, “the record company refused to pay for any engineers or anything.”

“That was it,” he added. “It was like the plug was pulled, ‘No money for you anymore.’ ”

But he was still under contract, he said, and extricating himself took four years. Around 2000 he started talking with the band members about restarting My Bloody Valentine, but they were all involved in other projects. Years drifted by.

In 2006 Mr. Shields started remastering the My Bloody Valentine catalog and revisiting unreleased songs to be added to a compilation album. When he listened again to material from the aborted third album, he was heartened. “I realized that all that stuff I was doing in 1996 and 1997 was a lot better than I thought.” He now plans to complete that album, and to start recording new material with the band in the fall. He has been writing songs steadily over the years. “I definitely don’t think you need to suffer to be creative,” he said. “I’ve written some of my best songs when I’ve been happy.”

During the remastering the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California made a big offer for a reunited My Bloody Valentine. “We could actually buy equipment and rehearse properly and do it really well,” Mr. Shields said. “That put the idea into our head. Last time we toured we never had equipment. It didn’t sound right. We didn’t have control of the environment. So we were kind of excited to play the songs properly.”

But the band wasn’t ready to appear at the Coachella festival in April, Mr. Shields said. All Tomorrow’s Parties had been courting Mr. Shields for years, and having attended its festivals in Britain, Mr. Shields decided to bring My Bloody Valentine to the upstate New York festival. “We had intentions to do new stuff when we started rehearsing,” he said. “But it was about finding who we were again, and that became way more important than anything intellectual.”

The band spent £200,000, about $366,000, on equipment for the tour, and Mr. Shields laughed when asked how many effects pedals he owned. “Hundreds,” he said. He only uses 30 onstage, he added.

There were no new songs in My Bloody Valentine’s set on Sunday, but as in the ’80s and early 1990s, My Bloody Valentine’s music flashed simultaneous, contradictory signals: the songs were bruised and hurting at their core but exultantly propulsive, catchy like punk and pop but spiked with fearsome cacophony. High, looping sounds skirled like Celtic reels; guitar chords hurtled forward, heaved back and forth, screeched with fury and exaltation; the drums were triumphal and implacable. “You can’t do anything with sound,” Mr. Shields had said, “unless there is emotion.”

My Bloody Valentine - "Only Shallow"

My Bloody Valentine - "When You Sleep"


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Protest the Government - Vote Nader

"Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America" (1784) By Benjamin Franklin

Native American"Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America" (1784)

By Benjamin Franklin

Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.

Perhaps, if we could examine the manners of different nations with impartiality, we should find no people so rude, as to be without any rules of politeness; nor any so polite, as not to have some remains of rudeness.

The Indian men, when young, are hunters and warriors, when old, counselors; for all their government is by counsel of the sages; there is no force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study oratory, the best speaker having the most influence. The Indian women till the ground, dress the food, nurse and bring up the children, and preserve and hand down to posterity the memory of public transactions. These employments of men and women are accounted natural and honorable. Having few artificial wants, they have abundance of leisure for improvement by conversation. Our laborious manner of life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless. An instance of this occurred at the Treaty of Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, anno 1744, between the government of Virginia and the Six Nations (1. A confederation of Iroquois tribes: Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Tuscarora.)

After the principal business was settled, the commissioners from Virginia acquainted the Indians by a speech, that there was at Williamsburg a college, with a fund for educating Indian youth; and that, if the Six Nations would send down half a dozen of their young lads to that college, the government would take care that they should be well provided for, and instructed in all the learning of the white people. It is one of the Indian rules of politeness not to answer a public proposition the same day that it is made; they think it would be treating it as a light matter, and that they show it respect by taking time to consider it, as of a matter important. They therefore deferred their answer till the day following; when their speaker began, by expressing their deep sense of the kindness of the Virginia government, in making them that offer; "for we know," says he, "that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those Colleges, and that the maintenance of our young men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us good by your proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some experience of it; several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, nor counselors; they were totally good for nothing. We are however not the less obliged by your kind offer, though we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them. "

Having frequent occasions to hold public councils, they have acquired great order and decency in conducting them. The old men sit in the foremost ranks that warriors in the next, and the women and children in the hindmost. The business of the women is to take exact notice of what passes, imprint it in their memories (for they have no writing), and communicate it to their children. They are the records of the council, and they preserve traditions of the stipulations in treaties 100 years back; which, when we compare with our writings we always find exact. He that would speak, rises. The rest observe a profound silence. When he has finished and sits down, they leave him 5 or 6 minutes to recollect, that, if he has omitted anything he intended to say, or has anything to add, he may rise again and deliver it. To interrupt another, even in common conversation, is reckoned highly indecent. How different this from the conduct of a polite British House of Commons, where scarce a day passes without some confusion, that makes the speaker hoarse in calling to order; and how different from the mode of conversation in many polite companies of Europe, where, if you do not deliver your sentence with great rapidity, you are cut off in the middle of it by the impatient loquacity of those you converse with, and never suffered to finish it!

The politeness of these savages in conversation is indeed carried to excess, since it does not permit them to contradict or deny the truth of what is asserted in their presence. By this. means they indeed avoid disputes; but then it becomes difficult to know their minds, or what impression you make upon them. The missionaries who have attempted to convert them to Christianity all complain of this as one of the great difficulties of their mission. The Indians hear with patience the truths of the Gospel explained to them, and give their usual tokens of assent and approbation; you would think they were convinced. No such matter. It is mere civility.

A Swedish minister, having assembled the chiefs of the Susquehanah Indians, made a sermon to them, acquainting them with the principal historical facts on which our religion is founded; such as the fall of our first parents by eating an apple, the coming of Christ to repair the mischief, His miracles and suffering, etc. When he had finished, an Indian orator stood up to thank him. "What you have told us," he says, "is all very good. It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider. We are much obliged by your kindness in coming so far, to tell us these things which you have heard from your mothers. In return, I will tell you some of those we have heard from ours. In the beginning, our fathers had only the flesh of animals to subsist on; and if their hunting was unsuccessful, they were starving. Two of our young hunters, having killed a deer, made a fire in the woods to broil some part of it.

When they were about to satisfy their hunger, they beheld a beautiful young woman descend from the clouds, and seat herself on that hill, which you see yonder among the blue mountains. They said to each other, it is a spirit that has smelled our broiling version, and wishes to eat of it; let us offer some to her. They presented her with the tongue; she was pleased with the taste of it and said, 'Your kindness shall be rewarded; come to this place after thirteen moons, and you shall find something that will be of great benefit in nourishing you and your children to the latest generations.' They did so, and, to their surprise, found plants they had never seen before; but which, from that ancient bme, have been constantly cultivated among us, to our great advantage. Where her right hand had touched the ground, they found maize; where her left hand had touched it, they found kidney­beans; and where her backside had sat on it, they found tobacco." The good missionary, disgusted with this idle tale, said, "What I delivered to you were sacred truths, but what you tell me is mere fable, fiction, and falsehood." The Indian, offended, replied, "My brother, it seems your friends have not done you justice in your education; they have not well instructed you in the rules of common civility. You saw that we, who understand and practice those rules, believed all your stories; why do you refuse to believe ours?"

When any of them come into our towns, our people are apt to crowd round them, gaze upon them, and incommode them, where they desire to be private this they esteem great rudeness, and the effect of the want of instruction in the rules of civility and good manners. "We have," say they, "as much curiosity as you, and when you come into our towns, we wish for opportunities of looking at you, but for this purpose we hide ourselves behind bushes, where you are to pass, and never intrude ourselves into your company."

Their manner of entering one another's village has likewise its rules. It is reckoned uncivil in traveling strangers to enter a village abruptly, without giving notice of their approach. Therefore, as soon as they arrive within hearing, they stop and hollow,("holler": cry out) remaining there till invited to enter. Two old men usually come out to them, and lead them in. There is in every village a vacant dwelling, called the stranger's house. Here they are placed while the old men go round from hut to hut, acquainting the inhabitants that strangers are arrived, who are probably hungry and weary; and every one sends them what he can spare of victuals, and skins to repose on. When the strangers are refreshed, pipes and tobacco are brought; and then, but not before, conversation begins, with inquiries who they are, whither bound, what news, etc.; and it usually ends with offers of service, if the strangers have occasion of guides, or any necessaries for continuing their journey; and nothing is exacted for the entertainment.

The same hospitality, esteemed among them as a principal virtue, is practiced by private persons; of which Conrad Weiser, our interpreter, gave me the following instances. He had been naturalized among the Six Nations, and spoke well the Mohawk language. In going through the Indian country, to carry a message from our Governor to the Council at Onondaga, he called at the habitation of Canassatego, an old acquaintance, who embraced him, spread furs for him to sit on, placed before him some boiled beans and venison, and mixed some rum and water for his drink. When he was well refreshed, and had lit his pipe, Canassatego began to converse with him; asked how he had fared the many years since they had seen each other; whence he then came; what occasioned the journey, etc. Conrad answered all his questions; and when the discourse began to flag, the Indian, to continue it, said, "Conrad, you have lived long among the white people, and know something of their customs; I have been sometimes at Albany, and have observed, that once in seven days they shut up their shops, and assemble all in the great house; tell me what it is for? What do they do there?" "They meet there," says Conrad, "to hear and learn good things." "I do not doubt," says the Indian, "that they tell you so; they have told me the same; but I doubt the truth of what they say, and I will tell you my reasons. I went lately to Albany to sell my skins and buy blankets, knives, powder, rum, etc. You know I used generally to deal with Hans Hanson; but I was a little inclined this time to try some other merchant. However, I called first upon Hans, and asked him what he would give for beaver. He said he could not give any more than four shillings a pound; 'but,'says he, 'I cannot talk on business now; this is the day when we meet together to learn good things, and I am going to the meeting.' So I thought to myself, 'Since we cannot do any business today, I may as well go to the meeting too,' and I went with him. There stood up a man in black, and began to talk to the people very angrily. I did not understand what he said; but, perceiving that he looked much at me and at Hanson, I imagined he was angry at seeing me there; so I went out, sat down near the house, struck fire, and lit my pipe, waiting till the meeting should break up. I thought too, that the man had mentioned something of beaver, and I suspected it might be the subject of their meeting. So, when they came out, I accosted my merchant. 'Well, Hans,' says 1, 'I hope you have agreed to give more than four shillings a pound.' 'No,' says he, 'I cannot give so much; I cannot give more than three shillings and sixpence.' I then spoke to several other dealers, but they all sung the same song,-three and sixpence,-three and sixpence. This made it clear to me, that my suspicion was right; and, that whatever they pretended of meeting to learn good things, the real purpose was to consult how to cheat Indians in the price of beaver. Consider but a little, Conrad, and you must be of my opinion. If they met so often to learn good things, they would certainly have learned some before this time. But they are still ignorant. You know our practice. If a white man, in traveling through our country, enters one of our cabins, we all treat him as I treat you; we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, we give him meat and drink, that he may allay his thirst and hunger; and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on; we demand nothing in return. But, if I go into a white man's house at Albany, and ask for victuals and drink, they say, 'Where is your money?' and if I have none, they say, 'Get out, you Indian dog.' You see they have not yet learned those little good things, that we need no meetings to be instructed in, because our mothers taught them to us when we were children; and therefore it is impossible their meetings should be, as they say, for any such purpose, or have any such effect; they are only to contrive the cheating of Indians in the price of beaver. "

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

American Anarchist: The life of Mary Frohman

American Anarchist

The life of Mary Frohman

Jesse Walker
(View Original)

I came home Monday to a blinking red light on the answering machine, a message from an old girlfriend I hadn't spoken to in years. Her voice sounded shaky, haggard; she said she had news, that I should call her to talk. I took down her number and dialed her Nevada apartment; she told me Mary Frohman was dead.

It had been 14, maybe 15 years since I had met Mary. She had been working as a security guard in a Michigan pizza parlor, and we'd gotten into an improbable conversation about anarcho-syndicalism. I didn't know then that she'd been present at the infancy of the modern libertarian movement, at that strange time when two tribes that by conventional reckoning shouldn't have existed at all—an antiwar wing of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and a free-market contingent in the leftist Students for a Democratic Society—somehow emerged and then combined to form something new. I didn't know that she'd had juicy but essentially anonymous cameos in two, perhaps three, of the books I'd been reading recently, or that her life was an eccentric, unpredictable, and resonant American story. I didn't even know that I'd meet her again, but it wasn't long before we were friends.

Mary Frohman was born in 1947; her father was Charles Frohman, a biochemist known for his work on serotonin. She grew up in and around Detroit, where she ran with a Polish-Italian street gang; according to Leslie Fish, her lover from the late '60s through the early '80s, she would "beat up the boys and make them respect her and then teach them to read." As a teen she became active in the civil rights movement and was briefly a member of the Communist Party (or, by Fish's recollection, the Socialist Workers Party), an affiliation I teased her for years later—it was Mary who had taught me the immortal couplet, "The only good thing that Stalin did/was put an icepick in Trotsky's head." She refused to take the bait, insisting that if you wanted to oppose Jim Crow in that particular time and place, the communists were "the only game in town."

It wasn't long, at any rate, before she became an anarchist instead. She was living in Ann Arbor, singing folk music and attending the University of Michigan, where her circle of antiwar friends stretched from the New Left to the Goldwater right. (They joked, sometimes, about starting a Leon Czolgosz chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom, just to see what would happen if it encountered a chapter named for William McKinley.) The great radicalizing experience of her life was the Chicago Democratic convention of 1968, where she worked as a medic; she always insisted that eight protestors had died in the police riot and that the authorities had covered this up. Interviewed in 1989 by a Michigan student named Meredith McGhan—you've already met Meredith, she was the voice on my answering machine—Mary recalled attending to a casualty, turning around, and finding herself staring down the barrel of a .50 caliber machine gun.* She said, "I just need to cross the street and wash my hands"; and then she pushed the barrel very gently out of her way. "I don't even remember how I got across the street," she told Meredith. "I blacked out, and I came to in a doorway, puking my guts out."

It was at the Democratic convention that Mary and Leslie first encountered the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, a militant union that had been a major force in the early 20th century but had dwindled considerably since then. "We marched past this bench where these old men were sitting, shaking their heads and looking glum," Fish remembers. "We were thinking, 'Oh, here are the Wallacites'—until we got close enough to hear them. They were saying, 'No, no, no. Not a weapon among them. Not even anything hidden. And look how disorganized! How are you going to smash the state with that kind of organization?' Finally this one little old man jumped up on a bench and waved his cane and said, 'Lee-sten!' He had a heavily accented voice. 'Lee-sten! When the police come to shoot you, you throw rocks at them! You knock them down! You take their guns, and you shoot them with their own gun!'

"At that point," she concludes, "we started to look closer at these guys, and we noticed the little pins they were wearing: 'IWW.'"

A year later they were back in Chicago, at the final national meeting of Students for a Democratic Society. The group was split among three Stalinist factions, the most infamous of which became the terrorist Weather Underground. (It took its name from a Bob Dylan lyric, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." It was Mary who cracked that "You don't need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are," a line that was quoted, without her name attached, in Kirkpatrick Sale's history SDS .) Outnumbered and disgusted, the anarchists, libertarians, and miscellaneous anti-totalitarians retreated to Chicago's IWW hall, where they planned to form a caucus of their own. SDS was beyond salvage, though, and as the Young Americans for Freedom purged its libertarians the same year, the two sets of exiles were soon mixing at independent gatherings of their own—notably the New York Libertarian Conference of October 1969, immortalized in Jerome Tuccille's entertaining but unreliable memoir It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. Tuccille transmogrified Mary the anarcho-leftist into a hard-core Objectivist, "Ayn Rand on a two-week binge," a woman who wore "dollar-signed brooches" and started "beating the shit out of a love child" because he dared to speak disapprovingly of greed. (Frohman did say several times that everyone should read Ayn Rand—but only for "the intellectual exercise of refuting her.")

Years later, Mary told me her own account of that conference, which culminated with the most radical attendees marching on Fort Dix, New Jersey, and getting dowsed with CS gas. In his wrapup of the events for The Libertarian Forum, Murray Rothbard wrote that Mary "rushed to the podium, fresh from her gassing, to curse obscenely and hysterically at the entire audience for being in New York rather than at the barricades." Mary didn't dispute that version of events—she blamed her disoriented behavior on the gas—but she couldn't forgive Tuccille for his distortions.

"I seriously considered suing him," Mary told me, expressing a rather un-anarchist thought.

"Other than the libel," I asked, "what did you think of the book?"

"Oh, it's a scream," she said. "It's one of the funniest things I've read."

Mary moved from Ann Arbor to Lansing, and also briefly to Tucson, where she worked for the anarchist paper The Match!; around 1970, after she came back to Michigan, a friend in the Windy City told Fish that "there's always work in Chicago." And so they moved there, and ended up working for the Wobblies. It wasn't a big organization, but it was bigger than it had been just a few years earlier, when the local branch couldn't produce a quorum of seven members for three months straight; there was an influx of younger activists and fresh causes, including an IWW-assisted civil disobedience campaign that blocked one of Chicago's urban renewal schemes.

Frohman went to work in the national office, while Fish wrote for the union paper. "The Wobblies would organize job shops that nobody else would touch," Fish remembers. "A machine shop of five guys had written the UAW, begging them to organize them. The UAW thought this wasn't worth their time, and as a joke they passed it on to the Wobblies. And a good job we did, too." The union organized taxi drivers, movie ushers, reporters for underground newspapers, even the people who worked for cooperatives: "Little shops. The odd shops. And what's more, we'd strike for things that other unions wouldn't think of. Not just wages and bennies, but working conditions."

Fish was also acquiring some fame in the science-fiction community, wherein she wrote fan fiction and sang futuristic "filk" songs. Mary wasn't very interested in fandom—more on that later—but she was a singer and a guitarist, and she was a part of Fish's band, the DeHorn Crew. In one of those deeply strange moments of cultural mixing, the DeHorn Crew was both the Chicago IWW's house band and a filk outfit, and some of its repertoire appeared in Wobbly publications. And so it was that the nation's most militant labor organization, the brotherhood of Big Bill Haywood and Joe Hill, came to publish the lyrics of "Run, Cthulhu, Run," a Lovecraftian parody of the bluegrass standard "Molly and Tenbrooks."

The IWW hall also hosted an anarchist discussion group. The participants included Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, two Playboy staffers who were writing the comic cult novel Illuminatus! Mary, for whatever it's worth, believed she was the basis for the book's fortune-telling character Mama Sutra. Shea, alas, isn't alive to confirm or deny that, and Wilson tells me he doesn't remember Mary; Fish doubts that the story is true. Oh, well.

I mentioned that Fish had written fan fiction. In Textual Poachers, his landmark study of fan communities, MIT's Henry Jenkins described Fish's anarchist-feminist Star Trek novel The Weight as a "compelling narrative" that's "remarkable in the scope and complexity of its conception, the precision of its execution, and the explicitness of its political orientation." Frohman didn't have much patience for Star Trek or fan fiction, and grew disgusted when the household started to contain not just Trekkie literature but Starsky and Hutch fanzines. Inspired, angry, and hopped up on speed, she started to write an epic parody of fan writing, in which a villainous Starsky and Hutch attempt to infiltrate the IWW in one of the great Chicago blizzards. I think the bubonic plague was involved somehow as well.

Or something like that: It's been a while since she told me the plot, and I never did get a chance to read the novel. She had set aside the 700-page monster when she gave up amphetamines and didn't return to it until after I'd left Ann Arbor, but in 1998 I got an unexpected e-mail from her, telling me she'd finally finished a draft of the book and asking for editorial advice. There followed a mammoth attachment that crashed my computer, and it wouldn't open after I rebooted the machine; I asked her to resend it but got no reply. (She was, I gathered, new to the Internet.) A tiny press in Michigan—in Lansing, maybe?—was supposed to publish the book; I don't know if it ever did. I hope so. I'd like to read it someday.

There was, eventually, an acrimonious breakup, and in the early '80s Leslie moved west while Mary returned to Ann Arbor. It was there that I met her, first at that pizza joint where she worked as a guard and then, more formally, at her 44th birthday party. (Meredith, who had already known Frohman for nearly a decade, had brought me along as a date.) At 44, she could have passed for 60: Her days of drink and drugs were behind her, and she wasn't getting tear-gassed anymore, but she smoked heavily, ate poorly, and coughed constantly.

But she was a lively woman, a spirited debater and a raconteur, brimming over with stories of the old days and with impromptu political rants. She wasn't exactly a libertarian—not the capitalist kind, anyway—but she had the same unwillingness to fit into any ordinary political pigeonhole. Discuss the family or the workplace, and she'd stake out a position well to the left of even Ann Arbor's mainstream. But if the talk turned to taxes or guns, she wouldn't be out of place at a militia meeting. We agreed on enough to be friends, and we disagreed on enough for the friendship to be interesting. Friendship was, in fact, her highest ideal: She had told Meredith, in that '89 interview, that "because the best relationships are voluntarily chosen, the highest and purest relationship is friendship; there is no one down and it's voluntary on both sides."

On Friday, June 3, 2005, Mary Frohman had a heart attack while she waited for a bus. Her death wasn't a surprise, but it was very sad news. "She practiced what she preached about being a family of friends," Meredith remembers. "She took care of people. She made sure that people were fed and clothed, and when people were sick, she made sure that they got attention." That wasn't a small feat, given the poverty in which she and many of those friends lived. The revolution she worked for never did come, but with the simple, radical act of living by her principles, she helped create a small island of the society she wanted to live in.

*The text originally read "a Chicago cop's .50 caliber machine gun." While Frohman recalls the incident as involving a machine gun, she did not specify that the person holding it was a Chicago police officer.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Anarchic West

The '80s: Were They Really That Bad?

Hall and Oates

(View Original)

Were the 1980s the worst years for music? NPR listeners seem to think so, according to the results of our poll. When asked to pick the best year for music, nearly everyone skipped the '80s entirely. On this edition of All Songs Considered, host Bob Boilen looks back at the decade of synth pop, hair metal, and hardcore with Stephen Thompson, editor of Song of the Day, Robin Hilton, All Songs Considered producer and host of Second Stage, and Carrie Brownstein, writer for the Monitor Mix blog.

An Anarchist's Thoughts On Election '08

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

How the Left Should View America’s Gun Culture

homer_gunAn all-too common belief amongst gun-stroking conservatives is that Barack Obama would ram down their front doors moments after his inauguration and pry their firearms from their cold, dead fingers. What a crock of shit cooked to perfection by a deftly tuned far-right echo chamber. To be clear I’m not in the tank for Barack Obama. I couldn’t in good conscience endorse either major party. In saying that, consider the strength and size of the gun culture in America. No politician in their right (or left) mind would attempt anything resembling an anti-firearms stance. The backlash would be colossal.

Assuming Obama’s singular desire was to strip this nation’s gun owners of their most prized possessions he’d never try it, the amount of resistance he’d encounter wouldn’t be worth it. I truly feel a revolution would erupt.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean it. Many leftists hang their heads ashamed their fellow countrymen indulge this passion. They see it as a weakness, citizens succumbing to a ghoulish amusement. I find it empowering.

We need to view this gun control issue in a different way. Every piece of legislation that hints at regulating or restricting the ownership or use of a firearm is met with criticism at every level. Now, imagine if that happened with healthcare. I don’t see why it couldn’t. The maintenance of quality, accessible medical attention effects everyone much more than gun control. This energy could also be extended to poverty. With less people living on subsistence wages crime would plummet. How about globalization and free trade? Of course it could. Laborers - that is to say most of us - could wrench back their outsourced jobs and prevent others from leaving the country simply by tightening Corporate loopholes and eliminating tax breaks. The point is to terrify politicians into compliance.

Nothing demoralizes the left more than the assumption that Americans have lost their fight. It’s obvious to me that’s just plain false. You need to know where to look and figure out a way to broaden that old-fashioned fervor enough to encompass other issues. Who knows maybe all these guns could even prove to be quite persuasive in the end .

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Fighting Bob Fest: A Progressive Microcosm

Robert_M._La_Follette,_Sr._At the Fighting Bob Fest everyone on the left is welcome to have a moment of catharsis. The Green Party, Jews for Palestinians, the Obama Campaign, 9/11 Truthers, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Pagans, Anarchists, Socialists, and even Ralph Nader were encouraged to breath some fire. These moments helped edify everyone who attended. In the words of Joe Strummer: anger can be power. But the fest hit too close to home for me. It represented the best and the worst today’s left has to offer.

First of all, for those who don’t know about Fighting Bob Fest, its namesake was a Labor Activist who ran for President as a Progressive Party nominee in 1924 picking up 17% of the nation's popular vote. It's a huge festival filled with exotic food venders ranging from Laotian to Jamaican cuisine (I had my first taste of jerk chicken and it was delectable), an assortment of information booths representing everyone I mentioned and some of the greatest public speakers on the circuit. In years past Amy Goodman, Russ Feingold and Cindy Sheehan all made appearances. This year was no different. On the docket was Phil Donahue, Cynthia McKinney, Jim Hightower, Scott Ritter and an adorable 98-year-old activist named Granny “D” who spoke with a speech impediment like Potius Pilate from Life of Brian (“Cwucify Wumsfeld fow Wa’ Cwimes!”)

It is disappointing to report Granny “D” wasn’t in the minority. The median age of the attendants was around 50. A frustrating revelation. Twenty and thirty somethings were few and far between. Baby Boomers aren’t going to be around forever and it seems the younger generations aren’t engaging the way they should.

Another quite conspicuous omission from the festival was that of the local media. No satellite trucks or roving journalists to interview the giant, cartoon heads of Condi, Bush and Cheney in prison jumpsuits. What makes this so odd is that the Fighting Bob Fest typically sees around 10,000 people enter its gates which makes it bigger than either Wisconsin’s Democratic or Republican conventions. So if the area’s FOX affiliate can cover any old backwater Weenie Carnival why not a grassroots event like Fighting Bob?

To the credit of Progressives they are able to organize without media coverage, relying primarily on word-of-mouth. But the speakers couldn’t quite get out of each another’s way. That is to say there was a political tug of war occurring on stage. When Ralph Nader spoke he inveighed against the two party system reminding the audience of how reforms come when a third party applies pressure on the Washington establishment. A few hours later Milwaukee Congresswoman Gwen Moore spoke. She delivered an explosive speech urging people to forget everything Nader said and rally behind Barack Obama. And so it went back and forth all day. Some saying third parties were the answer others insisting this election was too critical to support anyone other than Obama.

Personally my view is clear. Voting does have an effect, just a microscopic one. So it’s best to send a message by backing a third party candidate who addresses your concerns. Like Eugene Debbs used to say: “I‘d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don‘t want and get it.”

When Phil Donahue spoke he went off on a tangent about America’s bloated military budget and how it didn’t stop 19 hijackers with box-cutters from attacking us, that statement got a swift “That’s a lie!” from the 9/11 Truthers. Donahue just paused, chuckled to himself and said that’s what this festival is all about. He was right, and that’s what the modern Progressive movement is all about. Warts and all with such a marketplace of ideas beneath a single mantle it is hard to envision how the left’s long term survival isn’t secure.

Phil Donahue at The Fighting Bob Fest 2008

Scott Ritter speaks on Iran, Citizenship, Disarmament and More

Monday, September 01, 2008

US Military Keeping Secrets About Female Soldiers’ ‘Suicides’?


US Military Keeping Secrets About Female Soldiers’ ‘Suicides’?

by Ann Wright

(View Original)

Since I posted on April 28 the article "Is There an Army Cover Up of the Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers," the deaths of two more U.S. Army women in Iraq and Afghanistan have been listed as suicides-the Sept. 28, 2007, death of 30-year-old Spc. Ciara Durkin and the Feb. 22, 2008, death of 25-year-old Spc. Keisha Morgan. Both "suicides" are disputed by the families of the women.

Since April 2008, five more U.S. military women have died in Iraq-three in noncombat-related incidents. Ninety-nine U.S., six British and one Ukrainian military women and 13 U.S. female civilians have been killed in Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as probably hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women and girls. Of the 99 U.S. military women, 64 were in the Army active component, nine in the Army National Guard, seven in the Army Reserve, seven in the Marine Corps, nine in the Navy and three in the Air Force. According to the Department of Defense, 41 of the 99 U.S. military women who have been killed in Iraq died in "noncombat-related incidents." Of the 99 U.S. military women killed in the Iraq theater, 41 were women of color (21 African-Americans, 16 Latinas, three of Asian-Pacific descent and one Native American-data compiled from the Web site

Fourteen U.S. military women, including five in the Army, one in the Army National Guard, two in the Army Reserves, three in the Air Force, two in the Navy (on ships supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan) and one in the Marine Corps, one British military woman and six U.S. civilian women have been killed in Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, four U.S. military women in Afghanistan died in noncombat-related incidents, including one now classified as a suicide. Four military women of color (three African-Americans and one Latina) have been killed in Afghanistan. (Data compiled from

The deaths of 14 U.S. military (13 Army and one Navy) women and one British military woman who served in Iraq, Kuwait or Afghanistan have been classified as suicides.

Two Army women in Iraq (Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney, a victim of vehicular homicide, and Pfc. Kamisha Block, who was shot five times by a fellow soldier who then killed himself) and two Navy women in Bahrain (MASN Anamarie Camacho and MASN Genesia Gresham, both shot by a male sailor who then shot, but did not kill, himself) have died at the hands of fellow military personnel.

Several more military women have died with unexplained "noncombat" gunshot wounds (U.S. Army Sgt. Melissa Valles, July 9, 2003: gunshot to the abdomen; Marine Lance Cpl. Juana Arellano, April 8, 2006: gunshot wound to the head while in a "defensive position"). Most of the deaths of women who have died of noncombat gunshot wounds have been classified as suicides, rather than homicides.

The Army, the only military service to release annual figures on suicides, reported that 115 soldiers committed suicide in 2007. According to Army figures, 32 soldiers committed suicide in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. Of the 115 Army suicides, 93 were in the Regular Army and 22 were in the Army National Guard or Reserves. The report lists five Army women as having committed suicide in 2007. Young, white, unmarried junior enlisted troops were the most likely to commit suicide, according to the report (Pauline Jelinek, "Soldier suicides hit highest rate, 115 last year," Associated Press, May 29, 2008,

From 2003 until August 2008, the deaths of 13 Army women and one Navy woman in Iraq and Afghanistan (including Kuwait and Bahrain) have been classified as suicides (numbers confirmed with various media sources):

2008-Spc. Keisha Morgan (Taji, Iraq)
2007-Spc. Ciara Durkin (Bagram, Afghanistan), Capt. (medical doctor) Roselle Hoffmaster (Kirkik, Iraq)
2006-Pfc. Tina Priest (Taji, Iraq), Pfc. Amy Duerkson (Taji, Iraq), Sgt. Denise Lannaman (Kuwait), Sgt. Jeannette Dunn (Taji, Iraq), Maj. Gloria Davis (Baghdad).
2005-Pvt. Lavena Johnson (Balad, Iraq), 1st Lt. Debra Banaszak (Kuwait), USN MA1 Jennifer Valdivia (Bahrain)
2004-Sgt. Gina Sparks (it is unclear where in Iraq she was injured, but she died in the Fort Polk, La., hospital)
2003-Spc. Alyssa Peterson (Tal Afar, Iraq), Sgt. Melissa Valles (Balad, Iraq)

The demographics of those Army women who allegedly committed suicide are as intriguing as the circumstances of their deaths:
-- Seven of the women, being between the ages of 30 and 47, were older than the norm (Davis, 47; Lannaman, 46; Dunn, 44; Banaszak, 35; Hoffmaster, 32; Sparks, 32; and Durkin, 30). (Most military suicides are in their 20s).
-- Three were officers: a major (Davis), a captain and medical doctor (Hoffmaster) and a first lieutenant (Banaszak).
-- Five were noncommissioned officers (Lannaman, Dunn, Sparks, Valles and Valdivia).
-- Five were women of color (Morgan, Davis, Johnson, Lannaman, Valles).
-- Four were from units based at Fort Hood, Texas, and were found dead at Camp Taji, Iraq (Dunn, Priest, Duerkson, and Morgan).
-- Two were found dead at Camp Taji, Iraq, 11 days apart (Priest and Duerkson).
-- Two were found dead at Balad, Iraq (Johnson and Valles).
-- Two had been raped (Priest, 11 days prior to her death; Duerksen, during basic training).
-- One other was probably raped (Johnson, the night she died).
-- Two were lesbians (Lannaman and Durkin).
-- Two of the women were allegedly involved in bribes or shakedowns of contractors (Lannaman and Davis).
-- Two had children (Davis and Banaszak).
-- Three had expressed concerns about improprieties or irregularities in their commands (Durkin's concerns were financial; Davis had given a seven-page deposition on contracting irregularities in Iraq the day before she died; Peterson was concerned about methods of interrogation of Iraqi prisoners).
-- Several had been in touch with their families within days of their deaths and had not expressed feelings of depression (Morgan, Durkin, Davis, Priest, Johnson).

The Death of Lavena Johnson

As discussed in my article "Is There an Army Cover Up of Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers?," 19-year-old Army Pvt. Lavena Johnson was found dead on the military base in Balad, Iraq, in July 2005, and her death was characterized by the Army as suicide from an M-16 rifle gunshot. From the day their daughter's body was returned to them, the parents, both of whom have had a long association with the Army-the father, a medical doctor, is an Army veteran and worked 25 years as a Department of the Army civilian and the mother, too, worked for the Department of the Army-harbored grave suspicions about the Army's investigation into Johnson's death and the Army's characterization of her death as suicide. As she had been in charge of a communications facility, Johnson was able to call home daily; in those calls, she gave no indication of emotional problems or being upset. In a letter to her parents after her death, Johnson's commanding officer, Capt. David Woods, wrote, "Lavena was clearly happy and seemed in very good health both physically and emotionally."
In viewing his daughter's body at the funeral home, Dr. John Johnson was concerned about the bruising on her face. He was puzzled by the discrepancy in the autopsy report on the location of the gunshot wound. As an Army veteran and a long-time Army civilian employee who had counseled veterans, he was mystified how the exit wound of an M-16 shot could be so small. The hole in Lavena's head appeared to be more the size of a pistol shot rather than an M-16 round. But the gluing of military uniform white gloves onto Lavena's hands, hiding burns on one of her hands, is what deepened Dr. Johnson's concerns that the Army's investigation into the death of his daughter was flawed.

Over the next two and a half years, Dr. and Mrs. Johnson and their family and friends, through the Freedom of Information Act and congressional offices, relentlessly and meticulously requested documents concerning Lavena's death from the Department of the Army. Gradually, with the Army's response to each request for information, another piece of evidence about Johnson's death emerged.

The military criminal investigator's initial drawing of the death scene revealed that Johnson's M16 was found perfectly parallel to her body. The investigator's sketch showed that her body was found inside a burning tent, under a wooden bench with an aerosol can nearby. A witness, an employee of the defense contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), stated that he heard a gunshot and when he went to investigate, he found a KBR tent on fire. When he looked into the tent, he saw a body. The official Army investigation did not mention a fire, nor that Johnson's body had been pulled from the fire.

KBR Women Employees Raped in Iraq

The fact that Lavena Johnson's body was discovered in a KBR tent raises questions.

Many KBR women employees have been raped in Iraq. One law firm in Houston has 15 clients with sexual assault, sexual harassment or retaliation complaints against Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC (KBR), as well as against the Cayman Island-based Service Employees International Inc., a KBR shell company (Karen Houppert, "Another KBR Rape Case," The Nation, April 3, 2008).

Two female employees of KBR who were raped while in Iraq have testified before Congress. On her fourth day in Iraq, July 28, 2005, Jamie Leigh Jones was gang-raped by seven fellow KBR employees at Camp Hope in Baghdad. Jones' rape occurred nine days after Lavena Johnson was found dead in a KBR tent at Balad Air Base. Jones was drugged, raped and beaten, and the injuries she suffered were so severe that she had to have reconstructive surgery on her chest ("Democracy Now," April 18, 2008, "Two Ex-KBR Employees Say They Were Raped by Co-Workers in Iraq,"

Jones reportedly was taken back to the KBR area, where she was placed into an empty shipping container under KBR armed guard for almost 24 hours without food or water or the ability to communicate with anyone. The military doctor who examined her turned over the "rape kit" photographs and statement to KBR. Jones persuaded a guard to allow her a phone call, which she made to her father. Her father promptly called their Texas congressional representative, Ted Poe, who then called the State Department in Iraq and demanded her immediate release. Jones was rescued shortly thereafter and quickly left Iraq. Congressman Poe again contacted the State Department and the Department of Justice in an effort to launch an investigation, but both departments ignored the requests and even refused to contact Poe for the next two years. The "rape kit" and the photographs of and statement from Jones taken by a military doctor disappeared (ABC News, "KBR Employees: Company Covered Up Sexual Assault and Harassment,"

Jones testified Dec. 17, 2007, before the House Judiciary Committee on "Enforcement of Federal Criminal Law to Protect Americans Working for U.S. Contractors in Iraq" (

The nonprofit foundation Jones created after her ordeal, the Jamie Leigh Jones Foundation, has been contacted by 40 U.S. contractor employees alleging that they are the victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment on the job and that Halliburton, KBR and Service Employees International Inc. have not helped them or have obstructed their claims (Karen Houppert, "Another KBR Rape Case," The Nation, April 3, 2008).

Dawn Leamon was another civilian contractor employed by KBR who was raped allegedly by KBR employees. She was the sole medical provider at Camp Harper, a base near Basra in southern Iraq. Leamon reported being raped anally by a U.S. soldier in January 2008 while a KBR employee forced his penis into her mouth. She says she was told to keep quiet by her KBR supervisor and by the military liaison officer. Her laptop computer was seized within hours after she e-mailed a civilian lawyer. She testified on April 9, 2008, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the hearing "Closing Legal Loopholes: Prosecuting Sexual Assaults and Other Violent Crimes Committed Overseas by American Civilians in a Combat Environment" (

Johnsons' Quest Continues in Daughter's Death

After two years of requesting documents, the family of Lavena Johnson received a set of papers from the Army that included a photocopy of a compact disk. Wondering why the copy was among the documents, Dr. Johnson requested the CD itself. The Army finally complied after a congressman intervened. When Dr. Johnson viewed the CD, he was shocked to see photographs taken by Army investigators of his daughter's body as it lay where her body had been found, as well as other photographs of her disrobed body taken during the investigation.

The photographs revealed that Lavena, barely five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, had been struck in the face with a blunt instrument, perhaps a weapon stock. Her nose was broken and her teeth knocked backward. One elbow was distended. The back of her clothes contained debris, indicating she had been dragged. The photographs of her disrobed body showed bruises, scratch marks and teeth imprints on the upper part of her body. The right side of her back as well as her right hand had been burned, apparently from a flammable liquid poured on her and then lighted. Photographs of her genital area revealed massive bruising and lacerations. A corrosive liquid had been poured into her genital area, probably to destroy DNA evidence of sexual assault.

Despite the bruises, scratches, teeth imprints and burns on her body, Lavena was found completely dressed in the burning tent. There was a blood trail from outside the contractor's tent to inside the tent. She apparently had been dressed after the attack and her attacker had placed her body in the tent before setting it on fire.

Investigator records reveal that members of her unit said Johnson had told them she was going jogging with friends on the other side of the base. One unit member walked with her to the post exchange, where she bought a soda, and then, in her Army workout clothes, Johnson went on by herself to meet friends and to exercise. The unit member said she was in good spirits, showing no indication of personal emotional problems.

The Army investigators initially concluded that Pvt. Johnson's death was a homicide and indicated that on their paperwork. However, a decision apparently was made by higher officials that the investigators would stop the homicide inquiry and classify her death a suicide.

Three weeks later, a final autopsy report from the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, dated Aug. 13, 2005, said the cause of death was an intraoral gunshot wound to the head and the manner of death was a suicide. However, the autopsy report-written after the July 22, 2005, autopsy at Dover Air Force Base and signed on Aug. 9, 2005 by associate medical examiner Lt. Cmdr. Edward Reedy and by chief deputy medical examiner Cmdr. James Caruso-states much more in its opinion section:

"The 19 year old female, Lavena Johnson, died as a result of a gunshot wound of the head that caused injuries to the skull and brain. The entrance wound was inside the mouth and injuries to the lips and oral mucosa were a direct result of the discharge of the weapon. The exit wound was located on the left side of the head. No bullet or bullet fragments were recovered. Toxicology was negative for alcohol and other screened drugs. The investigative information made available indicates that this was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. With the information surrounding the circumstances of the death that is presently available the manner of death is determined to be suicide."

The medical examiners revealed that they were basing their determination of suicide on "investigative information made available indicat[ing] that this was a self-inflicted gunshot wound," not from medical evidence. They did not address what caliber of bullet entered her body-in fact, they stated that no bullet or bullet fragment was recovered, and they did not offer comments on what caliber of bullet would have made the entry and exit wounds.

The Aug. 25, 2005, report from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Forest Park, Ga., stated:

The characteristic gunshot residue particle indicated on Exhibit 5 (Gunshot residue kit (Item 9, Doc 775-05), the number is considered insignificant. Based on these results, the report concludes that the following possibilities exist, but the report makes no conclusion:
a. The subject did not handle/discharge a firearm.
b. The subject handled/discharged a firearm but an insignificant number of gunshot residue particles were deposited on the hands.
c. The subject handled/discharged a firearm that deposited a significant number of gunshot residue particles on the hand; however, due to washing, wiping, or other activity, the particles were reduced to insignificant numbers.

The medical examiners who did the autopsy on Johnson's body did not mention any burns on her body, but when the family had gloves that had been glued onto her hands cut off by the funeral home employees in Missouri, they found her hands had been burned, and further examination showed her back was burned. A witness statement taken on July 19, 2005, states: "The witness [name redacted] ... found the victim under the bench and verified there were no signs of life ... related he saw the M16 lying across the victim's body ... he didn't know what setting the weapon was on ... he related everything was smoking, including parts of the body. He called for an ambulance and secured the scene."

On April 9, 2008, Johnson's parents flew from their home in St. Louis for meetings with members of Congress and their staff. They again went to Washington, D.C., in July 2008 and were briefed by Army investigators and the military medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Lavena. The Army briefers maintained that her death was a suicide and were unable to answer Dr. John and Linda Johnson's long list of questions. The Johnsons are asking for a congressional hearing that would force the Army to further investigate their daughter's death.

Murder of Three Women in North Carolina

Some of the circumstances surrounding Lavena Johnson's death in Iraq three years ago are similar to those of other American servicewomen who died in recent months. In the six months from December 2007 to July 2008, three U.S. military women were killed by military males near the Army's Fort Bragg and the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, two mega-bases in North Carolina.

Two of the women were in the Army. Spc. Megan Touma was seven months pregnant when her body was found inside a Fayetteville hotel room June 21, 2008. A married male soldier whom she knew in Germany has since been arrested. The estranged Marine husband of Army 2nd Lt. Holley Wimunc has been arrested in her death and the burning of her body.

Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach had been raped in May 2007 and protective orders had been issued against the alleged perpetrator, fellow Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean. The burned body of Lauterbach and her unborn baby were found in a shallow grave in the backyard of Laurean's home in January 2008. Laurean fled to Mexico, where he was captured by Mexican authorities. He is currently awaiting extradition to the United States to stand trial. Lauterbach's mother testified before Congress on July 31, 2008, that the Marine Corps ignored warning signs that Laurean was a danger to her daughter (testimony of Mary Lauterbach to the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee,

Two Women Sexually Assaulted Before Their Deaths

Remarkably, a rape test was not performed on the body of Lavena Johnson although bruising and lacerations in her genital area indicated assault.

Another family that does not believe their daughter committed suicide in Iraq is the family of Pfc. Tina Priest, 20, of Smithville, Texas, who was reported raped by a fellow soldier in February of 2006 on a military base known as Camp Taji. Priest was a part of the 5th Support Battalion, lst Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. The Army said Priest was found dead in her room on March 1, 2006, of a self-inflicted M-16 shot, 11 days after the rape. Priest's mother, Joy Priest, disputes the Army's findings.

Mrs. Priest said she talked several times with her daughter after the rape and that Tina, while very upset about the rape, was not suicidal. Mrs. Priest continues to challenge the Army's 800 pages of investigative documents with a simple question: How could her five-foot-tall daughter, with a correspondingly short arm length, have held the M-16 at the angle which would have resulted in the gunshot? The Army attempted several explanations, but each was debunked by Mrs. Priest and by the 800 pages of materials provided by the Army itself. The Army now says Tina used her toe to pull the trigger of the weapon that killed her. The Army reportedly never investigated Tina's death as a homicide, only as a suicide.

According to Tina's mother, rape charges against the soldier whose sperm was found on Tina's sleeping bag were dropped a few weeks after her death. He was convicted of failure to obey an order and sentenced to forfeiture of $714 for two months, 30 days' restriction to the base and 45 days of extra duty.

On May 11, 2006, 10 days after Tina Priest was found dead, 19-year-old Army Pfc. Amy Duerksen was found dead at the same Camp Taji. Duerksen died three days after she suffered what the Army called "a self-inflicted gunshot." The Army claimed that she, too, had committed suicide. In the room where her body was found, investigators reportedly discovered her diary open to a page on which she had written about being raped during training after unknowingly ingesting a date-rape drug. The person Duerkson identified in her diary as the rapist was charged by the Army with rape after her death. Many who knew her did not believe she shot herself, but there is no evidence of a homicide investigation by the Army.

Women Had Concerns About Job Irregularities

Three women whose deaths have been classified as suicides had expressed concerns about improprieties or irregularities in their military commands.

Army Spc. Ciara Durkin, 30, a Massachusetts National Guard payroll clerk, was found dead on Sept. 28, 2007, from a gunshot wound to the head. She had gotten off work 90 minutes earlier and was found lying near a chapel on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Durkin had called her brother just hours before she died, leaving an upbeat happy birthday message on his telephone. In previous conversations, Durkin told her sister that she had discovered something in the finance unit that she did not agree with and that she had made some enemies over it. She told her sister to keep investigating her death if anything happened to her ("How did Specialist Ciara Durkin Die?" CBSNews, Oct. 4, 2007, In June 2008, the Army declared her death a suicide.

Army interrogator Spc. Alyssa Renee Peterson, 27, assigned to C Company, 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky., was an Arabic linguist who reportedly was very concerned about the manner in which interrogations of detained Iraqis were being conducted. She died on Sept. 15, 2003, near Tal Afar, Iraq, in what the Army described as a gunshot wound to the head, a noncombat, self-inflicted weapons discharge, or suicide. Peterson had reportedly objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners in Iraq and refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as "the cage." Members of her unit have refused to describe the specific interrogation techniques to which Peterson objected. The military says that all records of those techniques have now been destroyed. After refusing to conduct more interrogations, Peterson was assigned to guard the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards. She was also sent to suicide prevention training. Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle on the night of Sept. 15, 2003. Family members challenge the Army's conclusion.

Maj. Gloria Davis, 47, an 18-year Army veteran, mother and grandmother, was found dead of a gunshot wound on Dec. 12, 2006, the day after she reportedly talked at length to an Army investigator about corruption in military contracting. She had been accused of accepting a $225,000 bribe from Lee Dynamics, a defense contractor that provided warehouse space for the storage of automatic weapons in Iraq (Eric Schmitt and James Glanz, "U.S. Says Company Bribes Officers for Work in Iraq," New York Times, Aug. 31, 2007).

Davis' mother, Annie Washington, told the author that military investigators have never located any of the $225,000 Davis is alleged to have taken. Washington said her daughter was right-handed and would have had a hard time holding the weapon in her left hand and shooting herself on the left side of her head (telephone conversation between Ann Wright and Annie Washington, July 2008).

Federal court documents show that the Army suspended Lee Dynamics from contracting on July 9, 2007, over allegations that the company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to numerous U.S. officers in Iraq and Kuwait in 2004 and 2005 to get contracts to build, operate and maintain warehouses in Iraq where weapons, uniforms and vehicles for the Iraqi military were stored.

Reportedly included in the documents was a seven-page statement by an Army investigator who questioned Maj. Davis the day before she was found dead in her quarters. The deposition has apparently been used in ongoing federal cases on corruption in military contracting (Ed Blanche, "Kickbacks, Weapons and Suicide: The US Army's Battle With Corruption," March 15, 2008, The author attempted to obtain a copy of Davis' statement from the Department of Justice, but a DoJ public affairs officer said the statement is not yet in the public domain and intimated that it is being used in other ongoing DoJ investigations into contracting fraud (telephone conversation on July 28, 2008, with DoJ public affairs officer).

The Lee Dynamics warehouses were part of a circle of corruption involving military personnel and contractors throughout Iraq and the disappearance of 190,000 U.S.-supplied weapons- 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 80,000 pistols intended for Iraqi security forces for which the U.S. military cannot account. A July 2007 Government Accountability Office report said that until December 2005 the U.S.-Iraqi training command had no centralized records on weapons provided to Iraqi forces, and although 185,000 AK-47 rifles, 170,000 pistols, 215,000 sets of body armor and 140,000 steel helmets had been issued by September 2005, because of poor record keeping it was unclear what happened to 110,000 AK-47s and 80,000 pistols and more than half the armor and helmets (GAO Report 07-711, Stabilizing Iraq: DOD Cannot Ensure That U.S.-Funded Equipment Has Reached Iraqi Security Forces, July 2007, Pages 14 and 15,

In December 2007, the U.S. military acknowledged that it had lost track of an additional 12,000 weapons, including more than 800 machine guns (Ed Blanche, "Kickbacks, Weapons and Suicide: The US Army's Battle With Corruption," March 15, 2008,

In 2005, Col. Ted Westhusing, 44, at the time the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq, allegedly committed suicide after reportedly becoming despondent about the poor performance of private contractors who were training Iraqi police, for which he was responsible. After graduating third in his West Point class and serving as the honor captain for the entire academy his senior year, Westhusing became one of the Army's leading scholars on military ethics and was a professor at West Point.

In January 2005 Westhusing began supervising the training of Iraqi forces to take over security duties from the U.S. military. He oversaw the Virginia-based USIS, a private security contractor, which had contracts worth $79 million to train a corps of Iraqi police to conduct special-operations missions. Westhusing was upset about allegations, in a four-page anonymous letter, that USIS deliberately shorted the Iraqi government on the number of trainers it provided in order to increase its profit margin. The letter also revealed two incidents in which USIS contractors allegedly had witnessed or participated in the killing of Iraqi civilians. After an angry counseling meeting with the contractor, Westhusing was found dead of a gunshot wound. Many of Westhusing's professional colleagues question the Army's ruling of suicide, despite the note found in his quarters. They point out that Westhusing did not have a bodyguard and was surrounded by the same contractors he suspected of wrongdoing. They also question why the USIS company manager who discovered Westhusing's body was not tested for gunpowder residue.

In the space of three months in 2006, three members of the U.S. Army who had been part of a contracting and logistics group in Kuwait and Iraq were accused of taking bribes from contractors and allegedly committed suicide. Two of them were women, Maj. Gloria Davis and Sgt. Denise Lannaman, and the third was Lt. Col. Marshall Gutierrez. In August 2006 Gutierrez was arrested at a restaurant in Kuwait and was accused of shaking down a laundry contractor for a $3,400 bribe. He was allowed to return to his quarters and was found dead on Sept. 4, 2006, with an empty bottle of prescription sleeping pills and an open container of what appeared to be antifreeze.

The second woman soldier who was allegedly involved with bribes and allegedly committed suicide was New York Army National Guard Sgt. Denise A. Lannaman. Lannaman, 46, had completed one tour in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2005. In December 2005 she decided to volunteer to stay in Iraq longer and took an assignment at a desk job at a procurement office in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, that purchased millions of dollars in supplies. She received excellent performance ratings, and her supervisor said that her oversight eliminated misuse of funds by 36 percent. On Oct. 1, 2006, Lannaman was questioned by a senior officer about the death of Lt. Col. Gutierrez and was reportedly told by that officer that she was implicated in the contracting fraud and would be leaving the military in disgrace. She was found in a jeep dead of a gunshot later that day.

The Army has classified Lannaman's death as a suicide. A member of her family said that Lannaman had a history of psychiatric problems but somehow been allowed to enlist in the military. She had attempted suicide four times in her life, according to the family member. In September 2007, Army spokesman Lt. Col. William Wiggins told the family that Lannaman had not been the subject of any contract investigations, but he said he could not say whether Lannaman had been threatened by a superior officer with dismissal from the service (Jim Dwyer, "Letter from America: Journey from New York to Kuwait, and Suicide," New York Times, Sept. 19, 2007). Lannaman's family said that because of her pre-existing mental state, the threat that the superior officer made to send her home in disgrace could have caused her to take her life.

Soldiers Convicted of Bribery

In June 2008 four persons plead guilty in bribery and kickback scandals concerning military contracts in Iraq. On June 11, 2008, recently retired Army National Guard Col. Levonda Joey Selph, a key person on Gen. David Petraeus' team that was training and equipping Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005, pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy. She admitted disclosing to the owner of Lee Dynamics International confidential bidding information about a $12-million contract for building and operating U.S. military warehouses in Iraq that stored automatic weapons and other equipment. Lee Dynamics International is the same company that reportedly gave Maj. Davis a $225,000 bribe. Col. Selph helped the company owner, a former Army pay clerk, to submit "fake bid packages on behalf of six companies he controlled to create a false sense of competition," for which she was given a trailer valued at $20,000; she eventually returned the trailer, and the contractor then gave her $4,000 in cash and paid for air fare and accommodations for a trip to Thailand in October 2005, valued at about $5,000. Selph has since agreed to pay the U.S. government $9,000 and could serve a prison sentence of up to two years (Eric Schmitt, "Guilty Plea Given in Iraq Contract Fraud," New York Times, June 11, 2008).

After having been in military custody since July 2007, Army Maj. John Cockerham, 43, pleaded guilty last January to bribery, conspiracy and money laundering in awarding illegal contracts for supplies such as bottled water. He had received more than $9 million in bribes from at least eight defense contractor companies, and records found in his home indicated he expected to get $5.4 million more. Melissa Cockerham, Cockerham's wife, also pleaded guilty to money laundering. Their plea bargains were kept under federal court seal until June 25, 2008, while they cooperated with investigators. Cockerham faces up to 40 years in prison, while his wife could face up to 20 years in prison (Dana Hedgpeth, "2 Plead Guilty to Army Bribery Scheme," Washington Post, June 25, 2008).

The Death of Spc. Keisha Morgan

Army Spc. Keisha Morgan, 25, was on her second tour in Iraq. Just days before her February 22, 2008, death, she called her mother, Diana Morgan, and happily told her that she had reenlisted. Her mother said that Keisha wanted to be a nurse and planned to fulfill that ambition after she got out of the Army. Assigned to the Fourth Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, Keisha reportedly suffered two seizures in her barracks at Camp Taji and died in a military hospital in Bagdad. The Army reportedly told Keisha's mother that Keisha was on antidepressants and may have overdosed. In a blog, Keisha's mother said her daughter had never mentioned being on antidepressants.

However, the Army reportedly frequently prescribes antidepressants to soldiers with anxiety from effects of war, and one of the known side effects of some of the depressants is seizures. The Army's fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report indicates that, according to an anonymous survey of U.S. troops taken in the fall of 2007, about 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq and 17 percent of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants (such as Prozac and Zoloft) or sleeping pills (such as Ambien) to help them cope, with about 50 percent taking antidepressants and 50 percent taking prescription sleeping pills. In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the warning on antidepressants that the drugs may increase the risk of suicide in children and young adults ages 18 to 24, the age group most taking prescribed drugs in the Army. The Army should question whether there is a link between the increased use of the drugs by military troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rising suicide rate, which is now double the Army's suicide rate in 2001.

Deception or Just Incompetence?

It's now well known that there was deception by the U.S. military in the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman and the decision to make a heroic character out of Pvt. Jessica Lynch ( But there are many other cases of deception and of misinformation given to families.

After much pressure from the families for more information on the deaths of their sons in 2004, the parents of Army Spc. Patrick McCaffery and 1st Lt. Andre Tyson were finally told by the Army two years after the death of their sons that they were not killed by insurgents but by Iraqi army recruits with whom they were training and patrolling (

The parents of Spc. Jesse Buryj were initially told their son died in an accident. After relentless pressure on the Army for a copy of the autopsy, his mother read that Buryj had died of a gunshot wound. She had to request through the Freedom of Information Act a copy of the incident report, which states he was killed by friendly fire from coalition Polish troops. And later a soldier from Buryj's unit came to her home and told her he had been killed by "one of our own troops" (

Karen Meredith had to request the report on the May 30, 2004, death of her son, 1st Lt. Ken Ballard, through the Freedom of Information Act. Ballard did not die in a firefight with insurgents as she was originally told ( He actually died in an accident when a branch fell on a tank in which he was riding and set off an unmanned gun (

On Sept. 9, 2005, Meredith met with an Army colonel in the Pentagon and received a letter of apology from the Army for its misinformation on her son's death. On Sept. 27, 2005, she met with Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey and asked him to promise that soldiers' families would promptly be told the truth about casualties.

As the Beaumont, Texas, newspaper the Enterprise stated in its June 20, 2008, editorial, "There is no excuse for the U.S. Army's shabby treatment of Kamisha Block's parents and others who cared for her. Her commanders knew right away that she had been killed by a fellow soldier in Iraq, who had been harassing her. It was a standard murder-suicide. Incredibly, the Army first told her parents that it was an accidental death due to friendly fire."

A few days later, the Army changed its story and told the parents of Spc. Block that their daughter had been murdered by a shot to the chest. At the funeral home in Vidor, Texas, Block's mother noticed her daughter had a wound to her head, not mentioned by the Army.

Six months later, after numerous phone calls to the Army and enlisting help from Congressman Kevin Brady, Block's family was told by the Army that she had been murdered by a fellow soldier in her unit, a man who had physically assaulted her three times. His unit had disciplined him once but kept him in the same unit where he assaulted Block two other times before he murdered her by firing five shots into her and then killing himself in the same barracks room. After many attempts, the parents finally received a 1,200-page investigation that gave the name of the murderer.

Our Soldiers' Families Deserve Better

The families of slain soldiers deserve the truth about how they served and how they died. A professional military should handle each case with utmost care and concern. Tragically, in the past seven years, too many families have been faced with unanswered questions and a military bureaucracy that closes ranks against those who are trying to find answers.

I appeal to those in our military who know how these women died to come forward. Hopefully, the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Susan Davis, (202) 225-2040, will hold hearings on military suicides in the next two months and provide protection from retaliation for those willing to testify.

Army Reserve Col. Ann Wright, retired, is a 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. She was also a U.S. diplomat in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the Department of State on March 19, 2003, in opposition to the Iraq war. She is the co-author of "Dissent: Voices of Conscience."