For Americans like me who have vehemently opposed the war from the start, this was yet another example of how, in planning and implementation, the Iraq incursion has gone tragically wrong.
Full blame for the misuse and abuse of the National Guard belongs to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, a testily glib figure of monumental complacence. Unlike many of my fellow members of the Democrat party, I don't hate George Bush or regard him as venal. He is sincere but narrow: most problematic in his presidency is his curious inability to fire those who have given him lousy advice and betrayed their stewardship. Is it some sentimental twist on family loyalty?
The National Guard is rooted in the militias of early colonial history. The US constitution ceded the states primary authority over the guard, which consists of volunteers with steady jobs who attend training exercises one weekend out of every month plus two weeks a year. The guard is the first line of defence in local emergencies - catastrophic natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes or massive power blackouts, as happened in the northeastern US in 1965, when I was in college.
When federalised, the National Guard has often served abroad. But until very recently, overseas assignments were limited to six months, so that disruption to families and jobs was minimised. Thanks to the careless misjudgements of Bush's top team, including Vice-President Dick Cheney (another smug solipsist), the troop strength needed to occupy Iraq was seriously underestimated. Hence enormous, exploitative pressure has been placed on guard and reserve units, which constitute a third of the 138,000 American soldiers in Iraq.
Guardsmen's tours of duties were extended to 18, then 24 months - a gross intrusion into their stateside lives. And the American public has been endangered: the guard frequently draws from police, fire, and medical personnel, the first responders who would be desperately needed after a terrorist attack on chemical or nuclear facilities.
My uncle, now retired, served for over 30 years as an artillery specialist in the New York State Guard. His unit was controversially mobilised by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to put down the uprising at Attica prison in 1971. As a small child in the 1950s, I visited him during military exercises at Camp Drum in rural upstate New York. He once gave my parents a souvenir - a brass Howitzer cannon shell, which they used as a vase on our spinet piano. That gleaming artillery shell, imposing as ever, is one of my treasured possessions, along with my paternal grandfather's heavy bronze plaque from the Massachusetts State Guard, which he joined as an immigrant to Boston in the 1920s.
The Pennsylvania State Guard traces its lineage to pre-revolutionary Philadelphia, when Benjamin Franklin argued against the region's pacifist Quaker heritage to create a defensive force against Indians and pirates; 3,200 members of the Pennsylvania Guard are currently serving in Iraq, the biggest military deployment from the state since the Second World War.
Most of the Pennsylvania Guardsmen killed in August were in a convoy 60 miles north of Baghdad or on patrol near Beiji, about 90 miles south of Mosul. They and their units doubtless had a powerful sense of mission. But it is difficult for me to understand what they died for.
Bush and Blair are rightly convinced that a rising tide of democracy would save the Middle East and the world from the nihilism of jihadists. But was war the only remedy? As William Blake searingly wrote in "London" more than two centuries ago, "The hapless Soldier's sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls".
No fairy-tale ending for Madonna
Among less world-shaking mishaps was Madonna falling off her horse and breaking some bones at her estate two weeks ago. Naturally, I followed the scanty news via the web.
I was distinctly unsettled when I saw the August cover story of American Vogue, with Madonna ostentatiously posing in riding habit and boots on a horse whose reins she is awkwardly and incorrectly holding. We are told she has been throwing herself into country pursuits to please her macho husband, Guy Ritchie.As a professionally trained dancer, tireless jogger and practitioner of extreme yoga, Madonna is an accomplished athlete. But riding is not just another routine challenge that she can master through sheer willpower. Along with physical skills, riding requires relaxation and self-subordination, an intuitive opening to the horse. Knowledge of horses needs to be accumulated by riders over a lifetime.
A hyperactive planner with a draconian daily schedule, Madonna may not be the ideal rider. Her tension and distraction can easily be picked up by a skittish horse, as evidently happened here. On this day, she was just back from the US - a point missed in news reports. It was certainly ill-advised for Madonna, a 47-year-old novice rider, to mount a strange new horse the next day in Wiltshire - a thoroughbred that had just been trucked in as a birthday gift from her husband. That misjudgement - which could have had more severe and even fatal consequences - suggests there are dangerous lacunae in the Ritchies' horse sense.
Madonna will surely persist and may well triumph as a rider. But until then, let's hope she avoids the facile, disrespectful use of horses as props and fashion statements.
Speaking of Madonna, I haven't been beating down bookshop doors to find her children's books. The first volume, The English Roses, was cringe-making enough with its preachy messages and saintly, put-upon heroine. As someone teethed on Lewis Carroll's Alice books, I prefer dream tales with less obtrusive moralism. A contemporary author who, unlike Madonna, magically re-creates the child's world view is Lucy Cousins. Her star creation, the amiable mouse Maisy, is a virtual resident of my house. Child entertainment has been my happy duty since my partner Alison gave birth to a son, Lucien, three years ago. Hence I have been absorbed in Maisy's modest wonderland, with its gingerbread and lemon trees. Thank you, Lucy Cousins, for your sparkling imagination!Reuse content