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Mimbres author and goat rancher Doug Fine says, Farewell, My Subaru

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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008

Honoring a Homecoming

Let's celebrate the return of local troops from Iraq by making sure they don't have to go back.


Sad to say, those welcoming southern New Mexico National Guard troops home from Iraq this month should probably keep their flags and patriotic bunting handy. It's likely that the overextended US Army will need to call on local units again, and this homecoming scene may have to be re-enacted.

Some 130 soldiers in Company C, 2nd Battalion, of the 200th Infantry unit of the New Mexico National Guard are scheduled to return from Iraq and be welcomed on March 8 with a parade in Las Cruces at Apodaca Park. The Grant County contingent of Company C, 27 strong, will be welcomed again on March 15 with a parade beginning at 10 a.m., from the county courthouse to Gough Park. There they will be presented with the keys to the city.

No symbolic keys, no flag-bedecked parade can adequately thank these soldiers for their service. Like generations of soldiers before them, they have put themselves in harm's way at the behest of their country. But if we truly want to "honor our troops," as so many facile bumper stickers proclaim, we could do them no greater honor than to demand that this month's happy homecoming be permanent.

That would mean, at a minimum, swiftly reducing US troop levels in Iraq to no more than 100,000, as advocated by some military officials and defense analysts. These experts worry about the strain on our armed forces caused by protracted deployments in the five-year-old Iraq conflict. Some use phrases like "breaking the Army" to describe the effect of this prolonged and disastrous engagement.

But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates dashed hopes for injecting some sanity into US troop commitments last month, when he indicated that he supports a pause in Iraq force reductions. After the departure this summer of the five extra combat brigades sent to pacify the Baghdad area in the "surge," Gates advocates an indefinite freeze on further troop cuts.

You can argue whether the "surge" has been effective, or whether it's merely pushed violence out of Baghdad to other areas. Last month, it's true, the Iraqi parliament finally took some steps on the political front to match the purported progress in the military arena.

But the bottom line is this: Whatever temporary staunching of bloodshed and political baby steps may have been achieved, the surge strategy has left the US no closer to extricating ourselves from the Iraq quagmire. Gates' decision almost surely means that US troop levels will not drop much below 140,000 in 2008. That means this summer we will have more troops in Iraq than we did at the start of 2007, before the surge. In short, the much-ballyhooed surge has brought us almost exactly back to where we started, in terms of the only statistic that truly counts — bringing American troops home.

The successes in Iraq, such as they are, represent a bait-and-switch pulled on the American people. We as a nation poured more blood and treasure into Iraq only to wind up back where we started. The administration just hopes that in the numbers game and the hopeful headlines, Americans will lose track of the fact that we still have 130,000 soldiers at risk in Iraq or that this conflict — whose costs the administration refuses to even count in its budget proposal — continues to bankrupt the nation and balloon the deficit.

And it's not only 2008 or even 2009 we're talking about here. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, talks almost gleefully about American troops remaining in Iraq for another hundred years. According to McCain's hawkish rhetoric, "the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremism." (Never mind that in fact a primary outcome of the US' Iraq occupation has been to make that country a hotbed of the very "radical Islamic extremism" that the war's boosters so fear.)

As columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., recently pointed out, "A majority of Americans are now prepared to hear (in a way they weren't in, say, 2003) an argument that allowing terrorists and terrorism to define American foreign policy is neither in our interest nor particularly useful in fighting terrorism itself. Of course, defeating terrorism is important, and no candidate will say otherwise. But the United States has a lot of work to do in the world. If we're thinking about the next two decades, not to mention the next 90 years, it's a mistake to see terrorism as a 'transcendent challenge' that makes all our other interests secondary."

We owe it to the brave soldiers of Company C to think long and hard before allowing blind fear to dictate our foreign policy and military strategy for the next four years — let alone the next century. We need to look beyond the bait-and-switch "surge" and ask hard questions about US troop levels and the strain on American forces. We must demand a clear path out of Iraq and a refocusing on the real threats to American security.

Otherwise, Company C's heroic homecoming will be hollow, and their family and friends will be welcoming them back this month only to see them — and thousands like them — all too soon sent back into the line of fire.


What does Grant County really want from the legislature?

We don't pretend to understand the intricacies of how or why the New Mexico legislature doles out money. Each legislative session seems like a black hole into which funding requests funnel, only to have a handful inexplicably pop out at the end, with taxpayers mystified by what went on in-between. Year after year, in fact, supposedly crucial funding requests make headlines, only to be lost in the fine print of the "junior budget bill" or the utterly impenetrable "capital outlay bill." Sometimes, eagerly anticipated appropriations actually make it into the latter, only to be ultimately expunged by the governor's veto pen, long after the legislature has gone home.

But it's clear, at least as of this writing, that Grant County will see less legislative largesse this year. The "junior" bill allocated just $301,000, and the capital outlay measure will fund only a tiny fraction of the more than $84 million in 153 requests from Grant County representatives alone. Not only is money tighter in Santa Fe than in years past, we have lost the clout of two senior legislators with the deaths of Sen. Ben Altamirano and Rep. Manny Herrera.

Given that, it seems incumbent upon Grant County's powers-that-be to prioritize. In recent years, however, the area's supposedly most urgent funding needs seem to change more frequently than the weather. We really needed a new Silver City public library — but that project seems to have fallen by the wayside, despite the availability of significant private funding toward a new library. Then we absolutely, positively needed a new town hall on the old Hillcrest Hospital site, which might (depending on the wind, apparently) or might not include a new library as well. The Silver City MainStreet Project's purchase of the Silco Theater downtown was a sure thing for some sort of state funding, until it wasn't. And, as we reported last year ("The Past as Prologue," January 2007), some $1.2 million was desperately needed to protect and develop historic Fort Bayard as its medical center relocates.

All of these projects seem worthy, but what happened? Grant County has gotten some money for ball fields, WNMU and Casa Mia Ranch, among other things, but the parade of priority projects keeps changing — and coming up empty-handed.

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