Archive for the 'Iraq' Category

The Worst and the Dimmest

A couple of us at Broken Spines read McNamara’s In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam and we’re not sure whether McNamara ought to be vilified for his role as architect of the Vietnam War or forgiven because he regretted many of the decisions he made.  McNamara was part of the east coast establishment that JFK christened “the best and the brightest.”  They were arrogant technocrats that thought they could manage war like a business.  I suppose I could forgive him if he had really helped the country learn the lessons of Vietnam.  Donald Rumsfeld’s term as Secretary of Defense bears striking similarities to that of Robert McNamara–and he made all of the same mistakes–much to the shame of Robert McNamara.

John McCain wrote the foreword to David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest’s 20th Edition. In it McCain wrote:

It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay.

Shoddy Journalism

In his PressThink blog, Jay Rosen, Journalism Professor at NYU recently posted “Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press.”  He begins by referencing the 1986 book The Uncensored War by press scholar Daniel C.Hallin.  In the book Hallin articulates an elegant model that explains why journalists didn’t do their jobs in the run up to the Iraq war.


When (with some exceptions) political journalists failed properly to examine George W. Bush’s case for war in Iraq, they were making a category mistake. They treated Bush’s plan as part of the sphere of consensus. But even when Congress supports it, a case for war can never be removed from legitimate debate. That’s just a bad idea. Mentally placing the war’s opponents in the sphere of deviance was another category error. In politics, when people screw up like that, we can replace them: throw the bums out! we say. But the First Amendment says we cannot do that to people in the press. The bums stay. And later they are free to say: we didn’t screw up at all, as David Gregory, now host of Meet the Press, did say to his enduring shame.


Okay – I had to look up the definition.  But, once I did, it perfectly describes the Madoff scandal, and two really good movies: “Waltz with Bashir” (an animated documentary by Ari Folman) and “Standard Operating Procedure” (a documentary about Abu Ghraib by Errol Morris, maker of “Fog of War“).

Here’s the definition of “anomie” according to Merriam-Webster:

social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values ; also : personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals

Waltz with Bashir is about the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Israel’s war with Lebanon in the 1980’s.  And Errol Morris gets interviews with Lynndie England and the other “photographers” in Standard Operating Procedure.  

It seems like standards, values, and mores have deteriorated to new lows.  Or, maybe they’ve always been low, but are only now being exposed.

Redrawing the Map of the Middle East

It’s hard to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or Iraq and Afganistan for that matter) seems minor now compared to the tinder box of India and Pakistan relations.  But, really it’s the same core issues playing out on a larger scale.   In a Machiavellian master stroke Lashkar-e-Taiba, the extremist group behind the Mumbai terrorist attacks, has further destabilized Pakistan and India and redrawn the map of the Middle East (Robert Kaplan points out in this morning’s NYT that the “Middle East” now stretches from Jerusalem to Myanmar).

In addition to the Kaplan piece, also check out 1) a recent Terry Gross interview with Ahmed Rashid on the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs in Pakistan and 2) a suggestion for a future Fight Club bout: Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael Oren.


Sarah Palin for VP? Are you kidding me?

Is it just me or does John McCain seem to be grasping at straws here?  He chooses a 44 year old governor of Alaska that hasn’t had any national or international political experience as his Number Two?  As a matter of fact, she has not even seen two years in office as Governor!  John McCain has bashed Barack Obama for his lack of experience yet would leave the fate of the country in the hands of a novice if he fell ill?  I find it an interesting gamble for McCain… an opportunity to court the female Hillary Clinton supporter but her stance on the issues is the exact opposite of Hillary: she is against a woman’s right to choose an abortion, she is pro-death penalty, and she opposes same sex marriages (while claiming to have gay friends) enough to support a constitutional amendment barring benefits for same sex couples, and she supports the war in Iraq.  An interesting insight from colleague and State Senate President Lyda Green, a Republican who has often feuded with Palin, remarked, “She’s not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?”  Would a woman vote for her just because she is a woman… even if she disagreed with her politics?

First Rule of Holes (or Nation Building Starts at Home)

When are we going to stop digging?

After having spent the last three weeks in Beijing, I was delighted to read Thomas Friedman’s column in today’s NYT.  He observes that 7 years ago China began building the infrastructure for the Olympic games.  While 7 years ago the US embarked on the War on Terror.  China now has gleaming new airports, roads and parks not to mention the Bird’s Nest, Aquatic Cube, CCTV tower and other amazing feats of architecture.  What return will we see on our investment in Iraq?  Better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones?

Like Friedman, I was impressed by what I saw in Beijing and I can’t agree more with him that Obama needs to focus on nation building at home – not in Iraq, not in Afganistan, not in Georgia, but in America.

Duchenne smile

What does a smile say?  Are you truly happy?  Are you uncomfortable?  Did a photographer tell you to say cheese?

In his book BlinkMalcolm Gladwell refers to research done by Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. Ekman is an expert on facial expressions and has written many books, including “Emotions Revealed, Unmasking the Face” and “Telling Lies.

(Oliver Sacks wrote, “No one in the world has studied facial expressions as deeply as Paul Ekman. In ‘Emotions Revealed’ he presents — clearly, vividly, and in the most accessible way — his fascinating observations about the covert expressions of emotions we all encounter hundreds of times daily, but so often misunderstand or fail to see. There has not been a book of such range and insight since Darwin’s famous ‘Expression of the Emotions’ more than a century ago.”)

(Copyright Paul Ekman 2003, “Emotions Revealed,” Owl Books, 2007.)

A Duchenne smile contracts the zygomatic muscles of the cheek and eye, forming crow’s feet. The crow’s feet indicate that the smile is genuine and that the smiler is truly happy. It was discovered by and is named after Guillaume Duchenne.

What got me started on this?  A fascinating blog post by Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker, whose movie The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2004 and the recently released Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary about the Abu Ghraib scandal.

What do the smiles on the faces of Lyndie England and Sabrina Harman mean?  How do you explain the smile? Not only are they smiling, they’re smiling with their thumbs-up – with tortured men and over a dead body. The photograph on the right suggests that Harman may have killed the guy, and she looks proud of it. She looks happy.   But, it’s not a Duchenne smile – there is much more to the story.  Keep reading.


As the Caissons Go Rolling

In the Civil War, caissons were used to bring artillery and ammunition to the front lines.  After the battle, with a morbid dual-purpose, they were used to move the dead soldiers.  

Yesterday, a roadside bomb killed four U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, pushing the overall American death toll in the five-year war to at least 4,000.

Five years hence, why are the caissons still rolling?  Read this interesting prespective from David Brooks on the News Hour (relayed through Eric Black):

JIM LEHRER: Finally, your thoughts, five years of the Iraq war, what are you thinking about right now, David…


… about the war and the rest? What needs to be said about it? Let’s put it that way.

Well, it’s been a searing experience for the country and for a lot of us. I would say it’s changed my view of the world quite dramatically, as I look back.

And I think what I knew, but didn’t practice, was the sense that societies are complex, organic organism, more complex than we can possibly understand. And if you’re going to intervene…

You mean other societies than our own?

BROOKS: Ours, too. Ours, too.


And if you’re going to intervene in a society, you have to respect the complexity and respect your own ignorance of that complexity. And that’s something every conservative should really know. But sometimes those facts were held in abeyance in the enthusiasm of the moment.

Get clean for Gene

mccarthycampaign_large.jpgAudio recordings of Eugene McCarthy’s historic run for president in 1968 have been re-discovered at the University of Minnesota’s Elmer L. Andersen Library.    and highlighted similarities between 1968 and today.

“And at some point you make a prudential judgment that whatever good you can get out of the war, or what good is going to come from it, is not proportionate to the destruction of life and property and the draining away of moral energy, which goes along with the pursuit of the war in a way in which we are now pursuing it.”

In the 1968 Democratic primary, McCarthy (not to be confused with red baiter Joseph McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin – no relation) stunned Lyndon Johnson with a strong showing in New Hampshire.  Four days later, Robert Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic nomination only to be assassinated in June.  Ultimately, Hubert H. Humphrey, Johnson’s VP and former Minnesota Senator himself, beat McCarthy for the nomination and lost the general election to Nixon. 

I just wish politicians today could summon the same courage McCarthy did to challenge to a sitting President of his own party based on moral outrage against the war.

On Deterrence

There is a debate raging in the comments section of The Case for Israel about Israel’s loss of deterrence and its effects.  This debate is relevant to our discussion of America’s Secret War, especially the “Shock and Awe Strategy” going into the Iraq war.  It got me to thinking about the efficacy of deterrence in other contexts (Iran, North Korea, 2nd Amendment, death penalty, etc). But, first what is the definition of deterrence? 

de·ter·rence  // Pronunciation Key[di-turuh ns, –tuhr-, –ter-] – noun: the act or process of discouraging actions or preventing occurrences by instilling fear or doubt or anxiety  

This definition highlights the problem with deterrence which is that it is essentially a psychological situation for which there are no standards of measurement.  A deterrent is only successful in retrospect. 

Deterrent or Stimulant 

The Israeli army used to knock down a suicide bomber’s family home with the justification that it was acting “to deter future acts of terrorism”. After studying the effects the Israelis decided that the practice did not have a significant deterrent effect; indeed, home demolitions had probably acted as a stimulant for Palestinian terrorism.   

The same stimulant effect seems to be happening on the Iraqi streets where US forces drive through neighborhoods as a show of force – only to perpetuate the use of and targets for IEDs. How, after all, do you threaten someone who is already determined to die, and who has been promised extravagant rewards in an afterlife that is beyond your reach? 

Cold War 

Deterrence works best against entities with a basically materialist outlook. The reason that the American-Soviet deterrent system of “mutually assured destruction” worked as well as it did was that both nations, while differing in many other values, were fundamentally uninterested in “martyrdom”; communism and capitalism both justify their policies based on the prosperity and well-being they provide their populations, and neither system could find a way to portray a nuclear holocaust, even a “victorious” one, as a success. 

Don Radlauer argues in an article for International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT):   

In evaluating potential deterrence, it’s crucial to determine where the entity to be deterred belongs on the Soviet-Union-to-suicide-bomber scale. Syria, for example, is not at all opposed to death per se, but much prefers to see other countries doing the fighting and dying. (Dr. Boaz Ganor has suggested that Syria might be a more fruitful target for deterrence than Hezbollah itself in Israel’s attempts to solve its Lebanese problems.) Iran, on the other hand, is currently being led by a radical Shi’ite clique that appears to set a high value on “martyrdom”, even if Iran itself is the “martyr”. This is why the prospect of Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons is so scary: a country that is willing to become a nuclear wasteland in return for destroying its enemies cannot be easily deterred, even by a country with superb second-strike retaliatory capabilities. Thus the confrontation between an eventual nuclear Iran and a presumed-to-be-nuclear Israel would not have the inherent deterrence-driven stability of the American-Soviet match-up, or even of India and Pakistan. 

Gun Control and the Second Amendment 

Each year, approximately 30,000 people in the United States die as a result of gunfire and about 80,000 people are wounded.  And for every 10,000 handguns sold, 3,000 are involved in robberies and assaults and 100 in homicides (Roth and Koper, 1997). 

It’s been 68 years since the Supreme Court examined the right to keep and bear arms secured by the Second Amendment, but it has decided to revisit the topic in Parker vs. District of Columbia this spring. 

Will more concealed hand guns on the streets of Washington deter criminals?  John Lott thinks so – in his book More Guns, Less Crime, he argues: 

Criminals are deterred by higher penalties. Just as higher arrest and conviction rates deter crime, so does the risk that someone committing a crime will confront someone able to defend him or herself. There is a strong negative relationship between the number of law-abiding citizens with permits and the crime rate—as more people obtain permits there is a greater decline in violent crime rates. For each additional year that a concealed handgun law is in effect the murder rate declines by 3 percent, rape by 2 percent, and robberies by over 2 percent. 

The Death Penalty 

In the past ten years, the number of executions in the U.S. has increased while the murder rate has declined. Some commentators have maintained that the murder rate has dropped because of the increase in executions (see W. Tucker, “Yes, the Death Penalty Deters,”). However, during this decade the murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty. 


As Ami points out, deterrence may have a place in state to state relations.  But, it psychological nature doesn’t apply as well to individuals.  Like the theoretical (if elusive…see Wisdom of Crowds debate) “rational person” in economics, martyrdom, the need for a fix, will override the deterrent effect of force or even death. 


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