Thursday, June 15, 2006

Troops worth supporting

Phil Weiss of the New York Observer highlights one of the good things about the United States and our military. They are, at least at a certain level in the officer corps, open-minded and dedicated to the principle of free speech.

Yesterday the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, opened its annual conference on international strategy with a speech from the Navy Secretary in a vast hall, followed by a panel on American power composed of three scholars, all of whom had opposed the war in Iraq. Indeed, in the biographical notes that were given out to the audience of officers—men and women wearing their dress whites—one of the scholars stated bluntly that he had written about the "folly of invading Iraq."

This comes on the heels of the news that Noam Chomsky was invited to speak at West Point and was reportedly well-received. If only our civilian leadership and millionaire journalists were as open-minded.

Phil’s article is also interesting as yet another example of how our top-notch military professionals acknowledge that we are totally fucked in Iraq:
"My question to the panel is, What is the path to success in Iraq?"

There was a damburst of laughter in the audience, then the scholars took it on, one by one. The first, Stephen Walt of Harvard, said "This was a huge strategic blunder, there are no attractive plans forward."

But bad news about our “war on terror” is hardly a revelation these days. Everyone knows we’re screwed. The important things are that at least a significant portion of the top ranks of the military have a solid understanding of American ideals, that they are well-educated, and that they are continuing their education. Unlike say, the civilian branches of government all of which have completely abdicated their responsibility to all that was ever good about this country.

But you have to wonder about the disconnect between the high ideals of the officer corps and the reality on the ground. A constant stream of reports since the very beginning of our invasion of Iraq have described enlisted personnel abusing and humiliating Iraqi civilians and this behavior is often cited by Iraqis as the primary cause of the insurgency. Why don’t the high ideals filter down to the boots on the ground?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The deep end

Well, I’m very busy and will have trouble producing original work for the next five or so days. But today is Wednesday, and the New York Observer is out, so I thought I’d share a few examples of how the real pro’s handle a movie review. Note that I’ve found little, if any, consistent connection between what my favorite critics think about a film and whether I like it or not, but the good ones are always a fun read.

Andrew Sarris on Prairie Home Companion:

You can either love it or dismiss it. I happened to love it for making me forget I was looking at a movie for 105 minutes. The rest is rationalization.

Rex Reed on Land of the Blind:
Among the multitude of lessons he must learn if his career moves forward are the following: how to frame a shot, how to control actors from eating the sets, and where to place the camera in order to get more than two people in the same set-up. Everything else about Land of the Blind is as big a mystery to me as crib death.

Ron Rosenbaum on Domino:
The colors themselves are a violation, almost an emotion. The motion itself is an act of violence 24 frames a second. All the images are as if from an illuminated manuscript of Satanic verses.

What you notice is the greenness of the green, the poison green making a mockery of the secular worship of Greenness. Then there’s what he does with movement. Nothing moves at the right speed. Images are violently sped up, violently slowed down and chopped up. Motion is violently violated, almost a metaphor for emotion violently violated. Early on in the film, Keira Knightley’s Domino says that she loves bounty hunting because “I can live the nasty and not do time for it.” Domino the film does the nasty to the time in it. Nothing proceeds at the same pace, everything is out of synch, everyone is out of their minds, and it seems to have something to do with life as we live it now—with, as Hamlet put it, the time being “out of joint.” Disjointed, disorienting.

Then if you’re mean and like to make fun of your host, compare those critics to Chuckling’s review of Deserted Station:
All that and much of the rest of the movie (lots of children, etc.) did make it appear that these people were human like the rest of us. But on the other hand, they were unquestionably two-dimensional. It is, however, possible they were two-dimensional due to the nature of the medium (flat screen)...

Yea, yea, I know, but is it really so wrong to have a little fun at the shallow end of the pool?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

He coulda been a contenda

Understand. I am not usually the most positive character on the internets. I don’t know why I’ve lately felt the urge to go beyond merely diagnosing what ails us and offer up miracle cures. First I point out that the world would be a better place if people chose to forgo revenge in favor of justice. Then I suggested that most of our problems would go away if people would just stop beating the children. Fuck, man, just shoot me before flowers start wafting out of my mouth, I’d normally say, but what the hell, I might as while run with it while it lasts.

But before enlightening anyone with my next insight into the betterment of mankind, which I’ve forgotten anyway (I’m sure it will come back to me), I will revisit the question of revenge vs. justice and get in some mandatory Bush bashing along the way.

William Arkin writes in the Washington Post’s Early Warning blog that:

So now it seems from Nigeria and Somalia to the Lebanon to the Persian Gulf to Pakistan and Bangladesh to Indonesia and the Philippines, even all the way to Toronto and Atlanta, Islamic foot soldiers unite under an Osama bin Laden banner...

Washington conventional wisdom on al Qaeda is thus wrong on two counts: First, al Qaeda is not really denied sanctuary in Afghanistan and Pakistan and it is not dead.  Second, al Qaeda is far more inspiration for what goes on in Iraq than civil war fighters or counter-insurgency theorists want to admit.

Yes, Osama bin Laden is an inspiration to millions. Why? Because after 9/11, we sought revenge rather than justice.

You may recall that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Taliban offered to arrest and try Osama bin Laden for the murders of so many people at the World Trade Center. And before 9/11, the Taliban were negotiating with the United States about handing over bin Laden for trial by an international tribunal at the

Yet we repudiated these offers because we wanted him dead, or barring that, tried by a U.S. military tribunal. Under no circumstances did we want bin Laden to get a fair trial in an impartial court and live to talk about it. Why? Because we wanted revenge more than we wanted justice.

Just think. What would the world be like if bin Laden was wasting away in an orange jump suit in a cell in the Netherlands, found guilty of mass murder beyond a reasonable doubt? Would Islamic foot soldiers from across the globe be united under his banner? No duh.

And what, you might ask, would have become of the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein? The U.S. Republican leadership, including Donald Rumsfeld, are the only ones who ever supported Saddam and no American political faction ever supported the Taliban.

Well, it’s only speculation, but repressive regimes usually fall under their own weight, and they fall faster when the U.S. and most of the rest of the world is united in isolating them, as was the case in 2001. It would be nice to think that the world would be better off without that kind of scum in any circumstances, but that has proved not to be the case. Twice as many Iraqis die per year under our occupation than died per annum under Saddam and women’s rights are a thing of the past. Free Afghanistan is flooding the world with heroin, human rights are only marginally better, at best, and it is still a haven and training ground for terrorists. And all of that is spilling out into the rest of the Muslim world, and beyond.

Ah, what might have been. Had George W. Bush done the right thing and gotten bin Laden turned over for trial, he probably would have been a one term president like his dad. And I’m sure that he would have gone down in history as a mediocre president, at best. But we now know, with 20/20 hindsight, that putting away bin Laden in 2000 would have made him a great president. He had his chance.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Life on Mars

I was at the park yesterday with my son, soaking up the ambience of the African drum circle, when I witnessed a woman who had six or seven kids smack a little boy on the head for some minor infraction, which I missed, and then seconds later I watched that boy smack a still smaller boy, and then the smaller boy pushed a still smaller child. The look on the smallest child’s face quickly turned from hurt to resentment and you could feel the thoughts of revenge emanating from the poor little boy, who was little more than two years old.

Let me tell you. I contained my laughter, but it reminded me of the man from Mars in Robert Heinlen’s A Stranger in a Strange Land. You may recall that Mike the Martian was an orphan from a human expedition to Mars. The Martians taught him to cultivate and use impressive mental powers and then sent him back to earth to help them judge whether humans were worthy of continued existence. But he had trouble fitting in and understanding humans, especially the concept of humor which he felt was the key, until he visited a monkey house and witnessed pretty much the exact same scene I witnessed at the drum circle. After that, he couldn’t stop laughing for days. Then he became a con man.

Children who are beaten learn only one lesson, that they can inflict violence on weaker people and that they want revenge on those who inflicted violence on them. No, okay, they learn two lessons, to beat up weaker kids and get payback from the adults and to lie in order to avoid being beaten. Okay, three lessons -- violence, revenge, dishonesty.

Anyway, I know, that wasn’t funny. and some of the more enlightened kids learn from the hurt and humiliation that they don’t want to inflict it on others, but still, the great majority learn the negative lessons.

And there’s no question that “corporal punishment, hereafter referred to more accurately as ”beating children“ is a conservative value. U.S. evangelicals like Debi and Michael Pearl, as well as James Dobson advocate beating children as young as 18 months. And some enterprising Christian conservatives add two and two together and come up with actually beating kids with the bible.

But we know all about those people. My point isn’t that prominent conservative nut cases advocate beating children -- it is that so many people throughout the world, just like the good people I saw in the park, beat their children. As noted above, this results in people becoming violent, dishonest, seekers of revenge. Sure, we can laugh at prominent examples such as Sean Hannity (”I turned out all right“), but the fact that so many children are beaten explains a lot of what’s wrong in the world. Look at the extreme examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, societies in which children are routinely and severely beaten. Is it coincidence that they wallow in a culture of violence and revenge? It’s no different here where the very same people who beat their children beat the drums of war. And it’s the same the world over. Children in South Africa, for example, are routinely beaten by both their schoolmasters and their parents and it is one of the most violent places on earth.Violence begets violence. Those who are picked on when they are weak will later pick on those who are weaker, the weak will hate the strong and the victims will plot and carry out revenge. It’s what they call a cycle. A cycle of violence.

Of course people make excuses and rationalize beating children. The only ones who are fooled, however, are other child beaters. When they beat their kids, they just can't help themselves, just as their parents couldn't help themselves.

Funny isn’t it. So many problem in the world, such a strong belief that there are no simple solutions. Yet a simple solution is right there, staring at us with the big eyes of a child. Stop beating children, things will improve.

Yes, but how to get people to stop beating children, especially when so many characters, starting with Yahweh, in our religious literature are so gung-ho about it? No simple solution for that, eh. No messiah, at least none that anyone will listen to, or man from Mars to tell us to spare the rod. No Martians to judge us unfit as a species. No rule of law to protect the children, who trite as it may sound, really are the future. Yep, you may say, I've seen the future.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Revenge so complete

Of course there has been a lot of talk about Michael Berg’s failure to play rah-rah guy in the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi, you may recall, claimed responsibility for many terrible acts and is believed to have caused the deaths of thousands, most of them innocent civilians. Among the thousands was Mr. Berg’s son, who was brutally beheaded by Zarqawi’s organization, if not Zarqawi himself.

Far from wanting to dance around the fire with Mr. Zarqawi’s head on a pitchfork, Mr. Berg expressed regret at his death and showed concern for his family. Then he went on to critique U.S. policy in Iraq and argue, with statistics no less, that George Bush is worse than Saddam Hussein, or at best morally equal.

As you can imagine, heads exploded in dank basements throughout the heartland. Roy at Alicublog, as usual, provides a nice example of unadulterated Christian and Conservative morality on the subject. Mr. Berg’s murdered son, as you can well imagine, must be waiting in heaven to kick his father’s sorry as down to hell.

But I have seen less comment about the actual interview that caused all the outrage. What Mr. Berg has to say is interesting on many levels. In addition to regret and condolences for the mass murderer and his family, he points out that violence so often breeds violence and that it’s not unusual for revenge to be cyclical.

CNN: You know, you talked about the fact that he's become a political figure. Are you concerned that he becomes a martyr and a hero and, in fact, invigorates the insurgency in Iraq?

BERG: Now, take someone who in 1991, who maybe had their family killed by an American bomb, their support system whisked away from them, someone who, instead of being 59, as I was when Nick died, was 5-years-old or 10-years-old. And then if I were that person, might I not learn how to fly a plane into a building or strap a bag of bombs to my back?

That's what is happening every time we kill an Iraqi, every time we kill anyone, we are creating a large number of people who are going to want vengeance. And, you know, when are we ever going to learn that that doesn't work?

Of course we can’t expect any intelligent analyis from the right wing hotheads on Fox, talk radio or the internets, but it’s sad that the tame media rarely makes that point. Besides the fact that it’s historically obvious that killing begets revenge, particularly in the middle east, they need look no farther than the overwhelming reaction to 9/11. Americans wanted revenge. And look what it’s gotten us -- more killing, more enemies, more lies, less freedom, more danger.

Mr. Berg goes on to compare/contrast Saddam Hussein with George W. Bush
BERG: Well, you know, I'm not saying Saddam Hussein was a good man, but he's no worse than George Bush. Saddam Hussein didn't pull the trigger, didn't commit the rapes. Neither did George Bush. But both men are responsible for them under their reigns of terror.

I don't buy that. Iraq did not have al Qaeda in it. Al Qaeda supposedly killed my son. Under Saddam Hussein, no al Qaeda. Under George Bush, al Qaeda.

Under Saddam Hussein, relative stability. Under George Bush, instability.

Under Saddam Hussein, about 30,000 deaths a year. Under George Bush, about 60,000 deaths a year.

I don't get it. Why is it better to have George Bush the king of Iraq rather than Saddam Hussein?

It is in no way surprising that the news media and right blogistan have concentrated on Mr. Berg’s failure to rejoice in the death of his son’s killer and ignore his reasons for taking those positions. Neither is it surprising that after making those statements, he didn’t get a lot of airplay. You know that had he used his CNN interview to call for the violent deaths of every Muslim who had ever thought a bad thought about the US of A, he would have been the featured guest on every talk show and book publishers would be in a bidding war for his memoirs.

And finally, note how the CNN correspondent argues with him about his position.
O'BRIEN: There's an alternate reading, which would say at some point, Iraqis will say the insurgency is not OK -- that they'll be inspired by the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the sense of he was turned in, for example, we believe by his own No. 2, No. 3 leadership in his ranks.

And, that's actually them saying we do not want this kind of violence in our country. Experts whom we've spoken to this morning have said this is a critical moment where Iraqis need to figure out which direction the country is going to go. That would be an alternate reading to the scenario you're pointing to.

O'BRIEN: There's a theory that a struggle for democracy, you know...

O'BRIEN: There's a theory that as they try to form some kind of government, that it's going to be brutal, it's going to be bloody, there's going to be loss, and that's the history of many countries -- and that's just what a lot of people pay for what they believe will be better than what they had under Saddam Hussein.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing the correspondent for asking those questions. That is what journalists are supposed to do: take an adversarial position in order to get people to explain their actions and beliefs.

It’s just that you know O’Brien would not have played the good journalist had Berg been rejoicing in revenge. She would not have questioned whether revenge begets revenge and whether or not our thirst for it is creating more terrorists. Nor would she have talked about the “theory” that what we’re doing in Iraq has nothing to do with democracy or that it may actually be counterproductive to the establishment of democracy, not just in Iraq but throughout the world. And she definitely would not have asked him to comment on whether George W. Bush is the moral equivalent of Saddam and provided statistics to bolster that argument.

The practice of adversarial journalism, which is what journalism is supposed to be, is only permitted when the adversary is not spouting the conventional nationalistic wisdom. Otherwise it’s a one-way ticket to a different profession.

A few notes on this post:

1. The Wikipedia entry about Zarqawi is wrong when it says he is was a long time member of al-Quaeda. I suspect that is due to some kind of Wikipedia editors battle between administration flacks and normal decent academics. Hell, it's probably the tip of the iceberg. Republican operatives are probably scouring Wikipedia to make the facts appear to justify their failures.

2. The headline is part of a quote by Josh Billings: "There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness."