Archive for the ‘Peace/War’ Category


Firdos and Tahrir

February 8, 2011

Tumblr_lfyhanYdob1qdxs88o1_500I’m very taken with this photo comparison, as are many folks.  I’ve poked around enough to know that the zoomed out shot of the square in Baghdad was available from Reuters all along.  Why, then, were there news reports comparing this event to the fall of the Berlin Wall?  Why was only the cropped shot published or streamed on TV?  At what level did the deception take place?

Lucky for me, the New Yorker decided to take on the myth of Firdos Square last week.  The article pretty decisively dismisses the circulating stories about the entire event being staged by US psychological operations teams. Rather than the government, it was the media that created the lie.

Primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war. It was an unfortunate fusion: a preconception of what would happen, of what victory would look like, connected at Firdos Square with an aesthetically perfect representation of that preconception.

We’re all relatively accustomed to the myth-making that happens when history is reinterpreted with the benefit of hindsight.  In the article, Wilson Surratt, senior executive producer in charge of CNN’s control room in Atlanta that day, says that “at some point, you’ve got to trust the viewer to understand what they’re seeing.”  But should the viewer really have to ask whether they’re being shown a deliberately cropped frame that hides a dissonant context?  The article’s author, Peter Maass, writes:

Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development.

And I would add, one that we’re not well equipped to protect ourselves from.

There is another question embedded in the article–about whether the event itself–as it really happened, not as it was falsely reported back home–was impacted by the presence of the media.  Any of us who have ever smiled for a camera or cheered when the video swung our way know that the answer is yes.  But the implications for responsible journalism are less obvious to me.




The overlap of migration and military policy. Or how the Hmong came to the US.

January 18, 2011

This history lesson is a little long.  If you want, skip down to the longish quote from Fadiman and start there.  For those who are game, here’s a quick run through:

The Geneva Accords of 1954 recognized three states in what had previously been French Indochina.  These were Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (temporarily divided into North and South, intended to be unified later).  Laos was supposed to be neutral and, according to the Geneva Conference of 1961, the US, Soviet Union, North and South Vietnam and several other nations agreed to respect that neutrality, agreeing not to send in “any foreign troops or military personnel.”

Except that the we didn’t really want to respect that neutrality (to be fair, no one else did either).  The US had been providing covert support to the anti-communist Royal Lao army since 1955 as they struggled against the Communist Pathet Lao for control of the country.  But we wanted to step up our game, because Eisenhower, and then Kennedy after him, believed that if Laos fell to Communism, Thailand, Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Burma would be right behind.

And so, a cadre of CIA advisors were sent in to train a secret guerrilla army of Hmong soldiers to fight the war by proxy.  Continued under Johnson and then Nixon, this secret army eventually grew to more than 30,000 strong.

There is a lot about this story that is complicated.  Some call the Hmong mercenaries.  And, for the most part, they were paid.  But it was $3 a month compared to the $200-$300 per month an army private in Vietnam received.  Not all of them signed up voluntarily as many villages had solider “quotas” they had to fill to avoid punishment.  And displaced from their farmland by the bombing in Northern Laos, few had real alternatives.

For a more detailed (and better!) summary, Anne Fadiman gives a stellar primer on the subject, as I alluded to here.  The story actually first broke in 1987 when a British investigative journalist wrote The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos (which I haven’t read, but is supposed to be good).

Regardless, in 1973, the US signed the Paris Agreements, pledging to remove all forces from Vietnam.  In 1975, the Communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic took control, the party’s newspaper announcing that the Hmong “must be exterminated down to the root of the tribe.”

American planes airlifted between 1,000-3,000 high-ranking army officers and their families to Thailand, leaving tens of thousands of vulnerable Hmong behind.  After the last American place took off, many of those remaining began the long and dangerous journey to Thailand, where they would spend years, even decades, in refugee camps along the border.    Others tried to stay and survive the Vietnamese persecution.  Some were successful, others ended up following the first wave to the Thai border.

About 10,000 Hmong eventually emigrated to France, Canada, Australia, Argentina, or elsewhere.  But most, because of what the Hmong refer to as “The Promise,” set their sights on the US.  For this, I’ll just quote directly from Fadiman as she says it better than I could:

Every Hmong has a version of what is commonly called “The Promise”: a written or oral contract, made by CIA personnel in Laos, that if they fought for the Americans, the Americans would aid them if the Pathet Lao won the war.  After risking their lives to rescue downed American pilots, seeing their villages flattened by incidental American bombs, and being forced to flee their country because they had supported the “American War,” the Hmong expected a hero’s welcome here.  According to many of them, the first betrayal came when the American airlifts rescued only the officers from Long Tieng, leaving nearly everyone else behind.  The second betrayal came in the Thai camps when the Hmong who wanted to come to the United States were not all automatically admitted.  The third betrayal came when they arrived here and found they were ineligible for veterans’ benefits.  The fourth betrayal came when Americans condemned them for what the Hmong call “eating welfare.”

And so.  We ended up with a sizable Hmong community in the United States.  And, well, no one really knows (or remembers) that that’s why they’re here.  Because we asked them to fight a war for us so that we could avoid international condemnation for violating the Geneva Accords we had, in fact, signed.

I don’t know; I wasn’t there–but I’d bet good money that when the CIA was enlisting the first Hmong military leaders, promising that they’d help if the war turned against them, they had no idea what more than 200,000 Hmong refugees and immigrants in the United States would mean 50 years later.

Military decisions catalyze migration decisions.  We’re terrible at anticipating them ahead of time.  But it’d be nice to at least see them acknowledged in hindsight.



Julian Assange and the information war

June 1, 2010

The 2007 video from an Apache helicopter of American soldiers killing at least eighteen people, including two Reuters journalist, released by WikiLeaks earlier this year, had a huge effect on me.  It was my first real introduction to the site.  I’d heard rumblings before; had never bothered to go see for myself.

The video haunted me.  WikiLeaks itself baffled me.  So when I wrote before, I focused on the video.

But I’ve been thinking about the site ever since.  So it’s no surprise that this piece in the New Yorker about its founder, Julian Assange, caught my attention.  Eleven pages later, I’m still uneasy.  And not just because of the personal oddities of Assange.

The Web site’s strengths—its near-total imperviousness to lawsuits and government harassment—make it an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust. But, unlike authoritarian regimes, democratic governments hold secrets largely because citizens agree that they should, in order to protect legitimate policy. In liberal societies, the site’s strengths are its weaknesses. Lawsuits, if they are fair, are a form of deterrence against abuse. Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.

The analysis has merit (as does the whole piece), but I still don’t know where to land.

I don’t believe, as Assange does, that humanity’s primary struggle is individual versus institution.  I don’t believe that total transparency is the key to either justice or equity.  I don’t even know that I believe transparency is particularly normative.

I do believe some institutional secret-keeping is legitimate.  And yet, I struggle to articulate the boundaries within which it is permissible.

And at the end of it all, I really appreciated that WikiLeaks published the video.

I’m still baffled.

I imagine WikiLeaks will get another post out of me before I’m done.



Apparently, humans are idiots sometimes

April 7, 2010

I woke up this morning to discover Ezra Klein making a similar point to one in my last post about the classified US military video from WikiLeaks.  He’s writing about financial regulation, not war.  And he’s willing to call people idiots which I’m not.   But there is a conceptual link:

Larry Summers famously wrote — but sadly, did not publish — a paper that began with a timeless bit of wisdom: “THERE ARE IDIOTS,” Summers said. “Look around.” That paper was written decades ago. Maybe it’s time to finally publish it. Particularly that second line.

Like the poor, idiots will always be with us. In fact, we’ll frequently be among them. The seductions of group-think, the tendency to trust experts, the incentives for employees to go along with their bosses rather than contradict them and the need to deliver short-term profits even at the cost of long-term risk are more powerful than any regulation and will exist long after the visceral lessons of the subprime meltdown are gone.

So we’re left where Summers started: There are idiots. And if you look around, it turns out that they’re everywhere: In the banks, at the Federal Reserve, running the rating agencies, and selling mortgages. You can’t idiot-proof a system run by idiots.  But you can limit the damage they’re able to do.

And I think that’s part of what I was trying to articulate.  You can’t human-proof a system run by humans.  Rather than expecting our soldiers to be perfect super-humans, we should focus on minimizing how out-of-control their mistakes can become.

In this particular case, there was an opportunity to stop the massacre half-way by not firing on the evacuation van. Why didn’t that happen?

Ezra goes on to offer some thoughts on how we might limit the damage caused by failures in the financial sector.  I don’t know enough to propose parallel regulations and constraints for war.  But it still seems like a more productive response than some of my knee-jerk alternatives.



We have to talk about this.

April 6, 2010

By this point, most of you have already seen the classified US military video over at WikiLeaks.  If you haven’t, you probably should (Go do that and come back.  I know it’s long.  Watch it anyway).

I watched it first thing this morning and have been stewing over it all day.  It leaves me thinking about the ethics of the war in Iraq, about the consequences of modern warfare technology, about the differences between policy and implementation with fidelity, about the future of investigative journalism, and on and on.

I’ll start out with a handful of qualifiers and then tackle the differences between policy and implementation.

Qualifiers:  First, the US military hasn’t confirmed or denied the authenticity of this video.  Second, the video doesn’t show any of the context preceding the shooting (if, for example, the military had legitimate reason to believe that this particular group of people was dangerous).  Third, I know almost nothing about the rules of engagement.  Fourth, war is horrible.  And for the most part, people on all sides do their best to survive and cope with what they have to.  They’re real people, just like all of us, with real limitations.  I don’t expect perfection.  But I do ask–as I believe all of us are obligated to–how we can minimize the consequences of those imperfections.

And now: policy versus implementation with fidelity.

We have pretty clear rules of engagement in Iraq.  They’ve been (perhaps rightly; again, I don’t know) criticized as being so restrictive that soldiers are unable to defend themselves.  But they exist.  And as far as I can tell, they were violated in this instance.

Which either means that 1) Command has encouraged soldiers to ignore them by looking the other way when they do or 2) Soldiers on the ground aren’t following the policies they’ve been given.

If it’s the first, then we should broaden the discussion of what the cover-up was covering up.

But let’s assume for a second that it’s the latter.  Implementation fidelity is never going to be 100%.  Add the stress of constant danger, the emotional impact of “The Enemy” rhetoric, the low value placed on Iraqi civilian life,  the emotional distance of long distance weaponry…and implementation fidelity plummets.

The problem with war is that infidelity often results in civilian deaths.

It’s not that we should be particularly surprised that soldiers don’t always follow the rules of engagement.  It’s that, rather than just wishing they would, we should be prepared to deal with it when they don’t.

Right now, it looks like our strategy is to cross out fingers and hope that no one finds out.  Which means that when a solider, inevitably, doesn’t follow the rules of engagement and kills a dozen civilians and a couple of journalists by bad coincidence, the competence of the military and the morality of the entire war is called into question.

I’m the last person to tell pro-war folks how to improve their position, but this seems like incredibly harmful framing for them.

At any rate, this is the hard position to hold.  To acknowledge that some of the horrors of war are because individual servicewomen and servicemen act outside the constraints they’ve been given.  And yet to avoid the temptation to demonize them and paint them as particularly evil people–people somehow different than us; we who would, of course, always implement with full fidelity.



Apparently I don’t know what it means to be a failed state

January 22, 2010

A few weeks ago, when Yemen grabbed a news cycle or two and folks were saying things like this, Flying Whale and I had a conversation with a good friend about what the criteria was for being considered a “failed state” and whether or not Yemen qualified.

Between the three of us, we dutifully recited Weber (loss of monopoly on violence) and hypothesized that it meant the inability of a centralized government to enforce its will outside of the capital.

And then I read this article.  And now I’m wondering if being categorized as a failed state is even bleaker than I realized.

Khaled Fattah of the Yemen Times writes that Yemen’s government has lost its “infrastructural power” and become a creator of problems, not a source of solutions.

[O]ne may point to the wide-spread endemic corruption, the expansion of ‘dark spaces’ that are far beyond the reach of the state’s eyes and hands, the growth of hidden economies, and the tendency to ignore the juridical processes of the state.

This loss is evident in the absence of the state in many parts of the country, in the inability of state institutions to counter lawlessness and social disorder, in the very poor quality of basic government services, and in the very limited impact of state controls. Unsurprisingly, Yemen today is one of the best examples of political entities where the state is performing ‘self-canceling.’

Although united Yemen has been holding together as a fragile Middle Eastern state, the wide array of anti-central authority actors who are engaged in varying degrees of violence and subversion are operating within a new poisonous environment that can push Yemen towards joining the list of failed states.

A birds-eye view of the current security situation in Yemen reveals how the Weberian notion of a state that enjoys a monopoly on violence is nothing more than a fantasy.

If the author hadn’t so clearly implied that Yemen wasn’t yet a failed state, I’d have thought the description certainly qualified it. I need a new working definition.  Thoughts?

P.S. I’ve been following these three blogs.  They’re a decent starting point.



Navigating the North-South divide

August 12, 2009

Scott Gration, the Obama’s Special Envoy to Sudan, reports on his team’s current work in the country, This I Believe style.

What struck me was this:

While the current US sanctions against the government in Khartoum explicitly exclude Southern Sudan, in practical terms they do not.  Large equipment needed for infrastructure or economic development in the South must go through Port Sudan and/or Khartoum in the North, which makes these necessary investments for the South subject to our sanctions. “Smart,” targeted sanctions are absolutely necessary and desirable against key components of the government in Khartoum. I want to be clear. These sanctions should not be lifted.  However, I believe that we must consider specific exceptions or selective rollbacks to facilitate development in the South and fully implement the CPA. We need more flexibility to achieve our desired results, which are: pressuring the North, developing the South, and incentivizing good behavior on all sides.

This almost never happens: admitting failure, acknowledging complexity, avoiding paralysis,  suggesting solutions, and  maintaining clarity about big-picture goals—all at the same time!

(CPA provisions here)