Thursday, December 27, 2007

Happy 2008

Well, it's been nearly two months since my last post; does that mean that I have now gotten a life? Sadly, that is not really the case, although there have been some interesting developments in my life.

First of all, though, I would like to wish all of my visitors a happy new year for 2008. This site has now been viewed more than 300 times. While that doesn't exactly make me a big-time player on the innertubes, it does give me a certain satisfaction to know that I have contributed a bit of my own to the information pollution that we all enjoy so much.

If I could make a wish for the coming year, it would be for more comments on my posts. There have been ony two comments so far, both uncritical statements of adulation (or so they were perceived) from good friends of mine. So they don't really count. Sorry, Tom and Sergio.

In order to stimulate intellectual debate on this page, I would therefore like to announce the following incentive. The next person to submit a comment (on this or any past or future post) will (a) receive an original hand drawing done by myself, on the theme of a graffiti I noticed today on my way to a friend's house here in Zurich: "There is too much caffeine in my bloodstream and not enough spice in my life". My sentiment exactly. The next submitter of a comment will furthermore (b) get to suggest a topic for the next post. This may, but need not, be related to my areas of interests, which are language, security/defense, international relations, and religion (or any combination of these).

I do promise I will attempt to blog again more regularly in the coming year - how is that for a new year's resolution. One reason for my long absence was that I have moved to a new flat that features a nice big balcony, which the old one didn't have. This should allow me to catch more fresh air and take in a broader perspective... Furthermore, I will be working from a proper study room. Finally, I am happy to count myself as a newly converted Mac user, so you should be able to discern a new sense of stylishness and panache in this blog that could not be achieved courtesy of Bill Gates.

Although I must say that for some reason my new wireless keyboard has trouble with the letter "L".

What can we expect in 2008? It will be the last year in office for the Chimp-in-Chief, and then, hallelujah, we shall be released, unless Cheney decides to go for broke and install a military dictatorship. We also most likely won't see war between the US and Iran, now that the US intelligence community has rediscovered its cojones. China's invasion of Taiwan will also be postponed for another year so as not to disrupt the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which will no doubt be lovely and of course completely free of doping scandals.

Let me reiterate that: This lady does not take performance-enhancing drugs and, together with her co-athletes, will ensure that the Taiwan Strait will remain invasion-free for another year or so. Thank you, Mu Shuangshuang.

Now if only we could bring the Olympics to Belgrade, the Serbs might feel a little less sore about the imminent declaration of independence by Kosovo. Then again, probably that wouldn't make much difference. Chinese irredentism towards "Formosa" is as nothing compared to Serbia's sentiment towards the good old Blackbird Field. Not even Olympic gold medals for Serbian athletes will suffice to bring them out of their sulk (and the prospect is unlikely, since Serbia's national sport of Muslim-Slaughtering is no longer an Olympic discipline). The good news is that invasion is out of the question for the foreseeable future. Now Serbia has announced it will refuse to join the EU if Kosovo's independence is recognized. While I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the Serbian point of view, this is a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Sorry, Serbs. Not that you would have been ready for EU accession for a long time yet.

Well, that's it for now. If the above is not controversial enough to get some comments going, remember the irresistible offer I made for the next commenter (free original artwork plus right to pick the topic for the next post - within reason; requests such as "Why Kosovars/Serbs/Taiwanese/Chinese weightlifters are subhuman scum" will not be considered). Have a great new year's party, and a terrific 2008... and remember:


Monday, October 29, 2007

Whistle blown on whistleblowers

The Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives has begun, in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding the dismissal of US attorneys, to collect tips from whistleblowers inside the Justice Dept. Tipsters were promised that the Committee would deal with their information in "strictest confidence", though it would not take into account information submitted anonymously.

Unfortunately, as TPM Muckraker reported last weekend, that anonymity has been blown for many informers. The Judiciary Committee sent an e-mail to all contributers with their e-mail addresses revealed in the "to:" field, instead of using the "bcc:" function.

As if that wasn't bad enough, TPM reports,
[c]ompounding the mistake, the committee later sent out a second email attempting to recall the original email; it, too, included all recipients in the "to:" field, according to a recipient of the emails.
The only thing that could have been worse would have been to send this correpondence, with the full e-mail addresses of all internal critics of the Justice Dept, directly to Dick Cheney himself. Well, not even such spineless and brain-dead idiots as the Judiciary Committee members would have made such a terrible... oh oh:
Some of the email addresses appear to be transparently fake, but there's also, much more troubling, a carbon copied on the email, which is the public email address for Vice President Dick Cheney. In other words, an email containing the email addresses of all the whistleblowers who had written in to the committee tipline was sent to public email address of Vice President Cheney.
N.b., these are the representatives of the people, whom we rely on to function as a corrective to the abuses of executive power by the Bush administration. Unfortunately, the American people seems to be represented by the bastard offspring of the Keystone Kops and the Three Stooges:
The purpose of today's mis-sent email was, ironically enough, to announce careful new procedures about to be put in place by the committee for reviewing the tips received through the committee's website.
The headline for the above article by Paul Kiel says it all: D'Oh. The entire e-mail from the Judiciary Committee can be read on the Talking Points Memo (TPM) website, though minus the incriminating e-mail addresses (not that that makes any difference, as Evil Dick has been cc'd).

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Stasi archives staffed by ex-agents

Wikileaks has published an internal confidential memorandum by the German Federal Government Delegate for Culture and Media, reporting on the permeation of Stasi Archives (BStU) staff by former members of the East German secret service. The authors are concerned about how many former members of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit are employed by the BStU. They question the constitutionality of the BStU's position within the structure of the German public administration. They also criticize the lack of accountability and of truthful testimony by the heads of the BStU in their information to the parliament, the external authors of this expertise, and to the public.

Among the highlights of this report are the fact that former high-ranking Stasi officers were charged with analyzing the potential Stasi involvement of leading East German politicians such as Lothar de Maizière, Manfred Stolpe, and Gregor Gysi; and the fact that former high-ranking Stasi officers were charged after 11 September 2001 with analyzing the extent of information and training provided by the Stasi to international terrorist groups including the RAF, the Carlos Group, and the Abu Nidal Group in the 1980s. Their conclusion, in classical Socialist dialectical style, was that East Germany only ever supported "freedom fighters" in their "armed struggle", but never terrorists...

Read the entire 114-page report (in German; PDF format) here. A detailed English-language summary/ analysis is available at this page.

Merciful Mongols

John W. Dean, former White House legal counsel to Richard Nixon, was on Countdown with Keith Olberman yesterday to talk about the latest revelations about US government-sanctioned torture. Now, it stands to reason that he didn't do such a great job counselling Nixon on legal matters, or at least his counsel wasn't heard. He was one of the Nixon minions referred to in this quote by the good Doctor Gonzo:
Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.
(Read Hunter S. Thompson's entire obituary for Nixon, if you haven't yet, and bear in mind that the legacy of George W. Bush will be such that he will make Nixon look saintly by comparison.) Dean did jail time, but with a greatly reduced sentence, for his many crimes in connection with Watergate; his sentence was cut back because he turned witness for the prosecution and spilled the beans on Nixon and the Plumbers, and revealed the existence of the White House tapes.

Anyway, Dean has since declared himself an "independent" and has become a darling of the progressive camp in the US, especially since his book "Conservatives Without Conscience" was published. In this work, he charges that the Republican Party has been shanghaied by right-wingers with authoritarian personalities.

In the interview with Olberman on Countdown yesterday, Dean made some interesting points (check out the video at Crooks and Liars). After discussing the recently revealed existence of a new, shameful torture memo from the Bush/Gonzales Justice Department, Olberman and Dean talk about the Republican/conservative tendency to believe that reality can be adapted to their own requirements merely by choosing the right words to describe it: "We're not doing it cause we say we're not doing it"; or even "this is not torture because [the Bush administration] are not the kind of people who torture".

Dean points out that this is not just a matter of deficient perceptions, but that the White House is trying to change the laws that ban torture and other violations of the Geneva Conventions. He calls on Congress not only not to approve these changes, but to extend the Statute of Limitations on such crimes from five to ten years, in order to highlight the fact that "indeed, these are real laws". Of course, that would be very bad news indeed for Gonzales, Rumsfeld and other war criminals who are now or have been involved in policymaking and ordering prisoners to be beaten, waterboarded, and otherwise tortured.

But Dean goes on to make another critical point that is often missed and rarely, if ever, mentioned in the traditional media outlets:
Well, let me tell you, one of the thoughts in conservative thinking and circles today is that they felt very bad when Ronald Reagan left office with a 60 per cent approval rating. They thought: "That's just a waste!" They want their president to not be loved, to not be particularly respected. They want him to drive their agenda. And so Bush, as he heads on down with these kinds of policies that are being revealed, is doing exactly what the core of his party wants him to do. So, I don't... it may get down to single digits, and then he won't "die rich", so to speak.
So much for bipartisanship; what the Democratic Party needs in order to emerge from its present doldrums (and historically low approcal rates for its members of Congress) is the balls to push for flat-out partisanship in progressive issues.

Another example of this kind of Republican thinking can be found in the reasoning underlying Bush's veto against the State Children' Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) on Wednesday. Bush has argued that state support for children's health insurance would put the US budget on a slippery slope towards Communism. This program would be financed through higher taxes on tobacco. So, while SCHIP would be very efficient in providing healthcare for poor children, it would violate at least three mainstays of Republican ideology: No state-funded healthcare; no new taxes; and avoidance of anything that could hurt the tobacco industry, wherever possible.

Again: so much for bipartisanship. Bush's posturing as a fiscal conservative is all the more ridiculous considering he has blown the biggest budget surplus in the nation's history on an illegal war. Note: the US defense budget for FY2007 was increased by 7 per cent to US$439.3 billion, about 13 times the amount that the SCHIP bill would have cost. Look up "Starve the Beast" on Wikipedia for more on the thinking behind this strategy.

What does all of this have to do with the latest torture memo? The overall picture makes a mockery of the concept of "Compassionate Conservatism". It is just a shell of a phrase, a propaganda label used to sell policies that are not conservative in the Goldwater tradition and certainly not compassionate. What "Compassionate Conservatism" does is alliterate; no more and no less. As a catchphrase, it may serve its purpose among lazy thinkers. As a label for current White House policies, it is about as thoughtful, and appropriate, as if Ghengis Khan had promoted his conquest of the West as "Merciful Mongolism" - merely adding insult to injury.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Neocon Tin Man Gets a New Heart

Unfortunately, only in fiction. From The Onion, without any doubt America's finest news source:

New Heart Device Allows Cheney To Experience Love

WASHINGTON, DC—Recovering from minor heart surgery Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney stunned both the medical and political establishments when he mysteriously began to experience love for the first time in his life, sources reported Tuesday.

It is believed to have been the first recorded incident of Cheney exhibiting compassion for his fellow man.


According to Reiner, Cheney left the hospital under his own power, but returned minutes later complaining of unfamiliar chest palpitations and sensations of warmth for others regardless of political affiliation or income.
Read more here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jihad, Hired Guns, and the Camberwell Carrot

Because I have been busy recently, I won't have the time to write exhaustive comments on each of the following links that caught my eye over the past week, so just a few remarks on each.

The Beeb reported last week that a US citizen was jailed for 24 years for "attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan and lying about it". The prosecution offered what Amy Waldman in an article for The Atlantic Monthly last year aptly called "an accretion of circumstantial but ugly evidence" of his "jihadi mind", including expressions of "hatred towards the United States", praise for the murder of Daniel Pearl, and calling George W. Bush "the worm". Other evidence included his owning extremist literature. The Atlantic Monthly article gives a good overview of what is interesting about this case, namely the notion of "preeemptive prosecution" and the admissibility of belief as evidence for the prosecution in court. Also interesting is the clash of expert witnesses brought by the prosecution and defense alike, who duelled in the courtroom over the finer points of Islamic theology. Notably, the witnesses for the prosecution included this chap:
Walid Phares, a Lebanese Christian academic who emigrated to the United States in 1990, at the end of Lebanon’s civil war between Muslims and Christians. In Lebanon, Phares’s political activities included participation in the Lebanese Forces, a coalition of right-wing Christian militias that the defense said the U.S. State Department had labeled anti-Muslim. El Fadl, his fellow prosecution witness, calls Phares an “Islamophobe,” and at trial the defense sought to demonstrate as much. By his own characterization, Phares, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, was outside the academic mainstream until 9/11.
What the article fails to mention is that Phares is also on the salary list of Benador Associates, a prominent part of the right-wing spin machine that sold the "Global War on Terror" and the Iraq invasion to the American public. He can therefore hardly be regarded as an independent, impartial, or disinterested professional in the matter. Another interesting expert witness - Waldman's article doesn't say whether for the prosecution or the defense - is Reuven Paz, formerly of the Israeli Shin Bet internal intelligence service and more recently the academic director of the International Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Israel.

Next, a quick look at this video posted at Crooks and Liars, a CNN interview with Jeremy Scahill, the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Mercenaries working for Blackwater were shelled while travelling in a convoy in Iraq on Sunday. They opened fire on passersby on the street, killing 11 people, including one policeman, and injuring 13, according to the WashPost. A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry announced that Blackwater's license to operate had been withdrawn and that the responsible employees would be prosecuted. This will be an interesting test of the Iraqi government's sovereignty - after all, foreign "security contractors" in the country have so far been largely immune from prosecution. Scahill points out that
...the Bush administration failed to build a coalition of willing nations to occupy Iraq, and so instead, the administration has built the Coalition of Billing Corporations. Right now, in Iraq, private personnel on the US government payroll outnumber official US troops. There are about 180,000 so-called "private contractors" operating alongside 165,000 to 170,000 US troops. So really, now, the US military is the junior partner in this coalition. The mercenary component of that private-sector involvement has been totally unaccountable. They operate with impunity, they kill Iraqi civilians, and no charges are ever brought against them in Iraqi law, US law, military law.
He correctly points out that this is not the result of an oversight, but "political expediency on the part of the Bush administration" because dead mercs are not included in the official US death toll and they can act with free rein as their acts go unreported and undocumented. Scahill also notes, in the context of the current Petraeus/"surge" debate, that "there’s been a surge on for four years of the private sector in Iraq, this mercenary army that the Bush administration has built up all over that country."

Also, just to wrap up today's post on less of a bum note, here is a report from today's Guardian (and you may consider this either good or bad news):
The unpublished results of authoritative research into cannabis confirm the "skunk" now on sale in England is stronger than it was a decade ago, but demolish claims that a new "super-strength skunk" - which is 20 times more powerful - is dominating the market.
The recent Europe-wide campaign of hysteria surrounding the alleged "schizzo skunk" was really getting on my nerves. The allegation circulated by politicians and research-averse journalists alike, just as efforts to legalize weed were getting under steam in a number of countries, has been that today's weed is exponentially more powerful than the grass smoked by the hippies, i.e., today's parent generation.
But the findings of the two studies to be reported in Druglink, the drugs charity magazine, contradict recent claims that most of the skunk on sale in Britain now routinely has a THC-content of more than 30%. One of the studies showed that only 4% of the skunk that had been seized by the police had a strength level higher than 20%.
Having, at an earlier stage of my life, experienced the hassle and likely ripoff associated with procuring weed (read: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme) in England, I almost broke into uncontrollable and hysterical laughter at reading the above paragraph, but then remembered that those days are over.
The claims earlier this year that a new strain of "super-strength skunk" cannabis that was up to 20 times more potent was dominating the British drug market and triggering mental health fears led Gordon Brown to order a new review of the legal status of the drug in July.
OK, this is really ridiculous. Notions like "20 times more potent" being openly discussed in public, when the actual figure is one-tenth of that... either people were just making wild and uneducated guesses, or they actually knew better and were counting on people's complete gullibility. You may argue that such "experts" only have in mind the protection of young people, but these policies - and the media campaigns to back them up - ensure that teenagers are criminalized, ostracized, and lose all faith in a public health and policing system that clearly cannot be trusted to be truthful and honest. Not to mention the many adult smokers who can make responsible decisions about their own health without government interference. No, cannabis is not a harmless drug, and there is some really heavy shit circulating out there, but as anybody can imagine, it is possible to put less weed into a joint if you know it is of stronger potency. The same applies to alcohol - which is why we drink some kinds of alcohol out of glasses like this

and other kinds of alcohol out of glasses like this:

Likewise, joints can be adjusted in terms of both size and potency, as demonstrated by Dan the Dealer in the excellent British movie, "Withnail and I":

Withnail: What are you going to do with those?
Danny: The joint I am about to roll requires a craftsman and can utilise up to twelve skins. It is called a Camberwell carrot.
Marwood: It's impossible to use twelve papers on one joint.
Danny: It is impossible to roll a Camberwell carrot with anything less.
Withnail: Who says it's a Camberwell carrot?
Danny: I do. I invented it in Camberwell and it looks like a carrot.
Cut to Danny on the sofa. The Camberwell carrot is complete and is indeed of prodigious proportions. As Danny lights it we see only the end but as he hands it to Withnail we see the true size. It is enormous.
Danny: This will tend to make you very high.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fart in the Duck

Less than a month into its existence, this blog already features an excessive bias towards serious and sometimes depressing issues. Many of the security and international relations topics covered here originally arose due to people having misunderstood, misconstrued, or sometimes simply misheard what someone else said. Like the time Bush thought Tenet had assured him that there was a "slam dunk" case for Saddam having WMD, when what Tenet actually said was that such reports were all "damn bunk".

To illustrate the perils of such misconstrued words, especially in a transatlantic context, and for some lighthearted diversion on the sixth anniversary of the terrible events of 7/11, please have a look at this video, which comes to you via Boing Boing and OK Future, from Probably the most misheard lyrics ever - phonetically transcribed from a Belgian children's television show. More evidence, if any was required, that there is something seriously wrong with the Belgians.

Gear list for US forces in Afghanistan leaked

Wikileaks has just published a set of documents detailing "the full equipment register of every US Army managed unit in Afghanistan from psychological operations ("PsyOps") and interrogation units to Kabul headquarters". This documentation complements an earlier leak of corresponding equipment list for all US units operating in Iraq, which can be found here.

According to the Wikileaks analysis,
The document reveals that half of all US army equipment purchases in Afghanistan have been diverted to dealing with home made mobile phone and radio bombs ("IEDs"). Not since the US 1945-1951 nuclear build up has there been such a decisive shift in military purchasing priorities. The 2007 May-July period saw 203 US military deaths from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for 66 percent of all US combat fatalities.
Among the equipment used for protection against IEDs, the gear list includes the following items:
  • at least 2,769 “Warlock” radio frequency jammers, which prevent radio signals from triggering explosives;
  • 1,734 “Acorn” improvised explosive device jammers;
  • 42 portable explosives detectors;
  • 61 “PSS-14” mine detecting sets and 86 other mine detecting sets;
  • 6 “Boomerang” sniper detection sets;
  • 42 portable explosives detectors;
  • 9 “Husky” mine detection vehicles;
  • 5 “Meerkat” mine detection vehicles.
A Congressional Research Service report recently detailed US military spending in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters of operations since 11 September 2001. Wikileaks estimates that there is currently about US$1.1 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan. This equipment also apparently includes "M7 Grenade Dischargers" for gas grenades as well as FN303 riot guns made by Belgian arms company Fabrique Nationale, which "can fire pepper-spray impregnated projectiles", according to Wikileaks. The WL analysts also extracted the prices for about 5/8ths of the items from the database at the CECOM (Communications & Electronics Command) website and found that three rocket launchers were delivered at a price of US$0.01 per piece, though the ordinary listing price is US$822. (Sounds like the Pentagon finally got a bargain, after paying one million bucks for two plain washers in a recently discovered scam... see my post last month on "Screwing the Pentagon")

In total, this is a huge volume of information; the analysis supplied in the appendix alone runs to 300 pages, and can be found here.

Acording to Wikipedia, the Wikileaks project "allows whistleblowers to anonymously release government and corporate documents, allegedly without possible retribution. It claims that postings are untraceable by anyone attempting to do so." There have also been some accusations that the project may in fact be a CIA front to solicit classified information; however, I have seen no conclusive evidence that this is more than just a rumor.

The Guardian recently ran a story on "The Looting of Kenya", based on material made public by Wikileaks.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Drunken Liar

Robert Draper's new book on George Bush, "Dead Certain", claims that Bush believed until last year that WMDs would be found in Iraq - that is, two-and-a-half years after the Interim Report of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) headed by David Kay, and one-and-a-half years after the ISG's Duelfer Report, both of which made very clear that there were no such weapons in Iraq.
"Though it was not the sort of thing one could say publicly anymore, the president still believed that Saddam had possessed weapons of mass destruction. He repeated this conviction to Andy Card all the way up until Card’s departure in April 2006, almost exactly three years after the Coalition had begun its fruitless search for WMDs." [p. 388]
[h/t Think Progress] NB, this was after Bush had publicly conceded that the Duelfer Report invalidated his stated pretext for going to war:
BUSH: The chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, has now issued a comprehensive report that confirms the earlier conclusion of David Kay that Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there.
Now this: According to Sidney Blumenthal, writing in, Bush was told by former CIA chief George Tenet in unequivocal terms, in September 2002, that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs, as confirmed by a top-level source inside Saddam's inner circle of advisers, namely Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri.
On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam's inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail.
The headline of the Salon article, "Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction", is misleading; a more accurate, though less pithy version would probably be "Bush was told Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, but refused to believe the best available intelligence, instead choosing to trust in the words of a fabricator, con man and former Iraqi taxi driver posing as a chemical engineer", the source now known as "Curveball":
According to a US presidential commission looking into pre-war intelligence failures, the basis for pivotal intelligence on Iraq's alleged biological weapons programmes and fleet of mobile labs was a spy described as 'crazy' by his intelligence handlers and a 'congenital liar' by his friends [... A] US official was surprised to find Curveball had a hangover and said he 'might be an alcoholic.' By early 2001, the Germans were having doubts of their own, telling the CIA their spy was 'out of control'.
A "crazy" man described as a "congenital liar" even by his friends, assessed as an "out of control alcoholic": Could it be that Bush felt a certain kinship with this man, since they have so much in common? In fact, the headline of the Guardian/Observer story quoted above, "US relied on 'drunken liar' to justify war", had me thinking of Bush before I realized it referred to the Curveball source. But let us return to Blumenthal's story:
Nor was the intelligence included in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which stated categorically that Iraq possessed WMD. No one in Congress was aware of the secret intelligence that Saddam had no WMD [...] The information, moreover, was not circulated within the CIA among those agents involved in operations to prove whether Saddam had WMD [...] Tenet never shared Sabri's intelligence with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to the former officers, the intelligence was also never shared with the senior military planning the invasion, which required U.S. soldiers to receive medical shots against the ill effects of WMD and to wear protective uniforms in the desert.
Powell apparently also realized, without having access to Sabri's views, that the information he was given was not holding up to scrutiny. Preparing his testimony to the UN Security Council in February 2003, which he delivered with George Tenet sitting directly behind him, Powell reportedly
tossed several pages in the air. "I'm not reading this," he declared. "This is bulls- - -."
The French and US intelligence service reportedly paid Sabri "hundreds of thousands of dollars" for information about Iraq's banned weapons programs. Blumenthal's CIA sources confirm that Sabri stated Iraq had no such weapons. However:
Instead, said the former officials, the information was distorted in a report written to fit the preconception that Saddam did have WMD programs. That false and restructured report was passed to Richard Dearlove, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who briefed Prime Minister Tony Blair on it as validation of the cause for war.
Dearlove must have suspected he was being treated to a snow job, since the notorious "Downing Street Memo", of which, he is believed to be the author, noted that "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Bush's determination to overthrow Hussein was such that he decided to ignore the intelligence provided by Sabri and presented to the president by the CIA director:
The next day, Sept. 18, Tenet briefed Bush on Sabri. "Tenet told me he briefed the president personally," said one of the former CIA officers. According to Tenet, Bush's response was to call the information "the same old thing." Bush insisted it was simply what Saddam wanted him to think. "The president had no interest in the intelligence," said the CIA officer. The other officer said, "Bush didn't give a fuck about the intelligence. He had his mind made up."
I have long refused to believe that the rationale for invading Iraq was based on a genuine error, which is the version being spun by the neocons today - that the White House did believe it had solid evidence for Iraq's alleged weapons programs, and that the "intelligence failure" was the fault of the CIA. Instead, the "best available evidence" now indicates that the US government either actively manipulated the intelligence or - and this is the most charitable interpretation possible - came to believe in its own propaganda. You decide which is worse.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Shadow Boxing for the Rubes

A friend of mine who is a reserve officer in the Swiss army mentioned today over lunch that some of the older brass in the general staff were "quite happy and relieved" to see Russia return to its old menacing form, making threatening noises and underlining its aspirations to be treated as a superpower. For armies everywhere, an assertive Russia means a return to bigger budgets for tanks and other expensive hardware. Then later this evening, I saw a news report saying that Norwegian F-16s and British Tornado jets had been scrambled to intercept eight Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers heading towards the UK:
The RAF scrambled to intercept eight Russian nuclear bombers heading for Britain yesterday in the biggest aerial confrontation between the two countries since the end of the Cold War.
Sounds pretty scary, doesn't it? Whenever you see the words "nuclear bombers" and "confrontation" in the same sentence, that can't be good news. Of course, there was no "confrontation" at all:
Defence sources said that the Russian pilots turned away as soon as they spotted the approaching Tornados and did not enter British airspace.
This is the second time that has happened in recent weeks; in August, two Tornados were sent from Scotland to head off another Bear in a similar situation. So what is this all about? As noted, Russia wishes to be treated as a global force to be reckoned with, and has recently started resuming air patrols of the sort that were discontinued at the end of the Cold War. On 9 August, two Tu-95s flying out of Blagoveshchensk in southwestern Russia made a 13-hour round trip just to buzz the US base on the island of Guam in the Pacific. So for whose benefit are these sorties being flown, since they serve no real military purpose? They are primarily in order to convince the Russian public that their Dear Leader Putin is just as much of a macho man as his US counterpart. Of course, we in the West are mature enough to see right through such blatant manipulation by the government and the military, right? Er...
MoD officials at the time played down the incident last month as a "picture-led story" and an opportunity to show off the air defence role of the Typhoon, an expensive and long-delayed aircraft originally designed during the cold war to engage in dogfights with Soviet planes over northern Europe.
"Quite happy and relieved" that the Bolshies are back in business, that just about sums it up, I think. Again, for whose benefit are these sorties being flown, on both sides? For you and me, the gawkers at the air show, the suckers at the carnival, the rubes at the circus (there's one born every minute). And, naturally, For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, as John Lennon put it:

In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!
Mr. K. in this case being Messrs. Putin, Brown, Bush, and all the others in varying need of self-assertion. And of course Henry The Horse dances the waltz!

In any case, I have decided to seize the opportunity to mess around with embedded video for the first time; here is "Mr. Kite" by the Beatles, unfortunately mainly audio, since the picture is only the cover of the Sgt Pepper album for the duration of this song, together with the no less genius-soaked "Within You Without You" from the same album. If you think that the visuals are kind of boring, compare this video, which inexpicably features Freddie Mercury and Queen halfway through.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all. But please, Vladimir, Brownie, Dubya... careful with that Hogshead of Real Fire.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Horror! The Horror!

The Iraq/Vietnam analogy that was launched as a new talking point last week by the White House has had holes torn into it by far more competent people than myself, but I would like to add a few thoughts nevertheless - inspired by Mr. (Colonel) Kurtz and Joseph Conrad as well as other luminaries that motivated this blog in the first place.

No doubt President Bush, from his hard-won frontline experience with the Texas Air National Guard, has better first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war than I, who was too young to be drafted into the US armed forces at the time. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, I was but a wee Hippo frolicking with other amphibious mammals of my age, many of whom were American army brats. My conception of war in 1975 was limited to playing with Marx plastic soldiers.

My level of understanding at that age as to what armed confrontation was all about can be gauged by the fact that the difference between "soldiers" on the one hand, and "cowboys and indians" on the other, was still pretty blurry to me. Nevertheless, I have a clear memory of my parents explaining to me in hushed tones one day that my friend was having a bit of a rough time, as his dad had just returned from Vietnam and was behaving strangely. What was Vietnam, and how was he behaving strangely, I wanted to know. I was told that Vietnam was a place where American soldiers, like my friend's dad, were fighting in a jungle (a big forest, as far as I understood) and had bombs thrown at them on a regular basis. And my friend's dad was exhibiting unusual behavior because he had had bombs thrown at him too many times. It seems that the first night after he returned, a police car went by their house with its siren blaring. The next morning, when his wife woke up, he was nowhere to be found. After searching the whole house for her husband, she finally found him fast asleep under the bed. He had heard the siren in the night and, without waking up, had rolled off the bed and back under it to take cover from the "incoming shells".

Before discussing the merits and flaws of a comparison between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, a few words about the White House spin machine. It is notable that up until last week, anyone who compared the two conflicts was dismissed by the neocons as a defeatist or worse, since the ignominous end of America's engagement in Southeast Asia is still remembered as one of the deepest humiliations of US military power ever - until Iraq, that is. Although... there are some who still insist that it was not a defeat for the US, and their worldview is captured pretty neatly in this dialog between Archie and Otto in A Fish Called Wanda:

- You know your problem? You don't like winners.
- Winners?
- Yeah. Winners.
- Winners like... North Vietnam?
- Shut up! We did not lose Vietnam! It was a tie!
- I'm tellin' ya, they kicked some ass there. Boy, they whupped your hide real good!
- No, they didn't.
- Yes, they did.
- Oh, no, they didn't.
- Oh, yes, they did.
- Oh, no, they... Shut up!

The highest form of propaganda consists of not just distorting the truth a little bit, but of proclaiming the opposite of what everyone knows to be true. (Thus, for example, commenting on the resignation of disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has the gall to accuse the Democratic Congress of "dangerously politicizing the Justice Department", which is of course exactly what Gonzales has been doing.) So it should come as no surprise that after years of pooh-poohing any resemblance between the Vietnam debacle and the Iraqi quagmire, the White House now turns around and cites the example of Vietnam as a reason for supporting the continued occupation of Iraq. You gotta hand it to these guys: They distort reality at breathtaking levels of altitude, where most ordinary mortals would find it difficult to operate even with oxygen masks and sherpas carrying their bundle of lies for them.

Of course, such obviously false parallels can easily be shown to be wrong by anyone with even the most basic knowledge of history and international relations. Refuting the lies of the Republican spin machine is easy; but one wonders whether it is worth the effort, since by the time their claims are exposed as false, the spin doctors will have moved on to the next mind-boggling distortion. Nevertheless, here goes; we will first of all discuss why the parallels that Bush drew between Iraq and Vietnam in his recent speech are wrong, and then look in detail at some of the real differences and similarities between the two conflicts.

Speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) association in Kansas City, Missouri, Bush claimed that
“America’s withdrawal was paid for by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’”

Concerning the vengeance of the Communist regime on Southern Vietnam after the US retreat, it is worth noting that the Viet Minh movement was not always an implacable enemy of the US or the West. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor organization of the CIA, cooperated with Ho Chin Minh and the Viet Minh against the Japanese occupiers of Vietnam in 1945. It was only when they realized that the US would not support their bid for independence that the Viet Minh and their successors of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam turned towards Communism. That is to say, the refugee crisis and re-education camps were largely an outcome of US intransigence since the end of the Second World War and Washington's sustained support for a corrupt South Vietnamese regime after France pulled out of Indochina; to blame these deplorable developments on the US retreat is simply a reversal of cause and effect.

It is similarly ahistorical to attribute the "killing fields" to the US withdrawal from Southeast Asia. The rise of the Khmer Rouge to power in Cambodia, culminating in the capture of the capital, Phnom Penh, on 17 April 1975 (a mere two weeks before the fall of Saigon), can largely be attributed to the US bombing capaign against Cambodia during the previous years. In order to interdict North Vietnamese resupply routes through the neighboring country, Nixon ordered a secret strategic bombing campaign against Cambodia, which in turn enhanced the popularity of the Communist Khmer Rouge guerillas, whose rule of terror later led to hundreds of thousands of deaths on the so-called killing fields. Notably, it was the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that ultimately ended the reign of Pol Pot with an invasion of Cambodia in 1979. Again, the notion that the deaths of approximately 1.5 million Cambodians were due to the US withdrawal from Vietnam is a gross distortion of reality.

Having established that it was US interference in Southeast Asia, not the decision to withdraw, that caused the phenomena wrongly attributed by Bush in his recent speech, we should also look at some of the actual historical similarities and differences between Vietnam and Iraq.

The main difference is that the Iraqi resistance has no support from a superpower, unlike North Vietnam, which received supplies and diplomatic backing from Moscow as a Soviet proxy in the context of the Cold War. Despite the attempts by the neoconservatives to frame Iran as acting in such a manner, both the Maliki puppet government in Iraq and the Karzai regime in Afghanistan report that Iran has been a constructive force in the recent regional turmoil, meaning that Tehran has not been extending significant support to insurgents in either country. On the one hand, Iran certainly retains that option if certain parameters should change - for example, if it should become the target of US attacks. On the other hand, Tehran's long-term interests include the establishment of a stable situation in the region, preferably with an enhanced role for itself.

A secondary difference is one of geography. Iraq has no forests offering cover and retreat areas for large bodies of insurgent fighters, and the various militias and armed groups cannot move across the desert in sizeable formations. Of course, that means that there are no massed targets for the US military to attack and destroy in open engagements. This is also why most of the US casualties have been incurred in urban environments, and due to roadside bombs. The densely built-up areas of Iraqi cities are the contemporary equivalent of the Vietnamese jungle.

Conversely, the similarities between America's two worst military debacles in the past 50 years are fairly evident.

In both cases, the justification to go to war was based on patent lies. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing US President Lyndon B. Johnson to use force in Southeast Asia was obtained by distorting and inflating a minor or non-existent confrontation between the US Navy and Vietnamese ships; the Iraq War Resolution was based on many months of sustained propaganda and disinformation campaigns directed at the US Congress, the American public, and a skeptical world at large. Among the outright lies disseminated by the White House were
  • the claims about 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta having met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague;
  • lies about alleged Iraqi attempts to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger (leading to the Plamegate scandal);
  • Bush and Blair referring to a non-existent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency supposedly claiming Iraq was six months away from developing a nuclear weapon;
  • plagiarized reports on Saddam's Iraq, some of which referred to the state of affairs 12 years earlier.
None of the above falsehoods were due to "faulty intelligence"; they were all known to be wrong at the time they were made.

Also, just as in the case of its support for the Diem regime in Southern Vietnam, the US is repeating its mistake of over-reliance on weak and corrupt local allies that lack legitimacy among the Iraqi population. Ahmed Chalabi, the designated puppet at the start of the war, was convicted of bank fraud in Jordan after the collapse of his Petra Bank. He managed to convince the neocons surrounding Bush in 2002 that his opposition group of Iraqi exiles, the Iraqi National Congress, should be installed as the new government as soon as Saddam was overthrown. He was reportedly exposed in 2004 as a spy for Iran. Chalabi's nephew Iyad Allawi was subsequently named prime minister, but has since fled the country and now lives in London.

Perhaps the most dangerous misjudgement both in Vietnam and in Iraq has been a near-complete misconception, or perhaps misrepresentation, of the US enemies' motivation. Concerning Vietnam, US defense secretary Robert McNamara claimed that if the country were allowed to fall into the hands of the Communist Ho Chi Minh, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow (the "domino theory"). Of course, that never happened; even after the ignominous defeat of the US, most of the neighboring Asian countries remained safely in the capitalist camp, and until the 1990s, the "Tiger states" of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan displayed some of the world's biggest economic growth levels. Vietnam today has become a de-facto capitalist state, though it retains its one-party government. Most historians agree that Uncle Ho was fighting a war of national liberation, which had started with resistance against China and Japan and continued through the French colonial period until the conquest of Saigon and the US withdrawal. That is, Communism was an ideology used for mobilizing the Vietnamese people against foreign domination, but the National Front was essentially a national liberation movement rather than conceiving itself as part of a global movement or aiming to export revolutionary fervor to the region.

Similarly, the Bush White House insists that the armed groups resisting the US occupation of Iraq are "jihadists" (the latter-day "Commies") and al-Qaida franchises, since acknowledging that most are local sectarian militias opposed to the US presence would undermine the rationale for the war effort, which has been implicitly, and wrongly, linked to the 9/11 attacks. Bush claims that "we are fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here"; that narrative would implode if it were acknowledged that 95% of the Iraqi resistance have no ties to al-Qaida or other foreign Wahhabi groups.

This blog post is growing far longer than intended, so I will sum up a few of the other more important similarities in brief. The Iraqi militants, like the Vietcong, are flexible and employ asymmetrical tactics against the US occupation forces; as a result, after losing its sense of invulnerability in the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US is now experiencing the destruction of its myth of invincibility on the battlefield, together with its international reputation, both of which it had painstakingly rebuilt after the humiliating experience of Vietnam.

"The smell of victory"

Some other obvious similarities between Iraq and Vietnam were noted by Martin van Creveld, one of the leading military historians of our times, as early as September 2004 in an article on "Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did". This paper describes a trip to Vietnam undertaken by Israeli general Moshe Dayan in 1966 at the invitation of Walt Rostow, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and McNamara. Having spent several weeks in the country, including patrols on swift boats as well as on foot with the Marines and the 1st Air Cavalry Division, Dayan came to the following main conclusions: The US effort was going badly because it
  • lacked intelligence,
  • was losing the battle for hearts and minds, and
  • was seen by global public opinion as a bully "beating down on the weak".
Van Creveld also offers this stark assessment of how Dayan, who had a great degree of admiration for the US in general and especially for the US troops he had encountered, regarded the justification for the war:
As to what he was told of the war’s objectives, such as defending democracy and helping the South Vietnamese people, he considered it “childish” propaganda; if many of the Americans he met believed in them, clearly nobody else did.
In conclusion, I would like to refer to Barbara Tuchman's excellent book "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam", which dissects America's blunder into the Vietnam conflict as an example of why and how governments pursue policies that are contrary to their own interests. She attributes the mistakes of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations to "follies", including over-reaction ("the invention of endangered 'national security', the invention of 'vital interest', the invention of 'commitment' which rapidly assumed a life of its own..."); the "illusion of omnipotence"; "wooden-headedness", which she also describes as the "Don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts habit"; a refusal to "take the enemy's grim will and capacity into account; and "'working the levers' as a substitute for thinking", or the "absence of reflective thought about the nature of what we're doing".

If all of the above "follies" are strongly reminiscent of the current US "surge" strategy, it is surely no coincidence. These are the only comparisons between the Vietnam war and the Iraq occupation worth making, and the only ones from which tangible lessons for the present quagmire can be drawn. However, I fear that we are soon to see a final historical parallel: As Bush attempts to postpone a withdrawal of US forces into the administration of his successor, we can discern the beginnings of a blame-shifting process.

The White House is trying desperately to pin responsibility for the disastrous course of the neoconservative Iraq adventure on anybody but the neocons themselves.
The Republican Party, supposedly the party of individual responsibility, now blames its own catastrophic failure on the Iraqi government, al-Qaida, Iran, and - in a final twist of propagandistic desperation - the Democrats, as well as anybody else who is opposed to the war or dares call for a withdrawal of US forces. And here we can expect a final repetition of history: The Dolchstosslegende.

Just as the German military reactionaries after the First World War blamed the Social Democrats for having signed the peace treaty with the Allies and thus having delivered a cowardly "stab in the back" to the brave soldiers on the frontline, "unvanquished in the field", as the legend went ("im Felde unbesiegt"); and just as the right-wing conservatives in the US until today blame "peaceniks and hippies" for having lost the Vietnam War, the current administration and its lackey pundits will try to pass the buck to those who have tried to inject a voice of reason, rationalism, and realism into the debate.

America must avoid repeating this historical mistake, or its refusal to face up to its own failures may lead to a Weimar Republic scenario. Already today, ultra-conservatives in the US have a good deal of contempt for democracy, pluralism, and progressive politics - including the notion that military force is not always the best approach to solving foreign-policy problems. If the US should choose to continue the present course or even to embark on a military adventure in Iran, for example, and if it should end up suffering a complete defeat in the Middle East, it is not inconceivable that American democracy itself would be under threat, as the nascent German democracy was in the 1920s and 1930s.

Let us hope that 40 years from now, this historical analogy will turn out to be just as flawed as Bush's preposterous remarks before the VFW last week.


A postscript, 10 September 2007: I am currently reading Pausanias, "Description of Greece", and came across the following passage that I felt should be included with this discussion of Vietnam and Iraq.
About sixty stades from Marathon as you go along the road by the sea to Oropus stands Rhamnus. The dwelling houses are on the coast, but a little way inland is a sanctuary of Nemesis, the most implacable deity to men of violence. It is thought that the wrath of this goddess fell also upon the foreigners who landed at Marathon. For thinking in their pride that nothing stood in the way of their taking Athens, they were bringing a piece of Parian marble to make a trophy, convinced that their task was already finished. Of this marble Pheidias made a statue of Nemesis [...] Neither this nor any other ancient statue of Nemesis has wings, for not even the holiest wooden images of the Smyrnaeans have them, but later artists, convinced that the goddess manifests herself most as a consequence of love, give wings to Nemesis as they do to Love.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bad Cop

At the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in June, three masked police officers acting as agents provocateurs tried to incite non-violent demonstrators to attack the uniformed police. Accounts of this incident can be found here and here (in German); a video is available here - the scene of the undercover cop being returned to his colleagues is at 1:40 min.

The leaders of the US, Mexico, and Canada held a meeting of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP; wonder who it is that comes up with these neo-Orwellian names?) in Montebello, Québec on 20 and 21 August. On this occasion, a similar scene was caught on camera and posted on Youtube. The clip shows an elderly man, belonging to a group of people (apparently trade union members) trying to separate the police from a group of younger protesters, telling another guy dressed in black "anarchist" garb to drop the rock he is holding. The confrontation heats up when the older man accuses the man holding a rock and his two buddies of being cops:

For a minute or so, it's just Coles being a good samaritan, trying to stop a potentially violent confrontation and demanding that one of the men who picks up a rock put it down. It's already extremely tense by the time that someone starts pointing at the masked protestors and chanting "policier!" Coles demands that the men take off their masks, and the majority of the crowd join him––some even reach for the bandannas themselves––and accuse the masked men of being cops, police provocateurs hired to start a riot. When Coles actually looks at one of the men dead-on and says, "you're a police officer," the masked men all freeze, seemingly dumb-struck. And then they kind of start being aggressive again, until a little over two minutes in, when there's the weirdest police takedown you'll probably ever see.

The three men then sidle towards the police line until they are gently pulled over, pushed down, and "taken into custody" in a way that is entirely unbelievable considering they are supposed to be violent anarchists who just tried to lob a dangerous missiles at the cops "arresting" them, lending more credence to the notion that they are agents provocateurs.

This is the kind of cynical manipulation that not only increases general distrust of the police - whether in Germany, Canada, or elsewhere; it also raises the degree of cynicism about the idea that the political system we live in can be changed by legitimate public protest. Also makes you wonder how the uniformed police officers feel about their colleagues trying to goad demonstrators into attacking them. Are they pissed off, or looking forward to a bit of aggro?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Protecting the Bush Bubble

The Washington Post reports on a manual handed out in advance of George Bush's public appearances, to ensure that the Republican Beloved Leader is protected from dissent and to prevent the ugly reality from intruding on the White House's carefully stage-managed events:
A White House manual that came to light recently gives presidential
advance staffers extensive instructions in the art of "deterring
potential protestors" from President Bush's public appearances around
the country.
Of course all members of the audience are carefully screened ahead of such events, as they should be; it is not inconceivable that someone might so actively dislike the Frat Boy President that they would try to hurt him, which would not only be wrong, wrong, wrong, but the ensuing backlash would actually help his party. So I'm not against tight security at public POTUS appearances. And that is also why I'm not surprised that prospective audience are mainly handpicked ticket-holders, i.e., loyal Bushies, and that placard-wielding hippie types are generally not admitted. But, as the WashPost continues:
that does not mean the White House is against dissent -- just so
long as the president does not see it. In fact, the manual outlines a
specific system for those who disagree with the president to voice their
views. It directs the White House advance staff to ask local police "to
designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferably
not in the view of the event site or motorcade route."

Adds a new twist to the ages-old cop cliche "Move on, there's nothing to see here." Also, the local event organizers are encouraged to set up Conformity Squads (my own label) to prevent any disruption, i.e. dissent:
To counter any demonstrators who do get in, advance teams are told to
create "rally squads" of volunteers with large hand-held signs, placards
or banners with "favorable messages." Squads should be placed in
strategic locations and "at least one squad should be 'roaming'
throughout the perimeter of the event to look for potential problems,"
the manual says.
However, as the immortal Robert Burns reminds us, even "The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men / Gang aft agley". In a worst-case scenario where Islamofascistodefeatocrats have been able to insinuate themselves into a visible spot and are disseminating their heinous opinions, the White House manual recommends that the Conformity Squads move to Plan B:
"These squads should be instructed always to look for demonstrators," it
says. "The rally squad's task is to use their signs and banners as
shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform. If the
demonstrators are yelling, rally squads can begin and lead supportive
chants to drown out the protestors (USA!, USA!, USA!). As a last resort,
security should remove the demonstrators from the event site."
Republicans - you gotta love them. Didya hear me, son? You GOTTA love them! Or you're out on your ass!

By the way: The heavily redacted manual was acquired by the ACLU

as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of two people arrested for refusing to cover their anti-Bush T-shirts at a Fourth of July speech at the West Virginia State Capitol in 2004.
Remember: They hate us for the freedoms we enjoy.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Marg Bar Amrika!

In the careers of almost all more or less successful bands, there comes a time when one or several members are sick of playing the same old sh*t over and over again. Every night, the fans will be clamoring for the greatest hits, even though the group may think it has moved on and would like to try out some new stuff. Internal disagreements over how to deal with this situation may then lead to the dreaded "creative differences", as often as not causing hiatus or breakup of the whole project. Everybody who has ever played in a band (including this Hippo) can tell a story or two about this phenomenon.

The popular boy group "The Islamic Republic of Iran" is no exception, apparently. In a new biography of the combo, which reached the apex of its popularity under founding member and frontman Seyyed Ruhollah Musavi "Imam" Khomeini, it is revealed that the ayatollah was tired of playing that hoary old chestnut “Death to America” and "favoured dropping the mantra". This is according to Khomeini's successor as band leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has just published his memoirs of The Republic's hard-prayin' and hard-rockin' days on the road.

In the end, it was the untimely demise of The Imam that prevented a fatal falling-out among the band members and cleared the way for Rafsanjani to succeed him as singer and lead guitarist. The velvet-voiced Rafsanjani was later ousted from The Islamic Republic by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose gritty singing has been received by rapturous fans as a return to the band's former "ass-kicking" sound. "Marg Bar Amrika" remains the signature tune of "The Islamic Republic" and is heard every Friday in stadiums all over Iran.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Screwing the Pentagon

The world's two most expensive washers were purchased by the Pentagon at a slightly unreasonable price of US$1 million, according to The Guardian:

The most expensive washers in history were part of $20.5m the company stole from the Pentagon over the last 10 years. The company shipped plumbing and electrical parts to US bases round the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

But oh, wait, that wasn't the price of the washers themselves; it was the cost of sending them to the Pentagon:
The company claimed $998,798 for sending the two washers, which could have been put in an envelope and posted through normal mail for a few dollars.

However, for the scammer, this may have been the most expensive million dollars she ever made:
Charlene Corley, 47, co-owner of the plumbing and electrical firm C&D Distributors, who supplied parts to the military, is awaiting sentence after pleading guilty yesterday to defrauding the Pentagon. She faces 20 years in jail. [...] She admitted her role in the fraud but lawyers placed most of the blame on her sister and co-owner, Darlene, who committed suicide in October after being approached by investigators.
Twenty years in jail and her sister is dead. Pretty costly way of getting rich. Personally, I prefer my peace of mind...

Viking Descendants Say 'Sorry'

Danish Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen, on an official visit to Ireland, apologized last Wednesday for the behavior of the Vikings who raped, pillaged, and looted the British Isles from the 8th to the 11th centuries. His visit to Dublin came on the occasion of the arrival of the replica Viking longship Havhingsten fra Glendalough (Sea Stallion of Glendalough), which sailed from Roskilde in Denmark on 2 July. The 30-meter ship can carry a crew of 60 to 70 Norse pirates and is a faithful copy of the Skuldelev 2, built in 1042 AD from oak beams felled in Wicklow County, Ireland, and now to be seen in the Viking museum of Roskilde.

"In Denmark, we are certainly proud of the ship, but we are not proud of the damage done to the people of Ireland after the Viking invasion. However, the warmth you have shown us today shows us that all has been forgiven," Mikkelsen added.
His apologies may have been prompted by the desire to patch up an emerging disagreement between Denmark and Ireland over the return of historic artifacts under new EU regulations that took effect on 1 April this year. Essentially, the terms of the deal now reached stipulate that Denmark will loan the replica to the Irish National Museum for a year in order to avoid having to return the remains of the original Skuldelev ship (more info on the Havhingsten project website).

Like their warlike forebears, the crew of the Havhingsten sailed to Ireland by circumnavigating the northernmost tip of Denmark, passing by southern Sweden, and crossing the North Sea. From the Orkney Islands (which were under Scandinavian administration for 600 years, beginning in 875 AD) they sailed down the Scottish west coast and across the Irish Sea. This is more or less the same 1.700-km route that in 795 brought the first Viking raiders to Ireland, at the time a European center of early medieval Christian scholarship. The wealthy, but largely undefended monasteries were easy prey for the Norse looters.

In the first few decades, the Vikings only came to Ireland during the summer months, returning to Scandinavia when the raiding season was over in autumn. But from the mid-9th century onwards, they began to build fortified settlements in order to be able to remain in Ireland during the winter months. In addition to significant settlements at Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford, they founded the current capital of Ireland, Dublin. At the end of the 9th century, the Vikings shifted their focus to England and the European continent, but at the beginning of the 10th century they returned to Ireland with a vengeance (the surprisingly effective resistance of the Anglo-Saxons under King Alfred the Great may have contributed to this renewed shift towards the West). The Scandinavians are supposed to have been decisively beaten by Irish High King Brian Bóruma at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 AD.

My professor of Old English, Stephen Tranter, liked to point out the differing viewpoints in the respective Norse and Old English records of those heady times. While the Anglo-Saxon chronicles would state something to the effect that "The evil heathen Norsemen came to Wessex this year, plundering the monasteries, raping our daughters, and exhibiting generally loutish behavior", the corresponding Scandinavian saga would record something like "Snorri and Haakon travelled to England with 12 ships and engaged in profitable trade with the Englishmen all summer long"; i.e., what the Anglo-Saxons perceived as plunder was viewed by the Vikings as simple mercantile activity, though admittedly they got the better deals.

Brian Mikkelsen's apology coincided more or less with the withdrawal of the last Danish troops from southern Iraq. Had the Vikings been able to witness his shameful display of remorse on their behalf - 1200 years after the fact, no less! - I wonder how they might have reacted to this milquetoast character.

Quite possibly, they would have considered him a candidate for what was known as a "Blood Eagle":

The Blood Eagle was reportedly a method of torture and execution that is sometimes mentioned in Norse saga literature. It was performed by cutting the ribs of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out. Salt was sprinkled in the wounds.
Yes, I believe that is what they might well have done.

This strange story had me imagining a distant descendant of George Bush visiting Iraq in the year 3203 to apologize for the shameful invasion, rape, and plunder of the country by the US many generations ago - possibly on the occasion of a replica M1A1 Abrams medium battle tank being donated to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, which by that time will hopefully have been restored to something resembling its former glory, though certainly minus many of its national treasures which are, at the time of this writing, being flogged off by unscrupulous antique dealers in Europe and the US.

The legacy of the Viking settlement in the British Isles is felt even today - the Scandinavian influence can be traced in the English language; in place-names all across England, Scotland, and Ireland; and even in the English legal system, especially in those parts of England that were under permanent Scandinavian control, known as the "Danelaw". I wonder whether the US influence in Iraq will be similarly long-lasting and deep-rooted, but I doubt it; although there are significant efforts underway to build permanent settlements (read: "army bases"), to rob the country of its national treasures (from Babylonian sculpture to crude oil), and to shape the country's legal system according to the requirements of US "mercantile activities" (in the Viking sense...).

One thing the US can learn from the not-so-warlike Danes of today is this: It's never too late to say 'I'm sorry'.