Tuesday, June 17, 2008


So I just returned from Italy - pictures to come, but at the moment I'm pleased to say that I finally finished Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilization and then, as an added bonus, managed to read all of Standard Operating Procedure on the flight back home. Who knew it would be so hard to put down?

The good parts of The Great War for Civilization so far outweigh the bad parts that I can still recommend it wholeheartedly. It feels a little slapdash at times, and the quality is not consistent, but I've come out of it with a much better, much more thorough understanding of a number of conflicts that are often mentioned and rarely explained: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the war in Algeria, the Armenian genocide, and the first war in Iraq - Desert Storm. All of these really add up to a much better understanding of what's going on in Iraq right now.

For example, here is some information I would have liked to see explained clearly and briefly before:
  • Iraq is a majority Shi'i state.
  • Iran is a Shi'i state.
  • Saddam Hussein belonged to Iraq's Sunni minority.
  • Saddam Hussein was a relatively secular dictator, but he heavily favored the minority Sunni population and violently repressed the Shi'i majority.
  • The United States supported Saddam Hussein because his oppression of Iraq's Shi'i majority helped contain Iran. The enemy of our enemy was our friend - and Saddam Hussain was an enemy to Iran.
  • Now we want democratic elections in Iraq.
  • The Shi'i majority never had a chance to develop home-grown political parties and leadership
  • Shi'i political parties and leadership in Iraq were developed in Iran.
  • Iran has shown great willingness to extend its influence through the support of Shi'i political parties abroad - see: Lebanon.
  • The United States still hates Iran.
  • Conclusion: the US is going to have a hard time accepting democracy in Iraq.
When you really piece it all together, the cause and effect is so clear. And the more information you have, the clearer it becomes.

Maybe I could have read a handful of different books to get all the same information - but it was nice to have one big book as a starting point. And maybe I could have read something that was a little more measured or restrained in tone - but The Great War for Civilization is actually an enjoyable read, and in a book that is so long and so depressing that counts for a lot.

Standard Operating Procedure was in many ways a corrective to The Great War for Civilization. Every word was carefully chosen and the authors, Gourevitch and Morris, work hard to be dispassionate, even-handed, and give the soldiers of Abu Ghraib the chance to tell their own story without interference. At first I wished for a bit more context - I wanted to hear more about the whole conflict, and not just the prison - but by the end I was grateful that the book is so focused. It's not about the Middle East - it's about the United States - and the context is correctly a military one.

I think it would be a shame to spoil the book - and I also think it would be incredibly difficult. It has to be read to be believed. All I will say is that having read Standard Operating Procedure, I will never think about Abu Ghraib in the same way again.

Friday, June 6, 2008

dear reader, I cried

J.K. Rowling's commencement speech at Harvard: The first thing I would like to say is...

I just love her so much.

more politics, apparently

When I read this article, "Revealed: Secret plan to keep Iraq under US control," about the US trying to cinch a deal to set up 50 permanent bases in Iraq and ensure that American troops would remain immune from Iraqi law, I wasn't surprised. Same 'ol, same 'ol.

Then I read this article, "US issues threat to Iraq's $50 billion foreign reserves in military deal" and I have to say...I was surprised. Not just that we're using incredibly unfair ultimatums to force Iraq to accept the agreement described in the first article; that's pretty low. I almost thought it was worse that the US Treasury vetoed an Iraqi attempt to switch their assets from dollars to euros, "because it would show lack of confidence in the dollar." Proper stewards don't squander the resources they have commited to protect, and certainly not from such pure self-interest.

The Independent is my new favorite paper.