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Roger Ebert: Saint

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If you haven’t read Chris Jones’s moving interview-tribute to Roger Ebert in this month’s Esquire, I highly recommend it. I’ve been a fan of Ebert’s movie reviews for years  now, and while I have often found him far too soft on Hollywood’s stinkers (he liked Booty Call, for god’s sake!) I see now that it’s a product of a truly gentle personality, a soft, sophisticated intelligence that seeks, in spite of everything, to look on the bright side.

Mr. Ebert has spent the better part of the last decade in an out of surgery, battling a variety of cancers, which have ultimately claimed his throat and vocal cords, as well as his ability to eat, drink and communicate. As the article mentions, he can’t remember the last word he spoke, the last thing he ate, the last drink he drank. But with what grace, what humility he bears it! One hears no complaints from this man, no poor-me sob stories; in fact, he considers himself lucky!

As he says, “There is no need to pity me. Look how happy I am! This has led to an explosion of writing.”

And indeed it has. If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to go over Roger Ebert’s Journal, where he, in his verbal silence, effuses a bright and erudite stream of daily prose on every subject thinkable. Life, death, politics, film, love, relationships – well, everything really. There is much to learn from this man, and he is kind enough to attempt to teach us.

Written by pavanvan

February 21, 2010 at 10:26 am

Climate Change and the Political Impasse

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Bradford Plumer over at The New Republic has an excellent review up on a leading climate scientist’s latest book. Things are looking mighty grim:

I’m not trying to start a nerdy parlor game, but if we were to list the most important climate scientists of the past fifty years, James Hansen would have to be in the mix. Three decades ago, he helped create one of the world’s first climate models to predict how the Earth would heat up in response to rising greenhouse gases. (Many of his early forecasts held up well.) He stepped into the spotlight again in 1988, issuing one of the first climate warnings to Congress. And, in the 2000s, when Bush appointees tried to downplay the severity of global warming, Hansen was the one blowing the whistle. The director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies is hardly infallible, but as would-be Cassandras go, his record has proven awfully solid.

Like many global-warming skeptics, Hansen has sharp disagreements with the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change. Unlike the deniers, however, he believes that the consensus view actually downplays the problem. The computer models used to project future warming, for example, seem to be too conservative: they failed to predict, among other things, the rapid collapse of summertime Arctic sea ice since 2007.

Written by pavanvan

February 14, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Just Kidding!

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You may recall Obama’s war speech last week wherein he set a definite timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Specifically, his words were:

And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

Straight, direct, no real room for ambiguity there. “After 18 months our troops will (not “might”, not “could”) come home.”

How, then, to explain this article in today’s New York Times with the headline “No Firm Plans for a US Exit From Afghanistan”? Well, let’s see:

In a flurry of coordinated television interviews, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials said that any troop pullout beginning in July 2011 would be slow and that the Americans would only then be starting to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces under Mr. Obama’s new plan.

Clever, clever Obama! The soldiers will begin coming home in July 2011, but he never specified how quickly! By this logic our presence in Afghanistan could still be unlimited. We only have to send one soldier home per year.

Here’s some justification from an important-sounding General:

“We have strategic interests in South Asia that should not be measured in terms of finite times,” said Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’re going to be in the region for a long time.”

See, it’s okay! We’ve got “strategic interests” in South Asia, apparently so important that they must be measured in infinite terms. Just don’t bother trying to find out what those “interests” might be.

Mr. Gates said that under the plan, 100,000 American troops would be in Afghanistan in July 2011, and “some handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time.”

When Obama thundered to West Point that US troops will begin coming home in 2011, he neglected to mention that “handful” bit. But who can blame him – the speech sounded so much better with the deception left in.

Well at least we might have a chance at catching Osama Bin Laden. Isn’t that right, Mr. Gates?

Mr. Gates said it had been “years” since the United States had had reliable intelligence about Mr. bin Laden, but he said it was still the assumption of American intelligence agencies that he was hiding in North Waziristan, in Pakistan.


Written by pavanvan

December 7, 2009 at 10:58 am

An Unspoken Surge

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Curiously missing from Obama’s speech last week, save for some vague references to our “success” in Afghanistan being “inextricably linked to Pakistan”, was the increase in “drone” attacks that shall be visited upon that unfortunate desert.

Obama thinks most of “Al Qaeda” (or perhaps “The Taliban”) is hiding out in Pakistan. But Obama cannot “go in and get ‘im” like his cowboy predecessor because of the small issue of Pakistan’s sovereignty. So instead he pummels them with flying death machines (euphemistically, “drones”), indiscriminately bombing villages and murdering, on average, 10 civilians per strike.  So long as he can claim that some “terror leaders” were killed (no need to specify whom – nobody’s checking anyway), the civilian deaths can conveiently fall under that humanitarian heading of “collateral damage”.

The Pakistani government officially speaks out against flying death machines attacking its citizens, but privately they have come to an agreement with the US military that so long as the dollars keep flowing, they won’t register any serious complaints. After all, the US just tripled aid to Pakistan, mainly to keep the Pakistani government quiet while the US butchers its citizens.

What a fantastic war.

Written by pavanvan

December 6, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Def. Secretary Gates: War “appalling”, breach of “common decency”

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Well, to be fair, Secretary of “Defense” Robert Gates doesn’t object to war per se, only the effects of it. Not even that, actually – Gates merely objects to the public’s ability to see such effects firsthand.

For a vivid demonstration, please see this article in today’s Politico. The piece describes Secretary Gates’ objections (“in the strongest possible terms”) to an Associated Press decision to transmit a photograph featuring a mortally wounded 21-year-old Marine.

Thus far, the Pentagon has exerted all its powers, both legal and illegal, to prevent our media from displaying pictures of dead soldiers. By and large, our mainstream outlets have complied. Nobody wants any trouble, you see – least of all from the Pentagon. So while the American public can be treated to heroic stories of “sacrifice for your country”, we are allowed precious few images of such sacrifice firsthand. Until the Obama Administration, even flag-draped coffins were considered inappropriate for public consumption. The White House has slid back in that respect, but they still clamp a tight lid upon any images of combat casualties.

It would be useful to examine the letter Secretary Gates sent to the Associated Press, which I excerpt below:

“Out of respect for his family’s wishes, I ask you in the strongest of terms to reconsider your decision. I do not make this request lightly. In one of my first public statements as Secretary of Defense, I stated that the media should not be treated as the enemy, and made it a point to thank journalists for revealing problems that need to be fixed – as was the case with Walter Reed.”

“I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family. Why your organization would purposefully defy the family’s wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right – but judgment and common decency.”

As you can see, it is “beyond” Mr. Gates to contemplate why the AP might make a decision “knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish”. Irony is another concept apparently beyond Mr. Gates’ cognition – if it were not, he would surely see how his own decisions regarding Iraq and Afghanistan unquestionably lead to “yet more anguish”.

We have all heard our liberal press moan that our government “learned nothing” from Vietnam, but that statement is not entirely true. Of course, lessons regarding the folly of imperialism, the implacability of national independence movements, or the grim cost of war itself were lost on our government, but they nonetheless learned a very important fact about the media: it must be controlled at all costs.

Much of the popular furor regarding the Vietnam War was stroked by two things: mandatory conscription (the dreaded “draft”), and a steady stream of atrocities, both US and Viet Cong in origin, which were graphically displayed to the American public on the nightly news. On this latest imperial go-round, our leaders learned the value of strict media control. Hence, we have seen no images of battle, no motion pictures of combat deaths, and most importantly, no visual reminder of the human cost of our empire.

No wonder Mr. Gates is appalled by this latest breach of protocol.

Written by pavanvan

September 4, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Memories of El Salvador

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I just met a Salvadoran in Central Park who grew up during its 10-year civil war (Please see this post or read the book it describes for more information). I was only able to speak to him for 15 minutes, but he was gracious enough to allow me to take notes.

Here, then, is his half of the conversation, as it occurred. His English was not fluent, so I took liberties with sentence structure and pronunciation, so to better render the exchange for this format. He was the son of a relatively prosperous landowner in El Salvador.

Guerrilla here refers to the Salvadoran insurgency, while “The Army” or The Government” refers to the US-sponsored entity.

“I was born in ’73 – the war started when I was six or seven. The government, they came to our house one day and they said, ‘This area, this is all the Guerrilla territory. Either you’re with us or you’re with them. You have 72 hours to leave, otherwise you’re with them. ‘

It was a big rain the night before, and we had to leave the village the next day at 2 in the afternoon. It was a heavy, heavy rain. We had to leave everything except the clothes we were wearing. We didn’t go back until 4 years later, and everything was completely ruined – the animals, all gone, and we didn”t find anything in our house, we find no tables, no chairs. Most of the village was destroyed by bombs, thrown by the government’s planes.

They have to catch the terrorists – and if you’re not a terrorist, you have to leave the house, so they can eliminate them; find them and kill them. I think that’s what the idea was – why they made us leave.

And oh, it was so sad, because you know, coming from a wealthy family, now everyone had to find a way to survive, start again from the beginning. We had zero, no house, small tiny apartment for 8 people. Ended up selling mangoes, fruits in the streets. It was so sad.

I lost a brother in the war, an older one. We were so poor in those days. The government – when you were 18 you had to go to the army, by law. So he was killed.

Oh, they would take anyone who can hold a gun. If you’re 14 – you go with them. Sometimes younger than that. There was a lot of kids in the guerrilla. The army, though, you had to be 16 to join.

I remember when these guys from the guerrilla came to my mother and ask her, which of your sons will go with them. And she says none of them. So they say, well, we’ll kill them both, because if they don’t go with us, they’ll go with the government. Finally my oldest brother said fine, I’ll go with you. He offered himself in order not for us to be killed. Six years later he was dead.

Sometimes my mother, she cooked food and brought it to him in the mountains – you know how a mother is, she wants her child to eat. But the last couple times we went to see him in the place we always see him, he never shows up. So my mother started to get worried – she goes to her friend, and her friend says, “Oh, Rufino, he’s dead – I just heard”. Yeah, I remember that. After we found out we all suffered so much. I remember.

It was a point in her life when my mother had one son in the guerrilla and one son in the Army. I used to see her crying every day, every day, and praying that the other one survives.

And everyone was turning their neighbors in. It was like this: the army, the guerrilla, they had ways to find out about you – so lets say your family and my family, we’re not friends, all I have to do is say to the army, ‘that family over there, they’re part of the guerrilla, they’re giving information’ – then that family won’t wake up. Or you could go to the guerrilla and say that family supports the government. It’s the same thing. They’ll be killed. I saw three or four families like that.

I heard gunshots and shouting one night. I remember waking up one morning, and everyone was saying “They shot the Rodriguez! The whole family! The army left the bodies in the street for days.

I saw fighting few times. We were traveling in buses, and sometimes the bus gets shot – a lot of people get killed. And that’s how the guerrilla protests, they burn villages, bridges – destroy public property.

It was hard to tell who was who between government and guerrilla. The only way we could tell was that the guerrilla had a few women with them, and they dressed less… appropriate than the soldiers. But a lot of times it was hard to tell who was who. They both did the same things.”

Written by pavanvan

August 26, 2009 at 1:48 am

A Baghdadi Conundrum

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The Times on this week’s Baghdad Bombings

On the same page one can view an image of Jay Leno smiling in a convertible with the headline “Life needs more laughter”. More laughter indeed!

Two parallel narratives of Iraq currently populate our mainstream media, each claiming to represent the truth, yet both mutually exclusive of one another. On the one hand the Obama Administration claims (and our newspapers echo) that the situation in Iraq has markedly improved. We are endlessly informed of the “remarkable turnaround” in Iraq – the quiet streets, the reduced violence, and the returning refugees. As I mentioned earlier, Secretary Gates has committed to withdrawing 15,000 troops by the end of the year, with all “combat brigades” to exit by 2011. Publicly, our administration has stated that Iraq has begun to “take care of itself” and that US troops are no longer needed. Privately, they admit that the real focus of our Mid-East adventures has shifted to Afghanistan and that the reason for the Iraqi drawdown is to provide infantry for an Afghani buildup (17,000 extra soldiers already deployed with more on the way).

The Times, The Post, and various other newspapers have lent credibility to the idea of Iraqi stability with endless human-interest pieces on the resurgence of civil life in Iraq, now that the guns have fallen silent. View, for instance, this delightful little story on the finer points of Iraqi fish-roasting. And, of course, the endless op-ed pieces which begin with the premise that “the surge has worked” and continue their arguments from there. Ross Douhat gives a memorable line in a recent Times article: “Plenty of war-skeptics are unconvinced that Iraq’s recent stabilization will deliver a happy outcome in the long run. But the surge smoothed the way for withdrawal, which is what the war’s critics have wanted all along — so why rock the boat?” It is important to note here the assumption of “recent stabilization” and the bald assertion that “the surge smoothed the way for withdrawal”, as if those were facts only the most staid contrarian would dispute. Later he speaks of the “current [Iraqi] consensus” in much the same tone.

And yet the actual dispatches coming from Iraq paint a far different picture. Every week we hear of a new string of bombings in Iraq, “apparently intended to inflame sectarian passions”, as the Times puts it. (Here is a list of all major attacks in Iraq this year.) I think it safe to say such “passions” have long since been inflamed. So on one hand we have the official line espoused by the Obama Administration that we’ve seen “real improvement” in Iraq and that “the surge worked”. On the other we have the bombs that are still going off with alarming frequency. Taken together they paint a rather confusing picture of Iraq in 2009.

The key to deciphering these cryptic reports – indeed, to deciphering nearly all US dealings in the Middle East – is oil, always oil. The violence in Iraq concerned us in 2005-2008 because the US-installed Maliki government was still unsure of itself and still a bit wary to make deals regarding oil. Well Maliki has since fallen nicely into place, the lucrative oil contracts have already been made, and most importantly, Maliki has shown resilience to the various forces attempting to depose him. He’s our man in Iraq, and he’s not going anywhere. So let the Iraqis carry on their bloody feud! Let them blow one another up! As long as our man is in power and the oil still flows into US hands, what does it matter?

Afghanistan, however, tells a different story. The oil there flows through the geopolitically vital, and now precariously placed, Central Asia Pipeline. The Karzai government has not shown a tenth of the resilience of Maliki, though he has surely made up for that in obedience. Clearly he needs help. And so we put a veneer  over Iraq, ignoring the reality that nothing has been solved there, in order that we may draw soldiers out to help our friend in Afghanistan.

The contempt for life which the US government displays on a daily basis is nothing short of appalling. But even more insidious, if a bit less deadly, is its continuous contempt for the truth.

Written by pavanvan

August 8, 2009 at 3:15 am

Somewhere in Pakistan, a militant has no wife

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A Taliban finds himself single once again, courtesy of the United States

Apparently we now consider the US slaying of a militant’s wife newsworthy enough to make the Times front page. Three others were also killed in the attack with four children wounded – but as Donald Rusmfeld famously said, “stuff happens”. Whatever nefarious actions this woman may have committed (given the status of women in traditional Islamic societies, I think it safe to assume such deeds as washing, cooking, and cowed obedience), we can rest assured that she will perform them no longer. Mr. Meshud will have to find someone else to wash his rags – but maybe this will induce him to go unwashed for a while. Victory!

Every so often the Times or the Post will trot out an article such as this in order to prove the efficacy of our continued unmanned attacks upon Pakistan. Lately standards have fallen – from killing highly-placed militants to grunt workers to mere passersby. Now, if today’s front page is any indication, we are content with killing their wives.  Every such article is taken as evidence of our “drone” attacks’ efficacy. Bomb enough villages, and surely they’ll desist!

It is worth taking a look, however, at what these cross-border attacks actually do. Though each one kills  or cripples several (usually up to ten)  civilians, only around one in five actually ends up killing a militant. Usually our intelligence is at least a day behind – by the time coordinates are fixed and an attack ordered, the intended target is long gone. And even a ‘direct hit’ is nothing to boast over. The defining characteristic of the Islamic movement, as described by Mark Sageman in his excellent book, “Leaderless Jihad” is its complete de-centralization. Often the “terrorist leaders” who we proudly claim to have dispatched end up leading only a small band of disgruntled misfits. The large-scale “terror networks” of yester-decade have been replaced, according to Sageman, by what he terms “bunches of guys” – pocket cells of less than ten. It is not difficult to see how combating such cells by pilot-less rockets would prove rather difficult.

On the flip side, our rockets have undeniably inflamed anti-American sentiment. It is a truism that every civilian killed spawns two or three (or ten?) new militants.  Given our vocal support of the Zardari government, our rockets have the unintended effect of causing extreme instability within Pakistan. People don’t like it when their government allows a foreign nation to fire rockets upon them all willy-nilly. Ask the Israelis.

So why do we continue this mis-begotten campaign of destruction, which serves no purpose and acts to the detriment of many noble ones? Why, to fill the pocketbooks of a few large arms manufacturers! I recently spoke with a former engineer of a prominent arms company who said that these drones are essentially their bread and butter.

Written by pavanvan

August 5, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Posted in Policy, War

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