Archive for August, 2014

Human Smoke

August 24, 2014

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Lately I have been reading Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s pacifist history of the beginning of World War II. Although I don’t find Baker’s main argument – that Britain might have provoked Germany into war – convincing, I find the book interesting nonetheless. Among other things it’s always good to be reminded that Roosevelt and Churchill were not the saints that are often portrayed in popular culture.

One thing that Baker makes clear is that going back to the First World War, and possibly even earlier, military planners regarded the aerial bombardment of civilian populations to be a legitimate tool of warfare. Indeed, some of them seemed to eagerly look forward to this prospect. (Churchill once expressed disappointment that World War I ended before Britain could try out its new bombers.) The idea was that bombings will break a people’s will to fight. Yet if there is one thing that we should have learned from the twentieth century, it is that bombings do not break a people’s will to fight. Britain’s bombing of Germany did not break the Germans’ will to fight, nor did Germany’s bombing of Britain break the will of the British to fight. The US’s bombing of Japan did not break the will of the Japanese to fight. The US’s bombing of North Vietnam did not break the will of the Vietnamese to fight.

And so Israel’s bombing of Gaza has not broken the will of the Gazans to fight. We seem to learn nothing from history.

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Iraq and the Law of Unintended Consequences

August 17, 2014

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Nouri al-Maliki and Barack Obama

The other day I went to my local library to read Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices. I found it dull, and it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I was, however, struck by the following sentence on page 389: “Benghazi is a port city on the Mediterranean Sea with a population of more than 1 million people, mostly Sunni Muslims, and large African and Egyptian minorities.” So, our former Secretary of State doesn’t know that Libyans and Egyptians are Africans. Interesting.

I got so bored, that out of desperation I picked up a copy of Robert Gates’s memoir, Duty. I must say that I found Gates to be a more interesting writer than Clinton, if only because his writing doesn’t sound like sound-bites from a presidential debate. I also learned something from him: Bush had frequent video conferences with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, and with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq. Gates says that Bush acted as a “useful mentor” to these men (page 337). The idea that Bush could serve as a mentor to anyone, let alone the leaders of two nations, is mind-boggling to me. Later, Gates says that Maliki’s party came in second in Iraq’s 2010 (page 472) elections, but Maliki was nonetheless eventually able to resume his position as prime minister. What Maliki apparently learned from Bush was how to take office after losing an election.

Gates shares with us the following heart-warming anecdote:

    … Maliki, frustrated and angered by Iranian-backed Shia extremist actions in Basra, ordered units of the Iraqi army into the city to reestalish control. The U.S. commanders were horrified that Maliki had taken such a risk without proper preparation. They scrambled to provide the logistics, planning, and military advice to support Maliki’s effort; without such help, he almost certainly would have failed. But he didn’t and therefore won significant recognition all across Iraq for acting like a “national” leader by suppressing his Shia brethren. The president told the chiefs, “We ought to say hurray to Maliki for going down to Basra and taking on the extremists.” He charactized is a “milestone event.” “Maliki used to ba a paralyzed neophyte – now he is taking charge.” Bush was right. (Page 233.)

This same “national”, Maliki, is now widely blamed for the disintegration of the Iraqi state; his relentless sectarianism is alleged to a have antagonized the country’s Sunni Muslim minority. At this point, one must question whether Bush and Gates really understood what was going on in Iraq.

Ah, but according to conspiracy theory, leaders always have complete control over what is happening. Consider this article by Mike Whitney, Why Obama Wants Maliki Removed in the most recent isssue of CounterPunch. Whitney writes:

    The Obama administration is pushing for regime change in Iraq on the basis that current prime minister Nouri al Maliki is too sectarian. The fact is, however, that Maliki’s abusive treatment of Sunnis never factored into Washington’s decision to have him removed. Whether he has been “too sectarian” or not is completely irrelevant. The real reason he’s under attack is because he wouldn’t sign the Status of Forces Agreement in 2011. He refused to grant immunity to the tens of thousands of troops the administration wanted to leave in Iraq following the formal withdrawal. That’s what angered Washington. That’s why the administration wants Maliki replaced.

That’s right! Obama was so angry at Maliki, that he waited three years to demand his removal from office.

The life of a conspiracy theorist is difficult and unpleasant. He must be continually searching for whatever paltry (or perhaps non-existent) evidence that may buttress his pre-conceived ideas. He simply cannot concede the possibility that the people in charge may not always understand what exactly is going on.

Harry Truman’s Shirts

August 14, 2014

Truman

Lately, I have been reading David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman. I’m interested in the Truman administration, because it was a pivotal period in our nation’s history. One thing I like about McCullough’s book is that it does a lot to dispel the myth of “Give ‘Em Hell Harry”. McCullough shows that Truman was often indecisive, and that he was reluctant to make decisions that he knew would be unpopular. Among other things, McCullough makes it clear that Truman should have fired MacArthur months before he did. (Truman did have a temper though. He once threatened to throw Joseph Kennedy out of a hotel window. You can’t really blame him for wanting to do that.) Although McCullough is highly sympathetic to Truman, he is nevertheless critical of him at times. He argues, for example, that Truman’s Loyalty Program helped set the stage for McCarthyism.

McCullough is a skillful writer who is good at historical narrative, but his amassing of details began to annoy me after a while. He writes about such things as what clothes Truman wore and what he had for lunch on certain days. This is more than I really wanted to know about Truman. What makes this baffling is that he devotes one paragraph to the creation of NATO. And he says hardly anything about Truman’s policies towards post-war Germany. (Which was one of the issues I was interested in when I picked up this book.) Call me a philistine, but I think these topics would have been more interesting than Truman’s shirts.