The fruits of war

From Jalalagood, my friend Peretz’s kickass Afghanistan travel blog, which you should definitely be reading.

Two representative symbols of Afghanistan, grenades and pomegranates, come from the same etymological root. We discovered yesterday that the word “grenade” is taken from the French “pome-grenate.” French soldiers gave the handheld explosives their name because they looked like the seeded fruits, both in their round shape topped with a crown, and in their inner workings consisting of lots of small seeds, prepped for activation.  We keep a stock of both at the Taj.

Last summer, I ate pomegranates from trees in Kabul whenever I got the chance. My friends found this disgusting. “But…those are urban pomegranates!” the Citizen Reporter exclaimed. “Their roots extend into the sewer drains.”

I shrugged and popped more tart, blood-colored seeds into my mouth.

“This is what happens when you go hunting for oblivion without a reflective vest”

My little sister, Evian, reflecting on injury, pain and the resulting deluge of self-awareness.

If I had lost my leg, as the surgeon warned me I could have, I don’t know how I would cope. There would no backpacking across eastern Europe in my future. The kind of people I love would never be able to do the things they love to do with me. One of my tattoos and an ill-advised adolescent scarification would have been for nothing. But I would adapt, I think.

Looking back on the minutes before my first surgery as I do, frequently, in PTSD-style flashbacks, I can see what I experienced without the mind-fucking hugeness of being inside it. It’s funny the way we talk about being in pain, as if pain were a place, a structure, a holding area. The worst waiting room on earth. I look back on that pain: the physical pain that surprised me every second it didn’t kill me and the heartbreak pain that made the physical recede better than vicodin or oxycodone or dilaudid ever could, and if I try really hard to be optimistic without being silly, I can see it as a lesson. This is what happens when you go hunting for oblivion without a reflective vest. It isn’t even the worst. You still get to dance on one leg. You still get to be touched and held.

So, here’s me warmongering out of control

Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece that’s been showing up in my facebook feed for the past couple of days. Greenwald opposes the intervention in Libya, but not for any reasons that hold water.

Advocating for the U.S.’s military action in Libya, The New Republic‘s John Judis lays out the argument which many of his fellow war advocates are making: that those who oppose the intervention are guilty of indifference to the plight of the rebels and to Gadaffi’s tyranny:

[…] in Judis’ moral world, there are only two possibilities: one can either support the American military action in Libya or be guilty of a “who cares?” attitude toward Gadaffi’s butchery. At least as far as this specific line of pro-war argumentation goes, this is just 2003 all over again. Back then, those opposed to the war in Iraq were deemed pro-Saddam: indifferent to the repression and brutalities suffered by the Iraqi people at his hands and willing to protect his power. Now, those opposed to U.S. involvement in the civil war in Libya are deemed indifferent to the repression and brutalities suffered by the Libyan people from Gadaffi and willing to protect his power. This rationale is as flawed logically as it is morally.

Why didn’t this same moral calculus justify the attack on Iraq? Saddam Hussein really was a murderous, repressive monster: at least Gadaffi’s equal when it came to psychotic blood-spilling. Those who favored regime change there made exactly the same arguments as Judis (and many others) make now for Libya: it’s humane and noble to topple a brutal dictator; using force is the only way to protect parts of the population from slaughter (in Iraq, the Kurds and Shiites; in Libya, the rebels); it’s not in America’s interests to allow a deranged despot (or his deranged sons) to control a vital oil-rich nation; and removing the tyrant will aid the spread of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Why does that reasoning justify war in Libya but not Iraq?

Because there was no imminent massacre looming in Iraq in 2003. The no fly zone over northern Iraq, imposed at the end of the first Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds, had been effective. The rest of the country was hushed in fear by a totalitarian state and choked economically by international sanctions, but Saddam Hussein was not threatening to send his soldiers into a population center and carry out a house-by-house slaughter in March 2003. Gaddafi, in contrast, had promised to do just that. And not only had he promised a massacre, he’d also very nearly delivered on that promise.

Even after Western air strikes began, Libyan troops entered Benghazi, killing scores of people and sending thousands fleeing eastward. (Two of my journalist friends were among those who believed they would surely die if they did not get away from the city.)

In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt argues that “liberal interventionists” and neocons share most of the same premises about America’s foreign policy and its role in the world, with the sole exception being that the former seek to act through international institutions to legitimize their military actions while the latter don’t. Strongly bolstering Walt’s view is this morning’s pro-war New York Times Editorial, which ends this way:

Libya is a specific case: Muammar el-Qaddafi is erratic, widely reviled, armed with mustard gas and has a history of supporting terrorism. If he is allowed to crush the opposition, it would chill pro-democracy movements across the Arab world.

Wasn’t all of that at least as true of Saddam Hussein?

Well, no, because, in addition to the reasons I mentioned above, there was no Arab Spring to chill in 2003.

Wasn’t that exactly the “humanitarian” case made to justify that invasion? And wasn’t that exactly the basis for the accusation against Iraq war opponents that they were indifferent to Saddam’s tyranny — i.e., if you oppose the war to remove Saddam, it means you are ensuring that he and his sons will stay in power, which in turn means you are indifferent to his rape rooms and mass graves and are willing to stand by while the Iraqi people suffer under his despotism? How can the “indifference-to-suffering” accusation be fair when made against opponents of the Libya war but not when made against Iraq war opponents?

UNSCR 1973 authorizes the use of force to protect civilians. It was passed in response to the imminent threat of mass killing, not the mere existence of a repressive and often violence regime. The world has no shortage of cruel governments, but instances of regimes planning or carrying out large-scale slaughters of their own people are mercifully rare.

If the lesson the international community took away from the shame of Rwanda was not to wring its hands while the graves overflow, the lesson of Iraq was to not rush into illegal military boondoggles. Both lessons seem to have been applied to Libya.  Action was not taken until the last possible moment and not until it had been sanctioned by a multilateral authority.

But my real question for Judis (and those who voice the same accusations against Libya intervention opponents) is this: do you support military intervention to protect protesters in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies from suppression, or to stop the still-horrendous suffering in the Sudan, or to prevent the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast? Did you advocate military intervention to protect protesters in Iran and Egypt, or to stop the Israeli slaughter of hundreds of trapped innocent civilians in Gaza and Lebanon or its brutal and growing occupation of the West Bank?

The only situation among the many mentioned here that comes anywhere close to the magnitude of Libya is the Ivory Coast. It looks increasingly possible that civilians there might soon face the same terrible prospects civilians in Libya are facing now –or worse. If the Ivory Coast appears to be on the verge of a bloodbath, and force is the last option left untried to prevent the unthinkable, then yes, shit, I guess I would support some kind of intervention in the Ivory Coast.

If not, doesn’t that necessarily mean — using this same reasoning — that you’re indifferent to the suffering of all of those people, willing to stand idly by while innocents are slaughtered, to leave in place brutal tyrants who terrorize their own population or those in neighboring countries? Or, in those instances where you oppose military intervention despite widespread suffering, do you grant yourself the prerogative of weighing other factors: such as the finitude of resources, doubt about whether U.S. military action will hurt rather than help the situation, cynicism about the true motives of the U.S. government in intervening, how intervention will affect other priorities, the civilian deaths that will inevitably occur at our hands, the precedents that such intervention will set for future crises, and the moral justification of invading foreign countries? For those places where you know there is widespread violence and suffering yet do not advocate for U.S. military action to stop it, is it fair to assume that you are simply indifferent to the suffering you refuse to act to prevent, or do you recognize there might be other reasons why you oppose the intervention?

In the very same Editorial where it advocates for the Libya intervention on the grounds of stopping government violence and tyranny, The New York Times acknowledges about its pro-intervention view: “not in Bahrain or Yemen, even though we condemn the violence against protesters in both countries.” Are those who merely “condemn” the violence by those two U.S. allies but who do not want to intervene to stop it guilty of indifference to the killings there? What rationale is there for intervening in Libya but not in those places?

[...]

Gaddafi is crazy and evil; obviously, he wasn’t going to listen to our advice about democracy. The world would be fortunate to be rid of him. But war in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standard we set for defiant ones. If not, then please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We’ll know this isn’t about justice, it’s about power.

[...]

But what I cannot understand at all is how people are willing to believe that the U.S. Government is deploying its military and fighting this war because, out of abundant humanitarianism, it simply cannot abide internal repression, tyranny and violence against one’s own citizens. This is the same government that enthusiastically supports and props up regimes around the world that do exactly that, and that have done exactly that for decades.

Greenwald could have gone on and made the point that the European countries involved in the Libya war have even nastier histories in the Arab world than the United States. All that and more would have been true. But this line of reasoning assumes that countries can never learn from their past mistakes and do better.

No UN Army exists. The Security Council is composed of member states and its writ under Chapter Seven is carried out by the militaries of member states. There are no angelic countries and only a handful capable of employing force thousands of miles from their own borders. At the top of that list is the United States, for better or worse.

By all accounts, one of the prime administration advocates for this war was Hillary Clinton; she’s the same person who, just two years ago, said this about the torture-loving Egyptian dictator: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” They’re the same people overseeing multiple wars that routinely result in all sorts of atrocities. They are winking and nodding to their Yemeni, Bahrani and Saudi friends who are doing very similar things to what Gadaffi is doing, albeit (for now) on a smaller scale. They just all suddenly woke up one day and decided to wage war in an oil-rich Muslim nation because they just can’t stand idly by and tolerate internal repression and violence against civilians? Please.

Clinton’s remarks about Mubarak, and the longstanding policies they represented, are repellent. The US should not be propping up oppressive regimes in the Middle East or anywhere else. At the same time, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not currently planning any massacres (that we’re aware of) or employing violence on the scale as Gaddafi’s military. And scale should matter when the decision is made to intervene militarily.

For the reasons I identified the other day, there are major differences between the military actions in Iraq and Libya. But what is true of both — as is true for most wars — is that each will spawn suffering for some people even if they alleviate it for others. Dropping lots of American bombs on a country tends to kill a lot of innocent people. For that reason, indifference to suffering is often what war proponents — not war opponents — are guilty of.

That’s why military interventions like the one in Libya should be limited in scope, based on a well-informed calculation that they will result in fewer deaths than inaction, and adhere to international humanitarian law. As I wrote the other day, protecting civilians must be the only objective, even if that one day means protecting them from anti-Gaddafi forces.

But whatever else is true, the notion that opposing a war is evidence of indifference to tyranny and suffering is equally simple-minded, propagandistic, manipulative and intellectually bankrupt in both the Iraq and Libya contexts. And, in particular, those who opposed or still oppose intervention in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, the Sudan, against Israel, in the Ivory Coast — and/or any other similar places where there is widespread human-caused suffering — have no business advancing that argument.

I wonder if, as Bosnia descended into mayhem, Greenwald argued that the international community would be hypocritical to act there because it wasn’t stopping tandem mass killings of civilians in Chechnya, Burma, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

I have lived in Bosnia and Afghanistan. I know people from both countries who collected their neighbors’ body parts from the sidewalks and watched their capital cities blown to pieces. I do not think the international community’s limited intervention in Bosnia was made immoral by the fact that it showed indifference to Afghanistan’s ruinous civil war until that war indirectly led to the deaths of thousands of Americans.

Bill Easterly is wrong again (This time on Libya)

Bill Easterly never wastes an opportunity to use Aid Watch to vent his disdain for all things military. In response to the growing consensus that something drastic must be done to prevent mass bloodshed in Libya, Easterly writes:

What can the rest of the world do? Any military intervention would play into Qaddafi’s hand, especially there really is nobody that can be trusted to do a “neutral humanitarian” intervention.

Other than Bill Easterly, who uses the term “neutral humanitarian intervention”? Such a thing does not exist and never has.

Military interventions are by definition not neutral, even when they are launched in response to humanitarian crises. Whether multilateral or unilateral, this kind of military intervention is aimed at thwarting the mass killing of one group (or more than one group) by an opposing group. A military intervention in Libya would be aimed at removing the Libyan regime’s ability to wipe out the political opposition. Success would almost certainly entail inflicting serious damage to Libya’s military infrastructure, and in the process severely weakening or even causing the collapse of the state.

And the “imperialism” canard isn’t likely to resonate in this case. Consensus in the Arab world supports the demonstrators, and the Arab League just suspended Libya in response to the government’s bloody crackdown. (Is Easterly even paying attention?)

Trade embargo not a good idea — why punish the Libyan people? (True confessions: I went to Libya myself for a trek in the Sahara over Christmas holiday.)

Oh, ew.

Libya’s opening to tourism and trade with the West in the last few years has arguably made this current revolt more possible, not less possible.

That might be so (I don’t know if it is, and I bet Easterly doesn’t either), but we’re not debating the relative merits of different long-term punishments for a repressive regime right now. We’re debating the wisdom of martial measures to keep Libya from becoming the next great argument for why the Genocide Convention should apply to political groups.

Too many NOs for you? Well here’s some Constructive NOs: NO to any aid to Libya, NO to any caving in to Libyan government contract blackmail, NO to arms sales. (Feel free to apply any of that to you, Italian government).

Look, I’m not sold on a military intervention, but any means, but I’m not willing to dismiss that option outright.

Gaddafi is not Ben Ali or Mubarak. Hell, he’s not even Nicolae freakin’ Ceaușescu at this point. He’s an obviously mentally unstable dictator who has already called in air strikes against his political opponents and dispatched foreign mercenaries to gun down protesters on the streets. He and his even scarier son (and likely successor) have both gone on television and told the world, in no uncertain terms, that they intend to slaughter their opponents and won’t hesitate to escalate the violence into a full-blown civil war.

Hundreds of protesters have been killed so far. It’s morally responsible to consider the option of a military intervention, among other options, if those hundreds look poised to become thousands or tens of thousands.

To that end, it’s critical that more information regarding the number of Libyan dead reaches the outside world.

Someone please high-five Charli Carpenter

For tackling torture proponent Marc Thiessen’s central argument in Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack on utilitarian grounds as well as liberal ones.

What if we were to accept that the CIA has made America a wee bit safer by torturing KSM?

Liberals actually need an answer to this question, I would argue, because so many of their fellow Americans will buy Thiessen’s empirical case. So the most important part of his argument to refute is actually not the causal argument. The most important part of his argument is his moral argument.

In fact, the most fascinating chapter of his book is the one in which he poses the question: why should torture be considered an absolute prohibition, when killing is not? He explores just war theory and makes an interesting argument that non-lethal forms of torture – the kinds that are scary more than physically injurious – are a lesser evil if innocent civilian lives can be saved as a result.

But this argument as it turns out can be answered by liberals on Marc Thiessen’s own terms as well, because if you read closely it is clear that Thiessen’s overriding goal is not to promote a torture culture per se, but something much nobler: to protect innocent civilian life. The problem with his analysis is that he simply doesn’t have a clear empirical understanding of the factors that most threaten innocent civilian life.

As a matter of fact, terrorism falls pretty far down that list, but state repression is a rather important risk. Think-tanks that track terror fatalities measure the number of dead from terrorism since 1970 in the tens of thousands. Compare this to the hundreds of thousands killed by their own governments over the same period, a number that rises, RJ Rummel tells us, to a staggering 169,198,000 between 1900-1987. International terrorism may be scary, but in relative terms it’s pretty small beer.

It stands to reason that if the goal is to protect civilians the means used to be consistent with the wider protection of civilians. So although liberals are fond of making the absolutist moral argument and the constitutive argument against torture, it turns out that you can also argue against torture on purely utilitarian grounds. And the argument is not that it’s ineffective. The argument is that even if it’s sometimes effective and even if it’s necessary to protect civilians, civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture than they do from avoiding every single risk that comes with living in an era of techno-globalization in which the gap between the haves and have nots is widening.

So, my friends, that’s the argument you use when your crazy uncle starts banging on about how liberals aren’t willing to do what it takes to protect their way of life.

A story from the other side of the world

A Twitter link led me to Blog-a-stan, the blog of an American Ph.D student doing her dissertation research in Kazan, Russia. Immediately, I was hooked by the author’s dark humor and storytelling. And when I came to the half-way point in a post titled Sud’ba (“Fate”) I stopped, and shivered, because I knew the story already.

Read, and then I’ll explain.

Tanya was sitting wrapped in a goat fur blanket rocking herself back and forth. It was only 8pm but they seemed to have already finished off a bottle of vodka and Valeria was now opening the second. “Leslie, come, sit, eat with us” she said. “Oh I just ate” I said but sat down for conversation. Tanya was moaning and crying and Valeria began to explain that her only daughter had just died. “It was a stomach illness. They did an operation but 100 days later, two days ago, she died. She was 37 years old.” Tanya sobbed and shook. I said how sorry I was to her, my eyes wide, slowly becoming conscious of the fact that I was rocking back and forth on my own chair empathetically. “Sud’ba” Tanya shook her head, “Sud’ba,” she sobbed as she tightened the goat hair blanket around her. I tried to remember the word, which I knew I knew but couldn’t find in my head at the time, only to look it up in the dictionary later and remember it: “Fate.” Valeria explained that Tanya’s husband had died five years ago of cancer so now she was all alone in her house. And she continued, hesitantly, touching my arm as she explained, “Tanya can’t sleep at her place any more. It’s just too sad for her there. Would you mind if she stayed here with us for awhile?” For a moment, and I know this is awful, but for a moment the thought crossed my mind that the dead daughter was an elaborate ruse and that they were together and felt they needed to come up with an excuse for Tanya sleeping over all the time. “Of course I don’t mind,” I said with the utmost sincerity, whichever story was true I was happy to have Tanya stay. From then on I became accustomed to walking in to find Tanya with Valeria at the table, a bottle of vodka by her side that they would stay up late drinking rocking back and forth and talking about “Sud’ba.” Valeria too is a victim of Sud’ba at the moment as her ex-husband is currently insisting she sell the dacha she uses on the weekends and there’s nothing she can do about it. Both situations strike me as things we would deal with not just emotionally but practically through lawyers in the States to regain our control over the situation. We would find a pretense for suing the hospital for the botched operation, take the husband to court to insist on our right to half the property, maybe even the whole thing. And while this wouldn’t take the pain away, particularly in the first case, it would at least give us a feeling of some agency over this damn Sud’ba.

Yes, I know this story, with some slight differences. My version has loose leaf tea instead of vodka, an old comforter from Bagram Airbase instead of a goat hair blanket, and a young Afghan man in the place of a middle aged Russian Tatar woman.

But the grief-stricken rocking, and the wide-eyed American, and the very real, physically wrenching absence of justice, the rule of law and human agency are the same. So is the sud’ba.

Impressions of Americans at war

People back home ask me what my impression is of the US military in Afghanistan. I usually tell them my feelings change with the context, and with the person I’m dealing with. I also let them know that I interact much more often with European soldiers. This answer is met with disappointment more often than not. Americans want easy answers. They want heroic defenders of liberty or psychotic occupiers, soldiers who rescue injured children and raise orphan kittens, or ones who torture prisoners and kill Afghan farmers for shits and giggles.

Coverage of this war is very limited in scope emotionally, and I’m always happy to find exceptions to that rule, even when they’re obscure or terribly sad. Here are three:

1) In this TIME audio slideshow, American soldiers in Marja deal with the aftermath of accidentally killing a 14 year old girl.  Quotes from the audio: “I feel like a bad man because of this,” (soldier) and “What am I going to do with ‘sorry’?” (the victim’s father).

2) An American trainer in Kunar blogs about hard stuff:

Upon getting into the village, we did the usual – looked around at the terrain and figured out how we were going to set up security with our sparse forces (2 Marines and perhaps a dozen ANA), before looking around for the village elder to talk to. We eventually got ourselves set up and found an elder, who invited me, my terp, and the ANA leader inside “The White House” for tea, nuts, and candies. No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying. Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20’s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own. Our base may have been less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do.

And absurd stuff:

I can recall drinking tea and eating nuts with an elder when bullets from across the valley started impacting near our men outside the house. I immediately put my helmet back on and ran outside to help out, without finishing the nuts or tea, or even saying goodbye or thank you. Afterward, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the bad joke about bad punctuation regarding a panda who walked into a restaurant, had a meal, and then shot the place up…since the book on pandas stated that a panda is a four legged, furry animal that eats, shoots and leaves. Being a panda, he does eat shoots and leaves, but typically does not eat, shoot and leave. Well, Marines sometimes really do eat, shoot, and then leave the area.

3) Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini writes about the frustrations of an embed-gone-wrong in Kandahar.

I have been waiting for many days to go to Arghandab, a lush green valley few kilometres northwest of Kandahar city. A military operation is going on in the area since the last couple of weeks. I’m staying in Kandahar Air Field (KAF) for the last 19 days and during my stay I’ve covered a Medevac unit in US military camp Ramrod. During all this time I’ve been asking the US army to send me to the war zone in Arghandab valley. At first, they canceled my trip telling it is so dangerous out there for journalists. So little they know that we are here to cover that kind of operation and we do it with our decision and it is our own responsibility to take care of our lives.

Our camp is abuzz with rumours. Some say the US Army is losing there and that the Taliban have put up a vigorous resistance against foreign troops. Others say a tough battle is going on there with a lot of IEDs and mines making it difficult for troops to move. Some also say that a lot of civilian casualties have taken place during the military operation in Arghandab valley and that’s why the US Army would not let any journalist go there.

Living with ghosts

Captain Cat, on recent political developments here:

Whilst we endlessly debate whether Karzai is friend or foe or fit to lead, and discuss the possibility of peace deals led by men who will probably never have to answer for their own crimes or for the lives they have destroyed; whilst we avidly read news articles in the half-belief that someone, somewhere must surely make a breakthrough about what must be done, the country’s quiet majority will continue to live with their ghosts, hopes for some kind of justice for past abuses vanquished. Dreams will bow their heads in silent resignation, the world will continue to turn.

I so wish Javaid could comment. Almost three months have passed since his death, and I still catch myself wondering what he’ll say about the elections, or the appointment of the High Level Peace Council. And then I remember.

What David said

Everything falls apart. Everyone dies in time. In the great, slow reduction of our lives and history, the things we can believe in shrink into a space smaller than our own bodies. To preserve them, for as long as you might, arm yourself, and be afraid.

I would change those last three words to “and beat back your fear.” That’s the only way you keep moving.