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Posts Tagged ‘War Against Terror’

Your Brain Of Mud Or President Obama’s Magic Show In Cairo

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Our Wars on May 19, 2011 at 8:26 am
(Originally written in response to Obama’s first condescending speech to the A-rabs back in 2009. Reposted to reflect that nothing really has changed.)
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“It is well”, I said carelessly “…beware! Play us no tricks, make us no snares, for before your brains of mud have thought of them, we shall know them and avenge them. The light from the transparent eye of him with the bare legs and half haired face [the white man with his magnifying glass] shall destroy you and go through your land: his vanishing teeth shall fix themselves fast on to you and eat you up, you and your wives and children; the magic tubes shall talk with you loudly, and make you as sieves. Beware!”

Qautermain confronts the African Kukuana tribe, from the book King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Ruth Mayer, in her work Artificial Africas, points us to Mary Pratt’s book  Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing & Transculturation, in which Ms Pratt:

…differentiates two main stances in colonial self-stylizations, an imperial ‘rhetoric of conquest’ suffusing the absolutist era and an ensuing rhetoric of ‘anti-conquest’ demarcating the split consciousness of Western travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries, their paradoxical desire ‘to secure their innocence’ in the same moment as they assert European hegemony

she further points out that:

To contain an imperialist system within a rhetoric of anti-conquest calls for confusion … and indeed a highly contradictory symbolic system resulted from the efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable. What I call ‘trick translation’ is perhaps one of the most persistent troupes for casting colonial contact in terms of mutual understanding without abandoning the idea of a clear-cut hierarchy of communication and an European [today American] monopoly of meaning production.

It was an act of ‘trick translation’ that Barack Obama had actually come to perform on June 4th 2009 in Cairo, Egypt.  To offer a language of ‘anti-conquest’, and should we add ‘anti-involvement’, in a region with the most deeply entrenched American political, economic, and military involvement since WW II.

On June 4th 2009, President Barack Obama (a man I voted for!) took the stage on the soil of one of the region’s most despotic and repressive regimes. But more than that, he was standing in the center of the geography of American imperial projections that has been the Middle East since the British, Germans, French and other smaller European nations were forced to leave it in the 1940s.

The Middle East is home to some of America’s most important client states – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates and of course, the unbreakable, Israel. It is also the site of some of her largest military bases and home to tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of American military and undercover operations personnel. It is the site of her most extensive energy resources and investments. It is the site where she has repeatedly engaged in covert and overt political and military operations to ensure access and control to these energy resources. It is the region where her operatives, military, covert and political, keep a close hand on political and economic developments and work to ensure that the nations of the region remain in the realm of American influence.

But, we are here to weave a rhetoric of ‘anti-conquest’, and I focus on those specific areas of his speech that I felt were particularly obfuscatory and Huxlian (Aldous Huxley being one of the original genius’ to describe a modernity where language becomes the most powerful weapon of war and conquest).

Like a great white hunter confronting a group of cannibals about the eat his friend alive, President Obama arrived with a few rhetorical tricks up his sleeves meant to appease the torridly infantile minds of his audience and hosts by offering them trinkets and hoping to dazzle them with his erudition and ‘respect’ for their histories.

We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate

The determination to see something called ‘the Muslim world’ as one large homogeneous entity is the hallmark of a classic Orientalist mind who fails or refuses to recognize that the polity of ‘Islam’ covers a remarkable diversity of people, cultures, ethnicity’s, and most importantly histories and heritages. To say nothing about the horribly embarrassing fact that the largest number of Muslims in fact live outside of the Middle East (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India contain the largest number of officially defined Muslims), and where many practice regional varieties of Islam that many in the Middle East consider blasphemous!

More importantly, it is an act of the most egregious arrogance and even ignorance to suggest that if there are ‘tensions’ between a people who may be Muslim, and a nation that is in fact imperialistic and colonizing in the lands inhabited by Muslims than it is because of ‘historical forces’ and not because of  immediate military, political and economic realities.

Perhaps I am being naive in believing that it is less the crusades that concern the Palestinians, or their slaughter by Richard the Lionheart, and more the ongoing and brutal military occupation of their lands being carried out by one of America’s favorite client states, Israel!

The hubris of a statement the attempts to erase the entire post-WWII history and engagement of the United States of America in the region of the Middle East, and replaces it with imagined ‘historical forces’ that point to events and imagined acts from hundreds if not thousands of years in the past is staggering! Perhaps President Obama, this self-claimed student of history, needs to return to his college library and pick up a few books on the American entanglements in the region. He could not do badly by starting with Robert Fisk’s  The Great War For Civilization, or Michael B Oren’s Power, Faith & Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 – Present . I could suggest many others.

And to say nothing about the fact that the issues that cripple the Middle East are the least likely to be understood if seen as emerging from the region’s ‘Islamic’ character. They would in fact be better acknowledged if seen, as we see most every other region of the globe, with a careful and rigorous examination of the local and regional political, economic, social and strategic issues that infect the region. The crisis in Lebanon and the crisis in Kuwait have separate, if only tangentially related if that, issues and require a local focus.

It is this refusal to engage the region in its specificity that allows a number of American intellectual, commentators, politicians, journalists and other opinion makers to repeatedly conflate entities like Hamas with others like Hezbollah, the Islamic Brotherhood with Al -Qaeda. In a tribute to the most obscurantist and simplistic ideas perpetuated by classical Orientalists, the American administration and her providers of thought (think tanks, hired intellectuals, lobby and media organizations) continue to aggregate largely diverse and political complex matters that should in fact be examined within their local and regional social, political and regional contexts.


Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Perhaps the only thing more embarrassing than this statement – a classic Orientalist construction that cleverly claims modernity for ‘the white man’ while falsely praising the natives for their ‘traditions’  (read: backward, anti-modern, unchanging, out-dated, medieval), was that probably none of the luminaries in the audience, representing the worst and most illiterate of their nations, understood what had just been said to them!

And ironically, it was a statement that would have appealed to the most obscurantist and fundamentalists of reactionaries in the audience; the people who in fact work day and night through state control of media, culture, society and speech to ensure that their people remain in the shackles of ‘traditions’ and avoid such modern day comforts such as full and enforceable rights as citizens of a functioning democracy with the rule of law and equality for all. In that room full of hereditary leaders or despots, there could not have been a mind not nodding in quiet agreement at the American presidents endorsement of Islam’s ‘traditional’ values and the threat it faces from the ‘foreigner’s’ modernity, for after all, these same people use this very argument, with the help of their obscurantist mullahs and TV celebrity preachers, to demand that their citizens not ask for such modern innovations such as equal justice under the law, juridical accountability for elected representatives, legal and social ad human rights,  and a representative polity.

But the presence of this orientalist canard was certainly a surprise. Recent works by the historian Jack Good (The Theft of History) and Marcel Detienne (The Greeks And Us have challenged Europe’s belief in her modernity and certainly her assumptions that she was uniquely equipped to facilitate it. As John B Hobson states in his work Eastern Origins of Western Civilization:

“Eurocentrism errs by asking wrong questions at the outset. All Eurocentric scholars (either explicitly or implicitly) begin by asking two interrelated questions: ‘What was it about the West that enabled its breakthrough to capitalist modernity?’ and ‘What was it about the East that prevented it from making the breakthrough?’” But these questions assume that western dominance was inevitable, and lead historians to scour the past for the factors that explain it. “The rise of the West is understood through a logic of immanence: that it can only be accounted for by factors that are strictly endogenous to Europe.”


His words were frequently met with applause. President Obama threw them some crumbs, and they gobbled them up like hungry natives. Condescension were accepted as genuine respect and appreciation by people so devoid of dignity and honor that they will accept false pearls to disguise their being real swine. (I hope people get the colonial reference here!)

They applauded when he spoke to them in the only Arabic phrase he could be bothered to remember; the greeting of Assalaamu alaykum. How touching. Taking a note right out of an off-the-shelf travel guide to sites remote and exotic, Mr Obama did not forget that even ‘attempting’ the local lingo will result in smiles and graciousness!

They applauded when he appeared to respect something called ‘Islam’s’ contributions to European civilization.

Perhaps most had failed to realize that he was referring to contributions that were some 500 years or more old while retaining, subtly of course, the right to all other innovations since then for the more civilized and ‘modern’ Europe. Or the fact that, once again, it was not ‘Islam’ that made these contributions but individuals of questionable Muslim, Jewish, and other uncertain origins who were given deeply to issues of intellectual inquiry and study and open to influences all the way from China and India, who just happened to be living under a Muslim dynasty made these contributions.

Algebra is not a religious achievement – it is a human achievement, produced by men for man and with the effort of man. Religion has had no influence on the creation of this, or the arch or the compass or the other items Mr. Obama seemed to think ‘Islam’ contributed to. To attribute the discover of vaccine to a spiritual, religious, and some would argue, mythical philosphy is ignorant and anti-intellectual. It would be the equivalent of suggesting that Penicillin was a Christian discover, or the splitting of the atom a Jewish one! But apparently such inanities go down well in the Middle East!

(Rather than applaud, they should have hung their heads in shame; there is not a library of note, nor a university of even mediocre repute in all the lands across all the sands in all of the oil drenched nations in this region! That Arabs (and Obama was speaking to Arabs, not Muslims or even a nebulous ‘Islam’) continue to contribute to modernity, science, culture, arts, literature and the future, but must often flee their homelands and do so elsewhere!)

They applauded again when he spoke about Islam’s traditions of tolerance and racial equality. It was bizarre to say the least to offer this conventional sop to a room filled with representatives of intolerant and at times rascist regimes, applauding a philosophical concept alien to the very societies they have created and rule. They applauded when told that Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the Koran in his personal library – did they imagine that he consulted it for his political and personal affairs, or was influenced by it?

They applauded when Mr. Obama claimed that the 7 million American Muslims enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average. What that says about the deprivations of the average American, particularly the African-American community I am not so sure about. Who are these extremely successful and wealthy Muslims we do not quite know. But to make a claim to suggest that in fact in America the Muslims even do better than the Americans is sheer nonsense!

Their success or failure, as that of any immigrant in the USA is independent of their status as ‘Muslims. The Asian American, the West Indian and most recently the South Asian Indian community are highly successful immigrant communities and there is no way to claim that their religious choices are a determinant or a measure of their success. Furthermore, given that America allows only the ‘best and the brightest’  or the very wealthy from ‘other’ nations to come to the country, particularly when they are from Asia and/or the Middle East, it should not surprise us that these immigrant communities in fact do rather well.

But this obfuscation was essential to hide America’s ridiculous and immoral detainment, harassment, incarceration, deportation, and torture of hundreds of ‘Muslims’ either living in America or abroad. It was necessary to say to hide the rendition programs targeting of Muslims, the ‘black’ sites and their exclusively Muslim inhabitants, and the air and environment of overtly racist anti-Muslim sentiment that pervades American print, radio and television, particularly if you are of the conservative kind. And I will not even mention what the Evangelical fanatics and retards have been saying and encouraging amongst their congregations! By the way, I doubt that the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis festering in hovels in Jamaica Plains, scrambling from apartment to apartment to avoid the prying and ‘black’ eyes of the Homeland Security Department, quite fit into this fabulous President Obama statistic.

They applauded when Mr. Obama claimed that
the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. Which left me perplexed because I was sure that I was told that we had invaded Afghanistan to liberate that nation’s women from ‘oppression’ symbolized by the burqa! And yet as devastation and horror now marks that country, with the arguments for the liberation of their women center stage, I wonder if it is not time to bring the daisy-cutters and pilot-less drones back to the USA where apparently women are being given constitution protection for a practice that elsewhere is considered by the Americans to be a sign of their backwardness and oppression!

And is this the same government that did not go to court to protect the rights of men and women being held at Guantanamo? As men continue to die in American ‘black’ site custody, I find it shocking that legal and judicial resources are available for women’s right to cover themselves where as they have been argued away for men we are torturing, murdering and discarding at unknown locations around the world!

And the inanities continued.


President Obama called the war in Iraq – this most brutal, hideous, illegal and greed based invasion of a nation in recent memory, as a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Quite the soft way to describe an event that was and is in fact nothing less than an illegal, unprovoked, premeditated invasion of a sovereign nation (to say nothing about the genocidal 12 year sanctions regime instituted against the civilian population of a de-armed state!)  led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands, the deaths of nearly a million, the torturing of thousands (pictures of which President Obama recently decided to censor to protect our delicate sensibilities – we are so civilized) and frankly remains a hell hole for those outside the centrally air-conditioned ‘green zone’ and should in fact be a crime prosecutable in the International Court of Justice.

Oh but wait, as President quickly added,  he believes that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

Ah, then its ok. For now at least we have a ‘democracy’ that requires private/corporate armed militia to protect politicians, businessmen, journalists and anyone not sanctioned by the many crooks and criminal organizations that now actually control the country while  masquerading behind banners of religions and sects. And for added measure the under cover assassination teams/death squads, massive torture centers, prisons, 24×7 hour private security, walls/dividers, daily 24×7 military patrols, towns like Falujah that remain under marshal law, kidnappings, criminality, a dysfunctional social and civil service, and the entire government under the guidance of our American generals and politicians necessary just to keep this duct-tape kleptocracy together for a little while longer.

Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.

What then are the consequences, Mr. Obama, of the fear and trauma of the Iraqis and the Afghanis who are in fact at this very moment confronted as they are by American tanks and pilot-less drones trying to understand how they will act contrary to their traditions and ideals? Or perhaps we will just blame their actions on ‘Islam’.


Speaking of America’s intolerance of extremism and violence, Mr Obama went out of his way to celebrate Israel. Walking in the footsteps of his predecessor, he proclaimed with great stress America’s ‘unbreakable’ relationship with the country. He even manufactured completely fictitious ‘cultural and historical’ ties. I can’t imagine what ties a group of European religious fanatics determined to create an ethnically exclusive state by intentionally and violently colonizing and driving out its original inhabitants would have with the United States of America? Oh yes, I forgot, it would be the penchant for violent European colonization of native lands, institutionalized and military cleansing of them from these lands, and the celebration of the now completed fact as liberty, modernity, progress and civility, with a neat set of ‘reservations’ for the unfortunately who survived. How silly of me!

It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.

No Mr President, they have not suffered in the pursuit of a homeland. They have suffered in the dispossession of it.

They are waiting not for gifts from America, but for their rights, rights for which we have gone to war for other nations (Bosnia, Kuwait and now would love to for Chad) but remain silent on their behalf.

And in what can only be described as the most contorted reading of history, Mr Obama laid claim to the entire process of decolonization as one of a long heritage of non-violent resistance

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed…from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered.

I wonder if Mr Obama is reading the same books of history.. I also wonder as President Obama escalates the now senselessly immoral and unjust conflict in Afghanistan if he listening to himself!

The history of colonial Africa, Middle East, South and South East Asia is marked by repeated and consistent armed insurrections and resistance to the colonial enterprise. The colonialists often painted this resistance as ‘minor’ or ‘marginal’ but none of the occupied people, even the Africans who were so savagely raped and enslaved, did not ‘go quietly into the night’. To say nothing about the intellectual, artistic, cultural and political resistance to occupying and colonizing regimes across the globe. Edward Said’s Culture And Imperialism would be a decent place for him to begin to start to understand regimes of resistance to colonial oppression that existed from the very moment the colonialists arrived on the shores of Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Or if Said is too politically sensitive for him, then perhaps he would like to read a fellow African; C.L.R. James’ masterful The Black Jacobins will remind our President of the power of violent resistance in breaking the back of a rapacious and brutal colonizer and usurper.

And if these nations and peoples of the far South and Africa are too complex for him to understand, then perhaps he would do well to remember if nothing else then the American Revolution and the great American war of independence, celebrated every year with great fanfare on July 4th. I believe that General George Washington would take umbrage to the suggestion that violence is a dead end. Or perhaps he would remember the American Civil War, a war that liberated the ancestors of his black citizens and moved America towards the path of modernity. Perhaps if they had followed a non-violent approach…… But then again, the oppressors and users of violence always love to lecture the oppressed about their ‘barbaric’ violent resistance and their need to demonstrate ‘civility’ by adopting a softer and more nuanced tone to the occupiers continued and increasingly military and violent responses!

Notice how the occupier is never told to adopt a non-violent occupation!

And the sheer arrogance to lecture to an unarmed and hopelessly repressed and dehumanized people, while their lands are under brutal military occupation from the only nation in the region that has in fact repeatedly attacked, occupied, summarily killed and displaced lands and peoples across the entire region is sheer mind boggling. The Palestinians are being asked to renounce violence, while the Israelis are being funded with more arms, more jets, more tanks, more training, more excuses for their illegal nuclear weapons program, and more aid packages – all of which continue to go towards and fund the creation of more settlements and more dispossessions and more brutality and more killings and more strangulations.

Continuing what has now become an almost too-boring-to-repeat cliche’s, President Obama placed all the blame for the violence, the intransigence of the conflict in Palestine on the Palestinians. There, in the world he was weaving on that stage in Cairo, where there is no Iraq and no Afghanistan, and no oil and interests, and business connections and shady deals and under handed greed, there was also no nuclear-armed, American funded, religiously fundamentalist, military controlled, ethnically discriminatory pseudo-democracy only for Jews with its American funded M16s and jackboots across the throats of a helpless and desperate people.

Yes, we are told that it is not the military bases, the settlements, the Wall, the check points, the gates, the farm lands, the murdering settlers, the curfews, the summary arrests, the targeted assassinations, the random detentions, the expropriations, the home demolitions, the expulsions, the incarcerations, the discrimination, the humiliations, the bombings, the phosphorous, the slow and daily grinding away at human dignity that are all part and parcel of a highly sophisticated military, architectural, social, political and economic settlement regime. Its the Palestinians with their handful of AK-47s and their donkey carts!

Calling the democratically elected Hamas Government as having ‘some support’ amongst the Palestinians, while calling upon the corrupt and discredited Palestinian Authority to develop a capacity to govern President Obama continued the insistent, anti-democratic approach of supporting the very people the citizenry rejected, while rejecting the very people the citizenry selected.

The only democratically elected official government in the very Middle East Mr. Obama claims to be talking to, and it is just not the one that we want.

Israel is in illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It has permanently constructed roads, settlements, military camps and emplacements, check points and gates, a massive Wall, security fences and cameras, farms and industrial estates all across the West Bank and done so with the absolute and complete support of the United States of America who funds these activities through a myriad and complex set of private, corporate and governmental institutions.

It is not there because the Palestinians are ‘violent’ or have ‘rockets’. It has been there because it wants these lands. It has done everything in its power to destroy the prospects of an independent Palestinian state, and only the beltway in Washington D.C. are a handful of people who think otherwise.

Israel’s obligations are not just what President Obama claimed: to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society but in fact to withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza to the 1967 green lines, to compensate financially the victims of the 1948 displacements, and to offer restitution both verbal, financial, legal and other to the millions who now suffer thanks to its intransigence, occupations, wars and religiously sanctioned hysteria and radicalism. The settlements don’t just need to be stopped, they need to be destroyed, dismantled, reversed, erased, and along with it the entire occupation machinery of men, tanks, gates, check points, walls, soldiers, settlers, goons, fanatics, businessmen and of course Palestinian collaborators.


And far from distancing himself from the pathologies of religious mysticism and mumbo-jumbo, President Obama sadly chose to pander to it further. Continuing yet another grand orientalist tradition of speaking to ‘the natives’ through the use of what the orientalist imagines is their particular world formulations – they are too stupid to understand our modernity, so we must use our ‘trick translation’ and speak to them about reality in their barbaric tongue – Mr. Obama like a modern day Quatermain decided to end his speech in a ‘one for the road’ chorus of quotations from the 3 religious texts and this shocking and rather insulting statement:

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.

President Obama may have pulled off the greatest Evangelical mind tricks in history when he may have convinced a room full of ‘Muslim’ despots and criminal national leaders to join him in the support of a vision fantastically and naively created on the basis of a religious text that has been variously used to different degrees to also justified the inquisition, the crusades, the holocaust and possibly even the recent slaughter of the people of Iraq by an Evangelical, fanatic and religiously drunk American administration.

America engages the Middle East through conquest, investments, manipulations, espionage, education, extraction of resources, training of the military, politics and geo-political entanglements. For some odd reason President Obama can’t see that it can also be communicated with in simple, worldly, adult language without resorting to false and frankly cynical and hypocritical exploitation of religious texts and quotes, like a high school kid desperate to decorate a poor term paper that lacks content but may sound interesting if a few ‘notable’ quotes are thrown in!

As President Obama walked off that Cairo stage to go and bask in the glow of the glory that was being orchestrated for him by his obsequious hosts and minders, a General McChrystal was being appointed to head the operations in Obama’s favorite war in Afghanistan. As Tom Engelhart explained in a recent post on the fabulous Tom’s Dispatch blog site:

General McChrystal comes from a world where killing by any means is the norm and a blanket of secrecy provides the necessary protection. For five years he commanded the Pentagon’s super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)…McChrystal gained a certain renown when President Bush outed him as the man responsible for tracking down and eliminating al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The secret force of “manhunters” he commanded had its own secret detention and interrogation center near Baghdad, Camp Nama, where bad things happened regularly, and the unit there, Task Force 6-26, had its own slogan: “If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.” Since some of the task force’s men were, in the end, prosecuted, the bleeding evidently wasn’t avoided.

Tomorrow we will explain the war in Afghanistan as that between the liberal values of the United States of America and obscurantist, mysoginist and barbaric values of ‘radical Islam’. General McChrystal, with his legacy of broken souls and bodies, his torture centers and assassination teams, his professionally executed operations of terror and mayhem, will be left to the sidelines and forgotten. Some old orientalists, or obfuscators (perhaps a newer version of a Ahmed Rashid!) will be trotted out to explain why ‘they hate us’.

President Obama stood in Cairo and wove a fantasy. A fantasy that claimed that there is something called ‘Islam’ that he could speak to as if he was speaking to a homogeneous entity. A fantasy that claimed that America does not in fact have interests and protects interests with military and other means in the Middle East. A fantasy that denies the roots of the violence that does in fact plague that region and emanates from within regimes whose despotic and irrational leaders are amongst America’s closest allies. A fantasy where the tiresome, outdated, discredited and artificial construct of ‘the clash of civilizations’ is trotted out to obfuscate the hard political and economic factors that in fact create alliances and foster the conflicts.

The speech on June 4th 2009 will sadly not go down in history as a great moment in diplomacy. There is an air of desperation about the writings that are trying to claim it so. Much like the photo-op in the White House Lawn the day the Oslo Accords were signed, we will drown our fears under misguided hopes and self-imposed delusions while the relentless machinery of imperial power and politics will continue to cut its merciless path through a region cursed with oil and men of supreme venality.

A few hours after this speech President Obama headed to Buchenwald where he said:

I have no patience for people who would deny history

Indeed Mr. President.

Indeed.

ADDENDUM: I was reminded by a friend that in fact there could be religious motivations for the explorations of algebra e.g. man’s need to measure time more precisely, or to work out the geometries and structures of complex domes, mosques or even the decorative patterns that decorated it. A similar argument has in fact been made by Kim Plofker in his new book Mathematics in India – that Indian innovations in mathematics may have been driven by a need for temple designs or astrology. Regardless, as has already been argued, these remain worldly requirements to serve worldly needs and for universal relevance and application must apply consistently across man’s known world. Their measure of innovation comes from their universality, their non-specificity to any one set of beliefs of religious values.


Suheir Hammad…Need I Say More

In Israel/Palestine, Our Wars, Poetry, Writers on February 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Thanks to PULSE.

TEDWomen seems to recognize that a woman’s voice demands its own stage. Once you listen to some of the speakers you find a refreshingly interesting set of perspectives. Certainly, as you listen to Suheir Hammad you find something missing from so much our blathering pundits, intellectuals, politicians, military ´boys & girls´: courage, clarity and conviction.

Here are the words

I will not
dance to your war
drum. I will
not lend my soul nor
my bones to your war
drum. I will
not dance to your
beating. I know that beat.
It is lifeless. I know
intimately that skin
you are hitting. It
was alive once
hunted stolen
stretched. I will
not dance to your drummed
up war. I will not pop
spin beak for you. I
will not hate for you or
even hate you. I will
not kill for you. Especially
I will not die
for you. I will not mourn
the dead with murder nor
suicide. I will not side
with you nor dance to bombs
because everyone else is
dancing. Everyone can be
wrong. Life is a right not
collateral or casual. I
will not forget where
I come from. I
will craft my own drum. Gather my beloved
near and our chanting
will be dancing. Our
humming will be drumming. I
will not be played. I
will not lend my name
nor my rhythm to your
beat. I will dance
and resist and dance and
persist and dance. This heartbeat is louder than
death. Your war drum ain’t
louder than this breath.

Amen.

Sticking Our Head In The Sand Or We Just Liked Afghanistan Better When The Soviet’s Were Raping It

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on December 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Larry Towell is looking for money for a new project in Afghanistan and has placed his request on Kickstarter. This would all have been fine had it not been for the fact that he is doing the wrong project.

Larry Towell has been an inspiration, one of the first photographers whose works compelled me to come to photography. So it is with great disappointment that I read his description of what he intends to do in Afghanistan.

The opening sentence from his project description, a project called Crisis In Afghanistan, left me stunned:

For 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.

No it has not. For the last ten years at least it has known a brutal, violent, devastating, and illegal American military occupation and war. For the last ten years it has known torture, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the installation of a corrupt and illegal political administration, torture centers and sites, drone warfare, a flourishing drug trade, a venal political and international aid agency class and a dismemberment of any and all civil administration that may have once existed.

This is not a crisis it is an American war and an American military occupation, one that is using an unpopular, illegitimate and corrupt local elite to maintain a facade of a ‘political administration’.

For the last ten years Afghanistan has known American violence and venality. If we were outraged at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan then it is sheer hypocrisy to accept our pillaging and occupation of Afghanistan today. It is unbelievable the ease with which we, citizens of a democratic republic, have adopted the lies and obfuscations of our governments, and the obsequiousness with which we have become collaborators and apologists for its misguided military adventures and violence.

I find it shocking that we cannot admit or accept that we are occupiers and collaborators in a hideous military and political adventure in the country and today principally responsible for the daily horrors, violence, bloodshed, brutality, criminality and venality that infests it. I find it laughable that we will not accept that today we are ‘the Evil Empire’, a place that once the Soviet’s held. I am dismayed, angered even, that photographers of Larry Towell’s intelligence and courage must resort to an outdated language, to bygone military adventures and histories and skip past the most current and pressing pathology plaguing the nation of Afghanistan.

How long are we going to pretend that we do not have anything to do with Afghanistan’s current devastation, mutilation, corruption, and mass dispossession? How many more embedded perspective do we need to keep ourselves from accepting what we are doing there, and how we are seen there?

Here is Larry telling us what he will cover in his project;

…landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.

My goodness, what temerity to ask for funds for a project that offers nothing new, and for subjects that have been done to death. To say nothing about the fact that they say nothing of the current reality and horrors plaguing the country.

Russian soldiers? Pul-i-Charki prison?

Larry, what about drone attack victims, illegal detainees at Bagram, those tortured and left mentally deranged, what about the millions living in refugee camps displaced by American and NATO military operations, or the families whose men have disappeared into prisons and never heard from again, what about the families of those killed by the dozens each month because of our bombs and our indiscriminate aerial strikes?

I feel that such projects and their associated language are selling us a time machine, one that takes us to an Afghanistan horror story more palatable, more acceptable to our gentle American sensibilities. We want to hear about the errors from another period, when our participation in Afghanistan was heroic, moral and based on a rhetoric of freedom and liberation. Yes, the days back when the Islamic fundamentalists were labeled ‘freedom fighters’, invited to dine at the White House, and we could not stop having ourselves photographed with. The same people who today we have had to re-cast as ‘the bad guys’, but were once our allies, and the recipients of billions of dollars of American tax-payers money. All for an imagined great war of liberation, the one we all rushed to cover and then to garland ourselves with later.

This need to fly past our modern-day pathologies and back towards a period of imagined righteousness was also on display during the recent International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award ceremony where the photographer Reza was handed ICP’s highest award for his work in Afghnistan covering the Soviet invasion and its aftermath.

Did any in that room full of luminaries and glitterati feel any irony when Reza opened his acceptance speech with the following words:

“Once upon a time there was an unequal battle; that of a giant and murderous Empire, which was trying all the way to subdue a defenceless but rebellious people who had repelled all foreign invasions.

Once upon a time there was the Russian Empire against Afghanistan. It was thirty years ago. As a young photojournalist, I was covering that unequal conflict and the resistance of a handful of men led by Commander Massoud. Russian fire was heavy, with helicopters, tanks, bombers, leaving no relief and little chance of escaping certain death. The massacred people was suffering. The resistance Afghan fought for the freedom of their country.

Did anyone in that grand ballroom feel a tinge of anxiety when Reza said:

Empires, tyrants and their desire of conquest are but little things in front of passing Time and the will of a people marching towards freedom.

Did anyone notice the irony and the hypocrisy of an American institution handing out awards to a photographer who once covered an illegal military occupation of Afghanistan when at that very moment America’s own military is mired in an illegal military occupation of that very same country? I doubt it. We prefer not to be bothered by such niceties for it ruins the flavor of the champagne.

(Aside: I take nothing away from Reza who has also been an inspiration to me. His work from Afghanistan remains unique and reflects his passion and dedication to the story and the situation back in the 1970s and 1980s. My comments reflect my disappointment with ICP and an American cultural space that wants to contribute towards obfuscations to help hide the fact that we are and remain at war and as oppressors of another people.)

I have written extensively about the situation in Afghanistan in a number of earlier posts. Most recently in response to the cynical and hypocritical exploitation of Afghani women by Time Magazine (and later by National Geographic Magazine as well). But you can ignore my blather if you wish and at least listen to those doing independent i.e un-embedded work in the country and understand what is going on there.

There is Jeremy Scahill who has been featured on this blog a few times, most recently in a piece called What It Looks Like When  You Leave The Embed Or Thank Goodness Some Remember The Basics. You can listen to Scahill here:

Jeremy Scahill Talks About Afghanistan

There is also Nir Rosen, a freelance journalist and scholar, who had done some remarkable reporting from the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Aftermath By Nir Rosen

You can listen to Rosen talk with Amy Goodman about the situation in Afghanistan here

Nir Rosen On Democracy Now

In an interview with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald Rosen makes specific reference to the issue of how our elites (cultural, creative, artistic, intellectual, political etc.) represent our wars. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

…there is between how American elites talk about our wars and the reality of those wars and the things that you actually see by being there and in an unembedded function, and there’s this interesting speech that I’ve written about a few times by Ashleigh Banfield, who at the time was an MSNBC war reporter who was sort of the rising star of the MSNBC and NBC news and she was relatively new to covering wars, and she had come back from Iraq and she gave this speech at Kansas State University and she talked about the huge disparity between how television conveys wars to the American people and the reality of wars and all the things that embedding does in terms of distortions and this sliver of reality that ends up being conveyed.

The attitude, the distance we have maintained from those we today oppress are clearly discussed by Rosen as well when he points out that:

And I too often also found that Americans keep on going back to the same books, the same orientalist books which are used to justify empire, that Arabs only understand force, they are tribal, they are Bedouin. I’ve seen very little progress actually in the Americans’ ability to grasp the cultures in the Muslim world and they refer to a handful of academics who are far outside the mainstream of academics trying to understand the Middle East of Afghanistan, but who have been used to justify various wars and occupations.

So they still will talk about tribal societies and Bedouin societies as if they are some kind of cultural secrets, and if you just unlock these secrets, if it’s Pashtunwali in Afghanistan or Islamic code or Bedouin code, or Koranic society—you heard these weird terms often—if you just unlock these codes, you can understand the people and manipulate them and control them…you often hear American soldiers talking about if you, as if it’s the Sopranos…as if the primary motivator for people fighting occupation is money and not what it really is, issues of dignity, of freedom, of nationalism, of ideology. It’s almost as if Americans aren’t able to understand those concepts and they think that Taliban are fighting for $10 a day.

But I guess if the Americans were able to understand that, then that would make us seem like we were the bad guys, and we don’t want to feel like we’re the bad guys, we don’t want to feel like we’re the British in Braveheart fighting locals who are nationalists and freedom fighters. So I guess we have to try to understand their motives as being more financial whereas in reality I think they’re much more deeply ideological and nationalistic.

Indeed, it is perhaps impossible to raise funds on Kickstarter if you simple argue that you want to produce a project that explores and documents the horrors of the American occupation and a people’s resistance to it. I suppose it’s not palatable to present your work as documenting the new Empire and its oppressions. And herein lies another issue with these ‘alternative’ models of funding.

There has been a rather naive celebration of crowd sourced journalism projects and how it may be the solution to journalism and photojournalism’s woes. Perhaps another round of desperate attempts to avoid facing the economic realities of mainstream journalism, driven as they are by profit over reporting. When I hear a new crowd sourcing venture argue that the allure and sexiness of photojournalism will be a major selling angle, something pointed out in a piece called Photojournalism Site Emphas.is Wants To Leverage The Crowd Through The Romanticism Of Its Craft, I begin to wonder where we are heading. I quote from the piece above:

Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one Ben Khelifa hopes is the basis for a business model. “We have a romanticism around our profession,” he says. “We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.”

Are you serious? Do photojournalists really think like this? Not only is a very specious argument for a business model but it is a terrible place to arrive as a person and a professional.

However, there is a larger concern as demonstrated by Larry Towell’s proposal where, a photographer who I am sure knows well what is really going on in Afghanistan, has chosen to ‘soften’ his words to appeal to ‘the market’. Perhaps, though I will never know. Crowd sourcing requires that we adopt a populist angle to a project, it may force reporters and photographers to avoid self-critical and uncomfortable subjects and demand that we pitch our stories for the widest sell rather than for the deepest truths. It’s not inevitable, but it is likely. I will add that outlets like Kickstarter and Emphas.is may in fact be best suited for highly controversial, critical projects as audiences look to find photographers and reporters taking risks to tell the stories our mainstream media is too constrained to tell. It could be that Larry Towell is missing an opportunity here!

I want to support Larry’s work. His has been a very important career for my own. But I find myself unable to do so as the project stands at the moment. For no other reason than the fact that such obfuscations and veils continue to eat away at the body politic and society of my country. America is weaker for not confronting her government and its pathologically misguided adventures. Our wars are weakening us, and making us more insecure. They are also destroying the liberties that we enjoy as citizens and increasing the intrusive and oppressive presence of the intelligence and security apparatus into our lives. As an American citizen of Muslim background – the only facet about my identity that seems to matter to people these days and the one that colors and overwhelms whatever else I am and have worked to become as an individual, I am already completely vulnerable to powers of the state with little or no recourse to her avenues of justice and rights.

The greatest danger of a military occupation is that inevitably the paranoia fueled security-oriented political and administrative decision-making procedures required to sustain an occupation eventually come home and undermine and weaken the occupier’s political system. Andif that political system is a participatory democracy, the consequences are even more devastating. You can’t claim liberty at home and repression abroad because the decisions to maintain the repression abroad are eventually made and sanctioned by the same political and bureaucratic individuals and institutions that sanction the horizons of liberty at home. The values that inform the occupation inevitably begin to inform the liberties as the divide between the ‘there’ and the ‘here’ become blurred and danger lurk all around and every thing becomes a source of fear and worry. The French have seen this from their experience in Algeria, the Israelis from their occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the Indians fromin Kashmir and now in the Eastern provinces and there are many more examples.

If not for the Afghanis, then for ourselves we have to adopt an honest and clear language about what is happening in our wars, and what we are doing out ‘there’. A project to tell the story of what we have done in Afghanistan, and the devastation and inhumanity we are facilitating, is a must and I would support it with all that I can afford to.

Hollywood And War Or How The Silver Screen Is Also An Obfuscating Veil

In Background Materials, Journalism, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on December 24, 2010 at 3:57 pm

The program does not go far enough, to be honest, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a news channel taking on the question

This of course is a subject well covered in some interesting books. The few come immediately to mind and that I consider interesting because they examination of the close collaboration between the United States arms of warfare and the United States arms of entertainment to sell a specific angle and perspective on the conflict the nation may be engaged in.

The most recent war sold has of course has been the ‘war against terror’ and the speed and energy with which Hollywood (and here I include television productions) has trotted out venomous and evil ‘Muslim’ terrorists out to ‘nuke’ America, created fantasy scenarios that set up the necessity of using torture and the many lives that were later saved, the ease with which extra-judiciary killings, incarcerations, and brutality were justified through scripts bent on simplifying the world into ‘with us/with them’, and the powerful ways in which our invasions and occupations have been re-cast as conflicts without histories and without our agency.

But this is an old story, and it goes back to WWII as Koppes and Black explain in Hollywood Goes To War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies.

A work that looks at a more contemporary application of the same principles is Douglas Kellner’s Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era.

Then there is also Bogg’s Hollywood War Machine: US Militarism & Popular Culture. And so much more that helps us understand the reason we see what we see on the silver screen.

There are a lot of works that explore and highlight the close ties between those who produce mass media products like movies, television, mainstream newspapers, radio programs etc.

This is a broad, complex subject but in an age euphemistically known as ‘the information age’ our individual liberties and in fact our ability to defend or weakening democratic institutions depends on our understanding what we are told is ‘information’ and ‘news’, how this information is manufactured and sourced, how it is approved for distribution and dissemination, and how it is influenced. We are excited at the ease of access of information, but too many are too quick to grab the ‘corporate’ ease of an iPhone application, or the cable television news channels, or the laziness of the prime time evening news, and never bother to think about how all the information that is coming at them is prepared, packaged and presented.

There is no doubt that Hollywood films have been at the forefront of creating the popular beliefs that allow us to perpetuate war endlessly, and continue to silence as our public services and rights are erased while trillions continue to flow into the pockets of the military establishment and private corporate interests. popular assumptions about what is right, what is wrong, what is essential, what is compelled, are always manufactured assumptions. this is perhaps one of the oldest lessons of war and propaganda.

And while you are at it, this may also be a great time to return to Leni Reifenstahl’s Triump Of The Will to remember the original masters who conflated entertainment, and war, and helped close our minds while opening our will towards conquest and mayhem.

The European Twist To An American Dance Or European Collaboration In American Crimes

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on November 16, 2010 at 1:23 am

So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe? That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind…When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched Of The Earth Chapter Six

Amnesty International has just released a new report called Open Secret: Mounting Evidence of Europe’s Complicity In Rendition & Secret Detention which clearly identifies the European nations that have collaborated with the Americans on this program. That list, as described in Amnesty International’s page introducing the release of the report;

  • Sweden: charged with failing to investigate fully the renditions at the hands of the CIA in December 2001 of Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari to Egypt, where the men reported that they were tortured. Despite having awarded the men compensation, the government has also failed to provide the men with full and effective redress.

Since Sweden is my current home, I will point out this fact from the Executive Summary of the report:

..the UN Committee against Torture and UN Human Rights Committee both held that Sweden had violated the prohibition on torture by its involvement in the men’s transfers to Egypt and that Egypt’s diplomatic assurances did not provide a sufficient safeguard against that manifest risk of torture and other illtreatment.

Some other European nation that have actively participated in the rendition and illegal detention program include such luminaries as:

  • Germany: complicit in the secret detention of Muhammad Zammar, interrogated by German agents while held in secret detention in Syria in November 2002. Germans officials acknowledged that torture occurred in Syrian prisons. He has yet to receive justice, despite a German parliamentary inquiry into his and others’ claims of abuse.
  • Macedonia: alleged to have assisted in the unlawful detention and subsequent CIA-led rendition to Afghanistan of German national Khaled el-Masri, who has taken the against Macedonia before the European Court of Human Rights: the first time this court is likely to consider a case involving a Council of Europe member state’s alleged complicity in the CIA programmes. Macedonia continues to deny that its agents acted unlawfully.

Macedonia is also infamous for the real murder of alleged Al-Qaeda operatives that were later revealed to be hapless Pakistani illegal immigrants who had smuggled themselves into the country and found themselves in custody. As Greg Bearup of The Guardian reported back in 2004:

Several senior police officers have been charged with murder. After a lengthy investigation, the Macedonian authorities have admitted that the six Pakistanis and one Indian were simply illegal immigrants, trying to get to Greece to find work on the Olympic sites, or anywhere else. “This was the act of a sick mind,” Mirjana Konteska, a Macedonian official, said. “They lost their lives in a stage murder [so the police and officials] could present themselves as participants in the war against terror.”

European governments have been complicit in acts that are blatant crimes against humanity and in clear violation of international law all under the all-encompassing and all-obfuscating umbrella of the ‘war against terror’. While participating in our (America’s) illegal and unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly fought to bring ‘democracy’, and ‘civility’ to ‘the other’ – justifications that continue to be used to excuse our continuing occupation of these countries, European governments have been busy contorting the fundamental laws of democracy and civility within their own borders. The silence in the face of the open violation of our own laws is shocking and it is time to open a broader debate on the question.  It becomes imperative to bring this to the forefront of our national debates and perhaps remind ourselves than it is our own leaders, politicians, pundits and intellectuals – hiding behind the cheap tinsel of patriotism and the easy bludgeon of the fear of ‘Islam, who are the greatest dangers to our societies and to any set of ‘values’ we so claim to hold dear.

At this very moment the American’s are getting away with torture and crimes of war, as the Slate Magazine writer Dahlia Lithwick so wonderfully pointed out in a piece called Interrogation Nation:

In an America in which the former president can boast on television that he approved the water-boarding of U.S. prisoners, it can hardly be a shock that following a lengthy investigation, no criminal charges will be filed against those who destroyed the evidence of CIA abuse of prisoners Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.* We keep waiting breathlessly for someone, somewhere, to have a day of reckoning over the prisoners we tortured in the wake of 9/11, without recognizing that there is no bag man to be found and that therefore we are all the bag man.

Our former president is making the rounds of the tv-talk shows promoting his color-by-number memoirs, and openly bragging about having sanctioned the use of torture. By not condemning and prosecuting those throughout the chain of command who have sanctioned these unjust, inhumane and clearly criminal acts, we are leaving the door open to their continued use, and our (citizens) continued participation in these crimes. As Lithwick says:

Doing nothing about torture is, at this point, pretty much the same as voting for it. We are all water-boarders now.

But the likelihood is small, certainly in the USA, where even an appropriate, constitutionally defined right to a free and fair civil trial is being denied to America’s detainees and the citizen ‘accused’, forcing us towards an untenable and unjust social, legal and political order. As Glenn Greenwald points out in a new piece The ‘Pro-Constitution = Pro-Terrorist’ Canard :

How could it ever “cross a line” for a civil liberties lawyer to represent an American citizen in an American court arguing that the Government is transgressing the limits of the U.S. Constitution?  The only thing that crosses a line is to insinuate that there’s something improper about that.

The contortions of our ideals, the mutations of our justice system, the bending of our principles, and the jettisoning of our common-sense imply a weakening of the very idea of our societies. Our paranoia about ‘the other’, and the ease with which we have chosen the expedient over the essential can only damage our own way of life, our own society and our own laws. Sooner or later – in the USA we can argue that it is sooner, these same contortions, these same mutations will be used against the citizens themselves. As the al-Awlaki case already proves.

Can we in Europe do better? Do we believe that these collaborations make any sense? And if we do, what is our calculus?

What It Looks Like When You Leave The Embed Or Thank Goodness Some Remember The Basics

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on October 30, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Jeremy Scahill has written a fascinating piece for The Nation called Killing Reconciliation. He and film maker Rick Rowley (of Big Noise Films – see a recent one called The Return Of The Warlords on Afghanistan) traveled in Afghanistan outside the predictability and suffocating inanity of the ‘embedded’ war and bring back some fascinating insights into the situation.

He was also interviewed on Democracy Now! which you can see here:

Jeremy Scahill On DemocracyNow! (Click Image To Go To Interview)

Jeremy Scahill On DemocracyNow! (Click Image To Go To Interview)

In case you don’t bother to listen to the interview, here is a summary of what he had to say:

So, to give you a sense of what’s happening, what the United States is doing through its night raids, where they’re going into people’s homes, they’re corralling women, which is just anathema to the culture there, into one room, hooding men, zip-tying their arms, helicoptering them to secret prisons—what they’re doing is they’re enraging populations throughout Afghanistan that wouldn’t necessarily support the Taliban. So what you see happening is that the United States says, “We’re here to win hearts and minds,” their targeted killing campaign, the reliance on bad information from individuals in Afghanistan who are accusing their neighbors of being Taliban to settle personal grudges. The perception is that the United States government is just on a killing spree there, that they rarely get the right people. The Karzai government is utterly corrupt to the bone and exists only for the purpose of facilitating corruption. When you combine those things and then you look at the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration and the military, that we’re there to win hearts and minds, you realize that the single greatest blows being dealt to the stated US strategy in Afghanistan are being dealt by the US itself through this targeted killing campaign.

Let me repeat:

…the single greatest blows being dealt to the stated US strategy in Afghanistan are being dealt by the US itself through this targeted killing campaign.

The entire interview is essential reading/listening.

(Thanks to Osman Ahmed.)

The Transformation Of Pathology Into Pathos Or The Military Does What It Does And It Does It Well

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on October 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm

But the question remains: how, against the best efforts of so many, did a war once perceived as a nearly genocidal slaughter to perpetuate American neo-colonialism come to be viewed as an American tragedy? And to what extent have cultural and in particular literary representations of the war helped in that transformation? It could be argued that Vietnam War novels and memoirs have contributed significantly to this process, since they reach an important readership – the editors, publishers, writers, pundits, and professors who make up America’s intellectual class. By promoting a literature that favors individual lives over historical contingency, and textual sophistication over social analysis, this class has helped reproduce, not merely in the small audience of serious fiction writers but in the general public as well, a simple and ideologically unthreatening view of the war

Jim Nielson, Warring Fictions: Cultural Politics and The Vietnam War Narrative

From Ammiel Alcalay’s Scrapmetal

Today many novels and memoirs, and I will add, certain photojournalism projects continue this practice i.e. of transforming a near genocidal act of war into stories of individual suffering. I have already stated in an earlier post – Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves that:

[a]…set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those [American soldiers]  suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts…They, the ‘other’, are completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept…What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or Ashly Gilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real victims, and the real crimes committed in our name. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have fallen defending the nation, in innocence and purity.  They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects are in danger of helping us garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims.

The construction of a narrative that turns our attention to our ‘boys and girls’ and their ‘struggle’ and ‘traumas’ in the field is precisely what the US military’s ‘embed’ program was designed to do; transform what is necessarily a violent, bloody and inhumane act of war into a cleansed, carefully managed, ‘precision-guided’, bloodless conflict. To that end, the US military exercised, and continues to exercise, any and all control necessary to help control the narrative of the conflict. A practice first instituted in the Falkland war, where only two correspondents were allowed access to the battlefield, we Americans have since perfected it. And our media has since willfully and gladly accepted it. Those who opposed the practice, those who attempted to go against the strictures of the US military paid a heavy price – were threatened, isolated and some other killed. One only has to look at the experience of Al-Jazeera reporters covering the war from ‘the wrong side’. The ‘unilaterals’ became targets for a military machine bent on controlling how the invasion of Iraq would be spoken about, and they continue to do so.

In his brilliant study of the media and the machinery of war The First Casualty: War Correspondent As Hero And Myth-Maker From The Crimea To Iraq, Phillip Knightley, points out that the first Gulf War:

…marked an important turning point in the history of war correspondents. Not only was it a war in which the military succeeded in changing people’s perceptions of what battle was really like, one in which the ‘surgical’ precision of new high-tech weapons meant few if any civilian casualties, but one in which the way in which the war was communicated was as important as the conduct of the war itself.

Indeed, this was a lesson put to full effect in the invasion of Iraq with the institution of the ‘embed’ program, Knightely revisits the intentions of this program, which I repeat here because it seems that many a veteran photojournalist and journalist seems to have forgotten:

It was [Bryan] Whitman (Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defence) who came up with the idea of ‘embedding’ where correspondents would be placed with the military units in the field from where they could transmit ‘products’ or information compiled at the Pentagon, foreign capitals and ‘in theatre’, with the assistance of mobile press pools, combined information press centers (CIPCs) and sub-CIPCs. Public Affairs Officers (PAOs) from the Pentagon would scan all the media – print, electronic, domestic and international – all the while blending 24-hour news channels nightly news shows and news-magazine formats with entertainment companies. This would provide comprehensive coverage of the war while giving the impression that the news was coming directly from amidst the troops in the field: ‘the best representatives to convey American’s intentions and capabilities’ (Page 532)

The concept of ‘embeds’ was created to help control the narrative of the war. It remains the military’s most effective weapon of propaganda, and ensures that the US citizenry sees the war only from the perspective of the US soldier. In that, it expects the citizenry, much as it does of the reporters and photojournalists who embed with the soldiers, to find empathy and camaraderie with the fighting American soldier, and focus only the individual and ‘ground level’ realities as they are offered to them on-screen, print and internet. To this end, the war had to be, and has been, shown as bloodless, and certainly, horror-less. Any and all rules of this program are geared towards this end, and they are subject to change as the needs of the narrative change. There is, and there should not be, any misunderstanding about this.

So it is with some confusion that I view videos such as this one by reporter/photographer Michael Kamber – an otherwise fine writer and photographer, which has been getting a lot of air- and internet-play recently:

What confuses me is the thought behind the video and comments: Michael Kamber is surprised that a system meticulously designed to censor the likes of him, is…..censoring him.

Isn’t this precisely what this system is designed to do?

Why would anyone express surprise when a military program designed to control the narrative, and censor facets that can turn ‘public opinion’ against it, does what it is designed to do?

We have to remember that The New York Times was one of the newspapers at the forefront of the jingoism towards this illegal and unnecessary war. Their reporters – including the ‘fabulous’ Judith Miller, embedded with the Bush administration and regurgitating its lies to the broader American public. They were amongst the many mainstream journalism outlets that offered no protests were offered when the ‘embed’ program was first introduced. The paper that employs Michael Kamber has never felt it necessary to challenge the military’s ‘embed’ program and in fact understands very well what it can offer and produce. This paper’s particularly close collaboration with US administrations is quite well known, and in fact was inadvertently revealed some months earlier. To say nothing really about the fact that for the last seven years a number of ‘embedded’ reporters and photographers have gone on to win major journalism and photojournalism awards, thereby sanctioning what is basically a military propaganda program as a news reporting method.

While those who dared to work outside the program – the ‘unilaterals’ in the Gulf War, or Al-Jazeera correspondents working the ‘other’ side, were harassed, fired upon and in many instances killed. We remember the attacks on the Al-Jazeera headquarters in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The necessity of ‘embedding’ was created by the promise of violence and threat if one did not. Today all reporters reporting our wars have learned this lesson well. In fact, being embedded has become the only way to report on any way, anywhere in the world, as militaries across the globe has seen the success with which the US military fended off criticism and critical examination of its war effort.

Michael Kamber is a talented reporter and a talented photographer. So my confusion stems from his rather short-sighted criticism of the military doing what it always said it would do. Their latest embed rules – see USF-I NEWS MEDIA GROUND RULES Jan 2010, have been in effect since January of 2010 and if you are signing these documents before you proceed, why complain about them later? More egregiously, if you are signing up to participate in a propaganda program, why pretend that you are working with the ethics and rules of a ‘free press’?

I respect photographers like Ashley Gilbertson and Chris Hondros who never allow you to believe that their sold their intelligence and eye to the program. Their work, despite the restrictions, suggests a resistance to the efforts of the propaganda machine. How well they succeed is hard to tell, but from their images and words you can see that they are trying.

Michael Kamber also points out the importance of creating a ‘full document’ of the war. But wouldn’t such a document, should it ever be produce, require the rigorous and honest documentation of the experiences of the Iraqi’s who resisted and continue to resist the American presence? Can a ‘full document’ of the war even be created by simply ‘embedding’ with one of the protagonists of the conflict?

I would think not.

Wikileaks has just released a large tranch of Iraqr files. The Iraq War Logs make for eye-opening reading, and a corrective one.  The New Yor Times has a full discussion about them as well (You have to admire the paper’s rich resources to put all this together so quickly!) Reading them one is struck by the brutality of military occupation, and the inhumanity that is necessary to maintain it. We already know this from Gaza and the West Bank, but it is obvious that the war that is presented to us on our TV screens and morning newspapers, is not the same war that is being reported from on the ground.  As Al-Jazeera points out, they make for some disturbing reading:

The new material throws light on the day-to-day horrors of the war. The military calls them SIGACTs – significant action reports – ground-level summaries of the events that punctuated the conflict: raids, searches, roadside bombings, arrests, and more. All of them are classified “secret”.

The reports reveal how torture was rampant and how ordinary civilians bore the brunt of the conflict.

The files record horrifying tales: of pregnant women being shot dead at checkpoints, of priests kidnapped and murdered, of Iraqi prison guards using electric drills to force their prisoners to confess.

Equally disturbing is the response of the military to the civilian deaths caused by its troops. Excessive use of force was routinely not investigated and the guilty were rarely brought to book.

This then starts to move us towards a fuller document of the war, but certainly most all of these issues mentioned above are beyond the ‘eye’ of the ‘embed’. All this is what is taking place beyond the ‘embed’ or against it. There will be many who will condemn the ‘leaks’, but these same people will fail to make the connection between the fact that these documents are being leaked, and the carefully stage-managed war in the first place. It is the ‘embed’ program that necessitates the leaks, for even in the US military, there are many who are aghast at the immorality and brutality of war and refuse to be a part of it. The tight controls of ‘embedding’, and the guarantee that such placement of reporters will not reveal anything remotely related to the nature of this war, is what has compelled individuals to take their careers and lives in their hands and ‘leak’ material. It is a reflection of the effectiveness, and efficiency of the ‘embed’ program itself.

Its crucial to see the ‘embed’ posture for what it is, and work with it. You can’t work against it, at least not literarily. You can adopt a cynical/ironic posture within it, as some have done. Perhaps that is our last defense in this matter. But to try to suggest that somehow one is doing journalism while working exclusively with one side of a conflict is naive and misleading. An embedded reporter reports what s/he is allowed and told to report. There is some room for chance and good fortune, as in all human affairs, for the script to be violated and the embedded journalist to see something the military did not want him/her to see. But these are exceptions to the rule, and rare, and getting rarer still.

In the end we made our choices. Even now there is no debate amongst American journalism about the validity of this program or the need to challenge it on the legal front. It has become the way of doing ‘journalism’. There is a larger issue here about the rules and operational posture of American reporters reporting on America’s wars. It’s an issue that has largely been ignored – not the least by so many awards being handed out to the ‘embedded’, and which I feel there is an urgent need to address. I believe, in my own infinite naivety, that we can still turn things around. That American media still has the wherewithall to change this situation, to start to take the control back from the military. Or at least show resistance to the program. Perhaps this is what Michael Kamber is trying to do – to finally start to speak back to the military. I hope so.

During the first Gulf War a group of journalists and smaller media organizations attempted to protest the US military’s ‘pool’ program. They decided to file a legal case against the Pentagon alleging that the pool program was a violation of the First Amendment Right to freedom of expression. No major media organization – print, broadcast of other, joined the action. The war was over by the time the courts could rule on the issue.

Soon thereafter, at a National Press Club forum on March 19th, 1991, Barry Zorthian, chief Pentagon public affairs spokesperson during the Vietnam war, gloated:

The Gulf War is over and the press lost.

Indeed. We are still losing.

UPDATE: Embedded New York Times photojournalist Joao Silva was severly wounded this morning while on patrol with American forces in Afghanistan. See Times Photographer Wounded In Afghanistan. It may produced limited journalism, but it remains dangerous and requires considerable personal risk to accompany any military unit to any front line. Nothing can change that fact. I don’t know Joao personally, but know his work and wish him well and a full recovery. As far as I can tell there are no details about his injuries or condition. Will keep an eye out for that.

 

The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on July 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

It is probably one of the most blatant uses of photography as propaganda that I have seen in a long time. And I am glad for it because it reveals explicitly how easily images can be put to the service of an agenda of power and entrenched interests. And how easily photographs can mislead if not ‘read’ carefully.

‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan’ the cover screams. The answer is made obvious. The shocking photograph closes the mind, numbs thought, distracts insight and silences protest.

If it were only so simple. If we were only so easily fooled.

(Just a few days ago I wrote a post complaining that the Afghani and Iraqi have been completely erased from our media and from the interests of photojournalists. So the irony of this cover is not lost on me!)

Jodi Bieber’s (a photographer whose work I love!) portraits of Afghani women victims of domestic/family violence have been mutilated into a self-righteous and frankly hypocritical call to support an American military occupation that is increasingly brutal, murderous and simply untenable. I have to believe given Bieber’s intelligence that she was not aware of how this work would finally be put to use.

The timing of this cover, its hysterically comical association of continued war and Afghan women’s rights are not coincidental. That people still employ this infantile and inane justification for our imperial dreams tells me more about the world of the editorial community running these magazines then it does about anything going on in Afghanistan or in the lives of these women they so seem to be concerned about. With no real reasons for our war there, with no rational arguments for our continued presence there, with no explanations for our continued killings and torture of the civilians there, with no real idea of the goals of our military and advisors there, we can always turn what is nothing more than a sordid and poorly managed military occupation of an increasingly restless and violently resistant population into a feminist exercise.

Yes, its American imperial power in the service of the woman!

That seemingly intelligent people (I am giving the Editors of the magazine the benefit of the doubt here!) will offer us these empty bromides, these false and frankly insulting arguments about their deep concern and love of the Afghan woman’s freedom, begs the question ‘How stupid do they think we are?’

In fact, so blatant was the propaganda aspect of this photo essay that the Managing Editor had to give a separate explanation in the same magazine to explain the editorial decision and the choice of the cover. To cover his tracks I suppose. And I quote:

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban.

The compassion and humanity flow from the page. With that sweeping and entirely wrong summary, he goes on to drop the other shoe:

We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground…What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.

This statement is disingenuous and misleading. What is actually going on the ground is that a war effort has lost its course, that civilians are being killed, that torture is standard operating procedure, that corrupt and brutal warlords lord over an oppressed population, that an illegitimate government has been foisted onto the country, that heroin remains its largest export and the brother of the so-called ‘leader’ its largest beneficiary. What is also left unsaid is why Aisha’s picture on the cover, and not one of the many women (men and children) maimed, crippled and killed under US/NATO bombs and assaults?

What about this picture?

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were amongst nearly a 100 people killed in a NATO airstrike aimed at a few alleged Taliban fighters. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Obviously the Taliban are not the only ones exploiting Afghani women and turning them into pawns in the service of larger political objectives. A circumcised humanity is no humanity at all. A carefully demarcated outrage, a walled-off moral indignation is nothing but hypocrisy. There are many injustices and acts of violence and brutality taking place in Afghanistan and being done so under our watch. Everyone knows this. Few will simply admit it. This magazine too knows it, but it chooses to offer us a selected outrage, an easily exploited and manufactured ‘injustice.

Its silence about people suffering under our presence, the injustices being committed by us and our allies, and the many dead that keep littering the already blood soaked soil of this blighted nation, is dismaying never more so when it decided to take this immature and inane stance on its covers.

Fortunately others have already caught on to this cheap game. Many have already voiced their outrage, including The Feminist Peace Network which released a statement in protest and concluded by saying:

Imagine instead of contributing to the violence in Afghanistan that further harms women, we were to provide humanitarian aid that improved the lives of Afghan women. Imagine if we had taken the billions of ‘reconstruction’ funds that are unaccounted for in Iraq and given that money to responsible organizations to actually rebuild and strengthen the social infrastructure of both countries. Oh wait, then we couldn’t use the women excuse to continue to fund the military industrial complex. Enough already, women are not an excuse for militarism and war.

Others have also spoken out including A Developing Story:Time, Photography, Propaganda?, and BagNewsNotes: Your Turn: What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan?Try…What’s Happening On This Cover? and Conscientious: Afghanistan, Women and War, and Jezebel: A Visual Introduction To An Afghan Woman’s Mutilation, and The Nation: What Also Happens If We Leave Afghanistan, and I am sure there will be others to come.

So here is mine.

A close examination of the subjects of the photographs and the associated captions provides some interesting insights. If one was hoping to view the series of photographs and come away with a sense of the cruelties of the Taliban, then one is left deeply disappointed. Not a single victim portrayed in the photo essay is a victim of Taliban violence. She is a victim of domestic violence, or family abuse, or even cultural negligence and disregard. But none of the victims can specifically be suggested to have suffered from an act unique to the ideology of the Taliban. In this regard the photo essay is a careful sleight of hand because its title “Women Of Afghanistan: Living Under The Threat Of The Taliban” clearly suggests that we are seeing examples of Taliban cruelty and inhumanity.

But the captions betray and tell us otherwise.

What they reveal is that nine years after we occupied this country and took over either directly or indirectly control of its legal, police, and various social institutions, women continue to suffer and that brutal, dehumanizing social and familial practices continue unabated. Lets remember, the Taliban no longer rule there, but we do.

But lets take a closer look at the images and their captions to see the ‘atmosphere’ and ‘references’ offered to help make the case of Taliban brutality.

The first four of five set of images keep referring to ‘parliamentarians’ or ‘the parliament’, ignoring the fact that what is in place at the moment is a completely illegitimate government that sits on the seats of power on the basis of an election so corrupt that its UN administrators had to resign in protest. It is a ‘parliament’ of warlords and killers and the token woman, run by a man who has no credibility, and whose brother happens to be the largest drug baron in the country. It is a parliament that was ‘created’ on the basis of fraud, and is maintained on the basis of American/NATO soldiers. But you would not know this from the words on offer in the captions.

And ironically, the editors at the magazine failed to edit Fawzia Koofi’s (the woman in the first image) comment that she ‘…fears that new election rules may make it more difficult to succeed. She fears that outspoken women like her will be sidelined.” This fear is a fear of the American backed regime that is currently in power – of Karzai’s corruption and illegitimacy. Both the fraudulent parliament, and the constrained on democracy being created are not Taliban pathologies clearly, but of our own allies!

The next of set of images moves us towards women that we are expected to associated as abused and victims of violence of the Taliban. But in fact their details further say nothing of the sort! Sakina (image 6) is a victim of the practice of child marriage, and well known Afghani tribal practice that people (Afghani and others) have been trying to address for generations. Sakina is abused by her husband and is a clear victim of domestic abuse and violence. There is no Taliban connection here. Islam (image 7), is also clear victim of a hideous family abuse and domestic violence. A cruel mother-in-law (aren’t they all!), an abusive and deranged husband. The portrait of the two prisoners (image 8), Nasimgul and Gul Barar, tells us that they are prisoners, but does not tell us why. What is their crime? What were they convicted of? And they are prisoners under the Karzai regime, so where is the Taliban connection? Image 9 is of Shireen Gul, who was forced into crime by her husband and later jailed. Her husband and his relatives were hanged for their crimes! Once again, there is no suggestion here of a Taliban threat, merely of criminality and a legal system that seems to love capital punishment. The Texans must be happy. Image 10 takes us to Zohal Sagar, a young girl who lost her parents in ‘the war’. What war? Which conflict? Afghanistan has been at perpetual war for decades, even before the Soviet invasion? What is this caption talking about? The next image has the Abadini family, the woman photographed in a burqa. The burqa is not a Taliban innovation, though they perfected its consistent use and abuse. Its a dress used and worn in the region well before the Taliban. But we are again not revealing any specific issue related to the Taliban or a unique pathology that their ideology offers. The picture is of a conventional Afghan woman as millions would dress even before the Taliban. It a picture of a cultural issue.

And finally, the finale; the final image of a woman called ‘Aisha’ and the image the magazine’s editor chose – because shock always has the effect of stunting thought and numbing analysis. What does one say when confronted with such cruelty towards anyone, let alone a woman. Nothing. And that is precisely what this image is meant to do – silence us into submission. And since this is the most moving and disturbing of images, and the one most egregious and callously exploited by this magazine, let me say more about my point here.

Lets remember; it is the USA/NATO that is in power in Afghanistan, not the Taliban. The abuse that Aisha faced, abuse at the hands of her husband and her husband’s family that can be carried out with impunity after nine years of an American presence and an American/NATO foisted ‘government’ in the country. As the organization Women For Afghan Women In Afghanistan tell us that:

[Aisha]…was sold at the age of 10 by her father to a married man, a Talib. He kept her in the stable with the animals until she was 12 (when she got her first menstrual period). At the age of 12 he married her. From the day that she arrived in his house, she was beaten regularly by this man and his family. Sometimes she was beaten so badly that she couldn’t get up for days. Six months ago before she came to us, she was beaten so badly by her husband that she thought that she was going to die. She ran away and went to the neighbor’s house. The neighbor took to her to the police.

What happened to her is cruel and inhuman. But it is not unique to Afghanistan, nor to the Taliban. She is abused by ‘a Talib’ but is that his principal trait? Is that all that mattered about him that he was religiously conservative? Are we to believe that there is a direct link between his religious orthodoxy and his violent propensities? That would be what is being suggested here of course. And it can be suggested here because he is a Muslim. Not an individual with a history, with pathologies, with a history worthy of exploring in specifics. Her husband carried out these brutalities, and whereas he may have been delusional, violent, depraved, fundamentalist or whatever, he was not ‘the Taliban’. These remain individual, local acts of violence against women, and this is not news in Afghanistan nor in other countries in the region. This is not the pathology of a political creed, but the pathology of an individual, a family and possibly a broader society that tolerated this. It came first from within – the family, and then was sanctioned from without.

What we are confronting here is a socio-cultural pathology and one that has many manifestations that go beyond disfigurement. Aisha does not represents a consequence outcome unique a Taliban pathology, but is one of thousands of women who are confronted with violence and abuse and repression in the country and have for decades. By our modern standards of equality and universal justice, the condition of Afghani women is an issue of concern and it has been the focus of concern and action for activist both domestic and international for decades. But the causes are socio-economic and cultural to say nothing of the blatant use of an issue irrelevant to our reasons for being the country in the first place.

There is an attempt here to confuse us – all violence, pathologies, and decadence is ‘The Taliban’ and hence fundamentalist Islam. The fearsome bogeyman at the back of racist campaigns such as this one. And all things civilized and chivalrous are and can only be ‘Western/American’ and hence ‘modern’. A classical colonialist’s magic trick; we own all that is good, you are all that is backward and retrograde. But the issues surrounding the abuse and violence against women, as in any country, are far more complex than an imagined homogenous and well understood entity called ‘the Taliban’, a title that today has no more meaning than ‘the bad guys’. Simplifications of this sort are all the rage these days, so much so that Pankaj Mishra had to call them out in a recent article in The New Yorker called Islamismism by pointing out that:

The sad truth is that the problems [blamed] on Islam—fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism—are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity. Many more young women are killed in India for failing to bring sufficient dowry than perish in “honor killings” across the Muslim world. Such social pathologies no more reveal the barbaric core of Hinduism or Islam than domestic violence in Europe and America defines the moral essence of Christianity or the Enlightenment.

The photo essay misleads us into believing that we are reading and witnessing victims of a uniquely pathological movement called the Taliban – who conveniently happen to be our chosen ‘enemy’ of the moment, while in fact it offers us individuals who have suffered egregiously at the hands of family and relatives. As do hundreds of thousands of women across the region, and millions more across the globe. It confuses the pathologies of patriarchy for a religion and for a religio-political movement. The magazine through a cruel sleight of hand, has exploited these women’s trauma and suffering for an ideological, imperialist and domestic policy agenda. And in the process exploited these women and their histories for propaganda purposes.

Violence against women remains a concern across the globe, but here, on this cover, it is transformed into something unique, specific and as a justification for war. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in an article titled Veiled Threats pointed out that:

According to the U. S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, intimate partner violence made up 20 percentof all nonfatal violent crime experienced by women in 2001. The National Violence Against Women Survey, cited on the B.J.S. Web site,  reports that 52 percent of surveyed women said they were physically assaulted as a child by an adult caretaker and/or as an adult by any type of perpetrator.

Can we invade ourselves?

Now before I am misunderstood (and I realize that few will read this far!) Let me be clear on one point; the suffering of the Afghani woman under the Taliban regime was extreme and hideous. No organization documented and spoke out more against that period and the treatment of women under that regime than the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) which was led by Meena Keshwar Kamal. In 1979, Kamal began a campaign against Soviet forces and the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan. Her activities and views, as well as her work against the government and religious fundamentalists led to her assassination on February 4, 1987. But the organization lived on and carried on its work to reveal the horrors of the Taliban regime.

In fact, it was so popular in our propaganda war against the Soviet that RAWA that it was awarded over 16 awards and certificates from around the world for its work for human rights and democracy, some of the awards include The sixth Asian Human Rights Award – 2001, The French Republic’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Human Rights Prize, 2000, Emma Humphries Memorial Prize 2001, Glamour Women of the Year 2001, 2001 SAIS-Novartis International Journalism Award from Johns Hopkins University, Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from the U.S. Congress, 2004, Honorary Doctorate from University of Antwerp (Belgium) for outstanding non-academic achievements, as well as many other awards.

But when RAWA started to speak out against the American/NATO presence and the regime, it was sidelined. RAWA is a severe critic of the American/NATO alliance and its cronies in government. It has continued it struggle for Afghani women’s rights and protection and argued that:

The US “War on terrorism” removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the US administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The US government and Mr.Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban.

But you would know this from the magazine, which has made a mockery of any pretense of independence and integrity. It tries to hide that it is the US/NATO that has sunk billions into the country, that controls its government and all civic institutions, and that these crimes against women are taking place under its watch.

But there are dozens of pictures the magazine chooses not to run or write about. Here is one below that you will not see on the covers of the magazine.

A victim of a US airstrike in bala baluk 2009 which possibly killed up to 150 people including women and children

A victim of a US airstrike in Bala Baluk in 2009 which possibly killed up to 150 people including women and children

To exploit the suffering of some Afghani women in order to justify our repression, torture, incarceration, and killings of other Afghani women (and children and men) is simply hideous to observe. And this war, and our presence in Afghanistan involves all these hideous things. We are being asked to sheds tears for one carefully selected set of suffering to later justify or simply look away from the infliction of another set of suffering. That is, we exploit these women’s stories to justify our military occupation of a land and a people increasingly determined to oust us from there!

The Managing Editor paints our presence there as purely noble:

…she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. Aisha will head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization in California. We are supporting that effort.

Ah, civilization here. Barbarism there. Its all too clear.

The fact is that the brutalities against Afghan women are not the exclusive purview of the so-called Taliban. They are a pathology that continues under our chosen allies in government, just as they had continued under various other regimes in the past. This is precisely what RAWA has been protesting (see here, and here, and here for example) and why their voices are today largely missing from our American media. Attempts at legal and other reforms have been attempted in the past, and resisted violently in the past. There have been many, including the former King, who attempted to confront the condition of the country’s women – his wives appeared in public forums unveiled which created great consternation amongst the conservative population. When the Russians tried to do it, we complained that they were undermining Afghani culture.

In the 1970s the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – Afghanistan’s Communist part, made up of two factions the Khalq and the Parcham, attempted a series of reforms that later tipped the country into rebellion. It was the rebellion that initiated the Soviet invasion of the country. The focus of the reforms were economic, land and such. But a parts of the reform were laws that abolished bride price, set minimum ages for marriage and laid it down that freedom of choice must be allowed. The regime also tried to push towards universal literacy and education for both sexes (based on a Marxist curriculum). But as Martin Ewans points out in his book ‘Afghanistan:A New History

…these measures…took no account at all of the complexities of Afghan society and the interlocking economic and social relationships on which it depended…the practice of buying and selling wives, bride price was part of a traditional marriage contract, by which the bride was given compensating security, and, the reform struck at the heart of familial relationships.’.

(page 139 – 140).

We have reduced Afghanistan to a caricature of itself. Its people, their (horribly war devastated) society, their ways and norms, are completely unknown to us or simply ignored. By reducing the suffering of these women in the photo essay to ‘evils of the Taliban’ we do nothing but a further disservice to the women themselves, and to any genuine possibility of social and cultural reform. But to use these women to argue for an unjust, increasingly bloody and clearly disoriented military adventure is simply immoral and inhumane.

We are not in Afghanistan as protectors of their women. It was not the basis of our venture there, and it can’t be, despite this clod footed attempt by this magazine, the reasons for our staying there. The nation is in rebellion, the violence is increasing, hundreds are being killed, a corrupt and isolated leadership is maintained behind American/NATO protected barbed wire and guns, the drug trade is out of control, and the presidents brother and cronies are the wealthiest men in the country, while millions continue to suffer in penury and deprivation. To suggest that it is the women that have become our cause is to insult their loss and trauma, and to insult our intelligence and sense of history, justice and humanity.

When ever we are offered a choice between two options, we have to explore and question so that we can find others. There are never two options, nor a world lived in black or white. Aisha’s fate and suffering is as much our fault and the continuation of such pathologies a consequence of our presence. From the moment we stepped into that country, and began a military occupation there, we became contributors to its pathologies and to its possibilities. We Americans cannot pick and choose our influence, our impact. As principally and primarily a military force our consequences are overtly disruptive, destructive and dismantling. A nation that has suffered the trauma of decades of war has a culture, society, and values seriously contorted and maimed. And when we contribute to those decades of war and suffering with our own military might, we contribute to maintaining if not adding to the contortions and maiming.

The same magazine shedding tears over Aisha has remained silence over every other Afghani woman who has died under our bombs, drone missiles and M-16 fire. Are they not women? Were they not brutalized? How do you choose whose liberation you value? As our Afghan war falls to pieces, this attempt to foist a hysterical and ‘shock doctrine’ piece of propaganda suggests that the administration, along with its media hacks, is getting truly desperate and looking for ways to shut out minds if not our eyes, from its failure there.

The dehumanization and violence against the Afghan woman are genuine and serious. But it is not just a consequence of the Taliban, nor a clarion call for continued military occupation. It will not be resolved by military action, and it is not a concern or interest of our political and military leadership. These associations are desperate, infantile and insulting. That they are made after weeks of careful planning, execution of photographs, writing and editing tells us a lot about the limited intellects running our magazines.

And I will repeat; what irks me the most is the carefully selected sense of moral outrage for one set of victims and the complete silence and in fact justification for the sufferings of another. It is the hypocritical cleaving of our morality, our humanism, our sense of justice, outrage and anger that I find the most insidious act here. These photographs have become weapons of war, aimed at our minds to numb us into submission, to reduce us into towing the arguments of voices of violence and suffering. These photographs have been reduced from the possibility of a larger concern about the complete range of war crimes, crimes against humanity and criminal acts taking place in Afghanistan under our watch and frequently because of our watch, and instead carefully elided most all to turn a small spotlight towards a specific set of victims that we can carve into spokespeople for our political, strategic, military and imperial agendas. This is hypocritical concern at its best…or worst should I say. It reduces our sense of moral outrage and shared humanity to only where the magazine chooses to focus our attention. Its immoral and its unacceptable. Aisha is not the only victim, nor the most important one. So what about the rest? Organizations like RAWA have waged a consistent battle on this front, refusing to fall into the trap of convenient political calculations masquerading as a humanitarian and moral crusade. I wish our journalism could be even half as consistent and stop exploiting women to serve political interests.

Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on July 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Trevor Paglen is a man on a mission and it is one that reminds us that what makes any work of photography relevant, interesting, important or even significant, are the ideas and intentions that inform it. Anything else is merely gazing at pretty pictures.

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Paglen has spent the greater part of the last decade photographing, tracking, highlighting and revealing the dark, illegal, horror-ridden underbelly of the great American ‘Global War Against Terror’ (GWAT). Paglen is a 35-year-old artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who holds both a B.A. (religious studies, 1998) and a Ph.D. (geography, 2008) from Cal, as well as an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s currently a researcher at Berkeley.

A review of his work tells us that:

…his work traces the seam line between the government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Besides the spy satellites, which he captures arcing across the night sky in lush art prints, Paglen has photographed classified air bases; tracked down CIA cover names and displayed them on gallery walls; and compiled a book full of patches from Pentagon black-ops units. It’s called I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me. The patches—in some cases, the only evidence that the programs even exist—feature an absurd gallery of aliens, reapers, and wizards along with perverse accompanying mottos. One from the stealth bomber wing reads Gustatus Similis Pullus, Latin for “tastes like chicken.”

His most recent work, Invisible, (thanks to Conscientious) recently released by Aperture books, is based on his eight year documentation of secret CIA flights and ‘black sites’ that the government does not want us to know about. It reveals the secret military sites, but also, and perhaps most importantly, his works reveal the many who have been ‘disappeared’ in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘our liberties’. In an installation project called ‘Missing Persons’, Paglen lays out the names of the missing. As the exhibition description points out:

Since the mid 1990s, the CIA has spearheaded a covert program to kidnap suspected terrorists from all over the world. These people are then brought to a network of secret CIA-operated prisons, called “black sites,” where they are routinely tortured. The CIA calls this the “extraordinary rendition” program.

People taken to these secret prisons are effectively “disappeared”: there are no public records of their captivity, their identities are kept secret, and they are prohibited from communicating with the outside world. Among CIA operatives, they are called “ghost detainees.”

The locations of these black sites, known by code-names such as “Salt Pit” and “Bright Light,” are some of the CIA’s deepest secrets.

To capture and subsequently transport these ghost detainees, the CIA uses a fleet of unmarked airplanes. These airplanes are owned by intricate networks of front companies whose boards of directors are non-existent people. Missing Persons is a collection of their signatures culled from business records, aircraft registrations, and corporate filings.

He has also documented our ‘black site’ – prisons and torture centers in Afghanistan for example, CIA’s secret flights and also co-authored a book called Torture Taxi: On The Trial Of CIA’s Rendition Flights


You can even track his most recent investigations on his blog.
This is critical work, and it is the work of a man who understands the fundamentals of democratic engagement and dissent. He understands that there are forces that claim to ‘defend’ our republic but are in fact engaged in activities that undermine it. It draws our eyes and mind towards basic structures of power and repression that underpin modern ‘democracies’ and the ‘background noise’ of control and violence that is believed essential for sustaining it.

For me personally, such works do something else very important - they highlight the shallowness of what passes for ‘photojournalism’ in our modern world. They remind us how most photojournalists prefer to pander in the simple, the obvious and the conventional, while never engaging in the complex and crucual. Our newspapers and photographers have, either out of convenience, laziness or sheer careerism, chosen to veil the GWAT behind beautifully rendered and largely distracting projects produced from the confines of embedded positions on the front line.

Conventional photojournalism – with its insistent focus on combat and consequences – has gone a long way towards allowing us to forget that we, the United States of America, is in an illegal and brutal military occupation of two nations whose inhabitants continue to fight and resist our presence there through guns, politics and a large-scale, popular rejection of our legitimacy and relevance. The hundreds of thousands of troops that are needed to maintain these post-occupation pathologies called Iraq and Afghanistan reflect our failure, and the vast chasm that exists between the region’s population and our imagined ideas of our role and impact in the region. These projects bring us to ‘the combat’ – the fireworks, and stun our minds into unthinking simplicities while distracting us from the general un-sustainability, and injustice of the wars themselves. They ensure that the hard political questions, the difficult presumptions and prejudices that assume that we have a right to be there, are not seen or heard. They avoid the ugly realities as they have manifest themselves at home (renditions, tortures, illegal detentions, immigrant sweeps, racial discrimination, xenophobia, impoverishment etc.) and abroad (mass killings, torture, the administration of the occupation, civilian displacement, dispossession, destruction of societies and culture, corruption, drugs, NGO culture of excess etc.)

Our embedded photographers and journalists – many celebrated with awards and celebrity screenings at major film festivals, keep coming back to convince us that they have ‘seen’ the war, and that it has been ‘reported’ it. Some seem so determined to convince us the that the ‘embedded’ program is without constraints that their protests are starting to sound a bit too desperate, a bit too defensive and frankly a bit too insulting. These photographer – award winners, movie makers and celebrities, are working too hard to hide from us the fact that ‘embedding’ no matter how ‘free’ and ‘friendly’ hides the truth, obfuscates the horrors and does not allow you to call yourself a ‘reporter. I don’t care how many Sundance Awards they bring back, they are merely propagandist because they challenge nothing, question nothing, confront nothing and resist nothing. It is not physical courage the defines journalism, but moral and intellectual courage.

And the real measure of the ‘propaganda’ nature of such works is the fact that the Afghan and the Iraqi has been completely erased from our minds and eye. What is worse, they have been erased from our moral equation. They do not exist. The injustices inflicted on them are not worthy of consideration. Their dead are not counted. Their humiliations irrelevant. Their blood does not run. They are merely objects upon which we act and not humans struggling to regain control of their own lives and futures. And resisting. We obfuscate their motives and humanity behind words like ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ so as to make it easier for us to justify indiscriminate killings and murder. Front page stories about the ‘liberation of their women’ act as justifications for acts of mass murder, bombing of civilians, pre-emptive killings, summary arrests, terrorizing of civilian populations in order to control them, construction of barriers/walls, torture and injustice that we carry out with impunity. Our righteousness needs to be fed, and our photographers and journalists have been happily doing that. We are constantly being shown as ‘saving’, ‘helping’, ‘aiding’, ‘educating’, ‘liberating’  the Afghan or the Iraqi and its all done with the same desperation with which the dark side is erased. Its not as if they are not confronting, resisting, speaking, challenging, rejecting, fighting, demanding, and defending. It is we who are not listening, or simply not allowing their voices and acts to be represented to others like us.

But it’s not just the embedded works. Another set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts. Most all the projects concentrate on American soldiers, – with parallel works being produced in the UK, Germany, Sweden or elsewhere from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries, and assiduously avoid any revelation of anything called an Iraqi or an Afghani.

The fact remains that hundreds if not thousands of Afghani civilians are dying each year in our war. Hundreds of thousands died as a direct result of our invasion of Iraq. To say nothing of the near million who may have died as a result of our sanctions against the country. The erasures of these people are reflected in the ridiculous ‘outrage’ that has been unleashed because of the leaking of CIA Afghan logs. The Afghan War Logs reveal the thousands of civilians that have been killed in our war there but rather than be outraged by this horror, we are outraged that people now know! We are outraged at the leak, not the realities and brutalities the leaks reveal.

The same misguided outrage has been targeted against WikiLeaks that has been quietly revealing the realities we so wish to forget. Few things were amusing (facetious comment, people!) than Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad (they have one!) and current CIA counter-terror director, writing for Al-Jazeera a piece called “US Needs Lesson in ‘Secret-Keeping’”. I can ask what a CIA director is doing writing for this network, but I will ask why he felt he had to make such an effort to suggest that the logs reveal nothing. He is wrong; they reveal the incompetence and sheer callous disregard for the civilians that is the base idea of this military operation in Afghanistan, and it reveals the failure of the American military machine to make any real progress anywhere within the country. They reveal a military occupation over a resistant population in progress. They reveal us as jackboot occupiers and in cohort with those who are considered corrupt, unjust, illegitimate and venal. It reveals how we have reduced our finest to acts of low repression and military violence. They reveal how after nine years we are still struggling, fighting, retreating, and blaming each other while the nation remains mired in corruption, violence and a movement that may be retrograde and violent but has been allowed to position itself as nationalist and anti-occupation. Yes, the appeal of the resistance comes not from any particular message of ‘Islam’ or ‘Global Jihad’, but from simply pointing out the inequities and injustices prevalent in the country under our watch.

But all this is entirely missing from the works being produced at the moment. The wars that exist in the documents of the CIA is nothing like the war that is offered to us by our reporters and photographers. The latter is a vision from Dante’s Inferno, the former a cleansed Hollywood production complete with acceptable rending of ‘violence’ so that can are not ‘disturbed’ from our morning coffee.

In fact, there is nothing that one can turn to and understand the broader consequences of our wars. And yet we continue to produce a whole host of works that concentrate on the trauma of our ‘boys and girls’. I do not mean to dismiss the suffering of the American soldiers injured or those of the American families suffering from loss. Far from it. But I am in fact dismayed that as Americans at war we can be so ignorant, dismissive and blind to the vast sufferings that are being inflicted on others who are also human, but happen not to be American (or British, or Swedish etc.). I am ashamed at the silence in the face of the murders being committed, the horrors being inflicted, the injustices raining upon the heads of a poor, impoverished nation whose people are today rising up in revolt against our presence there and the hideous, murderous, greedy and callous ‘democrats’ we have foisted on the people. The sheer shame of the illegal and illegitimate Karzai government – supported purely and only because of our money, is perhaps just too much to take!

They, the ‘other’, is completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept. The attention is absolutely and exclusively on ‘us’ and ‘ourselves’, which is what these projects are about in the end. What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or Ashly Gilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real innocent victims, and the real crimes committed here. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have failed defending the faith, in innocence and purity.  They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects to garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims. And this is particularly obvious when there is little or scant attention being paid to those who are suffering, dying, being tortured, detained, displaced, deprived and devastated by our actions in their lands.

 Victims' families tell their stories following Nato airstrike in Afghanistan  'I took some flesh home and called it my son.' The Guardian interviews 11 villagers      * Reddit     * Buzz up     * Share on facebook (361)     * Tweet this (48)      * Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Kunduz     * The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009     * Article history  Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Of course, we have a long history of turning our acts of brutality and genocide into comforting victimhood. The Vietnam conflict still awaits a memorial to the millions of Vietnamese who died under our bombs, the millions maimed and scarred for life, and the tens of thousands who continue to suffer the consequences of Agent Orange and other chemicals. To say nothing about war crimes tribunals and criminal indictments.

The Afghanistan War Logs, much like Paglen’s work, reveals the shocking shallowness of our photojournalistic coverage. They lift the covers over the very things we wish not to see or confront – the darker aspects of ourselves and our actions in the world. They remind us how much, how most of it, has just been left unsaid. It reminds us how redundant, and limited, our photographic works are and how desperately most photographers just seem to want to copy and imitate. Not think and challenge.  The surface distracts while the depth confuses.

The entire corpus of mainstream photojournalism pales in comparison to the efforts of real reporters and individuals confronting the complex set of administrative, military, covert, civic and political shenanigans and injustices required to maintain our posture in the GWAT.

It is in moments like this that I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s challenge to us:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

David was trying to remind us to hold on the things that matter, and to not get distracted by the ‘fire and glory’, the empty rhetoric, the debilitating and restrictive legal and judicial measures that will only reduce us as citizens while doing little to confront our enemies. Tim Paglen reminds me that at least some have heard his call.

As citizens of this nation, as Americans, perhaps our greatest challenge today, perhaps one of our most important acts of freedom, is to question what we see, hear and read. To look and hear past the slickly produced photo essays, reportage, movies and documentaries, and explore their methods of creation, their sponsors, their producers, their restrictions and their prejudices.

In a world increasingly obsessed with ‘packaging’ and ‘presentation’, in a world where an iPad application is being suggested as something ‘interesting’, it is becoming crucial to examine the underlying ‘method’. Trevor Paglen has a method – individual, determined and dissenting, which informs his works and productions. And the truths that he reveals. It is ‘method’ that most scares our mainstream press and it is ‘method’ that will determine and define meaningful journalism vs. simply slick business news production. As bureaus close, as the media markets consolidate, as wires take over foreign reporting, as ‘collaborations’ with NGOs are sought as substitute for independent investigative, questioning journalism, as we ‘cut corners’ and ‘make efficient’, it is ‘method’ that becomes the key differentiator. All else will simply be ‘production’.

Marc Thiessen And The Art Of The Lie Or What Skills Do Presidential Speech Writers Really Have

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on March 11, 2010 at 11:23 am

It was an amusing interview. Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has written a book that argues for the efficieny of torture, relevance of illegal detentions, continued suspension of habeas corpus, the genius of Guantanamo and various other magnificently inane and stupid acts executed by the previous administration.

He came onto prime time TV to plug his newest collection of nonsense now compiled in a book and to of course parrot the idiocies of the hideous Lynn Cheney who has been insisting that those who defend the accused are in fact terrorist collaborators and possibly even Al-Qaeda sympathizers.

You can listen to the intellectually challenged arguments here…

But I want to draw your attention to a particular moment in the interview when it became quite clear what the conventional ‘nuclear’ option tactic that people like Mr. Thiessen frequently use when they run short of a serious argument; they lie.

So when confronted by a clearly indignant Jon Stewart about his stance which assumes that ‘accusation = guilt’ is the only way to handle any and all picked up by our rendition and ‘pay-per-prisoner’ programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, he makes the following claim:

No where in the Geneva Conventions does it say that you have a right to a lawyer, or the right to petition to be released before the end of hostilities…

This is a lie.

The Geneva Conventions are very clear on this question when it comes to the rights of prisoners of war. And lets be clear, that if you are going to claim the right to an endless war, then anyone picked up and/or captured in its process is a prisoner of war. The Geneva Conventions, in particular The Third Geneva Convention, clearly states:

Article 99. No moral or physical coercion may be exerted on a prisoner of war in order to induce him to admit himself guilty of the act of which he is accused.

No prisoner of war may be convicted without having had an opportunity to present his defence and the assistance of a qualified advocate or counsel.

Article 105. The prisoner of war shall be entitled to assistance by one of his prisoner comrades, to defence by a qualified advocate or counsel of his own choice, to the calling of witnesses and, if he deems necessary, to the services of a competent interpreter.

He shall be advised of these rights by the Detaining Power in due time before the trial.

Failing a choice by the prisoner of war, the Protecting Power shall find him an advocate or counsel, and shall have at least one week at its disposal for the purpose. The Detaining Power shall deliver to the said Power, on request, a list of persons qualified to present the defence. Failing a choice of an advocate or counsel by the prisoner of war or the Protecting Power, the Detaining Power shall appoint a competent advocate or counsel to conduct the defence.

The advocate or counsel conducting the defence on behalf of the prisoner of war shall have at his disposal a period of two weeks at least before the opening of the trial, as well as the necessary facilities to prepare the defence of the accused. He may, in particular, freely visit the accused and interview him in private. He may also confer with any witnesses for the defence, including prisoners of war. He shall have the benefit of these facilities until the term of appeal or petition has expired.

Particulars of the charge or charges on which the prisoner of war is to be arraigned, as well as the documents which are generally communicated to the accused by virtue of the laws in force in the armed forces of the Detaining Power, shall be communicated to the accused prisoner of war in a language which he understands, and in good time before the opening of the trial. The same communication in the same circumstances shall be made to the advocate or counsel conducting the defence on behalf of the prisoner of war.

Clearly Jon Steward himself is not aware of the niceties of the Geneva Conventions for otherwise he may have done well to simply call Mr. Thiessen’s lie.

But we can do that for him now.

Speaking of lies, and in the “I Told Yoo So” category, David Cole has a fascinating discussion about John Yoo’s original torture memos and the contortions of readings, interpretation and re-interpretation that were required to justify, at the behest of men in the highest (or should I say lowest) offices of our democracy, the overt, explicit and indubitable torture of ‘those’ people.

I quote his conclusion:

Responsibility for the illegal brutality inflicted on CIA and Guantánamo detainees cannot be limited to Yoo and Bybee. It extends to all those who approved the tactics—even those so eager later to condemn Yoo’s reasoning. And unless we as citizens demand that these lawyers be held to answer for the wrongs done in our name, responsibility extends to all of us, too. We must continue to insist on accountability—whether in congressional hearings, citizens’ commissions, civil lawsuits, or the marketplace of ideas. The essential lesson must be that torture and cruel treatment are not policy options—even when a lawyer is willing to write an opinion blessing illegality.

Hear. Hear.

Update; Jane Mayer of The New Yorker has written a detailed review of Marc Thiessen’s best selling Courting Disaster. The article, Counterfactual; A curious history of the C.I.A’s interrogation program reveals the misrepresentations, erasures and lies that make up Marc Thiessen’s book. That millions have read a book filled with obfuscations and outright deception and dishonesty can only fill us with dismay. But I loved Ms. Mayer’s conclusion in an article that is certainly worth reading. She offers a vivid and clear headed argument for why crimes, injustices, violations of rights and abuse of the constitution need to be investigated and prosecuted when she says:

Thiessen’s effort to rewrite the history of the C.I.A.’s interrogation program comes not long after a Presidential race in which both the Republican and the Democratic nominees agreed that state-sponsored cruelty had damaged and dishonored America. The publication of “Courting Disaster” suggests that Obama’s avowed determination “to look forward, not back” has laid the recent past open to partisan reinterpretation. By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it.

Indeed.