August 22, 2006

Gaza is Out

In my thank-you notes to readers who donated money via PayPal, I said I was planning a trip into Gaza with the IDF. As it turns out, this will not be possible and I can’t do anything about it. I don’t want to get into the specific reasons why this is, but I will say that that it has nothing to do with Israeli censorship of the media. As far as I know, there is no censorship of the media in this country at all. No one has pressured me in any way whatsoever aside from asking me politely (once) not to take pictures of a single front line military site during the war.

Sorry about missing Gaza. I tried. Maybe on my next trip when American journalists aren't being kidnapped. In the meantime, I will try to figure out what’s happening in there from a distance and report what I can.

UPDATE: Just so we're clear here (and I can see from the comments that this is not clear), I am being prevented from going into Gaza against my will. It's for security reasons, not for government media censorship reasons. That's just the way it is, and I cannot control it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:19 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 21, 2006


I'll have more here soon, I promise. Not everything is going up over at Sully's. I'm dealing with logistics again. Just one of those things that has to be done if you want the good stuff. Tomorrow I get to spend some quality time at the Ministry of Bureaucracy.

I'm also in the middle of writing a longish piece that -- sorry! -- doesn't have any bangbang in it. Not everything explodes all the time (thank God).

In the meantime, I'll be running an Armageddon Watch here. It's August 22 in the Middle East now, when the Zionist Entity is scheduled to be erased...

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:28 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

World Ends Tomorrow! Film at Eleven.

There’s a lot of loose talk in the United States about tomorrow, August 22, Iran’s supposed Armageddon Day for Jerusalem. I wrote a short article about this over at Andrew Sullivan's Time magazine blog. August 22: Tuesday, Not Doomsday.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:14 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

The Kurds Go Their Own Way

Reason Spread.jpg

I'll have more material from Israel shortly. In the meantime, the feature article I wrote about Iraqi Kurdistan for Reason magazine is online now.

Two hours into my first tour of Erbil, my guide for the day taught me to feel lucky. “If we were doing this in Baghdad, we would be dead by now,” he said.

Our driver nodded vigorously.

“It’s that dangerous?” I asked.

“With your face,” my guide replied, “and with our Kurdish license plates on the car, we could not last two hours.”

So goes the capital of Iraq. But I was touring the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the war is already over.

There are no insurgents in Kurdistan. Nor are there any kidnappings. A hard internal border between the Kurds’ territory and the Arab-dominated center and south has been in place since the Kurdish uprising at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Cars on the road heading north are stopped at a series of checkpoints. Questions are asked. ID cards are checked. Vehicles are searched and sometimes taken apart on the side of the road. Smugglers, insurgents, and terrorists who attempt to sneak into Kurdistan by crossing Iraq’s wilderness areas are ambushed by border patrols.

Read the rest over at Reason magazine...

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:23 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 19, 2006

Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan just left for a two-week vacation, and I’ll be filling in for him at Time with Ana-Marie Cox and David Weigel. Long essays will still be published on this page as usual, and shorter bloggy-type stuff will be posted there.

When I filled in for Glenn Reynolds a few weeks ago I cross-posted some of the same material on my blog and on his. I won’t be doing that this time, though, so be sure to look for my posts there as well as here until Labor Day weekend.

Andrew Sullivan’s was the first blog I ever read. It’s an honor to be asked to contribute, especially now that it has been absorbed by Time magazine. Thanks, Andrew. Enjoy your vacation.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:36 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 18, 2006

Terror War

Cracked Windshield Kiryat Shmona.jpg

KIRYAT SHMONA, ISRAEL – The Israel/Lebanon war created hundreds of thousands of refugees on each side of the border, but that’s where proportion ends. Israel has a real army and a real air force and can inflict real damage on its enemies. Hezbollah, on the other hand, is only strong enough to terrorize people.

The so-called Party of God can menace, bully, and sabotage Lebanon. (They are especially good at the latter.) Hassan Nasrallah’s “martyrs” can terrorize Israel. But they cannot repel an invading army. They can only harass that army and kill a miniscule percentage of its soldiers and dent it by one tenth of one percent.

After most foreign journalists packed up and left as soon as the bangbang stopped, I drove to Hezbollah’s most targeted city of Kiryat Shmona to do a little post-war analysis of what had just happened. It looks surprisingly intact from a distance, and even up close the damage is less severe than what I thought it would be.

Kiryat Shmona Distance.jpg

I expected to see at least one destroyed house. There may be a destroyed house in there somewhere, but I drove all over and couldn’t find one.

Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers. They don’t feel like pipsqueakers when they’re flying in your direction. But they are. They can’t be aimed worth a damn, and they’ll only do serious damage if they ignite something else after impact, like the gas tank of a car. They have almost no military value at all unless they are fired in barrages at a reasonably close range. From a distance they can only be counted on to break a few things almost at random in the general direction they’re aimed.

They do break a few things, especially because Hezbollah is clever enough to pack them tight with ball bearings. Kiryat Shmona looks like a city that recently suffered street fights between roving militias with automatic weapons.

Shrapnel Kiryat Shmona Apartment.jpg

Katyusha shrapnel kills people who aren’t wearing body armor, and wounds those who are. No one wants to be hit with this stuff. But if the side of your building is hit, you can call a repair guy and have it taken care of in one day. It might take a few days if the windows are broken. Either way, Katyushas do quite a lot of damage to people and relatively little damage to infrastructure and buildings.

Broken Kiryat Shmona Store Windows.jpg

Shattered Kiryat Shmona Store.jpg

Throwing high-speed ball bearings at random around an urban area is a great way to terrorize people and get them to hide in their shelters or seek refuge somewhere else. You can empty entire cities this way, and that’s exactly what Hezbollah did. No Palestinian terrorist group had ever been able to accomplish so much. But forget trying to use Katyushas against an army, especially against a properly outfitted and trained Western army. While Northern Israel’s civilian population retreated to the south, the military surged forward straight into Lebanon.

I can say from personal experience that Katyushas really do frighten civilians. I drove through Kiryat Shmona several times (fast) while it was under bombardment. But I didn’t dare stick around. The city was Hezbollah’s favorite target even while it has no military value at all. They couldn’t hit anything in particular in there, but the city is large enough and close enough to the border that it’s easy to hit something and scare everyone out.

Caved In Kiryat Shmona Windshield.jpg

You can’t destroy a city this way, but you can make it uninhabitable for a while.

The worst damage I could find was where a Katyusha hit the roof of a car port. A parked van was torched , the kitchen window was blown in by shrapnel, and a portion of the side of the house was damaged. Anyone washing the dishes when that thing hit would have been killed.

Garage Kiryat Shmona.jpg

Garage Roof Kiryat Shmona.jpg

Kiryat Shmona Roof.jpg

There is a lot of talk in the media and the blogosphere about Hezbollah’s targets in Israel. Some insist that Hezbollah does too aim its Katyushas at the Israeli military. The “proof” is that 12 soldiers were killed by a rocket just before I arrived on the border.

Here’s the thing, though. Hezbollah hit a little of everything in Northern Israel: houses, trees, streams, grass, apartments, roads, vineyards, and cows. Thousands of rockets crashed and sprayed shrapnel inside their shooting gallery. The odds that none of the rockets would hit a single IDF soldier were microscopic. Hezbollah couldn’t have achieved zero Israeli military casualties no matter how hard they tried unless they didn’t fire those rockets at all.

I was far safer on military bases, in open fields, and on tiny kibbutzes than in cities during Hezbollah’s terror war. Katyushas are nearly useless against an army but are devastatingly effective as terrorist weapons against civilian population centers even as they cause relatively light damage. Shrapnel may not hurt your apartment building too bad, but it will tear you to pieces if you’re in the way.

Broken Window Kiryat Shmona Apartment.jpg

Rockets rained down on Kiryat Shmona almost constantly. There were no soldiers, no tanks, no artillery cannons, no bases, nothing of military value in that city at all. None of the journalists I met wanted to linger there for very long. But we were all over the army bases because our odds of being hit by a rocket were merely random, the same as if we were out among cows in the farmland. Haifa, which is away from the border, was hit more often than bases that are right next to the border and therefore easier targets.

Shrapnel Kiryat Shmona Storefront.jpg

The odds of being hit in Kiryat Shmona were fantastically higher than the odds of being hit anywhere else. Our lives depended on getting this right. There is no room for ideology or taking sides when you’ll die if you get it wrong.

Car Shrapnet Kiryat Shmona.jpg

If Hezbollah really did the best they could to avoid killing civilians with their inaccurate rockets (as their apologists claim) I would have set up shop in Kiryat Shmona. But the situation was exactly reversed. The exception was the town of Metulla, and the reason for that, presumably, is because it is immediately surrounded on three sides by Lebanon. With that exception in mind, the claim that civilian areas were safer places than military areas is terrorist propaganda.

Shrapnel Kiryat Shmona House.jpg

What happened here doesn’t bode well for the future if Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran want to go another round. And it looks like they do want to rack up another “victory.” It's so easy for Syria and Iran in particular when Lebanon absorbs all the punishment for them.

Missile war may be replacing terrorist war. It's more effective than using hijackers and suicide bombers. Only missile war caused hundreds of thousands of Israelis to flee.

This war was a transition, the testing of a new doctrine. It's a disaster for Israel, but in the end it will be an even bigger disaster for those who think it's a terrific idea.

I don’t know about some of the unhinged Lebanese Hezbollah supporters, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Lebanon if ten Iranian-made Zelzal missiles crash into the sides of Tel Aviv apartments and skyscrapers every hour.

War is coming again, and it’s coming like Christmas. It will not resemble the Middle East wars we are used to.

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent non-corporate writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without you.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:49 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 17, 2006

Gearing Up for the Next Disaster

Beirut Daily Star opinion page editor Michael Young says Hassan Nasrallah sounds “ominously” like a president now while Bashar Assad effectively calls for a coup d’etat against the elected Lebanese government.

Syria, predictably, feels emboldened by Hezbollah’s “victory” and says it will create its own version of Hezbollah. The Damascus-based terrorist army will be trained by the original.

Saad Hariri enables Hezbollah and echoes Hassan Nasrallah by declaring a Lebanese “victory” against Israel. Enough “victories” like that one, Saad, and Lebanon will turn into Gaza.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:51 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 15, 2006

War Warps the Mind a Little

The events in this essay took place on August 11 and 12.

NORTHERN ISRAEL – War does strange things to the mind. The first time you hear the loud BOOM, BANG, and CRASH of incoming and outgoing artillery, you will jump. You will twitch. You will want to take cover. You will want to hide. You will feel like you could die at any second, like the air around you is drenched with gasoline, like the universe is gearing up to smash you to pieces.

It’s amazing how fast you get used to it, even if you have no military training and grew up in a tranquil conflict-free place in suburban America.

It took me four hours.

The BOOM, BANG, and CRASH had nothing to do with me. Oh sure, it could have had something to do with me. I could have been hit. There is no doubt.

But here’s the thing: war is slow. War in Northern Israel, anyway, was slow. It isn’t, or at least wasn’t, anything like fast street to street fighting in Hollywood movies. It wasn’t Black Hawk Down and it wasn’t Omaha Beach.

Any given location in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon would almost certainly never be hit with a missile, bomb, or artillery shell. Lebanon was hit more frequently, and Israel was hit more randomly, but the vast majority of people in both places weren’t even scratched, let alone killed.

Explosions crank your survival instinct up to eleven. But after a while straight math kicks in. You run numbers in your head, even subconsciously. Most specific locations aren’t hit, ever. And most of the time you are standing in one of those locations. Even if you do happen to briefly pass through one of the specific locations that are destined to take a hit, what are the odds, really, that you will be standing there when it actually happens?

Being in Northern Israel was not like being in Baghdad. No one was out to get me. Only Hezbollah fighters and leaders in Lebanon were targeted as individuals. All of Northern Israel was a collective target, but a very large one which I vanished into almost completely.

Hezbollah killed more cows than people in Israel.

The odds that any given place in Northern Israel would be hit were the same as the odds that any other given place in Northern Israel would be hit. Hezbollah’s rockets land almost at random. They are, therefore, pathetic military weapons, but perfect terrorist weapons.

There were a few exceptions. Kiryat Shmona was hit quite a lot, Metulla not at all. Still, anywhere out in the open was just as dangerous as anywhere else out in the open.

This is logical, but the mind doesn’t work like that when sensing danger from the environment.

Driving on an empty road and looking at an impact site up ahead is unsettling.

Burning Ridge From Road Northern Israel.jpg

Getting out of the car at Kibbutz Goshrim is a relief.

Kibbutz Goshrim.jpg

Each location photographed above was exactly, precisely, as dangerous as the other.

Trees blocked out the sky and made me feel safer. Obviously the branches of trees would do nothing to stop or slow a Katyusha attack. But when you’re under rocket and missile fire, the sky feels like a gigantic malevolent eyeball. When you’re underneath trees, the gigantic malevolent eyeball can’t see you. Therefore a rocket won’t hit you. That’s not how it is, but that’s what it feels like.

During my first several hours in the war zone I constantly tried to figure out what I could do to make myself safer. Should I stand here instead of there? How about if I crouch down a little bit? Maybe if I sit on the ground a rocket will miss my head? I figured it was better to stand near things than away from things, as long as those things were not cars.

All this thinking was useless. I would either be hit or I wouldn’t. Walking or driving fast could get me away from an incoming rocket, or it could get me closer. It was all totally random, and after every possibility was considered and rejected as useless the fear slipped away.

Fear forces you to think hard and fast about what you can do to protect yourself. As soon as you become 100 percent convinced that there is nothing more you can do to protect yourself, fear becomes a useless emotion. Then it goes away all on its own. You can’t talk yourself into or out of this mental space. It’s just something that happens.

This is the fatal weakness of terrorism.

When I tell you I was not afraid after four hours in the war zone, it is not because I am brave. Maybe going to the war zone made me a little bit brave, but feeling fearless inside it was different. It certainly helped that the rockets, missiles, and artillery shells were flying over my head rather than at my head.

Missile in Flight.jpg

Kibbutz Goshrim is the place where the IDF Spokesmen set up shop. Journalists came in and out of there all day. The lobby of the hotel had food, drinks, and free wi-fi. My laptop wouldn’t pick up the signal for some reason, but Noah Pollak’s did and he shared his computer.

Michael Oren Checking Email.JPG

Military historian and IDF Spokesman Michael Oren checks his email on Noah Pollak’s laptop in the war zone.

CBS CNN news correspondent John Roberts interviewed an IDF colonel out front.

John Roberts with CNN Cap Guy.JPG

Michael Oren translated. Roberts asked pedestrian questions. The colonel gave stock answers that sounded like propaganda.

Oren and Roberts.jpg

The entire exercise seemed pointless to me. I learned nothing at all from watching and listening.

John Roberts Interviewing Colonel.JPG

The funny thing about it, though, is that I felt safer than usual while it happened. I stood right next to three famous people. Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gordon was on site as well, volunteering as an IDF Spokesman. What are the odds that three famous people will all get taken out by one Hezbollah rocket? I mean, come on. The CBS news anchor isn’t going to get hit. He creates the Famous Guy Force Field. Michael Oren and Dan Gordon gave the Famous Guy Force Field two extra boosts.

This is the kind of stupid crap that goes through your mind as you struggle to cope with the threat of random attacks. If there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself, your mind will hallucinate bogus strategies.

I also simply got used to the threat of random attacks and forgot all about it, even as the sound of explosions rocked the kibbutz all day long.

The contrast between what I was seeing and what I was hearing really was odd. It was like watching a Green Gables episode with the volume turned down and the audio track for a war movie cranked up instead.

Statue on Kibbutz.JPG

I heard BOOM, BANG, and BOOM as I took this picture.

Noah and I sat in the hotel lobby and surfed around Web sites for digital cameras on his lap top. He was shopping for a new high-end camera and we discussed the pros and cons of various lenses. BOOM. We kept surfing. BANG. Ooh, check out that lens. CRASH. “Nikons are better than Sonys,” I said, “and more worth the money.”

I completely forgot I was in a war zone even though I could hear it outside. I was just as calm sitting there as if I were reading the morning newspaper at the Oregon Coast.

We all know fear is contagious. What might be less understood is that calm is also contagious. It’s hard to even want to freak out when no one else is freaking out.

New York City after September 11 was a lot scarier than Northern Israel on August 11.

Lots of people were in the hotel lobby, surfing the Internet, drinking coffee, interviewing spokesmen, filing stories, watching the news, ordering lunch, whatever.

Kibbutz Hotel Lobby.JPG

BOOM. No one was nervous. It’s not that they were hiding it. They really weren’t nervous. BANG. No one so much as raised an eyebrow at any loud noise. CRASH. It was as though the war outside were just a soundtrack on a movie turned up too loud. Nothing was hitting us, so what’s the big deal?

Wifi and Rifle.JPG

Noah and I spent the night in that hotel while cannons right outside fired sky-ripping artillery shells at Hezbollah. I slept perfectly soundly and did not wake up once.


The next day we went back to the Alaska Inn for the view. While we sat on the roof and looked into Lebanon a loud voice down below blared something in Hebrew over a loudspeaker.

“What was that?” Noah asked the Israeli woman standing next to us.

“He said Go to the shelters because a rocket is about to hit the roof of the hotel,” she said.

“Seriously?” I said.

“No,” she said and laughed. “But a rocket really is coming. It really is time to go to the shelters.”

We waited for the elevator. It seemed to take forever.

“Where is the shelter, anyway?” I said.

“I don’t know,” the Israeli woman said.

The elevator doors opened. We all got in. It took ages to get down to the lobby.

When the doors opened on the main floor, no one was moving. Everyone was perfectly calm as though nothing were happening.

I walked up to the front desk.

“Do you have a bomb shelter?” I calmly asked the young man standing next to the register.

“Of course,” he said.

“Should we go down there or does nobody care?” I said.

“Nobody care,” he said.

“Let’s get a Coke,” Noah said.

So we sat in the restaurant and asked the waiter for two Cokes.

I heard a faint whump somewhere off in the distance. The rocket had landed. Nobody moved. Nobody cared.

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent non-corporate writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without you.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:02 AM | Permalink | Comments Off


Here are some good links to tide you over until I get my next piece ready to publish.

Lisa Goldman went to Northern Israel just before I did and wrote Welcome to the Shooting Gallery.

Noah Pollak went with me to Northern Israel and wrote One Cheer for Ceasefire.

Check ’em out. More soon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:54 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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