December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

The surge sure worked, didn't it?

Us Fatalities 2007.JPG

Something tells me 2008 will be even better than 2007.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:42 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 30, 2007

Blog Software Upgrade

My blogging software is -- finally -- being upgraded this weekend. If you see any strange behavior around here, or if the site becomes temporarily unavailable, everything should be back to normal shortly.

The biggest advantage after the upgrade will be vastly improved anti-spam and anti-troll blocking measures in the comments section. The cretins who like to impersonate me in the comments and publish links to World of Warcraft Gold will soon be banished forever from this Web site.

Comments need to be closed until the upgrade is finished. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:01 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 29, 2007

Iraq in Fragments

COMMENTARY’s online editor Sam Munson asked if I’d like to write a short piece about what I think are the top five movies of 2007 from and about the Middle East. Sure, I said. But once I got started I found I couldn’t write about five. I started with a two-paragraph blurb about James Longley’s masterful Iraq in Fragments, but I exceeded the word limit before I could even get to the second film on the list. Iraq in Fragments is too good for a blurb. So here, instead, is a piece about the top single film from the Middle East, or at least Iraq. One caveat: Iraq in Fragments actually dates from 2005, but it was released on DVD only a few months ago, and it’s such a powerful and important film that it should make the cut.

Most recent documentaries filmed in Iraq can be fairly categorized as liberal or conservative. All are about the war, and most are cinematic equivalents of op-eds. James Longley’s lush and intimate Iraq in Fragments is different. While the director appears to be some kind of liberal or leftist, his film is refreshingly none of the above. Iraq in Fragments is about the war only insomuch as it was shot in Iraq during the war. This film is a collection of portraits of Iraqis, not Americans or the American military. And unlike almost any other documentary out there, Longley’s includes the Kurds.

The director is invisible. We never see him or hear him, and he uses his camera as though he were shooting a fictional film. This is emphatically not the kind of documentary you’re accustomed to seeing. Longley’s camera and editing work are so stylish and deft that the end result is perhaps the most artful documentary ever made on any subject. (Watch the high-definition trailer here for a powerful preview.)

The title refers to Iraq as it is now—a geographic abstraction made up of fragments. But it also refers to the film’s structure. The first third is a story of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, the middle chapter covers Moqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia, and the final third is about the Kurdish Spring in the northern autonomous region.

A Sunni Arab boy named Muhammad anchors the film’s opening segment. He works for his cruel and abusive uncle in a machine shop, and his ability to lie to himself and the camera is a painful revelation.

“He loves me, he loves me,” the boy says about his tyrannical guardian as we see him smacked in the head and called a dog. “He’s nice to me. He doesn’t swear at me or beat me.” What are we then to make of Muhammad’s uncle when he says he wishes Saddam Hussein were still in charge? “So what if he oppressed us and was hard on us,” he says.

Muhammad knows cruelty and loss, as do all Iraqis. His father was a police officer. “Then he started talking about Saddam,” he tells us. “They put him in prison.” We never find out what happened to his father, but he appears to have vanished forever. Contrary to what some naïve Westerners seem to believe, Iraqis, even children, know very well that they live in a hard and tragic country even if they have never known anything else.

“It’s not safe here,” Muhammad says. “It’s scary. There is no security. I want to go abroad. When you are abroad, nothing will happen to you. My teacher told me I could be a pilot. I want to fly the plane, to see a place that’s beautiful and nice. Not Iraq, but a beautiful place. I imagine . . . I imagine . . . I’m high in the sky. I can see the doves, the sky. I can see the birds. I am in the plane and seeing countries beautiful and nice. I fly down to those countries. I’ll go to that country. The beautiful one.”

Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:38 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 28, 2007

Grandpa Simpson Speaks

I don’t usually link to off-topic stuff like this. But David Harsanyi did such a great job demolishing Andrew Keen’s dumb new book in Reason Magazine that I’m doing more than just posting an excerpt. I ordered Harsanyi’s book Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children.

Andrew Keen’s website claims, without a hint of humility, that he’s “the leading contemporary critic of the Internet.” No kidding? The entire Internet? A curious reader might wonder whether such an all-inclusive battle is similar to taking on, say, “music” or “radio waves.” It is.

More specifically, Keen’s depressing book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, laments techno-utopianism, free content, and the rise of citizen journalists, filmmakers, musicians, and critics as cultural arbiters. It is a book, in other words, of spectacular elitism.

Keen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned full-time critic of user-generated Internet content, argues that our most “valued cultural institutions” are under attack from the hordes of lay hacks, undermining quality content with garbage. His central argument is—to pinch a word he loves to use—seductive. He’s right that the Internet is littered with inane, vulgar, dimwitted, unedited, and unreadable content, much of it fueling outrageous conspiracy theories, odious partisan debates, mindless celebrity worship, and worse. And then there’s the stuff that’s not even entertaining.

Keen refuses to confess that there’s even a smattering of intellectually and culturally worthy user-driven content online. If you do find something decent in the “digital forest of mediocrity,” he attributes it to the infinite monkey theorem: Even simians, if permitted to indiscriminately hit a keyboard for an infinite amount of time, will one day bang out Beowulf or Don Quixote. (Silly me, I was under the impression that monkeys had hatched the idea for VH1’s Scott Baio Is 45…and Single.) Apparently, these monkeys are discharging so much free content into the cyber-strata that they threaten to bury culturally significant work, dilute good craftsmanship, and cost me, a journalist and “cultural gatekeeper,” my job. So I guess I’d better take Keen’s thesis seriously.

You can read the rest at Reason Magazine. And you can order Harsanyi’s book (which just has to be better than Keen’s) at Amazon.com.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:46 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Ali Eteraz on Pakistan

I’m not sure I agree with my friend Ali Eteraz’s policy recommendations at Pajamas Media for the United States and Pakistan, but he knows a lot more about that country than I do (he’s from there, and lives now in Las Vegas) and his piece is informative and well worth reading regardless.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:34 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 27, 2007

Bad News

Benazir Bhutto was killed in Pakistan by a suicide bomber.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:25 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 26, 2007

A Fresh Look at Hezbollah

I haven’t written much about Lebanon lately, partly because I’ve been working in Iraq, but also because Lebanon has been in a holding pattern for the past year. There isn’t much new to say about the same-old same-old.

But Andrew Exum published a perceptive piece about Hezbollah and makes a point made very rarely, if ever, in the West:

There are several reasons making the fantasy that Hezbollah will ever give up its arms unlikely. The first—and the most understandable—is that the Shia who make up Hezbollah’s constituency think giving up their arms means giving up the hard-won seat at Beirut’s political table earned over the past three decades. The Shia of Lebanon are the country’s historical underclass, and the Shia fear a return to the days when their concerns were largely forgotten by the central government. Without the arms of Hezbollah, they argue, no one in Beirut will care about the concerns of the Shia living in the south, the Bekaa Valley, and the suburbs of Beirut.

The second reason why Hezbollah cannot give up its arms, though, is because so many of the young men who join the organization join to fight. These young men are lured by the promise of fighting Israel, and Hezbollah must worry that if they were to abandon their military campaign against Israel, these young men would simply split from the organization in the same way that so many of the Amal militia’s gunmen left for Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Thus, in order to keep these young men of arms under the same big tent as the rest of the organization, it is necessary to continue some form of armed conflict against Israel. In this way, Hezbollah’s cross-border raids and rocket attacks against Israel after the 2000 withdrawal—while necessary from an internal perspective—ultimately worked against Hezbollah’s overall strategy of deterrence.

Normally keen observers of Israeli politics, Hezbollah misread the dynamics in Jerusalem following the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in 2006 and attempted their own kidnappings just over the border near Ayta ash-Shab on July 12th. The kidnappings—unlike an attempt a few months earlier in the disputed city of Ghajjar—were successful, but the Israeli response was brutal and unexpected. (The ways in which Israel’s decision-makers similarly misread the dynamics at work within Lebanon in 2006 will have to be the subject of a different post.) The very thing Hezbollah was trying to deter—a massive Israeli assault on Hezbollah and their Shia constituents—was provoked by an act of foolishness along the border. [Emphasis added.]

Westerners, including Israelis, rarely think of Hezbollah as a deterrent force. They think of Hezbollah as an aggressor. Hezbollah's supporters think of it as both. Some support Hezbollah because they want to fight. Others support Hezbollah because they don’t want to fight.

That last point is counter-intuitive, I know, and possibly hard to believe. But I’ve met dozens of Lebanese Shias who think exactly like a man who left the following comment on an old blog post of mine a few days ago:

Michael,

I enjoyed this piece. I've been reading your blogs as of late, and have quite enjoyed them. However, I think you need to get a sense of who or what Hezbollah is from a Lebanese Shi'a, such as myself. Maybe you've talked to many Shi'is about Hezbollah and you know everything there is to know, but I nonetheless would like to make a few comments.

I think it's very clear that if you and I were sitting in a room drafting the constitution of a country, we would both agree that military power should be in the hands of the state exclusively. However, we know that what "should" be the case is not always that simple in Lebanon. The problem is, Hezbollah is still deemed necessary to many people (the military arm of Hezbollah, that is). My mother comes from Bint Jbeil in the South and she gives me numerous accounts of the Resistance and how necessary it was for the people of South Lebanon.

I think the end goal of all Lebanese is to see Hezbollah disarmed. We all need that. But what we need even more is the opportunity for that to happen. What happens if Israel trots through the South again? Are you going to tell me they wouldn't do it? Of course they would. Israeli troops were in Lebanon in the late 70s, years before Lebanon was "officially" occupied. Usually when you hear about Lebanese occupation, you hear about 1982 when the Israelis took Beirut. No one gives a damn about the South. And before we bring up 1559, we should also know that selective morality of this kind has no place in Middle Eastern politics, when Israel itself has defied over 60 U.N. resolutions. Bring up 1559 would be ridiculous under such terms.

That's what Hezbollah is, essentially. They are people from the South who armed themselves against Israel. That's why they exist. Hezbollah is a product of Israeli occupation, and we all need to recognize that. Insinuating that Hezbollah should simply disarm is one thing, but it is only one thing. The Lebanese army cannot defend Lebanon against Israel. As has been seen with strategic wars of South Lebanon, weaponry is important, but so is knowing the territory and knowing how to fight. That's the only explanation for a handful of Hezbollahis effectively resisting Israel last summer.

But who knows, Michael? What happens if America and Iran settle their disputes? Of course, by "settle" I mean Iran bowing down to American pressure. You know as well as I do that America has been the enemy of Iran ever since it had a hand in overthrowing the parliamentary government in 1953 in favour of a dictator... then following that up with military and financial support for Saddam Hussein in his quest to make war with Persia. Since then the United States has been crippling Iran with sanctions.

You can call me crazy, but I'm more likely to believe that there won't be another major war in Lebanon. I don't think Hezbollah can risk it. I don't think we as Lebanese can handle any more. Muslim/Christian really isn't a problem in the streets. When we fled Lebanon for Canada our next door neighbours were Christians - the same Christians that our Muslims were fighting back home. We were best friends for years. In the street, we really have no problems. But for some reason, the schism becomes manifest at the political level. And we all know that the religions themselves have nothing to do with the disagreements; it's more or less people aligning themselves along sectarian lines because that is how they identify themselves.

Anyway, I have rambled. I only ask of you to please consider the Hezbollah question from a different angle, and see that they are part of Lebanon (hopefully their part will be more political and less military in the future). As a Lebanese Shi'a returning to Lebanon in the next year or so, I cannot say I hate Hezbollah. Do I want them disarmed? Yes, in principle. Am I frightened at the concept of Hezbollah being disarmed? Yes. I am frightened because I know what they have done for the South, and fear that losing them will give us nothing to defend ourselves with in the future. Am I pro-Syrian? No. Am I anti-Syrian? No. I think that anyone who makes one of these their political pillars is unhealthy. Those men you spoke to are very smart. We need neutral relations with Syria. We don't need anti-Syrian parties, or pro-Syrian parties.

I’m not publishing this comment because I agree with it. Among other things, he is wrong about the Israelis. Hezbollah is a magnet for the Israeli military because it’s violent and provacative. Perhaps he understands that at some level-- he did say Hezbollah cannot risk another war. Israel is no more likely to invade a theoretically peaceful and quiet Lebanon than peaceful and quiet Jordan. But it would be a stretch, to say the least, to lump this man in ideologically with the hardliners.

Hezbollah will be defeated, marginalized, or integrated into the mainstream when reasonable people like him split from the jihad wing of the party.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is some old-fashioned American Jew-hatred uglier than anything I heard in Lebanon from a supporter of Hezbollah. (Yes, really.) Hatred, like decency, knows no nationality. (Via Callimachus.)

UPDATE: A Daily Kos diarist is appalled at what I just linked to, and is highly recommended reading.

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December 24, 2007

A Nice Iraq Story for Christmas

I am not going to post a war story for Christmas, so here’s a genuinely touching story from Iraq for a change.

MAUSTON, Wis. - Capt. Scott Southworth knew he'd face violence, political strife and blistering heat when he was deployed to one of Baghdad's most dangerous areas. But he didn't expect Ala'a Eddeen.

Ala'a was 9 years old, strong of will but weak of body — he suffered from cerebral palsy and weighed just 55 pounds. He lived among about 20 kids with physical or mental disabilities at the Mother Teresa orphanage, under the care of nuns who preserved this small oasis in a dangerous place.

On Sept. 6, 2003, halfway through his 13-month deployment, Southworth and his military police unit paid a visit to the orphanage. They played and chatted with the children; Southworth was talking with one little girl when Ala'a dragged his body to the soldier's side.

Black haired and brown eyed, Ala'a spoke to the 31-year-old American in the limited English he had learned from the sisters. He recalled the bombs that struck government buildings across the Tigris River.

"Bomb-Bing! Bomb-Bing!" Ala'a said, raising and lowering his fist.

"I'm here now. You're fine," the captain said.

Over the next 10 months, the unit returned to the orphanage again and again. The soldiers would race kids in their wheelchairs, sit them in Humvees and help the sisters feed them.

To Southworth, Ala'a was like a little brother. But Ala'a — who had longed for a soldier to rescue him — secretly began referring to Southworth as "Baba," Arabic for "Daddy."

Then, around Christmas, a sister told Southworth that Ala'a was getting too big. He would have to move to a government-run facility within a year.

"Best case scenario was that he would stare at a blank wall for the rest of his life," Southworth said.

To this day, he recalls the moment when he resolved that that would not happen.

"I'll adopt him," he said.

Read the whole thing. It is much longer, and worth it. It isn't legal for foreigners to adopt Iraqi children, but this man found a way.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:57 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 21, 2007

Merry Almost-Christmas

It’s that time of year again. The holidays really seemed to come quickly for me this year because I spent most of the run-up time in Iraq.

I have a long dispatch more than half-finished, but Internet traffic is crashing now because of the upcoming holidays. It happens every year, and I had forgotten about it until just now. So I think I’ll hold off on publishing my 5,000-word essays on the blog until my audience comes back. It seems a waste to go all the way to Iraq and spend the better part of a week writing one of these things if half my readers won’t even see it.

So. Between now and New Years Day I will try to publish shorter and more frequent blog posts here and at Commentary, and I’ll save the big pieces until everybody returns to the Internet world. None of these articles are time-sensitive, so I don't see a downside.

I have around ten long essays to write about what’s going on in Fallujah. We’ll knock them out after the holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:56 PM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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