Tag Archives: war

Launch-On-Warning

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Set aside your latest horror novel and forget the terror from the Hollywood blood and gore machine. What follows is a true tale of existential horror.

It’s a story of potential catastrophic human error, aging and obsolete technology, testosterone-fueled brinkmanship, volatile rhetoric and nuclear annihilation.

Written by Eric Schlosser over at the New Yorker. He is author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”.

I wonder if the command and control infrastructure serving the U.S. nuclear arsenal has since been upgraded so that the full complement of intercontinental ballistic missiles can be launched at a whim via Twitter.

What a great start to the new year.

From the New Yorker:

On June 3, 1980, at about two-thirty in the morning, computers at the National Military Command Center, beneath the Pentagon, at the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), deep within Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and at Site R, the Pentagon’s alternate command post center hidden inside Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania, issued an urgent warning: the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States.

U.S. Air Force ballistic-missile crews removed their launch keys from the safes, bomber crews ran to their planes, fighter planes took off to search the skies, and the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to order every airborne commercial airliner to land.

President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched.

Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized—it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at NORAD headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.

Read the entire sobering article here.

Image: Minuteman III ICBM test launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, United States. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force, DOD Defense Visual Information Center. Public Domain.

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MondayMap: A is Blue; B is Red

MPK1-426_Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916

A hundred years ago the first two letters of the alphabet and a somewhat arbitrary line drawn on a map changed the Earth’s geopolitical axis. The ramifications continue to be felt across the globe to this day.

The waning days of WWI finally precipitated the decline of the once vast Ottoman Empire. During this period the eventual victors, the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, and Russia, began secretly planning how they would carve up the spoils, which covered much of the Middle East. With Russia then succumbing to its own revolution, Britain and France were free to delineate their own “spheres of influence”, allocating huge areas of territory (and peoples) to themselves and their appointed heirs. “A” was to be blue and would belong to France; the region covered what is now Syria, Lebanon, northern Iraq and parts of Turkey. “B” was to be red and would be administered by the British; it covered modern-day Jordan, southern Iraq and parts of what is now Israel.

The agreement and the new map were negotiated in 1915-16 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, respectively. It was signed on May 16, 1916, and became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The secret deal reneged on numerous promises and assurances made to leaders in the region, and subsequently disenfranchised entire populations for generations.

Read more about the map, the secret deal and the hundred years of turbulent and bloody consequence in David Fromkin’s book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989).

Map: Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Courtesy: Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 16 May 1916.

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MondayMap: Imagining a Post-Post-Ottoman World

Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916

The United States is often portrayed as the world’s bully and nefarious geo-political schemer — a nation responsible for many of the world’s current political ills. However, it is the French and British who should be called to account for much of the globe’s ongoing turmoil, particularly in the Middle East. After the end of WWI the victors expeditiously carved up the spoils of the vanquished Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East was divvied and traded just a kids might swap baseball or football (soccer) cards today. Then President of France Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George famously bartered and gifted — amongst themselves and their friends — entire regions and cities without thought to historical precedence, geographic and ethnic boundaries, or even the basic needs of entire populations. Their decisions were merely lines to be drawn and re-drawn on a map.

So, it would be a fascinating — though rather naive — exercise to re-draw many of today’s arbitrary and contrived boundaries, and to revert regions to their more appropriate owners. Of course, where and when should this thought experiment begin and end? Pre-roman empire, post-normans, before the Prussians, prior to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or after the Ottomans, post-Soviets, or after Tito, or way before the Huns, Vandals and the Barbarians and any number of the Germanic tribes?

Nevertheless, essayist Yaroslav Trofimov takes a stab at re-districting to pre-Ottoman boundaries and imagines a world with less bloodshed. A worthy dream.

From WSJ:

Shortly after the end of World War I, the French and British prime ministers took a break from the hard business of redrawing the map of Europe to discuss the easier matter of where frontiers would run in the newly conquered Middle East.

Two years earlier, in 1916, the two allies had agreed on their respective zones of influence in a secret pact—known as the Sykes-Picot agreement—for divvying up the region. But now the Ottoman Empire lay defeated, and the United Kingdom, having done most of the fighting against the Turks, felt that it had earned a juicier reward.

“Tell me what you want,” France’s Georges Clemenceau said to Britain’s David Lloyd George as they strolled in the French embassy in London.

“I want Mosul,” the British prime minister replied.

“You shall have it. Anything else?” Clemenceau asked.

In a few seconds, it was done. The huge Ottoman imperial province of Mosul, home to Sunni Arabs and Kurds and to plentiful oil, ended up as part of the newly created country of Iraq, not the newly created country of Syria.

The Ottomans ran a multilingual, multireligious empire, ruled by a sultan who also bore the title of caliph—commander of all the world’s Muslims. Having joined the losing side in the Great War, however, the Ottomans saw their empire summarily dismantled by European statesmen who knew little about the region’s people, geography and customs.

The resulting Middle Eastern states were often artificial creations, sometimes with implausibly straight lines for borders. They have kept going since then, by and large, remaining within their colonial-era frontiers despite repeated attempts at pan-Arab unification.

The built-in imbalances in some of these newly carved-out states—particularly Syria and Iraq—spawned brutal dictatorships that succeeded for decades in suppressing restive majorities and perpetuating the rule of minority groups.

But now it may all be coming to an end. Syria and Iraq have effectively ceased to function as states. Large parts of both countries lie beyond central government control, and the very meaning of Syrian and Iraqi nationhood has been hollowed out by the dominance of sectarian and ethnic identities.

The rise of Islamic State is the direct result of this meltdown. The Sunni extremist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself the new caliph and vowed to erase the shame of the “Sykes-Picot conspiracy.” After his men surged from their stronghold in Syria last summer and captured Mosul, now one of Iraq’s largest cities, he promised to destroy the old borders. In that offensive, one of the first actions taken by ISIS (as his group is also known) was to blow up the customs checkpoints between Syria and Iraq.

“What we are witnessing is the demise of the post-Ottoman order, the demise of the legitimate states,” says Francis Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Egypt who is now at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “ISIS is a piece of that, and it is filling in a vacuum of the collapse of that order.”

In the mayhem now engulfing the Middle East, it is mostly the countries created a century ago by European colonialists that are coming apart. In the region’s more “natural” nations, a much stronger sense of shared history and tradition has, so far, prevented a similar implosion.

“Much of the conflict in the Middle East is the result of insecurity of contrived states,” says Husain Haqqani, an author and a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. “Contrived states need state ideologies to make up for lack of history and often flex muscles against their own people or against neighbors to consolidate their identity.”

In Egypt, with its millennial history and strong sense of identity, almost nobody questioned the country’s basic “Egyptian-ness” throughout the upheaval that has followed President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in a 2011 revolution. As a result, most of Egypt’s institutions have survived the turbulence relatively intact, and violence has stopped well short of outright civil war.

Turkey and Iran—both of them, in bygone eras, the center of vast empires—have also gone largely unscathed in recent years, even though both have large ethnic minorities of their own, including Arabs and Kurds.

The Middle East’s “contrived” countries weren’t necessarily doomed to failure, and some of them—notably Jordan—aren’t collapsing, at least not yet. The world, after all, is full of multiethnic and multiconfessional states that are successful and prosperous, from Switzerland to Singapore to the U.S., which remains a relative newcomer as a nation compared with, say, Iran.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

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Frenemies: The Religious Beheading and The Secular Guillotine

Secular ideologues in the West believe they are on the moral high-ground. The separation of church (and mosque or synagogue) from state is, they believe, the path to a more just, equal and less-violent culture. They will cite example after example in contemporary and recent culture of terrible violence in the name of religious extremism and fundamentalism.

And, yet, step back for a minute from the horrendous stories and images of atrocities wrought by religious fanatics in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Think of the recent histories of fledgling nations in Africa; the ethnic cleansings across much of Central and Eastern Europe — several times over; the egomaniacal tribal terrorists of Central Asia, the brutality of neo-fascists and their socialist bedfellows in Latin America. Delve deeper into these tragic histories — some still unfolding before our very eyes — and you will see a much more complex view of humanity.  Our tribal rivalries know no bounds and our violence towards others is certainly not limited only to the catalyst of religion. Yes, we fight for our religion, but we also fight for territory, politics, resources, nationalism, revenge, poverty, ego.  Soon the coming fights will be about water and food — these will make our wars over belief systems seem rather petty.

Scholar and author Karen Armstrong explores the complexities of religious and secular violence in the broader context of human struggle in her new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

From the Guardian:

As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logicalsolution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word dinsignifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

The myth of religious violence

Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe. The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.

Read the entire article here.

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Ten Greatest Works

PicassoGuernica

 

 

 

 

 

I would take issue with Jonathan Jones’ top ten best works of art, ever. Though the list of some chosen artists is perhaps a fair representation of la creme de la creme — Rembrandt, da Vinci, Michelangelo and Velasquez for sure.

One work that clearly does belong in the list is Guernica. Picasso summed up the truth of fascism and war in this masterpiece.

See more of Jones’ top ten here.

Image: Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937. Prado Museum, Madrid. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Through the Eyes of Children

Sderot_Home

The very human invention that is war has taken an incalculable cost since it was first conceived, presumably when the first hunter-gatherers picked up the first rock or fashioned the first club. The cost on the innocent — especially the children — is brutal: death, pain, broken bodies, maimed limbs, fractured minds, shredded families.

Photographer Brian McCarty has chronicled the stories of some victims from the war and violence in the Middle East. In his visits to a therapeutic center in Jerusalem in 2011 he would watch the children work with therapists as they voice their painful memories and fear through art and play. Later, we would re-create their “war art” in photographs, often with the help of the children.

From Wired:

At the Spafford Children’s Center for in East Jerusalem, L.A.–based photographer Brian McCarty watched as a little girl made a crayon drawing of a dead boy. She carefully colors in a red pool of blood around his body. It was a drawing that McCarty would later use to stage one of his photographs for WAR-TOYS, a series that recreates children’s memories and fears of conflict in the Middle East with toys.

“Play can become a mechanism for healing,” says McCarty. Drawing on the tenets of art and play therapy, which help children express emotions in non-verbal ways, he sees WAR-TOYS as providing witness to the often unseen impact of armed conflict on children, while serving as part of these children’s therapeutic process.

McCarty first visited this therapeutic center in 2011 where he would observe as children worked with art and play therapists to tell and draw their stories. The drawings then served as a storyboard of sorts for McCarty, who re-created the scenes using locally purchased toys as characters and props. When possible, he brought the child along to help art direct the shoot.

McCarty worked with children in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, which produced a variety of drawings. Some children drew the keys their families kept as symbols of the homes they had to flee. A few boys portrayed heroic militants with homemade bombs. Young girls in Gaza City often drew mothers and babies near scenes of carnage.

Yet most of the drawings depicted the children’s fears. One boy’s drawing expressed how unattainable safety felt even with defense systems ready. It shows the sky full of incoming rockets and defensive interceptor missiles, while on the ground a bus explodes.

The use of toys as surrogates gives McCarty’s reenactments a playful, fictional distance while shifting the perspective to that of a child’s: closer to the ground, helplessly witnessing the shocking blur of play and violence.

The local toys also reveal the socio-economic layers of the region. While most of the toys in the region were made in China; in Gaza they were often botched discount versions.

And despite some previous efforts to rid the region of war toys, plastic soldiers, guns and bombs are ubiquitous. Notably, Israeli and Palestinian flags figures largely in the children’s drawings, and thus McCarty’s photographs, revealing the intensely divisive tribalism recognized, and sometimes identified with, from an early age.

“I’ve chosen to be as neutral as possible for the project. Much like the kids, I only know that the person shooting at me is a bad guy. They are ‘them,’ no matter which side of the border I’m on,” McCarty says.

McCarty, who has used toys in his photographs for 17 years, views this series as the first phase of a larger project — though gaining access is a challenge. “It took two years and a number of face-to-face meetings for an Israeli NGO to grant me access,” he says.

And that’s only the first difficulty. There’s also an element of danger. He recalled one particularly harrowing photo shoot: “Throughout, the sounds of outbound rockets and concussions from incoming airstrikes grew in intensity. I managed to complete my work, while experiencing first-hand the fear and anxiety the children face throughout their lives.”

See more images and read the full story here.

Image:  Photograph from WAR-TOYS by Brian McCarty. Courtesy of Brian McCarty / Wired.

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