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Sunday, July 25, 2004

Four Years of Kaedrin Blog
You read that right, it's been a little over four years since I started this blog. Of course, it was a lot different back then (no, no, you don't need to go back and check. I know the links are right there, but you really don't need to look at what this blog was like back then. Trust me.) and I went through various periods of inactivity. The blog in it's current form pretty much started a little over a year ago, when I resolved to post at least once a week, a schedule I've held to pretty well. I've also begun to do a little more in the way of original writing. I'm still very dependant on pull quotes, but I like to think I've made some progress.

One thing that has become apparent over the past year is that there appear to be a handful of themes that keep coming up (even excluding the "I like movies" theme). Unfortunately, now that I'm thinking about it, it is difficult to actually give a succinct name for these themes, though some specific posts seem to do a good job summarizing these things which interest me. This post on Error, Calibration, and Defiant Posturing encapsulates one of the themes of the blog. This post about tradeoffs has figured into a great number of posts over the past year. And so on.

Overall, it's been a good four years, but there is always room for improvement. For various reasons, things have been slow around here lately. Hopefully it'll be picking up a little in the near future. As always, comments, suggestions, breathless praise, bitter criticism and the like are welcome...
Posted by Mark on July 25, 2004 at 09:38 PM .: link :.

Back in Iraq
Once again, artist Steve Mumford has made the trek to Iraq and has produced yet another entry in the Baghdad Journal series. As always, he provides a much needed different perspective on Iraq:
After checking in at my hotel, we spend the day wandering around downtown Baghdad. I’m trying to gauge how much things have changed since I was here last, back in March, before all the violence with Muqtada Sadr and in Falluja. We’re hanging out in the park, underneath the massive sculptural mural in Tarir Square when Esam notices that someone’s got a gun underneath his shirt. We leave, but in fact, I can’t shake the impression of a certain optimism pervading at least this area. Businesses are open; the streets are relatively clean and bustling. People seem as friendly as ever. One shopkeeper kisses my shoulder when I tell him I’m American. Esam advises me to tell Iraqis that I’m Canadian. I find myself oddly resistant to telling this lie. I haven’t yet encountered overt hostility. I’ve met a lot of Iraqis while out drawing. If they haven’t been happy about my nationality, they’ve politely kept it to themselves. Yet it would be foolish to imagine that I’m safe here.
It's funny, I'm beginning to recognize many of Mumford's friends from previous columns. Indeed, Mumford appears to have made some truly good friends over there:
Looking across at the crowd of journalists eating and chatting, I’m reminded of summer dinner parties in New York, among artist friends. But thinking of my companions here in Iraq, I feel proud to be with them. My project has allowed me the time and luxury to become close to people with whom I don’t need to have a professional relationship. I’m wondering if it will ever be possible for them to travel as Iraqi tourists to the U.S.
Excellent, stuff, as usual. If you're not familiar with Mumford's work, you might want to check on the previous installments of the Baghdad Journal. Highly recommended.
Posted by Mark on July 25, 2004 at 08:57 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

With great freedom, comes great responsibility...
David Foster recently wrote about a letter to the New York Times which echoed sentiments regarding Iraq that appear to be commonplace in certain circles:
While we have removed a murderous dictator, we have left the Iraqi people with a whole new set of problems they never had to face before...
I've often written about the tradeoffs inherent in solving problems, and the invasion of Iraq is no exception. Let us pretend for a moment that everything that happened in Iraq over the last year went exactly as planned. Even in that best case scenario, the Iraqis would be facing "a whole new set of problems they never had to face before." There was no action that could have been taken regarding Iraq (and this includes inaction) that would have resulted in an ideal situation. We weren't really seeking to solve the problems of Iraq, so much as we were exchanging one set of problems for another.

Yes, the Iraqis are facing new problems they have never had to face before, but the point is that the new problems are more favorable than the old problems. The biggest problem they are facing is, in short, freedom. Freedom is an odd thing, and right now, halfway across the world, the Iraqis are finding that out for themselves. Freedom brings great benefits, but also great responsibility. Freedom allows you to express yourself without fear of retribution, but it also allows those you hate to express things that make your blood boil. Freedom means you have to acknowledge their views, no matter how repulsive or disgusting you may find them (there are limits, of course, but that is another subject). That isn't easy.

A little while ago, Steven Den Beste wrote about Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union:
About 1980 (I don't remember exactly) there was a period in which the USSR permitted huge numbers of Jews to leave and move to Israel. A lot of them got off the jet in Tel Aviv and instantly boarded another one bound for New York, and ended up here.

For most of them, our society was quite a shock. They were free; they were out of the cage. But with freedom came responsibility. The State didn't tell them what to do, but the State also didn't look out for them.

The State didn't prevent them from doing what they wanted, but the State also didn't prevent them from screwing up royally. One of the freedoms they discovered they had was the freedom to starve.
There are a lot of people who ended up in the U.S. because they were fleeing oppression, and when they got here, they were confronted with "a whole new set of problems they never had to face before." Most of them were able to adapt to the challenges of freedom and prosper, but don't confuse prosperity with utopia. These people did not solve their problems, they traded them for a set of new problems. For most of them, the problems associated with freedom were more favorable than the problems they were trying to escape from. For some, the adjustment just wasn't possible, and they returned to their homes.

Defecting North Koreans face a host of challenges upon their arrival in South Korea (if they can make it that far), including the standard freedom related problems: "In North Korea, the state allocates everything from food to jobs. Here, having to do their own shopping, banking or even eating at a food court can be a trying experience." The differences between North Korea and South Korea are so vast that many defectors cannot adapt, despite generous financial aid, job training and other assistance from civic and religious groups. Only about half of the defectors are able to wrangle jobs, but even then, it's hard to say that they've prospered. But at the same time, are their difficulties now worse than their previous difficulties? Moon Hee, a defector who is having difficulties adjusting, comments: "The present, while difficult, is still better than the past when I did not even know if there would be food for my next meal."

There is something almost paradoxical about freedom. You see, it isn't free. Yes, freedom brings benefits, but you must pay the price. If you want to live in a free country, you have to put up with everyone else being free too, and that's harder than it sounds. In a sense, we aren't really free, because the freedom we live with and aspire to is a limiting force.

On the subject of Heaven, Saint Augustine once wrote:
The souls in bliss will still possess the freedom of will, though sin will have no power to tempt them. They will be more free than ever–so free, in fact, from all delight in sinning as to find, in not sinning, an unfailing source of joy. ...in eternity, freedom is that more potent freedom which makes all sin impossible. - Saint Augustine, City of God (Book XXII, Chapter 30)
Augustine's concept of a totally free will is seemingly contradictory. For him, freedom, True Freedom, is doing the right thing all the time (I'm vastly simplifying here, but you get the point). Outside of Heaven, however, doing the right thing, as we all know, isn't easy. Just ask Spider-Man.

I never really read the comics, but in the movies (which appear to be true to their source material) Spider-Man is all about the conflict between responsibilities and desires. Matthew Yglesias is actually upset with the second film because is has a happy ending:
Being the good guy -- doing the right thing -- really sucks, because doing the right thing doesn't just mean avoiding wrongdoing, it means taking affirmative action to prevent it. There's no time left for Peter's life, and his life is miserable. Virtue is not its own reward, it's virtue, the rewards go to the less consciencious. There's no implication that it's all worthwhile because God will make it right in the End Times, the life of the good guy is a bleak one. It's an interesting (and, I think, a correct) view and it's certainly one that deserves a skilled dramatization, which is what the film gives you right up until the very end. But then -- ta da! -- it turns out that everyone does get to be happy after all. A huge letdown.
Of course, plenty of people have noted that the Spider-Man story doesn't end with the second movie, and that the third is bound to be filled with the complications of superhero dating (which are not limited to Spider-Man).

Spider-Man grapples with who he is. He has gained all sorts of powers, and with those powers, he has also gained a certain freedom. It could be very liberating, but as the saying goes: With great power comes great responsibility. He is not obligated to use his powers for good or at all, but he does. However, for a good portion of the second film he shirks his duties because a life of pure duty has totally ruined his personal life. This is that conflict between responsibilities and desires I mentioned earlier. It turns out that there are limits to Spider-Man's altruism.

For Spider-Man, it is all about tradeoffs, though he may have learned it the hard way. First he took on too much responsibility, and then too little. Will he ever strike a delicate balance? Will we? For we are all, in a manner of speaking, Spider-Man. We all grapple with similar conflicts, though they manifest in our lives with somewhat less drama. Balancing your personal life with your professional life isn't as exciting, but it can be quite challenging for some.

And so the people of Iraq are facing new challenges; problems they have never had to face before. Like Spider-Man, they're going to have to deal with their newfound responsibilites and find a way to balance them with their desires. Freedom isn't easy, and if they really want it, they'll need to do more than just avoid problems, they'll have to actively solve them. Or, rather, trade one set of problems for another. Because with great freedom, comes great responsibility.
Posted by Mark on July 18, 2004 at 09:16 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Kill Faster!
Ralph Peters writes about his experience keeping track of combat in Iraq during the tumultuous month of April:
During the initial fighting in Fallujah, I tuned in al-Jazeera and the BBC. At the same time, I was getting insider reports from the battlefield, from a U.S. military source on the scene and through Kurdish intelligence. I saw two different battles.
Peters' disenfranchisement with the media is hardly unique. Reports of the inadequacy of the media are legion. Eric M. Johnson is a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq and recently wrote about media bias:
Iraq veterans often say they are confused by American news coverage, because their experience differs so greatly from what journalists report. Soldiers and Marines point to the slow, steady progress in almost all areas of Iraqi life and wonder why they don't get much notice – or in many cases, any notice at all.

Part of the explanation is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post. He spent most of his career on the metro and technology beats, and has only four years of foreign reporting, two of which are in Iraq. The 31-year-old now runs a news operation that can literally change the world, heading a bureau that is the source for much of the news out of Iraq.

... Chandrasekaran's crew generates a relentlessly negative stream of articles from Iraq – and if there are no events to report, they resort to man-on-the-street interviews and cobble together a story from that.
It goes on from there, pointing out several examples and further evidence of the substandard performance of the media in Iraq. Then you have this infamous report from the Daily Telegraph's correspondent Toby Harnden.
The other day, while taking a break by the Al-Hamra Hotel pool, fringed with the usual cast of tattooed defense contractors, I was accosted by an American magazine journalist of serious accomplishment and impeccable liberal credentials.

She had been disturbed by my argument that Iraqis were better off than they had been under Saddam and I was now - there was no choice about this - going to have to justify my bizarre and dangerous views. I’ll spare you most of the details because you know the script - no WMD, no 'imminent threat'(though the point was to deal with Saddam before such a threat could emerge), a diversion from the hunt for bin Laden, enraging the Arab world. Etcetera.

But then she came to the point. Not only had she 'known' the Iraq war would fail but she considered it essential that it did so because this would ensure that the 'evil' George W. Bush would no longer be running her country. Her editors back on the East Coast were giggling, she said, over what a disaster Iraq had turned out to be. 'Lots of us talk about how awful it would be if this worked out.' Startled by her candour, I asked whether thousands more dead Iraqis would be a good thing.

She nodded and mumbled something about Bush needing to go. By this logic, I ventured, another September 11 on, say, September 11 would be perfect for pushing up John Kerry's poll numbers. 'Well, that’s different - that would be Americans,' she said, haltingly. 'I guess I’m a bit of an isolationist.' That’s one way of putting it.
Yikes. I wish I knew a little more about this unnamed "magazine journalist of serious accomplishment and impeccable liberal credentials", but it is a chilling admonition nonetheless.

Again, the inadequacy of the media has become painfully obvious over the past few years. How to deal with this? At a discussion forum the other day, someone posted this article concerning FOX News bias along with this breathless message:
This shouldn't come as any surprise. How can a NEWS organization possibly be allowed to lie like this? FOX should be removed from the air and those who are in charge should be removed from the media business and not be allowed to do anything whatsoever where news and media are concerned.

they're clearly out to deceive the American public.
Well, I suppose that is one way of dealing with media bias. But Ralph Peters' response is drastically different. He assumes the media can't or shouldn't be changed. I tend to take his side, as arbitrarily removing a news organization from the air and blacklisting those in charge seems like a cure that is much worse than the disease to me, but that leads to some unpleasant consequences. Back to the Peters article:
The media is often referred to off-handedly as a strategic factor. But we still don't fully appreciate its fatal power. Conditioned by the relative objectivity and ultimate respect for facts of the U.S. media, we fail to understand that, even in Europe, the media has become little more than a tool of propaganda.

That propaganda is increasingly, viciously, mindlessly anti-American. When our forces engage in tactical combat, dishonest media reporting immediately creates drag on the chain of command all the way up to the president.

Real atrocities aren't required. Everything American soldiers do is portrayed as an atrocity. World opinion is outraged, no matter how judiciously we fight.

... The implication for tactical combat — war at the bayonet level — is clear: We must direct our doctrine, training, equipment, organization and plans toward winning low-level fights much faster. Before the global media can do what enemy forces cannot do and stop us short. We can still win the big campaigns. But we're apt to lose thereafter, in the dirty end-game fights.

... Our military must rise to its responsibility to reduce the pressure on the National Command Authority — in essence, the president — by rapidly and effectively executing orders to root out enemy resistance or nests of terrorists.

To do so, we must develop the capabilities to fight within the "media cycle," before journalists sympathetic to terrorists and murderers can twist the facts and portray us as the villains. Before the combat encounter is politicized globally. Before allied leaders panic. And before such reporting exacerbates bureaucratic rivalries within our own system.
[emphasis mine] This is bound to be a difficult process, and will take years to perfect. If we proceed on this path, we'll have to suffer many short term problems, including a much higher casualty rate, perhaps for both sides (and even civilians). If we don't proceed along this path; if we don't learn to kill quickly, then we'll lose slowly.

For it's part, the military has shown some initiative in dealing with the media. Wretchard writes about a Washington Post article describing the victory that the First Armored Division won over Moqtada Al-Sadr's militia:
In what was probably the most psychologically revealing moment of the battle, infantrymen fought six hours for the possession of one damaged Humvee, of no tactical value, simply so that the network news would not have the satisfaction of displaying the piece of junk in the hands of Sadr's men.

... Ted Koppel was determined to read the names of 700 American servicemen who have died in Iraq to remind us how serious was their loss. Michael Moore has dedicated his film Farenheit 9/11 to the Americans who died in Afghanistan. And they did a land office business. But at least they didn't get to show Sadr's miliamen dancing around a battered Humvee. The men of the First Armored paid the price to stop that screening and those concerned can keep the change.
I don't know that Peters' pessimism is totally warranted, but there is an element of pragmatism involved that should be considered. It is certainly frustrating though.
It is noteworthy that media bias goes both ways. I tended to be conservative leaning in this post, but liberals have a lot to gripe about too. I've written about this before. Peters wrote that killing faster would help the situation, but that is from a military perspective. From our perspective, the only thing we can do is take the media with a grain of salt and do our best to point out their failures and herald their successes. It's not easy, that is the price we must pay for freedom of speech. Hopefully more on this in a later post. [thanks to Donald Sensing for the Toby Harnden pointer]
Posted by Mark on July 04, 2004 at 06:06 PM .: link :.

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