Hope and Obama

Before I start writing this post, a brief disclaimer; I am not American, do not live there and do not have extensive first-hand experience of the political situation over there. This post is inspired entirely from stuff I’ve seen other people talk about online and a few bits of joining the dots from me, but if anyone feels I’ve gone wildly off-target please drop me a line in the comments. OK? Good, let’s get started.

The ascendency of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the USA in 2009 was among the most significant events in recent history. Not only did he become the first black person to sit in the Oval office, he put the Democrats back in power (representing a fairly major shift in direction for the country after eight years under George Bush Jnr.) and manage to put his party in control of Congress too, the first time any Democrat leader had been in that position for quite some time. With bold claims regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which had been… talking points  during Bush’s time in charge, and big plans regarding the US healthcare system, this had all the hallmarks of a presidency dedicated to making change happen. Indeed, change was the key buzzword during Obama’s campaign; change for the punishing effects of US society on its young and poor, change for the recession-hit economy, and even change for the type of person in the White House (Bush had frequently been portrayed, rather unjustly for a man of notoriously quick wit, as stupid and socially incapable by satirists and left-leaning commentators, whilst even the right would find it hard to deny Obama’s natural charisma and intelligent, upright bearing) were all promised to voters, and it was a dream many took with them to the polling stations.

One of the key demographics the Democrats targeted and benefited from with this ‘pro-change’ style campaign was the youth vote; early twenty-somethings or even late teens, many of whom were voting in their first elections, who had grown up both physically and politically during the Bush administration and railed against his management of everything from the economy to the welfare system with all the ardour and uncluttered train of thought of young people everywhere. I should know: living through the period as a young person in a left-leaning family getting my news via the liberally-inclined BBC (and watching too much satirical comedy), one could hardly escape the idea that Bush was an absolute moron who know nothing about running his country. And this was whilst getting daily first-hand experience of what a left-wing government was like in Britain- I can imagine that to a young American with a similar outlook and position at the time, surrounded by right-leaning sentiment on all sides, the prospect of a Democratic president dedicated to change would have seemed like a shining beacon of hope for a brighter future. Indeed, the apparent importance of the youth vote to Obama’s success was illustrated during his 2012 re-election: when the news broke that Microsoft were planning on releasing a new Halo videogame on election day, conspiracy theorists had a wonderful time suggesting that Microsoft were embroiled in a great Republican plot to distract the youth vote by having them play Halo all day instead, thus meaning they couldn’t vote Democrat*.

Now, let us fast forward to the 2012 election. Obama won, but narrowly- and given he was up against a candidate whose comments that he ‘didn’t care about the very poor’ and thought that the windows in passenger aircraft should be able to be opened were very widely circulated and mocked, the result was far too close for comfort (even if, despite what some pundits and conservative commentators would have had you believe, all the pre-election statistics indicated a fairly safe Democrat victory). Whilst the airwaves weren’t exactly awash with anti-Obama messages, it wasn’t hard to find disillusionment and cynicism regarding his first term in office. For me, the whole thing was summed up by the attitudes of Jeph Jacques, the cartoonist behind the webcomic ‘Questionable Content’; reading through his back catalogue, he frequently had to restrain himself from verbalising his Obama-fandom in the comments below his comics during the 2008 election, but come election season in 2012 he chose to publish this. That comic pretty much sums it up: a whole generation had been promised change, and change had refused to come on a sufficiently large scale. The youthful optimism of his rise to power was replaced by something more akin to the weariness Obama himself displayed during the first live TV debate, and whilst I’m sure many of these somewhat disillusioned voters still voted Democrat (I mean, he still won, and preliminary statistics suggest voter turnout actually rose in 2012 compared to 2008), the prevailing mood seemed to be one less of optimism than of ‘better him than Romney’.

Exactly what was to blame for the lack of the promised change is a matter of debate; apologists may point to the difficulties had getting such radical (by American standards) health reforms and similar through a decidedly moderate congress, followed by the difficulties had trying to get anything through when congress became Republican-controlled, whilst the more cynical or pro-Republican would probably make some statement referring to the corporate-sponsored nature of the Democratic party/American political system or suggest that President Obama simply isn’t quite as good a politician/person (depending on the extent of your cynicism) as he came across as in 2008. Whatever the answer, the practical upshot has been quite interesting, as it has allowed one to watch as an entire generation discovered cynicism for the first time. All these hopes and dreams of some brave new vision for America went steaming face first into the bitter reality of the world and of politics, and the dream slowly fell apart. I am not old enough to definitively say that this is a pattern that has repeated itself down the ages, but nonetheless I found the whole escapade fascinating in a semi-morbid way, and I will be intrigued to see if/when it happens again.

Damn, I’m really going for conclusion-less posts at the moment…

*Interestingly, this kind of tactic has, so the story goes, been deliberately used in the past to achieve precisely the opposite effect. When Boris Yeltsin attempted to get re-elected as Russian president in 1996, voting day was designated a public holiday. Unfortunately, it was soon realised that many urban Russians, Yeltsin’s main voter base, were going to take this as a cue for a long weekend in the country (presumably hunting bears or whatever else Russians do in their second home in Siberia) rather than to go and vote, so Yeltsin went to the makers of telenovela (a kind of South American soap opera) called Tropikanka that was massively popular in the country and got them to make three brand-new episodes to be aired on election day. This kept the city dwellers at home, since many country spots didn’t have TV access, and meant they were around to go and vote. Yeltsin duly won, with 54.4% of the vote.

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Collateral Murder Part Two

This is the second in a pair of posts analysing this video, a version of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video released in 2010 by Wikileaks. The last time covered the first five minutes of content, analysing the strange tactics used by the US military in Iraq at the time, but that isn’t why the video was released. The reason this caused such a stir is thanks to the next ten minutes, as an Apache helicopter opens fire on a group of seemingly inoffensive people, including a pair of journalists.

Watching this portion of the video is more tragic than anything, because so much of it could be considered standard military procedure. As mentioned in my last post, with so few men on the ground trying to cover such a large area (the problem that, ultimately, caused all the issues the video explores) the US army had to rely on its superior air force to provide cover for the foot soldiers it did have. The helicopter’s pilot identifies the group as ‘six or seven men with AK-47s’, and despite the point that the video makes that the journalist’s camera was mistaken for a weapon, there were armed insurgents in the group (hence why said journalists were filming with them). As, presumably, the result of a breakdown in communications, the proximity of Ethan McCord’s little group of soldiers is not relayed to the chopper and they are given permission to open fire on the group.

If opening up a 30mm cannon on an unaware group of disorganised insurgents seems an excessive use of force it’s because it, frankly, is, and reflects how desperate the army had become just to kill every insurgent they could find (slightly losing sight of the point of a counter-insurgency operation and probably prolonging the war; but that isn’t the soldiers’ job to know). Not only that, but it is a reflection of the rules of engagement at the time, that McCord describes later, which allowed you to open fire on anyone who you ‘felt threatened’ by. Quite how a group of trained soldiers in the most heavily armed helicopter used by any army in the world  are feeling threatened by a group of unprotected, unaware men armed with assault rifles 3 miles away rather escapes me, and reflects the complete idiocy of that system. Because ‘feeling threatened’ is not a quantitative, provable description, it is not possible for any claim that these rules were being violated to be upheld; even if the victim is unarmed, they could still be shot if it is claimed the soldier thought they could have been wired to explosives. Though, to be honest, such claims would likely have scarcely ever been made even in the worst instances; the high-ups care too much about their previously stated goals to ‘kill every mother f***er’ available.

Regarding the deaths themselves however… this is war, and bad guys get killed: arguing over the niceties of that opens a whole new can of worms. The carnage McCord describes is part and parcel of modern warfare, horrible though it may be, and the role of an army in this situation is to ensure that the damage it inflicts is less than the damage that would be caused were the situation allowed to get out of hand. The very title of the video, ‘Collateral Murder’, offers a sense of bitter irony at the Pentagon euphemism of ‘collateral damage’ used whenever innocent people are killed in an operation, but in this situation this is not a result of the US Army actively deciding that these lives are expendable. This is not deciding to bomb a town despite knowing there are innocents present, but about opening fire on a group of suspected terrorists and misidentifying innocent journalists. It is an accident; a deadly one to be sure, but an honest accident nonetheless.

No, the really shocking thing about this section of the video is what comes afterwards: the way that the crew of the Apache seem so blasé about the fact that they’ve just gunned down eight people. I can well appreciate that these men are soldiers; killing people is, ultimately, their job, and they wouldn’t be good at it were they to burst into tears every time somebody dies. But the fact remains that they have just slaughtered eight people and seem positively elated at the prospect, as if killing in this way is their idea of fun. This could be argued to be the result of their elevated position; they don’t have to get down & dirty, to see what they have wrought. At the risk of sounding preachy, killing for enjoyment is among the single worst traits any human could have, and such people are patently unsuited for being left unrestricted on any front line.

Worse is to follow. The gunship then proceeds to open fire on a people carrier containing young children; hardly a technical or APC. Although the children could almost certainly not have been identified from the gunship’s position, the act of opening fire on clearly unarmed men in an unprotected, unarmed vehicle is so against every rule of warfare and rule of engagement that it is positively ridiculous. It doesn’t matter that by clearing up bodies and weapons they are ‘on the other side’: they are not acting as a threat and they are not to be engaged. That’s what these bloody rules are for. Hell, the chopper’s crew even know that there’s a group of infantry on their way in vehicles, and it surely wouldn’t have been too much to simply wait for them to deal with the whole mess properly. Here, the term ‘collateral murder’ seems a little more appropriate. Again, we see more evidence (especially when they continue shooting the ‘disabled’ van, and are able to laugh about it afterwards) that these men in the Apache are shooting because they find it fun. And, indeed, that there are far too many people giving orders who are quite happy to let them do so.

Most of the rest of the video deals with McCord & his platoon’s reaction to the horrific scene left by the Apache; the scale of death and destruction, his desperate efforts to help in any way he could, the death of a child in his arms, and crucially the (entirely justifiable) immense shock and emotional kickback he felt in response to the incident. Even for a soldier, this is ugly stuff, and McCord is clearly a man in need of sympathy and help. It has taken a long time for the world to realise the importance of mental health to soldiers, but after studying the domestic abuse figures for soldiers post-Vietnam, its importance becomes clear.

Except that sympathy is precisely the opposite of what he receives. Perhaps his platoon commander’s response of ‘you need to stop worrying about those f***ing kids and pull security’ is understandable; they are, after all, still unprotected in dangerous territory and they still have a job to do. On patrol, emotions have to be put to one side purely for everyone’s safety and wellbeing. One could also argue that his platoon members’ reaction of having ‘pretty much ignored what just happened’ is also justifiable, for these men are soldiers and are used to death and pain surrounding them; hell, McCord even says that the army told them, quite rightly, never to let their emotions take over whilst on a mission. That the whole debacle has affected Ethan McCord differently to them is just a product of the experience and his mind, so his decision to see a mental health counsellor, someone trained in this most strange of fields, is an eminently sensible one.

What makes absolutely no sense is the idea that, as McCord says, ‘needing to talk to someone could constitute a crime in the army’; even in the field of operations, just ‘sucking it up’ is most often not a sensible long-term strategy. Soldiers go on tours of duty for very long periods, up to a year on occasion, and that is a long time to try and ‘suck up’ a serious mental health issue. If a soldier’s mental stability is compromised that makes them a potential liability in the field, and it makes absolutely no sense that counselling, one of the best tools we currently have to combat these issues, is in any way restricted to soldiers. Sometimes, even the toughest need a hand, and to prevent them from getting it is just plain old stupid. One only needs to listen to the rest of McCord’s speech to see how profoundly this has affected him.

It’s not easy to summarise this video. It’s a story covering so many different aspects; of the need for manpower when combating an insurgency and the consequences thereof, of how confusion and lack of information can lead to catastrophic consequences, how different people suffer different things in different ways to different extents and of the importance of properly enforced, sensible rules of engagement. But the primary theme governing the actual mistakes made by the US military in this situation concern man management; of managing the deployment of soldiers incorrectly for the situation (albeit whilst somewhat caught between a rock and a hard place), of giving the wrong people access to unrestricted, no strings attached lethal force, and of failing to take care of people when they need it. Those mistakes cost the lives of several innocent people, two of them children, cost the US army a soldier, and cost Ethan McCord his mind and his happiness. The lessons they offer should be heeded.

The story of Curveball

2012 has been the first year for almost as long as public conciousness seems able to remember that the world has not lived under the shadow of one of the most controversial and tumultuous events of the 21st century- the Iraq war. From 2003 to December 2011, the presence and deaths of western soldiers in Iraq was an ever-present and constantly touchy issue, and it will be many years before Iraq recovers from the war’s devastating effects.

Everybody knows the story of why the war was started in the first place- the US government convinced the rest of the world that Iraq’s notoriously brutal and tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein (who had famously gassed vast swathes of Iraq’s Kurdish population prior to his invasion of Kuwait and the triggering of the First Gulf War) was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The main reason for the US government’s fears was, according to the news of the time, the fact that Hussein had refused UN weapons inspectors to enter and search the country. Lots of people know, or at least knew, this story. But much fewer know the other story- the story of how one man was able to, almost single-handedly, turn political posturing into a full-scale war.

This man’s name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, but he was known to the world’s intelligence services simply as ‘Curveball’. Alwan is an Iraqi-born chemical engineer, who in 1999 fled to Germany, having embezzled government money. He then claimed that he had worked on an Iraqi project to design and produce mobile labs to produce biological weapons. Between late 1999 and 2001, German intelligence services interrogated him, granted him political asylum, and listened to his descriptions of the process. They were even able to create 3-D models of the facilities being designed, to a level of detail that CIA scientists were later able to identify major technical flaws in them. Despite the identification of such inconsistencies, when Curveball’s assertions that Iraq was indeed trying to produce biological WMD’s got into the hands of US intelligence, they went straight to the top. US Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Curveball’s evidence in a 2003 speech to the UN on the subject of Iraq’s weapons situation, and his evidence, despite its flaws, pretty much sealed the deal for the USA. And where the US goes, the rest of the world tends to follow.

Since then, Curveball has, naturally, come under a lot of criticism. Accused of being an alcoholic, a ‘congenital liar’ and a ‘con artist’, he is quite possibly the world record holder for the most damaging ‘rogue source’ in intelligence history. Since he first made his claims, the amount of evidence showing how completely and utterly false they were has only stacked up- a facility he attested was a docking station was found to have an immovable brick wall in front of it, his designs were completely technically unsound, and his claims that he had finished top of his class at Baghdad University and had been drafted straight into the weapons program were replaced by the fact that he had finished bottom of his class and had, as he admitted in 2011, made the whole story up.

But, of course, by far the biggest source of hatred towards Curveball has been what his lies snowballed into- the justification of one of the western world’s least proud and most controversial events- the Second Iraq War. The cost of the war has been estimated to be in the region of two trillion dollars, and partly as a result of disruption to Iraqi oil production the price of oil has nearly quadrupled since the war began. The US and its allies have come under a hail of criticism for their poor planning of the invasion, the number of troops required and the clean up process, which was quite possibly entirely to blame for the subsequent 7 years of insurgent warfare after the actual invasion- quite apart from  some rather large questions surrounding the invasion’s legality in the first place. America has also taken a battering to its already rather weathered global public image, losing support from some of its traditional allies, and the country of Iraq has, despite having had an undoubtedly oppressive dictatorship removed, become (rather like Afghanistan) a far more corrupt, poverty-stricken, damaged and dangerous society than it was even under Hussein- it will take many years for it to recover. Not only that, but there is also evidence to suggest that the anger caused by the Western invasion has been played for its PR value by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, actually increasing the terrorism threat. But worse than all of that has been the human cost- estimates of the death toll range from 87,000 to over a million, the majority of whom have been civilian casualties from bomb attacks (courtesy of both sides). All parties have also been accused of sanctioning torture and of various counts of murder of civilians.

But I am not here to point fingers or play the blame game- suffice it to say that the main loser in the war has been humanity. The point is that, whilst Curveball cannot be said to be the cause of the war, or even the main one, the paper trail can be traced right back to him as one of the primary trigger causes. Just one man, and just a few little lies.

Curveball has since said that he was (justifiably) shocked that his words were used as justification for the war, but, crucially, that he was proud that what he had said had toppled Hussein’s government. When asked in an interview about all the death and pain the war he had sparked had caused, he was unable to give an answer.

This, for me, was a both shocking and deeply interesting moral dilemma. Hussein was without a doubt a black mark on the face of humanity, and in the long run I doubt that Iraq will be worse off as a democracy than it was under his rule. But that will not be for many years, and right now Iraq is a shadow of a country.

Put yourself in Curveball’s position- somebody who thought his words could bring down a dictator, a hate figure, and who then could only watch as the world tore itself apart because of them. Could you live with that thought? Were your words worth their terrible price? Could your conscience ever sleep easy?