Precision warfare

We’ve seen this in the movies dozens of times: highly-trained Western special forces burst suddenly into a target building, their weapons at shoulder height. Moving rapidly from room to room, they identify each potential target within a second, unhesitatingly shooting the bad guys while keeping safe the unarmed and innocent. When it is over, the audience breathes a sigh of mixed relief and admiration.

Being the movies, this cannot really depict reality — and in fact, it doesn’t. It turns out that when special forces burst into a house, they keep their eyes closed.

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Room without a view

It won. This narrow, simplistic, disappointing little film won the Oscar.

No, I’m not shocked. Nor am I disappointed with the Academy — though it has been on an admirably strong run in this century (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire), this is also the group that elevated both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic to the pantheon. But I am annoyed that such a flawed movie has managed to achieve this amount of acclaim, and that The Hurt Locker is, even more gratingly, regarded now as an “important” film. It is not important – not in the way, at least, that great works of art (cinema included) are capable of being.

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The pause button

Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty
July 2007: A former insurgent watches a row of coalition military vehicles in the Amariyah neighborhood of Baghdad (Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty)

As far as the bulk of the American — and for that matter, world — press is concerned, the Iraq War ended sometime in early 2008. Casualty rates suffered by American troops had dropped significantly, and this happy circumstance was generally credited to the “surge” of up to 40,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq starting the previous summer. Presidential candidate Barak Obama did his part to move the spotlight away from the Persian Gulf by pointing to Afghanistan as the site of the really important war (a claim underscored by increasing levels of violence in both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan), and the rapidly developing global financial crisis did its part. By January 2009 it seemed likely that the average Beltway pundit would once again have trouble finding Iraq on a map.

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Marked in black

This Gallup poll on the identity of America’s “greatest enemy” got fairly good press coverage when it was released in late March, but there’s a lot of food for thought in it that is worth addressing even if we’re a couple of weeks on from the headlines themselves. First, it’s not shocking to see Iran, America’s multi-decade bête noire, at the head of the list. The U.S. government has done a serviceable job of heightening the perceived threat from that country over the past few years, and the dark hand of Iran is increasingly being pointed to as an explanation for continuing stagnation and violence in Iraq (see Gen. David Petraeus’s testimony to Congress on April 8 and 9). Iran was the first choice of 25% of respondents, a proportion which is certainly high, but nowhere near as high as Iraq’s 2001 market share of 38%.

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Critical Thinking with Cristopher Hitchens: Part I

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens: master logician.

September 11 had a strong effect on Christopher Hitchens. “I am only slightly embarrassed to tell you that this was a feeling of exhilaration,” he remarked to an interviewer in 2003. “Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate.” Since that time, Hitchens has arguably become the most influential voice in favour of the Iraq War. Not only has Hitchens frequently defended the war on television and in print, he has been invited to the White House to discuss foreign policy with senior Bush administration officials. In November, Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair describing the unusual influence his Iraq writings had on a young man named Mark Daily. After reading an article Hitchens wrote, Daily was inspired to sign up for combat in Iraq, beginning in November 2006. Two months later, Daily was killed during fighting in Mosul.

Hitchens’ most recent defence of the war takes the form of a contribution to a debate in Slate magazine. Former supporters of the war were asked to respond to the question, “How did I get Iraq wrong?” Hitchens’ answer? He didn’t. Unlike the other contributors, Hitchens denies that he has anything to answer for. Instead, he argues that the case for war was, and remains, morally defensible.

For an article published in 2008, this struck me as a surprising position to take. However, beyond the question of whether or not Hitchens’ position is true is the separate question of how well he argues for it. There are questions on which reasonable people can disagree, and we’ve all encountered strong challenges to our own views. On the other hand, some arguments are truly bad as arguments. Not only are the conclusions false, but the support offered for them is so weak, it is impossible to take the conclusions seriously while maintaining any sense of intellectual integrity.

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Iraq: History Takes a Long Time

British soldiers during the Boer War.

In the fifth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, many journalists are looking back with regret on their earlier support of the war (although some, like Christopher Hitchens refuse to make apologizes, which can be taken as a sign either of strong principles or of a stubborn unwillingness to learn).

I was an opponent of this war from day one, although I was ambivalent on the earlier adventure in Afghanistan (which I now wish I had questioned more searchingly). I don’t see any reason to regret my stance, but stock taking is always useful. And in fact there are a few developments in the last few years which have taken me by surprise.

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Our Dumb World

The Onion has recently published Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth, which has received a glowing review from Newsweek:

In the section devoted to Iraq, for example, you learn that “Iraq-U.S. relations became strained in 1963 when Iraq leader Saddam Hussein assassinated John F. Kennedy.” The Iraq map shows such sites as “family burning effigy to stay warm,” “U.S. soldiers arguing over whose turn it is to wear armor” and “father threatening to turn this car bomb right around if kids don’t be quiet.” The section on Iraqi history is titled, “From the Cradle to the Grave of Civilization.” Equal opportunity offenders, this atlas’s authors do not spare their own country (“Tennessee: Like ‘Hee Haw’ but a State”).

The University of Baghdad

Are you a stressed-out academic cursing your heavy teaching load? Consider how much worse it could be. You could work at the University of Baghdad:

Most students interviewed by AFP on the campus in the capital’s central Jadriya neighbourhood acknowledged they take circuitous routes to reach the university — avoiding either Sunni or Shiite neighbourhoods, depending on their own ethnic allegiances. . . .
Chemistry masters student Ahmed al-Maliki was happy to be named and was one of the few who said he took the most direct route possible to the campus, from the Sadr City Shiite ghetto in eastern Baghdad where he lives . . . While he is adamant it is a whole lot easier getting around the capital than it was even just six months ago, he warns that lethal dangers still exist.
“In late September, three masters students were travelling down Palestine Street (in central Baghdad) when unidentified gunmen opened fire on their car. Two were killed and one seriously injured. I have to admit that really shook me.”
The lack of professors — either killed or fled overseas — is affecting education at the campus, he believes.
“In the past there were seven professors in our faculty. Three of them have since been killed. Now there are only four — two of whom are not of sufficient experience to be able to lecture masters students. Which leaves just two.”

The full story is here. After reading it, marking first-year papers suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.