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March 25 2013


Closing War Film Credits and the Iraq Apologia Genre


We watched Zero Dark Thirty the other evening, and it struck me that as a big screen country we've reached the cinematic region located roughly halfway between The Green Berets and Platoon in terms of how America copes on film with disastrous, ethics-destroying wars of adventure.

Of course, Zero Dark Thirty isn't about Iraq. It's barely about Afghanistan. But it's most certainly about an era in U.S. military and geopolitical history, an era of crazed intervention and reactionary excuses from both major political parties, an era whose closing credits we're just beginning to glimpse. Perhaps the flick is best understood as The Deer Hunter of the post 9/11 war era - gritty and judgemental of extended American arms in the showing, not the telling, defined at least in part by the gimmick of Russian roulette just as Zero Dark Thirty has concentrated discussion around CIA dark sites and torture.

Frankly, I found Zero Dark Thirty brilliant and honest - not jingoistic at all. From the ghostly voices in lower Manhattan, recorded and doomed to die on that horrible day to the zipping of bin Laden into a U.S. Navy body bag, the film never really cheers, and Kathryn Bigelow doesn't so much create a gleaming American hero from the obsessive Jessica Chastain character as she molds a lasting anti-hero.

I'm embarassed for hit-and-run progressives who believe the film somehow "justifies" water boarding and "enhanced interrogation." It does not. It presents them as facts. As Lance Mannion correctly argued, those lefty critics were all "too distracted listening for speeches that were never delivered." The movie is also long and uncomfortable, like this long dark epoch itself. And the torture is as troubling as the bin Laden killing is matter of fact and mundane.

Indeed, Zero Dark Thirty is an antidote to the entertaining but anodyne Argo, which won Best Picture and is something of a paean to the days when we could all root for the hard-working men and women of the underdog CIA, represented by the handsome, bearded humanist Ben Affleck. In other words, the days of the late 70s - the Deer Hunter era itself, when the U.S. was the weakened world power limping home from Vietnam, and the echoes of the Church hearings still rang in our collective ears like the last chord of a Ramones set.

I was thinking about all of this when Blue Girl's instinctively bilious reaction to Andrew Sullivan's Iraq mea culpa crossed my feed reader.

Andrew Sullivan needs to stop writing about the Iraq war

Rumsfeld and Cheney were great at projecting confidence, competence and management skills. And we were all still traumatized by 9/11 and grappling with how to respond to it. But we know now they were as terrified as we were, and their fear drove them to abandon restraint or skepticism or competent military and intelligence advice.

This feels like an academic debate. But it isn’t. I have blood on my hands. However many times I try to wash them, the blood will not come off.

How is he (and others) trying to wash off that blood? By writing blog posts? How courageous of them. How meaningful for that little dead boy in the photo he included in his post.

BG is right, of course. The tenth anniversary of the war brought out the worst in those who'd supported it, and now regret their public words. Sullivan's was the just the most egregious example: as if his personal wrangling matters at all. Sully's post-Iraq angst has all the relative value of the post-sleep crud you flick from your eyes in the morning shower. As Blue Girl stingingly wrote:

You are embarrassing yourself. I am embarrassed for you. Please stop. Stick to writing about product placement in digital media. As far as I know, no one's kids are going to die hawking Coca Cola.

As James Wolcott coldly noted this week, those whooping "war whore" voices of 2003 have quieted, even if some emerged from intellectual hidey holes to squeak, "sorry!"

How the chickenhawks loved to castigate their opponents as chicken-hearted. I'll never forget the sick feeling I had watching the live coverage of the first US "shock and awe" bombing runs on Baghdad, with so much of the media in vainglorious hoopla mode, as if it were Super Bowl halftime entertainment.

It was quite the week for liberals who went along with the obvious lies and frabrications and bullying on Iraq in 2003 to pen boring and overly familiar apologia for - you know - assisting in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people and ruining the national reputation internationally for a generation. Charles Pierce was particularly tough on Ezra Klein (who, it must be noted, was in college at the time), but his critique can stand in for the whole sordid genre:

The members of the liberal political elite in this country were piss-down-their-legs scared of two things in 2002. First, that the next attack would land on their heads, since most of them live and work in or near what were presumed to be the primary target zones, both of which actually had been already. And second, that they would get called fifth-columnists (or worse) by the triumphalism of the incipient American imperial adventure in southwest Asia. Nobody wants to be George McGovern, after all.

This is how it was. Just as Zero Dark Thirty was how it was (as far as feature films can capture truth, that is). We should simply shitcan the apologia, and learn from 2003. Which is to say: eyes open, speak up.
Tags: Blogs Film War

March 19 2011


The WikiLeaks War


The United States and Great Britain have fired 110 cruise missiles and French jets have destroyed four tanks today belonging to the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi, and thus the lightning-flash pivot from Western concerned non-intervention (and love for the status quo) to hellbent-for-leather regime change is complete in this season of revolt in the super-charged Arab world.

Call it the first WikiLeaks War.

Certainly all who credited the anarchist libertarian "transparency" organization with throwing the initial stones of American diplomatic intelligence judgments into the calm pool of Tunisian domestic waters must certainly embrace this new armed coalition in Libya as a product - at least in part - of those actions.

As Julian Assange is proud to proclaim, American revelations about the Tunisian regime fueled the fire in those streets, which fed Egypt and Tahrir Square, which also stoked the challenges to power in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria. Leaked secret information from the American diplomatic point of view, argued the WikiLeaks founder, gave opposition leaders "the confidence that they needed to attack the ruling political elite."

That confidence, if Assange is right, led Gadaffi's regime to teeter under the weight of mass protest. That brought the vicious military crackdown, which led - quickly and rather surprisingly - to the ad hoc American-European-Arab League partnership to squash Gadaffi once and for all. Let's face the truth: this is a regime change war, not a minor no-fly mission. Once the attack is launched, Gadaffi has to go;  indeed the French have already recognized the Libyan opposition coalition.

Understandably, this development blows the minds of liberals who have stoically supported WikiLeaks as an innovative new international information movement that would almost certainly deflate the interventionist and imperialist tendencies of the big western powers. Watching Twitter over the last 24 hours imparted the digital equivalent of progressive whiplash, as lefty voices who've been enthralled by the Middle East protests (and fully in favor of giving WikiLeaks much of the credit) either backpedaled away from intervention or went silent. Yet the smartest pro-transparency analysts have always realized that the revelations the U.S. cables represented would almost certainly lead to unforeseen consequences, if not armed conflict.

Micah Sifry has written a n incisive new book-length essay on public transparency that essentially uses the WikiLeaks saga as a news peg to discuss many of the opportunities and challenges inherent in sharing more government data, and opening decision-making. WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency attaches a significant democratic upside to transparency, and I agree with that assessment - yet it does recognize the challenges as well:

WikiLeaks, and other entities inspired by it that are beginning to spread, present the United States with an especially difficult version of the information doer problem, because the discover of new facts may now occur at any time.

This is an incredibly important concept that, quite frankly, goes well beyond WikiLeaks the organization (which I believe is doomed by virtue of its evident and fatal founders syndrome). In the unfolding Libyan crisis, it's clear that the U.S. government was not appreciably ahead of the curve in gathering actionable information compared to the entirely public network of citizen journalism and socially networked news. NPR journalist Andy Carvin is, in my view, the leading American journalist plumbing the flow of information from the field in the Middle East in North Africa. Following Andy means staying plugged in to real stories and real people.

The traditional back-channel of intelligence from regions of conflict and revolution moved to the front; anyone who was interested could plug into a firehose of news, videos, pictures, and sketchy reports from the Libyan protests and later, the fighting front.

In his fascinating "instant book" on the WikiLeaks phenomenon, Nation blogger Greg Mitchell - who has live-blogged all things WL since before the flood and can fairly be described as favorably disposed towards the leaks - cannily airs out an Assange quote that never got much attention after the WikiLeaks founder's stated opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan: "People have said that I am anti-war: for the record I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about these wars."

And as wars go, this was relatively transparent decision-making by the Obama Administration, even if it did not ask Congress for permission to take military action. Consider the speed: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Libyan opposition leaders in Cairo on Thursday. She quickly changed her mind on intervention and worked along with Senator John Kerry, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and foreign policy adviser Samantha Power to push the Administration toward joining a coalition against Gadaffi.

Far from the usual palace intrigue, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice were unusually open and up front in speaking of their policy aims, and the President made his decision quickly. There's no Bob Woodward book to be written; almost everything's already on the record. Indeed, I was thinking of indepenent diplomat Carne Ross's words from just two months ago: "The world and its dramas are complicated and difficult, traits that do not suggest secretiveness and élitism as their solution, but instead the opposite."

Of course, I worry quite a bit about a third U.S. war, about the long-term success of regime change in Libya, and what we've bitten off in attacking Gadaffi on behalf of his opposition. But I'm not worried about whether I know enough about what's going on. Heck, I've got Twitter. The U.S. contribution to the coalition - primarily naval in the early stages - has been quickly divulged. As Peter Daou just tweeted:

Ah, the age of social media, where even US military strikes get their own hashtag: #OperationOdysseyDawn

And then there was Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander and Commander, US European Command, who took a moment on the bridge to Tweet this message:

Operations over #Libya by France, UK, US -- other European nations in the mix -- busy!

Busy indeed, and Julian Assange might well approve. Certainly, it's in contrast to U.S. military action in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Yet I also think it's important to recognize the external forces at work in prompting action against Libya, a target that - let's face it - conveniently has oil reserves and a madman at the top, making the interventionist decision a helluva lot easier than, say, Bahrain.

But let's not forget the authentic voices of the opposition, which seem to have had such an effect on Secretary Clinton. This should surprise no one. For a massive government bureaucracy, the State Department is relatively plugged into the social media firehose and has encouraged the use of online tools and techniques in democracy movements.The Libyan crisis provides an almost perfect opportunity to meld social media organizing with limited superpower intervention - it's this State Department's moment.

Among the voices the U.S. and other listened to was that of  Mohammed "Mo" Nabbous, a citizen journalist whose video reports from Benghazi had become central documents to understanding the Libyan opposition. From Andy Carvin's Twitter stream today, we learned that Nabbous had been shot and killed by a sniper as he filmed a report. Here's a storyful post on his life and death. And here's his final video report - the last of his all-too-short life and career as a brave journalist and activist, but among the earliest of what I think can fairly be called the first Wikileaks War:

Watch live streaming video from libya17feb at livestream.com

March 14 2010


Women in the World: Bravery in the Pursuit of Power

Women in the World, which unfolded this weekend at the historic Hudson Theater just east of Times Square - where Arsenic and Old Lace made its Broadway debut in 1941 - was the energetic vision of one of New York's most connected women. Tina Brown, proprietor of The Daily Beast (where I occasionally contribute), assembled this town's old guard media tribe and then some: Barry Diller, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, Diane Sawyer, and Charlie Rose mingled with Queen Rania of Jordan, Meryl Streep, Madeline Albright, Donna Karan, Nora Ephron and the ever-present Diane Von Furstenberg.

"My hope is that it will help grow this important message of economic empowerment for women as the key to prosperity, and help spread this message around the world," Brown told USA Today.

Bringing together what Brown referred to as "lioness leaders" in the cause of telling stories, getting prominent people (including corporate and media types) more involved, and building a movement. Yet this movement clearly dates to 1995, when Hillary Clinton famously told the UN's. Fourth World Conference on Women that "women's rights are human rights." Yet it's a decade and a half down the road, and the horrors that women endure in fields of conflict, throughout the developing world, and just down the block continue to shock and sicken on almost a daily basis. Just a day before Women in the World opened, a young woman was savagely beaten in the bathroom of a clb only a few blocks from the Hudson Theater - reportedly for refusing the dance with the man now charged with her attempted murder.

"Sexual terrorism" carries different meanings in different settings - yet it's the terrorism part of the phrase that should get more attention. Gender itself is so vast, so seemingly non-organizable. It was no accident that Brown named the Daily Beast's conference Women in the World; "of" is untenable, yielding more of a soft-touch 1964 World's Fair exhibit of a title than a call to action. No, this gathering, for all its glamor, had a sharp point with a barbed tip. The barb that stayed caught was the quest for political and economic power. Time and again at Women in the World, I heard speakers talk about meaningful participation in governance and the world economy. This was a gathering of women not content with traditional philanthropy and corporate hand-outs, with slogans and ribbons and rubber bracelets.

Yet story-telling is so important. One of the real highlights was an evocative reading (directed by Julie Taymor) of Seven, a play that is a collaboration between Vital Voices and seven award-winning women playwrights, including that profiles seven women leaders from the Vital Voices' Global Leadership Network. Meryl Streep added Oscar-worthiness to the ensemble cast, which also featured Marcia Gay Harden, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stephanie Okereke, Archie Panjabi, Julyana Soelistyo, Lauren Vélez. Over 90 minutes, Seven moves its protagonists from the desperation and powerlessness to activism and achievement. But the overarching theme isn't organizing - it's bravery.

From Inez McCormack, a civil rights leader in Northern Ireland (portrayed by Streep with humor and a believable Ulster brogue), to my personal hero, Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan, who was played effectively by Aghdashloo, the willingness to court more violence in the pursuit of justice pervades the reading of Seven, whose stories were subtly propelled by sparse sound effects and strong photograpic images on the large screen behind the actors. Seven women, speaking for billions. Seven stories to mobilize half of humanity.

Yet in chatting with Rebecca Lolosoli just before the reading of Seven, I was struck by how quickly village-level organizing can attain a bigger profile - and with it, more of a say in the halls of power. Rebecca is the founder and director of the Umoja Uaso Women’s Village, a community of survivors fleeing domestic abuse and arranged marriages in Kenya. She wears the brilliant colors and beaded necklace of the Samburu and, though Vital Voices, has become a recognized voice for changing traditions that make women into victims. We were talking about the violence in Kenya, and she said that real political power remains elusive.

This echoed the words of Suraya Pakzad, executive director of Voice of Women, which provides women in Afghanistan with shelter, counseling and job training. "Don't think of women's issues as a project - women are not a program," she told a panel on women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakzad, who courageously risks her life to run her shelters, argued that women belong at the table for peace talks. And this echoed the top global issue facing women identified by a coalition of leaders who gathered last fall in Florence under the Vital Voices banner: Lack of political will and accountability.

That technology can help even the playing field is taken as an issue of faith at gatherings like Women in the World. And indeed, the growth of cell phones and networked organizing is changing the landscape quite a bit. As I wrote in the Daily Beast last week: "The systemic challenges facing billions of women in the developing world defy easy, clickable solutions. Yet from linking remote villages via increasingly ubiquitous mobile-phone messaging to improved water safety and cooking tools, technological innovations are changing the lives of women and their families for the better, around the world."

I heard many people say over the weekend that the network really matters to them - the ability to connect women in remote developing regions to colleagues in NGOs, corporations, and government provides a shorter path to recognition. Cherie Blair talked about her partnership with the GSMA association of mobile operators to get inexpensive phones into the hands of more women in developing nations, where there remains a demonstrable technology gap between the genders. But technology can also bear witness. At Women in the World, the word "Congo" bore as much emotional power as "Katrina" or "9/11" do for many in the U.S. and the reason to me seemed clear: horrific cell phone images of the victims of infamous mass rape.

"Congo" has become short-hand for sexual terrorism.

Yes, images do matter. In introducing Seven, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the story of her recent visit to Guatemala and the request of an American diplomat there when she met with a a civil rights leader. The ambassador's request to Secretary Clinton was simple: take picture with her. "They're trying to kill her." A photo with one of the world's most famous and powerful women carries some power. "Here's a woman who is putting everything there is on the line."

The story provided the perfect lead-in to Seven, which is about women who have done just that - and with success. Yet Secretary Clinton warned that "extremist voices against women's rights are growing louder." And she took a moment to update the language of her 1995 declaration:

"Women's progress," she said, "is human progress."
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