Iraq

Invictus

200px-HumanFactorInvictus Last night I went with friends from work to see Invictus (PG-13,2009).  From ScreenIt!:

The newly elected President of South Africa hopes to begin reconciliation among his black and white constituents by urging them to unite behind the nation's rugby team in the World Cup.

Over coffee afterwards, one of my friends talked about what it was like experiencing these events first-hand as an Afrikaner in South Africa.  She said the film brought back so many memories.  First of all, she was impressed with Freeman’s and Damon’s accents…saying they were spot-on.  Also, she indicated that the filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the spirit of what the South Africans felt and experienced during that time.  Her family had gathered to celebrate her 21st birthday and watched the match together on a big screen.  Although they didn’t realize it at the time, she said that when Mandela walked onto the field wearing the #6 jersey of the Springboks (South African national rugby team, a deep-rooted symbol of Apartheid) it was a major turning point for their country and its racial reconciliation.  The celebrations in the streets afterwards were the first time they had done so without fear of violence and riots.  She said her parents have made big changes in their outlook since then.  On the other hand, her brother has not (still doesn’t want to use the same facilities as blacks, send his kids to school with blacks, etc.).  She said that the black middle class is growing and that it’s not unusual to see blacks buying homes in previously-white-only neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, the shanty towns are still prevalent.  Despite the fact that the country’s old flag (another symbol of Apartheid) was not banned, you never see it flown at sporting events any more.  She said the rugby was very realistic too, and she wanted to jump up and cheer during the film.  She wondered if the rest of us (who didn’t share that same personal connection with the story) would find it boring.  We didn’t.

I’m a sucker for sports movies and a sucker for movies about racial reconciliation, so I didn’t stand a chance.

I give it 5 out of 5.

More Good News...from Iraq

From The Week (link):

Since the liberal media long ago lost interest in Iraq, said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post, we didn’t hear much about the “near miracle” of the country’s provincial elections earlier this month. So allow me to recap: There was virtually no violence, and 14,400 candidates from 400 parties competed. Parties defined by religious sectarianism were the big losers, including a pro-Iranian party that was “devastated” at the polls by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s more secular State of Law Party. The big winners? Iraqis, who, despite the “condescension” of those who thought democracy a “fool’s errand” in the Middle East, proved they’re on the way to functioning, largely secular self-government. The other winner, of course, was the U.S., which now has a nascent democratic ally in the Arab world.

but Thomas Ricks is not as optimistic:

Having spent a lot of time in Iraq recently researching a book, it’s my sad duty to report that nearly every American military leader there is very pessimistic about the country’s future. Deep sectarian rifts remain in Iraqi society, they say, and only the presence of armed troops has prevented the eruption of violent conflict. Shiite radicals such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Sunni extremists haven’t given up; they’re just biding their time until the Americans leave. The Iraqi military, meanwhile, remains a “deeply flawed” institution, with no qualms about killing Iraqis, and U.S. officials privately are warning that power-hungry generals very well might mount a takeover attempt if the U.S. does, in fact, go home. So let’s not get overly excited about a round of regional elections. “I don’t think the Iraq war is over, and I worry that there is more to come than any of us suspect.”

Baghdad High

A few months back I watched the film Baghdad High on HBO.  From Wikipedia:

It documents the lives of four Iraqi schoolboys over the course of one year in the form of a video diary. The documentary was filmed by the boys themselves, who were given video cameras for the project.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the film to me was how familiar it seemed…how similar in essence Iraqi school boys are to American school boys…how two Iraqis can look at the same event (for example, the execution of Saddam Hussein's execution) and have completely different perspectives.

Mohammad: Do you think Saddam was really killed?

His grandmother: Yes he was killed.

Mohammad: Do you think his trial was fair?

His grandmother: Yes, but he didn’t need a trial anyhow.

Mohammad: Why?

His grandmother: He inflicted so much suffering on the Iraqi people.  If we hadn’t executed him we would have been the weakest people on earth.

Mohammad: Do you think the situation will improve?

His grandmother: I don't care if it makes life better or not.  The main thing is we did the right thing.  Every dictator deserves the same fate.

and then another one of the boys:

The situation is very bad.  We got pretty upset after Saddam's execution.  This is not the right time.  A country's leader to be executed this way?  The people in power are not better than he was.  Dad was especially sad for Iraq.  It means that Iraq is finished.  God help us!

I give it 4 out of 5.

Preemptive Implementation

It kind of seems like Bush is trying to implement Obama's foreign policy before Obama gets a chance to do it. 

He's agreed to a "time horizon" for withdrawal from Iraq (from an article in The Washington Post by Dan Eggen and Michael Abramowitz):

President Bush and Iraq's prime minister have agreed to set a "time horizon" for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq as part of a long-term security accord they are trying to negotiate by the end of the month, White House officials said yesterday.

The decision, reached during a videoconference Thursday between Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, marks the culmination of a gradual but significant shift for the president, who has adamantly fought -- and even ridiculed -- efforts by congressional Democrats to impose what he described as artificial timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces.

In recent weeks, Bush and senior officials have hinted that they would be open to "aspirational" goals for removing U.S. troops, as Maliki and other Iraqi politicians have voiced increasing discontent with the idea of an open-ended U.S. troop presence in their country.

and we're talking to the Iranians (from an article in The Wall Street Journal by Jay Solomon):

On Saturday the U.S. will hold its highest-level contacts with Iran since 1979, a marked thaw in the two countries' troubled relationship. At the same time, the U.S. is fine-tuning a package of new financial penalties against Iran that target everything from gas imports to the insurance sector.

U.S. and European officials said they will intensify efforts to impose these penalties should their diplomatic drive fail to induce Iran to freeze its nuclear program. The sanctions effort could also include measures to impede Iran's shipping operations in the Persian Gulf and its banking activities in Asia...

but it sounds like the new sanctions will be coming since Iran has preemptively said that halting enrichment is off the table.

Benchmarks

From an article titled "Administration foiled by own Iraq goals" in the LA Times:

The Bush administration's decision to set benchmarks for measuring the progress of the Iraq mission is now seen by some U.S. officials as a costly blunder that has only aided the White House's critics in Congress and its foes in Iraq.

Administration officials saw them as realistic goals that would prod the Iraqi government toward reconciliation, while helping sustain political support for the effort at home. The yardsticks include steps vital to Iraq's stability: passage of a law to divide oil revenue among the key communities, reforms to allow more members of Saddam Hussein's party back into the government, and elections to divide power in the provinces.

Yet now, with the major goals still out of reach, the administration is playing down their importance. With an interim report on the U.S. effort due out today, administration officials instead are emphasizing other goals” some of which are less ambitious but have been attained.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, recently told reporters that while the benchmarks remain important, "We have to look on a wider scale than the benchmarks themselves."

In private, many officials were more scathing in their critique, saying that defining the goals in such a way galvanized resistance in Iraq and gave war critics a way to argue that the U.S. mission was falling short.

I think this is a fine illustration of one of the big problems. These guys see this as a game. Therefore, they think that defining goals was a mistake because it has aided war critics in arguing that the effort is falling short. The problem isn't how short the effort is falling. It's that people know how it is failing.

Data on Iraq

On another blog I've started a new hobby of maintaining a timeline of major news stories about Iraq with links to the articles. For example the next time someone tells you there was a significant pre-war link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, go there (link) to find a link to the article describing the recently-released Pentagon report debunking that claim. It's also a sad summary of the constant march of death with a rare nugget of good news occasionally mixed in.

Study of N.B.A. Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls

From an article of the same title by Alan Schwarz in the NY Times:

A coming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student says that, during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.

Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong. They went on to claim that the different rates at which fouls are called "is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game."

N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern said in a telephone interview that the league saw a draft copy of the paper last year, and was moved to do its own study this March using its own database of foul calls, which specifies which official called which foul.

"We think our cut at the data is more powerful, more robust, and demonstrates that there is no bias," Mr. Stern said.

Three independent experts asked by The Times to examine the Wolfers-Price paper and materials released by the N.B.A. said they considered the Wolfers-Price argument far more sound. The N.B.A. denied a request for its underlying data, even with names of officials and players removed, because it feared that the league's confidentiality agreement with referees could be violated if the identities were determined through box scores.

"There's a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race discrimination, but that it is often just driven by unconscious, or subconscious, attitudes. When you force people to make snap decisions, they often can't keep themselves from subconsciously treating blacks different than whites, men different from women."

I buy that last explanation...that people, regardless of the intentions, have natural and often sub-conscious bias against people that are different from them...and that bias can easily come out under stress or when there isn't time to think better. I see it in myself when I react differently to people of different color...until I consciously remind myself that I can't assume something about someone based on the color of their skin. I see it when Christians are more eager to attack people who are different from them (like homosexuals) while basically ignoring others that they can relate to (like gluttony, gossip, materialism, etc). I think racism is still a problem and that black people are just likely to be prejudiced against white people as the flip side.

If you have the chance, watch the FX series "Black. White" (which I've mentioned before and before).

This also reminds me of something else. A while back I set a season pass for Pistons games. I never watch them (until playoff time) but my six-year-old watched a bunch of them. He would tell me about the games and I got a kick out of when, for example, he called Billups "Mr. Big Shot." Anyway, we were watching part of a game together one day and he asked me, "Dad, why do so many basketball players have dark skin?" I wasn't exactly sure how to answer, but what else could I say except that the guys who play in the pros do so because they are taller and are better at jumping and putting the ball in the basket...and so these guys with dark skin must be better at those things. I also said that maybe they practiced more too. I didn't want to admit to him that black people and white people are different (in this admittedly narrow context of playing professional basketball), but it's so obvious and common-sensical that I couldn't help it.

How Chaplains, Soldiers Keep Faith During War

An article of the same title by Eve Conant in Newsweek describes how war tests the faith of chaplains and regular soldiers in Iraq. A few excerpts:

Countless soldiers—not just chaplains—have struggled with how to reconcile a God of love with a God who allows the terror of conflict. For centuries theologians and philosophers have grappled with ideas of "just war": thou shalt not kill, but under certain conditions—to prevent wider bloodshed and suffering—slaughter by armies is acceptable.

Many American soldiers in Iraq wear crosses; some carry a pocket-size, camouflage New Testament with an index that lists topics such as Fear, Loneliness and Duty. U.S. troops have conducted baptisms in the Tigris. They often huddle in prayer before they go on patrol. Not everyone is comfortable with this. About 80 percent of soldiers polled in a 2006 Military Times survey said they felt free to practice their religion within the military. But the same poll found that 36 percent of troops found themselves at official gatherings at least once a month that were supposed to be secular but started with a prayer.

Many chaplains think that war strengthens their belief and the spirituality of the troops they serve. "It is the trials of life that ultimately help us to grow in our faith," says Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Trent Davis, who was deployed to Iraq in 2005. He recalls one soldier who wasn't much of a believer at home but decided to read a Psalm each day while deployed. The day the soldier started in his vehicle across the Iraqi sands was the day he read from Psalm 23: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. "After that his faith grew much deeper," says Davis.

Many soldiers suffer spiritual doubts in war, but the stresses can be especially acute for chaplains. By ministering to men and women who are struggling to keep faith, many are forced to confront their own doubt again and again.

Chaplains are unarmed, but they go where the troops go. They help in any way they can.

The article focuses on a particular chaplain, Roger Benimoff, and how his experience took him to the brink of unbelief. I can't imagine what war is like, how damagiig it is to the psyche. If you've got some time, read through the discussion about Christians and non-violence on Scott Freeman's blog. I'd like to have the same conversation sometime with folks at my church. A large fraction of the men, particularly from the older generation, spent time in the military. I think it would be really interesting to discuss just war theory and the principle of non-violence and military service with them.

Trauma-Related Stress

An article in USA Today this week reports on kids in Baghdad:

About 70% of primary school students in a Baghdad neighborhood suffer symptoms of trauma-related stress such as bed-wetting or stuttering, according to a survey by the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

The survey of about 2,500 youngsters is the most comprehensive look at how the war is affecting Iraqi children, said Iraq's national mental health adviser and author of the study, Mohammed Al-Aboudi.

"The fighting is happening in the streets in front of our houses and schools," Al-Aboudi said. "This is very difficult for the children to adapt to."

The study is to be released next month. Al-Aboudi discussed the findings with USA TODAY.

Many Iraqi children have to pass dead bodies on the street as they walk to school in the morning, according to a separate report last week by the International Red Cross. Others have seen relatives killed or have been injured in mortar or bomb attacks.

A little less pride

That's the title of a letter to the editor from today's edition of our local paper. It's by Ted Killinger. You can read it here: link.

He explains how people like me are opposed to the war in Iraq because we find it inconvenient. He also tells me how I'm physically, intellectually and morally inferior to our troops. I'm also, apparently, lily-livered, a sissy, and a chicken.

Read it for yourself.

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