kottke.org posts about Iraq
The Epic of Gilgamesh just got more epic. A recent find of a stone tablet dating back to the neo-Babylonian period (2000-1500 BCE) has added 20 new lines to the ancient Mesopotamian poem.
The tablet adds new verses to the story of how Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, gets the idea to kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, in Tablet II. He thinks accomplishing such a feat of strength will gain him eternal fame. His wise companion (and former wild man) Enkidu tries to talk him out of it -- Humbaba was set to his task by the god Enlil -- but stubborn Gilgamesh won't budge, so Enkidu agrees to go with him on this quest. Together they overpower the giant. When the defeated Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh forever and give him every sacred tree in the forest, Gilgamesh is moved to pity, but Enkidu's blood is up now and he exhorts his friend to go through with the original plan to kill the giant and get that eternal renown he craves. Gilgamesh cuts Humbaba's head off and then cuts down the sacred forest. The companions return to Uruk with the trophy head and lots of aromatic timber.
How the tablet was discovered is notable as well. Since 2011, the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was been paying smugglers to intercept artifacts leaving the country, no questions asked. The tablet was likely illegally excavated from the southern part of Iraq, and the museum paid the seller of this particular tablet $800 to keep it in the country.
Errol Morris' documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, comes out next month. The trailer:
In the first of a four-part companion series to the movie for the NY Times, Morris explores The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld.
When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?
The Unknown Known has been referred to as a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War, but from this it seems more like its opposite. Morris got some substantive and honest answers to important questions from McNamara, whereas it sounds like he got bupkiss from Rumsfeld.
Update: Here's part 2.
Maybe the most depressing part of this three part series of photographs of Iraq from the past ten years is not the photos of all the horrible things people are capable of doing to each other, not the [God, I can't even think of the right set of rage-adjectives here] faces of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, but the fact that there is a part two to this series that starts in 2003, just after the fucking asinine MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner.
But maybe it was all worth it? To see these happy faces riding an amusement ride? Or these young people able to express themselves? Was it the right thing done the wrong way for the wrong reasons? I dunno. I just don't know.
The FT has a profile of Farouk al-Kasim, an Iraqi who immigrated to Norway as a young man and helped the country set up their sizeable oil concern. His biggest contribution was helping Norway cope with the discovery of oil.
Poor countries dream of finding oil like poor people fantasise about winning the lottery. But the dream often turns into a nightmare as new oil exporters realise that their treasure brings more trouble than help. Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, one time Venezuelan oil minister, likened oil to "the devil's excrement". Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, his Saudi Arabian counterpart, reportedly said: "I wish we had found water."
Oil expertise was so scarce in the Nordic country when al-Kasim arrived that an innocent query at the Ministry of Industry turned into a job that paid him more than Norway's prime minister. (via gulfstream)
BLDGBLOG has an interview with photographer Richard Mosse about his new project called Breach. Mosse went to Iraq and photographed several of Saddam's old palaces, many of which are occupied by American soliders living in improvised barracks.
It was extraordinary how some of the palace interiors had been transformed to accommodate the soldiers. Troops scurried beneath vaulted ceilings and glittering faux-crystal chandeliers. Lofty marble columns towered over rat runs between hastily constructed chipboard cubicles. Obama's face beamed out of televisions overlooking the freezers and microwaves of provisional canteen spaces.
Update: Flavorwire has another interview with Mosse about these images.
You've likely seen the wedding photo of the wounded Iraq War soldier and the woman who stuck by him through his recovery. After being married for just over a year, the couple is now divorced.
"Nothing was ever really wrong. It just wasn't right. Going into the marriage? I'd never been married before. I think we were okay. The wedding - it was so planned. There was this thing... " He breaks off and gets up to retrieve the framed certificate. It's from the state of Illinois declaring his wedding a state holiday. "To call something like that off..." He sits back down.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed in Standard Operating Procedure...but the fault is my own, not the film's. My expectation was that the film would start with the photos of Abu Ghraib & misdeeds of the lower ranking soldiers and then move up the chain of command, both militarily and thematically speaking, to explore the issues of truth in photography and culpability. To Morris' credit, he didn't do that. It's too easy these days to attempt arguments about Iraq or the Bush Administration that connect too many dots with too little evidence...essentially propaganda that sings to the choir.
SOP has a surprisingly small depth of field; it's the story of those infamous photos, the people who took & appeared in them, and what they have to say about the photos & the actions they purport to show. And in that, the movie succeeds. Morris leaves plenty of negative space into which the audience can insert their own questions about what the photographs ultimately depict and who's responsible in the end.
Incidentally, Morris generated a bit of controversy recently when he admitted that he'd paid some of the interviewees in SOP. The criticism of this practice is that "the credibility of interviewees diminishes when money changes hands and that these people will provide the answers they think are desired rather than the truth". That is a concern but no more so than every other reason for being untruthful, including not telling the truth out of spite for lack of payment. People have so many better reasons to lie than money.
Honestly I was getting a little burned out on Errol Morris. I've been reading his Times blog, reading and listening to interviews with him about Standard Operating Procedure, and went to see him at the Apple Store last night. (I was most intrigued by his observation that photographs both reveal and conceal at the same time.) But this (relatively) short interview with him on the AV Club site is worth reading and got me unburned out. One of the many choice quotes:
I wish they'd just get it over with and make [Iraq] the 51st state, because I think it's the perfect red state: religious fundamentalists, lots of weaponry. How could you go wrong? We're already spending a significant fraction of our gross national product on the infrastructure; such as it is, on Iraq. Make it the 51st state and get it over with.
The interviewer, Scott Tobias, makes an interesting observation toward the end.
It seems like there's been plenty of instances in which big guys [i.e. Bush, Cheney, etc.] could have and should have been held accountable. Yet it's not as if they've slipped a noose. It's as if they deny that there's even a noose to be slipped.
And Morris replies:
That's what's so bizarre. You know, there are smoking guns everywhere, and people are being constantly hit over the head with smoking guns, and people simply don't act on them.
For me, this is the central mystery of the Bush administration. There has been demonstrable legal wrongdoing on the part of this administration and through some magical process, they've charmed the country and managed to sidestep not only legal action (including impeachment) but even the threat of legal action and -- this is the best part -- get fucking reelected in the process. With Bush's disapproval rating at an all-time high (for any President since Gallup began polling), it's not like people aren't aware and the 2006 elections clearly show the country's disapproval with Bush et al. Maddening and fascinating at the same time.
Interesting timelapse visualization of fatalities in Iraq since March 2003. Turn your sound on...after awhile, it starts to sound like machine gun fire. Note: fatalities are non-Iraqi only...it's likely the whole screen would be flashing if those were included. (thx, mark)
Frontline's two-part report on Bush's War is getting good reviews.
A two-part special series that tells the epic story of how the Iraq war began and how it has been fought, both on the ground and deep inside the government.
Davenetics sums up the program's findings:
It really was a perfect storm of bad judgment, malicious intent, a power structure out of balance, a weak Natl Sec Adviser, a marginalized secretary of state, an all-powerful veep, a lazy Congress, and outplayed British PM, a foolishly managed French foreign policy, an ignored military leadership, an Oedipal complex hall of fame President, and a media that focused on Rumsfeld's funny press conference delivery instead of highlighting the fact that he was wrong, horribly wrong, on just about any point that mattered.
Both parts of the series are available for viewing in their entirety on the Frontline site.
Canada is seeing a small influx of American deserters who would rather not serve in Iraq.
Most of them, like Colby, say they joined the military in part out of patriotism. "I thought Iraq had something to do with 9/11," Colby says, "that they were the bad guys that attacked our country." But unlike Hinzman, most did not apply for conscientious-objector status. They tend to say they aren't opposed to all wars in principle -- just to the one they were ordered to fight. It wasn't until Colby arrived in Iraq that he started to see the conflict as "a war of aggression, totally unprovoked," he says. "I was, like, 'This is what my buddies are dying for?'
The Canadian government will soon decide whether or not to let those soldiers apply for citizenship on the basis that the conflict in Iraq is "a war not sanctioned by the United Nations".
The Abu Ghraib article by Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch which I wrote about here and was subsequently taken down is back online. For now. Get it while you can. (thx, tom)
Powerful and disturbing article by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris from this week's New Yorker about the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib.
Later, when the photographs of crimes committed against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were made public, the blame focussed overwhelmingly on the Military Police officers who were assigned to guard duty in the Military Intelligence cellblock -- Tiers 1A and 1B -- of the hard site. The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity. Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President's office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.
Never mind liberty, it would seem that we're giving up our humanity for security.
Update: Nuts, they took the article offline for some reason...
Update: Looks like the article is back up. For now.
Short teaser for Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns' next project for HBO about the Iraq War. It's from October but I hadn't seen it until now so maybe you hadn't either? The 7-hour miniseries is based on Evan Wright's book of the same name. This video discusses the book and its subject matter. (thx, david)
Cherry Blossoms is a project by Alyssa Wright:
Cherry Blossoms is a backpack that uses a small microcontroller and a GPS unit. Recent news of bombings in Iraq are downloaded to the unit every night, and their relative location to the center of the city are superimposed on a map of Boston. If the wearer walks in a space in Boston that correlates to a site of violence in Baghdad, the backpack detonates and releases a compressed air cloud of confetti, looking for all the world like smoke and shrapnel. Each piece of confetti is inscribed with the name of a civilian who died in the war, and the circumstances of their death.
Video of Errol Morris talking with Philip Gourevitch about Abu Ghraib and Standard Operating Procedure at the 2007 New Yorker Festival. This was painful to watch at times -- Morris speaks very deliberately -- but worth leaving the audio on in the background. They showed a clip of the movie at the festival but it got cut from the video...rights issues, I imagine.
This wasn't meant to be Tyler Cowen day on kottke.org, but you need to check out this concise barnburner of an article written by Cowen for the Washington Post on the cost of the war in Iraq. Taking the form of a letter to President Bush, the article explores the opportunity costs of the war and then offers the real reason why the war has been disastrous:
In fact, Mr. President, your initial pro-war arguments offer the best path toward understanding why the conflict has been such a disaster for U.S. interests and global security.
Following your lead, Iraq hawks argued that, in a post-9/11 world, we needed to take out rogue regimes lest they give nuclear or biological weapons to al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. But each time the United States tries to do so and fails to restore order, it incurs a high -- albeit unseen -- opportunity cost in the future. Falling short makes it harder to take out, threaten or pressure a dangerous regime next time around.
Foreign governments, of course, drew the obvious lesson from our debacle -- and from our choice of target. The United States invaded hapless Iraq, not nuclear-armed North Korea. To the real rogues, the fall of Baghdad was proof positive that it's more important than ever to acquire nuclear weapons -- and if the last superpower is bogged down in Iraq while its foes slink toward getting the bomb, so much the better. Iran, among others, has taken this lesson to heart. The ironic legacy of the war to end all proliferation will be more proliferation.
As a refreshing mint, check out the length of the y-axis on this graph comparing the cost of the war and the amount spent by the US govt on energy R&D. (thx, ivan)
Update: Noam Chomsky, in an August 2002 interview:
The planned invasion will strike another blow at the structure of international law and treaties that has been laboriously constructed over the years, in an effort to reduce the use of violence in the world, which has had such horrifying consequences. Apart from other consequences, an invasion is likely to encourage other countries to develop WMD, including a successor Iraqi government, and to lower the barriers against resort to force by others to achieve their objectives, including Russia, India, and China.
Photo by Joao Silva that made the front page of the NY Times yesterday.
An Iraqi boy peered Tuesday inside a car that was towed to a Baghdad police station after two women inside were killed.
As I was rushing late to an appointment yesterday, I saw this on the newsstand and had to stop for a long look. An arresting image.
A Seymour Hersh piece from tomorrow's New Yorker about the Bush Administration's plan for Iran. Amazingly enough, Bush is using the same tactics he did to wage war in Iraq. This time, instead of Iraq = Al-Qaeda, it's Iran = Iraq.
In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. "Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people," Bush told the national convention of the American Legion in August. "The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased... The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And, until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops." He then concluded, to applause, "I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities."
Will we fall for it again?
Errol Morris writes several hundred words about two iconic photos taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War, during which he explores the interplay between "clear" evidence and the interpretation of that evidence by people with different agendas and ideas.
As I've said elsewhere: Nothing is so obvious that it's obvious. When someone says that something is obvious, it seems almost certain that it is anything but obvious - even to them. The use of the word "obvious" indicates the absence of a logical argument - an attempt to convince the reader by asserting the truth of something by saying it a little louder.
This might be the best blog post I've ever read. I can't wait to see Standard Operating Procedure, Morris' upcoming documentary on Abu Ghraib and, from what it sounds like, the culmination of his exploration of truth in photography.
Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest radio telescope, is in danger of being shut down due to budget cuts. Arecibo could run for almost two years for the cost of a single F-16 fighter jet...to say nothing of the small fraction of the cost of the War in Iraq required.
Filmmaker Errol Morris is writing a blog for the NY Times about photography. It's supposed to be Times Select only and therefore behind the Times' stupid paywall, but I can get to it just fine for some reason. His most recent post concerns the confusion over the identity of the hooded man in the iconic Abu Ghraib photograph, which topic Morris is researching for S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure, his upcoming film about the prison and the events that happened there.
George Bush is searching for answers to account for his failed Presidency. "The reality has been daunting by any account. No modern president has experienced such a sustained rejection by the American public."
On the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, robots are fast becoming part of the US military family. "The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg. This test, he charged, was inhumane." (via cd)
Generation Kill is the newest project for HBO from David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of The Wire. It's a 7-hour miniseries based on Marines fighting in the Iraq war. "Gritty mini will look at the early movements of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and depict the complex challenges faced by the U.S.-led mission even in the war's early stages." (via crazymonk)
Nina Berman won a prize in the 2007 World Press Photo contest for this heartbreaking photo of a badly wounded Iraqi war veteran and his childhood sweetheart on their wedding day. Their story is here. "One arm was a stump and his remaining hand had only two fingers. Later, his big toe was grafted on in place of a thumb. One eye was blind and milky, as if melted, and his ears had been burnt away. The top of his skull had been removed and inserted by doctors into the fatty tissue inside his torso to keep it viable and moist for future use." (thx, ayush)
Update: Here are some more of the couple's wedding photos and more photos of Iraqi vets from Berman here and here.
Some information on Errol Morris' newest project, a film about Abu Ghraib:
Morris introduced us to his latest project about the Abu Ghraib, and the iconic images created from the prisoner torture. It's his hypothesis that it's a handful of those photos from that we'll remember a hundred years from now about the Iraq War. He explained that this project began with the mystery of two photos by Roger Fenton described by Susan Sontag in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others. During the Crimean War, Fenton took photos of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Two are of the same road, one with cannonballs littering the road, one with the cannonballs in the ravine. The Mystery being which photo was taken first, which was staged?
This is an interesting topic for Morris considering he pioneered the use of "expressionistic reenactments" in documentary filmmaking with The Thin Blue Line.
Update: The film is called "S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure".
A paper by Linda Bilmes of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government concludes that in addition to the stated cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Bush administration, it will cost $350 - $700 billion for the US gov't to provide health benefits and care over the lifetimes of soldiers who served there. More from the Christian Science Monitor. (thx, marcus)
Some notes from day 2 at PopTech, with a little backtracking into day 1 as well. In no particular order:
The upshot of Thomas Barnett's entertaining and provacative talk (or one of the the upshots, anyway): China is the new world power and needs a sidekick to help globalize the world. And like when the US was the rising power in the world and took the outgoing power, England, along for the ride so that, as Barnett put it, "England could fight above its weight", China could take the outgoing power (the US) along for the globalization ride. The US would provide the military force to strike initial blows and the Chinese would provide peacekeeping; Barnett argued that both capabilities are essential in a post-Cold War world.
Juan Enriquez talked about boundries...specifically if there will be more or less of them in the United States in the future. 45 states? 65 states? One thing that the US has to deal with is how we treat immigrants. Echoing William Gibson, Enriquez said "the words you use today will resonate through history for a long time". That is, if you don't let the Mexican immigrants in the US speak their own language, don't welcome their contributions to our society, and just generally make people feel unwelcome in the place where they live, it will come back to bite you in the ass (like, say, when southern California decides it would rather be a part of Mexico or its own nation).
Enriquez again, regarding our current income tax proclivities: "if we pay more and our children don't owe less, that's not taxes...it's just a long-term, high-interest loan".
Number of times ordained minister Martin Marty said "hell" during his presentation: 2. Number of times Marty said "goddamn": 1. Number of times uber-heathen Richard Dawkins said "hell", "goddamn", or any other blasphemous swear: 0.
Dawkins told the story of Kurt Wise, who took a scissors to the Bible and cut out every passage which was in discord with the theory of evolution, eventually ending up with a fragmented mess. Confronted with this crisis of faith and science, Wise renounced evolution and became a geologist who believes that the earth is only 6000 years old.
The story of Micah Garen's capture by Iraqi militants and Marie-Helene Carlton's efforts to get her boyfriend back home safely illustrates the power of the connected world. Marie-Helene and Micah's family used emails, mobile phones, and sat phones to reach out through their global social network, eventually reaching people in Iraq whom Micah's captors might listen to. A woman in the audience stood during the Q&A and related her story of her boyfriend being on a hijacked plane out of Athens in 1985 and how powerless she was to do anything in the age before mobiles, email, and sat phones. Today, Stanley Milgram might say, an Ayatollah is never more than 4 or 5 people away.
Lexicographer Erin McKean told us several interesting things about dictionaries, including that "lexicographer" can be found in even the smallest of dictionaries because, duh, look who's responsible for compiling the words in a dictionary. She called dictionaries the vodka of literature: a distillation of really meaty mixture of substances into something that odorless, tasteless, colorless, and yet very powerful. Here an interview with her and a video of a lecture she gave at Google.
Tyler Cowen takes a closer look at the recent "600,000 deaths in Iraq" claim. "We all know that the political world judges Iraq by the absolute badness of what is going on (which means Bush critics find a higher number to fit their priors), but that is an incorrect standard. We should judge the marginal product of U.S. action, relative to what else could have happened. In that latter and more accurate notion of a cost-benefit test, U.S. actions probably appear worst when deaths are rising over time, and hitting very high levels in the future."
Haven't read it yet, but New York magazine has a ginormous feature called What If 9/11 Never Happened? "Without 9/11, would the London plot have been foiled? Without 9/11, would there have been an Iraq war? Without the Iraq war, would there have been a London plot?"
In March of 2004, an artist named Tofu began constructing a map comprised only of the hometowns of American men and women killed in Iraq (map detail). "One of the disturbing by products of this work are the maps of various states with many rectangular pieces missing where I cut out towns." (via moon river)
An Iraqi star of the movie Flight 93 (which has been getting great reviews) won't be able to see the premiere of the film in NYC because the US government won't let him into the country.
Near the end of his article entitled A War to Be Proud Of, Christopher Hitchens offers 10 reasons why the war in Iraq was successful. (via 3qd)
Google Maps hack: Iraq War casualty map. "This page shows the progession of US military casualties from the Iraq war. Each click displays 30 more casualties, starting from the beginning of the war. Each soldier is shown in at their home town. Click their icon for more details."