Monday, November 10, 2014

Good Morning Fallujah!

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/29/opinion/thomas-friedman-isis-and-vietnam.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone

We thought that Vietnam was a struggle between communists in the north and anti-communists in the south.  But it wasn't.  It was a civil war, a struggle with decolonization, and a struggle against American efforts to maintain a chosen regime.  As Robert McNamara later pointed out, this was a failure of empathy on the part of United States's foreign policy.  We failed to empathize with "the enemy" and consequently were unable to address the root causes-- and potential political solutions-- of the conflict.

Thomas Friedman makes a solid case that we are doing the same with ISIS. The basic question of how ISIS has made such rapid gains in the region (or at least they did a few months ago) is perhaps best answered by addressing ideas of nationalism and Sunni regional pride rather than jihadist ideology.

The Shiites in Syria and Iraq, in this analogy, are Diem's regime: brutal, corrupt, and propped up by foreign powers-- Iran for the former, and the US for the latter.  No matter how much the US bombed the North, the Southern regime could never stand on its own nor gain much popular support.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Following the Abstract

I'm currently reading two books: Moby Dick and The Irony of American History.  Separated by 101 years, one fiction and the other a meditation on then-contemporary history and culture, I've discovered a weakness I have as a reader.  When reading fiction, I'm able to construct mental images of the text that I read.  I can see Ahab.  I can see the whaling ship.  I can smell the ocean breeze, touch the splintered rails, and hear the flapping mainsail.

The act of recalling a particularly vivid work of fiction is as easy as recalling a favorite movie.  We remember the scenes well because we were there with the characters, experiencing each scene a little differently than all other readers, but in no less vivid or accurate terms.  Think of Heart of Darkness, or Darkness at Noon for that matter, and you can remember the scenes because they were so well written.  We were there.

Compare this to a fine work of non-fiction such as The Irony of American History.  The slim book deals with weighty topics such as nuclear weapons, the lies of communism (and the delusions of capitalism), tyranny, and other subjects that aren't discussed all that much in the 21st century.

Here's the problem I have, as a reader: I can't see communism.  I can't see mutually assured destruction.  Sure, there are images commonly associated with those ideas, but when reading the book and grappling with those topics in the abstract it seems silly to reflexively imagine Stalin's mustache or Marx's beard every time he mentions communism.

How do I remedy this situation?  How do I become a better reader of abstract concepts?  The answer, I've found, is to write.  Writing my thoughts, making comparisons, and drawing parallels to today help concretize the abstract concepts.

It is in that spirit that I write my next post.  "Reflections on the Irony of American History"...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Malaysian Airline over Ukraine: A Prediction

My predictions for the Malaysian airliner that just went missing in Ukraine:

  • Ukraine shot it down, mistaking it for a Russian cargo plane, in retaliation for their jet that was shot down yesterday. 
  • Separatists shot it down in the hopes of drawing Russia in and escalating the conflict. 
I believe it's the latter, using the former for cover.

The Russians have no reason whatsoever to have shot this plane down.  Plus, their military hardware is too sophisticated to mistake a civilian airliner for, well, anything but a civilian airliner.  Let's be clear: this is not KAL 007.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Putin Isn't Hitler, But His Justifications for Invasion Are The Same

The headline reads "Hillary Clinton compares Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine to Adolf Hitler's in Nazi Germany".   Right away, that headline is misleading.  She did not compare Putin's actions in Ukraine to Hitler's in Germany.  She compared Putin's action in Ukraine to Hitler's tactics in Czechoslovakia and other countries.  Here's the quote:
"All the Germans that were ... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous."
Her historical analogy is accurate.  Both Putin and Hitler used similar pretexts to justify the invasion of another sovereign country, namely, protecting ethnic Russians and Germans respectively.  To her credit, Clinton rightfully avoided the trap of comparing Putin to Hitler.  She compared their justifications, not their character or policies.  Her point is that the given justification is dangerous and illegal.

Reading the comments from multiple news sources' coverage (always depressing), there are those who are criticizing her for:

  1. Disrespecting the Holocaust by even mentioning the Hitler analogy. (Citing Hitler as a historical analogy does not demean or disrespect Holocaust remembrance. Insisting that Hitler is off limits for discussion is a dangerous idea.)
  2. Disrespecting the Russians who died fighting Hitler in WWII. (Red herring.)
  3. War mongering.  (No calls for war here.)
  4. The US did the same thing in Iraq.  (Good point, but completely irrelevant.)

Quote Stanley:

But was Clinton right? Mostly no. It is true that Putin's justification for intervention in Ukraine is similar to Hitler's, that is, threatening to invade a sovereign territory to defend his ethnic brethren. But the situation is complex, and the historical comparison is tenuous at best.  After all, in the eyes of many ethnic Russians, it is the Ukrainian nationalists -- not Putin -- who are the Nazis. The Russians have asserted, quite accurately, that the revolution that overthrew a pro-Russian, democratically elected leader has resulted in the elevation of Russophobe fascists into key government positions...

We're not discussing who is most like the Nazis.  Clinton compared Putin's justification to Hitler's.  Stanley's tangent on ethnic Russians thinking Ukrainian nationalists are Nazis is a distraction from Clinton's point, and fails in any way to disprove it.