Tag Archives: Iraq

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

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“The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime” by Bryan Glyn Williams

Copyright 2013, includes maps and notes. A follow-up on my post of December 27, 2016.

This is an unusual book about an unusual person. The book is unusual because it’s rare for a biographer to be able to interview a warlord from “another world”. Dostum (born in 1954) was raised under conditions that were medieval, speaking a language that was not “recognized” by any government, part of an ethnic tribe (the Uzbek) then split by the national border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. What is a warlord, anyway? What does it mean to be part of a “tribe”, as opposed to a community, state, or religion?

It seems all I can do here is ask questions. What is the relationship between modernization and religion? Is modernity inherently secular?

What does Williams’ biography tell us about Dostum? His name was Abdul Rashid. “Dostum” was added by his followers, and means “friend”. He was educated to about age 12, trained in the sports important to Afghan men (horseback riding and wrestling), then worked in the gas and oil industry. He served in the Afghan army 1974 – 1976, then signed up with the Afghan Communist army in 1978, in order to prevent his brother from being drafted. “By the mid-1980s he commanded around 20,000 militia men and controlled the northern provinces of Afghanistan”. (Wikipedia) What?? How?! This is where Dostum’s history strains the credulity of the reader. It sounds impossible. Dostum’s militia was initially mostly mounted on horseback, armed with rifles. Who fought that way, in the 1980s? How did it work? Williams gives us Dostum’s version of the story. Dostum’s assistance to the US military after 9/11 critically facilitated the downfall of the Taliban. Unfortunately, some Americans thought further intervention in the Middle East was going to be similarly “easy” in terms of American investment in lives and troops. “Light footprint” warfare has not become the norm.

I looked for current information. Dostum is now Vice President of Afghanistan. As of April of 2016, he is barred from entry into the United States. He has been accused of war crimes. Some details are provided in Williams’ book. His personality is described as “volatile”.

Dostum now has accounts on Facebook, Twitter and U-Tube. He has traveled from the distant past to 2017 in sixty years. If nothing else, he is possessed of astonishing adaptability and leadership. I hope he will continue to contribute to the fight against extreme religious fundamentalism. His social orientation is primarily secular, and his attitude towards women is modern.

Williams is an academic. He describes his sources as “wonderful storytellers”, but not fact-oriented linear thinkers. His field work was performed under stressful conditions, and complicated by of the number of languages involved. “The Last Warlord” is important reading if you want to understand international geopolitics. But you can also read it as a wild tale of adventure!

“Counter Jihad – America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” by Brian Glen Williams

319 pages, plus preface, notes and index. Three good maps of Afghanistan, but none of Iraq and Syria. University of Pennsylvania Press.

I have so much to say about this book! First of all, the copyright date is 2017. What’s with that? For the record, I got the book from the library’s new arrival shelf. Amazon reports it as being published in October of 2016. Citations include information as recent as April, 2016. This book is about as up to date as a hardcover publication can be.

The first and last chapters of this book are the most important. Chapter 1 (Planting the Seeds for a Global Conflict) covers crucial history of the Middle East, much of which is unfamiliar to me. There’s so much detail, I had to take an occasional break from reading. Williams obviously intends to be fair and even-handed. Can anyone achieve this? Language poses so many pitfalls. Consider the ways one can announce multiple deaths:

  • Murder
  • Killing
  • Massacre
  • Cold blooded massacre
  • Slaughter
  • Execution

How does an author decide? “Cold blooded” was the term that made me pause, since it describes a state of mind. The whole point of this book is to let us know how little we understand the “state of mind”, the history, culture, languages, customs, etc., of the Middle East.

Enough quibbling. Williams works hard to be fair, and is well worth reading.

The events of Chapter 2 (the invasion of Afghanistan right after 9/11) were mostly news to me. Where WAS I while all this was going on? How did I miss so much?! Two youngsters at home, one getting ready for college… I caught a bit of news here and there. So Chapter 2 was an eye opener. What stood out?

  • That we fought the kind of high tech, “precision” war that (I think) the military has been hoping for.
  • That we had some unusual allies, including a tribal warlord with troops on horseback.
  • That women (for the first time?) adopted the mostly male military model to defend themselves and their land against Taliban religious oppression. One such woman, Niloorfar Ramani, a highly trained Afghan fighter pilot, is currently seeking asylum in the US because of cultural biases in her country of birth.

I skimmed over Chapter 3 (Hype: Selling the War on Iraq to the American People) because I knew the bad news. We were conned.

Chapter 4 (The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq) was also basically familiar. The unexpected wrinkle for me was to learn that General David Petraeus, who led some of the Iraq War’s most successful counterinsurgency fighting, to some extent ignored the orders of Coalition Provisional Authority governor Paul Bremer to fire all members of the Baathist Party from their jobs. This destroyed Iraq’s civil government. Bremer also mandated the disbanding of the Iraqi army. This left about half a million men “armed and unemployed”. Petraeus evidently managed some level of compromise, and he engaged (with considerable success) in the type of “nation building” that Bush and his closest advisors scorned. Petraeus also codified the “take, hold, build” model for counterinsurgency. We may eventually look back on him as much more than a general who made a mistake and was forced into retirement. Bremer’s occupation policies already look like a total disaster with consequences that could last generations. And I believe he was warned at the time, most particularly by the military.

The last two chapters of Williams’ book bring us to the present and distinguish ISIS from its predecessors. The extremist call to generalized violence against “non-believers” has borne bitter fruit. Most recent was the bombing of a “Christmas Mart” in Berlin, in which 12 people died and 56 were injured.

ISIS now controls territory and aspires to the status of a state. Potential jihadis, some radicalized by the social media, travel to areas of ISIS control. Their return to their homelands with plans for independent violence is a very serious concern. By late 2015, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 “volunteers” from 90 countries may be in this pipeline. The FBI describes some of the attacks in the USA as “homegrown terrorism”, and calls for a “new approach” to Homeland Security, but there is no clarity about what preventive measures can be taken.

This is a sobering book, but if you, like me, want to know what’s going on and how your tax dollars are being used in the implementation of foreign policy, I suggest you read it.

“The Bremer Detail – Protecting the Most Threatened Man In the World” by Frank Gallagher and John M. Del Vecchio

Let me make two things clear from the start. I think the Iraq War was a tragic mistake, and I think Presidential Envoy L Paul Bremer made some very bad decisions during his management of the occupation of Iraq.

I read this book because of its scale.

I’ve thought a good deal about scale lately. Some things scale up or down well. I could give technological examples. But sticking to books, some topics are too big (the meaning of life) and some are too small (what I ate for lunch today).

The nature of WAR is something I want to understand, but the topic is too big. This book is about one small aspect of war, one man’s experience in a particular time and place. At this scale, I can learn something.

Gallagher was a bodyguard, responsible for the personal safety of Bremer in Iraq after the invasion and before a new civil government was installed. Iraq was unstable and violent, growing worse as the months passed. Gallagher worked for the now infamous contracting company, Blackwater.

The use of contractors to do “military” tasks is a relatively new wrinkle, presumably a result of the switch to an all volunteer military. It seems unlikely that any money is saved by the use of contractors, but a different labor pool is activated. Contractors are disparaged by many (especially in the military) for being “mercenaries”. Their relationships to military and government are often strained.

Gallagher was hired by Blackwater solely to protect Bremer, originally for a period of just 30 days. He is by no means an apologist for Blackwater. By his standards, the Blackwater managers stateside had no idea what was going on in Iraq or how to protect Bremer. Eventually Gallagher managed a team of three dozen specialists (many formerly in the military) to protect Bremer 24 hours a day.

Any notion that the “private sector” always does things better than government is certainly dispelled by this book. Blackwater had its share of pointy headed bureaucrats and sometimes made very strange decisions.

Bremer was not an easy man to protect. He left the safety of Baghdad’s “green zone” almost every day, meeting with Iraqi leaders in many different settings. His schedule couldn’t be known accurately in advance. Most of the time, he worked 16 hours a day. As his tenure in Iraq progressed, he was targeted for assassination, and the Iraqi insurgents got better and better at making bombs and organizing attacks. As the man closest to Bremer in public, Gallagher was also an identified target.

By dint of very hard work and a certain amount of luck, Gallagher and his team managed to keep Bremer alive, AND avoided any injury or death of civilians.

What did I learn from this book? Some people are adrenaline junkies, and the rest of us should be grateful (in most cases) for the work they do. Armed conflict brings out both the best and worst in people. Our governments policies are implemented in ways that can astonish and sometimes disappoint us as citizens.

War is hell.

“America’s Wars” #2 – “Where Men Win Glory – The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” by Jon Krakauer

In 2002, Patrick Tillman, an NFL football player, enlisted in the US Army. He was motivated by the events of September 11, 2001. In 2004, while serving in Afghanistan, he was shot and died. Originally it was announced that he was killed by enemy fire, but later it became clear that his was a “friendly fire” death, presumably accidental. The army’s attempts to “spin” this misfortune were cynical and distressing to his family and friends.

One reason I decided to read this book is that I consider Krakauer a “good writer”. I had read Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith and parts of Into the Wild. The first of these was particularly compelling, though my sympathy for extreme mountain climbers is limited.

Reading the book about Tillman, I realized Krakauer’s strength is DOCUMENTATION. He pins down detail after detail. Read carefully and you can picture everything. Mostly, he lets facts speak for themselves, though obviously he had a high regard for Tillman and mourns his death. 

In the same book, he reconstructs the convoy incident that led Jessica Lynch to be captured in Iraq. His description is detailed and astounding. Someone made a wrong turn. Eleven soldiers died and six were captured in a nightmare of error and confusion. The words “fog of battle” barely begin to describe it. The injured Lynch was rescued after a week.

As with the death of Pat Tillman, the Army tried to present Lynch as a hero who went down fighting, when the truth was that she was  injured in a vehicle crash and didn’t fire her gun during the incident. The Iraqi military tried to return Lynch to an Army checkpoint in an ambulance, but it was fired upon, so she was taken back to the hospital from which she was subsequently recovered.

Krakauer uses publicly available sources and personal interviews to recreate events that sounded very different in official military statements. Krakauer is better than a good writer – he’s the best nonfiction writer I know. He deals carefully and intelligently with situations that are complicated and important. I’ll continue to read anything he publishes.

I originally read this book in November of 2009.

America’s Wars – 2001 to the present

In 2009, I decided that I wanted to understand the wars that have dominated our foreign policy since September 11, 2001. My immediate sense of urgency arose from the death of one of my son’s schoolmates, age 19. Rest in peace, Brad.

I read unsystematically, choosing books that came to hand. Soon I realized how silly I was being – I could earn PhDs in field after field and still not “understand” the Middle East, terrorism and our responses. I would need to study history, religion, languages, political science and so much more. A dozen or so books into this “project”, I began to have war nightmares, and resumed my previous scattered and rather random reading habits.

By good fortune, I did read some excellent works, and I will share them here. Watch for posts with “America’s Wars” in the title.