The Nation, 21 April 2008

“Chalabi’s Lobby” shows both that Ahmad Chalabi’s efforts to persuade the US to invade Iraq were paid for by the US government itself and that Chalabi is back in favor with senior American officials.  “Inside the Surge” argues that America is helpless in Iraq, and that Iraqi groups who share none of America’s interests are manipulating American forces and money for their own advantage.  Some memorable lines: “The Americans think they have purchased Sunni loyalty by giving aid to these groups, but in fact it is the Sunnis who have bought the Americans.”  “The Bush administration and the US military have stopped talking of Iraq as a grand project of nation building, and the US media have dutifully done the same.  They too have abandoned any larger narrative, presenting Iraq as a series of small pieces.  Just as Iraq is physically deconstructed, so too is it intellectually deconstructed, not as an occupied country undergoing several civil wars but as small stories of local heroes and villains, of well-meaning American soldiers, of good news here and progress there.” 

Alice Kaplan reviews a clutch of books by, about, and related to Irene Nemirovsky.  Matt Steinglass reviews two books about the Vietnam War, Andrew Wiest’s Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN, and Mark Moyar’s Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam.  Wiest’s book includes the riveting story of Colonel Pham Van Dinh, the hero of Dong Ap Bia (aka Hamburger Hill) who later defected to the North.  Leading with this story, Steinglass argues that the Communists were better able to meet the aspirations of Vietnamese nationalism than the Saigon regime ever could.  As for Moyar’s book, Steinglass claims that “just as for some liberals Iraq has always been about Vietnam, for Moyar Vietnam has always been about Iraq.”  Steinglass argues that Moyar’s partisanship leads him to wander away from a set of perfectly reasonable claims and to try to defend the some of the most reprehensible policies the USA pursued in Vietnam.

The Nation, 7 April 2008

A special issue devoted to the 75th anniversary of the New Deal.

Most interesting are three items outside the special pieces.  A brief editorial by Laila al-Arian notices the recent panels Iraq Veterans Against the War sponsored in Silver Spring, Maryland, where US military personnel returned from Iraq testified about war crimes they committed and witnessed in that country.  Unlike their predecessors who appeared at the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation during the Vietnam War, these veterans all produced photographs, videos, and other corroborating evidence for their accounts.  What stick in my mind was a quote from an active duty enlisted man named Hart Viges.  Specialist Viges tells of his refusal to join in desecrating an Iraqi corpse.  “I said no- not in the context of, That’s really wrong on an ethical basis.  I said no because it wasn’t my kill.  You shouldn’t take trophies for things you didn’t kill.  That’s where my mindset was back then.” 

Kim Phillips-Fein reviews a silly book by libertarian writer Amity Shlaes arguing that the Great Depression was solely the result of government meddling and that only laissez faire economic policies can lead to prosperity.  Phillips-Fein points out the logical implication of this argument.  The US effort in World War Two represented the biggest increase in government spending, taxation, and regulation in history up to that point.  On Shlaes’ premises, that should have been accompanied by a profound exacerbation of the depression.  Yet in fact the war years saw prosperity return to America, and were followed by decades of tremendous growth. 

Robin Einhorn reviews Woody Holton’s history of the debates around the constitution, faulting Holton for his uncritical acceptance of the Antifederalist worldview and his failure to engage with any scholarship produced since 1940.  Still, Einhorn finds much to praise in Holton’s unflagging optimism and democratic spirit.  “What Holton really wants is for Americans to understand that we have a grander political tradition than constitutionalism, a democratic tradition in which ‘ordinary farmers’ used tangible power to win tangible gains.”

The Nation, 31 March 2008

Alex Cockburn’s column treats the NY Governor prostitution scandal, characterizing Spitzer’s behavior as “various rendezvous with consenting adults.”  I suppose I should familiarize myself with scholarship like that of somebody’s mother, but it strikes me that this phrase doesn’t capture what goes on with prostitution- mutual consent means that both parties consent to the same thing.  When men like Spitzer consent to a sex act, women like “Kristen” consent to sleeping indoors, having enough to eat, and not being so badly beaten by their pimps that they need reconstructive surgery to breathe.   

An editorial points out that it used to be routine in the USA for botched elections to be redone.  Several articles document the economic cost of the Iraq war, both in terms of lost wealth and of increased income inequality.  Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky collect statements powerful Washington types made in 2002-2004 predicting that the Iraq War would pay for itself. 

 Three reviews treat the work of Chilean writer Roberto Bolano.  Carmen Bullosa analyzes the assemblage of pseudo-biographical vignettes known as Nazi Literature in the Americas; Marcela Valdes surveys Bolano’s life and work; and Forrest Gander tries to decide which of Bolano’s works is best.  Catching my attention, Valdes quotes Nicanor Parra’s remark:

The four great poets of Chile

Are three

Alonso de Ercilla and Ruben Dario.

While Gander mentions that “Bolano considered Tres (Three), a book of poems published in 2000, to be ‘one of my two best works.'”  So the two best works of Bolano/ Are one/ Three.

The Nation, 15 October 2007

Two pieces deal with the likelihood that rightists will spend the next few decades trying to convince themselves and the voting public that the reason the war in Iraq was such a disaster was that the left stabbed America in the back.  A column by Eric Alterman compares the rumblings to this effect that we have already heard to the Nazi movement’s claim that Germany’s defeat in the 1914-1918 War was due to a Jewish plot to stab the country in the back.  A review essay by Rick Perlstein takes on recent books claiming that the USA was at some point close to success in Vietnam, dismantling the scholarly pretensions of these books and using Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ theory of the stages of grief to argue that when an American military intervention turns out badly, hawks “begin with denial, anger, and bargaining, just like you and me.  And that’s where they stay- forever paralyzed by a petulant refusal to acknowledge their fantasy’s passing, a simple inability to process reality.” 

 The article that made me the angriest documented a systematic effort on the part of the army to pressure doctors to misdiagnose wounded Iraq vets so that they would not qualify for disability benefits.  Hardly less angering was an article about the immunity that mercenary gangs like Blackwater Corporation enjoy for murders and other crimes committed in Iraq. 

The closest thing to light entertainment in the issue was Jane Smiley’s review of the memoirs of Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, two of the founders of the contemporary Christian Right.  Schaeffer’s rebellion against his parents’ beliefs and his horrifying descriptions of the personalities of leading evangelists seem to be part of a lively, interesting personality.

The American Conservative, 8 October 2007

Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel best known as the author of The New American Militarism, excoriates General David Petraeus’ recent Congressional testimony, pointing out that if Petraeus were correct and the “surge” were working, then his recommendation that it be discontinued would be preposterous.  Bacevich argues that the elite in Washington is driven chiefly by the fear of admitting that it was wrong.  After reviewing Petraeus’ arguments and contrasting his views with the more cautious pronouncements of other senior commanders, Bacevich concludes:

Politically, it qualifies as a brilliant maneuver.  The general’s relationships with official Washington remain intact.  Yet he has broken faith with the soldiers he commands and the Army to which he has devoted his life.  He has failed his country.  History will not judge him kindly.   

American debates on foreign policy are usually conducted in terms of two, and only two, historical analogies: Munich and Vietnam.  Not only do these analogies grow tiresome, but their use in debate rests on an absurd set of oversimplifications.  Those tired of this idiocy may welcome Paul W. Schroeder’s “Fire Fight.”  Schroeder compares the current position of the USA in Iraq to the position of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Italy in the period 1848-1859.  Not only does Schroeder draw out intriguing parallels between the way the Hapsburgs weakened themselves by wasting their resources in an unwinnable war in Italy and the way in which America is weakening itself in Iraq, he also acknowledges what the Munich–Vietnam shouters usually overlook, that an analogy is a comparison between things which are in other respects dissimilar.  Given that definition, a “perfect analogy” is a contradiction in terms.  Schroeder specifies the limits within which analogy is useful. 

 Other highlights include Philip Weiss, keeper of the mondoweiss blog, on the apparent inability of the organization Freedom Watch to specify its relationship with the Bush administration or its policy towards Israel; Kelley Beaucar Vlahos on neoconservatives among the top advisors to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; and Pat Buchanan on the future of Belgium.

Mahmood Mamdani on Iraq and Darfur

The following paragraphs began an article by Columbia University’s Mahmood Mamdani comparing Western attitudes to Iraq and Darfur.  The article originally appeared in the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS in March and was reprinted in THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE last month. 

The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency

Mahmood Mamdani

The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make? (more…)