Friday, April 09, 2004


So I met a man yesterday, had lunch with him. He was a friendly, bald, gray moustached man, eating carrots out of a Tupperware case. We fell into conversation, and at one point he said that he was in Vietnam. We’d been talking about war. I’d mentioned that I’d read that soldiers in Vietnam were issued Dexedrine and various speed pills to get them through the next encounter. And he’d said that that was countenanced, but it wasn’t officially approved, then told me the tale of his war – and ended up by adding, as a little sidenote, that people do funny things in war. A friend of his, for instance. He blasted an eight year old girl. Came upon her in some go through the village maneuver. Little darling kept approaching him. He got out the rifle, warned her to go back, and she kept approaching like Viet bad seed, and he let her have it. And, he said, she exploded, meaning that she’d been wired.

Then the guy said, two war crimes there, really. One is killing the eight year old, one is the Cong wiring her up.

I said yes.

This was not supposed to be happening again. That girl, that bomb, that GI, those dreams, that crippled life, that ended life, that desolation wrought on a citizenry by its own government, intoxicated by power and lies – no, this was not supposed to happen again. I remember hearing stories like that man’s – who was placidly chewing his carrots – when I was eighteen, nineteen. In the seventies, you were always running into vets who were never coming home, you could tell it from their eyes and their raddled faces, and especially their laughs, and their stories. And you knew much of it was bullshit. But you also knew that so much external damage implied something had happened the way a crater implies a shell.

Here are pictures from Falluja. I don’t find images of viscera and blood particularly sickening. It happens. Nor am I against violence per se – it is no joke that liberty is purchased with blood. But this isn’t liberty. This is senseless retaliation, for purposes that have been so wound in a labyrinth of Bush’s photo op politics as to be long lost; as these pictures go out to Baghdad and Basra, they pretty much put an end to the ‘good feeling’ that Americans are always polling the Iraqis to pull out of them, our colonialism with a smiley face.

I admit it -- I was fooled. I thought there was something like a learning curve operating in the bowels of the CPA. That Bremer had recognized his mistakes. I was wrong. They have learned nothing. Nothing, amazingly enough. These are people on whom all experience is lost.

Thursday, April 08, 2004


What to say about the 280 Iraqi deaths in Fallujah?

What to say? What to say? The sickness unto death has stolen LI's words today.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004


The neo-cons never cease to generate ideas – bad ideas. Incredibly bad ideas.

There has been a lot of speculation about why in the world the CPA would provoke Sadr at this point in time by closing down his newspaper. The result, as we see, is twenty American deaths and mounting, not to mention – because nobody mentions them – the Iraqi deaths, which must be over fifty to eighty.

This article in the Asian Times quotes one Larry Diamond, from the dreaded Hoover institute, that explains part of the mystery:

"We are on the edge of a generalized civil war in Iraq," said Larry Diamond, a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), who told Inter Press Service that occupation authorities must follow through on any crackdown against Muqtada's forces by disarming and dismantling all of Iraq's militias if the transition process and future elections are to have any hope of success.

Diamond, a democracy specialist at the Hoover Institution in California, also called on the administration to sharply increase the number of US troops in Iraq in order to disarm and dismantle the militias, and accused Iran of financing and arming Muqtada and other Shi'ite militias, which he says are building up arms in advance of elections or possible civil war.

"Iran is embarked on a concerned, clever and lavishly resourced campaign to defeat any effort to create a genuine pluralist democracy in Iraq, and we've been sitting back," he said in what has become a growing refrain among neo-conservatives and administration officials who blame Tehran for the coalition's growing problems among the Shi'ites."

In other words, it wasn’t Sadr the loony toons CPA was after – they were striking at Iran. It has been one of the causes of the diehard War fans that we went into Iraq as a preliminary thing, and we are going to follow up by going into Syria and Iran too – a general war-o-rama, followed by privatized Social Security, patriotic mercury in the water, and tax cuts for victims of the SEC’s Gestapo like war on the best and the brightest, that’s the deal. The nightmare world of Bush-ist wish fulfillment is unlikely to be in the offing any time soon, but these players have a puzzling and disproportionate influence. Puzzling, because they have proven to be wrong so often that they have become political liabilities. If there is one thing the Bush administration notices, it is political liability.

So what we are seeing in Iraq is the result of the idea that we had to strike at Iran by striking at those of Iraq’s shi’ites who are close to Iran. As Diamond puts it at the end of this revealing article, better to clean up the militias now, rather than later.

And this man is being paid by the CPA? Surely we need to pack him up and ship him gently back to the Stanford Campus, where he can extensively analyze communist influence in the Civil Rights movement, circa 1965.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004


There’s a Crooked Timber post about Hitchens article about Falluja. We haven’t read the latest outburst from Mr. Hitchens – after a while, it gets depressing to watch a man with no motor control trying to thread a needle. What interested us about the post was the end of it. After taking Hitchens to task for writing that the lynching in Falluja proved just how right we were to invade Iraq, the CT writer adds:

“… it seems appropriate to ask of everyone who seems certain of the rightness of their position on the war, whether there are any developments that would lead them to say, “OK, I was wrong.” For instance, if there is a functioning and independent Iraqi democracy within two years, which lasts for at least a further five, then I think that ought to shake the convictions of hardened opponents. But I don’t think that’s likely.”

On the face of it, what could be more reasonable than to apply the pragmatic principle of success or failure to positions that are, after all, built lock and stock in the context of social action? Yet this seems to LI to be a profoundly misleading move, one that a., denies agency to the Iraqis, b., misunderstands the deep and various levels of objection to the war in the first place, and c., posits an objectionable, and in the end pseudo-scientific relationship between politics and history. Wring those bland and seemingly reasonable words a bit, in other words, and you get a bad and typical thing, indicative of how deeply embedded in the intellectual mindset is that model of control and planning which developed in the 18th century and still defines the political role of the thinker in the West.

Let’s go to a. One of the more startling things about the Iraq invasion has been the framing racism of it all. Look, for instance, at the Washington Post’s Portrait of the Fallen – pictures of the casualties in Iraq – and you will notice … no Iraqis. Not only has the Defense department made no effort to collect information on Iraqi deaths, but the systematic downplaying of those deaths actually impedes any effort to understand what is happening there through the sieve of Western media. The values accorded to life and death, here, are the biopolitical substratum of the traditional racist images that have been set into motion by the occupation of Iraq. And not just by the Bush side, either. The great bien-pensant meme on the liberal side has been for more troops, or international troops, in conjunction with a suspension of Iraqi self-rule, so we can teach these people autonomy. It is the usual parent/child image, with the non-Western Iraqis playing the part of the recalcitrant child. As children, of course, they are too emotional, they complain all of the time, they are superstitious, and they are violent. Best, then, to spread a grid of soldiers over them commanded by adult Western bureaucrats. The endless stories about “teaching” policemen and soldiers all hammer in the same theme – these people are children that we have to take care of. Get out the stick, or the helicopter, or the tank, when they get unruly. In the meantime, of course, the Westerners doing all of this training can remain superbly indifferent to the very language the Iraqis speak, and certainly to their history – how can children have a history? – and their desires, all tuned to that frequency of the libido that makes them grumblers and rioters.

The racist substratrum conditions c., the control and command model. That accident, unexpected outcomes, and struggle might have as much to do with Iraq becoming a democracy, or not, as any central plan created by D.C. bureaucrats is simply made invisible by the options proposed by CT’s post – the right or wrong, the “proofs” that legitimate a position taken according to time and circumstances. This is where LI feels Burkian conservative twinges – a conservatism that has almost disappeared in the world. Burke’s objection to “theorists” in politics is just to this kind of attitude. It takes social action as, essentially, mechanical. And so you take an attitude at time x, the attitude is informed by principle y, and then history happens – the machine grinds out a result – and you proof your attitude.

Foucault, bless his baldheaded heart, was onto this kind of thing in Surveiller et Punir. For LI, a position is an adaptation to circumstances, rather than an idea that hovers above them. It is LI’s own form of anti-intellectualism.

Sunday, April 04, 2004


Continuing from the last post.

Dispensing with the “Weberian fantasy” of state power, Wedeen starts off with a abridged history of modern Yemen:

“President Ali Abd Allah Salih has been in power for twenty-five years, as the leader of North Yemen since 1978, and of unified Yemen since its inception in 1990. Yet in spite of the regime’s durability, the Weberian fantasy of a state that enjoys a monopoly on violence—legitimate or otherwise—is not remotely evident. In a country of 18.5 million people, there are an estimated 61 million weapons in private hands.2 The state is incapable, moreover, of providing welfare, protection, or education to the population.”

The state – or at least the faction in charge of the state – was capable, in 1999, or mounting an election. Wedeen’s description of it is interesting as much for the analogy to Iraq, and what one suspects the CPA would like to do, as for its Yemeni context. Ali Abd Allah Salih’s government disqualified the one opposition candidate that could threaten it even in a minor way – a man named Muqbil. Instead, they appointed their opposition. It did not go unnoticed that this simple maneuver made the “opposition” meaningless:

“To replace the opposition’s candidate, the regime nominated one of its own Southern members, Nagib Qahtan al-Shaƒbi. The son of its first President, who was deposed and imprisoned in 1969 during a coup
d’état carried out by socialists, Nagib and his family had fled to Cairo where they had received support and protection for years from the anti-socialist North. Election day, then, offered people the choice between two candidates from the same party, the ruling President from the North, and the puppet-like contender whose origins were identifiably Southern. One published cartoon depicted Nagib as a wind-up toy. Ajoke echoed this sentiment: “Nagib is elected and is then asked, “What is the first thing you are going to do?’” He replies: “Make “Ali Abd Allah Salih President.”

Perhaps this was the model that the CPA was thinking about in their first draft of the ‘elections’ that would legitimate the occupation after June 30. Wedeen’s point, however, isn’t merely that the government both embraced democracy and made a mockery of it, but that the state’s assertion of power here was excessive – unnecessary. . Muqbil didn’t have a chance of winning, given the fact that the state exerted rigid control over the election procedure. It is the margin of over-control that puzzles Wedeen. Her answer is that we have to throw out the Weberian model of rationality and understand power, here, in terms of the logic of excess. That is, excessive acts, by gaining compliance, actually function to make the citizen “see” him or her self in terms of the state – as belonging to the state by voting for, or pretending to vote for, who runs the state. That important distinction – the essential instability of the place of the ruler in a democracy – is replaced by the merger of ruler and state, with the state’s democratic self-definition being something more in the nature of one of those entrenched boasts that identify the powerful. By the logic of excess “The elections communicated this absence of actual alternatives by presenting a bogus one.” We couldn’t help but think of the coalition’s own use of democracy. Again, there is the refusal to separate the state from its rulers – to accept the central instability at the heart of democracy. Again, there was the curious attempt to deform the process and form of election into a ritual of confirmation that would signal the absence of alternatives. In the CPA case, the original idea was to create caucuses of American vetted committees that would select slates that Americans had previously approved of. The American project in Iraq failed on this preliminary point, since the Shi’ites – through the intervention of al-Sisteni – blocked them. In doing so, the Shi’ites have been subjected to the kind of propagandistic treatment one expects in the American press – have been accused, basically, of wanting solely to gain power. The accusation has had the effect of disguising the fraudulence of the only American plan for democratizing Iraq -- by the radical and thorough extension of anti-democratic power. The caucuses were meant to make Iraqis complicitous in the American fraud -- to see themselves as subservient to the American scheme. But it didn't work.

The second thing we should point to in Wedeen’s essay is the issue of security. In Yemen’s case, the security issue came up in the course of a private crime, not a guerilla war. Still, the confrontation between the state’s use of direct power to perpetuate itself and its inability to exert power to protect its citizens is relevant to the Iraqi case. In fact, we suspect that the inability of the Americans to prevent the bombings in Baghdad and in Najaf in recent months have, more than anything else, undermined the acceptance of the occupation in Iraq. On the one hand, the CPA’s power is based on that most direct use of violence, invasion; on the other hand, their day to day use of that power is directed mainly towards protecting … Americans. The loss of life of Iraqi civilians is given amazingly short shrift in, say, the NYT, where more attention will be focused on the death of four American mercenaries than on the death of 200 Iraqis or 100 or 50 that are blown up or fired upon in any number of incidents over the past four months. This isn’t just the inherent racism that frames the entire US/Iraq encounter – it is centrally about the logic of excess by which the CPA has installed itself in Iraq.

But let’s turn to Yemen.

Here’s the story:

“The “murders in the morgue” case became public knowledge on 10 May 2000,when two mutilated female bodies were discovered at San’ a University. Two days later, police arrested a Sudanese mortuary technician at the medical school, claiming that he had confessed to raping and killing five women.
Muhammad Adam U’mar Ishaq (whose full name was rarely reported) was a forty-five-year-old Sudanese citizen who allegedly admitted to an increasing number of murders—sixteen in Yemen and at least twenty-four in Sudan, Kuwait, Chad, and the Central African Republic (The Observer, 11 June 2000). The Nasirist newspaper reported stories that he had killed up to fifty women (al-Wahdawi, 16 May 2000). It was said that Adam also implicated members of the university’s teaching staff who, he said, were involved in the sale of body parts. According to Brian Whitaker’s account in The Observer one month later, Adam “had enticed women students to the mortuary with promises of help in their studies, then raped and killed them, videotaping all of his actions. He kept bones as mementos, disposed of some body parts in sewers and on the university grounds, and sold others together with his victims’ belongings” (11 June

Wedeen shows that the story of these killings, reported in different forms in different newpapers, provoked outrage not just at the killer, but at the state itself. There were street demonstrations as well as editorials; there were student demands; there were articles in the Army paper. All of which she shrewdly analyzes:

“Debates in newspapers, in the streets, during Friday mosque sermons and qat chews, and in government offices laid bare how easily civic terror can be generated by perceptions of ineffective state institutions, and how public appeals can be made on the basis of the moral and material entitlements that citizens of
even the most nominal of nation-states felt were due them (see Comaroff and Comaroff 1999). People were outraged that the university had not done more to protect its students or to investigate the disappearances. Criticisms focused on the incapacities of the state, the corruption and potential complicity of the regime, and the need for the seeming elusive but desirable “mu’assasat aldawla” (state institutions). In one qat chew I attended someone went so far as to claim that serial killings could never happen in the developed United States (a point I hastened to correct).”

The press, lately, has concentrated on the meme of the ‘complaining Iraqi’ – the Weekly Standard, which alternates between bile and hubris, sent Fred Barnes to Iraq (another neo-con cruise – surely some travel agency should take advantage of these pilgrims), and he returned to report that everything was going swimmingly, but that the Iraqis were distressingly ungrateful. They complain and complain.

The distance that has opened up between the American p.o.v. and the Iraqi p.o.v. is where the action will take place in the next phase of the occupation – its meaningless abdication on June 30 to a council that will still takes its orders from the CPA.

Wedeen’s essay concludes with such a rich expansion of the concept of “belonging” that we urge our readers to go and read it, especially for the way in which she takes discourse as a distributor of “belonging to” – a rather brilliant stroke. Alas, however, it is time for this post to stop.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...