While pleading guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him, Bradley Manning makes a long and detailed statement about why he gave classified documents to Wikileaks. “The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that– that this type of information should become public. I once read a, and used, a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War and how the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other.”
See also this on Gitmo: “[T]he more I became educated on the topic, it seemed that we found ourselves holding an increasing number of individuals indefinitely that we believed or knew to be innocent, low level foot soldiers that did not have useful intelligence and would be released if they were still held in theater.”
I’m with Glenn Greenwald on this – Bradley Manning should be considered a hero, the Daniel Ellsberg of our day, and the real crime here is how terribly he’s been treated by the powers-that-be for a justifiable act of whistle-blowing. “He knew exactly what he was risking, what he was likely subjecting himself to. But he made the choice to do it anyway because of the good he believed he could achieve, because of the evil that he believed needed urgently to be exposed and combated, and because of his conviction that only leaks enable the public to learn the truth about the bad acts their governments are doing in secret.”
And, for this stand on idealism, we’ve kept Pvt. Manning locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and are (still) threatening him with life in prison. Meanwhile, this town is overrun with glib, useless assholes who don’t care about anyone but themselves, and those guys keep failing up. We hound and imprison our Swartzes and Mannings, while coddling and venerating the Dimons and Blankfeins of this world. Some system.
Consider this a wake-up call. This is one more reason why we need to invest in our space program — because, right now, we are playing chicken with the universe. That deadly asteroid might not hit tomorrow, or even in 2106. But the danger is real. As author Larry Niven put it, “the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
Newly-released documents tell of how America learned of the 1940 Katyn Massacre seventy-two years ago, and worked to keep it quiet. “The directive was to ‘never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.’ During the 1951-52 Congressional hearings, for example, no material was presented to demonstrate that Washington knew about Katyn as early as it did.”
In the wake of Neil Armstrong’s passing, The New Statesman‘s Alex Hern makes the case for moving in the direction of a space elevator. The political argument aside, serious forays into space are clearly hindered by the prohibitive costs of leaving orbit more than anything else. If we are going to get serious about this, a space elevator is a technology that’s worth looking into. Right now, only Japan is on the case.
Some very troubling news for MMORPG cheats to consider: The Guardian reports that prisoners at Chinese labor camps are now forced to gold-farm for hours on end. “If I couldn’t complete my work quota, they would punish me physically. They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes. We kept playing until we could barely see things.” Ugh, don’t subsidize this, people. If you can’t farm the stuff yourself, find another hobby. (Arthas pic via here.)
“An executive at a small defense contractor recently joked to me, ‘Afghanistan is our business plan.’ I asked him what he would do if the war ended. He stared at me for a moment and said, ‘Well, then I hope we invade Libya.‘”
Proving Chalmers Johnson‘s maxim in Why We Fight that “when war becomes that profitable, you’re going to see more of it,” PBS’s Joshua Foust looks at the economic implications of withdrawal in Afghanistan for our standing army of
Hessians defense sub-contractors. “Ten years of war have established a discrete class of entrepreneurs, mid-level workers and administrators who are completely reliant upon the U.S. being at war to stay employed.” I somehow doubt we’ll be freezing their pay anytime soon.
With word that a canine supertrooper helped to take down Bin Laden, Foreign Policy‘s Rebecca Frankel lets slip the dogs of war. (But don’t believe everything you read about titanium teeth. Also, in the interest of equal time, here are the kittehs.)
So, yes, as you may have heard, we finally found Osama Bin Laden, fulfilling a key promise President Obama made during the 2008 campaign. While I would have preferred to see the perpetrator of 9/11 captured alive and brought to trial — cause that’s how we do justice here in the US of A — congrats to the president’s team, the analysts who did the hard work, and the men and women who executed the operation, on finally getting their man.
All that being said, the second half of the president’s statement above is troubling. The death of Bin Laden should mark the beginning of the end of the 9/11 decade. With the splinter finally removed, it is time to take a long hard look not just at our continuing war in Afghanistan — after all, Osama was eventually found in Pakistan, mainly through what the Bunk would call good po-lice work — but at all the questionable and/or extra-constitutional actions we have taken in the name of fighting the terr’ists since September 11th. (Newsflash: Torture had nothing to do with capturing OBL.) If the death of Bin Laden doesn’t move us to this reconsideration, what then ever will?
Unfortunately (and of course), that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. Instead, Congress is laying the foundation for a wider war: “Contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 is a new authorization to use military force that would grant the executive branch the power to ‘address the continuing and evolving threat posed by these groups.’ In practice, that means the president could use military force against any suspected terrorist across the globe — indefinitely.“
Indefinite war? No thanks. There’s been an eerie touch of Emmanuel Goldstein in the way Bin Laden was used to justify all manner of extraconstitutional actions and civil liberties violations under Dubya — actions that have been ratified and continued under Obama. Now that the Bogeyman is dead, it’s time to stand down. It’s time to start acting like America again.
“Starman tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Komarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space…In 1957, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.“
By way of LinkMachineGo, NPR’s Robert Krulwich tells the tale of the sad and unnecessary death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. “As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, ‘cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.’“
“‘I saw people trying to balance on the rooftops like surfers,’ she said. ‘It didn’t work. It was like hell.’” Boston’s Big Picture offers a survey of the horrifying images out of Japan since the earthquake/tsunami double-whammy of last Friday. [Part 2, Part 3.]
“‘It’s way past Three Mile Island already,’ said Frank von Hippel, a physicist and professor at Princeton. ‘The biggest risk now is that the core really melts down and you have a steam explosion.” And, in unfortunately related news, an animated infographic at the NYT explains exactly what engineers are trying to avoid at Fukushima Daiichi right now. (It’s not as bad as you may have heard, but, Lordy, it’s not good.)
“Along with modern humans, scientists knew about the Neanderthals and a dwarf human species found on the Indonesian island of Flores nicknamed The Hobbit. To this list, experts must now add the Denisovans.” Researchers discover evidence of a fourth separate species of ancient man in the caves of Siberia. “The implications of the finding have been described by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London as ‘nothing short of sensational… [W]e didn’t know how ancient people in China related to these other humans.‘”
Um….ok. FIFA picks the next two World Cup hosts after Rio: Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022. (Pro-tip: Remember to apply for a booze permit for the latter.) “Qatar, which has never even qualified for a World Cup, used its 30-minute presentation to underline how the tournament could unify a region ravaged by conflict.” Y’know, perhaps they’ll both make for great Cups. But if FIFA was trying to get out from under the recent bribery allegations, I don’t think I would’ve chosen these two particular nations.
“When historians look back to the moment when the post-Cold War reign of American power ended, they may well settle on 2010 as a crucial year. Everywhere, it seemed, there were signs that the long-predicted “rise of the rest” had finally occurred, whether in the newfound assertiveness of fast-growing China or the impatient diplomacy of new powers like Brazil and Turkey. Foreign Policy’s second annual list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers fully reflects that new world.“
As above, Foreign Policy has picked its Top 100 Global Thinkers of the year. And, while there are some really atrocious choices on here (for example, the man at #33, who much more deservingly made the list in the next entry too), the article is worth a perusing regardless. (FWIW, #65, #68, and #80 seem really iffy to me as well.)
Another intriguing selection from the trailer bin: Peter Weir, who arguably has never made a bad film, sends Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, and Sairose Ronan on a walk across continents in the trailer for The Way Back. “The book is Rawicz’s account of being captured by the Red Army in 1939 and his journey to freedom with other inmates. The group crossed the Siberian arctic, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, finally settling in Tibet and India.“
“‘It’s really wet,’ said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.“
In keeping with recent studies, NASA is set to announce that there appears to be quite a lot of water on the moon, which would greatly facilitate setting up shop there. Alas, “the U.S. likely won’t be involved in manned voyages to the moon anytime soon…But other countries are gearing up. China has pledged to land astronauts on the moon by 2025, and India has plans to do the same by 2020. Japan wants to establish an unmanned moon base in a decade.” And, hey, why go to the moon when you can spend a decade in Afghanistan?
Also in the trailer bin, Zhang Yimou of Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower pays homage to the Coens with A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop, the Chinese remake of Blood Simple. (Also, dudes, “Chinamen” is not the preferred nomenclature.)
By way of cdogzilla, PhysOrg’s Lisa Zyga describes a new cosmological theory by Wun-Yi Shu of Taiwan that, among other things,does away with the Big Bang. “Essentially, this work is a novel theory about how the magnitudes of the three basic physical dimensions, mass, time, and length, are converted into each other…The theory resolves problems in cosmology, such as those of the big bang, dark energy, and flatness, in one fell stroke.”
“From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008…The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63).“
By way of Greenwald and Sullivan, a Harvard study documents exactly how absurdly our national media carried water for the Dubya-era torture regime. “In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.“
This story, along with Politico’s gaffetastic reaction to Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings doing real journalism on the McChrystal story — (“Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks” — See also Lara Logan) and Joke Line deeming Glenn Greenwald a traitor because he dared to call unrepentant Iraq war evidence-falsifier Jeff Goldberg a horrible journalist (“Greenwald…so far as I can tell, only regards the United States as a force for evil in the world.“) pretty much tells you everything you need to know about our broken and corrupt Village media. And this is all just in the past week. Rinse and repeat, over and over and over again. (Pic via here.)
“The bottom line is this: Current procedures under the CSRT are such that a perfectly innocent individual could be held and could not rebut the Government’s case and has no way of proving his innocence. I would like somebody in this Chamber, somebody in this Government, to tell me why this is necessary.” Me too, Senator Obama, me too.
In a decisive break with his campaign stances and the best indicator yet that this administration is now happily perpetuating deeply troubling Bush-era policies, the President wins the right to hold detainees indefinitely in Bagram — the difference from the Boumediene decision on Gitmo being that Bagram is a “war zone.” (And Ben Franklin’s admonition aside, that’s an excuse you hear quite a bit these days.)
FWIW, Politico’s Josh Gerstein — while bending over backwards, as per the Village norm, not to call torture “torture” — suggests civil liberties concerns are overblown here, but check out his reasoning: “The Obama administration…has, so far, resisted seeking a full-scale preventive detention law that would apply to future captives. Instead, it has pleaded with civil liberties and human rights groups not to oppose some legal mechanism to allow the continued detention of Al Qaeda captives, at least some of whom may be untriable because of aggressive interrogations many view as torture.“
Oh, please. We have to hold them forever because we tortured them? How utterly and completely effed up is that? As Stephen Colbert well put it: “It’s essentially the same stance taken by George Bush. With one important difference: Obama makes the kids like it.”
With a word of warning from The Prospect‘s Paul Waldman, Popular Science takes a gander at Boston Dynamics’ LittleDog. “LittleDog doesn’t just traverse the terrain; it learns as it goes, noting what works and what doesn’t and incorporating that knowledge into its foothold scoring system.“
“Things in that unhappy country are going badly — much worse, of course, than Team Obama had to pretend this week but quite a bit worse than even a sensible skeptic might think. And unless Karzai takes to heart the lectures he heard (someone must have given him a stern talking-to amid all the bonhomie), things are only going to get worse still.”
After perusing an unclassified DoD report released last month, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan sees ominous trends unfolding in Afghanistan. “[T]he full report is a hair-raiser. The news is almost all bad; and the few bits of good news turn out, on close inspection, to be extremely misleading…[T]he report states, ‘The insurgents perceive 2009 as their most successful year.’”
In Britain’s New Statesman, John Naish looks at the national security and job implications of our falling behind on green tech. “The more the military thinks about green technology, the more it sees how it goes hand in hand with improving operational effectiveness…Afghanistan is the principal driver for Nato nations. Resupply convoys can be eight miles long and they in effect say: ‘Please hit me with a roadside bomb.’ Up to 60 per cent of the convoys carry fuel and water. If you reduce that need for supply, you save lives.”
See also the “clean energy is a national security issue” argument made by Operation FREE (mainly in terms of Iran and its $100 million a day in oil profits): “‘There’s no greater threat to our national security than our dependence on oil.’ Marine veteran and Operation Free member Matt Victoriano told Kerry.‘” To be honest, I could really do without the implicit saber-rattling involved with some of this argument. But let’s face it, that’s how we got a space program.
“It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.“
Risin’ up and back on the street, Brad Pitt will apparently delve into the tiger woods for Darren Aronofsky and writer Guillermo Arriaga (Babel) in a film adaptation of John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Well, ok then…but Aronofsky is getting notorious for signing aboard more projects than actually happen. Along with the ballet-thriller Black Swan, which may be in the can by now, he’s also meant to be making a Robocop reboot, a Jackie Kennedy in November 1963 story with wife Rachel Weisz, and a movie about UFC fighter Lightning Lee Murray. Sounds like a full plate.
“The change is negligible, but permanent: Each day should be 1.26 microseconds shorter, according to preliminary calculations. A microsecond is one-millionth of a second.” So, on the bright side, I guess that means we’ll all live to be a little older. The devastating 8.8 earthquake in Chile has apparently permanently shortened Earth’s day.
“Such changes aren’t unheard of. The magnitude 9.1 earthquake in 2004 that generated a killer tsunami in the Indian Ocean shortened the length of days by 6.8 microseconds. On the other hand, the length of a day also can increase. For example, if the Three Gorges reservoir in China were filled, it would hold 10 trillion gallons (40 cubic kilometers) of water. The shift of mass would lengthen days by 0.06 microsecond, scientists said.”
On one hand, the film makes for an interesting moral counterpoint to The Fog of War: Ellsberg’s actions put the lie to a lot of McNamara’s convenient post-hoc rationalizing therein — clearly, SecDef could’ve done more at the time to end the war in Vietnam.) On the other, Ellsberg also works as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men — to say nothing of a generation of seventies paranoia epics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But in the end, The Most Dangerous Man in America probably works best as an eloquent testament to the words of the late Howard Zinn (who appears here as an old friend of Ellsberg): “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.“
Like Man on Wire, Ellsberg starts here in media res, and at the scene of the history-making crime. Furtive eyes scan back and forth as an old-school Xerox copier whirrs in the dark, its green light illuminating maps of Southeast Asia and the ominous words “Top Secret” from below. With no zip drives or electronic files to speak of, analyst Daniel Ellsberg is forced to copy the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers page by painstaking page. It’ll take months (and eventually he enlists the aid of his kids.) As the Xerox churns, we get up-to-date on the ramifications of the document being processed — bombs fall from the sky over North Vietnam and Cambodia, weary troops patrol the hot, fetid jungle, and Nixon and Kissinger obsess over the leaks in their war machine (with Kissinger giving Ellsberg his moniker: “the most dangerous man in America.”)
Cut back to several years earlier, when the future leaker of the Pentagon Papers seemed quite a different man indeed. A fresh-faced young ex-Marine with a crisp, no-nonsense Kennedy era haircut, Ellsberg began his tenure in government as one of the Best and the Brightest, with an enthusiasm for his 80-hour workweek matched only by his hawkishness. As one of McNamara’s boys, Ellsberg concedes to helping massage the data to create a casus belli for the war. His first day on the job is the Gulf of Tonkin incident that wasn’t, and he spends subsequent weeks trying to dredge up some, any, horrible atrocities in the region that might involve Americans.
But, over time, the scales fall away from Ellsberg’s eyes. In part because he makes the acquaintance of a luminous lefty-leaning journalist named Patricia, who eventually becomes his fiancee…twice. (Ellsberg has a great line about a guy he meets at a peace rally who’s a Trotskyist. He asks this fellow how in Hell he ever became a Trotskyist. The answer: “The same way anybody becomes anything. I met a girl.”) And in part because, driven with an analyst’s overriding compulsion to find the right answer, he starts going to Vietnam himself to lead recon missions on the side and get a better sense of the situation on the ground. Simply put, the Ground Game is not going well.
The rest, as they say, is history. Moved to throw a shoe into the gears of the war machine he had helped nurture into existence, Ellsberg goes rogue and decides to publish the top-secret history of the war. But, even if you feel like you know the story of the Pentagon Papers pretty well, and I thought I did, there are some fresh and intriguing insights here. For example, I’m not really one for Freudianism or overthinking coincidences, but it turns out Ellsberg suffered a tragedy at the age of 15 that made him uniquely primed to play the role in history he ended up playing. (His father fell asleep at the wheel during a road trip, prompting a crash that sheared the car in two and killed Ellsberg’s mother and sister. In other words, watch the authority figures at the wheel verrry carefully.)
And then there’s the man himself, who’s an engaging presence throughout (if perhaps with a touch of monomania — I could see him being a hard guy to get along with.) If The Most Dangerous Man in America has a flaw, it’s that the movie is quite one-sided in the end — Ellsberg even narrates much of the story, and you get the sense at various points there may well be some whitewash being applied. (Ellsberg has an ex-wife, and kids, that aren’t even mentioned for the first 45 minutes or so.) Still, I’m inclined to give Ellsberg — and Ellsberg — the benefit of the doubt (and not just because the man loves his movies.) Ever since George and the cherry tree, we’ve been smoothing the edges of our patriotic tales. And, whatever his misdeeds as a man, Daniel Ellsberg, the film makes clear, is a patriot, through and through.
I use this Cornel West quote rather often, but that doesn’t make it any less true: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.“
Daniel Ellsberg is one of those citizens. He saw an obvious crime being perpetrated by our government across multiple presidencies, and he did his part to help put a stop to it. In many ways, the story told in The Most Dangerous Man in America seems quaint: Johnson actually asked Congress for authority to bomb Vietnam? The press wasn’t rolling over like a lapdog in the wake of obvious propagandistic lies? (In fact, the media types who show up late in Ellsberg clearly possess some of the narcisstic sense of self-entitlement that has been our undoing of late. Ellsberg the civilian sweats blood and tears to get this 7,000-page document out in public, and the press poobahs act like they’re both the knowing gatekeepers and the heroes of the story.)
But just because Ellsberg’s brand of patriotism has fallen out of fashion in the era of Judith Miller and the chattering class doesn’t make this story any less relevant. It makes it more relevant. If we’re going to keep our young republic through its third century, we need more men and women of Ellsberg’s stripe. Men and women who will buck the trend, risk the ridicule and wrath of their well-connected peers, and stand up against injustice done under our collective name when they are party to it.
Presidents will get their due on this and every subsequent Presidents Day to come. But, now and again, it’s good to honor those patriots who, through non-violent principle and sheer, dogged determination, help to keep our leaders in check when the separation of powers fails — ordinary folks like you, me, and Daniel and Patricia Elllsberg.
“[L]ong before Hollywood discovered the Texan, he cut a wide swath through the House, always playing the roguish ladies’ man and macho militarist…[His] frequent, much more sober-styled partner was Democratic Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania powerhouse who chaired the defense subcommittee so important to CIA funding for the Afghan cause. And the fact that both have died now within days of each other punctuates the end of a major chapter for the House left behind.“
I like Saving Private Ryan as much as the next guy, but this, in a word, is ridicky-goddamn-diculous. Apparently, our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are routinely outfitted with sniper rifles etched with New Testament verse. “Trijicon confirmed to ABCNews.com that it adds the biblical codes to the sights sold to the U.S. military. Tom Munson, director of sales and marketing for Trijicon…said the inscriptions ‘have always been there’ and said there was nothing wrong or illegal with adding them. Munson said the issue was being raised by a group that is ‘not Christian.’“
Newsflash: Given that we’re currently engaged in multiple wars and are strongly trying to avoid any appearance of being involved in any sort of anti-Muslim Crusade, arming our soldiers with “Jesus rifles” and crafting bible-thumping war reports for the Commander-in-Chief isn’t just catastrophically stupid. It’s basically writing the Al Qaeda recruiting posters for them.
Update: Also, “They started it!” is not an appropriate response to this dismal revelation.
Update 2: Trijicon stands down — Jesus rifles are hereby discontinued, most likely because of quotes like these: “General David Petraeus also addressed the scopes this morning, calling the matter ‘disturbing and a serious concern for me.‘”
“Twice he was captured and escaped, once by back-flipping over a snow bank and running off into the woods before his guards could use their weapons. A third time, surrounded by the Gestapo at a maternity hospital in Oslo where he had set up a transmitter in a chimney, he shot his way to freedom with a pistol.” Via a friend, Knut Haugland, WWII resistance fighter and last surviving member of the Kon-Tiki expedition, 1917-2010.
We may “play” Call of Duty nowadays, but this guy lived it. “He particularly objected to the word ‘heroes’ in the title. ‘I never use that word about myself or my friends,’ he told BBC4 Radio in 2003. “We just did a job.” Referring to the glider crashes and the killing of the survivors, he added: ‘Forty-one men were killed, and it could have been avoided. Because of the loss of life, you shouldn’t glorify the story.’“Update, and via several Twitterers: Also passing very recently, another unbelievable survivor of WWII: Tsutomu Yamaguchi, 1916-2010. “On August 6, 1945, he was about to leave the city of Hiroshima, where he had been working, when the first bomb exploded, killing 140,000 people. Injured and reeling from the horrors around him, he fled to his home — Nagasaki, 180 miles to the west.“
Crazy. He’s like a real-life Pariah for the Atomic Age. “‘I think it is a miracle,’ he told The Times on the 60th anniversary of the bombings in 2005. ‘But having been granted this miracle it is my responsibility to pass on the truth to the people of the world. For the past 60 years survivors have declared the horror of the atomic bomb, but I can see hardly any improvement in the situation.’“
“‘There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,’ he told an aide, before adding, ‘Or a rape.’” Another round of newly-released Nixon tapes sheds more light on the dark and troubling imaginings of the 37th president. “‘What I really think is deep down in this country, there is a lot of anti-Semitism, and all this is going to do is stir it up,’ Nixon said…’It may be they have a death wish. You know that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.’” Class act, this guy.
“It’s a debate that the Bush administration never seriously had in the seven years following the post-9/11 invasion. Now, by contrast, in the wake of three major strategic reviews, Obama is extending and deepening the discussion of Afghanistan, because the outcome of this debate may set the course of American foreign policy for the remainder of his presidency.” Counter-terrorism (CT) or counter-insurgency (COIN)? In Slate, Fred Kaplan discusses the major decision on Afghanistan before Obama this week.
Update: “‘We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future,’ Obama said. ‘That is the goal that must be achieved.’” The president announces our new Af-Pak strategy. Sounds like the COINS won out. Update 2: Or did they? Call it CT-plus.
Next up on the weekend bill, Danny Boyle’s sadly overrated Slumdog Millionaire. (Yes, I know I said I’d be skipping this one, but it just fit too perfectly between two other movies I was trying to see that day. Besides, fear is the mind-killer and all that.) Now, lest anyone think I just went into the film with a closed mind, I see movies all the time that I expect to be lousy and discover in fact to be really good. (Letters from Iwo Jima and In the Valley of Elah come to mind.) Still, while I suspected I might have to grit my teeth through some of the more implausibly “romantic” parts of Slumdog, I never expected that I’d be so bored by it.
Partly a Dickensian travelogue through the horrors of Mumbai slum life, partly a generous heaping of third-world-despair pr0n leavened with a very first-world cherry on top (A game show can change your life!), Slumdog Millionaire is in essence a feel-good, less resonant version of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. If you can remain relatively ambivalent about cartoonish, over-the-top villains, characters who make random decisions solely to further the plot, a lot of chase scenes set to (admittedly catchy) bhangra, and, of course, a thoroughly implausible saccharine-sweet ending, Slumdog Millionaire may be more up your Mumbai back-alley than it was mine. For everyone else, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Make no mistake: As cloying as Little Miss Sunshine at times, this is really the Crash of this year’s Oscar crop (and, very possibly, the worst million-related Best Picture winner since Million Dollar Baby in 2004.)
Slumdog Millionaire begins, improbably enough, with a torture scene. Having gotten within one question of the big payday in India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, our hero Jamal (Dev Patel, an appealing presence) has been strung up at the local police precinct in Mumbai and hooked to a rusty car battery. His crime? Why, cheating, of course — there’s no way an itinerant slum kid and chaiwalla (tea carrier) could’ve known all the answers…could he? Since Jamal won’t break under the juice, the local sergeant (Irrfan Khan, the most recognizable actor in the film for western audiences) gives him a chance to recount his story. And what a story it is, involving religious riots and narrow escapes and rape and child mutilation and brotherly betrayal and swimming through a river of feces…uh, did I mention this was a feel-good movie?
As it turns out, the torture scene that starts the film is both a feint and a taste of things to come. It’s a feint because, however grisly the opening, Slumdog ultimately plays out in a very different world than it originally suggests, one where bad guys invariably get their comeuppance, love conquers all, and the truth really does set you free. People have been using the “Dickensian” label to compliment this film as a social novel of the city of Mumbai, but, to be honest, it works both ways. The villains of the piece, gangsters and orphan-nabbers and such, are cartoonish enough to make Fagin and Bill Sykes blush. Like any number of Dickens’ supporting casts, most of the characters are paper-thin and plot-determined (I’m thinking particularly of Jamal’s brother, who waxes on and off from scene to scene depending on what the story requires of him.) And the movie takes some ridiculous jags throughout — the last few scenes, for example — that reminded me of nothing more than ole Pip’s jailbird benefactor in Great Expectations. Yeah, it’s Dickensian alright, and not in a good way.
In any event, that kick-off torture scene works as foreshadowing too, as it turns out that Jamal has learned the answer to every single question (in order, to boot) as a side benefit of experiencing something truly nightmarish in his life. What is the name of Lucy Van Pelt’s younger brother? Why, I dressed up as Linus on that same Halloween the house burned down. Who’s the 27th president of the United States? That’s funny, a guy with a William Howard Taft t-shirt shot my dog. Even notwithstanding the screwed up moral economy of this notion — don’t fret if god-awful things happen to you, you might just win some money from it some day! — and the weird voyeurism involved in this story — oof, third world poverty is grotesque and horrifying, isn’t it? But don’t worry, we give the kid a happy ending! — it all gets to be a bit ridiculous over time. I mean, thank god Jamal didn’t get any questions about astronomy, or the poor kid might’ve gotten walloped by a meteor.
Are there things I enjoyed about Slumdog? Well, yes. Like all of Danny Boyle’s films (Trainspotting, The Beach, Sunshine) it’s sleek and propulsive and well-made. As I said above, Patel, Khan (a.k.a. India’s own Chiwetel Ejiofor), and a few others are engaging here. And I particularly liked the scene where Jamal gets fed an answer by the show’s host (Anil Kapoor)…sort of. But, as for the rest of it, I found myself looking at my watch more often than not. For those of you who’ve seen the film, I think Slumdog Millionaire could’ve at least “stuck the landing” for me if, in the final scene, Latika had answered the phone, told him she was safe, she loved him, etc. etc., and then they both happily blew off the final question. So Jamal didn’t get the money, but he got the girl, and wasn’t that what he was in it for anyway? But, as it ends here — have your cake and eat it too, Jamal — it just reminded me once again how stilted, manipulative, and implausible this movie turned out to be. And by the time an impromptu Bollywood number broke out with the credits, I had my very own bhangra-scored running scene…out the door.
“The good news is that, seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks and nearly three years after the resumption of full-scale war with the Taliban, we are finally beginning to formulate a strategy — and we have officers in place who think strategically. As history shows, however, smart generals and shrewd strategists don’t necessarily yield victory — especially in Afghanistan.“
As the incoming administration correctly looks to reprioritize Afghanistan, Fred Kaplan summarizes the current situation in our “other” war, and the potential pitfalls ahead. “[T]here is a paradox: More U.S. troops are needed to provide security to the Afghan people; but these troops may, at the same time, fuel the insurgency — which will require more troops, and on the cycle goes.”
“‘If you think of this as sort of a combination of [the hunt for] Eric Rudolph, who was the Olympic bomber, and the movie ‘Deliverance,’ multiplied by a factor of 10, that’s really what you’re focusing on in trying to find bin Laden,’ said Robert Grenier, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan.” Also high on the foreign policy to-do list for President-elect Obama: bringing the war on terror back to Osama bin Laden.
Alas, despite Dubya’s occasional bouts of half-hearted bluster, it seems the bin Laden trail may well have gone ice-cold over the past few years, while we’ve been focused on Iraq. “Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer, told CNN he’s talked to ‘a dozen CIA guys who’ve been on the hunt for him, and half of them told me they assumed he was dead, the other half said they assumed he was alive, but the key word here is assume. They don’t know.’…[Commander of special operations at Tora Bora Dalton] Fury says the best route for the president-elect to take would be to change the dialogue about bin Laden…He believes taunting the al Qaeda leader may force him to prove he’s relevant and, in the process, lead the United States right to him.“