Rewriting the history about the Iraq war – The US warmongers start hedging

The best indicator that the current Iraq policy has failed is that in the US, many former gung-ho and giddy war advocates have now decided that the war was a mistake and are now desperately casting around for excuses and planning where to lay the blame. And as they do, the policy itself descends into incoherence as people start making different claims about the causes for the war, the current status, and the reasons for the setbacks.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is always sensitive to which way the wind is blowing, said last week that “We’re on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working.” The Washington Post reported on October 5, 2006 that “The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee [Senator John Warner] yesterday offered a stark assessment of the situation in Iraq after a trip there this week, saying that parts of the country have taken “steps backwards” and that the United States is at risk of losing the campaign to control an increasingly violent Baghdad.” And a senior US State Department official said in an interview with al-Jazeera on October 23, 2006 that the world was “witnessing failure in Iraq” and that “I think there is great room for strong criticism, because without doubt, there was arrogance and stupidity by the United States in Iraq.” Although the last person later said that he had “seriously misspoken,” it is clear that he must have been representing a significant point of view within the government.

The always astute commentator Billmon analyses the latest moves by the Bush administration to deflect attention from its Iraq failures by commissioning a “study group” headed by former Secretary of State James Baker to come up with “options” but even Baker characterizes the situation in Iraq as a “helluva mess.” Billmon finds that the leaks from the Baker group provide a good example of the vapidity of the current “debate” about what to do about Iraq.

This is just one of the more extreme example of the mental silliness that, in extremis, seems to have grabbed the entire American foreign policy elite by the brain stem. It’s an exercise in sputtering incoherence, in which people who’ve spent most of their professional lives rehearsing their talking points in the green room suddenly discover they have absolutely nothing meaningful to say. But the media echo chamber abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature does, and so we’re getting a lot of verbiage that basically adds up to nothing.

This nothing is then labeled “the Iraq policy debate.”

The current debate as to whether the US should “stay the course” or “cut and run” is obsolete. New York Times columnist Frank Rich argues that perhaps the decision to leave Iraq has already been made and that it is being held off until the elections in order to avoid harming Republican candidates. I am not so sure. After all, the only things that seem to be still on schedule in Iraq are the building by the US of the world’s largest embassy and permanent military bases. Those do not look to me like the actions of a government that is about to leave soon. In fact, on this issue there is evidence to take Bush at his word and I am confident that he is committed to staying there until his term of office ends and make it even harder for his successor to withdraw. When Bush talks about “completing the job” in Iraq, the job he is referring to is his presidency, not anything concerning “victory” in Iraq, whatever that might mean.

But what is clear is that as far as the pundits are concerned, they are now past discussing “cut and run” or “stay the course” and are clearly in the “run and blame” stage.

Perhaps the most brazen attempts at rewriting history come from those pro-war agitating pundits who now have come around to the idea that the war was a mistake. While they grudgingly concede that they were wrong about the war, they are now faced with the problem that they don’t want to concede that the people who opposed the war from the beginning were right. They have thus begun this elaborate choreographed dance designed essentially to make the case that that although the war has not turned out the way they predicted it would, they were yet right earlier when they supported the war and are also right now when they think it is a bad idea, while those who opposed the war from the outset were wrong then and are still wrong now.

In other words, these armchair warriors claim that they were wrong for the right reasons while those of us who opposed the war were right for the wrong reasons. They assert that they have now come around to thinking it was a bad idea after carefully weighing the facts, while those of us who always thought it was a bad idea are simply irrational oppositionists.

The reason for this carefully staged turnaround is so that when they begin beating the drums of war for the next country on the list to be invaded (Iran? North Korea? Syria?), they will once again be taken as “serious” analysts whose words should be listened to. They are trying to achieve this turnabout by rewriting history and ascribing facts and opinions to their opponents in order to support their position.

For example, some warmongers try to ignore the rationale that was originally given for the invasion of Iraq, that it was on the verge of unleashing mushroom clouds of nuclear weapons. Instead we are now told that the invasion was a noble attempt at bringing democracy to that Middle Eastern country. This changed rationale allows them to portray themselves as advocates for expanding democracy and freedom and to falsely characterize those who opposed the war as people who had contempt for the people of Iraq and either did not care about their democratic rights or condescendingly felt that Iraqis were not ready for democracy.

If some person brings up the pesky question of the missing WMDs, this is responded to by saying that “everyone believed that Iraq had WMDs” and that it was a genuine and universal mistake caused by receiving “faulty intelligence.” Thus they themselves cannot be personally faulted. They like to think of themselves as hard-headed realists who were misled by faulty intelligence while antiwar activists are portrayed as naïve and clueless peaceniks who do not really understand sophisticated ideas of geopolitics, terrorism, intelligence gathering and foreign policy but just happened to be right about WMDs by accident.

Take for example, one-time war enthusiast Jonah Goldberg. He has now made an about-face and wrote on October 19, 2006:

The Iraq war was a mistake.

I know, I know. But I’ve never said it before. And I don’t enjoy saying it now. I’m sure that to the antiwar crowd this is too little, too late, and that’s fine because I’m not joining their ranks anyway.
. . .
Truth is truth. And the Iraq war was a mistake by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003.

Bt the main point of his column is not to apologize for his past support and advocacy for a disastrous policy that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives but to assert that those who argued against the war were wrong! I like the phrase “truth is truth” because he then goes on to make a series of false statement about those who opposed the war. The first one is his failure to acknowledge that many of us did know then what he claims he only got to know now.

He ignores the fact that there was plenty of evidence that there were no WMDs to be found. Scott Ritter, a member of the inspection team, had been saying so repeatedly. UN weapons inspection chief Hans Blix had found nothing and his reports had said so. Colin Powell’s speech at the UN with his “evidence” had been examined immediately by the overseas press and his claims about the aluminum tubes and Iraq’s biological weapons capabilities and factories had been widely discounted in the rest of the world. This was well known and understood by large numbers of people.

Let us also not forget that millions of people worldwide took to the streets to oppose the war. They were not simply mindless peaceniks. They were people who rightly felt that either the war was wrong on grounds of law and morality or that no convincing evidence had been provided that Iraq was an imminent threat or both.

In the debate over the Iraq invasion, it is clear that it was the antiwar forces who were the hard-headed realists, and the pro-war forces who were living in a world of delusion, creating stories they wanted to believe to justify actions they wanted to take.

They should not be allowed to rewrite that history to serve their ends.

Next: Painting antiwar activists as mere partisans

POST SCRIPT: Lancet study of Iraqi deaths

Les Roberts, one of the lead authors of the Lancet study that found over 600,000 Iraqi deaths as a result of the invasion answers questions about the study.

Rewriting the history of the Iraq war-The British take the lead

It seems to be clear even to some formerly pro-war agitators that there is no good outcome that can emerge from the Iraq war. The US military presence in that country is not able to fend off the insurgency against it and stop the spiral into violence. In fact, it is now becoming clear that the US presence is actually accelerating the process. The only question that seems to remain is whether the US withdraws from that country in a dignified way, seemingly voluntarily, or whether the withdrawal is a humiliating one, with US troops forced out by a motley combination of irregular forces.

The surest sign that the current US policy in Iraq is a failure is the repositioning of its most ardent advocates. They are beginning to carefully distance themselves from the very thing they once were cheerleaders for, trying to make sure that the inevitable collapse is not laid at their feet.

This process is more advanced and apparent in England. The British Army’s chief of staff has come right out and called for the withdrawal ‘soon’ of all British troops in Iraq, saying that being there is only making things worse.

The chief of the British Army has called for a pullout of British troops from Iraq “sometime soon” and said that post-invasion planning for that war was “poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning.”

Gen. Richard Dannatt told London’s Daily Mail newspaper that he had “more optimism” that “we can get it right in Afghanistan.”

Dannatt said that Britain’s continued presence in Iraq had made the country less secure.
Britain should “get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates security problems,” he told the newspaper in an interview published Thursday.

Although this was a deliberate slap at his boss Tony Blair, the British prime minister’s authority has been so eroded by this war that rather than reprimand the general for publicly undermining him, he had no choice but to agree, while trying to put the best face on Dannatt’s words. Tony Blair, like George Bush, has to have realized that the only thing left for him personally is to wait out the time until he leaves office and leave it to his successor to try and salvage something out of the wreckage that he and Bush have created.

Lord Guthrie, a former British defense chief of staff and described as Tony Blair’s ‘most trusted military commander’ stuck the knife in him even further, charging that even the planners for the invasion of Afghanistan were “cuckoo”. He said:

Anyone who thought this was going to be a picnic in Afghanistan – anyone who had read any history, anyone who knew the Afghans, or had seen the terrain, anyone who had thought about the Taliban resurgence, anyone who understood what was going on across the border in Baluchistan and Waziristan [should have known] – to launch the British army in with the numbers there are, while we’re still going on in Iraq is cuckoo

Some pro-war voices in Britain have begun to distance themselves from blame by saying that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were good ideas and could have been successful but were botched by the ham-handedness of the American implementation. But Matthew Parris writing in The Times of London says that this convenient scape-goating of the US is wrong headed and that the wars themselves, hatched by the neoconservatives (both in the US and England), were wrong in principle and doomed to failure from the beginning.

It is no small thing to find oneself on the wrong side of an argument when the debate is about the biggest disaster in British foreign policy since Suez; no small thing to have handed Iran a final, undreamt-of victory in an Iran-Iraq war that we thought had ended in the 1980s; no small thing to have lost Britain her credit in half the world; no small thing — in the name of Atlanticism — to have shackled our own good name to a doomed US presidency and crazed foreign-policy adventure that the next political generation in America will remember only with an embarrassed shudder.
. . .
The strategy failed because of one big, bad idea at its very root. Your idea that we kick the door in. Everything has flowed from that.

We were not invited. We had no mandate. There were no “good” Iraqis to hand over to. We had nothing to latch on to, no legitimacy. It wasn’t a question of being tactful, respectful, munificent, or handing sweets to children. We were impostors, and that is all.
. . .
The former hawks of press and politics now scramble for the status of visionaries let down by functionaries. This is a lifeboat that will not float. Let these visionaries understand that occupation is always brutal and usually resisted; that occupying armies are always tactless, sometimes abusive and usually boneheaded; that in the argument between hands-on and hands-off you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; and that the first, original and central cause of the Iraq fiasco was not the bad manners of this or that poor, half-educated squaddie from Missouri, nor the finer points of this or that State Department doctrine of neocolonial administration.

The reason for failure was not the post-invasion strategy. It was the strategy of invasion. Blame the vision, not the execution.

The process of rewriting history that Parris describes as being attempted in Britain is also being attempted in the US. The fact that even war supporters here have realized that the war has been a colossal blunder with no good end in sight can be seen in the way that the various players are now retreating from formerly held positions of cheery optimism and are now carefully trying to rewrite history to make sure the blame does not fall on them.

Next: Attempting to rewrite history in the US.

Stupid young men tricks

As readers of this blog must have gleaned by now, I tend to be very wary of blanket generalizations and stereotyping. These tend to be harmful because the differences within groups are usually vastly greater than the differences between groups, making comparisons between individuals in different groups largely meaningless. But there is one generalization of which I am getting more and more convinced and that is the following: All men between the ages of 15 and 25 are idiots.

Ok, that may be a little too strong. But it definitely seems to be the case that men within that age range they have very little idea of the possible negative consequences of their actions.

Recent events have cemented this view. Here are some examples:

Exhibit A:

Howard McFarland Fish, 21, a U.S. citizen from Connecticut and a college student LaFayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania “was detained Friday after customs agents found what they suspected was dynamite in his checked luggage.”

He was returning from Buenos Aires. In addition to the dynamite, he had a blasting cap, a homemade fuse and a quarter-pound of ammonium nitrate. And why did he do this?

“The passenger said he had been exploring mines in Bolivia and purchased the dynamite as a souvenir.” (my emphasis).

Although the authorities feel that Fish is not involved with terrorism, he has been charged with breaking security laws and could face up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

How can any one in their right mind, in these days of almost paranoid fear and security, even think of taking dynamite on board a plane as a souvenir? The only explanation is that Fish is an idiot by virtue of age.

Exhibit B:

A 20-year-old grocery store clerk who authorities say amused himself by posting prank Internet warnings of terrorist attacks against NFL stadiums was arrested Friday on federal charges that could bring five years behind bars.

Jake Brahm of Wauwatosa, Wis., was accused of writing messages that said terrorists planned to set off radioactive “dirty bombs” this weekend at football stadiums in seven cities, including Cleveland. He admitted posting the threat about 40 times on various Web sites between September and Wednesday, authorities said.

Apparently Brahm was having some sort of contest with a friend to see who could post the most scary notice on the internet.

Exhibit C: Myself.

I cannot help but feel a sense of empathy with Fish and Brahm because when I was in that same age range, I was also an idiot. (Some might argue that I still am, but that does not negate the point I am making here.) I recall doing things at that age that now horrify me.

For example, when I was in high school, my friends and I repeatedly went out on a nearby lake in a small leaky rowboat. The boat did not have any life jackets and we could not swim. None of us were even experienced oarsmen and spent much of our time going around in circles. The lake also had snakes and alligator-like monitor lizards that could be up to five feet in length and there were occasions when some in the boat were alarmed by their presence nearby and rocked the boat violently, trying to get away. It would not have taken much to capsize the boat and we would all have been done for.

When I was in college, I also recall how three of us would ride on my friend’s Vespa scooter, which barely had room for two, or two of us would ride on my other friend’s moped which really could only seat one, with the passenger sitting on tiny rack over the rear wheel. We did not have helmets and Sri Lankan roads were notorious for being congested and full of bad drivers. An accident could have easily happened that could have either killed or maimed us.

Why did I do these things which, looking back, were indubitably crazy? I have no excuse to offer and can only plead insanity by virtue of age.

What is worse was that I did not even think of the things I did as particularly dangerous. I suspect that Fish and Brahm, like me, never gave the slightest thought to the possible dangers of their actions and its adverse consequences.

And the behavior gets worse when young men are in the company of other young men, which seems to have a multiplier effect on stupidity. As someone once said, if you look closely, just before a young man does something particularly stupid, his words are likely to be “Hey guys, watch this!”

Do men have a special idiocy gene that gets turned on at 15 and then gets turned off at about the age of 25?

Maybe this is why military recruiters target this age group. They are the ones who are willing, even eager, to sign on to risk death by being sent to wars at the whim of older men, and to even think of this as ‘adventure’. If armies were restricted by international treaties to not have soldiers under the age of 25, we might have far smaller armies and fewer wars.

POST SCRIPT: Bizarro cartoon

The Tuesday Plain Dealer had this funny Bizarro cartoon, illustrating the point I was making on that very same day.

bizarro.jpg

Negotiating with terrorists

Recently the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels (the official name being the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE) broke down and there has been a rapid escalation of violence with large numbers of casualties on both sides and, inevitably, civilians bearing the brunt of it and being forced to flee their homes.

The US government has been trying to get the warring parties to desist from fighting and get back to the negotiating table, and two senior State Department officials have gone to the region to try and move the negotiation process along.

The United States has said that it strongly supported peace talks between Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers as there was no military solution for the conflict in the island nation.
But the US also asserted that it would not deal with the rebels who use reprehensible and bloody tactics to kill innocent people.

“We believe that there is no military solution for this kind, and we are strong supporters of negotiations,” Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told a round table of South Asian journalists.

Meanwhile Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, said that “hostilities must cease and both sides need to exercise maximum restraint.” He went on:

“We are pleased that the government and the LTTE are committed to peace talks to go to Geneva and to begin discussions again.”

“We think it is important to discuss all the issues. It is also important to begin a process that can lead to a serious negotiation, and eventually, to a political solution with legitimate interest of all the communities: of Tamils, Muslims of Sinhalese,” Mr. Richard Boucher told the press.

“It can be accommodated with a unitary Sri Lanka.”

Accepting that a military solution was not likely to occur shows a sense of realism, and encouraging talks and negotiations are worthy goals. The reason I highlight them is because the Tamil Tigers have been designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. Hence these actions seem to be in contradiction with the oft-stated US government policy of never negotiating with terrorists or with so-called state sponsors of terrorism.

I have never agreed with that policy. You should be willing to talk with anybody because that is the only way you get to understand your opponents and it may even lead to a non-violent solution.

But it looks like the US policy applies only to selected groups of terrorists. Or perhaps the US government does not talk to certain ‘terrorists’ not out of any lofty principle, but because it serves their own political interests.

POST SCRIPT: Privacy? We don’t need no stinkin’ privacy!

Here’s a wonderful and short animated cartoon about the NSA wiretapping of phones.

And the sycophancy prize goes to . . .

Some time ago I wrote about the laughably feeble attempts to portray George Bush as some sort of intellectual giant. I mentioned John Hinderaker who had written: “It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.”

Now White House press secretary Tony Snow tries to better Hinderaker. The New York Times, reporting on a speech he gave quotes him about his boss, says: On the intellectual acumen of his boss: “He reminds me of one of those guys at the gym who plays about 40 chessboards at once.”

This is pathetic. Other commenters have wondered what kind of gym Snow goes to where people get exercise by playing chess. My question is why are these people trying so hard to do the impossible? Rather than being someone who makes Gary Kasparov quake, it is more likely (as Atrios says) that Bush “constantly has to be reminded the “horsey” moves in an “L” shape,” and is completely baffled by the mysterious ‘castling’ move.

The Bush team once had a fairly successful thing going with portraying Bush as a down-to-earth, plain-spoken man who did not have much use for book learnin’. Who had the bright idea that he needed to be reinvented as the heir to Einstein?

The job of president does not require you to be very smart. That is not Bush’s problem. His problem is that he is not curious, has poor judgment, is unrelentingly stubborn, petty, and cruel, and seemingly does not want to hear anything disagreeable. Those are not the qualities of which great leaders are made. The reason is that such qualities in a person in a leadership position inevitably attracts around him those who are adept merely at currying favor by saying things that flatter the boss.

Tony Snow’s other comments also show how much such people love just to be in the presence of people they think are powerful and will suck up shamelessly to achieve that. The same news report on his speech says:

Yesterday,” Mr. Snow declared, “I was in the Oval Office with the president ——”
He cut himself off, took a perfectly calibrated three-second pause and switched into an aw-shucks voice for dramatic effect: “I just looove saying that! Yeaaah, I was in the Oval Office. Just meeee and the president. Nooooobody else.” The crowd lapped it up.

I find this kind of thing nauseating. It is one thing to admire someone and appreciate the opportunity to meet them. But Snow seems to be less like a close political advisor and more like a twelve-year old in the presence of a sports idol or someone having a crush on a music icon. It is amazing that there are actual grown ups who feel like this about anyone at all. No wonder there are so many people willing to toady up to Bush by telling him just what he wants to hear so that they can continue to remain in his presence.

Any leader who is surrounded by such sycophants is doomed to disaster. Is it any surprise that Bush is clearly the front-runner in the race for the title of worst US president ever?

But once the sycophancy virus grabs hold of any administration, it spreads rapidly throughout the body and this one does not stop just at the White House. According to a news report:

The top US general defended the leadership of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying it is inspired by God.

“He leads in a way that the good Lord tells him is best for our country,” said Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Rumsfeld is “a man whose patriotism focus, energy, drive, is exceeded by no one else I know … quite simply, he works harder than anybody else in our building,” Pace said.
. . .
“He comes to work everyday with a single-minded focus to make this country safe,” said [Navy Admiral James] Stavridis who was a senior aide to Rumsfeld before taking on the Southcom job.

“We’re lucky as a nation that he continues to serve with such passion and such integrity and such determination and such brilliance,” said Stavridis, 51.

It is getting truly sad when professional senior military officers are reduced to such public groveling before their bosses. And Pace is the very person whom the rank and file in the military must depend on to give the political leadership the unvarnished facts so that they can make good decisions. What does it say about the military when its top leader turns into a toady?

But on the bright side, we finally know how so many bad decisions were made by Rumsfeld about the Iraq occupation and why things are in such a mess there. It’s all god’s fault. The buck stops in the sky.

POST SCRIPT: Losing hearts and minds

There is a powerful 8-minute video Iraq-The Real Story by the London Guardian photographer Sam Smith and produced in conjunction with the BBC. It captures the futility of what is going on in Iraq: the fear and weariness and boredom of the US troops dutifully trying to carry out a hopeless mission, and the inevitable breakdown of their efforts at winning ‘hearts and minds’ of the people of the country they are occupying.

I was shocked to see how the US troops, when they round up people for questioning, write numbers on their foreheads, and make them squat in the sun while they are being interrogated.

I was amazed that there is no one with the US military who has even the remotest knowledge of the mistakes made by colonial occupiers in the past because this kind of behavior is typical of the contempt displayed by colonial forces for the people they were governing. It is precisely this kind of petty humiliation that produces seething resentment and long lasting anger against the occupying force, not only by the people directly subjected to the treatment but by everyone who witnesses it or hears of it.

Those who believe that the day will come soon when “the Iraqis stand up so that the US can stand down” are going to be disheartened by this video. It seems as if the very Iraqi forces that the US is training and nurturing as their surrogates are also aiding the insurgents. And we should not be surprised.

Emotional reactions to Darwin

There is no doubt that Darwin’s ideas about evolution by natural selection carry a huge emotional impact. For many people the idea that “we are descended from apes” is too awful to contemplate and is sufficient reason alone to dismiss any claim that natural selection holds the key to understanding how we came about. (Of course, we are not descended from apes. The more accurate statement is that apes and humans share common ancestors, making them our cousins, but even this refinement does not take away the stigma that supposedly comes with being biologically related to animals such people consider inferior.)

This unease about being biologically linked to other species is widespread and transcends any particular religious tradition. In Sri Lankan rural areas, one would frequently see monkeys on trees by the side of the road. As children when we were passing them, almost invariably someone would point them out and say things like “Your relatives have come to see you.” Similarly, if one said that one was going to visit the zoo, this would also result in the question as to whether one was going to visit one’s relatives. This kind of humor among children was commonplace, and reflected a reflexive instinct that humans were superior to all other animal forms, and reinforced the belief that some sort of special creative process must have been at work to produce us.

But if the thought of being related to apes gives some people the creeps, imagine how much worse it will for them to realize that as we go farther back in evolutionary time, we are cousins to all sorts of life forms that might make people even more squeamish.

Reading Richard Dawkin’s book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) I found that I myself was not immune from that kind of emotional reaction, even though I have no problems intellectually with accepting natural selection and all its consequences.

For example, I had little difficulty emotionally accepting that the apes and monkeys are my cousins, partly because, I suppose, that idea has been around for a long time and I have simply got used to it. Also a common ancestor to the humans and apes would not look very different from us now and is easier to envisage. But as the evolutionary clock went back in time, and I started imagining what my deep ancestors looked like, I had a variety of reactions.

The idea that I had common ancestors with dogs and cats and horses (those evolutionary branches separated from the human branch at about 85 million years ago (Mya)) did not cause me any problems. I kind of liked the idea that my dog Baxter and I can trace our separate lineages back to a time when we both had a common ancestor. It is clear that our common ancestor would not look much like present-day humans or dogs, but I cannot imagine what it might have looked like apart from having some of the common characteristics shared by dogs and humans, like being four-limbed, warm-blooded, invertebrates.

More annoying was the realization that the branch that led to the rodents like rats, squirrels and rabbits only separated from the human branch at 75 Mya, meaning that those animals that we consider vermin and would not think of having in our houses, actually have a closer relationship to humans (since our common ancestors lived more recently) than those whom we love and welcome into our homes as pets, like dogs and cats.

Somehow, the emotional reaction of finding oneself having common ancestors with dignified and majestic animals like whales (85 Mya) and elephants (105 Mya) is positive while being linked to things like snakes (at 305 Mya) felt kind of icky.

A hard bridge to cross (again I mean emotionally) was accepting that frogs and toads and salamanders shared a common ancestor with me at about 340 Mya, perhaps because I share the common perception that these animals are slimy.

Going back further, I had little negative emotional reaction to realizing that I had a common ancestor with sharks at 460 Mya but the thought that flatworms and I were related at 630 Mya was harder to take. I suppose that this is because sharks are usually perceived as admirable and graceful (if dangerous) animals while I have never liked worms, seeing them as somehow disgusting. Perhaps I will now have warmer feeling towards them, seeing that we are relatives.

Once I got over the emotional hurdle of being able to accept the fact that worms and I have common ancestors, the rest was pretty easy to accept, perhaps because the earlier life forms that our common ancestors took had to be so different that I could not really relate to them (let alone imagine them) in any way. Thus it was a breeze to accept that I am related (however distantly) with sponges, bread moulds, amoeba, and bacteria.

It was amusing to keep monitoring my emotional reactions as I read about the backward evolutionary journey. But like most difficult journeys, taking that first step is the hardest. And now I have a better understanding why many religious people simply cannot take that first step and acknowledge that chimpanzees are our cousins, in fact are the closest cousins we have in the animal kingdom, with our common ancestor living just 6 million years ago. Because once you accept that, then you have embarked on journey whose inevitable end is that you end up as one with a bacterium. It is hard to think of you being created in god’s image after that.

Thus I am somewhat sympathetic to those people who find Darwin’s ideas hard to stomach and desperately seek to find a more palatable alternative. However, I think their task will prove hopeless, since the basic tenets of evolution are here to stay and so we may as well get used to it.

POST SCRIPT: Ken Miller talk

Ken Miller, biologist at Brown University, expert witness at the Dover, PA “Panda Trial,” and author of the book Finding Darwin’s God will explain why every college student must vote.


”Trick My Vote: Science, Intellectual 
Courage, and the Battle for America’s Soul”
Ford Auditorium, Allen Memorial Medical Library
11000 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland
11:30 a.m. -1:00 p.m.

The talk is free and open to the public.

Call (216) 368-8961 for more information.

I have heard Miller before and he is a very good public speaker. He is a practicing Christian (Catholic), a staunch defender of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and an opponent of efforts to include intelligent design creationism in science curricula.

Fighting words

When the dismal history of the Iraq war is finally written, a special chapter of shame should be prepared for the those pro-war columnists and bloggers who, sitting comfortably in their homes and offices in the US, cheerfully egged on this administration to greater and greater heights of folly, cheering the deaths of innocent Iraq and Afghan civilians, downplaying the losses of US troops, attacking all those who opposed the war as terrorist sympathizers, and acting as if they themselves were courageous fighters instead of merely being vocal spectators. Not for nothing have these people been dubbed by blogger Tbogg as the “101st Fighting Keyboarders.” The 101st Fighting Keyboarders (also known as ‘chickenhawks‘ or ‘Keyboard Kommandos’) have an overwhelming sense to constantly reiterate that the fact that they are urging other people to fight is a sign of their own bravery.

The chapter will be long because there is a long list of such people, such as Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds, John Hinderaker, Charles Krauthammer, and the list goes on.

As an example of the kind of delusion at work here, take Jonathan Miller writes about Hugh Hewitt who was interviewing Time magazine’s Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware on his radio show. I think most people would concede that Baghdad is a very dangerous place to be for anyone, and reporters who are assigned that beat are showing considerable personal courage. Many of them get irritated with people back in the US who insinuate that they are living it up in comfort there while failing to report the “good” news, thus undermining support for the war. When Ware tries to remind Hewitt that the people in the US have little idea of what life is really like in Iraq, Hewitt takes offense.

The third-tier talk show host [Hugh Hewitt] strapped on his kevlar helmet and bravely reported from the front lines of the terror war while interviewing Michael Ware, a Time Baghdad correspondent:

MW: Let’s look at it this way. I mean, you’re sitting back in a comfortable radio studio, far from the realities of this war.

HH: Actually, Michael, let me interrupt you.

MW: If anyone has a right…

HH: Michael, one second.

MW: If anyone has a right to complain, that’s what…

HH: I’m sitting in the Empire State Building. Michael, I’m sitting in the Empire State Building, which has been in the past, and could be again, a target. Because in downtown Manhattan, it’s not comfortable, although it’s a lot safer than where you are, people always are three miles away from where the jihadis last spoke in America. So that’s…civilians have a stake in this. Although you are on the front line, this was the front line four and a half years ago.

I can just imagine how stunned Ware must have been to hear that someone in the Empire State building in Manhattan thinks that he too is bravely facing the war on terror, because a few years ago this was three miles away from what was once the front lines. Jonathan Miller continues:

I am in awe of Mr. Hewitt’s bravery. And just a few days ago, we hear, Hugh actually got on a PATH train that went RIGHT THROUGH Ground Zero. Somehow, some way, he survived.

As funny as the above exchange is (“I’m on the front lines, too!”) it opens a useful window onto the soul of the Keyboard Kommandos. See, when Hugh Hewitt is ensconced in a cushy office in the Empire State building, he actually imagines himself as a brave soldier on the front lines in the Universal Conflict Against the Evildoers. When he is on the airplane, he is an intelligence officer against fanatical Islamofascists.

These war-loving bloggers are constantly seeking a vicarious thrill. Having committed themselves to an immoral, illegal, and ultimately foolish and disastrous war, they now have to act as if they are also bearing some of its consequences. This is why they are the first to publicize and exaggerate, with an almost palpable shiver of delighted dread, any sign of anything that could be construed as a potential terrorist attack in the US. This enables them to swagger as if they are on the front lines of the war on terrorism while knowing full well that the odds of them personally being hurt or killed by a terrorist attack are minuscule. None of us really loses sleep at night worrying about whether a bomb is going to blow us up. None of us goes to work or school each day worrying if we will be killed by a bomb or sniper before the evening comes. And yet, this is how the people in Iraq live.

These Keyboard Kommandos were wrong about practically everything concerning the Iraq war but are still spewing out nonsense today. It is amazing that anyone still listens to them, let alone gives them prominent public platforms to spread their nonsense.

Paul H. Henry has created a beautiful piece of work that can form the basis of the future chapter to be written on the 101st Fighting Keyboarders. His War of the Words is a five-part series (each about 6 minutes long), with a new part to appear every Thursday. It takes the format of a Ken Burns-type PBS documentary and is very well done. The first three parts are up and can be seen here.

Slaughter in Iraq-5

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)
In the part 4previous post I stated that peer-reviewed papers have prima facie credibility and if you want to challenge their veracity, the burden shifts to you to do so. If you want to discredit it, you have to produce contrary data or detect a serious flaw in the methodology, or show that there has been an error in the calculation.

None of these things has been done, at least as far as I have seen. All that the people condemning the study have said is that they do not believe it. I wonder if they have even read the study before condemning it. Take for example, this report from Norman Solomon, about how the media and pundits respond to such estimates. He points out that the present large numbers of casualties were predicted by reputable groups before the war but were dismissed by the media.

While we stare at numbers that do nothing to convey the suffering and anguish of the war in Iraq, we might want to ask: How could we correlate the horrific realities with the evasive discussions that proliferated in U.S. news media during the lead-up to the invasion?

In mid-November 2002 – four months before the invasion began – a report surfaced from health professionals with the Medact organization and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. “The avowed U.S. aim of regime change means any new conflict will be much more intense and destructive than the [1991] Gulf War,” they warned, “and will involve more deadly weapons developed in the interim.”

At the time, journalists routinely gave short shrift to that report – treating it as alarmist and unworthy of much attention. The report found that “credible estimates of the total possible deaths on all sides during the conflict and the following three months range from 48,000 to over 260,000. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000 deaths. Additional later deaths from postwar adverse health effects would reach 200,000. … In all scenarios the majority of casualties will be civilians.”

During a live TV debate on Dec. 3, 2002, I cited the report’s estimates of the bloodshed ahead and then asked: “What kind of message is that from the Bush administration against terrorism and against violence for political ends?”

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer turned to the other guest: “Jonah Goldberg, do you accept that assumption in that report on these huge casualties, including a lot of children, if there were an effort to go forward with so-called regime change in Baghdad?”

Goldberg, a pundit with National Review Online, replied: “Frankly, I don’t. I mean, I haven’t looked at the exact report, and I think that there are a lot of groups out there that inflate a lot of these numbers precisely because they’re against the war no matter what.”

Notice that Goldberg had not even read the report, or shown any indication that he had at least read the critiques of knowledgeable people. This kind of behavior is typical for these people. All they do is speculate based on political biases. For Goldberg, the report numbers are too large for him to stomach, so the authors must be having a political ax to grind.

In showing such a cavalier disregard for actual reading documents or citing sources, Goldberg is following in the footsteps of his hero George Bush. Bush said he did not believe the numbers and cited General Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, as supporting him. It is true that Casey said “That 650,000 number seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I’ve not seen a number higher than 50,000. And so I don’t give it that much credibility at all.” But where did Casey get his own number? According to an AFP report, when questioned as to his source: “Casey said he did not know where he had seen the estimate of 50,000 or whether it was produced by the military.” In other words, he simply pulled it out of the air. It is this kind of flim-flam that is practiced by these people, hoping that the public will not notice that they have not provided any substantive critique of the 655,000 figure.

Other people have challenged the latest Lancet as “obviously” political because it was released just before the 2006 elections, and the 2004 study was also released before the elections that year.

I find this a curious argument. The Iraq war is perhaps the biggest issue of the day. Surely the voting public should have the best information on it when they vote for their leaders? It is in fact an obligation of the authors of such studies to try to release it in time for voters to evaluate the numbers and make decisions. The assertion that facts about the war and its consequences should not be given to voters is a bizarre idea. It has appeal only to those who genuflect at the thrones of power, who feel that the “leaders” are all wise and knowing and we, the public have no right to the facts, but must simply defer to their judgments.

The claim of unfair bias can only be justifiably leveled if the authors had (say) obtained very low numbers of deaths (which would have pleased the Bush administration) and deliberately withheld it until after the election. Or if they had cut corners in their data collection and analysis and rushed to print with a flawed paper purely in order to embarrass the administration. But such arguments have not been made by anyone. Instead the critics point to the timing of the release as if that were a sufficient argument against it.

A final point. While a lot of the focus has been on the number of violent deaths, I was disturbed to read in the report that about 53,000 deaths were “due to non-violent causes were estimated to have occurred above the pre-invasion mortality rate, most of them in recent months, suggesting a worsening of health status and access to health care.” These deaths rose above the pre-war levels only in 2006. This is a very disturbing but predictable sign. Wars are not only violent, they also let loose pernicious silent killers. They destroy water and sewage systems, they disrupt farming and agriculture, food distribution networks break down, medicines become scarce, hospitals suffer from lack of supplies and electricity, and people cannot earn enough to get food or medicines. All these things lead to serious health problems which last for a long time and whose effects are hard to reverse.

There will come a time when active warfare comes to an end in Iraq. People’s attention will shift away. But the breakdown of the health, sanitation, and food networks will remain, becoming a silent killer that will enact its cruel will on the Iraqi people for a long time to come.

Slaughter in Iraq-4

(See part 1 and part 2 and part 3.)
The critics of the Lancet study have had just one main argument against it: incredulity. They are like the intelligent design creationists who, because they cannot imagine that life as we know it could have evolved, simply assume that a creator must exist without even looking at the evidence.

Some try and make the case that if the level of deaths are really so high, the media would have reported it. The authors of the study are not idiots. They have considered this question in the light of what we know from other conflicts.

[The figure of 655,000] is far greater than reported by various media accounts and morgue tallies. This is not surprising, as reporting of events from incomplete sources cannot, in any statistically meaningful way, be converted into national death rates. Other than Bosnia, we are unable to find any major historical instances where passive surveillance methods (such as morgue and media reports) identify more than 20% of the deaths which were found through population-based survey methods.

Richard Horton, editor of Lancet writes:

[T]he reason for the discrepancy between these lower estimates and the new figure of 650,000 deaths lies in the way the number is sought. Passive surveillance, the most common method used to estimate numbers of civilian deaths, will always underestimate the total number of casualties. We know this from past wars and conflict zones, where the estimates have been too low by a factor of 10 or even 20.

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Eldan Goldenberg refers to a critique of the Lancet study put out in a press release by IraqBodyCount. The main thrust of their comments is that for such a large number of deaths to go under the radar implies massive breakdown of the system. But the Lancet editor seems to be saying that that kind of official undercounting is the norm is such situations, not the exception. It is just that this feature is not highlighted in other situations. Again, the IraqBodyCount critique is not of the study itself but based on the feeling that the figure is ‘unreasonable.’ But with research, we cannot adjust figures based on the reasonableness. All that surprising results require of their authors is careful scrutiny of the methodology to see if systematic errors have distorted the results. Researchers do not have the luxury of adjusting figures

However, the authors of the Lancet study, like any serious scholars, realize that their study has limitations and reflect on them and their possible effects.

Any collection of information is open to potential bias, and has limitations. All efforts were made to randomly select the households to be included in this survey, but it may have been that households with more deaths or households with fewer deaths were over represented in this survey. The finding that the 2006 results are very close to the 2004 household results suggests this did not occur. As in all surveys, a larger sample would have likely have produced a result with greater precision, although this would have exposed the survey teams to higher risk. In the future, when safety has improved, a large survey will be needed to determine in detail the total implications of the conflict for the people of Iraq.

The households were selected for this survey according to population size we obtained from the Ministry of Planning, but this may not have fully reflected migration within or outside the country. However, it is unlikely that this would have occurred at a scale necessary to affect findings.

Perhaps the greatest potential limitation to this type of survey is the problem people have recalling the date of specific events, especially over several years. Again, the close similarities between the 2004 and the 2006 data suggest this was not a major problem. Households could have concealed deaths from the interviewers, though by promising anonymity to households we tried to minimize this risk. We are certain that households did not report deaths which did not occur, as 92% of households had death certificates for deaths they reported.

Another reason to have confidence in this study lies in the very process of peer review. When papers are submitted to scientific journals, the referees cannot and do not verify the actual data. What they look to see is whether the study has followed good methods and the authors have explored all reasonable alternative explanations before reaching their conclusions. This is especially done when the results are so surprising, as in this case. The editors of Lancet, clearly mindful of the explosive political nature of this paper, sent it to four referees and you can be sure that those referees checked to make sure proper procedures were followed. This does not mean that the results could not be wrong. Peer review has failed in the past to detect errors and is not designed to detect outright fraud. But it does mean that peer-reviewed papers have prima facie credibility and if you want to challenge their veracity, the burden shifts to you to do so. If you want to discredit it, you have to produce contrary data or detect a serious flaw in the methodology, or show that there has been an error in the calculation. I have not seen any criticism along these lines as yet.

The authors of the study also describe how the data was collected.

The two survey teams consisted of two females and two males each with one male supervisor. All were medical doctors with previous survey and community medicine experience and were fluent in English and Arabic. All were Iraqis.

Those of us who wonder how such studies based on surveys can be carried out within a war zone have to give credit to the courage and dedication of the people who did this. I know that people who try to collect accurate information in war zones run great personal risks because what warring factions want to avoid most is any accountability and they resist efforts by people to collect data. This is why fact-finders in conflict zone deserve our greatest respect and admiration. These ten brave Iraqis did not want their names revealed for fear of retribution. The fact that the ten Iraqi doctors were willing to risk their lives to try and get information about their ravaged country did not want to be identified testifies to the dangerous situation they were in and I for one share the sentiments of the study authors when they write: “We express our deepest admiration for the dedicated Iraqi data collectors.”

POST SCRIPT: Dawkins and Colbert-What could be better?

Watch a highly entertaining interview of Richard Dawkins by Stephen Colbert about Dawkins’ new book The God Delusion

Slaughter in Iraq-3

(See part 1 and part 2.)

When I looked at the Lancet study, saw who had done it, how it had been done, and where it had been published, I quickly gained confidence in their number of 655,000 excess deaths since the invasion of Iraq..

The study was based on a survey done between May and July 2006 by a joint team of people at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the School of Medicine of Al Mustansiria University in Baghdad using standard methods. These excerpts from their paper details how they collected the raw data and their analyses.

In this survey, sites were collected according to the population size and the geographic distribution in Iraq. The survey included 16 of the 18 governates in Iraq, with larger population areas having more sample sites. The sites were selected entirely at random, so all households had an equal chance of being included. The survey used a standard cluster survey method, which is a recommended method for measuring deaths in conflict situations. The survey team visited 50 randomly selected sites in Iraq, and at each site interviewed 40 households about deaths which had occurred from January 1, 2002, until the date of the interview in July 2006. We selected this time frame to compare results with our previous survey, which covered the period between January 2002 and September 2004. In all, information was collected from 1,849 households completing the survey, containing 12,801 persons. This sample size was selected to be able to statistically detect death rates with 95% probability of obtaining the correct result. When the preliminary results were reviewed, it was apparent three clusters were misattributed. These were dropped from the data for analysis, giving a final total of 47 clusters, which are the basis of this study. (my emphasis)

The designers of the study seemed to have gone to some lengths to make sure that they had a truly random sample.

A series of completely random choices were made. First the location of each of the 50 clusters was chosen according the geographic distribution of the population in Iraq. This is known as the first stage of sampling in which the governates (provinces) where the survey would be conducted were selected. This sampling process went on randomly to select the town (or section of the town), the neighborhood, and then the actual house where the survey would start. This was all done using random numbers. Once the start house was selected, an interview was conducted there and then in the next 39 nearest houses.

In order to determine trends in the death rate , they split the time up into three periods and the results they obtained were as follows:

For the purpose of analysis, the 40 months of survey data were divided into three equal periods—March 2003 to April 2004; May 2004 to May 2005, and June 2005 to June 2006.

Following the invasion the death rate rose each year.

• Pre-invasion: 5.5 deaths/1000/year
• March 2003-April 2004: 7.5 deaths/1000/year
• May 2004-May 2005: 10.9 deaths/1000/year
• June 2005-June 2006: 19.8 deaths/1000/year
• Overall post-invasion: 13.2 deaths/1000/year
. . .
The [pre-invasion] rate of 5.5 deaths/1000/year will be considered as the “baseline” crude death rate, making the assumption that without conflict this rate would have continued at this level up to the present time, or even dropped somewhat (most likely).

The post-invasion excess death rate was:

• March 2003-April 2004: 2.6 deaths/1000/year
• May 2004-May 2005: 5.6 deaths/1000/year
• June 2005-June 2006: 14.2 deaths/1000/year
• Overall post-invasion: 7.8 deaths/1000/year

As there were few violent deaths in the survey population prior to the invasion, all violent deaths can be considered “violent excess deaths.”

The post-invasion violent death rate was:

• March 2003-April 2004: 3.2 deaths/1000/year
• May 2004-May 2005: 6.6 deaths/1000/year
• June 2005-June 2006: 12.0 deaths/1000/year
• Overall post-invasion: 7.2 deaths/1000/year

Percentage of all (not just excess) deaths due to coalition forces:

• March 2003-April 2004: 14%
• May 2004-May 2005: 21%
• June 2005-June 2006: 16%
• Overall post-invasion: 7.2 deaths/1000/year

Deaths due to unknown forces:

• March 2003-April 2004: 3.2 deaths/1000/year
• May 2004-May 2005: 6.6 deaths/1000/year
• June 2005-June 2006: 12.0 deaths/1000/year
• Overall post-invasion: 7.2 deaths/1000/year

Conclusion

While the actual value may be somewhat higher or lower than this number, the precision of these results is adequate to conclude that loss of life in this conflict has been substantial. (my emphasis)

The authors compare with other major conflicts and rightly conclude that the final figure of over 600,000 excess deaths puts the Iraq war right up there with the others in the scale of violence.

As with other recent conflicts, the civilians of Iraq bear the consequence of warfare. In the Vietnam War, 3 million civilian died; in the Congo, armed conflict has been responsible for 3.8 million deaths; in East Timor, an estimated 200,000 out of a population of 800,000 died in conflict. Recent estimates are that 200,000 have died in Darfur over the past 31 months. Our data, which estimate that 654,965 or 2.5% of the Iraqi population has died in this, the largest major international conflict of the 21st century, should be of grave concern to everyone.

What should be of especial concern is that the number of people killed by the actions of the US and coalition forces is so high. Overall 31% or 186,300 of the violent deaths were attributed to their actions and 13% or 78,130 of the violent deaths were due to air strikes which are still going on at a high rate. For those people who still cling to the fond hope that modern armaments, “smart bombs”, and “surgical” strikes have minimized the deaths of civilians, these appalling numbers should make for sober reading. We cannot blithely dismiss this level of death as “collateral damage”, the unfortunate and accidental by-product of a well meaning invading force.

But don’t hold your breath that the media is going to give the Lancet study the attention it deserves. As Norman Solomon points out:

American news outlets tend to be rather cavalier about the suffering at the other end of the Pentagon’s missiles, bombs and bullets. And there’s a strong tendency to brand documented concerns as unfounded speculation – a media reflex that suits war-crazed presidents just fine.