Can the curriculum at Hogwarts be called science?

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.

I have somehow completed another full year of blogging. Over the year I have made about 250 posts, written over three hundred thousand words, and had a total of about 750,000 hits. In the process of researching for the posts, I have learned a lot.

I would like to thank all the people who visited, read, and commented. It has been a real pleasure and I wish all of you the very best for 2007.)

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. This seems to be a good observation to apply to the magic that is practiced at Hogwarts. What seems to exist there is a world with highly advanced “technology”, operating under strict rules that the inhabitants know how to manipulate. The more mature wizards seem to easily produce consistent results with their spells while the novices mess around until they get it right. This is not very different from what we do in the Muggle world, except that we are manipulating computers and cars that are controlled by knobs and dials and switches and keyboards, while the wizards use wands and spells. It is not a mystery to other wizards how specific results are obtained and what is required to achieve those results is skill and practice.

What is intriguing is that while the experienced wizards and witches know how to manipulate the wands and words and potions to achieve results that seem magical to us Muggles, they do not really understand the rules themselves. Hey don’t even seem to be interested in understanding how their magic works. The classes at Hogwarts seem to be almost exclusively hands-on and practical, using trial and error methods, with no theory of magic. Hogwarts is more like a trade school, where they teach a craft. It is like a school of carpentry or pharmacy or boat making where you learn that “if you do this, then that will happen” without actually learning the underlying principles.

The world of Hogwarts is closer to the medieval world, where there were highly skilled craftsmen who were able to build cathedrals and ships without understanding the underlying science. Introducing modern knowledge and sensibilities into an earlier time period is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, and writers like Rowling, and Mark Twain with his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court do it well.

An interesting question to speculate on is whether the magic the students learn at Hogwarts castle would be classified as science today. If we go back to Aristotle, when he tried to distinguish science from other forms of knowledge he classified knowledge into ‘ know how’ (the ability to consistently achieve certain results) and ‘know why’ (the underlying reasons and principles for the achievement). It is only the latter kind of knowledge that he counted as science. The ‘know how’ knowledge is what we would now call technology. For example, a boat maker can make excellent ships (the ‘know how’) without knowing anything about density or the role that the relative density of materials plays in sinking and floating (the ‘know why’).

Trying to make the world of Hogwarts consistent with modern science would have been difficult. Rowling manages to finesse this question by making life in Hogwarts similar to life in the middle ages, with no electricity, computers, television, and other modern gadgets. Students at Hogwarts don’t use cell phones and instant messaging. In one book, this kind of anachronism is explained by Hermione saying, without any explanation, that electric devices don’t work inside Hogwarts. By artfully placing the reader back in a time when it was easier to envisage magic (in the form of highly advanced technology) being taken for granted in the world, and the tools of modern scientific investigation were unavailable, Rowling manages to avoid the kinds of awkward scientific questions that would ruin the effect.

Thus Rowling manages to avoid the science dilemma altogether by creating in Hogwarts what seems to be a purely ‘know how’ world. This enables her to let magic be the technology that drives the stories forward.

POST SCRIPT: John Edwards declares his candidacy

I tend to be a bit cynical about politicians from mainstream parties because both parties are pro-war and pro-business but John Edwards, who announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 2008, seems like a cut above the rest. In his announcement he said some encouraging things.

He pledged to “reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, combat poverty and global warming” and “he favored rolling back some of the tax cuts provided to wealthy Americans under President Bush as well as enacting new taxes on the profits of oil companies.” He also wants to guarantee universal health care for everyone.

He said that his 2002 vote to endorse the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and that “We need to reject this McCain doctrine of surging troops and escalating the war in Iraq. . .We need to make clear we’re going to leave and we need to start leaving Iraq.”

The issues he highlighted include “restoring the nation’s moral leadership around the globe, beginning in Iraq with a drawdown of troops; strengthening the middle class and “ending the shame of poverty”; guaranteeing health care for every American; fighting global warming; and ending what he called America’s addiction to oil.”

That’s not a bad platform on which to run. Here is his campaign website and below is a preview of his announcement.

If he gets the nomination and persuades Russ Feingold to be his running mate, that would be a ticket with real promise.

The problem with parallel worlds

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

Fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling who want to interweave the magical with the ordinary face some serious challenges. As long as you stay purely within the world of magic at Hogwarts, you can create a self-contained world obeying its own rules. But there is clearly some added drama that accrues when you can contrast that world with the world we live in, because that helps readers to identify more with the characters. Having wizards live among Muggles opens up plenty of opportunities for both comedy and dramatic situations. It also enables us to imagine ourselves in the story, to think that there might be a parallel world that we get glimpses of but do not recognize because we do not know what to look for. Maybe our neighbors are witches and we don’t know it.

The situation faced by authors like Rowling in coming up with a realistic scenario that convincingly weaves the magic and ordinary worlds is not unlike the problem facing religious people who believe in a parallel world occupied by god, heaven, angels, etc. For this parallel religious world to have any tangible consequences for people in the normal world, the two worlds must overlap at least at a few points. But how can you make the intersections consistent? How can god, who presumably exists in the parallel universe, intervene in the natural world and yet remain undetected? In a previous posting, I discussed the difficult questions that need to be addressed in making these connections fit into a coherent worldview.

In Rowling’s world, one connecting point between the magical and normal worlds is the pub The Leaky Cauldron whose front door opens onto the normal world and whose back has a gate that opens onto Diagon Alley, a parallel magical world. Another connecting point is at Kings Cross railway station where the brick wall between platforms nine and ten is a secret doorway onto platform 9 ¾, where the students catch the train to Hogwarts. A third is the house at 12 Grimmauld Place, and so on.

But this plot device of having gateways connecting the two worlds, while amusing, creates problems if you try to analyze it too closely. (This is the curse of many, many years of scientific training, coupled with a determinedly rationalistic worldview. It makes me want to closely analyze everything, even fiction, for internal logical consistency.)

For example, although platform 9 ¾ is hidden from the Muggles in some kind of parallel world, the train to Hogwarts somehow seems to get back into the real world on its way to Hogwarts because it travels through the English countryside. I initially thought that this countryside might also be in the parallel world, except that in one book Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying car, and they started off in the normal world. In another book we are told that Hogwarts is also in the Muggle world but that it is charmed so that Muggles only see what looks like a ruined castle. We also see owls carrying mail between Hogwarts and the normal world. So clearly there must be many boundaries between the magic and Muggle worlds. What happens when people and owls cross these other boundaries?

When I read the books, such questions are for me just idle curiosity. I like to see how the author deals with these questions but the lack of logical consistency does not really bother me or take anything away from my enjoyment of the books. Rowling is not sloppy. She respects her readers’ intelligence, and she gives the reader enough of a rationale for believing in her two-worlds model that we can be taken along for the ride. The logical inconsistencies she glosses over are, I think, unavoidable consequences of trying to create this kind of parallel universe model, not unlike those encountered by science fiction writers striving for plausibility. To her credit, she is skilful enough to provide enough plausibility so that the reader is not troubled (or even notices) unless he or she (like me) is actually looking for problems.

But the problems Rowling faces in constructing a two worlds model that is logically consistent is similar to that faced by people who want to believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with the physical world. Since Rowling is writing a work of fiction and nothing of importance rides on whether we accept the inconsistencies or not, we can just close our eyes to these minor flaws and enjoy the books.

But the same cannot be said for the similar problems that confront two-world models that underlies most religious beliefs that have a god, because we are now not dealing with fiction but presumably real life. And being able to construct a two-worlds model (with gateways between the spiritual and physical worlds) that is logically consistent is important because it may determine whether people believe or disbelieve in a god.

It was my personal inability to be able to do this that finally convinced me to become an atheist.

POST SCRIPT: Going to church

Homer Simpson makes the case for not doing so.

The secular world of Harry Potter

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word “god” used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called “intelligent design creationism” (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into that curriculum too.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the entire wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP – The name of the ‘intelligent designer’ revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called ‘intelligent design creationist’ (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their ‘intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was prety obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.

Harry Potter’s school life and mine

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called ‘day-scholars’ which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate ‘commuters.’
[Read more…]

Harry Potter’s school life

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from writing new posts. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, starting with those about the Harry Potter books. It was announced recently that the title of the final book in the series is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Original posts will begin again on Wednesday, January 3, 2007. Until then, season’s greetings and best wishes for 2007 to everyone.)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that ‘Frank Richards’ was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children’s books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.
The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys’ schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls’ boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don’t, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT: Holiday laughs

Comedian Eddie Izzard gives some background on the Christmas and Easter holidays.

A new way, same as the old way?

There might still be options that are good for the Iraqi people but to achieve them we would have to forego the idea that the US can continue to occupy and control that country. One such option is to begin withdrawing all US forces immediately in as orderly a manner as possible while spending a huge amount of money to help rebuild the destroyed infrastructure of that country.

The reasoning behind this argument is that although there are no guarantees that it will succeed, people who have something of their own that they would regret losing are more likely to want to preserve it. Nothing more surely drives people to destruction and violence than the feeling that there is no hope for the future and that things are just going to get worse. This is what results in people being apathetic and fearful about, or giving tacit support to, the armed groups roaming the country wreaking havoc.

If people have jobs and functioning schools and hospitals, can walk in the streets and see signs of progress and chances of a better life, they are less likely to want to join the militias and death squads that are destroying people and things, and more likely to establish mechanisms for maintaining peace and security. All the money that is currently being spent on keeping the US military in Iraq in a futile quest for establishing permanent control would be far better used in improving the actual lives of Iraqi people.

But it is clear that this suggestion is not going to be accepted since withdrawing troops from Iraq is seen by Bush as ‘losing’ and he will not allow it, whatever the consequences.

But the reality is that Bush’s options are disappearing fast. I don’t mean options for ‘winning.’ Those have long since completely ceased to exist except in the fantasies of the pro-war extremists. What is disappearing for Bush are the options to avoid being crowned with the dubious honor of the US president who decided to wage a disastrous and elective war against a weak country and lost.

I suspect that at some point, probably late 2005 or early 2006, the realization must have sunk in to even the most fervent optimists in the administration that there was no victory to be had in Iraq. All the ‘turning points’ that had been so eagerly looked for, such as elections, the formation of a national government, one supposedly key military offensive after another, had all come and gone and the situation continued to deteriorate.

The only two options that remained were to expand the war to other countries like Iran and Syria in a desperate ‘double-or-nothing’ type gamble or to tread water until 2008, trying to persuade the American public that the situation in Iraq was better than it seemed, so that the problem could be handed over to the next president who would then be branded with the stigma of being the person who ‘lost’ Iraq.

What the Iraq Study Group report did was suddenly narrow that window of options. While Bush has plainly signaled that he is going to ignore the group’s recommendations, what he finds is that the report has suddenly shifted the whole debate about Iraq in a way that leaves him very little room to maneuver.

The problems raised for Bush by the ISG report become immediately apparent from its Executive Summary. Starting with its opening sentence that destroys the idea that things are better in Iraq than they seem (“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.”), it then urges scaling down military actions (“By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.”), ramping up diplomacy with Syria and Iran (“Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively.”) and ends by linking the whole Iraq problem to the Arab-Israeli stalemate (“The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability.”)

All these points have been raised before. But until the ISG report came out, these ideas were dismissed as the ranting of extremists and defeatists. But since the ISG consists of solid establishment greybeards, the position they advocated has suddenly shifted this position from the fringes to the center, and has drastically narrowed the range of rhetorical options available to the White House. It should be noted that the ISG report was not calling for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq, providing further proof that the bipartisan goal is to have a permanent military presence in Iraq. So while the report can hardly be called radical, it still causes problems for the White House in several ways.

For example, the claim that things are great in Iraq but that the problem is that the media is not reporting the good news is no longer credible. The claim that things will get better soon is no longer believable. Just two months ago, when asked about how the US was doing in Iraq, Bush could assert that “absolutely, we’re winning” but this week his spokesman said that the White House is not going to answer that question anymore. The very next day, Bush answered the question anyway, implying that he approved of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace’s construction: “We’re not winning, we’re not losing.”

This last statement shows how desperate his rhetoric has become, essentially reduced to bluster. It makes him sound more and more like the Black Knight in the duel scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Black Knight, like Bush, is convinced of his own invulnerability saying: “I’m invincible. . .The Black Knight always triumphs.” Then after King Arthur chops off his arms and legs, leaving just his torso and attached head on the ground, the Black Knight says: “All right, we’ll call it a draw.” (See video of that scene here.)

Under pressure, White House has been forced to say that they will come up with a new plan. Originally this new plan was to be delivered in a speech by Bush before Christmas but now that deadline has been pushed into the new year because of the claim that his widely publicized ‘listening tour’ of various relevant government agencies at the Pentagon and State Department is taking longer than expected. It is curious that this business of listening is being portrayed by the White House as something to be applauded. Shouldn’t the president have been in constant discussions with these bodies all along about what to do about such an important matter as Iraq?

The fact that a president who boasts that he is ‘the decider’, who knows instinctively (and divinely?) what is right and wrong and what to do, who disdains policy wonkery, now proudly says that he is listening to all and sundry about what to do in Iraq suggests to me that this is just another stalling tactic until a new public relations program is put into place to buy yet more time. The problem is that it raises the expectations of the speech to unrealistic levels. After all these extended and high level discussions, Bush cannot go on TV and say that he has decided to not change anything. So any moment now we can begin to see an systematic effort to lower expectations, so that they can hope that even some minor changes in policy will be treated as if they were major moves.

At present, the ‘new thinking’ seems to be about how to find acceptable new wrapping for the same old policy. Even Donald Rumsfeld’s final memo on the war on November 6, 2006 dealt a lot with the problem of how to present the war to the public.

We have also heard about the choices between the “Go Big, Go Long, or Go Home” options proposed by a Pentagon study group.

“Go Big,” the first option, originally contemplated a large increase in U.S. troops in Iraq to try to break the cycle of sectarian and insurgent violence. . . That option has been all but rejected by the study group, which concluded that there are not enough troops in the U.S. military.
. . .
“Go Home,” the third option, calls for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was rejected by the Pentagon group as likely to push Iraq directly into a full-blown and bloody civil war.
. . .
The group has devised a hybrid plan that combines part of the first option with the second one — “Go Long” — and calls for cutting the U.S. combat presence in favor of a long-term expansion of the training and advisory efforts. Under this mixture of options, which is gaining favor inside the military, the U.S. presence in Iraq, currently about 140,000 troops, would be boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 for a short period, the officials said.

Perhaps test marketing of the clearly favored “Go Long” brand did not go well, because it has now been replaced by new buzzwords, the “surge” strategy, which looks a lot like “Go Long” but with a new name. Perhaps it was felt that the public, anxious to get out of Iraq, would balk at “Go Long” with its implication of a long-term commitment, but might buy “surge” with its suggestion of a quick rise and fall, a very brief engagement.

Those of us who lived through Vietnam have seen this before. General William Westmoreland kept asking for just a few more extra troops that would finally and quickly tilt the scales in that war. But once those troops went in, things did not get better, and yet they stayed. As a result of a repeated series of “surges” that flowed but never ebbed, the US ended up in 1968 with over half a million troops in Vietnam and still lost.

The dumping of Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary takes a little of the pressure off as people are usually willing to give a new person some time to figure out what is to be done. So that may buy about one Friedman Unit of time. Will the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates turn out to be another Clark Clifford (who replaced Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara in 1968) who came into office as an establishment war-hawk but then realized that the situation was hopeless and that it was time to pull the plug on that ill-fated war? Perhaps, but even if he does, Gates will have a tougher time pushing for de-escalation than Clifford had with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had by then already realized that Vietnam was a lost cause that had doomed his presidency, so much so that he had decided to withdraw his name from contention for re-election in 1968. Bush, on the other hand, still seems to be convinced that as long as US troops are still in Iraq, that means the US (and hence him too) has not lost.

In the end, the only concrete result of the ISG report may have been to cause the White House to deep-six the phrase “stay the course.” What the White House is probably doing now is searching for a new name for marginal changes in the old policy that will conjure up ideas of change and progress while allowing them to tread water for four more Friedman Units to tide Bush over until he leaves office in January 2009.

I suspect that in January 2007 we will hear Bush give a speech in which he announces “A New Way Forward” or “A New Direction” that will involve a new strategy called “surge”. Or use other words if these words have become stale by then or don’t test well with the public. And the main idea will involve an increase in troops because once you have eliminated the options of withdrawal (because Bush thinks it is synonymous with defeat), and keeping things the same (which has become politically untenable after all the expectations that have been raised), the only option you have left to show that you are doing something new when you don’t have any new ideas is to raise the number of troops, even though this move is unlikely to change anything.

And war supporters will urge everyone to be patient and wait for the ‘new’ strategy to show results. The key question is how many more FUs the public will accept.

POST SCRIPT: The Blasphemy Challenge

The gospel of Mark (3:29) says that god will forgive anything except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Rational Response Squad is offering a free copy of the DVD The God Who Wasn’t There, (which is a pretty good documentary by Brian Flemming on the lack of historical evidence for Jesus) to the first 1001 people who makes a video blaspheming the Holy Spirit and uploads it to their website.

It looks like they have a lot of takers who not only are not afraid of losing their immortal souls but seem to be having a lot of fun doing it. You can check out their videos.

What went wrong in Iraq?

So what went wrong with the US plans for establishing a client state in Iraq? When historians look back on Iraq, they may well point to two key decisions: the first was to not go through the tried and true method of instigating a coup by military officers friendly to the US, and then after making the decision to mount an invasion, making the fateful decision in the immediate aftermath to disband the Iraqi army and the Baathist administrative structure that was running the country.

With the army and the Baathist structures still in place, it might have been possible to maintain order and stability in those crucial first few weeks after the invasion, to provide the Iraqi people with the day-to-day security they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein but without the political repression. Then once an orderly transition was achieved, it may have been possible to hand over power to a client Iraqi government that would allow the US considerable influence, but without the Iraqi people feeling that they were being directly dominated by a foreign power.

But once the Iraqi military and administrative structure was summarily dismantled, like Humpty Dumpty it could not be put together again. With the levels of anarchy and civil war rising as a result of this power vacuum, this leaves the US in the current mess where it can neither stay nor leave without appearing to lose.

So who was responsible for that disastrous decision to disband the army and the Baathist structure? The actual order was given by Coalition Provisional Authority leader L. Paul Bremer but it seems like this was too big a decision to have been made on the fly by someone at his level. One has to suspect that it was signed off at the highest levels of government, at least by Rumsfeld and Bush, and going all the way up to Cheney.

But it has long been established that no one in this administration admits to any mistakes. We have never been told what they might have done differently knowing what they know now. With an almost religious certainty they insist that they made the right calls all the way down the line.

But this is belied by the fact that the rosy predictions of success in Iraq have proven to be tragically wrong. Consider these predictions, all made in 2003 prior to the war’s commencement:

* Feb. 7, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to U.S. troops in Aviano, Italy: “It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”

* March 4, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a breakfast with reporters: “What you’d like to do is have it be a short, short conflict. . . . Iraq is much weaker than they were back in the ’90s,” when its forces were routed from Kuwait.

* March 11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars: “The Iraqi people understand what this crisis is about. Like the people of France in the 1940s, they view us as their hoped-for liberator.”

* March 16, Vice President Cheney, on NBC’s Meet the Press: “I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . (in) weeks rather than months.”

Now that things have started to go terribly wrong, those who enthusiastically supported the war and still think it was a great idea initially placed the blame on the media or the feckless allies of ‘Old Europe” like France and Germany for not bailing the US out its mess (the latter being a curious charge since those countries predicted that invading Iraq would be a mess) but those attempts did not gain any traction.

Now they have split into two camps as far as assigning blame goes. There are those who say that the administration has bungled the conduct of the post-invasion occupation and now blame Rumsfeld and even Bush. (See here and here.) But others cannot bring themselves to turn on their idols, so their fingers are being pointed at either the Iraqi or American people.

The Iraqis are being blamed for being ungrateful wretches who are actually going to the extent of attacking the very troops who overthrew Saddam Hussein. Some of the people who blame the Iraqis are even calling on the US to teach especially the ungrateful Sunnis a lesson by throwing all its support to those Shia forces that are engaged in killing Sunnis. Of course, this kind of shallow thinking overlooks the fact that many of the Shia (such as the followers of Muqtada al Sadr) are also hostile to the US presence and have carried out attacks on the US. Also the Shia tend to be friendly towards Iran so backing the Shia forces actually strengthens Iran in the region, which is hardly consistent with the grand goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein as the first step in a sweep through the Middle East that had Iran as the next target.

Those advocates who suggest that since the Iraqis are so ungrateful the US should simply encourage them to kill each other also ignore the enormous debt that the US owes the Iraqi people. The US helped Saddam Hussein come to power and actively supported him during the time of his internal repressions and in his tragic war against Iran. The US instigated and controlled the sanctions against Iraq from 1991 that reduced Iraq from a prosperous and advanced society to an impoverished one by the time of the invasion in 2003, resulting in the deaths of an enormous number of Iraqis due to the lack of food and medicine and other basic services. And the US has now, by its invasion in 2003, created conditions of anarchy and lawlessness and an additional huge number of deaths, as was seen by the Lancet study.

Those who are snarling at the Iraqis and calling for them to be punished for their ingratitude remind me of the psychology of people who take out their rage on their helpless pets or on infants who don’t stop crying. There is something about seeing oneself as being very powerful and yet not being able to get others to do what you want them to do that drive some people into an impotent rage and lash out destructively.

The other tack that is being taken is to blame the American people. This has happened before, during Vietnam. When wars don’t go well, it is tempting for those in power to say that it is because the people did not support it enough. The war was a great idea, the political and military leadership was perfect, but the people somehow let them down.

Stephen Colbert quotes and then hilariously satirizes those who takes this route, saying: “American people, you are losing this war. . .American people, you should be ashamed! The President went off and bit off a big piece of the Middle East, and like an eagle, brought it back to the nest, and he’s regurgitating it into your mouths. Why won’t you swallow? When history looks back at the actions of this president and the decisions he made regarding this war, you will go down as the most incompetent American public of all time.”

Blaming the American public for defeat in Iraq by citing their lack of support does not really make sense since the loss in public support for wars (In Iraq as in Vietnam) usually occurs after the military campaign has gone sour. But what this argument seems to be hinting at is that even though the war is currently going really badly, so badly that the American public is fed up with it, there is something new that could be done that would dramatically change the tide of events, but cannot be put into practice because the public will not support this new push. The problem is that this brilliant new idea, often dramatically described as “one last shot” or “turning point” is never quite specified or is so outlandish (“Triple the number of troops in Iraq” or “Drop a nuclear bomb on Iraq/Iran so they know we mean business” or “Round up all the militants and throw them in prison or kill them”) that it falls outside the realm of reality. Pushing for ideas that are not likely to be accepted enables its advocates to position themselves to avoid blame since they can then say that if only their idea had been followed, the war could have been won. Keeping alive the vague idea that other options exist enable the warmongers to delude themselves that theirs were the right decisions, but were foiled by poor execution or lack of will.

The brutal reality is that there are no good options left in Iraq that would constitute a ‘victory’ in the sense that the Bush administration envisions. And this brings us to the current options that are being floated to ‘turn things around’ in Iraq.

Next: The battle for rhetorical supremacy

POST SCRIPT: Iraq petition

Here is an online petition that you can sign that calls for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

The grand US plan for the Middle East

One of the things that always puzzled me about the Iraq war was the decision that was taken immediately after the fall of Baghdad to disband the Iraqi army and send them all home. This was a radical break with past US policies because the standing armies of other countries have always been the key element of past US attempts at changing the governments of other countries.

It is no secret that the US military industry provides a vast amount of the hardware for foreign armies. A large fraction of the warplanes, tanks, ships, armaments, and the other paraphernalia that foreign armies love to accumulate are sold to them by the US. On one level, this can be seen as a huge taxpayer subsidy to the defense industry. Much of the US taxpayer provided ‘aid’ to other countries (and this also applies, on a smaller scale, to other major weapons suppliers such as Britain and France) comes in the form of funds that are designated for weapons purchases that have to be bought from the aid ‘donor’ countries. So essentially much of US taxpayer ‘aid’ money ends up with US defense contractors, by being used by the foreign military to purchase US-made weapons.

But there is more to this transaction that just money and weapons transfers. When a foreign military purchases US weapons, it allows the US to build links between the foreign armies and the US military. Their officers need to be trained to use the weaponry and so form links with US trainers, to the extent of coming for regular visits to the US (such as to the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA) and having US military and defense contractors visit those countries. The net result of such exchanges is the building of close relationships between the US and the foreign military, and this allows the CIA to relatively easily penetrate their ranks and either recruit agents or identify people they think would be sympathetic to US interests.

Having such links is valuable when the government of that country does things that the US strongly disapproves of because then the US can use those friendly officers to engineer a coup against the government and take over the reins of power. Since the military culture is to follow the command structure, the presence of a senior military person taking over the government enables the government to marshal the armed forces in support and crush any opposition to the coup by using brute force. The backing of the armed forces enables them to immediately take over the newspapers and radio and TV stations, arrest or kill opposition figures, and impose martial law and curfews until they have consolidated power over every aspect of that society.

This is what happened in Iran in 1953 when President Mossadegh was overthrown and Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) was brought in to rule, in Vietnam in 1963 when Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown by the military, in Indonesia in 1965 when President Sukarno was overthrown by General Suharto, and in Chile in 1973 when President Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet, just to name a few of the more recent cases. Many of the military officers who supported Pinochet were graduates of the School of the Americas.

This was such a smoothly working system that it is not clear why it was not repeated in Iraq when Saddam Hussein went against US interests. After all, Hussein himself had achieved considerable power (though not the leadership) as a result of a coup in 1968, and finally took over in 1979 after forcing the 1968 coup leader (and later President) Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr to resign. There is evidence that Saddam Hussein was himself supported by the CIA from the early 1960s until the first Gulf War in 1991.

So why did the US not go back to its old playbook and find a cadre of junior and senior Iraqi officers who were friendly to the US to stage a coup against Hussein? One possibility is that they tried to do this and failed. It may be that Hussein, himself a protege of the CIA, knew only too well how it operated and was able to ferret out those officers whom he perceived as potential threats and eliminated them.

Another possibility is that the US was after bigger fish this time and that it was not really that concerned with Iraq itself except as a gateway to the grander prizes of Iran and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Installing a puppet leader in Iraq via a military coup would merely give it control over that country’s oil supplies but would still leave Iran under a government the US did not control, Saudi Arabia in the hands of a friendly but unstable oligarchy, and Egypt with a future that was uncertain once the current strong man Hosni Mubarak dies or is overthrown or leaves office.

The ultimate goal may have been to achieve control over all these countries and though them the entire Middle East. At least this was the vision presented to the Defense Policy Board, “a committee of foreign policy wonks and former government officials that advises the Pentagon on defense issues,” that was headed by leading neoconservative Richard Perle in 2002 when it was briefed on this grand world view by Laurent Murawiec, a Rand corporation analyst who used to work for Lyndon LaRouche.

So perhaps it was this vision of Middle Eastern dominos (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt) falling one by one to US power and influence, giving the US total control of the world’s major oil reserves, and at the same time neutralizing all the potential threats to Israel, that led the US to abandon its old policy of coups to change disliked regimes and go for the big invasion of Iraq as a dramatic show of US power. This would also explain why the attempts to form a broad UN military coalition for the invasion of Iraq (like that done for the first Gulf war in 1991) were so half-hearted. This long-term strategy was meant to establish exclusive US control of the Middle East in order to control the destiny of rival economic powers, and thus having other major powers come along for the invasion of Iraq would not be desirable.

It is probable that this heady vision of remaking the political map of the world led the Bush administration to indulge in wishful thinking, to actually believe that they would achieve a quick victory in Iraq and be greeted as liberators, and that a grateful Iraqi public would welcome them and quickly set up a new government friendly to the US that would allow the US to maintain a huge military presence. With the crippling sanctions dismantled, the US would then be able to use Iraqi oil revenues to create a prosperous country, and that combination of US military power and rapid improvement in the lives of the Iraq people in a stable country with relatively free political structures would be the trigger for the people in neighboring countries to realize that they could have something similar. They would then also rise up against their own governments, confident that the massive US presence in nearby Iraq, along with the other major regional power Israel, would support them and deter their governments from retaliating with a brutal crackdown.

All this is admittedly speculation on my part, though not without evidence. But one can see how it could be a heady brew to a visionary with particular a type of ideology, such as the neoconservatives. Such ‘big picture’ people tend to see things in terms of the grand sweep of history. They are almost always so convinced and entranced by the magnificence of their own vision that they think that others will immediately embrace it too, and they do not want to listen to naysayers who see potential problems. They feel that they are on the crest of a wave of history that will sweep away all opposition, both domestic and foreign.

But if this surmise of mine is true, then that plan ganged seriously agley, as the poet Robert Burns might say.

Next: What went wrong with the grand plan?

The problem of Iraq

Now that the Iraq Study Group report [.pdf] has been delivered with great fanfare, there is a curious sense of anticlimax as various people ponder what is to be the next step in Iraq. As I suspected it would, the White House distanced itself from the report’s recommendations since it essentially repudiates the premises of its current policy.

It seems clear to me that what we are going to witness in the near future is not any substantive changes in policy but we will see changes in rhetoric, in the way that the war is packaged. Hence it is probably a good time to closely examine the rhetoric of the debate.

The president speaks repeatedly of not willing to listen to the defeatists and says that the US will stay until “victory” is achieved and “the job” is completed.
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Food and the politics of power

In the previous post, I suggested that as the competition for resources becomes more acute, it is likely that military force will be increasingly used in a brutally transparent manner in order to maintain the current inequalities in consumption rates. This was not simply a guess on my part. It is based on historical precedent.

In 1948, George Kennan of the US State Department wrote what has since become a famous memo outlining in frank and stark terms what he saw as the main issue facing the United States in its newfound post-world war II role as the dominant economic and military force. He was officially writing about Asia but his analysis extends beyond that.
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