Inviting David Brooks to My Class

The Zionists are prisoners of a bad dream: they must first free themselves, break free from the prison in which they can only play the part of tormentors, if they and especially their Palestinian victims are to live normal lives.

M. Shahid Alam

On January 12, the New York Times carried an article by David Brooks on Jews and Israel. It so caught my eye, I decided to bring its conservative author to my class on the economic history of the Middle East. I sent my students the link to this article, asked them to read it carefully, and come to the next class prepared to discuss and dissect its contents.

My students recalled various parts of the NYT article but no one could explain its substance. They recalled David Brooks’ focus on the singular intellectual achievements of American Jews, the enviable record of Israeli Jews as innovators and entrepreneurs, the mobility of Israel’s innovators, etc. One student even spoke of what was not in the article or in the history of Jews – centuries of Jewish struggle to create a Jewish state in Palestine.

But they offered no comments about Brooks’ motivation. Why had he decided to brag about Jewish achievements, a temptation normally eschewed by urbane Jews. In my previous class, while discussing Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, I had discussed how knowledge is suborned by power, how it is perverted by tribalism, and how Western writers had crafted their writings about the Middle East to serve the interests of colonial powers. Not surprisingly, this critique had not yet sunk in.

I coaxed my students, asking them directly to explore if David Brooks had an axe (or more than one) to grind. Was there an elephant in the room they had missed? What was the subtext of the op-ed?

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In the case of the Vietnam war it took long after the war had ended for the first critical films to come out. Americans in this respect still aren’t as bad as the French, who have yet to own up to their crimes in the colonies. Even today the best they can offer is oblique references to colonial depredations (take for example the awful Flanders). The French were so sensitive about their colonial legacy in Viet Nam even in 1979 that Francis Ford Coppola had to edit out a long section from Apocalypse Now lest it upset judges at the Cannes Film Festival.

However, the Iraq war has been unique insofar as it has produced some excellent cinema even as it has continued to grind on. Yet, most of these films have failed at the box office. Some of them perhaps understandably so: War Inc., Redacted, Lambs for Lions and Battle for Haditha were well-meaning, for example, but didn’t work so well as films. In the Valley of Elah, on the other hand, had all the right elements: an a-list cast comprising of multiple Oscar winners, an Oscar-winning writer and director, a superb screenplay; and yet, it was a complete commercial failure.  So was Grace is Gone; and Rendition. So was another — perhaps one of the best — which also had all the right elements: Stop-Loss. The film is based on the experiences of director Kimberley Peirce’s own brother, and it makes news stories such as the following from the Guardian rather predictable.

An Iraq war veteran has been arrested and charged with threatening to kill his officers after recording a violent rap protest song and sending it to the Pentagon.

Marc Hall, a junior member of an infantry unit, wrote the song in protest at the US army’s unpopular policy of involuntarily extending soldiers’ service and forcing them to return to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Hall completed a 14-month spell in Iraq last year, expecting to be discharged next month, but was told he would have to go back to Iraq under the policy known as stop-loss.

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Robert Greenwald on Afghanistan

AfghanRobert Greenwald of Brave New Films speaks about Afghanistan on Bob McChesney’s excellent Media Matters.

Robert Greenwald and McChesney discuss Afghanistan

Robert Greenwald is a producer, director and political activist. Greenwald is the founder and president of Brave New Films. Under Greenwald’s direction, Brave New Films has produced a series of short political videos, including the Fox Attacks and Real McCain campaigns. Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation is currently producing Rethink Afghanistan, a groundbreaking documentary being released online in real-time; the film features experts from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. discussing the United States’ flawed strategy in Afghanista

U.S. stirs a hornet’s nest in Pakistan

Eric Margolis presents an overly idealized portrait of the Pakhtun but is otherwise astute in his analysis. One thing however needs to be made clear: while Margolis is right to point out that the government fails to make a distinction between Taliban and Pakhtun, the actual Taliban constitute a very small and radical minority within the larger Pakhtun nation. In the past they were completely marginal. If today they have turned into a political force requiring large scale military operation to tame them it testifies to the fact that the grievances run deeper and the way this operation has been conducted it will only confirm the view that this is a war on the indigent Pakhtuns, and is a war wage for the US. Despite the Pakistani elite’s embrace of the war as ‘our war’, let us not forget that it has taken the US invasion of Afghanistan, the drone attacks across the border, and the Pakistani military’s indiscriminate operations to turn a domestic nuisance into a national predicament.

PARIS — Pakistan finally bowed to Washington’s angry demands last week by unleashing its military against rebellious Pashtun tribesmen of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) — collectively mislabelled “Taliban” in the West.

The Obama administration had threatened to stop $2 billion US annual cash payments to bankrupt Pakistan’s political and military leadership and block $6.5 billion future aid, unless Islamabad sent its soldiers into Pakistan’s turbulent NWFP along the Afghan frontier.

The result was a bloodbath: Some 1,000 “terrorists” killed (read: mostly civilians) and 1.2 million people — most of Swat’s population — made refugees.

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Rumsfeld’s roving band of executioners

Afghan villagers sift through the rubble of destroyed houses after the coalition air strikes in the Bala Baluk district of Farah province, Afghanistan
Afghan villagers sift through the rubble of destroyed houses after the coalition air strikes in the Bala Baluk district of Farah province, Afghanistan

The Independent reports that US Marines Corps’ Special Operations Command, or MarSOC, which was created three years ago on the express orders of Donald Rumsfeld, was behind at least three of Afghanistan’s worst civilian casualty incidents, including the recent bombing in Bala Baluk, in Farah  which killed up to 147 people including more than 90 women and children. This news comes just days after the Special Forces Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, who was himself involved in the coverup of the death of Pat Tillman, was named to take over as the top commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan. His has prompted speculation that commando counterinsurgency missions will increase in the battle against the Afghan resistance.

According to the paper MarSOC faces opposition from within the Marine Corps and the wider Special Forces community with an article in the Marine Corps Times accusing the unit of bringing shame on the corps. The US Army commander in Nangahar likewise said he was “deeply ashamed” of the units behavior which is “a stain on our honour”. Apparently at the first sign of danger, these ‘special forces’ pansies panick and call in the airforce to bomb everything within sight. These are apparently the same skills that they are now imparting to the Pakistani military with, as we have noted, very similar consequences.

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Chalmers Johnson on the Cost of Empire

book cover
"The Bases of Empire", By Catherine Lutz, NYU Press, 356 pages

Why does the U.S. government maintain over 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilian employees in 909 military facilities in 46 countries and territories? How long can the American taxpayer support this far-flung force given the severely weakened economy? And why has there been no public discussion by the Obama administration over scaling back our imperial presence abroad? Chalmers Johnson seeks to explain.

In her foreword to “The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts,” an important collection of articles on United States militarism and imperialism, edited by Catherine Lutz, the prominent feminist writer Cynthia Enloe notes one of our most abject failures as a government and a democracy: “There is virtually no news coverage—no journalists’ or editors’ curiosity—about the pressures or lures at work when the U.S. government seeks to persuade officials of Romania, Aruba or Ecuador that providing U.S. military-basing access would be good for their countries.” The American public, if not the residents of the territories in question, is almost totally innocent of the huge costs involved, the crimes committed by our soldiers against women and children in the occupied territories, the environmental pollution, and the deep and abiding suspicions generated among people forced to live close to thousands of heavily armed, culturally myopic and dangerously indoctrinated American soldiers. This book is an antidote to such parochialism.

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Swat fighting threatens Pakistan army unity

The fighting between the Pakistani army and the Taliban in Swat valley can have great ramifications for the country.

If casualty figures rise to unacceptable levels, both from a military and a public point of view, the fear is that it could divide the army as well as the nation.

Al Jazeera’s Sohail Rahman reports from Islamabad.

Surviving Within: Helen Benedict and the harsh realities of women in the U.S. military.

“I’m more afraid of men [in my unit] that I am with the enemy.”

Those were the words that Helen Benedict heard from several female soldiers. The enemy was within. Since March of 2003, more than 160,500 women have served in Iraq. More women have fought and died during this war than in any other since World War II, yet they still account for one in ten soldiers. But behind their noble service and love for their country, many female soliders find themselves in virtual isolation among men. Their seclusion, combined with the military’s history of gender discrimination and the uniquely challenging conditions in Iraq, has resulted in a mounting epidemic of sexual abuse, physical degeneration, and emotional distress among many female soldiers.

Author Helen Benedict uncovers the harsh realities female soldiers face in her latest book The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq. Weaving together the poignant and grueling accounts of the war in Iraq, Benedict offers new insight into the lives of women in the military, before, during, and after the war. The Lonely Soldier was released last month by Beacon Press and I recently spoke with Benedict about her latest work.

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The Day of Bahr Moussa

UK’s retreat from Basra is ‘A historic day for Iraq – but not in the way the British want to believe,’ writes Robert Fisk.

One hundred and seventy-nine dead soldiers. For what? 179,000 dead Iraqis? Or is the real figure closer to a million? We don’t know. And we don’t care. We never cared about the Iraqis. That’s why we don’t know the figure. That’s why we left Basra yesterday.

I remember going to the famous Basra air base to ask how a poor Iraqi boy, a hotel receptionist called Bahr Moussa, had died. He was kicked to death in British military custody. His father was an Iraqi policeman. I talked to him in the company of a young Muslim woman. The British public relations man at the airport was laughing. “I don’t believe this,” my Muslim companion said. “He doesn’t care.” She did. So did I. I had reported from Northern Ireland. I had heard this laughter before. Which is why yesterday’s departure should have been called the Day of Bahr Moussa. Yesterday, his country was set free from his murderer. At last.

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