Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Defending the dead

Babble on.

The Globe & Mail recently did a hack-job on the character of Pte Mark Graham, who was killed in Afghanistan earlier this year. Some of us are hacking back.

Babble off.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Imagine if he'd had a weapon

Babble on.

"They didn't get anything – except a bloody good hiding."

Who exactly? The four muggers who attacked a seventy-year-old former British soldier in Bielefeld, Germany, that's who (ht:FbL).

Picture for a moment the thrashing Douglas O'Dell could have unleashed if he'd been walking with a cane. The thought positively warms my heart.

Babble off.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Welcome to the woodshed, Mr. Akin

Babble on.

Mark Collins takes CTV reporter David Akin out back and absolutely thrashes him - to my thinking, deservedly so. In attempting to craft a 'balanced' story, David gives more weight to remarks and ideas that he well knows don't merit it. While this creates the illusion of balance, those who know the merits of both arguments see it for what it is: a mirage.

I generally like and respect David, but this is not his finest hour, and I'm glad Mark called him on it.

For more decent information on the C-130J vs. A-400M debate, head on over to Army.ca.

The bottom line is that even if the A-400M eventually turns out to be a better plane, we need replacements for our Hercs yesterday, and the Airbus is not only years away from flying, it's even longer away from delivery.

That is to say, if we buy the updated Hercules, we're buying an airplane. If we buy the Airbus, we're buying a nice idea.

I'll take the plane, thank you very much.

Babble off.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Watch your black, gents

Babble on.

I must apologize to Master Flea for treading on his culture-beat turf, but I trust he'll forgive me, since the play I quote from is a military one: Black Watch, about the legendary (former!) regiment of the same name.

At one point a Black Watch sergeant explains to his men why they are in Iraq: “You’re here because Her Majesty’s Government has decided that there’s no way we can sit down in Basra brushing up on our Arabic and topping up our tans when our allies are getting ten types ay shite knocked out ay them by the Mujahidin. It’s our turn tay be in the shite. We’ve had three hundred years ay being in the shite. If you dinnay like shite, then you shouldnay have bothered f*****g joining.”

Unfortunately, the shite didna limit itself to the stage, or even to field operations for that matter. The shite was dropped upon this proud military unit from a great height - the Palace of Westminster, to be exact.

The Black Watch are no longer a regiment, due to the machinations of Britain's Labour government. Instead, they are the 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland. Like the author of the article quoted above, I doubt the regiment's soldiers appreciate the supposed efficiencies of amalgamation.

I wonder what was going through Gordon Brown’s mind as he watched the 3rd Battalion of the Black Watch (sic) swinging past him through the streets of Kirkcaldy on Saturday, pipes playing, boots thudding, eyes left. They had just been granted the freedom of Fife, the region that provides the bulk of their recruits, and they were parading in front of the VIPs, who included their local MP, the Chancellor.

He may have noticed that they wore battledress, not kilts, and he may have wondered why. It was not because they are about to go back to Iraq — which they are — but because, since the amalgamation of the Scottish regiments, they are allowed to wear the red hackle, their most famous emblem, only when they are kitted out for patrol.

Personally, I must echo the sentiments of Jeff Duncan:

"It is only a matter of time before all five Regiments are wearing the same uniform and the bracketed names are dropped. This is a meaningless gesture in the greater picture of almost 400 years of proud service to the country. The appalling decision to merge the Royal Scots with the King's Own Scottish Borderers will be remembered by all patriotic men and women of Scotland as the ultimate act of betrayal by this Labour Government and those cowardly, so-called Scottish MPs and MSPs - mainly Labour - who deserted the men of those Regiments in their hour of need."

Why is this important? Because, as Tom Clancy sagely asserted with the voice of a fictional but most realistic Royal Warder in his novel Patriot Games, tradition is in an integral part of the bedrock of what makes militaries function.

“Tradition is important,” Evans said. “For a soldier, tradition is often the reason one carries on when there are so many reasons not to. It’s more than just yourself, more than just your mates – but it’s not just something for soldiers, is it? It is true – or should be true – of any professional community.”

Who would have thought that Great Britain, of all the countries in the whole wide word, would have forgotten this? What a shame.

Sometimes fiction, no matter whether play or novel, tells the factual story best.

Babble off.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Putting in a call to the big 'Help Desk'

Babble on.

So my dad has a bunch of old vinyl albums that he wants to convert into CD's, and neither of us had any clue how to do it, but we tried anyhow this afternoon: the blind leading the blind, deaf, and terminally dopey. Needless to say, we had zero success, although not from lack of time invested completely wasted.

Which is why I'm appealing to you, Gentle Reader, for help. Unlike the 'Help?' dropdown on just about every Windows-friendly program out there, I can explain my situation, and I trust you'll 'get it' without dredging up a bunch of false positives in some database that have nothing to do with my real question.

How the aitch-ee-double-hockey-stick do we get what's on his 33's and put them into a digital format that we could burn onto a CD?

Bueller? Anyone?

Babble off.

Friday, October 20, 2006

If you're not a gentleman, you can at least try to impersonate one at work

Babble on.

I'm no fan of Belinda Stronach. She's proven time and again that fidelity - to a set of ideals, to a political party, to a person - isn't her strong suit, and I'm the sort of guy who takes that sort of character issue pretty seriously.

But MacKay should apologize for referring to her as a dog in the House of Commons (ht:DMB). What he has to say about her in private to his friends and family is his own business and will only reflect upon him. What he says in public, and especially in the House of Commons, also reflects upon his party, his government, his constituents, and ultimately the integrity of the Canadian political system.

You want to call your ex a bitch in a bar over a beer with your buds? Whatever. She's probably calling you an asshole over daquiris with her girlfriends just down the street, and the truth is that neither of you is probably going to have much class talking about the other one for awhile. I get that. Breakups are acrimonious more often than not, and it's hard not to level personal attacks on such a personal matter. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt and keep it in a bottom drawer so I don't have to be reminded about what a classless jerk I've been in decades past.

But levelling that sort of an insult in the House of Commons? Mr. Mackay, are you familiar with the concept of gravitas? Would you ever have made that remark in a court of law before you got into politics? Where is your professionalism? Where is your judgement?

Babble off.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Success? Failure? How long have you got?

Babble on.

Some folks are somewhat smugly noting Jonathan Kay's lack of smugness. Why? Because Kay has published a piece in the National Post recanting his earlier support of the war in Iraq.

Kay makes three points to support his decision to issue a public mea culpa:

As I saw things in early 2003, there were three good reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein, any one of which, by itself, was sufficient to justify his ouster: (1) Saddam was a maniac who had weapons of mass destruction; (2) The creation of a democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East would transform the region by firing a fatal crack into the monolith of Arab tyranny; and (3) Putting the wrecking ball to Saddam's dungeons would end the wanton slaughter of Iraq's long-suffering people.

Turns out I was zero for three.

The first zero became obvious in the early months of the American occupation: The WMDs simply weren't there.

The second zero is playing out on the streets as you read this: Rival sectarian militias, rogue Iraqi security units, foreign Jihadis and coalition soldiers locked in an endless war of all-against-all. Amidst the carnage, millions of brave Iraqis have voted in national elections. But the forms and pageantry of democracy can't disguise the fact that the tolerant, pluralistic government everyone wanted remains a pipe dream: While Iraq's legislature serves as an arena for squabbling amongst the country's three main groups, the real spoils are hashed out on the streets by their various militias. Far from setting off a freedom epidemic in the Middle East, Iraq's tragedy has created Exhibit A for every Arab tyrant looking to justify his hold on power.

And then, last week, the third and final zero: a new study of 1,849 randomly selected, geographically representative Iraqi families conducted by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

These 1,849 families had collectively suffered a staggering 547 violent deaths since the American invasion, a number almost eight times higher than one would expect based on pre-invasion death rates. If you extrapolate that increase to the whole of Iraq, you come up with a total of about 600,000 violent deaths.

As critics of the John Hopkins study have noted, extrapolation is an imperfect business. So let's assume the real total is half that -- that a mere 100,000 per year died violently in the three years following the invasion. This reduced total would still be stunning enough to undermine the humanitarian argument for war. Consider: During his quarter-century of absolute power in Iraq, Saddam killed about a million innocents through aggressive war, internal slaughters, political pogroms and assorted acts of torture and brutality. Do the math and you find that, as horrible as Saddam was, his killing machine chewed up humanity at less than half the rate of the bloody insurgency unwittingly spawned by America's invasion.

Jonathan Kay is, by all accounts, a fairly bright man, so I'm wondering why he chose these three particular points and these three specifics to support those points. Because you can make at least as good a case against each of those points as he makes for them.

Everyone opposed to the war likes to talk about WMD's. There was undoubtedly bad intelligence out there - French, Russian, British, and yes, American - about Saddam's purported stockpiles and production capabilities. Heck, even Saddam's own generals were reportedly surprised he didn't have them when push came to shove and they were facing the considerable might of the U.S. Army in the field. And he was certainly working to acquire WMD capacity despite the U.N. sanctions. So to me, second-guessing the coalition's decision to invade, given the intelligence they had, is like second-guessing the cop who sees a known violent criminal reach into his coat when told to freeze, and drops him, only to find out he only had a cell-phone in there. One of the best life lessons I've ever learned is that leaders make the best decisions they can with the information available to them at the time, and accept the consequences of those decisions. So I think Kay's first point is overblown Monday-morning quarterbacking.

The newest anti-war prop is the Lancet study. Call me a cynic, but the last study was a farce. The current study is receiving some informed criticism as well. Besides, when the first study was released less than a month before the U.S. Presidential election, and the current one was released less than a month before the Congressional mid-terms, my Spidey-sense starts tingling.

But all this talk about numbers obscures a more subjective criticism, which is that those who accord peace a higher relative value than freedom or justice will think one more death is too many, and no amount of talking with them will convince them otherwise. Some, both within Iraq and without, would argue that when the goal is a free and just society, a simple ledger can't tally the true results.

That's why the fact that the Lancet study seems to be what pushed Kay over the edge is so surprising to me.

Because to my way of thinking, the linchpin of any reasonable argument against the war is Kay's third supposed failure: it hasn't produced the free and just democracy supporters of the war hoped it would.

That's certainly true, as long as you append the statement with these two words: to date.

From the West's point of view, the Cold War was a failure until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Or, to put it in different terms that might make my point more clearly, the Russian Revolution was a success from 1918 to 1991. So to all who would declare any major geo-political event an unqualified success or failure, I have a question: what's your time frame?

Kay and other "misguided hawks" see Iraq in decline and have given up hope. They're like the investor who buys a stock at $50, sees it drop to $30 and decide to cut their losses and sell. Others see the drop as temporary, and have faith the stock will rebound and yield the profits they'd expected.

To me, the question is not whether Iraq is a success or a failure, it's whether Iraq is more like Apple Computers or Bre X - one eventually pulled out of the dive, and one cratered.

Whether Jon Kay is willing to admit it or not, his flip-flop is less about concrete facts, and more about his tolerance for risk and his own time horizon. The jury on Iraq remains out, and will remain out until the allies and the Iraqis themselves stop working on the problems facing that country.

Both the I-told-you-so's and the boy-was-I-ever-wrong's are premature.

Babble off.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

More greenhouse gases, please

Babble on.

Global warming, my pasty white ass.

It's October frickin' twelfth, for crying out loud. And in the sprawling countryside west of Toronto, we have snow. SNOW. Right now, outside my frickin' window. As I type this.

Don't believe me? Take a glance down my street.

What? You can't see my street? That's because there's a crapload of cold white fluffy stuff blowing and swirling out of the sky.

Look at my poor tree, my fence! It's not even Halloween yet!

Am I unimpressed? Note the unimpressed face on this blogger as I get dusted with a light coating of snow. Which takes all of a few seconds, since, in case I haven't mentioned it yet, we're in the middle of a frickin' snowstorm not halfway through October.

I live at the same latitude as Marseilles on the Mediterranean. The same as Tuscany. The same as Sapporo, Japan.

If we're going to have Global WarmingTM, at least send a little of it my way.


Babble off.

Update: Silver lining? At least I don't live in Buffalo. Of course, you don't need a snowstorm to say that...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

Babble on.

Neither the revival of Iraq nor of Afghanistan is going as well as proponents of both wars, myself included, would have hoped. The authority and legitimacy of both local and national governments remains tentative, violent insurgencies are still active and effective, and reconstruction and revitalization efforts have yielded disappointing results. Neither country is as far down the road to recovery as any of us would like.

The purpose of this post is not to delve into the various and sundry reasons for that state of affairs. No, I'm simply interested in pointing out a particular dynamic operating among many of us who look back and try to figure out how it all could have been done better.

On the one hand, you have folks - including at least one very senior officer in the Canadian military - who think the de-Baathification of Iraq and the disbanding of the Iraqi army were collosal mistakes. Bruce at Flit falls into this broad category of pundit:

First off, much of the German army was kept in being or reconscripted into labour battalions to assist in early rebuilding. I identified the May 23, 2003 decision to permanently disband the Iraqi military and aggressively de-Baathify the civil service as a huge error in September of that year, and nothing that's happened since has changed that opinion.

Many of these same people will argue that the way the Afghan situation was handled was a much smarter line of attack: work with those, regardless of previous political affiliation, who seem to have a grasp on how to push and pull the levers of power and command the authority within their community to do so effectively. In Afghanistan, this meant bringing 'warlords' into the fold.

The problem with that particular plan is now quite evident to people on the ground:

Even before I arrived in Kandahar, in December, 2001, I was worried about what kind of government would replace the Taliban regime. For it seemed that U.S. officials were ushering discredited warlords into positions of power, though the Afghan people wanted nothing of them, and gave President Hamid Karzai a resounding mandate to expel them from the body politic. In 2002 and 2003, the U.S. government prevented Mr. Karzai from moving against these warlords, and then he, discouraged, gave up trying. The result is a government that is devoured by corruption, with offices up for sale, and officials whose entire motivation is to extract money and favours from their countrymen.

Safia Ama Jan, unfortunately, was one of those, and so her death is very emblematic indeed. She used her office to monopolize money earmarked for Kandahar women, pocketing much of it and using the rest to favour exclusively the members of her own ethnic group. Afghans currently dread interaction with officials like Safia Ama Jan. Bribes are extracted for the least administrative task; soldiers manhandle people or shake them down; principals steal humanitarian assistance earmarked for their students.

"We are like a man trying to balance on two watermelons," said Zarghona, a member of my co-operative, this summer. "The Taliban prey upon us at night, and the government preys upon us in the daytime."

As I mentioned on this blog a year and a half ago, I find the second-guessing on this particular issue frustratingly unconvincing.

Some of the other points critics of the war make are questionable, and come down to carping. Take the example of disbanding the Iraqi army and banning Baathists from holding any positions of power. Turned the country into a chaotic mess, right? In hindsight, maybe. But we'll never be able to know what would have happened if the U.S. had taken the other fork in that road. It's quite possible the insurgency would have been far more effective with Baathist sympathizers in key government positions. And how much would the brutalized Shia and Kurdish populations have supported the reform process if their oppressors had been left in positions of influence? This sort of criticism is about counting angels dancing on pinheads.

Is it worth having the discussion about hypotheticals? Sure it is. But we shouldn't jump to unsubstantiable conclusions. That holds true for my side of the argument as well: keeping experienced Baathist hands on levers of government with which they were intimately familiar might well have avoided much of the chaos that has allowed the insurgency to survive this long. Just because I have a hard time swallowing that line of reasoning doesn't mean I'm right.

Historians, political scientists, and military strategists will dissect the decisions made in these campaigns for decades to come. Distilling the one essential factor that made post-war Japan different from post-war Iraq (or Germany from Afghanistan) will be the speculative work of many a scholar.

But the truth of it as I see it, in the simple terms my non-scholarly understanding permits me, is that there is no definitively right or wrong decision when it comes to rebuilding a country, an entire society from the ground up. Perhaps neither decision would have been a good one; perhaps both were equally unlikely to produce the desired results.

That's why I'll continue to straddle the fence on this issue: nobody's yet made a convincing argument to jump one way over the other. Somehow that doesn't seem to stop either side from trying.

Babble off.