Political MoJo

In Light of Haditha, Revisiting How Marines Train to Interact with Iraqi Civilians

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 3:07 PM EST

Today's newspapers bring an update on the Haditha massacre. Four Marines are charged with murder for the killings of two dozen Iraqi civilians, including at least 10 women and children, in the Iraqi village last year. Four officers are also charged with failing to investigate and report the incident. (Odd note: As of 11:09 am PST, the CNN.com homepage has no news of this. However, "Rosie vs. The Donald" and "Giant squid filmed, captured" do make the list.)

The charges are harsh, and may indicate the first signs of real accountability within the military. The NY Times quotes a West Point law professor as saying, "This is very aggressive charging — wow... I think this illustrates the deep seriousness the Marine Corps takes with these events... I definitely think the Marine Corps is sending a message to commanders."

In light of all this, we'd like to turn your attention to a Mother Jones magazine story called "Lost in Translation: The challenges of training GIs to avoid insulting — and shooting — Iraqi civilians are being faced in California's Mojave Desert." Writer Brian Palmer visited a Marine base called Twentynine Palms and watched as young Marines trained for high-intensity civilian-interaction situations, with sometimes uplifting and sometimes distressing results. From Palmer's report:

The exercise merges traditional training and a brand-new series of simulations and classes for Iraq-bound Marines, with an emphasis on evoking the intensity of actual combat in a credibly simulated Iraqi village. The goal, said Captain Jonathan Smith, Fox Company's commanding officer, is to make each soldier "a combat vet before they get in country." Improvised explosive devices made with black powder and compressed air actually go "boom" and sometimes injure people. Marines and "insurgents" fire "sim rounds," bullets with paintball-type tips that, according to the grunts, hurt like hell. Iraqi role players speak only Arabic. Classes in language, culture, civil affairs, and policing are held alfresco before combat simulations, and instructors race through information at mind-boggling speed. One Arabic language lesson covered four words—"explosives," "rocket," "mine," and "weapons"—and lasted two minutes and 21 seconds.
...
Two different instructors backed up this scenario with a stunning statistic: "Over the last 12 months or so we killed about 1,000 Iraqis at blocking positions and checkpoints," the first coyote told the grunts. "About 60—six-zero—we could demonstrate that, yeah, he was a bad guy, he was an insurgent. Six-zero out of about 1,000. So if we don't communicate what we want them to do, all we're doing is creating more enemies." The second instructor later offered up the same figures, concluding: "So obviously, 900-something innocent Iraqis have been killed. That's pretty shitty numbers, right?"

It's good. Read the whole thing.

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Free Copies of An Inconvenient Truth - Get 'Em While They're Hot!

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 3:05 PM EST

A couple of weeks ago, the National Science Teachers Association refused a donation of copies of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, lest its factually challenged donors, such as Exxon, were offended. Now, Participant Productions, the film's distributor, is giving away 50,000 copies to teachers who sign up here. And, via BoingBoing, we learn that the guys who run the less-than-educational website, HotOrNot have pitched in $25K to help get the effort off the ground. And if you want to oggle and do good, there's always Al Gore's Hot or Not page.

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Gunboat Diplomacy Means We Aren't Bombing Iran

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 2:42 PM EST

A few days ago, I remarked on an astonishing report coming out of the Pentagon indicating that the military is considering a buildup of Navy forces in the Persian Gulf as a show of strength against Iran. In a cheeky aside, I said, "Thanks for suggesting diplomacy with these folks, Iraq Study Group. Now get out of town."

I should have been more cautious. As Laura Rozen explains in the American Prospect's online edition today, sending naval forces to Iran's backyard is a form of diplomacy: "Gunboat Diplomacy."

Rozen quotes an unnamed official:

"The idea is definitely to keep the Iranians aware that there is a price to pay for their policies and the U.S. is not rolling over... The Iranians are being unhelpful in funding and supporting people blowing coalition forces up in Iraq… [The announced US actions] are to say, 'We have teeth, we have force. You shouldn't think we're some paper tiger.'"

First of all, how funny is the use of the word "unhelpful"? Iran is funding Shiite death squads and "blowing coalition forces up in Iraq." Unhelpful, indeed. An Iranian close to the administration tells Rozen that the buildup of troops would largely be "intimidation" and that America "needs all the demonstration of strength she could muster, should she decide to start talks with Iran." The take-home message is that it is possible sending warships to the gulf is not the first sign of a regional conflagration, but instead the inevitable posturing that comes before negotiation. We can only hope.

For Mother Jones content on the possibility of war with Iran, see the list of stories at this link.

World War III: Saudi Arabia vs. Iran?

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 2:38 PM EST

Not to oversensationalize or anything, but it is a little unsettling when the Saudis let it be known (as they have for some time now) that if (and that's not really a very big if, is it?) Iran goes nuclear, they will too... and that they would not hesitate to intervene in Iraq's civil war on the side of the Sunnis if Shia power gets too great... and when, at the same time, the office of the Vice President comes down hard in favor of a Shia government in Iraq, butchery of Sunnis notwithstanding... and when, finally, news that there's a major struggle going on in the Saudi government over "a clash of civilizations" with Iran is buried on Page 14 in the New York Times. Peace on earth, everyone.

Scary Science & the Solstice

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 10:30 PM EST

The BBC reports on a British government study looking ahead to the next 50 years:

"Robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans… If granted, countries would be obliged to provide social benefits including housing and even "robo-healthcare."

I suppose British robots might get somewhere with that. American ones would be SOL.

NewScientist reports it's so warm bears aren't hibernating in Spain this winter. Though a Japanese man apparently pulled off the torpid feat for three rip-van-winkle weeks.

If you're in the southern hemisphere, in, say, Madagascar, this solstice and planning a balmy night under the stars without a tent, reconsider. Imagine, moths that breach your eyelids and drink your tears while you sleep. Well, birds' tears at any rate. The moths are apparently after salt not liquid. Nevertheless, it looks unnerving, the moths and their harpoonlike proboscises:

If that's too creepy, check out the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute's online aurora borealis forecast, and plan your trip north accordingly. After all, how many more years do you want to pass without seeing this wonder?

Happy Solstice.

New Evidence on the Prevalence of Robo-Calls

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 3:37 PM EST

Turns out, our strenuous coverage of the robo-call issue during the mid-term elections was unnecessary: if you're a voting American, you likely experienced robo-calls first hand!

A new poll by the Pew Internet and American Life project says 64% of registered voters received at least one robo-call during election season. From Pew's brief summary:

These so-called "robo-calls" were the second most popular way for campaigns and political activists to reach voters, trailing only direct mail as a key tool of political communication. Some 71% of registered voters got direct mail campaign solicitations, while 24% received phone calls from real human beings urging their vote for a particular candidate, 18% were visited at their homes, and 14% received email solicitations.

As TPMmuckraker notes, we still don't know how many people received the harassing robo-calls that called six, seven, or eight times in a row, in a GOP ploy to discourage Democratic turnout.


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Wonkette: "If You're Wondering What Victory in Iraq Looks Like..."

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 2:48 PM EST

A link too good to pass up. For the world's saddest victory celebration (we handed Najaf to the Iraqis), see this Wonkette post. To be frank, the keyboardist -- who actually has a day's work -- looks more grateful than the stiff-as-a-board Iraqi politicians who have to clean up this mess.

Update: MoJo intern Celia Perry adds the following: The AP reports that during the ceremony commemorating the return of Najaf to local control, "a small group of [Iraqi] soldiers stepped forward with a live rabbit and tore it to pieces. The leader bit out the heart with a yell, then passed around the blood-soaked remains to his comrades, each of whom took a bite. The group also bit the heads off frogs, as some of those in the crowd held their noses from the stench." Later, police drove in shiny new vehicles around a track littered with fur and frog legs. Apparently, chewing on live animals is a traditional display of ferocity that was used by elite military units during Saddam Hussein's regime. I guess old habits die hard.

Update II: Apparently the celebration was bigger than the picture at Wonkette would suggest. From the AP story mentioned above: "About 1,500 police officers, soldiers and security personnel staged a parade around an infield of stubby brown grass, in festivities complete with warriors on horseback."

Nature is a Vengeful Creature

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 2:31 PM EST

Two for the irony department.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is America's foremost global warming denier (he called global warming "the greatest hoax every perpetrated on the American people" and compared global warming warnings to the deceptions of the Third Reich), and as the chairman of the Environment and Public Works committee is probably more responsible than anyone except President Bush for America's inaction on the subject. Well, God or Nature or someone is pissed off, and it/they know exactly who to go after.

Oklahoma, it seems, is experiencing the worst drought conditions and wildfires in the United States. Nine and a half million acres have been burned by wild fires nationwide in 2006, a record. One could say proof of global warming is shining Inhofe in the face like sun glare off a prairie highway.

But the irony doesn't end there. Australia, the only industrialized country other than the United States not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is experiencing its worst drought in 1,000 years. Predictably, losses in crop production have resulted in the slowest economic growth in recent years. More from the very good Climate Progress and "As the World Burns," Mother Jones' 2005 package on global warming.

By the way, considering how things have gone for Oklahoma and Australia, it is only a matter of time until a lightening bolt hits Air Force One or a mudslide buries Michael Crichton's house. I say this for your own safety, Mr. President: please do something. We don't want you to end up like this man.

Oh, So That's Why

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 2:25 PM EST

Apparently, the reason certain American states may play such a decisive role in the nation's political elections may be their powerful position according to the rules of feng shui:

Cho Jun Hyung, a retired television station manager turned feng shui master, says [incoming UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's] appearance fulfilled a 2,500-year-old Chinese prophecy, first uttered by Confucius himself, that a "world dominator" would emerge from the northeast, meaning neighboring Korea. Cho says Sangdong has exceptionally good feng shui because it sits at the navel of the Korean Peninsula, and a nearby row of three mountains channel in natural forces.
"This is very rare geography," he said. "In America, Massachusetts and Ohio have similar alignments, which is why they produce so many presidents."

Troops as Props: Decoding the Press Reports From Gates' Trip to Iraq

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 1:26 PM EST

What a strange little world the traveling press is. On Wednesday, an AP story led with the sentence, "Defense Secretary Robert Gates found American commanders wary of a proposal to rush more U.S. troops to Iraq as he visited the war-ravaged country." The body of the story was the same rundown of "will-he-or-won't-he" material: Bush is considering sending more troops, which means Gates is considering sending more troops, Gen. Casey says this, Gen. Abizaid says this, yada yada. The only new nugget was in the lede: commanders on the ground, to whom Bush promised to listen, don't really buy the idea. Not good for the Bushies, if they know sending more troops is likely, or inevitable.

And then this morning, a new AP story with the lede, "U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the rest of the Bush administration may be undecided on whether to send more troops to Iraq. But several soldiers he met with at Camp Victory here on Thursday morning said extra forces would help."

The story makes note of the dissonance between the commanders' feelings and the troops' feelings, but I can't help but feel the press has been suckered. Was this a PR job intended to repair the damage of Wednesday's story? The military knew the press would be watching Gates eat his scrambled eggs with the soldiers; in fact, the military probably invited the press and made sure they'd be there. Were the soldiers selected because their viewpoints were likely to match the message the military wanted to get out? Or worse, were they coached? It's not like this would be the first time the administration used the troops as props in a media stunt.

Maybe the soldiers on the ground really do wish they had more of their colleagues helping out. It's not surprising: why wouldn't they want someone to share the burden on a difficult and unwinnable situation? But Nick Kristof noted in February that a poll examining soldiers' opinions on the war found 72 percent wanted to withdraw in a year and 29 percent wanted to withdraw immediately. So we're expected to believe that it just so happened that Gates met with a crowd of soldiers and every one present was in the minority of troops that wants to prolong the war? Smells as rotten as a fake turkey.