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Eternal recurrence

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — from the Iliad via hadith to Afghanistan, 2011 ]

Daniel Mendelsohn, Battle Lines: A slimmer, faster Iliad, in The New Yorker:

The August 22nd issue of Time featured, on its “Briefing” page, a quote from a grieving mother about her dead son. The mother’s name is Jan Brown, and her son, Kevin Houston, a Navy SEAL, was one of thirty-seven soldiers killed in a rocket attack in Afghanistan this past summer. What she said about him might shock some people, but will sound oddly familiar to anyone who has read the Iliad:

“He was born to do this job. If he could do it all over again and have a choice to have it happen the way it did or work at McDonald’s and live to be 104? He’d do it all over again.”

The Prophet, on the authority of Masruq, in Sahih Muslim, 4651:

The souls of the martyrs live in the bodies of green birds who have their nests in chandeliers hung from the throne of the Almighty. They eat the fruits of Paradise from wherever they like and then nestle in these chandeliers. Once their Lord cast a glance at them and said: Do ye want anything? They said: What more shall we desire? We eat the fruit of Paradise from wherever we like. Their Lord asked them the same question thrice. When they saw that they will continue to be asked and not left (without answering the question). they said: O Lord, we wish that Thou mayest return our souls to our bodies so that we may be slain in Thy way once again.


We sometimes think of the jihadist would-be martyr as motivated by the belief that paradisal life after death trumps this life and its shallow attractions. If the parallels I am seeing here between the theology of martyrdom in Islam, the heroism of the Iliad, and that of the Navy SEAL in Afghanistan do in fact represent a deeper current common to all three, it may be that we should also look at the reverse premise: that even the delights of paradise may be trumped by the exhilaration of battle in a righteous cause.

An ill-favoured thought — one quite possibly ill-favoured enough to be labeled “counter-intuitive” — but mine own.

Official policy targeting weddings?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — as if in brutal proof that “the bed waiting inside belongs to death” — that bridal and burial veils are one ]

Does the Coalition have an official policy targeting weddings?

Sorry to be so blunt about this, but I get déjà vu these days when I read about Coalition attacks on wedding parties.


Today, for instance, WaPo has this headline:


I believe that headline is only in white on a black background because that’s the “style” for WaPo’s “video channel” pages — but it’s suitable, really, eh? Funereal?

Lest we forget, let’s see, now, Wikipedia has entries for:

  • Deh Bala wedding party airstrike of July 6, 2008
  • Wech Baghtu wedding party airstrike of November 3, 2008
  • **

    Then there’s December 12, 2013, reported by the admirable Greg Johnsen:

    Greg Johnsen

    If I’m not mistaken, that was also the occasion of these two headlines from Conor Friedsdorf:

    Friedsdorf 02

    Friedsdorf 01

    Stunning, those headlines. Of course there may have been other funereal weddings that I’ve missed.


    Oh, and there’s always the money to consider:

    more than $1 million


    Headline sources:

  • Air strike on Yemen wedding kills
  • Sorry our drones hit your wedding party
  • If a drone strike hit an American wedding
  • The Wedding That a U.S. Drone Strike Turned Into a Funeral
  • Yemeni victims of U.S. military drone strike
  • Gregory Johnsen’s piece is beautifully written as always. Conor Friedsdorf’s title alone — The Wedding That a U.S. Drone Strike Turned Into a Funeral — deserves high praise.


    Déjà vu? If these things keep on happening, I’ll have to call them flashbacks.

    Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists

    Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — what color does a chameleon turn in a hall of mirrors? ]



    There’s an interesting ascetic aesthetic in photography which prefers black and white to full spectrum color, but the black and white in question has a rich spectrum of its own, a continuum of shades of grey between black and white poles. Not so with black and white choices of the sort President Bush proposed when he said:

    Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.


    Some of the nuances to consider:

    David Kilcullen on this video at 48.55:

    A lot of families in Afghanistan have one son fighting with the government, and another son fighting with the Taliban. It’s a hedging strategy.


    In Syria, many families face a terrible dilemma

    In recent months I have noticed a trend of some families sending at least one of their children to join ISIL because that was the only way for them to generate an income in the family.


    And then this:

    U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Afghan Allies’ Abuse of Boys

    Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.



    Is the CIA undercounting civilian deaths from drone strikes?

    Determining the number of civilian casualties under such circumstances is a difficult task — even for the human rights groups that devote significant resources to doing so. If the CIA is simply counting zero civilians killed in operations where it can’t say for certain who the agency is even firing at, that doesn’t inspire much confidence in their numbers.
    assumed to be combatants.


    And then there’s the paradox, found even in scripture:

    The Synoptic Gospels attribute the following quote to Jesus of Nazareth: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30), as well as its contrapositive, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50; The Synoptic Gospels attribute the following quote to Jesus of Nazareth: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30), as well as its contrapositive, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50; Mark 9:40)


    As I said at the top of this post —


    We’re a legacy industry in a world of start-up competitors

    Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Chautauqua ]

    chautauqua haqqani daveed


    From the outset, when cheers went up for Daveed’s birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, and Ambassador Haqqani’s, Karachi — and for the brilliant meeting of the minds that is Chautauqua — it was clear that we were in the presence of two gracious, witty and informed intelligences, and the seriousness of the conversation between them that followed did nothing to reduce our pleasure in the event. Daveed called it “easily the best experience I have ever had as a speaker.”

    I’ll highlight some quotes from each speaker, with the occasional comment:

    Amb. Haqqani:

    None of the countries except Egypt, Turkey and Iran, none of the countries of the Middle East are in borders that are historic, or that have evolved through a historic process. And that’s why you see the borders a straight lines. Straight lines are always drawn by cartographers or politicians, the real maps in history are always convoluted because of some historic factor or the other, or some river or some mountains.

    You’ll see how neatly this fits with my recent post on borders, No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

    And now that whole structure, the contrived structure, is coming apart.

    Then most important part of it is, that this crisis of identity – who are we? are we Muslims trying to recreate the past under the principles of the caliphate .. or are we Arabs, trying to unify everybody based on one language, or are we these states that are contrived, or are we our ethnic group, or are we our tribe, or are we our sect? And this is not only in the region, it’s also overlapping into the Muslim communities in the diaspora..


    If Amb. Haqqani emphasized the multiple identities in play in the Arabic, Islamic, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and tribal worlds in his opening, Daveed’s emphasis was on the failure of the post-Westphalian concept of the nation state.

    Daveed G-R:

    In the economic sphere there’s this thing that is often called “legacy industries” – industries that fit for another time, but are kind of out of place today. Think of Blockbuster Video, once a massive, massive corporation.. that’s a legacy industry. So when Ambassador Haqqani talks about how it’s not just in the Middle East that we have this crisis of identity, I think the broader trend is that the Westphalian state that he spoke about, the kind of state that was encoded after the Peace of Westphalia, looks to a lot of people who are in this generation of the internet where ideas flow freely, it looks like a legacy industry.

    Why do you need this as a form of political organizing? And what ISIS has shown is that a violent non-state actor, even a jihadist group that is genocidal and implements as brutal a form of Islamic law as you could possibly see, it can hold territory the size of Great Britain, and it can withstand the advance of a coalition that includes the world’s most powerful countries including the United States. And what that suggests is that alternative forms of political organization can now compete with the nation state.


    The Ambassador then turned to the lessons we should take from 1919’s US King–Crane Commission, reporting on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire — they concluded that it gave us

    a great opportunity — not likely to return — to build .. a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities

    — down to our own times.

    Amb. Haqqani:

    What we can be sure of is that the current situation is something that will not be dealt with without understanding the texture of these societies. So for example, when the United States went into Iraq without full understanding of its sectarian and tribal composition, and assumed that, all we are doing is deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and then we will hold elections and now a nice new guy will get elected, and things will be all right -– that that is certainly not the recipe. So what we can say with certainty in 2015 is .. over the last century what we have learnt is: outsiders, based on their interests, determining borders is not a good idea, and should certainly not be repeated. Assuming that others are anxious to embrace your culture in totality is also an unrealistic idea.

    The sentence that follows was a stunner from the Ambassador, gently delivered — a single sentence that could just as easily have been the title for this post as the remark by Daveed with which I have in fact titled it:

    Let me just say that, look, he ideological battle, in the Muslim world, will have to be fought by the likes of me.

    Spot on — and we are fortunate the Ambassador and his like are among us.


    Daveed then turned to another topic I have freqently emphasized myself.

    Daveed G-R:

    The power of ideas – we as Americans tend not to recognize this when it falls outside of ideas that are familiar to us. So one thing that the US has been slow to acknowledge is the role of the ideology that our friend and ally Saudi Arabia has been promulgating globally, in fomenting jihadist organizations.

    And one of the reasons we have been slow to recognize that. I mean one reason is obvious, which is oil. .. But another reason has been – we tend to think of ideas that are rooted in religion – as a very post-Christian country – we tend to think of them as not being real – as ideas which express an ideology which is alien to us –as basically being a pretext, with some underlying motivation which is more familiar to us. That it must be economics, or it must be political anger. I’m not saying those are irrelevant, they’re not – but when Al-Qaida or ISIS explains themselves, taking their explanation seriously and understanding where they’re coming from – not as representatives of Islam as a whole, but as representatives of the particular ideology that they claim to stand for – we need to take that seriously. Because they certainly do.


    Amb. Haqqani:

    The world is not a problem for Americans to solve, it’s a situation for them to understand.

    This makes a nice DoubleQuote with Gabriel Marcel‘s more general aphorism:

    Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.


    Toward the end of the discussion, Daveed touched on some ideas of recurrent interest to Zenpundit readers..

    Daveed G-R:

    Looking at the US Government, questions that I ask a lot are: Why are we so bad at strategy? Why are we so bad at analysis? Why do we take such a short term view and negate the long term?

    He then freturned to the issue of legacy industries and nation-states:

    Blockbuster is a legacy industry. And the reason why legacy industries have so much trouble competing against start-up firms, is because start-ups are smaller, it’s more easy for them to change course, to implement innovative policies, to make resolute decisions – they can out-manoeuver larger companies. And so larger companies that do well adapt themselves to this new environment where they have start-up competitors. Nation-state governments are legacy industries. Violent non-state actors are start-up compoetitors.

    — and had the final, pointed word:

    We’re a legacy industry ina world of start-up competitors.


    Having offered you these tastes, at this point I can only encourage you to watch the whole hour and a quarter, filled to the brim with incisive and articulately-stated insights:

    On LapidoMedia: Mullah Omar’s death strengthens al-Baghdadi’s claim to the caliphate

    Thursday, August 20th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — Mullah Omar, the Prophet’s cloak in Kandahar, & the title “Amir al-Mu’minin” ]

    shrine of the cloak
    A man prays at the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet, Kandahar. Photo: Tomas Munita/AP


    My latest for LapidoMedia begins:

    ON THE FIRST anniversary of the death of US journalist James Wright Foley, the first US citizen to be killed by ISIS, it is timely to examine the credientials of the man who ordered it – the ‘caliph’ of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

    Baghdadi’s claim not just to the title of caliph but to that of Amir al-Mu’minin or Commander of the Faithful, underpins obedience of all Muslims to his will.

    To understand this, we need also to understand the impact of the recently announced death of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban.

    The cloak of responsibility

    For jihadists and those who aspire to be jihadists, Mullah Omar’s death put to an end one of the two claims to the title of Amir al-Mu’minin.

    This title is one normally accorded to a caliph, but while Mullah Mohammed Omar Mujahid did not proclaim himself caliph or attempt to establish a global caliphate, he did indeed lay the foundations of one by creating the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996.

    Read the whole thing..


    Further recommendations:

  • Fabrizio Foschini & Bette Dam, Under the Cloak of History: The Kherqa-ye Sharif from Faizabad to Kandahar
  • JM Berger, Mullah Omar and the AQ-ISIS War
  • Aaron Y Zelin (podcast), The Death of Mullah Omar and its Implications with J.M. Berger
  • Barnett Rubin, What could Mullah Omar’s Death Mean for the Taliban Talks?
  • Barnett Rubin, Turmoil in the Taliban
  • Joanna Paraszczuk, Why Zawahri’s Pledge to Taliban could be a boon for IS 
  • Leah Farrall, Mullah Omar’s death and the Haqqani factor
  • For more on the cloak, see also:

  • Charles Cameron, The cloak, mantle and authority of the Prophet

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