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Archive for July 24th, 2012

Aurora, Samarra, Vermont…

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

[ By Charles Cameron — the gun issue, complexity, human beings being humans and the world we live in ]

As always, I’m a fence-sitter bridge-builder, not wanting to take sides, preferring to talk with them.

The irritating beauty of these two quotes is that either one taking separately might seem like a “case closed” argument in favor of guns or gun control — but taken together, they show the world to be a dappled place.

Here’s the lead-in to that Vermont quote:

One facet of Vermont life is neither famous nor quaint: Vermonters are armed to the teeth. Guns are absolutely everywhere. Rifles. Pistols. Shotguns. Muzzle-loaders. Semi-automatics. 50 caliber tripod-mount “semi” automatics that could take out aircraft. Every firearm you can possibly imagine. Vermont could be the most armed part of the world per capita, as rife with firearms as Afghanistan, but with trees and cheddar cheese…

Things are weird that way: just when you think you’ve got them figured out, there’s an exception to the rule… a black dot in the white part of the yin-yang symbol… an anomaly that challenges the easy paradigm.

Dappled, as Hopkins puts it.


Pied Beauty
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.


The world is complex: scientists using microscopes and a suite of 128 computers recently (and triumphantly) managed to simulate the genome of one of the smallest micro-organisms in the world, Mycoplasma genitalium (neat name, that):

Alexis Madrigal (another neat name, btw) writes:

“Right now, running a simulation for a single cell to divide only one time takes around 10 hours and generates half a gigabyte of data,” lead scientist Covert told the New York Times. “I find this fact completely fascinating, because I don’t know that anyone has ever asked how much data a living thing truly holds.”

One cell. One division. Half a gig of data. Now figure that millions of bacteria could fit on the head of a pin and that many of them are an order of magnitude more complex than M. genitalium.

Yup. So think how complex the world is. No wonder we name things, divide stuff up into categories — use quite a large chunk of our brains for making distinctions.

But then think how complex the humans studying M. genitalium (still like that name, but this’ll be the last time I mention it) themselves must be… As Madrigal (really a nice name, you can almost sing it) goes on to point out:

Or ponder the idea that the human body is made up of 10 trillion (big, complex) human cells, plus about 90 or 100 trillion bacterial cells. That’s about 100,000,000,000,000 cells in total. That’d take a lot of computers to model, eh? If it were possible, that is.


Complexity looks at complexity with a view to modeling it. Simple, you think? Complex, you’d say?

The world’s a subtle place, and I might just go live in Vermont.

But people get shot in Vermont too, from time to time — there’s always a black and bleeding bullet-hole in the white half of the yin yang symbol — this world is hopelessly dappled.

And you know that story Somerset Maugham tells about Samarra?

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Idries Shah tells a version of the same story as “When Death Came to Baghdad” in his Tales of the Dervishes, but with Samarkand rather than Samarra as the fatal destination.

It just might be the same with Vermont.

Myanmar: the Rohingya and the Buddhists

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — one person’s shrine is another person’s ex-shrine ]

I was struck by this sentence in a blog post on Myanmar today:

As for the Muslims, they have been force-converted, their places of worship, as in the case of mosques, transformed into Buddhist temples, and they have been attacked during their religious festivities.

Buddhists? Just like the rest of us? Okay…



You know how some Muslims must feel when they see a Christian cathedral sprouting right out of the heart of their beautiful Mezquita mosque in Cordoba (above)? Or some Christians, when they see the huge Islamic decals hanging in what was once the great cathedral of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia (below) — now a museum?



I believe we’re all pretty happy that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but even she hasn’t felt at easy commenting on the Rohingya / Muslims in her native Myanmar:

The issue of the Rohingya is so delicate that even Myanmar’s leading defender of human rights and democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been oblique and evasive about the situation. Asked at a news conference on Thursday whether the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar should be given citizenship, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was equivocal. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” she said in Geneva, which she was visiting as part of a European tour. “All those who are entitled to citizenship should be treated as full citizens deserving all the rights that must be given to them.”

Since I doubt I could ever be as brave as she has been already, I can’t complain… but maybe, all the same, wish?


To backtrack a little, here’s the full paragraph from which that first quote was taken. It’s a two-fisted paragraph, a mind-blower:

To provide another case of discrimination and persecution of minorities and non-Buddhists, probably even less known than the Rohingya, I can mention the Christians amongst the Karen, Karenni, Chin and Kachin ethnic groups. As for the Muslims, they have been force-converted, their places of worship, as in the case of mosques, transformed into Buddhist temples, and they have been attacked during their religious festivities.

Unless, of course, your mind is already blown. Which, given the complexities of the world around us, it probably should be by now.

A question re Hasan and Awlaki

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — revisiting the question of Maj. Nidal Hasan ]

... above: Daveed's tweet today, Awlaki's email from Intelwire


I was struck by one curious aspect to the question of what Maj. Nidal Hasan was up to at what point in his trajectory: the fact that as a psychiatrist, he was dealing with soldier patients returning from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan who had doubts as to the religious legitimacy of killing fellow-Muslims in those wars.

On the face of it, that’s a topic a psychiatrist who didn’t feel himself expert in his religion (“am a novice at this and would like reassurance“) might wish to consult with clergy about, and the fact that “clergy” in this case was al-Awlaki shouldn’t be read back into the situation as confirming jihadist intent on Hasan’s part – Awlaki had been the imam of a Falls Church mosque where, according to one AP report:

Opinions varied on what kind of preacher al-Awlaki was when he served in Virginia. Most said they did not find him to be overtly political or radical.

As another report mentioned:

“Because the content of the communications was explainable by his research and nothing else derogatory was found, the [investigators] concluded that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning,” the FBI said in a statement issued days after the Ft. Hood shooting.


I mentioned this issue of Hasan’s (potentially) legitimate professional concern for his patients in my commentary on Hasan’s slide show in Small Wars Journal, but I haven’t been following news reports closely and have no access in any case to what’s known in restricted intel circles — so my issue may already have been addressed with clarity somewhere “open source”, in which case I’d welcome a pointer or pointers, and closure.

In the meantime, I do feel a little like someone going for a rollercoaster ride on a Moebius strip: as I read it, the same evidence that reads prospectively as suggesting a concern to be able to counsel patients in distress reads retrospectively as suggesting the conflict is in Hasan’s own mind – and that he has in effect already resolved it and is turning to Awlaki as someone he is sure will confirm his intent.

I understand that many of Hasan’s colleagues were dismayed at the time of his slide-point lecture and discussed their concerns that he was an extremist – but then there are not a few who imagine Huma Abedin is a closet Sayyid Qutb on far more slender grounds. Hasan was clearly discussing a potential clash between Islamic and military duties, and his final slide was undoubtedly phrased to be provocative – but I still don’t know what his comments on it were, and how much different members of his audience may have read into it.

It still seems plausible to me that the way Hasan’s mind turned involved three separable “colorations” of a developing line of thought, the first of them benign, the last fatal – from a concern with his patients, via a concern regarding his own position as a Muslim and a soldier, to his identification with Awlaki’s position and decision to take action resulting in the Ft Hood massacre.

And as you know, mapping, gaming or simulating mental processes at the level of thoughts, persuasions and decisions is a matter of keen interest to me.


My question — for Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, JM Berger and others who have a better sense of the timeline and documentation that I – is whether this remains a plausible understanding, or whether it has long been conclusively disproven by more recently available evidence.

SWJ: Manea interviews Fernando Lujan

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

The latest in the series of COIN interviews by Octavian Manea:

COIN and Other Four-Letter Words: Interview with AfPak Hand Major Fernando Lujan 

OM:  In early 2009, I made a tour of a few DC think tanks.  At the time everybody was talking about COIN. Why did COIN become a dirty word, today? Why do you still believe in COIN doctrine?

FL:  Well, frankly I get a bit nervous whenever I hear the words “believe” and “doctrine” in the same sentence… the same way I get nervous when I hear people refer to the current counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, as “the good book.”  The counterinsurgency manual should never be dogma, never be seen as some sort of universal solution.  The manual was an attempt to change the culture of the Army at a time when we desperately needed it.  It was written by a group of very smart people who tried to include some lessons from Cold War-era insurgencies, but let’s not fool ourselves–it was written in extremis, for forces struggling through their rotations in Iraq from 2006-2010.  It did a pretty good job helping those units.. and it serves as a decent framework for one type of counterinsurgency effort–the resource intensive, ‘boots heavy’ sort that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 But we should not lose sight of the fact that this type of massive COIN effort is only one extreme of a long continuum of policy options, undertaken when the situation in both countries had already deteriorated so much that major reinforcement became the ‘least bad’ choice in the minds of our civilian leaders.  If we want to keep COIN from becoming a ‘dirty word,’ as you say, we need to make this distinction clear, and leave room for alternate, smaller footprint models.  The next version of the doctrine should not just pull lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan–but also from Colombia, the Philippines, El Salvador, the Sahel, and the myriad of other places we’ve been involved in over the past decades.  To the credit of the Army and Marines, Ft. Leavenworth is in the midst of rewriting the manual as we speak–but it remains to be seen what kind of message the final product will send.  Will we have a cookie cutter model with the five standard lines of effort, built around heavy resources and a 5,000-man brigade combat team or will we have a manual that offers a broad toolkit of different approaches–some civilian-led or embassy ‘country team’ based, some more heavily reliant on targeting and offshore training or 3rd party actors, et cetera.  Knowing what we know about land wars in Asia, I’d personally much rather see the latter…..

Read the rest here.

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