Archive for the ‘war’Category

Biological warfare: malaria edition

Did you know Germany used malaria as a biological weapon during World War II? I’m a bit of a WWII history buff, but wasn’t aware of this at all until I dove into Richard Evans’ excellent three-part history of Nazi Germany, which concludes with The Third Reich at War. Here’s an excerpt, with paragraph breaks and some explanations and emphasis added:

Meanwhile, Allied troops continued to fight their way slowly up the [Italian] peninsula. In their path lay the Pontine marshes, which Mussolini had drained at huge expense during the 1930s, converting them into farmland, settling them with 100,000 First World War veterans and their families, and building five new towns and eighteen villages on the site. The Germans determined to return them to their earlier state, to slow the Allied advance and at the same time wreak further revenge on the treacherous [for turning against Mussolini and surrendering to the Allies] Italians.

Not long after the Italian surrender, the area was visited by Erich Martini and Ernst Rodenwaldt, two medical specialists in malaria who worked at the Military Medical Academy in Berlin. Both men were backed by Himmler’s Ancestral Heritage research organization in the SS; Martini was on the advisory board of its research institute at Dachau. The two men directed the German army to turn off the pumps that kept the former marshes dry, so that by the end of the winter they were covered in water to a depth of 30 centimetres once more. Then, ignoring the appeals of Italian medical scientists, they put the pumps into reverse, drawing sea-water into the area, and destroyed the tidal gates keeping the sea out at high tide.

On their orders German troops dynamited many of the pumps and carted off the rest to Germany, wrecked the equipment used to keep the drainage channels free of vegetation and mined the area around them, ensuring that the damage they caused would be long-lasting.

The purpose of these measures was above all to reintroduce malaria into the marshes, for Martini himself had discovered in 1931 that only one kind of mosquito could survive and breed equally well in salt, fresh or brackish water, namely anopheles labranchiae, the vector of malaria. As a result of the flooding, the freshwater species of mosquito in the Pontine marshes were destroyed; virtually all of the mosquitoes now breeding furiously in the 98,000 acres of flooded land were carriers of the disease, in contrast to the situation in 1940, when they were on the way to being eradicated.

Just to make sure the disease took hold, Martini and Rodenwaldt’s team had all the available stocks of quinine, the drug used to combat it, confiscated and taken to a secret location in Tuscany, far away from the marshes. In order to minimize the number of eyewitnesses, the Germans had evacuated the entire population of the marshlands, allowing them back only when their work had been completed. With their homes flooded or destroyed, many had to sleep in the open, where they quickly fell victim to the vast swarms of anopheles mosquitoes now breeding in the clogged drainage canals and bomb-craters of the area.

Officially registered cases of malaria spiralled from just over 1,200 in 1943 to nearly 55,000 the following year, and 43,000 in 1945: the true number in the area in 1944 was later reckoned to be nearly double the officially recorded figure. With no quinine available, and medical services in disarray because of the war and the effective collapse of the Italian state, the impoverished inhabitants of the area, now suffering from malnutrition as well because of the destruction of their farmland and food supplies, fell victim to malaria. It had been deliberately reintroduced as an act of biological warfare, directed not only at Allied troops who might pass through the region, but also against the quarter of a million Italians who lived there, people now treated by the Germans no longer as allies but as racial inferiors whose act of treachery in deserting the Axis cause deserved the severest possible punishment.

Nov

08

2012

Two excellent fora

First, a forum on Afghanistan in The New Republic. One depressing view comes from Amitai Etzioni:

I long argued that before we promote the full slew of human rights, we should attend to the most basic of them all: to protect life. Not because other rights are unimportant but because they are contingent on keeping people alive. We are failing this test in Afghanistan as we are about to leave after the elections, and leave a country in which killing will be rampant. We should try to work with the ISI, which has some leverage over the Taliban, to see if, in exchange for our support, they would try to avoid a civil war in Afghanistan and ensure that it will not serve again as a haven for terrorists. If not, we better have the drones ready.

I am not surprised that we shall not leave behind a stable democratic country; I never believed we could engage in nation building in this part of the world. And I am not surprised that we shall leave behind a country even more corrupt and subject to drug lords that we found. I am distressed about the size of the cemeteries Afghanistan will need.

Second, on inequality in the US and what can be done, in the Boston Review. Topics covered include taxes on the rich, education, labor markets, and much more.

Mar

23

2012

Hitch on Che

This is old (’97) but worth a read: Christopher Hitchens reviews John Lee Anderson’s biography of  Che, along with Guevara’s own Motorcycle Diaries.

Oct

29

2011

Libya backlash

I’m fresh off a roleplay for a course where I had to argue that, in hindsight, the Libyan intervention was a bad idea. Being given a role to play can make thinking through tough issues deceptively easier — your mind is made up, so you just have to sort through the available evidence and narratives to make the best possible case for that decision. If I had had to choose my own position, well… I’m much more conflicted. The media narrative of the moment is that Qaddafi’s death proves that the Libya intervention was a success. Maybe I’m under the influence of my assumed position, but here are two alternate perspectives that I think are extremely valuable.

First, Daniel Larison, writing at The Week, says the Libya war is still a failure. It weakened the “responsibility to protect” principle and has already made it harder to respond to other situations (such as in Syria):

Instead of protecting the population of Libya — which is what the U.N. authorized — the West’s intervention allowed the conflict to continue and consume perhaps as many as 30,000 Libyan lives, including many thousands of civilians, in addition to tens of thousands wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced. Rather than the “limited” war presented by the intervention’s defenders, it immediately expanded into a policy of regime change. The official goal of protecting civilians was subordinated very early on to the real purpose of the war — namely, the destruction of the existing government and the elimination of its leaders.

Contrary to the hope that Libya would provide a deterrent to regime violence elsewhere, the political fallout from the war has stalled any international response to Syria’s crackdown. By exceeding the U.N. mandate they received in March, the U.S. and its allies have poisoned emerging democratic powers such as India and Brazil against taking any action in other countries. Libya has confirmed every skeptic’s worst fears that in practice, the “responsibility to protect” is little more than a pretext for toppling vulnerable governments.

And David Rieff, writing at Foreign Policy, calls Qaddafi “the man who knew too much”:

Qaddafi was, quite simply, a man who knew too much. Taken alive, he would have almost certainly have been handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which had indicted him — along with his son, Saif al-Islam, and brother-in-law and military intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi (whereabouts unknown) — for crimes against humanity in late June. Imagine the stir he would have made in The Hague. There, along with any number of fantasies and false accusations, he would almost certainly have revealed the extent of his intimate relations with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the details of his government’s collaboration with Western intelligence services in counterterrorism, with the European Union in limiting migration from Libyan shores, and in the granting of major contracts to big Western oil and construction firms.

He would have had much to tell, for this cooperation was extensive. In the war against the jihadis — a war to which Qaddafi regularly claimed to be as committed to prosecuting as Washington, Paris, or London — links between Libyan intelligence and the CIA were particularly strong, as an archive of secret documents unearthed by Human Rights Watch researchers has revealed. If anything, the CIA’s British counterpart, MI6, was even more involved with the Qaddafi family. As the Guardian reported in early September, it was Sir Mark Allen, then the director of the counterterrorism section of MI6, the British overseas spying agency, who was the key figure on the Western side in the secret negotiations to get Qaddafi to give up his WMD programs. The Guardian story further laid out how, after failing to become director of MI6 in 2004, Allen went into the private sector, becoming a senior advisor to the Monitor Group, a consulting firm that was paid huge fees by Qaddafi to burnish his image around the world, and, while they were at it, helped Saif (who had been his father’s initial envoy to MI6) research his PhD thesis for the London School of Economics (LSE). Allen was also an advisor to BP, helping the oil giant secure major contracts in Libya from the Qaddafi regime.

Messy all around.

Oct

25

2011

Timing

This week in one of my classes we were scheduled to discuss humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect” principle. Our case study is on Libya, and especially on the initial decision to intervene. Not coincidentally, one of the professors for the course is Anne-Marie Slaughter (see her NYT editorial in support of action, just days before UN Resolution 1973).

The news of Gadhafi’s death broke just before class. Then, after a session touching on these topics in the context of broader theories of international relations, I found myself in a computer lab with several of my classmates. We were mostly checking our email or printing assignments, but the conversation turned to Libya. Someone mentioned that a video had been posted of Gadhafi still alive when he was captured (see here), and we started pulling up different videos and trying to piece together what happened. What order, who did what, how we should react, and so forth.

Separate from the implications of Gadhafi’s death for the future of Libya, there’s a question of how quickly media has changed how we interact with world events, and how participants in those events seek to portray them. A century ago radio brought real-time news, followed a few decades later by TV. The last decade has seen the proliferation of digital video cameras and the rise of sites like YouTube where anyone can disseminate footage to the entire world, at first side-stepping the old media and then being amplified by it.

I don’t know how this situation would have played out a few decades ago, but here we were watching videos taken earlier the same day by rebel forces in Libya. Has there ever been faster turnaround between the fall of a despot, the spread of imagery to shape the narrative of what happened? As viewers and discussants we were participating in the immediate struggle to claim responsibility.

Oct

20

2011

More on Rev. Sam Childers

Earlier this week I wrote five posts (combined into one here) on a scary character named Sam Childers. He goes by the name “Machine Gun Preacher” (website) and I concluded that he was either a self-aggrandizing liar, dangerous, or both. His enthusiastic supporters and a PR rep have commented and contacted me, and I wanted to related the new information below. The short version is that the needle is swinging farther from liar and closer to dangerous.

Regardless of the corrections and additions I’ve noted here, I think it obviously stands that you shouldn’t give Childers your money. Childers has been promoting himself as just the hero the children of South Sudan need, and is finally getting a movie based on his life. For the full list of dubious claims (which were not limited to working with the SPLA) see my prior posts, but it’s worth noting again that he’s stockpiling arms at his orphanage and has admitted to selling weapons to unnamed armed factions in Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda. He’s apparently fighting with or is friends with the SPLA or some faction of it (details are unclear). His organization doesn’t seem up-front enough about what they have done and will continue to do with your donation to deserve it. And now (according to comments here) he may be poised to start raising money for famine relief in Somalia.

If you just want Kony killed, Childers doesn’t sound like your best shot — and it’s simply not true that the use of child soldiers in the region will end if you kill Kony, as the SPLA has used them too, after all. For reasons why contributing more arms to the conflict is a bad idea, start here. If you want to give to a charity that helps children in South Sudan but is not associated with Childers’ violent tactics, try this organization for starters (rec here) – and I’m sure there are many, many others.

The new information:

1. Whoever moderates the Machine Gun Preacher Reality Series Facebook page (possibly the directors of an upcoming documentary on Childers?) posted this document:

It is dated July 12, 2011, signed by a Lt. Gen Mete, and reads:

This is to certify that Rev. Samuel hee Childers has worked with the SPLA for over 10 year he also RUN an orphanage in Nimule, and travels the out South Sudan he has been granted permission to posses and carry a pistol and rifle for personal security while executing his duties. When seen assist where necessary.

This obviously contradicts the prior press release, apparently from the main SPLA spokesperson denouncing Childers. Assuming this new release is legit, it raises questions about the SPLA’s cohesion and communication. That isn’t too surprising, as one former South Sudan resident said they thought there was considerable struggle over control between the center and other factions.

2. Maria Sliwa, Childers’ (update: former) current publicist, commented on this post noting that she was not yet representing Childers at the time she wrote the article I linked to. Thus, I was in error to say she had failed to disclose that, and I’ve added corrections to the appropriate posts.

3. I evidently goofed in saying Marc Forster was on Oscar-winning director — apparently he’s only directed films that were nominated for Oscars. I could care less about the Academy Awards so this distinction isn’t important to me , but some (including Childers supporters who commented here) evidently think this is a big deal that throws my entire credibility into doubt. Sorry?

While I’m at it, here’s a clip of Childers being interviewed by Pat Robertson on the 700 club. In it he says that many US government officials have contacted him, that he’s also fought the Janjaweed (funny how that didn’t make it into his dramatic report of his trip to Darfur), and that he gets his weapons from the government (presumably of South Sudan?) rather than buying them from “the Russians” as he said elsewhere. Again, I’m not against helping children in South Sudan, but it doesn’t seem giving Childers money is the best way to do so.

Aug

04

2011

Who is Sam Childers? (conclusion)

This is part 5 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4, or view the whole series as one long article.

In the April 2011 Times of London profile (not online), Childers said this:

“I tell you this – and I believe the day is coming soon – if I had the money, I could have Joseph Kony’s head. I could bring him down. And I will have the money, soon.” […]

… Childers insists the film will be a hit: “It’s going to do unbelievable well.” He hopes it will make him famous, so he can raise more funds for his manhunt and his orphanage.

My hope is that more people will think critically about what the “Machine Gun Preacher” is advocating and doing in Sudan, and choose to give to other organizations instead. There are plenty of reasons to doubt his work:

  1. Violence. By his own claims Childers has personally killed people – in the double digits. He is not a man of peace, and it’s hard to see how his claimed tactics bring the situation closer to that. Even if he were the best option for getting Kony (highly doubtful), it doesn’t seem to me that the use of child soldiers in the region would disappear with Kony’s demise. Also, since many of Kony’s troops are themselves soldiers, how does Childers avoid killing them?
  2. Weapons. Again by his own claims, Childers has sold weapons to armed groups in Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo. There are no happy-go-lucky bands of nice Christian warriors in the area; every group I’ve read about has been accused of terrible crimes at some point. Feeding more weapons into the conflict will only make things worse, and end up hurting the children Childers purports to help. His solutions are woefully shortsighted.
  3. Lies. Childers claimed to be a “white commander” in the SPLA, but the SPLA has publicly denounced him and called for legal action. This apparent falsehood casts some doubt on whether Childers really does the things he claims – the violence and weapons described above – so we’re left choosing between whether he is dishonest or dangerous. Or both. (Update: see Childers’ letter of support from an SPLA general here — but also note that this isn’t the only of his claims that begs skepticism.)
  4. Disrespect. Much of what Childers’ trafficks in – weapons aside – is poverty porn of the worst sort. By only emphasizing the worst aspects of any situation Childers may drive up his donations, but he demeans those he seeks to serve. He goes even further in his report on South Darfur, prompting a commenter who worked in the region to call him out.
  5. The White Man’s burden. Childers’ story is only the latest in a long history of “Whites in Shining Armour” narratives that emphasize the heroics of white Americans and Europeans while downplaying the agency of the people of Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.
  6. It’s a bad model to begin with. Saundra S of the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough has written extensively on why donors should be wary of orphanages.

What then shall we do?

I realize some people will find these posts and be discouraged because they were moved by stories of suffering in Sudan and just want to give to someone. Don’t respond to the emotion you’re feeling by supporting Sam Childers, as there are – contrary to his claims – many other organizations working in South Sudan that do good work. If you feel compelled to give to a charity in South Sudan you might consider Oxfam. If you only give to Christian groups, consider World Vision. No group is perfect, but these are both reputable charities. My apologies for not being familiar with smaller charities on the ground, and I would appreciate suggestions from those who are more familiar with the area.

Ironically, I think Sam Childers is best summed up by blogger Chris Baron in this review – where Baron obviously believes in Childers. He asks good rhetorical questions, but obviously I think the evidence points to a different conclusion:

There are only two options, he is either an insatiable liar or there is a God in Heaven who has tasked his angels concerning Sam’s work. And how many liars do you know give up everything in order to save children, build orphanages and fight enemies who are not their own? Liars don’t do that. Liars are self serving.

———————

Notes on Angels of East Africa’s finances: The organization’s income has increased in recent years from $309,166 in 2006 (tax PDF), $578,992 in 2007, $446,294 in 2008, and $877,755 in 2009. Vanity Fair reported that the orphanage has an “annual budget of about $600,000, raised primarily through Childers’s speaking fees and donations from a global network of evangelicals.”

I’m not a Form 990 tax expert, so I will leave more detailed explorations to others. The travel costs ($233,717 in 2008 and $216,809 in 2009) seem high to me. Childers certainly isn’t taking a huge salary: the first year his salary was listed was 2008, at a mere $38,900. It’s hard to tell what all they’ve spent money on – all orphanage expenses are listed under line items such as “Wires to Africa.” Presumably some of this money went to purchase weapons as well?

Miscellaneous notes: here are some additional semi-relevant links that I could not work into this narrative but you may enjoy:

  • The FAA fined Childers $28,000 in 2007 for transporting oil and other hazardous materials by plan.
  • A bunch of photos of Sam Childers in Africa.
  • A video interview in which Childers says he joined SPLA, features sick, crying Africans and naked children, and describes him as a “a rebel turned savior called the bearded white man.”
  • An adaptation of a chapter in Childers’ book.
  • It’s not clear to me where the claims in this PDF come from, but they outline some even more grandiose claims supposedly made by Childers – seems less reputable to me.
  • This video is a short documentary on Childers (or maybe a preview for one?).
  • Childers has a second book titled Living on the Edge coming out in a year or less.
  • This long-ish MSNBC story also features Childers. It’s remarkable how uncritical the coverage of him has been by so many media sources. I also find it hard to imagine that they would take his more extraordinary claims seriously if he were an African rather than an American.
Aug

03

2011

Disowned

This is part 4 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Read part 1, part 2, and part 3, or view the whole series as one long article.

So how do we know that Childers isn’t telling the truth? His SPLA buddies said so. After claiming that he was the only white SPLA commander, that he let them use his house as a radio base, and that he recruited SPLA troops as his own personal child-rescuing mercenary outfit, in October 2010 the SPLA put out a press release (through long-time Sudan hand John Ashworth). It reads:

Sam Childers is not associated with the SPLA

This is to inform all who are concerned that Sam Childers is not associated with the SPLA. Sam is alleged to be busy now collecting money in the USA using the name of the SPLA. He went to the level of alleging that he is “paying  his militia force – a platoon of seasoned fighters recruited from the SPLA – and for his effort, he says, the Government of Southern Sudan has named him an honorary commander, the only white man to achieve that distinction”.

The SPLA does not know Sam Childers. SPLA cannot release its soldiers for militia purposes as that is not allowed by the SPLA Act of 2009. If the allegation is true, then the SPLA is appealing to those who are concerned to take legal measures against Sam for the misusing the name of an organization which is not associated with him.

Thanks. Signed: Lt. Gen. Kuol Deim Kuol, SPLA Spokesman

A rather inconvenient truth. This press release was actually the first I had heard of Childers, as the blogger Roving Bandit (formerly of Sudan) highlighted both Childers’ story and the SPLA’s press release.

Post-press release I believe the most sympathetic possible view of Childers is that he started an orphanage and rescued some children… but maybe he’s prone to exaggerating his feats and the means by which he accomplishes them. Maybe Maria Sliwa got carried away in promoting him writing about him and exaggerated his SPLA claims and violent tactics. But even if those stories originated with her (who can ever know?) (Update: see previous post re: Sliwa’s work as his publicist not beginning at the time of her article) [Now] Childers has now fully claimed them as his own. You can read a few excerpts of his memoir through Google Books. In it he claims:

I had SPLA soldiers with me from the first time I went to Africa. Once they realized I was as committed to helping the people of Sudan as they were, they accepted me as their friend and fellow soldier. When I saw that they didn’t have the equipment and supplied they needed in the field, I started bringing them gifts like binoculars, tents, and sleeping bags.

I started hiring the SPLA for security work, and because we worked so close together, I became an SPLA soldier myself. They saw that my heart was to make a difference in the lives of their people, so they started calling me a commander. I carried truckloads of food, salt, sugar, blankets, and other supplies to the front for soldiers, as well as preaching to them and encouraging them in battle.

In his book Childers also claims to have been present during the negotiation of the CPA (which brought Sudan’s civil war to a close). By his own telling he was the only one at the table concerned with the humanitarian needs of the Sudanese people, which didn’t make people happy: “U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell had some representatives at the talks, and I heard they got upset with me. One of them asked somebody else, ‘Who the hell is this white guy?’”

So who the hell is Sam Childers? He wants you to believe he’s working to resolve South Sudan’s problems, but to me he seems dangerously unstable. Here’s a man with a temper, selling arms to groups he likely doesn’t understand, and promoting himself with dubious claims. I certainly won’t donate. But like it or not, the Machine Gun Preacher movie is coming soon. USA Today has a brief preview, and more is sure to come. In the meantime Childers has been touring the country’s churches in a custom-painted Machine Gun Preacher truck and raising money through the Machine Gun Preacher store.

Those who follow the aid and philanthropy world may find all of this a bit reminiscent of the Greg Mortenson scandal. The Mortenson scandal erupted in part because people who were suspicious about exaggerations in Mortenson’s story kept quiet for much too long. I imagine there are many people who have met Childers throughout the years who feel the same. The United States has thousands of tiny charities – many of them with a religious mission – that never make it big. Mortenson’s claims were finally scrutinized when his books became bestsellers, but by that time his organization had already raised millions of dollars. I’m worried that Sam Childers is about to see the same type of fame: a massive increase in donations driven by his book, and especially by the Machine Gun Preacher movie.

To be fair, I see no indication that Childers has mishandled money as Mortenson apparently did. You can look up the tax records for “Boyers Pond – Shekinah Fellowship – Angels of East Africa Inc” using their tax number, EIN 251841332. (See the note at the end of this series for more on the finances.) But the lack of accountability is troubling. If the organization has a board it’s not listed publicly. The main employees of the charity appear to be Childers, his wife, and their daughter. That may be standard issue for smaller charities, but with revenues approaching $1 million annually – and certain to increase after the movie is released – it should be cause for some concern.

Continue reading part 5 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Aug

03

2011

To be lowly in spirit

This is part 3 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Read part 1 and part 2, or read the whole series as one long article.

Childers has never been a modest man. More from Urbina’s profile of him:

[Childers] compares himself to the biblical figure Ishmael, whose wild spirit, he says, drove women into transports of desire. “It was insane. I would have five girls in a single night. I mean, seriously, I could have had your mother if I had wanted her.” He glares at me, a speck of food stuck in his mustache, as if I don’t believe him. More than the drugs and sex, it was the violence that fed Childers.

That is the image the Reverend Sam chooses to project. He’s a violent man on a mission, and God is on his side. To some that message may be horrifying, but he’s obviously found a niche. Unfortunately there is a strain of American Christianity that eats this up. It’s quite different from the church I grew up in, which was historically pacifist (but has lately strayed towards mainstream Republican militarism). I hope most Christians will recoil in horror when they hear what Childers does in the name of God, but not everyone will. Those groups will latch onto Childers’ violent streak will just pour more money into his work.

The story could end there – with Childers as some bizarre mash-up of Rambo and missionary – except that it gets stranger. Childers claims have grown more grandiose with time, and/or he’s tailored them to fit different audiences to avoid mentioning important parts of his work that might be relevant to donors.

Childers’ organization is now called Angels of East Africa. If you go to their website, www.AngelsofEastAfrica.com, you get redirected to MachineGunPreacher.org. But, if you go to any other page on the website the content is still there, giving you a taste of how the site looked before it got the fancy (and I imagine expensive) Machine Gun Preacher makeover. The original Angels of East Africa “About” page is here. The history page has more. Much of the story is the same, but there are glaring omissions: no mention of being involved with the SPLA. Despite a description of Kony, there’s no indication that Childers was trying to hunt him down. It’s all much simpler — just rescuing orphans and building the orphanage.

Angels of East Africa is also associated with a Christian ministry called Boyers’ Pond / World Missions New Sudan. Their website (www.boyerspond.com) also now redirects to MachineGunPreacher.org. But the original webpages behind the main page are still there, including descriptions of rescue missions January 2007 (including an ambush) and May 2007. Again, there’s no mention of fighting with the SPLA or tracking down Kony. Incredibly, Childers does note in the January 2007 report that as “many times happens, several were not healthy enough to make the trip and we had to leave them behind.”

You shall not swear falsely

All of this made me think: when and where did Childers first claim involvement with the SPLA? As late as 2007 he wasn’t making those claims in material clearly written by him, even in places you’d expect him to do so. After some searching, the earliest instance of his more outrageous claims regarding active involvement in combat and interactions with the SPLA didn’t come from Childers. It came from this 2005 article written by Maria Sliwa (emphasis added):

With a physique like Jean Claude Van Damme, 42-year-old Sam Childers has hunted alligators in the US and has smacked down miscreants in Africa. This titan, who could easily pass for Hulk Hogan’s younger brother, sold hard drugs in the late 70s and early 80s and was a rider with the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang in Florida. He has since put his notorious ways behind him and now uses his muscular prowess to save lives in Sudan and Uganda.

On a recent morning, Sam surveyed the orphanage he built on the 36 acres of bush land he cleared four years ago in Nimule, South Sudan. His orphanage is a safe haven for children who are captured out of, or are lucky enough to escape from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel paramilitary group operating in Uganda and Sudan, which has been designated a terrorist group by the US State Department. Though Sam’s gut is overstocked with intestinal fortitude, the terror that rages around his orphanage is so frightening that just thinking about it can send a cold shiver of electric sparks up and down his sturdy spine.

Sam is a pastor and is the only white commander in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), another rebel group, which, like the LRA has troops in Sudan and Uganda.

Maybe Childers has been telling a consistent story all along in private, but this is (as far as I can tell) the first public mention of his work with the SPLA. And this narrative took over the others until it became the hyperbolic Sam we hear from today. So who is Maria Sliwa? Though she didn’t disclose it in writing her article, Sliwa runs a PR firm, and Childers is her client(Updated Correction: Maria Sliwa left a comment on this post saying that she did not begin representing Childers until 2008. I had assumed so because a) the page that has her contact info appeared to be much older, judging by the web design, and b) it reads more like a PR piece than objective journalism. She later clarified that she does not currently represent Childers.) An old page on the Boyers’ Pond site lists her as his press contact. Her website (and an older version) lists media appearances she’s arranged for clients, and her ability to push a story is quite impressive.

Maria Sliwa’s clients include several people connected to modern-day slavery and Sudan (such as Simon Deng) but also many conservative figures. One is Joseph Farah – founder of World Net Daily and one of the leading proponents of Birtherism (the “birther czar”). Farah is known to play fast and loose with the facts, to say the least, so Sliwa’s work promoting him should not inspire us to have confidence in her devotion to the truth.

Continue reading part 4 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Aug

03

2011

The devil’s hunter and his weapons

This is part 2 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Part 1 is here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Crush the wicked where they stand

Some of Childers’ most outrageous claims are his most recent. An April 2010 Vanity Fair profile, “Get Kony” by Ian Urbina – worth reading in full – focused on Childers’ personal quest to kill Joseph Kony. Kony is, of course, a really bad guy. He’s the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerilla group in northern Uganda known for its use of child soldiers. Childers claims to be hunting him. Urbina’s story doesn’t present Childers as particularly good at hunting or much closer to catching Kony than any of the others who are out for his head. But the beginning gives you a taste of Childers’ character:

It’s two a.m., and we’re barreling down a deeply pocked dirt road in Southern Sudan. In the cool of night, the temperature is nearly 100 degrees. Sam Childers, 46, is behind the wheel of a chrome-tinted Mitsubishi truck. Christian rock blares on the speakers. He has a Bible on the dash and a shotgun that he calls his “widow-maker” leaning against his left knee. His top sergeant, Santino Deng, 34, a Dinka tribesman with an anthracite complexion and radiant black eyes, sits in the passenger seat, an AK-47 across his lap.

In time, he liquidated his construction business, sold his pit bulls, auctioned his antique-gun collection, and mortgaged his home to help pay for regular trips to Sudan, where he began spending most of his time. He became obsessed with the fate of the thousands of children who have lost their parents to the fighting. In due course he would set up an orphanage in Sudan. But it was Joseph Kony who grabbed his attention. “I found God in 1992,” Childers says, in what is by now a ritual formulation. “I found Satan in 1998.” He has vowed to track Kony down and, in biblical fashion, to smite him.

From there the story gets more elaborate. According to Vanity Fair, Childers claims to be feeding and supplying the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a southern Sudanese armed group whose political wing has more recently become a major component of independent South Sudan’s government. Childers said that he “made his home in Uganda available to the rebels for a radio-relay station.” He also claims to have been present when the SPLA captured “an L.R.A. soldier believed to be part of Kony’s inner circle. Childers wanted to sedate the man and surgically implant a transmitter so he could be tracked when he returned to the base camp. An S.P.L.A. commander overruled Childers and dealt with the man the old-fashioned way—he executed him.”

No word on whether Childers reported this to anyone before the interview; executing prisoners is a war crime.

God’s RPG stockpile?

The profile continues, describing how a group of soldiers arrive to discuss the hunt for Kony. They ask to see inside his church:

The building, with a high sheet-metal roof and glassless windows, displays no religious markings. Inside, stacked floor to ceiling, sit hundreds of oblong olive-green crates. They contain rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47s, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The room is dusty, and birds flutter in the rafters. Childers says he supplies mostly the S.P.L.A., and also stores some of its arms. He adds that he has sold weapons to factions in Rwanda and Congo, but declines to specify which ones.

Childers said he gets his weapons from Russians, but only legally. He eventually got frustrated with Urbina’s questions about his arms dealing, but he already admitted a lot. Childers is stockpiling arms, including heavy weapons like RPGs that seem excessive for the needs of an orphanage’s self-protection. He’s storing these weapons in a church at his orphanage (which presumably might make it a target) and he sells weapons to the SPLA, which is not a squeaky clean group. While better than the LRA, the SPLA also has been known to use child soldiers during the period Childers sold them arms. Worse is Childers’ mention of selling weapons to “factions in Rwanda and Congo,” all of which are involved in a convoluted series of conflicts in which all parties have committed terrible crimes. If Childers is truly trying to bring an end to conflict in the region, he should start by recognizing that pumping more small arms into the area isn’t going to help.

In addition to selling arms, Childers claims that his “rescue missions” have also led to his personal engagement in combat. When asked how many LRA members he personally killed, “[Childers] reluctantly admits to ‘more than 10.’” In another long profile – from April 9, 2011 in The Times of London (which I unfortunately can’t find online) Childers appears to say he’s only killed in self-defense, though it’s hard to deem armed expeditions to find the LRA “self-defense.” That profile also emphasizes the primacy of Childers’ hunt for Kony. It also describes him showing off the guns he keeps in his bedroom at the orphanage:

He hauls an Uzi machine pistol out of one [plastic crate] and clicks in a 32-round magazine. From another comes a longbarrelled Magnum revolver, and from under his narrow metal-framed bed comes a case containing a Mossberg bolt-action sniper rifle and a pump-action shotgun. Another box beneath the bed is full of hand grenades.

If you’re not convinced already that his tactics are shortsighted and part of the problem, rather than a solution, you might be wondering if – just maybe – Childers knows the local situation so well that he was able to pick the “right” side in the conflict. Other stories indicate that Childers is impatient and interacts poorly with the Sudanese people. Urbina’s profile continues (emphasis added):

A little later we pull to the side of the road for firewood to bring back to the orphanage. A woman and her husband stand there with a listless baby who is gravely ill from parasites and malaria. Childers offers to take the woman and child to the hospital in Nimule. The father shyly declines, saying he plans to take her to a different clinic tomorrow. A look of rage flashes in Childers’s eyes. “I ought to beat you right here, you know that?” he yells. “What kind of father are you? You are not serious about your children.” Childers points to a nearby grave, where the family has already buried an infant. “What is wrong with you?” Childers by now is surrounded by several of his soldiers, guns on their shoulders. He steps toward the man. “I should really beat you,” he repeats. Terrified, the father gives in. We take mother and child to the hospital.

The child recovers; Childers almost certainly saved its life. But the bullying lingers in memory long afterward. I remember once asking Childers whether any vil­lagers had ever declined his offer to take their children, or whether he had ever taken any against their will. He erupted angrily: “You know what? I don’t have time to be distracted by this sort of interrogation.”

This is hardly reassuring. While Childers doesn’t answer Urbina’s questions about taking children against their will (or detailed questions about his arms dealing), it’s clear that his own ambitions feed off of media coverage. How else did Urbina come to profile him? Self-aggrandizing is a good word for it. Urbina describes Childers as “droning on about the feature film that he hopes will be made about his life, a proj­ect advanced by a Hollywood agent.” Who does that?

Continue reading part 3 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Aug

03

2011

Who is Sam Childers?

He goes by many names, Reverend Sam and the “Machine Gun Preacher” amongst them. If you haven’t heard much from Sam Childers, you will soon. To date he’s been featured in a few mainstream publications, but most of his exposure has come from forays into Christian media outlets and cross-country speaking tours of churches. In 2009 he published his memoir, Another Man’s War. But Childers is about to become much better known: his life story is being made into a movie titled Machine Gun Preacher. It hits the big screen this September, starring Gerard Butler (300) and directed by Oscar-winner Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace).

Why should you care? If you’re concerned about Africa (especially the newly independent South Sudan), neutrality and humanitarianism, or how small charities sometimes make it big on dubious stories, Childers is a scary character. By his own admission Sam Childers is a Christian and a savior to hundreds of children, as well as a small-time arms-dealer and a killer. And, as far as I can tell, he’s a self-aggrandizing liar who chronically exaggerates his own stories and has been denounced by many, including the rebel group of which he claimed to be a commander.

It’s hard to get to the bottom of much of Childers’ story. I first heard of him months ago and have been scouring the web, but the trail is still pretty thin. On the on hand there’s a ton of copy written about him – but almost all of it originates with Childers’ own storytelling. I think there are a number of good reasons we should be skeptical.

The short version of his coming-to-the-big-screen story is this: Childers used to be a drug-dealing gang member who loved motorcycles almost as much as he craved women, drugs, and violence – especially violence. He fell in love with his wife after they met through a drug deal, and she convinced him to turn his life around. Sam found Jesus, got involved with the church, and went to Africa. There he encountered the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and it use of child soldiers. He found his calling leading armed rescue missions to free enslaved children in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. Now that his life story is being made into a movie — a goal Childers has long sought — his ministry will only grow stronger and save more children.

His website, MachineGunPreacher.org, makes no apologies about his violent tactics. Here’s one of the banners that adorns the front page:

What you see now is a slickly-polished presentation, but it hasn’t always been that way. Childers’ story has grown over time, apparently aided by a PR firm, sympathetic media, and a quest to be ever more sensational. My gut reaction is that he’s making much of it up – and I’ll present evidence that shows at least some of his claims are likely falsehoods. We can choose to believe that Childers’ claims are true, in which case he is dangerous, or that they’re false and he’s untrustworthy. The reality is probably that he’s a bit of both.

This is part 1 of a longer article on Childers. Continue reading part 2 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Aug

03

2011

CIA’s despicable Pakistan vaccination ploy

Via Conflict Health, The Guardian reports that the “CIA organised fake vaccination drive to get Osama bin Laden’s family DNA”:

In March health workers administered the vaccine in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Abbottabad called Nawa Sher. The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given in three doses, the second a month after the first. But in April, instead of administering the second dose in Nawa Sher, the doctor returned to Abbottabad and moved the nurses on to Bilal Town, the suburb where Bin Laden lived.

Christopher Albon of Conflict Health writes:

If true, the CIA’s actions are irresponsible and utterly reprehensible. The quote above implies that the patients never received their second or third doses of the hepatitis B vaccine. And even if they did, there is absolutely no guarantee that the vaccines were real. The simple fact is that the health of the children of Abbottabad has been put at risk through a deceptive medical operations by the Central Intelligence Agency. Furthermore, the operation undermines future vaccination campaigns and Pakistani health workers by fueling conspiracy theories about their true purpose.

Albon notes that the Guardian’s source is Pakistan’s ISI… but this McClatchy story seems to confirm it via US sources:

The doctor’s role was to help American officials know with certainty that bin Laden was in the compound, according to security officials and residents here, all of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they feared government retribution. U.S. officials in Washington confirmed the general outlines of the effort. They asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The sensitivity of the topic? No kidding. This is absolutely terrible, and not just because the kids originally involved might not have gotten the second round of vaccine (which is bad) or because it will make the work of legitimate public health officials in Pakistan even harder (which is very bad). Vaccines are amazing innovations that save millions of lives, and they are so widely respected that combatants have gone to extraordinary lengths to allow vaccination campaigns to proceed in the midst of war. For instance, UNICEF has brokered ceasefires in Afghanistan and Pakistan for polio vaccine campaigns which are essential since those are two of the four countries where polio transmission has never been interrupted.

I hope I’m not overreacting, but I’m afraid this news may be bad for the kids of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the rest of the world. Assuming the early reports are confirmed, this plot should be condemned by everyone. If US officials who support global vaccination efforts are going to control the damage as much as possible — though it’s likely much of it has already been done — then there need to be some very public repercussions for whoever authorized this or had any foreknowledge. What tragic stupidity: a few branches of the US government are spending millions and millions to promote vaccines, while another branch is doing this. The CIA is out of control. Sadly, I’m not optimistic that there will be any accountability, and I’m fuming that my own country breached this critical, neutral tool of peace and health. How incredibly short-sighted.

Update: In addition to the Guardian story, Conflict Health, and McClatchy stories linked above, this NYTimes article offers further confirmation and the CNN piece has some additional details. Tom Paulson at Humanosphere, Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch, Charles Kenny of CGD, and Seth Mnookin all offer commentary.

Jul

11

2011

Libya

I saw this anti-war poster next to the Hopkins shuttle stop in Baltimore:

A mixture of probably true and not-so-true rhetoric about Libya. It’s about oil! Well, partly — but a single intervention can have multiple motivations, both humanitarian and otherwise. And then: “Attacking LIBYA is Attacking AFRICA!” which is helpfully illustrated with a map of Libya showing that it’s, well, in Africa. This is a fascinating reimagination of the “all Africa is the same” meme. Another interesting observation: the poster is all about the Pentagon, with no mention of President Obama.

On the other hand, I think anti-war voices are healthy and helpful, even if the rhetoric is misguided. I’m torn on the Libyan intervention — I believe it’s justified, but I’m deeply worried about what happens next. Sometimes there are no good options, and the best possible option (intervening) can still lead to terrible outcomes.

Kristof provides this powerful justification that I can’t get away from:

I’ve seen war up close, and I detest it. But there are things I’ve seen that are even worse — such as the systematic slaughter of civilians as the world turns a blind eye. Thank God that isn’t happening this time.

But another valuable voice is Alex de Waal, who doesn’t have quite the audience of Kristof. De Waal shares these troubling thoughts:

Much of Libya is now ungoverned. That is particularly true of southern Libya. There has been little attention to the towns of the south, such as Sebha and Kufra, with no international correspondents there. These places are matters of great concern to neighbouring governments such as Niger, Chad and Sudan, because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there. Gaddafi’s opening of the Libyan arsenals to anyone ready to fight for the regime, and the collapse of authority in other places, means that such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease. [....]

I spoke with one African military officer who welcomed the NATO action in Libya, saying “nothing could be worse than Gaddafi.” I suggested that he wait and see.

Update: Andrew Sullivan links to Daniel Larison’s critique of Kristof’s view that the intervention averted civilian slaughter:

Saying that the war has averted a humanitarian catastrophe is an extremely useful claim, and there’s no obvious way to disprove it. Outside governments intervened, and a humanitarian catastrophe hasn’t happened, and supporters of the war take it for granted that one would have happened otherwise. Of course, this is why they supported the war, but this points to the dilemma that humanitarian interventionists have. If they intervene in a timely fashion and don’t make the situation drastically worse in the process, there is nothing concrete they can point to that vindicates the decision.

Mar

25

2011

Global health effects of nuclear war

Some morbid weekend reading: “The global health effects of nuclear war,” by Brian Martin, published in Current Affairs Bulletin in 1982. A section on overkill:

Many people believe that the capacity of nuclear weapons for ‘overkill’ means that all or most of the people on earth would die in a major nuclear war. In spite of the prevalence of this idea, there is little scientific evidence to support it.

Many calculations of ‘overkill’ appear to be made using the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a baseline. Estimates of the number of people killed at Hiroshima from a 13kt bomb range from 63,000 to over 200,000. Adopting a figure of 130,000 for illustrative purposes gives ten people killed for each tonne of nuclear explosive. By linear extrapolation, explosion of a third of a million times as much explosive power, 4000Mt, would kill a third of a million times as many people, namely 40,000 million, or nearly ten times the present world population.

But this factor of ten is misleading, since linear extrapolation does not apply. Suppose the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had been 1000 times as powerful, 13Mt. It could not have killed 1000 times as many people, but at most the entire population of Hiroshima perhaps 250,000. Re-doing the ‘overkill’ calculation using these figures gives not a figure of ten but of only 0.02. This example shows that crude linear extrapolations of this sort are unlikely to provide any useful information about the effects of nuclear war.

Feb

12

2011