Archive for the ‘war’Category

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.

03

08 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.

11

07 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.

25

03 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.

12

02 2011

Unanticipated Revolutions

From the Wikipedia page on Timur Kuran:

The fall of East European communism in 1989 came as a massive surprise. Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 stunned the CIA, the KGB, the Shah of Iran that it toppled, and even the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom it catapulted to power. The Russian Revolution of 1917 stunned Lenin, the deposed Romanovs, and foreign diplomats stationed in St. Petersburg. No one foresaw the French Revolution of 1789, not even the rioters who brought it about. In each of these cases, a massive shift in political power occurred when long-submerged sentiments burst to the surface, with public opposition to the incumbent regime feeding on itself. Preference falsification explains why the incumbent regime appeared stable almost until the eve of its collapse. People ready to oppose it publicly kept their opposition private until a coincidence of factors gave them the motivation and the courage to bring their discontents out in the open. In switching sides, they encouraged other hidden opponents to join the opposition themselves. Through the resulting bandwagon process, fear changed sides. No longer did opponents of the old regime feel that they would be punished for being sincere; genuine supporters of the old regime started falsifying their preferences, pretending that the turn of events met their approval.

Timur Kuran first identified this mechanism in a April 1989 article entitled “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolutions,” which offered the cases of 1789, 1917, and 1978-79 as examples of revolutions that stunned the world. A few months later, the pattern was repeated in Eastern Europe. Kuran proceeded to explain why seasoned experts of the communist bloc were caught off guard in “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989,” published in 1991. These two papers, like related chapters of Private Truths, Public Lies, suggest that political revolutions and shifts in political opinion in general will catch the world by surprise again and again, because of people’s readiness to conceal their political proclivities under perceived social pressures.[5]

Asked in an interview whether he thinks that revolutions or counter-revolutions are imminent in the Islamic Middle East, he responded that although most Middle Eastern regimes are unstable due to lack of genuine legitimacy, the required shifts in Middle Eastern public opinion are unpredictable. If Middle Eastern regimes do collapse like a house of cards, he adds, most observers will be stunned, though there will be no shortage of commentators who will say “I told you so.” [6]

h/t @tylercowen

28

01 2011

Confronting ourselves

The Independent’s Johann Hari interviews Gideon Levy, a controversial Israeli critic of Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories. An excerpt:

He reported that day on a killing, another of the hundreds he has documented over the years. As twenty little children pulled up in their school bus at the Indira Gandhi kindergarten, their 20 year-old teacher, Najawa Khalif, waved to them – and an Israel shell hit her and she was blasted to pieces in front of them. He arrived a day later, to find the shaking children drawing pictures of the chunks of her corpse. The children were “astonished to see a Jew without weapons. All they had ever seen were soldiers and settlers.”

And another:

Levy uses a simple technique. He asks his fellow Israelis: how would we feel, if this was done to us by a vastly superior military power? Once, in Jenin, his car was stuck behind an ambulance at a checkpoint for an hour. He saw there was a sick woman in the back and asked the driver what was going on, and he was told the ambulances were always made to wait this long. Furious, he asked the Israeli soldiers how they would feel if it was their mother in the ambulance – and they looked bemused at first, then angry, pointing their guns at him and telling him to shut up.

“I am amazed again and again at how little Israelis know of what’s going on fifteen minutes away from their homes,” he says. “The brainwashing machinery is so efficient that trying [to undo it is] almost like trying to turn an omelette back to an egg. It makes people so full of ignorance and cruelty.” He gives an example. During Operation Cast Lead, the Israel bombing of blockaded Gaza in 2008-9, “a dog – an Israeli dog – was killed by a Qassam rocket and it on the front page of the most popular newspaper in Israel. On the very same day, there were tens of Palestinians killed, they were on page 16, in two lines.”

I’m trying to imagine how the American public would react if the front pages always carried news of the latest Afghan “collateral damage” — not just the numbers, but real, humanizing stories. For that matter, if we saw graphic coverage of the damage done to US soldiers and contractors, might things change?

Certainly one reason the American polity has been able to happily go about its business while we’ve waged devastating wars in two countries is that, by and large, Americans don’t hear about the damage we inflict. Yes, we see a bit of political analysis (“How will this affect the election?”) and occasional stories about US casualties (“Three soldiers killed in a helicopter crash”), but we’re not forced to confront the hundreds of civilian casualties from stray bombs and bullets and germs in any serious, compelling way. That complete lack of confrontation, more than any bias in the stories that do get coverage, allows the tragedy of our foreign adventures to continue.

27

09 2010

On war journalism, truth-telling, and independence

I read a few things recently that I thought were worth highlighting. The first is a bit of historical background on the brutality of war: an Atlantic article from 1989 on World War II and how its reality differed from its presentation to civilians in propaganda back home. I wonder to what extent movies like Saving Private Ryan have changed this perception. I read it a few days ago, and was reminded of it when I read a letter to Andrew Sullivan from a combat vet:

“You see what you’re sending us to do? You see who is dying because you support a war in a part of the world you know nothing about?” The ignorance of the population is so vast that when I was deploying to Iraq and (thankfully) coming back, as I passed through Atlanta-Hartfield, people would congratulate me and my fellow servicemembers, shake our hands, say thanks, etc., and all I wanted to do was scream at them, “Get educated you ignoramus! This isn’t a great thing; it’s futile!”

In tangentially related news, Pro Publica has a new report showing that contractor deaths are exceed military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, the number of casualties haven’t necessary dropped because more of the jobs that would have traditionally been done by soldiers are now being done by contractors / mercenaries.

And even more tangentially, some historical context for how intertwined our media and military / intelligence establishments can be: more than 400 American journalists have carried out assignments for the CIA in the last 25 years. This sort of line-blurring is understandably problematic for both journalistic integrity and issues of access, somewhat analogous to how militaries co-opt the independence of humanitarian and public health workers in war zones.

27

09 2010