Cartel of Defiance

cartel of defiance (noun): 1. In medieval combat, a formal declaration, delivered by herald, of a combatant's intention to fight and refusal to submit. 2. An electronic assemblage of engaged and enraged citizens. 3. An intertextual mode of reading, writing, and thinking that puts the current political, cultural, and personal moment in dialogue with text/art from the past in counterargument to the ahistorical Memory Hole into which America seems to have slipped.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

soldier's point-of-view

This is a surprising article to see in The Washington Post. It describes the really depressing, futile and harrowing position of one 750-person batallion in Iraq charged with patrolling part of Southern Baghdad. A particularly relevant article given the redeployment of more U.S. troops into Baghdad. The title of the article, drawn from one of many disturbing comments offered by these soldiers, is "Waiting to Get Blown Up."

I feel like I've been reading a lot of good journalism about Iraq recently. Nearly everything one reads these days reinforces the depth and seriousness of this disaster. I caught an article in the most recent issue of Harper's that was certainly worth reading. Again -- focused and devestating. It concerned Bayan Jabr, currently the Interior Minister, but previously the head of housing construction projects under Paul Bremer. The article presents a disturbing picture of entrenched and pervasive corruption and theft; how Bremer had to tolerate this corruption because he was already so mired in failure and also had few real options; how the Americans that tried to call Jabr to account were themselves fired; and the connection of Jabr, today, to the infilitration of the Iraqi police and military by death-squads and private militia.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


In the offline world Staurt Klawans has a good description of the "situation" at the heart of Richard Linklater's new adaptation of Philip K Dick's 1977 novel, Through A Scanner Darkly: "Kenau's character let's slip his sense of identity -- as you'd expect of a drug-addicted undercover narc assigned to carry out intensive surveillance on himself." You would indeed!

In fact, in this tightly conceived scenario Dick and now Linklater pack in so many degrees of self-fissure, it's almost hard to keep track. In this world, the cops wear continually shifting "scramble suits" that conceal them as a vague blur of ordinary looking people. This is essential to the premise -- while undercover the cop is concealing his identity as Fred the cop, pretending to be a user; on the job, Fred is hiding the fact that he's the addicted-Bob Arcter, who he then is forced to "investigate," spending more and more of his time, as the movie progresses, (covertly) monitoring (a version of) himself on a surveillance screen -- the title's scanner.

"Substance D," the fictional drug in the film, is at once located in the specfic drug culture of the 1960s and allegorically generalized (people often refer to the drug simply as "D" or sometimes "Death"). It suggests any number of levels of addiction, addiction to any life-destroying aspect of our culture for instance, or, perhaps,"addiction" to life or to culture itself. Does any thinking person summon up some version of the Bob Arctor/Agent Fred divide -- an estranged part of our selves, criminal, gestural, vague, out of time, and a reflective part, the part that continually thinks about "who we are," and, in a manner of speaking, sets up shop in a surviellance post, monitoring all of, say, awol's activity through a scanner, darkly.

While its easy enough to imagine this scenario being translated into a Hollywood film -- there have been a lot of Philip K Dick adaptations of course -- it's hard to see this deep fissuring not getting resolved with some kind of very large, very loud futuristic weapon -- some cross between a laser and a bazooka. This is not the case at all in Linklater's film -- as it goes forward it only gets more unresolved, we learn that both Arctor and Fred emerge out of an earlier splitting where Arctor/Fred had walked out of his "safe" "real" life in a suburban family, and then, progressing further, there are simply a coiled number of further turns, betrayals, and splits. Not to mention the much publicized technique of roto-scoping that Linklater has developed in this film and A Waking Life, which bizarrely draws over "live action" film with this fluid, shifting and sometimes groovy (sometimes slightly dizzying) animation, draining reality in every frame and causing another level of identity fissuring that is built into the texture of the film.

In short: what's at stake with Linklater "doing" a Philip K Dick novel at all?

Dick's novel was written in 1977, a year after Dazed and Confused, Linklater's 1993 film, was set. (Ironically, Dick set his novel in 1994). The mid-70s are also, of course, the first summers of the blockbuster action films that have been ever since such a central part of U.S. culture and film politics: Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977 and Jaws was released on June 20, 1975. (The Terminator, one apotheosis of this trend, was released, appropriately enough, in 1984; Arnold's version of Philip K. Dick, Total Recall, was released on June 1, 1990).

In retrospect, the rise of the 70's blockbuster coincides with the long era of (relative) peace, between the Vietnam War and 9/11-Iraq. Certainly, the mind-boggling success of those early Speilberg and Lucas films must have had something to do with a negation of or escape from the previous 10 year death-spiral in Indochina; since then, we might imagine that the continual formula and power of the summer release -- particularly those versions that are really about "action" in some way -- benefitted from the way that Vietnam receded into memory. The Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzanager connection would seem to play out along these lines: Rocky was released and won the academy award in 1976, Rocky 2 in (June of) 1979, Rambo: First Blood in 1982 and Rambo 2 in (May of) 1985.

Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is, in this light, an interesting mix: half (radically) independent film (using an experimental technique, keyed into a number of his earlier films) and half summer blockbuster (explicitly in relation to a long-line of Philip K Dick adaptations and The Matrix). The casting choices seem, to me, to emphasize this as well: its five stars in a weird range, from Keanau and Woody Harrelson to the exiled-from-Hollywood Robert Downey Jr and Winona Ryder to Rory Cochrane, a Linklater actor who gives a kind of dystopic rewriting of his pothead role in Dazed and Confused. The film plays with any number of conventions, essentially critiquing/subverting both the plotlines and action-ideology of Hollywood "summer science-fiction" and the slack, conversation-driven looseness of his own films. Such positioning seems, to me, very political, beside or in addition to the overtly political take down on our own surveillance-based, "crime-fighting" political culture. (The most striking resonances with the NSA are, superficially, just a coincidence, since most of this news broke after the film had been made).

Sunday, July 09, 2006


I think there is a change, perhaps a sea-change, that's beginning to take place in the political understanding of Iraq in the U.S.

There are different ways to understand this, and in this post I'll just rely on my own inchoate recent associations. Three things in particular. First, for some reason, I was impelled to write this post at k/o the other day. It seemed to me that calling Iraq a "racist" war was something that simultaneously felt obvious and untenable, almost banal in its familiarity and yet urgent and still unarticulated. (Hence the title of the post, ironic and unironic at the same time).

Second, I just read a Digby post, itself drawing heavily on an an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, and thought to myself that this was one of the best things I've yet read on the Iraq war. And, again, Digby seems to be saying nothing that we haven't heard a thousand times and yet it produced this level of interest and conviction in me.

And Digby's final point (obviously I'd say the whole piece is eminently worth reading) struck home the most forcefully. Countering the oddly optimistic ending of the Post op-ed piece (after a scathing indictment that doesn't seem at all to motivate such an ending), Digby takes issue and writes (with emphasis added by me):

"This was a very good article until this point. Our failure is already certain no matter what we do. The fundamental flaw in this entire enterprise is not how we did it, although the massive failures outlined in this article are so obvious that it's imperative to discuss them on their own terms. In fact, I worry that what this failure of execution reveals is a military leadership so lacking in intellectual ability and so wracked with primitive racism that this country cannot count on it to actually defend us in case of a real war. The officer corps are supposed to be smart guys, not a bunch of idiots who would read some piece of trash like "The Arab Mind" and actually believe it --- much less use it as the basis for tactics on the ground. This is a dangerous situation for America. However, the fundamental flaw remains the invasion itself, a bad decision from which everything else flows. The lesson is that an illegal, dishonest war of choice is doomed on its own terms. In the modern world outright conquest is impossible and anything else cannot be finessed with spin and wishful thinking. That we compounded that error with a comic book understanding of the people we were "liberating" and a lack of postwar planning that was criminal in its negligence is just more evidence of the perfidy of this administration and its congressional enablers. But the central problem remains that it is not how we waged the war, it's that we waged it at all.

A few things to point out here. First, I love the way that Digby takes on this odd, almost-mechanical optimism at the end of the op-ed piece (which concludes "Unless we demonstrate by our actions that we value their lives as much as the lives of our own troops, our failure is certain"). Digby suggests, it seems to me, that the last sentence is this unthinking concession to the dominant, bullying, hegemonic politics of our time -- a meaningless rhetorical squib in one sense ("our failure is certain" doesn't concede, of course, that "success" is at all likely) but a lame and unnnecessary (and destructive) concession in another sense. The end of the op-ed is like a limit-case for the dominant problem of opposition at the moment, a yes-yes-yes-yes-but structure (yes the war was unnecessary, yes its been a disaster, yes it gets worse all the time, yes its destablizing not stabilizing the region, yes we were wrong to get involved, yes we were probably mislead by the very people who are still leading the war, yes there were no weapons of mass destruction, yes the violence hasn't diminished, yes our military is over-extended, yes there is increasing ethnic strife in Iraq, yes this kind of ethnic strife necessarily tends to *create more* strife, yes the Iraq police and military are so filled with paramilitary and insurgent forces that strengthening these forces almost necessarily strengthens sectarian strife and the insurgency as well, but -- but we need to stay and accomplish something still, but we can turn around our failure in some way, at some point, in another six months, or year, or two years, or five years).

Second, Digby's post also concerns what we might call the overt racism of this war. As Digby points out -- in fact, this is the central argument of the entire essay -- the way we fight this war is necessarily implicated in and shaped by the decision to fight the war in the first place. Similarly, the racism that informs how we've fought the war (the "get-tough" policy that is the focus of the Post op-ed) is deeply connected to the decision to fight in the first place. The Post op-ed, like Digby's post, like the quotation from Cobra 2, insists on the conncetion between racism and our incompetent military strategy in Iraq. *All our failure* in fighting in Iraq is directly attributable to a get-tough policy on the insurgents which, in turn, directly relies on a perception of ethnic Arab culture. The Cobra quote (which I predict we will hear more of) lays this out most viscerally: "The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I'm about to introduce them to it." This also holds for the great turning-point in the Iraq war, Operation Vigilant Resolve, the utterly failed assualt on Fallujah in April 2004. This operation, which was instigated, it seems, directly by President Bush, and had the initial "mission" of "capturing" the Iraqis who killed the four Blackwater employees, emptied 9/10ths of the city (from 350,000 to 30,000 civilians). According to Wikipedia, 60% of buildings in Fallajuh have been damaged, 20% "totally destroyed," and "the current population is unknown but estimated at less than 200,000".

Finally, Digby's post is unequivocal about the ultimate failure of the Iraq war. This seems to me to be the turning-point that I was alluding to above. And brings me to the third association: Ned Lamont's comments in the debate last week with Lieberman. In Jack Murtha's critque of the war, one claim had disproportionate relevance and significance for his entire chain of reasoning: "I have concluded that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is impeding this progress. . . . Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency. They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence."

Murtha's key point is that the U.S. presence actually increases the violence of the insurgency, even in the act of attempting to decrease this violence. Every year we stay, according to this part of Murtha's argument, brings us further away from our goals. Lamont made this point repeatedly in the hour-long debate. He was unwavering in this strong version of an anti-war position. "I think it's important to look at the facts on the ground, and we're not making the situation better by our frontline presence there. . . . In fact, in the last six months, the number of sectarian deaths has increased a lot. There are deaths of Americans. It's going downhill. . . . I think our very visible, frontline military presence is making the situation worse."

Rejecting any "optimistic" scenario, highlighting the racist underpinnings of both the motives for the war and the means of the war; and pointing to the way that front-line US troops increase violence: these are all connected. We can't be optimistic because the presence of U.S. troops is resulting in the exact oppositte of what is intended (more brutal violence not less); and U.S. troops are having this effect because every action of our troops in Iraq -- how they are positioned, what they are supposed to do, what "missions" they are supposed to be accomplishing -- is fundamentally shaped by misguided assumptions about Arab culture that lead us into the war. The "Arabness" of Iraq was a fundamental part of why we invaded their country in the first place and its no wonder that our occupation has and continues to precipitate ethnic violence, sectarianism, and extremism. Not to mention that the particular brutality of the occupation -- exemplified in Operation Vigilant Resolve, but also obviously apparent in strafe bombing, checkpoints, detention "policy", Abu Ghraib, civilian massacres, etc. etc. -- is also based on fundamentally flawed and racist views on military strategy.

It's this fundamental reality that makes the ever-more discredited positions of liberal hawks like George Packer so problematic. Their "do-good" fantasy about a just-war intersects in about a million places with the "get-tough" fantasy that actually has always been at the heart of the Iraq invasion and occupation.

Finally, I think this equation will become -- or is, in front of our eyes, becoming -- more visible as the Bush administration runs out of the "benchmarks" which have formed the basis of their counter-narrative. With the Malaki government in place and no more elections impending how will Bush -- or for that matter Leiberman -- frame the continual violence that is both inflicted upon and provoked by the U.S. occupation?

small point

In the Peter Hoekstra letter to Bush that was leaked to the NY Times, the angry Repulican congressman is quoted as writing: "I have learned of some alleged intelligence community activities about which our committee has not been briefed. If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the administration, a violation of the law, and, just as importantly, a direct affront to me and the members of this committee who have so ardently supported efforts to collect information on our enemies."

In the casual equation that it makes, this statement seems emblemtic of something one notices more and more these days. Why shouldn't a "violation of the law" be of much greater importance than a breach of responsibility or even this "affront" to the committee? The disregard for the law in our political culture -- or, to put this differently, our confused lawlessness -- surfaces even here, in the unorthodox effort of a Republican to call Bush on some of his shit.

Man (1938)

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