Tag: propaganda

Gender, Violence and Digital Emergence

One of the most unsettling findings of our media and radicalisation research was the way in which the suffering of certain individual women is turned into a cause by radical Islamic groups that leads to violence by men in those women’s names. The availability of digital media, combined with a certain doctrinal entrepreneurialism by those using religion to justify political violence, has resulted in the widespread dissemination of amateur video clips depicting a specific woman’s plight and calling for reprisals. If you want to understand the link between online propaganda and offline action, it appears that representations of women’s bodies and their “honour” are often central. My project colleagues and I document two such cases in a research article published this week.

Dua Khalil Aswad, an Iraqi teenage girl of the Yazidi faith, was stoned to death on 7 April 2007 by a Yazidi mob consisting of tens of men, mostly her relatives, for eloping and spending the night with a Muslim man. Her death was recorded on a mobile cameraphone by a bystander and circulated on the internet. It was eventually picked up by NGOs and international media, where the killing was framed in terms of human rights abuses. However, the clip was also identified by so-called ‘mujahideen’ in Iraq, namely Al-Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated groups. They claimed Dua was killed because she converted to Islam. They argued her killing demonstrated how non-Islamic faiths violate human rights (they know how to call upon human rights discourse too), and that this warranted the mujahideen bringing their own kind of justice to Dua’s killers. Between April and September 2007 a series of high-profile retaliatory attacks saw the individual and collective killing of hundreds of Yazidis and the wounding and displacement of more. One of the jihadist groups involved in these attacks, Ansar Al-Sunna, posted a video justifying their violence. Dua’s death was woven into a longer strategic narrative perpetuated by jihadists concerning a war between Islam and other faiths.

Three years later, in 2010, we found considerable religious tension in Egypt and the Arab world stemming from several cases of young female Coptic Christians in Egypt who had allegedly converted to Islam and were forced by the Coptic Church, with the aid of the former Mubarak security forces, to return to Christianity. The alleged plight of these women became the subject of media debates, street demonstrations and protests by Muslims and counter-efforts by Copts in Egypt, inflammatory editorials, online speculation, and finally, violence against innocent people. One of the most prominent episodes occurred in July 2010. Camilia Shehata, a female Copt Christian in Egypt, disappeared, and allegedly converted to Islam. She then returned under the shelter of the Coptic Church and released various videos to explain her case. Her story was amplified by Christian and Muslim groups alike, but subsequent attacks in her name occurred in Iraq rather than Egypt. Al-Qaeda in Iraq took hostages in a Baghdad church in October 2010 and announced on YouTube:

Through the directions of the Ministry of War of the Islamic State of Iraq, and in defence of our weak and oppressed, imprisoned Muslim sisters in the Muslim land of Egypt, and after detailed choices and planning, a small group of jealous Mujahideen, beloved servants of Allah, launched an offensive against a filthy center of Shirk [the Church] which Christians in Iraq have for so long taken as a place from which to wage their war and plot against Islam. By Allah’s Grace, we were able to capture those who had gathered there and take control over all entrances.

The Mujahideen of the Islamic State of Iraq give the Christian Church of Egypt 48 hours to clarify the condition of our Muslim sisters imprisoned in the churches of Egypt, and to free them all without exception, and that they announce this through the media which must reach the Mujahideen within the given time period.

The Iraqi government chose to attack the hostage-takers rather than negotiate. The hostage-takers detonated their suicide bombs in the church and 53 people died.

These events confirm one thing we know: terrorist groups can derive asymmetrical benefit from digital media, since content from individual lives and incidents can be rapidly reframed to bolster longstanding narratives such as the notion of a clash between Islam and other religions. But what struck us as particularly significant was the degree of contingency involved. The line from the initial acts to the eventual victims and the way in which events are incorporated into others’ narratives seems chaotic, escaping the control of the initial actors. The economy of exchange through media is irregular: digital footage may emerge today, in a year or never, and it may emerge anywhere to anyone. The concept of agency becomes complicated. The span of things done ‘by’ Al-Qaeda is beyond its control. Is distributed agency something new, only made possible by digital connectivity, or have social and religious movements always depended upon – and hoped for – a degree of contingent taking-up of their cause?

While we cannot know why the Yazidi man with a digital camera recorded the stoning of Dua (or why he recorded others recording it with their cameras), the increasing recording of everyday life certainly produces more material for political and religious exploitation. As we have seen, this allowed Al-Qaeda to instantly reframe a woman’s life as a “sister’s” life to shame men into action. If the killing of Neda Soltan during the Iranian election protests in 2009 represented one face of today’s mix of gender, violence and digital emergence, the cases of Dua and Camilla show another.

Cross-posted from the journal Global Policy

The Trafficker-Terrorist Myth

Another Sunday, another military puff-piece from the NY Times. Yesterday’s issue promoted the idea that America is threatened by a drug trafficker-terrorist network emanating from Central America. The source of this idea is–no surprise–the U.S. military, our fearmongers in chief. But the Times unquestioningly reported their statements as front page news, as part of a longer article about the new Central American wars such propaganda is justifying.

According to Col. Ross A. Brown, commander of the military’s Central America operations, his mission is “disrupting and deterring the potential nexus between transnational organized criminals and terrorists who would do harm to our country.” Or as his boss Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan affirms, combating the drug cartels is “necessary to preventing terrorists from co-opting criminal groups for attacks in this hemisphere.”

What is one to make of this claim? What evidence or logic supports the “potential” of this trafficker-terrorist “nexus?” There is none. But Kernan supports his assertion by noting one “insidious” parallel between terrorists and traffickers: “They do not respect borders.”

What a profound insight! Surely that explains everything! And the Times dutifully bolsters the claim with allusions to oh-so-scary bête noirs du jour—Honduras’s “vast ungoverned areas” where homicide rates are some of the “highest” in the world. [Notes to Times editor: What do you mean by “ungoverned”—something like the locales all over America where countless citizens consume illegal drugs daily? Might this insatiable American demand for drugs have just a little to do with Honduras’s homicide rates?]

But it seems too much to ask the reporters of our most important newspaper to think about this claim, rather than assume, following the military’s suggestion, that all things evil must go together. Yet now that the trafficker-terrorist “axis of evil” is being used to mutually reinforce two senseless wars, the logic of this connection cries out for examination.

Sure, the few “terrorists” who are genuinely trying to harm the U.S.—as opposed to countless wannabes who spout off about doing so in blogs or emails—might dream of drug-trafficker profits. But why would drug-lords agree to share the wealth? Last I checked, they are not charities.

And why would kingpins want to work with terrorists? For one thing, the vast majority of the bozos we inflate into terrorist “threats” are laughably incompetent. They’d never make it in the sophisticated drug empires that we’ve stupidly created through our War on Drugs.

In any case, working with terrorists would threaten the traffickers’ profits. There are few better ways to cure an addict than the possibility of his supplier blowing himself up on delivery.

Worse yet, forging such a link might lead to even more U.S. resources being thrown against the druglords. It might even convince more Americans to decriminalize drugs—the greatest blow that could be struck against drug traffickers. No, if nothing else, kingpins are savvy businessmen. Why would they want to destroy their own best market or make their operations more difficult than they already are?

What of Kernan’s claim that terrorists might “coopt” criminal groups? As any military man should know, cooptation is a weapon of the powerful—yet terrorist group are far weaker than drug cartels by all measures except bluster. Any terrorist’s attempt at cooptation would likely be met by the traffickers’ own deadly force.

No the trafficker-terrorist “potential nexus” should be seen for what it is–yet another transparently illogical excuse for projecting American military force in places where it will do no good.

* * *

But don’t look to the Times to point these things out. Indeed, the article is another example of “stenographic journalism,” slavishly reporting the propaganda of the powerful as “news.” The article’s focus is how the U.S. is using the “lessons” from a decade of counterinsurgency to fight the War on Drugs.

Normally, the word “lessons” would suggest that we have in fact learned something. So what exactly have we learned? According to the Times, the main lesson of COIN was to move troops from “giant bases to outposts scattered across remote, hostile areas so they could face off against insurgents.”

But what have been the results? A decade after our invasion of Aghanistan, much of the country remains a no-go zone for American troops. Only our drones dare patrol it–bravely raining death upon “suspected insurgents,” aka, all too often, civilians. The Afghan troops we have so skillfully and expensively trained are riddled with recruits who regularly turn their weapons on Allied troops. President Obama, fearfully shuttling into Bagram Air Force base (yes, a “giant base”) by dead of night, has inked an agreement for another decade of futility in the graveyard of empires. And, surprise, Afghanistan remains a major source of drugs for the world. Or, as the article so coyly puts it, the U.S. has “lowered expectations of what Washington can do to halt heroin trafficking there.”

So much for the supposed lesson that “forward bases” can work to fight drugs in Honduras. Inadvertently, however, the Times highlights the real lessons our leaders have learned. The “new offensive” in Central America is “emerging just as the United States military winds down its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

What a coincidence! A new battlefield opens as others dwindle. But wait, the War on Drugs, first declared in 1971 by Richard Nixon, is hardly new. Still, it serves its purpose–just as the War on Terror doubtless will for decades to come. Anytime America wearies of one theater for military extravagance, it can always shift to another eternal “threat.”

Indeed, as the Times trumpets, Honduras “showcases the nation’s new way of war: small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops . . . and narrowly defined goals.” And the most important lesson of all: these “small-footprint” operations, may be fought “with little public notice.” After all, why should the taxpayer need to know about the millions the State Department lavishes on our incorruptible Honduran allies for machine guns and “air support” without which, one Honduran honcho admits, “we can’t do anything?”

Fortunately, however, the U.S. military has evidently chosen to post its best and brightest to lead the fight on this pressing new front. That would be Col. Brown. He commanded the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Third Squadron in southern Baghdad in 2005-06. As the Times reports, without irony, in 2005-06 Iraq was “so violent that President George W. Bush ordered an increase in troop levels to retake the initiative.” It is unclear whether Brown’s Central America deployment is a promotion or a demotion.

Whatever their fighting credentials, however, Brown and Kernan at least know how to deploy “psy-ops”–against the American people. Hence, the trafficker-terrorist “potential nexus.”

###

Urination Distraction


Over the past few weeks we’ve had to endure military brass and top government officials falling over themselves to condemn American GIs – first for urinating on dead Afghans, and more recently for beating a sheep. Earlier in the Iraq and Afghan wars, we’ve suffered through pious denunciations of soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib or laughed as they targeted “dead men” with drones.

How noble the sentiment!  Criticizing ordinary servicemen who do not abide by the rules of engagement or who break the laws of war.  In fact, however, most of the official condemnation has ulterior motives.

The real purpose is not to shame or punish the soldiers, appropriate as that is.  Rather it is to advance and legitimate the war effort, with all its attendant inhumanity and cruelty.This is clearest in statements that decry the incidents for comforting the enemy and incensing civilian populations.  Such effects are indeed likely.  But those who issue this kind of condemnation are in fact suggesting that what is really wrong is not the incidents themselves, but the release of videos about them.  As long as such occurrences were kept quiet, there’d be little to complain of.

The same cover-up logic explains why the government has gone to such lengths to attack those, like Wikileaks, that release such information.  Conversely, to answer Charli’s recent question, those who send such videos to the press are certainly protesting and are hardly “fools.”  Meanwhile, those who originally took the videos and sent them to their friends are simply engaged in an age-old war custom, flaunting trophies.  And those who urinate on corpses or cheer as they blow up supposed enemies are acting like men have always acted and will always act in war. 


But there is a deeper explanation for the sanctimonious slamming of our errant troops.  Too many such incidents cut against the well-honed spin that the U.S. military is a thoroughly professional fighting force.  Even while they train soldiers to kill, military leaders must keep up the claim that our soldiers do so humanely!  Only the exceptions – the vicious, the stupid, or the exhausted – would break the rules.

In fact, urinating on corpses, torturing prisoners, and cheering deaths is predictable in any war.  Indeed, it shows that the military training necessary for most people to kill another human being is working.  No doubt it also shows a failure in training on the laws of war – but there is little doubt which of these two courses of instruction is more fundamental to our military.  Of course we should have laws of war and use them to prosecute violators.  But we should not be surprised if ordinary people placed in contexts of peril and power act brutally.  


Low-level prosecutions also divert attention from the higher-ups who are most responsible.  Of course, some at the bottom may truly be sadistic.  But for the most part, they are ordinary men and women caught up in the fury of warfare.  Much of that fervor is in fact drummed up by superiors – through public statements or tortured legal opinions.  Prosecuting a few small fry for understandable if condemnable behavior makes it less likely that those at the top, who made it all possible, will face prosecution.

Most fundamentally, condemnations and prosecutions preserve and legitimate the war itself. They portray it – or at least our side’s engagement in it – as rule-bound, controlled, rational.  By making a show of censuring young men and women caught up in the awfulness of war, those in power deflect attention from the far greater awfulness and futility of the war itself – for which they are responsible.

########

Strategic narratives: An uncertain science

Timing is everything; I’m not sure its good to be publishing a paper about strategic narratives just as the US cuts its Advisory Commission on Public Dipomacy, although RAND have begun exploring this field. National-level policymakers still try to tell stories about where their state and the international system are heading and should head. To the extent these narratives create expectations, shore up identities, create buy-in from partners, or have other discernible effects, we can say strategic narratives matter. The investment states have made in their international communications infrastructures in the past decade indicates the hope that aspiring or existing Great Powers can get their story out to overseas publics and elites. At the same time, sometimes just having an ambassador who carries his own bag can create a good impression. The ‘science’ of strategic narratives remains uncertain.

Hence, colleagues and I are trialing a working paper ‘Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations’, available to download here. It is authored by Alister Miskimmon (Royal Holloway), myself and Laura Roselle (Elon/Duke), and is based on the keynote Miskimmon and I delivered to International Studies Association (ISA) South at Elon University in October 2011. It comes from our long disatisfaction with how IR scholars treat media, communications and questions of influence, and how media and communications neglect many of the power dynamics of IR. It also comes from our experience working with foreign policymakers as they try to show measurable ‘impact’ of the narratives, and their attempts to harness new digital methods to monitor overseas public opinion. We plan to publish a book developing these ideas late in 2012, and we have panels on the subject at ISA San Diego in April and BISA/ISA Edinburgh in June with some great scholars (Neta Crawford, Karin Fierke, Antje Weiner, Robin Brown, Monroe Price, Amelia Arsenault), so if you’re interested in please come along or look for the papers. For now, we’d really appreciate it if the Duck commentariat have comments on the paper.

Can Elmo Save Pakistan?

In the latest attempt to project its “soft power” in South Asia, the US government has approved a $20 million project to bring a local adaptation of Sesame Street to Pakistan. Time magazine notes:

“‘The idea is to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning,’ said Faizaan Peerzada, a collaborator on the Pakistani version of the show. “This is a very serious business, the education of the children of Pakistan at a critical time.” Their main messages will be of acceptance and empowerment, to sway youngsters away from religious extremism and promote growth.”

The Guardian writes that “The show will have strong female characters and carry an implicit message of tolerance but will feature no pro-American propaganda or overt challenge to hard line religious sentiment,” (Guardian, 4/7/2011).  Airing on PTV, “Sim Sim Humara” will reach only 3 million children in their homes (approximately 16 million households or 68% of the population own a television in Pakistan), but there are plans to use a radio version of the show and even mobile TV vans to reach remote areas, with an ultimate audience of around 95 million people.

Deploying adorable muppets is likely to be a welcome change of pace from previous American attempts to shape the educational content of Pakistan (and particularly Afghan refugees living in Pakistan).  During the anti-Soviet resistance until 1994, the US spent $51 million creating children’s text books filled with “violent images and militant Islamic images.”  Children were taught to count with “images of tanks, missiles, and landmines,” in the hopes of raising a generation geared to join one of the seven anti-Soviet resistance parties (Washington Post 3/23/2002). The American textbooks were so militant that the Taliban used them to educate another generation of Afghan refugees and returnees (although they took the time to scratch out the faces of all the human characters). After 9/11, the Bush administration spent millions more creating a new version of the same textbooks but without images of weapons and warfare.  Nevertheless, the religious content of the books was retained. According to the Washington Post (3/23/2002) UNICEF attempted to buy up the old militarized version at a cost of $200,000.

Ironically, this is not the first time that the muppets have traveled to Pakistan.  Dubbed versions of Sesame Street in Urdu have been aired on Pakistan television since the seventies. There were also locally produced muppet based programs, such as Uncle Sargam (which apparently morphed into an adult comedy show according to my Pakistani friends). Whether any of these shows had or will have any beneficial political impact on Pakistani children is unknown.

[Oh yes, and today’s blog post was brought to you by the letter “P” as in Progressive Pretext for Poor Propaganda.]

Cause and Effect in the “War on Terror?”

 It is impossible to know at this point whether there is any connection between these two disturbing events reported yesterday:  NATO forces’ mistaken killing of nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan; and, a few hours later, the killing of two American soldiers at Frankfurt airport, apparently by a Muslim man of Kosovar origin.   We do know that other terror suspects have stated that they acted in response to U.S. policies in the GWOT, in particular the frequent killings of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  It would therefore not be surprising if this were true in the German case.  And it is at least possible that the impetus was in fact the horrific NATO shootings in Afghanistan just hours before.  

This raises yet again the question of what is cause and what effect in the “war on terror.”  Are American policies, which predictably result in large numbers of civilian casualties no matter how great the military’s precautions, in fact reducing the number of terrorists?  Do our heartfelt apologies in the wake of such wholly foreseeable errors in fact have any effect on the families of the victims, let alone on the small number of angry and extreme–but not yet violent Muslims–elsewhere in the world?  The answer seems likely to be, No.  The GWOT is a self-perpetuating policy that increases the amount of terrorism in the world, even as it enriches military establishments, COIN bureaucracies, and all manner of private suppliers of questionable anti-terror services and technologies.  (Read the prior article–an amazingly depressing story of yet more waste, fraud, and gullibility in the GWOT.)
My question for Duck readers is:  How does such folly come to an end?  On the surface, when cause becomes effect, there would seem ample, rational basis to change policies.  And there have been any number of additional reasons to halt it recently too:  the obvious marginality of al-Qaeda in the massive popular upheavals that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa; recent statements by American officials that the number of al-Qaeda fighters is vanishingly small; Robert Gates’s tacit admission last week that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars should never have been fought; and reports that the military is propagandizing U.S. politicians and thereby citizens to believe that the wars are succeeding.  (This article too is worth a full read to see both how some in the military confuse the “mission” with their own ambition–and, a ray of hope, how others sometimes stand up against them). 
Any suggestions from Duck readers about literature on this kind of conundrum?  How are senseless but self-perpetuating policies, backed by hugely vested interests, ever brought to a halt?

After Wikileaks; or, the next phase of Diffused War

In Diffused War, Andrew Hoskins and I argued we’ve entered a new paradigm of warfare. The wikileaks stories seem to confirm much of this account. War is mediatized, we wrote, as the institutions of war and those affected by war take a form governed by continual media recording, display and archiving. This creates diffuse causal relations between action and effect, since mediatization can amplify or contain the cognitive and emotional response any action generates in ways not dependent on the initial action itself. Militaries, NGOs, insurgents, journalists – none can predict the outcomes of their actions or the display of their actions. US and UK military practitioners did not envisage their communications going public, but their institutions allowed those records to exist. And as my Duck colleague Charli Carpenter notes, they’ve started shredding documents. This is to counter the greater uncertainty now faced by those conducting war. While who sees what, when, and where is usually largely controlled (most people still rely on mainstream media), the potential for surprises is permanent and unavoidable, such that the worst case must always be built into decision-making.



In contrast to the splutterings of military chiefs, for my students wikileaks is already the norm. So what should we expect to see next? Where might novelty lie? Let’s take a risk and look briefly at some ideas in contemporary art, which has long dealt with mediatization and how it reconfigures human relationships and our ideas of the image and representation. Nicolas Bourriaud recently wrote that, in our ‘control+S’ culture of instant archiving of all political and social life, ‘an insistence on the “here and now” of the artistic event and a refusal to record it are a challenge to the art world’.  What is notable now is what goes unrecorded or is not made public. He discusses Brian de Palma’s 2003 Iraq war film Redacted, which pieces together soldiers’ blogs, cameraphone footage and other media from the war to produce a style of ‘organized proliferation’ that is now common in TV and movies generally. Pushed to its limit, Bourriaud suggests, ‘the degree of spatial (and imaginary) clutter is such that the slightest gap in its chain produces a visual effect’. In other words, we now expect the depiction of war to amalgamate several media recording technologies, a chain of styles, textualities and episodes edited into any single news summary or Hollywood movie. And if a gap occurs, something is wrong. If no citizen-generated content emerges, that is surprising. If footage from the helicopter gunship’s point of view is absent from the news report, and we now know such a perspective is continually recorded, then at least a few members of the audience might begin to ask why there’s no footage. 


We’d expect the next phase of military media management to employ the full range of textual styles to which audiences are now accustomed. Its a question of credibility, and studies show audiences are far more savvy than military practitioners assume. With that in mind, instead of shredding documents and looking like you’ve something to hide, perhaps a truly pre-emptive PR agent would deliberately create a full, convincing range of leaks for wikileaks such that a controlled version of the worst is already on show. It would then appear there are no surprising gaps. 

The Hurt Locker

When I heard that the “Hurt Locker,” a drama set in the midst of the Iraq War, was nominated for several Oscars, I was intrigued. Americans have not shown much interest as a people in either of the current official wars and even less interest in documentaries about and dramas set in these conflicts. My initial hunch was that this film, was selected to balance out “Avatar”, the narrative of which clearly questions militarism and imperialism (while also reveling in astounding levels of mindless violence). So I assumed that “The Hurt Locker” would make a conservative counter-argument which justified the necessity of this war of choice. After finally seeing it, I was stunned that this film was nominated for any awards.

I would argue that the film is certainly racist/orientalist in the way in which the Iraqi population is portrayed. Iraqis are depicted as either villainous or as an undifferentiated mass of passive spectators and victims. There are no images of Iraqi women which do not depict them either wailing or otherwise “hysterical”. The English speaking Iraqi men, all of whom have bit parts, are completely emasculated. The American soldiers are generally depicted as brave (if insanely reckless in a cowboy fashion) and highly competent.

The one chance that the writer and director had to stage a dialog between the protagonist and an Iraqi professor is completely squandered as the professor’s “hysterical” wife throws the protagonist-intruder out of her home. Perhaps I should be thankful that the writer and director did not choose to try to speak for “the other.”

There is the requisite paternal engagement with an Iraqi child. However, the child apparently is indistinguishable to the protagonist from all of the other masses of poor Iraqi children who chase and throw rocks at military vehicles.

The film may not be quite as aggressively racist as “Blackhawk Down,” “300,” or “Zulu,” the defining films in terms of racist war genre, but it is certainly a contender. There are thankfully no scenes in which a brown or black horde attacks an outnumbered group of mainly white heroes. In terms of the anti-Arab content, the film is not as bad as “True Lies” or any of the worst Hollywood films in the anti-semitic/anti-Arab genre, mainly because it does not really engage “the other” at all… so none of the more complex racist tropes are brought forth. Nevertheless, the film does continue the long tradition documented in Reel Bad Arabs.

It will be argued that the film is true to the perspective of the main characters. The film shows how narrowly focused the life of the average soldier is. Of course, we do not get a portrayal of the level of boredom that often accompanies military duty. War is depicted as an exciting adventure, particularly in contrast to the bland challenges of raising a child and maintaining a household. So I question its realism. In showing us how soldiers view Iraqis and the Iraq War, it also gives the audience permission to see Iraqis (and by extension the Middle East) in the same uncritical way.

Does any of this matter, particularly in a forum where we discuss international relations? I think it does. War films become a part of a nation’s memory and they have the potential to spark debate and dialog about the causes of war which shapes policy. Moreover, war films are often central to the cult of militarism. The “Hurt Locker” does nothing to interrogate the causes, meaning, or consequences of war, it dehumanizes the people living under occupation. As such it merely serves as propaganda for the war machine. Perhaps there should be a separate Oscar for this genre.

Speaking of Genocide

At the Danger Room blog, Nick Thompson claims Russia may be right in calling Georgian behavior “genocide.”

Over at Complex Terrain Lab, Mike Innes pokes some useful holes in Thompson’s argument.

I would add to Mike’s points that the most important error made by Thompson is mistakenly conflating the intentional killing of civilians with genocide. The intentional killing of civilians in war is a war crime; if carried out en mass (even in peacetime) it’s a crime against humanity. Genocide is not a crime against civilians (as individuals) at all; it’s a crime against groups. To count, an atrocity has to be carried out with the intent of destroying a group. Russia has provided no evidence whatsoever to make this case: their rhetoric is also based on a misunderstanding of the term.

Naturally. Since it’s simply propaganda. As are Georgia’s counter-claims.

Casualty Counting

Dan lamented correctly yesterday morning about the paucity of reliable casualty numbers for the conflict in Georgia. Seems this is still the case, with the Washington Post reporting today that “no… casualty figures could be independently confirmed” in an article nonetheless subtitled “Civilian Deaths on Increase In Conflict Over S. Ossetia.”

But it’s actually rather important to try to figure out whether civilians are being targeted, and how many are being killed by either side, since the battle now being waged is as much for the moral high ground as for territory. Both Georgia and Russia are justifying their actions as “protection of civilians,” and both are accusing the other of atrocities. Sorting out who is killing who how and how fast may provide clues as to how humanitarian motivations may have played into recent events, if at all; and how they may complicate efforts at conflict resolution.

The latest FactBox from Alertnet breaks the available numbers down according to source but not, unfortunately, according to civilian or military deaths, and not, unfortunately, according to who did the killing in each case:

RUSSIA
* Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said at least 2,000 civilians had died in Tskhinvali as a result of fighting between Russian and Georgian forces, Interfax news agency reported. He said 13 Russian peacekeepers were killed and up to 70 injured in the fighting.
* Sergei Sobyanin, the Russian government chief of staff, said 30,000 South Ossetian refugees had fled to Russia since early on Friday.
GEORGIA
* A source in the Georgian government told Reuters on Saturday 129 Georgian civilians and military were killed and 748 wounded.
* Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russian aerial bombing had killed around 30 Georgian soldiers.
SOUTH OSSETIA
* South Ossetia’s President Eduard Kokoity on Friday said about 1,400 people had died in Tskinvali.
UNHCR
* The U.N. Refugee Agency said the number of people who have fled from South Ossetia into Georgia proper is about 2,400.
* The UNHCR, quoting Russian officials, says the number estimated to be going to North Ossetia, an adjacent region within Russia, stands at 4,000 or 5,000.

One thing that’s to be noted is that UNHCR’s estimates of refugee flows into N. Ossetia fall considerably below Russia’s claims. It’s reasonable to expect that

a) civilian casualty counts are being exaggerated by both sides while
b) military casualty counts are being under-reported.

Beyond UNHCR, who was already in the region dealing with 275,000 existing IDPs, agencies that track war dead more systematically aren’t releasing numbers yet, but a number of them have reported on or issued warnings about the humanitarian situation through ReliefWeb: Human Rights Watch urges all parties to the conflict to refrain from attacking civilians outright – so far, no reports of massacres, just destruction of civilian infrastructure and collateral damage. International Crisis Group calls for an immediate end to hostilities, citing the humanitarian consequences of a wider regional conflagration. Which suggests to me that the direct impacts on civilians are relatively limited at present and that the greatest immediate risks will come from lack of water and shelter among the displaced rather than direct targeting: many civilians have already been evacuated from areas under siege, but now face deprivation and exposure. (At least it’s not mid-winter, yet.)

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued calls yesterday for the parties to facilitate humanitarian access. Unclear as of now whether this constitutes an accusation that either side is so far denying access, or whether it’s just a plea for logistical assistance. As of this morning, UNHCR reports that humanitarian corridors are being established.

More as events warrant.

Social Construction of Popular Wisdom

A friend recently forwarded me this online essay by Martin Porter, compelling me to reconsider one of the quotes I had blithely posted on my website.

My quote, attributed to Edmund Burke, read “the only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for good people to do nothing.” It is commonly quoted by human rights scholars and activists to caution against the bystander effect.

Porter’s essay, replete with exhaustive sources from multiple websites, is a genealogy of the use of this supposed Burkeism, but Porter concludes form his analysis that Burke never actually wrote anything like this:

“There is no original. The quote is bogus, and Burke never said it. It is a pseudo-quote, and corresponds to real quotes in the same way that urban legends about the ghost hitch-hiker vanishing in the back of the car and alligators in the sewers correspond to true news stories.”

Well, at least I’m in good company at having been duped about the source of this quote.

I found Porter’s analysis mildly convincing and wholly entertaining, and so I’ve replaced Burke’s name with “commonly attributed to” Burke on my site, and I’ve replaced the word “persistence” with “triumph,” which seems to be the more common usage, and I’ve included a footnote on my website which qualifies the use of term “person” since the oft-cited quote actually refers to men, not people.

But Porter would seem to prefer I get rid of the epigram entirely, and here I draw the line:

Porter: “The pseudo-quote is therefore without authenticity or meaning, and is just another of those political slogans which are used not as an assistance to, but as a substitute for real thought. It is not a deep truth, although it is constantly treated as one. Burke incidentally hated such things. He thought that cheap political slogans, or ‘maxims’ as he called them, enabled politicians to invoke principles of expediency, so they could pursue their own selfish interests instead of fulfilling their obligations to country, party and people.”

My question is, what is so wrong with “cheap political slogans” that favor the cause of human rights? Few people outside the sheltered world of academia have the time or inclination for the kind of “real thought” Porter is talking about, and all are surrounded by a regular diet of “cheap political slogans” inclining them to acquiesce to the horrors of war. I’ll take a pseudo-maxim that reminds me how to contribute to the collective good over a lot of pedantry any day.

An empire of language

Jack Shafer at Slate draws our attention to an advertising section included in yesterday’s Washington Post: Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Most people I know with an interest in Russia are also fascinated by Soviet propaganda, and Shafer, I think, correctly identifies this as a particularly amusing, if less effective, example of the genre.

It also provides an interesting window into the psyche of the Russian government, though. Take this piece on the position of the Russian language in post-Soviet space. During Soviet times, Great Russian nationalism may have been denounced as a bourgeois deviation, but the New Soviet Man was always presumed to be educated in Russian, because, after all, that was the language of International Communism.

Now that the Soviet Union has vanished, there are still plenty of Russian speakers within the former boundaries of the Soviet (and tsarist) empire. Russian remains an available lingua franca, though many of the post-Soviet states have worked very hard to develop a modern vocabulary in their official languages (this has been a particular issue for some of the Central Asian states). Still, it seems, Russia wants to maintain its position as the imperial culture, except now it’s framed as “convenience” rather than domination.

I remember how at an international conference on post-Soviet space, held in Riga, people scrambled to express themselves in English during the panel discussions, but switched to Russian in the cafeteria. “I am also a Russian-speaker,” a local journalist from Latvia’s Diena newspaper said sourly, mocking Moscow’s attempts to protect Russian speakers in Latvia from discrimination. “Does the Russian government think I need protection?”

Indeed, it does. Because this person, whether he wants it or not, is a part of the Russian world. If his children do not speak the language that can make them feel at home from Kaliningrad to Mongolia, this will be a loss for them. So, a journalist from Diena indeed needs protection – from forgetting. In the same way we need protection against forgetting Latvian music and cinema, which used to be highly popular in Soviet times.

But the value of Russian is dependent on the degree to which post-Soviet space is genuinely intertwined. If the near-abroad views its future as lying elsewhere (say, to the west, or even to the east), then the value of Russian is diminished. Or, perhaps, maintaining the position of the Russian language as the lingua franca is an important strategy in maintaining the position of Russia itself. Either way, the ghost of the Russian empire lives on.

© 2017 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑