Friday, March 20, 2009

Violent Video Redux...

An earlier post by yours truly chided well-meaning but misinformed American (ah, but I repeat myself) parents who allowed their children to play violent video games as long as they followed the "laws of war."

Now, a German retail giant has gone a laudable step further, as this article in Der Spiegel explains. Following a high-school killing spree that left 15 people dead, it was discovered that the shooter had spent the previous night virtual opponents in much the same manner that he would slaughter his classmates a few hours later. Galeria Kaufhof has now pulled all copies of such first-person shooters from its shelves and vowed not to distribute ultra-violent games.

The German government is also considering banning these types of games outright; said Joachim Hermann, the Bavarian interior minister "We must finally muster the courage to ban the most brutal games... It's not a question of media and artistic freedom anymore."

Bravo, Herr Hermann! Anyone who doubts the farsightedness of this policy should definitely read Chapter 7 of Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman's book "On Combat", some highlights of which include:

Through violent programming on television and in movies, and through interactive point-and-shoot video games, modern nations are indiscriminately introducing to their children the same weapons technology that major armies and law enforcement agencies around the world use to “turn off” the midbrain “safety catch” that Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall discovered in World War II. In terms of combat evolution, this indiscriminate use of combat conditioning techniques on children is the moral equivalent of giving an assault weapon to every child in every industrialized nation in the world.

It remains to be seen if Germany will succeed in making Galeria Kaufhof's corporate policy of sacrificing the profitable sale of an addictive and dangerous "virtual substance" to increase public safety a national policy, or if it will succumb to the pressures to prostitute the public welfare to those who would rather make bloody lucre from the wholesale export of virtual violence as "good, clean fun" for der kinder, while hiding behind the myth that companies and citizens have an inherent "freedom of expression" and "artistic license" that transcends the common good.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Misrule of Law

I can't think of anything dumber than the sentencing of Muntadhar al-Zeidi to three years in Iraq prison for throwing a shoe at President Bush during an unannounced visit to the country. Not that the punishment isn't justified - though the defense argues shoe-throwing is an exercise of free speech, I think it's fair to consider it an assault on a foreign leader. But that's not the point. This will only exacerbate al-Zeidi's role as a focal point for anti-occupation sentiment, and increase instability in Iraq. The court could have made its point while slapping him on the wrist and punishing him with the time he's already served.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

13-Year Old Vows to Honor Geneva Convention in World War Two

Despite the minor fact that the majority of the Geneva Conventions did not exist in World War II, a chubby 13-year-old has convinced his parents to allow him to play "Call of Duty" on the conditions that he honors the guidance contained in the 1949 agreements.

This kid's parents think they're being responsible; in fact, they're merely showcasing their ignorance. It's quite impossible to break any Geneva Conventions in the game; characters have no chance to torture, execute prisoners, or launch attacks against civilian populations, although they get to witness those acts in graphic cinematic sequences.

The scoundrel's only possible chance to tread a fine line is to fire a finishing shot into an already mortally wounded opponent; and this would probably be justified by the fact that many of those opponents will planning to make a "last stand" attack where they draw a pistol and blaze away until they run out of ammunition, or until they get shot again.

Still, gory and realistic though this game is, it's hardly an educational training ground for learning the nuances of International Humanitarian Law. What it really represents is an opportunity for out-of-shape American youth to exercise their bloodlust without endangering themselves.

If young Evan Spencer really wants to learn something about war, there's plenty of hot-spots in the world where another teenage meat-puppet could make themselves useful as a bullet sponge.

What do you think, Dear Readers? Is ol' Cleitus being too hard on today's callow youth? Is it in fact, the reverse - not that we have too many gratuitously violent games and movies here, but not enough over there? Would Chechens and Russians, Azeris and Armenians, Serbs and Kosovars, Israelis and Palestinians be less likely to fight if they could just sit down around an X-Box and kill electronic simulcrums of each other?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Once more into the breach...

Kudos to my distinguished colleague Diodotus for having largely shouldered the burden of running this humble discussion for the last several months.

I further applaud the resolution to spend less time writing, and more time in action; as James, brother of Jesus wrote in 49 AD, "Faith without action is as dead as a body without a soul."

However, wicked pagan that I am, I shall for my part follow the advice of the Japanese sage Miyamoto Musashi's instead, and since he preached that the way of the warrior is the two-fold art of pen and sword, I shall apply myself a little more to the former, and a little less to the latter, in order to make up for what one can only hope is the temporary absence of the esteemed Diodotus.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Diodotus is Largely on Hiatus.

In case you hadn't noticed. Might as well make it official.

This is due to a number of factors, including family, tenure pressures, and generally being spread too thin. But the final straw was Obama's election and inauguration speech, which inspired me to do less pontificating and more service for the nation. While this blog has been entertaining and intellectually useful for me, I can't help but think the amount of energy I put into it over the last year couldn't be more productively spent in a way that would yield more concrete dividends for my community, my country and the planet.

So while I may occasionally post random musings, and will probably pop in with Friday Star Trek blogging from time to time, I'm going to let my co-bloggers Cleitus the Black and Empedocles run the ship for awhile. I look forward to reading and continuing to comment on their posts.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Let Me Get This Straight

Number of Israeli deaths due to rocket attacks from Gaza in the past eight years: 19.

Number of Palestinian deaths due to retaliatory fire from Israel in the past 36 hours: 375.

Hmm. Of course what really matters is the percentage of each that are civilian, versus military, targets.

What should Obama do about this mess when he takes office?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trouble in Niger

The New York Times has a long report on the drive for uranium in Niger, which is threatening to create a conflict between Tuareg nomads who live on but presumably do not own the land wherein the ore is to be found, and the government, which presumably would prefer to profit from mining contracts at their expense:

"A battle is unfolding on the stark mountains and scalloped dunes of northern Niger between a band of Tuareg nomads, who claim the riches beneath their homeland are being taken by a government that gives them little in return, and an army that calls the fighters drug traffickers and bandits.... Uranium could infuse Niger with enough cash to catapult it out of the kind of poverty that causes one in five Niger children to die before turning 5.

Or it could end in a calamitous war that leaves Niger more destitute than ever. Mineral wealth has fueled conflict across Africa for decades, a series of bloody, smash-and-grab rebellions that shattered nations. The misery wrought has left many Africans to conclude that mineral wealth is a curse.

In February 2007, a group of armed Tuaregs mounted an audacious attack on a military base in the Air Mountains. A new insurgency was born. They called themselves the Niger Movement for Justice and unfurled a set of demands: that corruption be curbed and the wealth generated by each region benefit its people.

To fight the rebellion, the government has effectively isolated the north, devastating its economy. International human rights investigators have also documented serious misdeeds on both sides. The rebels use antivehicle land mines that have killed soldiers and civilians, while the army has been accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and looting of livestock. In all, hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands have been pushed from their land.
I have some reactions to this aticle. One: this is an important wakeup call, and I'm glad to see Lydia Polgreen reporting on this now, before the situation turns into a bloodbath. Two: observers will note the paralells between the unfolding situation and the origins of the conflict over the Darfur region of Sudan. The grievances and mobilization strategies are identical; the 2004 war and its related atrocities were also sparked by attacks on military bases that provoked a disproportionate response; and now that the Niger government has attack helicopter it is anyone guess whether they will limit their response to hitting "bandits" or go wholesale against villages. Current signs aren't promising, and surely this is a situation where there is an opportunity for some preventive action. (Empedocles? What might work?)

Third, I will note a slight mischaracterization in the article when the use of anti-tank landmines against military personnel is labeled a "misdeed" in the same paragraph as extrajudicial killings. While the latter is clearly a violation of human rights law as well as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would apply in this situation, the former is nothing of the sort. Only anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the Ottawa Convention, and not being signatorites the Tuareg wouldn't be bound by that anyway. Anti-vehicle mines must only be used so as not to target civilians directly; it's simply collateral damage of they are caught in the crossfire. Since Polgreen's article is otherwise designed, it seems, to provoke sympathy for the rebels, I must assume that this is not intended to suggest moral relativism but rather either a misguided attempt to appear objective, or otherwise a simple error.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reconsidering Nuclear Policy

Writing in the Salt Lake Tribune today, two arms consultants ask some pointed questions:

For decades, nuclear weapons were thought to make us safer by deterring the first strike by another nation. Today we need to re-evaluate the roles and dangers of nuclear weapons in the world. Let's ask ourselves: Does it help the United States to have nuclear weapons? Would the whole world be safer if no one and no nation had even one of these weapons?
Well, isn't the follow up question: safer from what? Safer from nuclear holocaust, perhaps. Safer from conventional war with all its bloodiness? Hard to know, since the decline in inter-state war coincided not only with the nuclear era but also with the establishment of the UN Charter regime.

At any rate, strategies to escape from MAD are back on the foreign policy agenda. Writing in Foreign Affairs this issue, Ivo Daadler and Jan Lodal make a case for disarmament. Or so they say:
"The next President will have the opportunity to make the elimination of all nuclear weapons the organizing principle of US nuclear policy."
But actually the authors' proposals do not take the US very far in that direction. One - a better nuclear-control regime - makes sense but really is an extension of the non-proliferation treaty, not a pledge to disarm. Another - a pledge to use nuclear weapons only to deter attacks against allies - would only formalize US adherence to existing nuclear norms, while presumably keeping weapons on a hair-trigger alert and maintaining a policy based on a threat to commit a grossly unethical act - the incineration of foreign civilians as revenge for a similar attack against an ally. A reduction of US arsenals to a "mere" 1,000 weapons would be lovely, but how is that even close to approaching a world of "zero"? And if the US can't be expected to take this goal seriously, then how is Daadler and Lodal's proposal that that the US convince its allies of the "logic of zero" anything other than a recipe for hypocrisy?

The truth is, of course, that any steps toward disarmament will have to be baby steps. Even disarmament advocates like those writing for the Salt Lake Tribune can't seem to do any better than this modest proposal: increasing the amount of time required to make a nuclear launch decision.
More time would then be available to double check for possible computer malfunctions. We can also take physical steps to increase the time it takes for a weapon to be launched. For example, today's modern Minuteman missiles can be "safed" in their silos, much as the older Minuteman missiles were safed in late 1991 at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What would it take for the US to simply disavow the use of nuclear weapons as inherently unethical and take the lead in nuclear disarmament?

Belated Friday Star Trek Blogging (Yeah, Well, It Was A Holiday...): "The Wrath of Bush"

President Bush is doing what a lame duck can: try to complete rule-making processes at federal agencies that would lock in conservative policies on labor, environmental and health standards:

"With the economy tumbling and American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush has promised to cooperate with Mr. Obama to make the transition 'as smooth as possible.' But that has not stopped his administration from trying, in its final days, to cement in place a diverse array of new regulations.

The Labor Department proposal is one of about 20 highly contentious rules the Bush administration is planning to issue in its final weeks. One rule would make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas. Another would reduce the role of federal wildlife scientists in deciding whether dams, highways and other projects pose a threat to endangered species.

A new president can unilaterally reverse executive orders issued by his predecessors, as Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton did in selected cases. But it is much more difficult for a new president to revoke or alter final regulations put in place by a predecessor. A new administration must solicit public comment and supply 'a reasoned analysis' for such changes, as if it were issuing a new rule, the Supreme Court has said."
You know what all this makes me think of?

This fan trailer, "The Wrath of Kirk":

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Justice is (badly) Served

Salim Ahmed Hamdan has been returned to his native Yemen, ostensibly to serve the final months of the sentence he received from the military commission that convicted him of providing material support to Al Queda, but cleared him of the more serious charges of conspiracy. The majority of his 5 and a half year sentence was served at Guantanamo prior to his trial and conviction. What can one make of this? A few thoughts come to mind.

First, that US justice, even in its most adulterated form, can succeed. A man can be found guilty, or not; serve his allotted sentence, and go free. Second, that this can only happen when the accused are put to trial; sadly, Hamdan is one of only 11 detainees to get even this sort of trial; over 500 more have never received this opportunity. Lastly, it makes one pause to wonder; if a man is found innocent, years after his incarceration, how will the U.S., this supposed bastion of freedom and democracy, restore that most precious commodity that it has wrongly stolen from them - time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Radio Free Europe has a valuable case study on the politics behind counting war casualties. The article details the work of Mirsad Tokaca, a contro-versial Bosnian figure whose careful studies put the casualty figures of the war over Bosnia-Herzegovina at about 97,000, less than half of the official government tally of 200,000. Moreover, while most commentators act as if the 200,000 represents noncombatant dead among Bosniaks, the ethnic group against whom it is widely accepted that genocide took place, the database concludes that of the war's direct victims, almost 40,000 were civilians and 57,500 were military victims. Of the civilian victims, some 33,000 were Bosniaks, 4,100 were Serbs, and 2,200 were Croats.

Tokaca's work has taken place under the auspices of a non-governmental organization, the Research and Documentation Center, whose key report "Human Losses in Bosnia-Herzegovina 1991-1995" is also known as the "Bosnian Book of the Dead." The 200,000 estimate (beware of round numbers) was promulgated by government officials during the war and reiterated by the global media and Western scholars. By contrast:

"Tokaca's database is the only one in existence that offers the war dead sorted by name, place, and circumstances of death. Civilians, soldiers, women and children, of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims alike. The list contains 14 separate streams of information, free of ethnic prejudice, and based on facts, not estimates.

Patrick Ball, director of the Human Rights Program at the U.S.-based Benetech Initiative, has said the "richness and depth of this database is astonishing." Ball, who has worked with nine truth commissions around the world, said the RDC database "could have a significant impact on how the history of the Bosnian war is understood."
But many in Bosnia are not happy with his findings:
"Smail Cekic is one of Tokaca's critics. The head of the Sarajevo-based Institute for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law, Cekic questions Tokaca's research methods and accuses him of "fogging the essence and size of the genocide" of Bosniaks. He also says Tokaca "covers up" the depth of what he calls the "demographic disaster" committed against the regional populations, believing that Tokaca should include in his statistics those members of society who would have been born to those who were killed.
I'm with Tokaca. I suspect that much of the backlash against his analysis is due to the notion that a finding of "only" 30,000+ civilian dead would undermine claims that Bosnian Muslims suffered a genocide, but the concept of genocide is based on intent, not scale. Moreover, seems to me that 30,000 dead is plenty to justify outrage. While the argument that his database is weighted toward deaths is valid, the same organization is indeed investigating "indirect victims" separately, another pathbreaking exercise. Either way, it's important to base such claims on accurate data, and incredibly difficult - politically and logistically to find that data in conflict and post-conflict zones. The courage it has taken for him to stand up for unbiased reporting in that society is an inspiration.

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