Marie Colvin: Lindsey Hilsum’s revealing biography of courageous war reporter is compelling stuff

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Marie Colvin, who died after being targeted in a shell attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012.

By Idrees Ahmad, University of Stirling

For Marie Colvin, it was Lebanon’s War of the Camps that brought home the power of journalism. In April 1987 Burj al Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp, was besieged by Amal, a Shia militia backed by the Syrian regime.

Colvin and her photographer Tom Stoddart paid an Amal commander to briefly hold fire while they ran into the camp across no-man’s land. The assault on the camp was relentless and women were forced to run a gauntlet of sniper fire to get food and water for their families.

One young woman, Haji Achmed Ali, was shot as she tried to re-enter the camp with supplies. As she lay there wounded, no man dared pull her to safety. But then, Colvin reported:

Two [women] raced from cover, plucked Achmed Ali from the dust and hauled her to safety. It is the women who are dying and it was women who tired of men’s inaction.

Despite the best efforts of volunteer medics, Achmed Ali would not survive. At the hospital another woman appealed to Colvin to tell the world the young woman’s story.

[Read more…]

Saudi crown prince ‘tried to persuade Netanyahu to go to war in Gaza,’ say sources

Middle East Eye reports:

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attempted to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start a conflict with Hamas in Gaza as part of a plan to divert attention from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, sources inside Saudi Arabia have told Middle East Eye.

A war in Gaza was among a range of measures and scenarios proposed by an emergency task force set up to counter increasingly damaging leaks about Khashoggi’s murder coming from Turkish authorities, according to sources with knowledge of the group’s activities.

The task force, which is composed of officials from the royal court, the foreign and defence ministries, and the intelligence service, briefs the the crown prince every six hours, MEE was told.

It advised bin Salman that a war in Gaza would distract Trump’s attention and refocus Washington’s attention on the role Saudi Arabia plays in bolstering Israeli strategic interests. [Continue reading…]

After 17 years, many Afghans blame U.S. for unending war

The Associated Press reports:

When U.S. forces and their Afghan allies rode into Kabul in November 2001 they were greeted as liberators. But after 17 years of war, the Taliban have retaken half the country, security is worse than it’s ever been, and many Afghans place the blame squarely on the Americans.

The United States has lost more than 2,400 soldiers in its longest war, and has spent more than $900 billion on everything from military operations to the construction of roads, bridges and power plants. Three U.S. presidents have pledged to bring peace to Afghanistan, either by adding or withdrawing troops, by engaging the Taliban or shunning them. Last year, the U.S. dropped the “mother of all bombs” on a cave complex.

None of it has worked. After years of frustration, Afghanistan is rife with conspiracy theories, including the idea that Americans didn’t stumble into a forever war, but planned one all along.

Mohammed Ismail Qasimyar, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, wonders how U.S. and NATO forces — which at their peak numbered 150,000 and fought alongside hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops, were unable to vanquish tens of thousands of Taliban.

“Either they did not want to or they could not do it,” he said. He now suspects the U.S. and its ally Pakistan deliberately sowed chaos in Afghanistan to justify the lingering presence of foreign forces — now numbering around 15,000 — in order to use the country as a listening post to monitor Iran, Russia and China.

“They have made a hell, not a paradise for us,” he said. [Continue reading…]

The war and the silence

At the end of the First World War at 11 AM, on November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent.

A piece of film depicting a recording of that moment has been used by Coda to Coda to create an audio interpretation of this event. Their insertion of some birdsong after the gunfire stops appears to have been a bit of poetic license, although this detail has some historical basis.

The German novelist Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought on the Western Front:

He awoke each morning to a choir of partridges and larks that thrived in this new shrub habitat. Most impressive to him was how untroubled the little songbirds were by the shelling. “They sat peaceably over the smoke in their battered boughs,” he remembered, “in the short intervals of firing, we could hear them singing happily or ardently to one another, if anything even inspired or encouraged by the dreadful noise on all sides.”


Joanna Scutts writes:

On November 7, the king [George V] issued a proclamation calling for “a complete suspension of all our normal activities” for two minutes at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, during which, “in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.” In the run-up to the ceremony, newspapers printed reminders and editorials explaining how the Silence (as it tended to be labeled in the interwar years) would be marked and what it meant: unity, order, and a commitment to peace. They described it in poetic, near-mystical terms, as a transcendent rite of national identity.

The Two Minutes’ Silence is an “invented tradition,” in the historian Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, its authorship and origins lost in the rapidity and totality of its cultural embrace. It became something that had always been there, that people had always done. Yet it came together haphazardly, the result of creative and contingent decisions. Even the choice of Armistice Day, November 11, as the focal point of national commemoration—not the anniversary of the signing of the peace in July—was a last-minute call. Silence, it seems, had already had a hold on the British imagination: it was precisely the moment the guns fell silent, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, that people wanted to commemorate. [Continue reading…]

1918: The Day The Guns Fell Silent (BBC TV, 1998):


How World War I ushered in the century of oil

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The Navy converted to oil from coal a few years before the U.S. entered World War I, helping to solidify petroleum’s strategic status.
Naval History and Heritage Command

By Brian C. Black, Pennsylvania State University

On July 7, 1919, a group of U.S. military members dedicated Zero Milestone – the point from which all road distances in the country would be measured – just south of the White House lawn in Washington, D.C. The next morning, they helped to define the future of the nation.

Instead of an exploratory rocket or deep-sea submarine, these explorers set out in 42 trucks, five passenger cars and an assortment of motorcycles, ambulances, tank trucks, mobile field kitchens, mobile repair shops and Signal Corps searchlight trucks. During the first three days of driving, they managed just over five miles per hour. This was most troubling because their goal was to explore the condition of American roads by driving across the U.S.

Participating in this exploratory party was U.S. Army Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although he played a critical role in many portions of 20th-century U.S. history, his passion for roads may have carried the most significant impact on the domestic front. This trek, literally and figuratively, caught the nation and the young soldier at a crossroads.

Returning from World War I, Ike was entertaining the idea of leaving the military and accepting a civilian job. His decision to remain proved pivotal for the nation. By the end of the first half of the century, the roadscape – transformed with an interstate highway system while he was president – helped remake the nation and the lives of its occupants.

For Ike, though, roadways represented not only domestic development but also national security. By the early 1900s it become clear to many administrators that petroleum was a strategic resource to the nation’s present and future.

[Read more…]

What happened beyond the Western Front

Priya Satia writes:

Baghdad’s fall in 1917 was hailed as “the most triumphant piece of strategy … since war started.” It enforced the military establishment’s commitment to the “cult of the offensive” and convinced Prime Minister David Lloyd George to make Jerusalem a “Christmas gift” to his people—just when the Battle of Passchendaele, the major 1917 Allied offensive on the Western Front, ended in failure. These campaigns preserved British morale despite the grim news from France. The fall of Jerusalem incited public euphoria—the bell of Westminster chimed for the first time in three years. Postwar military journals noted a “reversal in the importance of the various campaigns,” since Mesopotamia and Palestine had proved that in future wars, “mobility and power” would again be “correlated.” The high-tech power of armored cars, aircraft, and wireless, combined with cavalry, riverboats, deception, and guerrilla tactics—showed that modern warfare need not be stalemated trench warfare. Educational tours in Iraq praised the “special value” of operations there for military science.

These campaigns seemed to affirm British military prowess and redeem warfare itself as a productive enterprise—in the very cradle of civilization. The Guardian triumphantly called the military operations in the region the greatest “programme of public works … since …ALEXANDER THE GREAT.” Trains, cars, and airplanes were bringing a new “age of miracles” to Baghdad, where lay the “natural junctions” of the world’s airways and railways, “the world’s centre.” Others imagined a “regenerated Babylonia” giving meaning to British war losses. Mesopotamia would supply cotton and wheat, provide fields for European industry, and enlarge “the wealth of a universe wasted by war,” foresaw the powerful British administrator in Iraq, Gertrude Bell. “We’ll fix this land up,” wrote an officer, “and move the wheels of a new humanity.” The press hailed “the regeneration of Palestine” as “one of the few fine and imaginative products of the war” that made “it all [seem] worth while.” These campaigns renewed Victorian idealism despite the cynicism produced on the Western Front. James Mann, a postwar recruit to Iraq, explained to his mother: “If one takes the Civil Service, or the Bar, or Literature, or Politics, or even the Labour movement, what can one do that is constructive? Here on the other hand I am constructing the whole time.”

But these hopes were pipe dreams. The occupying army did build bridges and railways but abandoned many of these projects because of financial stringency and because a violent colonial policing system known as “air control” hijacked the development discourse in the face of a 1920 Iraqi rebellion against the British occupation. Iraq descended into a new kind of colonial hell, where bombing was used for everyday purposes like tax collection.

The Great War institutionalized the British view of the Middle East as a site of exception that permitted tactics considered unethical elsewhere. For Britons, the campaigns in the Middle East gave industrial warfare a new lease on life and produced the tactics that shaped the next war, while inspiring a long history of destructive covert and aerial Western engagement with the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

In remembering WWI, Macron warns of resurging ‘old demons’ of nationalism

The Associated Press reports:

World leaders with the power to make war but a duty to preserve peace solemnly marked the end of World War I’s slaughter 100 years ago at commemorations Sunday that drove home the message “never again” but also exposed the globe’s new political fault lines.

As Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and dozens of other heads of state and government listened in silence, French President Emmanuel Macron used the occasion, as its host, to sound a powerful and sobering warning about the fragility of peace and the dangers of nationalism and of nations that put themselves first, above the collective good.

“The old demons are rising again, ready to complete their task of chaos and of death,” Macron said.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” he said. “In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: Its moral values.”

Trump, ostensibly the main target of Macron’s message, sat stony-faced. The American president has proudly declared himself a nationalist. But if Trump felt singled out by Macron’s remarks, he didn’t show it. He later described the commemoration as “very beautiful.”

As well as spelling out the horrific costs of conflict to those with arsenals capable of waging a World War III, the ceremony also served up a joyful reminder of the intense sweetness of peace, when high school students read from letters that soldiers and civilians wrote 100 years ago when guns finally fell silent on the Western Front.

Brought alive again by people too young to have known global war themselves, the ghostly voices seemed collectively to say: Please, do not make our mistakes. [Continue reading…]

Britain funds research into autonomous drones that select who they kill, says report

The Guardian reports:

Technologies that could unleash a generation of lethal weapons systems requiring little or no human interaction are being funded by the Ministry of Defence, according to a new report.

The development of autonomous military systems – dubbed “killer robots” by campaigners opposed to them – is deeply contentious. Earlier this year, Google withdrew from the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which uses machine learning to analyse video feeds from drones, after ethical objections from the tech giant’s staff.

The government insists it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”. But, since 2015, the UK has declined to support proposals put forward at the UN to ban them. Now, using government data, Freedom of Information requests and open-source information, a year-long investigation reveals that the MoD and defence contractors are funding dozens of artificial intelligence programmes for use in conflict. [Continue reading…]

Trump administration to end refueling for Saudi coalition aircraft in Yemen

The Washington Post reports:

The Trump administration is ending the practice of refueling Saudi coalition aircraft, halting the most tangible and controversial aspect of U.S. support for the kingdom’s three-year war in Yemen, people familiar with the situation said.

The move comes amid escalating criticism of Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the war. Lawmakers from both parties have demanded that the United States suspend weapons sales to Riyadh and cut off aerial refueling of aircraft flown by the Saudi coalition, which monitoring groups have accused of killing thousands of unarmed civilians.

While the individuals familiar with the discussions said a decision is expected to be made public in coming days, Col. Robert Manning III, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “We have ongoing discussions with our partners, but have nothing to announce at this time.” [Continue reading…]

How the war in Yemen became a bloody stalemate — and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

Robert F Worth reports:

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia unleashed a full-scale military campaign against the Houthis, who had captured most of Yemen a few months earlier. The Saudis had assembled a coalition of nine states, and they made clear that they considered the Houthis, who are allied with Iran, a mortal threat on their southern border. The war has turned much of Yemen into a wasteland and has killed at least 10,000 civilians, mostly in errant airstrikes. The real number is probably much higher, but verifying casualties in Yemen’s remote areas is extremely difficult. Some 14 million people are facing starvation, in what the United Nations has said could soon become the worst famine seen in the world in 100 years. Disease is rampant, including the world’s worst modern outbreak of cholera.

The Houthis, who are named for their founding family, have lost much of the southern territory they once ruled, but in most ways the war has made them stronger. Battle has sharpened their skills and hardened their resolve. It appears to have deepened their hold over a population that is weary of revolt and desperate for order of any kind. Some families, I was told, keep donation boxes with the words “In the Path of God” printed on them; everyone, young and old, contributes what cash they can to the war effort. Just before I arrived, members of a northern tribe not far from Sana, the capital city, packed up several hundred vehicles with grapes, vegetables, sheep, calves, cash and weapons. The convoy drove some 170 miles, across mountains and deserts — at constant risk of Saudi airstrikes — to support Houthi fighters on the front line near the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah.

It is tempting to see a certain poetic justice in the Houthis’ vengeful rage against Saudi Arabia. Their movement was born, three decades ago, largely as a reaction to Riyadh’s reckless promotion of its own intolerant strain of Salafi Islam in the Houthi heartland of northwestern Yemen. Since then, the Saudis — with the help of Yemen’s former ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh — have done all they could to corrupt or compromise every political force strong enough to pose a threat. The Houthis are a result: a band of fearless insurgents who know how to fight but little else. They claim a divine mandate, and they have tortured, killed and imprisoned their critics, rights groups say, just as their predecessors did. They have recruited child soldiers, used starvation as a weapon and have allowed no dissenting views to be aired in the media. They have little will or capacity to run a modern state, and at times have seemed unwilling or unable to negotiate for peace. But this, too, is partly a measure of Saudi Arabia’s fatal arrogance toward its neighbor, a long-term policy of keeping Yemen weak and divided.

That policy may now be bringing the Saudis’ worst fears to life. [Continue reading…]