things I felt like writing

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What the War Has Taught Me
December 23, 2023

The war against terrorism isn't over, but I've learned a lot from it. I expect I'll learn a lot more as it stretches on and on.
      For one thing, I've learned that American mass media is a disgrace. Those of us who depended on it for an objective recounting of factual events are out of luck. It's been depressing to see that this country's news outlets are so corrupted by the profit motive that they engage in speculation and worst-case-scenarioism to whip up panic and thus engender sales and ratings. The newspaper accounts I've read of the campaign in Afghanistan didn't tell me what had happened, they told me what was claimed to have happened. I've never seen so much "according to" and "uncorroborated reports" and "unconfirmed" and "not yet verified." And predictions, particularly about the horrible consequences if the military operation or diplomatic effort in question failed. Newspaper reporters aren't journalists anymore, they're commentators.
      As for TV reporting, forget it. I've learned that if I want the real story, I have to wait. Take the accounts of the fall of Tora Bora: Every news show I watched initially said that the Taliban and Al Qaeda had "melted away into the mountains." The anchors began their reports with statements like "Despite all the high-tech American firepower..." The implication was that the campaign was a failure because all the bad guys had gotten away. Then a few days ago, they started reporting that seven thousand--seven thousand--Taliban and Al Qaeda were in custody in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and two-thirds of the top Al Qaeda leadership had been killed or captured. Failed campaign? Not if these later accounts are accurate. But if I'd taken the early doom-crying reports at face value, I would've thought we'd blown it the way we always blow it.
      Another thing I've learned from this war is that a lot of our young people lack the ability to engage in critical thinking. I saw a pair of students from Harvard interviewed on CNN about the "unjust" nature of the American campaign in Afghanistan. One of them said that as of that date, 3700 civilians had been killed by American bombs. The interviewer didn't ask her where she got that figure. Since every antiwar protester I'd seen on TV had used it, I wanted to know the source. I finally heard a radio interview with another antiwar protester who admitted that it's from the Internet, from an American college professor's Web site. And where did he get it? By reading newspapers and surfing the 'Net and making an estimate. I've seen the same stories of civilian casualties that the professor consulted, and every single one of them cites figures that have not been independently verified. The accounts say so themselves. Some of them are from newspapers that are openly pro-Taliban or pro-Islamic fundamentalism. So this tally of dead civilians is from the Web site of one guy who reads propangandistic newspapers, yet the entire antiwar movement in the U. S. and Europe uses it as its cornerstone.
      Here's what I want to know: Where are the bodies of the dead civilians? Where are the graves? The Hindustani Times said that a thousand civilians were killed in an American "carpet-bombing" raid. Why aren't there any photos? Every news agency in the world would just love to show a thousand innocent people killed by American incompetence.
      When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, downtown Honolulu was wracked with explosions. Houses were destroyed and civilians were killed. The population assumed that they were being bombed by the Japanese, but later investigations proved that the destruction was caused by antiaircraft shells fired by American ships and artillery. When an antiaircraft shell doesn't hit an airplane, it has to come down somewhere. And how do we know that civilians weren't deliberately killed by the Taliban or Al Qaeda in order to blame it on the Americans? I'm sure some civilians have been killed by our bombs, but I've seen no proof that the number is in the thousands. To be perfectly honest, even if 3700 civilians have been killed by American bombs, I still won't say that the campaign is unjust. As tragic as the deaths of civilians are, the result of this campaign so far is the disruption of an evil terrorist network and the liberation of twenty million Afghans. Thousands of lives have been saved.
      One of the Harvard students interviewed by CNN said that the American military should be indicted for war crimes for bombing the fortress prison at Mazar-i-Sharif during the uprising by Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners. I assume he made this statement either because he didn't know that the prisoners had broken into the fortress armory and had taken machine guns and mortars, or he opposes American military action under any circumstances. If it's the latter, we should reflect on the fact that uncompromising adherence to principles is why we're currently at war. Unreachability is why we had to start bombing. Some young people claim that what we've done in Afghanistan is no different from what was done in the United States on September 11. Well, they don't even believe that themselves. While they pretend to equally condemn both, it's very clear that they actually see the bombing campaign as worse. I've heard tons of rationalizations for the terrorist attacks, but these same people obviously feel there's no defense for an American military response. One group of college students in Boston says that the September 11 attacks and the American retaliation are "...just media hype." God help us when these kids take government and teaching positions themselves.
      This war has also reinforced my conviction that while we are all humans who share many of the same goals, needs, and desires, there are vast, possibly irreconcilable differences between the cultures. In late September, I introduced myself to Steve, an Arab man who works in a liquor store down the street. I originally thought he was Egyptian, but it turns out he's Syrian. In our twice-a-week conversations, we've never discussed terrorism, Islam, or the war in Afghanistan. I get the sense that he wouldn't be comfortable talking about them. He was a professional lounge singer in Damascus, and he came here not knowing a word of English. Though he's a Coptic Christian instead of a Muslim, he's told me a lot about Arab culture. Much of it is incomprehensible to me. He said that in Syria, he and I couldn't be friends because I'm ten years older than he is. Arabs can't be friends if they're more than two or three years apart in age. For young people to presume friendship with older people is very disrespectful.
      Steve has a hard time living here because it's so different. There's a big Syrian expatriate community in Burbank, so he has friends and relatives he can visit when he gets homesick, but he only hangs out with people from his part of Damascus. He can't make friends with Arabs from other countries or Syrians who aren't from his district in Damascus. He can't even make friends with Damascans from other parts of the city. It's very important, he says, to have common ground with people, otherwise you can't understand each other.
      I know Afghan culture is different from Arab culture, but the two have similar values, hierarchies, and codes of behavior. I think it's a pipe dream to expect that we can all just get along because we're all citizens of Planet Earth.
      And yet...
      There was a video clip of British peace keepers driving into Kabul to prepare for the swearing-in ceremony of the interim government chaired by Hamid Karzai. Afghan men were lining the road, cheering and waving at the British with these smiles of pure joy and relief. They were so happy that the fighting might finally stop. Then at the swearing-in ceremony, the camera panned across the crowd and showed men crying, again with what appeared to be relief. We've been told that these people are from a warrior culture; Afghans themselves say that. But maybe they're starting to realize that you can't have a warrior culture with twenty-first-century weaponry, not if you want to survive. An Afghan psychiatrist said in a CNN piece that 10 percent of Afghans have war-related mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. And in a population of twenty million, there are apparently a million war widows. If the Afghans do decide that they're not going to fight each other anymore, I hope we follow through with our promises of aid. I hope we help them achieve their potential.
      I would say that the most important thing I've learned from this war is that I really hate cynicism. I hate wry, ironic, detached, flippant, oh-so-sophisticated commentary about situations in which people are dying. I've had enough of jackass TV personalities and jackass radio talk-show hosts and jackass op-ed writers and jackass letter-to-the-editor writers and jackass college students. I just heard a jackass "author," as he was careful to describe himself, talking on TV about his magnificent interview with that jackass American Taliban, that filth-encrusted, fake-accented John Walker Suleyman al-Faris Abdul Hamid Knick Knack Paddy Wack Lindh who went to "Awfgawneestawn" from "Pawkeestawn." This jackass author says there's no such thing as terrorism. In his exclusive interview, which has been getting way too much air play the last couple of days, he didn't ask Mr. Walker Lindh al-Faris Hamid what he thought about the September 11 attacks because it was a "political" question, and the author isn't interested in politics. He's only interested in talking to "intriguing" people.
      Happy Holidays, and let's make 2002 a better year for everybody.

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