Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

May 7, 2016

A war like no other

Filed under: Op-eds,Social Science & History,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:31 pm

I have just finished a long conversation with some of the greatest figures in the history of Western Civilization.

Over the past month I listened with rapt attention to tales of battles on land and sea, of political intrigues, the rise and fall of great states, and the decisive victory that shaped our world.

For 27 years, 431–404 BC, Athens and Sparta vied for control of the Greek world, which then extended from Greece proper west to Sicily and southern Italy and east to the Aegean shore of modern-day Turkey.

My entry into this world was via 36 DVD lectures from The Great Courses by Professor Kenneth W. Harl, professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University.

The lecture course is called The Peloponnesian War. The war the historian and eye witness Thudydides called, “a war like no other.”

I had previously enjoyed the 24 lecture course by Professor John Hale, University of Louisville on The Greek and Persian Wars which gave me a tremendous hunger to know more about the history of Greece.

That civilization we call Western is comprised of the speakers of European languages spoken in Europe west of the Ural Mountains, and in the last five centuries spread to the Western Hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

The twin roots of that civilization lie among the ancient Greeks and the ancient Hebrews. If you are Western then no matter where your ancestors came from you are part Greek and part Hebrew.

Only a few generations ago this was universally acknowledged. Everyone knew the Bible and high school students on the American frontier studied ancient languages and history. President Harry Truman never went to college, and Gen. George Patton had the reputation of a rough profane soldier, but both could read Thucydides account of the war that led to the downfall of Greece in the original Greek.

And what did they learn from it, soldier and statesman?

They learned that as Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of England said, that a country has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

The Athenians and Spartans led a coalition of Greek cities to defeat the invading Persians in a sea battle at Salamis and a land battle at Platea. A generation later they fought each other for 27 years.

Later still the Spartan allies of Boeotia marched into Sparta and destroyed forever the myth of Spartan invincibility.

They learned that to survive and prevail a nation must be adaptable.

Sparta was the premier land power in Greece, but learned to become a sea power to defeat Athens.

They learned to beware of demagogues. Democratic Athens was periodically swept by enthusiasm that led them to confuse their hopes with their abilities as Thucydides said about the disastrous invasion of Sicily.

They learned there are no certain outcomes. After the disaster at Syracuse that cost Athens hundreds of ships and thousands of men, they recovered with breathtaking rapidity. Then on what seemed to be the eve of victory, lost all.

They learned that everything has costs.

Athens funded their war by levying tribute upon the city states of their maritime empire, which their allies came to resent enough to rebel against. Rebellions that were often brutally put down.
They learned about the interdependence of nations.

Athens was forced to surrender when they could no longer feed themselves from their own lands and their route to the grain lands of the Black Sea was cut off.

They learned that civilizations like men, can die. Exhausted by the war, Greece was conquered by Phillip of Macedon and became a province of various empires for the next two thousand years.

And they learned that while many things change, some things never change. And they learned to tell the difference.

We have forgotten these things, but we will re-learn them, perhaps at great cos

March 9, 2015

American Sniper highlights divisions in American society

Filed under: Movies,Terrorism,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 12:38 pm

Clint Eastwood’s epic biopic “American Sniper” is hitting the target with all the accuracy of the legendary sniper it portrays, becoming the highest grossing domestic release of 2014.

It has also generated a lot of vehement criticism along with the adulation, and both say a lot about where we are as a country today.

Kyle has been hailed as a patriot and a hero. He has also been condemned as a psycho racist murderer.

No he wasn’t according to the testimony of Iraqis who worked with him.

The claim that the movie character called Iraqis “savages” in the film is misrepresentation at best. The character as portrayed by Bradley Cooper called jihadists who put bombs into the hands of children savages, which is too kind. So-called savages often display admirable traits of courage and honor – these people are evil.

But Kyle himself bears some responsibility for the misconceptions. Critics have pointed out passages in his autobiography where he said he enjoyed the war and missed it when he was away.

I think he was talking about the comradeship of fighting men in battle that few experience outside of the military. But however it might have been taken out of context, it was poorly put.

He also told some lies, passed off as tall tales by admirers, about going to New Orleans with friends during hurricane Katrina and shooting looters.

Come on! You didn’t know that was going to raise some hackles?

Critics claim the film shows a simplistic black-and-white view of the Iraq war, us good, them bad.

No, a great many of those critics have the simplistic view that if the war is bad, our enemies must be the good guys.

Does, not, follow. The question of whether the invasion of Iraq was justified or prudent or strategically sound is an entirely separate issue from the fact that Islamic jihadism is a world-wide movement, a fantasy ideology which aims to drag the world into a particularly vile barbarism.

The jihadists preach, and practice, forcible religious conversion, murder of non-believers and apostates, chattel slavery, and the brutal suppression of women.

In short, they’re not the good guys.

Whether we should roam the world seeking out the bad guys is another matter. To begin with, it’s expensive. An American soldier may fire a missile that costs more than he makes in a year to kill a guy who couldn’t pay for it in a lifetime.

The questions that occur to any thoughtful person are: Is there a cheaper way to defeat the jihadists? Can we do so without making more enemies in the process? Is there a peaceful way to subvert their poisonous ideology? Can we isolate them long enough for their movement to collapse under the weight of its own stupidity as we did with communism?

And there is a question critics seem to have missed. Sniping is a highly selective method of warfare. Kyle identified individual threats to American troops, in the act. He killed only them, without “collateral damage” in that detestable military euphemism. When in doubt, he did not fire.

I think what many people are reacting to is how personal Kyle’s kills are. He sees them through his scope as if they are close enough to touch. He can see their faces, and see them as they die.

That is chilling in a way that knowing the President of the United States checks off names from a list, authorizing a remote-controlled drone to shoot a Hellfire missile which may or may not kill the target but most certainly kills and maims a great many bystanders is not.

This is what we’re having to deal with, soldiers and civilians alike.

A veteran of World War II might have survived without ever knowing if he’d killed anyone, and we once expected warfare would only get progressively more long-range and impersonal.

We were wrong. Much of modern warfare is fought at close range and is brought into our homes via television.

Eastwood has done a good job at showing the cost to our soldiers, and to us.

August 26, 2013


Filed under: Op-eds,Politics,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:21 am

Hang on to your hats, here we go round again.

President Obama has asked the military to “prepare options for all contingencies” in Syria, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

The immediate cause was compelling evidence a lot of civilians, estimates differ so widely I’m just going to say “a lot,” were killed by poison gas attacks recently in Syria’s civil war.

The gas presumably came from the nonexistent stockpiles Saddam Hussein didn’t have when George “Bush lied thousands died” Bush invaded Iraq.

I’m going to pause for a moment and crow bitterly. I think U.S. forces discovered evidence of chemical weapons in Iraq during the first week of the invasion and CNN showed them for all the world to see.

Coalition forces found an underground storage facility in the desert full of 55 gallon drums. A week later Al Jazeera triumphantly announced they were insecticides.

I noted that insecticides are in fact the chemical precursors of some nasty nerve agents. That’s what the Aum Shinrikyo cult used to make sarin gas for the Tokyo subway attacks in 1995.

I haven’t been able to get anyone of importance to acknowledge this in 10 years.

So now there’s a humanitarian disaster in Syria, and we’re on the verge of rushing in to “fix” it like we fixed Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Because our president’s bluff has been called once too many times and he’s got to show the world he’s got a pair after all.

I just wish that before we spent another trillion dollars or so we’d pause and ask a few questions first.

Starting with, what’s in it for us?

As in, does Syria have any significant amount of oil for example?

Iraq does – and we wound up not getting much of it anyway. So much for “No blood for oil.”

Will we significantly hurt Al-Queda?

They’re talking about intervening on the side of Al-Queda for God’s sake!

So all that aside, chaos in the Middle East is bad for our interests because…?

But people are dying!

Sure are, a lot more than died when Syria was merely ruled by a ruthless but sane tyrant.

OK, I’ll stop sugar coating this and get to the point.

The Middle East is a basket case as far as civilization goes. Wars and revolutions are going to break out regular as clockwork for a long time to come. People will be killing each other over reasons incomprehensible to us, and whatever happens they’re going to blame it all on 1) America, 2) the Jews.

The only solution we could impose is one we’re not even willing to talk about – empire.

As in occupy the place, establish an imperial civil service, and hold it with a corps of professional soldiers like the French Foreign Legion composed of tough, smart, and ruthless men we don’t like very much at home, because they’re going to die a lot. Do it for two generations minimum. To pay for it, levy taxes on the population.

You didn’t want to hear that, did you? Nobody does.

We all know imperialism is always and forever a Bad Thing of course. So how many former possessions of the British Empire have a higher standard of living now? How many have more security of person and property? How many are freer?

Some to be sure – but how many?

And now the British Empire is no more, is the world a safer place?

America does not do empire, in spite of all the cant about “American imperialism.” Which is in some ways a pity, because our few historical experiments with it in the Philippines and various Pacific islands shows we’re rather good at it when we put our minds to it.

But if we’re not willing to go that route, I’d say stay the heck out of crummy situations where we have no compelling national interest. Half measures are expensive for us and don’t do them any favors in the long run.

Note: This is my weekly op-ed.

April 5, 2013

Is this the time?

Filed under: News commentary,Op-eds,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:43 am

Note: My weekly op-ed.

The late great science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once told a crowd at a convention, “Some of you will see a nuclear war within your lifetime.”

The crowd, to say the least, did not want to hear this.

A few years ago when I was the world’s oldest journalism intern in Washington, D.C., I coined the term “no-name nukes,” in the context of the sentence, “We’re living at Ground Zero for the no-name nuke.”

During my three months residence in D.C. I repeated that statement many times on many occasions.

Not once did anybody ever call me crazy. Heck, not once did anybody ever disagree with me!

Well once actually. A gentleman at the National Press Club thought I was way too optimistic when I said sometime in the next generation a rogue nuke was going to take out D.C.

“Oh I’d say within the next five to ten years,” he said.

I actually got to pose the question to former Secretary of State John Bolton at a small gathering.

Bolton was as forthcoming as it was possible for him to be. He didn’t actually address the question of what we could do if a nuke of unknown origin detonated on our soil, but he did point out where terrorists would get them.

Iran for one of course. Currently run by bona-fide religious crazies who are actually looking forward to Armageddon. How close they are to getting nukes is a matter of some controversy. Some say soon, some say long time to never.

The latter is the more comforting belief, which is why we should consider very carefully whether this is a realistic assessment, or wishful thinking.

Then there’s North Korea. They’re a bandit state with nukes, and Bolton pointed out, they’ll cheerfully sell them to anyone for hard cash.

Now they’re rattling their sabers and threatening to nuke American bases in the Pacific, or even a West Coast city.

It’s hard to tell how seriously to take the Norks. On the one hand, they do a lot of saber rattling. On the other hand, sometimes they do more than just rattle their sabers.

For decade they raided the coast of Japan, kidnapping Japanese citizens. They’ve landed commandos in South Korea for obscure purposes, though we can assume they’re up to no good as they tend to commit suicide to escape capture. They’ve torpedoed South Korean ships and murdered American military personnel at the Demilitarized Zone.

Worse, they’ve done it without consequences.

And that’s nothing compared to what they’ve done to their own people. Estimates of famine-related deaths range between 240,000 and 3,500,000. As many as 200,000 political prisoners are held in North Korean concentration camps under conditions at least as bad as anything in Soviet gulags during Stalin’s reign.

What’s worrisome about this kind of thing is not that it’s evil, but that it makes no sense. What do they gain by this? Evil we can deal with. Crazy is another matter.

If the Norks were merely evil we could appeal to their self-interest, mainly their desire not to be nuked down to bedrock. Same thing that kept the Cold War cold.

Now it could be the Kim family’s kingdom is acting for perfectly sensible reasons. North Korean saber rattling has traditionally prompted massive donations of food from abroad. This could be of no more significance than an infant throwing a tantrum because it’s hungry.

Or maybe they’re just crazy. The scary thing is, we can guess but we just don’t know.

At the end of World War II in the Pacific, after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the U.S. government heard nothing from the Japanese for three days. So they dropped another one. Five days later as a third bomb was being assembled, the emperor broadcast his decision to surrender – and there was an attempted military coup by diehards who dreamed of a glorious death for their entire nation!

And the Japanese weren’t crazy, just alien to our ways of thinking.

It didn’t make a big splash, but we’ve been threatened with nukes before. During the Clinton administration the Chinese were saying openly but without bluster that they figured we weren’t as attached to Taiwan as much as we were to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

That was scary enough, but made sense. The Chinese stated what they wanted, and their judgment of the risks involved. They might be wrong, but their reasoning was perfectly straightforward.

About the North Koreans we mostly just don’t know. A history of oriental despotism, plus two generations of Japanese occupation, plus three generations of communism equals… what?

February 25, 2013

Review: Argo

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History,Terrorism,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:48 am

Note: I see “Argo” won an academy award, and I see I neglected to post my review which first appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent. So here it is.

After a slow beginning the reputation of “Argo” as a taut psychological thriller and intelligent action flick is getting around.

“Argo” achieves the most difficult feat for a thriller, keeping you on edge even when you know the outcome walking in. As action flick it hearkens back to an earlier time before the “non-stop action” genre, when films paid attention to set up and character development. And for once, the CIA are shown as the good guys.

And if you’re paying careful attention there are some interesting questions about realpolitik and ethics versus practicalities raised therein.

“Argo” tells the story of the “Canadian caper,” a joint CIA-Canadian operation that spirited six American diplomatic personnel out of Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis in January, 1980.

Since a generation has passed since those days, the film begins with a narrator relating the background. In 1979 the Shah of Iran was forced into exile and the Ayatollah Khomeni returned from his own exile to assume spiritual leadership of the new Islamic Republic of Iran.

Enraged that the U.S. admitted the Shah into the country for medical treatment, militants stormed and seized the American embassy, taking the staff hostage for what was to become a 444 day ordeal.

Six diplomats escaped out a back door and ultimately found refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber.)

CIA officials brainstorm various plans to extract the six, discarding all of them as impractical, until agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs) comes up with an audacious plan to extract the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie to be called Argo.

The plan is green-lighted as the “least bad” option.

Mendez contacts makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who did contract work for the CIA with disguises.

“Let me get this straight, you want to come to Hollywood, make a fake movie, and do nothing?” Chambers asked. “You’ll fit right in.”

Chambers helps Mendez recruit producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to establish a thorough cover for the operation.

“If I’m going to make a fake movie, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Siegel said.

The cover involved a real script that justified an exotic location shoot (an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s novel, “Lord of Light” by the way,) full-page ads in Variety, press conferences, casting calls, and an office that existed to answer precisely one phone call from Iran to verify that Mendez’s cover character was “out of the country on location.”

The understated tension is marvelously done, Afleck has a great future as a director. The living conditions of the six, in comfortable but cramped conditions, living in fear, getting on each others nerves, is shown in images with few words. A glimpse of a man shot by firing squad through a window, a man hanged from a crane, the growing suspicion that the Iranian housekeeper knows who the ambassador’s guests are. This could be a textbook illustration of the novelist’s dictum, “Show – don’t tell.”

“Argo” doesn’t shy away from the moral ambiguity of the U.S.- Iranian conflict. Yes the U.S. sponsored a coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, and supported a despot who ruled with the brutal CIA-trained secret police SAVAK.

But with the Shah gone, what replaced him? Even more brutal religious fanatics who threw a rich and modernizing country into poverty and chaos.

And who were the militant leaders? Mendez tells the six while briefing them. Not semi-literate goat-herders but American and European-educated English speakers who had seen the west close up, and hated it. Hated the west enough to throw away ancient laws on the treatment of diplomats and stage sadistic mock-execution with their captives.

There’s food for thought here, now more than ever.

There’s also some choices Afleck made he should have thought twice about. “Argo” has it the six were refused refuge at the British and New Zealand embassies. In fact both embassies aided the six in important ways, as did the Swedish embassy which briefly sheltered one of them.

Afleck calls this dramatic license to heighten the sense the six had no place else to go.

No, having the Swissair plane chased down the runway by gunmen in trucks as it’s taking off is dramatic license. This is slander.

After the preview at the Toronto Film Festival in September, critics charged “Argo” unfairly minimized Canadian participation in the operation. Well perhaps, but then again the Canadians got all the credit until 1997 when the operation was declassified and Mendez got to claim his Intelligence Star medal, and Chambers his Intelligence medal.

February 15, 2013

Review: The Americans

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:18 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

“The Americans” on FX network may be the series that blows open the secret history of the Cold War – the secret that’s been out in the open for some time now, except nobody is looking. If the network suits don’t chicken out.

Created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer, “The Americans” is the story of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Mathew Rhys and Keri Russell) an American couple living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s.

A devoted couple with two children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) they are living the American Dream.

Except they’re not American, they’re Russian. They know nothing about each other’s real pasts before they were introduced by their KGB superiors and told they were to be husband and wife. They only know their “legends,” the false pasts of their cover identities. Their children were born in America and have no idea what their parents really are.

After the end of the Cold War, the declassified Venona Transcripts and the testimony of high-level defectors such as KGB Major Vassili Mitrokhin and Polish Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, revealed the received wisdom of the Cold War as a lie.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty, not even their children deny that anymore. Alger Hiss was guilty. The State Department was riddled with traitors in the 1940s and early ‘50s. Franklin Roosevelt’s closest advisor was a Soviet agent. The Communist Party U.S.A. was not a home-grown movement, but a puppet of the Comintern supported by Soviet funds.

The Soviet Union never intended to coexist peacefully with us; their long-range goal was always to conquer us. In the nearer term future they planned to invade and occupy Western Europe using Warsaw Pact forces from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia driven ahead of the Red Army to remind them which side they were on.

The scheduled date of the invasion was originally the early 1980s, the period “The Americans” is set in. This is not a paranoid fantasy, my children’s grandfather was a Polish officer in the Secret Chancellery and knew very well the order was going to come, someday. As did my son’s godmother, the widow of a KGB defector.

The story of the Jennings life in America mirrors a stark reality. Deep cover agents were taught everything necessary to function in America and trained to speak perfect unaccented English from an early age. Once in America they were ordered to keep language discipline, never to speak their native language under any circumstances.

This is not a fantasy either. In 1996 I worked with a young Russian in Bulgaria who spoke perfect English with a Midwestern American accent.

“Special schools since I was 10,” he explained.

Elizabeth believes in the mission, believes Reagan is a dangerous madman out to destroy the Rodina (Motherland). When a comrade on a mission to kidnap a KGB defector is mortally wounded, Phillip takes the time to drop him off within walking distance of an ER.

“The mission comes first!” Elizabeth says angrily.

Phillip is conflicted. In the very first episode he openly suggests defecting.

“We could be millionaires!” he says. “And the children are American anyway.”

Their situation is complex. Phillip wants to release the defector – until Elizabeth reveals he was a training officer in the KGB academy who raped her, with official sanction.

“Sorry,” he says. “We were told to do anything we wanted with the cadets.”

Phillip kills him.

Elizabeth and Phillip are developing feelings for each other, after 15 years of “marriage” and two children. Complicated by the fact Elizabeth sometimes has to seduce potential sources.

Phillip also seduces a source by posing as a Swedish diplomat. But his source is flighty and threatens to expose him if he doesn’t leave his “wife.” Phillip may have to kill her.

An FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) moves into their neighborhood. He’s quite open about his work, but is this a ruse to rattle them?

Elizabeth shows signs of softening. She forces a maid in Secretary of Defense “Cap” Weinberger’s house to install a covert recording device by injecting her son with poison via an umbrella gun. But she gives the boy the antidote even when the mission is only a partial success.

Not a James Bond fantasy either. My first coup as an amateur journalist was interviewing the widow of a Belarusian dissident murdered this way.

The tradecraft portrayed in “The Americans” is utterly convincing. The tension is almost unbearable, though we know how the Cold War ended.

Will the series show how WWIII was avoided? Will the suits have to guts to tell it like it was? Will the Jennings come in from the cold?

When Elizabeth softens towards Phillip, she tells him, “My name was Nadezhda.”

In Russian that means, “Hope.”

February 1, 2013

Women in Combat

Filed under: News commentary,Politics,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:44 am

Note: This is my weekly syndicated column.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has announced that women are necessary to our military’s success, that they are willing to fight and die alongside men, and “The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”

And of course, the sky is falling.

Opponents have pointed out, quite correctly, that the function of the military is not social engineering, but the defense of the nation.

“While their focus must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast-moving and deadly situations,” said Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council and a retired Army lieutenant general.

The move seems to be supported mostly by men who are not veterans and women who don’t personally intend to make a career of the infantry.

I have to ask, is this going to make any difference at all?

I notice that Panetta has left himself an out. He said physical standards will not be lowered, and admitted few women can meet them, but “everyone is entitled to a chance.”

That sounds like, “Hey, you’re welcome to try, so don’t blame me if you can’t pass the test.”

In my younger days I worked as a garbage man in a town which had yard service. Meaning we went into the yards, emptied the cans into our containers, and toted them to the truck on our backs – an average of 65 pounds and often much more. Not distributed as well as a backpack either. We worked in all weathers, including Oklahoma summers when the temperature regularly got above 100.

There was nothing to prevent women from applying for the job, but in six years total I remember two woman who actually tried it on for size and stuck with it for a few months. Nobody complained about their ability to do the work, there just weren’t many like them.

Oh yes, and one was fired along with a male colleague for hanky-panky on the job.

The argument from some female officers is there are women at the high end of that bell curve of strength and stamina who can outperform men at the low end.

This is not news. The question is, is it worthwhile for the military to make some fairly expensive and troublesome accommodations for a statistically tiny minority of women who can meet the physical standards required of an infantryman?

Panneta said standards won’t be lowered, but in fact they have been in a number of cases. There are also reports of serious problems of unit cohesion in Army units and on Navy ships.

My father, a retired Naval officer, put it bluntly that women at sea doesn’t work unless everybody gets one. Anything else is asking for trouble.

The gender equality crowd usually responds with, “Men have to change.”

OK, so what if the changes, if possible at all, result in men who don’t make good soldiers and sailors anymore?

On the other hand… there are plenty of women in combat positions that aren’t infantry. There are helicopter pilots, I believe at least one door gunner, and women qualified to be fighter pilots.

On average women have physical characteristics such as smaller average size, resistance to G-forces, quick reflexes, etc that might make them as good or better than men in the cockpit of a fighter jet.

Lots of women drive trucks and operate heavy equipment and do all the 20-odd support tasks that enable the military to put one combat soldier in the field.

Russian woman served as snipers in WWII and racked up impressive kill records.

Army and Navy nurses have been near enough to the front lines to be killed or captured since World War II.

Israeli women serve in the IDF, making it one of the most attractive as well as most kick-butt armies in the world.

The role of female Israeli soldiers has been overstated though. Israel does not by choice put women into combat. They receive thorough training in arms because in Israel there are no rear areas, and their enemies do not recognize non-combatant status.

I suspect this is going to sort itself out eventually, after a lot of trouble, expense, and scandal no doubt. But that’s the way we do things these days.

January 25, 2013

Review: ‘Zero Dark 30’

Filed under: Movies,Terrorism,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:19 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

Yes it’s pretty good. But if you can’t handle moral ambiguity and the often nasty way the world really works, you’ve got no business seeing it.

“Zero Dark 30” is about the hunt for Osama bin Ladin culminating in his execution by Seal Team Six.

I’d better say something here. I have some strong feelings about this, because I’d heard of Osama bin Ladin before 99.999 percent of my fellow Americans had.

My students in Saudi Arabia used to ask me if I’d heard of him when I worked in the Kingdom before 9/11. I had but I told them I hadn’t. They assured me I would someday.

Did killing Osama seriously hamper Al Queda?

No. Don’t care. It’s personal.

It was personal for “Maya” (Jessica Chastain) the CIA operative recruited just out of high school whose only significant work for The Company was tracking bin Ladin. “Zero Dark 30” is Maya’s story.

It begins on 9/11, but director Kathryn Bieglow (a pretty driven woman herself by all accounts) doesn’t show you the smoking towers, or the agonizing scenes of the victims who held hands as they jumped to their deaths.

You see a blank screen, and hear a woman trapped on a burning floor talk to a 9-11 operator.

“I’m going to die, aren’t I?” you hear as the connection is lost.

Maya is introduced as a young analyst witnessing the brutal interrogation of an Al-Queda member by CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke).

She elects to come in without a mask. Dan asks if she wants one.

“You don’t wear one. Is he ever getting out?” Maya asks.

“He’s never getting out,” Dan says.

Maya is visibly upset. She gets over it. She witnesses beating, humiliation, and water boarding, then supervises a beating herself.

When her best friend, a mother of three (Jennifer Ehle), and six colleagues are killed in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack she goes from driven – to obsessed.

The film has upset some people.

Some Republicans claimed its release was intended to highlight President Obama’s role in authorizing an operation already in the pipeline before his administration, and help insure his re-election.

Others call it pro-torture.

But if anything the person who gets the credit for deciding to trust Maya’s certainty in spite of everybody else’s doubts, is CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini).

Obama’s sole appearance on-screen is assuring Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes” that “America does not torture.”

A lie of course, but to be fair what else could he have said without revealing too much to our enemies?

Not exactly pro-torture, the film recognizes it happens. It’s shown having an effect on Dan. He burns out and goes home, after warning Maya that when it becomes a public issue again the last person holding the bag is going down.

The fact is, our enemies torture and brutally murder captives. Civilized people have agreed to follow certain rules, even when conducting a business as uncivilized as war. Our enemies never signed those accords. Rules are for people who play by rules.

Tell anyone that someone they love more than life is in the hands of Al-Queda and watch them join the “waterboarding is for sissies” club.

If you think this is intolerable, then you need to tell your immediate family, “I’m so sorry, I love you all, but I’d rather you died horrible deaths than cause a loathesome human being a moment’s discomfort.”

It’s also been alleged Bigelow obtained improper access to classified information.

Does it give away useful intelligence?

I don’t know. If Maya is ever outed, I wouldn’t want to be her insurance underwriter.

A CIA spokesperson said the movie is, “an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, their vital mission and the commitment to public service that defines them.”

If that’s true, it’s rather alarming. But there have been reports Maya has fired off at least one email to all the CIA people who were commended for the operation, telling them in no uncertain terms they didn’t deserve it because all they ever did was obstruct her. And that’s pretty much what the movie shows,
Maya dragging the Agency kicking and screaming into seeing it her way.

In the end, Maya sees off Seal Team Six and is waiting to identify Osama’s body on their return.

There’s a lot of ambiguity here too. They got Osama, his top henchmen, and a lot of information on hard drives, tapes, and documents.

They also killed the father of a roomful of kids, and his wife when she jumped on his body. They did by all accounts attempt to confine the killing to adult males in the compound.

But those kids are going to grow up some day. You might want to see this movie before they do.

October 30, 2012


Filed under: Op-eds,Politics,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:35 am

Note: This is an op-ed from my syndicated column. New revelations are coming to light so rapidly, it may be outdated by this evening.

The Kissinger Lesson, “That which will be revealed eventually, must be revealed immediately.”

This past week, two weeks before the election, may be remembered as the week it ceased to matter whether a sitting president was re-elected or not.

That was the week the hastily thrown together official story of the attack on the American consulate and CIA annex at Benghazi on the historically significant date of Sept. 11, totally fell apart.

Here’s what we know to a reasonable degree of certainty. On Sept. 11, men armed with automatic rifles and RPGs, supported by mortars, began to take positions around the American consulate. They apparently recruited locals off the street and directed them to “demonstrate,” possibly using an obscure YouTube video allegedly insulting Islam to inflame them.

The video was not the motive of the attack. As of several days after the attack the video still had hits in the low hundreds.

During the attack on the consulate, Ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith, Foreign Service Information Management Officer, were killed.

Consulate personnel were rescued and Smith’s body recovered by security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both former Navy SEALS, who allegedly disobeyed instructions not to leave the CIA annex. They were both killed by mortar fire when the annex came under attack.

Stevens’ body somehow wound up at a local hospital, after being dragged through the streets, allegedly desecrated, and photographed by members of the mob.

The administration’s public statements have been confused, contradictory, and sometimes outright bizarre.

Though Obama claimed in debate that he did in fact call the attack a “terrorist incident” (backstopped by moderator Candy Crowley) the video shows he made a vague statement that about not being intimidated by “acts of terrorism” not clearly connected to the attack. Five days later UN Ambassador Susan Rice was still trying to connect the act to the anti-Mohammed video.

Then on Friday, Fox News reported that it “learned from sources who were on the ground in Benghazi that an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command…”

FOX said it’s sources claimed CIA operators were told twice to “stand down.”

The attack was observed and videoed by a Predator drone in real time, and possibly by an AC-130 gunship as well, if reports the former SEALs were lighting up the mortar that killed them with a GLD (Ground Laser Designator) are accurate. At all times help was never more than two hours away, likely much sooner.

The administration, though Vice-President Biden, attempted to throw the intelligence community under the bus, claiming they acted (or failed to) according to the information they had at the time.

Intelligence refused to go gently into that good night, and is very possibly the source of subsequent leaks.

A CIA spokesman said, ”No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate. ”

And does anyone believe that CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus would give a “stand down” order with the lives of men holding an untenable position at stake?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fell on her sword the American way, “OK, it’s my fault, now can we stop talking about it?” (As opposed to the Japanese way of accepting responsibility, which involves resigning in disgrace and possibly hara-kiri.)

Obama was caught off-guard in friendly territory by KUSA-TV reporter Kyle Clark, a Denver affiliate of NBC. He refused to answer a direct question about personally denying the requests for help, and responded with boilerplate about “bringing those responsible to justice.”

OK, so what everybody is wondering is, is this going to affect the election? Is this the October surprise that destroys Obama’s chance of a second term?

Doesn’t matter. If Obama is re-elected, like Nixon was after Watergate, Benghazi-gate is not going away. He will preside over a crippled administration propped up by a totally discredited media.

September 17, 2012

Another 9/11

Filed under: Syndicated columns,Terrorism,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:38 am

“Say ye unto the Khwarezmians that I am the soveign of the sunrise, and [the emperor is] the sovereign of the sunset. Let there be between us a firm treaty of friendship, amity, and peace, and let traders and caravans on both sides come and go.”
– Ghengis Khan, to an ambassador from the Khwarezmian empire, before the Khwarezmian (Persian) Emperor had the Mongol ambassadors murdered, provoking a war that led to his defeat and death.

After the murder of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya, I received an email that drew my attention to a letter to the editor posted in the U.K. Daily Telegraph.

“Would Americans reading this at last grasp that free speech does not extend beyond the jurisdiction of the Constitution which grants the Right. Those who imagine otherwise do the USA a grave disservice if not criminal damage to American interests.

We in UK enjoy similar freedom but Americans must not take this for granted elsewhere. Like it or not politics and religion are sides of the same coin in the Muslim world. Does the US invite another 9/11 ?”

The cluelessness of this is staggering. This WAS another 9/11. Not the same in scope and casualties, but carrying the same message.

Unfortunately this cluelessness is matched by our Diplomatic Service. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice earnestly announces that the riots in Libya are apparently spontaneous a and not part of any coherent plan, even as more embassies in Muslim countries come under siege and AL Queda urges more attacks on U.S. diplomats.

“What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video,” Rice said.

Oh puh-lease! These events are deliberate, planned, and come with a message, “We are at war with you and will not allow you to forget it.”

The ostensible excuse was an amateurish 14 minute trailer for a movie depicting the prophet Mohammed in an unfavorable light, that now appears never to have been made. The trailer is probably all there is of the film. It seems to be the production of an Egyptian Coptic Christian who is on probation/parole for some kind of fraud. It is not even certain the trailer was originally intended to be about Mohammed at all, since it seems to be clumsily overdubbed.

Nevertheless, it is being touted as an intolerable insult to Islam, for which apologies, abasement, and restitution is required. Apologies which the administration seems only to willing to provide.

Those mobs claim they are offended at all of America, for the work of one man, or at most a handful of men, and want to hold all of us accountable for it.

There is something Americans fail to understand about Arab Islamic culture and their point of view. For them, rights and obligations are not reciprocal. They don’t see anything contradictory about insulting our faith, our culture, our way of life, while demanding the most meticulous respect for theirs.

It’s not the movie, it’s us! Get it? They don’t like us and will seize on any excuse to be offended.

From ancient times, both civilized people and barbarians have agreed upon one crucial principle, that the person of an ambassador is sacred. Ambassadors may come and go between warring sides bearing messages and return unharmed.

Christopher Stevens was not the victim of a random riot. He was sought out in his secret safe house and murdered. His body was dishonored and dragged through the streets as the rioters took pictures of him with their cell phone cameras, from inches away from his corpse.

This is also a message, “We are not interested in what you have to say. We will not listen. We will humiliate you as we choose, and you are impotent to do anything about it.”

Bio: Steve Browne is an award-winning reporter and columnist who entered journalism by accident while living and working in Eastern Europe from 1991 to 2004. He is the author of two books for English students: “Word Pictures: English as it is REALLY Used,” published in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Novosibirsk, Russia, and “English Linguistic Humor: Puns, Play on Words, Spoonerisms, and Shaggy Dog Stories.” In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights. He is currently living in his native Midwest, which he considers “the most interesting foreign country I have ever lived in.”

Note: Publications receiving this may use at most 3-4 columns free of charge to test reader reaction. Contact author for single-issue and subscription rates. It’s not very expensive.

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