Posted by: Drew | April 12, 2009

Back by Popular Demand!

You wanted it? You got it! That’s right, the “Greatest Hits of Drew’s Blog Commentary!” Here are 10 tasty tidbits of insight from the man himself!

1. “Loved Ones Left Home” by Jordan

2. “Casualties of War…” by Tom M.

3. “War as an Ideal” by Bill

4. “Is There Justice from the Holocaust?” by Jordan

5. “What’s in a Name?” by Katie

6. “Hate…” by Aaron

7. “Let’s Disarm This Weapon of Mass Destruction” by Jaimee

8. “Ich bin Ein Berliner Part I” by Tom M.

9. “Death Penalty” by Liz

10. “Sincerely War” by Katie

Posted by: Drew | April 8, 2009

This is the end… beautiful friend…

So the end of the semester fast approaches (but not fast enough) and this blogging assignment is coming to a close now. It really has been a unique and innovative assignment, from my point of view; I’ve never gotten to do anything quite like it in my academic life before.

It has been a great opportunity to keep up on the news coming out of Afghanistan. I know I probably do not follow the news as much as I should, so hopefully this will get me in the habit of being more in tune with what is going on in Afghanistan, but also elsewhere in the world. RSS technology seems like an infinitely useful tool, if a little overwhelming at times. There were times when I’d check Google Reader for the first time in a few days to a week and there’d be hundreds upon hundreds of articles waiting for me from the New York Times, the BBC, etc. That said, it was still a very helpful tool.

One regret is that I was never able to find a great Afghanistan milblog. I mean, I found articles on a great variety of topics pertaining to the war in Afghanistan anyway, but it would’ve been interesting to get a milblog or two.

In conclusion (wow… real innovative way to wrap things up, Drew) I’ve really enjoyed this blogging assignment.

Posted by: Drew | April 2, 2009

Ishmael Beah Lecture & Afghan Women

 I went and saw Ishmael Beah speak today (well by now I guess technically it was yesterday) and it was a very interesting and affecting experience, to say the least. I’m about 70 pages into reading his memoir, A Long Way Gone, and am now very eager to finish it. Beah was extremely articulate and eloquent in talking about his experiences writing the book and what he has been doing since. He also had quite a remarkable sense of humor, something I cannot say I was expecting.


Beah was very clear that he felt he needed to tell the story of his experiences as a child soldier (and just a person affected by war in general) in order to bring hope to others like him and recognition to the global issue of child soldiers. He mentioned how Sierra Leone, his homeland, was not by nature this war-torn, chaotic place. The civil war there was not its whole history – not in the slightest. I found this to be one of my favorite points that Beah made throughout the course of his discussion. You need to understand the context of these things, he kept repeating.


I thought I’d peruse my Google Reader feeds to find articles that might have something to do with what Beah talked about and ultimately come up empty-handed, forced to make some half-baked connections to the war in Afghanistan.


Surprisingly, I came across a Real News video segment detailing the plight of women in Afghanistan. Mavis Leno of the Feminist Majority Foundation is featured in the piece; she has fought gender apartheid in Afghanistan since 1999.


The “institutionalized abuse of Afghan women” (as Leno puts it) under the Taliban was not always the case in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban’s rise to power, women operated as equals to men in Afghan society. The Taliban changed things. Now that it has regained some of the power it lost, things are as bad as ever. Leno says that not until the Taliban is totally defeated and gone will women be safe to function as equals in Afghanistan.


This is exactly what Ishmael Beah was speaking to about Sierra Leone. He said that people in America saw the images of the raging civil war in the country and just assumed that that’s the way things were and always had been there, that there was no way to change things. That is simply untrue, just like women have not always been systematically abused in Afghanistan. It isn’t just “the way things are.” Things can be changed for the better if we are aware of the problems and make a conscious effort to help fix them.

Posted by: Drew | March 25, 2009

Fight or Flight

~~What I want to talk about here is related to the previous post, but different enough that I thought it deserved a post unto itself.~~


The short story/chapter “On the Rainy River” from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the most affecting literary pieces I’ve ever read. O’Brien drafted to fight in Vietnam, a war he opposes. He is afraid of death (particularly of dying in this war he does not at all support) and attempts to flee to Canada, like many draft dodgers of his day. Once at the border, he cannot bring himself to leave his country. The primary reason? The embarrassment and shame of not going off to fight.


What if there was a draft instituted today? Obama just said the war in Afghanistan could last several years (see: article mentioned in last post). Should there be, I see myself facing the same dilemma as O’Brien. This would especially be the case if the war in Iraq were to continue, as I am opposed to the war there. Afghanistan, though? I am not sure. I think I support what we’re doing there, but would I be willing to go off and fight for that cause? Combating terrorism seems a lofty cause, just as stemming the flow of communism seemed to be one during the Vietnam era. Both goals entail tough questions, though, like: Are these winnable wars? Do we know what victory looks like?


I find myself thinking the same thoughts O’Brien thought back in the summer of ’68. That, I suppose, is what made “On the Rainy River” affect me so much: I saw myself in Tim O’Brien. After all, I am not in any way cut out for the military. I am not what you would call physically imposing. I am not “out-doorsy”, as it were. I have never fired a gun. I don’t think I could bring myself to hunt and kill animals, much less human beings. Running away from service seems like a decent idea, especially if I were opposed to the war in which I was called to fight. The shame and embarrassment of not going off to fight does seem a real and crushing possibility though. We humans like to sometimes pretend we don’t care what others think, but we do.


“I was a coward. I went to war” (p. 61)


Such is the conclusion of “On the Rainy River.” Instead of being “brave” and standing up for his beliefs (that the war in Vietnam was not worth it), O’Brien “chickened out,” in effect, and served in the military. I could definitely see myself coming to a similar conclusion should there be a draft for the wars going on today.



Posted by: Drew | March 25, 2009

You think war’s a good idea? Fine, go fight.

With the recent death of two Australian soldiers and the wounding of three others in Afghanistan, President Obama has reminded the country of the bombing in Bali conducted by al-Qaeda a few years ago. Additionally, he has stated that the war there might last for “several years.” It’s all here, in an article by Ian McPhedran and Malcolm Farr in the Herald Sun, an Australian paper.


Throughout its duration, I’ve sort of tacitly supported the war in Afghanistan; rooting out al-Qaeda terrorists seems like a worthy goal. Having justice served to those responsible for the events of 9/11 sounds like a good idea. I do not really think about it much, though; it’s on the back burner. That is what I mean by “tacit support,” I guess. But what if I were called to actually fight in this war? I am reminded of the story “On the Rainy River” from Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried:


“There should be a law, I thought. If you support a war, if you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you should have to put your own precious fluids on the line. You have to head for the front and hook up with an infantry unit and help spill the blood. And you have to bring along your wife, or your kids, or your lover. A law, I thought.” (p. 42)


O’Brien is writing here about his experience being drafted in 1968 for Vietnam, a war he was opposed to. However, it is a well-made point, in my opinion. Maybe people wouldn’t be so willing to support war if they knew their lives would be on the line. O’Brien says that LBJ should’ve sent his daughters, or General Westmoreland his family, to fight the war if they supported it so much. Imagine George W. Bush having to go fight the war in Iraq with his family… or Obama and his little girls off to Afghanistan to look for Osama bin Laden.


If you are your loved ones are directly responsible for waging the war, then just maybe it isn’t so worth it after all. It’s definitely something powerful to think about.



*Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, 1990


Posted by: Drew | March 13, 2009

135,000 Dead in Dresden*

That number – 135,000* – boggles my mind. What boggles it further is the fact that I knew really nothing of the senseless slaughter at Dresden during World War II until I read Slaughterhouse-Five. I do not recall it mentioned in history books. Maybe there’s a mention in there somewhere, but it cannot be very long or detailed. It isn’t exactly boasting material right there, the slaughter of well over so many civilians. When you have Hiroshima and Nagasaki on your conscience, maybe selectively ignoring Dresden is the response.


“‘You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentrations of any importance.’” (p. 186)


So says one of the Englishmen at Billy Pilgrim’s prison camp in Vonnegut’s novel. That was not Dresden’s fate, however. Instead, a city without any strategic importance was leveled for the sake of ending WWII quickly. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.


Looking at the headlines that come out of the war in Afghanistan, a typical one might detail the death of 4 U.S. soldiers or 18 Afghan civilians. An article written by Pir Zubair Shah from the New York Times today tells of the death of 21 Taliban militants in Pakistan suffered from U.S. missiles. I don’t want to downplay the loss of 21 people (and they are combatants rather than civilians, after all), but 21 is not 135,000*.


This just brings up how much has changed since WWII. The kind of warfare has been scaled back today. The media coverage is a totally different story today. Can you imagine the stories that would’ve come out if WWII was covered like present wars? Stories such as: “Estimates of 100,000 dead in Dresden,” “Search for Bodies Continues as Many Are Torched,” etc.?


No, the American public did not even learn of Dresden for a few years. It was kept a secret. Such a thing could not be pulled off today, but I bet that if the military or government tried to hide the deaths of even 100 Afghan or Iraqi civilians, the U.S. public would be infuriated. That is nothing compared to 135,000* dead in a city that was not strategically important whatsoever.


Billy Pilgrim speaks to Professor Rumfoord, a military man retired from the Air Force, in a Vermont hospital near the end of Slaughterhouse-Five (p. 253):


“It had to be done,” Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

“I know,” said Billy.

“That’s war.”


135,000* civilians dead is not war. The Holocaust was not war and neither was Dresden.



*I should’ve poked around a bit first to get estimates other than the one in Slaughterhouse-Five. According to Wikipedia (yay Wikipedia research!), estimates of the casualties in Dresden greatly vary, and might be as low as 25,000 to 40,000…. but come on, that does not make it any less catastrophic.


Posted by: Drew | March 11, 2009

History’s Lessons

We need to learn from history or we are bound to repeat its mistakes, or so the saying goes. Maybe if we can figure out what leads to conflicts and wars, we can learn how to prevent them or at least discourage them. But here I am reminded of the passage early on (p. 4) in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, when the narrator is contemplating writing an anti-war book:


“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”


What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.


What Vonnegut is saying here is so full of common sense that it has to be true. There is no realistic way to stop all wars. Maybe we can at least learn from past wars’ mistakes?


Such is the subject of an article by Arthur I. Cyr published in the Korea Times titled “Lessons from Vietnam.” As the Obama administration approaches an amped-up approach in Afghanistan, there are lessons to be learned from Vietnam, just like there were in Iraq. But will we heed them? On PBS’ “News Hour,” former Congressman Lee Hamilton, a co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, “noted how [Afghanistan] has not changed for ‘a thousand years’ and expecting any transformation is utopian.”


Maybe talks are possible. An Al Jazeera article by Imran Khan suggests that Obama is hinting at the possibility of talking to the Taliban in Afghanistan, with the goals of getting them to stop supporting al-Qaeda and be more cooperative with the democratization process in the country. Concerns are there. Khan’s article poses the question: “Are there any ‘moderate’ Taliban [the U.S.] can reach out to?”


Increased amounts of troops sent in to Vietnam were not the answer then, just as sending larger amounts of them into Afghanistan is not necessarily the answer now. As Vonnegut states, maybe wars will always occur. But maybe, just maybe, we can learn from our mistakes and avoid making similarly catastrophic ones in the future.



*Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969

Posted by: Drew | February 18, 2009

Civilians at War

According to a survey recently released by the United Nations, civilian deaths rose to 2118 last year in Afghanistan (an 40 percent increase from 2007’s estimate of 1523). Many news outlets have since put out stories on the subject, including the BBC and the New York Times. The principal causes of civilian death were air raids and raids on villages. The NY Times article goes on to present the story of Syed Mohammed and how most of his son’s family was killed during an American-led raid in September of ’08.


“When he returned home, Mr. Mohammed said, he went next door to his son’s house, only to find that most of his family had been killed: the son, Nurallah, and his pregnant wife and two of his sons, Abdul Basit, age 1, and Mohammed, 2. Only Mr. Mohammed’s 4-year-old grandson, Zarqawi, survived.”


Reading this got me thinking about the role that civilians have played in wars throughout the 20th Century and beyond. Certainly they have been involved in every war, but the recent wars in which the U.S. has been involved show the blurring of the division between civilian and combatant. Guerrilla/insurgent-type warfare in Vietnam, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the name of the game.


I thought back to how Vera Brittain discusses the effects of World War I on civilians in Britain. Certainly there was the mental anguish of having so many men away at war, but there was some direct danger to civilians due to air raids from the Germans. Brittain mentions how her lover Roland’s family “[came] nearer to London … they intended to leave the Lowestoft house, which was becoming more and more dangerous” (223). Additionally, there were events like the sinking of the Lusitania that killed many civilians during WWI. Most of the time, though, it seems like enemy factories and supplies were under attack rather than civilians themselves (who were unfortunate collateral damage).


 All of that is minimal when compared to the devastation visited upon European civilians during World War II. Watching the Holocaust documentary that Alfred Hitchcock helped create, as well as film shown at the Nuremburg trials following the war illustrates the horrific role that civilians took on. Not only were Jews and other undesirables (from the German vantage point) rounded up and sent to camps, like Japanese Americans were in the U.S. during this time. No, they were also systematically tortured, maltreated and slaughtered.


What’s worst about the brutality is the fact that there were German towns just down the road from many of these concentration and extermination camps (shown in vivid awfulness by the Hitchcock documentary). Civilians were complicit in the mass murder of their fellow civilians.


I guess I am just horrified at how these days, civilians are targeted as much as (if not more so than) soldiers are in warfare. Sometimes, as in Afghanistan, it is because the line that separates combatants and civilians is blurry. Other times, however, it is because groups or armies want to send a message of terror. Scary stuff.


EDITED 3/13: I feel kind of stupid for neglecting to mention the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a post entitled “Civilians at War.” Kind of a big deal, those WWII events. Also, see my forthcoming post, which relates another civilian slaughter at Dresden.



*Afghan Civilian Deaths Rose 40 Percent in 2008 — Dexter Filkins, New York Times (Feb. 18, 2009)

*Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, 1933


Posted by: Drew | February 6, 2009

Coming to Terms

Dealing with the loss of a loved one in war is never an easy thing. It is especially difficult when you cannot comprehend the choices that the individual made. How do you reconcile the person that you knew with the soldier that he or she became?


Such is the case for Bill Brennan and Thya Merz, parents of Lance Corporal Julian Brennan, who was recently killed in Afghanistan on January 24. Julian’s parents and family and friends must come to terms with “the Julian Brennan who attended the Baltimore Meeting of Quakers in high school and the rising young actor who sang at open-mic nights in Park Slope bars; the skateboarding party boy adrift on the Lower East Side and the triathlete who swam the Hudson, then raced through the streets on foot and bike; husband and brother and son” and also the Julian that enlisted in the Marines and ultimately sacrificed his life.


When Brennan decided to join the Marines in 2007,


“He said, ‘You always raised us to understand that we were privileged, and have a duty to be active engaged citizens of the world. I feel called to do this,’ ” Ms. Merz recalled her son saying.


Vera Brittain, author of the memoir Testament of Youth, dealt with similar circumstances back in World War I, when her lover, brother, and friends went off to war. How are the men that she loves doing this? The contradictions were very apparent to her, just as they are to the family of Julian Brennan. After all, her lover Roland was a poet and academic, her brother Edward a musician, her friends Victor and Geoffrey kind and decent fellows.


Vera does not understand the choices and motivations in her loved ones. After Edward is wounded and the report circulates that he had acted heroically in leading his men, Vera remarks to Geoffrey that “[she] had been surprised by this story, and especially by the part where Edward rallied his men after the panic…” (p. 285).


This is similar to Ms. Merz’s feelings about her son Julian joining the Marines:


“… I have a very hard time wrapping my head around thinking my son is being trained to kill people.”


Additionally, Vera constantly wonders after Roland’s death why he should risk his life when he was so close to coming home on leave. Her diary entry runs:


“Why did you go so boldly, so heedlessly, into No Man’s Land when you knew that your leave was so near? Dearest, why did you, why did you?” (p. 243)


Both Ms. Merz and Vera Brittain have a hard time coming to understand how the men they love were able to do the terrible, difficult things that they did. They also don’t necessarily believe in the cause for which their men died. Merz and Bill Brennan are staunchly anti-war. Brittain seemed to sense the futility and senselessness of World War I.


Those back at home may not always understand the motivations for a loved one joining the military or making the decisions he or she makes on the battlefield, but there is an understanding that must be reached in order to obtain closure. Roland, Edward, and Julian Brennan were committed to their respective countries and sacrificing themselves because they believed it the right thing to do. Honoring their service and commitment is essential so you can come to terms with their seemingly senseless death.



*Parents of Deceased Marine Are Left with a Puzzle of Forgiveness

–Jim Dwyer, New York Times (Feb. 3, 2009)


 *Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, 1933



Posted by: Drew | January 24, 2009

Is Afghanistan Worth It?

As President Obama begins his term, one of his prominent stated objectives has been to get the troops out of Iraq and pour increased amounts of them into Afghanistan instead. It is thought that Afghanistan is a more pressing matter in the war on terrorism. But is it? An open letter to Obama was written on the matter for the Washington Post on January 22 by one George McGovern ( “Calling a Time Out” ), who believes that shifting the bulk of the U.S. military into Afghanistan would be a mistake.


Now, some of you who are not up on your history may be thinking, “Who is this silly fellow George McGovern and why should anyone take his crazy ideas seriously?” McGovern served this country in WWII and then became a staunch anti-war advocate during the Vietnam War. In 1972, he was the Democratic candidate for the presidency that ultimately lost to Richard Nixon. He has served in the Senate (representing South Dakota) both before and after his presidential campaign.


Let’s head back to the matter at hand. McGovern begins his letter:


“Please do not try to put Afghanistan aright with the U.S. military. To send our troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan would be a near-perfect example of going from the frying pan into the fire.”


He goes on to discuss how terrorism has risen in Iraq since U.S. involvement there, and that the same would occur should the U.S. take an increased military role in Afghanistan. All wars are not to be opposed, but McGovern says that there is not imminent threat to the nation and that (more importantly), the “troops need rest.” Terrorism needs to be stopped with U.S. aid to the Middle East, not military engagement.


Many seem to think that if the military goes headlong into Afghanistan, that the U.S.’s problems will be solved. Victory will be at hand. All of this brings to mind Robert Graves’ “The Next War,” in which the cyclical, unchanging nature of war is described.


            “Another War gets soon begun,

            A dirtier, a more glorious one;

            Then, boys, you’ll have to play, all in;

            It’s the cruelest team will win.

            So hold your nose against the stink

            And never stop too long to think.

            Wars don’t change except in name;

            The next one must go just the same,

            And new foul tricks unguessed before

            Will win and justify this War.”


Graves was lamenting the sad condition of war in general. I think this section, though, is highly reflective of what is going on today, and what could go on tomorrow. The U.S. military could easily get just as bogged down in Afghanistan as it currently is in Iraq. People are up in arms over how involvement in Iraq has been justified; the same could easily be said for increased involvement in Afghanistan tomorrow.


Maybe, as George McGovern ultimately concludes, the U.S. does need a five-year timeout from war (unless national security is truly, truly at stake). Feeding the world is a better solution than fighting it. “There will always be time for another war. But hunger can’t wait.”

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