The last night Salam Sheikh could sleep was Sunday. That was before Islamic State fighters marched into his home city of Sinjar, in northern Iraq, defeated 5,000 Kurdish fighters within an hour, and made Cheikh’s family prisoners in their own home.
Now when the 28-year-old calls his three sisters and his disabled mother, more than 6,400 miles away in Iraq, they speak only in whispers. Speak any louder, they fear, and ISIS fighters might overhear and realize they are still in the city.
Sheikh and his family are Yazidi, part of an ancient religion with about 600,000 adherents around the world, mostly in Iraq. About 200 Yazidi families live in the United States, half of them here in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they began settling after the first Gulf War.
The Yazidi, who have been persecuted for centuries, say their cultural memory includes 73 attempted genocides. The Nebraska-based Yazidi fear they are watching the 74th from thousands of miles away.
“It’s worse than the war,” Sheikh says.
See also: Wikipedia entry on the Yazidi
My latest for Wired:
Cliodynamics is a field of study created by Peter Turchin in the early 2000s. The idea is to use data as a means of predicting the future, but also as a way of testing theories about what happened in the past. You build a model that seeks to explain history, and then you test this model using real historical data.
The movement’s latest aim is to analyze the origins of complex societies. In a paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Turchin and a trans-disciplinary team from the University of Connecticut, University of Exeter, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis attempt to overturn the long standing belief that large-scale states are the product of agriculture.
Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They had relatively simple social structures, which consisted of perhaps a few dozen people, all of whom knew each other, and they didn’t engage in complex cooperative tasks. But eventually, complex societies evolved — complete with governments, armies, agriculture, education, and other large scale, cooperative projects. With their paper, Turchin and his collaborators analyzed the spread of the social norms that allowed societies to expand across millions of people.
“You cannot have a large state without bureaucrats, but bureaucrats are expensive. You have to pay them,” he says. “So the big question is how do complex societies evolve when they are so expensive?”
The standard theory, which Turchin calls the “bottom up” theory, is that humans invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago, providing resource surpluses that freed people up for other ventures. But what Turchin and his team have found is that the bottom-up theory is wrong, or at least incomplete. “Competitions between societies, which historically took the form of warfare, drive the evolution of complex societies,” he says.
While this doesn’t prove that war pre-dates agriculture, it does challenge some ideas about the origins of war.
In the 1970s, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon proposed the First Earth Battalion, an attempt to apply counter cultural currents of the time to the U.S. military. Now there’s the Synergy Strike Force:
Warner held the lease on the Taj, and he ran it with the help of an Afghan man, a former shepherd turned beekeeper turned tobacconist turned pool cleaner turned guesthouse manager named Mehrab. By design, the Taj sat “outside the wire,” beyond the security perimeter of the nearby coalition airfield. It was not only a place to drink and flop but also a kind of grand social experiment—an outpost of the Burning Man ethos in the Afghan desert.
What Warner meant when he called the Taj a “Burner bar” was that it operated, in part, according to a barter system. One of the standing rules at the guesthouse was that any expat could exchange information for booze. In a war zone where so many different agencies, companies, and contractors passed like wary ships in the night, one of the biggest problems was that no one could coordinate knowledge. No one, that is, except maybe a bartender. Under the banner of “Beer for Data,” Warner had turned the Taj into a major clearinghouse for information in Jalalabad. It accumulated by the terabyte on his hard drives: construction plans, hydrology surveys, health-clinic locations, election polling sites, names of farmers, number of trees on their farms, number of acres. What Warner collected he then passed on to the United Nations, the Pentagon, and anyone else who asked for it.
(via Paul Graham Raven)
Here’s an ABC News interview with Warner:
Gregory Shupak reviews Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, in which Richard Seymour uses Hitchens’ career as a foil to explore the role of the public intellectual in the modern media sphere:
If Hitchens was a serial plagiarist who failed to get even the simplest of facts right, was allergic to nuance, and made no scholarly contributions, one might reasonably conclude that he ought to be ignored, and that a reader’s time and Seymour’s considerable talents be put to better use. But Hitchens matters precisely because of the inverse relationship that the quality of his work has to his status. His career reveals much about the function of the public intellectual. […]
That said, Hitchens’ later years and the enormous celebrity he enjoyed during that period are a case study of just how handsome the rewards are for those willing and able to serve as attack dogs for the dominant powers of their place and time. Hitchens’ main service to the American elite was to employ a combination of innuendo and character assassination to cast aspersion on virtually every high-profile figure critical of American foreign policy after 9/11—a roster that includes Julian Assange, Noam Chomsky, George Galloway, Michael Moore, Harold Pinter, Edward Said, Cindy Sheehan, Oliver Stone and Gore Vidal.
Hitchens could never have amassed such a large following—and perhaps more importantly, such a powerful following—had he not so entirely embraced American power and its corresponding ideologies after 9/11. Would Hitchens have been invited on as many talk shows if, rather than writing fawning biographies of safely institutionalized figures like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, he had taken as his exemplary subjects two others he professed to admire even near the end of his life, C.L.R. James and Rosa Luxemburg? If, instead of levying facile criticisms of organized religion primarily at the United States’ enemies, Hitchens had selected neoliberal capitalism for his most ferocious late-career critiques, is it likely that 60 Minutes would have profiled him when he was ill with cancer, or that his audience would have been extended to readers of Newsweek, much less the Weekly Standard?
Justin Boland offers a post-mortem for Fifth Generation Warfare and a brief history of lone wolf/spree killings.
"Fifth Generation Warfare" is not catchy. Consumers need something relatable, something visual and visceral. That’s why “5GW” has devolved from the critical theory of the warrior class into the crude shock and awe of "Lone Wolf" domestic terrorism. The dumbing down process is irreversible and immune to reason, so this isn’t written as a defense of the concept so much as a post-mortem for the field. […]
So with “Cyberwar” getting a bored response from the body politic, we’ve got some product testing underway in 2012 and the “Lone Wolf” angle is a promising pitch. […]
Be sure to read the whole thing, and the first comment from “Eric.”
Last year, the number of armed conflicts in the world increased markedly, with the strongest increase taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is the conclusion in a new report by researchers at the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), published in the Journal of Peace Research. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has presented the statistics to the UN General Assembly in his report on international mediation. […]
Following a year (2010) that signaled hope for a more peaceful development, the number of conflicts increased by nearly 20 percent, from 31 to 37. Last year’s jump in conflicts deviates from the long-term trend line, which shows that the world is gradually becoming more peaceful.
(via Social Physicist)
CNN is running a story on a CNN graph that, in he words of Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf, “indicates that the Pakistan drone program overseen by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama killed 163 innocent people in 2009, 40 innocent people in 2010, 26 innocents in 2011, and zero innocent people in 2012.” Friedersdorf continues:
Is our drone-strike program really only killing bad guys now?
The casual CNN reader can be forgiven for drawing that conclusion. Why worry about drones if everyone dying from them is now a militant? she might conclude. What the authors neglect to mention is this bit from the May 29, New York Times story that explains how the United States government — and perhaps our allies of convenience inside Pakistan? — define “militant.” Per the newspaper (emphasis added), “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” […]
Americans ought to know that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claims to have verified a minimum of three civilian casualties in 2012, that the U.S. government’s definition of militants makes its claims unreliable, and that our method of identifying militants almost certainly isn’t foolproof. Clive Stafford Smith, who has reported from Pakistan, wrote in The Guardian last month that “just as with Guantánamo Bay, the CIA is paying bounties to those who will identify ‘terrorists’. Five thousand dollars is an enormous sum for a Waziri informant, translating to perhaps £250,000 in London terms. The informant has a calculation to make: is it safer to place a GPS tag on the car of a truly dangerous terrorist, or to call down death on a Nobody (with the beginnings of a beard), reporting that he is a militant? Too many ‘militants’ are just young men with stubble.”
Sam Childers is known in these parts, and back home in Pennsylvania, simply as the Reverend Sam. He is not your typical evangelical Christian missionary, nor, as a white American, is he your typical African warlord. Childers is a former drug dealer and outlaw biker, with tired eyes framed by grizzly muttonchops and a walrus mustache. He claims divine justification for what he does. In firefights, he says, God sometimes tells him when to shoot. He speaks country-singer American, with plenty of grit, and he recounts, over and over, the same stories from his bar-brawling days. He lifts weights, favors army fatigues, and keeps a .44 Magnum tucked in the small of his back. Harley tattoos stretch down his thick arms, and “Freedom Fighter” is airbrushed on the back of his truck. He once owned 15 pit bulls. He seems suited more to bending steel in a motorcycle shop than to saving souls in Sudanese villages.
In 1992, Childers was born again, having promised his wife he would come to Jesus if God granted them a child. A child was born. Leaving behind a life of drugs and crime, Childers set up a hardscrabble church in rural Pennsylvania. In 1998 he used his meager savings to take his first missionary trip to Sudan. He ended up near the border with Uganda, where a complicated and bloody conflict—one of Africa’s so-called forgotten wars—has been raging since 1987. At the center of the fighting is the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group led by a Ugandan named Joseph Kony. The L.R.A.’s stated goal is to overthrow the Ugandan government and install a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments. That effort has entailed systematically ignoring at least one of the commandments, Thou Shalt Not Kill. Most of the others have been breached as well. This forgotten war is the continent’s longest running. It spills across the border from Uganda into Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as the L.R.A. scours the region for conscripts and supplies.
What transformed Childers into a zealot was, as he later wrote, “a metal disk about the size of a dinner plate.” A land mine had been placed along a road near the town of Yei, and a child made the mistake of stepping on it. Childers happened upon the torso. In time, he liquidated his construction business, sold his pit bulls, auctioned his antique-gun collection, and mortgaged his home to help pay for regular trips to Sudan, where he began spending most of his time. He became obsessed with the fate of the thousands of children who have lost their parents to the fighting. In due course he would set up an orphanage in Sudan. But it was Joseph Kony who grabbed his attention. “I found God in 1992,” Childers says, in what is by now a ritual formulation. “I found Satan in 1998.” He has vowed to track Kony down and, in biblical fashion, to smite him. He has been trying for years. But this specific ambition has led to a broader entanglement in the region’s conflicts. Childers is now helping to feed and supply the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.), and he has made his home in Uganda available to the rebels for a radio-relay station. An arms depot stands at the heart of his orphanage. Childers also maintains his own paid militia force—a platoon of seasoned fighters recruited from the S.P.L.A.—and for his efforts, he says, the government of Southern Sudan has named him an honorary commander, the only white man to achieve that distinction. The Ugandan and Southern Sudanese militaries give Childers wide latitude to roam an increasingly bloody militarized zone.
Foreign troops suffered their highest death toll in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2008, and with thousands more troops scheduled to be deployed, this year could be even worse.
Nearly 270 foreign soldiers, 127 of them Americans, were killed in combat in 2008, versus 169 foreign combat deaths in 2007, according to figures compiled by Reuters.
Hundreds more foreign soldiers were wounded in Taliban attacks last year, mostly involving roadside bomb blasts, which according to the U.S. ambassador, doubled to some 2,000 in 2008 from the previous year.
Robots could be replacing human soldiers on the battlefields in the near future:
Keating said that, so far, it’s impossible to make robots completely independent of humans on the battlefield.
But the day is coming when American soldiers will fight alongside robotic comrades ? even if those robots aren’t carrying weapons, Thorpe said.