Archive for October, 2003

Hersch on the WMD Intelligence Failure

Tuesday, October 21st, 2003

Seymour Hersch’s new article in the New Yorker provides a detailed version of the events surrounding Bush administration claims of Iraqi WMD in the run-up to the war: The stovepipe. There are some significant new details, and lots of tying together of disparate pieces that have been floating around for the last year or so.

Is all of it true? I don’t know. I’d guess that there are some areas where Hersch’s information is fuzzier than he’s letting on. But most of it sounds pretty compelling. I certainly don’t see any way to salvage Dick Cheney, at least, from the charge of wilfully lying his ass off.

Anyway, it’s a long piece, but well worth the effort.

US Deaths in Vietnam and Iraq by Month

Monday, October 20th, 2003

I was watching John McCain and Bob Graham yacking at each other on Meet the Press yesterday, and good lord, this is sounding more like Vietnam all the time. It won’t be long before we’ll have politicians talking about “peace with honor” and secret plans to end the war.

And that reminded me of something I’d been meaning to do for a while. Whenever I bring up a Vietnam/Iraq comparison, fans of the current war point out that casualty rates in Vietnam were way beyond anything we’ve seen so far in Iraq. Which is true, if you’re talking about the Vietnam war at its peak. But there was a long run-up during which Vietnam simmered along at much lower casualty rates. I keep meaning to put together some charts to compare the two wars in terms of the US death toll, and now I’ve done that.

For my Vietnam statistics I used the excellent Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund site, where there is an advanced search tool that lets you query the database of war dead by month. For the Iraq statistics I used Lunaville’s page on Iraq coalition casualties.

In each case, I counted all US deaths in the war zone, rather than only counting combat fatalities. In the case of the current month (October 2003), I took the fairly morbid step of estimating that the current monthly total of 24 deaths would rise to 32 deaths over the next 10 days. (Here’s hoping that estimate turns out to be high. I’ll revise the charts at the end of the month to reflect the true total.) (Update: Sadly, I was low. The actual number of US deaths in October was 42. I’ve updated the charts accordingly, and have posted some new observations in this item: Iraq war deaths.)

For the first chart, I plotted deaths for the first 12 months of the Vietnam war, and the 8 months to-date of the Iraq war. I picked December of 1961 as the “starting point” for the Vietnam war mainly because that was the month in which SP4 James Davis of Livingston, Tennessee, was killed by the Viet Cong, with Lyndon Johnson later referring to him as “the first American to fall in defense of our freedom in Vietnam.” (See this interesting timeline of the Vietnam war.) Note, though, that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial currently lists Capt. Harry Griffith Cramer, who died in October of 1957, as the earliest Vietnam war death.

Since my main interest in putting this graph together was to think about (and stimulate thinking about) politicians’ and citizens’ perceptions of war-related death tolls, I figured that Johnson’s willingness to identify a particular death as the “first of the war” was as good a starting point as any.

Anyway, here’s the graph (note that you can click on any of these images for a larger version):

It’s interesting to me how the Iraq war, so far at least, shows dramatically more US deaths per month than the Vietnam war did at a comparable point in its political lifetime. Yes, I realize that there were far fewer troops in Vietnam at this stage of the war than we currently have in Iraq. I grant that the two wars have followed very differerent scenarios so far. What I’m really interested in here is the domestic political picture, and its relationship to the ongoing death toll.

Let’s get a little more perspective. Here’s the same chart, but with the numbers for Vietnam extended out to December of 1965, by which time, armed with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (passed in August, 1964), Johnson had dramatically increased the number of US troops on the ground:

Finally, here’s a version of the chart that shows the entire extent of the Vietnam war, ending with the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of the US Embassy in April of 1975:

You can spin the data depicted in these charts however you like. For myself, I view them with concern. When politicians are allowed to launch wars for ill-defined reasons, with vague exit strategies and ever-shifting criteria for success, you have a formula for tragedy. That’s what happened back in the 1960s, and I can’t see any reason to believe it isn’t happening again today.

Note: I’m completely aware that this comparison is not normalized for number of US troops present in each conflict. This is not a comparison of death rate per unit of troop strength, and it doesn’t claim to be. If you want that, you’ll have to make a different graph. See discussion below, and on the following pages. The graphs are all the same; I just update them in place when the new numbers become available.

Drum: How Are We Doing in Iraq?

Sunday, October 19th, 2003

Kevin Drum of Calpundit takes a look at the current Iraq situation, trying to divine the truth from the various competing storylines: How are we doing in Iraq? His conclusion? Things aren’t going very well. Hard to dispute his logic.

Kinsley on Bush’s News Filtering

Sunday, October 19th, 2003

Michael Kinsley has a piece in Slate that makes some pointed observations on George Bush’s approach to the news: Filter tips.

Byrd: The Emperor Has No Clothes

Sunday, October 19th, 2003

Robert Byrd gave yet another awesome speech to the Senate on Friday: The emperor has no clothes. It’s simple, powerful stuff. No wonder Bush’s defenders are reduced to attacking the messenger over his association with the Klan during his first Congressional campaign in the 1940s. They have no response to the substance of his argument.

Us Versus Them

Saturday, October 18th, 2003

You’re having a conversation with someone, or reading something someone’s written, or watching someone on TV, and you’re thinking, “This person is pretty sharp/has interesting ideas/knows what he or she is talking about.” And then the person strays into expressing an opinion about something that he or she knows very little about, but that you happen to be (at least relatively) expert in, and they say something that is just totally, ridiculously, naive.

Maybe you call them on it. Maybe you don’t. It might not be worth it. Maybe the naive thing they said wasn’t just some random opinion, but something that has a lot of emotional resonance with them, for whatever reason. And since they lack the firsthand experience that would allow them to recognize how ridiculous their assertion is, you’re basically counting on an appeal to your authority, or your ability to craft a logical-sounding argument and their willingness to listen to it, if you want to change their mind.

I feel this way when the militarily-astute types I’ve been paying attention to lately start talking about how our current Iraq endeavor is an appropriate step in a grand scheme to “drain the swamp” of Arab terrorism. When you draw them out, their argument basically comes down to a belief that the blunt application of military force will allow us to “win” a cultural/religious war with the whole of the Arab world, or the whole of Islam (they tend not to distinguish between the two), making “them” over to be very much more like “us,” at which point the problem will be solved.

It’s a naive fantasy.

Similarly, when the Prime Minister of Malaysia addresses the opening session of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and basically describes a global conspiracy whereby a small group of Jews is pulling the levers of power to keep Muslims down, it comes off as ludicrous. At least, that’s the way Daniel Drezner portrays it here: The state of Islam — 2003. And he has a point. From an outside perspective, those parts of the speech were clearly naive and racist.

Other parts were pretty insightful. The Muslim leaders at the conference ate it up, giving the speech extended ovations.

The cycle continues. I didn’t point to it back in July when it appeared, but I’m reminded of that recent study into the physiological basis of conflict escalation. See this write-up, for example: Too much force may be with you.

Someone pushes us. We push back — harder. At each stage the injuries worsen, the perceived gulf between us and them widens. We care less about those on the other side, are more willing to inflict pain in retaliation.

My son went to a really wonderful preschool. When something like this happened on the playground, this is what the very wise director of that school would do. First, of course, she would intervene to stop the violence. But having used whatever minimum amount of force was needed to achieve that, she wouldn’t follow up with some kind of stern lecture or punishment. Instead, she’d get down on the combatants’ level, and ask one of them (typically, the one who had been responsible for the latest round of escalation) to look at the other one. “Look at his face. What do you think he’s feeling right now?”

We are all connected. There is no them. There’s only us. We will march down this road of escalating violence exactly as long as it takes us to figure that out. Maybe we’ll figure it out today. Maybe we’ll figure it out after some angry preschooler nukes Mecca.

I vote for today.

Kynn on Holding (Certain) Media to a Higher Standard

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

Here’s a fun little analysis from Kynn of Shock & Awe: “I demand photographic evidence!” It goes into how a particular critic of his employed very different standards for evaluating news stories based on whether those stories agreed or disagreed with his own preconceptions.

Which isn’t an earth-shaking revelation, I realize. But this is still a nice example of it. As a bonus, Kynn’s analysis features a debunking of that “$60 million worth of Iraqi WMD were intercepted while being smuggled into Kuwait!” story you may have heared about a while back.

Bush: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

From Glen and Pilar, my hands-down favorite link suggesters of all time: Bush orders officials to stop leaks. The money quote:

Bush told his senior aides Tuesday that he “didn’t want to see any stories”
quoting unnamed administration officials in the media anymore, and that if
he did, there would be consequences, said a senior administration official
who asked that his name not be used.

The Onionization of reality is complete.

Aside from the obvious comic value, the article is actually pretty interesting. It sounds like Bush is really starting to come unhinged. Which is either very good or very scary news, depending on how you view it.

Bush’s Hear No Evil, See No Evil Presidency

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

Here are three stories that do a good job of highlighting the core failing of the Bush presidency: the way it is all about politics, style, and ideological filtering of reality, with everything else (like sound government policy, free speech, and even national security) subordinated to that end.

First up, from Helen Thomas: No wonder Bush doesn’t connect with the rest of the country. It’s about the disturbing fact (not joke, but fact) that Bush doesn’t read the newspapers, but instead just relies on his advisors to summarize for him whatever it is they think he needs to know. Because, you see, Bush thinks the information he gets that way is more objective.

Next, from Salon (requires viewing the commercial to get the free one-day pass, but it’s worth it): Keeping dissent invisible. This one’s about how the Secret Service works with local police to systematically remove protesters from the site of presidential and vice-presidential appearances, caging them up in out-of-camera-range “free speech zones,” and arresting those who refuse. As one arrestee so-aptly put it, “Isn’t the whole country supposed to be a free speech zone?”

Finally, from Wired: Spies attack White House secrecy. It’s about how the Bush administration’s over-the-top enthusiasm for classifying information is actually making us less, rather than more, secure.

In one way or another, all these stories are about the same thing. The Bush presidency rests upon a single extremely childish, but extremely dangerous, idea: that if we all squeeze our eyes tightly shut and wish very, very hard, we can make our problems go away.

Didn’t work when you were five. Isn’t going to work today. It’s time to let grownups run things for a change.

Thanks to Hiro, by the way, for links two and three.

With God on Our Side

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

Interesting story from the LA Times about Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, the new deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence: General casts war in religious terms. It seems the 13-year Delta Force veteran is an evangelical Christian prone to public remarks that feed into Islamic fears that the US is waging a War on Evil in which Muslims are the bad guys by virtue of their non-Judeo-Christian faith. The article is the straight-news version of an opinion piece by military affairs analyst William Arkin that is also running in today’s LA Times: The Pentagon unleashes a holy warrior.

Drezner Referees the Great “Imminent Threat” Debate

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

I have a deep and abiding fascination with the proposition that two arguments can be both compelling and mutually exclusive. A really nice example of that is the following sequence of posts, currently running on Daniel Drezner’s weblog: The post-war debate about the pre-war rhetoric: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The posts in question have actually been authored by two frequent commentators on Kevin Drum’s CalPundit site, one of whom generally supports Bush’s Iraq policies, the other of whom generally opposes them. Each is arguing for or against the following assertion: “It is a complete fabrication that the Bush administration argued in the runup to the war that there was an imminent threat from Iraq.”

Drezner’s role in all this is that of a referee, chosen because both sides, apparently, acknowledge his essential intelligence and fairness (well, at least until he renders judgement, at which point one or the other of them will probably decide that they were mistaken in that regard).

It’s all pretty darn interesting. I confess to being really curious what the final judgement is going to be.

Bill Maher on Rush Limbaugh

Tuesday, October 14th, 2003

Bill Maher rules. In particular, in his latest weblog entry: Rush Limbaugh. Makes a nice counterpoint to the David Frum blather I was mocking earlier.

True Confessions

Tuesday, October 14th, 2003

If you haven’t seen it already, you might be interested in the anonymous confession site Janus seems to believe my interest in it is based on a desire for an “other-people-are-pathetic ego boost,” which may be true, but if so, I can’t tell from my end.

Defending Rush Limbaugh

Tuesday, October 14th, 2003

Proving once again the benefits of carefully crafting headlines to maximize one’s Googlerank, my previous entry, Rush Limbaugh: Addict is currently #1 on a search for that phrase, and the profusion of comments on the page is the result.

Most of the comments are predictable serves-him-right snark. But looking afield for other comments, I noticed the following from David Frum: Rush and Us, II (you have to scroll down a bit past the actually somewhat apt commentary on liberal hypocrisy during Monicagate). Here’s an excerpt:

To these gloatings, there are two things that should immediately be said.

First, if the only people allowed to argue in favor of moral standards are people without moral imperfections, then there will be nobody to do the job at all. Every one of us on the conservative side of the great moral and cultural divisions of the day is riddled with faults, flaws, and failings.

Second, on the drug issue in particular – who knows better than the drug addict how seductive and deadly drugs can be? In light of Rush’s own dependency, his attacks on drug use and drug legalization resound more powerfully than ever. This is not hypocrisy: It is conviction grounded in painfully acquired personal experience.

I can appreciate, on a certain level, the artistry that goes into crafting an up-is-down assertion that does a good job at maintaining internal self-consistency. And given the overwhelming power of human belief, there doubtless are fans of Frum’s who read that passage (in its original home, at the National Review Online, at least, if not here) nodding their heads in sober agreement.


Rush got caught in flagrant hypocrisy. You either recognize that, or you’re deluding yourself. I’d wager pretty much any amount that Frum falls into the former category, rather than the latter, so I lump him in with the rest of those willing to knowingly deceive others in pursuit of their larger aims.

Bill O’Reilly Beats Up on Terry Gross

Tuesday, October 14th, 2003

Thanks to Yian for tipping me off to the really hilarious Fresh Air interview with Bill O’Reilly. If you like Bill O’Reilly, you’ll really enjoy this interview. If you loathe Bill O’Reilly, you’ll also really enjoy this interview, though in a completely different way. Go thou and listen likewise!

Smoke Free Movies

Sunday, October 12th, 2003

SmokeFreeMovies recently came to my attention when my girlfriend told me about a lecture (PPT) she’d just attended by Stan Glantz. Dr. Glantz is somewhat of an eccentric in the Public Health community and started the project on a lark, knowing that Big Tobaco has a history of working with major movie studios — but then he discovered that smoking in movies does significantly stimulate smoking in kids.

Personally, I thought the idea was a little goofy, but he presents some pretty interesting statistics (like: characters in movies smoke 300% as much as people in real life) and their goals are very modest, and seem completely reasonable to me. In particular, they’d like to see smoking given the same consideration as profanity and alcohol in determining if a movie should get an R Rating.

If nothing else, it’s interesting to see some of the Ads the organization has run in industry publications to promote their cause within the Hollywood system. (They are listed in reverse chronological order, so I suggested starting at the bottom and reading up). Of particular interest to me was the Ad they made after finding out about the letter writting campaign of a group of High School kids in New York who wrote 202,000 letters to various Hollywood big shots and got only two replies: one refusing delivery, and one from Julia Roberts’s people threatening legal action if they sent any more letters.

Josh Marshall on McClellan’s Plame Game

Saturday, October 11th, 2003

Apparently the link I’d been using for Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Point Memo site was semi-broken, in that I was linking to, which wasn’t updating with new material, rather than to plain old, which was. Oops. (Update: Problem solved. The site changed IP addresses recently, and I had an old lookup cached in my browser for the ‘www’ version of the hostname. I restarted, and everything is great now. Funny: I never had that problem before I switched to OS X. Under Windows it was rare to go a day without crashing, or at least needing to restart my browser. But I’d been running the same instance of Camino for a week or so. Heh.)

The silver lining to this cloud is that last night I found a big batch of Marshall’s commentary that I’d previously missed, including lots on the outing of formerly covert CIA operative Valerie Plame.

One particularly interesting aspect of Marshall’s commentary is the interpretation he’s offered of presidential spokesperson Scott McClellan’s statements on the matter at the twice-daily White House press briefings. See Marshall’s comments here, here, and here.

Marshall notices that McClellan’s “denials” of involvement by key White House players are being delivered as if by parrot: the individuals in question (Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, and Elliot Abrams) were not involved in “leaking classified information.” The action is always referred to in that precise way; regardless of how the question is framed. The reporters keep asking for something clearer, and McClellan keeps answering-while-not-quite-answering, issuing the same “non-denial denial.” Lately it’s been getting pretty funny:

QUESTION: Scott, earlier this week you told us that neither Karl Rove, Elliot Abrams nor Lewis Libby disclosed any classified information with regard to the leak. I wondered if you could tell us more specifically whether any of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?

MCCLELLAN: Those individuals — I talked — I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this. And that’s where it stands.

QUESTION: So none of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?

MCCLELLAN: They assured me that they were not involved in this.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

QUESTION: They were not involved in what?

MCCLELLAN: The leaking of classified information.

Marshall speculates that this may mean that the White House has carved out what they think is a legally defensible position that the leaking of Plame’s name might not have constituted a leaking of “classified information.” By couching the denials in this precise way, they thereby preserve a legal refuge if/when it can be demonstrated that one or more of the Rove/Libby/Abrams trio actually did leak Plame’s name.

It seems to me that a less-sinister (or at least, a differently sinister) explanation would be that this is part of the White House’s ongoing effort to portray this as no big deal. Everyone in Washington leaks classified information from time to time. To the extent this act can be cast in those general terms, it helps make this into the non-story that Bush & Co. would obviously much prefer it to be. Donald Sensing does his part to push the administration line on this in response to a comment of mine on his weblog, where he describes this whole affair as quite typical.

But it’s not. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because it appears very likely that there was a coordinated effort on the part of the White House political operation to punish a whistle-blower by going after his wife, in the process significantly compromising CIA efforts to fight the proliferation of WMD. And what that reveals about the quality of the decision-making in this White House, about their sense of proportion, is really, really disturbing.

It adds one more item, and a big one, to the growing pile of evidence that the Bush administration is out of control. It’s the Mayberry Machiavellis, the kids on Big Wheels, running roughshod over anyone who gets in their way. It’s not about governing. It’s not about solving problems, fixing the economy, or protecting the American people from terrorism. It’s not about leading the world’s sole superpower in a responsible manner.

It’s only about one thing: getting your guy elected. And when you pursue that goal to the exclusion of everything else, you’re prone to disasterous screwups like this one. And guess what? The fact that they’re spinning as hard as they can to pretend it didn’t happen means nothing is going to change.

Soldier’s Names Used in Astroturf Campaign

Saturday, October 11th, 2003

Apparently the US military is taking this “Army of One” idea to new levels. As mentioned at MetaFilter in the item Not very clever, are they?, the same lengthy, text-identical letter is appearing in small-town newspapers all over the country, touting the success of the Iraq operation. An excerpt:

The fruits of all our soldiers’ efforts are clearly visible in the streets of Kirkuk today. There is very little trash in the streets, many more people in the markets and shops, and children have returned to school. This is all evidence that the work we are doing as a battalion and as American soldiers is bettering the lives of Kirkuk’s citizens. I am proud of the work we are doing here in Iraq and I hope all of your readers are as well.

That heartfelt missive from Pfc. David Deaconson appeared in his hometown newspaper, the Beckley (WV) Register-Herald, on September 21. Signed by Spc. Nathan Whitelatch, it appeared in the Connellsville (PA) Daily Courier on September 11. Signed by Sgt. Shawn M. Grueser, it appeared in the Charleston (WV) Daily Mail on September 10.

The Olympian (of Olympia, WA) was especially blessed; it received two copies of the letter, from different soldiers. They didn’t run them in their letters to the editor section, but they did contact a half-dozen soldiers whose names had appeared below the letter in various papers, confirming that the soldiers had not actually written them: Many soldiers, same letter.

Witih Google, these things are pretty easy to sniff out. You notice a suspiciously erudite letter to the editor in the local paper, plug the phrase into Google, and bam: instant debunking. Kind of makes you wonder how many of these passed unnoticed back in the day.

Thanks to Adam at Words Mean Things for the pointer.

Silly/Interesting Dialect Variations

Friday, October 10th, 2003

From Bravo comes a link to this nifty image that was reposted as The Cellar’s Image of the Day: Word usage maps. There’s a link to the original source in the comments, with that original source being a Harvard site: Dialect survey results. (Quick digression, apropos the headmaster at my daughter’s school’s habit of telling everyone he meets about his time at a certain Ivy League location: Q: How can you tell when someone’s been to Harvard? A: They tell you.)

Anyway, it’s very much worth some poking around. If you do so, you’ll learn many fascinating facts about your fellow Americans. For example, there’s a cluster of people in and around Rhode Island who call a drink made with milk and ice cream a “cabinet”. And nearly 11% of survey respondents call the gooey stuff that collects in the corners of your eyes an eye booger. Who knew?

Bush on Manhunts: Osama, Saddam, and the Plame Leaker

Friday, October 10th, 2003

My sister-in-law Mary forwarded me a fun item from Buzzflash’s David Sirota: Bush swears he’ll hunt down Osama and Saddam, but says he can’t find a treasonous betrayer in his own administration because it’s too big. Cartoonist Jack Ohman of the Oregonian, as pointed to by CalPundit’s Kevin Drum, makes more or less the same observation in graphic form.

Do I feel a 30-second TV spot for next year’s Democratic challenger coming on? Yeah, I think I do. Sweet.