Mar 23

(Spoiler Warning: I basically spoil everything in the book and movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Then again, it is over 40 years old)

When we started On Violence, Michael C and I had an odd writing arrangement. He would write two posts a week on the military and violence; I would write one post a week on art and violence. (And not just limited to contemporary art, as this post proves.)

At the time, this worked out quite well. I was living in Italy with Michael C, so I had plenty of time to power through books and movies on war, and write up reviews. (It also helped to inspire us on other projects we’re working on…) As time passed, we focused less on art--plus we wrote about everything we needed to write about war memoirs--and I began writing up more military and foreign affairs posts.

Recently, I’ve been able to catch up on some books I’ve been meaning to read (for years now). Researching the intelligence community for a new screenplay we’re writing, I read John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Excited by the book, I re-watched the film for the third time.

Here’s my review: they’re both wonderful. Review over.

What matters more than the what is why: why do the book and the film work so well?

On the surface, the book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, ostensibly, a spy thriller about a retired spy investigating a mole--oddly enough, according to my copy’s introduction, a word invented by John Le Carre--at the top of the British intelligence services. And yes, that is the plot.

But the subplot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy matters even more. The wife of the main character, George Smiley, has left him and, more importantly, cheated on him with a former friend and colleague. In basically every chapter, Smiley recollects events and puts together puzzle pieces about the main plot, then, at some point, he thinks about his wife Ann and her betrayal. In terms of mental energy, George Smiley spends almost as much time thinking about his wife’s affair as he does the larger mission to find the mole.

(In the same vein, the chapters about Jim Prideaux--a retired spy who was captured by the Russians--spend zero time discussing spy craft, focusing on Prideaux’s relationship with a lonely boy at a boarding school.)

In other words, this spy novel is actually about personal relationships. The two plots work together perfectly, thematically: spies can’t trust anyone; neither can husbands. (For Prideaux, he’s been retired and forgotten, and is both figuratively and literally broken.)

It’s why critics love Le Carre (and other “genre” writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Elmore Leonard). They write literature even when they write in a “genre”. In my mind, when I view and analyze fiction, I make a distinction between fiction and literature. Fiction describes all writing. Literature, for me, rises above the rest, an esteemed category for the best books, usually defined by the quality of the writing, the characters, and whether or not the book has anything to say about the world we live in. (And like pornography, it’s that thing: I know it when I see it.)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is literature.

On to the film: why does it work so well? First, the wonderful acting, including almost every important British actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, and, of course, Gary Oldman.

More importantly, the film is paced so well. In short, the film moves slowly and doesn’t explain everything on the first go. It takes a second viewing to understand the subtext and meaning in each distinct scene. I love this. I love this style of filmmaking. I want more complicated films, with lots of details packed into every crevice that you can’t catch on the first viewing.

Great literature often fails on the screen for two reasons. First, great writing often doesn’t translate. Think about the problems filming great stylists like Hemingway.

Second, and more importantly to this film, you lose inner-monologues. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the novel) bubbles over with plot. It can’t all fit in the film so the director and screenwriter didn’t didn’t even try to force it all in. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film), we also lose most of the subplot featuring Ann. Yes, one scene hints that Bill has slept with Ann, and other characters ask Smiley about Ann, but we don’t have an inner-monologue running throughout the film. Basically, we can’t hear what Smiley is thinking.

To compensate for this loss of the personal, the film turns one of the characters into a gay man (a nice, subtle touch that humanizes the character as concisely as possible) and adds a flashback--not included in the book--to a New Year’s Eve party that partly fleshes the personal relationships out between the characters. It works, maybe not as well as the book, but then again, they’re different mediums.

But check out both.

Feb 23

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars and American Sniper, please click here.)

As I wrote last week, we didn’t have time to fully debunk either the facts or ideology of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper. Fortunately for us--and the country--many other writers did. (Some of them got attacked for it.) Today, we’d like to share the best of those links.

A note first. This post is in no way exhaustive of the people criticizing American Sniper and/or Chris Kyle, which is a good thing; unlike, say, Lone Survivor, where it really seems like On Violence and Ed Darack were the only people who addressed the facts and ideology of the book and film.

(And before someone points out that we shouldn’t criticize Kyle’s political beliefs because he passed away, well, that’s illogical. Many people criticize the writings of people who passed away. And he wrote the book and profited from it. Fair game. If you don’t want criticism, don’t write books.)

First, two particular articles stand out for addressing the problematic portions of American Sniper before the movie came out and setting the stage (by finding the most egregious quotes in Chris Kyle’s memoir) for later criticisms of American Sniper. Laura Miller, for Salon, wrote “Death of an American Sniper”, the first article I could find that points out the problematic politics of the memoir, including Kyle’s hate of the Iraqis he was there to help. Next up, Isaac Chotiner, for The New Republic, wrote “If Chris Kyle Had Been a Muslim, We’d Call Him an Extremist”. The title sort of says it all.

A few of our favorite writers--and friends of the blog--chimed in with some of our favorite takes:

- Brian Turner (our review of his poetry here) wrote “I Served in Iraq, and American Sniper Gets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.” for Vulture. He points out that a great Iraq war film has yet to be made, because it won’t focus on the plight of the Iraqis.

- Alex Horton, for the Guardian, points out that we don’t need another war film glorifying special operators.

- Zach Beauchamp really takes the film to task in “American Sniper is a dishonest whitewash of the Iraq war” pointing out the numerous errors in the film. (Also check out this Vox piece on the film and the sheepdog analogy.)

- John Horgan has a great take on the science of war and American Sniper, linking this film to a discussion of the anthropology of war. (We’re huge Horgan fans.) Also, this post has an insane comments section.

- The folks at Kings of War connect American Sniper to force protection. This post actually asks the question I wished more people asked, did Chris Kyle’s kills save American lives?

- And Don Gomez at Carrying the Gun chimed in.

After the movie came out last month, a number of writers then tackled the book and film’s politics. Again, we love seeing this sort of response, with many (liberal) writers addressing a problematically popular film based on a book steeped in right-wing politics:

 

- Lindy West, for The Guardian, really went after Chris Kyle in “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?

- Dennis Jett, in another The New Republic article, wrote “The Real 'American Sniper' Had No Remorse About the Iraqis He Killed”, which is both true and sad.

- Finally, Matt Taibbi really lets loose on the book in “American Sniper is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize”. In particular, he identifies a passage in the memoir where Kyle hints that he shot innocent people to up his kill count.

- And you can find more (albeit very, very liberal) political takes in Salon’s “Our “American Sniper” sickness: How American exceptionalism wrought Guantanamo”, another Salon piece “American Sniper’s” biggest lie: Clint Eastwood has a delusional Fox News problem”, and Mondoweiss “How a culture remembers its crimes is important: A review of ‘American Sniper’”.

As for debunking American Sniper, Snopes.com has a pretty thorough summary. Also, we just found this blog post by Michael McCaffrey at his personal website, and it appears to be one of the most thorough accounting of the facts behind American Sniper.

So in the end, that’s a lot of great stuff to read. There are still a few more issues left to be discussed, in our opinion. (For example, rules of engagement and determining whether Chris Kyle’s kill count makes America more or less likely to win in Iraq.) But at least this is a start.

And we know writers who will be willing to do this sort of criticism in the future.

Feb 19

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars, please click here.)

When I started reading American Sniper, I didn’t get past the first sentence without reading something inaccurate.

In the author’s note, Chris Kyle opens the book by declaring, “The events that happened in this book are true.” The American legal system disagrees, since it gave Jesse Ventura an award for defamation and HarperCollins announced they’d pull the subsection from the book where Kyle claims he attacked Jesse Ventura from future editions of the book.

So, no, not all of the events that happened in this book are true. (Chris Kyle also claimed that Saddam had WMDs, as we’ve written about before.) He also made up other stuff in interviews, including...

- In interviews promoting American Sniper, Chris Kyle claimed he shot two men who tried to carjack him in Texas. When the police arrived--according to Kyle--they ran his name, and a phone number for the Department of Defense popped up. When the cops called it, they were told to let Kyle go. After the New Yorker fact-checked this assertion--by calling every police station where the event could have happened--it’s pretty clear it didn’t happen.

- Kyle also claims he went to New Orleans after Katrina and shot looters from a rooftop, something pretty much everyone agrees never happened.

So four ridiculous stories, four debunkings. And if you think the way I think, you’ve probably drawn the same conclusion as me:

Chris Kyle might have made up other stuff in American Sniper (the book).

Which brings me to the over-riding question, something we’ve been bombarded with since the announcement of the film: Eric C and Michael C, when are you debunking the military portions of American Sniper?

Not anytime soon. Aside from the WMD claim, the debunked anecdotes all took place in America. It’s much easier to fact check things that happened at home. When we extensively fact-checked Lone Survivor, things were easier mainly because it was just one story--so the details could be debunked--and frankly, Ed Darack had written the best history of the region at the time. Darack also had access to the after-action reports. The facts were written down, and one could find when they were changed (including the Medal of Honor citations). American Sniper is a collection of anecdotes. How do you debunk that?

The first way: have a skeptical soldier or veteran (like Michael C) read the book and highlight the most ridiculous portions. (For example, this website pretty convincingly argues that Chris Kyle didn’t encounter war protesters with baby killer signs on his way to Iraq.) This is how we started with Lone Survivor. Eric C read the book and hated its politics, so he made Michael C read it. Then Michael C responded with, “Yeah, the politics are bad, but something doesn’t sound right about this mission. Especially the number of kills.” (I’d specifically look at the section in American Sniper during the battle of Fallujah.)

But this wouldn’t “prove” anything. Critics could just say, ‘You have no proof he made that up” and they’d be right. (Like that link above. There’s no way to prove Kyle didn’t see those signs; it just doesn’t make sense that he did. Unless he took a detour from the airport to a local college campus. And even at college campuses, most peace protests are, well, polite.)

So we would have to find hard proof. On to our second idea on how to fact check American Sniper: Go to the Iraq War Logs--famously released by Chelsea Manning via Wikileaks--search for specific incidents from the book, and see if they match up. Unfortunately, this appears to be impossible, since the Iraq war logs don’t include soldier’s names, and it appears Special Operations reports aren’t included. Also, if Kyle changed anything for his memoir, this would make it virtually impossible to search for in the Iraq war logs.

So that would be a dead end.

There’s still another way. If an enterprising reporter has the time and will, they can FOIA request documents about Chris Kyle. Someone could request his “kill log” the Navy allegedly used to confirm his record setting number of kills. Then they could compare that to events in the book. (Or compare their reporting in Iraq to details in the book.)

We doubt this would work. The Navy could/would stone wall for years--especially if they knew why the reporter made the request--and claim security concerns for not releasing the information.

In some ways, this post is an apology, because we didn’t try to debunk the facts in American Sniper. The cynical note, which I’ll end on, is why: when we debunked Lone Survivor, no one seemed to care. Certainly not the mainstream press.

Had Lone Survivor achieved the success of American Sniper, this might have been a different story.

And still, anyone who criticizes American Sniper, prepare for death threats from any and everyone including random people on Twitter, Medal of Honor winner and a former candidate for Vice President. In some ways, it’s just not worth it. You can’t criticize veterans, even if you’re right.

(That said, if any reporters experienced in FOIA requests out there would like our input/help/team-up to analyze the Chris Kyle story in-depth, we would love to.)

Feb 17

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars, please click here.)

The theme of this week’s posts about the Oscars (well, mostly Chris Kyle and the film based on his memoir American Sniper) is an ongoing apology for not giving American Sniper the Lone Survivor treatment. Based on the title of the post, you’ve realized I (Eric C) didn’t even finish the memoir.

I just couldn’t get through it. Life’s too short to read books like this. Nearly every other page had something offensive or inaccurate in it. For example, Kyle writes, “Southern California is the land of nuts. I wanted to live somewhere with a little more sanity.” I’m from Southern California, so I know that this line’s not only insulting, but also inaccurate: Coronado is a medium-sized commute from Orange County, one of the most conservative counties in the country.

Kyle filled his book with page after page of observations like this. Here’s an incomplete selection of Chris Kyle assertions that we’ve written On V posts debunking:

- His stance on the rules of engagement in Iraq is abysmal. (“Our ROEs when the war kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.”)

- As a kid, he goes around looking for ways to get into fights without getting into trouble. (Because that’s what good sheepdogs do.)

- He wants to go to war “to experience the thrill of battle”.

- He complains about his commander.

- Of course, he refers to Iraqis as savages throughout the book.

- Later in the book, he hints to the reader that he shot innocent Iraqis to up his kill count. (If you think this joke is funny, more power to you. I can’t laugh, because he killed real people.) From Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone:

(The most disturbing passage in the book to me was the one where Kyle talked about being competitive with other snipers, and how when one in particular began to threaten his "legendary" number, Kyle "all of the sudden" seemed to have "every stinkin' bad guy in the city running across my scope." As in, wink wink, my luck suddenly changed when the sniper-race got close, get it? It's super-ugly stuff).

- We could go on and on, but here’s one last example: Kyle believed Saddam had WMDs. (Based on what I’ve read, this scene didn’t make the movie. But I’d love to see the alternate version of history where the film included this tidbit.)

I found most of these examples just thumbing through the book and picking a page at random.

If you want to know if American Sniper is the book for you, let me ask you a question. Do you think the following passage is funny?

A British unit flew in in the morning. By then, the battle was over. of course we couldn’t resist needling them about it.

“‘Come on in. The fight’s over,’ we said. ‘It’s safe for you.’

"I don’t think they thought it was funny, but it was hard to tell. They speak English funny.”

- American Sniper, pg. 88.

Uproarious! What a zinger!

For some reason, this little joke about the British accent symbolizes everything I hate about American Sniper. Chris Kyle’s pretending to be uneducated down-home country boy for comedic effect, as if he can’t even understand British English.

What’s worse is that I can imagine most of the target demographic of American Sniper reading this line and laughing, which is really sad. (I’d guess that demographic consists of older, male, pro-military, conservative Fox News viewers. I’m not just making this up. According to court documents, that’s the demographic HarperCollins targeted.) Not only do conservatives have a sad anti-intellectual provincialism, many actively embrace and celebrate it. (Though, unlike many pundits, I don’t think it’s limited to the South.) Mike Huckabee just wrote a book about it.

After that joke, I stopped reading the book. There’s just no point.

I felt like I was re-reading Lone Survivor, or at least the Iraq war/sniper version of Lone Survivor. A super-Christian, super-conservative Texan Navy SEAL was pushing all of his ideologies--especially his hatred of the rules of engagement--on me. So I’m not going to finish the book, and this is as much of a review as you’ll get from us. (Fortunately, as will share with the reader tomorrow, multiple mainstream critics have criticized Kyle’s ideology.)

I’ll close with this. Kyle, from page two on, delights in killing Iraqis. Just delights in it. Doesn’t regret a single death, doesn’t think he fired a misplaced shot. “I don’t shoot people with Korans--I’d like to, but I don’t.” “I don’t give a flying f*** about the Iraqis.”

It’s just not a world I feel like travelling through. But like the “jokes” throughout this post, I’m sure plenty of Americans will agree with Kyle.

Feb 16

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars, check out the articles below:

- A Partial Review of "American Sniper" (the Book) or: Good Luck to Anyone Who Wants to Slog Through It 

- Debunking (Or Not Debunking) “American Sniper”

- On V’s What to Read on "American Sniper" Link Drop)


Since we started blogging, we’ve tried to do a week of posts on the Academy Awards. (Though the series didn’t always line up with the ceremony.)

In 2010, we did posts on Avatar, District 9 and others. In 2011, we wrote about the documentary Restrepo and its sister book, Sebastian Junger’s War. We skipped 2012, because aside from War Horse, we didn’t have anything to write about (and didn’t/weren’t going to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). In 2013, oh man, we had a plethora of riches including Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and The Invisible War. (That series came eight months late.) Last year, aside from Captain Phillips, we were blanked again, but we spent over a month writing about Lone Survivor, which didn’t get nominated for Best Picture.

What about this year? Any war films? As matter of fact, three of the Best Picture nominees are war films, including The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and American Sniper. Two other war films--Unbroken and Fury--earned critical praise, but didn’t get nominated.

Quick question: what war do you think four of those five films take place in? Don’t think too hard...

World War II.

Of course they’re about World War II. Hollywood doesn’t make films about any other war. That’s an exaggeration….they just mostly make films about World War II. This is a huge problem.

My simple take, which I hope to expand elsewhere, is that there are moral implications to this myopic focus on World War II above all other wars. World War II actually has less to teach us about war than most other wars, all based around simplified narrative that America and England needed to go to war to defeat the evil Nazis and stop the Holocaust. (As we’ve written before, World War II wasn’t nearly that simple.)

That’s why we--not just Americans, but most of the West--embrace World War II. In a strange way, it’s comforting. You can enjoy a war film without having to think too hard. No grey areas over here! Even if a World War II movie shows the horrors of war, it actually reinforces the morality of committing them; sometimes you need to do horrible things to stop evil.

This World War II focus has a real world impact. It sanitizes war. It justifies it. It makes our country more likely to go to war. Just look at politicians rhetoric about “Munich moments”. If you’ve just seen a film about World War II--and last year, that’s probably the war film you saw--you might think, “I hope ISIS isn’t Hitler.” instead of, “I hope this isn’t another Vietnam.” (Or Iraq, strangely enough.)

This isn’t the case with other wars. The war in Vietnam and World War I force us to ask moral and ethical questions about war. And about ourselves. Most importantly, they show how pointless war can be.

Speaking of pointless military conflicts...what about American Sniper?

We’ve had people emailing us and tweeting us requests to “debunk” this book since the film was announced. This week we will somewhat fulfill that request with a (partial) review of the book, a post on debunking (or not debunking) the memoir, and a link drop.

Is this as thorough as our work on Lone Survivor? No, and we will explain why over the next two posts. Fortunately for us, many writers and columnists have gone after written about Chris Kyle’s extreme politics and many critics have lambasted the film’s inaccuracies and simplified view of war. (Though the film depicts Chris Kyle as war weary and troubled by killing, his memoir tells a somewhat different story.) Expect those links in the link drop. Except for Chris Kyle’s arguably illegal interpretation of rules of engagement, they basically hit everything.

Based on the success Lone Survivor and American Sniper, movie studios are probably going to greenlight Iraq war films like crazy. But if they follow the mold of their predecessors, that’s not actually a good thing.

Hollywood hasn’t made a film about Vietnam war film in a while. Like Vietnam, Hollywood will eventually stop making films about Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars, too, will fade from public consciousness in the coming generations.

But we’ll probably always have films about World War II.

Sigh.

Feb 04

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And a disclaimer: I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

On Monday, I pointed out that media’s coverage of possible military interventions--in real talk, going to war--is incredibly pro-war. Quantitatively, the media invites on pro-war guests, up to and including people whose past advice has been utterly disastrous, ie, supporting and endorsing the original war in Iraq without ever admitting they were wrong. (Hell, Arizona and South Carolina voters keep re-electing these people to the Senate.)

But as had long been the On V style, we don’t want to just complain about something. We want to offer solutions. So here they are: four solutions to the media’s pro-war stance.

1. Invite on a War Skeptic

Military insiders, reporters who’ve been to war zones, and politicians allt tend to be reflexively pro-war (pro-intervention). More political talk shows need to invite on war skeptics to push back against the rush to war. Frankly, even I don’t really know who these voices would be. (I’d guess that there are dozens of liberal college professors who would do the trick.) Find these voices, and add them to the chorus.

2. Someone Needs to Create a Responsible Anti-war Media Organization

As you can tell by the tagline, yes, I’m a pacifist. And that’s not in name only. I really believe war is not the answer. (To defend myself against knee-jerk criticism, I’m more worried about World War I scenarios than World War II scenarios.)

But you may have noticed, in the tag to this sub-section, I wrote “responsible”. Too many anti-war groups are far too extreme for the American public. They’re either far-right libertarians or far-left socialists, with few voices in between. They don’t connect to the general populace. (If anyone has any suggestions of groups or blogs I could be following, let me know. I’ve looked.)

If we had the resources of time, energy and people--Michael C and I don’t--we would create an organization dedicated to creating balance on war coverage. We’d call it the “July Crisis” organization, dedicated to putting war skeptics onto every Sunday talk show to actually balance out the point of views. (In addition to, I’m guessing, writing reports and studies about the risks of future military interventions, like Michael C and myself did here on Iran.) These experts would question the push to war, ask the tough questions, and explain the risks of intervention.

But what information and viewpoints would these guests share? Well...

3. Debate the Worst Case Scenario

The media, by its nature, tends to frame military interventions over the cost of “doing nothing”. What will happen to innocent civilians in Syria or Iraq if we don’t protect them?

Instead, as Michael C has led the charge on, let’s ask the tough questions: how could this military intervention go disastrously wrong? What’s the worst case scenario? Who could we alienate? For the first Iraq war, we should’ve asked, “What happens if we get trapped in a prolonged, decade long insurgency? What’s the cost?” “Could we end up creating another terrorist group?” “Are we creating a battlefield that will train terrorists?” “Are we going to ignore Afghanistan for half a decade?”

You know, important questions people either didn’t ask or didn’t care if they got answered.

4. Let’s Debate the Past

In my opinion, the entire debate about further intervention in Iraq should be framed around America’s past mistakes in Iraq. (Remember Santayana’s not-a-quote-behaving-badly admonition: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”) We invaded Iraq when we shouldn’t have and set up the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive. For a primer on how the media should handle this, watch Frontline’s episodes on “Losing Iraq” or “The Rise of ISIS”. (Though even these episode overstate the ISIS threat.)

Moving into the more recent past, the media is oblivious to the fact that they spent the fall of 2013 debating “arming the rebels” in Syria, without realizing that those rebels would, less than a year later, become the Islamic radicals we feared. Instead of framing the debate around “Would America have sent arms and financing to support terrorists?”, we basically moved onto the question, “What threat does ISIS pose?” And to stop ISIS requires allying with Iran (which Congressional Republicans adamantly oppose).

Whenever we go to war, we pick and choose allies. Since World War II, when we allied with Russia to defeat Hitler, we’ve picked poor bedfellows. To defeat Russia in Afghanistan, we allied with Osama bin Laden. To defeat Saddam, we angered Osama bin Laden. To defeat Saddam a second time, we propped up Maliki. Maliki angered the Sunnis, and now we’re at war with ISIS.

This never seems to come up in media debates about war. By addressing the ISIS threat, are we creating another threat? Who is that threat? The media should be instrumental in teaching America this. And reinforcing the lesson that war has unforeseen, often disastrous consequences.

Maybe the political talk show hosts can invite someone on their shows to give this opinion.

Feb 02

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

Back in the fall of 2013, writing about America possible military intervention in Syria’s civil, I noticed something:

The media is incredibly pro-war.

More accurately, the media--particularly the political talk shows--tend to favor action (read: military intervention). Two weeks of Sunday talk shows about Bashar al Assad violating human rights/using chemical weapons were dominated by pro-war voices. (I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

Of course, last September, when ISIS continued to take territory in Iraq and beheaded two journalists, the whole chorus began again. Three distressing problems stood out...

1. Quantitatively, pro-war guests dominate the debate.

SInce the debate over war in Syria two years ago, I’ve wanted to track the Sunday talk shows and quantify--look at the baseline numbers, instead of using my gut--how biased the media actually is.

Fortunately for me, when the country debated intervening in Iraq last year, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) did the work for me. Their key finding? “The study of key TV news discussion programs from September 7 through 21 reveals that guests who opposed war [in Iraq] were scarce.”

Analyzing three weeks worth of programs during the debate over another war in Iraq, “205 sources appeared on the programs discussing military options in Syria and Iraq. Just six of these guests, or 3 percent, voiced opposition to US military intervention. There were 125 guests (61 percent) who spoke in favor of US war.” Only one guest could be counted as anti-war.

To be fair--pun not intended--FAIR is a left-wing organization. But I doubt anyone who watches the Sunday talk shows regularly could disagree with their conclusions.

Frankly, it’s shocking how little debate there is. It’s almost like the inverse of how the media handles global warming. For years, newspaper articles and talk shows invited global warming skeptics and global warming scientists at a near fifty-fifty rate.

When it comes to war, almost no skeptical viewpoints are allowed...until the war turns into a quagmire.

2. The media is too dependent on official sources.

Not only are the guests on political talk shows supportive of war, they’re government officials who are supportive of war. Again, from FAIR:

“The guest lists for all the programs leaned heavily on politicians and military insiders. Current and former US government officials—politicians and White House officials—made up 37 percent of the guestlists. Current and former military officials accounted for 7 percent of sources.”

Nearly half of all guests were official sources. Most of the rest were reporters depend on official sources for their coverage. Why is this a problem? The Columbia Journalism Review explains:

“Lee Artz, who teaches communications at Purdue University, and the author of Public Media and Public Interest and Cultural Hegemony in the United States, said he sees these findings reflected in the constantly shifting narrative about the Islamic State. “The mainstream media in the US tends to accept uncritically whatever the US administration releases,” he says.”

Again, unlike virtually any other issue the mainstream media covers, when it comes to security and the military, they trust the military. Trusting the military is not their job. And it denies the government and military’s dodgy (at best) track record with the truth.

3. The televised media invited back the original Iraq war architects to discuss another war in Iraq.

Obviously, many media critics have made this point. The same neo-conservatives who pushed America into the original Iraq war are still being invited onto the Sunday talk shows as guests to discuss intervening in Iraq a second time. I could provide dozens of links to people making this point; I’ll just point you to The Colbert Report and what Jon Stewart calls “America’s tragedy herpe”.

Not only does the media invite John McCain and Lindsey Graham on to their shows to push military interventions--they favor intervention so much, I don’t even have to clarify which war--they invite them on more than any other politician or guest. Period.

Inviting Iraq war proponents on as guests proves that the media’s coverage is pro-war. Or at least, in an effort to avoid perceptions of bias, ends up biasing itself in pro-war/pro-intervention ways. This failure to provide even coverage also fails to educate the country about our military or foreign policy.

In closing, I haven’t suggested any solutions to the above problems. Good news: they’re coming on Wednesday.

Aug 26

A few years ago, I stopped listening to the PRI show Studio 360 because it just wasn’t fair. In particular, it held America to absurd standards that it didn’t hold the rest of the world to.

They used an editor taking the N-word out of Huckleberry Finn as an example of censorship one week, then in a later episode, discussing Iranian censorship, Kurt Andersen said, “Again, it is wonderful for me to see that the ambiguities that are so rife throughout this situation...it’s an authoritarian regime, yes, but they have to allow this, then they find they have to allow this...I adore when things are not as black and white as they are portrayed in the media.” In short, Iran’s censorship isn’t so bad.

Tell that to Jahar Panafi.

I bring this up, because, in the last few weeks, you could accuse us of doing the same thing. We’ve been pointing out dozens of examples of American hate speech against Islamic people without providing examples of Islamic hate speech. So let’s be clear: American hate speech has nothing on the hate speech of much of the Islamic world.

It took a lot of searching to find mainstream examples of anti-Muslim hate speech, mainly because Americans reject hate speech. To find examples, I had to search the fringes of society. (Not surprisingly, I found most of the examples on conservative milblogs. Take that for what you will.) But I can find examples of Islamic hate speech from just watching The Daily Show. Or say, listening to a speech by the former President of Iran.

Islamic extremists use one word above all others to express their hatred of the Westerners and the west: infidel, or “Kafir”.

Islamic extremists use this term to dehumanize their enemies. From Christopher Hitchens, “But in practice, Islamic fanatics operate a fascistic concept of the ‘pure’ and the ‘exclusive’ over the unclean and the kufir or profane.” Extremists use this term to separate one group (Muslims) from another (non-Muslims or “infidels”). (Though we aren’t Arabic scholars, we know that kufir has religious meanings that extremists often distort.) One would only use this phrase if they wanted to permanently cut themselves off from another group. Terms like these keep conflicts going, preventing dialogue and peace.

Except for hateful extremists, who else would use this term?

Oh yeah, soldiers.

Don Gomez of Carrying the Gun has covered this topic pretty extensively. In short, in an ironic reclaiming of the word, soldiers have embraced the term kafur and its English translation “infidel” through brands like Major League Infidel or Infidel Strong. Gomez neatly summarizes the problem with this “reclaiming”:

“My problem with this phenomenon is twofold: 1) whether people mean it or not, the word casts a conflict in religious terms, which is what we don’t want, and 2) the brand is worn to be antagonistic, not simply factual.”

(Don later wrote a second and third post on this term.)

We have three more thoughts on soldiers embracing the word “infidel”:

1. In English, infidel actually means “Not a Christian”. Seriously, we looked it up. From Wikipedia, in August of 2014:

The word originally denoted a person of a religion other than one's own, specifically a Christian to a Muslim, a Muslim to a Christian, or a Gentile to a Jew. Later meanings in the 15th century include "unbelieving", "a non-Christian" and "one who does not believe in religion" (1527).

Actually, let’s just go to Merriam Websters’ definition. The first expanded definition: “one who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity”.

So anyone wearing the word “infidel” is actually defining themselves as “not a Christian”. Oops.

2. This blog is aimed at Americans and American soldiers. Yeah, I wrote a whole introduction about how we were going to focus on Islamic hate speech this week, but that doesn’t make a ton of sense, does it? Islamic extremists don’t read our blog; soldiers do. We’re writing this blog to improve the U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy.

3. Embracing the term infidel doesn’t help us win the wars we were fighting. From the original Military.com article that inspired Don:

“Sulayman, a Lebanese American who commanded a Marine infantry platoon in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2008, said he had one Marine who made Kill Hadji stickers.

‘When your Iraqi interpreter sees that, what does he think? Your partners in the Iraqi army -- when they see that, what are they going to think?’ he would ask his Marines. ‘You wouldn't walk up to sergeant so-and-so and drop the N word on him.’

"...Sulayman said he doesn't think the companies that market infidel products to troops mean any harm. He also said he's certain that Florida pastor Terry Jones didn't mean any harm when he oversaw a public burning of a Quran last year because he believed it promotes violence.

"It’s his right, Sulayman said. But is it really helpful?"

No, it isn’t. This is the single biggest argument against soldiers embracing or co-opting this term. They are actually preventing peace and reconciliation.

It doesn’t matter if Muslims use hate speech, because we can be better than our enemies. We can be the bigger person. We can apologize when we make mistakes; we can turn the other cheek; we can treat others the way we wish we were treated; we can be the change we want to see in the world. Yeah, those are all touchy-feely idealistic (and mostly Christian) ideas…

But they also work.