The First Movie

Just a little plug for The First Movie, which I went to see on Friday. It’s a documentary by Mark Cousins; he visits a Kurdish village which is remote enough that none of the children have ever been to the movies, and puts on a showing of a selection of films in a makeshift outdoor cinema; then he gives the children little digital movie cameras and waits to see what footage they bring back.

It’s a film which looks beautiful and is in turns funny and moving, with a narration provided by Cousins in a very attractive Belfast accent. As I was watching it, I was thinking that, by comparison, nearly everything you see in the cinema has incredibly little faith in the audience’s intelligence or attention. Not that this is some kind of ultra-difficult film, but it’s not afraid to be poetic, to talk about aesthetic issues, to be slow, to hold shots for a long time and let the audience look at them. I really thought it was excellent.

During October it’s on a tour of independent cinemas around the UK. I happened to see the first of these showings because it was at my local cinema. So if you’re in the UK and happen to live near the kind of cinema that might show arty documentaries, check the showing dates and give it a go. And if you’re not in the UK… I don’t know, it might appear at a film festival? Or on Netflix in due course? Well worth a look.


Thirsty River by Rodaan Al Galidi

This is the second book in a row for the Round The World challenge which I can say, without any caveats, that I straightforwardly enjoyed. So that’s good. Thirsty River is my book for Iraq, though Rodaan Al Galidi fled Iraq for the Netherlands in 1998, so it’s actually translated from Dutch.*

It’s a multi-generational family story tracing the history of Iraq from before the Saddam years to after the American invasion. One of the blurbs says “García Márquez for Colombia and Al Galidi for Iraq”, and the book is in that kind of magical realist tradition; although as with a few books I’ve read recently, I find myself wanting to refer to ‘magical realism’ even though there isn’t actually much magic in them. A book like One Hundred Years of Solitude has genuinely impossible, supernatural events in it; Thirsty River has some unlikely, striking events, but they are not generally supernatural. But there’s a similar mood, a kind of theatricality, with odd things happening to slightly odd people.

Of course there’s nothing exclusive to magical realism about exaggerated characters and slightly implausible plots; you could say the same about Dickens. And I wonder if I would even think of referring to it as ‘magical realism’ if it was set in Surrey rather than southern Iraq. But there’s still something that seems to connect these books into a sort of genre; perhaps it’s a slightly detached attitude to the central characters?

Anyway, such taxonomical considerations aside: I did enjoy it. By the end of the novel the enjoyment was of a slightly mixed kind, because Iraq’s recent history has not been all unicorns and rainbows, and the book’s characters have a pretty brutal time of it.

Here’s a little excerpt.

Hadi the Rocket was a middle-aged man. He had a thick black moustache, from which he always plucked the grey hairs with tweezers. In his chest pocket was a comb and a miror, with which he kept his moustache in shape. Hadi the Rocket came from a poor family in Boran, whose members sold ice in the summer, and coal and oil in the winter. His father had owned a cart and an old horse. After primary school, Hadi began to work with his father. He had thought at was his lot to get old sitting int he street, until he became a member of the Ba’ath party.

“God in heaven, the party on earth,” he always said when the Ba’ath party was still underground.

“The party in heaven, Mr President on earth,” he said when the Ba’ath party seized power and was the only party remaining.

“Mr President is the heaven of the fatherland, the party his ground,” was the slogan when Saddam seized power.

Sometimes Hadi the Rocket forgot  his own house, which the party had given him, his wives, which he had also received from the party, and his children and he slept in his uniform in the party’s house. Every time people became more afraid of him, he felt safer and became friendlier. Little photos of Saddam Hussein were pinned to his clothes and he wore watches bearing his image. he gave the photos to everyone, and the watches to people who were higher up in the party then himself, as if it were an offering to the gods. No one was as attached to anything as Hadi the Rocket was to the Ba’ath party; not medieval suitors to their lovers, nor knights to their swords, nor believers to their gods.

* Incidentally, full marks to Luzette Strauss, the translator, for her sparing use of endnotes: just 12 for a 300 page novel. Since I’ve been reading a lot of translated fiction over the past couple of years, distracting and unnecessary endnotes have become a real pet hate of mine.

» saddam elvis, originally uploaded to Flickr by and © rakkasan69.

Daily Links


  • Interesting stuff — no doubt the Americans would say one-sided, but nonetheless. The more I read about the US military in Iraq the more I get the sense that it had become dysfunctional; a kind of inward-looking, bureaucratic self-serving entity semi-detached from the US government/politics. No doubt there are plenty of thoughtful officers who have learned some hard lessons over the past few years in Iraq and Afghanistan, though. For all I know they're applying them already.
    ( tags: US Iraq military )
Culture Other

Occupational Hazards by Rory Stewart

Occupational Hazards is Stewart’s account of trying to administer Maysan province in southern Iraq. He’s obviously an interesting character; to quote his author bio: ‘After a brief period in the British army, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, and then joined the Foreign Office, serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, Yugoslavia. From 2000 to 2002 he walked six thousand miles across Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. In 2003, he was posted to Iraq as CPA Deputy Governate Coordinator of the provinces of Maysan and later Dhi Qar.’

He explains that, after being away from the Foreign Office for some time, he approached them and asked to be sent to Iraq. He never quite says why; he clearly finds the work fascinating and loves the Middle East and central Asia (he has now returned to working on regeneration in Afghanistan, at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation); even so, there can’t have been many people whose immediate reaction to the invasion of Iraq was to send off a CV and ask for a job. His reward was to be given the job as supreme civilian authority in Maysan.

US Army soldiers and Iraqi hosts

The book is an account of his time trying to do that job; trying to set up some kind of administration, get reconstruction projects started, and prepare the province for handover to Iraqis. And the overwhelming impression is of chaos. The kind of broad brush stuff we’re all now familiar with — Sunni vs. Shia, moderates vs. extremists — is just the tip of the iceberg. Apparently 54 new political parties appeared in Maysan in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. There were conflicts between different tribes; there seem to have been endless different clerics, all with their own supporters; the educated urban Iraqis looked down on the rural population. Stewart had to try to achieve some kind of balance of their competing claims while also favouring the kind of moderate, secular government that the CPA aspired to producing. He also had to deal with the central administration in Baghdad, which was disorganised, ideological and unhelpful; and with the local British Army commanders, who he theoretically outranked, but who had their own priorities and were not under his direct command.

He writes well, and the book is in turns depressing, funny and, mostly, interesting. I don’t think I’m giving away the ending when I say that, despite some successes, he didn’t manage to establish a model secular democracy in his chunk of Iraq. On the other hand, if you read the book hoping to understand why the occupation hasn’t been more successful, it doesn’t provide any simple answers. He recognises the reasonableness of many of the criticisms aimed at the administration: the failure to prevent the looting immediately after the invasion, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the lack of planning generally. But his own feeling is that actually, even if all those thing had been done right, it still would not have been enough to create a peaceful, stable, democratic Iraq; that we overestimate our own powers if we think we can shape a country that way. And that we could never have planned for all the complexities anyway.

» The picture, US Army soldiers and Iraqi hosts, is taken inside the traditional Marsh Arab reed-built mudhif. I don’t know if it was taken in Maysan, but it’s certainly the right kind of building. It was taken by James Gordon and is used under a CC attribution licence.


The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo is the psychologist who ran the famous Stanford Prison Experiment [SPE] in 1971. The ultra-shorthand explanation is this: he took twelve normal young men and split them randomly into ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ then set up a fake prison. It was supposed to run for two weeks, but within six days the situation was so out of hand and the guards were mistreating the prisoners so badly that the experiment had to be abandoned.

More recently he acted as an expert witness for the defence at the court martial of Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick, the man in charge of the night shift in the section of Abu Ghraib where the notorious photos were taken.

The full title of the book is The Lucifer Effect: How good people turn evil, and it’s an exploration of the processes by which normal people end up behaving in horrific ways. It starts with a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of the Stanford experiment and an analysis of what we can learn from it, broadens out to talk about parallel situations, then gives a detailed analysis of the events at Abu Ghraib which explores where responsibility for the events there should best be placed.

I can see why the SPE has become iconic: it was a striking experiment and the account of it makes an interesting narrative. Still, I would be reluctant to extrapolate too much from just that. One key to a good experiment is surely that you control as many variables as possible so that you can accurately isolate cause and effect. The SPE by contrast set up a very complex situation in a very open-ended way. Reading this book, it comes across as him just throwing the situation together and waiting to see what happened. There are so many different factors that might be affecting the outcome, including simple chance.

I suppose if you want to investigate complex situations developing over time, you can’t have the kind of control that’s possible in a simple half-hour experiment with one or two participants in a lab, and I do think the SPE is interesting; I just would be reluctant to assume it proved anything very specific or definite.

The other thing that struck me was that the situation was much more loaded to start with than I had appreciated. I’d only heard the vaguest account of the experiment before I read the book and I guess I assumed that it was set up in a very generic way, and that the guards and prisoners developed their behaviour quite spontaneously just on the basis of the jobs they had been given. That’s not entirely true. Zimbardo actually set up the experiment because he wanted to study the psychological effects of imprisonment. The idea was to put normal people in a prison environment and see how the situation affected them, so he was keen to create a suitably tough regime. He told the guards that was what he wanted. The guards had mirrored sunglasses and billy clubs (which they weren’t allowed to use on the prisoners), the prisoners were wearing shapeless smocks and had to respond to their numbers all the time instead of their names.

Again, I can see the reason for all that—to create a convincing prison—but since the interest in the experiment is now normally taken to be the behaviour of the guards, not the prisoners, it’s worth pointing out that they were primed to behave badly. It wasn’t quite as spontaneous as I’d thought.

Just how badly they treated the prisoners is still remarkable, even so. Endless verbal abuse and humiliation, roll-calls all the time, even in the middle of the night, done over and over again forwards and backwards, pointless, repetitive tasks, solitary confinement in a cupboard for hours at a time. A striking sign of how bad it got was that one of the prisoners went on hunger strike: this is someone who was in a psychology experiment and could have left at any time, but got so fixed into the prisoner mindset that they started starving themselves in protest at conditions. Zimbardo himself, playing the role of the warden, got so involved in the dynamic that he started worrying about managing the prisoners as though it was a real prison.

Of course, if the message is simply that good people will, in the right circumstances, do evil—well, we shouldn’t need a psychology experiment to teach us that. The classic rhetorical focus for that argument is the Holocaust; given the sheer number of people involved, they can’t all have been born evil. Even the Holocaust, if it was an unparalleled event, might be a one-off; some kind of freak combination of circumstances. But there are thousands of possible examples. Many of those working on the Atlantic slave ships were no doubt models of honesty, generosity and trustworthiness with their families and friends. And there’s Rwanda, Nanking, My Lai, lynchings, the Cultural Revolution, all those East Germans who informed on each other to the Stasi, as well as countless examples of brutality by soldiers, police and prison officers.

In fact, it takes very little thought to see that it must be true that a large proportion of evil acts are committed by normal people. Perhaps the most striking thing is that we find it so difficult to make the imaginative leap: to believe that it could be you or me doing those things, that the ‘normal person’ could be any of us.

Still, one thing that makes the SPE notable is that the guards had so little motivation for their behaviour. I know I said they were primed to be aggressive, but they had no other motivation comparable to the examples above. They weren’t in a war zone, they didn’t stand to gain money or career advancement, and the prisoners weren’t part of some kind of stigmatised group—terrorist, criminals, Jews, Tutsis or whatever. Of course they didn’t actually massacre them either, and analogies between this kind of mistreatment and genocide need to be drawn with care. But it’s interesting even so that they got so caught up in the situation; especially since, unlike the prisoners, they were able to go home between shifts.

Anyway, that’s enough going round in circles about what lessons you can or can’t draw from the Stanford experiment. The other major theme of the book is the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo specifically doesn’t say that situational pressure absolves people from responsibility for their actions, and in the case of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the guards clearly behaved appallingly. But he does question the version of events put out by the military and the White House after the event, that it was just the actions of a few ‘bad apples’. He raises the possibility that it was a ‘bad barrel’ and that we must also ask who made the barrel. His analogy, not mine.

That argument seems watertight. The US Army’s own internal reports specifically attach blame to people higher up the chain of command, and the very best interpretation would be that the prison was appallingly badly and negligently run. The staff had very little training and very little clear guidance about what was or wasn’t acceptable, the prison was totally overcrowded, the chain of command was unclear, no-one was coming to check up on them, and they were under enormous stress because they were living under appalling conditions, were overworked and the prison was under regular mortar attack. The relationship between the Military Police (who ran the prison) and Military Intelligence (who did interrogations) was not properly defined. Even if you don’t accept a more sinister explanation, it seems clear the the running of the prison was incompetent and chaotic.

The bigger questions are whether it was just down to badly trained, badly managed staff under extreme stress, or whether it was part of a broader culture in the US military; and eventually whether it can be traced to policy decisions.

Prisoner abuse certainly wasn’t unique to Abu Ghraib. Hundreds of cases of abuse have been investigated in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don’t think you have to be overly cynical to feel that they may only represent a small proportion of the real cases. And apparently as of November 2004, that included at least five cases of prisoners dying during interrogation. Perhaps they had pre-existing heart conditions and those deaths were just bad luck; but given that one prisoner died in Abu Ghraib while left hanging naked from the wall by his arms (an ‘interrogation technique’ the Spanish Inquisition had a special term for, apparently), one suspects they were in fact tortured to death.

One thing that becomes clear is that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were relatively mild compared to some. Talking about a base near Fallujah

One of Fishback’s seargeants testified, “Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent [prisoners were called PUCs, “persons under control”]. In a way, it was a sport. One day [another sergeant] shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini-Louisville slugger, a metal bat. As long as no PUCs came up dead, it happened. We kept it to broken arms and legs.”

The final question is whether all this abuse is the ‘normal’ behaviour of stressed and badly trained soldiers in a war zone—which would still be a pretty damning comment on the training and discipline of the US Army, given how widespread it appears to be—or whether it can be traced to specific policy decisions. Here the water is murkier. You’re in the world of the CIA, Military Intelligence and special forces, all people who are professionally secretive anyway. And even within that atmosphere of rarified machismo and hard-nosed realpolitik, people know that torture is a hard sell with the electorate.

Zimbardo has no doubt that there is sufficient evidence to trace the blame all the way up the chain of command. Starting with the people running Abu Ghraib and going up through the ranks, he puts a sequence of people ‘on trial’, culminating with George Bush. It’s actually a rhetorical device I’m uncomfortable with. Identifying responsibility is a valid exercise, but with such a sensitive and important subject as the problem of evil, I would prefer a writer who at least maintains a pretence of analytical distance. Zimbardo is a little too fond of theatrical turns of phrase. For that matter, it’s not a book I would recommend for its prose style generally:

The seeds of evil that blossomed in that dark dungeon of Abu Ghraib were planted by the Bush administration in its triangular framing of national security threats , citizen fear and vulnerability, and interrogation/torture to win the war on terror.

Still, despite my misgivings about how he frames it, I basically agree with the conclusion. For me, it’s sufficient to pick up just two things. The first is the decision to ‘legally’ exempt themselves from the Geneva convention by claiming that prisoners are ‘enemy combatants’ rather than POWs. The other is the notorious memo that redefined ‘torture’.

It held that physical pain must be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” In line with this memo, in order to prosecute anyone charged with torture crimes, it is necessary that it must have been the “specific intent” of the defendant to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” “Mental torture” was narrowly defined to include only acts that would result in “significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or years.”

Which allows plenty of scope for inventive interrogators to do things which most of us would recognise as torture. Indeed it implicitly grants them permission to do so.

Those two things are enough for me. I don’t need a direct chain of orders that can be traced from the Pentagon to Tier 1-A at Abu Ghraib; it seems clear that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush believe that their employees should be able to torture people. Indeed, they probably pride themselves on taking the kind of tough decisions that wishy-washy liberals in the cloistered comfort of their book-lined studies would recoil from. Who knows; perhaps they only envisaged it happening in urgent interrogations of high-risk terrorist suspects, rather than every two-bit military prison in Iraq. Perhaps they just don’t give a damn.

I remember when they first started shipping people to Guantanamo I felt uneasy about it, but it was soon enough after 9-11 that it seemed like the situation might just be serious enough to justify skipping some of the formalities. If you had told me that people would be tortured there, and kept there for years, not just without a full-blown criminal trial but without a trial of any kind, I’m not sure I would have believed you. I don’t expect American governments to behave like that. America’s preferred image of itself as the freest, fairest country on earth and a beacon to oppressed people everywhere has always been a bit questionable; they’ve always been willing to prop up nasty regimes when it seems convenient, and even for American citizens I’m not sure the US is significantly freer and fairer than, say, Sweden. But there is some truth to it; I think it is important and a Good Thing that the richest, most powerful country on earth is a secular democracy with a free press, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

Any moral authority derived from that has been cheerfully pissed away over the past few years. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given some of the darker points in recent British history. Particularly, the fact that many of the ways of torturing people without just beating the crap out of them were developed and refined by the British security services in Northern Ireland, and for much the same reasons: a wish to break prisoners quickly and still be able to plausibly deny that what you’re doing is torturing them.

And it would be a pity if the main message anyone took away from this book was ‘Bush Cheney Rumsfeld: bad’. It wouldn’t matter how bad their intentions were if we could rely on the normal people at the bottom of the food chain to just say no: to refuse to abuse prisoners, to report abuse on the part of their comrades. But what I take away from this book is that evil is normal. It is to be expected that people will do appalling things if the circumstances are right. It is within all of us to be that person.

It’s a depressing conclusion and rather a depressing book, but I do recommend it; it is a thorough, interesting and thought-provoking. There’s also a website.

Culture Other

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran has the subtitle ‘Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone’; the Green Zone being the seven square mile compound in Baghdad centered around the Republican Palace, where the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under L. Paul Bremer III attempted to rule Iraq for about 12 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Chandrasekaran paints a picture of a little American bubble where the water and electricity are always working and the air conditioning is on high, the buffet is piled with pork, there are bars and bible study classes, no-one speaks Arabic, and the huge blast-proof walls keep out the noise of gunshots and the call to prayer. Even the food, down to the water the hot-dogs were boiled in, was all shipped in from approved suppliers outside Iraq.

Swimming pool at the Republican Palace, 2003

Swimming pool at the Republican Palace, 2003. Image taken from Wikipedia, and used via a GFDL licence.

Here’s a story which captures some of that disconnection between the people inside the compound and the world around them. It takes place at a farewell party about six weeks before the handover of sovereignty:

It had been a quiet night. No mortar thunderclaps. No messages from the Giant Voice warning people to take cover.

Then came the gunshots. A pop-pop-pop in the distance. Alex Dehgan, a State Department employee at the pool party, dismissed it as a firefight between soldiers and insurgents. So did his colleagues.

But the popping grew louder, more intense. It seemed to be coming from every direction. Orange tracer rounds arced into the night sky. Bursts of AK-47 fire echoed across the Tigris.

Dehgan began to panic. This is it, he thought. The full-on assault. They’re going to crawl over the walls.

He and everyone else by the pool scurried indoors. Some ran into the basement shelter. Others retreated to their offices but stayed away from the windows. They began to wonder if they’d have to leave by helicopter, like the last staffers at the American embassy in Saigon.

Hours later they heard the news: Iraq had defeated Saudi Arabia 3 to 1 in a soccer match, earning a berth at that summer’s Olympics in Athens.

Baghdad was celebrating.

As I hope that story shows, the book is a great read and full of good anecdotes. It would be funny if it wasn’t so incredibly depressing.

Ham station, originally uploaded by Kjirstin. Used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. This picture was taken in the Green Zone, but it’s from after the CPA period; the Green Zone is now the US embassy compound.

If these people had some other, less important job, this might not matter very much. But they were supposed to be running the country. Here’s another quote that seems typical:

Agresto [senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education] knew next to nothing about Iraq’s educational system. Even after he was selected, the former professor didn’t read a single book about Iraq. “I wanted to come here with as open a mind as I could have,” he said, “I’d much rather learn firsthand than have it filtered to me by an author.”

In fact Agresto turns out to be, relatively speaking, one of the good guys. When he got to Iraq and encountered the reality of the situation there, he was adaptable enough to set aside his grandiose plans for Iraq’s university system and focus on the pragmatic business of trying to help the universities recover from the damage done by sanctions, war and looting. He didn’t actually manage to achieve much, because he didn’t have the staff or money to do it, but at least he responded to the situation by changing his plans. Most of his colleagues seem to have ploughed on regardless. Still, that mindset, that a career in American academia and an open mind were all the preparation he would need, seems typical of the overconfidence and naivety of the CPA.

Also typical was the choice of a Republican loyalist rather than someone with specific experience of the Middle East or reconstruction in a war zone. Not, I think, out of simple corruption or nepotism, but because it was an operation being run by ideologues from the White House downwards; people who seem to have believed that democracy, privatisation and a free market were some kind of magic wand, and if they could just pass the right laws, the recovery of Iraq would take care of itself. The problem wasn’t so much the fact that they were trying to impose their own political beliefs on the Iraqis, but that they were focusing on theory while Iraq was lawless, unstable, and suffering 40% unemployment and shortages of electricity and fuel.

And that’s just the start of it. There were failures of communication—or overt hostility—between the Pentagon and the State Department, between the CPA and the Iraqis, and between the CPA and the army. They were more worried about how news would play in the US than in Iraq. They didn’t trust the Iraqis to do things for themselves. They didn’t have nearly enough money or enough staff. They allowed the timetable to be driven by the American elections. Over and over again, it all seems to come back to the looting which was left to go unchecked in the week or so after the fall of Saddam, both because it established a pattern of lawlessness and because it crippled half the institutions in Iraq. Hospitals, universities, ministries, schools and businesses lost the equipment they needed to function.

My impression is that the White House and the Pentagon simply didn’t take what they were doing seriously enough. I don’t care how confident they were that, with Saddam out of the way, the Iraqis would gratefully embrace freedom and democracy: they still needed to make plans. Even with the best possible outcome, they would still have been running a whole country, and they seem to have thought they could just wing it.

Anyway. From a British point of view, I would have liked some kind of indication of how my own government fit into the whole situation, but this is a very good book: vivid, thorough, funny, and deeply sad.