May 05, 2004


Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe novels, is at U of T today, at Innis Town Hall at 7:30. I may drop in for a spell; I've liked the novels rather less as the years go on (and the TV series left me cold, Sean Bean notwithstanding), but in high school they were a rollicking good read.

UPDATE: For the record, Cornwell's a pretty funny guy; worth catching if the book tour comes through. I particularly liked that he saved his last two audience questions for the two young boys there with their fathers who were eagerly and irrepressibly waiting to ask him stuff about what evidently to them were the Best. Novels. Ever. If they'd gone away disappointed I think I'd have slapped him.

Posted by BruceR at 01:44 PM


Europeans are angry today apparently about the Iraq "helicopter video." I had thought everyone had seen this by now... I think I first saw it back in January. It's already aired on ABC, for that matter: just typical gun camera footage of an Apache doing its business, no context... showing graphically how, with FLIR, you can run, but can't hide at night. If you haven't seen it it's nothing a computer sim gamer can't imagine.

UPDATE: Some people are saying, once again, that this is some kind of atrocity. But I can't see the full video supporting that... the full video (which I've only found so far in .avi) shows quite clearly a guy driving up in a pickup truck to a waiting farm truck on the edge of a field, furtively running out into a field, and dropping a four-foot long cylinder, by all appearances an RPG wrapped in a blanket (he can carry it easily in one hand, so it's probably not a SAM) in the path of a tractor working the same field (at night?) He and the farm truck's driver then wait around for the guy in the tractor to get close to pick it up, at which point the partial video linked above picks up. When shots start coming in, the pickup driver starts frantically unwrapping the cylinder.

It plays entirely like a weapons transfer from one insurgent to another, using the pastoral farming scene as cover. It's hard to imagine a scenario where all three dead men didn't at least know what was going on. (I'm told the action took place Dec. 1, north of Baghdad, in case anyone's wondering as to the provenance.) There's no way, given the way the guy is looking about and minimizing his time holding or near the cylinder, that it's anything normal, like the tractor driver's lunch, or a farm implement, say... and if you've looking at a RPG-sized object that people are obviously trying to hide, I believe it is reasonable to conclude the worst.

Posted by BruceR at 12:54 PM


Wilbur's blog has more info on the British abuse photos, with a good link to photos and analysis. Still not seeing the slamdunk in either direction on this one... the photo "errors" are all individually explainable, although it is certainly curious to see so many together. And I still don't see the identifiable marker on the rifle that makes it an SA80 mark 1 instead of mark 2, nor am I even convinced that would be proof even if there is one.

Posted by BruceR at 10:12 AM


Well, Tacitus has joined the large and growing number of bloggers who don't like me contaminating their fan-club comment threads, so you get to hear my thoughts on his Canadian Airborne Regiment analogy here.

The argument is that disbanding the 372nd MP Company (Army Reserve) will help send the right message re the Abu Ghraib abuses, as it did in the case of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, which was disbanded in 1995 after a string of scandals that began with their 1993 deployment to Somalia.

On the surface, that might seem a useful comparison. But it's superficial, and here's why.

The Airborne's dismissal sent an effective message to its target audience (we'll talk about who that was) for several reasons:
* the regiment was, in its own way, a national symbol, not tied to any particular region the way Canada's other infantry units are;
* the unit was large enough to be significant (constituting about 10% of the army's regular infantry);
* the unit, because all members had to possess the most coveted award among Canadian soldiers, airborne wings, was inextricably connected with military excellence in every current soldier's mind (regardless of what we thought of the actual unit);
* on the other hand, the unit was militarily speaking, rather disposable: since all its members were only technically on temporary attachment from their home units, every soldier had only to return to their previous posting and military occupation, strengthening all those units without any loss of overall army effectiveness. No one lost their job, in other words.

It goes without saying that none of these attributes apply to the 372nd MP Company. It's small, it's composed entirely of reservists from the Cumberland, Md. area, it was not particularly well known before this week, and its members (those worth keeping, at least) retain specialized skills that are useful, and cannot be easily transferred to another reserve unit (you could always keep an Army Reserve unit of another kind in Cumberland, but that would seem to largely defeat the point.)

So as a message to convince its target audience, the 372nd disbandment idea is inherently less powerful than the Airborne example. But what was the Canadian government's target audience?

Well, it wasn't the Canadian public, or media, to start with. Civilians had no strong attachment to the Airborne, which had done little of public note in their 25 year history to that point. And while disbandment did serve to get the word "Airborne" out of the papers, it was the word "Somalia" the political leadership really would have preferred not hearing, and disbandment didn't help with that.

Nor, despite some might think, did the Canadian disbandment have a big impact on regular soldiers. Many were shocked, of course, but most were sick at what they'd read about the Airborne's conduct in Somalia, and outside of the infantry line units, few who weren't already in the Airborne valued the mystique that much. As to the paratroopers themselves, it just allowed many of them to sink into an even deeper denial, as if they were somehow the victims in all this.

No, the target audience of the civilian government in disbanding the Airborne was the military's senior leadership, who they were thoroughly fed up with. The Chretien government, never military fans to begin with, were tired of being surprised by new Airborne revelations ("hazing videos" and the like), and tired of being patted on the head by generals. So they acted in a way calculated to show the generals precisely who was really in charge... to the generals' horror. It was like a father who, after their kid breaks the VCR, takes his hammer and smashes the kid's favourite toy... cruel, but an undoubtedly effective way of establishing his supremacy. The generals concluded from this that, if the PM got angry, he would do anything, including completely gutting Canadian military readiness, if he felt inclined... they were very docile after that, through all the cutbacks and abuses to come. (As, one could argue, they should be, in a democratic state.)

The closest American equivalent would be Rumsfeld's early cancelling of the coveted Crusader artillery system... in part just to show his generals that he could. They, too, shut up after that. If this were a matter, as in the Canadian case, where the military's senior leadership were believed to deserve some slapping around, then disbanding whole units would make sense... but that's not the problem with Abu Ghraib at all... if anything the military is accepting its full responsibility, while their civilian supervisors appear to need whacking with a clue bat.

But here's the really important thing. Chretien's little power play in disbanding the Airborne may have sent a message to the public or media, or soldiers and generals; but what it was never intended to do, never could do, was send a message to SOMALIS. No one was naive enough to think they'd care a fig. The same surely applies to something as trivial as disbanding a military police company, with regard to Iraq. It's entirely irrelevant to the issue, as far as Iraqis are concerned: the symbol they're staring at every day is the Orwellian walls of Abu Ghraib, itself.

Canadian officials placated the Somalis the way occupying countries always have placated the victims of their soldiers' excesses... by paying off family, relations, and clans... 100 camels in total, in the case of the tortured and murdered Shidane Arone. Eventually, sooner or later, that is what the Americans will end up doing re Abu Ghraib, as well.

The symbol Tacitus is looking for to make the right statement here is not a little army reserve company. It's Abu Ghraib itself. There are other detention centres in Iraq, after all. The best thing America could do, if it wants this to stop right now, would be to level Abu Ghraib, as the Bastille of the modern world that it is, send any prisoners worth keeping to other facilities, release the rest, and then offer substantial recompense for Iraqis, one and all, who claim to have been wrongfully imprisoned/abused in custody while there. (As noted in the posts below, I agree with Tacitus that it's unlikely there will be much in the way of a impressive outcome from American military justice on this one.) THAT would be the equivalent of the Canadian reaction to its Somalia guilt.

As always in PR, there's no point in sending a message, if you're not clear on what the audience's needs are.

Posted by BruceR at 12:34 AM