Category Archives: Iraq

An end to deference

Wars, just and unjust, are always, and by definition, the fault of some leader or other. National leaders enter conflict with others for all sorts of reasons, hardly ever pure. The difference now is that the citizenry feels free to say so. The readiness of grief-stricken parents and widows to ‘blame’ Tony Blair (or Geoff Hoon or Jack Straw…) for the deaths of their boys in Iraq must represent a new low for deference (and that must be a good thing).

For centuries, the very idea of openly blaming the leader class for deaths in wartime would have been inconceivable (and probably treasonous) but now it’s routine. We should take it for granted, I think, that from now on it will no longer be possible to pursue a war in any theatre and for whatever reason without a persistent and difficult-to-manage Greek chorus of incrimination from the bereaved.

This will make it politically more difficult to enter a war, however moral. It’s possible to argue that this is an unalloyed good thing – war is always bad, never truly just – but I worry that it might also put a stop to the kind of intervention in troubled places like Kosovo and Sudan that the people of those places obviously need.

Of course, it’s impossible to argue that the families of dead soldiers should keep their mouths shut. Cringing, grateful war widows, fearful for their meagre pensions, silent in the face of inhuman neglect, are obviously a thing of the past. But this pitiless scrutiny of our leaders’ motives could, in time, produce a more timid and pedestrian political class – a cowering, inward-looking gang, always running scared of the next deputation of widows and orphans.

When voting really matters

The courage and optimism of the Iraqi people who voted on Sunday is obvious. We (all of us – pro- or anti-war) need to set aside our cynicism for a minute and acknowledge the significance of this vote. If it had turned out to be a phony exercise or just PR for the coalition it would have been different. It turns out that over 60% of the eligible population went out to vote. Do I need to remind you that that’s a better turnout than most Western Nations see for general elections (and usually in the absence of any threat of beheading)?

Is that huge vote of confidence in the democratic process more than a two-fingers to the ‘insurgents’ and other nihilists who opposed the election all together? Yes. It’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that this big, enthusiastic vote does more than refuse the insurgents their easy victory. Despite the complicated and uncomfortable circumstances – and the indecipherable proportional voting system – Iraqis have taken to the democratic process like the sophisticated political animals they obviously are.

Their enthusiasm for this election inevitably sends an uncomfortable message not only to the bombers and beheaders but also to the anti-war contingent (the Pilgers and Fisks and Galloways, the Daily Mirror, The Independent etc. etc.) and also to the ambivalent, the waverers, the worriers and the uncommitted (me, for instance). It seems there’s a reasonable chance – against all the odds – that democracy has taken root in Iraq.

A lot of ifs

An Iraqi voter in the USA, 28 January 2005
If people of good will turn out to vote in large numbers. If courageous officials and volunteers can see election day through without chaos or fraud or a bloodbath. If candidates are not assassinated en masse once elected. If the Americans (and the British) can be trusted not to drop the Iraqi people like a stone in the post-election mess.

If ideologues on either side of the Atlantic (but mainly over there) can contain their infantile unipolar ardour and stay out of Iran (and Syria and North Korea…). If Iraq doesn’t break into half-a-dozen pieces and go the way of Somalia or the Sudan. If the insurgents and opportunists and demagogues can be shown the value of a working democratic culture before they wreck the country. If the electricity and the water and the roads and the telephones and the schools work and keep working.

If Suni voters turn out at all. If the emerging Iraqi media can support the open debate necessary to grow a functioning post-Sadam society. If ordinary Iraqis have the heart to see the election as an opportunity to begin building a new society from scratch. If the elected representatives turn out to be good at the job (that’s a pretty important one). If a real economy can be grafted onto the wrecked Iraqi infrastructure…

Too easy

Timothy Garton Ash is doing heroic work on both sides of the Atlantic – more important than ever as the fog of war thickens – to articulate the complicated, nervous, ambivalent support for Blair and the war amongst lefties and liberals who think the ‘no war’ stance is just too easy…

The Guardian, New York Times (requires free registration).

Reporter/cyborg

Thanks to Poynter.org for image: http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=23585
On Tuesday, in The Guardian, before the war began, I wrote:

“Our proximity to the fighting is unarguable. The collision of network-era news gathering tools, weblogs and interconnected internet communities will produce a kind of ecstasy of information and communication. The war will be fought as if it were on the other side of the thinnest sheet of glass. It will be as if we are there.”

I didn’t anticipate the ‘video phone’ coverage, though. Something about the personal, portable nature of the kit makes the images transmitted even more immediate than I’d imagined – almost intimate… The choppiness and urgency of the footage gives you the sense you can almost feel the reporter’s pulse and breath. The reporter and his technology are merging. A Gulf War reporter is a borderline cyborg.

These cheap cameras seem to be velcro’d to aircraft carrier masts, to the outside of tank armour, to fighter pilots’ helmets and, of course, to dozens of reporters. I think we’ll remember this war as the war of the ubiquitous video phone.

I don’t understand how these things work but the chunky, lossy compression suggests clever, adaptive transmission and very low bit rates. Presumably the video is transmitted via sat-phone channels intended only for voice (possibly even analogue transmission?).

This story, from an NBC reporter in Kuwait City, doesn’t get me any closer to understanding how the video phones work but lays out the Gulf reporters’ new tech tool kit. This one is better. I learn that TV reporters in the field are using essentially the same kit as any amateur (a Mini DV camera, a Mac Powerbook and simple editing software) to produce their own packages for transmission back home (but I still don’t know how those video phones work!).

War analysed

Always excellent David Walker opens the new series of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis with a subtle look at our definition of the national interest in the context of the planned attack on Iraq.

He talks to: Lord Owen, Lord Skidelsky, Professor Philip Bobbitt, Professor David Coleman and Professor Paul Hirst. You can listen to the show until next Thursday evening (13 March) here. Warning: if you haven’t made up your mind about the war yet, this programme won’t help. If you’d like some provocative material for your next row about it, there’s plenty here.

While we’re talking about Analysis, isn’t this programme the perfect candidate for a permanent archive of audio files? Could it hurt anyone to keep a whole series (or even more) online at a time? Taking down a programme of this quality just because the next one’s come along seems crazy.