Foreign policy

US government advice to soldiers headed to Syria–circa 1942

BxwCVIaIAAAqO97I came across this US War Department guidebook for American soldiers posted to the Levant during World War Two, so wrote it up for Slate‘s history blog, The Vault. The advice is often practical, sometimes Orientalist–and, at times, depressingly modern-sounding. Useful reading, in other words, for our current moment.

For all its age, the booklet’s prescription for mission success sounds thoroughly modern: “A big part of your job is to make friends for your cause—because this is a war of ideas, just as much as of tanks, planes and guns.”

As a bonus, the illustrations are pretty wonderful.

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“We’re a Zambian Band”

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My piece on the rise, fall, and rise of Jagri Chanda–once Zambia’s biggest rock star–went up recently on The Appendix. It’s an epic 50-year tale of psych-rock, Quaaludes, post-colonial politics, gemstone mining, and (yes, ultimately) redemption.

“It’s a Sunday morning in Kitwe, a colonial-era mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt. Clouds hang low, and the air is hazy. In the countryside, farmers are burning their fields in preparation for the rainy season. We’ve come to this recreation area to see an important part of the country’s musical history.

Emanuel “Jagari” Chanda hops out of a truck. Once upon a time, he was the country’s biggest rock star. As one of the founders of the “Zamrock” psychedelic rock scene of the 1970s, Jagari (an Africanization of Mick Jagger) was a household name. His songs were radio staples, groupies mobbed him, he always drank for free. Now sixty-plus years of age, he’s lost the Afro and gained a few pounds, but he retains a youthful, loose-limbed gait.

The recreation area sits on the edge of a manmade lake, and it’s a gently-ruined place. Jagari strides toward the water, past worn picnic tables and fire pits. Beyond the water lie the copper mines that power this central African country’s economy, open-cut gashes in the earth surrounded by heavily-rutted roads and streams running with mine tailings. Jagari grew up around here. He takes it all in, a dethroned king surveying his lost kingdom. “It’s rundown, as you can see,” he says. “Back then it was new.

As singer for the Witch, the biggest Zamrock band, Jagari played to packed stadiums and toured across southern Africa. This recreation area was always one of his favorite venues. Often the band played from a stage backed up to the lake. The crowd—miners, soldiers, office workers, students—caught fish, barbecued, drank, and danced. Sometimes the Witch played at night, other times in the afternoon, the show peaking as the sun set over the Copperbelt.”

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Sightseeing in a Police State: a Syrian Travelogue

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In the late 1990s, long before the Arab Spring and the massacres of the civil war, I traveled to Syria as a tourist. This is a memoir-ish account of what it was like to go sightseeing in a dictatorship.

At the time, Syria was terra incognita to most Americans. I knew the bare geopolitical facts: Cold War bogeyman, foe of Washington and Tel Aviv, ally of Iran and Hezbollah, but that’s about it. A few years later, I’d return to the region as a journalist, working in Egypt and then in Palestine, covering the second Intifada. In 1997, though, I was twenty-two and, in my own half-formed way, curious about the world. I chose Syria because it sounded cool and vaguely dangerous. Above all, I wanted an answer to one ethically queasy question: What did sightseeing in a dictatorship feel like?

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A Spurious “Smoking Gun”

smokinggunIn commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, here’s a piece I wrote for Mother Jones back in March 2003. It’s about the lies that got us into a war.

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PR Occupied Berkeley

proccupiedberkMy exploration of the struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on the UC Berkeley campus, in which I trace a decade of passion, protest, and bad behavior, runs in this month’s California magazine.

Every spring since 2001, a group of earnest, impassioned students has gathered near Sather Gate, cordoning part of it off with emergency tape. Some of them don faux uniforms and brandish mock M-16s; others wear keffiyehs and traditional Arab robes. Then the actors set up a military checkpoint, a simulacrum of the hundreds of real checkpoints that pepper the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The “soldiers” allow “Israeli settlers” to pass unmolested while they yell at the “Palestinians.” They bind the wrists of a young man, forcing him to lie face down on the concrete; another they “shoot.” There is fake blood, a makeshift stretcher, the wailing of the wounded and bereaved.

Created by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the mock checkpoints first appeared at Berkeley, and have spread to schools from Arizona State to Yale. It’s easy to see why.

The checkpoints are just one of the most visible elements in a decade-long, tit-for-tat struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on campus. It is waged through Palestinian movie nights and Zionist picnics; tables in Sproul stacked with literature quoting Edward Said and Theodor Herzl; and Palestinian “die-ins” and pro-Israel hip-hop shows. Ron Hendel, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies sums it up: “It’s a PR war.”

And wars are never pretty. Partisans have engaged in online flame wars in the comments sections of local newspapers, disrupted speeches by visiting scholars with shouted obscenities, and scrawled swastikas (aimed at both sides) on campus walls. Students even got into a fight at a 2008 campus concert.

In its dynamics, this local fight often echoes the flesh-and-blood conflict in the Holy Land—minus, thankfully, the body count.

Check it out.

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Timbuktu

gallery_smith_chris_timbuktu_4x6(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Teenager at the Grand Market. Timbuktu, Mali, 2007.

Legendary places rarely conform to expectations. The pyramids in Giza are just as massive as you’d think but, at the same time, they’re strangely underwhelming, as if decades of camera-toting visitors had robbed them of their power.

Timbuktu—shorthand for back of beyond—is just as satisfyingly remote as you might hope, a dun-colored labyrinth on the edge of the Sahara. It’s been a bad couple of years for Timbuktu, though. There’s the global financial crisis—getting to northern Mali is neither easy nor cheap. Worse, Colombian cartels now ship drugs to Europe via West Africa, and Timbuktu, at the crossroads where Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania meet, is a prime spot on the smugglers’ route. There is also the regional Al Qaeda franchise, which has set up camp in the lawless deserts north of the city. They’ve kidnapped or killed both Westerners and locals. Just after New Year’s, a bomber hit the French embassy in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

Local friends tell me that much of the violence (such as the murder of a cop in the center of Timbuktu a couple of years ago) is just criminal score-settling, nothing political about it. Washington, D.C. appears to think otherwise. Special Forces teams are training the Malian army in counterinsurgency, along with the “hearts and minds” work of inoculating children and meeting with village elders. Indeed, the U.S. presence is small, but it’s noticeable. At the airport in Bamako, I watched an unmarked, narwhal-gray transport plane taxi to a stop the next runway over. The men who emerged had a distinctively American swagger, little flags on their flight suits.

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Unlimited Partnerships

unltd_scrnshtFirst there was Al Gore. Then there was Tony Blair. Next it’ll be … Kim Jong Il?

My new piece for San Francisco magazine plays off the mini-trend of world leaders teaming up with Silicon Valley venture capitalists to save the world and (ahem) make some money along the way. Herein, I imagine some more potential partnerships between the titans of tech and various heads of state:

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Intellectual Action Hero

burdick001If you follow the political game, you’ve probably heard of “dog-whistle politics.” That’s when politicians speak in code to their supporters–all of whom get the meaning even if outsiders don’t. Sarah Palin’s speech at CSU Stanislaus last week put me in mind of the dog whistle. Apparently, she discussed “the topic of teaching the next generation the civic lessons of protecting freedom and defending the American idea of liberty.” Sounds like conservative boilerplate, basically, and it is. But there’s a lot in that statement if you care to look. What her supporters hear is an affirmation of their worldview: of an America explicitly founded by Christians for Christians, of a low-tax, corporate-friendly, homogeneous nation that is free to do as it wishes on the world stage.

I mention all this because the subject of my new piece in California magazine had a keen ear for the dog whistle. Eugene Burdick was a Cal political scientist and a Hollywood screenwriter, a Navy man and a surfer, a public intellectual who hobnobbed with both Marlon Brando and JFK’s Whiz Kids. (His astonishingly varied resume suggested the title of the piece.) Burdick, who died in 1965, is mostly remembered today for his Cold War polemic, The Ugly American, which urged the US to adopt counterinsurgency tactics in Vietnam long before COIN was cool (COIN’s vogue over the last few years is in many ways a retread of 1960s-era thinking; so far, its lackluster results also echo that era.) Like so many liberals back then, Burdick was an ardent Cold Warrior, a “better dead than red” guy, and his writing reflects a mindset (one that’s admittedly difficult to conjure today) in which the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to our existence.

He was also, however, a preternaturally gifted political analyst, and his most interesting book wasn’t about foreign policy but about domestic politics. Published in 1956, The Ninth Wave combined surfing and California politics in what might you might call a dystopian potboiler. In some ways, the book is sort of a mess. It’s filled with clunky writing and reams of needless detail (apparently, he dictated his prose into a tape recorder, sans editing.) But the ideas–he was one of the first to see the ways in which opinion polling could be used to manipulate fearful voters–are eerily up-to-date.

Burdick’s main character, an amoral political consultant (and surfer) from L.A. named Mike Freesmith, cracks the code of the modern election campaign. Using the nascent science of computer-aided opinion polling, he slices-and-dices the electorate into easily manipulated blocs, then jacks up the fear and hate quotient to put his demagogic candidate on the road to the governor’s office. When asked what his secret is, Freesmith sounds depressingly au courant: “You scare them into voting for your man.”

You can read the whole thing here.

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Strange Renderings

This month’s issue of California runs my profile of Trevor Paglen, an artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who deals in exploring “the limits of what we can know,” as he put it to me one day. This broad category takes in everything from investigations of California’s vast prison network to gorgeous photos of “dead” satellites orbiting the earth. He’s played in a noise band (as one music blogger described the sound: “Has a band ever made you want to take a shit? Like involuntarily?”); he went toe-to-toe with Colbert; and he’s founded his own branch of geography, called experimental geography. Paglen specializes, however, in working the seam line between our government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Here’s the beginning of the piece:

The light is fading on a bitter-cold December afternoon in Berkeley, and Trevor Paglen is talking about spy satellites. Specifically, he’s explaining how hard it is to photograph them–not just because our government doesn’t want us to know they’re there but also because they’re a long way away. “You’re basically trying to shoot something the size of a car on the other side of the Earth, but actually it’s even farther,” he says, his words dissolving into a machine-gun laugh. Then, dissatisfied with the imprecision of his statement, he says, “Wait, you know what the diameter of the Earth is?” He’s silent for a minute as he pulls out his iPhone and searches the Web, and then: “Yeah, it’s 8,000 miles, so that would be … ” He trails off again, running the calculations in his head. “Yeah, shooting something a little bigger than a car but from a distance of three times further than China.” Another rapid-fire laugh. “It’s far away.”

Check out the rest of the piece.

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Midan Hussein

457878689_5a9f97b2fc_oThe news of a terrorist bombing outside Hussein Mosque in Cairo hit close to home. Back when I worked there, I spent a lot of time wandering the alleys of Islamic Cairo (as it’s sometimes called), a portion of the city so ancient that buildings from the 16th century are generally considered “new.” At the end of 2000, I was working on a photo project for grad school, and spending more or less all of my time down there. It was the month of Ramadan, and you’re not supposed to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset, so most people lie low during the day (it’s not uncommon to see office workers sleeping under their desks) and stay up for most of the night, eating a big meal at three or four in the morning. Midan Hussein, which is near both the famous Khan Al Khalili bazaar and a bunch of local markets, is always pretty busy. But on those Ramadan nights it just pulsed with life: every cafe was full, and huge banquet tables were set up in the square, overflowing with families celebrating the holidays. As a foreigner whose command of Arabic was limited to pleasantries and directions, I was humbled by the friendliness of virtually everybody I met (this was, of course, before George W. Bush took office–lots of people were actually excited about him, believing that he would follow his father, who was tougher on Israel than most recent presidents). People invited me to eat with them, plied me with tea, held their children out for my admiration; I remember a long, midnight conversation with a bunch of Islamist students from Tanta, the Egyptian Fresno. We talked about faith and TV shows.

All told, it was a peaceful time in Cairo. The government had pretty much crushed the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, going so far as to burn the fields in the Nile Valley to deny its enemies cover. But these things don’t so much die as simply burrow underground, only to reemerge later. Egypt is a dictatorship (witness the saidi soldiers on every street corner), and so long as that doesn’t change, nothing else will: its citizens will get poorer and angrier, and the insurgencies will reappear, just as brutal as ever. And yesterday the tourists in Midan Hussein paid the price.

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