Graeme Wood


Signed, Sealed, Not Yet Delivered

It was a college crowd: young women with Kool Aid-dyed hair, mop-topped men in novelty bow-ties, kids wearing t-shirts that advertised ironic slogans (“Super Jew!”) and summer holidays to Angkor Wat — all grooving to “Big Yellow Taxi.” But it was also more. A scan of the seats revealed lots of normal people as well, including a robust and enthusiastic contingent of African-Americans, thrilled to be in an Obama coalition, and by all evidence grooving to the Joni Mitchell just as to the Motown.

The coalition looked broad and deep. It did not, however, look like America, or even North Carolina.

Obama boasts of bringing together a diverse group, an alliance from demographics that had never previously united. But in a state with few areas that have the vibrant diversity of an Obama rally, it felt like the campaign’s possible undoing, probably not by next week’s vote, but someday. The Chapel Hill senior who introduced Obama spoke of his having inspired her friend Hans, a Swedish exchange student, to volunteer. If all North Carolina voters were Swedish exchange students, or even people who have Swedish exchange students as friends, I’m sure the candidate will do fine. The Dean Dome was not a scene that I imagine would have comforted an electorate looking for a better version of something cherished and familiar.

In any case, between the strains of Stevie Wonder and the live band, Liquid Pleasure, there was an unfamiliar weariness in the air. Was it that Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” no longer seemed like an Obama song, but rather like one adopted by his opponent? Was it that all this music, while good, still felt like the stuff of entertainment, not of politics, and the groove of a liberal college town, not of the heartland? I felt a twinge of dread for the Obama campaign: no candidate ever got far with an iTunes playlist that resembled my own.

Originally appeared at

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Birth of a Nation

The south of Iraq is dominated by prickly and humorless factions — groups often indifferent to the perceptions of outsiders, and rarely willing to soften their image to soothe the nerves of the journalists who want to report on them. The north of Iraq presents the opposite problem: the Kurds are just so damned smooth, so endlessly accommodating, that a journalist has to keep his guard up to make sure he isn’t getting played. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Farewell to Arms

What could be more stirring than the sight of a few thousand Durban longshoremen standing up against one of Africa’s great despots? Consider me duly stirred. But this triumph of organized labor in South Africa has a worrisome side as well.

The dockworkers’ refusal to unload the weapons earned them the solidarity of South Africa’s truckers, then its Anglican archbishop, and finally its High Court, which sent the An Yue Jiang back to China. What’s alarming is that the High Court would likely never have been asked to rule on the issue had it not attracted so much international attention. The reason: the shipment was probably legal. Its bill of lading, “leaked” last week to South African media, concealed neither its cargo nor its destination. One can’t be sure what the Zimbabwean Ministry of Defense intended to do with the three million rounds of AK-47 ammo and thousands of rockets and mortars, but it can’t have been good. However, the Chinese and Zimbabweans were open about their cargo, and it appears that they followed all necessary protocols to send it along.

Shipping agents load and unload the machinery of death all the time — think not only of arms shipments, but also, if you want to be green about it, mining equipment that will almost certainly help poison streams and destroy villages. With few exceptions, the shipping agents send them along and allow countries’ own customs departments decide what should or shouldn’t be allowed in. The Durban longshoremen are essentially policing their customers in lieu of a morally adequate customs force in China, South Africa, or Zimbabwe. The unions’ diligence is admirable in this case, but it sets a dubious precedent.

The job of spotting wicked shipments should belong to customs agents, not to the moral whims of private individuals or unions (who, by the way, always have a stake in the deal). Viktor Bout, the arms-dealing sociopath alleged to have supplied weapons to almost every conflict in Africa, has a point when he says that he is just a taxi driver: no one expects a taxi driver to scrutinize his fare and decide whether he’s on a morally righteous outing. Likewise, we’d be enraged if postmen expressed their political preference by refusing to carry letters with RNC return addresses. True, there are strict laws that criminalize mail fraud. But it’s not the postman’s job to find the mail fraud: he’s there to deliver the mail, without prejudice.

In extreme cases — this is one — we do want shipping agents to exercise their judgment. We’d be even more enraged if the taxi driver unquestioningly drove a man with a ski mask and assault rifle to the local pre-school. But these extreme cases are exceptions, not models. One can imagine a (very fickle and inefficient) system in which private logistics companies are expected to scrutinize their cargo, and to eat the costs of carrying shipments that a transiting country’s dockworkers collectively decide to reject. Perhaps that would cause the price of odious shipments to rise — not an unwelcome development, and maybe a bit like “odious debt.” But for now, as long as I’m unsure whether those private moral policemen would be a courageous South African union or Viktor Bout, it’s still safer to put the authority, as well as the moral burden, with the countries of the shippers, consignees, and their ports of transit. Longshoremen bear enough burdens already.

Originally appeared at

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Muqtada’s Victory

Four years ago last week, the subcommander of an armed faction in Iraq appeared in a grainy video — shot somewhere in Baghdad and distributed to Western journalists — and vowed to kill the leader of a rival group. Today that subcommander is alive but forgotten, and his rival, Muqtada al-Sadr, is one of the most powerful figures in the country. The forgotten subcommander, of course, is Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the three-star whose command of Coalition forces in Iraq lasted a scant two months after he issued the kill order on Sadr. The contrast between Sadr’s massive public rallies and Sanchez’s furtive low-fi video should have given a clue as to how high young Sadr would rise. Read the rest of this entry »

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Steak Without Cow

PETA’s million-dollar prize is an occasion for irony — delicious or repulsive, depending on one’s perspective. About a decade ago, an urban legend claimed that the government had barred Kentucky Fried Chicken from calling its food “chicken,” because it used genetically modified Frankenbirds, brainless and grown in jars, that bore no resemblance to chicken or poultry of any kind. That supposedly explained the rebranding of Kentucky Fried Chicken as “KFC” — a government demand for truth in advertising. Needless to say, this idiotic myth contained not even a grain of truth. KFC continued to use real chickens, and to abuse them wantonly in the production process. PETA noticed and launched a campaign, “Kentucky Fried Cruelty,” to draw attention to KFC’s brutal methods. Now PETA’s prize suggests the organization wishes the urban legend had been true from the start. One looks forward to clever PETA graphics featuring Colonel Sanders in a lab-coat, instead of bloodstained and sporting devil-horns. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Mennonite and the Mammonite

The Weekly Standard, 04/21/2008, Volume 013, Issue 30

Something’s strange about Sunday-morning service at Raíces, the biggest Mennonite church in Paraguay’s capital city. The pastor leads worship in Spanish, not the traditional German. A girl in the congregation wears spaghetti straps and has a dragon tattoo on her shoulder. Those electric guitars don’t seem very traditional, either. Why are two guys in the back pew packing heat? Read the rest of this entry »

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The roadside bomb is the signature weapon of the Iraq war, but measured purely by the man-hours of dread they inspire, rockets and mortars easily have it beat. Roadside bombs kill soldiers only when they’re on the road. But indirect fire can hit U.S. bases at any hour, in any place, and with little warning. (Some bases have red-alert sirens, which usually crank up only after the attack has started and are therefore widely ignored.) The homey comforts of the bases — rich food, well-stocked stores, fast-food restaurants — only increase the psychological stress, since they make death a constant presence during what otherwise feels like your safest moments. That war-zone Whopper tastes a lot less like comfort-food when you know each bite could be your last.

The effect of these new weapons is to rob U.S. soldiers of one small consolation: Whereas rockets that use a point-detonated fuze (an object on the nose of the rocket that causes it to blow up when it hits its target) often don’t explode when they land in bases, these new fuzes rely on radio-frequency detonation and probably produce fewer duds. And when the fuze activates, the rocket explodes a few meters above the ground, rather than on the ground — creating a wider and more deadly kill-radius.

Although these fuzes could, if used correctly, substantially reduce the security of American soldiers, there is good news. First, the leaked document says U.S. forces found the proximity-fuze weapons in February 2006. It has been a long time since then, and the casualty rate from mortars does not, from anecdotal reports, seem to have increased much, if at all. The second, more interesting bit of good news is that the mortars that do land are not always targeted precisely. A properly trained mortar team can be miles away and drop a mortar in an area the size of my office. The Green Zone, site of much of the civilian government, is well-mapped, and mortars do rain down in tight clusters there. But on military bases — where photography and maps are prohibited — they land much less precisely.

The leaked report, classified as secret, wasn’t even sure whether the insurgents knew their new fuzes were better than the ones they had been using. Judging by the middling skill with which they’ve been lobbing the rockets in so far, it’s quite possible the insurgents are as clueless as the report hopes. But even if they are, it’s a scandal that at this late stage in the war they’re able to shoot mortars and rockets into U.S. bases so easily, rattling nerves even when they toss in a poorly-aimed dud.

Originally appeared at

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Capital Gains

Before this morning’s arguments on whether Louisiana can execute Patrick Kennedy’ the Chief Justice read an opinion that must have made the condemned man’s lawyers’ hearts sink. In what might give a signal, however faint, of the Court’s disposition toward capital punishment, John Roberts delivered a judgment that roundly rejected the claim by two Kentucky death-row inmates that lethal injection would be a cruel way to kill them, and therefore prohibited under the Eighth amendment to the Constitution. A healthy majority of 7-2 sided against the inmates. And on a Court that thinks pumping a man full of toxic chemicals is not likely to cause a “‘substantial’ or ‘objectively intolerable’ risk of serious harm,” Kennedy could not expect a great deal of compassion. Read the rest of this entry »

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