Categories
Atlantic Monthly

Security Blanket

Originally appeared in the January/February 2009 Atlantic.

Mullah Masood Akhundzada, guardian of the Shrine of the Blessed Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, in Kandahar, is wary of guests. When his brother was the guardian, 13 years ago, he accepted an insistent visitor. Today, a youngster with a Kalashnikov shadows Mullah Masood around the shrine, just in case the visitor, Mullah Omar, or any of his friends return.

Categories
New Yorker

Policing Afghanistan

Originally appeared in The New Yorker.

Letter from Pashmul

An ethnic-minority force enters a Taliban stronghold.

In late 2007, in Pashmul, a tiny cluster of villages in southern Afghanistan, Muhammad Khan began his tenure as the police commander by torching all the hemp in a farmer’s field. Farmers in the area had grown plants up to seven feet tall, and, being teetotallers, like many Afghans, they smoked hashish constantly. Afghan soldiers and policemen in the area also smoked, to the exasperation of the NATO troops who were training them. But Khan wasn’t from Pashmul and he didn’t smoke. He ordered his men to set the harvest ablaze, moved upwind, then turned his back and left, with an expression of indifference.

Categories
Atlantic Monthly

An Air-Conditioned Nightmare

In Afghanistan, some soldiers are pampered. Should they be?

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD—Being on a big military base, even one in a relatively dangerous spot, can feel a bit like being on a cruise ship. Grand exertions are made to ensure comfort, and leisure is organized: basketball at six, bingo at 11. B-list celebrities, armed with camera-ready smiles, are on deck to shake your hand. The food is rich and plentiful, and cooked with the primary goal of not sickening anyone. And there’s no exit, other than jumping overboard, or over the concertina wire. Base life is, as Samuel Johnson might have said, like being in prison, with a chance of being mortared.

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New York Sun

Economics by Other Means

The New York Sun
April 16, 2008

To be an economist nowadays is to be a professional smartypants, gleeful in explaining away nearly everything everyone else does or cares about. Got a funny name? Ask an economist, not Mom and Dad. Worried about spotted owls? Check out this incentive structure. Think each “X-Men” movie is worse than the last? Have I got a regression for you. In recent years, as if to signal that they have exhausted the field of human behavior, economists have tried (and largely succeeded) to move on to other species and explain capuchin monkey behavior as well.

“Castles, Battles, and Bombs” (University of Chicago Press, 424 pages, $29), co-authored by an economist, Jurgen Brauer, and a historian, Hubert van Tuyll, purports to explain military history through economics. It examines seven key moments in the last thousand years of warfare — among them, the building of castles in the High Middle Ages, France’s decision to irradiate the South Pacific with costly nuclear testing during the Cold War, the role of private military contractors in the Italian Renaissance, and the bombing of Germany in World War II. These are all, the authors say, susceptible to economic analysis and elucidation. If economics can explain the behavior of capuchin monkeys, then surely it can explain the behavior of Frenchmen.

Categories
New York Sun

Why We Fight

The New York Sun

Review of Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory (Princeton University Press).

Violence is rarely what we expect it to be. “It was so new and senseless that we felt no pain, neither in body nor in spirit,” Primo Levi wrote of his first experience of Nazi brutality. “Only a profound amazement.”

Sociologist and amateur martial artist Randall Collins starts his wonderful, rambling book, “Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory” (Princeton University Press, 584 pages, $45), by pointing out that violence baffles us, and that it rarely resembles our imaginations, or what we see in films. Between individuals, combat often looks goofy and undignified, more slappy flailing than solid punches. For group violence, the saloon brawls in Westerns have taught us to expect bystanders to join in and smash chairs over each other’s backs; but in real life, bar patrons tend to back off from the melee, staring inertly.

Categories
New York Sun

Getting to the Very Roots of Genocide

The New York Sun

Review of Blood and Soil, by Ben Kiernan.

How much murder is too much? Ethnic cleansing is a crime, but what qualifies? Does slaughtering a village count, or do you have to lay waste to a larger polity, perhaps with some torture thrown in? How many people do you have to kill before graduating from mere mass murder to full-on genocide?

The legal answer, strangely enough, is zero. In Ben Kiernan’s “Blood and Soil” (Yale University Press, 606 pages, $40), a meticulous new study of this most slippery of criminal categories, he points out that the standard definitions of genocide — those offered by the U.N.’s Genocide Convention and International Criminal Court Statute — require not even a single death, or indeed any physical harm at all. In fact, the génocidaire need not even target a whole ethnic group. To win a place in the defendant’s chair — or a mention in Mr. Kiernan’s book — requires only the attempt to cause that group “serious mental damage.” The extermination of European Jewry counts, but so does a single British colonial officer’s efforts to take away an Australian aboriginal child from her parents, involving, as it did, the intent to “breed out the color.”

Categories
American

A Bout of Moral Ambiguity

The American (online)

Review of Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun.

Two journalists, in their new book, profile a key figure in the global arms trade.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of two Soviet technological triumphs: The maiden flight of the Antonov-12 transport plane in March 1957, and Sputnik’s launch the following October. Sputnik burned up in the atmosphere three months after its launch, but Antonovs—in many cases now patched with duct-tape and scrap metal—are still flying today. As one of the workhorses of the Soviet fleet, the An-12 has carried untold tons of cargo to remote airstrips where a daintier plane would have crunched its landing gear or smashed a propeller. Its wide loading-deck and rear door make it a favorite for carrying cars, passengers, and irregular cargo. But its most notorious payloads have been guns.