Monday, July 26, 2010

The Effects of the Afghan War Diary

The release of the Afghan War Diary has sparked a great deal of discussion, and rightly so. The Diary consists of over 90,000 internal US military documents, from 2004 to the present. The scale of the leak has prompted comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which helped bring about the end of the War in Vietnam. Three kinds of comparisons can be made: the actual content, the reactions of the respective administrations to the leaks, and their effects on their respective wars.

In terms of content, there's really no comparison. The Afghan War Diary is nearly 190,000 pages longer, and consists mainly of low-level (though still top secret) tactical and field reports, documenting casualties, details of operations, etc. And, since they start in 2004, they do not provide details from the first three years of operations. The Pentagon Papers, on the other hand, were a detailed high-level study of Vietnam, its history going back to 1947, and the geopolitical benefits of the US having access to markets and resources there.

In terms of reaction, the Nixon administration tried to censor the New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers, a case in which Judge Gurfein ended up ruling in favor of the defendant. A book was published by Bantam Books, and the Papers were read by Senator Mike Gravel into the public record. Secretary of Defense Henry Kissinger characterized Ellsberg as "the most dangerous man in America", because his actions threatened national security.

So far, the Obama administration's attempts at damage control have taken two forms, suggesting that there is some level of administrative disarray in how to deal with this. The Washington Post summed up the first approach in an article headlined "White House, foreign allies downplay impact of classified document leak." The article quotes an unidentified "U.S. official" who said that "...there is not a lot new here." Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, Mohammed Sadiq, is quoted as saying "These allegations are always repeated ... I see nothing new." Wahid Omar, spokesman for Hamid Karzai, said "...most of this is not new."

The other approach warrants some comparison to the Pentagon Papers ordeal, and was expressed by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who called the leak "a breach of federal law", and warned that it may threaten national and operational security, and that of our allies. This point of view can currently be heard all over national radio and television, as experts debate whether or not having the documents available is a good thing. Unfortunately, this argument functions primarily to turn the general population against whistle-blowers and their actions, and to dissuade the population from "threatening national security" by reading parts of the Diary and making up their own minds. The possibility of the threat to our security is irrelevant, since nothing can be done now.

The Afghan War Diary may not provide evidence of the US's precise geopolitical goals of the War in Afghanistan, but it reveals that the US military has killed many Afghan civilians that it has not reported. Perhaps a more accurate body count can be established. The Diary also illustrates the extent to which the ISI (the Pakistani equivalent to the CIA) has been supplying and funding the Afghan insurgency against NATO occupation; incidentally, the US has provided tens of billions of dollars to fund the Pakistani government since 2001, in the fight against terrorism. The inconsistency here is astounding, and will hopefully be the focus of a great deal of investigation.

As for the effect on the Vietnam War, The Pentagon Papers showed that four administrations (Republican and Democrat) of American rulers had lied to the public about the objectives for the War in Vietnam. This generated a large amount of popular skepticism, and provided critical political leverage in bringing the Vietnam War to an end four years later. More generally, the Papers gave a much-needed view into actual United States foreign policy, including information on secret wars that were being conducted in next door in Cambodia and Laos.

The effect that the Afghan War Diary will have on the outcome of the War is up to us. If the documents really are old news, then they will be of little use to our opponents. The news about ISI funding of insurgents exposes either the tremendous hypocrisy or utter incompetence of the US Department of Defense, and as such provides some much-needed tactical leverage against the war. But even more crucially, the death tolls revealed in the Diary should lead to an increased moral opposition to the war on the part of the general population. These two revelations may provide the necessary political pressure to withdraw our troops from the country, and bring them home to safety. (If we're really concerned with the safety of our troops, we ought to consider this option.) But this will only happen if we exert this pressure against the Obama administration, since they have made it clear that they're in it for the long run.

The bottom line is, these documents provide invaluable insight into the the War in Afghanistan. We can choose to listen to the pundits who want us to be afraid of facts, or to use these facts to inform our own opinions.

Read here:
http://wardiary.wikileaks.org/

Download here:
http://www.wikileaks.org/
afg-war-diary.html.7z: 74.5 mb
Uncompressed html files: 3.64 gb

Wikileaks has a lot of traffic. If it won't load, download the Diary here:
http://www.mediafire.com/?vnhzsc9i8dk2qrs

(I have verified this 7z archive, I know it works. If you receive an error message, try decompressing with a different program.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sermon on Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995)

In November 2009, I delivered the following sermon at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor. We commemorated the life of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. In preparation, Rev. Reid Hamilton and I selected Matthew 5:10-16, Micah 3:9-12 and Psalm 37:1-18. Unfortunately I don't have footnotes yet. If you have questions or would like some sources for my info, please get in touch with me.

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I love and hate learning about the world. I love it because the more I know, the less I take for granted. I feel more connected with the world around me when I learn about history. I’m sure you all know the feeling.
On the other hand, I hate learning about the world because more often than not, when I take a closer look, I am profoundly disappointed with what I find. You all know this feeling when you hear about something like the use of child labor on Michigan blueberry farms, or the genocide of the Native Americans in the wake of Westward expansion. These are not pretty stories, and they bring up some very difficult questions about our own lives. If I bought blueberries from that farm, how much of my money contributed to the perpetuation of their employment of seven-year-old children? Did the children want to work, or were they being exploited? We are living on land that was taken from the Native Americans; what does this mean for “America” the concept? What does this mean for my relationship to this land and our society? Is it really morally acceptable to ignore our country’s past and continue going about my business, even if my “business” involves moral actions in the present?
I could come up with answers to these questions, but they would be far from complete and final. These questions are far more complex than we may want to admit. World issues seem to be fractal in nature: patterns of elegant simplicity and infinite complexity. As a “preacher”, I feel that it is my responsibility to give you some facts about our saint today, and the connections that I feel it has to our lives. Perhaps Jesus will even be in here somewhere. But how can I come up with a course of action for someone else, if I can’t even come up with one for myself?
Here at Canterbury House, when dealing with saints, we try to combine the specific with the universal. Blending the two can be particularly challenging with saints from hundreds of years ago, as the political, religious and social landscapes are often quite foreign to us. But exploring the historical context helps to bolster the human factor of whatever universal lesson we draw. As John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island.” I’m reminded of Constance, the 19th century American nun who stayed in Memphis to comfort ailing victims of Yellow Fever. Learning about selflessness as an abstract thing is all well and good, but to see how beautiful and tragic it can be in practice is beyond words. It’s the same as the difference between the seeing a photograph of the Swiss Alps and seeing them in person … or walking on them. Fortunately, Ken Saro-Wiwa is not a symbol representing the distant past. We do need to dive a bit into the past, but we hardly need to bend over backwards to connect his life to our own.
If we were to postulate about the resources around which our society (not just American) is most oriented, oil would be pretty high on the list. The number of products which require oil is staggering: tires, paints, plastics, polyfibers, waxes, polish, asphalt, CDs and vinyl records… Because we take such products for granted, it makes sense to investigate where the raw materials come from.
One of the largest oil reserves in the world is found off the coast of southern Nigeria, in a region called the Niger Delta. The last 50 years of Nigeria’s history have been tumultuous, and deserve far more attention then can be given here, but this will have to do for now. After Nigeria declared independence from the British Empire in 1960, the country was split into three states, which were determined more or less along tribal lines. These states were to cooperate within a coalition government. To the north were the Hausa-Fulani; to the southwest the Yoruba; and to the southeast were the Igbo.
The cultures of these three states were very different. The Hausa-Fulani were controlled by an Islamic autocracy of Emirs and a Sultan; the resulting society was based power and wealth that was inherited, rather than acquired. The society of the Yoruba was considerably freer. Traditional religions and customs were permitted by the governing oligarchy of tribal elders, which offset the power of the centralized monarch. By comparison, the Igbo were the most free. Villages functioned independently of any centralized authority. Within the villages, decisions were made by general assembly, rather than by monarchal decree.
Oil was discovered off the coast of the Niger Delta in 1958, which was part of the southeastern Igbo province. The three parties fought for political power over the region throughout the 1960’s. When diplomacy failed, there were a coups, counter-coups, and assassinations. In 1967, the Igbo state seceded from Nigeria and declared itself the Republic of Biafra. After three years of famine brought on by sanctions and military blockades, the republic was reabsorbed back into the Nigerian whole. Since then Nigeria has largely been under the control of a various military juntas. 80% of the funding for these governments comes from oil profits.
The Niger Delta has become a surreal wasteland. Particularly hard-hit was a region called Ogoniland, the homeland of the Ogoni people. Many sources of fresh water became polluted by industrial waste and oil spills. Others have mixed with salt water coming from canals dug by the oil companies. Either way, it is undrinkable. This pollution effects fishing and agriculture adversely as well. Air pollution has rendered the rain largely acidic. Large plumes of burning gas, some of which have burning for decades, light up the night sky. Oil pipelines were installed across Ogoni land without permission or warning. Little to no compensation was ever offered to the Ogoni people for the use of their land.
In 1990 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People was formed, with playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa as its president. A MOSOP Bill of Rights was written, and peaceful protests were organized. Saro-Wiwa was a charismatic and popular figure, and under his leadership the MOSOP was able to organize a protest of 300,000 people in January 1993. This was approximately 60% of the Ogoni population.
In May 1994, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were detained for allegedly inciting the murder of four Ogoni chiefs. The chiefs were murdered in Gokana, while Saro-Wiwa was in police custody in a distant town. This, coupled with his consistent policy of non-violence in MOSOP, provides strong evidence against his involvement in the murders. He was held for 8 months and finally charged in January 1995. During his tribunal, the Nigerian government invoked a decree that forbade the questioning of the tribunal’s decisions. The defense didn’t stand a chance. Ten days later, Wiwa and the eight others were hanged.
In terms of privilege and opportunity, we live in the uppermost echelon of the human race. We all reap the benefits of a global economic system that is dedicated to providing people like us with what we want, when we choose to pay for it. We have influence over this system, what it provides, and how it provides it. But it would be all too easy to use this opportunity to preach as a platform to call for a boycott on Shell, Chevron, or some other company. There are plenty of movements in America with such goals. If you’re interested, do check them out. Besides, Shell pulled out of Nigeria in the mid 1990’s. Perhaps there are smaller oil companies that operate with more ethical standards than the big guys. If they do exist, it would seem that the morally preferable option would be to vote with your wallet: support those companies rather than the big ones, just like shopping at a food coop instead of at Walmart. But there’s a larger issue at work.
It just so happens that oil products and byproducts are causing a great deal of harm to our environment. If they end up in the ground, they take hundreds of years to biodegrade. If they end up in the air, they contribute to the greenhouse effect. They adversely affect our planet. Now every time I fill up my gas tank, I feel guilty for not having the guts to rearrange my life so I don’t need gasoline. The Maldives is not just trying to create a spectacle when they hold a cabinet meeting, underwater, in scuba gear. They’re worried about their country being flooded, and they’re far from the only ones. In short, global warming is a moral issue.
Maybe if Mike Bloomberg started holding New York City council meetings in the East River with the same symbolic purpose, the powers that be would be taking this issue a bit more seriously. In the mean time, reducing our level of oil consumption, possibly completely boycotting all oil based products, would bring about a tectonic shift in the global marketplace. Perhaps this is a more reliable alternative to waiting for our governments to sign legislation that set long-term emissions reductions.
However, then another issue enters play. A prime complaint from the Ogoni people is not that the oil was being taken from Ogoni land, but that the oil money is being used to fund a corrupt non-democratic government, rather than being given to the people themselves. (A study of Igbo labor would be helpful here.) If the demand for oil suddenly drops, there will be no money for the Ogoni people, and hundreds of other exploited indigenous peoples, to have. In a somewhat roundabout way, our boycott could risk letting Shell and Chevron off the hook.
So what do we do about this? From the situation I’ve described, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. But there is a solution. There must be. I certainly have no idea what it is. But I believe that there is a solution. Some people call that solution God, some call it fate, some have other names. I don’t know what I call it, but I feel it has something to do with the fractal model that I think applies to world affairs. We can never know everything about everything in every human being’s head (much less in our own!) But the more we learn, the more informed decisions we can make. And we then have the responsibility to actually make those decisions, not just think about making them.
I’m not trying to say we’re responsible for Saro-Wiwa’s death because we buy Shell gasoline. If world affairs are too complex to assign distinct solutions, they’re certainly too complex to assign blame. And I don’t even mean to sound pessimistic. It would be too easy to spiral into depression. We have to keep trying. Finding the silver lining on the cloud of human depravity is a never ending quest. Be optimistic. There’s plenty to feel good about amongst the bad things. Human beings have accomplished great things, and we will accomplish many more. We all need each other, and correct our mistakes when we become aware of them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Jazz and Divinity

Recently I was asked by Rev. George Lambrides, Executive Director of the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County, to write some cursory notes about divinity and jazz. These notes were delivered at an IRT fundraiser concert on March 23, 2010. What follows is a more fleshed-out version of these notes.

This article will address the utility of jazz and improvised music in contemporary liturgy. In particular, I refer to its use as a central piece of the liturgy at Canterbury House (Episcopal student center for the University of Michigan) in Ann Arbor.

Strictly speaking, jazz is not inherently divine. It is played by many people for many different reasons, many of which are secular. Moreover, the reasons for considering such music to be a sacred part of one's life are also varied. Some offer their musical works as gifts to a deity, while some consider the very process of improvisation to be divinely inspired.

We must distinguish further by recognizing that only some jazz musicians feel the need to express their faith overtly: in song / album titles, liner notes, etc. And even then, very few jazz musicians dedicate all of their work to religious expression. Many will also deal with more secular or abstract matters. Lastly, it only makes sense to grant that for some jazz musicians, religious beliefs are a private matter.

Even after narrowing things down as we have done, there is still a large and varied body of overtly religious jazz music. Some mainstream examples are Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” and Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon”. While all such music is considered fair game at Canterbury House, we tend toward a more radical form of improvised music that emerged in the late 50’s and early 60’s. This style, known as free or avant-garde jazz, is highlighted by an openness for experimentation with form and timbre. We draw a thread from this musical openness, through social justice, to a theology of non-violent liberation (the sort espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.).

Let’s first establish the link between musical style and social justice. Free jazz came to prominence right around the time of a major social revolution in the United States: the Civil Rights Movement. There is much evidence to support a link between them, both in song titles and in overt statements of motivation, in the work of Sun Ra, Clifford Thornton, Archie Shepp, Grachan Moncur III, Charles Mingus, Horace Tapscott, and many others. During this same period, jazz musicians with activist interests began to organize themselves, resulting in groups such as the Jazz Composer’s Guild in New York City, Tribe in Detroit, the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, and the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago.

Continuing the thread through to a theology of social justice and liberation requires that we address the category of “overtly religious jazz music,” established above. Narrowing our focus to the decade of the 1960s, we find numerous examples. The most prevalent is probably John Coltrane, one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 1950's and 60's. By the late 50's, Coltrane had already garnered a reputation throughout the jazz community as a highly accomplished saxophonist, composer and bandleader. He had developed a compositional signature with harmonic devices like those employed in "Giant Steps", "Countdown", and "Moment's Notice", as well as in his reharmonizations of standards like Gershwin's "But Not For Me".

But by the early 1960's, his musical development was clearly continuing in another direction, toward simpler forms. Some results of this are his many modal compositions, like "India" and "Spiritual", as well as his adaptations of "My Favorite Things" and "Afro Blue". The composed material became less and less, leaving more room for taking improvisational liberties.

In the liner notes to the 1965 release of A Love Supreme, Coltrane eloquently expressed the spiritual motivations behind his music:

“This album is a humble offering to [God]. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May he help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor…”

After this, the line between modal and free improvisation became more and more vague. Within a year from the recording of ALS, atonality and free meter were used in his music. After ALS, many of his song titles reflected a continued deep religious commitment: “Amen” and “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” “Ascension”, “Peace On Earth”, “Offering”, and “Call Me By My Rightful Name”. Unfortunately, his music from this later period is often shunned by the mainstream jazz community, but it is tremendously rewarding for those who attempt to understand it.

I've spent much time on John Coltrane, but there are certainly other examples. John Coltrane’s wife and musical collaborator, Alice Coltrane, was also very religious, and this was expressed in her music. In 1975 she established a Vedantic Center in California, where she was the spiritual director. Albert Ayler is another important musician and composer in the free jazz continuum, who composed and recorded songs with titles like “Spirits Rejoice”, “Angels”, “Holy Family”, “Zion Hill” and “Holy Spirit”. These are among the most overtly religious musicians of the free jazz style, but many other musicians expressed a personal spirituality, at least occasionally (Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, etc.)

The free jazz of the 1960s is uniquely suited for Canterbury House’s worship and theology, which are based on radical inclusiveness and social justice. As we have seen, much of this music is expressly religious. All of it is deeply spiritual, beginning at least with the appreciation that improvised music necessarily depends on inspiration. Even music that is not explicitly religious (or composed by musicians expressly hostile to religion) is often appropriate in light of its social context. Moreover, it is music which we simply enjoy playing. We feel that playing such music in a religious setting is not out of place, as long as it is played with commitment and passion.

Published in Canterbury House News, April 2010. I will likely continue to make slight adjustments to it.

[last updated 5/8/10]