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Blood & Treasure Afghanistan: OUT, OUT, Damn Appendix!

— A Mostly Melodic Guide to Unanswered Afghanistan Questions —

Let’s All Sing: “We Don’t Need to Know What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, No, No, No, No!”

Our Musical Response to Those Irksome Burning SIGAR Questions

It is the job of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction[SIGAR] to report on how the USA has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in that long-suffering land.

And mispent a bloody enormous chunk of US taxpayer change, we’ve learned.

This, remarkably, because the energetic Congressionally-appointed SIGAR commissar John Sopko and his staff have proved a genuine pain in the ass to the normally utterly unaccountable US Department of Defense, American military, various corrupt private contractors, ineffective UN Agencies… and their political masters.

Missing guns, missing millions; more, much more, SIGAR reveals in its quarterly reports and other investigations. The US military is suffering terrible embarrassments report after report after report. How to address such problems? The new answer is clear as mud: stonewalling. The American commander in Afghanistan has suddenly classified all sorts of information [see the first page of Appendix E above], claiming that operational security is at risk. Example: we can’t be told the number of Afghan Government troops because … ah, the Taliban might decide to start a war?

Even the NY Times thinks this ridiculous… and if the “Gray Lady” moans, we know it must be well and truly off-the-scale WTF egregious!

Ridicule is what this stupidity and denial of our right to know of our government’s actions deserves: here is one wonderful response in a series of GIFs from Hayes Brown at Buzzfeed.

Taking off from that, we can also craft a musical response. A bit of online cabaret, if you will… so please scroll down for musical selections that lyrically address SIGAR questions that the US military warns are above our need-to-know paygrade as mere citizens. Have a glass of wine. Or a beer. Sing along if you like!

We ponder: will SIGAR be kept schtum? Tossed into the ashtray of history? Leaks will come, one expects. But with Obama’s war on whistleblowers still in full cry, expect that every device and every platform of anyone even remotely associated with SIGAR are now being monitored. You know who you are. So do they.

******

Any other tuneful suggestions? Please offer some of your own in the comments….

SIGAR Question:  “Please provide … information on Afghan National Army (ANA) strength as of December 29, 2014”

                      Musical response:  Darkness Stirs and Wakes Imagination 

“Music of the Night”

— Phantom of the Opera

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on DOD-funded ANA infrastructure projects, including the cumulative number of projects completed to date and their total cost.”

Musical response: Build it up with sticks and stones, sticks and stones… 

“London Bridge Is Falling Down”

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on U.S. efforts to equip the ANA using U.S. funds as of December 29, 2014″

Musical response:  Go on take the money and run

“Take the Money and Run”

— Steve Miller Band

SIGAR Question: “Please identify each type of aircraft in the [Afghan Air Force] inventory, the number of each; and of that number, the number not usable. Are there any aircraft purchased but not yet fielded?”

Musical response: You’ll never Never NEVER reach the sky…  

“Sky Pilot”

— Eric Burdon and the Animals

SIGAR Question:  “Please provide the status of the [Afghan National Security Forces’] medical/health care system as of December 29, 2014”

Musical response:  Tell me what you see, I hear their cries, Just say if it’s too late for me… 

Doctor My Eyes”

— Jackson Browne

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on U.S. efforts to equip the [Afghan National Police] using U.S. funds, as of December 29, 2014, including total number and cost of weapons and weapons-related equipment procured and fielded to date”

Musical response:  She’s not a girl who misses much I need a fix cause I’m going down..

“Happiness is a Warm Gun”

— Beatles

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details of DOD/NATO-funded contracts to provide literacy training to the ANSF, including the cost of the contract(s) and estimated cost(s) to complete”

Musical response:  Don’t know much about history…  

“What a Wonderful World It Would Be”

— Sam Cook

Any Musical Conclusions? Well…. YES!!! 

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right….  

“Stuck in the Middle with You”

— Stealers Wheel

SIGAR questions answered? No, and the burgeoning American Security Apparat is committed 24/7 to keep it that way.

Every single day, every word you say, I’ll be watching you…

“Every Breath You Take”

— The Police

The likelihood that this repressive foolishness will bring change?

Says WHO ???… Won’t what???  

OH FOX YES WE WILL!!!

And lest we forget… dedicated to the leaders who were asleep on their watch as we were attacked, failed to finish one war so they could launch a pointless other, and are unrepentant for condemning generations to conflict….

You’re a Lying, Cheating Bully, and your friends are lowlife too; You wake up every morning, just wondering who to screw…

“Lying Cheating Bully” *

— Rene Meijer and Friends

* Transparency Moment:

A note from the musical selection jury: the final number, “Lying, Cheating, Bully”, was written by me with my down-home dirty Dutch country-music brother Rene Meijer, and is featured on our award-winning album, Dashboard Jesus. The lyric at first read “and your friends are assholes, too”. We changed that to “lowlife” so the song could be on radio. But the original still plays in my mind.

Folks have more than a few times asked if the song was written about Dick & Dubya. No. It was inspired by a very real but much lesser local reprobate.

But as my from-somewhere-faraway great-grandpappy might have said, had I ever met him:

“If the boot fits, stick it in!”

 

Memorialization & Narrative: “Conflict-Time-Photography” at the Tate Modern

                        Memorialization & Narrative:                             “ConflictŸ-TimeŸ-Photography” at the Tate Modern, London

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Robert Capa’s oft-quoted maxim on conflict photography still shines as the diamond standard for most people shooting such images. Capa was certainly speaking to being physically very up close. His few surviving D-Day images, and his most famous [and contested] “Falling Soldier” photo of a Spanish Loyalist at the instant a bullet apparently felled him, testify to this.

So does most conflict photography that reaches wide audiences. It is typically of the “decisive moment”, often “viscerally visual”, intended to hit you in the guts and sometimes showing the same.

ConflictŸ-Time-ŸPhotography”, now on at the Tate Modern in London, offers a quite different approach. It is much more about how photographers can record memories of conflict—and craft narratives to embody them—than moments of violence themselves.

“From the seconds after a bomb is detonated to a former scene of battle years after a war has ended, this moving exhibition focuses on the passing of time,” the curators explain, its images “ordered according to how long after the event they were created from moments, days and weeks to decades later.”

Post the Decisive Moment

Nearly every image displayed distances us not only in time from acts of violence, but from its gory impact on living bodies. The first large photo is by Luc Delahaye: a broad and empty Afghan plain, smoke pluming at center just over a horizon of rising mountains. It is a powerful image. We know something has happened. Extreme violence has been visited on… an empty landscape, perhaps? Only in our imaginations may we conjure what such explosions would have done to people… were any there….

This separation from representation of the physical effects of violence on its victims and survivors runs through the exhibition. Even a copy of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 stunning and deeply discomfiting collection, WAR against WAR! [discussed here, with attendant horrific photos] is opened to one of the volume’s more innocuous images.

There are a few exceptions. Another Delahaye photo shows skeletal remains of people executed during the Spanish Civil War. Yet even these are literally bare bones, the cleanest of the long dead. There are no references to uses elsewhere of such bones; impressively formal ossuaries memorialize war and genocides from France to Cambodia to Rwanda. In other post-conflict areas, informal local memorials have been raised, as in Uganda in 1987 [see photo].

Something Happened Here

The preponderance of this exhibition’s images—and there are more than just photos—are thus recollections of conflict and its impact. A set of photos and models by Indre Serpytyte of houses in Lithuania once used as KGB interrogation centers depicts buildings whose “resolutely ordinary” appearance, she says, challenge us to recall them as “containers of memory” of the evils performed within. Here, as with some striking photos of Hiroshima, photography seems a therapeutic tool to help address individual and collective trauma of horrors past.

But some photos fail to convey clear connection to conflict. Landscapes and cityscapes [such as Berlin], utterly absent human form, seem to indicate little more than “conflict once happened here”. Jo Ratcliffe’s images in Angola’s capital Luanda signify nothing related to that country’s long, brutal—and now in memory for many receding—liberation struggle and ensuing civil war. They are interesting photos, but to Angola’s past conflicts essentially irrelevant—streets and markets and a rubbish tip like many in any number of developing countries where once there was war. Guatemala City, Kampala, Manila, I have seen, offer comparable scenes. Similarly, Stephen Shore’s closely observed lives of holocaust survivors in Ukraine tell us little save that [quite happily] these particular people are still alive. Their existence as witnessed in these photos is likely very much like their neighbors, who might also have suffered terribly the vicissitudes of World War II and the Soviet era.

Sophie Ritselhueber’s roomful of grand color prints offer varied perspectives of the scars and detritus of war in the Kuwaiti desert and better evidence of the impact of conflict. Also evocative are large and recent black and white prints of immense German fortifications in Normandy now tipped by time and tide onto beaches they were meant to defend; concrete memories that are quite literally disappearing, melting into the sea. And even more compelling are the exhibition’s closing photos, a set of images of places in France where during World War I soldiers were executed for desertion or perceived cowardice. From a series “Shot at Dawn” by Chloe Dewe Mathews, these moodily—dare we admit hauntingly?—capture the same time of day when those men were killed.

Iconic Faces of Fighters

Only a few fighters are on view. Very early on, one human face is prominent: Don McCullin’s rightly lauded 1968 iteration of the “two-thousand-yard stare”. It was made during a lull in intense urban combat in Hue, Vietnam.

The exhibition’s accompanying caption says such images are not possible today because of the system of “embedding” correspondents in military units. But they certainly are, for example this or this by the late Tim Hetherington while he and Sebastian Junger were embedded with US forces in Afghanistan. This sort of image embodies embedding’s intent to encourage emotional identification. It creates conditions for highly sympathetic portrayals of forces with which reporters are embedded; see Hetherington’s and Junger’s very human depiction of American fighters in the book War and their documentary Restrepo. Embedding’s core problem is that it limits correspondents’ intimate interaction to fighters on only one side of the conflict. But embedded reporters, unless censored, can also produce far less flattering images of the forces they travel with, as the late Chris Hondros did in Iraq.

Another of the exhibition’s rare combatants is found in Susan Meiselas’s 1979 photo of a Sandinista fighter launching a firebomb. It demonstrates how an image can be appropriated to support a particular memory and narrative of a conflict: this used as emblematic of heroic resistance, appearing In Nicaragua as graffiti, on t-shirts, as posters supporting Sandinista politicos—and sometimes elsewhere as an iconic and now decontextualized image much like the omnipresent “Che-chic”.

Meiselas’s photos certainly were close, in time and space, to the fight. It is the sort of reportage needed for news, supplying information that people require to reckon the conduct, costs, and consequences of current conflicts. Offering the public at least the opportunity to witness the impact of conflict is an immensely important public service, especially to citizens of democracies in whose name blood is spilt and treasure spent—even if some commentators despair of even terribly graphic images’ efficacy in averting future conflicts.

Look Back in Trauma

Robert Capa, and later Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, produced remarkable images of people engaged in or affected by violent conflict. Each died while getting [sorrowfully, too] close to intense but ephemeral moments of combat. But again, it is not the intent of “ConflictŸ-Time-ŸPhotography” curators Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian to show us this. The exhibition’s starting point is as the bang-bang of conflict photojournalism fades to echo. It opens with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, who said of the 23 years it took him to produce Slaughterhouse-Five, his novel about the 1945 firebombing of Dresden that he survived as a prisoner-of-war: “People are not supposed to look back.”

Yet we of course do. As Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim found, looking back on conflict can be deeply traumatizing—and this for journalists as much as anyone. And as an American Iraq combat veteran wrote in a new book on post-traumatic stress, “The war happened in collections of seconds, but the memories of it echoed forever.” The exhibition depicts this “forever”, processes through which a myriad of post-conflict photographers have sought to interpret past violence, reconstructing and recording memories, crafting new visual narratives and proximities of remembrance that shape our understanding of what, perhaps, happened. ###

Further reading:

A very useful slideshow and commentary from the Guardian.

Reviews from the Guardian, the FT, and Daily Telegraph.

Susan Sontag’s masterful 2002 essay “Looking At War”.

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Addendum, 21 January 2015

The Archive of Modern Conflict

A side room to the exhibit reveals a quite separate and utterly different display by the privately-owned, London-based Archive of Modern Conflict [AMC]. One is greeted by series of 15-foot high photos of “warriors”, ranging from a very sepia 1920 Gold Coast [now Ghana] Horseman to a 1950 female member of the US Navy in fluoride bright dress whites. Inside is an ambitious—or perhaps just amiably ambiguous—mélange of photos and objects related to sundry conflicts. AMC says its exhibit “explores the psyche of conflict”. And like a psyche in conflict, it is all over the place. Eclectic is an understatement. Even eccentric, perhaps—and certainly, wonderfully, fascinating.

There is more than just a scent of the well-ordered anarchy of Oxford’s magnificent Pitt-Rivers Museum here. On the AMC books website, a few pages offered from the stand-alone catalogue of the AMC exhibition, A Guide for the Protection of the Public in Peacetimegive just a taste of its vast appetites. There are ephemera: a World War II flyer on how to use your “fat ration”; newspaper clippings; posters. There are interesting objects: a cabinet filled with 70-odd examples of horseshoes from the days of caissons and cavalry; a colorful New Guinea shield; a German stick hand grenade [presumably rendered  harmless, but guarded still by a sign imploring ‘Do Not Touch’!]. There are many photographs: early aerial reconnaissance photos of World War I trenches; a picture of Miss Naval Aviation 1957, Maureen O’Hara; an almost hidden Robert Capa showing US paratroops preparing to drop on Germany; facing each other across the room—perhaps suitably—portraits of Native American Lakota leaders Running Antelope and the less poetically-named Low Dog. Hugely, one wall is covered with a comic book poster of the Cuban Revolution. There is much, much more….

AMC proclaims it is presenting “the landscapes of war as viewed by those co-opted, blighted, disrupted, demented, excited, uplifted, corrupted, dumbfounded and unbalanced by its process.”

And overwhelmed, surely. I bet that would be about all of us. ###

 

BH/CH/ADHD: Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention

BH/CH/ADHD:

Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention

 

“One Dead in London, Ten in Paris, 1,000 in India.”

So goes the apocryphal rendition of traditional British News Values.*

It offers a good launching point to address why the terrible 07 January Charlie Hebdo [CH] murders received massively hyperactive global media attention, while horrific killings by Boko Haram [BH] in the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga in the days before suffered grave global media attention deficit. Several “proximites” and other factors driving media coverage help explain.

As in real estate, the first focus of media is nearly always location. Usually, physical proximity to a news event matters most of all. Paris is far closer to London than is Baga, and to New York by travel time. This is common fare, from the vaunted BBC to your hyper-local rag. Muggings in our own neighborhood are more troubling than murders across town. Floodwaters on your street are greater concern right now than global warming’s softly rising seas. And when the enemy appears on our doorstep, we are well and truly alarmed.

Other sorts of proximity are also powerful, both for audiences and for those who generate and disseminate news—mostly based and/or working for corporate-owned media outlets in the major metropoles. These include security, cultural norms, economic, religious/racial/ethnic, and professional proximities.

On all these drivers of media coverage, CH/Paris trumps BH/Baga. Here, a brief survey:

  • Security—The attack in Paris is one that might be replicated in any major city/ The assault on Baga was on the margins of a troubled country in the “faraway”.
  • Norms—Physical assault on media workers has become taboo inside western countries/ The Baga atrocities are part of a too-familiar pattern in Nigeria.
  • Economic—The economic costs of urban terrorism’s effects on commerce and tourism are similar across major metropoles/ The economic impact of the Baga horror in Europe is arguably nil.
  • Religious/Racial/Ethnic —Western audiences’ ethnic and religious identification with the CH victims is clear/ Identification with BH victims is only on a generalized human connection.
  • Media Professionals—The targets in the CH attacks were journalists; nearly every journalist anywhere feels such an attack viscerally/ Baga was just another [very terrible] story as BH perpetrated [another] remote massacre “somewhere in Africa”.

Inattentiveness and Hyperactivity

“Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),” Britain’s National Health Service informs us, “can be categorised into two sets of behavioural problems… Inattentiveness [and] hyperactivity and impulsiveness.”

And we do see these symptoms in the hyperactive CH/Paris coverage and BH/Baga attention deficit [evidenced in coverage measured in an excellent piece by Ethan Zuckerman here]. These are partially the result of the proximities described above. A few other factors can be quickly, if not thoroughly, noted here: access to the conflict, communications, narrative resonance, telegenics, and official agendas:

  • Access—Paris is easily and safely accessible to major world media/ BH has attacked journalists and Baga is a long and now dangerous journey even from Nigeria’s media capital, Lagos. And absent access, establishing facts and telling a human story is almost impossible. As the BBC noted: “It won’t be the first time we are not sure if 150, 300, 500 or even 2,000 people were killed in a massacre in Nigeria.”
  • Communications—Paris of course has excellent communications; witness the row of satellite trucks as tweeted by the BBC’s @ImeldaFlattery at the massive march on 11 January/ Baga is now nearly cut off, with even mobile communications severely disrupted.
  • Narrative Resonance—The CH/Paris story is one told with the narrative simplicity of a plain good/evil morality tale: Islamists murder Champions of Freedom of Expression, and the simple solidarity of “Je suis Charlie”/ BH/Baga is fraught with doubts about official competence and perhaps collusion in the killings. Even some of the scant coverage was only to reinforce the notion of a greater Islamist threat.
  • Telegenics—Video of the execution of policemen Ahmed Merabet was as enormously shocking as the “Je suis Charlie” march was  telegenic; both reinforced the dominant narrative/ Images from Baga were unavailable.
  • Official agendas—Global officialdom at the highest levels rallied to denounce the “unprecedented” CH/Paris murders [no matter how stained they might themselves be with journalists’ blood], responding to and reinforcing media hyperactivity/ The BH/Baga calamity garnered scant high level attention, remarkably even within Nigeria, seen merely as a [bloodier] continuation of a series of unfortunate events in that country.

Two other factors absent in this context can compel massive media coverage. One is celebrity involvement. Princess Di made us care a bit about landmines. George Clooney briefly branded burning Darfur onto the media agenda. The animal magnetism of elephants, dolphins and loyal hounds also command attention. Combining the two, as I wrote of Paris Hilton’s alleged engagement with drunken elephants, can brew a hyperactive media storm.

Ownership also matters deeply. Most news production is still driven by Western-owned media corporations that represent and report to audiences that feel their values and perhaps their lives are directly threatened by the CH/Paris attacks. Hyperactive—and occasionally hyper-sensational and impulsively Islamophobic coverage—was the rule. Fear, justified or not, sells.

A rough schema summarizing the effect of proximity and further factors above on BH/Baga and CH/Paris coverage is offered in the sidebar.

As Years Go By: On the Record… Not the Agenda

Yet there was reporting of Boko Haram and Baga to be found by any careful reader, albeit far, far less than that of Charlie Hebdo, for the several reasons laid out above. The terrible events from northeastern Nigeria were on the public record, but then and to date lacking intensive coverage required to raise them to the public agenda.

And a quick note on another proximity: chronological. Early next January, extensive and solemn reflection and prognostication will build as the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo murders nears; on 07 January 2016, it will again dominate global news.

One year on, the Baga massacre is unlikely to be recalled at all. Did we anywhere see mentioned previous outrages in the very same town, these allegedly by the Nigerian Army in April 2013? And where are the Chibok girls today, god or somebody please save them! The profound attention deficit of most Western media for a myriad of serious issues, and particulalry those not perceived of primary proximity to Western audiences and interests, will not soon abate. Baga—and Boko Haram, unless they are spectacularly incautious enough to attack on Western soil—are likely to remain, like most of Africa, in the exotic far faraway. ###

*Recounting his early training as a copy editor in his 2004 book, Grumpy Old Men: The Official Handbook, veteran British journalist Stewart Prebble recalled this newsroom formula: “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”  

 

Calling Chuck Norris

Or, “’Life doesn’t have to suck’: On Psy-Ops in Africa and How America Has Learned Abuse Is BAD.” Thomas R. Lansner’s take on a profile of America’s top “terrorist fighter” in Africa offers clear lessons on counterinsurgency, but inspires doubts that Chuck Norris is the best man for the job.

 

Joseph Kony is as elusive as he is murderous. He and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) followers have wreaked havoc across a vast swath of bush and forest covering the remotest corners of four African countries since launching a “holy war” in Uganda a quarter century ago. The Uganda Army’s endless pursuit, even with American special forces advisors over the past five years, seems… well… endless.

The Uganda field commander in these cross-border operations, Colonel Michael Kabango, complains that the hard men America has sent to help, are in fact, not so. Weanies, really, who require resupply of water every four days. “[T]hey actually slow us down,” he says. Their bush camp in southeastern Central African Republic—as we learn from the New York Times Magazine’s recent adoring profile of the boss of U.S. Special Operations forces in Africa, Brigadier General James B. Linder—has “an air-conditioned mess tent stocked with Red Bull, energy bars and a flat-screen TV tuned to CNN International.”

This raises the pressing question of who would ever haul an old fat-ass tube TV to the African bush, and whether the American special forces “operators” ever watch Al-Jazeera—but that we leave aside for now. Lessons [re]learned in insurgencies must be addressed.

With the campaign to kill or capture Kony yet to be rewarded with its trophy, his pursuers are ramping up psychological warfare against the remaining LRA fighters. One effort Colonel Kabango (interviewed outside the air con mess tent, where “tiger-striped butterflies darted through air filled with the scent of wild cucumber”…lovely!) appreciated was “fastening loudspeakers to airplanes and flying them over the jungle playing messages telling the guys to come home. Recently, six men defected after one such outing.”

“Quite simply, it’s marketing,” General Linder told the NYT. “You’re essentially teaching psy-ops marketing. The message is: ‘You don’t have to be L.R.A. War is over. Life doesn’t have to suck.’” Indeed! And how to make life not suck? We’ll return soon to what I will dub “Lansner’s Linder Lessons”… hard earned, no doubt, as Linder “has appeared on every significant battleground of the last 30 years,” the Times tells us, “Central and South America, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and Africa.” Every significant battleground? Ahhh… all of America’s significant—and far-flung—battlegrounds, that is….

Enter Chuck Norris

There have been a few near misses in the hunt for Joseph Kony and the decimated but still deadly remnants of his Lord’s Resistance Army [please see “Messianic Foes” here]. “In more than one raided camp,” US Kony hunt commander in Uganda Colonel Kevin Leahy told NYT reporter Eliza Griswold, “there were DVDs of Chuck Norris films.” Griswold apparently did not ask if there were flat screen TVs or movie nights at the abandoned camps, but intelligence on Kony’s movements is sketchy at best, anyway. Col. Leahy explains he has “reached out to Chuck Norris to create a ‘come home’ message” that could be broadcast to LRA fighters … or perhaps made into DVDs and dropped into the bush? It seems still in the concept stage, although the colonel sounded optimistic: “We’ve gotten some feedback from his agent.”

So, could “soft power” trump the guns, and America’s global pop culture dominance yield real-world gains? Surely a fine notion. And culture as transformative propaganda is not a new idea. Stalin regarded books as “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda,” The Atlantic recently reported, and the CIA seemed to agree; it smuggled millions of books into the Soviet Union, including works by Orwell and Pasternak’s banned Dr Zhivago.

This was in TV’s early days, long before DVDs or Internet, but at first blush Chuck Norris seems as appropriate to the action-loving LRA as Pasternak was to literature-hungry Russians. Yet, are we sure? Is there some chance that the massive and casual carnage that carries the 80s action movies the LRA favors was actually instructive? Cultural transference can be dangerously viral; only celluloid victims never feel real pain. Not that General Linder seems too interested in the finer details of ethnicity and local mores. “It’s not an anthropologist telling me about tribes and nomadic patterns,” he airily told the Times, “I’ve got Wikipedia for that. What I need is the operator.”

And a question for Colonel Leahy, before he troubles Chuck too much more. Think: the Chuck Norris DVDs were left behind! Not to make fun of Chuck, but maybe they were chucked intentionally. Is there compelling HUMINT [“human intelligence” to those unversed in what must be the basis of all good psy-ops] that Chuck is favored above Sylvester Stallone? Over Jet Li? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or Jean-Claude Van Damme? Or even Dolph Lundgren?? Maybe the LRA guerrillas, with recently-watered US commandos hot at their heels, risked all to save those action stars’ DVDs, discarding Chuck’s in the dust and detritus. This raises a point surely troubling to some that American soft power—“weapons of mass distraction”, as writer Matthew Fraser describes—may not be all so ubiquitous after all… for another discussion.

Perhaps some of the recent “defectors” (for gawdssake, let’s name them more psy-war sensitively as “returnees”!) could tell us. My utterly unsolicited suggestion is to show recent LRA returnees the 2012 film The Expendables 2 (although this—no joke here—leaves aside concerns that watching an action movie could inflame PTSD LRA returnees might be suffering.) They would pick from among the stellar cast of international action stars which should best be asked to make a “come home” appeal. Arnie, Chuck, Dolph, Jean-Claude, Li, Sly…? Most of the global action hero gang’s all there. Yes, this would exclude Mickey Rourke, who shined in the original The Expendables and was unjustly cut from the sequel… but this we could do safely, I think, leaving out also Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, who finally appeared with the resurgent Rourke only in The Expendables 3. The debate is joined. Comments are always welcome.

Lansner’s Linder Lessons

Now, last and very serious notes on the promised “Lansner’s Linder Lessons”—and how America has apparently discovered that abuse and economic injustice are BAD—as extrapolated from three quotes in the NYT article:

Quote 1: “One primary lesson learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, [General Linder] notes, is that if security forces abuse the local population, they alienate their best source of intelligence.” Too true. Think Abu Ghraib! Or the history of warfare.

So, Lansner’s Linder Lesson 1: An abused and disenfranchised population resents its oppressors, and lends support to a “legitimized resistance”… be it the LRA in its very early days, Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Iraq today… or the “good guys” of the Free Syrian Army.

Quote 2: “The tactics of special warfare can look quite a lot like those used by the Peace Corps, which arrived in Niger in 1962 and left in 2011 because of security concerns.” This is a way far stretch, so I will offer it as:

Lansner’s Linder Lesson 2: More equitable development can undermine extremism. Or even more pithily, as General Linder himself declared, “Life doesn’t have to suck,” … a quote that should be in Wikipedia.

To restate plainly: Respecting basic rights and providing a modicum of social and economic justice is a path to peace. Learning can be priceless, no?

Well, no; let’s name the price of America’s recent wars: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed; 7,000+ dead American soldiers; trillions of dollars flushed in a cesspit of hubris, dismissing history and painfully “re-learning” simple and self-evident lessons.

We do hope that Chuck or one of his action-hero brethren can soon help convince the LRA to come home. Or that Boko Haram can be persuaded by some similar ploy [Nollywood, anyone?] to #BringBackOurGirls. Action-hero brethren?  Yes. Angelina, even as Lara Croft or Evelyn Salt, won’t do, especially after her recent real-life hero turn in #timetoact.

But I’ll still wager my pension that applying Lansner’s Linder Lessons 1 and 2—not abusing, and working to see that life does not suck—is the best long-term strategy to ending, or even better, pre-empting, insurgencies—fundamentalist, millennialist, or otherwise. Popular movements are far more often sparked and sustained by desperate resistance than lofty ideals.

And finally, Quote 3: “One of the first lessons that Special Operations teaches in Africa and other places,” says General Linder, “is that a good soldier serves the population, not the leader.“[emphasis added]

So, to close, Lansner’s Linder Lesson 3, this one verbatim: “A good soldier serves the people, not the leader.” A revolutionary idea, indeed. This does not suggest mutiny, even retrospectively, against a genuinely democratically elected leader. But that America’s good soldiers—or at least the good ex-General Powell—had heeded this advice in 2003, much of Linder’s work in Africa today would be moot. ###

Chuck Norris and Marshall Teague with U.S. Marines at Camp Al Taqaddam, Iraq, during a USO tour in 2006. USO Photo.     http://www.digdang.com/media/images/chuck_norris_is_here_7188.jpg

Chuck Norris graffiti dated 2009, in Osijek, Croatia: “Don’t Worry… I’m Coming To Rescue This City… Chuck”  photo by Objavljeno, 2013.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chuck_Norris_grafit_Osijek.JPG

 

Kony & Kardashian 2012: Viral, Vital, Virile?

The Kony2012 campaign pledged that the scourge of Joseph Kony would be eradicated by the moment we’d all be celebrating New Year’s 2013. Despite the massive media frenzy prompted by the “viral video” that launched the campaign ten months earlier, this very deadline passed nearly unnoticed. But as the year ended, another human rights issue was viral. Reality television mega-star Kim Kardashian’s celebrity prowess drew the world’s gaze to a glittering shopping mall in—and with activists’ encouragement, to the restive streets of—the repressive Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain.

Let’s call this Kardashian2012.

“If Only They Know… They Will Do Something”

As surely as day follows night, the bright light of awareness will expunge evil’s darkness. Were it ever so… and were it ever so simple. The Kony2012 campaign, launched by the group “Invisible Children” with what is described as the most viral advocacy video in history, was apparently premised on the deeply flawed assumption that awareness leads automatically to action. It is an immensely naïve, profoundly attractive, and potentially distracting and dangerous proposition.

Kony2012 emphatically disabuses us of any such notion. Awareness is a crucial first step in promoting change. A lesson I began to learn as a journalist covering terrible human rights abuses in Uganda in 1981 was that witnessing and reporting is essential, but very rarely sufficient to bring change. [Please see If Only They Knew, They Would Do Something…FAIL!”, below] The most significant result Kony2012 produced was many many many MANY people saying “J.Kony is bad”. An early and cogent critique of Kony2012 came from Human Rights Watch researcher Ida Sawyer, who appears in the video, and very quickly urged the sort of practical actions that experienced human rights advocates employ in efforts to affect policy. A viral video, even history’s most viral, and concerning an issue as grave as pervasive abuse of children and others in conflict, may leave behind little than the clamor of its own echo chamber. Disconnected from viable solutions and actions to realize them, awareness of abuses may prove little more than voyeurism gilded in the clothes of concern.

Kony2012Children Sell

Kony2012 was nothing less than a virtual Children’s Crusade. It reminds us that in advocacy [as in most marketing], children are a good “sell”—and can also be easily mobilized. Youth “fads” long preceded the Internet but their virtual vectors of contagion are today far swifter and broader. The emphasis on child victims and survivors of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army offered the most innocent and “worthy” subjects for our attention and concern—as do many appeals from long-established and highly reputable rights and aid groups. And some organizations, like War Child, are aimed directly at ameliorating the impact of conflict on children.

The video’s use of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell’s young son furthers the narrative arc of innocence, connecting online first-worlders to the suffering of children in Africa through an affluent—and super-cute—blond California kid. The 29-minute film, stupendously long for an Internet advocacy pitch, is indeed well constructed. It opens with views of earth from space, inspiring new age music, and jump-cuts of social media featuring children, their rather out-of–touch elders, and a baby’s birth. Pop culture icons get screen time. The video’s Ugandan “star”, Jacob Acaye, puts a human face to human rights abuse. The suffering of children depicted is heart-rending. Heartfelt pledges are sworn. Virtual bonds are sealed. Yet Kony2012’s simplicity seems most attractive to naïve audiences, and appears to have resonated most successfully with younger teenagers—in part because of the simplistic depiction of a problem [J.Kony] and its solution [kill him], and because the action demanded of viewers to write their favorite pop stars in earnest hopes of enlisting them to STOP EVIL was to youngsters an enormously exciting and ennobling proposition.

The video’s massive appeal evoked a commensurate tsunami of commentariat reflection on the merits of its videography, numerous factual errors, its creators’ assumptions, the demand for a military solution in an evangelical Christian context [please see “Messianic Foes?”, below], the roles of social media, the roots of “badavocacy”, and most usefully, reporting on the actual situation on the ground in northern Uganda and neighboring countries. Even China’s state-run Xinhua News agency joined the fray. On 05 March 2013, exactly a year after it was launched, Kony2012 had garnered 96,687,788 hits on YouTube, and 18.4 million more on Vimeo. A Google search for “Kony2012”, also on 05 March 2012, returned “about 6,230,000 results”.

But Kony today remains free to kill, and LRA depredations continue. As a small and nimble [and well-funded] NGO, Invisible Children appears to have done some good work on the ground in Uganda and Congo, including previously setting up early warning radio relays in areas then threatened by the LRA. It now co-sponsors an interesting LRA abuse-tracking website. But the hunt for Joseph Kony and the scattered LRA bands he nominally leads did not intensify because of the Kony2012 video or the massive attention it generated. It was earlier lobbying by a constellation of groups (including Invisible Children) that encouraged the 2009 deployment of a small force of US advisors tasked with helping local militaries pursue Kony.

After issuing Kony2012, Invisible Children was lauded with rafts of supportive statements by politicians and officials. Yet by the moment the video went viral, the Lord’s Resistance Army had been reduced to little more than ill-organized bands of thugs roaming remote forests in Central Africa. It posed no strategic threat to the United States, or indeed to any African country. There would be no massive multinational offensive to eliminate these brigands. On the ground, nothing really changed.

Kardashian2012—Celebrity Sells

Reality TV fixture Kim Kardashian’s visit to the Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain to promote a milkshake franchise evoked fan hysteria. This was certainly a publicity stunt; whatever Kardashian offers the public is calculated to promote her personal brand. Perhaps of the “any publicity is good publicity” school, she seemed supremely indifferent if not utterly oblivious to the Bahraini regime’s ongoing human rights abuses.  “I just got to Bahrain!” she tweeted on arrival, “OMG can I move here please? Prettiest place on earth!” If Kardashian’s celebrity would sell milkshakes, it could also be courted to create controversy. Democracy activists and human rights groups seized the moment to swing the media spotlight to abuses in Bahrain.

Leading Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja’s warning to Kardashian that her celebrity status was being used to whitewash the repression in the oil-rich autocracy was picked up by various YouTube pundits. Her visit was met by what Western media described as “Islamist” opposition demonstrations, as well as mocking re-tweets. The blogosphere was abuzz… perhaps especially after recent revelations of top stars raking in despots’ dollars more ready to disparage celebrities consorting with dictators.

And of course, media love controversy, especially celebrity controversy. Even New York’s Daily News and the New York Post, tabloids that typically offer scant international coverage unless Americans are killed far from home or Israel is affected, gave the story play, albeit with little context of the Kingdom’s ongoing human rights violations.

Arguably, human rights groups and activists who seized upon Kim Kardashian’s Bahrain junket to highlight abuses and US support for its ruling family were more effective in raising genuine awareness of a human rights issue than the makers of Kony2012. Similar efforts have focused on the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix [no worries, says its boss] and the football school run by the world’s most popular sports franchise, top English side Manchester United; teenager Ahmad Shams was reportedly wearing a Man U jersey when he was shot dead by police during March 2011 protests in Bahrain\’s capital, Manama.

But even compared to fast cars and football champions, Kim Kardashian is a tabloid titan. Unlike her, however, Bahrain’s ruling family understands that not all attention is positive. Reputational risks [e.g., killing unarmed demonstrators and torturing detainees, including journalists] might undermine its standing with European and American publics, and so has sought help from richly-paid PR touts to polish its global image. [J.Kony, we can guess, would not grasp this—or simply rely on divine guidance.]

Kardashian2012 might have been a net minus to Bahrain’s international reputation. A Google search for “Kardashian Bahrain” on 05 March 2012 returned “about 3,800,000 results,” few of them only about milkshakes. Yet on the ground, nothing really changed. [And a wtf aside: Kardashian also found time—a paid endorsement?—to tweet glowingly about some dentists in Kuwait.]

Disregarding the Pain of Others: Strategic Dis/Interest

The NY Daily News’s short article on Kardashian in Bahrain closing sentence plainly soft-pedaled the regime’s abuses: “Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, is trying to overcome nearly two years of unrest among its majority Shi\’ite Muslims demanding political reforms and equality with the Sunni Muslims who rule the kingdom.” Writing that Bahrain is “trying to overcome…unrest” rather that “brutally seeking to suppress…dissent” is a typically passive and euphemistic formula America’s mainstream media often apply to repression by America’s more reliable allies—or, for that matter, to torture committed by the U.S. Government.

And these few words in the Daily News: “… where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based….” capture why persuading US leaders to pressure their Bahraini counterparts to respect human rights is so very difficult. United States strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and its continuing confrontation with Iran plainly trump any putative American commitment to protect rights and promote democracy in Bahrain, or in Saudi Arabia, etc.

These twin eruptions of mass issue awareness instruct us that “viral” may be neither “vital” to public debate, nor “virile” in moving matters from the public record onto the policy agenda. Mass awareness absent effective policy advocacy typically achieves little. And strong national security interests—in the Persian Gulf per Kardashian2012—or strategic disinterest in Central Africa regarding Kony2012—can each in their own way raise formidable barriers to convincing governments to act against human rights abusers.

YET… Witnessing Remains Powerful

The promise of Kony2012 was that by raising our voices we together could force the powers-that-be to hunt down Joseph Kony and end the terror visited over a quarter century on hundreds of thousands of innocent Africans—including many children— by the Lord’s Resistance Army. That estimable goal has not been achieved, and the campaigners seem never to have grasped the policy dynamics of US interests in that part of Africa.

In March 2013, Invisible Children released a new video marking the first anniversary of Kony2012. Its tone is akin to earlier productions, with a fair dose of self-congratulation and righteous self-promotion. It is more on target in praising the engagement of many young people than extolling its alleged accomplishments in helping contain [not kill or capture] Kony.

Yet witnessing is powerful and important in its own right. The first and imperfect awareness of a human rights issue that Kony2012 brought to many millions of young people might be formative to a sustained and more sophisticated appreciation of the wider world. And the social media tools many deployed in learning about and networking around Kony2012 may morph into future human rights campaigns.

Both Kony2012 and activism around Kardashian2012 mean that millions of people around the world can never again claim “they didn’t know” about these terrible abuses. But imagining that clicking ‘like’ or ‘share’ or sending a small donation is real action risks relegating our concern to what writer Lilie Chouliaraki describes as the solidarity of the “Ironic Spectator”. And being constantly urged “to care” can realize Marshall McLuhan\’s warning that, “the price of eternal vigilance is indifference”—unless genuine action that aims toward real goals is part of an empowering advocacy package.

The most viral video cannot be more than the initial rung on the advocacy ladder, placing events or issues on the public record and perhaps altering public perceptions. Viral communications can be hugely valuable to this first step. But to prove vital to the public debate, practical solutions must be offered. And to be “virile”, advocacy communications must offer meaningful participation in actions that can sustain commitment to address human rights abuses and social injustice challenges.

*****

MESSIANIC FOES?  

The Lord’s Resistance Army evolved from the messianic Holy Spirit Movement, which rose among Acholi people in northern Uganda in 1986. Its formation was similar to that of other millennial movements, such as those of the Xhosa in South Africa in the 1850s, New Zealand’s Maoris a decade later, or Native American Sioux at the end of 19th Century. The society in which it took root was under enormous stress, and some members perceived an existential crisis of alien domination and loss of both land and culture.

In Uganda, an Acholi-dominated military junta was in February 1986 defeated by rebel forces led by and mostly comprised of Ugandans from the south and west of their country. The diminution of Acholi power and privilege engendered some lingering armed opposition orchestrated by defeated politicians. But far more important to the creation of a new insurgency were abuses against Acholi civilians by some of the soldiers sent north to impose the new regime’s writ. This fed already existing fears of persecution and sparked a “legitimized resistance”—the surest base for a sustained guerilla conflict, as I have written of in the context of America’s war in Iraq.

The Holy Spirit Movement [HSM] was a new and initially small group led by a woman, Alice Auma, who took the name Lakwenya, whom she described as her spirit guide. Alice revealed that Lakwenya was demanding Acholi people purify themselves through a set of quasi-Christian prescriptions and prohibitions to be empowered to retake control of Uganda. The HSM advance toward Kampala was defeated in mid-1987, and Alice Lakwenya fled to Kenya. HSM fighters regrouped under the leadership of Lakwenya’s younger relative, Joseph Kony. Reporting from northern Uganda in 1988, I met Acholi guerilla fighters from the politically led Uganda People’s Democratic Army [please see PHOTO] surrendering to government troops. They said they could not face fighters of the rebranded United Holy Salvation Army [later rechristened the Lord’s Resistance Army], who were relentlessly attacking anyone who would not be “purified” and join their forces. Kony’s fighters were irrationally fearless, surrendering guerillas and government soldiers told me. They would sometimes charge enemies carrying sticks and stones they believed would turn into rifles and hand grenades. Many fell unarmed on the battlefield.

The late Alice Lakwenya’s missives from her spirit guide have evolved into LRA formal doctrine, enforced with great brutality. It is noteworthy that the LRA’s greatest nemesis, Invisible Children, has grown from a Christian-based group whose leaders’ religious fervor is perhaps no less deeply felt than Kony’s, and who loudly demand a demonstrably un-Christian militarized solution to a conflict that has long defied one. Invisible Children ignores Acholi cultural and religious leaders\’ arguments that traditional rites of healing and forgiveness are a better route to reconciliation. A compelling video that gives voice to this Acholi perspective has received less than 7,000 views….

*****

IF ONLY THEY KNEW, THEY WOULD DO SOMETHING … FAIL! 

One late afternoon while I was reporting from Uganda in 1981, a man knocked on my office door in central Kampala. Simply dressed, he was middle-aged, and rather gaunt. He spoke English carefully and politely, if imperfectly. A few evenings earlier, he told me, he’d heard about my story on the BBC radio’s daily Focus on Africa program of a smuggled letter said to be from detainees in an army camp. The letter described torture and other abuses by the much-feared red-bereted military police; its writers pleaded to be saved. I had mentioned that the letter included a list of 32 people reportedly held at the camp.

With a great courtesy bordering on deference I later saw was more likely desperation, the man asked if he could see the list. We sat. His brother was missing, he explained, seized by plain-clothes security men two months earlier. I handed him a copy of the hand-written letter, the names in question appended in smaller script. He peered down and ran his finger along the list once, twice, then again as tears began to leak from his eyes. “Did you find his name?” I asked, as very gently as I could. Rising, wiping his eyes, he barely sighed “No”, and head still down started toward the door.

I said I was very sorry and reached to shake his hand. He turned and took my hand in both of his. They were  large, and rough. “Thank you for your work,” he said softly, looking me squarely in the eyes, then added in stronger voice: “Make sure the world knows. In [previous dictator] Amin’s time,” he nodded slowly, “people said they didn’t know. This time” —he now shook his head with angry conviction— “please do not let them say they didn’t know.

In the moment, I believed that my reporting would surely make the world know… and that this knowledge would make a difference. The UK, US, and global institutions that supported the murderous regime would change their policies! But in the policy and media world of the 1980s, few powerful people evinced much concern. Uganda’s civil conflict was no Cold War proxy struggle. Beyond coffee, the country offered scant easily exploitable export resources. In Britain, Uganda’s past master and colonial creator, there was sporadic interest, at least some the afterglow of media attention lavished on the past dictator-cum-buffoon Idi Amin Dada. But American media attention was minimal, even while as many as 250,000 people, most of them civilians, were butchered in a savage conflict from 1981-86. The Vanderbilt Television Archives show that the main US networks reported on Uganda only a handful of times during that period. “Anti-communist” wars—raging in Central America, in Angola, in Afghanistan—were many orders of magnitude higher on the policy and thus the media agenda.

So if events in Uganda were on the public record, if my witness helped “let the world know”, such awareness did little to push the conflict onto the policy agenda. My information helped Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights [now Human Rights First] to issue damning reports. But absent oil or ideology as compelling cause for intervention, Uganda’s civil war carried on largely unremarked by the wider world. If the strategic interests of a state in a conflict are either very small or very large, promoting policy action is exceedingly difficult.

Witnessing and reporting offered awareness; it did not move policy. To believe that I did my job as witness well [please see The Guardian clip: “Sad times, bad times, in Uganda’s capital of suffering” in the sidebar] is a cold and hollow comfort as I recall the bloody broken bodies, the piled corpses—the shattered lives—of everyday people suffering under a cruel dictatorship. But there is still genuine importance, and potential power, in witnessing by professional journalists, by citizen reporters, by human rights activists. It is the absolutely necessary first step, but first step only, on a path of awareness and advocacy and, perhaps, change.

And like the man who visited my office that day in 1981, I am glad at least that world leaders and others who did nothing to try to stem the mass killing in Uganda in the 1980s would never be able to clothe themselves in the hypocrisy of claiming they “didn’t know”.

 

Comments are welcome at trlansner@gmail.com

 

Near Gulu, Uganda, April 1988 Uganda People’s Democratic Army guerillas receive a chicken upon surrendering to government forces after being attacked repeatedly by fighters of the United Holy Salvation Army [later renamed the Lord's Resistance Army], led by Joseph Kony.  photo©TR Lansner

Near Gulu, Uganda, April 1988
Uganda People’s Democratic Army guerillas receive a chicken upon surrendering to government forces after being attacked repeatedly by fighters of the United Holy Salvation Army [later renamed the Lord’s Resistance Army], led by Joseph Kony. photo©TR Lansner

 

Mali’s War, Unseen

 

Menacingly shrouded Al-Qaeda fighters… Paratroops descending on the ‘fabled desert city of Timbuktu’…  Jubilant throngs of kids, grinning… People waving or even wearing the French ‘tricolore’… Women again adorned in brightly-colored traditional dress feting French soldiers… The French president joyfully mobbed…  Staring from our screens, grim-faced amputee survivors of Islamist [in]justice…  Mali “in flames”…  And, yes, a few dead people….

These “snapshots” of Mali’s war—embodied in their representative images—define what most the world has learned of the ongoing conflict in the West African state. Most of the photos available, as the French daily newspaper Liberation observes, “have the feeling of having been produced by the school of fine arts of war….” [“avec le sentiment donné d’avoir été produites par l’école des beaux-arts de la guerre….”]

Serval-ing the dominant narrative

These images very comfortably fit and exceedingly well serve the dominant narrative of the origins and expected outcome of France’s military intervention in its former colony: that “Operation Serval” was launched on 11 January 2013 to repel aggression by “terrorist” forces, and will quickly conclude with victory over brutal fundamentalists, aided by warmly welcomed and enlightened foreigners.

This narrative seems at least in part quite plausible, and reflects an elite and mainstream media consensus. It is an easy sell to audiences accustomed to conflict reporting that offers dramatic and simplified [and sometimes simplistic] military-oriented coverage about places and issues about which they know little. Especially in France, whose people are being to asked to expend treasure and risk lives, the plain morality tale of demonized [here hard-line Islamist] enemies and grateful allies is useful in retaining public support for the mission. Yet the dominant narrative far from fully paints a situation that is far more complex, and challenges that might prove more costly, than early official assurances.

This is not new in conflict coverage. Governments and militaries [and non-state actors] always, and most urgently during conflicts, seek to control information and shape public perceptions to their advantage. What is striking is that France is deploying precisely the opposite of recent U.S. and U.K. military/media relations strategy. Rather than embedding many reporters with front-line units to build journalists’ rapport with soldiers [and, conveniently, monitor their access], France has banned nearly all media from the combat zones.

Despite many correspondents’ repeated and sometimes risky efforts to reach the front lines, there are virtually no first-hand journalistic accounts of the fighting in Mali. Video of fierce firefights with all their attendant noise and smoke and confusion appeared in late February only after recently expelled Islamist guerillas re-infiltrated the city of Gao, which was then thought to be far behind the front lines. Even casual media consumers are now accustomed to and expect such images. More than a decade of compelling combat footage provided by embedded correspondents in Afghanistan and Iraq—and more recently from embattled Syria, although from there most often by citizen reporters or militia fighters—have convinced viewers that we can access on demand the latest horrific moments of faraway conflicts.

French media organizations have publicized the restrictions on their reporting [as well as sometimes criticizing their colleagues’ offerings], complaining vigorously, as have press freedom groups. “The French authorities, supported by their Malian counterparts, have achieved their ‘zero image of the war front’ media objective for Operation Serval by strictly controlling access to information,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders stated in mid-February.

“Bewildering”—Mali in no context

While the depiction of French troops being welcomed by most Malians to drive out Islamists appears accurate, the much larger story of why war has come to Mali, and how its conflicts might be addressed, is absent. One can find more serious and sometimes contentious analysis, for example hereherehere and here. But the dominant narrative offers little understanding of how war enveloped a nation long held [and arguably misrepresented] as a peaceful democratic beacon amidst many countries torn by conflict and ruled by despots. The lack of context in most reports is unsurprising, especially in television news clips and other short-form journalism. Unfettered access to the front lines might even cut context and skew perceptions by trumpeting the latest most frenetic “bang-bang” video. For those who remain confused by events, The Atlantic Online offered a visual aid headlined: “A Map of the Bewildering Mali Conflict.” As a map it is pretty, but leaves neophyte Mali-watchers no more apprised of the causes or consequences of the conflict. And still bewildered, indeed, as the map’s caption itself closes by asking, “Just what are the French getting themselves into?”

Many even brief articles mention that France is Mali’s former colonial master. But the fact that Mali is a country of multiple ethnicities that has for decades seen rebellion simmer and flare among the marginalized nomadic desert Touareg peoples is rarely described. Nor is the fact that modern Mali is a colonial creation; its frontiers were declared by 19th Century imperial mapmakers, and it borders seven similarly-conjured countries, all now experiencing various degrees of political and ethnic unrest, and to which the fear of Islamist “contagion” is very real.

The notion that France’s intervention might be motivated by reasons beyond the desire to protect Malians and the wider world from violent Islamist extremism is rarely voiced. It is mostly left to small leftist groups to offer an alternative view and point out [and this, at least, quite accurately] that France has enduring powerful economic interests in West and Central Africa. The uranium deposits crucial to France’s nuclear industry found in Mali’s eastern neighbor Niger certainly merit mention, especially since that country has also experienced ethnic-based Touareg rebellions.  Another dissenting voice is Iran’s official PressTV, which headlined: “France war in Mali: Neo-imperialist grab dressed up in “war on terror” rhetoric”. Even if many of its reports predictably unveil vast Western Capitalist/Neo-Imperialist/Crusader Conspiracies behind every sand dune, they do offer interesting contrast to headlines like this from the BBC: “In pictures: Why Malians now love France”.

Don’t show us the flames of war

As  mentioned earlier, the vast preponderance of images offered recently from Mali are actually “post-conflict” or  from outside the conflict zones. When video of people reportedly executed by the Malian Army as suspected rebels or possible sympathizers was aired on French television, France’s official Supreme Audiovisual Council warned against showing such images “to ensure complicance with the principle of human dignity.” [veiller au respect du principe de dignité humaine.”] French media seem prepared to defy the broadcast watchdog; a senior news director asked, “I would like to know exactly if this is a new doctrine that we say ‘attention, don’t show the victims.’” [”Je veux savoir exactement si c’est une nouvelle doctrine qui nous dit ‘attention ne montrez pas les victims.’”]. An interesting question is whether the politically very sensitive [and counter official narrative] nature of alleged revenge killings by Malian Government forces prompted the French broadcasting council to object. The “offending” images are discussed at minute 13 of this Al-Jazeera program.

A few other images have caused controversy, including this of a French soldier in a bandana with a skull design over his face. This photo alone should evoke a panoply of commentary. The mask the solider donned against dust raised by a helicopter is based on “Ghost”, a popular character in the top-selling video wargame series, Call of Duty. How we — and young men especially — are conditioned to consider conflict by pervasive wargaming is increasingly debated. And the cross-cultural context is also rich: as part of the Call of Duty character’s complicated backstory, Ghost’s death mask seems to reference Mexico’s zestfully macabre “Dia de Los Muertos” festival.

The photo was jarring and profoundly “counter-narrative”; a French colonel scrambled to proclaim French forces “are not messengers of death” in Mali. And photo-evidence of  alleged revenge by Malian troops made grimmer viewing, even absent much context. But as Liberation observed, most of the proffered images are achingly beautiful, as this compilation attests. After touring with Malians at toil and at play (“mostly in the  south,” the introduction explains, “where photographers are able to work.”), we reach the conflict in only the last dozen or so shots of the 41-photo set. And nearly all the photos with soldiers are fairly static, and might as well show training exercises. Only the closing shot — after proceeding through a click-through warning of its “graphic content” — brings any real inkling of the terrible costs of war. This is a powerful image of death, made vividly and mundanely human by what appears to be the victim’s sandals, lying undisturbed by his feet.

Notable in this set are two images that present people framed by smoke and fire. Neither, as the captions frankly admit, have anything to do with the conflict; a marketplace accident [photo 21] and the annual burning off of sugar cane fields [photo 14]. The BBC also used the fiery sugar cane fields in a story, but with the caption, “It will be some time before life in northern Mali returns to normal”. This is surely true. But the photo depicts an unremarkable scene (including an archetypical donkey, and not even in the north), exotic to most viewers, but unconnected to the conflict.

No matter. Photo editors everywhere —and their audiences!—are drawn as moths to flames. And if fighters keep correspondents from the actual fires of war, some other blaze will serve and sell. The French Army would shrug, contentedly enough. To paraphrase words ascribed to the turn-of-the 20th-Century American press baron William Randolph Hearst, “Give me the [flaming] pictures, I’ll call it the war.”

MediaWatch analyzes the French media’s characterization of Operation Serval.

Al Jazeera’s “The Listening Post” explores the French government’s efforts to restrict certain images.

The only independent combat video from the Mali conflict came from what was thought to be behind the front lines in Gao, when recently-evicted Islamist fighters re-infiltrated the city.