Archive For: Featured

American Media Intervention in the Middle East

Matthew Sienkiewicz is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Boston College.  In 2010, he produced Live from Bethlehem, a documentary about Palestinian media in the West Bank.  TheVisionMachine is proud to feature selections from the documentary (have your library order a copy from the Media Education Foundation) as well as his thoughts six years later.  Sienkiewicz’s fascinating new book on US media operations in the Middle East is The Other Air Force (Rutgers UP: 2016).

My interest in Bethlehem’s Ma’an Network was piqued when a friend of a friend, a Grizzled American Newsman, told me about his trip to the West Bank. He was sent by an NGO, which was sent by the US Government, to help the producers and journalists of this fledgling Palestinian network learn how to make ‘independent’ media. My initial reaction was probably a lot like yours in reading that last sentence. How can an agent of the US, a nation so far from a neutral arbiter in the Middle East, possibly be giving lectures on independence? Ten years later, this knot certainly hasn’t fully untangled itself for me. However, a lot of contextualization has helped. First and foremost, in researching Ma’an up close I came to understand that, like any media outlet, they are free from some external pressures, beholden to others. In the case of Ma’an, executives and journalists willingly take on American-authored restrictions in exchange for insulation from the factional and economic difficulties otherwise embedded the production of Palestinian television.

In the making of my (co-produced w/Joseph Sousa) documentary Live From Bethlehem, I also came to appreciate the danger in conceptualizing any media production, even in the most politically charged space, as primarily ideological. Certainly Ma’an’s creative freedom (or lack thereof) is a matter of political importance. The day-to-day experience of producers, however, is dominated by attempts to work within material circumstances, with the idea of structural change rather far off in the distance. As Live From Bethlehem details, Ma’an’s producers spend relatively little time considering the politics of word choice or the symbolic meanings of minor artistic adjustments. Instead, they spend their time trying to work out a production schedule that accounts for the uncertainty of movement imposed by Israeli occupation or attempting to jerry-rig substandard equipment so the final product looks good enough to suffice in the hyper-competitive world of Arab TV. Certainly, ideology frames these circumstances and provides a long-term sense of purpose, but the task at hand is generally a practical, not political, one.

The Media Education Foundation released Live From Bethlehem in 2010. It remains relevant and generally reflective of contemporary circumstances, in large part due to the lack of progress in the struggle for a peaceful, long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Ma’an Network has, however, grown in the intervening years, becoming an important regional satellite outlet while still remaining heavily intertwined with Western funders, including America. This progression is outlined and analyzed in my recently released book, The Other Air Force. In addition to serving as a sort of sequel to Live From Bethlehem, the book adds a deep consideration of America’s media projects in Afghanistan. Bringing these case studies together, The Other Air Force theorizes recent American communication intervention in the Middle East as “soft-psy media”—an attempt to blend the commercially oriented foreign policy strategy of “soft power” with the military control tactics of “psyops.” Put simply, America has been funding media outlets such as Ma’an and only loosely monitoring their content in the hopes that they will succeed financially and help bring “American-style” media into new spaces. Of course, there are always red lines not to be crossed, as detailed in the documentary.  In media, as in most walks of life, freedoms are precious, partial, and always fragile things.

Live from Bethlehem


Iraq: Angels of War

*Reprinted with permission from PeaceNews

Over the past 35 years, the people of Iraq have had little peace.

The country has been the central theatre for the Iran-Iraq War, with an estimated 1 million deaths, the Gulf War and International Sanctions Regime, where up to 1 million people died, the Iraq War, with an estimated 115,000 deaths, and now the war against ISIS.

However, one photojournalist was fed up with how the media portrayed his homeland.

Jamal Penjweny comes from a border town in Kurdistan, and has worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic. But he was frustrated with the media’s focus on devastating images of Iraq. Jamal wanted to show that his country is capable of more than just violence.

So he created an exhibition called Angels of War.

It’s a stunning reminder of the tenacity of Iraqi people, and of the hope that doesn’t make into mainstream images of the war-torn region.

In the series, ordinary people are depicted with angelic wings – an attempt, Jamal said, to show the people of Iraq that angels are all around them, in the everyday people they encounter.

Jamal told us that after speaking with accused terrorists in custody several years ago, he was inspired to create the exhibition.

He said he wanted to counter the ideology of reaching paradise through suicide bombing – he wanted to show people who might be tempted by extremism that they are already surrounded by angels.

He also wanted to show the wider world another side of Iraq.

“We have art, we have culture, we have life. I want to show people the other side of the war,” he said.

Juliet den Oudendammer from Art Represent said the London gallery is excited to host such an insightful exhibition. Her favourite piece is an image depicting a young child looking through metal bars.

“You see this little boy in a complicated situation, with a really complicated story at the beginning of his life already, and because he has those wings it shows that even in a bad situation, there is always hope,” she said.

She said art offers a different view of conflict, and people’s experience of it.

“We can show a different perspective, and start a dialogue between what the media is saying is happening in these countries, and what is actually happening to these people who are a lot of the time very far away from the politics, or the fighting or actual conflict,” she said.

“Art can motivate people, to gather behind a movement or to pay attention to issues that aren’t ‘sexy’ enough to be portrayed in mainstream media.”


Innerview: Ron Deibert

Cyberterrorism, cyberwar, espionage, the Great Firewall of China, surveillance, human rights, Snowden, insurgencies, computer network attacks, hacking, data sweeping…  The Vision Machine had the extraordinary opportunity to interview Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  Deibert runs the Citizen Lab, a large interdisciplinary research facility that endeavors to track attempts by state and non-state actors to control the flow of information in cyberspace.  This interview, conducted by Seb Kaempf, plums Deibert’s extensive knowledge of how the gears of the net really turn and its possibilities for both democratic and authoritarian politics.  In addition to the reports generated by the Citizen Lab itself, Deibert has most recently authored the book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace (Random House, 2013).


The Army Experience Center

The Vision Machine is excited to feature a microdocumentary by one of our own curators, Peter Mantello.  You may remember that Peter previously posted a fascinating video on the company, Strategic Operations, which uses Hollywood special effects to train soldiers.  The Army Experience Center is another installation in this series that looks at the military-entertainment complex.  The following is Mantello’s narrative of his eperience of the Army Experience Center and its life cycle.

The Army Experience Center
by Peter Mantello

This micro doc explores the porous boundaries between 21st century military recruitment and first-person shooter game culture. In 2008, the US Army decided to experiment with finding new solutions to old approaches to regenerating its ranks by substituting dreary recruitment offices located in urban ghettos for exciting yet militarized video arcades in popular suburban shopping malls.  The result was known as the Army Experience Center (AEC). Situated in the Franklin Mills mall just outside Philadelphia, the AEC merged the imaginary and actual worlds of military life, tapping into the popularity of first person shooter games and the wonders of smart phone technology.

Free to the public, the AEC offered young adults a chance to immerse themselves in the hi-tech world of 21st century war craft while discovering well-paid, military career possibilities through touch screen technology. Row upon row of computer terminals allowed participants to play an array of first-person shooter videogames (including America’s Army) while two large simulation halls offered volunteers a chance to experience ‘humanitarian’ combat missions by riding Humvee vehicles and Apache helicopters (while of course shooting their way through never ending waves of faceless, brown-skinned adversaries). Moreover, participants could visit the war room of the digital age where distant war is fed to analysts on 50 inch screens through satellite imagery.

Meanwhile, Army recruiters (often fresh from Iraq/Afghanistan) traded in their military fatigues for polo shirts and jeans and casually circulated through the complex, offering advice, answering questions and ultimately assisting the interested in signing up for stint in the real US military. But by 2010, local public opposition to the AEC garnered negative national attention. Angry parents accused the AEC of attempting to seduce their children with overly sanitized impressions of war. The AEC was officially closed in 2012 becoming a small but important footnote in the increasing synergy between the US military and the entertainment industries.


Cynthia Weber on Film in IR


What role can filmmaking have in the social sciences and in particular the study of International Relations?  Cynthia Weber, a professor at the University of Sussex, is a leading voice in the field of IR among those who have experimented with film as a medium for doing academic work.  Here we are thrilled to curate some of her recent provocations, a series of short films on the Occupy Wall Street movement that are part of her larger “I Am An American” project.  Each tells a story, as she puts it, about what it means to be a US American in the twenty-first century, stories that together formed the eclectic mix that we call “Occupy.”  In addition to screening these for TVM, Cynthia was gracious enough to sit down with us and talk about how she developed as a filmmaker, how it has energized her work, and the philosophical controversies it inevitably brings to the academy.  To investigate the “I Am An American” project further, see the following:

I Am An American

‘I Am An American’:  Filming the Fear of Difference.  Bristol, UK:  Intellect Books and Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2011.

2010 – ‘Cynthia Weber’s ‘I am an American’ Project’, International Political Sociology, 4(1):80-103. 

2013 – ‘“I am an American”:  Protesting Advertized “Americanness”’, Citizenship Studies, 12(2):125-142.  Reprinted in Janelle Reinelt and Shirin Rai (eds) The Grammar of Politics and Performance.  London:  Routledge.


Filmmaking in the IR Classroom

Using film as a source of reading and interpretation has become a common feature for those of us teaching at university. It provides for a cognitively different but sometimes more creative way of bringing to life some of the conceptual themes and allows our students to engage in the subject matter through medium other than written text. So far, so good.

But what happens when you allow students to ‘write’ their International Politics assignment in form of a micro-documentary? In two of my courses at the University of Queensland, I offer students precisely that opportunity – with stunning results. So here is the story.

In both of my undergraduate courses students have to write a policy briefing paper in which they assess  -in the case of ‘Introduction to Peace and Conflict Analysis- a particular global issue (like human trafficking, child soldiers, nuclear proliferation, global warming, war, or inequality) or -in the case of ‘International Peacekeeping- a current UN peacekeeping mission. Here, students have to analyze the root causes of the global issue/local conflict, assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing policies that aim to resolve these global issues/conflicts, and suggest concrete policy recommendations on how to improve existing policies/peacekeeping missions. Such an assignment is central to the study of Peace and Conflict Studies, as it deepens students’ understanding of the relationship between the root causes of particular conflicts/global issues and the reasons why efforts by the international community to resolve the latter have succeeded or failed. This assignment thereby sharpens students’ awareness of how successful processes of conflict resolution depend on a prior understanding of the causes of conflict.

As an alternative to writing this briefing paper, students are given the opportunity to produce a 10-15 minute film documentary (with specific assessment criteria that differ from the written assignment). This allows students to engage with an academic topic in a more creative manner. As one of my students wrote: ‘I really loved having the option to make a film about it, I think it’s a great idea and actually was really refreshing to have another option that was creative. I felt it made me connect on a deeper level with the topic being a visual person and that there was more room to show passion and emotions. I really liked having the two mediums of visuals and sound rather than just one medium being writing and also I became more emotionally involved than I usually would when writing a paper’. I introduced this option for my students in 2009 and in each course, 10-17% of my students have chosen this option – and interestingly, the vast majority have been female students (91-100%). Thus, while it is certainly far too early to draw more general conclusions from this stunning ratio, it might actually be that this assessment format suits female students particularly well. This seems to resonate quite strongly with the principles underpinning the Universal Design of assessment items that emphasize the increased need to develop a variety of high-quality assignment options that students can choose from (Burgstahler and Cory, 2009).

Amongst the many excellent film documentaries produced by my students over the years, one in particular stands out for me. It is a documentary produced by Melody Groenenboom, then a first year undergraduate student, who chose to address the topic of ‘human trafficking’. This is her documentary featured here, together with some of Melody’s own reflections of what choosing to produce a film documentary has meant for her and the process of learning.


Choosing to make a film doc assignment: A student’s perspective

By Melody Groenenboom
Relationship Manager at Compassion International

By the time I’d finished my Bachelor’s degree, I’d written well over 100,000 words. Argumentative essays, reflections, case studies, analyses, methodological reports, literacy reviews. I really enjoyed writing – I enjoyed mastering the art of framing and unfolding an argument; finding the perfect words to relate someone else’s evidence to my own thoughts (and vice-versa); reaching that satisfying moment of finally articulating a conclusion. Yet as much as I enjoyed writing academically, I would jump straight into any opportunity to craft a piece of assessment that did not have to be confined to 12-point Times New Roman. I am aware that my real strengths lie in the visual-creative sphere, and I excel the most is when I am using those strengths. I’m sure I would’ve smashed out a visual arts degree and played more to my strengths by doing so, but visual art is not what I’m passionate about. I am passionate about international community development, so that’s where I focused my studies. This meant, however, that over the years of my study my creative side slowly suffocated, and I had to wrestle my visually-learning brain into submission to course after course of reading and writing.

So when I was given the choice one semester of writing yet another essay, or presenting my assessment in video form, it was like coming up for air after being underwater. I knew that I’d be able to submit something that would respond to the necessary criteria while allowing me to really enjoy the process of creating it. But more than being able indulge my sweet spot and take what for me was the ‘easy road’, I felt that this opportunity would allow the global issue I had chosen as my focus (human trafficking) to be communicated in a new and compelling way. I had been challenged and impressed by articles and studies that I’d read on the issue, but I had never really been moved. I hoped that empirical research and factual content combined with the pace, aestheticism and emotivism of a video piece, would allow for a deeply human connection with the issue. The written word can, at times, discriminate. But visual media rarely does. It welcomes a diverse audience and allows for widespread engagement with the issue. The video I created for a first-year university course assessment now has over 5,900 hits on YouTube and has been used by a number of anti-trafficking organizations to communicate the issue and engage support for the cause. A video may never appear on the pages of International Political Science Review, but in my experience, was a valuable experience both for myself and those who have watched it. Whether or not a piece of creative assessment goes beyond the assessor’s desk, the inclusion of creative alternatives for student assessment is critical. It recognizes the value and academic merit of various forms of communication, and the unique ways that creative assessment can be used to engage a wider audience in issues that risk being resigned to a lecture hall.

For more details on Melody’s artwork, please visit the following site:


Wartorn Britain

In partnership with filmmaker Michael Bluett, The Vision Machine is excited to feature Wartorn Britain, a new short documentary film. Wartorn Britain examines present day British military culture through a series of careful and sincere vignettes that read the nation’s present self-understanding as a series of familiar echoes. Below is Bluett’s narrative of how the film came to be.


Why I Made this Film – by Michael Bluett
(Reprinted from Open Democracy)

Violence has always been my bread and butter from, when I was working with young homeless people in Blackpool facing violence from family, police, or each other, to working with human rights activists and survivors of war in military occupied territories like Papua in Indonesia. Violence was the reason I was there. What is it, this behaviour, this activity and why do we humans engage in it in so many different forms, and what’s more – why was I always attracted to it?

I found myself most fascinated by the military who are trained and legally sanctioned to do violence on our behalf. Naively, I had believed soldiers would uphold the views of the politicians who sent them there and I had assumed their feelings and empathy for local civilians would be numbed by military service.

I was surprised to find how critically they reflected on their role. I feel their mixed emotions were due to the face-to-face human situations they were in, where politically constructed discourses meet everyday human reality.

There is so much noise about the military and war; books, movies, TV news and public commemorations. In contrast, the responses of people, both civilians and soldiers who have been caught up in armed violence is often silence. War seems to be the most talked about of activities, and yet the least known.

I’ve been making films for the last 6 years on and off and I was interested in trying to capture the British military experience. I never really considered going to Afghanistan or Iraq, where the embedding process leaves little freedom to work, and visually filmmakers seem overwhelmed by the terrible thrill of war and violence.

But I saw my opportunity when I returned home to Britain. I had left the UK to work overseas in 2003 just after the invasion of Iraq, and it still loomed large in my memory of what Britain was. I decided to search out British soldiers who had been part of the Iraq war, to see what they said and didn’t say about that war, and whether that violence still played a part in their everyday lives 10 years on, and if so how.

I began my research and my film where I grew up, in Blackpool – that icon of the British national imagination. I knew young Blackpool men and women commonly joined the military, but I didn’t realise that the connection between this tourist town and military commemoration went so much deeper; with military reunions from across the north west and Scotland regularly held here and many public events for both commemoration and entertainment.

In particular, the government’s new Armed Forces Day has been wholeheartedly embraced in ‘don’t do it by halves’ Blackpool, and renamed Armed Forces Week. It regularly sees over 50,000 visitors.

During the first Armed Forces Day, an empty town centre shop was turned into a visitor information point, and quickly became inundated with requests for help from veterans. It has now become a permanent veterans museum cum gift shop cum welfare centre.

As my research with the veterans progressed, I realised that it was futile to focus on one ‘war’ such as Iraq. I was coming across veterans who had served in all of Britain’s post-imperial spaces, from Borneo to Belfast to Baghdad, and all of them were being personally remembered right here in Blackpool. The veterans I met embody Britain’s unending military actions and our propensity for opting for military intervention, an option we are discussing again this week as conflict mounts in Iraq. To try and reflect this continuity of war and violence, the film I made in the end tinkers with notions of time and place. Archive footage of civilians watching the British Indian Army enter Baghdad in 1917 merges with British Army patrols in 2004 at street checkpoints frisking Iraqi drivers and passengers.

Gradually my film became a portrait of one veteran of the Iraq war, Darren, juxtaposed with past and current public memorials. Now home in Blackpool for over 7 years, we see how he locates his experiences of violence and follow him through intimate settings with family and friends, as well as public settings, where veterans and the military are honoured and celebrated.

These scenes show the tension between personal and collective remembering, forgetting and the denial of state violence. An individual may identify with a dominant collective narrative of war and violence, particularly constructions of the enemy, the violent ‘other’. At the same time, that individual has their own personal experiences which both support and contradict this.

Human interrelationships formed and deformed by violence are reimagined with fear, remorse, hate or love on a human level. To capture this in the film I tried to leave all judgments and assumptions behind to build a relationship with this and other veterans. In doing this, I found that what developed was friendship, which came as the biggest surprise to me and Darren, who said this when I asked him for a quote for this article;

“Working on this film made me open up in ways I didn’t realise. The finished result was very humbling to watch and made me realise just how far I have come with my rehabilitation. One bonus about this film is a friendship that has been formed by two people from totally different ends of the spectrum. I now consider Mike a true friend in every sense of the word..Thanks mate…”

Judgments and assumptions are an essential ingredient in the creation of fear and hatred, and when we leave them behind there are opportunities for friendship and love.

Throughout the making of the film I came to see how we are all busy creating monsters, spreading fear and hate to turn someone or something into a monster. On any given day this may be Saddam Hussein, the Germans, Muslims or the Irish. For some, including sometimes myself, British soldiers were the ones to fear and hate and turn into our monsters.

I found this quote by Nietzsche which succintly describes where hate and fear lead: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” When we allow fear and hate to shape our opinions and our lives, that is what happens, which is why, as Les Back, the sociologist, says, “We need to find ways to repair the harm that hate and fear inflict on our ability to see, hear and understand.”

What I have realised is that we are usually none of us as tough as we think we are. We think we can be warriors, saviours, and end violence, but violence and the fear which produces it and the hate which fuels it are incredibly powerful. I hope love and understanding can be my guide, even when I am facing violence and hate.

Here are some lines from Homecoming, a poem written by my great uncle when he was a soldier in Mesopotamia in 1919, when the British Army occupied Mesopotamia and the borders of modern day Iraq were drawn up by European hands. I only found out about this and a relatively uncommemorated bit of history, speaking to my own family during the filming of Wartorn Britain:

“I saw arid plains where once great cities grew
like Nineveh and Ur
and thought I knew
my world
and my emotions too”


If you would like to organise your own screening of Wartorn Britain, please get in touch with Michael at


Consuming War: Peter Mantello at TEDx

In his TEDx talk ‘Media, Consumerism and Connectivity in the Age of Terror’, Professor Peter Mantello (co-curator of TheVisionMachine) discusses how after 9/11, political and commercial forces have come together in order to reshape our notions of freedom, liberty and security. In his presentation, Peter discusses how our everyday media behavior and habits are being not simply scrutinized but also weaponized against an invisible and perhaps mythical enemy, aka a world where the lines between policemen and marketers are now blurring together to fuel a growing political economy of fear.

Peter Mantello is Professor at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, College of Asia Pacific Studies, Media and Arts.  After completing his degree in Media Arts and Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, he has been working as a Contract Filmmaker at National Film board of Canada. After that, he was Lecturer at the Department of Cinema at Concordia University and also teaching at Media Communications Department at Webster University, Bangkok. Professor Mantello has been awarded with a number of Faculty and Research Grants and Projects.


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.

Chuck Norris graffiti dated 2009, in Osijek, Croatia: “Don’t Worry… I’m Coming To Rescue This City… Chuck”  photo by Objavljeno, 2013.


Reimagining Communities: Opening up History to the Memory of Others

By Jean-Louis Durand and Sebastian Kaempf; filmed & edited by Julia Schmitz

Modern nation-states cherish their history. It is a constitutive element of the national collective self-concept that has been used to educate successive generations about the frontiers of the national community, its worth, its values, its place vis-à-vis others, and the trauma and glories that the country had to traverse and that together make it a unique and proud place. Few, if any, instruments shape a nation’s psyche and consciousness more powerfully than the material used in schools. As a consequence, the practice and teaching of history is a foundation stone of national identity and one of the poles of nationalism. As teaching materials, history textbooks are deeply anchored in national traditions that are ultimately used to legitimise the rationale of the nation-state. Their pedagogical vocation makes them constitutive of the national and cultural identity of new generations, and as such they constitute ‘sources of collective memory’ and can thus be read as ‘autobiographies of nation-states’.

What this means is that the writing of history is a highly political process and in order to understand the writing of a particular history properly, it is necessary to engage in political reflection. At least since the early 19th century, history textbooks have been found at the centre of political conflicts about ‘memory’, both internally in national debates and internationally when two countries dispute mutually opposed versions of history. Often, school textbooks present a version of history in total contradiction of a neighbour’s version, for example Japan and South Korea or China, India and Pakistan, West Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the United States (US) and the Soviet Union, or Israel and Palestine. As such, selecting what to include in history textbooks remains an important political stake. It is here where images of the Other are formed, communicated, and oftentimes cemented. This certainly has been the case in France and Germany, the two historical ‘hereditary enemies’ who between 1871 and 1945 fought tree major and catastrophic wars.

And yet, there comes a time when transmitting the history of a national past fails the context of the political present. France and Germany have shared tortuous historical experiences, yet the two are at the forefront of an unprecedented pedagogical development: for the first time ever, two nation-states have created a common history textbook (called Histoire/Geschichte) that is used in their senior secondary schools. As such, each country, to borrow Ernst Gellner’s formula, has abandoned – qua this textbook – its monopoly of legitimate education. Histoire/Geschichte detaches history from its exclusive national past and introduces the learners to a post-national present. It speaks in a tone that is demanded by a different time and by the new conditions of peoples who are living in a common political space. And most importantly, it is designed to transform the image of the Other.

This article, written by Dr Jean-Louis Durand and Dr Sebastian Kaempf from The University of Queensland, reflects on the meaning and reach of this precedent by first analysing the explicit political and pedagogical explanations inherent to the book. It then identifies and investigates some of the less evident effects of the textbook relating to rethinking war and history, rethinking the monopoly of education, rethinking national identity, and to offering another path to rapprochement. The two authors, based as colleagues and friends at the University of Queensland in Australia, grew up about one hundred kilometers from one another across the French-German border (one in Alsace-Lorraine, the other in Baden-Wuerttemberg). They themselves have thereby experienced, at different times, the historic legacy as well as the change in Franco-German relations. From the first steps of rapprochement in the 1950s and 60s to the end of border controls across the River Rhine, both have participated in youth exchanges and the learning of each others’ language and perspective. In the process, they themselves were forced to re-evaluate their emotional and cultural predispositions. A choice had to be made: either to take refuge in the ‘comfort’ and ‘certainties’ of the original position and refuse to contemplate the validity of the alternative, or to venture into the unknown and there dare to see the new reality as it is contemplated through the eyes of the Other. In that sense, the authors today are the outgrowth of the dramatic and remarkable transformation of the shared history between France and Germany – which explains their shared academic interest in exploring the meaning and pedagogy when they found out about this next history textbook. The idea arose immediately to research and write about this book as it lies close to the heart of both authors.

To read the article:

Dr Jean-Louis Durand:

Dr Sebastian Kaempf: