Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Follies of Foreign Adventurism for Political Gain

As so many ancient myths do, the story of Jason and the Argonauts holds particular lessons for modern leaders.

Namely, the folly of foreign adventurism for the sake of domestic political gain.

The plight of Jason actually seems quite just: he is the rightful heir to the throne of Thessaly, after his Uncle Pelias siezes the throne from his father, Aristo.

When he seeks to recover his usurped throne, his uncle tells him that he may have it back if he can complete a scarcely imaginable task: he must recover the mythical Golden Fleece and return with it to Thessaly.

What unfolds should be taken as a warning to any would-be foreign adventurers: one needs to ensure that they are willing to pay the cost, even if it's in service of a just cause.

As it turns out, the difficulty in obtaining the Fleece didn't merely rest in the acquisition of the Fleece itself. As it turned out, the challenge of obtaining the Fleece rested in the conquering of the various obstacles that beset him along the way, and then in the removal of the Fleece.

Many modern foreign interventions have unfolded the same way. What were expected to be short missions in Afghanistan and Iraq have instead extended into longer foreign interventions.

When one considers the potential cost of such adventures, embarking upon them for mere domestic political gain is absolute folly. (Arguably, one may see this in the Iraq conflict. The meagre threat posed by Iraq certainly didn't justify that particular adventure.)

Rather, such adventures can only truly be justified on two counts: to confront a danger that is truly present, and in support of a cause that is just.

In the course of his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason commits many acts that do not confront threats to Thessaly -- including Aeetes, the King of Colchis (modern day Georgia), whom he betrayed with the help of Medea.

With Medea -- one of the prizes Jason brings back to Thessaly -- Jason ultimately returns with the ultimate tool of his own destruction. Coupled with the outrage Medea feels over a plan by Jason to marry the daughter of a Corinthian King, Jason is, in the end, destroyed.

Left by his wife, deprived of his sons (murdered by Medea), and spurned by the Corinthian ruling class for the actions of his wife (who also murdered Jason's fiancee and her father), Jason is eventually crushed by the rotten stern of the Argo itself.

This befalls Jason because he was not wary of the dangers posed by his foreign adventurism. In the end, he ultimately brought the greatest of those dangers home with him -- in the form of the moral degradation of himself and others -- and all for his own political gain.

A wiser would-be ruler would have found another way to affect that gain. Jason does not, and in the end he pays the price.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ottawa Group of Four Becomes Ottawa Group of Three

Qais Ghanem leaves Green Party amidst dispute

Once upon a time, Green Party leader Elizabeth May had a problem. Four problems, actually.

They called themselves the Ottawa Group of Four. Consisting of Sylvie Lemieux, Qais Ghanem, Akbar Manoussi and Paul Maillet, the Ottawa Group of Four had a flair for dramatic and extreme foreign policy pronouncements, even going so far as to sponsor a pro-Iran propaganda conference at the University of Ottawa.

May didn't in any way discipline any of the participants in this conference, which featured several University of Tehran academics who were known to express anti-Semitic views. She merely criticized them for the lack of balance at the conference.

This was apparently too much for Ghanem, and for Colin Hine, President of the Ottawa South Green Party riding association. They have both quit in a huff over May's comments.

"Regrettably, May’s comments to the media have been interpreted by some as implying that the Group of Four’s actions are helping spread anti-Semitic propaganda. This is untrue and unacceptable," Hine announced. "Without the trust, support and endorsement from the Green Party leader or the party, it is with great regret that the resignations of Qais Ghanem and Colin Hine from Ottawa South are hereby announced."

The announcement must have gone over like a rock concert in May's office. The departure of Ghanem and Hine from the Green Party leave her with two fewer zealots to worry about.

With Sylvie Lemieux and Paul Maillet still standing as Ottawa-area candidates, however, May will still have some problems to worry about. Akbar Manoussi does not seem to be seeking a candidacy in the next election.

So the Ottawa Group of Four has at least become the Ottawa Group of Three; or better yet, the Ottawa Group of Two.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Historical Political Appeal of Myth

In , Michael Wood tells the story of a table once believed to be the famed Round Table of King Arthur. Preserved and passed down through history, the table was at one point preserved by Henry VIII, who regarded himself to be the heir to Arthur's legacy.

Many British rulers have -- publicly or privately -- regarded the mythical Aurthur as a paragon of a virtuous king, to be emulated. Arthur is regarded as the penultimate benevolent ruler.

Arthur's myth came to possess a great amount of political appeal.

Henry VIII established the Anglican Church, and broke the Catholic Church's hold over England.

Of course, Henry VIII did not act out of noble ambitions. He acted out of the desire to divorce his wife, in the desperation to produce a male heir to the throne.

The Catholic Church wouldn't allow Henry to to divorce his wife. His actions eventually resulted in his excommunication from the Church.

In time, Henry's legacy would be religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants throughout British colonial holdings -- particularly in Ireland and Canada.

Depending on which version of the Arthur legend one ascribes to -- the classic legend, or the one many historians promote, in which Arthurius led northern Pagans to ally with Woads to create a society based on religious and ethnic tolerance -- the legacies of King Arthur and Henry VIII couldn't be more disparate.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

At the Going Down of the Sun, and In the Morning, We Will Remember Them

Regularly-scheduled Assholery will resume following the completion of Open or Shut. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Rambo and the Revisionist Cultural History of Human Rights

Like its predecessors, Rambo is unapologetically unrelenting in its brutality. The film opens with a jumbled collection of news clips documenting the unrest in Burma (formerly Myanmar), and the government's respose to civil dissent.

This is quickly followed by Burmese soldiers turning dissident villagers loose in a minefield and forcing them to run. Those who aren't killed by landmines -- which explode in their unrelentingly grisly fashion -- are slaughtered with machine gun fire.

The beginning of the film finds John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) living in Thailand, where he works capturing snakes for a snake-fighting ring.

Rambo is approached by a group of missionaries hoping he'll guide them up the river into Burma, where they hope to put a stop to the fighting. They're going unarmed into a war zone. They don't stand a chance: of stopping the genocide taking place there, or even of surviving.

At first Rambo refuses to help them; he's attempting to put his days of fighting behind him. Following a passionate and idealistic appeal from Sarah (Julie Benz), Rambo eventually agrees.

If viewers have any doubt whether or not Rambo still has it, an encounter with a boatload of pirates erases any doubt.

Rambo's passengers are outraged by the casual alacrity with which he dispatches their assailants, even though he has saved their lives. He takes them the rest of the way up the river and leaves them to their task.

After Rambo departs, the village the missionaries are helping comes under attack by the Burmese army. Mortar and machine gun fire tear the villagers and missionaries alike to shreds, while flame throwers are used to burn the village out of existence.

The army spares no one. Men, women, children. The brutality of crimes against humanity is captured in what may be one of the most uncompromising and haunting portrayals in the history of Hollywood film.

After arriving back at his home in Thailand, Rambo already knows what happened to the missionaries. As he tries to sleep, his dreams are haunted with flashbacks to the things he has experienced during his life as a combat soldier.

Even now he knows he cannot "turn it off".

Days later, Rambo is approached by Reverend Arhur Marsh (Ken Howard), who asks Rambo to lead a group of hired mercenaries on a rescue mission.

Rambo is forced into battle once more, on a personal mission that will force him to confront the demons of his past, and finally bring him home.

As noted previously, popular theory holds that Rambo 2 represented a symbolic attempt to re-fight the Vietnam war so that the United States could emerge as the winner.

There's more to it than that, but there's also much in the film to support that interpretation.

In Rambo, however, this particular narrative takes a stark twist: now, instead of re-fighting wars the United States fought and lost, Rambo is confronting humanitarian abuses it chose never to fight in the first place.

It isn't merely the genocide in Burma that the film symbolically re-writes, it's also genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.

In this sense Rambo represents a revisionist cultural history in which the west is artificially granted reprieve for its failure to defend its own values abroad. After all, human rights are a western innovation that carries little weight in other parts of the world.

With a United Nations that allows countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China (among others) to pay lip service to this concept in exchange for membership in the international community, there is little reason for countries like Burma or the Sudan to take them seriously; particularly when they realize that the progenitors of these ideas won't fight for them.

Until the west musters the will to fight in favour of human rights anywhere and everywhere it becomes necessary, revisionist films like Rambo will be the last remaining outlet for these values.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Creating the Monster?

Released in 1988, Rambo III was a statement.

There's a brazen Cold War character to the film: set in Afghanistan, it was filmed while the Soviet occupation was still ongoing. The production of the film amounted to Americans rubbing salt in wounds that the Soviets were still suffering -- it's tantamount to the Soviet Film Ministry producing a film about the Vietnam war during the early 1970s.

Rambo III finds John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) completely adrift, reduced to using skills, honed fighting the Vietnamese, as a pit fighter in Thailand.

Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) approaches Rambo with another mission: to travel into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and help the Mujahideen drive out the Soviet occupiers.

At first Rambo declines until Trautman is captured by the Soviets. Rambo must reprise his mission to rescue his last remaining friend.

Rambo travels alone to Peshawar where he makes contact with the Muhajideen and leads them in their fight against the brutal Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge). At first the Mujahideen doubt him, but his skills help them put the Soviets on their heels.

By the film's end, Rambo has rescued Trautman and returns with him to the United States, leaving the Afghans to continue their fight. History knows how the war ended -- with the Soviet Union retreating from Afghanistan. However, the film ends with a tributary message to the people of Afghanistan.

Many have looked to Rambo III as evidentiary either of western naivete toward Afghanistan now, or western naivete toward Afghanistan in the 1980s. Take your pick.

Of course, the argument that American support for the Mujahideen helped create the Taliban is categorically false. The Taliban didn't exist as a political or paramilitary force until later in the 1990s. Moreover, the Taliban originated in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

This isn't to say that the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal -- leaving the country destitute and desperate -- didn't help foster an environment that allowed the Taliban to come to power, and Al Qaeda to flourish.

So did the United States create the monster of Talib Afghanistan? It seems that the answer is a combination of yes and no.

This doesn't necessarily provide the answer as to whether or not western troops belong in Afghanistan right now. However, it does point to important considerations moving forward.

NATO must not lose its appetite to help defeat the Taliban. Equally important is not to slack off on nation-building after the Taliban is finally gone.

Otherwise, we simply risk creating another monster.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Leave No Man Behind

Following the end of the Vietnam War, many historians have argued that the United States' faith in itself had been shaken -- that the first and, to date, only military defeat the US ever suffered deeply wounded its public consciousness.

Many have argued that Rambo: First Blood 2 was symptomatic of those wounds. Popular theory holds that the film is an attempt to re-fight the Vietnam War, this time with the United States emerging as the victor.

There may be a case for that. But the film also presented the United States with another opportunity: that to go back and make good on what has become a popular mantra for the US Marine Corp:

Leave no man behind.

In the film, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), serving prison time for his rampage in First Blood, is approached with an offer from the United States government: participate in a reconnaissance mission to help identify and recover US servicemen still behind held in Vietnam.

Rambo agrees, and sets off for Vietnam. His mission is to reconnoiteur only -- he is forbidden from engaging the enemy. However, when he stages a rescue of a mistreated POW, the commander of the mission, Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier), calls off the recovery. Rambo is left in enemy hands.

After the arrival of Russian Lieutenant Colonal Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) in the Vietnamese camp, Rambo is tortured until he stages a daring escape.

Rambo even returns to the camp and liberates the POWs. He leaves no man behind.

At the end of the Vietnam war, nearly 2,000 Americans remained unaccounted for in Vietnam. To date, less than 600 have been accounted for.

While the United States had agreed to pay war reparations to Vietnam in exchange for the POWs, the government didn't deliver, and the POWs were withheld. Many of them never returned.

The urgency that no man be left behind clearly wasn't always shared by the US government, but is still felt by many even today. John McCain's efforts to account for POWs have proven to be a noble, if sometimes maligned portion of his record.

During the 2008 election, many slanderous tales were told about McCain being a collaborator during his time as a POW. There was absolutely no truth to them.

One of McCain's proudest records as a Congressman -- as a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate -- has been keeping diplomatic channels open with Vietnam in order to account for POWs still missing.

The likelihood of recovering any POWs alive had already grown slim by the 1980s. Today, many American POWs remain unaccounted for. There is almost no chance any of them are still alive. However, McCain has spent much of his career attempting to arrange the return of their remains to their families.

No Rambo-style mission into Vietnam is known to have ever been staged, let alone successfully free POWs.

Diplomacy has remained the last, best hope to recover these POWs. For many years, John McCain has been their Rambo -- even after their passing.