Archive for October, 2008

The Afghan Civilian Casualties Myth

Friday, October 31st, 2008

Bagram Air Base -Afghanistan

The myth of extensive civilian casualties caused by American bombing is the second-biggest myth in press coverage of Afghanistan. (The first is the use of the word “reconstruction” to describe the pretty near wholesale invention of infrastructure and the institutions of modern civil society here.) The myth has it that U.S. forces kill massive numbers of Afghan civilians, driving them into the arms of the Taliban.

On Oct. 26, I got the 2008 to-date figures for civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military from Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, the military spokesman at Bagram. These apply to the 14 provinces of Regional Command East, which doesn’t include the battleground provinces of Kandahar, Helman, Uruzgon and Zabul, which are patrolled by NATO.

In the first 300 days of 2008, there were 22 civilians killed in a variety of separate incidents; 35 confirmed by a CentCom investigation into the attack in Herat Province that has received so much attention; and a preliminary estimate of 20 to 30 in a July 6 incident under investigation in Nuristan. (The victims’ relatives said they were innocent civilians attending a wedding, but the strike on the gathering occurred at 4 a.m., Nielson-Green observed.) This would mean 77 to 87 in the 14 eastern provinces.

This tallies with what I have been able to find out about 2007. This past April, Col. Marty Schweitzer told me that in his area of operations–the six eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Ghazni, Logar and Wardak–just 11 civilians were accidentally slain by U.S. forces in 2007. I verified with the provincial maneuver commanders that one civilian each was killed in Khost and in Ghazni.

The Army numbers represent a 20% to 30% increase over last year, and Nielson-Green states that the upsurge is partly the result of greater activity by U.S. forces, trying to cut insurgent infiltration routes and destroy supply depots. The U.S. military is almost painfully unwilling to authorize strikes it thinks may cause civilian casualties. Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Said T. Jawab, told me in January of this year that “in Helmand, people will come to me and tell me that the Afghan government and U.S. military are too soft on the Taliban.” (more…)

Why Elite Women Hate Palin

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

“If Sarah Palin is qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, so am I!”

These words spoken by my friend Janet were true. But Janet hasn’t put herself in Palin’s position by running for office. She’s made films and renovated houses, cushioned by inherited money. And since she doesn’t have any kids, it’s hard to say what would have gotten in the way if she’d wanted to be in politics. She didn’t, though, any more than 99% of my women friends and acquaintances; she believes in cultivating one’s own garden.

Most women I’ve talked with about Palin–all certified members of either the media elite or the just plain elite–take her nomination personally. Their animus isn’t explained just by her politics; none of them hate Condoleezza Rice, though they disagree with most everything she’s done. Nor, for that matter, do they even dislike John McCain. Typically they “respect” McCain but find him too old or too erratic or simply adore Obama.

It’s as though Palin were an average girl from their boarding school class–or, frankly, from the public school down the road–who unexpectedly won a big prize. “Why not me?” is the subtext, and it’s one I’ve never heard from men talking about male politicians. Many New Yorkers hate George Bush, for instance, and say similar things about his and Palin’s lack of intellectual capability and curiosity about the wider world. But they don’t view him as a personal rival.

My friends who hate Palin are all more articulate and better educated than she is, better traveled, probably smarter, definitely more fun to talk with. But the reasons they can’t stand Palin are all wrong.

It’s not so much that Palin isn’t one of our own–an Ivy League type, or an Eastern preppie, or a self-made intellectual like Rice. It’s not for the fake feminist reasons that “she’s against freedom of choice” or “she didn’t tell her daughter about birth control.” (Though there is an element of hatred for her fertility, and the fact that it hasn’t impeded her rise.) It’s not because Palin only got a passport a few years ago and doesn’t speak any foreign languages.

No, it’s because Palin makes us look like the slackers we mainly are. We’ve had our bit of success, but we’ve also spent a lot of time smelling the roses. We’ve gone back to school to get another degree, volunteered in poor countries, devoted ourselves to a sport or a hobby. We’ve not had kids, or if we have, we’ve had one or two, and we’ve had nannies paid for by our work or our husbands or our inherited money.

We not only have had passports for decades, we’ve put serious mileage on them. We’ve lived overseas or spent months wandering around Africa or India, we understand foreign people and places in ways Palin never will–and yet it’s she who could become vice president, not one of us.

It’s not hard to see why. The boyfriend of one of my freshman roommates at Harvard is now governor of Massachusetts–a man no less and no more qualified than many of my classmates. Why him and not us? As with Palin, it comes down to wanting it badly enough and being singleminded. It means spending a lot of time in deadly dull meetings talking about school bond issues or where to put a new off-ramp.

It means spending a lot of time in small towns where no one you know has a country place or ever will. And except at the higher reaches, politics doesn’t offer much in the way of glamour or fame. I just got my absentee ballot here in New York City, and I didn’t recognize the names of the people running for Congress. (Jerrold Nadler or Grace Lin, anyone? Nadler has been the congressman from New York’s 8th District since 1992, and Grace Lin is a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago whose previous experience is as a committeewoman for a Chicago ward. While her chances of victory are nil in this district, her Web site is frighteningly sketchy on the issues.)

People who become writers and intellectuals and artists tend not to want power that badly or pursue it that obsessively, which is what makes us interesting and fun–and makes few of us household names. Success at the Palin level in politics or business takes a level of blinkered self-confidence that comes mainly to (a very few) men. A lot of the people with this quality are annoying to be around. Maybe they aren’t very happy with themselves. But it’s not a surprise that a vice presidential nominee should be one of them.

The lesson of Sarah Palin for privileged women is to try harder. And that may be the toughest one to hear.