Being right and wrong about Iraq

I thought the Iraq war would be a catastrophe before it started (and wrote that at the time). Instead of feeling correct though, I mostly feel terribly. First, because there’s no pleasure in witnessing catastrophe. I’m a patriotic citizen of the country that’s destroying itself with its hubris, greed, bigotry and stupidity.

Secondly, when I read what I wrote about it 20 years ago I mostly think that by focusing on day-to-day, week-to-week news that I unwittingly obscuring the grand, historic nature of the catastrophe.

Some the jokes were ok though. November 2003:

So, is Iraq like Vietnam? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Like Vietnam, the war in Iraq is an unprovoked, internationally unpopular one motivated by the ideology of a president whose last name is slang for genitalia, rather than our real defense needs.

Here’s the full essay, from November 2003:

Should gay marriage be legal? Who killed JFK? Will al-Qaeda attack American soil again? Is that really Paris Hilton in the video? These are just some of the big questions occupying American minds and fueling the shouting matches on basic cable news shows. In the past few weeks, another question has joined the list — Is Iraq another Vietnam?

A lot of people who are opposed to the war or think that its going badly are inclined to think yes, Iraq is another Vietnam. Supporters of the war typically think that it isn’t, but even some of them are noticing the parallels. President Bush has yet to directly comment on the debate, but I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t think that Iraq and Vietnam are similar. After all, Iraq is the war he started. Vietnam is the one he dodged.

To understand the debate, you have to know what Vietnam means in the context of the question. Some history — Vietnam is a New Mexico-sized country in Southeast Asia that we fought in during the ’60s and early ’70s to keep it from going Communist. Our attempt to save Vietnam included dropping more bombs on it than we dropped during all of WWII. They weren’t even the precision-guided “smart bombs” that we have today. They were regular-old gravity, wind and momentum-guided dumb bombs. These bombs were so dumb — (Chorus shouts) “How dumb were they?” — they were so dumb that they not only killed Vietnamese civilians by the tens of thousands, but quite a few missed Vietnam altogether and hit neighboring Cambodia and Laos. But hey, better dead than Red, right?

Despite the bombs and, at one point, nearly half a million U.S. soldiers deployed there, we couldn’t stop Vietnam from going Commie. We lost the war, some national dignity, and 58,000 soldiers. Hence “Vietnam” is now shorthand for “long, unpopular, poorly planned, unwinnable war that sharply divides the country, turns allies against us, and is led by an arrogant, inept and dishonest presidential administration.”

So, is Iraq like Vietnam? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Like Vietnam, the war in Iraq is an unprovoked, internationally unpopular one motivated by the ideology of a president whose last name is slang for genitalia, rather than our real defense needs. Vietnam didn’t threaten us per se. It was a hot corner of the bigger Cold War and President Johnson wanted to fight there. Iraq didn’t threaten us. It did however stand in the way of President Bush’s desire to remake the Middle East into an American-friendly gas pump.

Also like Vietnam, the Iraq war was sold to Americans with a lie. In 1964, President Johnson got Congress to give him carte blanche to fight the Vietnam War by claiming that Communist North Vietnam attacked a U.S. naval vessel off the Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. Taped conversations prove that Johnson didn’t really believe the attacks had occurred. He used the alleged attack as a means to obtain war powers from Congress. Iraq’s Gulf of Tonkin-like lie was the false claim that Iraq posed a WMD threat to the United States or that it was somehow involved in the 9-11 attacks.

Like the Johnson White House during Vietnam, the Bush White House keeps spinning the war positively to suit its domestic political needs. The White House relentlessly asserts that the war is going great, while actively suppressing bad or sad news — such as preventing the media from photographing the coffins of dead returning soldiers. Like the “Pentagon Papers” leaked during Vietnam that told Americans what the government really thought of the war, it’s only through leaks that we’re finding out what the Bush administration thinks of this war (example: the leaked October memo in which Rumsfeld calls the Iraq war “a long, hard slog” and admitted that he has no way of knowing whether we’re winning or losing the War On Terror .)

Like the Johnson folk, the Bush people went into Iraq believing that American military might trumped all other considerations. Our inability to quell Iraqi resistance proves otherwise. We can win the military battles, but we’re losing Iraqi hearts and minds, just like in Vietnam.

And no, I will not e-mail you the Paris Hilton video.

Categorized as Words

How I’d Fix Atlanta

An essay I wrote about Atlanta last year:

How I’d Fix Atlanta: More Atlanta
Andisheh Nouraee

Twelve years ago, Atlanta Magazine asked me to write some pithy advice to then-incoming ATL Mayor Kasim Reed. If I’d known then what I know now, I could’ve offered suggestions such as “never tweet,” or perhaps “send regular ‘don’t do crimes’ reminders to everyone in your office.”

Instead, I suggested Reed come out and say that the BeltLine would never be the transit project its inventor Ryan Gravel intended. Indeed, the one its civic boosters said it would be. That it was instead destined to be a great linear park, and nothing more.

Twelve years later, the only mass transit on the BeltLine is people violating the “one rider at a time” rule on rental scooters. I was right. But I also think I missed the point entirely.

Read the rest at Austin L. Ray and, more importantly, subscribe to his free newsletter for great essays from great Atlanta writers and thinkers like King Williams, Sonam Vashi, Jewel Wicker, Thomas Wheatley, Darin Givens, Muriel Vega, Sarah Lawrence, Gray Chapman and of course, Austin L. Ray.

Big Dugnutt Energy

I visited Ashley Furniture today and noticed the names they give to their couches, chairs and tables sound like they came from the people who named the players in the video game Fighting Baseball – very similar to real names, but joyously just short of the mark.


Fighting Baseball:

Here’s Ashley Furniture, which I compiled into a video.

Categorized as Words

Godless tornadoes

The other day I was next to one of Decatur, Georgia’s outdoor warning sirens when it delivered its monthly test wail. I’ve heard it many times before (approximately monthly, in fact) but I’d never been so close to it while it was going off.

It’s very loud. So loud that for a minute I stopped what I was doing and thought about them.

Grosvenor Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland, where I went to kindergarten, had such a siren in its parking lot. It wasn’t a tornado siren though. It was an air raid siren. That’s what all of those sirens are.

My elementary school years were mid-late Cold War, and we were an ICBM’s throw from the U.S. Capitol, White House and Pentagon. So we had drills. Not duck-and-cover. More like a mellow fire drill, but the fire was Marxism-Leninism.

I recall when the siren was tested we’d gather and sit criss-cross applesauce*. I imagine many of us plugged our ears. I plugged mine the other day. Those things are loud.

My kids don’t know them as air raid sirens. We call them tornado sirens. Our town’s sirens, and probably your town’s sirens, are maintained via a grant from the federal government. The alarm hardware we built for the Cold War turned out to be more durable than the Soviet Union though. Rather than tear the sirens down and turning them into freedom funnels, we kept them and rebranded them. As tornado sirens.

The idea that tornadoes and Communists are co-equal threats to the American Way of Life isn’t recent. It was part of the popular discourse as early as 1979, coincidentally the year I was in kindergarten.

In an episode of the WKRP in Cincinnati, a sitcom about a struggling radio station, the hapless-but-self-serious news reporter Les Nessman panics because he doesn’t have a contingency plan for going on-air to talk about tornadoes. He does however, have a script for a Soviet invasion. At the station manager’s suggestion, Les repurposes his Soviet-invasion contingency plan for the tornado.

10 or so years later, hundreds of American municipalities pulled a Les Nessman, repurposing our nation’s air raid sirens to defend us against Communism’s windy cousin.

(*For those who haven’t been around kids since being casually racist in schools started going out of fashion, it’s the sitting Style Formerly Known as Indian.)

Categorized as Words

Whoomp, it is everywhere

Whoomp, there it is. Uf, ahí está. Ouf, ça y est. Puh, da ist es. Boh, eccolo. Угу, вот оно. Uff, oto jest. Hoppsan, där är den. Whoomp, ibi est. Uau, iată. Уф, еве го. Ουφ, ορίστε. Whoomp, tá sé. Aupa, hor dago. Whoomp, na de i de. 우와, 저기 있네. 哎呀,就是这样。Whoomp, hiyo hapo. ، یہ وہاں ہے. Woomp. Kai, akwai shi. Whoop, itu dia. おっと、そこです。وهاووومب ، ها هو. İşte burada. Hum, jen ĝi. Yaitu Begitu.

Categorized as Words

WQXI Solid Gold Atlanta time capsule

I found this in my in-laws’ basement. It’s a 2-LP, genre-agnostic compilation released by WQXI 790AM radio (still on-air today as Atlanta Radio Korea). It used to be sports talk and way before that it was a hugely popular top 40 that put out compilation LPs. No year is printed on it, but the songs on it I know suggest to me it’s 1970 or so.

It’s a fun time capsule: of the Atlanta skyline, old top 40 radio’s catholic approach to playlists, hair cuts, white supremacy, and the city’s media culture.

Unlike 2022’s iconic Downtown view (typically taken from the east – think Walking Dead), this 1970 view is taken from the south (think driving to Downtown from the airport). The image appears to be taken from the air, just across the highway from Georgia State stadium (formerly Turner Field).

The back cover shows Atlanta Stadium (later called Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, now the apartments and parking next to Georgia State stadium). Tasked with finding an image for this LP that screamed “Atlanta” to 1970 record-buying Atlantans, it’s interesting they went with a stadium. It was a bigger deal to have a pro sports stadium then.

Inside the gatefold is a yearbook of the station’s DJs, and a collage of snapshots that includes photos of Tiny Tim and Donovan. I assume they’re from station promo visits. The Donovan station visit might have been to promote his October 1969 concert in Atlanta. Donovan was also promoting, though maybe not intentionally, the popularity of the name girl name Jennifer. One of his hits at the time was “Jennifer Juniper”. Jennifer began its 15 year reign as the most popular baby girl name in Georgia the year after Donovan’s visit. If you’re a Georgia Gen-Xer named Jennifer, this LP sleeves offers you a faint whiff of the soil from which our bumper crop of Gen-X Jennifers grew.

I don’t recognize any of the DJs, all of whom appear to be white except for maybe George Strait (it’s hard to tell in the sketch, and no he’s not that George Strait). The station played black artists. It just didn’t appear to employ very many black people.

Despite the station’s seeming willingness to play anything that was a hit, few of the songs here ended up being top tier oldies radio staples. “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” is the biggest song here by far, and Kenny Rogers is the only artist here who became/remained a big star. “The Letter” was sung by Alex Chilton, who later was in Big Star, but was never a big star.

WQXI is said to have been the inspiration for the WKRP In Cincinnati. Perhaps the helicopter they took the photos from is the one they dropped the turkeys from.

Categorized as Words

Who is Viktor Bout?

The U.S. just got WNBA player Brittney Griner out of a Russian prison by trading imprisoned (in the U.S.) international arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bout has run guns for some of your favorite armies, including for the U.S. I wrote about him in 2007.

From August 2007:

Who is Victor Bout?

For several months, the White House and Pentagon have been telling the American public Iran is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq.

According to the U.S. government, media reports and two Iraq war veterans I’ve spoken to, militants in Iraq frequently attack American vehicles with Iranian-made explosives specially formed to penetrate armor.

Asked earlier this year whether he thought the Iranian government was responsible for sending the weapons to Iraq, President Bush offered this sarcastic reply: “What’s worse? That the government knew — or that the government didn’t know?”

Aww, snap!

How will the Iranian Ministry of Snappy Comebacks ever top that?

Turns out it doesn’t need to.

Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported the Pentagon lost 30 percent of the weapons it sent to Iraq between 2004 and 2007.

That’s 80,000 pistols and 110,000 AK-47 rifles purchased for Iraq’s military and police services gone missing.

What happened to these weapons? If the Pentagon knows, it isn’t saying.

They may be sitting in a warehouse somewhere. They may be in crates with checkered table cloths on top being used as dinner tables.

Or they may be in the hands of Iraqi insurgents and militia fighters, the people sending American soldiers and Marines home on stretchers and in coffins.

And the worst part: The Pentagon should have known its methods of funneling resources into Iraq were so insecure that a major security breach, such as 190,000 guns going missing, was inevitable.

The military doesn’t have enough transport capacity to move people, arms, equipment, food and fuel around on its own. It relies on private shippers. Among them is a man named Victor Bout (pronounced boot), thought to be one of the world’s pre-eminent black-market weapons merchants.

Born in Tajikistan of Russian parents, Bout came to prominence in the late 1990s for arming brutal civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola — the wars that introduced the phrase “blood diamond” into our vocabularies. He reportedly owns a large fleet of cargo aircraft and has a reputation for being able to get large amounts of almost every weapon imaginable to the remotest of locations. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have been complaining about him for nearly a decade. A guest on an Aug. 4, 2001, CNN program called him “a kingpin in the illegal small-arms trade.”

For a while in the 1990s, Bout armed the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Then, in 1995, one of his planes was reportedly captured by Taliban forces.

What some people might have considered a problem, Bout’s organization considered an opportunity. Western intelligence agencies believe Bout used his group’s encounter with the Taliban to make an arms deal. He switched sides and reportedly sold some $50 million of weapons to the Taliban in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In other words, Bout was arming the people who sheltered the terrorists who executed 9/11.

After 9/11, the U.S. government went after Bout. The Treasury Department tried to shut him down by going after his money.

Apparently the Pentagon didn’t get the memo.

Pentagon contractors hired Bout’s planes to move equipment in and out of Baghdad. Among the cargo Bout’s planes were supposed to have shipped: guns for Iraqi military and police.

In other words, the Pentagon paid a well-known double-dealer who sold tanks and guns to the Taliban to fly weapons into Iraq — at the same time the Treasury Department was trying to shut him down.

How many of the missing 190,000 guns were shipped by Bout is unclear. What’s clear, however, is that the missing 190K is just the tip of an iceberg.

Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah and L.A. Times reporter Stephen Braun have just co-authored a book about Bout that claims the United States paid him to ship 200,000 AK-47s to Iraq from Bosnia in 1994. The GAO and Pentagon have no clue where those weapons are now.

Braun and Farah’s book is titled, appropriately, Merchant of Death.