Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 7, 2014

A rejoinder to Vijay Prashad on the Islamic State

Filed under: Iraq,Jihadists,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Vijay Prashad

I have no trouble understanding why so much of the left supported Bashar al-Assad from the very beginning of the Syrian revolt that began in March of 2011. It was a no-brainer. On one side you had the Venezuelan and Cuban governments throwing their full support behind the Baathists and on the other side there was Samantha Power and John McCain calling for “regime change”.

The analysis went something like this. The CIA was behind the Syrian protests and no matter how many times the protesters said they were for human rights and democracy, there was always lurking behind the scenes Saudi and Qatari money and Wahhabi politics. Furthermore, the real target of the Syrian insurgency was not just the Baathist government. Once a beachhead was established, the next targets would be Hizbollah in Lebanon and Iran. Using “moderates” in the FSA and the more obvious jihadists like those affiliated with al-Qaeda, US foreign policy would achieve its ultimate goal—to weaken Soviet (sorry, I meant Russian) influence in the Middle East—the last barrier to NATO and American hegemony.

Now, as it turns out, none of this was true. In a sense, it was a “no brainer” but only understood that such an analysis did not require a brain but rather some nimble fingers that could navigate Global Research, WSWS.org et al on a daily basis. Despite the hysteria that arose last September about Obama’s plan to make war on Syria in order to achieve Samantha Power type “regime change”, the net result has been a coalescing of Syria, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and the USA against ISIS, arguably the only genuine jihadist group operating in the region. To try to explain or explain away ISIS does require a nimble brain and nimble fingers. Some on the “anti-imperialist” left continue to view ISIS as a CIA tool. For them there is no medication that is powerful enough to cure such delusions.

When I received email from Vijay Prashad announcing a series of articles on ISIS for the The Hindu, I was very curious to see what he had to say. I hadn’t been following Vijay all that closely since he had made some serious analytical mistakes, at least in my opinion (who else?). He had written a number of articles predicting a regional settlement of the war in Syria, the best hope for an intractable situation. No such luck, needless to say. Following him on Twitter, I was dismayed to see him give credit to the report that there had been a landslide victory for Bashar al-Assad in the last “election”. I don’t tend to pay much attention to tweets, but conveyed my displeasure to Vijay (I am sure he did not lose any sleep over this.)

After reading the first article (The Pendulum of the Islamic State), one cannot help but conclude that ISIS and the al-Nusra front are operating in concert against the Syrian army:

Intense fighting along the belt that links Mhardeh and Houla suggests that IS and its allies (including its fractious cousin, Jabhat al-Nusra) have the ability to threaten the western coastal towns of Tartous and Latakia. The Syrian Army was able to block an al-Nusra and IS advance toward the largely Christian town of Mhardeh. Tension remains high as morale in the IS soars.

I am not quite sure what the adjective “fractious” indicates. It is a synonym for grumpy, something that would describe me but in political terms—I have no idea. More to the point, isn’t it the case that al-Nusra is aligned with al-Qaeda that expelled ISIS? And isn’t the case that ISIS has drawn many of al-Nusra’s fighters if for no other reason that it has ample arms and money?

For those who stick with al-Nusra, a group that at least has the merit of having fought against the Baathists if nothing else, the costs are significant. When al-Qaeda leader Abu Khaled al-Suri came to Syria to make peace between ISIS and other rebels, he was killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in Aleppo. Something tells me that given such a background, the term “allies” does not apply to al-Nusra and ISIS. Since Vijay is based in the region, maybe he is privy to information we have no access to. Let’s hope he can shed some light.

Chugging along with this article, I was struck by Vijay’s assertion that the US was “egging on” the rebels’ Southern Front to seize Damascus. And what would be the leverage they need to accomplish such a task? Vijay observes: “The U.S. trains Syrian rebels in the deserts of eastern Jordan.” I don’t know what use any kind of training would be to foot soldiers facing an air force that can launch missiles filled with 400 pounds of TNT. Maybe the training involves reading some Maoist tracts about the importance of a fighting spirit. Who knows?

And finally there’s this. Vijay feels that as long as there is economic inequality, the threat of jihadism will arise. He writes:

Political reforms need to be on the cards. So too must an alternative to the economic agenda pursued in both Iraq and Syria since the mid-2000s. Under U.S. pressure, the Assad and al-Maliki governments pursued neo-liberal policies that increased inequality and despair. 

Well, look, I don’t think that any kind of pressure had to be applied to Bashar al-Assad. That would be like breaking down an open door. The Baathists adopted neo-liberal policies for the same reason that Mubarak did. The Syrian bourgeoisie existed on the basis of the classic “crony capitalism” that made the poor suffer so that both the Sunni and non-Sunni elite in Damascus could continue to live high on the hog. They didn’t need any pressure from the USA to screw the plebian masses of the provincial capitals and the countryside. They did it all by themselves.

Moving right along to the next article, Metastasis of the Islamic State, I was struck by this explanation of how ISIS gained such battlefield prowess: “The Syrian war allowed the IS fighters great battlefield experience, and helped them draw in jihadis from around the world (including India, according to a July 23 report to the U.N. Security Council).” Battlefield experience? Really? With who? Surely not the Syrian army.

In fact ISIS’s main battles were with the FSA that had been battered for well over two years before ISIS emerged as a fighting force. If you had been the target of barrel bombs and 400 pounds of TNT missiles for that length of time and starved of weapons and other material aid, it is unlikely that you would be able to put up much of a fight especially when the Syrian army and ISIS were involved in a two-front pincer attack. If there were any significant battles between the Syrian army and ISIS until very recently, I don’t know of them. Maybe Vijay has information that would shed light on this question or maybe he was simply saying that ISIS became a formidable force operating against the FSA. I hope not.

Finally, there’s The geopolitics of the Islamic state. Since the whole question of geopolitics intrigues me, sort of the same way that an ingrown toenail does, I wondered where he would be going with this. After reading it, I am afraid that the wheels spun off the old Prashad wagon.

To start with, Vijay states that “ISIS entered the Syrian war in 2012 as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front).” Is that so? That would indicate one of two things, either that it split from al-Nusra Front or that al-Nusra transformed itself into ISIS, which is obviously not the case. The origins are a bit more complex. At one time the al-Nusra Front was receiving funding from ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) but on April 8, 2013 Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced that the only authorized fighting group (in a manner of speaking) would be ISIL. Al-Nusra was now persona non grata. Furthermore, getting funding from ISI does not indicate that it was a branch of ISI. I know that some of this can seem quite arcane but it really has to do with the need for clearer lines of demarcation, which are badly needed when writing about jihadists.

Vijay puts a lot of the blame for the viral outbreak of jihadism in Syria at Turkey’s doorstop:

The West’s backing of the rebellion provided cover for Turkey’s more enthusiastic approach to it. Intoxicated by the possibility of what Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu favoured as “neo-Ottomanism,” the Turkish government called for the removal of Assad and the emergence of a pro-Istanbul government in Damascus.

As someone who has followed Turkish politics rather carefully over the years, I find this analysis dubious. I think that the more likely explanation is AKP sympathy for their co-religionists. For example, when Turkey backs flotillas to Gaza, is that an expression of “neo-Ottomanism”? The more likely explanation is that the Anatolian elites have much in common ideologically and in class terms with formations like the Muslim Brotherhood. It would most certainly want to see its member parties prevail in Gaza and Egypt but why drag the Ottoman Empire into the equation?

Showing that he has been keeping up with Seymour Hersh, Vijay writes: “Turkey opened its borders to the ‘rat-line’ of international jihad, with planeloads of fighters from Libya and Chechnya flying into Turkey to cross into Syria to fight for ISIS and its offshoots.” Wow, pretty exciting. This would make for a good episode on Showtime’s “Homeland” but I think it would work more as fiction than fact.

What source would Vijay recommend for verifying that “planeloads” of jihadists poured into Turkey en route to Syria other than the sad and discredited Seymour Hersh? Would it be the English-language version of Al Akhbar in Lebanon where Vijay reports from occasionally? A Turkish newspaper reported:

According to English edition of Lebanese al Akhbar newspaper, thousands of jihadists are coming from Jordan to Turkey by through the air. The terrorists who come to the Yayladağ region of Hatay province of Turkey are being transferred to the Latakia region of Syria. It’s reported that thousands of jihadists transferred to Turkey during the non-stop transportation operations for weeks.

Syrian sources speaking to Aydınlık confirmed the transportation of the terrorists through the mentioned routes. They also stated that according to their sources, there is a huge discomfort in the Turkish state regarding the related issue.

Wikipedia describes al-Akhbar as “pro-Hezbollah”. If that is the case, I would take its reporting with a grain of salt especially in light of what transpired with one of its most well-known reporters. Once again from Wikipedia:

[Max] Blumenthal left Al Akhbar in June 2012 in protest at Al Akhbar’s coverage of the Syrian civil war. In an interview with The Real News he said that “It was too much to have my name and reputation associated with open Assad apologists when the scale of atrocities had become so extreme and when the editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar was offering friendly advice to Bashar al-Assad on the website of Al-Akhbar, you know, painting him as this kind of genuine, earnest reformer who just needed to get rid of the bad men around him and cut out some of the rich oligarchs who happened to be his cousins, and then everything would be fine. That was ridiculous.”

I would only hope that Vijay Prashad take some inspiration from Max Blumenthal in future reporting from the region, especially since he too has written for Al Akhbar.

 

 

June 18, 2014

An Obama-Al Qaeda axis against Syria and Iran? Really?

Filed under: Iraq,Jihadists,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

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On November 8th 2013, an article of mine titled “Why Obama Did Not Make War on Syria” appeared on CounterPunch. I imagine it was this kind of article that would incite email complaints recently to the good folks at CounterPunch along these lines as I learned from them:

Another violent message regarding “crypto zionist” Louis Proyect who deserves to be stabbed in the neck. He seems to incite these sorts of messages.

Likely the same individual wrote a comment on my blog as “killudeadkike”: “Louis Proyect = cypto-Zionist faggot White Nationalist.”

I suppose if I had been writing the same idiotic article as everybody else in 2013 about how Obama was preparing to invade Syria as stage one in a war on Iran, I wouldn’t be getting hate mail. But I’d rather get hate mail than write stupid bullshit like this:

Obama is hypocritically invoking international law to justify the escalation of a war that Washington has pursued in large measure through terrorist bombings carried out by its proxy forces in Syria. The operational alliance between the US and Al Qaeda underscores the criminal character of US foreign policy and the political fraud of the so-called “war on terror.”

That’s from the World Socialist Website. (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/05/01/syri-m01.html) If you do a search on “Syria” and “al Qaeda” there, you will find 71 articles all making the same point, as if American imperialism was in cahoots with Islamic fundamentalists.

These sorts of people made every effort to link the FSA to jihadists even as it was becoming clearer that they were mortal enemies. ISIS first gained a foothold in Raqqa, a city that had been liberated by the FSA and then fell to jihadist control.

A New Yorker magazine article described the tension that existed from the outset. Ironically, the jihadists were with the Jabhat al-Nusra front who would be superseded by the even more reactionary ISIS fighters. It was written exactly a month before the idiotic WSWS.org article appeared. Any socialist website that was reporting on Syria should have had an obligation to be aware of what was going on in Raqqa unless of course your only goal is to write cheap propaganda. The article titled “A Black Flag in Raqqa” describes a tense situation:

“There is no moderate Islam or extremist Islam,” the Jabhat member said calmly. “There is only Islam, and Islam is under attack in the West regardless of whether or not we hoist the banner. Do you think they’re waiting for that banner to hit us?” he said.

Abu Mohammad, an older man in a tan leather jacket and a white galabia (a loose, floor-length robe), interjected: “What we’re saying is, put the flag above your outposts, not in the main square of the city. We all pray, we all say, ‘There is no god but God,’ but I will not raise this flag.”

“This is an insult to people who died for the revolutionary flag,” said Abu Abdullah, a former English major at the university.

Some pundits are now attacking Obama for not having backed the “moderate” opposition in the FSA as if the USA ever had any interest in seeing a mass movement of Syrian “hicks” who had gotten pissed off at neo-liberalism running the government. Unlike most people content to write propaganda, I made a real effort to understand what the Syrian opposition stood for. That included a trip to Washington in September 2012 to cover a major rally in support of the revolution. You would think from reading the WSWS.org crapola that Senator McCain would be the featured speaker. Instead the people who spoke had a lot more in common with those who protested the invasion of Iraq, including the keynote speaker Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian professor from the U. of California. As I wrote at the time:

At San Francisco State University in the late 1980s, Bazian became the first Palestinian to be elected president of SFSU Associated Students and the Student Union Governing Board. He was the first student to win a second term as president in the history of SFSU. The election came as a result of a united front formed under the Progressive Coalition that brought together all the students of color organizations on a common platform and a joint political strategy.

At the national conference United States Student Association (USSA) held at UC Berkeley in 1988, Bazian co-lead a major walk-out that culminated in the organization adopting a progressive board of directors structure granting by a 2/3 vote at least 50% of the Seats to Students of Color.

Bazian was elected as a Chair of the National People of Color Student Coalition (NPCSC) and an executive board member of the USSA. In both, he took the lead on affirmative action, access to education, anti-apartheid efforts on college campuses, and the Central American Solidarity Movement. He authored resolutions, which were adopted by the USSA national conference in 1991 calling for cutting US aid to Israel and imposing sanctions for its sales of military equipment to apartheid South Africa.

But none of this would matter to the “anti-imperialist” propagandists. They were determined to paint the opposition to Bashar al-Assad as equivalent to the Afghan rebels that Reagan supported. They had persuaded themselves that Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi were on the front lines resisting imperialism like the Vietnamese in the 1960s but with Putin’s Russia serving the same role as the former Soviet Union. So what if this was a fantasy. When you are in the business of writing propaganda, the truth should not get in the way.

At the very time articles about Obama’s war on Syria and Iran spearheaded by jihadists were reaching a crescendo during Obama’s “red line” bluster, the NY Times reported that his administration had begun to tilt toward Syria and Iran:

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

“Whether they are dismayed by the way things played out in Egypt or by the growth of Al Qaeda in Syria, the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American foreign policy makers,” said William McCants, an expert on jihadist movements and a former senior adviser at the State Department. “It seems we are back to counterterrorism as a guiding focus for American policy.”

As we now know, the rapid progress made by ISIS in Iraq had drawn the USA and Iran even closer. The USA has reintroduced boots on the ground in Iraq for no other reason than to defend the Shi’ite government from jihadists. There is every likelihood that this is the first step in an escalating violence that could include drone strikes and aerial bombardment. Of course, if you had been paying close attention to Syria from the beginning, this eventuality would have been predictable as the LA Times reported on March 15, 2013:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Of course none of this registered on those who were predicting World War Three with the US Marines and al-Qaeda leading a joint attack on Syria and Iran as if it were a reenactment of “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Believe it or not, there are still some benighted souls who still believe this fiction, most egregiously Mike Whitney who is far more knowledgeable about the American economy (even when he is wrong) than he is about the Middle East.

In a rather febrile article titled “The ISIS Fiasco: It’s Really an Attack on Iran” on today’s CounterPunch, he tries to convince his readers that Iran remains the main target.

Whitney wonders why ISIS is running wild in Iraq. The answer must be that Obama is secretly pulling their strings:

When was the last time an acting president failed to respond immediately and forcefully to a similar act of aggression?

Never. The US always responds. And the pattern is always the same. “Stop what you are doing now or we’re going to bomb you to smithereens.” Isn’t that the typical response?

Sure it is. But Obama delivered no such threat this time. Instead, he’s qualified his support for al-Maliki saying that the beleaguered president must “begin accommodating Sunni participation in his government” before the US will lend a hand. What kind of lame response is that?

Now I would not want to ascribe motives to Whitney of the sort that I have had to endure from people like “killudeadkike” but I wonder if this means he would have been assuaged by a few drone strikes here and there against the terrorists instead of just a “lame response”. But then again, I have to remind myself that Whitney is a man of peace (except when it comes to the well-placed barrel bomb of course.)

The only conclusion that Whitney can draw is that the US is secretly backing ISIS in order to pressure Maliki into including more Sunnis into his government rather than marginalizing them, a policy that everybody still connected to reality understands is the cause of the revolt in Mosul.

Although I have some major differences with Patrick Cockburn, I think he is more reliable on the topic of Sunni resistance than Mike Whitney:

In December 2012 the arrest of the bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, by the government led to widespread but peaceful protests in Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq, Sunni Arabs making up about a fifth of Iraq’s 33 million population. At first, the demonstrations were well-attended, with protesters demanding an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community. But soon they realised that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was offering only cosmetic changes and many stopped attending the weekly demonstrations.

Meanwhile, we’ll know soon enough whether the USA is secretly egging on jihadists against Shi’ite governments in the Middle East and Iran. We already know that drone strikes are continuing on a daily basis against Islamic radicals all around the planet so it would be remarkable if ISIS were to be spared especially when Iraq’s largest oil refinery is under attack. Some experts describe the war in Iraq as the “biggest petroleum heist in history”, a real calamity for its people:

That makes this the biggest petroleum heist in history. And we’re supposed to believe that the oil bigwigs didn’t know anything about this before the war? What a crock! I’ll bet you even money the CEOs and their lackeys figured out that Saudi Arabia was running out of gas, so they decided to pick up stakes and move their operations to good old Mesopotamia. That’s why they put their money on Bush and Cheney, because they knew that two former oil men would do the heavy lifting once they got shoehorned into the White House.

Oh, I almost forgot. The guy who wrote this article is none other than Mike Whitney.

February 18, 2012

The black bloc, jihadism, and Counterpunch

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,black bloc idiots,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Anybody who reads Counterpunch on a regular basis as I do (I also donated $50 to a recent fund-drive and subscribe to the electronic version of the newsletter—so I do understand its value) must be aware of its two highest priority talking points of late:

1. Al-Qaeda type jihadists are a terrible danger to al-Assad’s Syria and good enough reason to back the dictator. For example, Peter Lee wrote an article in this weekend’s edition:

More worryingly, al-Qaeda’s enthusiastic attempt to piggyback on the spiraling unrest in Syria—and the car bombings in Aleppo which, if not the work of Zawahiri’s minions, can probably be traced back to al-Qaeda’s Gulf-funded Sunni Islamist fans in western Iraq—are a warning that backing the feckless SNC in an agenda of regime collapse is not going to be the carefree, Iran-bashing romp so many interventionists are advertising.

2. Chris Hedges’s attack on the black bloc is an ominous threat against radical politics in the U.S. and every effort must be mounted to defend the vandalistas, either critically or uncritically. One of the prime examples is an article that appeared in the February 9th edition by Peter Gelderloos, the author of the aptly named “How Nonviolence Protects the State”. In the article, titled “The Surgeons of Occupy”, Gelderloos draws an unfortunate amalgam between the black bloc and the anarchist movement as a whole: “But beneath the black masks, anarchists have been an integral part of the debates, the organizing, the cooking and cleaning in dozens of cities.” So, in effect, when Hedges attacks vandalism, he is also attacking cooking and cleaning—I suppose. I say suppose because Gelderloos, like many black bloc aficionados, is skilled at demagogy. Or more accurately, uses demagogy rather ineffectively to avoid a serious debate.

I had no idea who Gelderloos was, but was intrigued to discover in the midst of a spittle-flecked attack on me by a Kasama Project commenter (I am a “Pseudo-Trotskyist renegade… practicing revisionist right-deviationism”) that “Gelderloos makes statements of support for the mass-murder of Spanish civilians by the right-wing Muslim group Al-Qaeda” in “How Nonviolence Protects the State”.

Wow, how about that!

As it turns out, there is a pdf version of the book. Wasting no time, I tracked down the passage in question and converted into regular text:

A good case study regarding the efficacy of nonviolent protest can be seen in Spain’s involvement with the US-led occupation. Spain, with 1,300 troops, was one of the larger junior partners in the “Coalition of the Willing.” More than one million Spaniards pro-tested the invasion, and 80 percent of the Spanish population was opposed to it, but their commitment to peace ended there—they did nothing to actually prevent Spanish military support for the invasion and occupation. Because they remained passive and did nothing to disempower the leadership, they remained as powerless as the citizens of any democracy. Not only was Spanish Prime Minister Aznar able and allowed to go to war, he was expected by all forecasts to win reelection—until the bombings. On March 11, 2004, just days before the voting booths opened, multiple bombs planted by an Al-Qaida-linked cell exploded in Madrid train stations, killing 191 people and injuring thousands more. Directly because of this, Aznar and his party lost in the polls, and the Socialists, the major party with an anti-war platform, were elected into power. The US-led coalition shrunk with the loss of 1,300 Spanish troops, and promptly shrunk again after the Dominican Republic and Honduras also pulled out their troops. Whereas millions of peaceful activists voting in the streets like good sheep have not weakened the brutal occupation in any measurable way, a few dozen terrorists willing to slaughter noncombatants were able to cause the withdrawal of more than a thousand occupation troops.

So nonviolence lacks “efficacy” but killing 191 Spaniards in train stations does not. A while back, I made a big deal about a book on Infoshop.org making the case that the black bloc is following in the steps of the Weathermen but this reaches level of insanity that simply takes my breath away.

What can we say about this? Can we make a connection between the black bloc and jihadism? Probably not. But I would say this. Alexander Cockburn would be well-advised to exercise a bit more editorial scrutiny in the future. I know that it gets hard when you hit 71 to stay on top of details but I am quite sure that there would be any number of interns out there who would be willing to give him a hand, if for no other reason to spare a once very admired journalist from allowing his website to embarrass itself further.

May 3, 2011

Code name Geronimo

Filed under: Jihadists,pakistan,war — louisproyect @ 1:50 pm

The code name for Bin Laden was “Geronimo.” The president and his advisers watched Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, on a video screen, narrating from his agency’s headquarters across the Potomac River what was happening in faraway Pakistan.

“They’ve reached the target,” he said.

Minutes passed.

“We have a visual on Geronimo,” he said.

A few minutes later: “Geronimo EKIA.”

Enemy Killed In Action. There was silence in the Situation Room.

Finally, the president spoke up.

“We got him.”

–NY Times, May 2, 2011

* * * *

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/the-big-question-who-was-geronimo-and-why-is–there-controversy-over-his-remains-1714167.html

The Big Question: Who was Geronimo, and why is there controversy over his remains?

By Guy Adams
Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Why are we asking this now?

The US government has been dragged into a bizarre legal battle between descendants of the Apache leader Geronimo and a secret society of Yale students called Skull and Bones, whose members allegedly raided his grave during the First World War. Yesterday, the Justice Department asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed in February, on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death, seeking to recover the legendary warrior’s remains and re-bury them near to his birthplace in the Gila Wilderness of southern New Mexico.

The legal action, by 20 descendants of Geronimo, claims a group of Skull and Bones members, including George W Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, took his skull from Fort Sill in Oklahoma in 1918. The artefact has allegedly been stored in a glass case at the organisation’s clubhouse in New Haven, Connecticut ever since. The Justice Department became involved because Barack Obama and his defence secretary Robert Gates are named alongside the Skull and Bones society as co-defendants, due to the fact that Geronimo was initially buried on public land.

So who was Geronimo?

For much of his lifetime, Geronimo was considered the greatest terrorist in America. These days, he’s feted as a fearless guerrilla fighter, whose famously brave troops were the last American Indian force to hold out against the United States.

Born Goytholy, meaning “the one who yawns,” he took up arms when his wife, children and mother were massacred by Mexicans in 1851. His nickname stems from daring retaliatory raids, when he led men on cavalry charges, often into a hail of bullets. Legend has it that victims would scream a plea to St Jerome (hence “Jeronimo!”) as they died.

Geronimo evaded capture for more than three decades. Though wounded countless times, he was never defeated, and his men are perhaps the most effective light cavalry force in military history. They numbered no more than a couple of hundred at any one time, but are said to have killed more than 5,000 enemies.

Why did he fight?

Geronimo was a member of the Chiricahua Apache tribe whose homelands in the deserts of New Mexico were annexed first by Mexico and later by the United States during its expansion into the south-west during the 19th century. His insurgency was part of a wider rebellion by Native Indians against their treatment by white settlers, who carried out what in modern terms might be called ethnic cleansing: removing tribes from ancestral territories and (in some cases) placing a bounty on their scalps. Geronimo’s success was down to old-fashioned derring-do, and sheer good luck. Because of repeated close shaves with mortality, many followers believed he was resistant to bullets. His men were adept at using their opponents’ technology – including rifles and pistols – against them.

How was he captured?

After more than 30 years the US General Nelson Miles tracked Geronimo to Arizona. The rebels were exhausted after decades on the run, and their number had dwindled to just 36 men, many of whom (including their leader) had taken to heavy drinking. In the autumn of 1886, Geronimo negotiated a tactical surrender, agreeing to lay down his arms on condition that his followers would be allowed to disband and return home to their families. But the US reneged on its promises, and promptly took Geronimo and his troops into custody. They spent seven years in prison in Alabama before being transferred to Fort Sill, where they lived out the rest of their days in a form of open prison.

What became of him?

Ironically, Geronimo’s fame only grew during his year in captivity. He became a local celebrity, charging visitors to Fort Sill to have their photo taken with him, and keeping a stock of autographed cards and other souvenirs to sell to tourists. In old age, he was constantly interviewed (for a small fee) by the US press, and took part in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Circus, where performers recreated his most daring battles. He was a star attraction at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, and had a prominent place in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905.

Having embraced capitalism, Geronimo also took up the white man’s religion, converting to Christianity saying he believed it to be “better than the religion of my forefathers.” He joined the Dutch Reformed Church in 1903, but was expelled four years later, apparently for gambling. He died in 1909, at the age of 79.

What happened to his remains?

Three members of the Skull and Bones society, including Prescott Bush, were stationed at an artillery school at Fort Sill during the First World War. In a bizarre prank, they are rumoured to have dug up his grave, and taken his skull and femurs back to their alma mater.

Why does this matter?

Although unproven, the alleged desecration of Geronimo’s grave carries significant political baggage. Like Chief Sitting Bull, who defeated General Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn, Native Americans view him as a symbol of their people’s righteous rebellion against white colonialists. Geronimo is also firmly embedded in the US psyche as a symbol of bonkers bravado. Paratroopers shout his name after leaping from aeroplanes, apparently as part of a tradition that began in 1940, when they prepared for their first mass jump by watching the film “Geronimo.” In a scene based on one of its subject’s many narrow escapes – and mimicked by generations of schoolchildren – the movie’s hero yells his own name as he leaps from a cliff into a river to escape capture by approaching soldiers.

What is the Skull and Bones?

Adding to the intrigue is long-standing public fascination with the Skull and Bones society, an organisation of privileged Yale Students whose alumni include both Presidents Bush and John Kerry. The club, founded at the Ivy League school in 1832, selects 15 new members each year. They are sworn in at the “Tomb,” a windowless campus clubhouse which is purported to hold the skulls of a range of famous figures, including Che Guevara. During the initiation ceremony, recruits are apparently required to kiss the skull of Geronimo, which is said to be held in a glass case near the door, and take a solemn oath to support fellow members.

Since the society is secret – it has never clarified the exact contents of the “Tomb” – some regard it as vaguely sinister. Others say it is a harmless networking organisation. In this respect, it is perhaps best described as an upmarket version of the Freemasons.

What happens next?

The lawsuit by Geronimo’s descendants was filed in a federal district court in Washington DC, and seeks: “to free Geronimo, his remains, funerary objects and spirit from 100 years of imprisonment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Yale University campus at New Haven, Connecticut and wherever else they may be found.”

Presuming the case isn’t immediately thrown out – and the political ramifications of doing so would be enormous – the court’s immediate next step must be to determine if the Skull and Bones society really does own Geronimo’s disputed skull.

Does the Skull and Bones society really have Geronimo’s skull?

Yes

*The Skull and Bones has repeatedly refused to discuss the skull, still less surrender it for DNA testing

*A letter written in 1918 by a society member says it gained possession of it

*A history of the society written in 1933 claimed that Prescott Bush ‘engaged in a mad expedition’ at Fort Sill to obtain Geronimo’s skull

No

*Geronimo’s grave was miles from where Prescott Bush was stationed

*The exact location of Geronimo’s grave was unmarked at the time of the alleged theft

*Historians say that, while the Skull and Bones may very well have a Native Indian’s skull, it is unlikely to be that of Geronimo

October 30, 2007

A Mighty Heart

Filed under: Film,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

This is the time of year when I begin to get DVD’s from major Hollywood studios in anticipation of the New York Film Critics Online awards ceremony in December. While we are a lot scruffier than the Oscars jury, our picks do get a fair amount of press play since the Internet is becoming a more trusted source of movie reviews than print.

Last night I watched “A Mighty Heart,” a docudrama about the kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002 by jihadists in Karachi, Pakistan. The film focuses on the emotional roller coaster of his wife Mariane, who is played by Angelina Jolie–touted as a possible Oscar best actress.

I enjoyed “A Mighty Heart” in the same way that I enjoyed “United 93,” another docudrama that grew out of the maelstrom following 9/11. Both films avoid strident editorializing about “Islamofascism” and are content to allow the events to unfold methodically as a kind of diary. Since both films are directed by Britons, perhaps this is no accident. With such compelling subject matter, there really is no need for embellishment. They also made the wise choice to cast non-marquee actors in all the leading roles, with the exception made of course for the highly bankable Angelina Jolie. By contrast, Daniel Pearl is played by Dan Futterman, whose career has mostly involved minor television roles on “Sex and the City,” “Will and Grace,” etc.

Another important calculation in “A Mighty Heart” is to make this a movie much more about Mariane Pearl than her husband. The screenplay is based on Mariane Pearl’s book, of the same title, which is an account of her unsuccessful struggle to save her husband’s life and a relatively more successful struggle to make sense of the ordeal. You see Daniel Pearl on his way to his appointment with Omar Sheikh, the kidnapping ringleader, but never afterwards. By leaving out the ordeal that led up to and included his beheading, the film therefore reduces the element of sensationalism that typifies more mainstream movie-making.

Unfortunately, many of the deeper insights found in the book are not reflected in the screenplay, which obviously could have only been conveyed through voice-over narration. Mariane Pearl’s dialog mostly consists of impatient imprecations hurled at the Pakistani cops alternating with appeals to them to follow up leads she digs up. Not given much to work with, Jolie turns in a serviceable performance.

What drives the plot forward is the detective work of the Pakistani and American cops, who come across as morally and politically compromised throughout, working in tandem with the WSJ reporters. When Mariane Pearl first approaches a top Pakistani cop, she is told that her husband was looking for trouble by interviewing a jihadist to being with. He also wonders if he was an Indian spy, a charge that mirrors the jihadist claim that he was working for the CIA and/or Mossad. As the vice tightens on the network that organized his kidnapping, one of the arrested men is tortured by Pakistani police. The CIA agent who has been assigned to the case assures Mariane Pearl that the Pakistani cops will hang suspects by their feet and worse to get information. By revealing this dimension of the police work around Pearl’s kidnapping, “A Mighty Heart” is a reminder that the forces of law and order are often no better than the criminals they are pursuing.

If you want to really understand who Daniel Pearl was, you have to look elsewhere. I strongly recommend the HBO documentary “Journalist and the Jihadi: the murder of Daniel Pearl” that can be ordered here. This film reveals Daniel Pearl as a forthright and courageous journalist who was just the opposite of a lackey of US foreign policy. Despite the Wall Street Journal’s editorial stance in favor of the “war on terror,” Pearl was quite sympathetic to Arab and Islamic culture, so much so that he got the nickname “Danny of Arabia” in the WSJ newsroom.

Mariane Pearl’s book recounts an early encounter between her husband and Omar Sheikh, who was known to him as Bashir:

As they were leaving, Danny asked Bashir if he thought he could arrange an appointment with Gilani [a radical cleric who was meant to lure Pearl into a trap.] Bashir answered that he would try, but Danny would first have to prove first that he was “neither anti-Islamic nor anti-Pakistani” by sending a collection of his articles. Another hurdle. If the articles passed muster, the meeting would take place in the capital after our return from Peshawar.

As it turns out, the HBO website for “Journalist and the Jihadi” has a collection of Pearl’s WSJ articles that are well worth reading. Perhaps an article about a revival of pop music in Iran was “proof” of his CIA connections. Mostly they reflect an independent streak that defies any easy connection with US foreign policy–unlike the newspaper’s editorial pages. One of the more interesting pieces is a refutation of the claim that there was genocide in Kosovo in line with Edward Herman and Diana Johnstone’s articles:

British and American officials still maintain that 10,000 or more ethnic-Albanian civilians died at Serb hands during the fighting in Kosovo. The U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has accused Serbs of covering up war crimes by moving bodies. It has begun its own military analysis of the Serb offensive.

But the number of bodies discovered so far is much lower — 2,108 as of November, and not all of them necessarily war-crimes victims. While more than 300 reported grave sites remain to be investigated, the tribunal has checked the largest reported sites first, and found most to contain no more than five bodies, suggesting intimate acts of barbarity rather than mass murder.

Even if Pearl’s reporting had an anti-Arab or anti-Islamic tilt, it was a terrible error to kidnap and kill him. The tendency of jihadists to kidnap or kill reporters makes them susceptible to needless condemnation in the West. When a reporter has a demonstrable willingness to report fairly about events on the ground, as was the case with Daniel Pearl or the Christian Science Monitor’s Jill Carroll, it makes the insurgents look like barbarians. In trying to understand the difference between the antiwar movement of today and that of the 1960s and 70s, one must first of all recognize that the absence of a draft today reduces an irritant that would coalesce a much more powerful and massive movement around the war in Iraq. The other important factor is the utter inability of the jihadists to think in class terms. The Vietnamese were always thinking of possible wedges that could be driven between ordinary Americans and the ruling class strategists who were trying to conquer the country. Unfortunately, as reflected through one miscalculation after another, the jihadists end up using superglue rather than wedges. Perhaps the only thing that explains continuing resistance to the war is the fact that the ruling class strategists of today are even more boneheaded than those of the 1960s and 70s.

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