middle east

Iraq’s goofy “Anti-ISIS” propaganda commericals

Here are two videos which are supposedly being shown on Iraqi television. I’m ambivalent about them. At first, I thought it was pretty cool that they’re putting something out there countering the ISIS narrative. Good on them – comparing ISIS to rats and the Iraqi military as a lion with the support of eagles (a very obvious nod to the US, I think). The second video depicts a crazed, wild-eyed jihadist playing with a snake before a kitted-out Iraqi commando shows up at the door ready to do the business.

Well done, I thought.

I wonder, though, how Iraqis might see these videos. They’re pretty freaking cheesy, and I think cheesiness knows no boundaries in an age where everyone watches American movies. The one with the lion looks like the final project for a computer graphics major at a community college. It reminds me of this silly intro I had to sit through over and over again when I was at Fort Bragg and went to the movies on the weekends.

Maybe I’m just being overly critical. Maybe everyone thinks these are awesome.

ISIS, for their part, does a pretty good job with media. What’s going on here?

 

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middle east

Khalid ibn al-Walid, the “Sword of God”

Khalid ibn al-Walid

I’ve always been fascinated by Khalid ibn al-Walid. He is a sort of folk hero in the early Islamic tradition. Nicknamed the “Sword of God,” he is credited with helping spread Islam in the days of the prophet and after his death.

Outside of the old texts, I’ve only found one biography about him, written by a Pakistani General in 1969.

Inside the tradition, he is described as being a fearless warrior. Today, his name often appears alongside modern day Islamic radicals as a source of inspiration, as it did in the 2011 shooting of US Airmen in Germany.

The site of al-Walid’s mausoleum in Syria was being used as a headquarters for anti-Syrian rebels until it was wrestled away from them last summer.

While in graduate school, I wrote a paper on the way he is depicted in the Islamic tradition (read here). At times, al-Walid is revered as a magnificent warrior, while simultaneously disdained for being reckless. Here are some of the excerpts from that paper that readers of this blog might find interesting:

According to al-Waqidi, after the three appointed Muslim commanders were killed, Khalid assumed command and rallied the shaken Muslim troops bringing the battle to a draw.  The maghazi details the tactics Khalid uses to effect the outcome, such as making it appear [to the Byzantines] that Muslim reinforcements were arriving by circling his troops and changing the color of their [the Muslims'] banners.  These depictions seem to be an attempt to highlight Khalid’s military prowess and skill as a tactician. 

After being publicly censured for killing some prisoners:

Although the misdeed appears to be serious, Khalid is not dismissed and faced no real punishment.  In relation to this event, al-Waqidi informs us that Muhammad says (presumably later) “Do not curse Khalid b. al-Walid for surely he is one of the swords of God who drew his sword against the polytheists!”  Khalid’s actions are not explained away, but they appear to be tolerated given his overall service to the Muslims.

On Khalid’s dedication to the prophet and military prowess:

The last narrative in the maghazi concerning Khalid’s actions against the B. Jadhima eulogize Khalid by denoting in quick sequence the highlights of his career.  These include Khalid’s panic when his cap fell from his head in the midst of battle, and he ignored the battle to find his headgear, which contained a forelock of the Prophet’s hair.  Upon Khalid’s death, an attendant describes his body saying “no part of him was left unmarked by either a blow from a  sword, the piercing of a spear or the throw of an arrow head.”  Lastly, al-Waqidi claims that Umar forgives Khalid for his actions, saying “He was one of the swords of God!”

middle east

Return of the Infidel

The other day, a reader who named himself كافر (infidel) left this comment on my post Infidel Redux:

I’m curious to know if you still think that things shouldn’t be looked at in a religious sense, now that ISIS is beheading Christian children. I for one am a proud Christian infidel, and IMHO this battle is religious in nature, whether you want to see it or not.

There’s been a lot of traffic to my infidel posts over the past few weeks, no doubt spurred by interest based on the lightning advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq (see here for a good documentary on the group from Vice News). To answer the question the reader raised – has my position changed now that ISIS is beheading Christian children (an un-verified accusation, by the way), my answer is “no.”

The tragic news of James Foley’s gruesome murder also does not change my position. To summarize, I am of the belief that proudly wearing, displaying, or seeing oneself as an “infidel” is unprofessional in a modern military force (and punishable under UCMJ), colors the conflict in religious hokum that doesn’t have a place in our war rhetoric, and plays directly into the enemy’s plan.

One of the smoldering remnants of the Global War on Terrorism is the way troops have embraced the term “infidel” as a kind of scarlet letter. Tattoos, t-shirts, bumper stickers, custom patches, knives forged in pigs blood – a whole industry has cropped up around the term. Dehumanization in war is normal – it happens in every war. That, however, is not an excuse for it.

From Foreign Affairs (ISIS’ Gruesome Gamble):

If the United States decided to step in on behalf of its allies — as it did — then ISIS must have believed that it would be able to strengthen its position within the jihadi camp. ISIS could use the bombings as evidence that the United States is waging a war on Islam, and to portray itself as the defender of Muslims from “Crusader” aggression. In other words, ISIS would steal a page right out of al Qaeda’s playbook.

I'll see your jihadThe advance of ISIS, their brutal behavior, and the language they use themselves (constantly referring to others as infidels) has revalidated those who have embraced the infidel term. It’s an affirmation of their beliefs and it’s convenient to cast a conflict in religious terms – a cosmic struggle where both sides have the backing of God. On social media and on the web, outrage is spilling out – rightfully so – over the behavior of ISIS. But among military folk, that response is often being colored through “proud infidel” language. “I’ll see your Jihad and raise you a Crusade” is a popular phrase, often coupled with an image of a fantasy medieval knight.

It’s unlikely that the infidel trend will dissipate any time soon. Troops are still rotating in and out of war zones in the Middle East and there is an aggressive market ready to cash in on t-shirts and patches. No matter how nasty things get, and no matter how much “they” call us infidels, wrapping ourselves in their terminology plays into their own twisted fantasy while putting ourselves at risk of further dehumanization.

middle east

So you wanna know about the Middle East?

Battle of Karbala

A friend recently sent me an email asking for book recommendations to get up to date on the Middle East. I didn’t have any good recommendations for her, but what I did share was the list of news sources and blogs that I read daily that helps keeps me up to date.

Shortly after firing off that email, I realized that it was a pretty good list and would make a good post.

Below are the sources in my feedly list that I have collected over the years.

If you know of any good ones that aren’t listed here, please let me know in the comments.

News:
Al Jazeera English (Middle East): News outlet with a focus on the Middle East.
Baghdad Bureau (New York Times): This is the ‘At War’ Blog at the New York Times. It often runs essays by military/veteran personalities and others usually in regards to wars in the Middle East.
Middle East Channel (Foreign Affairs): Short excerpts from Foreign Affairs on the Middle East.
NYT>Islam: News from the New York Time’s Islam section.
NYT>Middle East: News from the New York Time’s Middle East section.
The Independent – Middle East: News from The Independent’s (UK) Middle East section.
Robert Fisk: Controversial and outspoken journalist that covers the Middle East.
WP: Middle East: News from the Washington Post’s Middle East section.
BBC News – Middle East: Middle East section of the BBC.

Blogs:
hawgblawg – Ted Swedenburg, ME anthropologist. Mostly blogs about the kufiya and Arab pop music.
Informed Comment- Juan Cole. ME Studies Professor. Liberal bent. Very good ME stuff.
Jihadology – a source for translated statements from muslim extremist groups.
MEI Blog – Blog of the Middle East Institute. Sporadic historical posts.
al-bab – Blog of Brian Whitaker, Middle East journalist.
Letters from the Underground (was ‘Frustrated Arab) – blog by an anti-imperialist activist.
gary’s choices – Tumblr blog by Gary Sick, former National Security Council Advisor. Iran-hand.
intelwire – Blog of J.M. Berger, Middle East analyst focusing on extremism, especially in social media.
Jadaliyya – Ezine on Middle East. Mostly political stuff. English/Arabic.
Jihadology – Mostly translated Islamic extremist releases/messages.
jihadica – more jihad stuff.
jillian c. york – prominent blogger on ME issues and social media.
Marc Lynch – Formerly ‘abu aardvark,’ blog on ME stuff hosted at Foreign Policy.
Musings on Iraq – Iraq centric blog by Joel Wing.
Mondoweiss – Blog focusing mainly on Israel/Palestine issues.
Sandbox – blog by Middle East Scholar Martin Kramer.
Saudiwoman’s Weblog – Blog focusing mostly on Women’s Issues in Saudi Arabia.
The Arabist – blog about Arab politics and culture.
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer- Arab politics through football.
Views from the Occident – Blog by PhD student in Islamic Studies. Focused mostly on extremist groups and imagery.

middle east

Nothing Is Over

My letters home, arranged by month

My letters home, arranged by month

Here’s another post that’s been sitting on my hard drive that was supposed to get published somewhere else.

Suddenly, people are interested in Iraq again.

Violence in Iraq has steadily spiraled out of control for the past year, long before the black flags of al-Qaeda flew over Fallujah. 2013 was the worst year in Iraq in terms of violence since 2008, when US forces were at the tail end of the “surge.”

But the image of those flags has suddenly made Iraq relevant again, especially for American veterans who fought there. Symbols matter, and until Fallujah was decisively captured in November 2004, it stood as the chief symbol of resistance to US forces in Iraq.

There is something very selfish about watching the violence in Iraq and wondering how Iraq war veterans feel about it. It is the Iraqi people after all, who are suffering in this growing wave of violence, and it is the Iraqi military who will be charged with going ‘house-to-house’ this time. Having left Iraq in 2011, we have the luxury to wax nostalgically about Operation Phantom Fury and ‘what it all means.’

If history is any indicator, this sudden interest in Iraq will be short-lived, and as a country we will soon go back to ignoring it, along with that other war.

That is unfortunate. Whether we like it or not, whenever we hear the word ‘Iraq’ it will forever carry that same dull sting we feel when we hear the word ‘Vietnam.’ We will not be able to think of Iraq except through the lens of war. Our histories are cosmically intertwined. And instead of ignoring it, we should embrace it. Especially the men and women who served there.

Last year, as we approached the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I felt a strong need to get it all out. I deployed during the invasion and that experience of being a part of it and the subsequent occupation was formative and everlasting. I always imagined that when I came home, I would sit down at the kitchen table with my parents and lay out all of the pictures I took and explain to them how the whole experience went down. From start to finish. A long night of beer and emotion. Laying it all out, once and for all.

That never happened. Instead, the war dripped out, slowly, over years and only in short, meaningless anecdotes. Boasting at the bar with friends after a few drinks. In the field eating MREs with soldiers who weren’t there. At the mall with my wife, a familiar smell or sound jarring me into revealing a fading memory from Karbala or Baghdad as we lazily walked from store to store.

A few years ago, I was interviewing Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War for my dissertation. They confessed to me that they had never really spoken to anyone about their war experiences. Terrible, formative experiences – bottled up and ignored for decades. I watched them and scribbled notes, realizing later that I was doing the same thing with my own war experiences.

My sister served. My best friend served. But we never talked about it, not in a serious way. The research I did convinced me that the healthiest thing to do was share the experience in a serious manner.

The anniversary came, newspapers ran retrospective ‘ten years later’ pieces. I wrote about my perspective as a young soldier in Kuwait, learning that the war had begun from an overeager soldier who had learned it from the television in the chow tent.

I decided I would gather up all of my pictures and letters home and go through them and put them on my blog. I tried my best to time it right to get the relevant posts up exactly ten years later.

The project became engrossing. What I initially imagined as a weekly post with a picture or excerpt from a letter became a time-intensive undertaking. I spent my weekends researching my own life, matching pictures to letters and talking with old friends to get details right. I woke up early on the weekends and wrote the posts for the week, scheduling them to go live at as close to the exact moment, ten years later, as I could.

Friends who served with me cheered me on, saying that I captured the way they felt back then, even though to me the war felt very personal. Their laudatory comments compelled me to treat even more seriously the events that held a special place in my experience. Like the Battle of As Samawah. Or the day we swam in Saddam’s pool. Or the week we spent at Baghdad Airport playing Halo.

Writing about Iraq every day forced me to relive things I’d long forgot. It also forced me to pay closer attention to what’s happening there now. While I wrote about R&R in Qatar and Brazilian belly dancers in 2003, car bombs detonated in Baghdad in 2013. I wondered about the Iraqis in my pictures, children who were now young adults. I wondered if they remembered me, or if they were even still alive.

Back in August, I grew disgusted with the whole thing. Iraq was getting worse and no one seemed to care. I thought about stopping the project. I was exhausted and angry.

I hung in there and continued on into the boring last few months of the deployment.

And now I’m done. I came back from Iraq on January 23, 2004. My year long project is over. It was fun and interesting and now it’s done. I’ll go on and Iraq will still be there, smoldering.

It is peculiar to me that Iraq is suddenly interesting again. The headlines coming out of Iraq the past ten years have always been grim. Dead bodies and explosions. More killed there than other places. If I had to guess, people just expect that from Iraq. We have grown numb to it. It took the silly raising of a flag – a symbolic gesture – to wrestle the attention of a media saturated American public to care, if even for a moment.

I hope that people will pay more attention this time. I’m not holding my breath.

middle east

The New Iranian Drone – Fotros “a redeemed, fallen angel”

iran_fotros_drone_620x350-1

I read this morning in multiple places that Iran has unveiled their new drone, “Fotros,” which boasts a 2,000 km range.

I’ve always been interested in the naming conventions of military equipment, especially in Iran and the Arab states. While names can easily be dismissed as just dressing, sometimes the name of a device can tell more of the story, or how the equipment is intended to be used.

I did some quick Googling and found this about Fotros: “A fallen angel in Shia mythology which was redeemed by Husayn ibn Ali.”

I also found this description of the story of “fitrus” from a blog:

On the day Imam Hussain (a.s.) was born, it was said that Allah (swt) commanded Hadrat Jibraeel (a.s.) to descend upon the heavens and congratulate Prophet Mohammed (saas). While descending, Hadrat Jibraeel passed an island where an angel named Fitrus had been banished due to his delay in performing a command made by Allah (swt). He had his wings taken away from him and remained in that island for several years, just praying and asking for God’s forgiveness. When Fitrus saw Hadrat Jibraeel, he asked where he was going, and Hadrat Jibraeel said that he was going to congratulate the house of Imam Ali (a.s.) on the birth of Imam Hussain (a.s.). Fitrus begged him to carry him to the Prophet (saas) and see what he can do for this case. When they arrived, Hadrat Jibraeel (a.s.) gave the message Allah (swt) commanded him to deliver and then talked about Fitrus’ situation. The Holy Prophet (saas) looked at Fitrus, and told him to touch the newborn (Imam Hussain) and return to his place in Heaven and obey the commands of Allah (swt).  Fitrus touched the body of Imam Hussain (a.s.) and instantly got his wings back and was able to descend back to Heaven. Before Fitrus ascended back, he promised to Imam Hussain ”O Husain, from this day onwards, whenever anyone sends their Salaams to you, I will always deliver it to you.”

An interesting name, given the reports that this drone was at least partially reverse-engineered from the Predator drone that was captured in late 2011. A redeemed, fallen angel.

I don’t know much (anything) about the mythology of Fotros other than what I found this morning. If anyone knows more and cares to share, please do so in the comments.

middle east

PAUSEX: Iraq. Nothing is over.

Baghdad Monument

I’m a Howard Stern fan. I was listening to an old broadcast of the show from October, 2006, and when Robin was reading the news, she matter-of-factly stated that the number of US service members who had died in Iraq that month had just reached 100. Howard acknowledged it with a barely audible grunt, there was an awkwardly long pause, and then Robin moved on to the next news story.

If you are a follower of this blog, then you know I’ve been recounting my year in Iraq during OIF I in a series of posts (Iraq: Ten Years Later). It’s been a sometimes enjoyable and sometimes painful experience and I can’t possibly get down everything I want.

I’m very aware, however, that I am fortunate to have the luxury of ruminating over that experience. One, because I made it home safely and two, because my basic needs are met. I’m able to delve into the airy “what it all means” discourse. Many of my veteran peers do not have that luxury. And based on my thesis research, veterans who served in the Iraqi military are for the most part, uninterested.

While I’m waxing nostalgic over my year in Iraq, others Iraq veterans are bummed out about the country’s slide to civil war, concerned now that if this unraveling is the end result, their service and sacrifice might have been squandered. Others still, are writing about how Iraq Was America’s Best Run War (Foreign Policy). A rage-inspiring self-congratulatory title designed to get you to read it, I’m sure.

There is no shortage of interesting and important things happening in the Middle East right now. Egypt is still struggling to find itself out of its most recent upheaval. Syria continues to implode. Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have just resumed.

But over in Iraq, things are getting really nasty.

July 22, Reuters: Al Qaeda militants flee Iraq jail in violent mass break-out – Over 500 militants busted out in brazen raid on Abu Ghraib prison
July 29, The Independent: Iraq car bombs: At least 60 dead as rush-hour attacks hit Baghdad and nearby cities
August 2, AP: Iraq sees highest monthly death toll in 5 years – over 1,000 killed in July

I think, as a result to the daily barrage of bad news stories that came out of Iraq while we were there, we have become completely desensitized – and uninterested – in anything that happens there, no matter how spectacular or significant. Syria and Egypt are interesting because they’re new. But Iraq, well, we’ve been watching death and destruction there since we were children.

It’s unfortunate, because what’s going in Iraq is significant and important. And the lives and souls of millions of Americans are forever tied to that ground – for better or for worse. It is worth paying attention.

middle east

French paratroopers earn their mustard stains in Mali

Lots of action going on in Mali. Here’s the story behind the jump.

The ‘combat jump device‘ is one of the rarest awards in the US military. Right place, right time. I almost got one (not really).

I’m not sure if there is an equivalent award for the French. If anyone knows if they get any special recognition for participating in a combat jump, I’d love to know about it.

middle east

Women in the infantry: Assad’s Lionesses

Terrifying.

Terrifying.

This, from The Independent:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recruited a brigade of women to man checkpoints and carry out security  operations as he attempts to free up soldiers in his beleaguered army to fight the rebels.

Dressed in fatigues and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, the female recruits – the “Lionesses for National Defence” – are part of a new paramilitary force. They have already been deployed in Homs, where they have been spotted guarding areas where residents still largely support the regime. Videos from both opposition and pro-government sites purport to show members of the all-female unit in action.

A spokesperson from the Syrian opposition claims that placing weapons in the hands of women is simply a way to get the Free Syrian Army to kill women, which would then enflame opinions against the rebel cause.