Saddam, eradicating illiteracy, and the Ba’athist propaganda machine

Fascinating interview on women, writing, and the Ba’athist state.

Hawraa Al Hassan’s Women, Writing and the Iraqi Ba’thist State: Contending Discourses of Resistance and Collaboration, 1968-2003 (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020) is unique because it both explores discourse concerning women and how women themselves used literature to create a site of resistance to the state. Al-Hassan’s work is also inclusive, as it joins a wider call to make literary studies a space in which works which were previously considered propagandistic can also be seriously considered.

New Books Network | Hawraa Al Hassan, “Women, Writing and the Iraqi…

There are some great gems in this episode and areas I would like to dig deeper on, such as:

-Saddam eradicating illiteracy chiefly to build a wider audience for Ba’athist propaganda.

-Book covers as messages (not many read the book, but they do see the cover).

-The novels of Saddam Hussein. You may recall, it is believed that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator was inspired by one of these novels.

For more, here’s a print interview with Dr. Al-Hassan over at ArabLit.

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Decorating the Palace

Source: Iran Chamber Society

Remember those terrible ISIS videos showing the destruction of idols and museum pieces? I remember feeling sick to my stomach watching them. It’s very strange how powerful that imagery can be – and the anger that it can stoke.

Time has passed, and we’re at a place now where researchers and scholars are beginning to publish on those events.

I recently listened to a good interview with professor and researcher Aaron Tugendhaft on the New Books Network. The topic was his book titled The Idols of ISIS which discusses those events.

The striking point he makes during the interview is that it is not simply the destruction of the idols that was important, but replacing those idols with the image – the video – of those idols being destroyed. This is such an important and often overlooked concept. Someone is always holding the camera, and there is a purpose.

The book sounds fascinating, and discusses Saddam’s appropriation of Assyrian iconology to support his political ambitions (a subject I’m endlessly interested in). I couldn’t help but think of the video of Saddam’s statue being taken down in 2003 (the statue is an idol). Taking down the statue was important, but more important was replacing that with the image of it being taken down. We think we are watching a video of something happening – but it is in fac the video itself that is the new thing.

I know this gets kind of meta – but this is an important and easily missed phenomena.

There’s also a portion of the interview that discusses how the ISIS aesthetic was inspired by imagery in video games – Call of Duty is mentioned.

There is an endless deluge of scholars who look at ISIS – and for good reason. It is refreshing to get a take from someone outside of “terrorism” studies.

Lastly, during the interview, the below political cartoon was mentioned. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is still infuriating on so many levels.

PATRICK CHAPPATTEMosul Museum Devastated, 2015. Published in Le Temps, Switzerland, February 28, 2015. © Chappatte 2015.

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‎Army Myths: Chechens

A ruined Grozny, 1995.

Reminded during a recent Team House podcast of a very-GWOT myth: Chechens.

For some reason, “Chechens” became a bogeyman. I heard this in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Related: Juba).

“I heard there is a Chechen sniper in our AO,” someone might say with a knowing gravity.

“Oh damn, really?”

Given the influx of foreign fighters in both countries, of course there would be Chechens. I always wondered though – why, exactly?

What is it about “Chechens” that makes them particularly scary or fearsome? Why is it that when someone would invoke the Chechens, faces became sullen and serious?

I never figured that out.

Maybe someone has a better take on this, but I remember growing up in the 1990s watching the news of the war in Chechnya. It was brutal, and the Russians pulled no punches. I had a notion of what was going on, and there is a part of me that thinks much of the myth-making here is attributing mystical fighting prowess to Chechens because we (collective we, soldiers) really don’t know much about it.

It also feels very conspiratorial any time Chechens are invoked. The presence of “Chechens” points to something darker going on that I never quite bought into. Other leaders might roll their eyes – “This guy again with the Chechens…”

I am sure there is a kernel here, something going on that got this ball rolling. But the power the myth has does not seem warranted.

Would love to know more about the reality here, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

Details about the referenced podcast below.

Wesley Morgan details the history of US military operations in the Pech valley in Afghanistan, a place of deadly battles and unforgiving terrain. We start with the history of the valley and America’s first forays there in 2002, then get into the larger conventional and special operations campaigns that have taken place there with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

‎The Team House: Deadly Special Ops missions in the Pech Valley with Wes Morgan, Ep. 85 on Apple Podcasts

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Media war in Iraq

From Al-Monitor:

In a span of less than three months, five “new pro-Iran militias” have announced their plans to escalate attacks on US forces in Iraq. Some of them have claimed responsibility for major anti-American attacks. But evidence indicates this is a propaganda campaign conducted by existing militias rather than an actual escalation. The main desire common among these groups is avenging the death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMU) military leader who was assassinated by the United States alongside Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, in January.

Pro-Iran militias in Iraq wage ‘fake news’ campaign against US – Al Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East

So much noise in the Iraqi media environment. If you take the time to dig through it, there is a lot to learn.

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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.

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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.

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French paratroopers earn their mustard stains in Mali

Jealous.

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.

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Trench Friend

I’ve been thumbing through Poetry of the Taliban and of all the poems I’ve read this one stuck with me the most. If you like it, go buy the book.

Trench Friend

May my head and property be sacrificed for you, friend,
O my trench friend.
May my heart’s flesh be sacrificed for you, friend,
O my trench friend.

May I be sacrificed for you – may I be sacrificed for your faith,
You are close in the trench, my faith in you grew stronger,
O my trench friend.

You take on tanks – you go with pride,
You don’t fear the artillery or tanks of the enemy,
O my trench friend.

On the storms of the time – on the floods of the time,
You don’t care about them, may you be as strong as mountains
against them,
O my trench friend.

In the bosom of red flames – in the bosom of storms,
You like them, you have the morals of the butterfly and the sea,
O my trench friend.

In the roar of earthquakes – in the roars of storms,
The echoes of your honor are spread all over,
O my trench friend.

O my brave friend – my dawn’s friend
May your turban not fall, my turban-owning friend,
O my trench friend.

-Bismillah Sahar
May 2000

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Poetry of the Taliban: a book for your rucksack

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Poetry of the Taliban is a new book by fellow SOAS alum Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. It is a compilation of poems written by members of the Taliban and posted to their website. I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but if I do go, this will be going with me.

The fact that this book exists says more about the Taliban than you will probably learn from all the intelligence briefs your brain can handle.

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