Everyone gets their own sandbox? On Syria:

From “What is going on in Syria? (model this):”

I think first in terms of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which also saw the collapse of an untenable-once-placed-under-pressure nation-state, followed by atrocities.

My own pet theory as a very much non-expert who wastes some attention on the news is that Iraq and Syria need to be broken into smaller pieces based on ethnicity: Kurdistan, Sunni-stan, and Shia-stan, and perhaps others. From what I understand Kurdistan is already more or less operating, just without an official declaration of statehood; there still isn’t an Iraqi “state” per se. “Iraqis” don’t really fight for Iraq: they fight for their ethnic groups.

Breaking countries into single-ethnicity pieces may be the major lesson of Yugoslavia and perhaps World War II, which had the unfortunate effect of making many European countries close to monoethnic.

There are problems with this solution in the Middle East (e.g. Turkey and Kurds) but there also seem to be many problems with the status quo, to the extent there is a status quo.

Perhaps the only thing average individuals can do is attempt to use less oil at the margin (shift from a hybrid car to a plug-in hybrid when necessary, from a standard car to a hybrid, and there are others), since oil is indirectly funding so much of the violence. When I read about large-scale, seemingly intractable problems, I often want more writers to ask, “What is an average person supposed to do?” and then attempt to answer the question.

Note, however, that Iraq and Syria also have cousin marriage problems that may destabilize the state and empower smaller groups.

Still, take this analysis skeptically, given my views on Iraq War II when it happened, and given too that foreign policy seems like William Goldman’s description of Hollywood: nobody knows anything. The CIA famously missed the fall of the Soviet Union. Pretty much no one expected World War I. The U.S. thought Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq War II were going to go well. And so on.

The U.S. has been fighting little wars (apart from the obvious big ones) for its entire existence, and while the tools have changed the rhetoric only sometimes has. In addition, overall I see the world as getting better. One account of this can be seen in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Most of Latin America is doing well. Even Africa is doing better than is sometimes assumed. The thing the U.S. and the West in general most have on our side is time and immigration patterns. Pretty much no one is fighting to emigrate from their current country to, say, Russia. Even current scare-story China sees more Chinese leaving than others trying to enter. Most parts of the world that aren’t tremendously fucked up are attempting to emulate the U.S. and Europe in many, though not all, dimensions. The long-term trends are positive for most people in most places even if Syria is a disaster.

To my mind giving everyone their own sandbox is a move in the right direction, despite opposition.

James Fallows and The Iraq Invasion, ten years later

James Fallows has been running a series on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, and his essential questions are about accountability and the future—as he says, “Anyone now age 30 or above should probably reflect on what he or she got right and wrong ten years ago.” I’m not quite there, but in 2003 I basically favored the war because I was an idiot who listened to government propaganda.

I didn’t really realize or hadn’t yet internalized that government—especially the political parts—lie all the time, and one important part of living in a democracy is paying attention to when parts of government lie. My professors, however, did. Many had lived through Vietnam and knew the capacity for political mendacity. I wonder if, 30 years from now, I’ll be addressing a group of gullible students and watching their skepticism at my own claims, and the sureness of their faith in the powers that be.

At the time the war started, I also happened to be taking a seminar called “State Building in the Middle East and the Balkans” with a guy named Petros Vamvakas (who is still teaching!); being 18 or 19, however, I knew everything that a person who’d lived through the Greek Junta and studied the Middle East for decades didn’t. Vamvakas also knew how to teach, and he knew some of the tricks that I’ve since learned: you can’t usefully confront student ignorance head-on. You have to attack it obliquely, through questions, readings, and your own example.

That’s exactly what he did.

In the seminar, anti-war students outnumbered pro-war students, which led to predictable debates. In retrospect, however, the interesting thing was what Vamvakas knew about deep ethnic divisions, tribal identity, and oil wealth. He also laid out what was going to happen and even how it was probably going to happen: he foresaw that the U.S. military would crush the Iraqi military, and that the U.S. would then botch the peace (which it did), because that peace would be almost impossible in a made-up country like Iraq—at least, impossible without a dictator. To Vamvakas’s mind, one major Iraq question was how long the Kurds would remain part of the country. Whether the northern, Kurdish part of Iraq is still really part of Iraq is up for debate (and they like the war, for reasons not all that dissimilar to the reasons Americans like the role of the French in the American Revolution).

Vamvakas also predicted the guerilla war, or insurgency, or whatever one calls it. He understood that inflicting democracy is a difficult if not impossible thing to do.

History vindicated his views. It has also shown me that a single professor in a small liberal arts college can know and understand far more than people in positions of enormous, life-and-death power. It’s cliché to say that hubris and ignorance fueled the war, but it’s still true; no one in the White House thought to ask Vamvakas what was likely to happen after the invasion. Few dissenters within the political and military establishment, like Eric Shinseki, were ignored, marginalized, or punished.

I watched the war on TV and believed what I read in the press. The war taught me, the hard way, not to be chary of what I read, and to look more carefully and who is speaking and what they know. The most knowledgable person might not have a megaphone, and the person with a megaphone may want to lie.

Ten Days in the Hills

Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills is an easily skippable novel—not in the sense of being easy to ignore altogether, although it is that too, but in the sense of having interwoven character threads with some of those threads more worthwhile than others and too many scenes that consist of unformed and poorly reasoned argument, chiefly over Iraq but occasionally over love. That so much of Ten Days in the Hills is skippable might be a problem for a review, were it not for how the novel’s extraneousness conveys whether it should be read.

When Ten Days in the Hills came out I bought it chiefly based on Jane Smiley’s reputation, as she wrote two wonderful novels—Moo and A Thousand Acres—along with at least one dull novel, Good Faith. Since that impulse purchase, Ten Days in the Hills has sat around till I began foraging for something light and easy while I digest To the Lighthouse. Alas, however, Ten Days in the Hills is light even when it tries to be serious—only at one moment, during a late declaration of love, does it feel like it has some heft—and too heavy when it tries to be light, and not in a positive way like Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

As an exercise in seemingly endless self-reference, Ten Days in the Hills succeeds like the first phase of the Iraq invasion. About ten characters unintentionally gather during March 2003 in the Los Angeles hills as the Iraq war begins. They’re movie types and L.A. wastrels, so they have nothing better to do than tell stories and sleep with one another. The positive news it that Jane Smiley writes unusually good sex scenes, although “unusually good” doesn’t mean “good” in an absolute sense, as I’m not convinced that it is possible to write a good explicit sex scene. The negative news is that most of the novel consists of navel gazing, which is sometimes more interesting and sometimes less so, as in this long bit of dialog:

You want to make a Hollywood movie about an unmarried couple with grown children talking about the Iraq war and making love, with graphic sex? You know better, so this must be a joke. It has every single thing that Hollywood producers hate and despite, and that American audiences hate and despise—fornication, old people, current events, and conversation. You might be able to do it with Clint Eastwood, but unless the girl was forty years younger than he is—

Instead of a movie, we get a book about often unmarried couples with grown children talking about the Iraq war and making love, with graphic sex. A lot of the novel is, I think, a joke, but one that grows old before the punchline, if there is a punchline. Certainly there’s too much movie talk, all of which is more about the book we’re reading than the movies they’re discussing. I’m sure the Iraq war is supposed to function as a metaphor for something, though I’m not sure what that something is. Still, Ten Days in the Hills has its moments, as when a college student describes a ludicrous, idiotic movie idea some of his friends propose and then we find that “it occurred to Stoney [a movie agent] that he should find out who these kids were and see if they had representation.” Many scenes are very L.A., and I’m not surprised that the dust jacket says Smiley lives in Northern California. The crowd she runs with must have its share of conversations like these:

“Okay, how many regular vegetarians?”
Zoe’s hand went up, then Paul shrugged and put his hand up.
Only Isabel.
“Anyone lactose-intolerant?”
Delphine nodded.
Max’s hand went up. Cassie said, “What about Charlie?” and Stoney realized he wasn’t present. Max said, “If he isn’t, he should be.”
“Okay, let’s see. How about hot-pepper-intolerant?”
No hands went up.
She said, “Do you care, Elena?”
“No okra.”
Cassie wrote that down, then said, “I don’t like lamb. Hmm.” She showed the list to Delphine. “Simon likes everything?”
Stoney nodded.

As satire goes, it’s pretty good, but with 450 pages, including debate about Iraq at the quality of what I heard in dorm rooms at the time. I’m tempted to quote it—the novel debates, not the dorm room ones—but my capacity for sadism just isn’t that high. Fortunately, when you skip pages, you read quickly and can blast through the Iraq debates, but you’re also reading a book you want to skip large chunks of. Two characters even comment on this:

“That’s Weekend. That’s only one movie. And it’s French. French movies are a special taste. What would you watch?”
She flopped back on the bed. “Nothing. I would read a book. Books move a lot faster.”
“There’s a revolutionary idea.”
“Well, they do. You never have a shot in a book of two people walking down the street in real time, step step step. That drives me crazy […] And you can’t speed it up. You can cut in and out of it, or you can cut to another scene, but otherwise you’re just stuck, because if it moved faster they would be running and that would look weird. If I’m reading a book, it takes a few seconds for my eye to pick up the lines of dialogue that in a movie take much longer to say, and once my eye has picked it up, I can go on to the stuff I’m really interested in, which is what the characters are thinking or whatever. I think books move a lot faster even than a movie everyone thinks is fast, like The Matrix.”

I agree with her analysis and began applying it to Ten Days in the Hills, lightly at first and then with steadily more ruthlessness. This made some characters hard to follow, but fortunately they’re almost all unidimensional, making your own dramatis personae reasonably easy to construct. I will say that Isabel, a 23-year-old who delivered the book philosophy just quoted, and Stoney, her much older lover who is also the agent quoted in the first blockquote, are the strongest characters, and it’s not an accident that I used their quotes as examples. Nonetheless, they can’t sustain a book, even one with its moments of wonderful humor and deep satire, and too much of Ten Days in the Hills is random commentary instead of what Isabel calls “stuff I’m really interested in.”

%d bloggers like this: