This evening I heard the phrase “concentration camp” on NPR and starting thinking about what that phrase means. In common use, “concentrate” is both a noun and a verb. Juice comes in a concentrate, it's pushed together in a small space. Or students are told to concentrate, to focus on what they should be doing. Either of these are an incredible euphemism for Nazi death camps, but which euphemism have we adopted? Do concentration camps concentrate people? Do they force people to concentrate? Do they concentrate death? And why is there an English-language euphemism for an atrocity carried out by Germans anyway?

The answer to the latter question, from Wikipedia: the term “concentration camp” was first used to describe British internment camps in the Second Boer War. After gold was discovered Transvaal, British citizens flocked to the country, where they found the native population less than hospitable. To secure the rights of their own resource-exploiting citizens, the British entered a war against a Boer insurgency.

The conditions in the camps were very unhealthy and the food rations were meager. The wives and children of men who were still fighting were given smaller rations than others. The poor diet and inadequate hygiene led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery. Coupled with a shortage of medical facilities, this led to large numbers of deaths — a report after the war concluded that 27,927 Boers (of whom 22,074 were children under 16) and 14,154 black Africans had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps

So when the Germans later rounded up a group of people they didn’t like and started killing them, the phrase “concentration camp” was used because it had already been used as a euphemism for similar British atrocities. On top of the story of a superpower invading another country to control its natural resources, the word “insurgency” particular caught my attention here, with thoughts of the insurgency in Iraq. Were concentration camps a standard means of fighting insurgencies?

Indeed they were. The list of concentration camps throughout history is full of attempts to contain insurgent populations during armed invasions. Most recently, in 2001 the Russian military gathered up twenty thousand men and boys in Chechnia. Over 80% died. More immediately, the US military continues to entertain the idea of registering and rationing food to Iraqi residents, in the interest of controlling the insurgent population.

Lieutenant Colonel James S. Corum of the US Army recently wrote about various strategies for dealing with insurgencies, in the context of possible application to America’s military activities in Iraq, in FIGHTING INSURGENTS--NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS [PDF, 3kb]:

International law and the traditional rules of war allow for some very firm tactics employed to coerce and control populations. For example, to cut off support for rebels in pro-insurgent districts, Kitson advocated that government forces commandeer and carefully control all food stocks. Food was rationed by the police and army only to registered village residents, and whole villages would be cordoned off to prevent extra food from being brought in. If the villagers wanted to give food to the rebels, they could do so only if they starved themselves. The British also figured that, if the insurgents came in the night and took the peoples’ carefully rationed food, people would eventually inform on the insurgents rather than face hunger. Such tactics were not only effective, but also legal.

The good thing about Kitson’s approach to waging a counterinsurgency campaign strictly within the rule of law is that it generally works. The downside is that such an approach to counterinsurgency and intelligence takes a long time, and success is measured not in any dramatic terms but in small, local, and incremental victories. It should be no surprise that some of our intelligence personnel and leaders might instinctively opt for the Trinquier approach with its promise of quick and decisive results, when our military doctrine is filled with adjectives such as “rapid” and “decisive” to describe the American mode of warfare. Yet the traditionally successful counterinsurgency doctrines are peppered with adjectives such as “methodical,” “systematic,” and “long-term.”

Emphasis added. The downside of internment under threat of starvation, according to the US Army’s assessment, is not that it’s morally reprehensible; it just takes a long time to starve people to death. Our national unwillingness to concentrate on the “victory” some would imagine in Iraq has prevented us from establishing concentration camps. May our impatience save our souls.

 

I think I enjoyed the premiere of Battlestar Galactica season three more than Dave Rogers. I suspect that’s because I’m a less dedicated fan. Dave has a well-developed understanding of the motivations of each character, but I’m conceptualizing them much more generally, and especially so after the long summer break.

Some characters are generally good. Some characters are generally bad. Some characters are generally ambiguous. Some characters are civilians. Some characters are military. With the entire plot turned upside down, none of this has changed really. While Dave is expecting a more complex reason for Adama’s guilt, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.

At the end of season two, I was rather annoyed at the plot twist. After watching the premiere of season three, I’m still annoyed at it, but not for the reasons I was before (the plot is broken), nor for the reasons Dave seems to be. I’m now going to spoil both the plot twist and the season three premiere, so if you haven’t seen those and don’t like spoilers, stop here.

Now then, up until the end of season two, the analogies between the Battlestar Galactica universe and modern events here in reality were pretty obvious. Cylons, like terrorists, do not observe the moral boundaries the rest of us enjoy. Yet they look and act just like normal people. What are we to do? Kill them all! Hmm, that didn’t work so well. We better put some more thought into this. And that’s where we are at the end of season two: putting more thought into how to live in a world where anyone could be walking around holding a fundamentally different world view that threatens everything we hold dear, and we have no way of knowing it until it’s too late.

At the end of season two, the cylon-terrorists suddenly win the war. They’re able to impose their world view on humanity, and everything changes. Now humanity is the terrorists, with suicide bombers to boot. New moral question: what would you do if you were an Iraqi? I don’t like this question because it’s not really that interesting. I don’t know exactly what I’d do, but I know I wouldn’t support suicide bombers. Maybe I’d feel differently if this wasn’t so entirely hypothetical, but it is. Iraqis are not watching Battlestar Galactica.

The cylons are now playing the part of America in this analogy, and I’d say it’s not really working so far. As a viewer, am I supposed to feel empathy for the cylons? I feel more empathy for Bush. At least he has some vague plan, detached from reality as it is. But despite the chilling "they have a plan" conclusion of the Battlestar Galactica intro, by all appearances they don’t really. It turns out the world view they’re finally able to impose on humanity isn’t a world view at all. It’s a mish-mash of completely contradictory world views.

Some of the cylons believe in peace; others want to destroy humanity. Some love humans; others hate them. It’s not so unbelievable that the cylons would contradict each other, but that any authoritarian regime would. I’m having a lot of trouble believing this mix of views was somehow able to come together to accomplish even the most mundane task, much less the subjugation of all of humanity. They’re voting! Genocidal maniacs don’t vote on exactly how much genocide to carry out. Suddenly I’ve lost my suspension of disbelief.

So I’m no longer interested in the moral questions of Battlestar Galactica and I no longer believe the basic plot makes any sense, even granting the questionable science of it all. Why do I say I liked it more than Dave? Because the plot is unresolved, and my shallow attention to the show makes that unresolved plot compelling despite these other failings.

I want the good guys to win. What began as a show appealing to my more refined philosophical side now appeals to my most basic interests. I won’t be very surprised if the cylons kill a puppy in the next episode just to dumb it down a little more for me and make me sympathize even with the suicide bombers in my desire for the good guys to win. And that’s not so bad, but I was expecting more.

Maybe the show will grow more complex again. Maybe I really will start to question the ethics of suicide bombing. Maybe I’ll gradually forget that the cylons destroyed humanity and start to care about the problems they face trying to come to terms with their status as the sole remaining superpower. But I think it’s more likely I’ll instead spend the rest of Battlestar Galactica season three waiting for the good guys to win.

 

I wanted to record this from Newsweek International:

Losing the War...Losing the War...Losing the War...My Life in Picture

Via MetaFilter

 

Five years ago I was driving my car from my apartment to my university when I heard on the radio that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I assumed it was an accident and didn’t think much of it until I walked by a room on my way to class or work (I don’t remember which) and saw a group of people watching the news. I watched throughout the morning until it became clear to me what was happening.

I had a few friends in New York, but I didn’t think first of them. My first thought was that this was Pearl Harbor and it was now the time to start preventing Hiroshima. I spent much of the next four years working to that end. I walked around campus in September 12 with the words "the other cheek" written on my face, in an effort to bring out the good in people and not the bad I feared was coming. I encouraged reconciliation and discouraged revenge. I helped organize multiple organizations focused on these goals.

I drew attention to the innocent civilians dying as we bombed Afghanistan. I loudly opposed our invasion of Iraq. I made the front page of newspapers. I made the TV news. I spoke on panels. I campaigned for politicians calling for peace. I campaigned against politicians calling for war. I compromised and voted for Kerry. I registered voters and served as an election judge to help others do the same.

None of this worked. I hope I made some small impact, but many more innocent people have died in the pursuit of vengence for the events of five years ago than died on that day. I didn’t hear they died on the radio. I didn’t see it on the TV. There is no moment of silence for these people. I don’t remember what I was doing when they died.

 

The Des Moines Register today published what must be their twentieth report on Iowa Governor and Democrats Looking Conservative chair Tom Vilsack's surprise Easter trip to Iraq:

The whirlwind trip with three other governors also gave the Midwestern Democrat, who is working to establish a command of world affairs, a key line on his resume as he looks at running for president.

I can see that resume already:

Foreign Policy Experience

  • Spent a day in Iraq posing for pictures and doing conference calls with press back in America.

"Almost subliminally, the governor is saying to activists, 'I have foreign policy experience,' " Sabato said. "There will be people out there who, without realizing it, check a box in their own mind that he understands something about the critical hot spot on the globe."

I know which box I've checked in my mind.

exploits war for personal gain

He hasn't even announced his candidacy yet, and I already want to vote against Tom Vilsack for President.

 

I do know that you can't do it if all you get is negative reinforcement telling you the task is cosmically fated to never reach completion. So go, team, go, that's what I have to say.

In the meantime, do me a favor and try to avoid killing each other, okay?

Jeff Dorchen

 

Any motion, anyone who moves in the zone, even if it’s a three-year-old, should be killed. Over.

Israeli Company Commander

Wow.

 

Today I listened to some radio shows I had recorded last weekend from the local NPR station. The shows are interspersed with short news updates from last week on topics such as problems with the new Iraq constitution, conflict between anti-war and pro-war protesters near Bush's vacation in Texas, threats of violence between Israel and Palestine, and of course the then-impending hurricane. I found myself feeling nostalgic for last week, when the most immediate problems were the thousands needlessly dying on the other side of the world. I look forward to next week when, I hope, the accountability will begin. It has to begin at some point, right?

...right?