Made in the USA: the Iraq War, Insurgency and ISIL

We all know the saying that knowledge is power. However as descendants of the information age our generation must also grapple with the inverse: misinformation is the deprivation of power, and this maxim serves as the basis for all propaganda. With the 2016 US Presidential elections looming around the corner, and candidates like Hillary Clinton invoking 9/11 every time someone asks her a tricky question, it is important that we, in the words of the Australians, ‘keep the bastards honest’ and remember the lessons of history.

The greatest tragedy of 9/11, contrary to the Jingoistic cries from Clinton or Bush, is not the deaths of the three thousand Americans who perished at the twin towers or subsequent attacks. That is not to demean the deaths of the innocent, ordinary, Americans, who died as a result of their government’s foreign policy. Rather, it is a call for a frank and open discussion on how those deaths were used to justify the deaths of 113,728 equally innocent Iraqi civilians, who were killed by American and Coalition forces by blindly rushing into a ground war in Iraq, and how that has led to the ever growing spectre of insurgency. The greatest tragedy of 9/11 is how those three thousand deaths were twisted to suit the agenda of the Bush administration, in not only depriving the fundamental rights of human beings through extensive ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ programs, but in creating a cycle of war with a death toll now numbering in the millions. Just as historians look back on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip as a watershed moment that redirected the course of history towards the First World War, six years from now, historians will look on our reaction to 9/11 as the catalyst for the continuing cycle of insurgency and conflict in the Middle East.

History will not be kind in its assessment of the Iraq War, not because it was an ‘unjust war’, but because of the failings of the Bush administration in preparing for the aftermath. Purely from the perspective of American geopolitics and human ethics, the invasion of Iraq can be seen as a ‘just war’, not because of 9/11 or the non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but because of the atrocities already committed by Saddam Hussein. To put them into context, this is a wannabe Hitler who attempted acts of genocide on the Kurdish people, brutally suppressed the Shia Muslim population (think the persecution of Catholics in Northern Ireland), showed a willingness to invade other sovereign nations such as Kuwait (enter the First Gulf War) and Iran (where the CIA had already gone to the trouble of overthrowing their democratically elected government for oil), and broke the Geneva Convention in deploying mustard gas.

While from a layman perspective, things like the Geneva Convention and rules on war seem rather oxymoronic (especially since countries like the United States, Russia, China, and Israel repeatedly flaunt these rules with regards to the use of white phosphorous, land mines, and cluster bombs) they serve as an incredibly important foundation for civilization’s existence. Contrary to popular belief, war is not about killing people, killing people is a rather unfortunate (and the most common) side effect. War is, in its purest form, the use of military force to achieve political means: whether that be annexation (Russia v Crimea last year), conflict over territorial disputes (Britain v Argentina over the Falkland Islands), or a war of annihilation (Rome v Carthage: Carthago delenda est – furthermore I consider that Carthage must be destroyed). It is only in the last case, a war of annihilation, where killing people is seen as the primary objective, and even then the most efficient and logical way to accomplish this, ironic as it may be, is not by killing people but by maiming them.

Without human morality, if we were to approach the cold arithmetic of warfare through the lens of game theory, it is actually superior to injure an enemy combatant to the extent that he is no longer combat effective, (such as removing limbs, damaging internal organs, blinding them, etc) as opposed to killing them, because now they represents a liability for the opposing state. After all, the maimed combatant now requires constant medical aid, acting as a strain on resources, and serves as a form of psychological warfare in demoralising other young people who might be enticed by the old lie of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (sweet and honourable it is to die for the fatherland), which weakens the political will of the state to continue fighting. Eventually the sheer number of maimed-but-still-alive combatants pushes the opposing state to a breaking point: if they abandon their efforts to help the wounded, they lose the political will of their people. However, if they continue to sustain the wounded they run the risk of running out of resources to keep up the war effort. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Now one of the reasons why such a convention exists was due to the meat grinder that was the First World War: where millions of young men would be brutally cut to pieces by machine gun fire, torn apart by artillery shells, or strung up by barbed wire (not to mention countless deaths from disease). The cold logic of maiming-but-not-killing enemy combatants started to be seen as a rather clever way to bleed their enemies white. Chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, were designed to horrifically incapacitate large swathes of the opposition with relatively little investment or risk, in an attempt to overload field hospitals with casualties and ‘break’ the psychological will of the opposition. Mustard gas in particular, causes painful blisters on exposed skin, akin to first or second degree burns, and when inhaled, burn out the lungs, so that the combatant, while not dead, remains in excruciating pain – taking days or even weeks to die (although mild to moderate exposure can be treated with prolonged care). It was a weapon considered so awful, so inhumane in the amount of pain sufferers experienced, that after the First World War it was universally agreed to never be used again. Even in the desperate depths of the Second World War, when both sides willingly committed war crimes (such as the Allied firebombing of Dresden, or the Nazi Einsatzgruppen death squads) mustard gas was considered by leaders like Churchill, but never used, for fear of reprisal and escalation. The true horror of mustard gas remained that it a weapon most effective against civilian targets, as opposed to military ones, due to how easily mustard gas can be neutralised with protective equipment.

Moving back to the Middle East, Saddam Hussein represented a massive threat to the stability of the region. Not only because of his abysmal human rights record (after all we are still allies with the House of Saud who behead people for the crime of atheism, or stone to death adulterers), and his rabid propensity to attack anyone in sight; but because, thanks to oil profits (unlike Kim Jong Il), he actually had the economic means to finance and carry out large-scale wars of annihilation. Purely from the angle of trying to keep a volatile region stable, what with the Shia Iranians trying to make a nuclear bomb and not being too happy with Saddam’s Sunni Iraq (especially after he spent 8 years at war with them in the 80s), an invasion of Iraq could be seen as a ‘just war’ to keep the peace, as oxymoronic as it may sound, and to bring to a war criminal to justice.

The 9/11 attacks unfortunately pushed, what could have been a reasonable and somewhat justified military intervention to remove a monstrous despot, into an act of fearmongering and scapegoating. Despite most of the 9/11 attackers being from Saudi Arabia, a nation which belligerently promotes Wahhabism: a militant and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam which promotes violence as a means of spreading the gospel of the Quran, Saddam got slapped with the ‘terrorist’ label as a way of selling the war to the American public. Overly afraid of what had happened in the Vietnam War, a prolonged quagmire which had sucked in and spat out 2,709,918 US troops over the course of 11 years (about 9.6% of their generation), the Bush administration wanted a quick war – one to the tune of the WWI phrase, “Would be over by Christmas” – with as few American troops and casualties as possible.

To that end, all preparations for the Iraq War were done with the primary objectives of getting in, taking out Saddam Hussein, and getting out as quickly as possible with as little loss of American life. General David Petraeus was given the difficult task of orchestrating the invasion of an entrenched and mobilised enemy nation with a fraction of the projected number of soldiers needed. A task which he was able to accomplish in six weeks and under 150 casualties, a truly remarkable feat as far as the military sciences are concerned. Unfortunately for Petraeus, he won too quickly – no one in the Bush administration had contemplated Saddam’s Iraq collapsing that quickly and the small number of troops on the ground now faced the Herculean task of trying to fill the power vacuum. While George Bush was busy declaring Mission Accomplished, a knee-jerk decision was made to immediately purge all members of the Socialist Ba’ath party from government, which included all teachers, public and civil servants, professors, and doctors, effectively removing the experienced people who kept the country running. The purge of the Ba’athists was soon followed by disbanding the Iraqi Armed Forces, turning 375,000 armed young men and officers out onto the street with no pay and no pension. As Germany’s Weimar Republic had learned to their demise in 1918, abruptly firing a bunch of angry young men (who still had their guns) is a sure-fire way to start an insurgency or a coup. Many of these young men and officers (as well as surviving members of Saddam’s fanatical Fedayeen, Iraq’s equivalent of the Gestapo) would go on to become the very insurgents America invaded to find in the first place, joining Al-Qaeda in droves, and later forming today’s bogeyman: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Meanwhile the initial waves of gratitude from Iraqi citizens, who chanted ‘USA, USA, USA’ as American troops rolled past their streets, with a fervour that would put Trump supporters to shame, began to fade as the law and order of Saddam’s regime gave way to banditry and lawlessness, with too few troops on the ground to keep the peace. The infrastructure in major cities, such as Baghdad and Fallujah, had been devastated as part of the collateral damage from America’s ‘Shock and Awe’ doctrine (which amounted to driving around in the desert until someone shot at you and then bombing the hell out of them) in their efforts to oust Saddam. As the months rolled by, with little effort by US and Coalition forces to restore running power, water, and sewage, gratitude quickly turned to bitterness and resentment. The greatest nation on the planet, which had promised them democracy, freedom from oppression, and prosperity stood by, impotent, while Iraqi citizens suffered reprisal attacks from Fedayeen, died as collateral damage from US engagements with insurgents, or were left to the tender mercies of former soldiers turned bandits. Despite Saddam’s brutality and oppression, life had largely been prosperous for the average Iraqi citizen, now largely unemployed, and his iron fist had at least ensured a semblance of stability.

Six months of no running electricity, power, water, sewage, with rampant looting, violence and massive unemployment went by while the Bush administration patted themselves on the back. Little effort was made by American forces to rebuild the nation they had unscrupulously destroyed, and the strategic blunder of removing the very people who kept the country running soured the opinion of Iraqi citizens. Even to the most moderate, tolerant and civilized person there comes a time when you reach a breaking point – six hours without a wifi connection your average college student is already foaming at the mouth, at six months they’ll be disassembling Kalashnikovs in their living room and reciting passages from The Little Red Book. Throw into the mix 375,000 unemployed and quite angry young men with guns being told that all this is a result of the American invaders by Fedayeen zealots and Al Qaeda recruiters, amidst an increasingly desperate and disenfranchised population, and you have a recipe for the current insurgency in the Middle East.

Despite spending more on its military than every other nation combined. Despite having the most advanced war colleges in the world. And despite the blood soaked lessons of the Vietnam War, the Bush administration failed in grasping the fundamental tenets of counter-insurgency. Without the support of the people, the insurgent is a fish out of water. Therefore, the most important objective is always to gain the trust of the people by establishing order and prosperity. It’s a rather simple rule of thumb that happy people with jobs and a stable government generally don’t strap bombs to themselves or make IEDs in their garage. Give them a reason to work with you, instead of against you, and given how hated Saddam and his Fedayeen were by the average Iraqi citizen, this should have been a walk in the park. Iraq even had the benefit over Vietnam in possessing a large middle class of highly educated and skilled citizens, which the Bush administration immediately antagonised by having a large number of them fired from their government positions. To add insult to injury, the Bush Administration, in their zealous purging of Saddam’s Ba’ath party, even released highly trained Iraqi officers and individuals like Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who would later form the leadership of ISIL, deeming them to be a ‘low threat’, while imprisoning and torturing innocents.

What we face today in the Middle East in the form of ISIL, is a direct result of fearmongering after 9/11 and the exploitation of those 3,000 deaths by our leaders. For the sins of the Bush administration in the first six months of the Iraq War, we have paid for it with 12 years of war in the Middle East and the 654,000 deaths that have come with it. We have paid for it with an estimated 2-3.5 trillion dollars to our society and our taxpayers. We have paid for their sins by stepping further and further away from victory, in this so called ‘war on terror’, by pouring oil on the flames and manufacturing conflict for future generations. ISIL insurgents might as well have a ‘Made in America’ stamp on their feet for America’s involvement in creating the power vacuum that birthed and armed them.

A RAND (an independent Research ANd Development think-tank for the US military) put the median length of an insurgency to 10 years in a 2010 study. If we look back at the Iraq War (2003) we have an entire generation of young men and women, who had the arbitrary misfortune of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, growing up under the sound of gunfire and air strikes. Poorly educated, without any opportunities to advance in life, these are young men and women who witnessed their loved ones killed or maimed by weapons made in the USA. Is it no wonder that they grow up filled with hate, seduced by the idea that power flows from the barrel of a gun? Under the teachings of Sun Tzu, we know that a cornered enemy will fight twice as hard – and yet we seem to have fooled ourselves into thinking that we can win this war against ISIL by backing them into a corner.

US policy makers and presidential candidates continue to ignore the rather simple question of why these insurgents want us dead, spouting off fearmongering rhetoric about them hating our freedom. For many of them, short of extremist propaganda, they couldn’t give a damn about our freedom (or growing lack thereof in light of the Paris Attacks). They hate us because we are killing them. They hate us because we continue to bomb their brothers and sisters, regardless of if they are insurgents or not. Currently any male of military age (16-35) is deemed an insurgent by the US government when killed in a drone strike or military operation, even if they were as innocent as those who died in 9/11. They hate us because our tax payer dollars are being spent on drone strikes on weddings (or Medico-San-Frontier hospitals) and funding other ‘moderate’ rebel groups (or the equally brutal Assad regime) who go around killing their loved ones.

Fearmongering after 9/11 is what led to the deaths of 654,000 in Iraq. Blindly lashing out, without any thought to the consequences, is what has birthed the hydra of ISIL and the looming spectre of insurgency in the Middle East. The wars of our generation will not be over by Christmas. We will be still be fighting them a decade from now. If we truly wish to stop ISIL then we must first look inwards at those in our governments who have played a part in their creation. We must work on rebuilding what we have destroyed, so that the next generation will not grow up with nothing to lose, and nothing to hope for. We must bring our own leaders to justice for exploiting the deaths of those at 9/11 in order to commit crimes against humanity to show the world our commitment to the unshakeable tenets of democracy, freedom, and civilization. Just as after the horrors of the First World War and the breaking apart of empires we cried out lest we forget, so too shall we never forget the tragedy of the Iraq War and the complicity of our leaders.

 

 

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Blue White and Red: Forgotten Lessons From Vietnam In Our War Against ISIL

The biggest paradox of our generation is that despite having access to more knowledge and information than every previous generation combined, we are even more easily manipulated and swayed by propaganda. Take the recent attacks in Paris orchestrated by the so called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL – otherwise referred to as ISIS, or Da’ish/Daesh by the types of people who believe in calling Voldemort he who shall not be named). You have the standard insurgent M.O of simultaneous attacks within a short time frame, fanatics who are happy to martyr themselves rather than be captured, and locally recruited agents operating from small cells within the target country. It is a tried and true strategy from the insurgent playbook – whether it be the Northern Liberation Front, ISIL, or Al Qaeda – because it has the biggest media impact, and because people continue to fall for it. You see it everywhere on social media and on the news: jingoistic calls to arms for a “pitiless war” against ISIL, promises of retribution for the Paris attacks, the blue white and red of clicktivism and eurocentrism that plagues Facebook, and the mistaken belief that we are winning this so called ‘War on Terror’. As it turns out, contrary to what the latest Fallout game would tell you, war has changed.

Those in the military sciences accept the adage that generals are always prepared to fight tomorrow’s war with the same mentality of yesterdays, and this has spilled over to how the public perceive war. Gone are the days where the ever looming threat of Soviet tanks steamrolling through Western Europe dictated geopolitical and military strategy. Gone are the days where America, much like the Romans of Julius Caesar, won wars purely on the basis of logistical supremacy – burying their opponents under an insurmountable mountain of bullets, bombs and tanks. Gone are the days of the big bad wolf (whether he is called Adolf Hitler or Hirohito) which can be defeated by keeping your boots laced and your bayonets sharp. Ever since Vietnam, where illiterate rice farmers equipped with a hodge-podge of Soviet weapons and recycled munitions were able to bring down the mighty American juggernaut, we have gone from the war of the elephant, wars fought by the strength of industry and military might; to the war of the flea, asymmetric wars won more by cameras than by tank brigades. We have gone from wars fought by professional armies on the front line, to a ‘people’s war’ fought by every man, woman and child on a front line that is everywhere and nowhere at once. Despite this paradigm shift in how wars are now fought, we are still approaching our generation’s wars with last generation’s solutions and then shaking our heads when they don’t work.

Part of this stems back to Vietnam and how the French chose to deal with overstaying their welcome in South-East Asia. After brutally colonizing ‘Indochina’ (Vietnam/Cambodia) under the guise of bringing enlightenment and civilization to the savage non-whites (conveniently forgetting that the ‘dark ages’ existed only for Europe). France proceeded to install a landed gentry of Vietnamese sycophants and French plantation owners, and went on to build more prisons than schools or hospitals – presumably to keep enlightening the Vietnamese to the wonders of civilization. Naturally all the prisons and brutal oppression didn’t sit too well with the Vietnamese, leading to a charismatic patriot called Ho Chi Minh to find hope in the noble ideals of Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination: that all people have a right to rule themselves. Unfortunately for Ho, Woodrow turned out to be a massive racist (his grandfather after all was okay with the concept of owning people) and elaborated on self-determination being for whites only, dismissing Ho’s plea for the Vietnamese right to rule themselves and leading to Ho to seek refuge in the ideas of Communism. Woodrow’s ideals of ‘self-determination for whites only’ later went on to create a series of failed Central European states, causing a power vacuum in Central/Eastern Europe which Hitler was able to exploit in his rise to power (thanks Woodrow).

World War II starts soon after and Vietnam finds herself replacing the boot of French oppression with the bayonet point of Japanese occupation. Having the Japanese defeat the French (also the British at Singapore, and the Dutch in Indonesia) empowered nationalism throughout Asia and Africa as the myth of the all-conquering white colonizer went up in flames, with European powers abandoning their colonial possessions and tripping over themselves in their haste to flee the Japanese. After the Japanese were defeated, the French had De Gaulle to ask the Americans and British to get their colonies back. However, Vietnamese conviction toward self-determination had finally reached a tipping point, leading to the start of the Indochina War and the rise of the ‘people’s war’. France, still stinging from their defeat in WWII, and now facing a lot of angry colonial subjects in North Africa and South East Asia, came up with the bright notion of dealing with the insurgents with a doctrine known as ‘Search and Destroy’. Under the assumption that Western powers could easily crush any indigenous uprising through superior military might – what with having planes and tanks and all, the French sent in their Foreign Legion to destroy insurgent strongholds: bombing them from the air, raiding villages and hamlets with paratroopers under the guise of rooting out insurgents and arms stockpiles, torturing and killing suspected sympathisers, and eventually invading in force to occupy cities. Spoiler alert: the very same tactics were then used by the Americans in Iraq with the exact same results. France made a crucial miscalculation in assuming that they could defeat the Vietnamese insurgents through sheer force alone. Mao Zedong, the architect of ‘peoples’ war’ wrote in the Little Red Book that the insurgent is the fish and the local population is the sea which shelters the fish. In order for the insurgent to survive, they are dependent on the will and support of the local people, and likewise, so long as the support and will of the people is with them the insurgent can never be truly defeated. Ironically, despite the French Resistance using these very same maxims against the occupying Nazis, the French fell prey to the same mistakes.

While the French continued to shoot themselves in the foot, on the other side of the pond England found itself facing an insurgency of their own in Malaya from Chinese Communists. However the British adopted a policy of working with the village elders, establishing systems of governance throughout Malaya, improving the livelihoods of the locals by building hospitals, setting up schools, digging wells and irrigation trenches. The British attempted to appeal to the ‘Hearts and Minds’ of the local population which sheltered the insurgents by demonstrating the mutual benefits of cooperation. Keep in mind this wasn’t done out of a desire for warm fuzzies or the kindness of their hearts but out of simple pragmatism – because of how expensive war is (both in terms of money and body bags), you want to use the absolute minimum of force to achieve the best result, and that often means cooperation instead of coercion. Funnily enough, it turns out giving people a reason to love you works out better than kicking in their doors at night and shooting their relatives, or routinely bombing villages, as the Malay Insurgency was eventually resolved, while Vietnam sucked in and spat out the French and Americans.

For some curious reason, much like how America still refuses to adopt the metric system, ‘Murica decided that the French doctrine of counter-insurgency – the shoot em all and let God sort em out approach – somehow made more sense, despite its abysmal track record, and subsequently adopted it in their approach to Vietnam, and to modern insurgencies (JFK being the exception in attempting to win over ‘Hearts and Minds’ up until he was Kennedy’d in Dallas). One of the reasons in adopting this approach in Vietnam was racially guided arrogance – Secretary of Defence McNamara believed that the sheer volume of bombs dropped, 7 times the amount dropped in WWII, coupled with superior military forces, would be enough to ‘Shock and Awe’ the insolent Vietnamese, eventually killing enough of them that they would hit a ‘crossover point’ where they would be unable to replenish their losses. After all, McNamara even had access to British and American reports of the bombing campaigns in WWII (most notably the London Blitz) which showed that sustained bombing only strengthened civilian resolve and had no impact on the belligerent’s ability to keep up the war effort (Nazi Germany actually increased productivity as the war progressed despite being bombed to the stone age). McNamara and General Westmoreland remained stubborn in their belief that the Asiatic did not possess the willpower and determination of the European, and believed that raising the amount of bombs dropped would somehow change the results. In fairness to them, it did change the result of the war: providing the National Liberation Front ample opportunities to recruit pissed off survivors of indiscriminate bombing campaigns to further the war effort, and providing media fodder to strike home at the ‘Hearts and Minds’ of the American public. McNamara later expressed enormous remorse and guilt over his obsession with the ‘crossover point’ after the war as his misguided logic had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and had done little to democratize Vietnam (the supposed objective of the war).

To an extent we are still seeing elements of this arrogance in today’s fight against ISIL – despite extensive bombing campaigns by Americans, Syrians, Jordanians, Russians (who everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten, annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine a year ago) – ISIL will not roll over and die. Too caught up in waving French flags on social media we seem to forget the fundamental nature of the war we are fighting. Insurgencies are not driven by governments but by ideas, and ideas are rather resistant to being bombed or shot. Americans are quick to forget this despite their own nation being founded on insurgency against the British Empire – an insurgency founded on the French ideas of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The British Army couldn’t keep these ideas down with muskets and cannons, why do we assume we can do the same today with drones and bombing campaigns. Insurgency is a many headed hydra which cannot be defeated by simply chopping off a head and yet we refuse to acknowledge this, or our own part in how these insurgencies are born. ISIL’s very existence and current prominence in the Middle East is a direct result of the US invasion of Iraq, which destabilized the region, allowing radical ideas of Salafism to take root amidst a disenfranchised and desperate population. Radical ideas germinate only when there is no other alternative and we have done little to provide that alternative to the people we have ‘liberated’ despite possessing the lion’s share of the worlds resources and wealth. American military bases in Iraq, hastily abandoned after billions of dollars and little change, were seized by ISIL insurgents in their early rise to power, giving them the American made means to carry out their atrocities.

If we truly wish to defeat ISIL then we cannot just label them as ‘terrorists’ (an emotive term used for propaganda purposes to justify horrific actions, see Guantamino Bay) and continue with the failed French doctrine of ‘Search and Destroy’. We cannot rush blindly into another ground war, despite the jingoistic calls of those in the Military Industrial Complex who directly benefit from selling arms to both sides. We cannot turn a blind eye to our governments’ part in destabilizing the Middle East for the interest of the few, and then wonder why the survivors of drone attacks and bombing campaigns swear vengeance. We cannot continue to ignore the blood soaked lessons of history and buy into ignorance and propaganda in order to feel good about showing solidarity for a few victims in a worldwide problem.

It has been 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War, and 14 years since the 9/11 attacks, yet we continue to make the same mistakes. Defeating ISIL requires that we educate ourselves and vote against those who would use the Paris attacks to further their own agenda, that we look after the disenfranchised and the desperate in our own societies before they become radicalized instead of turning them away, and that we rebuild the nations we have unscrupulously destroyed. We collectively failed after 9/11, giving into retributive vengeance and misguided hatred and in doing so have birthed the monster that we now face today. Let us learn from the past and not turn the deaths of a few in the Western World as an excuse for the deaths of the many in the rest of the world. Let us fight insurgency, not just with military might with ‘Hearts and Minds’, starting with ourselves and our own governments.

Tywin Maiden

You can tell a lot about someone by their shower rituals. Some of the more artsy types like to sing in the shower, or draw things on the condensation, with more sensible people actually washing themselves. Personally I like to think of myself as a more grounded person, not caught up in silly fantasies, and instead hum Rains of Castamere over and over until the shower finally runs out of hot water. For the uninitiated, the “Rains of Castamere” is a catchy little number featured in the A Song of Ice and Fire books (or the much more commonly known TV series Game of Thrones) about Tywin Lannister’s destruction of the minor houses Tarbeck and Reyne.

And who are you, the proud lord said,

that I must bow so low?

Only a cat of a different coat,

that’s all the truth I know.

In a coat of gold or a coat of red,

a lion still has claws,

And mine are long and sharp, my lord,

as long and sharp as yours.

And so he spoke, and so he spoke,

that lord of Castamere,

But now the rains weep o’er his hall,

with no one there to hear.

Yes now the rains weep o’er his hall,

and not a soul to hear.[4]

On the surface level it doesn’t sound too bad – after all Westeros seems to exist in a perpetual state of murder, rape, and realpolitik with the odd famine here and there – it’s not until you pick up on all the little details you start to realize their significance. See House Lannister is the richest and most powerful house of the Westerlands, due to their access to gold mines, with House Tarbeck and Reyne being their most powerful bannermen. Tytos Lannister, the aging patriarch otherwise known as the Laughing Lion for his amiability and his meek nature, allowed House Tarbeck and Reyne to borrow heavily without any agreement on when the loan will be paid back. Tywin Lannister at the age of 16, angry that his lord father’s bannermen were mocking him by refusing to pay and further incensed by House Tarbeck and Reyne openly rebelling, takes command of his father’s forces and marched on Tarbeck Hall. When the Tarbeck garrison refused to surrender and swear fealty he ordered every man, woman, and child loyal to House Tarbeck to be killed, razed Tarbeck Hall to the ground, and then salted the fields to ensure nothing would ever grow. On a scale of 1 to Genghis Khan for brutality – Tywin Lannister is pretty goddamn Khan.

Then things get even worse (or even better depending on how metal you are). House Reyne, unlike House Tarbeck, had built their castle (Castamere) over their gold mines and this meant that Castamere was mostly underground – and therefore didn’t have the weaknesses of Tarbeck Hall.  There were no walls to scale, no exposed towers to destroy with magonel or trebuchet, the only entry point to Castamere was a narrow tunnel guarded by knights. With Castamere having ample time to take preparations for a siege: killing and salting their livestock, burning their own fields to leave nothing for the advancing army, stockpiling all their food reserves – the likelihood of the Lannister siege succeeding was low. Tywin, knowing that he couldn’t waste time starving the Reynes out; especially with the possibility of another house joining House Reyne and catching the Lannister host from behind; and ordered the neighbouring river to be diverted directly into the main tunnel of Castamere, killing everyone trapped inside and destroying the ancient castle.

I dilly dally my shower time by humming the “Rains of Castamere” because it is literally the most metal song ever made. Tywin Lannister tells his dad to hold his gold and goes Genghis Khan on two houses because:

  •                A) They didn’t pay him back

And

  •                B) They disrespectin’

The only way Tywin could be more of a thug is if he was sitting pimped out on horseback while the Reynes went down, being handed a joint rolled between the thighs of beautiful women by Snoop Dogg himself.

This makes me glad we live in a (fairly) civilized society. Imagine if creditors would call you up and sing the Bills of Microsoft as a gentle reminder when you’re behind on your repayments. Or if VISA changed their slogan to VISA pays its debts; with Mastercard releasing a new advertising campaign: “Calling your banners: 10,000 dragons, equipping your host: 300,000 dragons, destroying your enemies down to the last child: priceless. There are some things in life money can’t buy – for everything else, there’s Mastercard.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the neighbourhood friendly loan shark breaking my knee caps any day of the week.

 

Critical Failure

I like to think of myself as a fairly reasonable and rational person when it comes to my fears. Instead of being afraid of irrational things: like ghosts, clowns, and My Little Pony, I’m made of sterner stuff and instead afraid of the anti-bacterial hand wash sitting in my bathroom.

It’s simple logic really. The label on the hand wash states that it will kill 99% of all germs. In theory that seems fine – having 99 problems and a germ be one isn’t too bad for $4.99 a month. But much like slogan of the Occupy Wall Streeters: what about the 1%? Germs seem to have a rather nasty habit of mutating and becoming resistant to things. If we go about routinely killing 99% of them – doesn’t that mean that the 1% that survive become resistant, and now have motive to start plotting our demise?

Considering that germs don’t have to keep up with the Kardashians or spend their time dumping buckets of ice water over their heads; their life is pretty simple: eat, replicate, plan coup d’etat. Every time I go and wash my hands I’m creating another generation of parentless 1% germs to join the insurgent army hiding in my skin. Eventually I’ll go to wash my hands and I’ll hear a microbe whisper in my ear, “My name is Ortho Myxoviridae, you killed my father, prepare to die” and I’ll know the end is nigh.

Then again, as someone with no allergies and a fairly robust immune system maybe I’ll be spared the hand wash epidemic that ravages the planet – alongside people who don’t have hands and hypochondriacs in sealed suits.

Call me a quisling, but I for one welcome our new pandemic overlords.

Accidental Incest

At heart I am a pragmatic man. Whenever my mother would tell me to bring home a nice Christian Korean girl, the first thing I’d think about was how likely it’d be that we’d be distantly related. See Korea has the misfortune of having the lowest surname diversity in the world. Three surnames: Lee, Park, and Kim make up half of Korea’s 50 million population; that’s not including North Korea where accidental incest is the worst of your worries. At my high school graduation alone we had 13 Kims, 9 Lees, 3 Parks, and 4 Chois; and this out of a graduating class of 50. Keep in mind that thanks to Genghis Khan, not only has Baghdad never recovered, but there is a 5% chance you are distantly related to the old warlord himself; so in a place like Korea you have to be extra careful lest you wind up with 9 toed children.

Now I always thought myself lucky since my family surname Yu is technically Chinese. Because the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is completely phonetic, things are spelled out exactly as they sound. So under Hangul my surname should be spelled Yoo instead of Yu; but for whatever reason my ancestors decided to hold onto the Chinese spelling.

When I first met my girlfriend I was over the moon. In a mental checklist at the back of my mind I was ticking off boxes as they came up. She was smart and was studying the same thing I was (English). She was funny, with the same kind of goofy humour. She was independent in the autonomous, self assured, way I was. Out of the thousands of people I’d encountered, and the hundreds I’d known; I had never met anyone I felt so immediately compatible with. The fact that she was cute as a button certainly helped as well. We were talking for hours, swapping stories, trading jokes, holding hands. You get the idea, the whole kit and caboodle. At one point I mentioned offhandedly how I’d always look up whenever the teacher said you in case he was calling me by my surname (har har). I was expecting a few laughs, but instead she turned completely pale and said she did the same thing – because her surname was also Yu.

Because I am a pragmatic man I knew I that there were two courses of action that I could take. The first was to pray to the old gods and new that she wasn’t also Korean. The second was to politely excuse myself from her company, walk back home, lock myself in my room, and live out the rest of my days as a cat. Fortunately for my flatmates, my girlfriend turned out to be Han Chinese so the likelihood is low, what with me being Korean and all.

That being said Yu is a fairly uncommon surname, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from Game of Thrones is that incest, accidental or otherwise, is never a good idea. I’m already terrified of the possibility of having a teenage daughter later on in life; having a teenage daughter who is also the result of incest is a whole other can of worms. I would ask her to go do her homework and she’d start screaming at me about how she is the blood of the dragon, and how she will return one day to retake what is rightfully hers with fire and blood. I already have enough trouble as it is keeping up with Kardashians; keeping up with the Targaryens as well is too much to ask.

I guess in the event that I do wind up with a crazy, incest-born daughter, I’ll just send her overseas to some nice young warlord and pray she doesn’t give birth to dragons. It’s always good to have practical solutions prepared for situations like these.

How To Dance Like A White Person

The saying goes that travel broadens the mind and with this I would have to agree. It is a liberating experience to live in other countries, constantly being exposed to new cultures and new customs. While you can struggle with feelings of homesickness, one can often find solace in finding similarities between these foreign places and home.

In my travels I would find comfort in going to nightclubs, confident in the belief that whatever country I was in, or whoever I was with, there would be one individual who would be dancing like a white person. It is a very particular dance, full of colonial ambitions and abysmal hand-eye coordination. It is the dance of a jellyfish having an epileptic seizure, or a caffeine-addicted child on a trampoline.

The more time I spent overseas, the more I would spot this phenomenon; in clubs, at parties, even occasionally on Youtube. The white person dance is not restricted by gender; the only difference would be that girls would yell WHOOOO and twirl their hair; nor is it restricted to race as American media corrupted all youth equally.

Over time I became an expert. Like John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves, I too spent much time studying these people and learning their secrets. From the elevated blood alcohol content, to the absence of higher brain functions; through patient observation and careful mimicry I was able to replicate their movements, and understand their thought processes.

You can view dancing, at its most elemental level, as an expenditure of energy. In the developed nations of the first world, where issues of survival are non-existent and consumption of refined sugar is at its highest, energy expenditure is not an issue.

The first step in dancing like a white person is therefore to live a sedentary lifestyle and to snack often, the more sugary snacks the better. Exercise and balanced diets were for our plebian ancestors, not for the sons and daughters of the western world. Get out there on the dance floor and flail your limbs around with all the energy your calorie-rich diet has to offer.

The second step is the assumption that what you are doing is inherently better. Most western cultures lack the tall poppy syndrome that enables humility to fully develop. With this absence of humility you are free to defy conventions and rules; after all, you are better than the time tested methods of classical dancing. Ignore your absence of training or hand-eye coordination and jump up and down like you can hear the beat.

The third step, simply put, is inebriation. Alcohol inhibits higher thought processes in the brain and impairs executive control. Parts of the brain that usually concern themselves with looking silly take an alcohol induced nap, freeing your pioneer spirit. Make your presence known with your actions. Grind up against people of the opposite sex; shake your head until the world gets dizzier than it already is.

The fourth and final step in dancing like a white person is to ignore the beat. Traditional dancing is done in tune to the beat but that is for foreigners and immigrants. Sneer down on the timing of the beat with the haughty imperialism of your forebears.

Remember that as in the closing lines of Invictus: only you are the master of your own fate.

 

 

 

Not-So Nazi

The worst thing about being dead, aside from the obvious, is that people can twist your life’s work into something completely different. For instance take the word Aryan, first coined as an English word by the father of linguistics Sir William Jones. The word Aryan in modern society has connotations of race theory, white supremacy, and the Nazi Third Reich. Instead of the rich history of the Indo-European language group, and the transition in European thinking toward viewing non-Europeans as equally capable of civilization, the word Aryan has been tarred with the same red and black brush as the Hindu swastika.

Moving away from modern connotations the word Aryan is a Sanskrit word that means ‘noble race’. Sir William Jones, a polymath and the first European to understand Sanskrit, discovered that there were intrinsic similarities between Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit that indicated that they were descended from a common language. This discovery created what is known as the Indo-European language group, or the understanding that Europeans and Asians had shared ancestry. Europeans who had traditionally viewed the Orient as a strange place of mysticism and exotic otherness now began to see those in the East as their equals. The term Aryan and Aryanism were used to signify that this ‘noble race’ that Europeans and Asians had descended from had civilized the known world, linking cultures and races in the universal trends of the rise and fall of civilizations.

Sir William Jones’ linguistic work in being able to understand and translate Sanskrit reinvigorated interest in the cultures of the Orient. Sanskrit texts could now be translated by Europeans, providing a localized version of Indian history instead of Euro-centric ones. There was a paradigm shift in the intellectual elite of Europe away from viewing history through the classical studies of Greece and Rome toward viewing the rise and fall of Oriental civilizations: the Caliphate of Muhammad, the Golden Age of Islam, the Qing Dynasty of China, and the Achaemenid Empire. Aryanism had levelled the belief in European supremacy by suggesting that other civilizations and cultures were just as sophisticated and as advanced; and this belief came with the notion that all people were just as capable of civilization, but some were limited by the constraints of their environment.

Unfortunately, just as how the Hindu swastika has come to represent evil in modern society, the term Aryan has been loaded down with racial connotations. Instead of embracing the universal humanity inherent in all people, regardless of race or culture as Sir William Jones revealed, Aryanism has been twisted toward the belief of a supreme race and qualifying human beings on the colour of their skin.

Faster Than Life

When it comes to strategy games I am a total addict. I have hundreds of hours on XCOM, I’ve beaten Civ V on its highest difficulty, rained death on the virtual battlefields of Shogun 2, and spent thousands of hours in the constant pursuit of perfection in Dota2. There is something endlessly addictive in coming up with strategies on the fly and executing them well. I like to think that if math involved coming up with ways to blow people up in the same way video games do, I would have a lot paid more attention in class. But that could just be my inner sociopath talking.

Take my current video game addiction Faster Than Light (FTL) by Subset Games. It’s an 2012 indie rogue-like strategy game where you command the crew of one of dozens of different ship layouts in a journey across the stars. Rogue-like games take design minimalism to the extreme with only a basic plot, simplistic graphics, and an emphasis on a series of randomly generated events. Because of their design rogue-likes aren’t a massive time commitment; a single play through of FTL can take between twenty to forty minutes. However because of the random nature of rogue-likes, they are meant to be played over and over with no two play throughs being alike.

The objective of FTL is very simple: get from point A to point B and then fight the boss. Where FTL differs from other games in its execution; unlike other spaceship games where you’re piloting the ship, FTL focuses entirely on the strategy. Your ship has systems and subsystems, all of which have crucial functions (e.g. weapons, engines, sensors, life support ,etc), most of which can be manned by individual crew members, and a finite supply of power that is used to power these systems. While you do not ‘pilot’ the ship, you instead dictate what to do with the finite resources at your disposal. Do you divert power away from shields to keep your weapons up? Do you temporarily turn off oxygen to make sure that your shields don’t give out? Do you take away one of your crewmembers from the engine room to help fight a fire elsewhere on the ship? It seems like an incredibly simple system; but the elegance of the game is that it is always forcing you to make important decisions quickly. These decisions are weighted with the knowledge that any crew member deaths are permanent, and the destruction of your ship will result in an immediate game over.

Just like any other strategy game the aim is to beat the enemy; in this case you try to blow up the enemy ship. Since both the ship you control, and the ship the enemy controls, is broken down into separate systems and subsystems, it’s not a case of button mashing or frantic clicking. Instead you get to choose which parts of the enemy ship to target, and that’s where the strategy comes into play. You can blow up the enemy weapons systems, forcing them to divert crew to repair it if they want to keep plinking away at you; you could drop teleporting fire bombs into their life support and watch them asphyxiate to death; the more you understand the mechanics of the game the better it gets. Keep in mind the exact same applies to you; all it takes is a stray missile to ruin your day. One minute you’re whistling dixie, and the next your captain is on fire and there is a hull breach in your engines. Like a pixelated Mad Eye Moody, FTL is constantly barking “CONSTANT VIGILENCE” lest your concentration waver.

But the thing that makes Faster Than Light so addictive is it’s difficulty. It’s like life: it pulls no punches, and every once in a while someone you love will be set on fire. You are not meant to win FTL; in fact one of the opening tips simply states “losing is fun”. The RNG(Random Number Generator) gods are cruel and merciless, the AI brutally punishing, and the game is always rigged against you – and that’s just on easy. The only advantage you have is the fact that you have a brain with frontal lobes (or at least an IOU where they should be).

Because of its difficulty FTL often transcends into a life metaphor. It will teach you over and over again to play to the strengths that you start out with; to tackle your problems one at a time; and that sometimes, no matter how well prepared you are, things just fall apart. Above all else, the key lesson of FTL is that no matter how bad things get, you can always start over. In a game where failure is almost to be expected, your mind is free from the anxiety of defeat and from that freedom you can often find a hidden wellspring of creativity, or at very least an indomitable spirit to persevere. And sometimes, when the perfect storm of circumstance and ability occurs, you might just pull out a win.

It is rare to find a video game that is both amazingly complex and easily accessible. Dota2 for instance has such intense learning curve that it is more like learning to play an instrument than anything else. Others, like Angry Birds, are so accessible that anyone can pick it up and play but it because of its accessibility; it loses the depth and complexity that games are capable of achieving. FTL achieves this balance by being incredibly elegant in its simplicity, while at the same time having the strategic depth that makes it so addictive. FTL is a game that forces you to experiment, encourages you to always learn from your mistakes, and keeps pushing you until you at long last succeed.

Now if you excuse me, I’m off to asphyxiate enemy crews because after all; in space, no one can hear you scream.

Fear of Houses

I never understood homophobes. Maybe because I’ve never been particularly religious. Even so, I like to think that the god of any religion which preaches compassion, kindness, and good will to others would be supportive of love, regardless of gender. Instead, like barely literate mushrooms, homophobes sprout out of the dark places of the world to oppose gay marriage.

From what I understand, while people are homophobic for a variety of reasons, it really boils down to two fundamental ones. The first is that it is ‘icky’. This I can almost understand. I remember as a kid going to a Catholic school and being terrified of girls. I don’t know if the two were related but being beaten with rulers by sexually frustrated nuns certainly didn’t help. Back then, before puberty or boobs kicked in, girls were ‘icky’. If they touched you, you had to disinfect yourself from cooties lest you become a pariah. Gay people have it rough because not all of them develop boobs. This leads me to the second fundamental reason.

Homophobes, funnily enough, turn out to be the ones most aroused by gay sex. In psychology we call this reaction formation, forming the opposite response as a defence mechanism. In real life, we call this hilarious. Studies conducted by the American Psychological Association have found that the more homophobic a man is, the more aroused he is when watching gay sex. It is one thing to be a homophobe, it is another to be a hypocrite. A secretly homosexual homophobe who is being hypocritical is one H too many for my liking, but that could just be me.

The more religious homophobes like to claim that the bible says homosexuality is wrong, and therefore gay marriage is wrong. Now I have nothing against the bible, or religion in general. My stance is that so long as it doesn’t actively cause harm, religion in moderation can be a powerful part of people’s lives. I understand that historically a lot of the laws in the bible make logical sense. Jews were forbidden from eating shellfish, as shellfish spoil easily and can cause illness, Muslims were forbidden from eating pork because pork has to be cooked properly or else it can cause food poisoning. These have been incorporated into their respective cultures with a dash of mysticism but served a purpose at one point. If we are to believe the religious argument that gay marriage is wrong on the basis of the bible, then shouldn’t we also follow the laws of Leviticus, which prohibit wearing clothes from blended fabrics? If your logical argument is that an ancient book says this is bad, then you don’t get to pick and choose which ancient rules you follow because it suits you. That is a right reserved only for parents and for politicians. But maybe that’s just me.

Diamonds Suck Forever

I never understood the appeal of diamonds. They are the laziest of gemstones. Rubies have their red gleam, sapphires their azure blue, diamonds are just shiny rocks that happen to be very hard. If being hard and shiny are enough to make something ludicrously expensive then jewellers can put glitter on concrete and call it a day.

Don’t get me wrong, diamonds have their uses. Spaceship windows are made from diamonds, surgical tools have diamond tipped edges and jewel thieves need something to aim for. Diamonds are one of the hardest substances known to man and have an amazingly high heat conductivity so there are all sorts of nifty industrial and scientific reasons to keep them around.

But for the purposes of looking pretty, diamonds suck. The price of diamonds is completely artificial, DeBeers launched an incredibly successful marketing campaign to promote diamonds as the primary gemstone by stating that “Diamonds are forever.” Entropy is forever as well, but you don’t see me giving my girlfriend a ring box full of heat. DeBeers is the reason why an engagement ring should cost three month’s salary. There is no logical or emotional reason behind this. You don’t love someone any more, or any less, because your ring has a slightly bigger rock on it. Or maybe marriage is one of those amusement park rides with the sign out front, your diamond must be this big to enter. I couldn’t tell you, I’ve never been married.

This isn’t even considering the fact that the majority of jewellery quality diamonds come from places like Angola, or from Sierra Leone. The fact that the price of diamonds is artificially controlled by cartels like DeBeers makes diamond mining a lucrative prospect for warlords. Grab a few third world children, point a gun at them and get them to go shiny rock digging. Take the money you get from cashing in those sweet sweet blood diamonds and go buy more guns, or children, or whatever it is warlords do with their money. I get the feeling it probably doesn’t involve hedge funds.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on diamonds. In a way it’s almost flattering having a conflict diamond. Nothing says I love you like half a dozen dead children. Imagine the conversations your fiancé would have when she talks about her ring.

“Oooh that’s nice.”

“Yeah he told me this one was worth only four Sierra Leonians.”

“Only four? I hear Tracy’s diamond is worth twelve Angolans.”

“Yeah but Angolans aren’t worth as much so it’s like five Sierra Leonians at current value.”

“Oooh sounds like trouble in paradise for those two when she finds out.”

All I know is I’d hate to be Tracy’s fiancé.