Commentary Magazine


Topic: interpreter

The Times‘s Great War Correspondents

I often take issue with articles and columns in the New York Times, but it remains a great newspaper with many first-rate, fearless news-gatherers. One of them was severely wounded Saturday while accompanying U.S. troops in the Arghandab Valley near Kandahar. Photographer Joao Silva stepped on a mine while on patrol. Thankfully, he survived. Medics administered immediate assistance, and he was evacuated by helicopter. Typical of his professionalism and dedication, he continued snapping pictures even after being hit. He will undergo his long-term recovery at Walter Reed hospital in Washington. (The story is here.)

Silva is hardly the only Times journalist who has placed himself in harm’s way in search of a story. Reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban last year and freed in a raid which killed his interpreter. Farrell only had to spend four days with his captors; his colleague David Rohde spent seven months in Taliban captivity before escaping.

Their self-sacrifice has not been in vain. For all the many problems of the Times, its war reporting has been outstanding, thanks to the efforts not only of the individuals mentioned above but also many others such as Michael Gordon, Dexter Filkins, C.J. Chivers, John Burns, Alissa Rubin, and Carlotta Gall. They have been fearless truth-gatherers and have generally described the wars they have covered fairly and accurately. Certainly in Iraq, they provided a better picture of what was happening than the hopelessly rosy-eyed descriptions generated by U.S. military commanders from 2003 to 2006. In Afghanistan, I have also found their reporting generally to be on the money.

I wish Silva a speedy recovery and hope his colleagues remain safe when they are on the front lines — as they often are.

I often take issue with articles and columns in the New York Times, but it remains a great newspaper with many first-rate, fearless news-gatherers. One of them was severely wounded Saturday while accompanying U.S. troops in the Arghandab Valley near Kandahar. Photographer Joao Silva stepped on a mine while on patrol. Thankfully, he survived. Medics administered immediate assistance, and he was evacuated by helicopter. Typical of his professionalism and dedication, he continued snapping pictures even after being hit. He will undergo his long-term recovery at Walter Reed hospital in Washington. (The story is here.)

Silva is hardly the only Times journalist who has placed himself in harm’s way in search of a story. Reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban last year and freed in a raid which killed his interpreter. Farrell only had to spend four days with his captors; his colleague David Rohde spent seven months in Taliban captivity before escaping.

Their self-sacrifice has not been in vain. For all the many problems of the Times, its war reporting has been outstanding, thanks to the efforts not only of the individuals mentioned above but also many others such as Michael Gordon, Dexter Filkins, C.J. Chivers, John Burns, Alissa Rubin, and Carlotta Gall. They have been fearless truth-gatherers and have generally described the wars they have covered fairly and accurately. Certainly in Iraq, they provided a better picture of what was happening than the hopelessly rosy-eyed descriptions generated by U.S. military commanders from 2003 to 2006. In Afghanistan, I have also found their reporting generally to be on the money.

I wish Silva a speedy recovery and hope his colleagues remain safe when they are on the front lines — as they often are.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

What passes for “science” with the global-warming crowd: “Crucial data on the American climate, part of the basis for proposed trillion-dollar global warming legislation, is churned out by a 120-year-old weather system that has remained mostly unchanged since Benjamin Harrison was in the White House. The network measures surface temperature by tallying paper reports sent in by snail mail from volunteers whose data, according to critics, often resembles a hodgepodge of guesswork, mathematical interpolation and simple human error.”

American unseriousness on Iran personified (from an unnamed official): “We are exploring a range of options to achieve our objectives of securing Iran’s compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and UNSCR resolutions.” But not any time soon: “Ambassador Emanuel Issoze-Ngondet, who is president of the Security Council for the month of March, said the Iranian nuclear issue was not on the agenda of the 15-nation panel this month, but council members might still hold a meeting on it. ‘We think the question could come to the table [in March],’ Issoze-Ngondet told reporters through an interpreter. ‘But right now we are waiting. We’re following the process that’s ongoing. We’re waiting for the right time to bring the Security Council to deal with it.’” Feel safer yet?

From the “Middle East is hard” file: “Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama’s big picture guy, is set to draw it for the Israelis next week in a major address: Confront Iran internationally, talk peace regionally. Bold strokes, but already Biden’s initiative is being dogged by scribbly little details — timing on Iran, building in Jerusalem, restoration in the West Bank, and just how far apart will Israelis and the Palestinians sit.” It’s a scribbly little detail that there’s no remote chance of a peace deal, I suppose.

Democratic infighting continues: “House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank on Tuesday blasted a proposal floated by Senate negotiators to place a proposed consumer protection agency inside the Federal Reserve. ‘I was incredulous,’ the Massachusetts Democrat said. ‘After all the Fed bashing we’ve heard? The Fed’s such a weak engine, so let’s give them consumer protection? It’s almost a bad joke. I was very disappointed.’” The proposal he’s bashing is Democratic Senator Chris Dodd’s.

Mickey Kaus doesn’t expect to win the California U.S. Senate race against Barbara Boxer. “My goal is to get attacked. If they notice me enough to attack me I will declare victory.” This is going to be fun.

James Taranto cracks: “If we were cynical, we’d suspect this is all a ruse–that Kaus’s real aim is to get an op-ed published in the New York Times when he fails to return the nomination papers in a timely fashion.”

Oh good grief: Dan Rather whines that there were only six women of 42 participants at the health-care summit. Yes, one was the Speaker of the House.

A good day at the Supreme Court for Second Amendment advocates: “The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed poised to require state and local governments to obey the Second Amendment guarantee of a personal right to a gun, but with perhaps considerable authority to regulate that right.  The dominant sentiment on the Court was to extend the Amendment beyond the federal level, based on the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of ‘due process,’ since doing so through another part of the 14th Amendment would raise too many questions about what other rights might emerge.”

According to the latest Rasmussen poll, it doesn’t matter which Republican or Democrat is on the ballot in the Arkansas senate race; the Republican always leads. Could be true in a lot of states this year.

What passes for “science” with the global-warming crowd: “Crucial data on the American climate, part of the basis for proposed trillion-dollar global warming legislation, is churned out by a 120-year-old weather system that has remained mostly unchanged since Benjamin Harrison was in the White House. The network measures surface temperature by tallying paper reports sent in by snail mail from volunteers whose data, according to critics, often resembles a hodgepodge of guesswork, mathematical interpolation and simple human error.”

American unseriousness on Iran personified (from an unnamed official): “We are exploring a range of options to achieve our objectives of securing Iran’s compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and UNSCR resolutions.” But not any time soon: “Ambassador Emanuel Issoze-Ngondet, who is president of the Security Council for the month of March, said the Iranian nuclear issue was not on the agenda of the 15-nation panel this month, but council members might still hold a meeting on it. ‘We think the question could come to the table [in March],’ Issoze-Ngondet told reporters through an interpreter. ‘But right now we are waiting. We’re following the process that’s ongoing. We’re waiting for the right time to bring the Security Council to deal with it.’” Feel safer yet?

From the “Middle East is hard” file: “Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama’s big picture guy, is set to draw it for the Israelis next week in a major address: Confront Iran internationally, talk peace regionally. Bold strokes, but already Biden’s initiative is being dogged by scribbly little details — timing on Iran, building in Jerusalem, restoration in the West Bank, and just how far apart will Israelis and the Palestinians sit.” It’s a scribbly little detail that there’s no remote chance of a peace deal, I suppose.

Democratic infighting continues: “House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank on Tuesday blasted a proposal floated by Senate negotiators to place a proposed consumer protection agency inside the Federal Reserve. ‘I was incredulous,’ the Massachusetts Democrat said. ‘After all the Fed bashing we’ve heard? The Fed’s such a weak engine, so let’s give them consumer protection? It’s almost a bad joke. I was very disappointed.’” The proposal he’s bashing is Democratic Senator Chris Dodd’s.

Mickey Kaus doesn’t expect to win the California U.S. Senate race against Barbara Boxer. “My goal is to get attacked. If they notice me enough to attack me I will declare victory.” This is going to be fun.

James Taranto cracks: “If we were cynical, we’d suspect this is all a ruse–that Kaus’s real aim is to get an op-ed published in the New York Times when he fails to return the nomination papers in a timely fashion.”

Oh good grief: Dan Rather whines that there were only six women of 42 participants at the health-care summit. Yes, one was the Speaker of the House.

A good day at the Supreme Court for Second Amendment advocates: “The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed poised to require state and local governments to obey the Second Amendment guarantee of a personal right to a gun, but with perhaps considerable authority to regulate that right.  The dominant sentiment on the Court was to extend the Amendment beyond the federal level, based on the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of ‘due process,’ since doing so through another part of the 14th Amendment would raise too many questions about what other rights might emerge.”

According to the latest Rasmussen poll, it doesn’t matter which Republican or Democrat is on the ballot in the Arkansas senate race; the Republican always leads. Could be true in a lot of states this year.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Among the dopier things written about the health-care debate is this rant accusing the Senate Republicans of wimping out on health care. Other than running a filibuster during a snow storm. . . oh wait, they did that . . .  trying to filibuster a defense bill  . . . oh wait, they did that . . . and making every conceivable argument before voting unanimously to oppose the bill, it is hard to imagine what 40 senators could have done differently. But maybe it’s a fund-raising gambit or something.

Turns out that the savvy Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got something for easing up on the final vote schedule: “One, come early January, they’ll be able to get a vote on giving TARP money back to the Treasury. Two, they’ll be able to get a vote on Senator Murkowski’s disapproval resolution to stop the EPA from regulating carbon emissions. Both of these votes will come before the president’s State of the Union address.”

Meanwhile Jane Hamsher does something useful: goes on Fox (where the viewers are) to call for the defeat of ObamaCare.

Jim Prevor finds restaurant regulations buried in the health-care bill: “When did we have the national debate that disclosures with our tuna-salad sandwiches from the supermarket deli are urgently required? When did we discuss that diverting resources to pastrami-on-pumpernickel is prudent — and if the health-care bill deals with such minutiae, what else is hidden in its pages? And how could any ‘leader’ worthy of the name risk voting for it before we know what is even in the bill?”

Good thing we don’t have a problem with hiring and economic growth: “Companies are alarmed at potentially costly provisions in the Senate health-care bill, many of which they hope will be scrapped during a final round of negotiations early next year.” Oh, wait, that’s right: “Across the spectrum, businesses worry that a series of new taxes and fees to pay for expanding health-care coverage will push up premiums, particularly for smaller employers.”

In the Brave New World of terrorist criminal law, Major Nadal Hasan’s lawyer crabs that his client can’t speak from his jail cell to outsiders unless an interpreter is present to hear what he is saying. Well, “isn’t Mr. Hasan, like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law?”

I think this will be in a campaign ad or two: “News from the Obama re-alignment watch: Alabama Congressman Parker Griffith announced yesterday that he plans to switch parties and become a Republican. At a press conference, the oncologist-turned-politician said he could not continue to align himself with a Democratic Party pushing a health-care bill that is ‘bad for our doctors . . . bad for our patients, and . . . bad for the young men and women who are considering going into the health-care field.’ Other than that, how do you like the bill?”

Turns out that Congress stiffed the Obami on funds to convert Thomson Correctional Center into the new, domestic Guantanamo. “The federal Bureau of Prisons does not have enough money to pay Illinois for the center, which would cost about $150 million. Several weeks ago, the White House approached the House Appropriations Committee and floated the idea of adding about $200 million for the project to the military spending bill for the 2010 fiscal year, according to administration and Congressional officials.But Democratic leaders refused to include the politically charged measure in the legislation. When lawmakers approved the bill on Dec. 19, it contained no financing for Thomson.” Now they need to cut off funds for KSM’s trial.

Among the dopier things written about the health-care debate is this rant accusing the Senate Republicans of wimping out on health care. Other than running a filibuster during a snow storm. . . oh wait, they did that . . .  trying to filibuster a defense bill  . . . oh wait, they did that . . . and making every conceivable argument before voting unanimously to oppose the bill, it is hard to imagine what 40 senators could have done differently. But maybe it’s a fund-raising gambit or something.

Turns out that the savvy Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got something for easing up on the final vote schedule: “One, come early January, they’ll be able to get a vote on giving TARP money back to the Treasury. Two, they’ll be able to get a vote on Senator Murkowski’s disapproval resolution to stop the EPA from regulating carbon emissions. Both of these votes will come before the president’s State of the Union address.”

Meanwhile Jane Hamsher does something useful: goes on Fox (where the viewers are) to call for the defeat of ObamaCare.

Jim Prevor finds restaurant regulations buried in the health-care bill: “When did we have the national debate that disclosures with our tuna-salad sandwiches from the supermarket deli are urgently required? When did we discuss that diverting resources to pastrami-on-pumpernickel is prudent — and if the health-care bill deals with such minutiae, what else is hidden in its pages? And how could any ‘leader’ worthy of the name risk voting for it before we know what is even in the bill?”

Good thing we don’t have a problem with hiring and economic growth: “Companies are alarmed at potentially costly provisions in the Senate health-care bill, many of which they hope will be scrapped during a final round of negotiations early next year.” Oh, wait, that’s right: “Across the spectrum, businesses worry that a series of new taxes and fees to pay for expanding health-care coverage will push up premiums, particularly for smaller employers.”

In the Brave New World of terrorist criminal law, Major Nadal Hasan’s lawyer crabs that his client can’t speak from his jail cell to outsiders unless an interpreter is present to hear what he is saying. Well, “isn’t Mr. Hasan, like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law?”

I think this will be in a campaign ad or two: “News from the Obama re-alignment watch: Alabama Congressman Parker Griffith announced yesterday that he plans to switch parties and become a Republican. At a press conference, the oncologist-turned-politician said he could not continue to align himself with a Democratic Party pushing a health-care bill that is ‘bad for our doctors . . . bad for our patients, and . . . bad for the young men and women who are considering going into the health-care field.’ Other than that, how do you like the bill?”

Turns out that Congress stiffed the Obami on funds to convert Thomson Correctional Center into the new, domestic Guantanamo. “The federal Bureau of Prisons does not have enough money to pay Illinois for the center, which would cost about $150 million. Several weeks ago, the White House approached the House Appropriations Committee and floated the idea of adding about $200 million for the project to the military spending bill for the 2010 fiscal year, according to administration and Congressional officials.But Democratic leaders refused to include the politically charged measure in the legislation. When lawmakers approved the bill on Dec. 19, it contained no financing for Thomson.” Now they need to cut off funds for KSM’s trial.

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Truth or Consequences

Is it good news? The Pentagon has unveiled a new weapon for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that will save American lives. It is a portable lie detector: 

known by the acronym PCASS, for Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System, uses a commercial TDS Ranger hand-held personal digital assistant with three wires connected to sensors attached to the hand. An interpreter will ask a series of 20 or so questions in Persian, Arabic or Pashto: “Do you intend to answer my questions truthfully?” “Are the lights on in this room” “Are you a member of the Taliban?” The operator will punch in each answer and, after a delay of a minute or so for processing, the screen will display the results: “Green,” if it thinks the person has told the truth, “Red” for deception, and “Yellow” if it can’t decide.

“We’re not promising perfection — we’ve been very careful in that,” Donald Krapohl, special assistant to the director at the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment, told MSNBC, which reports on the deployment of the device today.

It’s a good thing that the DoD is not promising “perfection.” That would be very hard to achieve, to say the least. Even non-portable lie-detector systems have a startlingly poor record of ferreting out deception. And these are almost always used in highly-controlled circumstances in which the psychological pressure on the individual being questioned is at its maximum.

The list of spies who have defeated the polygraph to penetrate U.S. intelligence is lengthy and includes Aldrich Ames, the Soviet mole in the CIA, Robert Hanssen, the Soviet mole in the FBI, and Ana Belen Montes, who toiled away in the Defense Intelligence Agency on behalf of Cuba for a decade-and-a-half, until her apprehension in 2001. The most recent case is that of Nada Nadim Prouty, the Lebanese woman arrested this winter, who moved from sensitive positions in the FBI to even more sensitive positions within the CIA despite a fictitious marriage and ties to the terrorist organization, Hizballah.

The idea that our troops can rely on primitive polygraphs to make snap decisions on the battlefield about whom to trust and whom to suspect is a formula for disaster. One of our most attractive and useful characteristics as a society is fascination with and love of technology. Sometimes, however, fascination and love turn into obsession. We seem to be in the grip of a clinical case of that disorder here.

Is it good news? The Pentagon has unveiled a new weapon for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that will save American lives. It is a portable lie detector: 

known by the acronym PCASS, for Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System, uses a commercial TDS Ranger hand-held personal digital assistant with three wires connected to sensors attached to the hand. An interpreter will ask a series of 20 or so questions in Persian, Arabic or Pashto: “Do you intend to answer my questions truthfully?” “Are the lights on in this room” “Are you a member of the Taliban?” The operator will punch in each answer and, after a delay of a minute or so for processing, the screen will display the results: “Green,” if it thinks the person has told the truth, “Red” for deception, and “Yellow” if it can’t decide.

“We’re not promising perfection — we’ve been very careful in that,” Donald Krapohl, special assistant to the director at the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment, told MSNBC, which reports on the deployment of the device today.

It’s a good thing that the DoD is not promising “perfection.” That would be very hard to achieve, to say the least. Even non-portable lie-detector systems have a startlingly poor record of ferreting out deception. And these are almost always used in highly-controlled circumstances in which the psychological pressure on the individual being questioned is at its maximum.

The list of spies who have defeated the polygraph to penetrate U.S. intelligence is lengthy and includes Aldrich Ames, the Soviet mole in the CIA, Robert Hanssen, the Soviet mole in the FBI, and Ana Belen Montes, who toiled away in the Defense Intelligence Agency on behalf of Cuba for a decade-and-a-half, until her apprehension in 2001. The most recent case is that of Nada Nadim Prouty, the Lebanese woman arrested this winter, who moved from sensitive positions in the FBI to even more sensitive positions within the CIA despite a fictitious marriage and ties to the terrorist organization, Hizballah.

The idea that our troops can rely on primitive polygraphs to make snap decisions on the battlefield about whom to trust and whom to suspect is a formula for disaster. One of our most attractive and useful characteristics as a society is fascination with and love of technology. Sometimes, however, fascination and love turn into obsession. We seem to be in the grip of a clinical case of that disorder here.

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Dispatch from Task Force Justice

I visited Forward Operating Base Justice, located in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiyah, in April. Its commander is Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska. I recently asked him for an update on developments in his AOR (Area of Responsibility) that I could share with contentions readers. Here is his response:

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I visited Forward Operating Base Justice, located in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiyah, in April. Its commander is Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska. I recently asked him for an update on developments in his AOR (Area of Responsibility) that I could share with contentions readers. Here is his response:

Max,
Some notes below. I will include a few nonstandard items in the update. Apologize for the delay in response. Have been juggling missions, media, and other tasks over the last few days.

Asian World Cup Football: Did you see the CNN coverage live from FOB Justice of the Iraqi Soccer game? We threw a great party with all of our local nationals. You would have thought we were at an Army-Navy tailgate. We went downtown after the game and spoke to people on the street. Khadamiyah was absolutely nuts. Lots of fun and a cathartic experience for the Iraqis to see their team accomplish something across the sectarian divide. Hopefully, more good can come from the victory.

Immigration: A few days ago we said goodbye to “George” who is our first interpreter to get an invitation to the Embassy in Jordan. He will be a pioneer for many of our Iraqi interpreters who have applied for visas. We hope that he will not run into too much resistance and will get his visa. Stories from Jordan are not hopeful. One report said that Iraqis were getting turned around at the border if they said they were entering Jordan to go to the U.S. Embassy. George has a story about going to work for a Jordanian company that has a branch in Baghdad. He knows someone that made the recommendation for him. I have asked him to stay in touch with us, so we can track his progress and any pitfalls along the way. We gave him numerous gifts and a few certificates. I told him that his feedback could help shape U.S. policy. We also have one more interpreter who has his invitation approved. We have 22 total applications in the works. We have 59 interpreters on our base. Many have either chosen not to apply or have not met their year requirement. Many are spreading the word that we need some more interpreters, and telling about our success of getting interpreters approved for a trip to Jordan. We have also been pushing the refugee issue for families who don’t qualify under other provisions, like Iraqi Army leaders. Between the soccer party and our push to take care of our interpreters, I have seen hope in the eyes of our Iraqi colleagues. This initiative will be one of our proudest accomplishments. We will continue to use our success from TF [Task Force] Justice to sensitize other leaders to the subject.

Reconciliation: The MOI [Ministry of Interior] and other government leaders are very reluctant to endorse any initiative that empowers the local Sunni volunteers who are securing neighborhoods like Ameriyah. Ameriyah is like night and day now. One minute it was full-scale kinetic activity. Then our former enemies, Sunni insurgents from the “honorable resistance,” began asking for our assistance to drive al Qaeda out. They were immediately more effective than Americans in driving al Qaeda in Iraq from their neighborhoods. They only asked for U.S. support and coordination. They make no bones about their belief that we need to leave for our alliance to be successful beyond the defeat of al Qaeda. We recognize we may end up fighting these guys again if the GOI [Government of Iraq] doesn’t seize the window of opportunity that is now open. If the GOI can make reasonable gestures of reconciliation, like deputizing these volunteers as local police to secure their own neighborhoods, then we will have made huge strides. As always, the political line of operation is where we need the most help. We have had a steady stream of VIPs come to visit the volunteers. Everyone is pressuring the GOI. Lots of foot-dragging, mumbling, and playing with prayer beads. That being said, things have dramatically improved since the turning of Anbar province. We anticipate that the Shia government will demand repatriation of Shia families in some of these neighborhoods to demonstrate intent on behalf of the former insurgents. As long as each side continues in good faith, they will not undermine the process.

Militia Influence: On the other side of the fence, we have the militia. They are a tough nut to crack. I believe the economic line of operation will be the key to defeating the militia influence. We need to overcome the corruption and graft through vigorous, pragmatic economic policy that jump-starts latent industry and employment. Many of the State Owned Enterprises (SOE) are producing at minimal levels relative to Saddam days. These industries have the capacity to very quickly create jobs and generate productive capacity that spills across sectarian lines. The profit incentive will help drive Sunnis and Shia to collaborate together. As we create more jobs, militia recruiting pools will dry up. We need to create honorable alternatives that allow young, military-age males to provide for their families. The militia has their hands dug deepest into mob-like crime throughout the Shia communities, and most politicians can’t shed themselves of the militia influence (so a political approach is probably not feasible—just my opinion.) We must defeat the militia through economic means. I do have some hope that we might solve this Gordian knot, but it is far from undone. Paul Brinkley [the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Business Transformation] and his group have the right approach, and are encouraging many in the SOEs to bring production back on line through smart application of grants and incentives. This has great potential, but will move with the lag associated with all fiscal economic policy. All other lines of operation must continue to buy time for economic progress to continue.

The Media: The fight is complex. The challenges are hard to boil down into 9-second sound bites or catchy headlines. However, we do spend a lot of time educating reporters, in addition to VIPs. We have a few die-hard reporters that travel to the fight and get a view from the ground on the challenges and opportunities facing our forces and the Iraqis. Most of the journalists I meet are tremendous professionals who make personal sacrifices to provide transparency in a society that needs media spotlights everywhere. The press is instrumental is helping keep the good people honest and the bad guys from committing even more egregious transgressions. Many of our media colleagues have brought attention to significant challenges like immigration, the need for diplomacy around the periphery of Iraq, detainee abuse, and other challenges. We need to encourage them and help them gain access to the stories that will shape human behavior in positive directions.

I hope this provides a brief glimpse into the complexities we face in western Baghdad. We have been very busy, but understand the need to get the word out.

Warm Regards,
Steve

Steven M. Miska
LTC, Infantry
Task Force Justice Commander

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Happy Birthday, Maestro Masur

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

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The Case of Cho-Liang Lin

Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.

Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.

New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.

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Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.

Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.

New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.

The same is true of his recordings, of late limited to new or offbeat works for smaller labels. Lin has just released a CD on Naxos featuring the violin sonata of Georg Tintner (1917–1999), a conductor best known as an interpreter of Bruckner, and who wrote music most charitably described as the obiter dicta of a masterful interpreter. Other recent recordings for Ondine include the bombastic violin concerto by the Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949) as well as the tedious Maoist folklore of Tan Dun’s Out of Peking opera. Doubtless the best of Lin’s forays into new or rare music is his CD on BIS of the music of Chen Yi (b. 1953), an extremely refined composer of quality, currently teaching at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

Why has Lin not recorded the solo works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Schubert’s chamber works, and other standard repertory pieces which would suit him perfectly? Lin did recently release a CD on Naxos of Vivaldi’s familiar Four Seasons, but unfortunately the conductor was the fussy and fidgety Anthony Newman. It is imperative, for the sake of music-lovers in general and especially violin fans, that some record label with taste (EMI? Philips?) take Lin’s recording schedule in hand and produce the CD’s that this brilliant talent deserves. Even in our distinctly unclassical age, a classical artist of this soaring brilliance must be given his due.

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Britain’s Humiliation

An American friend asks what I, as an Englishman, think about the hostage affair. My answer is that words cannot express how sickened, humiliated, soiled, contaminated, and ashamed I feel.

I feel sickened by the fact that a ship in the navy of Nelson could be captured without a shot being fired, and that British sailors and marines could participate in propaganda stunts that go far beyond the old rubric of giving name, rank and number only, and finally parade before Ahmadinejad to beg his forgiveness.

I feel humiliated by the impotence of our government and armed forces in the face of naked aggression, a humiliation compounded by the disloyalty of our European partners and the refusal of Russia and China to support British forces kidnapped while carrying out a UN mission.

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An American friend asks what I, as an Englishman, think about the hostage affair. My answer is that words cannot express how sickened, humiliated, soiled, contaminated, and ashamed I feel.

I feel sickened by the fact that a ship in the navy of Nelson could be captured without a shot being fired, and that British sailors and marines could participate in propaganda stunts that go far beyond the old rubric of giving name, rank and number only, and finally parade before Ahmadinejad to beg his forgiveness.

I feel humiliated by the impotence of our government and armed forces in the face of naked aggression, a humiliation compounded by the disloyalty of our European partners and the refusal of Russia and China to support British forces kidnapped while carrying out a UN mission.

I feel soiled by the apologists for Iran who pervade our airwaves and press, led by the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, now chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce. Lamont claims that Tony Blair’s support for American policy is to blame for Iran’s hostility, and that the release of the hostages proves that “neocons” were wrong to urge a tough line.

I feel contaminated by the sight of Ahmadinejad posing as a benefactor even as he orders yet more terrorist attacks in Iraq. One of the most recent: a bomb that killed four British soldiers and an interpreter in Basra just as the hostages were being released.

I feel ashamed of Patricia Hewitt, our health secretary, who criticized the woman sailor held hostage for smoking a cigarette, but said nothing about the indignity of her being deprived of her uniform, forced to wear a Muslim headscarf, and patronized by Ahmadinejad because she was a mother.

Tony Blair waited until the sailors and marines were safely home before reminding the British people that Iran is arming, financing, and inciting terrorism throughout the region while defying the will of the international community in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, reported the prime minister’s remarks as responding to a gesture of friendship from Iran with “a slap in the face.”

In reality, Blair has been frustrated by his inability to respond more robustly to the Iranian provocation. America’s former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, told the BBC that the Iranians were testing the British to see if there would be any price to pay for their outrageous behavior. Now they had their answer, said Bolton: “Softly, softly.” I don’t think he meant it as a compliment.

The Iranians will be emboldened, realizing that the media’s sentimentality in hostage crises imposes a crippling handicap on Western leaders who, like Blair, wish to avoid appeasement at all costs. Negotiations with Tehran almost certainly made no difference to Ahmadinejad’s decision. (They may even have been counter-productive in their bestowal of a spurious legitimacy on Iran.) Such negotiations were nonetheless demanded by the arbiters of public opinion in preference to other diplomatic or military responses.

In the U.S., Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi are demanding similar negotiations with Syria. Wrong for Iran; wrong for Syria. To jaw-jaw may, as Churchill said to Eisenhower in 1954, always be better than to war-war, but not if the guy you are jaw-jawing with is quietly war-warring behind your back.

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