Tuesday, February 26, 2008

So It Begins?

Turkey's Department of Religious Affairs has released details to the BBC about their ongoing project to publish a revised edition of the Hadith, the account of the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. The (collective, authoritative) Hadith is theoretically second in authority to the Koran. In many ways, however, it is more influential in the daily lives of Muslims, for whom any of life's questions are to be answered in the light of Muhammad's words and deeds. WWMD writ large, if you will. This gets problematic, however, in that the authorship of many of the individual hadith is uncertain. From the earliest generations of Islam, supposed hadith flourished, and one of the most significant acts of the early Caliphs was to collect and canonize those hadith which were judged authoritative, and stamp out the transmission and use of those judged apocryphal. Indeed, conflict over the authority and interpretation of various contested collections of hadith was a significant component of the internecine struggles that divided Islam in its first centuries.

The Turkish government is now hoping to enlist modern academic research and textual criticism to weed out those hadith that can now be determined to be illegitimate, as well as the illiberal and culturally-influenced classical interpretations of them. I'm pretty dubious that this sort of top-down approach will be able to achieve the stated goals, but I wish them all the best. It has to start somewhere, right?

Monday, February 25, 2008


I've been carrying around this recipe for months. I got it from one of my Iraqi teachers all the way back in Texas, but recipes don't exactly fit all that neatly into my organizational scheme, so it's just sort of been floating from folder to folder. So, here I post it for posterity. Also so you can make it and marvel at the deliciousness of Iraqi/Persian cuisine.


2+ lbs. chicken pieces
1 large onion
1/2 bottle (2 dl) Dibis Rumman
(pomegranate molasses, available at Middle Eastern groceries or online)
1 lb crushed walnuts
2 tsp black pepper
4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar

Boil chicken with salt and onions until done in enough water to cover. Add all other ingredients to broth and simmer for at least 1/2 hour. Serve over rice. Refrigerates/freezes well.

For American palates, it might be best to start with less of the pepper and sugar, then adjust to taste. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Laundry Night

Sunday evenings, the entire barracks smells faintly of dryer sheets. This is in no way unpleasant.

More Diversions

Are you busy? Do you have a massive list of things that really ought to get done? Well, join the club, forget that list and start poring through endless galleries of retro-ironic fun!

The 1974 Weight Watchers recipe card collection is really quite amusing. And James Lilek's Institute of Official Fun has compiled dozens of galleries of retro-irony for your enjoyment and diversion.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Corporal Punishment

Is it just me, or has Serbia been acting (for a very long time) like a geopolitical child in need of a spanking? I mean, good grief, by all rights Kosovo's Serb minority ought to be fearing for their lives, not angling to sabotage the new nation.

The Beeb Spins Turkey in Iraq

The Iraqi foreign minister has responded to the deployment of Turkish troops into Iraqi Kurdistan (see yesterday's post), and the BBC's spin is all too clear. His actual comments, standing alone, really don't seem to justify the tone of tension expressed in the piece as a whole. Only one comment even comes close to qualifying as a "warning":
"But if it goes on, I think it could destabilise the region, because really one mistake could lead to further escalation."
Rather, he seems to be stating the blatantly obvious -- we didn't approve this, we want it to end soon, please don't blow up more than you need to. But a reader skimming the article, or just seeing the headline, could be forgiven for concluding that the situation was escalating.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Turkish Forces Enter Iraq

Well, it's finally happened. Today, a small number of Turkish ground forces crossed into Iraq to strike Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) terrorists operating in remote border regions. Now, geopolitics wonks have long been wringing their hands that the Turks would be forced to this, and it's always presented as if it would necessarily be the first step in a major Kurdistan war. In reality, however, it seems to have made few waves. The Iraqi government has wisely followed a middle track since Turkish air strikes began some time ago, neither endorsing nor impeding Turkey's actions against the PKK, while making very clear that the PKK is anything but welcome in Iraq. The Turks for their part have been very conscientious of the perception of their actions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the bigger picture, why exactly has everyone been so convinced that Turkey can't tolerate the success of Iraqi Kurdistan? Are the Iraqi Kurds, having finally achieved freedom and significant autonomy through incredibly long-suffering patience, such a bad role model for Turkish Kurds?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Classic Moments in Soldiering: Demolition Detail

There are few things soldiers do better or enjoy more than breaking things. So yesterday, when six of us were selected for an unspecified detail at an obscure warehouse on the far side of the post, we were pleased to find that our task for the day was the destruction and disposal of several dozen pieces of 'unserviceable' barracks furniture. Well, technically our job was just to throw them away, but they had to be broken down in order to fit them all in the Dumpster. Several hours of delighted smashing ensued. Good times were had by all. And somewhat miraculously, nobody was hurt, probably because we went through a good half-dozen destruction methods as each was vetoed by the detail sergeant for safety concerns. So in the future, if you ever need some major demolition done for a renovation or whatnot, remember that any soldiers you might know would probably be happy to do the job for free, or at most for pizza and beer.

Photos and video forthcoming.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


I haven't really spoken extensively on the subject of the City of Berkeley's spat with the Marine Corps and their supporters. Other blogs have covered the subject much more thoroughly, and I can't think of anyone who would read my blog who wouldn't have the same reaction as I. But now that zombietime has posted photos of the February 12 protest, I just have to make a few comments. Here, as everywhere else on zombietime, one sees how pervasive are the differences between the poles of America's "culture war". I like to focus, however, on simple comparisons:

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.


In my previous post, I linked to the Wikipedia entry on the Principality of Sealand in reference to a discussion about sovereignty and statehood. What I didn't mention is that Sealand happens to be located on a WWII-era naval observation fortress. This is awesome. Even more awesome, however, are the offshore anti-aircraft batteries built at the same time in the Thames estruary. Check this out:

I want so badly for this to be mine.

Welcome to the World

Well, it's happened. Kosovo has finally given up on waiting for the UN's blessing and has unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. About time, really. The US and the majority of the EU are expected to recognize Kosovo's status tomorrow, at which point it will be more or less official, at least by one measure of these things. We don't often think about it, but "statehood" really is pretty nebulous, once you start considering how many quasi-states there are out there. There's Israel, an established, fully-functioning democracy that isn't recognized by its neighbors. You've got Taiwan, which is a fully independent state in everything except name. There are reservations for Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, both of which are treated as theoretically sovereign for domestic purposes, but without any international recognition. And then there are some even stranger cases.

In any case, theoretical musings aside, Kosovo's independence is probably a good thing, and good on the US and those European countries who have committed themselves to recognize the new nation. Serbia has behaved abominably in regional geopolitics for a very long time. Kosovo has waited patiently. I understand that there are good reasons we can't go around encouraging every discontented minority group to declare independence. I realize that ethnic conflicts cannot always be solved by redrawing borders. But now and then it might be worth a try, right?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Classic Moments in Soldiering: Specialist in Charge

Our detail on Thursday, the last day before the Presidents' Day four-day weekend, consisted of moving equipment from one maintenance bay in the motor pool to another, then reversing the process. Basically, the unit is moving to the identical bay next door, and moving everything from that shop into their old one. In the process, we separated out all the recyclable scrap we could find, and "acquired" anything useful for the new shop. There were also a a few classic moments in soldiering. See, the sergeant in charge was in and out all day, which led to the very dangerous situation of Specialists making judgment calls. This inevitably led to the sight of a dozen soldiers standing around a pallet crate, spending inordinate amounts of time in debate over the best way to lift it without letting the bottom open and spill unidentified parts all over the place. Because, of course, nobody knew where the keys for the forklift were to be found and a simple pallet jack would have just made everything far too easy. In the end, though, things got moved, floors got slept, relatively little was broken or stolen, and so we actually got thanked for our efforts by a famously ill-tempered Sergeant First Class.

I think this picture is probably the best summary of the day:

A dozen or so junior soldiers + no supervision + industrial cling-wrap = PRICELESS.

Monday, February 11, 2008


This weekend I had the pleasure of meeting up with some old family friends in the Charlotte area. I hate describing them merely as "family friends", though. These were some fellow missionary families from my childhood in Liberia, people I grew up calling Aunt and Uncle, so they're really much more like family. It was awesome getting the chance to reconnect after long years away, catching up and reminiscing. I know I'll be back again soon, and once I get settled back in this area after deployment, it'll be a real blessing to have a surrogate family nearby.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Rock Band

Image Credit: www.xkcd.com

In California, our barracks continually echoed with the clicking and repetitive music of soldiers addicted to Guitar Hero II. In response, I boycotted the game, and still haven't touched it, despite the assurances of pretty much everyone I know that it's amazing. I had for a time also extended my boycott to all similar games, just on principle. At home over Christmas, however, I played SingStar, a karaoke-type game, with my brother (the man-of-infinite-resource-and-sagacity) and sister-in-law. Turns out it's a lot of fun. Well, last night I relented on Rock Band, the grandaddy of them all. It's got a guitar and bass controller similar to Guitar Hero's, with a microphone for vocals a la SingStar, with the addition of a drum set. It's a whole lot of fun. I'd hazard to opine that it's probably one of the best family-fun video games out there. And while it's certainly not a traditional musical education, the evaluation of the karaoke is a pretty harsh lesson in ear-training, and the guitar and drum lines certainly provide excellent rhythm and coordination training. Of course, I'm just trying to justify having this much fun playing fake instruments in front of a TV, but still.

Britain Embraces the Future II

As all too usual, an exchange with Shane has challenged me to clarify, elaborate, and reexamine my thoughts on my previous post. This is why I keep you around, you keep me intellectually honest. So here we go.
Europe is not very accommodating of the Muslim religion, and it simply doesn't fit well with Europe's cultural (but nonreligious) values.
I would agree with this statement, but only as it relates to Europe's historical cultural values of tolerance, individual liberty, social justice, and rule of law. The danger I see is the recent ascendancy of tolerance to a preeminent position over and above the rest, reaching a point where much of Europe has seemed willing to tolerate the intolerant and the intolerable. This does seem to be changing for the better, however, with greater public awareness and rejection of culturally-tied abuses (honor killings, female genital mutilation, and the like) that until recently had been kept under wraps for fear of seeming to malign someone's culture. That, however, is all on the side of civil society. Europe's political establishment is, in general, still working very hard to be accommodating of Islam with publicly-funded Islamic schools and mosques, and endless consultation with Muslim cultural organizations and councils on Islamic relations and the like. This of course means walking an impossible line between natives and conservatives resentful of being forced to appease the impertinent demands of relative newcomers, and immigrants and liberals for whom no amount of money spent on mosques or time spent in discussion will disprove the assumed societal bigotry against Muslims. It makes one very thankful for the Establishment Clause. There are any number of factors and theories why Muslim immigrants to America are visibly better-integrated than those in Europe, but I think America's ingrained culture of public tolerance of religion -- due, in my opinion, to the generally successful separation of church and state -- has preemptively defused the sense of conflict for most American Muslims (CAIR notwithstanding).
I'd like to think that Islam has no chance of substantially changing western values, and that as the Middle East modernizes they will moderate their own views.
So would I, my friend. It's one of those things that's hard to read. The idealogical resilience of a culture is very difficult to pin down, and it could well be that Europe's commitment to Western values is far stronger than it appears on the surface. There are some hopeful signs of a "backlash" of sorts, as I've mentioned above. I think the most hopeful sign is the reaction from those Muslims in Europe and America who've embraced Western political values and come to their own accommodation between those values and Islam, and are increasingly willing to openly defend their embrace of those values. In the end, this conflict may turn out to be intra-Islam rather than between Islam and the wider society. It is telling, and perhaps encouraging, that the strongest counterpoint to Dr. Williams has come from Muslim political and religious leaders who oppose the cultural balkanization these sorts of policies would engender. The response from Britain's Muslim communities, as far as anyone can read these things, seems to be bemusement more than anything.

As far as the modernization of the Middle East goes, I am actually somewhat hopeful, at least for select countries in the region. Several polls (which I will irresponsibly cite without reference) have shown public opinion in the Middle East to be more moderate than that of European Muslims on certain issues. The "wiring" of the Middle East and their enthusiasm for contact with the rest of the world can only be a good thing in the big picture. While the internet does also provide a medium for extremists to spread their agenda, I suspect and hope that the liberal axis of moderate Muslims in the West with reformists in the Middle East will prove stronger and more influential in the long run. Additionally, as Middle Eastern countries move tentatively forward on their political reforms, a return migration of wealthy, educated, and globalized expatriates could provide a massive stimulus for political and economic development, as it has in India and other places.

So, yesterday caught me in a pessimistic light, and Shane's challenge has forced me to acknowledge that there is as well considerable space for guarded optimism in this, as in many things.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Britain Embraces the Future

Well, of the institutions that might have been hoped to resist England's slide toward Londonistan, the Church of England can now definitively be counted out. Today the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has revealed in an interview his feeling that the adoption of sharia law in the UK is "unavoidable". His justification is that there are now large segments of British society (i.e. unassimilating Pakistanis, primarily) who "do not relate" to the British legal system. Of course, there's another segment of society that doesn't "relate" to the legal system. They're called criminals. And one could make a pretty solid argument, particularly in British society (see Theodore Dalrymple) that much criminality is the result of the culture in which criminals are raised. Should society work to "accommodate" this different culture with their own courts as well?

His point that sharia is misunderstood and shouldn't be solely identified with systems like Saudi Arabia's is valid, but misleading. The term sharia is about as specific as "Western jurisprudence", and in practice just as variable. There is no one system of sharia, or even, for that matter, one interpretation of what sharia ought to embody. Pretty much every majority-Muslim country in the world at least pays lip service to the principles of sharia in their legal system, but these systems vary widely between essentially Western systems veneered with Islamic language to the sort of Hammurabic tribal justice code most people call to mind when they think of sharia. Exactly which interpretation of sharia does Dr. Williams imagine coexisting with British law, then? And how long will the more radical elements of British Muslim society be content with coexistence?

This sort of thing would be less disturbing if it weren't exactly in line with the strategies proposed by some of the subtler of the Muslim world's radical leaders. I refer here to the "conquest of the womb", first elaborated by the Algerian president Houari Moumedienne in 1974, through which the Muslim world will complete its long-stalled conquest of Europe, not through military but demographic strength. This strategy, clearly outlined by Oriana Fallaci, hinges not on confronting liberal democracy, but on exploiting Europe's liberal principles to fatally undermine liberal democracy itself. The special protections afforded Islam under European anti-defamation laws (under which Fallaci was facing criminal prosecution at the time of her death) are already celebrated by radical clerics as an example of their resounding success in this arena. The establishment of government-approved sharia courts, regardless of of how watered-down and Westernized at the outset, is a huge step forward for those who seek to finish a crusade they don't see as having ever stopped.

There are widely varying opinions as to the threat radical Islamism poses to Western civilization. I'm of the opinion, which I hope to elaborate better in future posts, that the characterization of 'Islamofascist' terrorism as an existential threat to our way of life is vastly overblown. The very idea that a few thousand cave-dwellers could directly threaten the strongest civilization the world has ever seen is laughable. The real threat, as Mark Steyn has put so very well, is far more insidious: a lack of "cultural confidence" in that very civilization, which allows radicals to exploit our own values to promote theirs.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Approaching Lent

Coming from a liturgical church background, and only lately coming more and more to appreciate the power and beauty of the liturgical structure, I sometimes find myself at odds to explain this structure to my decidedly non-liturgical Christian friends. The liturgical seasons and the church year in general are particularly mystifying to them.

Thanks, then, to Cheryl of A Round Unvarnish'd Tale, for her beautiful explanation of the Lenten season and her church's tradition of "burying the Alleluias".

I can't but quote a stanza of the hymn her church uses for this rite:
Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below;
Alleluia our transgressions make us for a while forgo;
For the Lententide is coming, when our penitence is renewed.

Open Mike Night

My only internet access these days is at coffeeshops. Sadly, unlike in more civilized parts where free Wifi floats on the breeze thick as dandelion seeds on a summer's day, coffeeshops here in Fayettenam all charge for their internet access. Barnes and Noble has by far the nicest atmosphere, but their AT&T Wireless access is pretty slow, and costs $4 for two hours. The price really isn't unreasonable, but I hate having a time limit. I makes me feel rushed to get stuff done, and obligated to "get my money's worth" even if I've only really got 20 minutes of internetting to get done. Recently I've found a local coffeeshop with a more reasonable price for nightly access, so that's where I am right now. Unfortunately, said coffeeshop hosts Open Mike Nights on variously unpredictable nights of the week. So now I'm getting sung at by random talentless amateurs. And I do mean talentless. If your best gig is singing Tears for Fears covers at a characterless strip-mall coffeeshop in Fayetteville, NC, you are most assuredly talentless. And then they berate me for not "responding" to the performer. Shut up. Please. I paid decent money for this internet access. Sorry I didn't realize I was contractually obligated to assuage the egos of Fayetteville's amateur music community. Rant concluded.

Classic Moments in Soldiering: The Barracks Are Never Clean

For the last two weeks here in the Rear Detachment (i.e. the skeleton crew holding down the fort for the units that are deployed), one of our main tasks as we wait to deploy ourselves has been cleaning the barracks rooms for the soldiers who will shortly be returning from Iraq. Granted, there's some satisfaction in that, because those guys certainly deserve to come home to a clean barracks room. But there's a little rule of Army life that comes into play. A barracks is never clean. Ever. There's definitely no such thing as "clean enough". So we've been taking scouring pads to each and every tile in these rooms, polishing them to an unnatural pearly white that's probably several shades lighter than the manufacturer's intended color. On top of that, we're also completely scouring off whatever nonporous finish once protected these tiles, leaving them clean and white, but positively begging to absorb the first dirt that comes along, ensuring that they will in short order be far dirtier than if we had never undertaken this job in the first place. Leave it to the Army, as usual, to make things about six times more difficult than necessary.

Like I said, this is still a noble, if unglamorous undertaking, to clean rooms for returning soldiers. But these are soldiers. How clean do they really want their rooms? Sure, give them a spotless bathroom and a clean refrigerator, but I would bet good money not a single one of them is going to note the glowing whiteness of their tile. I am, on the whole, far cleaner by instinct than my average colleague, and I can assure you the tile floor would be my last concern.

If I had more time, equipment, and ambition, I'd love to make a parody recruitment ad. "There's clean... and then there's ARMY CLEAN."

Here's a few YouTube videos along similar themes:

There's sleepy. And then there's Army Sleepy.

Here's one about cleaning, along the lines of the old "Army Of One" ads I joined under.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


So I've been reading an excellent book about Krakatoa, the volcanic island between Java and Sumatra that obliterated itself and about 40,000 people in a phenomenal explosion on August 27, 1883. It's a great example of one of my favorite sorts of non-fiction: a book that focuses on one event, resource, invention, or movement, but uses it as a focus for discussion of a much broader range of topics. In this particular case, the author uses the topic of Krakatoa to weave together the history and economics of Portuguese, English, and Dutch colonialism and the Dutch East India Company; the development of global geologic theory and the sciences of plate tectonics, vulcanology, and meteorology; the media revolution spurred by the then-cutting-edge transoceanic telegraph; and the still-burning fires of modern politicized Islam, one of the earliest outbreaks of which occurred in Java in the aftermath of the eruption.

The explosion of Krakatoa produced by far the loudest sound heard on earth at any point in recorded history, heard clearly up to 3,000 miles away on the Indian Ocean island of Rodriguez, for example. Most of those who heard the sound assumed it was the rumbling of a faraway naval bombardment, or a ship firing its guns as a distress call. The reason I share that particular fact is that for the last three days, as I hear the thundering reports of the artillery ranges rolling across Fort Bragg, I like to imagine myself in a different time and place, an unwitting witness to the unimaginable forces that roil beneath all our feet. Yeah, I really am that geeky.