Roving thoughts and provocations

Dairy Queen and Barbed Wire: The New Reality of US Occupation

Charles Simic

Back in September, I read an article in The New York Times about an American base in Iraq that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. It describes a U.S. military installation in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad that houses 28,000 American troops and has a busy airport, two power plants, two sewage plants, and two water treatment plants that can purify 1.9 million gallons of water a day for showers, swimming pools and golf courses, and eighty to hundred buses any given moment crisscrossing the area on fifteen bus routes.

Al-Qaeda: The Uzbek Branch in Pakistan

Christian Caryl

Most of the reports about the Pakistani Army’s offensive in Waziristan have mentioned the Islamist extremists from Uzbekistan hiding out there—but they’ve often done so without really explaining what’s up. If you follow the coverage closely enough, you might learn that the Uzbek militants are tough fighters much feared by the Pakistani military, that they’re loyal auxiliaries of al-Qaeda who have displayed little inclination to negotiate, and that they’re being targeted by both the US and the government in Islamabad for these same reasons. The Uzbek Islamist leader, Tahir Yuldashev, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Waziristan in August of this year—which says a lot about how seriously the Uzbeks are taken both by the US and the Pakistanis (who probably supplied the CIA with the information needed for the hit).

One-Term President?

Garry Wills

I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president. I think that may be true. The charges from various quarters would be toxic—that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he could have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate.

A Nazi at Harvard

Anthony Grafton

In 1934, the Harvard class of 1909 held its 25th reunion—then as now an occasion for members of the American elite to parade in public and celebrate their achievements. But this year the star attraction was a German: Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the son of a Munich art dealer and publisher who had joined the Nazi movement and enjoyed personal access to Hitler (Hitler liked hearing him play the piano, as had his Harvard classmates, for whom he composed football fight songs). In the early 1930s he served as foreign press chief for the Nazi party.

China’s Boom: The Dark Side in Photos

Orville Schell

Some of his arresting images show plumes of pitch black and garishly colored yellow and red smoke belching out of factory and power plant chimneys - almost all caused by the burning of soft coal. They are reminiscent of the eerie, unnatural images and colors that blink out of a television set when the tint controls are turned all the way to one side.

Iraq: A Bigger Threat Than Bombs

Joost Hiltermann

The horrific twin bombings in Baghdad on October 25 that killed over 150 people, including children in two daycare centers, and injured many more, could easily be seen as supporting the increasingly common contention that Iraq remains profoundly unstable. That such an attack could take place in the center of the capital might demonstrate that security forces under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are incapable of providing security; and that the United States will leave chaos in its wake when combat troops depart ten months from now. But the attacks must be seen in the perspective of deeper problems, even if the claim about Iraq’s instability is valid.

The Serbian Charade

Charles Simic

In late September, I went to hear the President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, speak to students and professors at Columbia University. He was in New York leading his country’s delegation to the UN General Assembly meeting. Tadic is a nice-looking, charming, and articulate man without a trace of Milosevic’s arrogance. He said many reassuring things about democracy in Serbia, maintaining peace in the region, and preserving the territorial integrity of Bosnia. But, when it came to Kosovo, he asserted that Serbia will “never, under any circumstances, implicitly or explicitly, recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.”

Beauty and the Brain: The Puzzle

Tim Parks

What happens in the brain when we look at a painting, listen to music, read a book? This was the subject of Neuroesthetics: When Art and the Brain Collide, a workshop conference at IULM University Milan bringing together a mix of neurobiologists and art historians. The atmosphere was tense and expectant, the art folk anxious that they wouldn’t understand a word, the biologists concerned that their work would seem underwhelming and wrongheaded.