Monthly Archives: October 2007

“The victim is drowning”

Water boarding instructional painting, Cambodia

Go read this important posting at Small Wars Journal, by Malcolm Nance, a former Master Instructor and Chief of Training at the US Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego. “I know the waterboard personally and intimately,” he writes. “SERE staff were required undergo the waterboard at its fullest. I was no exception. I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people.” Nance demolishes the media myth that water boarding is merely “simulated drowning”:

Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration – usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.

Nance is outraged at America’s loss of honour in condoning the use of such torture, and warns that President Bush’s policies have validated and legitimized this torture technique for foreign governments and terrorist groups:

There may never again be a chance that Americans will benefit from the shield of outrage and public opinion when our future enemy uses torture. Brutal interrogation, flash murder and extreme humiliation of American citizens, agents and members of the armed forces may now be guaranteed because we have mindlessly, but happily, broken the seal on the Pandora’s box of indignity, cruelty and hatred in the name of protecting America. To defeat Bin Laden many in this administration have openly embraced the methods of Hitler, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Galtieri and Saddam Hussein.

His is a powerful and disturbing article.

Another voice. In an article based in part on Nance’s posting, The Independent quotes journalist Henri Alleg, who was subjected to water boarding by French forces in Algeria in 1957:

Soldiers strapped him over a plank, wrapped his head in cloth and positioned it beneath a running tap. He recalled: “The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save me from suffocation. In spite of myself, the fingers of both my hands shook uncontrollably. ‘That’s it! He’s going to talk,’ said a voice.

The water stopped running and they took away the rag. I was able to breathe. In the gloom, I saw the lieutenants and the captain, who, with a cigarette between his lips, was hitting my stomach with his fist to make me throw out the water I had swallowed.”

CIA director Michael Hayden has claimed that interrogation methods inducing the fear of imminent death have been used on only 30 suspects held by the United States. If that is true, then there are, at minimum, 30 war crimes charges waiting to be lodged against the director of the CIA and other high officials of the United States government, including the president himself. America should brook no delay; she has her honour to save.

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The honeymoon is over

Waterboarding a prisoner 

Apparently U.S. attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey is having trouble figuring out if water boarding is a form of torture. As he recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee:

I don’t think that I can responsibly talk about any technique here because — (pause) — of the very — I’m not going to discuss and I should not — I’m sorry I can’t discuss, and I think it would be irresponsible of me to discuss particular techniques with which I am not familiar when there are people who are using coercive techniques and who are being authorized to use coercive techniques. And for me to say something that is going to put their careers or freedom at risk simply because I want to be congenial, I don’t think it would be responsible of me to do that.

Like the nominee, are you “not familiar with” water boarding as a coercive technique? It’s the sixth of a set of “enhanced interrogation techniques” instituted by the CIA in early 2002. As described to ABC News in 2005 by current and former intelligence officers, these are:

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

To clarify his thinking, Mukasey should read Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman at Balkinization, who writes:

Waterboarding is a paradigmatic example of torture. It is inconceivable that anyone involved in drafting, negotiating, signing, ratifying or enacting the Torture Act or Common Article 3 would have thought otherwise. Naturally, then, the U.S. itself has long considered waterboarding to be torture and a war crime — there was no dispute about this from at least 1901 until 2002 — and if our enemies used such a technique on U.S. military personnel, no one would, in public debate, deny that such a technique is a form of unlawful torture.

As the U.S. administration and its cabinet nominees retreat into the most hair-splitting forms of legalism and moral relativism in order to preserve the use of these techniques, and thus too the country’s growing international profile as a torture state, both the American news media and consumer television are starting to acknowledge that there is a serious issue to be dealt with here. To focus on TV, the most recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,Harm“, grapples with the issue of U.S. military torture in Iraq, including the long-term psychological and physiological damage caused by “enhanced interrogation” techniques like hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and hypothermia. A remarkably timely bonus is that the plot also revolves around an ethically-challenged private military company (that’s “mercenary outfit” to you).

For its part, ER last season (in “The Honeymoon is Over“) introduced a patient who suffers badly from post-traumatic stress disorder and is addicted to codeine. It emerges that he was a translator for Army intelligence in Iraq, and that he has witnessed countless acts of torture; he is now haunted by the detainees’ cries of innocence which he was required to translate.

Kyle: “‘Please don’t hurt me. I’ve done nothing wrong. God have mercy.’ I must have translated that a million times in Iraq, man. It didn’t matter. They didn’t listen to me any more than they listened to prisoners.”

There’s something good, something hopeful, in this as yet small trend — an expression of the civilized part of the American soul, perhaps, stirring itself after a long and fevered sleep. I desperately hope it continues to grow, because the more the American public is confronted with the reality of government-administered torture, the less it will be able to avoid choosing sides in the debate.

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Tesseractia

On the never-aging topic of From Here to Eternity (see longer post below), a quick pointer to a superb essay on “the manliness of Montgomery Clift” by Self-Styled Siren, who writes:

It’s often observed that the post-war Method actors redefined masculinity. It is more precise to say that Montgomery Clift (who was not entirely a Method actor anyway) expanded the definition. Forever afterward, a man on screen would seem half-formed if the actor could not suggest some sort of inner life, no matter how much derring-do was shown. And exposing that inner life takes nerve, nerve that Clift had in abundance.

Once you’ve read that and have developed an enlarged understanding of what real acting’s all about, here’s a posting of mine on Stephen Fry’s recent contribution to the world of blogging. The post is over on sans everything, a blog that’s been on the roll here for weeks now, but which I’ve never formally introduced to readers. Well, I’m introducing it now: sans everything covers subjects ranging from politics to philosophy to comics to animal rights to the media, and it’s written, more importantly, by three superb Canadian journalist/authors: John Haffner, Jeet Heer, and A. M. Lamey — oh, and me. Do drop by, and leave behind lots of incisive comments.

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Revolutionaries of the international system

The Shire 

In a week when President Bush has taken to describing the stakes in his confrontation with Iran as “World War III”, and Vice President Cheney warning Iran of “serious consequences” (one of the key phrases in the march to war against Iraq) if it “stays on its present course”, it’s worth reading Fareed Zakaria’s latest Newsweek column:

The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is “like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.” For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.

Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland’s and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?

All true, and well said. But something in the construction of Zakaria’s sentences intrigues me. In the second paragraph he sets up a powerful argument based on a structure of parallelism: sentences 2 and 3 tell us about the size of Iran’s economy and its defense budget, and about that country’s propensity to invade others. Likewise, sentence 4 tells us about the size of the U.S. economy and its defense budget, while sentence 5… Oh wait. Sentence 5 talks about alliances against Iran. Zakaria has failed to complete the parallel construction with an observation of the United States’ propensity to invade others. Now, I won’t speculate as to why this might be — I frankly can’t imagine why the readers of Newsweek would find such an observation off-putting — but as a good Samaritan I can at least attempt to complete it for him.

Maybe “attempt” is too humble a word, for it’s really quite easy: “The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. It has not invaded a country since 2003.” Hmmm. It’s structurally perfect, but somehow it fails to help the reader properly compare the records of both the United States and Iran — after all, if in its entire history the United States invaded only Iraq, its score for the time period defined as late-18th-century-to-early 21st-century would be 1, which of course is only 1 worse than Iran’s score of zero. Knowing America’s true score is important, so let’s compare.

Iranian offensive actions against other countries since late 1700s (according to Zakaria):

  • None

American offensive actions against other countries since late 1700s (selected examples only, based on data posted by the U.S. Naval Historical Center and Reed & Wright’s U.S. Military Chronology):

  • 1806: Invasion of Mexico
  • 1810: Invasion of West Florida (Spanish territory)
  • 1812: Invasion of East Florida (Spanish territory)
  • 1812: Invasion of Canada (British territory)
  • 1813: Invasion of West Florida (Spanish territory)
  • 1816: Invasion of remainder of the Floridas
  • 1818: Seizure of the Oregon territory
  • 1854: Bombardment of Nicaragua
  • 1857: Seizure of Utah territory 
  • 1866: Raid into Mexico
  • 1866: Punitive attack on China
  • 1867: Partial occupation of Nicaragua
  • 1867: Punitive attack on Formosa
  • 1871: Punitive attack on Korea
  • 1893: Invasion of Hawaii
  • 1898: War against Spain
  • 1899: Invasion of the Philippine Islands
  • 1906: Invasion of Cuba
  • 1918: Invasion of Russia
  • 1926: Invasion of Nicaragua
  • 1961: Invasion of Cuba (by proxy) 
  • 1965: Invasion of Dominican Republic
  • 1970: Invasion of Cambodia
  • 1983: Invasion of Grenada
  • 1986: Bombardment of Libya
  • 1989: Invasion of Panama
  • 1998: Bombardment of Afghanistan and Sudan
  • 1999: Bombardment of Yugoslavia
  • 1993-2001: Bombardment of Iraq (various occasions)
  • 2001: Invasion of Afghanistan
  • 2003: Invasion of Iraq

As of this year, the score stands at United States: 31, Iran: zip. Given this record, the only thing Cheney should be able to accuse the Iranians of is geopolitical lethargy.

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Devil’s island

Diego Garcia, map 

Go read Scott Horton on the role of Central Intelligence Agency black sites (particularly the one located on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean) and torture in the ongoing confrontation between CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden and CIA Inspector General John Helgerson. Read this October 11 New York Times article for some useful background, and as further reading, Scott’s post links to a Guardian article on an investigation into Diego Garcia now being initiated by an all-party foreign affairs committee of British MPs. A couple of paragraphs not quoted in Scott’s post give the grim flavour:

One [additional] possibility which the foreign affairs committee may explore is that suspects have been held on a prison ship off the coast of Diego Garcia. The UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, has said that he has heard from reliable sources that the US has held prisoners on ships in the Indian Ocean. There have also been second-hand accounts from detainees at Guantánamo of prisoners being held on US naval vessels.

One detainee told a researcher from Reprieve: “One of my fellow prisoners in Guantánamo was at sea on an American ship with about 50 others before coming to Guantánamo. He told me that there were about 50 other people on the ship; they were all closed off in the bottom. The people detained on the ship were beaten even more severely than in Guantánamo.”

Reprieve (mentioned above) is a British charity that “provides frontline investigation and legal representation to prisoners denied justice by powerful governments across the world”. Its submission to the foreign affairs committee on the question of human rights abuses in British overseas territories can be found here.

Also quoted in the Guardian article is “Andrew Tyrie, Tory MP for Chichester and a campaigner against the CIA’s use of detention without trial”. Tyrie established in 2005 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition; the group’s own submission to the committee can be found on its website.

And if you simply can’t face such depressing reading on a Friday night, by all means schedule it for Saturday evening instead, and in the meantime read Jeet Heer’s analysis of what “meritocracy” means to the Podhoretz household.

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Be quiet, Prew

Deborah Kerr 

British actress Deborah Kerr, dead at 86 — a sad fact which gives me an excuse to write not about Kerr but about From Here to Eternity (yes, this is how writers think about the death of people they don’t know personally — as a wonderful opportunity to write more). Its 1953 release date marked the end of the Korean War and the first year of the Eisenhower era, a time that American culture now mythologizes as a kind of uncorrupted and naive utopia of family values and patriotism, the Greatest Generation having settled down to raise their children (who would soon ungratefully grow up into the flower children of the late 1960s) and enjoy prosperous middle-management careers at large manufacturing concerns, thin-tied and grey-suited to a man.

Dealing with themes of adultery, brutality, drunkenness, prostitution, and murder, all of them set in and around a Hawaiian military base in 1941, From Here to Eternity reminds us that the past is just as complex — and just as real— a country as the present. This was no avant garde production intended to dissent from mainstream American life. Winning eight Academy Awards, the most for any film since Gone With the Wind, this was mainstream American life. In its sense of disillusion and of the difficulties faced by ordinary soldiers, it stands alongside films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which focused on the psychological and familial troubles of veterans returning from the war.

A few scenes in particular come to mind. When Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) struggles to explain to a warm-hearted prostitute (Donna Reed) why he plans to stay in the Army for life, despite the mental and physical battering he is receiving from his barracks for refusing to box for the regimental team, he sounds like someone trapped in a violent marriage. His eyes are open, he knows his devotion is a one-way street, but he cannot conceive of an alternative.

Alma: Gee, you must hate the Army.
Prewitt: No, I don’t hate the Army.
Alma: Yeah, but look what it’s doing to you.
Prewitt: I love the Army.
Alma: But it sure doesn’t love you.
Prewitt: A man loves a thing. That don’t mean it’s gotta love him back.

Private Angelo Maggio (a young and scrawny Frank Sinatra), by contrast, is a scrapper — but all the same he is doomed. Picked on and abused by the thuggish stockade sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine), Maggio faces him down in a bar fight. Humiliated, Fatso warns him: “Tough monkey. Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Someday you’ll walk in. I’ll be waitin’. I’ll show you a couple of things.”

Ernest Borgnine

An undisciplined soldier, Maggio is eventually sentenced to six months in the stockade for being AWOL on guard duty. As Maggio enters the sergeant’s office, Fatso sees him and is flushed with a gloating victory. “Hello, tough monkey,” he says. As the scene ends, Fatso picks up his billy club.

After a month of beatings, Maggio escapes the stockade and finds Prewitt, only to die in his arms. As he fades, he gasps out:

Fatso done it, Prew. He likes to whack me in the gut. He asked me if it hurts and I spit at him like always. Only yesterday it was bad. He hit me. He hit me. He hit me. Then I-I had to get out, Prew. I had to get out…They’re gonna send me to the stockade, Prew? Watch out for Fatso. Watch out for Fatso. He’ll try to crack ya. And if they put ya in a hole, don’t yell. Don’t make a sound. You’ll still be yellin’ when they come to take ya out. Just lay there. Just lay there. And be quiet, Prew.

As the film ends, what many Americans now call “The Good War” is reaching Pearl Harbor in the form of Japanese planes, itself spawning another myth about good and evil which would rapidly sand down all the hard edges of the time as it really was, leaving it, like the Eisenhower era, a shiny caricature of itself.

A final note. The movie’s title comes from a book by James Jones, which in turn got its title from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, “Gentlemen-Rankers”; the poem, appropriately, depicts the dissolute and jaded military life of another era.

Gentlemen-Rankers 

TO the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
To my brethren in their sorrow overseas,
Sings a gentleman of England cleanly bred, machinely crammed,
And a trooper of the Empress, if you please.
Yes, a trooper of the forces who has run his own six horses,
And faith he went the pace and went it blind,
And the world was more than kin while he held the ready tin,
But to-day the Sergeant’s something less than kind.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Baa–aa–aa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

Oh, it’s sweet to sweat through stables, sweet to empty kitchen slops,
And it’s sweet to hear the tales the troopers tell,
To dance with blowzy housemaids at the regimental hops
And thrash the cad who says you waltz too well.
Yes, it makes you cock-a-hoop to be “Rider” to your troop,
And branded with a blasted worsted spur,
When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy living cleanly
Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you “Sir”.

If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
And all we know most distant and most dear,
Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep,
Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
And the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?

We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Baa–aa–aa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

– Rudyard Kipling, Barrack Room Ballads (1895)

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Without warning

ExComm meeting

George Santayana wasn’t thinking of history but of the progress of human consciousness when he wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (From volume 1 of The Life of Reason, 1905) Nevertheless, his striking phrase was taken up by generations of enthusiasts as a justification for the study of history, its implicit promise (under this new interpretation) being that historical awareness would help modern societies avoid making the “mistakes” committed by earlier societies. And in our own times, when a world war between the major powers might easily kill one or two hundred million people, such a promise has been especially appealing.

Yet wars have continued to start and sputter out following their own merry agendas, and it seems that no amount of liberal arts graduates has been able to protect us from our own worst foreign policy instincts. Worse, it turns out that historical memory has not enlightened but rather befuddled us. Every foreign policy challenge is now presented to us by savvy governments and narrative-addicted media as one in which the approved policy is fully justified by a powerful historical analogy. Negotiating with Iran is like appeasing Hitler at Munich. Fighting Sunni insurgents is like fighting the Viet Cong (if you’re opposed to the war), or like fighting Malayan guerrillas (if you support the war). September 11, 2001 is like December 7, 1941. Conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson is a master of this technique: in his recent and deceptively-titled book A War Like No Other, he manages to compare the Peloponnesian War to no less than four modern conflicts (see my review here).

In this context, a recent article by political scientist Dominic Tierney is worth reading. Published in this past summer’s edition of the Journal of Cold War Studies, Tierney’s piece examines the role that moral analogies (as opposed to merely strategic analogies) played in President Kennedy’s decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis, particularly the Pearl Harbor analogy. When the crisis began, the president’s military advisors pushed hard for a surprise air attack on the missile installations, with Robert Kennedy advocating an invasion to take care of the Cuban problem once and for all: “just get into it, and get it over with.” After the second meeting, Deputy CIA Director General Marshall Carter raised Pearl Harbor for the first time, not as a moral argument but as a warning against the logic of escalation. “this comin’ in there on Pearl Harbor [with a surprise attack] just frightens the hell out of me as to what goes beyond… You go in there with a surprise attack; you put out all the missiles. This isn’t the end; this is the beginning, I think.”

By the next day, however, Pearl Harbor had turned into a moral analogy. CIA Director John McCone opposed a surprise air strike by arguing that “the United States should not act without warning and thus be forced to live with a ‘Pearl Harbor indictment’ for the indefinite future.” This use of the analogy recurred again and again during the next few days of discussion, not in any sophisticated or analytical way, writes Tierney, but as a moral reference point of deceit and evil – it was, after all, the date that would live in infamy. Under Secretary of State George Ball finally defined the problem as one of national identity: “I think that a course of action where we strike without warning is like Pearl Harbor. . . . It’s . . . it’s the kind of conduct that’s such that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects of the United States.”

Like other Americans of their generation, both John and Robert Kennedy had been profoundly affected by Pearl Harbor, and the analogy, Tierney argues, not only influenced the president’s ultimate decision to rule out a surprise attack, but even caused Robert Kennedy to change “from being a hawk to a dove”. Having forsworn the element of surprise, the committee soon realized that a naval blockade was the only realistic remaining option. (Fiercely opposing this idea, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay unsuccessfully lobbed an analogy of his own – Munich – into the debate.)

As we know, the blockade policy led to a happy ending. But Tierney points out that there was only a weak logical relationship between the nature of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the proposed surprise attack on Cuba, and the analogy that linked the two. Dean Acheson, who criticized the analogy at the time, summarized his own arguments in 1969:

[A]t Pearl Harbor the Japanese without provocation or warning attacked our fleet thousands of miles from their shores. In the present situation, the Soviet Union had installed ninety miles from our coast – while denying they were doing so – offensive weapons that were capable of lethal injury to the United States. This they were doing a hundred and forty years after the warning given in [the Monroe Doctrine]. . . . How much warning was necessary to avoid the stigma of “Pearl Harbor in reverse”?

Analogies are tremendously powerful tools. Used carefully, they can aid in comprehension, stimulate fruitful comparative analysis, and generate innovative ideas. But they are seldom used carefully – almost never, by politicians – and so cry out for a particularly high degree of skepticism from listeners. If we can’t get out of the habit of taking analogies at face value, those who can remember the past and wilfully misapply it to the present shall inherit the earth. What’s left of it, anyway.

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