Afghanistan Up Close

November 22, 2010

Awhile back I blogged about the war in Afghanistan and international law. It’s a very big but useful leap to move from a thorough and scholarly study of the ins and outs of the rules of war or the legality of border crossings to Afghanistan: Alone & Unafraid. This beautiful coffee table book of photographs from the U.S. Marine Corps transports you from the scholar’s study directly to the landscape and people of that starkly beautiful and troubled country. The photographer, Lieutenant Colonel David A Benhoff, is a Marine Corps field historian who used his personal Camera to capture these striking images.

The first part of the book consists of photos shot in the countryside, using both color and black and white images to bring to life the mountains and plains, but above all the faces – faces of bearded men, women in head scarves, and smiling children – lots of children. Whether they smile or not, their direct and open gazes highlight the way in which these people view Colonel Benhoff, the American presence, and the world.

The second part of the book switches to the Afghan National Army, or ANA. Here, the images are more of men in the process of learning the arts of modern Western warfare than of green troops in basic training. As one marine sergeant comments, “These guys have been fighting forever….I’m not gonna teach him how to fight.”

I won’t go on an on about Afghanistan: Alone & Unafraid. The real impact of this finely produced book comes from the images, for which the front cover will have to suffice (see above). You don’t have to be an expert on Afghanistan or its troubles to be impressed by the photos, but their very vividness does bring home the continuing travails of an ancient land and its peoples, caught in the web of current international politics and crises. You can get a copy here  or find it in a library.


Afghanistan and International Law

July 14, 2010

Since 1901, the Naval War College (NWC) has produced its “Blue Book” series on various international law topics. Over the years, I’ve thumbed through a few of these volumes. I remember one on the law of piracy that would be very relevant today, given the shenanigans off the Somali coast. The latest Blue Book is even more timely. The War in Afghanistan: A Legal Analysis is a compilation of essays from an International Law Expert’s Workshop held at the NWC. It touches on just about every aspect of the war, from the legal issues surrounding the original coalition intervention to the vexed problem of the status of combatants.

The first paper in the “The War in Afghanistan in Context” section was totally engrossing. “Afghanistan and International Security” by Adam Roberts, Senior Research Fellow of the Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford, and President-elect of the British Academy is a tour de force of clear and logically-structured writing that delineates the historical and political background of Afghanistan, prior efforts by outside power to control it, and the vexing legal issues the current situation presents. Particularly noteworthy was his point that it’s difficult  for the coalition gradually to turn over power to the national government in a place where most of the citizenry historically have had no use for any central government. After I finished reading, I was impressed by the author’s grasp of his subject and absolutely daunted by the challenges Afghanistan presents.

Another excellent paper, “Combatants” by W. Hays Parks, Senior Associate Deputy General Counsel, International Affairs Division, Office of General Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense, concludes that the Bush Administration’s decision to deny prisoner of war status to Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters was correct under long-established international law, but that its supporting statements were incorrect.  I found this essay to be particularly well-documented and lucidly written.

There’s much more to The War in Afghanistan: A Legal Analysis. Some of the discussions depend upon close readings of international precedents that make it heavy going for a lay reader, but all have value for the student of international affairs and the rule of law.

You can find the complete text of The War in Afghanistan: A Legal Analysis  here, browse through it  here, purchase a copy, or look through it at a library.


“Now, when I was in Baghdad” – A Short Guide to Iraq

May 11, 2010

One of my first posts on this blog concerned a World War II booklet illustrated by Dr. Seuss. It was one of a cache of such booklets that had belonged to one of my uncles during his wartime service as a Navy pilot. Although not collector’s items, these little guides to China, India, Burma, West Africa, and even New Caledonia, fascinated me as a kid. As an adult, both before and after my discovery that the Dr. Seuss booklet was a collector’s item, I didn’t give them much thought.

Several years ago, though, they were brought to mind by a call from the person who was then in charge of GPO’s public relations office. Every so often we get calls about long out of print Government publications, and this was one of them. A reporter was asking about A Short Guide to Iraq and did I have any information about it? “Well, yes. Oddly enough, I own a copy.” I explained the background and said I’d rummage around at home and find it.

Within a few hours, I was in her office doing a telephone interview with a wire service reporter with a British accent. She seemed fascinated by how I had come to own a copy of the booklet she was seeking. As far as I know, the story never went anywhere, but I’m still amazed at how much excitement these old documents can stir up.

As for A Short Guide to Iraq, what seems to engage people is that American troops were sent to Iraq during the Second World War and that so much of the advice it provides seems relevant even today. A university press has reprinted a facsimile under the title “Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq during World War II” (the cover looks different but it’s basically the same book). It’s a quick read and very well done for its purpose, which was to give a quick overview of Iraq and its people for the average GI or sailor. It’s similar in intent, although less elaborate in execution, to the Afghanistan and Pakistan Smart Books I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. Click here to read this neat little booklet.


NEW: Afghanistan and Pakistan Smart Books

April 29, 2010

These little publications contain a huge amount of information about two nations that make the news regularly. Developed by the Army’s TRADOC (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command) Army Culture Center, they include information on the history, politics, economy, society, and culture of the many peoples that comprise Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although in the past the military has produced guidebooks to various countries in which U.S. troops have been stationed (and I’ll be talking about some World War II-vintage booklets in a future post), these Smart Books provide a more sophisticated and analytical approach to the cultures with which they deal. Either would be invaluable in a classroom setting or as a quick reference source.

The Afghanistan Smart Book and the Pakistan Smart Book are both available from GPO.


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