3:16 p.m. January 24, 2013

Glenn Greenwald Vs. The War Nerd

Yesterday marked a new phase for the military experience of Yours Truly: I engaged the enemy on Twitter. Yep, like the Marine Hymn says, once they update it, “We will fight our country’s ba-aaaattles, on the land and on the sea—and Twitter.” The whole chirpy world of Twitter is new to me, but it wasn’t as hard to learn as I’d expected. Turns out it’s mostly playground stuff: bragging, dropping cool names, trashing the uncool, and other kinds of primate noisemaking. A chimp could do it—well, you’d need a bigger keyboard for the fingers.

My opponent in this epic struggle was Glenn Greenwald, practitioner of Brazilian Vale Tudo Tweeting—a formidable opponent, a veritable Lyoto Machido of the tweet. Even his little twitter icon, or whatever they call those picture boxes on the left, tells you the guy’s all business: white shirt and tie, mournful Camel-face…looks for all the world like a computer-aged DC intern. He’s a lawyer, calls himself a civil libertarian but gets Koch money, moans about drones but supported the Iraq War, then tried to squash the book where he said so. (It’s called How Would A Patriot Act?, in case you want to buy a hardbound copy and whack him with it.) A murky dude, in other words, playing at being an Eagle Scout.

Ever since GG blotted his copybook backing Iraq, he’s played the principled non-interventionist with all the irritating simple-mindedness of a reformed drunk. His new view, nice and simple, is that all intervention is bad, everywhere and every time.

So when GG hears that the French Army has intervened in Mali, his first-generation moral software picks up the word “intervention” and does the rest, a nice simple Jetsons way of dealing with a wiggly, complicated world. Intervention = Bad; Mali = Intervention; therefore Mali = bad. It’s as dumb as something by that buffoon Socrates.

By the time I ascended to the Twitter plane yesterday, GG was already having a spat with this creepy little guy called Joshua Foust about Mali. Foust is one of those guys who prove that “beneath contempt” isn’t always an overstatement, so I left him alone with his beard and looked over GG’s take on Mali.

What blew me away was the simple-mindedness of it. I guess this comes out of the big, secret fact of GG’s career, the support for GWB’s Iraq debacle. Like Mark Twain said, “the burned cat shuns the hot stove, but she shuns the cold stove too.”

It was pretty clear that GG didn’t know a thing about Mali and, what pissed me off more, he didn’t think he had any reason to learn. That’s one thing he has in common with the Jihadis (and the Baptists too): they all think there’s one right way, and can’t be bothered with local variations. Local schmocal, that’s how you think when you’ve got The Truth on your side.

For instance, GG didn’t know and didn’t care that Mali is split sharp between the Sahara/North/Tuareg-Arab zone, with 10% of the population, and the “black African” (Mande, Songhay etc.) Southern half, with 90% of the population. Nine to one; you’d think that’d make a difference, when it’s the 90% who are being invaded by the 10%.

And the way the Mali war’s going raises the question of what “intervention” means anyway. How can the 10%-population North invade the 90% in the South? Mostly because the people invading are a bunch of interventionists from all over the Maghrib and the rest of the Arab world.

Most Americans, and I’m definitely including GG here, don’t even remember the nightmare war that killed at least 100,000 Algerians in the 1990s—killed a lot of them in ways so sick it still triggers my gag reflex. Then there was the huge war between Qaddafi and NATO last year. A lot of Qaddafi’s guys fled south when he lost—and they didn’t go home empty handed. They zoomed south with every Land Rover, APC, AA vehicle and transport truck they could drive. And every one of those vehicles was crammed with Qaddafi’s expensive new weapons. They drove right into Mali, so the major Northern force now pushing south into the “black African” part of Mali is heavily armed and full of fighters from Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. The whole Sahara is crowded with the unemployable rich kids who take up jihad in their twenties. Christ, the guy who led that BP raid in Algeria last week was from Canada. Is that an “intervention” in GG’s world?

Of course not. That’s where the Eagle Scout stuff comes in. GG thinks in very 20th-c., literal terms: states are the only things capable of doing evil. (Not corporations, you’ll notice; GG has a very odd soft spot for them.) As long as no foreign states intervene in Mali, then no intervention has happened. It’s a real lawyerly take on things, and GG is a lawyer more than anything—all earnest and literal and not even interested in the truth.

So he’s preaching about Mali to his quasi-Christian choir, all proud, smug ignorance, telling everybody that it didn’t matter if the black Malians wanted help; intervention is intervention, and that’s that. Well, I got annoyed and tweeted this:

WN: [email protected] Serious q. for antiwar crowd: What if "black" Mali, 90% of pop., actually want help against MUJWA/AQIM?

No answer from the cagey, ringwise (or maybe just out to lunch) GG. So I jabbed again—you have to keep jabbing:

WN: [email protected] Isn't it kinda presumptuous to tell Southern Mali, totally alien to the Northern desert, what it should want?
WN: [email protected] What if Mali isn't some childish good vs. evil story? North and South have real differences.

Nothing. Radio silence from GG. When in doubt, jab again, so I tweeted GG my Mali article from a few days ago, in the faint hope he might actually like to learn some particulars about the place. He didn’t, of course. Theologians and lawyers hate particulars. Time to get in the bastard’s face a little, so I threw some power, instead of another jab:

WN: [email protected] [email protected] And by the way, unlike either of you battling idiots, I was against the Iraq War from the start and said so.

Oh yeah, THAT got GG going. He’s real touchy about his Iraq record, that’s one thing I learned from our go-round. He tried the Kurdish Gambit, as us War-Tweeters call it:

GG: @TheWarNerd What if the Kurds wanted the US invasion of Iraq, which many did?

Now this was not a smart punch for GG to throw. Unlike him, I actually lived in Iraqi Kurdistan, loved the place, drove all over it, know my stuff. And I also know basic Iraqi and Malian population breakdowns by ethnic group, which it’s very clear GG doesn’t. So I whacked’im with this:

WN: [email protected] The Kurds are not 90% of the nation's population. Do you KNOW anything about Mali?

GG came right back with what was, for me, the biggest shock of the night, the most amazing tweet of the whole exchange:

GG: @TheWarNerd I said nothing of the sort, but you have public opinion polls from Mali on the intervention? And I'd still be against it.

“I said nothing of the sort”—does he really mean that he never claimed to know anything about Mali? I mean, whoaaaa. Yeah, I knew in a vague annoyed way that GG was one of these prickly, literal lawyers who just don’t want to know the particulars, but to all-but brag about it like that, after laying down the law for the place you’re proud to be ignorant of…

Then his second point: “Do you have opinion polls from Mali…?” Actually, no, though I’ve been looking for weeks. It’s kind of shameful, “in this age of Obama, etc.” that, as I found after endless Googling, there are surveys about the Mali intervention breaking down the views of every idiot in France, the UK, and the USA—but none, as far as I can tell, on the opinion of the Malians.

For one thing, Gallup doesn’t like bouncing over Saharan war zones much. For another, people don’t care what Africans want or think. I’m no frickin’ bleeding heart, but over the years I’ve been honestly shocked how people patronize Africans, just automatically tell them what they should want, what’s good for them, what’s off the table—well, you know: like GG.

The reason I feel pretty damn sure that 90% of Mali is pro-French intervention is that Mali, like the rest of the world, doesn’t consist of bullshit Constitutional voters but blocs of people; in this case, two big blocs, the 10% Tuareg/Arab population of the Northern triangle, and the 90% black/African/French-speaking people around and south of the Niger River. People don’t make individual decisions on wars; that’s part of GG’s typically American crap perspective on the world. We live in groups and we decide in groups; how else do you explain how cleanly the US split up, in a few months, in 1861?

And it’s not that hard to guess what the 90% (Malian slogan idea: “We are the 90%! Heeeeelp!”) in the South feels about hosting an intervention by the hardcore survivors of thirty nightmare years of massacres in the Maghrib and Sahara. How would you feel? Africans are just fuckin’ people, which nobody seems to get. How would you feel if the mangled, bitter remnants of the Algerian jihadis—groups that carried banners saying “Angry at God” and wiped out whole villages so often that a big chunk of the movement, the Salafist moderates, split off because they were sick of killing kids—was bouncing south?

The black/African/French-speaking South is like Britain post-Roman occupation: nice people, like to have fun, but no longer warlike. They farmed that out to the French, which means (A) it’s not as big a step for them to ask for French intervention as it might seem; it’s more like calling an exterminator you have on contract; and (B) they’re as helpless against the Maghribi jihadists as the Britons were against those blood-simple Saxons and Angles. Not to mention Jutes.

So yeah, I think Occam’s Razor cuts my way on Malian public opinion: 10% in favor of Jihadist intervention and opposed to French intervention, and 90% against the Black Flag Brigade and in favor of the tricolor—which, by the way, has been selling out in Bamako, the Malian capital—can’t keep it on the shelves.

But the biggest shock, for me, was the third and last point of GG’s message: “And [even if you did have a poll showing Malians support French intervention] I’d still be against it.” Even if I could prove that 90% of the population want the French to intervene, he’d still be against it? Wow. For a guy who believes so strictly and literally in national borders, he doesn’t seem to have much respect for what guys like him would call “sovereignty” when applied to Mali. Somebody needs to explain this to me, because to me it sure looks like pure colonial arrogance, like, who cares what the blacks think? We’ll tell them what’s good for them. I hope that’s not GG’s attitude, but it sure looks that way.

For a little while I thought about trying to woo him back to the land of the halfway-sane with stuff like, you know, particulars, demographic figures, history: Yo, GG, do you realize that the French Army has effectively been the last-ditch Malian Army for half a century? And do you have any idea how scared the people of Southern Mali are? And what good reason they have to be scared?

Then I realized that GG’s whole take is the old lawyer/debate –club rule that you take a position and stick to it, facts be damned. Got kind of peeved at this point and tweeted,

WN: [email protected] In other words, you just apply your childish binary processor to countries you clearly known nothing about.

Funny thing about my language, it goes high when I’m mad and folksy when I come down and get all pitying. So you can tell from “childish binary processor”—whoo!—that I was gnashing some teeth at the time.

And when he didn’t answer, I was peeved enough to drop the big one, the one thing GG doesn’t want his gullible peacenik followers to know:

WN: [email protected] You supported Iraq but oppose Mali? Strange priorities.

He retweeted “I said nothing of the sort,” applying it to Iraq this time. Which was a mistake, because I’ve got the documents. So I bounced this off his head:

WN: [email protected] Yes you DID support the Iraq invasion...or have you airbrushed that from the bio?

And followed up with a direct quote:

WN: [email protected] GG on Iraq: "...I accepted [GWB]'s that American security would be enhanced by the [Iraq] invasion." Gnats'n'beams, anybody?

And by the way, I’ll be the first to admit that that snotty question at the end of my tweet, “Gnats’n’beams, anybody?” was one of the worst things I’ve ever written. Not to make excuses but I’ve only been twittering a couple of weeks. “Gnats’n’beams,” Jesus! Not only is it, as they say, “snarky”—and I hate that shit—but I even mixed up my parables, a real disgrace to a guy with my background. It should’ve been “motes and beams” (Matthew 7:1-5) or “camel and gnat” (Matthew 23:24). God, my family would kill me for forgetting something like that, if I was still talking to them.

Kinda off topic, but has anybody noticed that Matthew is the one that sticks with you, the one that’s really useful for bashing jerks even after you stop believing? Weird.

Well, maybe it was Matthew—I always thought Matthew was the best of the four, a decent guy if you knew him—but I started to feel bad. Because look, GG isn’t the worst of’em, not even close. He does a lot of good stuff, and maybe, Koch murkiness aside, he means well and all that. God, I hate the well-meaners, they muddy things up worse than those “righteous men” who spoil God’s aim when he’s readying the nuke for Sodom. Plus, GG’s twitter profile says he likes animals. Which is code for “I hate people,” which makes us kind of kin. And in some twisted animal-thought way, that made me a bully and I got sad.

So I surprised myself by tweeting out this weirdly civil message:

[email protected] Look, you're right about a lot of things. But Mali is not Iraq; it's just a real different case.

Don’t hardly sound like me, but, I don’t know, something about the caffeine wearing off, plus maintaining fire discipline in a new theatre, and something about how my dog died—that was it for me, adios, like Harry Dean Stanton in Missouri Breaks—all of it somehow added up to taking it easy on GG.

Which seemed to be OK with him, too. He’s got a glass jaw on the Iraq thing; those Inca-hat bohemians would never forgive him if they knew. Even the way I wrote that last message to him, saying “real” instead of “really”; I’ve noticed I get all colloquial like that when I start to feel sad for someone.

Which is always a mistake, I know that. Ash had it right in Army of Darkness: “It’s a trick. Get an axe.” But there’ll always be time for the axe.