Ottoman fortification

Theodosian Walls at the Selymbria Gate, showing outer walls, inner walls, &  moat wall

Theodosian Walls at the Selymbria Gate, showing outer walls, inner walls, & moat wall

Last Monday I walked along the Walls of Constantinople, then returned along the Sea of Marmara. It was a beautiful day, with great views in every direction.

The stone walls were built in 324–336 to protect the city of Constantinople (née Byzantium) after its founding as the new capital of the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great. It was the last and one of the most complex fortification systems built in antiquity. Gunpowder began their demise, but it was the large number of Ottoman invaders that caused the city to fall to a siege on May 29, 1453.

Mihrimah Sultan Camii

Mihrimah Sultan Camii

Nevertheless, the walls had protected the city for over 1100 years, making them the most successful ever built. Even after the fall of Constantinople, Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II added to the fortifications by building the Yedikule Hisari (Seven Towers Fortress) at the Golden Gate.

The walls have suffered from wars, earthquakes, and urban development, but still stand as an impressive monument and a marker of inner and outer İstanbul. Restoration began in the 1980s.

It’s not possible to walk on top of the walls the entire 4.5 km length. There are heavily damaged sections and major roads now pass through most of the original gates. Several times I climbed up steep stone stairs overgrown with weeds and broken in many places. I’d walk a while, then find that I needed to retrace my steps. At other times, I had to walk away from the wall to circle through some neighborhood before returning to it. As a consequence, I had to walk at least twice the length of the wall itself.

Ottoman Empire, 1683

Ottoman Empire, 1683

The route is part of the Sultan’s Trail, a project to build a long-distance path from Vienna to İstanbul. That project appears stalled, but you can still see blazes for it. You can also see many aspects of İstanbul: beautiful vistas and trash piles, new and ancient constructions, carefully planned development and urban sprawl. In Turkish, I’d say güzel ve çirkin, yeni ve eski, iyi ve kötü.

There are many interesting sights along the wall. My favorite is the Mihrimah Sultan Camii (mosque) at Edirnekapı (the Edirne Gate). It was designed by Mimar Sinan (“Sinan the Architect”) for the favorite daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent, Princess Mihrimah. It’s filled with light due to the extraordinary number of windows, a speciality of Sinan’s. Although it’s a large cami, it has only one minaret, symbolizing the loneliness of Mihrimah and Sinan due to their forbidden love. Edirnekapı itself is where Sultan Mehmed II entered the city after its defeat in 1453.

Ottoman furniture today

Ottoman furniture today

As I walked, I imagined what it would take to make something like the Promenade Plantée in Paris or the High Line in New York City. With some repairs to the wall, a little new construction, and handrails for people like me, İstanbul could have the best of these new urban walkways.

Walking back through a park along the Sea of Marmara made this into a strenuous, but rewarding day. I was personally fortified with a tradtional Ottoman dinner in the Sultanahmet area at Pasazade and appreciated the Ottoman-style furniture in our hotel. The day after, we ate at Asitane, which claims to have done six months of research on the details of fine Ottoman court cuisine in order to recreate that food culture.

Costs of war

As rightist ideologues push the US towards a debt crisis in order to maintain tax breaks for the rich, it’s worth reflecting on the costs of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A sizable chunk of the $14 trillion owed by the US government comes from those wars. Costs of War, a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University (directed by Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz), estimates the cumulative economic cost of the wars as up to $4 trillion.

What has this spending accomplished? While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy, both Afghanistan and Iraq continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom and high in rankings of corruption. US-supported warlords continue to hold power in Afghanistan and Iraqi communities are more segregated by gender and ethnicity than before the war.

The project’s findings show that the $4 trillion is only one of the costs:

  • A conservative count of war dead, in uniform and out, is 225,000. The armed conflict in Pakistan, in which the U.S. funds, equips, and trains the Pakistani military, has now taken as many lives as the one in Afghanistan.
  • Almost 8 million people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.
  • The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.
  • The ripple effects on the US and world economy have been significant, including job loss, interest charges on the national debt, and cuts to funding for scientific development, education, and health care.

Alternatives to war were barely considered. A Rand report on 268 groups using terror tactics (How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki) showed that several approaches have been much more effective than military responses at eliminating future attacks. 40% of the groups were eliminated through intelligence and policing methods; 43% ended their violence as a result of peaceful political accommodation; 10% ceased their violent activity because they had achieved their objectives; and only 7% were defeated militarily.

The lesson here is not that we should default on the debt because much of it was money we shouldn’t have spent. Doing so will just misery to misery. Instead, this is a time for a compromise on the budget that includes acknowledging what’s already been spent, cutting future spending, eliminating dysfunctional tax deductions, and implementing truly progressive tax rates. In a stagnant economy, there is a strong case for increased spending, not on wars, but on infrastructure and jobs that would actually reduce the debt in the long run.

But whatever other lessons we might draw about the budget, there is a lesson that resorting to violence costs everyone in the end.

Priorities and values

Money reflects priorities, and priorities reflect values. Consider US Government expenditures to

Put another way:

The US government has in effect offered $3.80 for each of the 20 million people who’ve lost family members, food, clean water, homes, and livelihoods because of the floods. It’s spent 158 times that for military aid, much of which has not gone to fight terrorism, but to bolster a military dictatorship, to provide heavy weaponry that threatens India, and to benefit the US defense industry. It’s spent 4,276 times as much to fight a war that shows little prospect of winning hearts and minds, nor for ending terrorism.

(Of course, we may later spend more on flood relief; we could consider annual, rather than total costs; all of the numbers are contested estimates. But regardless of how you cut it, the differences are striking.)

Then we ask: Why don’t “they” love us and embrace our values?

Evolving thinking in Afghanistan

After the earlier counterterrorism (CT) strategy failed in Afghanistan, the US began to emphasize counterinsurgency (COIN). Now that COIN has been shown to fail (e.g., as in WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary in ), we’re switching to CT again. This is called “evolving thinking.”

When President Obama announced his new war plan for Afghanistan last year, the centerpiece of the strategy — and a big part of the rationale for sending 30,000 additional troops — was to safeguard the Afghan people, provide them with a competent government and win their allegiance.

Eight months later, that counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success, as demonstrated by the flagging military and civilian operations in Marja and Kandahar and the spread of Taliban influence in other areas of the country.

Our evolving thinking should be showing us that there is still no clearly articulated and shared goal for the US enterprise in Afghanistan. Without that, it’s difficult to say which of these two, or some other approach, does work or to recognize success once it’s achieved. As Andrew Bacevich writes (2010), there’s growing evidence that western way of war itself has failed.

Harry Paget Flashman (see book cover above) had difficulty separating fiction from reality in his own exploits in Afghanistan. Apparently, reviewers of the Flashman books had the same problem. But we can’t afford to do that any longer in Afghanistan.

References

Bacevich, Andrew (2010, July 29). The end of (military) history? Mother Jones.

Cooper, Helene, & Landler, Mark (2010, July 31). Targeted killing is new U.S. focus in Afghanistan. The New York Times.

Kaplan, Fred (2009, March 24). CT or COIN? Obama must choose this week between two radically different Afghanistan policies. Slate.

Whitman, Alden (1969, July 29). Gen. Sir Harry Flashman and aide con the experts. The New York Times.

The endless war

There’s some dispute about whether the war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in US history, but there’s no question that it’s gone on a long time and that it shows little sign of heading toward even an end, much less a successful resolution.

When people talk about WWII, there is sometimes disagreement about the means–were the atomic bombs and fire-bombings necessary? There is less debate about the outcome in terms of ending Nazi terrorism and the Japanese expansion. And even during the war there was a sense all around that an end of some sort would be achieved; there would be a surrender or at least an armistice. The fighting would eventually stop, one way or another, and it did.

But we’ve now entered the era of the endless war. Can Kandahar be secured? Maybe, maybe not. But what then? Do the shifting alliances of enemies–Al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network simply walk away? Is there a version of Hirohito to say “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” and then surrender? Will young Afghani’s ignore the poverty and devastation and choose to move on? Will ordinary people forgive the occupation, the drones, the collateral damage, the cultural insensitivity, the broken promises? Where are even implausible scenarios of how that will happen?

It’s not enough to say that there are people on the other side who have done or want to do bad things. There must be a vision of change. Yet all we hear is that top operatives have been killed, some place has been temporarily conquered, or that we have a timetable for success.

Writing in Mother Jones, Ann Jones says,

It goes round and round, this inexorable machine, this elaborate construction of corporate capitalism at war, generating immense sums of money for relatively small numbers of people, immense debt for our nation, immense sacrifice from our combat soldiers, and for ordinary Afghans and those who have befriended them or been befriended by them, moments of promise and hope, moments of clarity and rage, and moments of dark laughter that sometimes cannot forestall the onset of despair. —Jones (2010)

Obama has been a good President in many ways, and still has the potential to be a great one, but his continuance and expansion of the war, now across a wide swath of Africa to Asia, reveals a spiritual deficiency in the American polity. Rev. Martin Luther King’s words from the Vietnam War time are even more relevant today.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. —King (1967)

References

King, Rev. Martin Luther (1967, April 4). Beyond Vietnam: A time to break silence. Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

Jones, Ann (2010, July 2). Counterinsurgency down for the count in Afghanistan…. Mother Jones.

The texture of peace

The Vision of Humanity project has just released its latest report on the “texture of peace.”

Using 24 indicators, such as a nation’s level of military expenditure, its relations with neighbors, and the respect for human rights, the report quantifies the different aspects of peacefulness. It measures peacefulness within, as well as between, nations.

Understanding the texture of peace is more useful than saying simply “at war” or “peace is good.” It helps us see that no country is totally peaceful and that degrees of peacefulness can be quantified for comparison among countries or over time. We can also see how the lack of peace has costs beyond acts of violence per se.

The report identifies some of the drivers of peace, such as levels of democracy and transparency, education, and national well being. Their data show that

[t]he most peaceful societies have higher per capita income, high levels of well-being, more freedom, perform better at sustainability, and appear to have a more equitable distribution of social spending (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2010, p. 4).

The study also examines the economic consequences of peace. One remarkable finding for 2010 is that

…had the world been at peace, world economic output might have reached US$62.4 trillion, an increase of 8.5% and easily exceeding the output losses due to the economic crisis of 2008/9… Even a reduction in levels of violence of just 15% would equal the output loss due to the economic crisis (Ibid, p. 51)

I doubt that many people who turn to violence as a solution for conflicts, or any military contractors who benefit from the lack of peace, will read this report and suddenly decide that they’re misguided. But for the rest of us, this study provides some tools to question the direction we’re going, a way to measure progress, and a way to demonstrate the consequences of violence to the economy and the quality of life.

By the way, last year I celebrated ironically the ascension of the US to #83 on the list. It’s not good for anyone that the most powerful nation on earth is ranked among countries with severe poverty, Balkan states, which are still recovering from major conflict, and former Soviet republics. This year the US has dropped to #85.

References

Institute for Economics & Peace (2010). Peace, wealth and human potential. 2010 discussion paper.

Canadian Imams issue Fatwa against terrorism

Twenty Imams affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada issued a Fatwa (or religious edict) on January 8 declaring that attacks on Canada or the United States by any extremist are an attack on the ten million Muslims living in North America.

The Fatwa is consistent with what I hear from the many Muslim friends and colleagues I have both in the US and abroad. They all condemn violence and feel just as threatened by terrorists as anyone else. Their statements and this latest Fatwa directly answer a question some people have asked: “Why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?”

There are several reasons we don’t hear more: Mainstream media finds it more newsworthy to publicize the latest violence than a statement deploring violence. Also, Muslims would no more consider terrorism done in the name of Islam to represent their religion than would Christians consider the Oklahoma City bombings to represent Christianity. The first response of either might be “Of course it’s wrong! How could it be my religion? Why do I need to say anything at all?”

Based on the Qur’an, the Fatwa says in part,

Muslims in Canada and the United States have complete freedom to practice Islam…In many cases, Muslims have more freedom to practice Islam here … than in many Muslim countries.

In fact, the constitutions of the United States and Canada are very close to the Islamic guiding principles of human rights and freedom. There is no conflict between the Islamic values of freedom and justice and the Canadian/US values of freedom and justice.

Therefore, any attack on Canada and the United States is an attack on the freedom of Canadian and American Muslims…[and on] thousands of mosques across North America. It is a duty of every Canadian and American Muslim to safeguard Canada and the USA. They must expose any person, Muslim OR non-Muslim, who would cause harm to fellow Canadians OR Americans.

May Allah save Canada, the United States and the entire world from the evil of wrong doers. Ameen.