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August 04, 2005

An Insupportable Loss

After my death I wish no other herald,
No other speaker of my living actions,
To keep mine honour from corruption,
But such an honest chronicler as Griffith.

- King Henry VIII. Act iv. Sc. 2.

I don't know why. I keep coming back to those lines, of all the ones that come to mind. I'm sure there is a better passage.

I just can't think of it right now.

vincent.jpg How often, on these pages, have I railed against media knavery? I woke for some unknown reason at 2 am last night and learned via KJ that Steven Vincent of In The Red Zone is gone. How do we get so busy that we just fail to pay attention? I saw the headline: Journalist Killed in Iraq. I was just too preoccupied to scroll down and read the story. KJ had a picture of Mr. Vincent up and I took the liberty of swiping it, though usually I tend to think that sort of thing is too mawkish. Too sentimental. I didn't, this time. He has a compelling face. It stayed with me.

Steven Vincent was shot three times in the chest. His body was found in the city of Basra, where he was researching a book on the history of that city. His interpreter, Nouriya Ita'is, was shot four times.

Like Greyhawk, I never knew Steven. But I wish I had. I knew his writing, and for someone who loves ideas that is perhaps more important than anything else. And I wish I could find the words to express what we have lost. Perhaps his words can do that:

I bought everyone a round of orange juice, and we set to talking. In his mid-to-late thirties, prematurely balding, the Captain told us he was born in North Carolina, and currently lived in Ohio with his wife and two kids. ("That's the hardest part about being out here," he told us, "being away from my family.") He'd been in Basra about a month, during which time he'd awarded some $19 million in contracts, ranging from a few hundred bucks for printers, to a million-dollar police station renovation project. He operated on his own, he said, relying on common sense and past job performance records to select Iraqi contractors. He did not use a translator--one reason he asked for Iraqis to complete their bidding forms in English.

This last point was important. Layla and I have heard numerous stories about how, on big multi-million dollar projects, Iraqi translators and engineers--which the Americans, British and non-Iraqi NGOs are forced to use because of language difficulties--often accept bribes from companies to steer contracts their way. Since most Westerners don't know Arabic, and must rely on the translators and engineers as their eyes and ears, the funding sources are rarely the wiser. "In my case," said the Captain, "there's just me, my database and Iraqi companies. No chance for corruption there."

I'd wanted to introduce Layla to the Gary Cooper side of America, and I felt I'd succeeded. Instead of the evasive, over-subtle, windy Iraqi, fond of theory and abstraction, here was a to-the-point Yank, rolling up his sleeves with a can-do spirit of fair play and doing good. "I want to have a positive effect on this country's future," the Captain averred. "For example, whenever I learn of a contracting firm run by women, I put it at the top of my list for businesses I want to consider for future projects." I felt proud of my countryman; you couldn't ask for a more sincere guy.

Layla, however, flashed a tight, cynical smile. "How do you know," she began, "that the religious parties haven't put a woman's name on a company letterhead to win a bid? Maybe you are just funneling money to extremists posing as contractors." Pause. The Captain looked confused. "Religious parties? Extremists?"

Oh boy. Maa salaama Gary Cooper, as Layla and I gave our man a quick tutorial about the militant Shiites who have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola's Florence. The Captain seemed taken aback, having, as most Westerners--especially the troops stationed here--little idea of what goes on in the city. "I'll have to take this into consideration..." scratching his head, "I certainly hope none of these contracts are going to the wrong people." Not for the first time, I felt I was living in a Graham Greene novel, this about about a U.S. soldier--call it The Naive American--who finds what works so well in Power Point presentations has unpredictable results when applied to realities of Iraq. Or is that the story of our whole attempt to liberate this nation?

Collecting himself, "But should we really get involved in choosing one political group over another?" the Captain countered. "I mean, I've always believed that we shouldn't project American values onto other cultures--that we should let them be. Who is to say we are right and they are wrong?"

And there it was, the familiar Cultural-Values-Are-Relative argument, surprising though it was to hear it from a military man. But that, too, I realized, was part of American Naiveté: the belief, evidently filtering down from ivy-league academia to Main Street, U.S.A., that our values are no better (and usually worse) than those of foreign nations; that we have no right to judge "the Other;" and that imposing our way of life on the world is the sure path to the bleak morality of Empire (cue the Darth Vader theme).

But Layla would have none of it. "No, believe me!" she exclaimed, sitting forward on her stool. "These religious parties are wrong! Look at them, their corruption, their incompetence, their stupidity! Look at the way they treat women! How can you say you cannot judge them? Why shouldn't your apply your own cultural values?"

It was a moment I wish every muddle-headed college kid and Western-civilization-hating leftist could have witnessed: an Air Force Captain quoting chapter and verse from the new American Gospel of Multiculturalism, only to have a flesh and blood representative of "the Other" declare that he was incorrect, that discriminations and judgment between cultures are possible--necessary--especially when it comes to the absolutely unacceptable way Middle Eastern Arabs treat women. And though Layla would not have pushed the point this far, I couldn't resist. "You know, Captain," I said, "sometimes American values are just--better."

He and I then spent a few minutes wrapping up the interview--he truly was a decent, well-intentioned guy--during which time Layla's attention drifted toward the activity around her. She seemed interested in the pool game, and a dart contest caught her eye, as did a pair of women soldiers drinking at a side table. It wasn't until 45 minutes later, when she dropped me off at the hotel (remember, maaku Engliziyya bit-taxsi), that I asked her opinion of the bar. She shrugged. "Maybe some people in my culture might consider it corrupt, but I just saw people doing everyday things that their religious values allow. Nothing wrong, nothing corrupt--at least there."

I thought about pointing out the multicultural tolerance and relativism in her attitude, but wisely refrained. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Emerson reminds us, and if he'd lived in Basra, he'd've added--the djinn of Islamic extremists, as well.

Yours from the land of the no-show employee, back-door pay-out, paper corporation and unbalanced books (but don't you dare wear too short an abiya!)...

For a little background on the problems brewing in Basra, read Steven's last dispatch in the NY Times. He believed the British weren't doing enough to foster democratic values in the areas they controlled:

It is particularly troubling that sectarian tensions are increasing in Basra, which has long been held up as the brightest spot of the liberated Iraq. "Are the police being used for political purposes?" asked Jamal Khazal Makki, the head of the Basra branch of the Sunni-dominated Islamic Party. "They arrest people and hold them in custody, even though the courts order them released. Meanwhile, the police rarely detain anyone who belongs to a Shiite religious party."
...the British stand above the growing turmoil, refusing to challenge the Islamists' claim on the hearts and minds of police officers. This detachment angers many Basrans. "The British know what's happening but they are asleep, pretending they can simply establish security and leave behind democracy," said the police lieutenant who had told me of the assassinations. "Before such a government takes root here, we must experience a transformation of our minds."

In other words, real security reform requires psychological as well as physical training. Unless the British include in their security sector reform strategy some basic lessons in democratic principles, Basra risks falling further under the sway of Islamic extremists and their Western-trained police enforcers.

I tend to agree. Democracy requires a certain mindset to succeed. A friend of ours, a Marine, volunteered to go to the Eastern bloc nations after the Soviet Union broke up to teach Economics to the fledgling capitalists. He said it was like trying to swim upstream. Through mud.

Free enterprise was, quite literally, a foreign concept to people who had lived for decades under a communist system rife with corruption. The expectation of cheating was a given. Things like credit and checkbooks were unknown to people who had existed under a system of cash and barter transactions where accounting was virtually unknown. Thus, corruption was rampant. Before capitalism could flourish, people's minds had to be completely reoriented. It was not an impossible task, but it was a formidable one.

If you want to honor the memory of this brave and wonderful man, you can do so by making a donation to Spirit of America.

We could not afford to lose this man.

Posted by Cassandra at August 4, 2005 05:53 AM

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Cass, he is/was something beyond a good writer. He was a JOURNALIST in the best sense of the word.
He told the story as it happened, not a spin, but
what happened and his take on it. He doesn't tell the reader what to think, only what he thinks.

He wisely leaves it to us to make such a determination for ourselves.

I have been seething about this for a couple of days since I heard of his death...do we flatten
and move on or do we make the distinctions of winning hearts?

His observations say change is possible, but only as the corruption is adapted to our way of thinking. He points this out in the example of the woman led company. That further investigation is needed in order to make the necessary changes.

You are so right; we can't afford to lose a real journalist. I wonder if Jason Eason was right; journalists are being targeted, but not by us.

And he does have a compelling face.

Posted by: Cricket at August 4, 2005 08:43 AM

/intemperate remarks self-edited :)

I agree Cricket.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 4, 2005 11:46 AM

"We could not afford to lose this man."

Unfortunately, that's what war usually ends up being: The loss of good, honest, brave men in the service of justice and truth to wicked ones in the service of self aggrandizement and sick philosophies. We can't afford to lose any truthsayers, especially with the purveyors of dishonesty and distortion freely publishing (such as Robert Fisk!); it's an atrocity to suppress those voices, no matter how wrong they are, so people like Mr. Vincent and Michael Yon need to exist and be encouraged as a counterbalance. I agree: We can't afford to lose anyone like Steve Vincent. But lost he is, and the question now becomes: "Who'll take up his work?" And "What do we do to support them?".

Posted by: E.M.H. at August 4, 2005 12:59 PM

I don't know.

I just know that, uncharacteristically, I feel sorrier than I can say that I never took the time to get to know this man. For some reason, this has really shaken me.

I don't know why.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 4, 2005 06:04 PM

It's too bad, I know people who have met him and say he was a very good person. The WSJ Opinion Journal Best Of The Web has a link to his last column in the NYT ... reading it, I can see why the SOB's went after him. The also quote and provide links to some of his other works ... here is an example:

Words matter. Words convey moral clarity. Without moral clarity, we will not succeed in Iraq. That is why the terms the press uses to cover this conflict are so vital. For example, take the word "guerillas." As you noted, mainstream media sources like the New York Times often use the terms "insurgents" or "guerillas" to describe the Sunni Triangle gunmen, as if these murderous thugs represented a traditional national liberation movement. But when the Times reports on similar groups of masked reactionary killers operating in Latin American countries, they utilize the phrase "paramilitary death squads." Same murderers, different designations.

Posted by: Frodo at August 5, 2005 08:11 AM

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