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Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Bush administration admits torture, UK government admits “war on terror” was misconceived.

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A couple of gobsmackers from today’s Guardian:

US lawyers battling against torture and other abuses at Guantánamo Bay are braced for George Bush issuing last-minute pardons to protect those in his administration most closely implicated.

The lawyers’ warning came after a senior member of the Bush administration, Susan Crawford, admitted for the first time that torture had been carried out. Until now, the Bush administration, in particular the vice-president, Dick Cheney, had denied the interrogation techniques at Guantánamo constituted torture.

Crawford’s admission of torture is in relation to the case of a Saudi national, Mohammed al-Qahtani, 30, accused of involvement in the 9/11 attack. He is often referred to by US authorities as the “20th hijacker”. He was denied entry to the US in August 2001 and captured in Afghanistan in 2002. He was tortured for a month and then kept in isolation.

Crawford, a Pentagon official who last year was put in charge of military commissions that decide whether detainees should be tried, told the Washington Post: “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case [for prosecution].” She added: “The techniques they used were all authorised, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent.”

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The foreign secretary, David Miliband, today declared that the use of the phrase “war on terror” as a western rallying cry since the September 11 attacks had been a mistake that may have caused “more harm than good”.

In an article in today’s Guardian, five days before the Bush administration leaves the White House, Miliband delivered a comprehensive critique of its defining mission, saying that the war on terror was misconceived and that the west cannot “kill its way” out of the threats it faces.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 15, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Douglas Card on Lincoln and Obama

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Douglas Card, eloquent bane of the Holocaust denialists commenting on this blog, has just had an interesting piece published on the historical parallels between Lincoln’s opposition to the US invasion of Mexico and Obama’s criticisms of the war in Iraq.

From the Eugene Register-Guard

What does history tell us about the proper role of American politicians during wartime? Supporters of President Bush like to compare his leadership in pursuing the unpopular Iraqi war to the steadfastness of Abraham Lincoln in his own prosecution of the difficult Civil War.

They believe, as Charles Krauthammer wrote in a recent column, that “history will be kinder than today’s polls,” noting Bush’s “sense of calm and confidence in eventual historical vindication.”

Trouble is, Lincoln had quite a different attitude toward another war, the little-known Mexican War of 1846-48. For this Whig freshman congressman from Illinois, it was a bad war that, as with our current war in Iraq, was begun on a false premise — the claim that Mexican forces had attacked our troops on U.S. territory. Though the war was almost over by the time Lincoln took his seat in Congress, he proceeded to make a controversial name for himself attacking President James Polk’s justification for the war.

In fact, Lincoln led his party’s opposition, denouncing Polk in a series of resolutions that demanded to know at what exact “spot” the war had begun. These resolutions earned Lincoln the derogatory nicknames of “Spotty Lincoln” and even “the Ranchero Spotty.” In a flight of oratory, Lincoln charged that our army had begun the war in a wild attack on a Mexican village, driving out the inhabitants in fear for their safety. Though Lincoln, like most Whigs, voted that the war was not begun in legally, he also voted for whatever war supplies were needed.

Liberals have never found it easy to criticize an American war, and Lincoln’s speeches brought him massive hostility and charges of being unpatriotic. His old friend and law partner Billy Herndon wrote Lincoln that his supporters in Illinois were disgusted with him. Some modern historians have characterized his outspoken opposition to the war as his biggest political mistake — that his attacks were foolish, embarrassing and politically inspired by Eastern Whig leaders…

Lincoln struggled to recover from his tarnished “unpatriotic” reputation, and had a special difficulty in resurrecting his political career in Illinois. When he ran for the Senate as a Republican in 1858, his opponent Stephen Douglas frequently brought up the old “Spotty Lincoln” charges. Lincoln was left on the defensive, repeating that while he had opposed Polk’s reasons for starting the war he had always voted for any necessary military supplies and, afterwards, for the relief of veterans.

Click here for the full article

Written by Richard Wilson

January 7, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Lizzy Siddal reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Lizzy’s Literary Life

We all know that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read in the press , or hear on the news, don’t we?  What’s the definition of lying?  Inventing stories, misappropriating the truth, lies of omission, spin?

Richard Wilson’s Don’t Get Fooled Again is an illuminating compilation of methods and examples  from both the 20th and 21st centuries in which governments and the general public have been duped by flawed thinking:

a)  Pseudo-science – 30 million deaths in China as a result of adopting  Lysenko’s agricultural reforms (already the cause of millions of deaths in Stalin’s Russia!).

b) Relativism - the uncounted number of deaths in Africa as a result of the success of those denying the existence of HIV and AIDS.

c) The power of vested interests and commercial journalism – the decade-long controvery over whether smoking was bad for your health.

d) Groupthink – spiralling terrorism leading inevitability to the second Iraq war and the excesses at Abu Ghraib.

Wilson doesn’t just detail the facts in his examples.  He explains the underlying psychologies.   It’s only by understanding these that we, as individuals, can choose not to get fooled again.  He offers  the following toolkit for spotting manipulation:

1) The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably from multiple sources.

2) Remember – it’s not all relative!

3) Spot the false sceptic.  Remarkably credulous about facts which support their viewpoint but always demanding more evidence for those which do not.

4)  Beware of  groupthink.

I haven’t read a newspaper in years because of the underlying – and manipulative – bias of the writing.  I think I might just revisit that policy.  Armed with the above, it will be an interesting exercise.

Sceptic of the week: Muntazer al-Zaidi

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From The Times:

“This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq,” he shouted before being overpowered by security guards and bundled out of the room.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Groupthink, Self-serving bias, Space Cadets and the Stanford Prison Experiment – “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Beyond Words book festival

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Earlier this week I had a very enjoyable afternoon discussing “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at University College School’s “Beyond Words” book festival, and looking at some of the more eye-catching bits of psychological research that I came across while writing the book. The audience had some challenging and wide-ranging questions, and I thought it might be interesting to post some more background links here.

I was about halfway through my research when I realised that a great many of the delusions I was looking at seemed to come down, at least in part, to what might once have been called “excessive vanity”: The conspiracy theorists who think that they alone are part of some special group with special knowledge about AIDS/the Illuminati/911 or the “great asbestos scam” while everyone else muddles along in their brainwashed ignorance. Or the crank who’s convinced that, just by using his uncommon “common sense”, he’s managed to find a fatal flaw in a well-established scientific theory that generations of world-renowned biologists have somehow contrived to miss.

But what I hadn’t known was the degree to which almost all of us seem to over-rate ourselves and our own abilities, at least to some degree. The average driver thinks that they’re a better driver than the average driver – and reason dictates that we can’t all be above average. Most people also seem to rate themselves at least slightly better than others in intelligence, and significantly better in warmth, generosity and – my personal favourite – likelihood of leaving the largest slice of pizza for someone else when there are only two slices left. The research link for that particular claim can be found here – and for a more general overview I’d recommend Cordelia Fine’s excellent book “A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives”.

Somewhat less academic but still very interesting was the case of a reality TV show called “Space Cadets” where a Channel Four production company managed to convince a group of contestants that they were being sent into space and put into orbit around the earth. In fact they were sitting in a Hollywood space shuttle simulator at a disused military airbase in Suffolk.

The programme-makers had set out explicitly to recreate a psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink”, where members of a close-knit social group become so focussed on a particular group belief or objective that they lose their ability to think critically. But what hadn’t been predicted was the effect that the experience would have on the actors who were in on the hoax, and whose job it was to pretend to be an ordinary member of the group.

“My poor brain is a scramble of half-truths, astronomical lies and unbridled lunacy”, Skelton wrote in the Guardian, shortly after the hoax was finally revealed.

“I’ve just scribbled a list of what I know for sure: I’ve been a mole on a fake reality show called Space Cadets; I have a Russian doll in my hand luggage; I’ve just spent the past five days in a flight simulator in a hangar on the Suffolk coast; and – last but by no means least – I’ve just spent the past five days in space.

My default brain position aboard Earth Orbiter One was that we were 200 kilometres up, travelling at about seven kilometres per second. Too many things were telling me that for me to think otherwise.”

The psychological manipulation had been so strong that even though Skelton knew, rationally, that
the whole thing was a hoax, he found himself believing it anyway.

The third case study I looked at was the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, which took place in the early 1970s. Researcher Philip Zimbardo constructed a model prison in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department, and got a group of students to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners. Within days, a significant proportion of the guards, who just days previously had been seemingly normal college students, had been transformed into brutal sadists, who relished the power that they’d been given and the opportunities for abuse that it gave them. In the end, the experiment had to be terminated early. Full details about the experiment and its wider implications can be found at Zimbardo’s excellent Stanford Prison Experiment website.

Interestingly, when the soldiers implicated in the horrific Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal were put on trial, Philip Zimbardo was one of the key witnesses for the defence, arguing that the “situational pressures” on the guards, stemming from the way the prison had been mismanaged, made such abuses entirely predictable.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that human beings are rather more vulnerable to delusion and manipulation than we are usually be prepared to admit – but that confronting these vulnerabilities, and doing our best to understand them, is crucial in reducing our risk of being fooled in future.

Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh on US atrocities in Iraq

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From UC Berkeley News

In the evening’s most emotional moment, Hersh talked about a call he had gotten from a first lieutenant in charge of a unit stationed halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. His group was bivouacking outside of town in an agricultural area, and had hired 30 or so Iraqis to guard a local granary. A few weeks passed. They got to know the men they hired, and to like them. Then orders came down from Baghdad that the village would be “cleared.” Another platoon from the soldier’s company came and executed the Iraqi granary guards. All of them.

“He said they just shot them one by one. And his people, and he, and the villagers of course, went nuts,” Hersh said quietly. “He was hysterical, totally hysterical. He went to the company captain, who said, ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents. Don’t you read those stories when the Americans say we had a combat maneuver and 15 insurgents were killed?’

“It’s shades of Vietnam again, folks: body counts,” Hersh continued. “You know what I told him? I said, ‘Fella, you blamed the captain, he knows that you think he committed murder, your troops know that their fellow soldiers committed murder. Shut up. Complete your tour. Just shut up! You’re going to get a bullet in the back.’ And that’s where we are in this war.”

Written by Richard Wilson

October 25, 2008 at 5:00 am

Stephen Colbert on “truthiness”…

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“That’s where the truth lies – right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up.

Now, I know some of you are going to say, ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.” 

- Stephen Colbert, White House Correspondents Association dinner, April 2006

Written by Richard Wilson

September 28, 2008 at 6:57 pm