Roughnecks v. Terrorists:

Michael Yon's piece on the Roughnecks is too good to summarize. But it's also too good to resist summarizing. 2-7 Cav payback for five soldiers killed in a Hummer earlier this week; night gunfighting; Kiowas and .50 cals. It's the kind of reporting that made him famous.

Interrogator's Nightmare

"An Iraq Interrogator's Nightmare"

This is an important piece to read. I'm not sure what to say about it yet, however; except one thing. This line, above all of it, strikes me:

I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency.
It is not the first or the last part that concern me. A soldier has no right to consider whether an order is "meritless," but only whether it is illegal. However, this man was -- his biography says -- a contractor, who can of course refuse an order. He is free to go.

But this part of the line is important:
I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody.
That is a formulation that uses the language of honor. A failure of honor is serious.

The other two parts of the statement are statements of guilty feeling, without any formal standing in the law or in the military's code of honor. A contractor is not the one who is asked to decide whether or not an order is meritless, except for himself, with the remedy of leaving. Nor is he the one who decides whether or not the policy upholds the standards of human decency. That is done by the military, with the oversight of Congress to ensure that the People's common interests are upheld.

The man is saying he personally feels guilty about what he did. I am sorry that he is tormented. I have a genuine sympathy for any man who suffers as he says he does. But it is not at all unusual to find that you feel guilty about what you did in the war, any war; nor is it a reliable sign that anything is wrong. Sadly, it is entirely to be expected. He is far from the only man to suffer nightmares.

The middle part of his confession, though, is formally correct. It is therefore serious. A man who has custody of a prisoner does have a duty to protect him. If he fails in that duty, an answer must be given.

The 82nd will have to show that the conduct he claims he was ordered to perform either did not occur; or that it was not inconsistent with his duty to protect his prisoner. That is a point of honor, and the military cannot neglect those. I will await their word on the subject with interest.

Galt on Marcotte

Galt on Marcotte:

Jane Galt worries that the furor over the recent Marcotte business indicates an attempt to shut down religious criticism. She indicates that this isn't really a shifting of the national dialogue, but perhaps just an assertion of new power by the backcountry:

What the right is doing here is attempting to shift the Overton Window of Political Possibilities. The “window” is the space of acceptable ideas for political discourse. So, for instance, right now being either pro-choice or pro-life falls inside the window; it is mainstream and acceptable to hold either view. But being (say) pro-Nazi falls outside that window; being pro-Nazi means that you’ll get fired from political campaigns, because your views are that far outside of the window of accepted political views.

Should criticizing (and even making fun of) the political positions of the Catholic church, the Pope, and the conservative Christian movement be “within the window” of acceptable views? Or should criticizing the Pope — even on perfectly true grounds, such as pointing out that he supports pro-life and anti-gay policies — be outside the window of what it’s politically acceptable to say and to criticize?
I think this captures the essence of the argument, although I'm not sure that Amp is right about this being an attempt to shift it; my admittedly limited knowlege of Non-Coastal-Elite-America indicates that in most of the country, slagging off the Pope, or indeed making fun of religion qua religion, is mostly verboten.
Speaking as a proud member of the non-coastal non-elite, a backcountry North Georgia wearer of Stetson hats, I'd like to answer Ms. Galt's charge. Let's hear a few good religion jokes.

Q: How can you tell a Baptist from a Methodist?
A: A Methodist will share his beer with you.

Q: How can you tell a Presbyterian from either?
A: The Presbyterian will stop the church bus off at the liquor store if you ask him.

(That last one is really true, at least sometimes -- my father's church softball team would do so.)

Here's an audio recording from the Late Great Lewis Grizzard: Mama Wanted Me to Be A Preacher. You can enjoy not just the preacher jokes, but the pure Southern accent.

My favorite preacher joke:
One day a preacher was walking to church, when a local family passed him in their wagon. "Howdy, preacher!" the father called. "Want a ride?"

The preacher did, so they took him on in. The father asked, "What's the sermon going to be about today?"

"Fire and brimstone," the preacher answered. "I'm going to read 'em the Ten Commandments, first to last. I'm all fired up -- why, for the very reason you saw me walking today. Do you know that, in this very community, somebody stole my bicycle?"

"You don't say!" the father replied, and on in they went.

Sure enough, the preacher got up and started on his sermon. Suddenly in the middle of the Ten Commandments, though, he stopped right there, thanked everyone for coming, and sent them on home to dinner.

The farmer saw the preacher again later in the week, and he went over to ask him about it. "I thought you were going to do the fire and brimstone, all the way through?" he asked.

"Well, I was," the preacher said. "But then I got as far as 'Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,' and durn if I didn't I remember where my bicycle was."
That may have been a Grizzard joke too -- or one of my father's. :)

Joatmoaf had a good one the other day, about a preacher and a cowboy:
A Baptist Preacher was seated next to a cowboy on a flight to Texas.

After the plane took off, the cowboy asked for a whiskey and soda, which was brought and placed before him. The flight attendant then asked the preacher if he would like a drink.

Appalled, the preacher replied, "I'd rather be tied up and taken advantage of by women of ill-repute, than let liquor touch my lips."

The cowboy then handed his drink back to the attendant and said, "Me too. I didn't know we had a choice."
Then there was Jerry Clower's famous story (which I quote from memory):
Local Baptist boy married a Methodist girl. His daddy insisted she be baptized properly, not just sprinkled on top of the head like the Methodists do.

His son tried to convince the girl, but it was no good. So he came back to his daddy with a compromise. "What if she walked out into the water up to her knees?" he asked.

"That won't do, boy."

"And what if she went out with the preacher up to her neck, would that be good enough?"

"I won't stand for it," his father said. "It's got to be a real baptism if she's gonna marry into my house."

"Well," the boy said, "What if they went out in the water until just the top of her head stuck out?"

"No sir," his father replied.

The young man shook his head. "See, I knowed all the time it was just that spot on top of the head that counted."
And then there's the old folk song, "The Preacher and the Bear," my favorite version of which was done by Jerry Reed. The lyrics speak to a preacher's dilemma when faced with a grizzly bear who has also been given certain gifts. Atop the branches of a tree, the preacher shouts:
Hey Lord you delivered Daniel
from the bottom of the lion's den;
You delivered Jonah
from the belly of the whale and then
The Hebrew children from the fiery furnace,
so the good books do declare:

Hey Lord if you can't help me,
For goodness sake don't help that bear!
The point here is Chesterton's point about the pessimist. Marcotte doesn't get into trouble for criticizing religion; she gets in trouble because she doesn't love the thing she criticizes.

She's not required to, of course, but that's where her trouble arises. It's not the humor. It's the hatred.

Good Reads

Good Reading Today:

Bill Roggio has had two excellent and informative pieces this week: On "the snake eater," an intelligence system that BlackFive refers to as "like S.C.M.O.D.S." Bill was one of the people who got it off the ground -- a clear example of a citizen making something happen, along with our old friends at Spirit of America and others. The Belmont Club has further thoughts.

Bill's second good piece is on Al Qaeda's anti-air teams, who have managed to take down several US and Blackwater choppers.

Kim du Toit penned a good piece on the importance of fighting your own battles. The idea that the police are the ones charged with protecting you and enforcing the law is poison to the individual and to society at large. Those are common duties of all citizens, for which we should be prepared.

Finally, Claudia Rosett has a piece on how the Voice of America speaks for Iran. Apparently we've had this trouble with some of our other propaganda efforts, too.

Middle Ground

Middle Ground on the Fetus/Child Question:

Today's story out of Texas strikes me as one of those things that is so sensible that it's shocking to see the government have anything to do with it. Surely it's the influence of the jury, plus the fact that we're talking about Texas.

A former youth pastor was sentenced to death Wednesday for killing a teenager and her fetus in what is believed to be the first such order in Texas, the nation's busiest death penalty state.

Adrian Estrada, 23, was convicted Friday of one count of capital murder for the death of Stephanie Sanchez and the fetus, of which he was the father.
The Texas law in question may be objectionable to many -- whether a fetus is a person is a metaphysical position, and therefore subjective, as Joseph and I have been discussing. Regardless of which, it allows them to address this particular crime:
Sanchez, 17, was three months pregnant Dec. 12, 2005, when her body was found in her family's home. She had been choked and stabbed 13 times. During the trial, DNA evidence was presented to show Estrada was the father.

Estrada, a former youth pastor for a church, admitted to the stabbing the day after the killings. Prosecutors also said he worked out at a gym and went shopping after the crime. He showed no emotion when his punishment was read.
It's hard to argue against the idea that a man who tries to get out of fatherhood by murdering his pregnant girlfriend ought to hang. Unless you're opposed to the death penalty itself -- personally, I think we ought to use it much more widely than we do -- this surely is a matter in which the penalty ought to apply.

I gather that the man here has been convicted of a single count of capital murder. As I understand it, capital murder requires that you commit murder while also committing a separate felony -- shooting a guy while robbing his store, for example. (This understanding arise from Georgia law, however; Texas readers, shout out of I've misread the situation re: Texas law.)

Thus, the reason the death penalty can apply here is because there are two separate crimes: killing the mother, and killing the child. That's one count of murder, and another, separate count of murder comitted while in the process of committing the first murder. That allows you to go to the death penalty, which is what is deserved.

Surely, whether you agree that a fetus is a child or not, we can all agree that this is the right result -- Quakers and other anti-death penalty theorists aside.

Of course, his defense attorney has a right to be heard too:
Estrada's attorney, Suzanne Kramer, had argued that her client made bad decisions.

"It that enough to execute him? Is that enough to kill him?" she asked the jury.
Yes, it is. Next case.

UPDATE: In the comments, Joe points out that I have confused "capital murder" with "felony murder." I regret the error, which I shall blame on insufficient coffee at the time of writing. :)

Heresy: Environment, Holocaust, etc

Modern Heresies:

Frank Furedi has a piece in Spiked Online defending free thought from what he calls "modern inquisitions." It began with the campaign to squash Holocaust denial, and perhaps if it had stopped there, everything would have been fine. It didn't:

At a time when moralists find it difficult clearly to differentiate between right and wrong, they are forced to find some other way to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. So they seize examples of unambiguous evil – paedophilia, the Holocaust, pollution – in order to define potential moral transgression. Today’s heresy hunters strive to construct new taboos....

The Holocaust has been transformed into an all-purpose moral metaphor adopted by a variety of special interest campaigns and crusades. This Holocaust brand has been co-opted for other experiences, too; we now hear debates about the African-American Holocaust, the Serbian Holocaust, the Bosnian Holocaust, the Rwandan Holocaust. Anti-abortionist crusaders protest about the ‘Holocaust of fetuses’ and animal rights activists denounce the ‘Holocaust of seals’ in Canada. Such manipulation of the Holocaust metaphor turns an historic tragedy into a caricature. Many US Jews were angered when an animal rights organisation launched a campaign that compared the slaughter of livestock to the murder of Jews in the Holocaust. A campaign exhibition, called ‘Holocaust on Your Plate’, juxtaposed images of people in concentration camps with pictures of animals in pens.

Many co-opt the Holocaust brand to win legitimacy and backing for their campaigns. And they insist that anyone who questions their version of events should be treated in a manner similar to those who deny the real Holocaust. ‘Do Armenian citizens of France not deserve the same protection as their Jewish compatriots?’, asked an advocate of criminalising the denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (5). In the past two decades, accusing someone of denial has become the twenty-first-century equivalent of labelling them a heretic. Those who deny the claims of fashionable campaigners and causes can expect to be censored and treated with intolerance. Following the precedent set by laws against Holocaust denial, the French National Assembly passed a law in October last year that could sentence to a year’s imprisonment anyone who denies the Armenian genocide.

The act of denial has been transformed into a generic evil. This is clear in the way that the stigmatisation of denial has leapt from the realm of historic controversies over genocides to other areas of debate. Denial has become a kind of free-floating blasphemy, which can attach itself to a variety of issues and problems. One environmentalist writer argues that the ‘language of “climate change”, “global warming”, “human impacts” and “adaptation” are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse’ (6). It seems that some people can no longer tell what a difference in opinion looks like – it’s all just ‘denial’.

The charge of denial has become a secular form of blasphemy. A book written by an author who is sceptical of today’s prevailing environmentalist wisdom was dismissed with the words: ‘The text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren’t dying of AIDS, that Jews weren’t singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on.’ (7) This forced association of three highly charged issues – pollution, AIDS, the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews – shows how denial has become an all-purpose blasphemy.
It's a good piece, one that explores each of these ideas in greater depth -- and gives special attention, at the end, to serious questions about the real problem of Holocaust denial. It is, as he said at the beginning, a clear example of bad behavior; but should we therefore shut down free speech?

My sense has always been that we should let people hold to what they will, and let evidence and argument sort it out. It seems to me that there's no advantage to criminalizing Holocaust denial, for example, because it is readily disproven. Thus, someone who insists on cleaving to it discredits himself except with those who wish likewise to believe the claim.

There are problems arising from criminalizing the act of Holocaust denial, too, several of which the author considers at length. But here is one more: if they are free to speak their minds, Holocaust deniers will normally tell you who they are. Particularly for a Europe worried about resurgent fascist movements, this is a real advantage. It's easier to keep a head count if everyone you want to count is ready to stand up and wave.

PJM Specials

Specials Today: Islamic Angels Have No Free Will

Salim Mansur writes at PJM a piece called "The Cool Water of the Koran." It is meant to respond to some critics of Islam who have suggested that the trouble lies in the Koran itself; Salim Mansur disagrees.

One thing I found fascinating in his piece was the Islamic version of the "free will" argument:

The Koran instructs individuals to choose the right path. Because human beings, in contrast to angels and all other members of God’s creation, are endowed with free will it instructs them to choose among alternatives. It is in our freedom to choose we become fully human, and freedom means responsibility and accountability for choices made and acts committed. The Koran reminds us over and over again that we are responsible for the consequences of our conduct.
This is something new to me. I can see how someone could believe that "lower life forms" such as paramecia lacked free will; I'm not clear how anyone could believe a dog does -- or, as dogs are said to be unpopular among many devout Muslims, a cat. Indeed, it's especially hard to believe a cat has no free will.

But an angel? This is a real oddity. In every other system I know that believes in beings higher than men, those beings that are closer to god/truth/etc are freer than lower beings. There is a hierarchy of free will and awareness, that runs through paramecia to dogs and cats and people and on to the higher beings, whether they are gods or angels or beings of light -- or demons.

Indeed, in Christian belief, it is the wrongful expression of that will that caused the greatest of angels to fall and become the worst of devils. I'm told that Islam likewise believes in an idea of Satan, or Shaitan, so I wondered what they made of him. Here it is:
In Islam, Allah created everything in pairs. The pair for a human is a jinn, two beings of higher intelligence created with free will....

Iblis was of jinn race and was supposedly a devoted servant of Allah. He attained a very high status and was brought close with the Angels. But Allah knew Iblis well and the intentions of Iblis and therefore the Shayṭān was named Iblis (meaning "desperate"). The angels do not have free will and do not sin, because they do not know how to sin. When Allah created human, Allah commanded all the angels to prostrate (sujood) to Adam and his people. All angels did so, except Iblis, who refused Allah's direct command.

Iblis was proud and considered himself superior to Adam, since Adam was made from clay and Iblis was created from smokeless fire. For this act of disobedience, Allah cursed the Shayṭān to the Lake of Fire for eternity, but gave the Shayṭān the respite till the Day of Judgment at his request.
So we have an intermediate class, so to speak, of creatures: "jinn," who are lower than angels but who have free will like men.

That doesn't explain away the question of the angels, though. It's fascinating that Islam -- alone, as far as I know, among religions -- considers that it is possible to be a "higher" being but lack free will. What would it mean to be "higher," if it doesn't mean what it means for every other religion: to be more aware, and freer? It points to the Islamic ideal, I suppose: perfect submission to Allah.

The extinction of free will then would be a positive good. The death of knowledge would be good, if it meant that you would "no longer know how to sin."

I must admit that I don't feel better about the Koran after reading this piece. I do thank the author, however, for what was obviously intended as a kind and enlightening effort.

Tech Note

Tech Notes:

I saw once when I loaded the blog today a warning that it wants to install some sort of "Microsoft Data Access" product. I assume this is a New Blogger thing, but I don't know anything about it. So, if your browser asks you if you "trust this website," don't let any trust you might have in me influence your decision. I've got no idea what it is they want you to have on your computer, or why they want it there.

Please note the PJM Straw Poll thing on the sidebar. You're (obviously) not obligated to take part, but if you want to, I put up a link.

Horses I Have Known III

Horses I Have Known, III:

This short series has gotten a good response, so I suppose I'll continue it occasionally. Cassandra (who is on vacation) wanted me to do one of these posts for the benefit of her readers, so it will be cross-posted both at Grim's Hall and Villainous Company.

Here we have another draft horse, a Belgian cross named for the paragon of ladies, Odysseus' wife Penelope:

Her namesake was capable of some deception, but our Penelope is without guile. She is a sweet horse, very happy to have affection but in no way pushy. You can tell how well behaved she is by looking at the bridle: she requires the least tack of any horse I know, except for Celtic, who was sold last month.

In spite of her size, Penelope can get up to a good speed at the canter. Her trot is rough to ride, but the canter is quite smooth. She is a little bit lazy compared to non-coldbloods, but for a draft horse she's not sluggish.

She's been clipped, so she has to wear a blanket in cold weather even though the breed is well-adapted to far colder climates than Georgia. You can see what her regular winter coat would look like, though, on her unclipped legs. The long hair down the leg is called 'feathering.' Note the well-sculpted, thick and powerful muscles in her neck.

Penelope can get up to a good speed, I said, for a draft horse. If you really want to cover ground, though, what you want is a gaited horse (scroll down to "ambling"). This little fellow is a Tennesee Walking Horse, in a pinto pattern called Tobiano. His name is Doc.

Doc's only fault as a horse is that he doesn't like to stand still (though he is quite relaxed here, as evident by his cocked leg and easy ears). What he does like to do is run. Tennessee Walkers are famous for their very smooth "running walk," and Doc has a nice one, but what he wants to do is running run. Even that, though, is tremendously smooth compared to, say, Penelope's nice canter.

Doc's a fully-trained horse, and needs nothing from me except a companion to take him out. His owner, a nice older lady, enjoys him for the smoothness of his gait. She doesn't want to run, and he does. So, she has me exercise him late in the week, so he can get the running he wants to do out of his system. Then, when she has time to ride him on the weekend, he is not quite so tempted to take off with her.

I'm happy to do it. He's a pleasure.

Brain Trust

Brain Trust:

The Washington Post has a good article on 'officers with PhDs' forming around Petraeus. It includes David Kilcullen, the author of the concept of "disaggregation."

Good to see.

PeaceMaker Review - Part 3

PeaceMaker Review - Part 3

In part 1, I discussed the game as a game; in part 2 I talked about the limitations. I ought to say something about lessons a person could learn by reflecting on this game. None of this is particularly profound.

One lesson is a lesson of sympathy for elected leaders generally, especially in bad situations. The initial response to anything you do is almost always a speech or protest by someone who hates you for doing it; and the people on both sides will gratuitously protest against you now and again. You receive lots of blame for things you can't possibly control. And the worst thing you can do is try to react to all these protests on a turn-by-turn'll be accused of vascillating, and your ratings will plunge. The game is simple (a good thing for playability), so you aren't hit with information overload, endless reports and lots of pestering from advisors - but what you get is quite frustrating enough. Almost never will you see a news story about someone who likes you - not until you are getting close to victory. It must be even worse for an extrovert (who might actually like campaigning to get the office in the first place). Sometimes we seem to give our elected leaders all the responsibility, but none of the respect, of pharaohs and God-kings. It's good to keep our ideas of what they can do realistic, especially when they are checked by voters and legislative process.

Another is the importance of resolution. The game itself, in tutorial mode, gives you this hint. You have a long term goal that requires repeated actions (such as increasing police action against militants); you've got angry protestors calling on you to do the opposite; if you react to the protestors instead of staying the course, you're hanging yourself. You might have to moderate your pace, and alternate one goal with another, but you have to keep to your goals. In cruder computer games, a news story about public opinion would be a clue that you needed to act immediately; in this one, it may be better ignored. Perhaps a player could remember not to be too distracted by the story of the day, nor judge events too superficially based on the headlines.

Another thing is something I referred to in part 2. At some times and in some places, the fate of millions rests in the hands of a few. Here, in the game and in reality, the fate of millions seems to rest in the hands of the millions themselves. It is the attitudes common in quite a large population that have to change in order for peace to "ensue." In Iraq, as of last year's opinion polls, only a tiny minority supported Tawheed Wa'al-Jihad (a/k/a al-Qaida in Iraq), yet it wasn't hard to see how much trouble they could cause - now take the problem to a country where a majority voted for Hamas. We aren't in a situation that can be saved by a few great men in a few months or years.

As I said, nothing profound, but these were my thoughts when I played. Earlier this evening I tried the hardest levels (= highest level of violence) and got pretty badly creamed, so I may not have understood the winning strategies as well as I thought, or else the designers didn't expect the game always to be winnable when the militants were too numerous and too active. If so, that may be the most realistic aspect of the game. If not, well, imagine the level of violence a little bit higher, and the game would most definitely be unwinnable within the strictures it sets. That's more insight than many commentators bring to the issue. So, at least, a tip of the hat to the designers of this game. And a low bow, and profuse thanks, to Grim, for inviting me to play and write.

PeaceMaker Review - Part 2

PeaceMaker Review - Part 2

The developers made no secret of their hope that the game could encourage partisans to see each other's points of view, and so encourage some changes in attitude. To that end, the game is available in Hebrew and Arabic. I fear this hope is in vain.

The problem with modeling the conflict as a computer game is obvious: the result is only as convincing as the assumptions that went into the program. The assumption that the game is winnable means that one side could make the right solutions - and peace would follow. (Actually, most Americans who are partisan on this conflict believe that; they just disagree on which side needs to stop being so unreasonable. If you are a partisan, you'll actually be more comfortable playing the opposite side.)

Related to this is the assumption that both populations - Israeli, Palestinian - are ready, or close to ready, for peace. I like the fact that, if you're playing Israel, you have to help the Palestinian economy to reach your destination. That is a sound strategic lesson. But the timing has to be right. One of my favorite books is Liddell Hart's biography of Scipio Africanus, maybe the finest strategist ever. When Scipio's opponents were exhausted from fighting and ready to make peace, he was famously magnanimous (especially for his time) - and the result was that when he subjugated Spain, it stayed subjugated; and Carthage had an excellent chance of staying at peace as a Roman satellite (it did for generations, and could've forever). He displayed the same insight in dealing with a mutiny early in his career: enough fear and executions to cow the bulk of the troops, then magnaminity and back pay.

This, however, is a lesson we do not need this game for. It is commonly drawn from the peace settlements of the two World Wars (in fact, Liddell Hart, who was writing between the wars, drew it out in the book on Scipio). Once the enemy is down, you cut his throat or help him to his feet; kicking him makes future trouble. However, for this to work, the enemy has to be down, in the sense that he is exhausted, beaten, or for some other reason ready to give up whatever made him want to keep fighting. Every enemy proclaims and believes that he is ready to fight to the death, right up until he decides he isn't. The game is assuming that the Palestinian Arabs are already there or else can never get there. Now there are many who draw the opposite lesson from the election of Hamas (their charter is quite hostile to the existence of Israel; see Article 11 especially). The game doesn't gloss over the miltant nature of Hamas - if you're the PA, Hamas is always ready to denounce your peace initiatives and make a few inflammatory statements to send your numbers south - but it does appear to assume that most of the Palestinian population does not have strong sympathy with Hamas and will, with a little prosperity, reject them.

Israel does not really have a military option in this game - the "send troops" button might as well be labeled "lose the game now" - yet some Israeli partisans argue that the bloody fighting that ends the game at -50 is actually needed before economic buildups, humanitarian assistance, peaceful rhetoric, and internationally-brokered deals can bring a lasting peace. And some Palestinian partisans argue that Israel has been conducting unrestrained warfare for decades, a view that I can't agree with. This game will not change a partisan's mind on that issue. The lessons I have been repeating here are commonplace, and someone who walks in with those views won't walk out with different ones. Someone who agrees with the game's hidden premises will be delighted to see them confirmed, but that won't inspire a change of heart, which the designers seem to be hoping for.

Part 3 will come this evening - and will discuss some salutary lessons that I think the game can teach.

PeaceMaker Review - Part 1

Peacemaker Review - Part 1

Hello, all - I'm that long-winded infidel character you may have seen in comments around here. Grim recently received an invitation to play a new computer game, and proclaim its vices and virtues in this Hall. He has done me the honor of handing this task to me, and I hope to give satisfaction.

The game is called PeaceMaker, and it is a short strategy game based on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I intend to review it in three parts: first to discuss it as a game, then to discuss its limitations as a model of a real conflict, then to talk about the useful lessons that it can teach. Before I proceed, there are two things you should know:

1 - There is already an excellent review from a gamer's standpoint at Gamasutra. I will not be so thorough.

2 - I have to tell you: I played the game several times, but I didn't pay a penny for it; I received it as a free download. If you decide to buy it, you must pay $20. And the company that made it, Impact Games, plies its wares on the Pajamas Media network.

Now, on to the game aspects -

PeaceMaker is a turn-based strategy game; a single game takes 1-2 hours (if you're slow like me). You can play as either the Israeli Prime Minister or the President of the Palestinian Authority. The game tracks two vital opinion scores that start at zero: what the Palestinian population thinks of you, and what one other group thinks of you (the Israeli population if you're Israel, the "world community" if you're Palestine). If both scores reach 100, then Israel and Palestine reach a two-state solution, and you win a Nobel Peace Prize and the game. If both fall below -50, a "third intifada" sweeps the land and you lose. If the opinion of the people who elected you (Palestinians if you're PA, Israelis if you're Israel) falls well below -50, you are removed from office and you lose. The game also tracks the opinions of other entities (the UN, the US, Jewish settlers, Arab militants, etc.) and polls that measure your performance in different areas -- such as economy (Palestine), leadership (Israel), or security (both).

There's a medium-sized list of actions that you can take. Every turn, you click on one action. It has its result - including any effect on the opinion scores - then random events occur (if they do), and it's the next turn. The available actions depend on which side you're on: they include security actions, like sending in the Army (Israel) or training the police (Palestine); political actions like making speeches to the world community (either side) or asking the UN for foreign aid (Palestine); and economic actions like offering medical care to the Palestinians (Israel) or asking the EU to fund agricultural projects (Palestine). Some of the actions Should Never Be Taken.

As noted in the Gamasutra article, the results are not as simple as you might expect. If you're Israel, a suicide bomber strikes, and you send in the Army, your Israeli popularity will go up a little bit - but your PA popularity will go down a lot, and as a result there will be more attacks, which will lower your Israeli popularity, and the situation spirals. The temptation is to play see-saw-Margery-Daw, doing something tough to please the Israelis, then making a conciliatory gesture to please the Palestinians, then getting tough again. But the non-player entities see through that and it doesn't help you at all. You can find the right strategies with a little experience.

I played the game without a manual, and believe it should be sold that way (there is a tutorial to show you basic gameplay mechanics). Part of the game's appeal is the way you flail at first, looking for anything that'll fix your numbers quickly. If the designers tell you what effects the actions will have up front, the game is reduced to a pointless exercise. Of course, this means some of my statements about how the game works may be in error; I am going by how it looked to me when I played it, and not by any documentation.

The game is intended to be educational. At the beginning, you can click on a "timeline" of major events in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It's written in very neutral language: "1948: Israel declares independence and the first Arab-Israeli war ensues," or, "1968-80: Jewish settlements emerge in the West Bank and Gaza." (As if no human choices were involved in these acts...) There's a map, and you can click on the cities to see their populations and little notes about their significance, but the map has no effect on gameplay; every action you take is "nationwide."

To be blunt, if you're looking for a strategy game to play just for fun, this one is not for you. It has very little replay value. Once you have figured out the right basic strategies, there is little pleasure in repeating them. There are higher levels of difficulty, based on how often bad random events happen, but by the time you play those levels you know how to beat the game. Unlike other strategy games, this one doesn't let you see the things you're building, count the money you're making, or watch your tactical plan come together. Given the frustrations and the educational nature, this game could actually be used as punishment for a difficult adolescent - stay in detention 'til you beat PeaceMaker on Tense level, and then there's a short quiz on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Other notes: The game is highly accelerative. Once you get the scores above 50, attacks have fallen off so much that the rest of the game is a breeze; conversely, if they fall below -25, you might as well restart the game. Thus, the hardest part of the game is easily the beginning. It can be frustrating - you get the numbers to creep up to 11 and 6, a suicide bomber strikes and makes them fall to 4 and -2, you get them to creep up again, there's an atrocity and they fall...but once the numbers get well above zero, you can notice how much easier it's getting.

You don't see how much money you have - the PA does have an "Economy bar" - but the economic side of the game is important.

I respectfully disagree with the Gamasutra reviewer on one thing: I thought the Palestinian side was the easier one to play. This may be because the right actions were more obvious to me.

The remainder of my review will focus on the strategic and moral sides of the game, and what it can and can't teach.

Superbowl notes

Superbowl: First Half

Indiana is stomping Chicago so far, in spite of all the turnovers, in spite of the fact that Chicago was the only one to make a score on a turnover, and in spite of the fact that the opening runback basically spotted Chicago 6 points. The Bears -- for whom I'm rooting -- had best get their act together over halftime. That whole "run the ball at them until the defense wears out" only works if you don't go 3-and-out every time.

Whose idea was it to put Prince in the halftime show?

Commercials seem weak this year. I think Budweiser's are all right, but the others... mostly off.

UPDATE: Oh, except that Gina Torres -- Firefly's Zoe -- was in one of the Sierra Mist commercials (the one in the dojo). Nice to see she's working, though I am sure we all wish she had a different project.

Selfish Punks

Those Selfish Punks:

The Independent in the UK has a story today called, "Generation Y Speaks: it's all us, us, us." Yeah, those young people, only thinking of themselves. Let's see what they want now:

Michelle Harrison, director of HeadlightVision, part of the Henley Centre, said: “In 1997, when Tony Blair moved into No 10, almost 70% of our respondents opted for the ‘community-first’ approach.”

“This held steady for the first couple of Blair years but by 1999 individualism was on the rise. At face value, it seems that last year (when individualists outnumbered community-firsts) we formally fell out of love with the Blair project. Over the decade we have seen a fast-moving shift towards people feeling more individualistic.”

Today, 52% feel “looking after ourselves” will best improve the quality of life, according to the poll of more than 2,000 people.
Wait... so what they want is to be left alone? To take responsibility for their own lives?


It's stronger among the poor, too, the ones who need it most:
Among poorer people in the social brackets C2, D and E, that rises to 60%. “Poorer people . . . gave up on the Blair project five years ago . . . Less affluent people . . . are focusing on making ends meet and avoiding hassle on the streets in their less ‘desirable’ neighbourhoods,” said Harrison.
"Avoiding hassle on the streets" is a euphemism for "avoiding rape, robbery, and other violence."

Now, what's a good individualist way of approaching that problem? Anyone? Hint: it used to be a prominent feature of English life, before the "community first" folks made their communities into places where all prey will be safely disarmed.

Happy Superbowl

Happy Superbowl Sunday:

I'll be taking off the evening to watch the game with my father. I'd like to take a moment to point to a couple of things.

First, Joseph W. -- who has been debating with me for a week or so on the issues of souls and metaphysics -- has offered to review the Peacemakers game mentioned below. I've invited him to join the Hall as a co-blogger for that purpose, and also because I like arguing with him.

Michael Yon has given an interview to PJM from Mosul, where he is embedded with the 2/7 Cav -- Custer's old unit, most famous in Iraq for its role in the second battle of Fallujah.

PJM has also started a JetBusters site, to try and shut down production and use of private jets. This is InstaPundit's idea as a means of fighting carbon emissions.

I always wanted to own a private plane myself, although not a jet -- one of those bush planes that would let you fly into the Alaskan backcountry and land on a lake. My sense about the science involved is close to InstaPundit's, though. I don't put a lot of faith in the UN's appointed groups, and having read a lot of the science myself, I don't find that I'm convinced that there is nearly as much "consensus" as the press suggests. However, I have other reasons for wanting energy independence and lower carbon emissions that have nothing to do with whether Global Warming is genuinely menacing or human-caused.

So, I'm broadly open to a lot of "green" measures, even if my reasons for it are different from those of the people who proposed the ideas. In addition, I am a genuine conservationist, who would love to see a larger amount of wild land and low-impact land in America (open, however, to public travel and hunting and fishing in managed ways -- I'm a conservationist, not an evironmentalist). However, I do have two basic concerns:

1) Not trampling on peoples' rights, and,

2) Not doing damage to the economy.

The very first commenter at PJM points out that GulfStream is a major employer in Savannah, a town which (in my experience) depends on major employers. If you recommend banning their product, you'll put them in quite a bind. That seems like the wrong approach to me.

What might be a right approach is paying them more to produce something else -- perhaps replacement parts for military aircraft. Thoughts?