Archive for the ‘Iraq’ category

More Tragedy: Brain and Mind, Iraq Suicides edition.

July 8, 2008

In this post, published here and over at Cosmic Variance, I looked through the story of Iraq veteran suicides to speculate on the implications of the spread from the neuroscience profession to the public of the idea that what we perceive as mind, as our selves, is actually a phenomenon of our material brains.

That’s an important notion, one taken as a commonplace by just about every neuro researcher I know that will, I still think, have a profound cultural impact, potentially as great as that of the concept of the descent of man from prior forms.

But then this story appears. Another man gone, to remind me and anyone who reads this of fact of tragedy that is the reality, the hard ground of fact and loss.

I have no deeper scientific argument that I want to pursue here, and I am not going to express any of the political thoughts that this story does evoke in me.

This is just a pause, to think about Joseph Patrick Dwyer, and those whose loss should not simply be aggregated into the accumulating totals — both the official count of war dead, and those, like Dwyer who have paid such a terrible price outside the neat categories of conflict caualties.

My deepest sympathy to the family and friends of PFC Dwyer.

Image: Francisco de Goya, “Desastre de la Guerra (Disasters of War)” 1810-11. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Amateurs talk tactics, Professionals study logistics: The Surge, Afghanistan, Bush, McCain edition

July 3, 2008

The running theme of this blog is the importance of being able to count. Genuinely elementary arithmetic, if actually applied, is the foundation of scientific thinking, and scientific thinking is how we arrive, however imperfectly, at reliable guides to experience in the world.

That said, this post is another in my informal series arguing that because John McCain can’t count, can’t take advantage of the tools of analytical thinking, he is unfit to be President. A corollary of the argument I’m about to make is that the latest news out of our multiply mismanaged foreign wars provides independent support for General Wesley Clark’s argument that Senator McCain’s military career has not given him the experience needed by a President.

What’s the news?

This: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, yesterday told reporters that the US military has run out of troops, that it cannot dispatch more units to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is on the rise, unless and until the US draws down its forces in Iraq.

What does this have to do with counting, with analytical thinking? Here is John McCain, from his campaign website, on the”success” of what he calls “The McCain Surge” of US troops in Iraq:

Today, our new counterinsurgency campaign is showing signs of success, and John McCain believes we can still prevail in Iraq if Washington politicians exercise resolve not panic.

Remember: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics (a quote attributed to General Omar Bradley).

Leave aside the question of whether or not the surge is working even in its own limited sphere. (There is, sadly, a very strong argument that its primary accomplishment has been to prop up an unpopular, inept, Iranian-leaning government, leading to a decrease in US power, and an increase in that of our primary regional rival. See Michael Massing’s latest from Baghdad for the depressing details.

(As an aside: I don’t usually link to David Brooks, who I regard as a fact-deprived, innumerate writer, but his column of June 24 illustrates the problem of punditry without a grasp of the details. Massing’s on the ground report demonstrates why just about everything Brooks says is wrong in this particularly empty bit of triumphalism. (Find one actual testable claim in it, and I’ll give you a lollipop.)

Back on track: the question isn’t just whether or not the surge can work in a local sense, but whether it does now or ever did make sense in the context of the larger war in which we were and are engaged.

The answer was and is no — because the ground forces at our disposal were insufficient for the task of fighting in Afghanistan at the level of intensity required even before the surge began, and more or less everyone in a responsible position knew it.

The military equivalent of the green-eyeshade folks knew in in 2004, as Sy Hersh documented way back then, that the diversion of resources to Iraq threatened operations in that first theater of engagement — the one that actually hosted those who did us harm on 9/11, the ones whose presence on the border was disrupting a key ally, which also happened to be a genuinely nuclear armed Muslim-majority state.

They certainly knew in late 2006 that John McCain and the rest of the armchair generals, those daring knights of the keyboard (h/t Ted Williams) who called for winning in Iraq by shoving a brigade here and a battalion there, were talking tactics, and ignoring logistics.

At that moment, Afghanistan was already receiving scant attention. The Taliban and its allies were already resurgent. Pakistan was already spiraling into political turmoil. The war we failed to finish was and is now in danger of being lost — and no professional, no one who understood the hard data of what it takes to keep boots on the ground, had any reason to doubt what would follow a further starving of this campaign to pour more resources down the sump of Iraq.

This isn’t higher math; this is arithmetic.

And what of McCain? He has focused his claim on the Presidency on the assertion that he has more experience than his rival, especially in military matters, which is certainly true. But General Clark raised in public the issue that a lot of folks have wondered about for a long time: what is the impact of that experience on McCain’s judgment and decision-making.

Now, Admiral Mullen has given us the sadly obvious answer: not much good. It helps to be able to count.

Thinking Like a Scientist: Surge/John McCain edition

June 11, 2008

How do scientists think?  Lots of ways, of course, as any human being does, drawing on intuition, visual reasoning, leaps of analogy, hard, slogging calculation, day dreaming…anything that works.

But what distinguishes scientific habits of mind from the everyday interpretation of experience is that there are certain rules scientists learn to follow to transform initial ideas into reliable conclusions.  Among them is the notion of a metric, a standard of measurement that you can use to compare one state of a system with another.  Absent some reliable set of measuring sticks it is impossible to draw more than impression, a feeling out of any observation.  Instead of data, you have anecdotes, and the dangerous license to draw any lesson you want from that absence of solid information.

All of which leads to today’s back-and-forth on the campaign trail.

Much has been made around both the campaigns and the blogosphere about John McCain’s Today interview in which he said that the timing of US troops homecoming from Iraq was “not too important.

The furor has mostly raged around the question of what exactly McCain meant by that eye-popping remark.  But I think that the more important claim McCain made has been missed, and it is, IMHO, the key both to his campaign and to one of the most significant problems with the idea of a McCain presidency.

Just before the “not too important” line, McCain repeated what’s becoming common “wisdom,” that the surge is working.  In his words, he said “anyone who knows the facts on the ground says that” [the surge is working].

In order for McCain to have any hope of winning the presidency, that has to be true — there have to be “facts” throughout the hard ground of Iraq that tell us the surge has been and continues to be effective.

But the phrase “the surge is working” is meaningless without a metric.  Working how?  By what standard?  What does it mean to “work” in the context not just of the facts on the ground, but intended goals of the policy, the baseline metrics established before the surge took place?

In fact, McCain is or ought to be aware that the surge has not worked by those original metrics.

There were two established at the beginning of the policy:  to create a security environment in which normal life could resume;  and with that cessation of violence, to create a  window of opportunity during which the incumbent Maliki government could achieve the political reconciliation that would ensure that improvements in security would outlive the surge.

Of those two, the first, the military goal of quelling violence, was instrumental; the second, more fundamental one of establishing a stable polity, was the essential, ultimate purpose of the surge.

So far, only the military one has been partially achieved; the political one, the one that actually counts, remains a mess — perhaps growing yet worse as the Maliki government’s army has confronted the Sadrist’s political and armed power bases in what has at times verged on a full internecine civil war.

The only way to say that the surge is working as established fact is to ignore the more important of the two metrics and to give the best possible gloss on the ongoing violence in Iraq.

Now — none of this matters in the first order politics of McCain’s statement.  He’s trying to say that a policy he has championed is the right one, and at the same time to make the barely coded claim that his opponent who has yet to visit a Baghdad marketplace in the usual kind of street clothes one wears to go shopping, doesn’t know what’s going on.  All that is going to get lost anyway in the back and forth on the homecoming gaffe.  (I know — Josh Marshall argues that this wasn’t a gaffe, and he’s right.)

But one of the features of an endless campaign is that over time you get a sense of how the candidates competing for the job actually think — how their minds work.

Here McCain is losing the long war. One of the most basic tasks of a leader is to set goals and then recognize whether or not the actions taken to achieve such ends have done so.  You have to set your metrics and pay attention to the data as they are, not as you wish them to be.

If, however, you choose to shift the goalposts so that any outcome is a success — you may have a smile on your face, but you don’t become a president worth having.

PS:  Shame on the Today interviewer who uncritically put to Senator McCain the unqualified claim that the surge is working.

Image:  Ford Maddox Brown “The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures 1566 A. D.” Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Talking the Mental Illness Talk–OK. Walking the Walk?…

June 10, 2008

…Not so much, according to Michelle S.

Responding to my recent post on the Iraq War suicides and what they can tell us about the question of brains-and-minds, one of my favorite commenters (and a former student, much admired and much missed) weighs in from a position of much greater knowledge than I possess on issues of brains and mental illness. Michelle knows what she’s talking about and says it better than I could — so here is what she has to say:

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I would love to think that some hope is justified here. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.

While it’s a major development (no pun intended) that the military is finally starting to take PTSD and other brain-related maladies seriously, I don’t think they’re anywhere near the level of understanding or action that is necessary to make any real progress. It’s one thing to admit that something exists–or at least sort of admit that it exists–but another to really do something about it. Admittedly, some of the military leaders seem to be trying. On the other hand, a lot of soldiers are still afraid to admit that they might be suffering from a mental illness.

Hell, plain old civilians are afraid to admit it, and for good reason in some cases, I might add. Stigma is far from gone in the US. As a country we offer sympathy and support for anyone suffering from an illness of the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, whatever, but the brain is still different to us somehow. We manage to forget that it is still an organ, albeit a really darned complicated one.

Then there’s the problem of mental illness in general–in fact, nearly any brain-related problem–being grossly misunderstood. I actually had a young mother say to me once, in regard to her two year old, “He’s so moody! I’m just terrified that he might be bipolar!” Dear, your child is not bipolar. He’s two. His “mental illness” is that he is a two year old. (And, I’m sure, by the time he’s five she’ll have him on ritalin–but NO ONE wants me to get started down that road.)

The public needs good, solid information about what mental illness is. The MSM has yet to provide that, in my opinion. Meanwhile, schizophrenics in particular continue to be demonized, even while they’re forced to live in a society that only treats mental illness as an afterthought. Have you heard even one Presidential candidate address the near-crisis that is geriatric mental health in the US? Ok, I’m preaching on a topic that is dear to my heart here, I know, but come ON–experts in that field are shouting at the top of their lungs about this problem. They have been for years. Why is no one listening? Why is insurance coverage for mental health such a joke?

Perhaps things are starting to improve. Perhaps the brain as a whole, with all of its complex subtleties, capabilities and limitations, will get the attention it needs and deserves. I hope that your hope is justified. But I think (and therefore I am–maybe) we’re a long way off.

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Image:  Francisco de Goya, detail from No. 62 in the series Los Caprichos, 1799. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Burrowing into tragedy: a story behind the story of the Iraq War Suicides.

June 5, 2008

Cross Posted at Cosmic Variance (thanks Sean).

My thanks to all here who gave me such a warm welcome on Monday (and, again, to Sean for asking me here in the first place).

This post emerges out of this sad story of a week or so ago.

Over Memorial Day weekend this year there was a flurry of media coverage about the devastating psychological toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The single most awful paragraph in the round-up:

“According to the Army, more than 2,000 active-duty soldiers attempted suicide or suffered serious self-inflicted injuries in 2007, compared to fewer than 500 such cases in 2002, the year before the United States invaded Iraq. A recent study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. found that 300,000 of the nearly 1.7 million soldiers who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or a major mental illness, conditions that are worsened by lengthy deployments and, if left untreated, can lead to suicide.”

(For details and a link to a PDF of the Army report – go here.)

This report, obviously, is the simply the quantitative background to a surfeit of individual tragedy – but my point here is not that war produces terrible consequences.

Rather, the accounts of the Iraq War suicides — 115 current or former servicemen and women in 2007 – struck me for what was implied, but as far as I could find, not discussed in the mass media: the subtle and almost surreptitious way in which the brain-mind dichotomy is breaking down, both as science and as popular culture.

How so? It is, thankfully, becoming much more broadly understood within the military and beyond that “shell shock” is not malingering, or evidence of an essential weakness of moral fiber. PTSD is now understood as a disease, and as one that involves physical changes in the brain.

The cause and effect chain between the sight of horror and feelings of despair cannot, given this knowledge, omit the crucial link of the material substrate in which the altered and destructive emotions can emerge. PTSD becomes thus a medical, and not a spiritual pathology.

(This idea still faces some resistance, certainly. I launched my blog with a discussion of the attempt to court martial a soldier for the circumstances surrounding her suicide attempt. But even so, the Army is vastly further along in this area that it was in the Vietnam era and before.)

Similarly, depression is clearly understood as a disease with a physical pathology that underlies the malign sadness of the condition. (H/t the biologist Louis Wolpert for the term and his somewhat oddly detached but fascinating memoir of depression.)

This notion of the material basis of things we experience as our mental selves is not just confined to pathology. So-called smart drugs let us know how chemically malleable our selves can be.

More broadly, the study of neuroplasticity provides a physiological basis for the common sense notion that experience changes who we perceive ourselves to be.

All this seems to me to be a good thing, in the sense that (a) the study of the brain is yielding significant results that now or will soon greatly advance human well being; and (b) that the public seems to be taking on board some of the essential messages. The abuses (overmedication, anyone?) are certainly there. But to me, it is an unalloyed good thing that we have left the age of shell shock mostly behind us.

At the same time, I’m a bit surprised that the implications of this increasingly public expression of an essentially materialist view of mind haven’t flared up as a major battle in the science culture wars.

Just to rehearse the obvious: the problem with cosmology for the other side in the culture war is that it conflicts with the idea of the omnipresent omnipotence of God. The embarrassment of evolutionary biology is that it denies humankind a special place in that God’s creation, destroying the unique status of the human species as distinct from all the rest of the living world.

Now along comes neuroscience to make the powerful case that our most intimate sense of participating in the numinous is an illusion.

Instead, the trend of current neuroscience seems to argue that the enormously powerful sense each of us has of a self as distinct from the matter of which we are made is false. Our minds, our selves may be real—but they are the outcome of a purely material process taking place in the liter or so of grey stuff between our ears.

(There are dissenters to be sure, those that argue against the imperial materialism they see in contemporary neuroscience. See this essay for a forceful expression of that view.)

I do know that this line of thought leads down a very convoluted rabbit hole, and that’s not where I am trying to go just now.

Instead, the reports of the Iraq suicides demonstrated for me that the way the news of the materiality of mind is is slipping into our public culture without actually daring (or needing) to speaking its name.

That the problem of consciousness is still truly unsolved matters less in this arena than the fact of fMRI experiments that demonstrate the alterations in brain structure and metabolism associated with the stresses of war or the easing of the blank, black hole of depression. The very piecemeal state of the field helps mask its potentially inflammatory cultural implications.

To me this suggests two possibilities. One is that it is conceivable that when the penny finally drops, we might see backlash against technological interventions into the self like that which has impeded stem cell research in the U.S.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the public can be motivated or even bamboozled into blocking the basic science in this field. Too much rests on the work; any family that has experienced Alzheimers knows just how urgent the field may be — not to mention anyone with a loved one in harms way.

This actually gives me hope for a shift in the culture war. For all the time and energy wasted over the last several years defending the idea of science against attacks on evolution, with the cosmologists taking their lumps too – the science of mind could force a shift in the terms of engagement decisively in the right direction.

Or I could be guilty of another bout of wishful thinking. Thoughts?

Image: Brain in a Vat, article illustration. Offered in homage to my friend and source of wisdom, Hilary Putnam, who introduced the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment in this book. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What’s Wrong With This Broadcast: NPR Edition

March 15, 2008

I’m listening to my local NPR station’s broadcast of Scott Simon’s Saturday Morning Edition as I write this, and the host introduced a discussion of the upcoming fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq by talking about casualties: the 3,975 American servicemen and women killed to date, and, as the host put it, Iraqi casualties estimated from some 40,000 to over 100,000.

Apparently Scott simply forgot about two separate studies published in the fifteen months, each of which concluded that excess Iraqi deaths since the American invasion topped half a million. The Johns Hopkins, Lancet group published their result first: they see about 650,000 deaths as the most likely number as of the end of 2006. As discussed in this post below, a later WHO led study led to the number Simon quoted, an estimate of 151,000 Iraqis dead by violence since the start of the war as of late 2007. Though that number is often cited as a definitive refutation of the Hopkins work, the WHO survey identified 151,000 deaths by violence among 400,000 excess deaths total. As a Hopkins researcher pointed out while methodological differences led him to trust the higher number more, the two estimates were in broad agreement.

Simon also ignored another major study suggesting even higher totals: a British independent surveying company’s estimate of over one million deaths. (To paraphrase a famous West End comedy, perhaps NPR’s motto has become “No Data, Please. We’re American.”)

In other words: Simon simply spoke falsely when he introduced histwo guests, Senators James Webb and John Kyl to discuss the current state of the war. The misstatement, to put the kindest gloss on it, framed the subsequent interviews.

That error (see — kind) materiallly affected what came next. By drastically understating the upper bounds to the cost of the war to the Iraqis, he allowed Senator Kyl’s claims of the likelihood of a political and strategic success of the occupation to stand essentially unchallenged. Those claims have to be understood against the background the sectarian devastation that has taken place already. The real question, one that Simon never thought or had the gumption to ask is not “is the surge working?” but “is the reduction of violence of the last several months meaningful?” — given the lack of the political change the surge was supposed to nurture.

All of which is to echo, once again, Brad DeLong’s cri de coeur.  Like he said:  Why, oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image: Francisco Goya, Los Desatres de la Guerra, plate 79, captioned “Murio la Verdad” — “The Truth has Died,” c. 1820. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The half a percent solution follow up: Obama’s Afganistan numbers.

February 22, 2008

By now most of the blogoliterate crowd has probably had a round or two of the argument on a statement by Sen. Obama in last night’s debate. In the context of defending his capacity to serve as Commander in Chief, he pointed to the fact that the decision to go to war in Iraq had specific consequences. For example:

…It has diverted attention from Afghanistan, where al Qaeda, that killed 3,000 Americans, are stronger now than at any time since 2001.

I heard from a Army captain, who was the head of a rifle platoon, supposed to have 39 men in a rifle platoon. Ended up being sent to Afghanistan with 24, because 15 of those soldiers had been sent to Iraq. And as a consequence, they didn’t have enough ammunition; they didn’t have enough humvees.

They were actually capturing Taliban weapons because it was easier to get Taliban weapons than it was for them to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief. Now that’s a consequence of bad judgment, and you know, the question is on the critical issues that we face right now who’s going to show the judgment to lead. And I think that on every critical issue that we’ve seen in foreign policy over the last several years — going into Iraq originally, I didn’t just oppose it for the sake of opposing it. I said this is going to distract us from Afghanistan; this is going to fan the flames of anti- American sentiment; this is going to cost us billions of dollars and thousands of lives and overstretch our military, and I was right.

Senator Obama is here providing a blunt example of the consequences of magical thinking trumping elementary arithmetic. I’ve picked up the current controversy from Philip Carter at Intel Dump and John Cole at Balloon Juice, both of whom (a) confirm Obama’s statement, and, (b) especially in Carter’s case, deepen the critique on the point I’ve tried to raise in this post. That is:

Afghanistan is going badly right now — and has been for a while. But people who read too much of Boys Magazine (or perhaps a stray columnist, straining to bend a dimly remembered, perhaps unread Rudyard Kipling to support his cartoon version of war and the world) still believe that the old school try, pluck, and a handy Predator or two are all it takes to prevail in combat or in so-called Grand Strategy.

But they don’t call it “military science” for nothing. It may be — it is — a highly imperfect discipline. Even so, people who have actually spent time on this stuff, and especially those who (unlike me) have tested what they have learned in the face of the enemy, know that 24 soldiers can’t do the job of 39 on any sustained basis. To succeed in war — or really in just about anything of consequence — you have to be able to look at the data head on. You have to be able to count.

We haven’t seen that faculty much in use at the top levels of our government (or much of the media) for a while. It’s past time we did.

Image: Richard Caton Woodville (The Second) “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.