The two Koreas: a border made real

The most heavily-militarized border in human history does not exist between religious enemies. Nor does it form a logical divide based on language, ethnicity, or culture. It divides a single people, with common customs and a long history of collectively resisting foreign invasion and rule. And it shows the terrible power of politics in creating conflict and fostering hatred.

Cancan Chu, Getty Images

A line on the 38th parallel, a reminder of a bloody war that achieved nothing. There are two Koreas, one capitalist and democratic, one authoritarian and militaristic. In recent memory they do not walk alone- there were once two Vietnams, two Germanys. The story of the Korean peninsula is one of foreign occupation, cultural suppression, atrocities against women, and since 1945 a hardened separation that seems no closer to ending than when it began.

Cultural differences have sprang up- the South Koreans live in one of the most technologically advanced societies on Earth, while the North Koreans have struggled with keeping factories running and creating a functional electrical grid. Physical differences have arisen despite an identical genetic background; chronic malnourishment has led North Koreans are up to three inches shorter than those in the South. This artificial division has in time become a real one. A common people have become strangers to one another.

The Korean War is not over. Koreans continue to die whilst trying to leave one country and enter the other. As the years become decades, and in four decades could become centuries, the bonds are weakening. The fields inside the Korean DMZ do not hold crops, instead they hold tens of thousands of landmines. A huge amount of money is spent by both countries, as well as the United States, to produce weapons- including weapons of mass destruction- in case mass killing is called for.

One day the two Koreas may unite and join other people that have torn down their walls and ceased their wars. Until then there is nothing but two hands reaching for each other, but slowly falling away.

Carnage beyond measure- a child amidst a broken Syria

A child walks in the ruins of Deir-al-Zor, eastern Syria. Cred: Reuters
A child walks in the ruins of Deir-al-Zor, eastern Syria. Cred: Reuters

The images that give me the most hope, the most pride are when people come together to fight for something greater than themselves. The images that give me the most fear, the greatest dose of cynicism is to see a place where there can be no mass action. The people are gone. Huge swaths of Syria are nothing but rubble- their people killed, fled, or joined in the civil war. And even if there is no formal military intervention, the causes and the outcome of the Syrian conflict are intertwined with our own past, present, and future.

At some point, there is no justice. No ideals. No sense of right and wrong. There is just carnage. And it speaks its own story.

Sudan or South Sudan: Abyei making their own choice

credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic


A referendum in the Abyei region, which is along the border between Sudan and the recently separated South Sudan, is asking inhabitants which country they wish to be a part of. Being rich in oil, it has been a point of contention, and part of the conflict between the two countries that has existed on-and-off since the 2011 independence of South Sudan. It is roughly analogous to the oil-rich Kirkuk region of northern Iraq, which lies on the edge between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country.

Neither country endorses the referendum, and there is dispute within Abyei itself about whether this is a good idea. But the effort is going forth anyway. Caught between two warring states, there must be a great deal of anxiety and dread. By going forth, they are trying to push the decision on their own terms. As a prominent priest in the region states, “Abyei is tired of waiting.”

What we all lost in Iraq

Credit: Moises Saman/NYT
Credit: Moises Saman/NYT

A new, more rigorous and well-structured study about the civilian death toll in Iraq has been published, a successor to the controversial Lancet studies of 2004 and 2006. Taken in 2011, it used a more representative sample and was able to survey most of the country- the Lancet studies had to deal with serious amount of violence and parts of the country that were a no-go for researchers.

Ultimately it puts the combined deaths of the conflict and the huge migration in and out of the country at just over 460,800. Three-fifths of the non-migratory deaths were violent in nature, the rest caused by the breakdown of services and infrastructure, like hospitals. The figure is contrasted with the second Lancet study, which put the number at over 650,000, and the Iraq Body Count, which relies on confirmed deaths, in in the 100-125,000 range. As in most surveys, a simple count will miss certain groups and regions. The new survey makes well-founded estimates and will be the standard by which any future evaluations are measured.


Americans are aware the American lives lost, but have very little idea of the massive amount of Iraqi civilians who perished as the result of the invasion and multi-pronged insurgency that followed. A 2007 poll (PDF) found that the a majority of Americans thought less than 10,000 civilians had been killed- only 15% thought it had reached six figures.

Of course, this new study reminds us once again how incredibly pointless the Iraq War was. What little was accomplished (such as a more democratic Iraq) seems to be crumbling- the exit of the last troops was followed by the arrest and trial in absentia of the Sunni vice-president. A great many lives could have been saved by using the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to create infrastructure and eradicate disease. Universal healthcare could have been a reality years earlier. Using the Cost of War site, one can calculate what portion of war spending your town contributed. By their calculations, the money spent in Iraq was enough to supply every household in the city with solar power for forty years (obviously more, given falling solar prices).

So it is a good point of meditation. And it asks- if Iraq was such an expensive, bloody, pointless war, how did it happen? And how can people, in outrage and solidarity, keep it from happening again?

No parchment exists of the pact

No parchment exists of the pact;
Just cinders of once-vibrant towns;
Verdant undulating hills turned dunes of;
The old ways;
Kept alive through hot-forged steel;
Fed with blood- grown dark- marked with;
Whispering spirits left as;
Bards for any traveler;

No parchment exists of the pact;
Though under a pebbled mound lies;
Bones of an acolyte to a pantheon;
Kept alive through hot-forged steel;
Beside a hoard of coins;
Etched with every script in the world;
Laid upon a ship that once carried;
Men to glory;
Now gone to conquer whatever;
Lays after the end;

No parchment exists of the pact;
Though perhaps-
at the end of a long trail;
Where winter knows no foes;
A great spear of granite lies;
Whose runes talk of a long-dead age;
No longer kept alive
through hot-forged steel;

Neat. Plausible. Wrong.

Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

-H.L. Mencken

All parties accept that the situation in Syria is deeply complicated. On one side (which I guess would be the group against the pre-war status quo) there continue to be non-violent protestors against Assad. They are mixed in rebel-held areas with Sunni militias supported by Qatar and perhaps Saudi Arabia, and radical forces of mostly foreign extraction like al-Nusra that want a Sunni state at the expense of moderates and other religious groups.

This contrasts with an Assad regime supported by (and protecting) the relatively small Allawite Shite minority. They are given strong support from Hezbollah and thus considerable support from Iran. They also get large amounts of sophisticated weapons from Russia.

This is not even going into the Kurds and their involvement in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey as a NATO nation dealing with a refugee issues, whether escalation could lead to strikes inside the borders of Israel. Many other countries in the region have been supporting one side or the other, or tried to be neutral (Lebanon) but failed or had to deal with the massive refugee crisis which will not end anytime soon.

So when U.S military intervention shows up, remember that any solution to a complex crisis that is neat, elegant, plausible also has another attribute- it’s totally wrong.

A glorious victory

When the mountain fissures empty;
And all the iron of the world;
Glows hot on the anvil;
Before the hammer shapes it;
Into the sword of all mankind;

Wood, etched with a thousand stories;
Of a primal time when;
We looked to the stars and found;
Our past selves;
The trees lament;
As they fall to the loam;
From whence they came in centuries past;

The farmers till the undulating hills;
Where ripe wheat and trees brimming;
With succulent fruit are stripped bare;

After some time the bodies of;
Humble men litter the fields;
Where the wheat once wavered in the wind;
And the Earth’s bounty lays beside them;
Weapons for a grand crusade;

A plump man decked with feathers;
Immaculate in every manner;
Will survey the forest of corpses and declare;

“A glorious victory”;