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Gary Brecher

You’re gonna have to give me the weekend off. I moved yesterday. To a new town, new job. Trusted Google Maps to get me there. Don’t ever do that. That’s what I think must have happened to that famous lost army: They used an early version of Google Maps.

I got there all right, but 45 minutes late. Great way to be introduced to your new co-workers. I had to change in the car, a great way to remind yourself of your waistline. I made the horn go off at the worst possible moment, reaching for the shiny new pair of shoes with the pants not as up as I thought. Parking Lot M hasn’t seen that much fun in a long time.

Then they took me around the office. Helpful. Seems my coat collar was up in back. Fixed that.

I couldn’t stop sweating. That’s what happens when a fat man runs through an office complex looking for his new building.

Nobody else was sweating. They looked like they could have leaned back and had a nap, they were so relaxed. But I kept wiping the sweat off my forehead, fixing my pants, and trying to use all the cheerful/team player lines I’d rehearsed on the 87-mile detour Google took me on.

They haven’t said I’m fired yet, so maybe the impression will wear off. Gonna come to work early, lose weight, all the usual lies.

But anyway, the upshot is I can’t blog today. I’ve done my best, 40 days and 40 nights, but you have to give me the weekend off. For the next two days I’m not going to be able to hear much except the yuppies laughing when my belly made the horn go off.

Would you like to know more? Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to gary dot brecher at gmail dot com. Read Gary Brecher’s first ever War Nerd column by clicking here. The rest of his stuff is here.

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Posted: April 30th, 2011

Something’s been going on in Syria for a while now. I’ve already written about the Deraa protests as an example of the big role guerrilla funerals play in irregular war, but it’s time to look at the more general prospects in Syria.

It’s easy to fit Syria into the notion of a wave of protests spreading out from Cairo after the shock victory the demonstrators there had against Mubarak, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what’s going on.


Posted: April 29th, 2011

Years ago I got an angry email from somebody claiming to be in one of the Baltic militaries. Whoever he was, he wrote in grammatically perfect English so he just had to be from Northern Europe. We can’t talk English so good as what them Germans and Swedes can, not nohow. I don’t know whether he really was a military man, but he seemed to know what he was talking about. (more…)

Posted: April 28th, 2011


Before I confess how wrong I was about a big issue, I’ll give myself a little pat on the head for being right about a much smaller deal, the Afghan jailbreak I talked about two days ago. (more…)

Posted: April 27th, 2011

There are times when you look back and wish you’d had the courage to say what you were thinking. With me it’s a spotty record: Sometimes I do, but more often I wimp out. I wish now I’d said the first thing that came into my head when I started hearing about Al Qaeda, which was, “No, it can’t be. Violates every rule of guerrilla organization.” (more…)

Posted: April 26th, 2011

You can’t keep a good Talib down. Or in jail, apparently. (more…)

Posted: April 25th, 2011

Last Sunday I was grumbling about how there are so many great books about war and not that many great war movies. That got a lot of readers lobbing in their suggestions for good war movies. One reminded me that I’d already mentioned a really great movie about 20th-c. war: Tae Guk Gi, The Brotherhood of War, a great, great Korean movie about two brothers who get dragged onto a troop train at the start of the Korean War. One of them makes it through, but you’ll have to watch the movie to see which one. (more…)

Posted: April 24th, 2011

Today’s Civil War Caturday (by the way, that’s pronounced “Kivil War Katurday”), right in the middle of Easter. Got me thinking about my religion, if I have one now, and I realized I do, kind of: The Monitor and the Merrimack.


Posted: April 23rd, 2011

Seems like I ought to do something religious today, so I picked a battle from the the ultimate military expression of religious devotion: The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Europe’s way of debating the Catholic vs. Protestant thing by counting corpses.


Posted: April 22nd, 2011

Somebody with a face finally died in Libya. His name was Tim Hetherington, an Oxford literature graduate who made that documentary Restrepo about an Afghan base.

Posted: April 21st, 2011

Stories about the riots in Northern Nigeria are starting to come in, full of amazing details and ridiculous lies. The lies are the first thing you notice. (more…)

Posted: April 20th, 2011

One of the strange things about this war in Libya is how slowly it’s moving.


Posted: April 19th, 2011

Today we’ve got election riots in Northern Nigeria, a military mutiny in Burkina Faso, and massacres in Ivory Coast.

They look like separate stories, but they’re not. It’s all one story, a long, slow war between the coastal christianized people and the Muslim inlanders. It’s the same divide all down the line: vegetation, religion, ethnic groups, votes. Rain forest vs. scrub, goat herders vs. farmers, Gbagbo vs. Alassanne–they all overlap, and the biggest divide of all, the religious one, is mostly just a cover for an old tribal divide. We like to think a person changes religion when they see the light, one person getting the beam of light straight from God like Saul before he changed his name and franchised the operation.

It’s not like that, never has been. If your ancestors came from Germany and your family’s Lutheran, it means most likely the Protestants were winning the Thirty Years War when they marched into your ancestors’ valley. If your family’s Catholic, Wallenstein was having one of his better days, before the loopy astrologers got to him. If your folks came from England, you know why you went Protestant: Henry needed sons and that Catholic girl he married wasn’t up to it. Your great-great grandpa didn’t see the light of true religion, he got the word at the end of a pike: “New church in town, any objection?” Not a lot of objections when a feral drunk in the King’s uniform is holding a dagger to your son’s ear.

In other words, religion is a tribal deal. Whole tribes converted at once, in Europe just like they did, and still do, in Africa. Except it’s current history in Africa, whereas it’s old dry shit in Europe, unless you’re in Kosovo or Belfast. Religion isn’t meant to be a personal thing between you and god. Never was. That’s just another democratic lie. Religion is always meant to be unanimous, and there are ways of making sure it stays that way. Like war. So religious divides are usually ethnic divides, and the borders between the groups on the maps usually have those crossed-swords markers identified by the map key as “major battle.”

African empires: Sahel vs. rain forest

That’s why in the old days, they called wars “the movements of the peoples.” That’s what’s happening in West Africa: the peoples are on the move, wrestling, pushing to see who’s going to be THE tribe. It divided into “countries,” and those countries are real in some ways, but the tribal/religious divide is bubbling under all that like the supervolcano under Yellowstone. West Africa has real borders, old borders, under the new “country” borders the colonizers settled in Berlin in 1885. It helps if you think of those old, real borders, instead of imagining that a riot in Nigeria is a separate story from the war in Ivory Coast. It’s all one blob of ethnic lava pouring up through whatever weak spot is handy.

So you can start with the plant life, like a nature documentary. West Africa has a wet coastal strip, inland scrub and then Sahel quasi-desert that’s turning into full-on desert year by year. You’ll notice that the divide between wet coast and dry inlands cuts across all the national borders, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, the whole bunch. That’s the first layer of the ethnic geology here, if you can call it that:

Ivory Coast Veggie Map: Botany is destiny.

Different habitats, different folks: the dry north was always nomad country, too dry to farm but OK for goats and camels. The Hausa/Fulani herders owned the Sahel strip in West Africa long before “Ivory Coast” and “Nigeria” were made up:

Hausa: Cutting right across those national borders

And then came Allah. Islam came south across the Sahara with the caravans about 1300 years ago. The desert people took to it; it was a desert religion, after all. The forest people along the coast kept to their own gods until the Christians started grabbing trade posts along the coasts. And naturally every time they established a slave transshipment outpost they assigned a preacher or a priest to it. Not that the Muslims have the high ground here; most of the caravans that brought Islam south took African slaves back north. Religion and slavetrading go way back, I won’t say any more than that.

The result is a nice little sand painting looking ethno-religious divide that cuts perfectly halfway through all those new countries.

Islam: the only green that’s getting bigger in Africa.

In Nigeria, you get a perfect illustration in this map showing which provinces have Sharia law and which don’t.

Sharia in green, natch.

The provinces in green voted against Goodluck Jonathan, the Igbo Christian who just won in Nigeria. (And who also has the coolest hat of any head of state in history.)

Goodluck Jonathan: He’ll need it.

So in the Ivory Coast you’ve got the French and IMF siding with the Muslim North against the Christian coast, which reacts with massacres and riots; and in Nigeria you’ve got the Christian coastal guy beating the Muslim backed by the North…which reacts with riots and massacres.

They always deplore these riots, and I’m sure they’re not fun to be in unless you’re one of the choppers rather than the choppees, but I’m not sure they violate democracy. These votes are head counts at best, seeing if there’s more of us or more of you. And if you win and can say there’s more of you, the natural response is, “Well, we want it more, just watch!” Any coach would have to approve. You’ve got to want it, etc.

The question of who wants it more gets especially hot if you’re about equally divided, and in that way Nigeria’s like a perfect test lab for ethnic/religious war, damn near 50/50:

The Nigerian Pie: Remember how Lucerne Neapolitan Ice Milk never satisfied anybody?

In that way, seems to me, you could take this last illustration from another Nigerian election and say like the hippies always do: “This is what democracy looks like.”

This is what democracy looks like when people take it seriously.


Hey Nerdoids and Nerdettes! Note Gary Brecher’s functioning email: gary dot brecher at gmail dot com

Would you like to know more? Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to gary dot brecher at gmail dot com. Read Gary Brecher’s first ever War Nerd column by clicking here.

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Click the cover, buy the book!

Posted: April 18th, 2011

Today I wanted to talk about the great nominations y’all provided last week when I asked for people’s favorite war books.


Posted: April 17th, 2011

Battle of Rich Mountain: McClellan Wimpout Preview

Lately I’ve been reading soldiers’ memoirs, mostly from the Western Theater of the Civil War. A lot of them are by Ohio men, and you realize quickly that Grant wasn’t so unique. He just came from a damn promising state.


Posted: April 16th, 2011

Ble Goude: Looks tough; good fall guy.

We’re in one of the lulls, war-wise, where the short bursts of action stop so the lawyers and whiners can sing their little songs. In Ivory Coast, the UN public-relations department is doing its best to make you believe that the losing side, Gbagbo and the coastal tribes, were the bad guys all along.


Posted: April 15th, 2011

A good empire needs torturers, but more than that it needs torturers who keep their mouths shut and tame professors who’ll never, ever mention what they find in the torture archives.


Posted: April 14th, 2011

All the gizmo freaks are drooling because the US Navy has supposedly demonstrated a fearsome new “ray gun,” the HEL, High Energy Laser, designed to burn planes, missiles or boats that get too close to surface ships. The trusting Dilberts over at Wired’s Danger Room just about came in their khakis at the news. (more…)

Posted: April 13th, 2011

First I have to get today’s big anniversary out of the way.


Posted: April 12th, 2011

The IMF: “Liberte, Egalite…Just Give Us the Frickin’ Money!”

It was a lively weekend. Down in Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo was ruining the script by holing up in his urban bunker in Abidjan, even though the IMF and their French errand boys had officially declared the upcountry Muslim Alassanne Ouattara the new President.


Posted: April 11th, 2011