'This Was Nineveh, After All…'

Have you read Salar Abdoh's Out Of Mesopotamia? Because I can't stop thinking about it. PLUS: Tortuguita's autopsy; Guantanamo and the Yemen war; and are we sure we're not incentivizing China to invade Taiwan?

'This Was Nineveh, After All…'
Nineveh's Mashki Gate, since destroyed by Daesh. Photo by Dr. Omar Sedeeq Yousif, CC-BY-SA.

Edited by Sam Thielman

SALAR ABDOH’S 2020 WAR NOVEL, Out of Mesopotamia, stopped me and left me stunned multiple times, but I only want to write about one of them.

The novel is narrated by Saleh, an Iranian journalist compelled to document the war against ISIS by embedding, repeatedly, in Syria and Iraq with Iranian forces and the allied Iraqi Hashd militia. That alone should get you to buy the book! I've certainly never encountered a novel about the ISIS War from an Iranian perspective.

Anyway, to oversimplify Abdoh's story, which is often desolate and hilarious at the same time, Saleh has become perpetually uneasy with life back in Tehran, where his paper shifts him to the arts desk. He contends with a Security-State interrogator, H, who acts as his handler. The woman he loves marries the editor he hates. Life, or whatever it is he's living, is purposeless compared to the front lines of conflict with "the Enemy," the appropriately contemptuous way Saleh refers, exclusively, to ISIS. But as I unfortunately can attest first-hand, sadboi sensibilities do not disappear upon hearing the purposeful blast of a Howitzer. They intensify!

This is a book about people rushing to meet death after experiencing disturbingly common crises of meaning. Saleh's antipathy for life in Tehran, which is "bursting with art galleries and art shows" while "the Middle East was in flames [and] Iran was utterly broke," contrasts with the mournful awe he has for Iraq. And that brings us to the moment I want to write about. Saleh is near enough to Mosul to experience the morning cold in Nineveh Province, which I remember not expecting when I was there covering an earlier phase of the war:

Everyone drank their tea and said God's name too many times. The Americans were always the object of derision in these conversations, their occasional air support for us questionable at best. On the surface we were fighting on the same side for a change, and against an enemy that wanted the earth itself to be gone. Over at places like Palmyra in Syria and Mosul down the road from us, the enemy had gone on orgies of destruction of all things ancient, afterward gloating in their sick cruelty over priceless historical stones that could not fight or talk back. No wonder then that in the mokeb, and up and down all the saters of the war, we quietly saw ourselves as the soldiers of civilization, even if no one else believed us or gave a shit. It was not something that was talked about. But it was there. In the air of every minor battle. And in the newscasts out of Iraq, too. This was Nineveh, after all. The ancient capital of the Assyrians. The Nineveh of the Bible and the vast 2,700-year-old stone tablet library it had once held. We were certain we were fighting for something bigger than just Mesopotamia. And we were eating the bullets that the Americans, who despised our skin and our faces and our weapons, should have been eating right alongside us.

I feel a little bad zeroing in on this passage. It's not representative of the novel. Out of Mesopotamia is truly not concerned with Americans; the only western character in the novel is French. As a reader, I found this freeing—not in the sense that I was relieved to have been let off the hook; Abdoh doesn't do that. One of the novel’s subplots involves Saleh taking on the hackwork of writing a TV series called Abbas, about the deadliest sniper in Iraq circa 2006, heroically hunting the Americans. I mean merely that the relative absence of Americans was bracing because it frees Abdoh, an Iranian writer, to turn his critique on Iran and Iran's relationship to the wars. Abbas is a kind of 24-esque show that Iranian political, security and cultural authorities want aired amidst endless war and endless sanctions.

But I'm drifting away from what I said was the only point I wanted to make. Reading the words "This was Nineveh, after all…" shook me. I have been to Nineveh. But I was there before I knew to be awed.

It took me longer than it typically does to read that passage, because it took me back to Nineveh, with a perspective I suddenly realized I lacked. I should have known at the time that I lacked it. Reading those words for the first time, I remembered being there, freezing cold, terrified, but simultaneously relieved that I was there for like the two weeks in 2007 when Mosul was quiet while Baghdad, where I had just come from, was in flames. And I now know that I was absolutely unequipped emotionally or intellectually to appreciate that I was seeing a jewel of humanity crushed by the realities of war. I didn't truly understand that I was looking at 40 centuries of civilization. And it was my job to understand.

This review is not doing Out of Mesopotamia justice—this book is as funny as it is bleak; and past the bleakness, there is timeless insight—but it's one of the best war novels I've ever read. I don't enjoy relating to Saleh as much as I do. To better understand the sensibilities Abdoh brought to the book, check out this interview Michael Archer conducted with him.

THE OFFICIAL AUTOPSY that the DeKalb County Medical Examiner's office performed on the body of Cop City protester Manuel "Tortuguita" Terán has now been released. Dated March 14, but performed January 19, after a lot of police shot Tortuguita to death, it finds that "gunpowder residue is not found on the hands," which sure seems to contradict the police account of Tortuguita firing on them. The medical examiner finds that the law enforcement officers, who came to clear out a forest occupation in which Tortuguita and comrades were engaged, shot them (Tortuguita used they/them pronouns) "at least 57" times. The autopsy also suggests an explanation for how a state trooper ended up shot, one that seems to corroborate friendly-fire speculation among the police themselves captured on bodycam footage: Police fired on Tortuguita from multiple angles, with some bullets penetrating him from the front, from the back, and also from the sides. A circular firing squad is a likely way for the trooper to have caught a stray.

SO THIS WEEK I've filed and am doing the back-end of the editorial process for my Nation column, which is about Guantanamo Bay, something that I suppose not many people consider relevant to the current geo/political landscape. More on that after they publish it—and, if you're a paid subscriber, you'll get the column for free, no paywalls. So please do subscribe!

Anyway, it pleased me to see Sy Hersh revisit Guantanamo in his newsletter on Wednesday. The first part of Hersh's piece runs through the recent developments in the al-Hela case, which I haven't written about here but probably should. Abdulsalam al-Hela is a Guantanamo detainee who survived the CIA black sites. He's cleared for release, but not to his native Yemen, which for over a decade successive administrations have designated too dangerous a place to release Guantanamo detainees.

But now it looks as if the Chinese intervention to tamp down the Saudi-Iranian regional conflict is paying dividends for peace in Yemen. Last week, a Saudi diplomatic mission traveled to the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, for "more for more" talks aimed at expanding a renewed ceasefire into a durable peace. This week, a prisoner exchange of some 900 people finally concluded. The United Nations envoy, whom U.S. policy officially supports even as U.S. policy unofficially supports the Saudis, says he has "not seen such a serious opportunity for making progress towards ending the conflict in eight years."  

At the same time, friend-of-the-newsletter Ken Klippenstein reports on a classified Pentagon document summarizing backchannel negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudis. The document indicates that the Saudis were far more flexible on a particular negotiating point—remunerating Houthi government workers, who have gone unpaid for several years—than were the Americans. "It wasn’t that the deal was impossible; it was that the U.S. didn’t want it," Ken writes.

All that inevitably makes me think of what it would mean for Guantanamo if the war ceased to be an excuse for keeping innocent people caged there. And the reliance on the war as an excuse in Guantanamo definitely recontextualizes American intransigence in Yemen. There are other, structural reasons for that intransigence, covered in this piece. But if you're someone who doesn't want to close Guantanamo/doesn't want to deal with closing Guantanamo, protracted conflict and instability in Yemen sure suits your purposes.

Additionally, on Thursday morning the Pentagon announced that Said bin Brahim bin Umran Bakush, held at Guantanamo since June 2002, has been repatriated to Algeria. That leaves 30 men detained at Guantanamo Bay.

SO FRIEND-OF-THE-NEWSLETTER EZRA KLEIN recently interviewed Chris Miller—not the former acting defense secretary whom Peter Maass recently wrote about; a different guy named Chris Miller, a guy who looks at U.S.-Chinese resource competition for semiconductor-relevant microchip manufacturing. As is familiar by now, the Taiwanese company TSMC accounts for a massive share of the semiconductor production market—Miller and Ezra say TSMC makes 90 percent of the most advanced chips—and Miller goes through a bunch of structural and historical reasons for why this is. Without these chips and semiconductors, you're likely to be shut out of the artificial intelligence enterprise right at the dawn of the transformational effects we can expect AI to have on military, intelligence and economic power.

Then Miller turns to what he calls the Biden administration's "weaponization of semiconductor supply chains that the Trump administration started." I know this is going to be a bit of a long blockquote, but bear with me:

[I]n addition to the Trump administration’s concerns, [the Biden people] were also looking at these trends saying, we want to have some control over how U.S. chips are used to train A.I. systems. And that explains why, last year, they rolled out two different prongs of a new export control regime, the first which limited the transfer of certain A.I. training chips to China, made it illegal to transfer Nvidia G.P.U.s above a certain threshold to China, and then also said because these chips are so important, we want to make sure that China can’t produce them domestically. [My emphasis]
And so to do that restricted the transfer of any advanced machine tools to China as well. And so this is a very zero-sum view of the world that Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, outlined when these controls were announced. But it’s a zero-sum view of the world that I think is informed by a lot of concern and uncertainty about how A.I. systems will be deployed by other countries for military uses and for intelligence gathering. …
We know the effect of the machine tool restrictions, which have caused pretty substantial challenges for Chinese firms at the cutting edge or close to the cutting edge in production, because all of China’s leading-edge production has required tools from the U.S., from Japan, or from the Netherlands. And those three countries are all implementing roughly similar controls right now. It’s harder to say what the impact of the ban on A.I. chips has been because China still has a large stock of existing A.I. chips that it imported before the ban was in place.
And so these controls won’t begin to have an impact for a couple of years, when the rest of the world builds next-generation data centers or the generation after that, and China’s unable to. And at that point, we will begin, I think, to see some differential open up in terms of the ease of training A.I. systems in the U.S. or in Europe or in Japan and the comparative difficulty of doing so with less advanced chips in China.

OK, so, if I'm China, and I'm seeing concerted and deliberate American policy block my access to AI development, precisely to ensure the balance of military and economic power favors the U.S. for decades into the future, isn't the smart play for me to invade Taiwan and seize TSMC? Sooner rather than later? Is U.S. policy not incentivizing this while claiming to seek to avoid war?