Saturday, November 04, 2006

Election won't end this overnight, but at least we'll be able to start holding people accountable

Sgt. Jesse E. Leach of the Marines assisted Lance Cpl. Juan Valdez-Castillo, who was shot by a sniper in the town of Karma. He survived. Joao Silva for The New York Times

Today's New York Times graphically illustrates another reason for rising U.S. casualties in Iraq -- the increasing sophistication of Iraqi snipers.
But as the insurgent sniper teams have become more active, the marines here say, they have displayed greater skill, selecting their targets and their firing positions with care. They have also developed cunning methods of mobility and concealment, including firing from shooting platforms and hidden ports within cars.

They often use variants of the long-barreled Dragunov rifle, which shoots higher-powered ammunition than the much more common Kalashnikov assault rifles. Their marksmanship has improved to the point of being good enough.

“In the beginning of the war, sniping wasn’t something that the Iraqis did,” said Capt. Glen Taylor, the executive officer of the battalion’s Company G, who is on his third combat tour. “It was like, ‘If Allah wants that bullet to hit its target, it will.’ But they are starting to realize how effective it is.”

The insurgents are recruiting snipers and centralizing their instruction, the captain said, meaning that the phenomenon is likely to grow.

“They have training camps — they go around and advertise,” he said. “We heard from some of our sources that the insurgents were going around with loudspeakers, saying that if you want to be a sniper we will pay you three times whatever your salary is now.”
Just one more thing making Iraq a hell on earth for the brave men and women we send there -- for nothing. Except to be targets.
In conditions where killing the snipers has proved difficult, the marines have tried to find ways to limit their effectiveness. Signs inside Marine positions display an often-spoken rule: “Make yourself hard to kill.”

Many marines, on operations, do an understated dance they call “cutting squares.” It is not really a square at all.

They zig and zag as they walk, and when they stop they shift weight from foot to foot, bobbing their heads. They change the rhythm often, so that when a sniper who might be watching them thinks they are about to zig, they have zagged.

Now and then they squat, shift weight to one leg and stand up beside the place where they had just been. Maj. Sean Riordan, the battalion executive officer, described his own unpredictable jigs as “my little salsa dance.”

As they move, the marines often peer down their own scopes, looking at windows, rooftops, lines of brush. Then they might step backward, or forward, or duck, as if saying: try to shoot that.

But as operations drag on, some marines begin to stop cutting squares. And sometimes even those that are moving are still shot. And there are special dangers.

Lance Cpl. Colin Smith, who was shot on Monday, was behind a machine gun in a vehicle turret, a position that placed him higher in the air than a walking marine. Turret gunners are protected by armor shields, but their heads are often exposed. He was struck in the skull. He survived but fell into a coma and was placed on life support.
This is happening while the people who sent them there are prattling on about staying the course completing the mission and slamming Democrats for wanting to cut and run. But they've forgotten what the mission is, if they ever knew, or are keeping it a secret.

That's what the election is all about -- holding this corrupt and mindless government accountable. In just three days we can begin.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

As Iraq descends into chaos, GOP discovers new all-purpose talking point -- blame John Kerry

The news from Iraq has been devastating (click chart to enlarge), and with a week to go until an election in which the war is the main issue, Karl Rove's GOP spin machine was in desperate need of a new talking point to drown out the obvious. Fortunately, John Kerry's underwhelming way with a punch line gave them what they thought they needed. Now, now matter how bad the news, all they need to do to change the subject is, like the pod people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," point at John Kerry and start screeching.

U.S Central Command charts movement of conflict in Iraq toward chaos. Blame John Kerry.

Conservative commentator charges that "The commander-in-chief has abandoned an American soldier to the tender mercies of a Shiite militia." Blame John Kerry.

October U.S. death toll in Iraq hits 104 -- fourth highest since war began. Blame John Kerry.

Sure, Kerry handled his statement and its aftermath clumsily, but it was pretty clear what he meant. Personally, I think the GOP has run out of ways to defend their abysmal track record and has gone to the Kerry well once too often -- too many Americans have made up their minds about Iraq. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." When the Rovian attack machine slimed war hero John Kerry in 2004, enough of the public gave their wartime leader George Bush the benefit of the doubt and the time to finish what he started. Now, not so much. Especially since he seems to have started turning over command of U.S. forces in Baghdad to Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Wednesday Morning Frosty Leaf Blogging

Brrrr. Guess that's about it for the warm weather in Madison.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Night Dylan Blogging

Kohl Center, Madison, Wisconsin.

Some Halloween thoughts about the specter of another senseless, unnecessary preemptive war

The way they're talking about Iran in Washington these days bears a spooky resemblance to the Iraq war buildup -- similar missteps, similar players, similar bipartisan congressional negligence. Washington is haunted by the mistakes of the past and seems bound to repeat them, spurred on by the fantasies of the neocons and their enablers.

Jon Sawyer comments in the LA Times about this skeleton in our collective closet.
An embattled president, a Congress distracted by a sex scandal, looming midterm elections — and yet overwhelming agreement, with scant debate or publicity, on fateful legislation that set the nation on a path to war.

It happened eight autumns ago, when three-quarters of the House of Representatives and every single senator voted for regime change in Iraq.

Has it happened again, on Iran?

Four weeks ago, Congress enacted and President Bush signed the Iran Freedom Support Act, a resolution very much in the spirit of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. It mandates sanctions against any country aiding Iran's nuclear programs, even those to which that country is legally entitled under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Remember the Office of Special Plans, the neocons' little spookshop in the Pentagon responsible for massing Iraq intelligence? They're baaaaaaack! But now they have a different name and have focused their attention on Iran.
The congressional action isn't the only sign of déjà vu. Recent months have seen the creation of an "Iran directorate" at the Pentagon, using some of the same personnel as the Office of Special Plans, the shadowy Pentagon outfit led by former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith that was accused of massaging raw intelligence on Iraq to make the case for war look far more solid than in fact it was.
The most haunting parallel is the political one.
But at a time when a majority of Americans have turned against the Iraq war, when Bush's long advantage on national security issues is under fire and when Democrats dream of wresting control of not just the House of Representatives but the Senate too, the most extraordinary parallel to the pre-Iraq-war environment is that so many Democrats have given the administration a vote on Iran that amounts to yet another blank-check endorsement of U.S. unilateralism — even as diplomats struggle in New York to craft a multilateral approach to Iran.
Smart politics? Most Republicans and most Democrats appear to believe that it is — that it's a good idea to take Iran off the table, to make sure it doesn't figure as an issue in the Nov. 7 elections. It's reminiscent of the decision many of them made before the midterms in 1998 and again in 2002, when the bipartisan vote authorizing use of force against Iraq made the looming war almost a nonissue in that year's midterm elections.

Maybe this time, on Iran, someone will yet decide that it's worth taking the debate to the people.
Don't hold your breath.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Montana and Susie, the horsies who saved Halloween

Although the Madison Police Department's Halloween flyers specifically said, "Please don't pet the horsies," horsie-petting seemed to be exactly what it took to defuse a volatile situation near the end of the celebration early Sunday morning, according to the Capital Times.
But in that tense moment, the mounted Capitol Police officers returned, and this time instead of striding through the crowd, they stopped midway through and stood there. People came up against the animals, felt their fur, touched their noses.

Officer Joseph Volz, atop a horse named Montana, caught a string of beads, several of which had been flying through the air. He put them on, and the crowd roared its approval.

A new chant began: "Susie! Susie! Susie!" That's the name of the horse ridden by Capitol Police Officer Penny Lepak. The crowd also began to chant Lepak's first name.

A crowd that had been acting juvenile all of a sudden started to act even younger. They took the kind of cards that the officers might hand out to an elementary school classroom, with pictures of the horses on the front and statistics on the back. Susie, for example, is a 17-year-old mare that stands 16.1 hands tall and has been involved in 16 State Fairs. Some of those who got the cards asked for autographs. One young man asked Lepak if she rode the horse every day to work.

Groups of up to six people would be petting a horse at a time, and they visibly mellowed. Twenty minutes after the horses stood among the crowd, there was no more chanting, no more jumping around and no more signs of mob mentality. The last knot in the crowd began to break up and leave even before the bars completely let out.

"That's what changed Halloween," Ben Feldman, a UW freshman said as State Street essentially cleared out even before the bars were required to close. "Those officers on horses were really nice."
Madison is grateful to Montana and Susie, the horsies who did the meet and greet thing with the Halloween crowd in the interest of public safety. They seem to have dressed up for the event, too. Apparently they didn't wear their regular, everyday horse coats, but special coats made of fur.

Monday Sunrise Blogging: 10/30/06

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Devil's Lake, 5:12 p.m., CST (sigh...)

Every year, when we set our clocks back, the extra sleep in the morning is nice, but we pay dearly for the pleasure -- and keep paying all winter long. The first sunset after the change always comes as a cruel surprise, no matter how many times we've gone through this. We thought we'd poke around Devil's lake a bit on the way home from Pewitt's Nest, but this was what we found. The bluff on the western shore of Devil's Lake exaggerated the darkness a bit -- but only a bit.

Just an hour's drive from Madison

Beautiful autumn afternoon today, and once again the lovely T suggested an afternoon excursion to a nearby place I had never heard of -- Pewitt's Nest, a spectacular whitewater gorge complete with waterfall in the Baraboo hills. I was getting ready to settle into Sunday couch potato mode, but I know from experience better than to question T's "suggestions" when the weekend wanderlust seizes her, so I put on my hiking boots and we set off, and soon was glad I did.

Pewitt's Nest is not the sort of thing you expect to find in southern Wisconsin, just over 40 miles north of Madison, west of Baraboo off of Hwy. W. It seems to be a nature Conservancy site. They don't list it as one of the places they protect on their website, but there is a photo with a passing reference in the caption.

Pewitt's Nest was unbelievable, especially on this sunny, late autumn afternoon, the golds and reds of the maple and oak forest contrasting with the intense green of the pines surrounding the gorge and the deep blue of the late afternoon sky reflected in the water. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

We walked in from the nearby unmarked parking lot, but there's another way to see Pewitt's Nest. Whitewater enthusiasts can paddle through it (when the water is the right level). Check out the Midwest Whitewater River Inventory's notes and pictures, which convey the view from Skillet Creek.
What? A class III-IV run in South Central Wisconsin? That almost nobody has heard of? Yup. That's right. At the risk of creating expectations which are too great, this little bit of a creek has some of the most awesome scenery I've seen on any river in the state, and a couple of drops which are suggestive of the U.P. (MI) or North Shore (MN)!

The run starts (appropriately enough, for the heart of Wisconsin) by paddling through a cow pasture. Be prepared to deal with a couple fences spanning the stream within this first 1⁄4 mile. (Beware: some may be electrified. Look for insulators on fenceposts as clues.) As soon as the last fence is dealt with, the creek bends to the left as rocky outcroppings appear on the right shore. A rock-rubble shoal is encountered leading into a private driveway bridge, followed by another leading away. While it is a sweet little rapids, the sound of the next falls will speed your strokes.

As the river twists to the right, be ready to scout from river left (respecting the property and privacy of the home with the awesome view of the falls from river right). Skillet Falls is a steep, stepped drop (about 10-12 feet) into a good shallow pool in a sandstone-walled grotto.
It's amazing what a dedicated couch potato can discover in the course of a single afternoon. All it takes is the right tour guide, and I've got the best.

Good fences make good neighbors?

A city of Madison Parks Department employee fences off an alley that leads to State Street around 7 p.m. Steve Apps -- Wisconsin State Journal

Apparently they do. The orange snow fence that turned State Street into a fenced-in area for last night's Halloween celebration seems to have played a major role in helping downtown Madison avoid festivities ending in violence and pepper spray for the fifth straight year in a row -- a major goal for Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and other city officials in their planning for the event. The size of the crowd was down from recent years -- 35,000, compared to twice as many in some years -- and it was a less agitated crowd, probably because the fence made it easier to keep carry-in booze off the street. The result was that the streets were cleared peacefully even before the last patrons left the State Street bars after an added hour of bartime because of switch to Standard time. And no horsies were harmed in the making of this Freakfest (although they did seem spooked by some of the chanting, and I still wish they didn't feel they had to use them).

As usual, the event didn't wrap up till long after my usual bedtime, and I had meant to go to bed. But I stayed up, compulsively clicking the Refresh button on my browser, lured by Kristian Knutsen's addictive live-blogging from State Street on the Isthmus Daily Page, which also make a great morning-after recap. Kristian captured the occasional moments of localized chaos, the on-site sense of realism heightened by the inevitable typos.
1:40 a.m.: "I'm in the center of a hurricane," reports Ben Broeren, standing at the corner of Gilman and State streets. "There's people juming all around, the hosrse are spooked, and thec ops tare pissed. I'm trying to stay on my feet."

1:37 a.m.: Chris Guess reports that the gates are closed and a very large crowd is growing in the 500 block of State Street, right in front of Qdoba. As more police emerge to clear the streets, the crowd is beginning to chant, the most prevalent thus far being the "Eat Shit, Fuck You," dialogue seen at every Badger home football game.
But these moments were resolved without resorting to the pepper spray and riot gear of earlier years.
1:56 a.m. (Standard): Mike Verveer thinks things are dead. "I'm standing in front of The Pub and there's nobody here except media and cops," he says. "I'm shocked that the street is cleared this early in the night. It's cops and a huge group of media from all over the state, and that's it, yet there's still ten minutes until bar time." Verveer says police cleared the street and sidewalks by going up to every person individually and asking them to move along. "I'm standing at ground zero where the problems have been every year, and there's only a half dozen people watching from Concrete Park aside from us." As he continues to speak with the media gathered at the scene, Verveer shouts to an officer, "Happy Halloween! I can't believe it's over."
2:10 a.m.: Mayor Dave Cieslewicz comments at the close of another Halloween weekend in Madison: "I think it was a great success. We met all three of the goals I had for the event. We didn't have to use pepper spray or riot gear, we reduced the amount of the overconsumption of alcohol, and we've recovered a significant portion of the costs. I couldn't be happier. I think the bottom line is that we've started to rebuild public support for this event."
There's always a bit of euphoria in the air the Sunday morning after we set our clocks back, especially if it's as sunny as it is today -- it's a little brighter than we're used to for the hour, and we've had an extra hour of sleep no matter how late we stayed up. This year we can also relish a sense of relief that the events of last night ended without the usual sour hangover.

Kudos to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Chief Noble Wray, and all the city officials who stepped up to the plate and took responsibility. Since they would have been the first to be blamed had things turned nasty, they also deserve a lot of credit for the fact that they didn't.