Keep Our Troops There, Now!

November 7, 2006

(This was written for http://www.vibewire.net.au in September 2005. As such, my views may have altered as the insurgency gathers popular support in the face of the occupying forces’ inability to offer security and basic living standards. In other words, CUT AND RUN CUT AND RUN OH JESUS CUT AND RUN, RUN FOR THE HILLS, RUN FOR STARBUCKS, JUST RUN RUN RUN. Just kidding.)

Early 2003, and millions of people the world over found themselves marching in the streets, many of them for the first time in their lives, united in their rage at a war the United Nations would not endorse. History has taught us what we already knew: No weapons of mass destructions. Of course, there was lots of oil, and lots of contracts for Halliburton, but no WMD.

Yet as much momentary satisfaction as the phrase ‘I told you so’ can provide, it can’t turn back time. I, like many others, was just as disgusted with governments prepared to follow the neo-conservative line, and send troops, not to mention their tax payer’s money, to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Any political commentators worth their weight in salt predicted the quagmire that would remain for the US and it’s at best lap-dog, at worst stupid allies, bogged down trying to force democracy upon a land that had never had it.

The event, as it happens, is proving just as difficult as the most pessimistic suggested it would. Foreign fighters/terrorists/jihadists flood in across Iraq’s porous borders, and the carnage continues. The ‘collateral damage’ inflicted by the invading armies has been surpassed in terms of pure numbers by murderous thugs intent on sewing the seeds of religious hatred; not merely against the infidels, but between the different sects within Iraq. Despite the protestations of US officials, civil war looks decidedly more likely than successful elections. Even the Saudi’s are expressing their worry that the Iranians, the Turks and whoever else may yet be dragged into a wider regional conflict.

But strangely, many of the people who called for restraint in the use of military action, in favour of peace, now call for the troops to be withdrawn, with one outcome; no peace. It may at first seem the logical continuation; to at first oppose war and then continue to oppose foreign occupation, but the only reasonable option is to keep foreign troops there until some semblance of semi-functioning state remains. UN troops may be more desirable for all parties, but at the moment, it’s not happening. Many argue that it’s the very presence of foreign troops(re; non-Muslim, as many jihadists within Iraq are not Iraqi citizens) within Iraq that leads to the continued mayhem. Yet it’s unlikely that the mayhem that would be left behind after a hasty withdrawal would look any better for those Iraqis that simply want to live in peace. The choice, at the moment, remains choosing the lesser of two evils. And the puppet government installed, the same one entirely reliant on the alleged supremacy of US military might for its mandate to rule, remains the one with the best intentions, regardless of its shortcomings and lack of ability, for the moment, to answer back to its master.

“Regardless of what the international community thinks on whether it was right or wrong to overthrow Saddam (Hussein), we can’t turn our backs on the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi population who want to see freedom, democracy and prosperity”.

Unlike Blair, who now seeks the removal of British troops early next year, Downer has spelled it out correctly. Unlike Howard, George Bush’s presidency may yet be ended by the ‘new Vietnam.’ But unfortunately the voters that may decide his fate will do so for the wrong reasons. They will do so because US soldiers are dying, not because Iraqis are. It is harsh, but the mothers that go on TV denouncing the war in Iraq should have spent this energy convincing their sons, or daughters, not to join the sanctioned killing team to start with. Similarly, point scoring populist politicians in all ‘allied’ countries have no right whatsoever to call for troop withdrawal if they themselves lacked the courage to speak against it when it mattered most.

I don’t know if I’ve ever agreed with Alexander Downer, and whether I will in the future, but he is right when he says that ‘we’ (the liberal government that committed the crime of invasion, not the populace) can’t turn our back on the people of Iraq. Of course, the government would love to withdraw, as would many Republicans, but that would be a political faux-pas on the grandest scale.

To conclude, those that call for the withdrawal of foreign troop with no credible alternative, and no suggestion of how to create a functioning state or three, show no compassion for the people of Iraq. More people will die, and those that called for the troops to be removed will have blood on their hands. Not as much as Cheney, Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld, but they will be semi-responsible for the mushrooming mess that needs fixing, not desertion, at the point when it most requires assistance.

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It just so happens I’m drenched to the bone as I sit down with a relaxed Josh Davis in the club lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel. Our gazes wonder away from the well-dressed breakfasters, across the spectacular harbour, through the rain towards the Tasman Sea. I’m here with a man who has probably done as much for popular music as anyone else in the last ten years, a producer who, on the previous night, played to a packed Hordern Pavilion with an audiovisual display that left most of the crowd astounded. Nine mega-screens broadcast a plethora of eye-candy to thousands of eager fans, from hip hop heads to goths, many of whom spoke of this master of sample-driven atmospheric music in an almost god-like manner. Funny; I’d planned to ask him if he felt he was perhaps overrated. If, despite the status of the universally-acclaimed Endtroducing (‘First album to make the Guinness Book of Records for containing nothing but samples’ etc), the hype placed on ‘DJs’ in our day and age, himself included, is somewhat unwarranted. Yet after seeing an intrinsically detailed, impeccably well planned, and downright fucking fantastic show the night before, I decided, probably rightly so, that it might appear churlish.

‘The thing that’s hard is that I’ve done quite a few tours, and particularly as I’m working with songs from Endtroducing right now it’s hard to come up with better ways than you’ve done before’, he explains as a bowl of bran flakes is swiftly ushered towards the table. ‘So in the case of some parts of the set like what I did with ‘Organ Donor’, I was like “fuck it, I’m just gonna do what I did last time, ‘cos there’s nothing that could work as good as that” – that’s always the highlight. I try my best- the encore took like a week and a half to put together, just trying to figure out good ways of doing it’. And a great encore it was, like much of the show, welding together huge chunks of music from Endtroducing, The Private Press, music from Shadow’s Unkle projects with James Lavelle, and tantalisingly, sneak previews of his latest work The Outsider.

For despite having Mos Def in the support slot, you could be forgiven for letting it slip your mind that DJ Shadow is in fact a hip hop artist, so thorough is his genre-transcending. It was Shadow, along with buddies Latyrx and Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab, that set up Solesides, now Quannum Projects, the constantly expanding Bay Area label. And the Outsider, unlike earlier albums, has rappers on it. Crazy. ‘I just didn’t want to soften it this time, and wasn’t worried about people not being able to follow the thread.’, he explains. It almost seems as if Shadow may in some way be burning some bridges, so likely is the alienation of large swathes of his fan base. But power to the man – he’s just not that bothered. He denies, however, that it’s more of a straight hip-hop record. ‘No, it’s just very diverse’ he answers. ‘There’s rap, all different types, with Phonte from Little Brother, Q-Tip, E-40, David Banner, all kinds of different artists. Then there’s also rock music and folk music, and very ‘Shadowey’ sounding music’

Indeed, as amusing as it is to hear this modest man describe his own music as ‘Shadowey’, you know exactly what he means, in the same way ‘Pharelley’ or ‘Aphex Twinney’ could be applied to the music of those artists. Following the ominous introduction, the first of these ‘Shadowey’ tunes, This Time, provides a warning of sorts for what’s to follow. ‘This time, I’m gonna do it my way’, the sampled crooner explains. Once this short track hits its end, the barrage of hardcore Bay Area ‘hypie’ rap that takes up almost half the album starts in earnest. Not only is it unlike earlier DJ Shadow material, it’s miles removed from other Quannum artists, as well as other so-called ‘underground’ hip hop often placed on a pedestal. When you realise the first US-wide hypie hit was produced by crunk big-timer Lil’ John, with Bay Area veteran E-40 on vocals, along with young buck Keak da Sneak, both of whom also feature on The Outsider, you get a better idea as to how different this album is to either Endtroducing or The Private Press.

‘The type of rap I’ve been listening to for the last five to seven years is not the Jurassic 5/Quannum rap, it’s the hardcore gangsta stuff’, he clarifies when I look surprised. ‘That’s the music that’s been influencing me lately, and I wanted to make sure it was represented on the record.’ And to dispute the likely claims there was a commercial aspect to the decision, that of including radio-friendlier hip hop (he himself admits that ‘for the first time in my life I’m getting radio play’), one needs only to look at the rappers used to ‘slap’ the beats, as he puts it. With the exception of E-40, Q-Tip and Quannum’s Lateef, most are relative unknowns. ‘I was making beats which I put tried and tested MCs on who I’ve known for years, and it just didn’t sound right. It was only when I reached out to the kind of people I was listening to on the radio that it all kind of started to make sense.’ Funnily enough, despite Shadow’s global reach, the rappers contacted turned out not to be too familiar with his work. ‘Everyone in rap knows my name and knows who I am’, he puts it matter-of-factly, ‘But when you talk about people like Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk, who are ten years younger than me, they know the name but don’t know my music. They don’t remember Endtroducing, they were too young, and everything I’ve done since then hasn’t been in a rap vein. Even stuff like Quannum – hardcore gangsta-rap dudes in the Bay maybe don’t even know who we are…Keak Da Sneak is huge in the Bay Area, he can’t walk down the street – he’s like the Pied Piper.’

Halfway through the album, The Outsider starts to move away from the hypie sound, with acoustic rock-inspired instrumentation resulting in music that Unkle fans might be pleased with, in the form of collaborations with UK vocalist Chris James. Yet work with Unkle-partner James Lavelle, perhaps disappointingly, appears unlikely. ‘What happened in 1998 when Mo’ Wax sorta got pulled out from underneath him, he sort of lost everything in a sense, and I think he became quite disillusioned with the way he had been treated by the majors, and unfortunately to some degree he has a hard time relating to all his old artists. I think he feels in a way that we all abandoned him or something. …He’s a passionate guy – I still consider him a friend but we don’t see each other that much.’ The same sort of label-mess that resulted when ‘a Liquor company bought a cigarette company or something’ in 1998 means Shadow now appears courtesy of Universal Records, and not Universal Music. After a long-winded explanation he describes the situation as ‘complicated and convoluted’, but is, essentially, satisfied as to how it turned out. ‘What happened recently is I ended up on Geffen’s doorstep, and I didn’t really want to be there. I was tired of being dumped off on people, and I feel it’s much better if somebody has to fight for me to be there, because then there is a vested interest in America for me to be a success – so I put my foot down and said no. So Universal Records, a part of Universal Music, said ‘Ok, we want him’.

And now that they have him, it remains all about the music for DJ Shadow. Fans will be aware of the obsessive record collecting, the work of a man in love with sounds. For him, the fame people perceive he experiences means even less than it used to, especially in light of the traumatic time he and his wife went through with the complications involved in the birth of their twins. ‘I’m not the type of person who walks down the street and gets recognised’, he explains, ‘I like the anonymity, I don’t wanna make millions of dollars, just enough to continue to do what I do. You always hear people like Woody Allen or Spike Lee say that they only wanna make enough in the movies to make the next one. I feel the same. I want to be in a position to make records and get them to as many people as possible.’ It’s the kind of laissez –faire, modest, confident and satisfied response he provides to all my queries. Apart from the shame he expresses at the actions of President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger, and the annoyance he says he feels when predictable questions from uninterested journalists are fired his way (‘Does Hip Hop Still suck in ’06?’), he’s a relaxed and amiable dude. ‘I’m not gonna pretend that I don’t wanna be here,’ he says almost coyly, as two suits march past the table, gazes peering down their noses at the bloke in scruffy wet jeans, across the table from the slight American in tilted cap and baggie-pants. ‘Actually, he’s probably one of the most important recording artists of or our age, you nob.’ At least that’s what I thought of saying, but only afterwards when I’m making the thirty-floor descent in the lift.

Over the last ten years or so, the amount of Western travelers heading to East Asia has increased massively. South East Asia – in particular Thailand, Vietnam and others – swarms with Western tourists eager to travel to countries they perceive as being exotic, welcoming, safe, and of course cheap. There’s nothing quite like stocking up on oh-so-hilarious slogan T-shirts for the next few years. Travel in China continues to flourish, while Japan continues to hold a special place in the imaginations of young Westerners – A land of unparalleled technological prominence and wealth, further popularised by the recent cinematic success of Lost in Translation.

Recently, I planned to purchase a ticket from Sydney to London. A hell of a flight, as anyone will tell you, and as good a candidate as any long-hauler for an extended stopover. Why fly over half the planet, I figured, and not stop to see some of it? So when my request for a list of cities that could be stopped in without an extra charge forced upon me turned out to contain less intriguing destinations than I had hoped for, I handed over my cash to Asiana Airlines, keen for a week in Korea and its beehive of activity, Seoul. James Brown jokes at the ready, I arrived on a warm September night at the end of a hot summer.

But, like most of the friends and colleagues I spoke with about my impending jaunt, I knew little about South Korea or its capital. Apart from the war and the ongoing ‘Neighbours From Hell’ episode that is the relationship between the Republic of Korea (in the blue, southerly corner) and the Democratic People’s Republic (in the red, northerly corner), as well as the Olympics in ‘88, the World Cup in ‘02, barbeques and car production, not much at all, in fact. I did know, however, that Korea was indeed a wealthy country (12th biggest economy in the world, it turns out), and upon stepping out of Seoul’s newly built Incheon airport (the scene of the Dunkirk-esque landing seen by many as the turning point in the Korean war), this was soon evident.

It was also quickly evident that I should have spent a little more time learning the local tongue, (apparently, as Korean is based on an alphabet, it’s not as tricky as one might think) bbut I located the bus stop to the city, impressed by their frequency and the amount of men in official looking clothes milling around, intent on helping a bewildered and jet-lagged foreigner with a comically large backpack. Once on the bus, the onboard computers, for entertainment purposes, as well as the compulsory seatbelts (hey, that’s progress), the American sounding lady that piped up through the speakers before each stop, and the tractor-sized cars that overtook us on all sides, further impressed me. And while I take little interest in most things automobile, I know Daewoo, I know Hyundai, I’m even familiar with Kia But the Korean car industry is evidently booming, considering the variety of names roaming the multi-laned highways- what were these strange cars? The whole time I was in Korea, in fact, I barely saw, at least barely noticed, any foreign cars, apart from the odd novelty-value modern Mini. Soon enough, after passing through what appeared to be endless inner-city (the concept of suburbs with a well manicured garden doesn’t appear to have taken off too rapidly), with road after road of well-lit advertising billboards, not to mention block after block of apartments, completer with LG or Samsung branding, I was at my hostel (one of the few in Seoul). I had found Seoul Backpackers in the closest thing Seoul has to a touristy area, Insadong, with surprisingly little trouble. For locating places for the first time in Korea is no mean feat, for one glaringly obvious reasos – no street names, and often no numbers. Indeed, it seems it may only be for the proliferation of the internet in South Korea that people know where on earth it is they are going. Almost every company has a website, and those that know what they’re doing put a detailed map with directions on the site, lest they be relegated to obscurity. This proved tricky once or twice, but on the whole, you quickly get used to procuring detailed directions before heading anywhere in the city for the first time.

Next day, a trip on the smart, speedy and well-priced Seoul subway had me fascinated at the level Korean telecommunications is at. ‘Is that me?’ I thought, ‘or is that bloke actually watching gameshows on his phone?’ I was well prepared for a technological shock to the senses, but when a friend at Vodafone UK suggested that Korea was in fact up to 18 months ahead when it comes to this sort of intense gadgetry, such as digital TV in handsets, I was dumbfounded. Tokyo, eat your heart out. As the excessively-featured handset would not work upon leaving Korea, I decided some other techno-tastic device would be a suitable souvenir, and took to locating Yongsan electronics market. Well, what an experience that was. Yongsan is, they say, the largest electronics market in Asia. Whether this means there is a bigger market somewhere else, I don’t know. But you’d hope not. For Yongsan is not for the faint-hearted, the easily intimidated, or the foreigner who has not bothered to study Korean. Four multistoried buildings tower over a courtyard where a Korean punk band of sorts played, on top of its own train station, below the inbuilt Imax cinemas, complete with the fairground rides and crazy golf on the roof. I picked up a fancy iRiver MP3 player (Made in Korea, where else) for slightly less than in Sydney. Considering the amount of haggling I put in when I located a trader with decent English, it wasn’t as cheap as I’d hoped. This was though, admittedly, the one day I could have done with a guide.

Yongsan market, however, is by no means the only monster-sized market in the capital. Seoul is a young city, and young Koreans appear to love shopping. This format of the mall/market hybrid is repeated to dizzying affect right across town, with certain areas literally buzzing at night. More than once I became totally engrossed and suitably lost in the modern day-bazaars of clothing stores, neon lights, food stalls, and the almost nauseating K-Pop bands set up to entertain the thralls of teenagers. I spent only a single week in Korea, but it was enough time to realise that the city barely sleeps. Some areas tingle with activity to the wee hours, with ‘Hof’ bars (beer and fried chicken, hell yeah)) squeezed in between countless small restaurants across the city. Other areas feature so many restaurants and bars of all sizes, including the happening borough around Yongik University, that it’s hard to understand how they possibly make any money. Yet food is an important part of life in Korea. Traditional cook-at–the-table BBQ joints are almost as numerous as the market stalls that proffer affordable nibbles, from dried squid to Korean style sausages, while small family run restaurants squeeze themselves in, enticing the visitor in with their myriad small bowls of Kim Chi offered with each dish. In fact, by the time you tuck in to eat in Korea, there are so many small dishes provided with each meal ordered it’s hard to know where to start. In addition, Kim Chi (roughly, pickled vegetables, although almost anything can be thrown in) is such a part of life that there is a museum dedicated to it. Perhaps if I’d stayed another week I would have made time. Maybe two weeks.

Yet the glory of Seoul is that, as you might expect from a city of ten million, the amount of cultural attractions far surpasses the amount of trips one can make in a week. While there, I visited countless palaces, many reconstructed to their pre-Japanese invasion levels of glory, not to mention various Buddhist temples and pagodas squeezed in between glass and steel skyscrapers. A hike through a building site up to the old city wall to sit in the forested hills overlooking the sprawling metropolis proved a highlight, as did one of the various modern art galleries Seoul has to offer, not to mention the huge, overbearing, intrinsically detailed, and only slightly propagandistic war museum, located next to one of the world’s largest concentrations of US troops in the borough of Itaewon.

And this brings us to the one issue that dominates domestic politics in South Korea- the issue of the North. It’s easy to dismiss the issue as an international one, but for many Koreans, it is an issue of living in a split nation, where progress towards unification often takes the form of ‘one step forward, two steps back’, particularly since a certain President Bush took office. I left Seoul on two occasions – once to stay overnight and visit the remains of the glorious ancient Silla kingdom in the town of Gyeongju, (whereupon I met a friendly Dutch cyclist who had just taken 18 months to cycle from the Netherlands, but I digress), as well as a day-trip to the Demilitarised Zone between the Stalinist North and capitalist South, the last and meanest cold war frontier. Korean nationals may not visit the DMZ nor the actual border which dissects it, but I, along with a busload of Japanese, was ferried in and handed over to a mixed group of South Korean and US troops, who promptly shouted orders at us, kept us in formation, and frequently prevented us from looking anywhere but straight ahead. This was, of course, after signing a waiver disallowing me from suing should Northern soldiers shoot me. Fair enough, I thought. It was group tourism with a difference, but worth it, just to stand inside the UN treaty buildings on the border, spy the world’s largest flag and pole (trust me – big), and get a few sneaky zoom-pics of North Korean soldiers marching around in their pointy Soviet era hats. Of course, it was all over far too quickly, but it was nonetheless astonishing. For 50km down the road form this ‘axis of evil’ stalwart we were back in Seoul, again amongst the multistory electronic billboards, the unimaginable wealth, the carefree youth and unending shopping centers. I wanted to go up and grab people to tell them what perils lay half an hour to the north – if only I could have prised their attentions away from the phones with the tellies on them.

Hello world!

October 4, 2006

Hello viewers. I, Bill, have set up a blog in order to publish, on my own terms, the informative and/or ranting articles I produce. After haggling with the Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, NY Times, etc etc, I give up. I can’t work for that money! So here we go.