Five Best Friday Columns

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Andrey Kurkov on corruption in Ukraine After the Chernobyl disaster, rampant fraud that flooded the housing market with cheap properties allowed novelist Andrey Kurkov to buy a second home in a rural village, he writes in The New York Times. From there, he watched Yulia Tymoshenko's rise and fall until last month when her political rival had her jailed. "But in the meantime, many more mundane things have happened in our village," he says. His first acquaintance there was a policeman who invited him out drinking, assured him not to worry about drunk driving, and didn't allow either of them to pay the bartender for their drinks. Writers (like policemen) enjoy a special status in Ukraine. The village's school principal once asked Kurkov to petition the government for enough teachers to keep the high school open through 12th grade. It was a conservative time and one without much freedom of speech, but Kurkov's special request was immediately accepted. "During the presidential elections last year, I was fond of saying that choosing between Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Yanukovich was like choosing between a car with no brakes and the brakes with no car." The conservative Ukrainians preferred the brakes to the car and chose Yanukovich. Tymoshenko's rivals subsequently arrested her simply because, had she remained free, she would have retaken the presidency and jailed them. Ukrainians are "able to adapt to any circumstance," which gives Kurkov hope, he writes, "because as soon as real democracy comes to Ukraine, Ukrainians will quickly grow accustomed to it." Though it doesn't come naturally, if officials create the right conditions, the people will come to expect fairness in society. "One thing is certain: in Ukraine, we live surrounded by so many charismatic and anti-charismatic political figures, only the laziest writer could fail to crank out at least one novel per year." 

Brett McGurk on the new phase in U.S.-Iraqi relations Obama hopes the pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq will lead to a new phase, and "If we play our cards right, this new phase may prove more important than the withdrawal of U.S. troops," writes Brett McGurk, an adviser to three U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad, in The Washington Post. Critics say we are abandoning Iraq and handing victory to Iran. McGurk has worked on Iraq policy for eight years, and managed the recent talks with Iraqis about whether and when to leave. "The decision to complete our withdrawal was not the result of a failed negotiation but rather the byproduct of an independent Iraq that has an open political system," he says. U.S. legal experts said any extension of our stay there was dependent on our soldiers' legal immunity from the Iraqi justice system. Parliament was unwilling to grant this, and "our trying to force an agreement through the Iraqi parliament would have been self-destructive. That had nothing to do with Iran and everything to do with Iraqi pride, history and nationalism." Iran maintains influence there, but so do we, as seen by Iraq's purchase of our military equipment, their invitation to international oil firms, and their signal to Iran that attacks on U.S. troops there are attacks on the Iraqi state. Iraq isn't anxious to get in the middle of a U.S.-Iran confrontation, and keeping even a small number of troops in Iraq could perhaps do more harm than good, helping recruit Iranian extremists. Using the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, Iraq and the U.S. will continue to coordinate on security, education, and commerce. "With a serious and renewed focus on the SFA, it can also be the start of a new and lasting partnership between our two countries," McGurk writes. 

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Joan Wickersham on technology and the distance of war "It's comforting to be in close touch with my family when I'm deployed," a Marine Corps officer tells Joan Wickersham. "But the person they're talking to on the phone isn't really the person they know." Wickersham wanted to know how the immediacy of technology like e-mail, cell phones, and Skype has affected the combat experience, she writes in The Boston Globe. "The officer emphasized the paradoxical nature of calling home from a war." One has the opportunity to share a lot, but both to avoid scaring family and for reasons of confidentiality, he often finds he can't say much at all. "You go out on patrol, make contact with the enemy, possibly take a casualty, set up a position. Then you turn on your phone and you're asking, 'Hey, how's my nephew? How was your day at the office?'" For families at home, the increased communication can be both good and bad. One mother tells Wickersham, "With letters, you know you might not hear from someone for weeks. But with the phone, there's this intensity, the possibility of immediacy." But, "there are also expectations. You can be primed for the phone call to come at a certain regular time - and then it doesn't come." Calls can also make her feel both closer and more separated. Once, her son told her he was lying in a sleeping bag in the desert, with a wild dog licking salt off his back. "It makes you realize how separate his life is. This otherworldly thing is happening while we're on the phone." Wickersham writes, "Paul Fussell, in his brilliant and moving book The Great War and Modern Memory, wrote about the 'ridiculous proximity' of British World War I soldiers to their families back in England. People at home could hear the guns in France." They too felt the strain of being at once close and in as different a world as possible. "Technology may appear to erase distance, but the experience of war still creates distances that can never be erased." 

Clive Stafford Smith on the civilian casualties of drone attacks Last week, Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer and director of a prisoners' rights organization, participated in a meeting in Islamabad with Pashtun tribal elders, who live in the border region with Afghanistan. They had the meeting so the Pashtuns, "could meet with Westerners for the first time to offer their perspectives on the shadowy drone war being waged by the Central Intelligence Agency in their region," Smith writes in The New York Times. The night before the meeting, they had a dinner. "During the meal, I met a boy named Tariq Aziz. He was 16. As we ate, the stern, bearded faces all around me slowly melted into smiles. Tariq smiled much sooner." The next day, for several hours, the village elders told the same story. "American drones would circle their homes all day before unleashing Hellfire missiles, often in the dark hours between midnight and dawn. Death lurked everywhere around them." Smith held the American position that the strikes were precise and hadn't killed a civilian in 15 months. "My comment was met with snorts of derision." Smith told them they'd have to collect proof if they wanted Americans to believe them. Some had already collected pieces of missiles and pictures of the "carnage," though collecting information is dangerous. Pakistan's military seals the area from journalists and the Taliban once kidnapped a man investigating the drone attacks, suspecting him of spying for the United States. "At the end of the day, Tariq stepped forward. He volunteered to gather proof if it would help to protect his family from future harm." The mission would be dangerous for him. "But the militants never had the chance to harm him. On Monday, he was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan." Before, Smith said he saw the drone strike as a debate over legal theory. "But now, the issue has suddenly become very real and personal. Tariq was a good kid, and courageous ... And Tariq's extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile -- most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile." 

John de Graaf and David Batker on Americans working too hard In 1985, a Senate subcommittee predicted the computer revolution would have American working 20 hour weeks by the year 2000, "while taking seven weeks or more of vacation a year." Instead, our average workdays have only gotten longer, write John de Graaf and David Batker in Bloomberg View. Nor has technology made our increased work-days "energy free." "As it happens, workers are required to get much more done and more quickly. Working hours are more draining, while the hyper-competition of today's workplace makes them even more stressful." It's the reverse of a trend that saw work hours decline significantly in the 100 years after the Civil War. After WWII, "interest in shorter work time waned, even as a buffer against unemployment," as our consumer-driven society led us to strive for more expensive goods. Europeans, conversely, used gains in productivity to increase their leisure time. "Today, the Netherlands, Norway and Germany have the world's shortest working hours." The Dutch are still productive with low unemployment. In 1982, the Dutch accepted lower wage increases in exchange for fewer working hours. "The pact ended inflationary pressures and led to an economic turnaround that came to be called 'the Dutch miracle.'" In 2000, they passed a law that makes it illegal for companies to deny a full-time worker the move to part-time so long as it doesn't materially hurt the company. "The law means a lot to working parents who wish to reduce the stresses of working and caring for children. A 2007 Unicef study ranked children's welfare in the Netherlands as the highest in the world. The U.S. was 20th of 21 wealthy countries studied." Europeans also take almost four times as much vacation as Americans. When Rep. Alan Grayson introduced a bill to mandate paid vacation for larger companies, "conservative bloggers excoriated it as wildly radical. The bill was left to die." Some worry Americans would only use their leisure time to watch more television, but we tend to watch TV when we're too tired to do much else, so more leisure time might actually lead us to use it more productively. Nor would we become less competitive, studies show, since countries with more leisure time seem to be as competitive as we are. Studies also show on an individual level that less over-worked employees tend report higher satisfaction and more productive output. "Many exhausted American workers might find these results refreshing."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.