• Archive of "Military" Category

    Requiem: Is This the Last 9/11 Article?

    October 2, 2021 // 15 Comments »

    Wait, stop. I know it’s almost October, but I’m not done with 9/11. I know we just had the 20th anniversary, promised for a day to never forget whatever, and then an old-looking Bruce Springsteen rose to sing about everyone dying around him (read the room, Bruce.) Missing was a hard look at what happened over the last 20 years. Before we move on, can we address that? Because after the symbolic Big 2-0, and with Afghanistan sputtering out of our consciousness, this might be the last 9/11 article.
    Part of the reason for the lack of introspection is the MSM went back to the same people who screwed everything up for “takes” two decades later. It’s kind of like inviting students to grade themselves. It was familiar, like the parade of generals following the Vietnam war who blamed the politicians and vice-versa. I’d like a browser widget that blocks 9/11 commentary from any of the people who were wrong about WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the like. The last thing anyone’s life needs right now is to hear David Petraeus’ or Condi Rice’s take on anything.
    Yet as if to create the anti-widget of my dreams, the Washington Post created a review of the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — what they generously called works of investigation, memoir, and narrative by journalists and former officials. The books included were written by people taking post-mortem credit for issuing warnings they themselves never acted on, agencies blaming other agencies as if all that happened was the FBI lost a pickup softball game to the CIA, and of course journalists who helped sell the whole WMD line profiting off their mini-embeds to write a new “classic” war book about What It’s Really Like Out There, Man.
    WaPo left my Iraq book off the list, an accidental omission I’m sure. I joke but I don’t. I wrote ten years ago, as it was happening, how nation building was going to fail in Iraq. It would have made good reading a decade ago for anyone headed into the same situation in Afghanistan. So while WaPo’s article does a good job with the “celebrity” books of the era, it ignores the people who saw through it all at nearly every step. I guess many of them did not write books, or at least not “Washington Post” books. So the list includes Petraeus’ U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the Bible behind the Surge which outlined how nation building was gonna work (update: he was wrong.) But nothing from the weapons inspectors who told the world quite clearly Saddam had no WMDs and the whole premise of the Iraq War was a lie. Nothing explaining how the Afghan War was reinvented to cover-up not finding bin Laden. Nothing about drone killing American citizens, bombing wedding parties, torture, collateral damage, or any of the things that actually caused us to lose multiple wars of terror. Ironically, the last official drone strike of the war killed innocent civilians the Pentagon pretended were terrorists.
    I’ve read almost all the books on WaPo’s list. They would make for a decent but obviously incomplete undergrad survey class syllabus, something like “Opportunities and Losses: America in the Middle East post-9/11,” lots of facts amassed without the necessary critical thinking applied. So here’s what’s missing, the conclusions we do not want to see in black and white 20 years later. Think of what follows as a B+ final exam submission for that imaginary survey class.
    — Nobody trusts the government about anything. Partisans support their guy but with a wry “Hey, they all lie.” Any rebuilding of trust post-Watergate died with the WMDs, etc. and is unlikely to be restored in our age of social media/manipulation.
    — They didn’t make mistakes. They lied. They lied about how 9/11 happened, they lied about WMDs, they lied about intentions, they lied about goals, they lied about Pakistan’s role, they lied about the strength of the puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul, they lied about the vitality of ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, they lied about our progress, they lied about it all. They lied to make Pat Tilman’s death seem like Captain Miller’s. No one was ever punished.
    — On a simple material level, my God what did we waste in lives and money in all the wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the havoc of refugees let loose? And yet we demand the point of 9/11 be our victimization alone. We even appropriated the term Ground Zero, which once referred universally to Hiroshima.
    — American foreign policy credibility and our post-WWII imperialist strategy has finally been shown to be a farce. A lesson that should have been clear post-Vietnam needed to be relearned. That means we the public are stupid and gullible. We the nation are still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with peers, near-peers or non-allied countries with shared interests, we have few if any tools. That’s why we have no idea whatsoever how to work with Iran or China, and why our strategy with North Korea is hope fat boy slim dies before he (likely accidentally, think Chernobyl) blows up half of Asia.
    — They don’t hate our freedoms. They don’t want to be like us. We based policy on finding a handful of Afghan women who wanted to wear mini-skirts when the bulk of them simply wanted to be left alone. The lesson was always obvious; they didn’t want to be British, either.
    — Americans pretend our little journey to the dark side of torture was over years ago, our bad! but lots of others remember and Gitmo is still open. We will never unstain our reputation globally. Like that one-time little sexy business trip affair, it just becomes a thing polite people don’t talk about.
    — We emerged from 9/11 a “paranoid, xenophobic and martial society.” We’ve let the easy certainty of “you’re either with us or against us” morph into students being taught not to think but “being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”
    — America became a massive surveillance state. The government (and many large corporations) monitor your communications and interactions. You cannot opt out. We willingly purchase electronics to aid the government in monitoring us. Here’s one in pink!
    — We willingly gave up our privacy out of fear. That fear now exists in the body politic to be summoned like a demon and manipulated by whomever wishes it for whatever purpose, say to imagine Trump is a Russian spy, or your neighbors as Nazis because they oppose what you support, or Covid survival demands further loss of freedom.
    — The media, which served in times past as a counterpoint, instead fully adopted the role of promoting Bush’s wars and WMDs, Trump the spy, etc. They allowed Obama to wave away questions about torture, drone assassinations, and new wars because he was their chosen one. No one sees the media as anything but partisans now, albeit our partisans and their partisans depending on which channel is on. The result is we are ever more uninformed and simultaneously more opinionated. What part of a doctor’s day is spent dealing with knuckleheads who value their degree from the University of Google more than what he has learned in a lifetime of practice?
    There, that’s it. I predict the 9/11 commemorations will become lower and lower key in the years to come, much like America lost interest in the space program in the later years and rocket launches were no longer even televised. But each year the anniversary rolls around and we’re admonished to never forget, remember how much we already seem to have very purposely forgotten.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    The Worst Day of the Afghan War

    September 11, 2021 // 15 Comments »


    The Kabul airport suicide bombing was the largest single-day loss of life for Americans in the Afghan War since 2011. It was a terrible day, but begs the question: what was the worst day of the Afghan war?

    It is hard not to consider the Kabul airport suicide bombing the worst day; 13 Americans and maybe a hundred Afghans dead. How old were the Americans? How many hadn’t even gotten out of diapers when the war started 20 years ago? Did any have parents who also served in Afghanistan? Who were the Afghans?

    All of the dead were so close to safety after who knows what journey to that moment together, a hundred yards across the tarmac and into an airplane out. Good people only die at the last minute in bad movies and sometimes real life. But was it the worst day?

    Shall we count the dead? The worst day for American casualties in Afghanistan was August 6, 2011, when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down over eastern Afghanistan. Thirty Americans, including 22 SEALs, died.

    There were a lot of other worst days.  On June 28, 2005, 19 Special Operations troops were killed during Operation Red Wings. Three service members died in an ambush and 16 others lost their lives when their helicopter went down in an effort to help.

    — On July 13, 2008 nine Americans and 27 others were wounded in an attack on an American observation post in the Battle of Wanat.

    — On October 3, 2009 eight Americans and four Afghans were killed at Combat Outpost Keating when 200 Taliban fighters attacked the base in eastern Afghanistan.

    — On December 30, 2009 a Jordanian double-agent lured seven CIA operatives to their deaths in a suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman.

    — On September 21, 2010 a Black Hawk helicopter went down in Qalat, killing five soldiers of the 101st Airborne, three Navy SEALs, and one support technician.

    — On April 27, 2011 eight U.S. airmen and one contractor were killed at the Kabul airport. A U.S.-trained ally Afghan Air Corps pilot became angry during an argument and began shooting.

    — The worst day might have been one out of the other hundreds of green-on-blue killings, incidents when an Afghan soldier purposely killed an American ally, the worst kind of proof we had lost and refused to believe that until belief was forced upon us.

    — Or maybe the symbolically worst day was February 8, 2020 when two American soldiers were killed fighting in eastern Afghanistan, the last “combat” deaths. In between those deaths and the deaths by the suicide bomber at Kabul airport, five other Americans died in “non-hostiles,” suicides and accidents. Those were bad days, too.

    — The worst day might have been have been the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star/poster boy who ceremoniously joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies.

     

    — Or maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff while on a propaganda mission. Would either have been proud to give their lives those ways, knowing what we know now?

    Maybe the worst day was when some soldier back home, thinking his war was over, realized he had been conned, it was all a lie, that he never fought to defend America or help the Afghans, and neither did his buddy who died among the poppies outside a village without a name. Maybe it was when he realized his dad had told him the same thing about Vietnam. Or maybe it was when he heard President Biden, mentally stuck in 2006, claim those killed at the Kabul airport were actually “lives given in the service of liberty.”

    Or the worst day might be tonight, when some American veteran tells his wife after a couple too many he is going out to clean his gun in the garage. An average of 20 vets take their own lives each day. On August 16, the day after Kabul fell, the Veterans Administration Crisis Line saw a 12 percent increase in calls.

    Of course the Afghans had some worst days too, though no one really keeps track of those. The Kabul airport suicide attack must rank high. Or it could have been when the U.S. bombed an Afghan hospital. Or maybe when a U.S. drone, our national bird, attacked a wedding party. The Haska Meyna wedding party airstrike killed 47. Another airstrike against a wedding party killed 40 civilians. The Wech Baghtu wedding party attack took 37 lives. An airstrike on the village of Azizabad killed as many as 92 civilians. A U.S. drone strike that destroyed 32 pine nut farmers.

    Because the big days for Afghans were often covered up instead of mourned, no one knows which was the worst day. We hide behind an Orwellian term too macabre for Orwell, collateral damage, to mean violence sudden, sharp, complete, unnecessary, and anonymous. For most Afghans, it defined our war against them.

    Or perhaps judging the worst day for the Afghan side via a simple body count is wrong, there were just so many. But if pain is the metric, then the worst day for Afghans clearly took place inside one of the black sites, where the United States as a national policy tortured people to death.

    We only know one name out of many. Gul Rahman died almost naked, wearing only socks and a diaper, shackled to the floor, in a CIA black site, for freedom, although no one can really explain the connection anymore. He’d been subjected to 48 hours of sleep deprivation, rough treatment, and cold showers, interrogated 18 hours a day. There were 20 other cells nearby for other Afghans. A CIA board recommended disciplinary action for the man held responsible for the death but was overruled.

    Those worst days highlight, if that word is even morally permissible here, the long series of atrocities committed in Afghanistan (and Iraq, and Vietnam, and…) instances where our killing of civilians, whether accidental or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance the U.S. could capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. That’s why we lost.

     

    Because it is so very hard to understand 20 years of tragedy, we focus on something small and symbolically fetishize that, turn it into a token, a symbol of the greater failure that is easier to grasp, easier to acknowledge. Few Americans know much about the horrors inflicted across the decades of war in Vietnam but if they know anything they know My Lai. As documented in Nick Turse’s diligent Kill Anything That Moves, My Lai was indeed a real horror show, but simply best-known because it was the one where lots of photos were taken, not the worst. And that’s before we zoom out to see Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    So it may be with the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Maybe they deserve their place in the coda of the war, a way to summarize things. The pieces are all there: tactical fumbling by Washington, Americans out of place, civilians just trying to escape taking the worst of the violence, an enemy no one saw or knows well disrupting carefully planned out global policy goals, sigh, again.

    There’s also the hero element, the Americans were innocents, killed while trying to help the Afghans (albeit help the Afghans out of a mess created earlier by other Americans.) And of course, following the bombing, a revenge airstrike against ISIS-K leaders, or a random goat farmer or an empty field (we’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter) followed by another which killed ten civilians using a “ginsu knives” bomb which shreds human flesh via six large blades. They may claim a bit of history by being the last Afghan civilians killed by the United States. Have we finally stopped holding that devil’s hand?

     

    The Kabul airport suicide bombing may be so jarring, so perfectly timed to illuminate 20 years of failure, that it will even be investigated. A blue ribbon committee might tear into what happened, the intelligence failure, some bad decision by a first lieutenant on where to deploy his men. Unlikely, but maybe even a low-level scapegoat will be named and punished. The committee certainly won’t look too far into reports the U.S. knew the attack was coming and let the troops die to appease Britain’s needs.

     

    We miss the point again. The issue is to ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 20-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of another kid or another dozen Afghans, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Special Immigrant Visas (SIV): A Brief, Sad History

    September 4, 2021 // 3 Comments »

    The story of Afghans fleeing their country seeking Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) is the story of the war.

    In the hubris of conquest 20 years ago, no one could conceive the U.S. would need to evacuate locals who worked with us. Instead, they would form the vanguard of a New Afghanistan. Admitting some sort of escape program was needed was admitting our war was failing, and so progress implementing the SIV program was purposefully very slow. When it became obvious even in Washington that we were losing, an existing State Department perk for local employees was hastily remade into a covert refugee program.

    Even then, with no one wanting to really acknowledge the historical scale our failures, the SIV program was never properly staffed to succeed. Instead it was just tarted up to appear to be doing something good while never having any plan in place to do good, like the war itself. Admitting we had a refugee program for countries we had liberated was a tough swallow. Now, at the end, the Afghans who trusted the SIV program — trusted us — will randomly be rushed through the pipeline to make a few happy headlines, or left behind to their fate on the ground. No one now in the government actually cares what happens to them, as long as they go away somehow. At best the SIV program will be used to create a few human interest stories help cover up some of the good we otherwise failed to do.

     

    The current SIV story starts with the end of the Vietnam war, the desperate locals who worked for us at risk as collaborators, clambering aboard the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people. A sloppy coda to an expected unexpected ending. This is what the SIV program was supposed to be about, you know, never again.

    During the first few years of the Iraq and Afghan wars (“the Wars”), the official vision in Washington was that the Wars would transform the countries into happy meals of robust prosperity and nascent democracy. Congress, imaging early local hires as our American Gurkhas, loyal brown people serving us, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created a visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The State Department employed the SIV program abroad for many years. Local employees, say a Japanese passport clerk working in Embassy Tokyo, after 15 years of service could be rewarded an SIV to the Homeland. Such a prize would encourage workers to stay around for a full career, and course they wanted to be like us anyway.

    Congress had the same vision for the Wars. In 2006 they authorized 50 Special Immigrant Visas annually to Iraqi and Afghans working for the U.S. military. The cap was set at 50 because the visa was intended only for the very best, and besides, the locals would mostly want to live in their newly democratized countries anyway.

    What seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the Wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their local helpers murdered by growing insurgencies Washington pretended did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their locals apply by the hundreds. Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year in Iraq only for two years. But to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the necessary Letter of Recommendation. That still had to be addressed to the Ambassador (Chief of Mission) and signed by a General, Admiral or similar big shot. The military chain of command would be used to slow down applications until we won the Wars.

    Despite a brave face, the SIV program quickly devolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer. Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 upped the number of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to 5,000 annually through FY 2012 for Iraqis (but not Afghans, we thought we were still winning there.) The changes reduced the necessary service time to only a year, but added the criteria “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”

    Importantly, the critical Letter of Recommendation no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be co-signed by brass but in fact could be written by a lower level supervisor, such as the U.S. citizen who directly supervised the local. The Letter needed only to include a brief description of “faithful service” to the U.S. Government, nothing more. As conditions on the ground deteriorated, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was reduced to a self-statement by the local. Visas out of the 5,000 allotted not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year. Documents could be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassies.

    Though officially absolutely not a refugee program, SIVs were made eligible for the same resettlement assistance programs as regular refugees. SIV. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the U.S. “Feel good” companies like Amazon and Uber offered special hiring consideration. You can read the full details of how to apply online. It all sounded good. But by the time one war ended, despite over 100,000 Iraqis being generally eligible for SIVs, the State Department only issued around 2,000 principal visas.

     

    Like the Wars themselves, what seemed a good idea on paper was lost in the desert. In reality simple steps devolved into dead-ends, like whether the letter needed to be on DOD letterhead, a minor thing that became a game-ender if the American supervisor had left the service and was living stateside. The ever-prissy State Department also warns “all letters of recommendation should be proofread closely. Letters of recommendation with significant spelling and grammar errors may delay processing.”

    But the biggest hurdle was always the security advisory opinion, SAO, a background clearance check showing the applicant was not a bad guy. The problem, exacerbated in the Wars’ countries where names and dates of birth can be flexible, is the loyal translator hired in haste in 2010 and known to Sergeant Snuffy as “Suzy” might also have been trying to save her family in 2020 by passing information to the Taliban, if not the Chinese, Afghanistan was always the Great Game after all. The SAO was a whole-of-government file check and took time; average processing was over three years. (Aside: I had a State Department colleague whose job it was to work these. Because the CIA would not release its most secret files, once a week he had to drive over to Langley and take handwritten notes inside a vault. If his boss had a concern, he had to go back a week later to resolve it. He did not close many cases.)

    Despite over 26,000 SIV visas available for Afghans (the Iraqi program sunsetted in 2014) at no point in the two decade war were more than 4,000 principals ever issued in a year (inflated numbers from State include tag-along spouses and children for each principal applicant.) The estimate is some 20,000 active Afghan SIV applications are still somewhere in the pipeline. Congress even created a whole new application category, Priority 2, simply for those who could not quite meet the statutory requirements of the SIV program. As recently as July 30, 2021 Congress authorized 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghans, so supply is not the issue, processing is and always has been. One NGO which helps Afghans in the SIV process bemoans their efforts to speed up things have stumbled across three administrations, seven Congresses, seven Secretaries of Defense, and five Secretaries of State.

    None of this is new. State had agreed in 2018 to clear the backlog of SIV applications as part of a class action lawsuit but never did. A 2020 State Department Inspector General report found the SIV program’s understaffing made it unable to meet a congressionally mandated nine-month response time. SIV staffing levels hadn’t changed since 2016, despite a 50 percent increase in applicants. There was only one analyst dedicated to SAO security checks. The program was supposed to be overseen by a senior official but the position was left unfilled for three years. State never built a centralized database to verify applicants’ USG employment and instead relied on multiple computer systems which could not connect to each other, leading to workers manually typing in information. A little late, but in February President Biden issued an executive order demanding another review of delays. Meanwhile, in the first three months of 2021 the State Department issued only 137 SIVs.

    There is now pressure on Biden to “do something” about the SIVs in Afghanistan. What happens to the ones left behind is up to the Taliban. For those evacuated, to where and what purpose? Will they still be wading through the bureaucracy years from now, out of sight in refugee camps? Or will the SIV rules be thrown out and everyone rapidly approved to avoid another Biden disaster?

    That’s the beast of the Afghan War, SIV version, all too little, too late, all uncertain, all based on thrown together plans, stymied by hubris, failure to admit we screwed up, and a failure to coordinate a whole-of-government approach. So people suffer and people die in chaos in some far away place. Again.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Who’s to Blame for Losing Afghanistan?

    August 28, 2021 // 14 Comments »


     

    Who should we blame for losing Afghanistan? Why blame anyone?

    Did anyone expect the U.S. war in Afghanistan to end cleanly? If so, you bought the lies all along and the cold water now is hitting sharp. While the actual ending is particularly harsh and clearly spliced together from old clips of Saigon 1975, those are simply details.

    Why blame Biden? He played his part as a Senator and VP keeping the war going, but his role today is just being the last guy in a long line of people to blame, a pawn in the game. That Biden is willing to be the “president who lost Afghanistan” is all the proof you need he does not intend to run again for anything. Kind of an ironic version of a young John Kerry’s take on Vietnam “how do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out, it’s easy: call Joe.

    Blame Trump for the deal? One of the saddest things about the brutal ending of the U.S.-Afghan war is we would have gotten the same deal — just leave it to the Taliban and go home — at basically any point during the last 20 years. That makes every death and every dollar a waste. Afghanistan is simply reverting, quickly, to more or less status quo 9/10/01 and everything between then and now, including lost opportunities, will have been wasted.

    Blame the NeoCons? No one in Washington who supported this war was ever called out, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld who, if there is a hell, now cleans truck stop toilets there. Dick Cheney walks free. The generals and diplomats who ran the war have nice think tank or university jobs, if they are not still in government making equally bad decisions. No one has been legally, financially, or professionally disadvantaged by the blood on their hands. Some of the era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    George Bush is a cuddly grandpa today, not the man who drove the United States into building a global prison archipelago to torture people. Barack Obama, who kept much of that system in place and added the drone killing of American citizens to his resume, remains a Democratic rock god. Neither man nor any of his significant underlings has expressed any regret or remorse.

    For example, I just listened to Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, on CNN. Making myself listen to him was about as fun as sticking my tongue in a wood chipper. Same for former general David Petraeus and the usual gang of idiots. None of them, the ones who made the decisions, accept any blame. Instead. they seem settled on blaming Trump because, well, everything bad is Trump’s fault even if he came into all this in the middle of the movie.

    In the end the only people punished were the whistleblowers.

    No one in the who is to blame community seems willing to take the story back to its beginning, at least the beginning for America’s latest round in the Graveyard of Empires (talk about missing an early clue.) This is what makes Blame Trump and Blame Biden so absurd. America’s modern involvement in this war began in 1979 when Jimmy Carter, overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up what was already a pro-Soviet puppet government, began arming and organizing Islamic warriors we now collectively know as “The Taliban.”

    People who want to only see trees they can chop down and purposely want to miss the vastness of the forest ahead at this point try to sideline things by claiming there never was a single entity called “The Taliban” and the young Saudis who flocked to jihad to kill Russians technically weren’t funded by the U.S. (it was indirectly through Pakistan) or that the turning point was the 1991 Gulf War, etc. Quibbles and distractions.

    If Carter’s baby steps to pay for Islamic warriors to fight the Red Army was playing with matches, Ronald Reagan poured gas, then jet fuel, on the fire. Under the Reagan administration the U.S. funded the warriors (called mujaheddin if not freedom fighters back then), armed them, invited their ilk to the White House, helped lead them, worked with the Saudis to send in even more money, and fanned the flames of jihad to ensure a steady stream of new recruits.

    When we “won” it was hailed as the beginning of the real end of the Evil Empire. The U.S. defeated the mighty Red Army by sending over some covert operators to fight alongside stooge Islam warriors for whom a washing machine was high technology. Pundits saw it as a new low-cost model for executing American imperial will.

    We paid little attention to events as we broke up the band and cut off the warriors post-Soviet withdrawal (soon enough some bozo at the State Department declared “the end of history.” He teaches at Stanford now) until the blowback from this all nipped us in the largely unsuccessful World Trade Center bombing of 1993, followed by the very successful World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001. Seems like there was still some history left to go.

    How did U.S. intelligence know who the 9/11 culprits were so quickly? Several of them had been on our payroll, or received financing via proxies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or were inspired by what had happened in Afghanistan, the defeat of the infidels (again; check Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, et al.)

    If post-9/11 the U.S. had limited itself to a vengeful hissy fit in Afghanistan, ending with Bush’s 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” things would have been different. If the U.S. had used the assassination of Osama bin Laden, living “undiscovered” in the shadow of Pakistan’s military academy, as an excuse of sorts to call it a day in Afghanistan, things would have been different.

    Instead Afghanistan became a petri dish to try out the worst NeoCon wet dream, nation-building across the Middle East. Our best and brightest would not just bomb Afghanistan into the stone age, they would then phoenix-it from the rubble as a functioning democracy. There was something for everyone: a military task to displace post-Cold War budget cuts, a pork-laden reconstruction program for contractors and diplomats, even a plan to empower Afghan women to placate the left.

    Though many claim Bush pulling resources away from Afghanistan for Iraq doomed the big plans, it was never just a matter of not enough resources. Afghanistan was never a country in any modern sense to begin with, just an association of tribal entities who hated each other almost as much as they hated the west. The underpinnings of the society were a virulent strain of Islam, about as far away from any western political and social ideas as possible. Absent a few turbaned Uncle Toms, nobody in Afghanistan was asking to be freed by the United States anyway.

    Pakistan, America’s “ally” in all this, was a principal funder and friend of the Taliban, always more focused on the perceived threat from India, seeing a failed state in Afghanistan as a buffer zone. Afghanistan was a narco-state with its only real export heroin. Not only did this mean the U.S. wanted to build a modern economy on a base of crime, the U.S. in different periods actually encouraged/ignored the drug trade into American cities in favor of the cash flow.

    The Afghan puppet government and military the U.S. formed were uniformly corrupt, and encouraged by the endless inflow of American money to get more corrupt all the time. They had no support from the people and could care less. The Afghans in general and the Afghan military in particular did not fail to hold up their end of the fighting; they never signed up for the fight in the first place. No Afghan wanted to be the last man to die in service to American foreign policy.

    There was no way to win. The “turning point” was starting the war at all. Afghanistan had to fail. There was no other path for it, other than being propped up at ever-higher costs. That was American policy for two decades: prop up things and hope something might change. It was like sending more money to a Nigerian cyber-scammer hoping to recoup your original loss.

    Everything significant our government, the military, and the MSM told us about Afghanistan was a lie. They filled and refilled the bag with bullhockey and Americans bought it every time expecting candy canes. Keep that in mind when you decide who to listen to next time, because of course there will be a next time. Who has not by now realized that? We just passively watched 20 years of Vietnam all over again, including the sad ending. So really, who’s to blame?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    What Keeps Canada Safe at Night? Joe Biden?

    March 12, 2021 // 3 Comments »

     

    We know what keeps America safe at night — rough men on the walls stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm, duh. But what about Canada? Or say, Cambodia or Bolivia?

    This is by way of trying to figure out why Joe Biden bombed Syria and derailed the resumption of the Iran nuclear accord, and why he has called off, delayed, or stalled further withdrawals from the places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria along the bloody trail of the old Global War of Terror. Canada (along with Cambodia, Bolivia and most others) never sent any of their rough men to most of those places to begin with, absent Afghanistan where some Canadian forces were deployed until 2014, a long 7 years ago. The peak was only about 2,000 soldiers anyway. Canada maintains a handful of small foreign outposts, mostly to handle logistics. They’re not fighting anyone anywhere.

    The U.S. famously has some 800 bases strewn around the globe, with troops in 150 countries, and boasts its special forces during any given week are deployed in 82 nations. Many of those Sneaky Pete’s are killing people in those places without the knowledge of the “host” country. Last year they operated in 72 percent of the nations on this planet, including 13 African nations. Can you name them? Why were Americans risking their lives in Burkina Faso? So we can sleep better?

     

    Few expected much from Joe Biden foreign policy wise, and he has delivered. About a month into office he bombed Syria. The ostensible justification was the target was not “Syrian” but 22 people associated with Iran. Militias in Iraq allegedly under Iran’s control killed an American contractor in Erbil so the bombing in Syria was retaliation for that. This was not only supposed to be a legal, moral, and ethical act by the Home of Democracy (c), it was supposed to have accomplished something toward Americans being safer. It did not; a U.S. airbase in Iraq was rocketed a few days later.

    Imagine Chinese aircraft flying halfway around the world and killing 22 people in Detroit in retaliation for something that happened in, wherever, Thailand. That OK? Whatever nations are looking to China for “leadership” (one of the things Biden was to restore after Trump broke it) might not be sure. China is an interesting example, because they did not retaliate against the United States for bombing their embassy in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. As in 1988 when an American cruiser shot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board, Washington just said it was a mistake so no retaliation was necessary. The world is encouraged to accept America alone does bad things for good reasons. Or no reason at all. Talk about uniqueness.

    If I thought like a Canadian, I would find it difficult to understand why the U.S. has to fight everyone. It is very hard to imagine America has enemies who need killing in 72 percent of the nations on earth. Or maybe not — after decades of invading, bombing, and regime changing, maybe they really do hate us. The relationship between the U.S. bombing people and people not caring for the U.S. seems unclear to Joe Biden and most of his predecessors, however.

    Thinking like an American, the ostensible reason for all this bombing seems to be Hitler. He’s why we couldn’t support Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea and no other president has even tried for 20 years, and why Biden seems reluctant to revive the Iran nuclear accord. In 1938 olde timey British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain got hoodwinked by Hitler. No American president wants to be Neville Chamberlain. So every bad guy in the world, whether Slobo Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, the cabal that runs Iran, Hugo Chavez, Castro even dead, is Hitler.

    It follows every friction point is Munich 1938 and the only way to deal with it without appearing Chamberlain-level weak is to attack just one more country. When actual fighting cannot be on the table, presidents are content with crippling sanctions, a kind of economic Guantanamo, as have been in place against Cuba since about when the Beatles first came to America, before that with North Korea, and since roller disco was popular in the case of Iran.

     

    It works for us, at least as far as politicians are concerned. They don’t look like Neville Chamberlain. They hardly ever suffer any consequences. There is absolutely no demanding of accountability (the new Washington watch word) for any act of war committed by any American president, including those who lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and created a global torture system the actual Hitler would have been happy to have franchised. Foreign policy in general is not a constraint on policymakers, because most of the public doesn’t care about it (quick, find Burkina Faso on a map.) Those that do care usually are pretty supportive of America’s wars, love the troops and all that. Washington and the media help out, spending most of a decade messaging “we have to be at war” post-9/11 for example, and that poo stain doesn’t wash out easy. The thing that finally turned the country against the Vietnam War, the draft of nice white middle class kids, is gone. Also gone are the waves of body bags, as much of modern killing is death from way above.

    The other reasons Joe Biden bombed Syria are equally familiar and equally false. We have backed away from “we need to protect the oil” since the first Bush Gulf War in 1991 though the phrase had a good run. Still out there is some version of “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” No one has invaded the U.S. since 1812, and when push came to shove on 9/11 a bunch of guys with box cutters worked around the $305.4 billion 2001 military budget. People on the left used to talk about “The American Empire” but even that has turned out to be pretty weak; we don’t imperially profit by raping conquered lands as a proper empire does. Where is our Raj? Our Opium War? Our rubber plantations and breadfruit farms? America got no oil from Iraq and no minerals from Afghanistan.

    We instead mostly wreck places (Libya and Vietnam come to mind) and then abandon them, or grab a little land for yet another overseas base. Americans sometimes talk like it’s all a great game of Risk, but war to simply grab resources and territory isn’t how things have worked for a long time. Other justifications? Ask any still living Iraqi how “spreading democracy” worked out. Stopping various genocides comes up from time to time, though when a real one came along in Rwanda the U.S. wasn’t up for it. And, oh yeah, Biden is the leader of the free world. Was there a vote, because if so it’s likely Andrea Merkel would have won. Did American get tasked by all other good countries to protect them, as if Canada couldn’t build a nuke if it wanted one and who is threatening them anyway? The Canadian military could invade Burkina Faso if they wished to. They just don’t wish to.

    The fall back justification since 1945 has been the myth that the U.S. is engaged in some global muscle-tussle to be the most powerfulist place. It used to be just Russia, but lately China seems to be the one we imagine challenging us everywhere while still owning the largest foreign share of American debt and making nearly everything sold in our stores. When was the last time China shot at us, never mind invaded us? Some may even remember we already defeated globalist Russia once before (Google “the Cold War, we won.”)

    Military spending does absorb over half of the federal government’s discretionary budget, meaning more money is spent on the Pentagon than on schools, infrastructure, climate, research, and diplomacy combined, so that may also have something to do with all this. Fun fact: in addition to leading the world in bombing, America is also the leading global arms dealer.

     

    Most of Joe Biden’s foreign policy team are brutalist left-overs from the Obama administration, the one that invaded Libya and set the ball rolling in Syria and Ukraine. They’re needed in 2021 about as much as mimes at a funeral. Head of the gang is Victoria Nuland, who worked to start her own war in Ukraine a few years ago. Supporting her are Tony “Global Policeman” Blinken and Susan Rice, she of invading Libya fame.  Maybe they and the others of the Class of 2016 will finally have those full-on wars  have always wanted but a stronger president like Obama sort of resisted. Bloody Nuland says more wars are basically a requirement. She co-wrote an article titled “Superpowers Don’t Get To Retire,” proclaiming “there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.” With policy friends like this, it’s clear why Biden bombed Syria and will do more of that kind of thing as opportunities arise.

    “America is back,” Biden bleats at every opportunity. What that means America is back to business as usual, and that means people abroad are gonna die. Blame Canada.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part I of II

    May 20, 2020 // 1 Comment »


     
    Saying “Mike Pompeo” out loud feels odd, like mouthing the name of an old girlfriend, or shouting out your GMail password. It just feels wrong in your mouth, because what’s Mike or the State Department done lately? As the Trump administration wraps up its first term focused on domestic issues, it occurs the United States has passed almost four years without a foreign policy, and without the need for a Secretary of State or a department of diplomats behind him.
     
    On his first anniversary in the job Pompeo told assembled diplomats “We needed everyone in their place, working on the mission, if we were going to achieve this mission on behalf of the president” but never actually said what that mission was. A Google query shows “Searches related to Mike Pompeo Achievements” include “mike pompeo weight – mike pompeo net worth.” One can easily imagine Pompeo, even pre-COVID, slipping out the side door at Foggy Bottom shouting “I’ll be working from home, check with my deputy if anything comes up” while his wife is waiting in the car for him, Ferris Bueller-style.

    We had high hopes for Mike. He and John Bolton (as National Security Advisor) were the Bad Boys who were supposed to start wars with Iran and North Korea, outdo Cheney and even challenge the legend himself, Henry “Bloody Hands” Kissinger. Pompeo watched as not much happened between the U.S. and North Korea. He watched as the ending of the Iran nuclear treaty caused not much to happen. John Bolton, who liberals expected to see on a throne in Tehran rolling a mullah’s bloody head around his lap, instead sits by the phone hoping a think tank will offer him an intern to listen to his stories, or maybe Dancing with the Stars will ring needing a last-minute. That show on Fox?

    Prior to Pompeo, the Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson. Tillerson couldn’t even come up with an elevator speech of his accomplishments when asked, listing as he left office North Korean sanctions which achieved nothing, alongside his own mea culpas for failing to make progress in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, where with a straight face he noted there was “more to be done.” A bit hard to blame him, as Trump chose a policy of stasis, not wanting to withdraw the last trooper and forever be the man who lost Afghanistan. Imagine if the U.S. had followed similar political caution and still garrisoned Vietnam?

    Commentators wrote Tillerson would be remembered as the worst secretary of state in history. Wrong. He made no significant blunders, gave away nothing. He just didn’t do much at all. His actual only real accomplishment was a humiliating apology tour of Africa meeting with leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign affairs grouchy over the president calling their nations sh*tholes.

     

    It would be easy to blame Trump, his open mic night style of making decisions, his decrees by Twitter, sucking all of the diplomatic air out of the room and suffocating up-and-coming diplomats like Mike and Rex before they even had a chance to try on their plumed hats. Unlike his predecessors, Trump never took advantage of his get-one-free foreign incursion along the lines of invading Grenada, occupying Lebanon, or an adventure in Somalia, never mind the big ticket items like Iraq Wars I-III. Sure, Trump did bomb Syria (who hasn’t?) and nipped at Iran, but the tumescence was over before the media could even declare the end of the world again.

    One can imagine meetings with friendly foreign nations in the Age of Trump: “Anything new from your side? No, you? Nah, something on Twitter from POTUS about armageddon, misspelled. Say, Crimea still giving you trouble? A little, whatever, you watching Tiger King? Pretty funny. Quite.”

     

    So turn the page backwards to John Kerry, Obama’s second term Secretary of State. Kerry imagined himself a Kennedy-esque man of action, Flashman at the ready, and had the State Department keep an online tally of how many miles he had traveled doing diplomatic stuff. The Nation called him “One of the Most Significant Secretaries of State in the Last 50 Years,” heady company when you realize the list includes Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, and Kissinger.

    OK, but… Kerry’s signature accomplishment, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, faded quickly. As negotiated the thing was only for ten years anyway, and would be about half over even if Trump had not walked away. And that’s giving Kerry full marks for getting an agreement where the National Security Council did much of the heavy lifting, and one which the Iranians wanted badly enough to help their economy they were willing to trade away a lot of Wonka tickets. Kerry’s work with the TPP and Paris Agreement also showed good effort. We’ll put them up on the fridge next to the one song Ringo got onto each Beatles album. Kerry’s muscular efforts came to little substance (albeit through little fault of his own) but the legacy business is harsh.

    After that, you have John Kerry helping muck up Syria. Kerry floundering in the Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry failing to move the ball forward in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Palestine, or blunting China as it assumed a pivotal role in Asia in every way except militarily (they’re working on it.)

    That Nation article praising Kerry also cites as achievements “the military retaking of Mosul, the sponsorship of an Oceans Conference, the strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council…” all of which mean what in 2020? Kerry did sing Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin at the APEC conference in the midst of a U.S. government shutdown. Kerry’s most significant achievement was leaving many Democratic voters secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush beat Kerry to take on a dismal second term.

     

    But Hillary! Never mind “one of,” Google chair Eric Schmidt called her “the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson” (suck it, Kerry.) Secretary of State was only the first half of the prize Hillary got for clearing the way for Obama in 2008 (Barack shooing Joe Biden aside for her in 2016 was the second) and Clinton made the most of it. For herself. Ignoring America’s real foreign policy needs (or was she being ignored?) she turned the State Department into an arm of her Foundation, projecting “soft power” on things like women’s issues and AIDS to match her eventual platform, all the while generating B-roll for the campaign like a chunky Angelina Jolie. She also had the Department obsessively document her constant travels, with formal photos of Secretary Clinton alongside world leaders as well as selfies of Hil letting her hair down among her own diplomats. “Texts from Hillary” predated Instagram. Not a pair of dry panties to be found over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    But in the tally of history, Hillary Clinton accomplished… not much. Time Magazine listed her key accomplishments as “the liberation of Libya, establishment of diplomatic ties with Burma and the assembly of a coalition against Iran.” In a summary piece, USA Today singled out “Clinton convinced Chinese leaders to free blind dissident Chen Guang Cheng,” who returned the favor by joining an American think tank opposing abortion and gay marriage.

    From the horse’s mouth, quoting Hillary Herself, key accomplishments were “hosting town halls with global youth, raising awareness for religious minorities, protecting Internet freedom and advancing rights for women and the LGBT community around the world.” Not resume items as momentous as forever changing the Cold War balance of power by opening China like Henry Kissinger or assembling the first Gulf War coalition like James Baker. Meanwhile, the world owes Hillary for her significant contributions to the failed state of Libya and the subsequent refugee flow, the human misery of Syria, the missed chances of the Arab Spring, and failing to end other wars she helped start or voted for.

    A generation before Hillary we have Colin Powell and Condi Rice, whose only accomplishments as Secretary were to march America into the desert and abandon her there (Colin) and march the State Department into the desert with the guaranteed-to-fail mission to create democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and abandon her there (Condi.)

     

    The good news is the U.S. is experiencing a peace of a sorts not by sweating out the sins of diplomacy, but just by not going around the world throwing matches into buckets of gasoline. Trump has made little use of his Secretaries of State and their Department. No recent president made much use of those diplomats either, so they are unlikely to be missed.

    The next Secretary, whether working for Trump or Biden, will find themself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. They may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing a network of embassies to serve as America’s concierge abroad, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations.

    If the U.S. government had to downsize into a smaller capital, the State Department would likely end up on the curb, alongside those boxes of the kids’ elementary school drawings. Cute, sentimental, good times, but why did we keep them all these years?

    How did this happen? In Part II of this article, we’ll look at the factors internal to State and the United States, and those external, global changes, that left the Department adrift.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    (No) World War III with Iran

    January 15, 2020 // 36 Comments »

    History will judge the long-term impact of the death of Qassem Soleimani. In the short-to-medium term, let’s step back from the fear-mongering to remain purposefully agnostic towards the meaning of Soleimani strike itself to instead focus on the geopolitical factors which make the large-scale war many fear unlikely.

    For Iran to provoke a large-scale war is suicide. They have no incentive to escalate to that level, though they may conduct attacks consistent with the last decades. Those attacks, and the U.S. responses, will in the current political and media climate (#WWIII was trending on Twitter and frightened youngsters crashed the Selective Service website worried a draft is forthcoming) consume our attention far beyond their actual impact, but they will in reality cycle inside the rough rules of what diplomats call escalation dominance, the tit-for-tat trading of controlling the moment, trying to stay under the victims’ threshold of response. Emotion is for amateurs.

    The most recent series of events bear this out. Iran and/or its proxies have fired on U.S. bases in Iraq multiple times, initiating the current escalation that included Soleimani’s death and this week’s missiles launched from inside Iran at American bases at Al Asad and in Erbil. Yet according to one long-time regional observer, “This doesn’t yet feel like a major escalation. Iran can claim it took revenge. Feels more like an escalation to deescalate.” Among other signals, the missiles’ long flight time, over some 200 miles, gave obvious warning to areas already on alert.

    Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted Iran was finished fighting and was not actively pursuing further escalation. Trump undertook no immediate counter-attack, and in a speech spoke only of further economic sanctions alongside some vague thoughts on future agreements. The two countries’ actions add up to a collective “We’re done if you’re done” for this round.

    This was all to be expected. Iranian leaders know theirs is a developed, industrialized nation, unlike places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq (and Vietnam before those.) It does not need to be invaded or occupied, it can be destroyed from the air. As only a regional power, it suffers from a massive technological disadvantage in any conflict the U.S., a nation, perhaps sadly, now long past the calculations of “kill a few Americans and watch them run” that drove it from Somalia in 1993 after “Black Hawk Down,” or out of Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks by Iranian-proxy Hezbollah. Unlike years past, America is willing to take a punch to throw back two. Iran’s political leaders are aware of the limits of asymmetric warfare in this world, especially because America’s lack of dependence on Persian Gulf oil means 2020 is not 1991.

    Iran, under sanctions, is near totally dependent on what oil it can export. Oil requires massive infrastructure, all of which can be bombed. Iran’s military operates in large part out of fixed sites. Its navy is small and its bases can be destroyed from the air, its harbors mined from above and below the water. The Iranian military is ranked globally below Brazil and Italy.

    I’ve been to Iran. I saw the martyrs memorial outside the main marketplace in the holy city of Mashhad, with the names of Iranians who died fighting the U.S. in Iraq from 2003 forward; Soleimani is respected by many Iranians, but he is neither the first nor the last soldier to die in this ongoing long war.

    Iran’s government meanwhile is a tense coalition of elected civilians, unelected military, and theocrats. None would stay in power following a major war. They face an almost schizophrenic population, happy to chant Death to America but equally open to the idea, albeit on more liberal terms than five American presidents, Republican and Democrat, have been willing to offer, of finding a way out from under sanctions that would release their potential and open them to the world.

    Iran understands its limits. Think about the provocations Iran has been forced to endure without escalation: U.S. troops landing in-country in a failed hostage rescue in 1980, U.S. support for Iraq in using weapons of mass destruction and the provision of intelligence which allowed the Iraqis to rain missiles on Iranian cities in 1980s, the U.S. shooting down an Iranian civilian aircraft, killing some 300 innocents in 1988, U.S. invading and occupying Iran’s eastern border (Iraq 2003) and western approaches (Afghanistan 2001) and maintaining bases there. In 2003, when Iran reached out following initial American military successes, George W. Bush flippantly declared them part of an Axis of Evil. U.S. forces then raided an Iranian diplomatic office in Iraq and arrested several staffers in 2007. The U.S. has kept crippling economic sanctions in place for decades, conducted the Stuxnet cyberattack in 2010 destroying Iranian nuclear centrifuges, and another 2019 cyberattack, never mind what the Isarelis have done covertly. Nothing led to a wider war. Soleimani died in context.

    Iraq, politically and geographically in the middle, has every reason to help calm things down. Despite the rhetoric, the Iraqi government needs the U.S. in situ as a balance against Iranian hegemony and as a hedge against the rebirth of ISIS. The recently passed, non-binding resolution for U.S. troops to leave Iraq carries no weight. It was passed by a divided government in caretaker status, applies only to the withdrawal of the anti-ISIS joint task force, and lacks both a timetable to happen and a mechanism to enforce it. Even that symbolic vote was boycotted by Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish (so much for losing the Kurds as allies) legislators, illustrating the difficulties a coalition Iraqi government faces in getting anything done.

    Should Iraq somehow find a way to move against the U.S. troop presence, promised American sanctions on Iraqi oil would devastate the economy and likely topple a government already besieged by its citizens of all backgrounds for failing to provide necessary basic services. The $200 million in direct aid the U.S. paid Iraq last year is a tiny portion of billions flowing in from Washington via loans, military assistance, training funds, etc. That all would be missed. Iraq needs a relative state of peace and stability to hold on. It will make ceremonial anti-American actions to appease its Shia majority and make it appear it is not being ordered around by the Americans it loves to hate, but the U.S. is not be driven out of Iraq.

    America itself has no reason to escalate any of this into a real war. Iran is strategically more or less where it has been for some time and there is no U.S.-side driver to change that now. Chaos in Tehran serves no purpose, and war would spiral the nation into a series of internal struggles spiced with fissionable material that has no place in a foreign policy calculus in an election year at home. Trump gets the political credit (84 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents approve of the strike) from his base for a tough-guy move with none of the sticky problems a wider conflict would create. His post-missile attack remarks position him as open to new talks of some kind.

    To accept the U.S. will start a major war assumes a fully irrational actor unfettered. Many people want to believe that for political purposes, but the hard facts of the last three years say when it gets to this strategic level Trump has not acted irrationally. Same this time; he did not act irrationally, or even provocatively, in the aftermath of the Iranian missile launches.

    It’s hard to point to any irrational act, a decision made that is wholly without logic or reason, a choice Trump knew would have dire consequences yet went with anyway. Forget the tweets; they have never added up to much more than fodder for pop psychologists, impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts. Absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions have come to pass. See North Korea, where Trump was supposed to start WWIII two years ago, or the trade wars that were to destroy the global economy, or any of the other pseudo-crises. In sum, no new wars. Economy chugging along. Trump manipulating Democrats into practically putting Che-style Soleimani T-shirts up on Etsy. The current commander-in-chief is likely to start a war? He’s the only recent president who hasn’t.

    If any of arguments above seem familiar, it’s because some are recycled bits and pieces from when Trump was in a Twitter fight with North Korea two years ago, and Democrats and the media insisted we were on the threshold of war.

    So forget the irrational actor argument. What is different going forward (Iran and the U.S. will clash again) is the risk that does exist with the post-1979 generation in the military and Deep State, those who remember the biggest red line of all, when the Iranians took 52 American government personnel hostage out of the American Embassy in Tehran. A lot of bad things happen out there in the world, good guys get chalked up, intelligence officers rolled, bombs go off in crowded nightclubs, drones shot down, but stone-cold taking hostages in diplomatic status right out of their embassy offices just isn’t done.

    The Nazis didn’t do it, the Communists didn’t do it, neither did dictators from the Kims to Pol Pot. Iran did, and the blood runs bad inside U.S. government old timers even today. Though they obviously failed this round, those people will try to get to Trump again after the next provocation with Iran. Revenge some say isn’t a policy. Maybe true; but revenge can be a goal and some will see their chance to use Trump’s willingness to act unilaterally and any miscalculation of over-reach by Iran as the excuse. There lies any real danger.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    So, Admiral McRaven Just Called for a Military Coup, Kinda

    October 18, 2019 // 7 Comments »


    Admiral William McRaven, famous for being the guy who told the guy who told the other guy who told the other guy who told that guy to go kill bin Laden, has essentially called for a military coup against the President of the United States in a New York Times Op-Ed.

    He begins with something to get the blood up, a call to the good military stuff, invoking generals who are “highly decorated, impeccably dressed, cleareyed and strong of character, [yet] were humbled by the moment” at a change of command ceremony. Then a little history, invoking the WWII Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to today’s CIA and Special Operations community, who had “faith that these values were worth sacrificing everything for.” In case it wasn’t clear, they “personified all that is good and decent and honorable about the American military,” he tells his Op-Ed’s intended audience, that very same military.

    Then, invoking that oath that requires the military to protect America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, McRaven explains to them why they may soon again be called to battle: “The America that they believe in was under attack, not from without, but from within.” This is not subtle. McRaven wants everyone down to the newest private to get the message Lima Charlie (Loud and Clear.)

    McRaven continues “These men and women, of all political persuasions, have seen the assaults on our institutions: on the intelligence and law enforcement community, the State Department and the press. They have seen our leaders stand beside despots and strongmen, preferring their government narrative to our own. They have seen us abandon our allies and have heard the shouts of betrayal from the battlefield. As I stood on the parade field at Fort Bragg, one retired four-star general, grabbed my arm, shook me and shouted, ‘I don’t like the Democrats, but Trump is destroying the Republic!'”

    Quick Summary: The president is destroying the Republic, from within. The last folks who wanted to destroy the Republic were the Nazis, the Commies, and the terrorists, and you know what we did to them.

     

    McRaven’s next step is reassuring the troops that whomever they are next ordered to kill, it is all for a good cause. “We are the most powerful nation in the world because we try to be the good guys. We are the most powerful nation in the world because our ideals of universal freedom and equality have been backed up by our belief that we were champions of justice, the protectors of the less fortunate.” That leaves aside the silliness of such a statement in light of what hell the American pursuit of justice has wrought among the millions dead in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, never mind in an earlier century across Southeast Asia and the Americas. This is not about that. This is about dehumanizing the next enemy, who may look alot like you this time McRaven is hinting, to convince his shooters they are killing for freedom.

    Finally, what this is really about. You guys need to be ready to take out Trump.

    Here are McRaven’s words: “If this president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs, both domestically and abroad, then it is time for a new person in the Oval Office — Republican, Democrat or independent — the sooner, the better. The fate of our Republic depends upon it.”

     

    Now everyone knows the election where Americans get to choose the next president is a year from now, no sooner. A generous soul, reading McRaven’s sentence in isolation would say that bit about “the sooner the better” maybe means he is hoping for impeachment to supersede the election, you know, get Trump out sooner without the risk and muss of allowing The People a say in it all. That’s certainly what McRaven would claim, perhaps with a wink at Jake Tapper this Sunday across the desk. But take this Op-Ed and reimagine something similar being said by a displeased colonel in the Turkish or Iranian army, or what as an intelligence officer yourself you’d be reporting about it from Moscow if it was said to you by a prominent Russian former general with deep personal loyalties into his former special operations forces at a time when a CIA officer (“the whistleblower”) is the driver behind an active impeachment process.

    Sure, McRaven is not ordering Seal Team Six into action today. But go ahead, convince yourself he isn’t laying the groundwork, or at least trying to remind people he could. In case you believe I am being overwrought, here’s what Tom Nichols of the Naval War College said: “I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of a retired four-star writing this piece right now. This is a watershed in American civil-military relations.” Nichols may have meant that as a good thing, but it is not.

     

    The frightening thing is McRaven’s literal call to arms does not occur in a vacuum. Once intelligent people are talking about actual civil war in America. This began after Trump retweeted a pastor saying impeachment would cause a “civil war-like fracture in this Nation.” Never mind that it was a retweet, and never mind that the original statement used “like” to make a comparison. The next headline was set: Trump Threatens Civil War If He’s Impeached. Another headline asked: “If Trump’s Rage Brings Civil War, Where Will the Military Stand?”

    This tracks with the meme that Trump will refuse to leave office if defeated in 2020, or will declare himself the winner even if he loses. “Trump Is Going to Burn Down Everything and Everyone,” reads the headline from a NASDAQ-listed media outlet. “Before Trump will allow himself to be chased from the temple, he’ll bring it down,” wrote Charles Blow in The New York Times.

    That’s just what the MSM is saying; it gets worse the further off the road you drive. “Trump is going to try everything, Fox is going to try everything, and they’re going to both further the injuring of societal reality and inspire dangerous individuals to kill and maim,” Jared Yates Sexton, a well-known academic, tweeted on September 28. “There’s a vast number of people in this, people who have been taught their whole lives that they might need to kill in case of a coup or corrupt takeover,” he continued. “Trump and Republicans signal to them constantly. They’re more than ready to see this as the occasion.” And of course this all festers alongside the relentless prattle from doctors who have never been inside the same zip code as their patient declaring the president, custodian of the nuclear codes, mentally ill, a danger to himself and others.

    That’s a nation McRaven feels might need to call on its military to intervene. Don’t dismiss this Op-Ed too quickly. Consider it instead… timely.

     

    On  a more personal note, I’ve been fired, accused, hated on by friends and relatives, and deplatformed multiple times for “supporting Trump.” I do not. But I am willing to think past him. It’s the old warning about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater; what we say and do now to get rid of Trump will survive him, and become part of the political lexicon forever. Impeach a president still widely supported by the American people three years into his term over a phone call? Sure, seems OK. Tolerate calls for violence, veiled threats of a coup in our largest newspaper? Constantly call the president dangerously mentally ill, a literal nutcase who should be institutionalized? That’s how to operate a democracy?

    And spare me the idea that Trump is not widely supported, with his low approval ratings. President Obama’s 11th quarter in office, October 2011 same now as Trump, was the worst of his administration, based on his quarterly average job approval ratings. His 41% approval average is down six percentage points from his 10th quarter in office, and is nearly four points below his previous low of 45% during his seventh quarter.

     

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Dachau Does Not Believe in Tears

    September 3, 2019 // 20 Comments »


     

    Right now someone in the media is finding another excuse to proclaim Trump is Hitler, America is Germany 1933, and something about concentration camps on the southern border. So I went to Dachau, just outside of Munich, to see a real concentration camp.

    You deal with the irony first. The people who in too loud voices mill around the station entrance asking “Is this the train to Dachau?” then the conductor’s announcement calling out the name as the next stop as if it was just another. The mediocre station has a McDonald’s. The bus stop sign for the shuttle you need to take has “Concentration Camp” written in English. Everyone around you is on vacation, dressed for it and chattering like it. You arrive at a visitor’s center, and there’s a rush for the toilets and the snack bar. Which way to the camp, Dad? Can we see the crematorium? Can we?
     
    A hundred steps outside the snack bar the world changes. The road turns gray even though the light playing through the poplars is from a postcard. They’ve changed the entrance location from a few years ago, and now you enter through the former SS barracks and come to the gate; it really says Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Will Set You Free) on the iron bars and you walk through just like they did. The gate only swings one way; you will leave, today, but it wasn’t originally designed that way and you can tell. There may be a hundred people with you but it is finally silent as you enter Dachau.

    It is too small. You see the administrative buildings to the right, the reconstructed prisoner barracks to the left, the assembly ground in front of you. You see the fences and walls on all four sides, walkable in a few minutes at an easy pace on a gorgeous day. It is too small to have held all those people, too small for all that happened, too small to be the symbol of Nazi power it was then. You expect something more substantial, with the distant site lines obscured, like at Disneyworld, where tricks of the eye make it seem more grand.

    It is too familiar. It takes just a few moments to get your bearings. You’ve seen photos before, and there are many posted, populating the place with buildings and people once here and forever gone. It is unlike say an art museum on the scale of the Met or the Uffizi where hours of circling corridors later you have no idea where you’ve been. You know Dachau.

    The museum unfolds in the order new prisoners were processed in. The early days of National Socialism are explained where the prisoners were first assigned numbers, the seizure of power by Hitler is documented in the room where people were stripped and deloused (subtlety is missing when the unit of measurement is Nazism) and you exit onto the campgrounds awkwardly after reading about their liberation by the 45th Infantry Division.

    You think, after all that reading and those museum exhibits (and it is a thorough education, much more than an Instagram collection of artifacts, and oh look, a real prisoner’s uniform, honey!) you understand something. But not yet. You have really just arrived and in front of you is Dachau itself, the ground, the air — the same ground they saw and air they breathed — and you have a choice. Many visitors turn back toward the snack bar, falsely satiated after an hour thinking they saw Dachau and anxiously trying to remember if the shuttle bus runs back to the station on the hour or the half-hour.

    But if you wait for them to leave, now you can see Dachau.
     
    Most of the place is empty, acres of crushed stone with flat markers showing where the now-missing barracks where. The trees lining the central road bisecting the camp are old. They were here when Dachau was working. You can match up an individual tree from a 1942 photo with the one in front of you and touch it. The sun is warm this day, a beautiful late summer afternoon with those wonderful tickles of early fall around it. A day to be alive grandpa would have called it. There must have been days just like this in 1942 here. Were there afternoon moments when for the length of time one could close one’s eyes the prisoners left the camp?

    There is some minor archaeological excavation work going on. The archaeologist stands over a hole about three feet deep and explains he is looking for evidence of the original fence line, the border of the camp before it was expanded in 1937. He found some wooden post fragments and some barbed wire. So the bottom of that hole is 1937 I ask? Yes, he says, the dirt and stones piled here haven’t seen sunlight since then. I ask if I can take one of the stones with me as a keepsake, and he explains that is not allowed, even as he looks away just long enough. Doing the right thing is hard enough elsewhere, never mind in Dachau.

    A sign simply states the area in front of you is where the barracks used for medical experiments on live humans stood. Another denotes the punishment barracks, where the SS found darker ways for those already living inside a camp designed only to punish. You see where the bodies were stacked like cordwood but you know wood is strong and straight and the images you are recreating show corpses floppy and tangled in their piles quite unlike cordwood. Now you are seeing Dachau, here in the deeper waters.
     
    Dachau does not believe in your tears. This is not a sentimental place. It is not clean. A universe of victims died here but this is not a place that acknowledges victimhood, or raises awareness, or gives voice, or traffics in the shallowness of hashtags. Dachau is here to declare what happened and to charge you with doing something with that information on the scale and with the accuracy Dachau requires.

    See, by coming here, it is now handed to you, that obligation. Hitler and his Dachau did not emerge from an election which frowned on a favored candidate. Following WWI Germany was purposefully humiliated and saddled with war reparations which were unpayable. An economic crisis unrolled. Inflation drove the nation to starvation. With no history of democracy, Germany was willed into a republic as unprepared as two virgins in an arranged marriage. Across the border the new Soviet Union and at home a powerful domestic Communist party threatened. Hungry people weren’t tricked into a strongman because of Facebook or some Electoral College fluke, they demanded one.

    Within three months of taking office Hitler gave himself the right to amend the Constitution, ended representative government, created special political courts, made criticism of the government a capital crime, and established Dachau. Two months after that Jews were fired from government positions, political parties and unions prohibited, opponents murdered, and books burned on government orders. There was no slippery slope, it was not incremental. It was inevitable.
     
    So there is obviously more to this story than a travelogue about an interesting day trip out to Dachau by train from nearby Munich. To say Trump is Hitler, America is Germany in 1933, or a grimy detention facility is a concentration camp means you have never been to Dachau.

    The presentation at Dachau is very un-2019, where everyone vies for adopted victimhood and chosen trauma. Dachau is cold, because only its facts matter. Tweets childishly mocking political opponents and regulations preventing a small number of self-declared trans people from joining the Army have nothing to do with Dachau. To stretch 2019 border facilities or exaggerate the historical impact of a march in Charlottesville is to turn Dachau relative, the dial jiggered to magnify some other event. It makes people numb, it dumbs down discussion, it is cheap, inaccurate, and exploitative. It demands mighty outrage from a partial set of facts. Both butterflies and elephants have legs, but no one should claim a butterfly is an elephant.

    Propagandists have always used ignorance to manipulate. Yet while CNN works to convince viewers silver mylar blankets instead of comfy quilts for migrants means there are concentration camps in America, Dachau reminds physicians here dissected human beings alive as part of medical experiments. Just as is taught in beginning writing courses, truth comes from showing not just telling. For those who think there is little significant difference between Germany 1933 and America today, there is Dachau to visit.
      

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Lessons for Afghanistan: My Time in Iraq 10th Anniversary Edition

    April 18, 2019 // 8 Comments »

    I recently spoke with some college students. They were in fifth grade when I first got on a plane to Iraq, and now study that stuff in classes with names like “Opportunities and Errors: 21st Century America in the Middle East.” I realized about halfway through our conversation it’s coming up on ten years ago I first went to Iraq.

    I was a Foreign Service Officer then, a diplomat, embedded with the U.S. Army at a series of forward operating bases. I was in charge of a couple of reconstruction teams, small parts of a complex failure to rebuild the Iraq we wrecked. I ended up writing a book about it all, explaining in tragic-comic terms how we failed (those “Errors.”)

    The book was and wasn’t well-received; people laughed at the funny parts but my message — it didn’t work and here’s why — was largely dissipated by a cloud of government and media propaganda centered on The Surge, David Petraeus’ plan to pacify the Sunnis and push al Qaeda away while clearing, holding, and building across the country, apparently to make room for ISIS and the Iranians to move in. Meanwhile the new American president, elected in part based on his “no” vote to go to war in 2003, proclaimed it all a victory and started bringing the troops home even while I was still in Iraq. When I got home myself, my employer from not long after I was taking classes called “Opportunities and Errors: America in the Middle East Since WWII,” the U.S. Department of State, was unhappy with the book. Over a year-long process State eventually pushed me into early retirement. My career was history.

    People asked in line at Trader Joe’s and in interviews on semi-important TV shows “Was it all worth it to you?” and I always answered yes. I wasn’t important, I said, the story was. We’re making the same mistakes in Afghanistan, I ranted at cashiers and pundits, and there is time to change.

    See, my book wasn’t aimed at cataloguing the failure in Iraq per se, but in trying to make sure we didn’t do the same thing in Afghanistan. The initial title wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The early drafts were pretentious scholarly stuff, outlining our mistakes. Harvard Business School-like case studies. Maps. Footnotes. It would have sold maybe five copies, and so my editors instead encouraged me to write more funny parts. NPR’s Fresh Air actually added a laff track to my interview. They were all right, and I figured I’d get the lessons across with humor more effectively anyway. In such situations you have to think that way. You can’t believe what you went through didn’t matter and keep getting out of bed every morning checking if it was yet Judgement Day.

    I now know officially it did not matter. It was pointless. SIGAR shows I accomplished nothing.

    SIGAR is the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a government oversight body that is supposed to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the billions of dollars being spent rebuilding Afghanistan but which has its hands full just recording a CVS-receipt length list of what’s wrong. Sounds familiar? SIGAR just released The 2019 High-Risk List which points out especially egregious things that will follow in the wake of any peace agreement in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:

    — Without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive.  [Peace] will come at an additional price that only external donors can afford.
    — There are over 300,000 Afghans currently serving in the security forces, most of whom are armed.  If, because of a loss of financial support, their paychecks were to stop coming, this could pose a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability.
    —  A failure to peacefully reintegrate as many as 60,000 heavily armed Taliban long-term would threaten any peace agreement as disaffected former Taliban who may have been expecting a peace dividend may return to violent and predatory behavior.

    — Effective policing will require a force that gives citizens the presumption of innocence, rather than anticipating and taking preemptive offensive operations against perceived threats… There is no comprehensive strategy for a competent civil police force backed by the rule of law.

    — Failure to effectively address systemic corruption means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted and, at worst, will fail.

    — The lack of sustained institutional capacity at all levels of government undermines the country’s development and ability to address the production and sale of illegal drugs. The opium trade plays a significant role in the Afghan economy and it is difficult to see how a peace accord between the Afghan government and the insurgency would translate into the collapse or contraction of the illicit drug trade.

    — If the U.S. reduces its presence in Afghanistan but feels compelled to provide significant financial support for reconstruction, there may be little choice but to provide a greater proportion of funding as on-budget assistance. But if that road is taken and conditions are lacking, we may as well set the cash ablaze on the streets of Kabul for all the good it will do.

    That last line really got me; in my book I’d written “While a lot of the money was spent in big bites at high levels through the Embassy, or possibly just thrown into the river when no one could find a match to set it on fire…” Had SIGAR read what I’d written or was the joke just so obvious that we’d both come to the same punchline ten years and two countries apart?

    A former State Department colleague is on her fourth (or fifth?) tour in Afghanistan. She likes it over there, says Washington leaves her alone. Her job has something to do with liaising with the few NATO military officials still around. It’s pretty easy work, they’ve known each other for years.  She harbors no illusions, and in a sober moment would likely agree with SIGAR that after over 17 years of American effort, Afghanistan has almost no chance of survival except as a Taliban narcoland with financial support needed indefinitely to avoid whatever “worse” would be in that calculus.

    We all know but try not to talk too much about the over 6,900 U.S. service members, 7,800 contractors, and 110,00 uniformed Iraqi and Afghan “allies” who died for that, and its companion Iranian client state in Iraq. A tragically high percentage of veterans have also died since returning home of drug overdoses, car accidents (?) or suicide. Nobody really knows how many civilians died, or even how to count them. Bombs and bullets only? Hunger and cold? Abandoned kids and enslaved women? Do we count deaths in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and wherever too?

    Iraq wrecked me, too, even though I initially somehow didn’t expect it to. I was foolish to think traveling to the other side of the world and spending a year seeing death and poverty, being in a war, learning how to be mortared at night and decide it doesn’t matter I might die before breakfast, wasn’t going to change me. In the military units I was embedded in three soldiers did not come home, all died at their own hands. Around us Iraqis blew themselves up alongside children. Everyone was a potential killer and a potential target, sides appearing to change depending on who was pointing the weapon even as we were all the same in the end. I did this once, at age 49, on antidepressants and with a good family waiting at home for me. I cannot imagine what it would have done to 18 year old me. And I had it easier than most, and much, much easier than many.

    The only way to even start to justify any of it was to think there was some meaning behind it all. It didn’t do anything for me but fill my soul with vodka but maybe it… helping someone? A buddy I saved? No, I didn’t save anyone. The Iraqis? Hah, not one was better off for my presence. Maybe America? Please.

    Around the same time as the SIGAR report, the Army War College released its official history of the Iraqi Surge, a quagmire of dense prose I’m only about halfway through, but so far no mention of the impact of reconstruction. The theme so far seems to be the Army had some good ideas but the politicians got in the way. Fair enough, but they often misspelled Vietnam as i-r-a-q all through the book. The Army seems committed to calling things like suicide bombing and Shiite militias running whole neighborhoods as crime syndicates “challenges” instead of the more vernacular “failures.” That answers all questions about whether anyone will be held responsible for their work.

    The post-9/11 wars spread across three presidencies so far. Pick the thing you detest most about Bush, Obama, and Trump, and complain how it was never investigated enough, and how there weren’t enough hearings, and how he got away with it. And then I’ll disagree, for most everything that happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone uninvestigated, unheard, and unpunished. It’s all ancient history.

    All those failures have had no consequences on the most significant decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as a Nobel peace prize winner. Trump is criticized bizarrely both as a war monger and for talking about reducing U.S. troops in Middle East. The State Department ambassadors and senior leaders responsible retired, many to sweet university teaching jobs or think tanks. The generals found similar hideouts in pseudo-academia or as consultants; some are still in the military. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it, and that kind of thinking doesn’t do me any good anyway.

    Oh, and on April 8 four Americans were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan, including a New York City firefighter (9/11, Never Forget!) The incident occurred when an IED exploded in a vehicle near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. Taliban forces claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, which also wounded three additional U.S. servicemen.

    We all want to believe what we did, what we didn’t do, the moral injury, the PTSD, the fights with spouses, the kid at home we smacked too hard when she wouldn’t eat her green beans, all of what we saw and heard and smelled (oh yes, the smells, you know there’s a body in that rubble before you see him) mattered. You read that SIGAR report and tell me how. Because basically I’m history now.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    What Happens Next in North Korea? Look Back at the China Example from 1979

    May 4, 2018 // 3 Comments »



    On April 27 North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in met, ahead of a trilateral summit with President Trump in June.

    There was a lot to talk about, but the focus in the west on nuclear issues misses the real story: Kim may be seeking revolutionary economic upheaval. There are signs everything is ready to change.

    It is not hard to imagine Kim has a biography of former Chinese leader Deng Xiao-ping on his nightstand. A nuclear power since the late 1960s, China’s centrally-managed economy as Deng took power was failing to feed its people. The nation remained mostly isolated from the world, dependent on the Soviet Union. Then everything changed in 1979 when Deng secured an agreement with President Jimmy Carter that covered his security needs (no one seemed worried China had nukes), diplomatically papered over his unproductive, long-simmering political issues like the status of Taiwan, and allowed him to introduce changes that led directly to China’s economic ascendancy.

    A key sign Kim is headed the same way is the extraordinary number of concessions he has made ahead of his upcoming summits. Kim is acting like a man in a hurry.


    Kim agreed to seek a formal end to the 1950 Korean War (supported by some 80% of South Koreans, an agreement would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 elections.) Following a visit to Beijing, signifying sign-off on what happens next from the North’s Chinese patrons (confirmed soon after when Kim received Song Tao, a key Chinese diplomat, in Pyongyang), Kim Jong-un announced denuclearization of the peninsula negotiable, while at the same time saying he no longer insists the U.S. remove its troops in the South as a precondition to discussions.

    Trump could never agree to troop reductions at this early stage, and could never move into a summit if denuclearization was non-negotiable; Kim has taken those problems off the table. Kim then announced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and closed down the Punggye-ri test site. The rain of missiles which in the fall prompted Trump to issue his “fire and fury” threat simply stopped.

    Kim also announced the end of his signature domestic policy, byungjin, the parallel advance of defense and the domestic economy (Kim’s father promoted the defense-only policy of songun.) At a recent Workers’ Party meeting, Kim said it was time to focus the nation’s resources on rebuilding its economy, a clear signal to domestic elites he is aware of their desire for a better life. Throw in for good measure the reopening of the intra-Korea hotline, CIA director Mike Pompeo’s welcome in Pyongyang, the recent recognition of capitalism in North Korean law, and the stream of cultural exchanges underway, to include K-Pop shows attended by Kim himself.

    These concessions and changes are exactly the things most people would have expected to be the focus of the summits, if not the hoped-for results of months of tedious negotiations to follow. But what if Kim wants more?


    Wipe clean for a moment the cartoon image of Kim as a madman and re-imagine him as a nationalist. Kim literally grew up surrounded by westerners at boarding school in Switzerland, and speaks French, German, and some English. He knows where North Korea sits in the world. What if Kim sees himself as his nation’s Deng Xiao-ping? What if, having a crude nuclear deterrent and knowing pushing it further can only hasten his destruction, he is ready to end his nation’s isolation? What if by sweeping many of the expected short-term American goals off the table with unilateral concessions Kim wants to move directly to talking money, not just weapons? What if Kim is actually following Deng’s example?

    One of Deng’s first changes allowed farmers to sell surplus produce. Factories were told to sell production over-quota on the open market. Special economic zones designed to make money (not political showpieces such as the North-South experiment at Gaeseong) were set up, with much of the early action focused on “safe” partners like Hong Kong.

    So it may matter a lot that Seoul is already exploring ways to sell electricity to the North, and that Kim supports special economic zones. Or that there are already some 480 sanctioned (not “black”) free markets in North Korea, jangmadang, many new since Kim took power, hundreds more renovated or expanded under his hand. North Korea’s state-controlled media regularly runs pictures of Kim visiting these markets. There is a restless and growing consumerist middle class in North Korea, living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign media, all not unknown to the Kim regime.

    “Everything about North Korea spells potential,” says one North Korean defector now at the South Korea Development Bank. Estimated to be worth six trillion dollars, North Korea’s reserves of gold, copper, zinc, and other minerals would allow Kim to diversify his sources of income if he converts his country into what Bloomberg calls a “frontier market” in the center of a booming region.

    Unlike previous negotiations with North Korea, when Kim’s father had to be bribed by the Clinton administration with a nuclear reactor to even come to the table, with the South dragged along by Washington as a neo-colonial afterthought, the current process is driven by the Korea’s (witness the low-key role America played at the diplomatic dance at the Olympics.) As one analyst put it “It is no longer where the U.S. may take the negotiating process so much as where the negotiating process may take the U.S… Those in the region now seem determined to commandeer a train the Americans have driven for 65 years.”

    To succeed, Trump need do little more than not fall prey to establishment fears, be unafraid to enable the economic opportunities he claims to understand well, and stay out of the way as the two Korea’s with their shared cultural, linguistic, and historical ties frame the issues. In this sense, the Kim-Moon summit may be more important than the Kim-Moon-Trump one. However, if Trump bulls into the room and says “Nukes, number one and we’re done” the process will stall.


    Political opponents will claim “they’ll renege, just you wait.” They will make the most of the “we beat the other guy” statements Kim (and Trump) will make for their domestic audiences. Media are teeing up denuclearization as a strawman, claiming if Trump comes home with the North retaining its weapons, he has failed. Such remarks are ahistorical nonsense, as denuclearization is a process, not an event. The Obama-era Iran accords required two years of negotiations and didn’t even involve actual weapons. U.S.-Soviet Cold War progress was measured in baby steps strung out over decades. Fast-track denuclearization has its history, too, in the failures in Libya and Iraq.

    Success will be measured as North Korea engages the international system, thus reducing the threat of war as a base for reducing the weapons. After all, decades of sanctions have yielded only a nuclear North Korea, and summit or no summit that is a starting point, not a debatable point. It is possible to imagine a future where North Korea’s nuclear stockpile erodes into the status of those in Pakistan and India, never mind China, an understood deterrent, not a threat. Focusing too much on the nukes is to ensure failure; they are part of a problem solved by a comprehensive solution that takes into account what the North is really at the table for: engagement with the world system.

    Reviewing the last ten years of western political thought on North Korea it is staggering how poorly predictions have panned out; there has been no succession struggle, no societal collapse, no coup, no war — and no progress. It is as if having painted one picture, the west is intellectually blocked from considering another. That is the most dangerous thing afoot as the 2018 summit looms.




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Soldier Boy, for Veteran’s Day

    November 16, 2017 // 4 Comments »



    Perhaps only ancient Sparta claimed to support its military more than the United States. From the “soldiers in uniform board first” rituals that happen only in American airports, to politics where a decision not to serve is forever held against a candidate, there are reminders that America’s troops are a presence in our society like few others.

    The desire to claim a piece of that leads to elaborate lies, known as “stolen valor.” People buy regulation uniforms and walk through society showing off medals, telling fake war stories, and accepting unearned thanks, all without ever having served a day. They want the juice without having endured the squeeze. They are out there this Veteran’s Day, and they are to be loathed.

    At the same time we curse the fakes, we might also spare a thought this Veteran’s Day to those who really did serve, and how society in return shows its real support. Because while some fake service, in too many ways society fakes support:

    — We pass by 40,000 veterans homeless on any given night. More than half suffer from mental illness.

    — We watch the troops die because of long waits for care at U.S. veterans hospitals.

    — We know some 460,000 vets from the Iraq and Afghan wars suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries. Statistics are hard to come by from America’s other wars, but since the working figure for PTSD out of Iraq and Afghanistan is about 20 percent, that would leave millions of Vietnam and Korean vets suffering.

    — We read in Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide that military suicides increase among those who deploy overseas, among those who suffer brain injuries, and particularly among those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

    — We are silent as 20 veterans a day commit suicide.

    What does it all add up to on Veteran’s Day? This.


    As a State Department foreign service officer I spent a year embedded with the Army in Iraq at several smaller forward operating bases (FOBs). I wrote this about one very bad day.

    I heard about Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson’s (name changed) death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. He’d put the barrel of his rifle into his mouth, with the weapon set for a three-round burst, and blew out the back of his skull. I saw the fan spray on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. The blood smelled coppery and though I never smelled that before or since I can summon the smell into my mind at any time I wish, and at some times I don’t wish.

    The death of any soldier reverberated through the FOB. This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The ritual prescribed by regulation was the same, whether the death was by suicide or in combat. The chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Ohio or Georgia for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box with holes for the U.S. and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle. The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a high school wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. It was fitting no one had cleaned the boots, because the presence of the dust and dirt wiped away a lot of the cheapness of the event.

    There was a program with the official Army photo of the deceased, posed in front of an American flag — you could see a few red pockmarks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar on his forehead. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo. The chaplain read the 23rd Psalm.

    The required speeches were strained because the senior officers who had to speak at these events rarely knew, or could know among the many troops under them, the deceased. The dead man’s job had something to do with radios and most present didn’t say much beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible, and he probably felt bad for his lack of conviction, and that he was not a Pericles or Lincoln.

    The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted with the deceased. In this ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this FOB. Nobody had befriended him, and this being the third suicide on the FOB made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over-rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.

    But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in a while somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Captain rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”

    The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name was called. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, that day, at that place, we all missed him anyway.


    We will hear a lot this Veterans Day about supporting the troops and thanking them for their service. Please do those things; they deserve it.

    But don’t traffic in bullshit this Veterans Day. For all the talk about how much we owe, no one ever demands we pay up. If our nation insists on being so quick to send men and women into harm’s way, then it damn well better face up to its obligation to take care of them beyond yellow ribbons, firm handshakes, and discounts on wings ‘n beer. Food, shelter, health care, counseling– that’s how you support the troops on Veterans Day and every other day. We remember Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson by taking care of the brothers and sisters of his we created.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Sorry, No War in North Korea

    August 8, 2017 // 44 Comments »



    I’m so sorry to disappoint so many people, but there is not going to be a war with North Korea.


    No, no, Trump is not going to start a war there. And, no, Kim Jong Un is not going to start a war there. It is not going to happen, despite a cottage industry of pundits who seem to really believe war is only moments away.


    Let’s start with the obvious. A war on the Korean peninsula benefits no one and is really, really bad for everyone (we’ll get to the irrational madman theory in a moment.)

    Any conflict means the end of North Korea, and the end of the Kim dynasty. The U.S. will win any fight, nuclear or not, and Kim and everyone with any power or money in the North knows that. North Korea has no reason to start a war that will end in its own destruction. The people there with power and money do not want to give those things up.

    South Korea, same thing. They will also be destroyed in whole or in part, and, should much survive in the south, they will also get stuck with the mass of refugees flowing out of whatever is left of North Korea. China will not want war for much of the same reason, plus the loss of the buffer state the North represents, plus the desire not to have a smoking radioactive ruin on its border.

    The U.S. does not want war because of all of the above, the likelihood that ally Japan will get trashed along the way, the likely global economic depression that will follow and/or because no one in Washington will bet the house that the North Koreans don’t have a submarine that might get close to Hawaii, a way to deliver a dirty bomb somewhere, or that a glow-in-the-dark North won’t spark off a worldwide radioactive climate crisis.

    Because see, how unlike every other shooting war of the last 70 years including everything in the Middle East, war on the Korean peninsula is different. North Korea is a nuclear state, and that changes everything. Deterrence works, it really does. Ask the Cold War about that.


    And that leaves us with the madman theory, the idea that either Trump or Kim or maybe both are irrational, impulsive crazy people who could just one night say, to hell with it, let’s push the button. The problem with this theory is that nothing in history supports it.

    The Kim dynasty has been in power some 70 years, three generations. They have weathered conventional war, sanctions, and numerous war-like acts. They have dealt with famine. They survived the fall of the Soviet Union and generations of American governments. They did not act irrationally. You don’t stay in power for seven decades acting irrationally or impulsively. You stay in power and hold your own against multiple superpowers by careful actions and good choices. There is nothing — nothing — to support any contention Kim might act any more irrationally than his nuclear-armed dad did.

    Sorry to say it, but same for Trump. You hate him, I know that. He is not bright. But same as Kim, he has decades of actions that show he knows how to handle things. He ran a company, he made some money, he got himself elected president. He’s been in office now some seven months and absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions people have been puking up on the Internet since November have happened.

    Neither Trump nor Kim will wake up for cocoa and push a button like Dr. Evil and start WWIII.

    So relax. There are other things to worry about. Say a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident in North Korea that sends millions of refugees into South Korea and irradiates Japan as air currents blanket Tokyo with glowing dust.



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    Morality, Expediency, and Hiroshima

    // 10 Comments »



    August 6 usually doesn’t make headlines in America. But mark the day by what absence demonstrates: on the 72nd anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and some 140,000 non-combatants, there is no call for reflection in the United States.

    In an era where pundits routinely worry about America’s loss of moral standing because of an offish, ill-mannered president, the only nation in history to employ a weapon of mass destruction on an epic scale, against an undefended civilian population, otherwise shrugs off the significance of an act of immorality.

    But it is August 6, and so let us talk about Hiroshima.


    Beyond the destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen. This myth has become the underpinning of American war policy ever since, and carries forward the horrors of Hiroshima as generations of August 6’s pass.

    The myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were dropped out of grudging military necessity, to hasten the end of the war, to avoid a land invasion of Japan, maybe to give the Soviets a good pre-Cold War scare. Nasty work, but such is war. As a result, the attacks need not provoke anything akin to introspection or national reflection. The possibility, however remote, that the bombs were tools of revenge or malice, immoral acts, was defined away. They were merely necessary.

    That is the evolved myth, but it was not the way the atomic bombings were first presented to the American people.


    Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new power to destroy at a button push – “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city,” said Mr. Truman. The plan put into play on August 6 – to force the Japanese government to surrender by making it watch mass casualties of innocents – speaks to a scale of cruelty previously unseen. It was fair; they’d started it after all, and they deserved the pain.

    The need to replace the justification to one of grudging military necessity, a tool for saving lives, grew out of John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorke. Owing to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required a formal response. Americans’ imagined belief that they’re a decent people needed to be reconciled with what had been done. With the Cold War getting underway, and with American leadership fully expecting to obliterate a few Russian cities in the near future, some nuclear philosophical groundwork needed to be laid.


    And so the idea that the bombing of Hiroshima was a “necessity” appeared in a 1947 article, signed by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Dr. Conant described the article’s purpose as countering Hersey’s account at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”

    The Stimson article was the moment of formal creation of the Hiroshima myth. A historically challengeable argument was recast as unquestionable – drop the bombs or kill off tens of thousands, or maybe it would be millions (the U.S. regularly revised casualty estimates upwards), of American boys in a land invasion of Japan. It became gospel that the Japanese would never have surrendered owing to their code of honor, though of course surrender is in fact exactly what happened. Nonetheless, such lies were created to buttress a national belief that no moral wrong was committed, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection by the United States. Full speed ahead into the nuclear age.

    No later opportunity to bypass reflection was missed. American presidents from Truman to Bush chose not to visit Hiroshima. The 50th anniversary of the bombing saw a moderately reflective planned exhibit at the Smithsonian turned into a patriotic orgy that only reinforced the “we had no choice” narrative. When Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima in 2016, his spokespeople went out of their way to make it clear he would be looking only forward, the mushroom cloud safely out of sight.


    American foreign policy thus proceeded under a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified simply based on who holds the knife, with much of the history of the next 70 some years a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition, and indefinite detention could be explained in character as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right.

    And with that, Boom! the steps away from August 6 and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the rubble of Mosul are merely a matter of degree. The drone deaths of children at a wedding party are unfortunate collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism. Same as the 3,100 civilians killed from the air since the U.S. launched its coalition war against Islamic State, along with 3,674 civilians destroyed by drone strikes in other parts of the world.

    We are, in fact, able to think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia…) a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands had Hiroshima not be killed for their prospective sins. There is little discussion because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says expediency wipes away concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to righteously strike next.


    America’s deliberate targeting of civilians, and its post-facto justifications, are clearly not unique, either in World War II, or in the wars before or since. Other nations, including Japan itself, added their own horror to the books, mostly without remorse. But history’s only use of nuclear weapons holds a significant place in infamy, especially on this August 6. America’s lack of introspection over one of the single most destructive days in the history of human warfare continues, with 21st century consequences.




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    How to Sustain Perpetual War (It’s Easy; Hide the Bodies)

    July 15, 2017 // 24 Comments »

    unclesam


    Sustaining America’s state of post-9/11 perpetual war requires skillful manipulation of the public at home. The key tool used for this purpose is the bloodless narrative, a combination of policy, falsehoods and media manipulation that creates the impression that America’s wars have few consequences, at least for Americans.

    How can the American government sustain its wars in the face of dead soldiers coming home? Why is there no outcry among the American people over these losses? The answer is the narrative of bloodless war.


    The Dead

    The bloodless war narrative’s solution to the dead is a policy of don’t look, don’t tell.

    Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush, helped decide in 1991 the first Iraq War would play better if Americans did not see their fallen return home. He recalled the images of coffins from the 1989 invasion of Panama on television, transposed against the president speaking of victory, and banned media from Dover Air Force Base, where deceased American personnel would arrive from the Persian Gulf.

    The ban at Dover lasted 18 years, past George Bush 2.0 and Iraq War 2.0, overturned only in 2009, well after the casualty counts dropped off. Even then, allowing cameras at Dover was left at the discretion of the families, except of course when the president needed a blood-stirring photo op. Obama took one just before ordering the surge in Afghanistan.

    Death, when it is reluctantly acknowledged, must still follow the bloodless narrative as closely as possible. Death must be for a good cause, freedom if possible, “for his buddies” later when public opinion weakens.

    There is no better example in recent times than the death of Pat Tillman, America’s once-walking propaganda dream. Tillman was a professional football player making a $3.6 million salary. Following 9/11, he gave that all up, and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, the Army told his family he’d been killed by enemy fire after courageously charging up a hill to protect his fellow soldiers.

    It was of course the right thing to say to support the narrative, but it was a lie.

    A month later, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire. The month placed the non-narrative news safely after Tillman’s memorial service and in the fog of faded media interest. Later investigations revealed the Army likely knew the death was by friendly fire within days.

    The Physically Wounded
    For all the trouble the dead cause to the bloodless narrative, the wounded are even messier. They still walk around, sometimes speak to journalists, and, well, do not always look bloodless.

    The Honolulu side of Waikiki beach is anchored by a hotel run by the Department of Defense as a low-cost vacation destination for servicepeople. While some of the grounds are public by Hawaiian law, the hotel itself is off limits.

    I used to have a government ID that let me in. Inside, who is a soldier? The buff bodies stand out against the beached whale look more popular among regular tourists. The odd-patterned tans – browned faces with pale white limbs – betray a recent trip to the Middle East.

    But sometimes it is a missing limb on a 20-year-old, or a face that looks like raw bacon. Could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, but I doubt it. The burns sketched precisely where the helmet had, and had not, been, a map of pain.

    That’s on the inside. When we as outsiders see images of the wounded, they instead follow the narrative. Brave troopers, with their state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs, are shown skiing, surfing or working out. Some featured amputees even demand to return to active duty. They show off their new limbs, some decorated with decals from their favorite sports teams. They are brave and they are strong.

    The inside story is again very different. A recent book by Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars, fills in what the narrative omits. As a summation, Jones offers the haiku of one military trauma nurse: “Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22. We cry.”


    The Mentally Wounded
    Military suicides have made it through the screen of bloodless narrative, but just barely, thanks to the Hollywood-ization of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

    Where we need clarity, we get tropes, such as the freaked-out-at-home scenes in Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Not to say those things don’t happen (they do) but to say those types of scenes are incomplete, giving enough info to arouse sympathy without actually being too alarming. As Ann Jones points out, such treatment of PTSD is “useful in raising citizen sympathy for soldiers, defusing opposition to Washington’s wars, and generally medicalizing problems that might raise inconvenient political and moral issues.”

    At the same time, another non-Hollywood narrative bubbles just below the surface, that some vets are exaggerating or outright faking it. PTSD inherits all of our stigmas toward mental illness, and that dilutes the bad news.

    One way of not knowing is not to look for the answers at all. The narrative says we should be like Mafia bosses’ kids, who never ask what Daddy does for a living despite our big house and fancy cars.


    When the Narrative Fails
    During the year I spent in Iraq, the only deaths experienced by the Army units I was embedded with were suicides.

    The death I was most familiar with was a young Private, who put his assault rifle into his mouth. No one back home saw what I saw, because they were not supposed to see: the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off as I arrived to look.

    These things are not unspeakable, we just don’t want to talk about them, and the bloodless narrative says we don’t have to. That keeps it alive. Because when the narrative fails, the wars tend to end.

    For example, in 1969, Life magazine published a famous edition consisting entirely of portraits of the Americans who died in Vietnam that week. Many subscribers canceled, but many more looked for the first time outside the narrative. The war found its end.

    In another conflict, President Bill Clinton pulled American troops out of Somalia after a photo showed crowds cheering a dead American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That image dogged American war mongering until it could be cleaned up by the bloodless narrative of Gulf War 1.0.

    We are no longer likely to see those nasty pictures. The military has become more skillful at manipulating the media, even as the media has become more compliant. In the X-rated world of war, most of the media refuses to budge from family fare.

    The military-media symbiosis is just one more tool that feeds the narrative. As long as Americans are convinced of the bloodlessness of perpetual war, the wars will go on.



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    Abandoned by U.S. Government, Irradiated Servicemembers Turn to Japan for Help

    July 11, 2017 // 24 Comments »

    fukushima


    It was a rescue mission, but one that years later turned the tables on victim and rescuer. Abandoned by their own government, American servicemembers who came to the aid of Japanese disaster victims will now benefit from a fund set up for them by a former prime minister.

    Following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011 in Japan, it quickly became clear the rescue work needed far outstripped the capabilities of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. The tsunami, whose waves reached heights of 130 feet, crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant, shutting down its cooling system and causing a nuclear meltdown that devastated the immediate area and at one point threatened to send a radioactive cloud over much of the nation.

    Operation Tomadachi

    The United States quickly dispatched an entire aircraft carrier group, centered on the USS Ronald Reagan, some 25 ships, for what came to be known as Operation Tomadachi (Friend). The U.S. provided search and rescue, and medical aid. Thousands of American military personnel assisted Japanese people in desperate need.

    But it did not take long before the problems started.


    The Aftermath

    Military personnel soon began showing signs of radiation poisoning, including symptoms rare in young men and women: rectal bleeding, thyroid problems, tumors, and gynecological bleeding. Within three years of the disaster, young sailors began coming down with leukemia, and testicular and brain cancers. Hundreds of U.S. military personnel who responded to Fukushima reported health problems related to radiation.

    Some of those affected had worked in the area of the nuclear disaster, some had flown over it, many had been aboard ships that drew water out of the contaminated ocean to desalinate for drinking. All personnel were denied any special compensation by the U.S. government, who referred back to Japanese authorities’ reports of relatively low levels of radiation, and to the military’s own protective efforts.

    In a final report to Congress, the Department of Defense claimed personnel were exposed to less radiation than a person would receive during an airplane flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. The Defense Department stated due to the low levels of radiation “there is no need for a long-term medical surveillance program.”

    However, five years after the disaster and more than a year after its final report, a Navy spokesperson admitted that 16 U.S. ships from the relief effort remain contaminated. However, the Navy continued, “the low levels of radioactivity that remain are in normally inaccessible areas that are controlled in accordance with stringent procedures.”



    Other Parts of the U.S. Government Reacted Very Differently to the Threat

    On March 16, five days after the meltdown, the State Department authorized the voluntary departure from Japan of eligible family members of government personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and other State Department facilities.

    Ten days later, the U.S. military moved over 7,000 military family members out of Japan under what was also called a “voluntary departure.” The effort, codenamed Operation Pacific Passage, also relocated close to 400 military pets.

    And around the same time, the American Embassy repeated a Japanese government warning to parents about radioactive iodine being detected in the Tokyo drinking water supply. Tokyo is about 150 miles away from the Fukushima disaster site.



    U.S. Servicemembers Sue the Nuclear Plant Owner

    After receiving no help from their own government, in 2013 a group of U.S. servicemembers (now numbering 400; seven others have died while the lawsuit winds its way through the courts) filed a lawsuit against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owner of the nuclear plant) seeking more than two billion dollars.

    The suit contends TEPCO lied about the threat to those helping out after the nuclear disaster, withholding some information and downplaying the dangers. The suit requests $40 million in compensatory and punitive damages for each plaintiff. It also requests a fund for health monitoring and medical expenses of one billion dollars.

    It is unclear when the lawsuit will reach a decision point, one which, if it implicates TEPCO, will then begin another long legal journey through the appeals process. A resolution will take years.



    Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi Steps Up

    However, while the U.S. government seemingly abandoned its servicemembers, and TEPCO hides behind lawyers, one unlikely person has stepped up to offer at least some monetary help with victims’ medical bills: former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

    Koizumi left office five years before the Fukushima disaster, but has what many feel is a sense of national guilt over how the Americans were treated. In May 2016, Koizumi broke down in tears as he made an emotional plea of support for U.S. Navy sailors beset by health problems, saying “U.S. military personnel who did their utmost in providing relief are now suffering from serious illnesses. We cannot ignore the situation.”

    The former prime minister had become a vocal opponent of nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown. He responded to a request from a group supporting the TEPCO lawsuit plaintiffs and flew to the United States to meet with the veterans.

    Koizumi later told reporters he has set up a special fund to collect private donations for the former service members, with the goal of collecting one million dollars. Koizumi has already raised $400,000 through lecture fees.

    “I felt I had to do something to help those who worked so hard for Japan,” he said. “Maybe this isn’t enough, but it will express our gratitude, that Japan is thankful.”



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    Moral Injury and Hooper’s War

    June 17, 2017 // 17 Comments »



    As research for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan I encountered people suffering in ways they had a hard time describing but which they wrestled with God over everyday. They told me they went away to fight with an idea “we’re the good guys, they’re not” that did not always survive the test of events. They spoke of a depth of pain that needed an end, some end, and for too many, as many as 22 a day every day, any end, even suicide.

    That’s to scratch at describing what we now know as moral injury. The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war — each person sent into conflict finds their sense of right and wrong tested. When they see something, do something, or fail to do something, a transgressive act, that violates their most deeply held convictions, they suffer an injury to the soul, the heart, their core. There are lines inside us which cannot be crossed except at great price — ignoring a plea for medical help, shooting a child in error, watching friends die in a war you have come to question, failing to report a sexual assault witnessed, a sense of guilt simply by presence (documented well in Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried), can cause moral injury. Moral injury is represented well in documentaries such as Almost Sunrise, and though not by name, in films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon.


    Society once expressed skepticism toward such ideas; well, perhaps not skepticism, for that implies more of an open mind than calling sufferers cowards, or dismissing them by saying it’s all in their heads, have a drink, take some time off. Now sister illnesses to moral injury such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are not only acknowledged as real, but new MRI technology can pinpoint their effects inside the brain.

    Moral injury differs from PTSD in that it is tied to the parts of a person that decide right and wrong, and applies guilt, regret or shame as a penalty. PTSD is fear-based, and includes stresses like hyperalertness that worked well over there in war (quite valid adaptations in the mind and body, such as hitting the ground when hearing loud noises, to the real situation of other people trying to kill you), but are dangerous, exhausting, and frightening back here. The flight-or-fight response just won’t shut off, even in the absence of threat. PTSD to many is a loss of safety, but not a loss of self. Moral injury might be thought of as a disconnect between one’s pre-war self and a second self develops in the face of death, action, or inaction. Moral injury jumbles these two selves which cannot in fact live well together inside one body.

    There is a formal definition of moral injury, “the lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral and social impact of perpetuating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Moral injury occurs at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and so, in a sense, is all in someone’s head — as we are thinking beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, then it follows that sense can be broken. Moral injury ironically represents a strength of character — as a human being they cannot ignore what was done — but it feels like a weakness.


    The term moral injury may have originated with Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who conducted groundbreaking work in PTSD, publishing two books, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and Trials of Homecoming, examining the experience of combat through classical texts. Others place the origins of the term moral illness with Vietnam veteran and philosopher Camillo Mac Bica.

    The Department of Veteran’s Affairs now acknowledges moral injury and its effects. Syracuse University created the Moral Injury Project in 2014 to bring together veterans, doctors, chaplains, and mental health providers. Psychologists are developing diagnostic assessment tools.

    Because the research on moral injury is in its infancy, there are no data yet on the number of combat veterans who suffer from it. But the conditions of modern warfare, from Vietnam forward, suggest they are many.

    “There are no long front-lines,” said Nancy Sherman, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and author of Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers. “The city or village is the war zone today. Women and children are armed. Men are fighting without uniforms.”


    But that sounds too clean to me. Because the results of those two words — moral injury — are exactly what you might expect: a long-war struggle for understanding, thoughts of suicide, and self-medication.

    I came to know a handful of veterans, and spoke intimately with the men and women I lived alongside in Iraq for a terrible year that was scarred by two soldier suicides. I spent time speaking with Japanese who lived through WWII as civilians. One now-elderly woman remembered her mother’s own moral injury after seven decades, a failure to comfort two dying siblings, hearing her mother’s ghost say in a park in 2016 Tokyo “Haruo-kun, that day of the firebombing was so hot for you. Akiko-chan, you wished so hard for water then. Please drink now.”

    What response can there be to something so human?

    A lot of pain festers not just out of what people saw, as with the Japanese woman, but the realization that what they saw and did really didn’t matter in any bigger picture. It should’ve had a reason, many pleaded to me. People say to sufferers, “whatever you have to tell yourself,” to help them create justification, but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be in your 30s, or 70s, and scared of the dark. Imagine you have real reasons to be scared. Imagine you want to cry years out of you. Imagine failing to understand what you feel, not being able to talk much about the things you think about every day.


    Suicide is never far from moral injury. The soul isn’t that big a place.

    It is above all the act of killing that does it: 70 percent of those Afghan and Iraq veterans who participated in heavy combat attempt suicide. One guy who told me he has never forgiven his neighbor from talking him out of going into the garage with his rifle. Another who said the question wasn’t why he might commit suicide, but why he hadn’t already done so. The Department of Veteran Affairs counts 20 veteran suicides a day. About 65 percent of all veteran suicides are by individuals fifty years and older who have had little or no exposure to the most recent conflicts.

    A lot of those suffering from moral injury self-medicate. Seeking help is still a stigma for some, the hard work of recovery too hard or too slow for others.

    Drinking (drugs for many of the younger guys) hurts. Everyone learns it just sends pain off to wait, but still it was something to look forward to, they told me, the first fizzy beer of the day tickling their nose, or the throat-burning shot of something stronger biting into an ulcer. Drinking wiped away hours when someone had too many of them, all the way back to 1945 sometimes. You drink in the dark places, a bar, an unlit living room because there is a sense that you have lost your future and that’s easier to deal with when you can’t see anything (you see too much in the dark anyway.) Pain can be patient, a drop of water swelling on the end of a faucet, waiting for that one guy who had a little too much at a wedding and started talking about blood and brains in some alcoholic dialect until a couple of other vets walk him outside where he tells stories from his knees which they understood.

    The trip back is as complex as the individual, and the most effective treatments evolving. “Soul repair” is the term some use.

    One path to healing is via helping a patient to understand (“owning it”) what happened and their own responsibility, not necessarily fault, for transgressions. Others speak of seeking self-forgiveness, including a benevolent moral authority, often because those transgressed against are dead.

    Another way back is for the sufferer to make amends, either toward those harmed, or to a third party. To amend literally mean to change something already done, and in the case of moral injury that is drawing a line between who one was then and can be now.

    The goal is to accept wrong was done but to also understand it and learn how to deal with it; the act, while impossible to reconcile or forgive, does not have to define the rest of a life. The goal is for individuals to reclaim good parts of themselves and to examine and accept — but not be defined by — what they did, what they saw, what others did,

    What doesn’t work, in the eyes of one veteran-advocate, Matthew Hoh, is lying, as we do every day in the United States, telling veterans who view themselves as villains they are really all heroes. Hoh, after leaving the Marine Corps after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, later became one of only four State Department officials to resign in protest over the post-9/11 wars.

    “You mean like that Vietnam helicopter thing?” a well-meaning family doctor asked me when I told him coming home from the anemic role I played in Iraq left me more interested in vodka than my family, with a few too many orange containers lined up next to the sink even before I saw him. That was my own tiny taste of this, a failure to have accomplished anything, but I was lucky to benefit from some good people who helped me to accept my choices, and give up trying to erase them or explain them away. I didn’t want pity or understanding, I just wanted to get this stuff out of my head.

    The process is hard; it doesn’t always have the happy ending I wrote into my story. Sometimes these things don’t end when the war ends. Sometimes for some men and women they don’t end until they do. That’s the end loss for everyone.

     

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    Top Five WWII Movies

    June 2, 2017 // 27 Comments »

    War is Over!


    My latest book, Hooper’s War, is set in WWII Japan, and portrays the horrors of war from the rotating perspectives of an American solider, a Japanese soldier, and a Japanese woman civilian.

    With that setting in mind, here are my top five favorite World War II movies.

    1) Saving Private Ryan

    Is there anyone’s Top Movie List, never mind one of WWII films, that doesn’t include Saving Private Ryan? I’m a big fan of war films that bring massive-scale events down to human scale, and none do that better than Ryan. The largest amphibious invasion in human history? Sure, there are a few panoramic shots, but the images we remember are of Tom Hanks and Tom Berenger struggling to get their men off that beach. WWII as a crusade to save Europe? Noted, but how about a couple of hours of a crusade to save one man?

    Ryan gives you the all-star cast, the production values and realism, the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of horror, and the split-seconds of terror surrounded by hours of boredom. I’ll just say it — no one will ever make a better war movie than this.





    2) The Best Years of Our Lives

    When I first saw The Best Years of Our Lives and learned it was made in 1946, and then learned it won an Academy Award for Best Picture, I knew I was watching a profoundly subversive film that had somehow slipped into the mainstream.

    The story follows Fred, Al, and Homer, three couldn’t-be-more-different at first glance World War II veterans coming home to find that things were not going to be as easy as they thought. The war had changed them, and changed the America they left. The slick Fred is a war hero honored for his service while ignored by employers. Wealthy bank executive Al realizes his desire to help vets with loans conflicts with the profit motives of his bank now that the war is over. Homer, who lost both hands in the Pacific, learns he will not fit in, and that his courage is no longer seen as worth much removed from combat.

    The men learn the lesson following “The Good War” that too many think was unique to the post-Vietnam years: that despite some happy talk and the occasional free drink, society could care less about its warriors once the fighting is over.





    3) Grave of the Fireflies

    Few movies focus on civilians as much more than targets or victims, often showing them as little more than ants scurrying under falling bombs, or villagers accidentally killed, a dramatic plot device to bring on the hero’s angst in Act II before redemption in Act III.

    Grave of the Fireflies is an animated feature from Japanese geniuses Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro and others.) The film is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of the home front in Japan. It follows two young Japanese children in last days of World War II, with a focus on the numbing hunger that plagued Japan alongside daily firebombing raids conducted by the United States against civilian targets. There are no happy endings in this movie as it reveals the desperate acts people can be forced into to survive in wartime.





    4) Patton

    Every list of great WWII movies has got to have one real sh*tkicker. Mine could have been Bridge at Remagen, Battle of the Bulge, Kelley’s Heroes, Von Ryan’s Express, The Longest Day… you get the idea.

    But Patton comes out on top for its sweeping battle scenes — so that’s what a massive tank battle criss-crossing Northern Africa would have looked like — as well as its sharp portrayal of the kind of men America wants to fight its wars, but then acts embarrassed around as the fighting starts to fade. Patton was the perfect man in the right place to help win the war in Europe, but as victory became more and more understood, his crude manners and obvious affection for killing turn into something America wanted shut away, at least until the next conflict. A film that begins on the grandest scale (that opening speech in front of the flag!) and ends more than bittersweet.




    5) Sophie’s Choice

    I get one controversial choice, right?

    Though only a short portion of Sophie’s Choice takes place in WWII proper, the entire film is a lovingly detailed metaphor for the horror of war, the suffering its survivors cannot end until they do, and the delicate compassion without understanding well-meaning people try to bring to war’s victims. The naive main character Stingo, thinking he can understand what has happened to Sophie and her children inside the concentration camps, seems a stand-in for a post-war America far removed from the killing fields of Europe and the Pacific. Not everyone destroyed by moral injury carried a weapon.






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    Hooper’s War Now Available for on Amazon and Elsewhere!

    May 21, 2017 // Comments Off on Hooper’s War Now Available for on Amazon and Elsewhere!



    My new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is available now on Amazon. You can order it here.

    Here’s how one reviewer described the book (more reviews):

    In Hooper’s War, a Novel of WWII Japan, an American veteran remembers his time in Japan during a World War II that might have been.

    In this alternate-history novel, author Peter Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war instead of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late Japanese wife. But back in 1945, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto, dealing with the horrors of war. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.

    Van Buren presents a complex world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation amid moral injury. Hooper is an engaging main character, an innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role.

    Hooper’s War doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.


    Order your copy of Hooper’s War today!


    A Personal Note: If you enjoy this website and my other commentary, please consider buying a copy of Hooper’s War.

    Unlike most other sites, I don’t ask for donations, run funding drives, try and trick you into handing over your email address or any of the other annoyances out there. Instead, I rely on your book purchases to keep things afloat, and for me to keep running this site I need to ask for your support.

    Please also help out by tweeting about my book, and by recommending it to your local library. Ask for it at your local bookstore and see if they’ll carry it. I appreciate your help.

    — Peter




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    My Letter in Support of a Reduced Sentence for Pvt. Manning

    May 17, 2017 // 18 Comments »

    According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Convening Authorities can reduce or eliminate a convicted soldier’s sentence. They use this power when they feel the court martial failed to deliver justice. As Commanding General of the Military District of Washington, Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan is the only other individual besides President Obama (and there ain’t no joy there unless Manning qualifies as a Syrian kid) with the power to lessen Pvt. Manning’s sentence.

    This process is not new, nor unique. Though a slightly different judicial procedure, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals only in June of this year reduced the sentence of a former Ramstein Air Base staff sergeant who advertised babysitting services to gain access to three young girls he repeatedly sexually assaulted. Staff Sgt. Joshua A. Smith’s sentence was reduced such that Smith, 30, would be eligible for parole after a decade or more. The appellate judges, in their written opinion, said that despite the heinousness of Smith’s crimes against the girls — ages 3, 4 and 7 — the sentence handed down in November 2010 by military judge Col. Dawn R. Eflein and approved by the Third Air Force commander was “unduly severe.”


    If you wish to add your voice to the many now asking for Manning’s sentence to be reduced, the instructions on how to do so are straightforward.

    Here is what I wrote:

    Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan
    Commanding General, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, DC

    General Buchanan:

    I write to request that as the Convening Authority in the case of U.S. v. Bradley E. Manning you move to reduce Pvt. Manning’s sentence to time served. Pvt. Manning has, in the course of several difficult years of confinement, taken responsibility for his actions and has been punished.

    As the leader of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq, I was embedded with the 10th Mountain Division, 2nd Brigade at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer at the same time Manning was deployed there (though we never met.) I worked closely with Colonel Miller and his team to implement U.S. goals, and came away with great respect for him and his officers, and the enlisted men and women of the Commandos.

    At the same time, I experienced first-hand the austere conditions at FOB Hammer, and the difficult lives the soldiers led. As you are aware, one young soldier tragically took his own life early in the deployment at Hammer. Many veteran soldiers, some who served in the Balkans, also talked about the rough conditions at our FOB. I saw that at times computer security was imperfect. While none of this excuses Pvt. Manning (nor should it; he himself has plead guilty to multiple counts), it does in part help explain it. I ask that you consider these factors in your decision.

    As a State Department employee, I had access to the same databases Pvt. Manning in part disclosed, and back in Washington played a small roll in State’s “damage review.” I thus know better than most outsiders what Pvt. Manning did and, significantly, did not disclose, and am in a position to assess dispassionately the impact. As the State Department and the DoD reluctantly concluded at Manning’s trial, little if any verifiable damage was indeed done to the United States. There is no denying that the disclosures were embarrassing and awkward, but that is not worth most of a man’s life.

    Justice elevates us all, and reflects well on our beloved nation. The revenge inherent in a 35 year sentence against Pvt. Manning does not.

    Very Respectfully,

    (signed)

    Peter Van Buren



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    Afghanistan Video Game: You Win with ‘Hearts and Minds’ Points (Seriously)

    May 4, 2017 // 3 Comments »



    I suppose it had to come to this, perhaps the intersection of absurdity and unreality expressed through a video game as the only true way to capture the essence of America’s 15 year+ was in Afghanistan.


    I must stress this is a real game. It is not satire or a joke. The game plays you in the role of supreme commander of everything U.S. in Afghanistan and requires you to democratize the country. You do this by bombing the sh*t out of stuff, meeting with elders, pulling out “intelligence” and reconstruction cards, and accomplishing tasks like bringing fresh water to some village to pull it away from Taliban control. There are also drones you control, lots of drones.

    Winning is determined by collecting Hearts and Minds Points as determined by the computer based on your actions. The same company makes, and I swear to God this is true, a Vietnam War version of the game that works much the same way.

    Here’s a video of some Douchey McDouche playing the game. Be sure to fast forward to 7:10 , where he blows away his first Taliban for freedom.



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    Cover Art Released for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    April 30, 2017 // 2 Comments »

    Here’s the full cover for my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. It’s available now on Amazon as a pre-order, for sale on May 15.

    Click for a larger version.





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    Film Review: National Bird Looks Deeply in the Drone War’s Abyss

    April 27, 2017 // 5 Comments »



    National Bird, a documentary film about America’s drone wars by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, airs May 1 at 10 pm on your local PBS station as part of the Independent Lens series.

    I had a chance to see the film in advance, and here’s why you should watch it: it is terrifying even in the quiet moments; it is most terrifying in the quietest moments.


    National Bird is a deep, multilayered, look into America’s drone wars, a tactic which became a strategy which became a post-9/11 policy. To many in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, America’s new national symbol is not the bald eagle, but a gray shadow overhead armed with Hellfire missiles.

    The Silence

    Scattered throughout the documentary are silent images from drones and aerial cameras, sweeping, hypnotic vistas taken from above both Afghan villages and American suburbs. The message could not be more clear: the tools used over there can just as easily be used over here, not merely for surveillance (as is already happening in America) but perhaps one day soon to send violence down from the sky. Violence sudden, sharp, complete and anonymous.



    The Americans

    The anonymity of that violence comes at a price, in this case in the minds of the Americans who decided who lives and dies. National Bird presents three brave whistleblowers, two former uniformed Air Force veterans (Lisa Ling, Heather Linebaugh) and a former civilian intelligence analyst (Dan), people who have broken cover to tell the world what happens behind the scenes of the drone war. There are ironic elements of “old hat” here, chilling in that we have sadly grown used to hearing that drone strikes kill more innocents than terrorists, that the people who make war justify their actions by calling their victims hajjis and ragheads, that America draws often naive young people into its national security state on the false promises of hollow patriotism and turns them into assassins.

    Heather suffers from crippling PTSD. Lisa is compelled to travel to Afghanistan with a humanitarian group to reclaim part of her soul, a victim of moral injury. Dan is in hiding as an Espionage Act investigation unfolds around him. A sobering side to this all is the presence of the whistleblowers’ attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who currently also helps defend Edward Snowden. Radack ties the actions of the drone whistleblowers into the larger post-9/11 narrative of retributive prosecutions and government attempts to hide the truth of America’s War on Terror from everyone but its victims.



    The Afghans

    The final layer of National Bird is what may be some of the first interviews with innocents who have suffered directly from drone attacks. The film interviews at length members of an Afghan extended family attacked from the air in a case of mistaken targeting even the Department of Defense now acknowledges.

    The family members speak six years after the fact as if still in shock. Here’s a boy who shows off his leg stump. Here’s a woman who lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the same attack. Here is another father discussing the loss of his own child. In a critical piece of storytelling, National Bird does not seek to trivialize the deaths in Afghanistan by weighing them against the psychological trauma suffered by the Americans, but rather shows the loss to everyone done in our names.

    (Full disclosure: Jesselyn Radack helped represent me in my own whistleblower fight against the U.S. Department of State in 2012)




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    Flashback! Questions from the Last Time America was Supposed to “Take Out” Assad

    April 25, 2017 // 5 Comments »

    assad
    History is a funny thing, because we forget it so easily, and so quickly. That forgetting is usually based on the political needs of the moment, and politicians and the media count on us being that way so they can manipulate us. Works nearly every time, too.

    One of the latest versions of this is the media meme that the Syrian quagmire is kinda new-ish, and that the most recent American spurt of 59 cruise missiles into that country represents something, maybe an escalation, maybe a change of policy, maybe some domestic political thingie. To help disprove all that, here’s an article I wrote about a year ago.

    Let’s see how that holds up in hindsight.

     

    Quick Summary:

    Despite over 400,000 dead and ongoing ground and air campaigns inside the country by the U.S., Russia and several others, 51 U.S. diplomats in 2016 publicly demanded the Obama administration launch strikes directly against Bashir Assad in Syria.

    The Assad family has ruled Syria since the 1970s with an iron hand, employing secret police and other standard dictator tricks to suppress dissent. Things got so cozy between Syria and the U.S. that in the early days of the war on terror the CIA was sending “suspects” to Syria for some outsourced torture, as nobody can run a secret prison better than Arabs.

    Papa Assad passed away and his son Bashir assumed the presidency in 2000. Some ten years later Assad did the same thing most Arab dictators did, including U.S. allies like Egypt, and ordered crackdowns on Arab Spring protesters. The U.S. then decided in an on-again, off-again fashion to “remove” Assad. When no one in the U.S. really liked the sound of that following the disastrous failed regime changes in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, the U.S. attacked Syria anyway in the name of smiting Islamic State [ISIS]. Assad, whatever else he is, is also at war with ISIS. Some 400,000 Syrians have died so far in the civil war.

    And there’s a photo above of Secretary of State and Bashir Assad hanging out in better days. Times change, man.



    A Memo

    With that as background, 51 mid-level American diplomats took the brave stand of writing a memo (technically known as using the State Department dissent channel.) The memo was promptly leaked to the press [Note this was in mid-2016].

    Oh, a memo calling for more war written by people who wear suits and ties to work (technically known as chickenhawks.)

    The memo says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of standoff and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”



    Regime Change

    Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria, said, “Many people working on Syria for the State Department have long urged a tougher policy with the Assad government as a means of facilitating arrival at a negotiated political deal to set up a new Syrian government.”

    Regime change. Bloody change, as it seems odd to imagine Assad would negotiate his own ouster.



    What the Memo Left Out

    The dissent memo makes no suggestions, actually no mention at all, about who would succeed Assad, or how this regime change would be any different than the failed tries in Iraq, Libya or Yemen, or how ISIS, who also seeks the end of the Assad regime through violence, would not be further empowered, or how the U.S. would get away with airstrikes given the overt Russian support for the Assad regime. Everyone except for those brave memo-ists has seen this movie before.

    Also missing from the memo are any notes on what if any military service the 51 signatories have amongst them, or why this call for more blood comes from the State Department and not from the military, whose commanders have raised questions about what would happen in the event that Assad was forced from power. Their questions are likely motivated by the fact that they would be asked to risk their lives to clean the mess.

    Finally, no one seems to remember anymore why “we” need to “take out” Assad. He is no doubt a terrible person who kills to protect his power. But leaders like that are not in short supply across the Middle East, in Africa, in North Korea. It seems a more specific rationale, tied directly to some clear U.S. strategic interest, is needed (remember, Assad is fighting ISIS and has never sought to export terror to the U.S.) Assad also enjoys support inside his country by some minority, who will not go away quietly if he is changed out. See what happened to the Baathists in Iraq, who organized some of the first resistance to the U.S., and went on to help staff up ISIS.

    History sure is funny. It also bites hard, especially when you ignore its lessons.

     

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    Hooper’s War Now Available for Pre-Order on Amazon!

    April 24, 2017 // 5 Comments »



    My new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is available now for pre-order on Amazon. You can order it here.

    Here’s how one reviewer described the book (more reviews):

    In Hooper’s War, a Novel of WWII Japan, an American veteran remembers his time in Japan during a World War II that might have been.

    In this alternate-history novel, author Peter Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war instead of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late Japanese wife. But back in 1945, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto, dealing with the horrors of war. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.

    Van Buren presents a complex world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation amid moral injury. Hooper is an engaging main character, an innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role.

    Hooper’s War doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.


    Pre-order your copy of Hooper’s War today!


    A Personal Note: If you enjoy this website and my other commentary, please consider buying a copy of Hooper’s War.

    Unlike most other sites, I don’t ask for donations, run funding drives, try and trick you into handing over your email address or any of the other annoyances out there. Instead, I rely on your book purchases to keep things afloat, and for me to keep running this site I need to ask for your support.

    Please also help out by tweeting about my book, and by recommending it to your local library. Ask for it at your local bookstore and see if they’ll carry it. I appreciate your help.

    — Peter




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    Iraqis Making Freelance Bomb Disposal Into A Lucrative New Business

    April 17, 2017 // 15 Comments »

    ied


    When someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right?

    And so it goes in Freedom Land of Iraq, where for many, now out from under the heels of Islamic State, the Iraqi people have only to clear out all the bombs, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance left everywhere they want to live by all sides in this ongoing clusterf*ck of foreign policy adventurism.

    Despite the gazillions of dollars in U.S. aid, Iraq claims not to have the personnel to defuse all the explosives left behind once freedom reigns in places like Fallujah. So, concerned local citizens, who have been making defusing bombs for decades (handling explosives is an Olympic event in Iraq), smelled a business opportunity.

    The fellows at NIQASH tell us the story of one Faleh al-Marsoumi, who got involved in the lucrative new trade because it was taking too long for authorities to come to his home and remove booby trapped explosives. He tried unsuccessfully to find someone to help him on the freelance market (there is no TaskRabbit franchise — yet — in Iraq.)

    Unable to find anyone at a reasonable price, Marsoumi decided to do the work himself.

    “I watched some videos on the Internet about how to remove IEDs,” he says. See the video, below, at around :55. That’s the wrong way to do it.

    After clearing his own property, Marsoumi soon was helping out friends at their houses. Eventually he began charging for his services. He made so much money that he quit his day job and now focuses exclusively on IED disposal. He has even hired on two guys to assist him.

    “There are three of us now working together and we charge some of the lowest prices in the market,” Marsoumi said.

    Clearing a house costs between US$300 and US$700. Clearing a car of IEDs costs US$200.





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    Great Start for Hooper’s War Pre-Orders

    April 15, 2017 // 13 Comments »


    Thanks to everyone for helping launch Hooper’s War pre-orders this weekend!


    The book is ranking high on Amazon, running alongside similar books from large-scale publishers. Without their advertising budgets, books like Hooper’s War from smaller publishers willing to take the risk of putting out an anti-war book depend on word of mouth. So thank you.


    RealClearBooks was nice enough to publish an excerpt.

    Kirkus Reviews had some good things to say — “Van Buren doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.”


    So take a moment and see what Hooper’s War is all about!




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    Does it Matter Who Pulls the Trigger in the Drone Wars?

    April 3, 2017 // 28 Comments »



    We’re allowing a mindset of “anything Trump does is wrong” coupled with lightening-speed historical revisionism for the Obama era to sustain the same mistakes in the war on terror that have fueled Islamic terrorism for the past 15 years. However, there may be a window of opportunity to turn the anti-Trump rhetoric into a review of the failed policies of the last decade and a half.

    A recent example of “anything Trump does is wrong” has to do with his changing the rules for drone kill decision making. In May 2013 President Obama self-imposed a dual-standard (known as the “playbook”) for remote killing. The White House, including Obama himself reviewing a kill list at regular meetings, would decide which individuals outside of the “traditional war zones” of Iraq and Afghanistan would be targeted.

    Meanwhile, in America’s post-9/11 traditional war zones, military commanders then made, and now make, the kill decisions without civilian review, with the threshold for “acceptable civilian casualties” supposedly less strict. Of course the idea that any of this functions under “rules” is based on the bedrock fallacy that anything militarily done by the last three presidents has been legal under the never-updated 2001 authorization for war in Afghanistan. For perspective, remember Islamic State never existed, and Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen had stable governments at the time Congress passed that authorization.

    In sum: since 2013 the military can kill from the air at will inside Iraq and Afghanistan (the status of Syria is unclear), as well as other areas designated unilaterally by the U.S. government as “traditional,” with allowances for less regard for the collateral damage of innocents slaughtered. It is the president himself who plays judge, jury, and executioner across the rest of the globe, including in several acknowledged cases, ordering the deaths of American citizens without due process.

    Supporters of this policy set refer to the president’s role as oversight. And because the president is supposed to make his decisions with more regard than the military for civilian deaths (though there are no statistics to support that has been the outcome), the process represented, in the words of the New York Times, “restraint.”

    Now there has been a change. Trump in mid-March granted a Pentagon request to designate certain areas of Yemen as “areas of active hostilities.” Trump is expected to approve the same new policy for parts of Somalia. That would shift more decision making for drone strikes from the Oval Office to the Pentagon.

    The issue being raised by Trump’s opponents some is that the new policy will kill more civilians as it will be carried out by an unfettered military instead of a “restrained” executive, and that those deaths will lead to more radicalization of more Muslims, which will impede America’s strategic progress toward, it’s unclear, maybe a world without radicalized Muslims.

    Such twisted logic is based on an almost insta-nostalgia that ignores President Obama approved 540 drone strikes killing 3,797 people in non-traditional war zones. No one knows how many of those bodies were civilian, although for the record the U.S. says it was precisely 324. The analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations, however, assesses drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan killed 3,674 civilians as of 2014.

    Those body counts do not include fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and do not include any unacknowledged strikes elsewhere globally (stories persist, confirmed to me by a former U.S. Special Forces operator, of drone kills in the Philippines, for example.)

    Bottom line: There are already a lot of bodies out there under a policy of “restraint.”

    It is important to note Trump’s change in policy focuses only on who makes the decision to pull the trigger in places already under American attack, him or generals in the Pentagon. The killing itself is ongoing, seamless, and happening today as it happened six months ago (in fact, civilian casualties rose during the last months of the Obama administration, suggesting changes in U.S. rules of engagement predate Trump.) It is unlikely the people on the ground know or care which official in Washington decided to blow away a vehicle with their brother in it. The idea that it matters a whit in terms of radicalization whether the thumbs up or down is rendered by Trump, Obama, or a general would be comical if it was not horrible.

    An odd sense that all this killing globally is something new and damaging to America was captured in a letter some three dozen former members of America’s national security establishment (including Bush and Obama-era staff) to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stating “even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries — whether or not legally permitted — can cause significant strategic setbacks,” increasing violence from militant groups and prompting others to reduce collaboration with the United States. The letter claims that pre-Trump, public confidence and belief in legitimacy were important facets of U.S. policy.

    Even the American Civil Liberties Union appeared to wake from a long slumber, claiming with Trump’s decision to slide sideways the kill decision, “the limits of war as we know it could virtually dissolve. At stake is no less than the global legal framework that protects life and preserves international peace and security.”

    At that point one must sit back and ask: Seriously? Who besides presidents Obama and Trump has endorsed that framework and under what set of laws is it legal?

    Are the signatories unaware of the attacks on hospitals, the wedding parties in Afghanistan and elsewhere blown to pink mist by Hellfire missiles? Civilian casualties overall in America’s 2003-2011 Iraq War alone were anywhere from 140,000 dead to upwards of 500,000, many by artillery, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium, indiscriminate weapons unique to American forces.

    As with the recent Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that took civilian lives, the new-found interest by the media and many Democrats in the costs of American war abroad is welcome. If it took the election of Trump to alert Americans what horrors are being done in their names, then that election has already served some larger purpose.

    But the next step is the critical one — can the new found revulsion for civilian deaths drive action to stop them or will nostalgia for the “good killings” under the previous administration block focus on ending the 15 year cycle of violence and revenge that has set the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia on fire? Will we simply again settle on a domestically palpable process of killing under Trump as we did under Bush and Obama?

    No matter who pulls the trigger — Bush, Obama or Trump — civilian deaths are not accidental, but a policy of preventable accident. The new drone rules under Trump are simply another example.



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    Cornerstone of Afghan Reconstruction Effort — Roads — is Near-Total Failure

    March 24, 2017 // 40 Comments »

    road

    One of the planned cornerstones of the 15+ year Afghan Reconstruction Effort was to be an extensive, nationwide network of roads.


    The United States’ concept was roads would allow the Afghan economy to flourish as trade could reach throughout the country, security would be enhanced by the ability to move security forces quickly to where they were needed, and that the presence of the roads would serve as a literal symbol of the central government’s ability to extend its presence into the countryside.

    The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its audit of the Department of Defense’s and USAID’s $2.8 billion investment in Afghanistan’s road infrastructure.


    The project has been a near-total failure. The audit notes:

    — An Afghan Ministry of Public Works’ (MOPW) official stated 20 percent of the roads have been destroyed and the remaining 80 percent continue to deteriorate.

    — USAID estimated that unless maintained, it would cost about $8.3 billion to replace Afghanistan’s road infrastructure, and estimated that 54 percent of Afghanistan’s road infrastructure suffered from poor maintenance and required rehabilitation beyond simple repairs.

    — SIGAR inspections of 20 road segments found that 19 had road damage ranging from deep surface cracks to roads and bridges destroyed by weather or insurgents. Some 17 segments were either poorly maintained or not maintained at all.

    — MOPW officials noted that Afghanistan’s road infrastructure plays an important role in the country’s development and governance, and if the Kabul to Kandahar highway were to become impassable, the central government would collapse.

    — MOPW officials stated it will cost $100 million annually to carry out the necessary maintenance on Afghanistan’s road infrastructure. However, between 2011 and 2016, MOPW received only an average of $21.3 million annually from its American patrons.

    — According to a former U.S. official, the Afghan government would always sign the required memorandum acknowledging it had the capability to sustain a project, despite not having the capability to do so. American advisors would always accept the memorandum despite knowing the Afghans did not have the capability to do so.


    BONUS: Who in America would not want to see $2.8 billion of American taxpayer money spent on roads here in the Homeland?



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    So How’s That Coalition Thing Working Out in Afghanistan?

    January 13, 2017 // 68 Comments »

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    Short Answer: It’s been 15+ years of coalition and the Taliban are still there, the Afghan government in Kabul is even more corrupt, and most of Afghanistan is as economically decrepit as ever.

    A report, “Lessons From the Coalition,” emerged from a conference co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (yes, we have one, it is part of the State Department and doesn’t do much but organize events in Washington.) The conference brought together representatives from eleven major donor nations, the EU, UN, World Bank, and NATO to share common experiences and lessons from the Afghan reconstruction effort.

    Here’s what they concluded:

    — The confluence of conflicting goals and divided actors led to a situation in which countries were often pursuing disparate and sometimes ill-defined missions in Afghanistan. In fact, many nations were unclear as to what they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan.

    — Many countries were primarily motivated by their alliance commitments to the United States, rather than specific strategic goals related to Afghanistan, and were often more focused on what was happening in Washington than in Kabul.

    — Conference participants were critical of instances when military forces undertook development work, indicating their efforts often ended up costing more and being less effective than those of their civilian counterparts.

    — Inability to understand the local context led to projects that unintentionally benefited corrupt officials, threatened local governance, led to escalating violence, sabotage of the project itself, and wasted resources.

    — Development projects did not buy security. Participants believed that when development projects occurred in insecure places, the projects either benefited the insurgency or insurgents increased violence to counteract any potential gains.

    — One participant referred to the regular turnover of personnel as an “annual lobotomy.”

    — Conditions placed on funds were often not credible, as donors were ultimately unwilling to withhold funds that were essential to preventing the collapse of the Afghan government. Afghan officials were aware of these limitations and were able to call donors’ bluffs. When faced with a donor’s conditions, Afghan officials could often obtain funding from another donor.


    But, hey, I’m sure they all meant well in their efforts. Hell, someone should write a book about that so no one repeats the same mistakes in the next war.


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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen